Chapter Fifteen: My Life Without Me by Jasmina Tesanovic

15. Love Stories and Marriages

One night, I had to do a press event for a film. A film-editor friend invited me to come to his birthday party later, at a bar in Rome, downtown. He was twice my age and real good looking. Mustaches, half Armenian, little bit plump like Buddha and real sexy… This guy was the so called secret author of many Italian successful movies, because he knew how to patch them, mend them, and tell a story, as opposed to the talented and wild Italian cinema artistes.

This film editor was the first sexy guy I ever met who treated me as a woman and as a woman only. He was also really ill, and I found that attractive. He had been through operations, but was not recovering: he was a heavy drinker and smoker. He had lived in Belgrade in the sixties, fixing Yugoslav movies and girls, as he told me. He loved Serbia, rakija, women in Belgrade. He sounded like a cowboy without a six-gun: he had a soft voice and a big belly, dark skin and very big and warm slanted eyes. He had a girlfriend, a mousy creature, his assistant, his nurse… but he was famous for getting all pretty women in his bed.

The press conference went well. It was for a film I had scripted and helped to shoot. The director failed to appear because he always had stage fright. The director sent me there instead, saying: you are young pretty and bright, the press will all want to talk to you. I am depressed and dark person besides, my mouth stinks, I don’t drink or smoke and I don’t like people.

Well, yes, I do like people, I always did like people. There are two categories of people: people who like people and people who don’t like people. People who like people usually spend their time alone and craving for company. People who don’t are usually deep in other people’s business, craving to be alone.

I think people are just great and I am grateful that they exist in big numbers, everywhere. With people around, I never mind doing anything. My being one part of this big entity of living fellow beings justifies my own life, in a philosophical existential emotional way. People who need me are my cup of tea; they can be of all ages or colors or nationalities.

This film editor was one of them. Every evening he needed a new young woman to escort him to a painless death. I told him:

- I must go home now, the director is waiting for me, he is depressed and nervous.

- So am I, said he swallowing his fifth whiskey and giving me my second.

I never managed to say no to a man who needed me. What’s the big deal in turning down men who need you, in taking for granted that you are desired and appreciated, just because you are a woman? I measured with the second whiskey who needs me more, the depressed director or the dying editor. And I stayed with the editor. We drank and smoked until dawn: evviva la morte, then he took me to his apartment where we took off our clothes and I slept in his arms. I saw the surgical cut under his beautiful big belly. His dark skin got even darker round the scar: it reminded me of a pregnant woman’s belly. He told me:

- I am impotent, maybe because I am drunk all the time, maybe because I am on drugs…maybe because I am dying and you are not.

I wondered if cancer was contagious: I knew that doctors claimed it was not, but my director never touched sick people, cancerous or not.

My urge was the opposite; I kissed his scar with my lips and tongue and I felt sexy about it. He looked at me amazed and grateful: he said, if only I could live longer, I would have married you for this. I cried a little bit at this thought but then we both went to sleep like angels.

In the morning he was as kind as gentle to me as the night before. We dressed, drank coffee, spoke about the film. I told him I thought it was a great film but stillborn, and he agreed. Then I finally went to my director, who was waiting for me in a nervous breakdown. The newspapers came out. They had rather bad reviews of the film, but real good reviews of my press conference.

- Where were you all night? he said, I was about to call the police.

- I spent the night with our film editor, I said, he is dying.

- Oh my lord, did you take a bath, you touched me…

- The night before he slept with your lover, I told him and it was the truth. My director nearly fainted:

- Women, women, what piggies you are! He was turned on and frightened, by death and by women, but he was not the dying one, the editor was. The director’s film was stillborn because he didn’t have the courage to live or die.

Our stories of death are a yardstick for our lives. Every vivid life story has to sacrifice a human life or two on the altar of credibility.

My marriage proposals excluded men who had sex with me. And there were also certain guys I really found sexy and was ready to marry, if only…if only …

Many years later, in Ireland, I attended another press conference with another film of mine. A black haired guy, half my age, approached me with a smitten look. He asked me out to dine at one of his own restaurants in town.

This Irish restauranteur was one of the sponsors of the festival, the owner of a chain of restaurants, a humanitarian worker and a gay activist. He was gay and beautiful in a manly way that only gay guys can be. Sexy.

Yes, I told him gladly, very happy to avoid the lesbians and straight married men who regularly hit on me during film festivals. John took me his own restaurant, which had the best wine list I ever saw in Europe. We started sampling them all, while chain-smoking…

- How did you find out you’re gay? I asked him.

- I didn’t, he said. How does one ever find out one is gay? My mother did it for me. There were six Irish brothers and sisters, and we all watched the TV together. One evening, I must have been 11 or 12, I stared at the TV at a beautiful man, and my mother just came to me and slapped my face.

I asked her:

- Why did you hit me?

- Because of that way you look at him.

- Out of six of us, two of us are gay, me and my youngest sister. The other four are straight. I think it is all about genetics.

It was a long film festival. Seven days of drinking and talking led us to hold hands on the last evening of my stay in Ireland. John looked at me seriously, with his huge green eyes slightly wet with eagerness.

- I have something important to ask you…

I was quiet, trying to guess what that might be.

- I want you to marry me. I want to take care of you and your daughter. I am rich and lonely and I cannot sleep. I have sex only with men in the toilets whose faces I never remember. Please say yes…you have time until tomorrow morning to decide…if you say no, I will never speak to you again. This is my way of dealing with this issue, forgive me…

I forgave him, he never got in touch with me again; the next morning at four o’ clock a.m. he phoned me to say goodbye, I said:

- Goodbye my dear, I know I will miss you…

But I didn’t really. Those seven days in Ireland were like a lifetime. If I only had had two lives, one of them would for surely be with him.

Another gay man also proposed to me. He was an Italian writer whom I translated. He wanted to marry me so as to save me from Balkan wars and because I had a daughter, and he always wanted live with women, and to be a woman himself.

- How feminine you are, he used to say admiringly.

- That way you sit, the way you move. I am a woman myself, but it does not show.

- It does show, Aldo, it does. It shows in your books. Only women can write as you do, with abundance and neatness, as if life were a garden and not a jungle.

Aldo was pleased to hear that from me. I doubt that he truly wanted to be woman: only a woman can really want to be a woman, when and if she ever does. Yet it did sound good; his marriage proposal, his gender admiration. When men propose to you, desiring your body, they dwell on things women don’t really want in a marriage. They talk about your pretty legs, your tits and ass, your reproductive belly… A man’s married life without you. That desirable wife could be anybody, she does not even have to be a woman. She has to be, not herself, but the Other, a non-man, a nonentity to be filled with their manliness. And that is not sexy. It is only sex.

I was sitting in a square in Valencia, San Miguelito, with my two lesbian friends and two straight friends: they were all people half my age, twenty something . Women of my age were so boring to me: they never wanted to dance all night, drink themselves to sleep, or talk about love…

A young guy with dark hair and blue eyes asked me with a strange accent:

- Do you have hashish?

- No, but I have a bottle of whisky, I said and pulled a big bottle out of my small bag.

- Wow! he approached me. So, what are you doing in Valencia?

- I am attending a feminist conference, I said, these are my colleagues.

- Oh, said he taken aback- Are you a lesbian?

- I am a mother really, said I. I have a daughter slightly younger than you are, how old are you?

- I am Danish, he said, and I love women older than me. My girlfriend is 45 and we are trying to have a baby.

- Good for you, I said.

My two straight friends were talking to other Danish guys, exchanging names and cell phone numbers. My two lesbian friends were visibly bored with these boisterous Nordic sex-centered males.

- I want to go back to the hotel, said the younger one.

- No pretty girls here.

- Ok let’s, go, I said. I kissed the cheek of my Danish father to be and left with the lesbians.

The straight girls stayed with the straight guys. They all went to a night bar and while the girls went to the bathroom, the Danish boys ran away from the table: without an explanation. However, they paid the bill. The astonished girls saw them running with all their might from the back door.

One night in the 1970s, my beautiful tiny pianist friend was coming home, on her high heels in her sleeveless mini black dress, alone in the darks streets of Belgrade. She heard steps following her. She had long blonde curly hair and a beautiful body posture and she could walk real fast even in stilettos. She sped up, and so did the steps behind her.

Often she would be alone in the streets and rarely was she afraid, but this time she panicked: she started running. So did the male steps behind her. She knew she needed only couple of seconds more to her front door… faster faster, her hand was reaching the bell but a strong hand at that point was swinging her backwards. She lost ground under her feet, her stilettos broke, she was a prey caught by her tail in a trap.

The man snatched her and in the dark turned her around towards him, close to his face and then suddenly dropped her horrified.

- My God in heaven, he screamed in dismay, how ugly your face is…and then without a word he disappeared in the dark.

My friend burst in tears.

- How could he?

- How could he what?

- Say such a thing, she said.

My girlfriends in Valencia also cried to me with the same words: how could they run away from us…

When we were standing as a Woman in Black in Belgrade, with banners, Stop the War, dressed in black from head to foot, with serious faces and upright bodies, sometimes holding hands, sometimes chanting, male passers bye who disagreed with our anti nationalist, antimilitarist politics would howl at us with distorted faces and drooling mouth from rage and hate: whores


Women who stood in the streets, women who dressed in black and looked straight ahead were bad women.

Once, while driving my small red “Yugo” car with “genetically” bad gears, I found myself in the way of a cab driver; he started yelling at me whore. I opened my door, stepped outside, and with my fist banged his window. It cracked. The big fat man foamed with rage.

He closed both of his fists and ran up to me: I raised my foot and kicked the window so that it cracked into pieces.

- I could kill you, you know, he said.

- No you could not, I said and stepped back into my car, slowly put the motor in the right gear and left him with a broken window and a broken pride.

I remember this German girl I met in the seventies who told me her love story. At the time she was just a hippie, a squatter, a anarchist, who today is a famous rich lawyer dressed in a suit jacket.

She met this American guy in the airport of some transfer city. It was love at first sight, and a horny one. But it was also nobody’s land: she was an East German, he was an American. The only place they could be together was in this duty free, visa free zone without a flag. The only thing they could do there was fuck, since they could not even speak each other’s language.

The only problem was to find a room. And that wasn’t easy. Not many airports have hotels, but some do, like Miami. So Ana would just buy the ticket to Cuba with a transfer in Florida, and Paul would buy that ticket to Miami. They would fall in each other’s arms, get a room, have twelve hours of sex and booze and then part, without too many words, but another date settled.

Ana confessed she never even thought of visiting Florida. Her trip was to his body, and back to her hometown Leipzig. When the relationship was over and the Berlin Wall fell, she decided to visit Florida since she could travel freely now. In Florida she met this other American. She fell in love at first sight; they married and she stayed in US. His name was again Paul.

Another friend met her husband at the age of 60, on the top of a mountain in Switzerland, during a conference stay. They climbed the mountain together, breathing deeply, and once they reached the peak, he took her in his arms and kissed her. She was a divorcee who lived as a refugee in Milan. He was a married man who lived close to Milan.

He came to visit her in Milan a couple of weeks later. He wanted to kiss her again, but she said:

- Sorry I don’t want to get involved with a married man. OK, he said and went back home.

He rang her doorbell without announcing himself two days later. He had two suitcases with him.

- I told my wife about you, he said, she kicked me out. Are we on now?

- What could I answer him but “yes”?, my bewildered friend told me.

Now they live in a small flat without money or children. They are contented.

My daughter used to say:

- Mom, everybody thinks she is the center of the world, that nothing matters but things that happen to you.

Amazed I said:

- I always thought that the center of the world is somewhere else, that life is happening far from me, that I was just observing it.

- That’s why you are a feminist, she said. Because you don’t have a center, in you, because you are a weak woman.

She was nine when she said this, I felt like slapping her, but my mother instinct prevailed: may she never become a feminist and think that life is somewhere else, that we rotate around the sun, and not vice versa. May she be happy in love and may I never have to console her.

Maria never married, she never had children with her life long companion 15 years younger than herself. She nearly went to jail for seducing a minor.

- My grandma used to tell me, says Maria, When you meet the man you want to marry, do it in six months. If you don’t, better never do it.

A Serbian proverb says: if you marry once wrong you will always marry wrong.

I had a girlfriend who always married guys who became immensely rich. She divorced them because she could not stand the change that the money brought in their characters. She would pick a poor man and out of blue, with honest work and a stroke of luck he would become rich. After her third husband she had a line of young men wanting to marry her.

Another friend of mine married men who were rich but then went broke and changed their careers: they became bohemians, hippies…she unleashed aspects of their personalities they never knew were there. What else can a woman do for a man she loves but ruin him!

I had a friend who was a musician and who fell in love with a poet. As usual, men don’t know if they are in love unless a woman tells them so. Poets even more so. But my musician friend, even though she was a woman, was not good with words. Her talent lay in sounds: she could not sing him her love song and convince him they should have an affair. So she asked me for help.

- Sure, I said with great pleasure, I always loved matchmaking and experimenting with skills and feelings.

- I will tell you what I want to tell him, and you will phrase that for me, she said.

- Sure, I said delighted. I always wanted to have a street desk, as in the Middle Ages, when most people were illiterate and scribes wrote letters for people, whatever they needed. If I had any talent in this life, that was it: to be invisible, to be everywhere, to be anybody at any time, to be in anybody’s head.

So she said:

- Hey you!

- Nonono, I screamed, you cannot address a letter to a poet with “hey you”…

That’s how our collaboration started: she wrote down very concisely her thoughts and feelings, and I elaborated them for her, bearing in mind the target. Then she would read it, approve it, and we would send the final draft to him.

It worked! It was a marvel. The poet got interested, hooked: he was answering, writing his head off, trying hard to please. And he did. He pleased her a lot. After a couple of months of correspondence, they got together and lived happily ever after. Until his sudden and premature death.

Now when he died in Belgrade, I was in NY, on the other side of the world. When she phoned me sobbing, I started sobbing too. Of course, that was natural, since we were close friends.

But after some time I realized I didn’t sob for her but for him. I realized that in those couple of months we were writing to each other, I got really close to him. I was reading his intimate letters he was writing to my friend and she was answering them through me. I got to know him very closely, he was telling me his dark secrets and fears… We were corresponding.

Actually, after the first couple of letters, I was given a free hand in the matter. My friend was very pleased that I could cope with her poet’s tormented soul, and so was I. He was not my burden, but hers. She always liked tormented guys, but she could not cope with them. I never did like them, but I could cope with them. We were a perfect match, the three of us.

Now that he was gone, I was keenly suffering. I had lost a soul mate, my intimate. However, like lightning, it struck me that the dead man had never known this.

When he and I would meet, after he and the musician got together, he was friendly yet reserved to me, while I had to hide my knowledge and restrain my feelings for the sake of my girlfriend.

I didn’t feel bad about it, on the contrary, I felt like a Goddess. I only wished that I had many such experiences. Gratifying and not demanding: in some way, I experienced the pure love that troubadours sang about.

one of the better-known Bruce Sterlings

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