Chapter Eleven: My Life Without Me by Jasmina Tesanovic

11. First and Last Love

I remember reading in some chick newspapers how passionate love is often accompanied by violence and jealousy, much like rock and roll musicians use alcohol and drugs.

My first love looked like Mick Jagger, and had many girlfriends besides me. We had nothing much to do or talk about in common, but we liked to kiss and listen to the music.

He told me one day:

- You know what, even if you lost your leg, I would still be loving you.

He was seventeen, I was fifteen. I looked at him wondering, if his leg was cut off, would I still want to be with him? He would not be able to dance, ride a motorbike… I loved the way he never wore a coat during the cold foggy days in Milan and how he always wore the same turtleneck sweater notwithstanding the weather. He never went to school. We didn’t date much. We played music over the phone and would meet during the weekend, bored to death with each other’s company if we could not ride his motorbike, dance or kiss.

When I was seventeen, I went to university. One of those foggy days, when we sat together on a bench in a deserted park in Milan full of junkie needles, I told him;

- I think we should stop seeing each other. My heart was breaking, and I hoped he would deny me. He didn’t.

He was a derelict at heart and a rebel without a cause.

I was lucky to hold his slender body in my arms, speak of the world to his frank proletarian mind, listen to rock music with him, ride on his motorbike at full speed, sleep in the sleeping bags in student dorms, laugh and cuddle. I was lucky my first love was a street smart love. Ten years later, I phoned him, because we had an agreement that I would do it: exact date and time.

I was in Milan again, perchance, because my father just had a heart attack and was fighting for his life in a hospital. Back in the city where I made the appointment with my first love, ten years before. Serendipity! He told me his father too just had a heart attack. We agreed on a place to meet. But I never went there, and never found out if he did.

Instead, I went to see if my father would live or die. I took my mother with me, she was weeping and unable to function, she was lost. On our way to Milan, she lost control several times. I had to help her, saying:

- Mom he is not dead. Yet.

At the airport the plane was waiting for us. They knew we were emergency case, and of course my father was a spy, so the police asked the plane to wait. I didn’t know that at the time, I only knew that my mother had forgotten her passport. Notwithstanding that fact, they let us board the plane. She also managed to enter Italy without a passport, don’t ask me how.

My mother, the lady, had forgotten her passport and carried no money, but she was wearing gloves. Why do doctors and ladies always wear gloves when they visit their dying ones?

My mother died many years before my father, but she buried him many times before she died. That effort wearied her, and killed her eventually. My father killed my mother softly and with love, and she let him do it, pretending she was burying him. This was the first time I had fully assisted in their lifelong love-and-death story.

She was wearing her leopard fur coat, her black gloves and her big Sofia Loren sun glasses. It was winter time, foggy and rainy. My father was all in white, with nurses, tubes around him…behind a curtain… Every patient was behind a curtain, half open, completely exposed or completely closed… a curtain like a flag of life or death: I feared the closed curtain, but my father was half opened…and the curtains were like shower curtains, made of plastic in lively colors.

The whole place had something lively and childish about it, like a kindergarten. The lights were bright, and soft music was playing. The same atmosphere I encountered in the delivery ward: those places are definitely designed by the same artist. I don’t believe it was God, for I don’t believe in God, if even God existed he would not like this design. It is a design of denial of life and death, maybe a designed denial of the patients themselves.

The doctor spoke to us separately, mother and daughter. He asked my mother if I was a drug addict, or any other source of heart-trouble to my father. He asked me about my mother and my parent’s marriage. I told him that their marriage seemed sound. My Mom told him that I was an ideal daughter. We both believed in what we were saying. My mother really believed that I would go through my life fulfilling all her expectations, from that plain ladylike hairstyle to our silent support of whimsical and dominating husbands.

How did that work out? Where was I when it happened? I was shooting a film when I married, but the marriage was something my mother decided for me. Marriage was expected from me. From the intimate point of view, hers, to have grandchildren. From to public point of view, my father’s, to buy me a car and get rid of me. The Serbian proverb was: I didn’t lose a daughter but gained a son. In real life, though, everybody wanted to get rid of a daughter or switch her for a son. Even if the daughter was invisible, like me. Then a husband was even more necessary, because they needed somebody to be visible and to boast about.

My mother was fond of my husband. He reminded her of her beloved brother who died of alcoholism when Communism came in power. Never a worker, he was an aristocrat who loved to shoot wild geese and raise tame pigeons. He went to bed the day they took his hunting rifle from him. The Communists confiscated firearms from all people, not just him; but he took it personally. He stopped eating and started drinking.

My father forbade my mother to cry when he died, because of his act of rebellion and his irresponsible attitude toward life and family. My uncle left two sons and a wife behind him. I saw him in his last days, he was skeletally thin, scarcely able to speak. He whispered to my whimpering mother who was dressed in her gloves and high heels:

- Please Veroschka, look after my children.

How delicate, how tender, how cool and gentlemanlike. The guy was existing the stage in high style.

My dad was from a different background, where people lived a hundred years, dying each and every day, and never letting go of their lives for one second. In that part of the country, even if they cut off your hands and legs, blinded your eyes, a person would live as a trunk, like a sunflower tuned to the sunlight. Among my mother’s people, men and women were like crystal vases: once the body breaks, the soul shatters too.

When my cousin, many years later, was lying in the AIDS ward, she told me:

- It is nice here, everybody is kind and everything is clean except for the patients. They really make awful noise. They frighten me. Last night this Mileta died, remember him? He used to be my boyfriend many years ago. Well, he screamed as if they were beheading him. He was always such a nuisance.

My cousin’s eyes were wide open and green. She had lovely moon skin and thin beautifully carved limbs. She was the best looking patient in the AIDS ward: a top model really. My father too, his rosy cheeks and perfect line-less skin were even more pronounced in the emergency ward. We are a doctors’ family really, we look great in such settings. I was a great mother to be, everybody was complementing me on my looks and elegant attitude while giving birth. I could have done it in high heels while dancing and singing.

My father smiled when he saw us arrive in his Milanese hospital ward. My mother started crying. I approached his lips, knowing that he was not allowed to move or speak. He started whispering fast:

- I have a list in my pocket, take that list and do the errands I wrote there.

I took the list. I glanced at it. It was a shopping list: a spare part for a dish-washer, a pair of black shoes Bardelli, a perfume Rive Gauche small size etc…

- But Dad… I protested.

- Just do it, I have no time to do it and maybe I will die. I told my friends I will do those favors for them, and I can’t let them down just because I am in the hospital. What if I survive?

I thought my dad was losing it, but I was wrong. My father understood survival. Nobody would take in account the fact that he was stricken, maybe dying. Not in his world, where friends and allies were bought by small, intimate favors. They were dependent on personal favors in order to do big political favors which cost them nothing: the working principles of a communist economy.

The curtain of the stall next to my father was spread with a big wow by a great-looking woman in a fur coat. She flung herself onto the dying young patient, lying nude as a shrimp.

This golden haired invalid growled in excited amazement at the invasion of the furred woman, in her miniskirt and fancy boots. He stared at her open mouthed and trembling. I stared at his male organ in erection. It seemed bigger than his small, gaunt body, and his pointed Italian nose.

I glanced at my father. Neither he nor my mother noticed a thing. They had their own love story going on there, which I, as their offspring, took for granted. My mother hung Goya’s Nude Maja above their matrimonial bed, a print as big as Goya’s original. Once, and only once, I saw my parents touch: they were holding hands in that bed. When she saw me, my mother rapidly pulled her hand out of his, as if she were caught stealing something.

It must have been my mother who set the tone for that arrangement between them. It was always my mother who was determined the course of the marriage, while my father was publicly responsible, and paid for it. They were both happy with that deal. I gather that they never discussed their terms as man and woman, although they were as plainly stipulated as a signed insurance loan. For them, marriage was all about that. In so many ways, they were right.

- Love does not cook a dinner, my father used to say,

- Love does not wash dishes, my mother used to retort.

The hospital curtain next to us started to tremble. Moans and groans were speeding up louder and uncontrollably…even the nurse heard it, she ran to the curtained box tripping over my foot and unwrapped the lovers having wild sex in the death bed. The woman didn’t even take her fur coat off and the man still had tubes in his arms. It wasn’t a porn scene or even a sex comedy, it was true.

- Are you crazy man?! the nurse screamed, You can die because of this and it will all be my fault!

She pulled the curtains back, the moans ceased altogether. My parents and I discussed buying presents for family and friends. My father was mentioning his bank account with a code number, the hidden account he kept, in case of his death.

I don’t know how many minutes passed but another woman tripped over my chair:

- Mi scusi, she said in a polite detached Milanese voice.

- Sure, I jumped to my feet.

She was dressed in black from head to foot. She had red eyes and carried a silk handkerchief. Behind her two small children dressed as Catholic catechism students were shyly holding hands, pale and curious. Especially the red haired girl, who was slightly older. The woman had a wide hat too and she was extremely pretty, I noticed; the children looked just like the nude, golden-haired, dying man. They were overdressed and really contained, as rich people’s children often are: don’t speak to strangers was written all over their faces.

The next theatrical opening of the curtain is called accelerated karma in some cultures. The sexy woman in the fur coat and boots had escaped through a rear door. She left the sick man fatally stricken. The dressed to kill widow is falling on her knees, the children are holding hands, the boy is clinging to the girl, the girl is clinging to thin air.

Her dad has died, mine is surviving. When those curtains finally closed on her dad’s improvised room, they never opened again to her or anybody else.

Did the wife know about the mistress? Who will sign the papers of the death? Will the nurse tell the doctor who let the fatal woman into the deathbed of the dying man? Would he have stayed alive otherwise? What will become of his widow, of his children? I was most interested in his daughter who had his looks, probably his temperament. Just like me, a pale and honorable copy of my spy daddy, the strong genetics of a survivor, the lies which turn into fiction, into fantasies.

I wonder what were the last thoughts of the guy who shared his last breath with all of us behind a curtain, did he know he was leaving us for good?

A family friend of my parents died in the same way, but in his own house. His wife and daughter were away for holidays. The girl was some random actress, he smoked and drank heavily anyway… My father was the first to hear the news, for the actress called him: the dead man had passed away in her body.

But my father could never stay silent about such a matter: he told me what really happened. Other friends of my father had the luck to die that way: a famous football player, a businessman… My father took care of all of them and of their families, he told me all the stories. He took care not to tell my mother about it, if she was the friend of the wife. It was a generational way of dealing with sex and what comes out of sex, be it life and procreation, be it orgasmic death.

My death, without me.

one of the better-known Bruce Sterlings

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