Chapter Two: My Life Without Me, by Jasmina Tesanovic

2. My Parents

My Father was an engineer, a successful businessman later, and, finally, a spy. As he put it, spy work was something everybody had to do. That was the morality of a time and place, to which individuals had to comply. Spying was a civil duty for the communists in the fifties, much like free love among hippies in the 1970s.

Given our own apparent privileges as a family, there was something I never could understand: were we rich or poor? My father used to tell me: we are a very poor country, we are very poor people. We are communists: here is some money for you, but you should not spend this, just keep it. As a kid, I had money that I was not supposed to spend but treasure. To this day, spending for me feels like bleeding, tearing the flesh off my bones, skinning myself. I like the cheap secondhand stuff that used to belong to people I love: that may be communism, or just my personal family dribbling. When drunk, however, I can spend money on unknown people, throw useful things away , squander orgasmically, easing the financial constipation with a sense of joy and relief.

I once asked my mother for a brother or a sister. She smiled naughtily as if I had said the biggest joke in the world. My father become really upset, first red then pale but stayed silent. Since I was seven, I rattled on.

- Mom, if it is born here in Egypt (we lived in Cairo for a couple of years because of my father’ s diplomatic job), will the baby be black? My mother burst into laughter. My father stood up from his chair.

- Jasmina, he said menacingly, if you had a sister, you would have to share everything with her… Your room, your clothes… your shoes… We are poor people, we can afford only one dress and one pair of shoes. So in the morning you would use them, in the afternoon she would, while you stayed in bed.

I pondered this seriously and said: OK.

My father had caught the mumps after my birth and could no longer sire children. Worse yet, in his region of Herzegovina, girls didn’t count as children. My grandma, his mother, used to say wailing:

- My poor eagle ( that is how she called him) he has no kids.

Of course they all blamed my mother for this, claiming she was too small to bear the male heir of the eagle.

My grandma Lile had my father when she was 53. Grandma was a capacious woman, tall and strong. She grew her own tobacco, some of the finest in the region. She died when she was 103, gone half blind, but with her long curly reddish hair still not entirely white. Her last regret, expressed on her deathbed, was that she hadn’t said “yes” to more of the numerous men who begged for her favors.

Suspecting that my mother’s short stature had something to do with her lack of a grandson, my grandmother strung a laundry line high across the garden. Then she called her sisters and daughters in law to come and sit next to her on a bench and have a smoke.

Every day the local women sat for hours in silence, smoking. The third day my mother washed the laundry and came to the garden to hang it. Of course the laundry line was strung too high for her, a tiny delicate southern girl. She hopped a few times, making a gracious effort, and then without a word disappeared into the house.

After a few minutes my father came out with the laundry. He was tall and could easily reach the clothesline. My grandmother and her ladies on the bench were totally humiliated. Deeply shamed, they fled into the house, unwilling to witness such a deviant scene: an eagle hanging the laundry! What a shame for the household, and for the name he bore.

Having achieved this victory, my Communist feminist mother never returned to the home of her husband’s mother, and forbade me to go there, too. And I have never gone there, although by now the last of them are dead.

When my grandma came to visit her son in Belgrade, she would behave as if I didn’t exist. Once I nearly injured myself seriously because she conspicuously ignored the 2 year old in the room with her who snatched big scissors and started cutting everything in sight, including her own clothes.

Fifty and more years passed, but whenever I achieved some success, my father asked me: who did that for you? Worse yet, l also still ask myself: who made me do that? Is it really me who did anything? I credit circumstances for my success, while my failures are taken for granted. Because I was born a girl.

The Stone people, they called themselves in Herzegovina. In a village of tobacco, of cattle, in a barren land, a minor province of the Austrian empire, my granddad, my father’s father, ran an Austrian prison for Serbs.

I will never know the truth about him, that imperial jailer, my grandfather. My father claimed that he was a violent alcoholic and also very poor. My cousins, who met him and knew him, claim he never drank and was not poor at all, quite the contrary. He ran a coffee shop, he owned Austrian Biedermeier furniture and had a fine gun.

As a spy, my father was a professional deceiver, so I never bothered to undo his tales. With much effort, I managed to stop believing them blindly, rejoicing in them and forwarding them to others: manipulative laments and authoritarian education were parts of the Herzegovinian oral tradition. Objective truth didn’t exist: only songs.

I never got my black Egyptian sibling, though I did look around myself, counting the goods. In Egypt, my poverty-stricken Communist family somehow lived in a rather big fancy mansion. After kicking out King Farouk, Gamel Adbel Nasser saw fit to redistribute some royal property to Yugoslav diplomats, his fellows in the Non-Aligned Movement.

My Egyptian closet was mysteriously full of clothes. Under these new circumstances my mother discovered a talent for dressing me like a doll: making clothes for me, putting jewels on my hands and hair. As a blonde plump girl with big blue dreamy eyes, I enjoyed playing an Egyptian concubine.

I started doing homemade theatre with all those props and decor. My nurse in Cairo would join me as a peer in these games, although she was a beautiful teen who happened to be called Nefertiti. She always behaved as a slave: she never wanted to sit with us to eat at the same table. When she put me to sleep in my bedroom, she would lie on the floor.

The children playing outside my palace in the streets were dirty, and would snatch my chocolate from my plump clean hands. I would hand it over just to see them eat something they had never eaten before. Why shouldn’t us communists give everything we possessed to those children?

I fantasized that there were hordes of chained enslaved children buried in the dungeons under the desert sand. Sometimes, during the night I could hear their voices.

Why was it that everybody spoke of God when I didn’t even know what God was?

Because we were poor and communists, I suspected we could not afford a God.

One day a group of chocolate-robbing children screamed at me: you will be punished, you will be punished for not praying, for not going to the mosque.

I had a fit after that: my first mystical crisis. In the middle of the street I was struck by a strange aura visible only to me, a glass jar bell separating me from the rest of the world. I saw myself from high above as if captured by a heavenly ray. Who was I? Where did I come from?

The paralyzing light faded and I was free to move. I was frightened but also relieved by my strange experience. I dared not confess it to anybody. My parents would scold me, and I was sure my peers would not understand.

I tried to tell it to my best friend but I saw that she was frightened. God was forbidden in her communist family too — especially so because her mother was a Jewish communist living in Cairo.

At the age of 8 I lacked words to express God and the lack of it. ‘Allah…’ I vividly remember the name of God, shouted around me by beautiful thin long legged children with mouths full of molten chocolate…

From those drugged and over-scented Cairo days I can still recall my Nefertiti walking towards me, across the mobile dunes, with an icy Coca Cola on a tray. A vision of paradise. She was not allowed to carry my heavy bags full of my school books. Nor was my father’s chauffeur to drive me in a car to school, like all the other privileged foreign children. That was a class matter. I had a communist God.

Some time later, my aunt took me to the Serbian Orthodox church in Belgrade, telling me not to tell my mom about it. She said that God did exist, notwithstanding the fact that everybody denied it nowadays, and that she wanted to protect me from their sinful ignorance by baptizing me. I must have had a nervous breakdown, small as I was…I endured the priests, the singing, the beards, the water thrown on me, the secret…everything without uttering a word.

Even my mother noticed my serious sad face and my silence. She wanted to take me to the therapist, thinking he would give me some good injections. I started talking small talk, just to lead her astray from my great sin, but from that moment on I knew I had a secret. I knew I was not innocent anymore. I knew what hell meant, and what Eve and Adam did, and a irreconcilable gap between me and my mother was opened. An abyss, really. I wonder if my aunt ever told her anything about it. I never did and only after decades did I tell here why I feared big chandeliers. Because they reminded me of a church, and I thought I would be set on fire, because I sinned. I was sinful from both sides: for going there and for not going there.

As an only child, with mother a pediatrician and father a spy, I was the object of permanent observation and control, a fertile field for the implementation of 100 percent parenthood. I was scanned and ruled from my earliest days, and I knew it: they knew me inside out, and nothing was random or free. Everything was planned and implemented by a major force, called Rules, and they, the biggest loves of my life then, were my very Cosmos.

I didn’t mind their realities: I wanted to serve and please. Very rarely I would oppose anything, and if I did, it would be while abiding by the rules and using the language that they allowed me.

When my mother denied me ice-cream saying:

- Ice cream is not good for you, you will get sick and die…

I would tell her the next day when she confronted me with plain cream:

- Cream is not good for small children, they will get sick and die…

The word ‘no’ was forbidden. I remember vividly how one day I really felt sick. I didn’t want to eat the soup my parents fed me every day, twice a day. So I said to myself, I will eat this — but it won’t be me eating it.

After that firm resolution, my life started working without me. Nobody noticed much difference. I was not there, not doing whatever I seemed to be doing. Nobody cared. Things ran smoothly, better than ever. I was happy that I could manage my absence and invisibility with such magic. I felt like a witch and a saint: I thought I was building a great power in me, the power of the invisible, of a secret, of true and absolute freedom. It never occurred to me that nobody needs a freedom from living.

I was eight. We are in Venice for summer holidays, the three of us. It is my first visit to Italy, I don’t understand Italian; it is hot, August. I recall this oppressive smell and sound of the tourist city in heat. I feared the churches and sinister old buildings, the crowded shops. My parents were dragging me all over the place, buying me coconut or a watermelon to cheer me up. I was in the midst of that human theatre while an invisible wall of heat and silence grew around me.

Enlivened by Italian fashion, my mother was dressing and undressing me like a doll. I let her do it but then I asked her to buy me a doll, which I myself could dress and undress. She said:

- We have no money for that, we are poor, we are communists. It is idolatry and a waste of time to play with dolls.

My father promptly barked:

- How many people in the world are dying of hunger and she wants dolls!

I felt so ashamed that my feet sank into the melting Venice tarmac. I had a feeling that everyone had heard me and despised me. While my parents were forging decisively through the Italian crowd I put up a reluctant trudge of shame… and very soon I was lost and they were out of sight.

I felt I deserved to be abandoned. They would not bother to look for me. They didn’t in fact look for me, not at first: they couldn’t believe that a thing like that would happen to them.

Eventually I found myself surrounded by a screaming crowd. I put my hands over my ears, but that didn’t help me: they still weren’t speaking Serbian. A loud Italian woman dragged me to a police station. She had hair like a lunatic, at least according to my mother’s standards where decent women wore neatly dressed hairstyles kept taut by a net.

All in Italian, to my growing dismay. I stayed firmly silent and without tears: I don’t know how many hours went by while I sat in the station with the lunatic woman waving her hands. Then another woman with my mother’ s hairstyle, came up to me and hugged me.

- My dear child, she said, in my mother’s language. I recognized her: while my mother was dressing and undressing me in one store, she borrowed me kindly from her, claiming that she had a daughter exactly of my age. Would I care to try some things for her, too?

The woman was from Belgrade. She took me out of the police station straight to my parents’ severe reproaches. They were much more worried about my behavior inside the police station than by my disappearance in the streets of Venice.

Many years later when I worked as a model in Italy, people dressed and undressed me. They took photos. Living in Italy, I had a sense of continuity: of my invisibility and my life without me. My face was published all over the place, and yet while walking down the street nobody would notice me.

In Edgar Allen Poe’s story, “The Purloined Letter,” only that which is fully exposed can be effectively invisible. I decided to act-out, in order to hide. My worldly sorrows started with that frightened little girl, lost among alien words, unknowable people.

one of the better-known Bruce Sterlings

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