Chapter Twelve: My Life Without Me by Jasmina Tesanovic

12. Sex and Money

Once in a dark movie theatre when I was only fourteen, a long haired blonde boy sat next to me and that really excited me: During the film I was restless… he seemed to respond to it: at a certain point he tenderly got hold of my hand and asked me in a whisper:

- What’s your name?

I became upset all of a sudden.

- What’s this all about, I hissed…and he let go of my hand in one second. He was my age I think and he left before the lights went on again, embarrassed because of his bad judgement. But it was not his fault; I acted as a bitch and I hated myself for doing it.

That repulsive hiss slipped out of me before I managed to understand it; I played the historic game of a temptress who dares not fulfill her own desire. Women who blame men for their desire. I never knew I had it in me, desire or guilt, and it all turned against this young blonde angel in the dark. I only hope I didn’t traumatize him and turn him into a devil.

My friend’s boyfriend could not have sex with her for years, because the first time he was was necking with her, the girl’s father showed up. He insulted and threatened them. This father, whom I know as a egomaniac and a womanizer, later on falsely accused this boy of drug addiction, drug dealing, whatever… The truth was the opposite, his daughter was doing drugs, and probably because her boyfriend could not make love to her… A man’s Oedipal game of sex and incest. We women become accomplices, if allowed.

When my father burst in the bedroom where I had smuggled my boyfriend and hid him in a cupboard, I stood defiantly in front of the cupboard door, trembling: the message was: over my dead body. And my big father left, he turned on his heels, shamed and impotent. The daughter has chosen the younger man.

I didn’t choose, I was acting on impulse, I was protecting the weaker one, but men don’t get that. Because yes, Medea burned her own children: because they were the children of betrayal. That’s what men are afraid of in real life: of their own sons. Sons will take a male revenge on them and their male power. They live in the fear of castration of power. We women are sometimes accomplices, if we are allowed.

Once a notorious serial rapist asked me to dance in a night club in Belgrade. I didn’t know who he was, but I liked his polite manners. He instead liked so much my incessant talking and my lack of fear that he admitted that he was a rapist. He had planned to rape me too, but all my chatter had rendered him impotent.

Once, on a rainy evening, as I walked back home, half-blind without my eyeglasses, I was confronted by a street exhibitionist. I heard the sounds he made, and I thought he needed help. I went up to him and asked him:

- Do you need something sir?…

He was nude under his raincoat, holding his penis in his hand and twitching in fear at my words… he turned on his heels and ran as fast as his feet could carry him.

The first time I had sex, I remember being there, and really. I was a young teenager and he was an older teenager. Just a guy, and a neighbor really, very nice and kind to me. I didn’t love him, I was honored to be the object of his attention, the rival of his grown up and sexy girlfriend. And according to his words: he really enjoyed talking to me.

Now, ever since then, men would either run away from me when I would start talking, or talk with me till dawn, never touching me. Even when I asked to be touched, they would have doubts as to what to do with me. Men fear women who talk too much. They are even more fearsome than the women who know what men are talking about.

My first boyfriend told me;

- I wish I could put a needle inside your head and see what is going on there.

Fear and shame were going inside my head, and a lot of random literature I had read about the business, from Saint Augustine to erotic novels. I wanted to get rid of my virginity and have sex: I was ashamed to admit I was a virgin, and not only but that I never ever kissed a man before him. Only a few months ago, I was a fat pigtailed spectacled creature who preferred to eat chocolate with a book in her hand than to dance with boys at parties.

But one summer it all changed suddenly: I cut my hair because I was away from my Mom in a boarding school. I bought a light blue mini dress with laces and I took off my glasses: then I went to a party. As Cinderella, my schoolmates could not recognize me, boys asked me for dances, and girls stared at me with envy and admiration. It was a process that made them marvel, this rapid change from a nobody into a star. I myself wondered if it would last after midnight, but it did.

Ever since then men have been hitting on me with some regularity, and in patterns: only ugly men could stand my talking, and only attractive men could ignore it. I started picking up the real male chauvinists in order to have proper sex: the more they ignored my mind, the better they loved my body. Since I had no self-esteem through my words, I could not respect people who appreciated what I said.

I was grateful for attention and kind to anyone who gave it, but considered myself a loser. Nobody my age wanted to discuss Spinoza and Dante. Clearly there was something wrong with me, and in order to understand the world, I had to do a lot more reading.

Lost in the jungle of my words, only the body treated with violence could give me a clue as to what was right or wrong with me… In that rich inflated ego made of words, I was driving at high speed, day and night. I told my first boyfriend:

- You know I can never stop thinking, even while we are having real sex…

- Well, he said confused, don’t you enjoy it?

- Oh I don’t know, I blushed, I think I am still a virgin!

- A woman can never know really, it is a social construction. The point of fact I was: I lost my clinical virginity on the abortion table some years later, after I became pregnant even without having proper sex.

- One in a million said the doctor who examined my body.

It was in Italy, it was in the seventies. He was a young good-looking politically rebellious gynecologist; he was a member of the network of alternative political structure of doctors who were pro abortion. Abortion was strictly prohibited in catholic Italy, together with other means of contraception.

These rebel doctors wanted to take Italian abortion out of the closet, out of the nunnery where abortion was performed for big money, and to treat women legally and with dignity. As a student, I had a membership card, free. As a pregnant student I was a guinea pig, a case, willing to go public. It was the seventies, fantasia al potere, la donna e’ bello…

But my life inside me was not allowed to be my life: the handsome doctor all of a sudden bent over my naked body and pressed his loins heavily panting: I pushed him away so violently that we both fell of the table.

- Goodness me, I started screaming. He put a hand over my mouth gently; please don’t denounce me, he begged, please…I want to date you, you are so lovely…

The scream froze in my throat. I felt sorry for him: how terrible it must be for a gynecologist to love the bodies of his endless patients, like being an alcoholic bartender. Life of repressed passion and guilt. I looked at his anguished handsome face and I forgot my body, my feminism, my lotta continua. I turned from the small life I carried inside me to the general fate of my Life without me.

- So, I am pregnant.

- Yes, said he and you are also a virgin he exclaimed with passion: you are like the Virgin Mary.

I couldn’t believe his words, all these years I have been having sex with different men, and now he is telling me that I am the Virgin Mary, almost raped by an alternative gynecologist.

- At first it was rape, as the Virgin Mary said in a Monty Python comedy…

Sitting on the pavement in front of a maternity ward, department of abortions, on a hot July day in Belgrade. I have a wide gypsy skirt and I have dyed my hair very red. My mother is sitting two blocks away in a coffee shop; she took me to the clinic, had me meet with the doctor who was to perform the abortion, and has left so as not to bear the shame. I sat obediently accepting her shame as the Virgin Mary would, although I knew she had two abortions before having me.

I gathered the difference was that she was married and I was a virgin who had sex repeatedly. Did she know that? Maybe, but even if she did, she pretended it didn’t happen. Even after they performed the abortion, kicking me out of the waiting room, onto the pavement, in order to have more space for other women, who had to go back to work.

I sat, my head spinning in silence, not daring to ask her to come and pick me up until I manage to walk properly. I had no other feeling of guilt, pain or missed motherhood. Something altogether missed me in that issue except a brief wave of liberation: I am not a virgin anymore. The doctor in the clinic, after examining me, laughed horridly, just as a socialist atheist doctor would. He said:

- Hey baby, how old are you.

- Eighteen I said proudly.

- Oh well, then, he said and at that moment my eyesight dimmed and that’s it.

I connected my joints and stood up looking for my Mom who was sitting with big eyeglasses and talking to a colleague:

- Oh here she is, she said as if I had been gone to buy an ice-cream, come on my dear, meet my friend Dr. This-and That…and tell her about your studies.

I did. I told my mother’s colleague about my art studies and how I loved studying cinema.

Mom and I never mentioned the issue again

When I told her a month before;

- Mom I am pregnant, she said

- Oh no no, it is impossible…you are not married…

That coded our communication on the topic, it all never happened: even the injections I had to take for months for suffering an postoperative infection, shots that she give me herself, did not count. She told everybody it was vitamins because of my low immunity system. And after years of gynecological problems verging on catastrophes, we never mentioned when it had started, and where was I when it all started. According to my Mom, I was not there, because good girls don’t have sex before they get married, and afterward, they do it in order to have children, and after having children, they do it in order to keep their providers happy. And when that all is over they finally get relieved of their painful biological duties and become grannies.

And you know what, in many ways things happen exactly that way, not because that is really how things work, but because nobody bothers to make them work in any different way: we swim downstream carried by the current…

Sex and money just go together. Yes, Freud again; I never understood him, but I believe him. I observe things I don’t understand better than things I do, and the things I understand only half way, wow those things really turn me on: music, philosophy and money.

I never knew how to make money. I considered myself so useless that every atom of every second I had to prove the opposite by working. Working to achieve the economic positive zero; the amount you consume equals the amount you produce. I never knew the criteria or the standards of that measurement.

What I knew from early childhood was how to count money, in cash, in decimals, as if I were autistic. How to to turn numbered sums of money into in other values, such as food, school, clothes… Whatever my Dad, the Big Boss, said mattered in real life, meaning in the life without me.

Though I never visited my father’ s family house in Herzegovina, he managed to bring the attitudes there in Belgrade, into our daily lives. He subtracted every penny, which he invested in me, from the day I was born. I was told about my patrimony: whatever he himself did not consume before he died, and our expensive family graveyard.

When I told him, after my mother’s death, that I had a legal right to one fourth of the goods, inheriting from my mother, he looked at me blankly as if failing to understand the depth of my madness.

- But how? Your mother never made a penny…besides she is dead.

My mother was a doctor: she did earn money. She inherited values, and she had me, but my father could simply not understand that such things mattered. The real world without women.

Many years ago, when I earned my first money and used my first bank account to save it there, he just picked up the money, on the behalf of his parenthood and family needs. It was illegal, impossible and immoral. But he did it, and when I protested, he smiled at me in amazement:

- But it is small money, I needed the cash. Anyway, one day it will all be yours.

I believed him, though he lied to me. He should have been impeached as a father for lying to his daughter, as presidents are impeached for lying to their people. But the supreme court for women does not exist.

After decades of wealthy life and promises from my rich father that the future belonged to me: I found myself penniless and lifeless, to the point of dying before him.

He sadly shook his head:

- I am sorry my investment didn’t work. Daughters don’t inherit the genetic structure to run a family business.

Yet when her heard of my illness, he was shaken: he kept saying, I can’t believe it, it’s not possible, it’s not true. I enjoyed telling him the frightening details of my illness, returning the health scares he had inflicted on me so many years. It was my cruel revenge on an old man, to confront him with the likelihood that I might die before him.

He had never been able to face my mother’s sickness, her death. I remember that he would creep to her door as she was sick, and not dare to enter it, until she would laugh and yell at him: — Come in, you coward!

I was convinced that he loved us both to the end… Why would I doubt it?

When I have sex, I think of philosophy. When I read philosophy, I feel really sexy. When I see other people having sex, I feel embarrassed for my own species.

I refuse to allow that other people have sex as a matter of course; no, only I can have sex, smoke, drink… The very thought makes this world an ugly crowded place of sexual animals. Deep down inside me, I know that’s exactly what is going on… but as long as I manage to handle my illusions, I can ignore the truth. The truth is, we are not what we think we are.

In the seventies, in Italy, “heterosexual” was a restrictive word, for women especially. It was called compulsive heterosexuality, the worst being to have married sex with the purpose of reproduction. To avoid the shame, most seventies feminists tried their very best to test their marriages with other men, other women…

I remember them older than me, fancy, loud, bright beautiful rich and successful women. I don’t remember myself: I was shy foreign and plump: I dressed in rags and mostly staid silent. I was not even a feminist, I was a vase full of somebody else’s knowledge, as Pasolini put it after trying to talk to me for two hours. I was so offended by his words, yet afterwards I found out that he described Medea in his film in that same way, and that Maria Callas played a beautiful vase full of somebody else’s knowledge.

But my condition was so poor that even his compliment hurt me. I tried to avoid all kind of experiences: men and women, marriages and liaisons, children and pets.

I managed to flee from my family, from my prescribed fate, that of a Balkan princess who would inevitably fall back to her historical condition, of a woman slave to some kind of man. Even though she had studied abroad, even though she knew languages, even though she was something else. But who was to say that, to see that? Who bothered, who dared? Not my father: To him I was just an underdeveloped girl who could not get a proper job. For my mother I was a sissy who could not dress or marry properly.

And you know what, once you are out of school, you plain have to do such things, really dress, really marry, and find a real job until real children come underway. I was expected to surrender my ambitions and follow the steps of my imaginary successful husband.

As a fairy tale in reverse, the Balkan pink tale for women is somewhat unfair, but with a touch of novelty. Women get educated, they even get to work, but never to earn more money than their men, and God forbid they should do so after the birth of the children. Diplomas are attractive for women, like a nice ass. They allow you to get a better husband, and they last as long as your shapely young ass lasts.

Once your husband gets addicted to you and the two of you start a family, you are allowed to get fat and ignorant. The Balkan dream for women means a nice house somewhere on the seaside, a solid graveyard in your hometown. A sense of nausea, of hate and impotence, still grips me today, as a woman born into the privileges of a patriarchal society.

I once feared my future as much as I hated my past. I realized how it was all planned and connected: my clothes, my room, my schools. They held an empty space for me, a throne where nothing else mattered, once you accepted the role of the royal fool queen.

I felt doomed and unable to fight back. It meant fighting centuries of heritage, embodied by people I loved. My father, whom I feared and never understood. My mother, unable or unwilling to be on my side. She had the explicit double talk, my father the hidden one. Those intense moments I had in their laps and arms, those moments of childish love and freedom, vanished as the real world engulfed me. A world of severe demands, as I grew up, and they grew old.

Written by

one of the better-known Bruce Sterlings

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