Chapter Fourteen: My Life Without Me by Jasmina Tesanovic

14. La Dolce Vita and the Cold War

One day, on impulse, I did it; I left my fancy home, my clothes and books and piano and music. I had been lying in bed, depressed and courting anorexia, for a couple of months. I could find no motive to do anything in particular. Then one day, I went to my university, which I successfully finished, and I met an acquaintance.

He said,

- I am going to Rome, I am going to visit my uncle who is a movie producer, and try to get some work. Come with me.

I jumped into his Citroen, which was literally falling apart: it had very bad brakes and loose windows. But it was a warm June day and we puttered on slowly to Rome. We didn’t speak much, but I gathered that my new friend was also eager to escape some looming situation in Milan; an expected marriage, a steady dull job?

We were a team, a sad but stubborn one. His uncle gave us errands and a roof over our heads. He fed us and made us accomplices of his baroque, immoral, movie-producer life, which featured servants, children, wives and lovers, lovers of the wife…

Everything in that house rotated around money and sex, as if nothing else existed in the movie business. It was a crude, carnal, artless version of La Dolce Vita… and maybe the only real one, for as my father used to put it:

-You cannot cook your wife’s cute ass when you have no money.

The wife of the producer asked me to become her confidante: to help her with the family bills, with the children, and with her lover, whom her husband planned to kill one of these days, she alleged. This lover was merely a common banker, rather than a cinematic artiste, but a man who loved her for what she was. Faithful and simple, the banker was keen to marry her and take care of her and her children.

Her husband, by contrast, was perverse and a crazy womanizer. He brought other women into her house, into the marital bedroom. I saw some of these women, aspiring starlets, rather ugly and downtrodden.

What dreadful fate were these people trying to escape? I disguised myself carefully, so as not resemble any recognizable category of the people in their scene. I dressed in baggy rags to cover my young shapely body, shunned cosmetics and spoke as little as possible. But I listened as I waded my way through this pitiful jungle. These were the seventies, the years of feminism, of a fancy coming out of women. A storied decade that ended in burnout, leaving traces on our bodies, in our heads.

I was crossing via Giulia, one warm summer morning in Rome. I wore a huge black straw hat, hiding my face and even my shoulders. It was fit for a diva; I was in shadow, but I could see through my shutters of black straw.

Then I saw him: a young energetic man with a shaved head and blue eyes. He was crossing the street as if he owned the whole world, with a beaming smile on his face, an exuberant stride.

He too, is not Italian, I thought, but he feels good about that: I never did, even though I spoke a native Italian, with a Milanese accent. I often had to tell Italian friends: — I am not crazy, I am just not Italian.

He said to me:

- Hi…

I just waved my hand to him. Then he changed his direction, and, rather than crossing the street, he walked next to me.

- My name is Kolya. He offered me his hand.

- My name is Jasmina. I told him the truth.

- Do you want to come with me to my place, it is here around the corner.

- Yes, I said without hesitation.

He didn’t see my face I did this, but he didn’t seem surprised.

We went to his small dainty apartment:

- A friend is letting me have this, she is working now…

- Oh, said I, still with my hat on. Nevertheless he was holding me already, next to his sturdy body, and kissing me all over the place.

I felt great, I just felt fantastic: a scene from an erotic love stories. Yet this one was real, and happening to me and the guy was handsome and seemed normal and even bright. Surely only a really bright guy could pull with this stunt he was doing with a nitwit like I was…

Finally I can tell my friends in our weekly workshops that I had sex with a stranger without having to invent anything. All my girlfriends in these earnest workshops had sex with women, men, husbands of their girlfriends, together with their girlfriends, with strangers, old and young people, whatever… and they never seemed happy or satisfied. They just methodically broke the rules and then talked about it, lamenting and experimenting and explaining their sexuality, desire, organs… I listened dumbfounded, amused and shy. Not once did they mention love, lust or longing… It was all about those three for me: I invented love, lust and longing when I had none, inventing stories they wanted to hear.

My fantasies were naturally more interesting than their experiments. Yet now, my life was following my own stories, in orgasmic jets of pleasure on a soft silky bed of an unknown Roman palace. A borrowed place where I did not exist, and could leave without a trace.

I did leave. Kolya and I didn’t even shake hands. I went straight to the workshop and recited what had happened to me briefly and without emphasis.

Nobody paid much attention. Me, either. I was so proud of my daring feat that my whole body screamed with need of recognition, but I kept silent and haughty. I had my sweet secret for ever.

The next day I took off my black hat and sunglasses, put on my loose silk pink dress and went to the same spot. I sat at a bar and waited: Kolya did not not turn up. I waited for three hours, drinking one espresso coffee.

I went the following day, too.

The third day however, the barman asked me: — Is your name Jasmina.

- Yes, I said amazed.

- I have a letter for you, said he, and he handed me a carefully folded note: it had an address written on it and a date and a time. Signed Kolya.

- Grazie mille, said I, calmly, as if this was the reward I expected for hours spent in the bar: and I guess it was.

- Di niente, said he, di niente.

The date was the next day, the address the seaside resort of Ostia, outside Rome. A Russian immigrant colony, I realized, and not only Russian. Ostia was a refugee haven. A place to hope for freedom, to wait for legal papers;

I, too, wanted to be free… I wanted to be a refugee. I ran away from my fancy Rapunzel castle, I fled from my punk no-future into this random street… I don’t mind if I sleep with degenerates, if I don’t spend my every night with my prison guards…

I took a train to Ostia, following the precise instructions: and when you reach the station turn into Via Such-and-Such, and at this number…Yes, there he was: sitting on the floor, among other Kolyas. Bearded men, toothless young men, all Russian men drinking vodka and smoking…

They greeted me with huge grins. Kolya came to me and embraced me fondly. This was a guarantee, about the other men. I sat myself on the floor and accepted a glass of vodka. Alcoholism in Russia is known as mood and friendship. This code of trust is based on common suffering and is never to be questioned. I sat on the floor with my pals and drank as a Russian soldier.

Some years later, when I visited Russia, Moscow, to interview Andrei Tarkovsky, on whom I was a thesis, I had a Russian bearded guy follow me every single day, step by step, to the museums, shops parks, opera restaurants. One day I approached him, confronted him. He counter-attacked with a bunch of flowers. He said:

- My name is Kostya, I am supposed to follow you and report on your movements. I wonder would you like to do some things with me, together, because I am a movie director myself, I was once an assistant to Vajda, the Polish giant…

And he really was, so I said yes. He was doing his job, while I was merely trying to do mine: without much success, for they never let me meet Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky was in his dacha, he was sick, he was busy.

Some years later again, I heard from Tarkovsky’s good friend at the time, Aksioniov, a Russian writer in exile, that Tarkovsky was really busy, sick or in his dacha when I was in Russia. Kostya the spy was telling me the truth, though I never believed him. On the contrary, as soon as I stepped back to Italy I reported to the press that Tarkovsky was under house arrest. This very soon became dramatically true, to the point that Tarkovsky fled the country, irreversibly, into exile.

We Yugoslavs had a fraught relation with Soviets. I learned that from my parents: from my father, who had to deal with them in business but could never drink like the Russians did; from my mother, whose efforts to play the diplomatic hostess were risky, full of gaffes. We knew Moscow, where they had their own variety of red elite.

Once my parents took me to a military fancy party, where the privileges of the official regime were on displayed; caviar, champagne, uniforms, mink… this during Breznev during hard times for common people, with empty shops and pockets.

I sat between my father and my mother at this Soviet party, bored to death: I didn’t like the music, the huge ballroom, the food, the smoke, the drinks and the loud echo of power. A fat Soviet soldier, decorated in medals, came up to my mother and asked her if I could dance with him.

I said no, in my name and with my own voice. His face became purple with rage and shame. Then he looked to my father with the same demand which now sounded like a threat.

My father hastily pulled my chair under me and made me get up to my feet. Here in Russia, he said, you cannot say no when a man asks you to dance. That shows lack of respect for the country and the army.

I was trembling with rage and humiliation: I danced clumsily in the arms of this bear, all pleased with his prey. When the dance was over, I stepped on his boot with my pointed high heel.

Milena Jesenska once wrote to Kafka, explaining that she could never leave her soldier husband for the likes of Franz Kafka. Milena had to polish her husband’s soldierly boots every morning; a chore whose delight Milena could never forgo. Reading his books and letters, I loved Kafka. I suffered for his death, and his lack of love from Milena, and those boots.

I missed my last train back from Ostia to Rome. Kolya was very drunk. I was lying in his lap while he was lying in somebody else’s lap: we were singing sentimental Slavic songs of prison and freedom, of life and death, of communism and Stalinism. Finally we went to sleep rolling on top of each other in trust and vomit. Early in the morning, the sun was penetrating through the window candidly and saintly. An airplane was hitting the clear blue sky at high speed :

-This is the picture of God and future, said Kolya, holding my hand: nature and technology together. That is why I want to go to America. Jasmina, come with me.

- I cannot I said taking my hand out of his, in utmost awe. Kolya was a famous scientist who escaped from the secret labs producing God knows what, nuclear weapons, rockets… I read about it the next day in the papers. He managed to get a visa and escape to US where he got a job and freedom I hope. I never heard from him again.

On my way back from Ostia, when I stepped out of the train, I was waited upon by the police and conducted to the station. My father, the secret service guy, said I was missing, somehow he knew that I was with the Russian immigrants and was worried that I might get come to harm. Not me as me, but me as his daughter.

Later, he told me the whole story: he had millions of dollars on his bank account that were not actually his, and that he used in his secret operations between countries. Italian kidnappers checked for people with big bank accounts. He feared I would be kidnapped and that he would be unable to pay the ransom and that I would be killed.

I didn’t breath a word about where I had spent the night. Those few hours of dolce vita were supposed to stay out of history of cold war, meaning out of history altogether. And they brought freedom and happiness to Kolya.

one of the better-known Bruce Sterlings

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