Vera Petrović: A novel

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Chapter Ten

Chapter Ten

The next day, after my university classes, I sat thinking of this lady and the events she lived and experienced. However, I decided it sufficed to listen or just be a good listener. I stayed home and tried to acquaint myself with the book collection in her bookcase. There were highly sophisticated books in different fields. I found political and economic books, novels, short stories, in addition to books in history, psychology, sociology, and others.

As I was exploring the books, Vera came in with some bags, evidence that she had gone shopping. She changed her clothes and prepared Pljeskavica, a meal similar to hamburgers. She served them with her favorite salads and asked if I cared for a sandwich. I told her I had already eaten, so she said, “I hope you enjoyed it.”

After a while, she finished her meal and came back with her drink. As usual, she lit a cigarette and puffed in the air like an erupting volcano, and in her heart, there was a lot of lava!

“How was your day?” she asked.

“It was a usual day. Nothing new.” I answered.

She was watching TV, pouring her first glass, when the picture of a political figure appeared on TV. She said, “Are you familiar with this psycho?”

“Yes, it is Mr. Slobodan Milošević. A prominent political figure in the eighties. That is why his name was familiar for me but as for the others, I did not know their names.”

She said, “This person will get us all killed for his personal interests! I will not speak about him now. I will leave him for later.”

I nodded my head in consent because I heard her speak about him on a couple of occasions in the same manner. She sat up straight and puffed her cigarette again with a deep sigh and took a long sip out of her glass. “Now I will tell the Story of Kiro.”

“This young man was a regular customer at the coffee shop next door. His facial expressions gave him away. He had black hair, small black eyes, a tanned complexion, and he was about 165 cm tall. He was skinny, and this made him feel and act like a non-Serbian. He used to come to the coffee shop with his sister’s boyfriend, Dragan, but when Kiro came alone, I used to be nice to him. He used to come to sit at my table and he loved to drink beer. He came from a Macedonian family and came to Belgrade after his uncle encouraged him to. His uncle came back from Australia and had made a fortune, so he decided to establish a business in Belgrade. He asked his brother, Kiro’s father, to come to Belgrade with his family and settle down in Belgrade. Kiro’s father worked with his brother, and Kiro got a job in a big company in Belgrade.

Kiro used to talk to me for a long time about all the conventions and traditions in Macedonia, and how extended families live there. This means that grandparents, parents, and grandsons with their wives and children all live together. This makes life easier for all of them. Usually, adult sons and daughters stay with their parents until they get married. If parents can afford the expenses, they would buy their son a house or build him a new house as a gift, so that he can live with his new family close to his parents. This way the son would be able to take care of his parents. Daughters, on the other hand, would move in with their husbands and in-law’s. These habits tell a lot about the family bonds in society.

I saw great kindness in Kiro, he was generous and well mannered. We started to have a friendly relationship and I liked him more and more on time. He felt at ease when I entered the coffee shop. It could have been because I was nice to him. I was older than he was. He was in his thirties, around thirty-three or thirty-four. We started to get closer to each other, and one day, he invited me to dinner. I said, ‘You can buy me dinner in this coffee shop if you wish.’

“He refused, ‘I feel that people look at us in a weird way here.’

“Why would they? Everyone lives in peace in Belgrade and people do not have such thoughts. If you want to go somewhere else, I don’t mind.’

“After around two weeks, he invited me to a restaurant. It was a Sunday and the weather was so beautiful. The surprise was that the restaurant was Macedonian. He politely said, ‘I get to select the restaurant and the food because this is the first time you have had Macedonian food.’

“I laughed and said, ‘Food all over Yugoslavia is similar, but I do not mind trying the Macedonian food.’

“The waiter came and he ordered Kebabi, which is similar to sausages. It is minced meat like sausages, with onions, and Vegeta, which is a Macedonian herbal mix. Red chili pepper added flavor to this tasty dish. It is usually served with bread and Kajmac, which is like sour cream. As for the drink, he ordered Mastika, a strong alcoholic drink.

“Do you like it, or shall I order you another drink?’

“It is fine! A change would be good. I usually drink local brandy.’

“We started talking about a lot of things when we were interrupted by the waiter. The food was amazing, and so was the drink, although it was a bit stronger than what I was used to.

“How about some Macedonian dessert?’ he asked.

“I am not much into dessert, but I will have some,’ I said.

“He ordered me a Macedonian dessert called an éclair.

“So, what do you think about Macedonian food, drinks, and dessert?’

“It is great. I enjoyed it a lot. It was way better than I expected!’ I said.

“Then, he surprised me with a question, ‘Are you in a relationship?’

“No, not at all. Why do you ask such a question?’ I answered.

“I have liked you since the first time I set my eyes on you. I will say it, in short, you know that according to the Macedonian traditions, this means marriage!’ he said.

“Oh my Lord! Do you propose to me on our first date? You only know me through our meetings at the coffee shop. You barely know me, nor do I know you well.’ I replied.

“I have been watching you. You are a loving respectful person and you treat everyone the same. I feel that your way of dealing with me tells a lot about your lovely personality. Therefore, I was just waiting for the right moment to propose to you,’ he answered.

“Kiro, I need to ask you a question. You need to answer me frankly. Have you thought of the age difference between us?’ I said.

“The age difference between us is only a couple of years!’ he said.

“Have you thought of me, whether I wish to get married or not? Do I want to marry you? Have you asked yourself these questions?’ I asked.

“We can give ourselves a chance to get to know each other better, but I hope this does not take long. I will talk to my family about this marriage proposal, for I need to know what they think as soon as possible,’ he answered.

“I laughed hard. He was looking at me in surprise and said, ‘What makes you laugh?’

“Nothing! Well, I saw everything coming but this! I never expected someone to propose this fast and at this age!’ I answered.

“Then, we started talking about different things.

Then I asked him about a Macedonian story, I once heard by my grandmother, “have you heard about the three sisters’ story? It shows that justice does not die!”

“Seriously, you know such Macedonian stories?”

“Why wouldn’t I, all Yugoslavs share one tradition!”

He sounded like a child and said: “can you tell me the story, I will tell it to my family later!”

“Sure, why not! The story talks about justice and how it prevails in the end! The story of the three sisters. Each of these sisters wanted to be the prettiest so they went to the sun and asked it, which of us is the prettiest? And the sun answered that the youngest was the prettiest! The two elder sisters were not happy with the answer therefore, they asked the sun three times and it gave the same answer every time. The elder sisters agreed to kill their youngest sister, so they cooked the wheat and made bread to take it to their mother’s grave. Then they told their youngest sister, let us go visit mom’s grave, and take the wheat and bread with us!

She had no idea what they were planning to do. When they got midway, they stopped and said, oh sister, we forgot the candles, we need to go back to get them, why don’t you wait here until we come back! They went and left their sister in the wilderness, it got dark, she waited and waited but they did not show up… they left her for the wild animals. When it got dark, a sheep passed by so she gave it some wheat, the sheep ate and went away. She feared for herself from wild animals so she decided to follow the sheep.

The sheep belonged to nine brothers, and when the sheep returned home they were still at work. The house was a mess and dirty, so she cleaned it, cooked dinner, and hid behind the door. It was late when they arrived from work and when they saw what she did, they were surprised, but she stayed behind the door. The next morning, the eldest brother said that the person who cooked the food might do this today as well, so he decided to stay and watch. He waited all day, and when it got dark, he fell asleep, so the girl went out, cleaned the house, cooked dinner, and hid behind the door again. Once he woke up, he was surprised that the food was ready and the house was clean. The next morning, the second brother decided to stay home and watch. All brothers did the same but they were not able to know who that person is! Finally, it was the turn of the youngest brother. He said to himself: how could my brothers wait and see nothing! I will find out this time! He watched and waited but the girl did not go out. Finally, he pretended to be asleep, and the girl went out to start her daily chores. He jumped out of bed and took her hand. You must be our sister, you have done a lot of good things for us!

Later that evening, the brothers came back and were extremely happy to see the girl. Since then they treated her like a sister, they bought her two pigeons to keep her company during the day. When the two elder sisters found out that their youngest sister is still alive and is living happily, they became more jealous than ever! So they decided to poison her and sent an old woman with local poisoned bread to give to her. The old lady took the bread to the little sister and the girl broke the bread loaf and the pigeons started eating the bread but they soon died and the girl knew the bread was poisoned! Later that evening, the brothers came home and asked the girl about the pigeons and she told them what happened! They asked her not to open the door nor let this old lady in, and that she is dangerous! When the two sisters heard that their little sister was still alive, they sent the old woman again and again, but she could not get to her! However, the two sisters thought of a trick to set their sister up. They gave the old woman a ring and some poison and asked her to take the ring to their sister.

The old woman told them that the girl would not open the door! So they asked her to tell her that her sisters need to see her again but they could not visit her and thus they send her this ring as a gift. When the girl puts her hand out of the window, the old woman should cut her little finger and poison it and this will hurt her a lot, and when she puts her finger in her mouth she dies. The old woman took the ring and did exactly as told, and the girl died. Later that night, the brothers came back and were heart-broken that their sister was dead. They did not know who killed her so they dressed her in a white dress and were extremely sad for her death! They did not bury her the conventional way. They built a glass coffin and placed her in, then they wore black outfits and covered the whole house in black. They placed the glass coffin on a high tree close to the river, where horses of the king used to come and drink water!

The next morning, when the horses of the king came, as usual, they could not drink due to the sparkling glass of the coffin. This reoccurred so the king’s son decided to know the reason. He went to the river and saw the coffin, so he asked the guards to bring it down to check what it contained. As soon as he saw the beauty of the girl, he fell in love with her, so he took the coffin and the girl back to the castle and placed it in a very special room. He used to go see the girl once a day. The prince needed to travel so he asked that no one should enter that room and made sure his mother knows that as well. As soon as he left, his mother got curious and went inside to see the dead beautiful girl. She took a scarf, dipped in in wine, and covered the girl’s face, and the girl came back to life.

The queen was extremely happy and speechless so she asked the girl to wear a very expensive wedding dress and asked her to wait in another room as brides do. When the prince returned, he went to the room where the coffin was, and could not find the girl so he raged and started yelling because he thought someone took the coffin. His mother came and told him how she entered the room and brought the girl back to life. She also told him that she is waiting to become his bride. He was the happiest person on earth, then ran to the room to meet his bride and got married to her. The little sister became a queen later.”

Kiro interrupted: “you are great, such a great storyteller! You are a thinker, and are a great intellectual!”

I thanked him and said: “Why are you so surprised?”

He answered: “Macedonian girls barely know the story you have just told me!”

I thought he was overreacting, and maybe I read too many stories and novels from different cultures, but I believe that one needs to educate himself otherwise, his brain would rust just like iron!

Suddenly, he stood up and said: “please think about it!” then he left.

“I went home and started thinking about his proposal. I asked myself, is it possible for me to get married to someone younger than I am? He barely knows me! How can he think of such a proposal so fast? Am I capable of making such a decision now? The most dazzling question was why me?

“I had an inner conflict: on one hand, my rejection might upset him and he would feel I am being snobbish, that I would never marry such a person. On the other hand, I was not that kind of person and I could not hurt someone this way.

“Therefore, I decided to see him again and put things in perspective. I needed to know what he was thinking and what his family thought about such a marriage. According to Kiro, the family either blesses or rejects the marriage of its son to a certain lady. These are the Macedonian traditions. It was a good thing I gave him my home phone number.

“One day, the phone rang. It was Kiro. ‘I am nearby, and I need to pass by your house to talk to you about something.’

“I knew that he needed to talk to me about the marriage proposal, and about the opinion of his family concerning getting married to me. So I asked, ‘Do you have the address, or shall I give it to you?’

“Yes, I do,’ he answered.

“After around ten minutes, there was a knock at the door. It was him.

“I asked him to come in, and he sat in the living room. I asked, ‘Would like a drink?’

“He answered, ‘Anything cold.’

“So I brought him a glass of brandy and said, ‘This is very convenient. Thank you.’

“It was sunset. There was a puzzled look on his face. I did not know if it was sadness, ambiguity, or even confusion and dissatisfaction. He looked at me and sighed.

“He said, ‘Vera! There has been a dispute between my family and I about the marriage issue. They are not in favor of it due to the age difference between us. They agreed at first, but when they found out about the age difference, we hit a dead end. Things heated up, and my father was angry that I had addressed him in such a way. He was really upset and did not like the way I was arguing. He felt that I insisted on this marriage and we argued for hours. You know that in Macedonian families, we have to listen and obey our parents. Eventually, my father decided that if I insisted on this marriage, I would need to leave the house and this really upset me. He has supported me all my life and in all the details of my life. I am his only son. Why would he say such a thing? Every father is over the moon when his son decides to get married and start a family! Fathers look forward to this because they want to see their grandchildren, the fruit of this marriage. Even my mother, who has always backed me, is now against me!’

“Kiro spoke in pain. Therefore, I looked at him and said, ‘Would you like to hear the truth?’

“Sure. I would like that.’ he answered.

“If I had a son and he was in your shoes, I would have acted the same way your father has,’ I said.

“He replied in a rage, ‘Are you serious about that?’

“Of course I am,’ I said.

“So what do we do now?’ he said.

“In fact, I do not have any suggestions. It might be better to slow down.’ I responded.

“Why take things slow? Everyone is against the whole idea! There is no hope of changing their opinion!’ he answered.

“Listen, Kiro, this marriage would be imbalanced and would lack a lot of things. I really hope we stay friends. I am more experienced than you are, and I can tell that this marriage would not be successful. Please do not put me in an awkward position. I have seen this happening since you told me. Please let us only be friends. Friendship is sacred and only honest people maintain a good friendship.’ I said.

“But I want to move in with you!’ he said.

“Maybe later. I live alone, and my neighbors hate me. They want me to make a mistake just so they can gossip. If they see you enter my house, and then exit the next morning, we would provide them with plenty of material. Let us postpone such a move.’ I answered.

“Are you ashamed to have me?’ he asked.

“Not at all! But I cannot rebel against an entire society. I am a mature woman, and they will gossip with the ugliest expressions about me.’ I answered.

“So why don’t you tell me what you are thinking?’ he asked.

“I got fed up and did not want to hurt his feelings. I tried to be as diplomatic as possible. I tried to be sensitive in my wording, but he just didn’t want to get it.

“I said, ‘Please try to understand me! I do not want to live that way with you, not because it is not convenient for me, but because it is not convincing. I respect you. I tried to imply how impossible it would be, but you insist on seeing things only from your point of view. I knew before you talked to your family that they would not bless such a marriage. A person in love cannot make sound decisions, whereas a family is the voice of reason. A family seeks a wife who is compatible with their son socially, as well as economically, academically, and also in terms of faith. Don’t blame your family. As I told you, I would do the same if I were them. You are a respectful person and very well mannered. The last thing I want is to hurt your feelings, so please let us just be friends. We can see each other at the coffee shop and hang out, but nothing more than that,’ I said.

“You have not been honest with me. You manipulated my emotions!’ he answered.

“You do not really understand me! What I am trying to say is not even close to what you understood. I would never manipulate your feelings. But I told you since the beginning that I am older than you, and you said that it’s only a couple of years! You are still young and inexperienced and have no idea about the rules of the game of life! Please, let us stay friends. That way we won’t risk losing each other!” I said.

“He got up and looked at me. He looked at me full of blame, and said, ‘All I can say is that I will never forget you giving up on me this easily. You did not share my feelings, and therefore, I will not forgive you. I cannot forgive myself for trusting you!’

“He left with tears in his eyes, but I knew that he would get over it in time. He would eventually find the right lady for him and she might remind him of me. The only thing he would tell himself at that moment is to thank God that such marriage did not happen!”

She concluded her story. She looked at me and said, “Do you think I was unfair to him? Was I cruel?”

“I would not know! Were you harsh or were you kind to him?”

“Life for me is not black and white. However, I try to live each experience and see how it works out. In this case, I knew that this relationship was doomed to failure. I tried not to hurt his feelings, but I knew his family would never approve of such a marriage due to the age difference between us. It could have been due to the traditions of Macedonians, which I respect, of course. However, I am totally satisfied with the way this story ended, because I knew where it was heading.” she said.

“Had his family approved of such marriage, would you have married him?” I asked.

“No. I could not have done that to this young man, who was so vulnerable due to his overwhelming affection. He was impulsive and did not consider the future. He never thought of a wife who was younger and more compatible with him than I was. I would never do something that might be in my interest but against the interest of others.”

I looked at this lady and thought, why is she so unlucky? She is very smart and honest, but she has a tendency to bump into incompatible, dishonest people.

Despite her intelligence, wisdom, and patience, she just could not find someone to marry. Many questions were lingering in my head, but I had no answers to them.

She looked me in the eyes and said, “You are thinking of my situation and sympathizing with me. Please save that look of sympathy. I am totally happy with myself.”

At that moment, she stood up shivering and went to bed.

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