18. Cheap Life
I had a very shocking experience in Linz railway station, one early morning, an experience that changed my life.
It was pitch dark. A few drunk teenagers were waiting for my train, refugees from a closing night of an electronic festival, trying to get hold of some drinks from a machine. No police, only a few workers on the tracks. I wondered will they break the machine and give me a drink too? Or shall I give them some money, so they don’t break it? While I wondered the train came and I entered my compartment.
While stepping into it, I dropped my ticket on the railway tracks. The ticket was visible, it was within my reach. Without thinking, I clambered down to pick it up; hey, this is Austria, this is Hitler’s city, although Austria is a great country, much better than my own as far as law and order are concerned.
But isn’t that exactly what scares me? As these banging punk teenagers are breaking the vending machine, the rules, the law…and me without a railway ticket. If the police shows up, who will they arrest first: them the young Austrians, or me the old Serb, the new bad guys of the world? I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt and panic. I stretched myself to get that ticket and at that moment a huge sound deafened me…screeching, alarming…the sound of my angel protector …Don’t do it…
My death, without me…
I stopped stretching and groping under the train, among the steel wheels, the steel rails… The teenagers broke the vending machine, the tins of Coke, Sprite… The vandals were rolling the cans on the pavement, kicking them off the landing and between the metal rails… Cans were screeching and bursting open with gas… It was like a New Wave Molotov cocktail… The punks were applauding, and screaming with joy, bathing in the spew…
And my train was departing… the sound that deafened me was my train crushing soda cans as if they were my neck and bones… I managed to pull away, just before the train overran my miserable 50 euro ticket.
I shivered. It was not fear of death, no…
I knew that fear already and it felt different: it is felt keenly in the cancer wards, under bombings, among the humiliated and miserable. This was a thrill more than a fear: I was too stupid and rushed to imagine the threat.
Once the thrill was over and my adrenalin level settled, I saw my gesture in its enormous stupidity and I felt like crying. For my uncontrollable squalor and misery. I was ready to give up my life over a cheap travel-ticket and the fear of transgression; those teenagers were doing the opposite.
Ever since that time, this image occurs to me in other situations. I was ready to give my life when I saved my own daughter, hastily jumping across a two-meter barbed wired abyss without getting a scratch… I might have scrabbled up my 50-euro ticket from beneath the train, and saved my honor as a paying traveller… But what if I died? What would have been on my gravestone: she died under a train from the shame of being a Serb.
Hard to bear. Does my life have that cost, that price tag? That was how much I valued my life.
Arriving in Berlin, I saw the punk teenagers getting off my train, not Austrians but Germans, sober now, with straight faces for their parents, their bosses. My face was white and shining… I had an epiphany…
When my father had his second heart attack, some years later in Belgrade, again a young patient next to him died, and again he survived. This young man did not have a lover, not even a wife, he was very young, wide eyed.
I fell in love with him and his imminent death. I talked to him more often than to my father when I paid my daily visits, bringing food. The young guy had never had a healthy heart, born with a defect, operated several times, and at the age of twenty three he was fatally stricken. His lips were blue. I wonder if he had ever had sex, but I knew he could love, because he knew how to love life. His parents never showed up. He seemed poor and alone but not unhappy, very contained and spiritual.
One day he was simply not there anymore. His bed was empty and clean ready for the next patient. Unlike in Italy, the modest but well-equipped Serbian hospital beds were without curtains and the hypocrisy of death.
The nurse told me that he left me a flower, that he picked the very day he died. He didn’t know that was his last day alive, but he did pick a flower for me during his walk, because he told the nurse: — That girl brings me cookies all the time, and I have nothing to offer her.
I went back home with the flower in my hand, just as I went back home when my cousin died with a flower in my hand, a flower I bought for her. She died in peace in front of me: I covered her face with a sheet, the face I saw a as a newborn 39 years ago, when I was 6: my female genetic code, she was the best one we ever had, and she left as an angel.
After my cousin died I went home, I prepared a fancy dinner for my writers and mates. I carried out my father’s errands my father: I counted the money on his bank account, and I went to bed without a sleeping pill, just with a beer. The angel died, the beast survived.
My memory needs its black-and-white composition; I do not speak of my angel’s dark side, or the bright side of my beast. I write from memory, but I cannot trust it.
Sometimes, I drank. I drank myself to stupor, to sickness, out of the blue, in public places. The first time that happened, I was already a middle aged woman with a small daughter, a divorcee, a dissident, a feminist, an author, a publisher… and under international sanctions during wars… in the Polish embassy.
In those dark times of the war, foreign embassies made parties for people like me, so that the democratic opposition would feel supported by foreigners rather than punished by them. And what about other people of Serbia, the people not like me, those who could not speak foreign languages, publish their own books? I don’t know. I never could tell supposed enemies from friends. The bottom line for me was always the same: I am one of the people. My privileges were never heartfelt. Deep down inside me, I always felt miserably happy to share their misery.
I entered the Polish embassy along with my partner, a dissident journalist. We approached a fine table clustered table with expensive bottles; the drinks we used to buy before the war, now unobtainable, from sanctions. Even if we could find those rare bottles on the black market, we would never be able to afford them. He snatched up an entire whiskey bottle, and me, a bottle of cognac. Boys and girls often have that dividing line.
Other dissidents and ambassadors were cruising around us, talking, and even shouting their political and other opinions. In those war days, love was blooming between different nationalities. Basically, foreign ugly old men were buying young educated and beautiful girls. The foreign diplomats knew well that, in their own home countries, they would never be so powerful and attractive to anybody. Who cares if it was real love or only convenient pretense! It felt the same.
A corrupted mafioso who ran the budget in his embassy was standing next to me: small and ugly, yet smart and sexy. He wanted all the Balkan women he could handle. He really wanted a Balkan harem, and he managed to assemble one, thanks to his restaurants, which he financed through the Serbian war mafia.
His beautiful, tall and innocent wife stood next to us, chastely drinking a fruit juice. She was Serbian, from a decent family, with small children and retired parents. Her marriage fed all of them.
I never knew if she liked her perverse husband. I know only that her dignity was badly hurt every time he flirted openly. She would twitch and speak loudly to pretend that she was not seeing that. Her situation was no secret in the Polish embassy. Other women confided in her: Yes my dear, he made a pass at me too… and I turned him down… and I am getting drunk and very drunk, my dear, because the cognac is good, and the company is hideous and I want to go home really…
All of a sudden the fancy hall swirled in my head: I felt like fainting and vomiting. I grabbed my partner’s arm:
- Take me out, I must breathe. I must vomit.
- I’ll take you to the bathroom.
- No way, I screamed, not in this foreign territory!
Heads turned around at my scream. People started to whisper; Not in this foreign territory… Journalists started to interpret it and write it down.
Hanging on my partner’s arm, balancing on high spike heels, still with a glass of cognac in my free hand I climbed down the steps with a queen’s majesty; Never lose your dignity in a foreign territory… I didn’t say goodbye to the ambassador or the other dissidents. I stepped outside the glass door which banged behind my back, turned my head to the right and vomited my head off.
At home I lay drunk in a cold bathtub for hours with my long hair and open eyes…I was like dead Ophelia; my patriotism died in me, yet I survived.
The next fitful episode occurred in the French embassy. The TV crews of the Milosevic state media spied on us, traitors getting drunk on French wine with the gay French ambassador.
Everyone knew that the French ambassadors gave the Serbian opposition really good treats during the sanctions. They also knew that the French were persuading NATO not to bomb the Belgrade bridges.
That day, in 1999, I was sitting on the wrong side of a soon-to-be bombed Belgrade bridge when I realized I was alone in a restaurant. Not a customer there, so near the bridge, just the restaurant waiter, nervously getting drunk along with me, on a lovely shiny May day… I saw the glint of TV cameras nearby: a CNN TV crew, I was told by the shouting Serbian cameraman, who knew me, and waved at me from a distance…
Then NATO airplanes started flying with big noise over my head, the air-raid alarm went off and we were showered with paper flyers… I caught one of them. Written in bad Serbian was our warning from NATO: stay away from the bridges…we will bomb them as soon as possible…
I realized my daughter was on the other side of the river, too near a bridge, just as I was… playing with her girlfriend, who lived there. Children get bored during wars… I had a quick image of blasted bridges flying high, together with me and my daughter, meeting somewhere in mid-air above the river, with a CNN camera registering it.
As in a daze I started running across the deserted bridge… A police car was honking at me…I might have been a suicidal mad woman but I was not… I crossed the bridge in a record time, a pity nobody measured my skill…
I snatched my daughter and started running on with her, away from the bridge. She was screaming, kicking me and cursing me: I don’t want to go home with you, I don’t want to die with you; if I have to die I want to be with my best friend, under the bridge…
That was our daily issue in the bombing raids of 1999. Whenever the air-raid alarms set off, we had to choose: where are we going to spend the time? Together, hoping to survive somewhere? Choosing with whom to die? My daughter was fifteen years old. She rebelled: she decided that she owned, not only her own life, but also her death. She grew up overnight in our struggle, when I even slapped her to keep her quiet and obedient. She chose her friend and left me the next day.
She was gone from home for a day and a night, and I had to let her go. I knew that when she returned she would be a different human being. My life would be without my child, as well as without myself.
She came back silently and sullenly. We went on as if nothing had happened. She just told me scornfully:
- The bridges were not bombed, as usual you were panicking.
When she had been nine, we had fled the war to live in Vienna, in exile. Vienna oppressed us and bored us. My little girl threatened me with suicide: a small refugee too bored and constrained to go on living. I said:
- OK, do it, you jump off the terrace, and I will come after you.
She looked at me sideways and said:
- No, you do it first.
-Why would I do it at all, I said?
She changed her mind.