Vera Petrović: A novel

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Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine

That evening as I was sitting in the living room watching TV, she came in, went straight to her bedroom, and then came back with a bottle of brandy. She lit her cigarette and said, “Don’t you have any friends?”

“I do, but I feel that keeping your company is better than hanging out with them. They tend to be silly which is intolerable for me sometimes,” I answered.

She smiled and said, “It is nice to have a young man like yourself who enjoys listening to a woman my age!”

Then she said, “Let me continue the story of Bamir. After the pretty wife of his left, I started thinking about the best way to deal with this man. I did not want trouble, so I tried the find the wisest way to get rid of him. A couple of days after the wife’s visit, the door knocked. I opened it, and let him in.

“He said, ‘I thought you would not let me in.’

“Do you really think I am that ill-mannered that I would forget all the lovely days we shared? What hurt me was your lies and deception. Well, you managed to deceive me, but that is because I am an honest person and do not assume others are liars unless they prove to be so. Your lies have made you less of a person. We had an affair, and I will get over you sooner than you think. But how could you do such a thing to your family? I wish you had dared to tell me everything from the beginning. I would have understood, or maybe I would have drawn a line in the sand. You could have been brave as a man, but you were a coward. Being a man requires you to have integrity, honesty, and chivalry, but unfortunately, you lack all of these traits.’

“Had I told you about my marriage, you would have rejected a relationship with me!” he said.

“The issue here is not rejection or acceptance, it is you acting like a man! You should be honest no matter what! I dared to enter into such a relationship despite the pain I had to endure. Let me remind you of the famous Yugoslav saying, ‘Gold is recognized upon testing it, and man is known when he experiences pain.’ You also need to know that I would never build my happiness on the misery of others. I do not wish to tear apart a family because I am selfish. Think of this very patient woman who struggles every day to raise your children. The one thing I am certain of is that our fairy tale is over today. If you come back to this house, you will be seeking trouble. Our relationship is over! I promise you, if you come back, I will call the police! Goodbye forever!’

“I admit that I was harsh in addressing him, but I was trying to send a message. He had hurt me a lot, and I tried to make him understand. But he acted like he intended to hide the marriage from me and did not show any kind of remorse. I was desperately trying to conceal my anger and hate for him at that moment. Deception and helplessness are the two traits I despise the most. He failed to apologize. He could not justify his actions. I felt naïve and that my experience was all in vain. He could sense my rage and expected me to erupt, but my aim was to make him feel like a no-body. I tried to make it clear that our being over means nothing to me but a fresh happy start. A clean start is based on more than deception and cheating! I know I acted decisively when I brought the relationship to an end, but I was constantly suppressing my emotions. I was trying to leave a bit of dignity for him and end it with the least amount of loss. And that is my story with Bamir, the tram driver.”

Tears started to fall from her eyes, tears of pain, deception, lies, cheating. Remorse was eating her up. She attempted to conceal her tears and to smile as if she was never defeated, but her facial expressions exposed her.

I asked her, “Are you sorry for him or for you?”

“I have no regrets about my past or my future, no matter what consequences they have; however, I feel excruciating pain when I am deceived. I am a lucid person and I have no reason whatsoever to deceive or to lie to anyone. This is the point I try to stress in all my stories.”

It was getting late so she got up with teary eyes and excused herself to go to bed. She did not forget to say, “Do not worry. Tomorrow I will be better than ever, and I will be ready to tell you about my next story.”

At that time, I was not completely aware of what she said. But in time I became more attached to her stories. It could be compassion or entertainment, I had no idea, but I decided to pay close attention to her until the end of her story. Sometimes, I loved listening to her and other times, I found myself analyzing her personality and her hidden traits. The more I attempted to do so, the more ambiguous she became for me. I just hit a dead end.

The next day, things went as usual. She came home from work exhausted and told me that she could no longer take her job at the bank. There was so much pressure with and without reason. She was so fed up. She had little to eat and sat down to watch TV, but her mind was occupied. She did not, however, forget to bring the brandy with her right after dinner. As she lit her cigarette, her thoughts were coming together like a volcano which was about to erupt. Clearly, something was worrying her. In an attempt to ease the pressure, I asked her, “Why are you so upset and absent-minded today? Is there anything wrong?”

“I feel that I have changed and have become more sensitive. I easily lose my temper and sometimes fail to control my reactions. The manager today wanted to blame me for a mistake one of my colleagues made. I tried to make it clear that it was not my fault, but he was not interested in what I had to say. He was just listening to the person who committed the mistake. This pissed me off and infuriated me. Then he asked me to step into his office to talk. He started off badly and said that he would not allow me to disrespect him in front of his employees.

He threatened me and yelled really loudly, ‘How dare you address me in such a manner in front of others! How do you justify such a mistake by saying it is not your fault! I will never allow anyone to talk to me like that as long as I am in charge! Next time you will shut up and listen! Do not try to justify yourself or explain yourself in front of others because this will make them disrespect me! Do you understand? Do you want me to repeat myself?’

“I will never allow anyone to hold me responsible for the mistakes of others. Rest assured, I can defend myself! If you address me in such a manner next time, you will hear a response that will certainly upset you a lot! I am warning you! No one scares me and no one in this institution works as hard as I do! I am your most productive employee! Each one should know their value in this institution!’

“He looked at me in surprise and said, ‘I really apologize if I offended you. I was in a rage. Please accept my sincere apology if I crossed the line.’

He said as if the devil swallowed his tongue: “thank you.” Then he went silent again

I asked him in surprise: “is that all you could say?”

He said in a defeated tone: “what should I say! I have no justifications!”

“Be a man and apologize!” he said

He said with remorse: “no apology could make up nor justify what took place!”

I said: “you admit then that you did wrong!”

“Totally, and I apologize! I do not deserve you at all!”

I answered him sharply: “Thank you, we are done here!”

Vera added, “His apology took me by surprise. I thought, is he a coward? Or has he realized that it was wrong to hold me responsible for the mistakes of others? Did he come to understand my feelings? What made him apologize? However, deep inside, I was thrilled I was able to draw a line in the sand. This made me confident that I could control anyone who tries to cross the line! Except for a lame apology, which I extracted out! His apologetic words were scarce and he put me in a very embarrassing situation!”

She poured another glass of brandy and lit her second cigarette. Then she added, “I have had enough of such things. Sometimes I try not to mind them, but I just cannot, due to my nature.”

Suddenly, she let out a hysterical laugh. I have always thought of her as a balanced woman who was educated, and who used proper etiquette in all aspects of life, but this laugh told a lot about the struggle inside--waves of helplessness, love, hate, revenge, as well as grudges. Such laughs tell about the traumas this person encountered in her life. I read in some magazine that it could be a defense mechanism of the brain towards everything it experiences, especially with pressure beyond control.

Let me stop talking about Miss Vera for a moment. I recall I was traveling by train from Belgrade to Trieste. This city was a Slovenian city in Yugoslavia, but time changed and things happen. It became an Austrian City but it was a significant one, for it was the only port for Austria on the Mediterranean. Thus the name of the city changed from Triste (Slovenian) to Trieste (Italian). Europeans tell a lot about their history by changing the names of their cities. After 1945 Breslow became a German city and Wrocław became a Polish city, in addition to Kuluszvár which became a Hungarian city and Cluj, a Romanian city. Going back to Triste, in history, it did not exist! Trieste got caught up between the claws of the Heisenberg eagle in 1382 and stayed there happy until 1918. Many German and Austrian tourists, still visit the city and keep them whenever they pronounce its name. It is their way of stressing that the city belonged to them in the past. Eventually, Italians lived with Germans and Austrian for centuries!

Why am I talking about Trieste now? Every year, I used to go in August to this beautiful depressed city to shop for clothing. It was a free trade area, which meant that a pair of jeans for $80 would be sold in Triste for more or less $20! I also used to buy branded sneakers and T-shirts. We used to leave from Belgrade on the 8 pm train to arrive in Triste at more or less 8 am. It all depended on how many stations the train stops at. We would rush to the city, grab some sandwiches and fizzy drinks, and then head to the market to shop for clothing. We always went in groups of threes or twos! Many times, we visited Triste, we only stayed in the city only once and for one night, due to what happened with a friend!

The second reason I am talking about Triste is the laughs of Vera. One day, my friend and I headed to Trista, after an hour of the train departing the platform, one person with his friend (Yugoslavs, and probably Serbian) started recalling some incidents. My senior student friend who mastered Serbian- Croatian and understood what they spoke of. We spoke in our mother tongue, thus they spoke at liberty. After about thirty minutes, four people entered the wagon, and they spoke in French. I speak French fairly, and Serbian- Croatian perfectly and could distinguish those guys as Algerian. One Yugoslav guy started mocking them and my friend and I totally understood these jokes, which were far from being funny at all. The funny thing though is that he used to listen to his friend’s laugh and found it amusing. His laugh reminded me of Vera!

They told me later about the story behind that laugh! We kept to ourselves and whenever the Serbian guy would laugh everyone would turn and look at him. His friend asked if I understood their language and I nodded with yes. He said: “do you like our jokes?” and I answered that I did not pay attention to what they talked about. He shook his head unconvinced and his friend placed his head on the window then slept because he had too much alcohol. I was bored, so I went out to the hallway and opened the window to see all those lights and houses, and suddenly, the Serbian guy was right behind me, he stood at the window next to me watching the scenes. He started talking: “I noticed that everyone was staring at my friend whenever he laughed!” I answered: “well, not me or my friend, we did not wish to embarrass him!”

“Never mind, it does not bother me or him!” then he added, “Do you know why he laughs that way?”

“Not really, it might be his characteristic, each person laughs differently!”

“That is right, but I have known him since primary school, we finished high school together, then none of us contacted the other for a while. After around thirty years, we met again and decided to recall our friendship. At the beginning, his laughs were driving me crazy! I wandered so many times about them, yet never asked him about the reason to avoid hurting his feelings! One day, he inquired why I never ask about his laughs which provoke people wherever we go, and sometimes cause clashes with others! Because I love him I said they do not bother me. I stopped him at this point and asked: “so what could the reason be?”

He rendered the story as told by his friend: “I lived in England for some time and I have been really successful and made a wealth! I loved horse racing and used to watch it all the time! One day, an English friend, who worked with me talked to me about horse race betting and how some people make millions out of it! Then he suggested I should try it out! At first, I was reluctant, because I knew betting ends badly! Then he told me that all my predictions have been true and that I should it to make some money! My argument is that it was only a hunch, but he insisted. I told him I will think about it and left! One day, I was ecstatic about making some money from a project I was working on, therefore, I decided to go watch a horse race. The race started and I told my friend which horse will win and it happened! My friend went mad and asked me to show up next week to bet and watch together. I agreed. Then one day, I had a phone call from my uncle Branko Vasić in Yugoslavia asking me to come to Belgrade as soon as I could, so I called my English friend, Robinson Cox, and told him. He drove me to Heathrow airport and was keen to know when I will be back for the horse race betting!

I told him I had no idea how much I will stay in Belgrade, nor the reason for my uncle’s call! I arrived in Belgrade Airport and my eldest uncle, Mr. Branko Vasić, was waiting for me. He did not seem alright and I thought, there must be something serious going on! I asked him how he was and he started crying and saying that things were not alright at all! He then told me that my father, mother, and brother were all killed in a car accident the day before!

I felt dizzy at the shocking news and that I have been cut by a sharp knife! I could barely speak, my tongue was numb, my tears started pouring down and my temperature rose all of a sudden, my eye was twitching and I laughed my first hysterical laugh! No one tried to stop me! My uncle took me by hand to the car, we did not speak at all on the road. It was a silent sad movie indeed!

When I saw all my relatives, with that gloomy look on their faces, I decided to be the strong fellow who consoles others! I kissed them all and this is a Yugoslav habit! Three kisses for each of them. My family was buried the next day and I went home alone! Zdravko, my brother, used to tease me whenever I returned home and ask me to take him with me! I told him it is difficult for him to leave mom and dad on their own. We used to laugh a lot and he used to ask me about English girls, and ask whether Yugoslav girls are prettier or British are! At night, I used to place my head over my mother’s chest and move from reality to fantasy. I dreamed of my mother as she played with my hair and my father’s voice would be the only thing to interrupt my dreams! My father’s voice was music to my ears. He would start talking about how big I got and that I still put my cheek on my mom’s chest like a baby! They are all gone! I blamed myself for staying away for too long! Had I been in Belgrade, none of this would have happened! I could not stay at my family’s house! Every corner reminded me of them!

I called uncle Branko and asked him to drive me to the airport. He was astonished and asked me to stay for a couple of days, but I was decisive and told him if I stay, I will commit suicide or go mad! He came and picked me up and asked me what I intended to do with the family’s house. I said that I will be like an immigrant bird, which will eventually return home! And I confirmed that I intended to finalize my work in England and come back! I lost my small family but not my big one! I told him that, I will contact him once I am ready to come back. I said goodbye and got on the plane, but I was confused. It could be hell what I am returning to! Or heaven! I was not sure! I drank in a crazy way that the lady next to me asked to be relocated in a different seat! I arrived at Heathrow in a mess. Robinson Cox was waiting for me so he offered his deep condolences. I told him life is but a train where some people ride to arrive at the next station and others get out to arrive at their destinations! He took me and offered to stay with me but I needed some sleep and rest! He promised to call and check on me later, so I thanked him. After he left, I threw myself on the bed and was trying to put what happened behind me! But I could not. The memories were eating me alive! The problem is not death but what it does to someone after it happens! I cannot speak or see my loved ones anymore! They are all painful memory!

After three days, Robinson Cox came and took me to a nearby pub, we drank together and I entered a state of sorrow and sadness, I cried, laughed and exposed myself in a pub full of people. I laughed my hysterical laugh again! The peoples’ looks were embarrassing me, but my friend tried to explain to them that I was not doing well! We went out to a restaurant next door. We had some food which I could barely taste, then sat for a while and went out. He dropped me home and I started thinking about my life and how it could be! I decided to go back to work and burry my sorrows, otherwise, they will bury me! I needed to move forward! Days passed by and they were so heavy to me! They were bitter!

One day, Robinson Cox called me and asked me to go with him to the horse race betting in the weekend, I asked him why he insisted and he said that he wanted to become rich. I offered to tell him the Emperor’s story, and he agreed. I started: “a long time ago, there was a knight at the castle, the emperor asked him, to ride his horse as fast as he could and once he stops, all lands he had run on would be his. The knight ran and ran and never stopped, He was extremely tired, hungry, and thirsty, he could barely move. He knew that he was dying! Then he asked himself, why did I push myself so hard? Why did I want to cover the largest area possible? I am dying now and I need only a small space to be buried in then he passed away! This is life! This is the story of the emperor, what good could money be after we die? Should we end our lives for the sake of money?

The English man liked the story but commented that the love of money will always be part of the human being. So I answered that not for everyone! He then asked me again if I wished to come to the horse race, and I agreed. I needed to break the cycle I am living! On the horse race day, we met there and I recommended he should bet on a certain horse, which actually won. He won some money and was so happy. He suggested I should bet and I told him that I was in a bad mood. Next week, we did three kinds of betting, the winning horse, and on the top three winners, in addition to betting on the second and first winner. I was quite knowledgeable of such kinds of betting, thus I won a large amount of money and from this moment on, money started to flow into my life, and I started to drink heavily so I neglected my work and started waiting impatiently for the weekend to start gambling and betting. It was an addiction and one day as I was with a friend I met during the betting, one person said that next weekend will mark the highest win and that he knew which the winning horse! I asked him how that could be right and whether such races are manipulated, so he tried to avoid answering the question and said that he was %100 of the winning horses for next weekend! He even wrote their names on a piece of paper and handed it to me! He also said that he is aware of how knowledgeable I was informed of such races but this paper is just to double-check the names! The horses he referred to did win! And it was a surprise to me, every single winning horse was written on the paper!

The next week, I tried to reach him but without success. I called Robinson Cox about that man, and he told me he got killed in a car accident! I thought it might be a foul play accident! The week after, I decided to gamble with all the money I had, for once and then return to Yugoslavia! I told Cox about that, and he begged me not to because it is a great risk but I insisted and told him it is a onetime thing, and then I will return home! He inquired why I would want to go back when all of my family is gone, but I explained that my big family is there. On the race day, I was confused and reluctant, Robinson did not show up and I decided to bet in more than one type. Things started to take a different turn, and I lost all my money by the end of the race. I laughed at this moment my second hysterical laugh! The first laugh marked my loss of family and the second the loss of all my money!”

At this point I remembered Vera’s laughs which are like lightning, they come without alert and unannounced! It tells you to prepare for a thunderstorm!

This person was very nice as he told me the story of his friend.

He continued: “he betted on everything he owns, stores, house, and even his last horse, which was the last thing he owned. Then he started laughing like this since then!”

We decided to get back into our seats for we got tired standing at the window, I returned to my friend and he returned to him, and within a few moments, everyone was fast asleep. We arrived in Trista and bought what we needed, we wandered around the city and returned to the train station to go back to Belgrade.

It got late, so she stood up trying to collect her tears which burst into fountains on her cheeks. She dragged her defeated self in a state of denial and suddenly she smiled, the usual smile that expresses her plight. She excused to go to bed and told me not to worry because tomorrow, she will be at her best. She also promised to tell me the second story!

She was silent for a while, and then said, “I will tell you the story.” She had another moment of silence as if she was looking inside her box of memories. She was obviously digging amongst all the characters that have passed in her life and left scars. I thought this box only needed some exposure. The details of her pain needed to be revealed, otherwise, they would always be a burden that caused her agony.

“Next to the house I live in, there is a farmers’ market. I used to go there quite often to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. I have always preferred fresh groceries to canned food. There was a nice, well-built guy with big muscles and a sweet smile. His name was Zoran. Whenever I went to the farmers’ market, he would rejoice and say, ‘Here comes the princess! How are you, princess? You elegant lady, and well-mannered one?’

“He always used to flirt with me, but never in an annoying manner. On the contrary, he was always helpful, especially with things he did not have in his store. He would take the trouble of finding them from another nearby store. He would just ask what I needed and the quantity. He was great and very friendly. I liked him and respected him as a young man who was determined to secure a decent life. People like him belong to the university rather than the farmers’ market. I am not trying to underestimate people who work in a farmers’ market, but I am trying to say that each one has a certain destiny in achieving his objectives.

“Days passed by and my relationship with this young man became stronger. Whenever I go to the market, I would notice some of the other employees who would wink and look at each other with subtle smiles and laughs. I asked him about that one day. ‘Why do your colleagues smile and wink at each other in such a manner whenever they see me?’

“He answered, ‘They are peasants, princess! They are being themselves. They are only villagers. They have no idea how to behave in the city. Most of them appear to be rude, but deep inside they are kind-hearted. They hold no grudges nor hate for anybody. However, they are stingy, you can barely take one dinar (the Yugoslav currency) from them. They support you in words rather than money.’

“In fact, I laughed at this accurate description, and said it applied accurately to those who work in such markets, and he objected.

“Just to note that I am not one of them. I consider myself a generous person. I do not care about money. I help so many people, even those who took advantage of me and took my money. They came back to me and asked for more, and I was happy to help even though they do not pay me back. I just cannot say no to someone in need,’ he said.

“I was surprised by what he said, and it made me appreciate him more. I even asked myself, do such people still exist?! However, he then asked me an unexpected question, ‘Are you city people stingy?’

“Why would you say that?’ I asked.

“He said, ‘I have been working in this market for almost five years, and I know many people here. You happen to be one of them. But, unfortunately, none of them has invited me to his house so far, although I know their addresses. Sometimes I deliver their groceries because they are too heavy for them to carry, or because they need me to deliver them when it is convenient for them time-wise.’

“I said, ‘Well, then, I invite you to have a cup of coffee at my place. How do you like that?’

“He answered with a look of surprise, and said, ‘Are you serious?’

“Totally serious,’ I said.

“When can I come over?’ he asked.

“Whenever it suits you!’ I said.

“Can we have coffee tomorrow morning before I go to work? Would that be convenient for you?’ he asked.

“Sure it is. See you then!’ I said.

“The next morning, Zoran rang the doorbell. I opened the door and asked him to come in. He sat in the living room while I made him some coffee. He looked at me for a while, took a deep breath, and said, ‘Your house is beautiful. All the details tell of your elegance. You really have fine taste, and it so tidy and neat! The aroma in the house is impressive!’

“Are you flattering me, Zoran?’ I asked.

“Zoran answered, ‘Not at all! It is the truth!’

“I said, ‘Thank you for your kind words. Thank you.’

“I poured the coffee and its aroma filled the air. He said in joy, ‘I have not had such great coffee since my mother’s death.’ He said it with a sense of joy mixed with bitterness.

“Do you mean drinking coffee made according to your taste?’ I asked.

“Actually, I mean that since my mother passed away, coffee does not taste the same. When I get invited somewhere and taste good coffee, it takes me back to my mother’s. For me, my mother’s coffee was more than a drink. It was coffee flavored with love, affection, care, integrity, and honesty. Imagine all those added to a drink. It is bound to taste different.’

“Of course! That is unbeatable coffee.’ I answered.

“He had his coffee, thanked me, and excused himself, saying, ‘I really have to go now. Morning sales are the highest, but may I ask something?’

“Sure, please do.’ I said.

“May I visit you in the evening? I get ready for work in the morning, so I’m free in the evening until dawn. I really have no engagements at this time,’ he explained.

“We agreed, and he left. That evening the doorbell rang, and it was Zoran. I asked him to come in and asked if he had had dinner.

“Not really, but I had a late lunch,’ he answered.

“I have prepared some chicken and potatoes with rice. You need to try it and tell me what you think!’

“We started talking about politics, the economy, and society. I had questioned his ability to converse about such topics, but I was wrong. He dazzled me with his vast knowledge. He even warned me, ‘You know, this country is heading to hell.’

“How so?’ I asked.

“He replied, ‘When you talk to people, you can tell they are not happy. There is a general state of dissatisfaction in the country. People fear authority and this makes them hold their tongues from speaking out. They avoid expressing their reality, their lives, and their situations which worsen every day.’

“As I was listening to what he said, I was amazed. This is what I had been thinking about for a while now, but when such thoughts get through even to young men who work at farmers’ markets, it only means that things have really gotten out of control.

“He asked, ‘What are you thinking about?’

“I said, ‘You know, Zoran, your words took me back ten years. To be honest, I thought only certain classes would share this fear. I did not imagine that people who work at the farmers’ market would come to such a conclusion!’

“He looked at me with a look of blame and said, ‘Oh, so only you educated, sophisticated people, politicians, and those who have a deep insight, can comprehend and read the situation, but the rest of the people like us are only riff-raff and ignorant people who starve and are not cultured. Being hungry, my lady needs no minds or brains. An empty stomach does not need the education to sense the bad situation around!’

I answered: “listen Zoran, I will tell you a story my school teacher told me a long time ago, and I think it was entitled “the madness lake”. The story talks about a prince who ruled over a kingdom where all residents used to drink from the river. A fairy came and cast a spell over the river, so all people became mad. Whenever the prince would wander around the kingdom, people would call him a madman! This pissed the prince off, but the prince had a special fountain to drink from and was not affected like the people! He called his first minister and advisor and asked him about what he should do! So the first minister advised him if he wished to remain prince to this kingdom, he will need to drink from the river.

What I am trying to explain here is that there is no difference between barbarians and intellectuals, or between scientists and ignorant people. We are all in one big boat when it starts to drown, a scientist would not have a different fate for that of an ignorant, a poor from that of a rich, a prince from a layman. We will all be in one boat facing the same destiny! Is that clear?”

“Very clear! This story cuts it short!

I said: “Just like coffee?”

“I prepared the food and served it, and invited him to eat. When he sat at the table, he said, ‘This is the first dinner table at which I have sat since my mother passed away. All dining tables, whether for breakfast or dinner, remind me of her!’

“True, just like coffee, and so many other things!’

“He ate with a great appetite and said, ‘You cook like a professional! In addition to your beauty, elegance, high manners, and respect, you are, I can say, a great cook!’

“I thanked him and added, ‘but you need to eat it all! I do not like to keep it in the fridge.’

“I will, and in case anything is left, I will be happy to take it home. Does that suit you?’ he said.

“I laughed and said, ‘Sure it does!’

“After dinner, we went to the living room and continued our conversation. I opened the bottle Zoran had brought with him, and it was Rakia, a drink I never drink! I have tested it twice in my life and it is not for me.

“Please do not get me wrong, but I cannot share this bottle with you. I will bring my kind of drink.’ So I brought the brandy and poured some for both of us.

“At that moment, he said, ‘you dislike the peasants’ drink. You only drink what represents your class and your culture!’

“Please do not misunderstand me! I have been drinking brandy since my twenties and it does not make me dizzy. I enjoy it unlike other drinks, which are really strong and cause me a headache!’

“He looked at me and asked, ‘What is your story, princess? Why is there a touch of sorrow on your face at all times? Tears are waiting to jump out of the windows of your eyes. It seems like you are about to leave but you are waiting in the same station!’ he said.

“Not only are you a politician, a sociologist, a peasant, and a thinker, but you are a poet and a philosopher as well!’ I commented.

“I am not a poet nor a philosopher. These are words and sensations which come out every now and then.’

“He asked again, ‘What is your story, princess?’

“What story? There is no such thing. All I can say is that I used to live close to Belgrade and came here to do my university degree. After a couple of complicated circumstances and some trouble with my family, I came here to settle down and got a job right after graduation. My life is simple and straightforward. There is nothing mysterious about it!’ I said.

“This simplicity is mysterious on its own! I will not bother you with my questions anymore. Each of us has his secrets and tortures. Some choose to let it out and others choose to keep it to himself. The latter is convinced that revealing their secrets will not help them, but will cause others to gloat over him. So why bother to speak out and tell others about them? These are their secrets and they would not wish anyone to know about them.’

“I looked at him and said, ‘This is a good analysis. I totally agree.’

“Then I asked him, ‘How about you, you cultural peasant?’

“He said, ’In fact, I am a person who does not like to conceal anything because I feel that sharing my problems with others can sometimes help solve them rather than suffer alone. My story, in short, is that my mother was a traditional housewife, like most women in villages. She was loving and kind to her spouse and children. She used to do her work perfectly. My father was a hard-working person, but he used to complain a lot and he was always angry.

He loved us all so much. I have two sisters, and we three loved our parents dearly. But we were always afraid that they would separate. Whenever they fought, we used to leave the house. We feared that we would end up with separated parents.

“One day, my mother complained about stomach pain. It got worse over time until she passed out one day. My father and his brother, who lived next door, rushed her to the doctor. They did extensive medical examinations on her. After a while, my father came home blue. He looked absent-minded, and even though my sister prepared food for him, he could not eat. He asked for a bottle of alcohol and started drinking. After a while, he asked us all to come to the living room and said, ‘Your mother is very sick and we discovered her illness late.’

“I was the closest to my mother. Three days later, the hospital called my father and told him that my mother passed away. We were devastated and felt bitterness in the house as children without a mother. In time we got used to life without our mother, and so did my father.

“Time passed by, and we grew up into young men. My father has modest health. My brother got married, and so did my sister, but she lives close to our father and helps him with the house. Currently, I am the only one who lives with him. However, I only get to see him twice a week because of my workload, if one assumes such a job gives days off!’

“So why don’t you get married?’ I asked.

“I cannot afford to be independent or to have the responsibility of a family for the time being. Besides, who would take me as a husband?’

“Why wouldn’t any lady take you as a husband? You are perfect!’ I answered.

“Well, I don’t know about that!’ he said as he laughed cynically. ‘Let us change the subject. Are you in a relationship?’ he asked.

“I replied, ‘Why do you ask? Out of curiosity?’

“He said, ’No. Let me tell you a story I experienced. One day, I was talking to a lady at the market and out of the blue, her husband came and smacked me on the head, so I fainted. When I regained consciousness, he was very apologetic and said, ‘I thought you were having an affair with my wife. Some people told me that she is having an affair with someone in this market, and when I saw her talking to you in a friendly way, I got really jealous and I hit you. However, one of your colleagues told me that I smacked the wrong man and that her lover is a different person. Your colleague pointed to the man and told me that I had hit you by mistake! So I am asking you for forgiveness, please!’

“I agreed, and since that moment, we became friends. He said that I am a good person and respectful. Then he thanked me and left. Do you understand now why I need to ask if you are in a relationship? It is because I would not like to be smacked again!’

“It was almost midnight and he excused himself to leave. He left gracefully. I did not go to the farmers’ market for nearly three weeks for different reasons. On Sunday, I woke up early and the weather was beautiful, therefore I decided to go to the farmers’ market. I looked at the spot he usually stands in. His shop was closed for some reason. I got curious so I asked the man at the store next to his, and he said nobody knows, but we are just hoping it is nothing serious. In fact, I was disappointed to not find him that day. I bought some things and went home.

“One day, as I was sitting at home, the doorbell rang. It was almost half-past seven in the evening. It was Zoran. I opened the door quickly because I was eager to see him and know where he had been. He came in and threw himself on the seat. Sorrow was the first thing you could see on his face.

His eyes wandered as if lost, and his beard was so unruly, like tree branches with touches of greys here and there.

“I asked, ‘I went to the market but could not find you. I asked your colleagues but they knew nothing. What happened?’

“He let out a deep sigh and seemed burdened with this world and its trouble. He said, ‘In fact, my father was very sick and was admitted to the hospital. I had to keep his company until he got better. I told him that I had to go back to work, but he begged me in bitterness to stay by his side because he was dying. He said that he speaks to the angel of death every day and he is sure his days are few. He needed to be ready for his next journey.’

“He added, ’When he told me this, it really touched my heart. I decided to stay by his side and go back to work when he allowed it. Yesterday, all of a sudden, he woke up from his nap and said, ‘Zoran! You need to go back to work. I feel much better and I barely need someone to take care of me anymore. Get back to your work. You make a living out of it, son, and so I did!’

“As soon as I left the hospital, I came to your house. I do not know what made me do so, but as I was on the way to your house, a breeze of hope and comfort came over me, of tranquility and relaxation. It felt like I was going to the kingdom of peacefulness and happiness. I was walking without knowing where my feet were taking me. I rang the bell to your lovely mansion, and when the princess herself opened the door, I saw the moon! I lost words!’

“I laughed at his expressions and said, ‘Would you like to eat?’

“He answered, ‘In fact, I am starving. I haven’t had a bite to eat since this morning, and I could use some food. The only thing I had today was a cup of coffee.’

“Great, I will make dinner then!” I said.

“As I was preparing dinner, I asked him to come into the kitchen. He started eating with a great appetite. He asked for an alcoholic drink, and I answered, ‘I only have brandy.’

“That is fine.’

“He finished eating and sat on the floor, then took a cigarette and lit it. He inhaled deeply. He then puffed it out as if he was puffing out all the burdens of life and the surrounding circumstances which were trying to get him. He was trying to escape his reality and enter into another reality, which was unknown to him.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Why are you so kind to me?’

“What do you mean?’ I answered.

“You have me over at your house, you prepare food for me, you listen to my problems. Why?’ he asked.

“You barely know me. I treat everyone this way and everybody knows that. When I run into someone who needs help, I offer it and do not hesitate to host this person at my place without question. This is my nature. Sometimes trusting others can make them cross the line, and then I would have to put an end to having them in my life,’ I said.

“But you did not answer my question! Why are you so kind to me?’ he said.

“I would say it over and over again. I am this way with everybody. I respect every human being who needs help. When I befriend someone, I try to exert my best to help him. A friend would listen to me, feel me, and be next to me when I need him, even if he is away! He would help me when I am in need and support me in times of difficulty. This is a friend in my perception. I see you as a friend, only a friend.’

“He looked at me and sarcastically said, ‘I want you to be more than a friend!’

“I answered, ‘What do you mean?’

“He said, ‘I want you to be my mistress so that I can make love to you whenever I feel like it and anywhere I wish!’

“I looked at him, disappointed, and said, ‘It is not your fault. It is mine indeed. I tend to trust others. A while ago, I told you that my trust is granted mistakenly sometimes. I allowed you into my house because I saw chivalry in you, a decent human being, or so I thought. But for you to think of me this way is unfortunate!’

“I felt that alcohol was starting to dominate his actions. He became a bit off balance, and based on my past experience, he would then try to rape me. This is exactly what happened. When I tried to take to bottle away, he held it with the other hand and said, ‘I am not done yet!’ I asked him to stop drinking and leave because I knew how it would end.

“He laughed hysterically and said, ‘I will have sex with you, and then leave!’

“I said confidently and firmly, ‘You will not touch me! If I want to have sex with you or anyone else, it must be willingly, not against my will! I am not easily intimidated, and you do not scare me! I respect you, Zoran! I can call the police and put you in jail. Do not cross the line!’

“He was obviously surprised. When he stood up, I was sure he would attack me. But to my surprise, he backed off and put the bottle of brandy down, and said, ‘I am sorry! I am not like this! I am a good person!’ He instantly left.

“After two weeks, I went to the farmers’ market, and his store was closed. I asked his colleague, and he said that Zoran had not opened his shop for two weeks in a row! Then he agreed with the owner of the shop and terminated the lease agreement.

“I bought my groceries and went home. I started thinking of this young man, a victim of circumstances. Sometimes life is stronger than us and a human being turns into an animal who cannot control his actions. Can I forgive him for what he did? Can I just forget? Who is the victim, he or I?”

She added “I should not think about all of this! I escaped a situation which could have gone badly! This is my story with Zoran.”

It was almost midnight, so she said with a look of agony on her face, “Tomorrow I will tell you the third story. I hope such stories can be useful for you in your personal life.” Then we each went to bed.

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