Chapter Twenty-two: My Life Without Me by Jasmina Tesanovic

22. Happiness

My girlfriends always brought me happiness. My daughter nowadays says: Boyfriends come and go, girlfriends last forever. I always had a girlfriend confidante matching the actual boyfriend of the time: to make the man/woman relationship more bearable, more human: to talk to, lament to, understand what was going on. Like a safety belt for love.

Maja and I, as six and eight year old, sang in deep water of the Adriatic sea: dreamdreamdream, a song by the Beatles. Every day we asked each other, for years on end: how much does your heart feel happy today?

Other girlfriends, later in my life, gave me food and shelter when I was poor sick lonely unhappy miserable. Always them, not even the same ones, but just like clones of a species that we all belong to, betrothed to each other, but forgotten and forbidden, like a gang of mermaids in the deep sea. But this memoir is not about them, hiding and lurking.

Dancing also made me happy, dancing and singing: I had a body which could rejoice.

The happiest day in my life without me was July 15, 2005. Don’t ask me why. I have a photo taken that day, in Los Angeles, dancing sweaty with a glass of red wine in my hand with some old hippies playing music. In a party on the top of a hill, overlooking a graveyard, at the opening of a rock and roll art exhibition…I was covered with sand, wind was blowing in my curly dreadlocks and I wore a denim mini dress my daughter gave me.

In my mind was something called nirvana, something called peace with life as it is, happiness for being there, and getting there. I was there and not only there. I belonged there. It seemed to me that all of my life-without-me had been aimed at that moment.

Fate was expecting me there. The future existed. The future would bring me all those simple things had I dreamed in the past: real existence, real words, real work.

That night I danced, I didn’t even need to talk. It was warm. I had an epiphany: things will go my way.

My other night of great happiness was August 23, 1975.

I was in Ormos that night, dancing at a party in a park, with the film crew of Miklos Jancso, the Hungarian director. They were making a movie for Italian producers with a crew of Italians, Americans and Yugoslavs. I had interviewed Jancso in Rome and he had offered me a job travelling with his crew, because I knew Italian, English and Serbian.

- Sure, I said delighted. To be involved in a working multinational film was exactly what I needed. So I became a Girl Friday on the set, a mascot, the darling of his crew. Everybody loved me and I loved them all. I spoke all their languages at once. I had the enthusiasm of an amateur and volunteered to do anything and everything.

I would spend time with a diva, trying to make her less lonely and more diva. I would fix the dialogues for the stern scriptwriter, who could not tell the difference between a film and a theater play. I would dance with a depressed writer. The director’s friend came by the set to cure his depression — I was there to sympathize

I would fetch buttermilk to the set to cure the editor’s gastritis…I would play the piano in a certain scene because, I thought the scene needed a piano player.… After a few days, nothing occurred on the busy set without me, and yet nobody knew what was I doing there. Including myself.

I was happy. I loved the film, that was coming on fast, in sequences full of weird things together: horses, whores gays and lesbians, orgies and prayers. The film was the portrayal of a royal scandal in Vienna called the Mayerling Incident; it was called “Private Vices Public Virtues.”

That happiness lasted for a couple of weeks, and it changed me for good. I was twenty-one, and now I dressed differently, I thought differently, I acted differently. I had run away from home, from the family of diplomats and emigres. My stateless condition was a statement now. The world loved me that way and wanted me that way. I existed.

One night, my room mate on the set, the actress Laura Betti, asked me to join her in her adventure with some local guys. She was 42 and I was half her age. We dolled up and went to a local casino.

Now this small town was literally a castle, on the border between Croatia, Austria and Slovenia. I didn’t know why people would go there, if they didn’t shoot movies, write books, ride horses or make love. But then I saw the gambling house: a world of its own where all those others things stopped mattering.

My companion Laura was a passionate gambler. After short time she began winning hugely and was surrounded by a crowd. Luck?

I was extremely excited but slightly frightened: I could understand the language, and I could sense that things were not going to end smoothly because of her Luck. People in communist countries such as Yugoslavia were not allowed to be personally lucky. Casinos were for foreigners like Laura, and forbidden to citizens like myself. Police could burst in anytime and I could be arrested.

I was not supposed to be there but I was, being Laura’s luck charm, as she called me.

And then a very handsome young man offered me something secretively. He pulled out a bag of white powder. I headed towards the door… I sensed danger was getting close. I fled the casino and ran fast in the dark towards my castle. Laura was rolling her fat body after me, screaming with rage and laughter… Casino money fell from her body as if it were scales… very soon I heard steps and voices. Someone pursuing us.

I pulled her by her arm and splashed her round body over mine, in the dark, putting my hand over her laughing mouth…

The voices passed us, we stopped almost breathing. Laura fell asleep while I was counting the minutes on pins and needles.

We managed to reach our castle safely. We had shootings the next day . We had to look good and work perfectly, but we were a mess: I was sure that had we barely missed being robbed, beaten, and raped, God knows what and God knows why. We even had some money on us. Would some gangster pound on her door to demand her winnings back, or shake down the film crew?

Nobody did that. Soon we wrapped up shooting and left the town. Later, Laura wrote a book that landed her in court, because of the outrageous things she said about famous people. Our episode was in her book, too.

In Laura’s version of our adventure, I was there with my foreign boyfriend, American actor and songwriter Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson was actually dating the likes of Janis Joplin and Rita Coolidge, rather than myself. Still, I didn’t mind it. I always liked that guy.

Where do the moments of utmost irrational happiness come from? Where do they go, in a second?

In Serbia there is a proverb: don’t laugh too much, the next second you may cry. So children who laugh too much are preemptively beaten. Grown ups after a good laugh hit each other on the hands several times, splashing palms until they get all red and thus send away the devil.

On another day, 8 of February in Amsterdam I was happy again: I was in a foreign city where I had never been before. I was about to go to yet another foreign city where I will be praised, get a prize, be famous and collect some money. I was pleased and proud of myself.

By coming to Amsterdam, I had abandoned a crisis of grief in Belgrade. I had decided to write a book about my dead mother. Every night I stalked the graveyards with a tin of beer and a pack of cigarettes.

Often it snowed. Then I wore a huge fur coat, and I tried on my mother’s gloves. They were beautiful, ladlylike gloves, the colors, the patterns, the softness. It was like her warm hand playing with my hair and head. Yet after every meditative walk, I would come back home without them. I would leave the gloves at some unknown grave as a token to the unknown dead.

I needed to sit every evening alone, in the silence, and think. In Belgrade in December holidays, that big dirty noisy city, the only peaceful, silent places were the graveyards. And I wasn’t alone there. Other people joined me there: hobos, mourners, religious fanatics, mentally retarded graveyard workers. I felt a community with all of them.

In Amsterdam, however, I was boisterous and jolly. It was all behind me now. I packed neatly my shoulder bags and went to a bar with friends, to chat about art.

Then, a thief in the bar absconded with my shoulder bag. A very neatly-packed item, with my money, my jewelry, notebooks, diaries, clothes… Gone in seconds, without a trace.

I hoped that whoever took it might abandon it without the money, but that didn’t happen. I had to go to the police and start life anew. It wasn’t easy for a Serb to get new documents to travel in Europe, but I managed.

I was wondering for days on end, who was this new owner of my personal life: a woman? a junkie? She had my diary in English to spy on my intimate secrets. She had my grandmother’s jewels, heirlooms that my late cousin the junkie gave to me before she died, saying: take care of these otherwise, I will sell them for drugs.

Maybe my invisible thief would publish my diary/memoirs under her own name. My bank accounts and credit cards could be useful for some minor or major criminal. My stolen passport and visas could be handy for smuggling or human trafficking.

Without my travel bag, my life took another road. Without hotel money, I had to stop and sleep at a friend’s house. She picked me up as a refugee at the train station, and took me home where she lived in a one room with her husband. They were young people, former refugees turned citizens of Europe, fighting for their rights and their happiness.

This young couple, my friends, had managed that, except for one great emptiness: they could not bear children. That night, after feeding me supper, they gave me their own bed, and slept together on the floor. That night they conceived a baby. When she was born, I gave her the name Mila, Amy.

I was really happy.

one of the better-known Bruce Sterlings

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