Vera Petrović: A novel

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Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven

Vera came home and she was a mess! Her pale face and blank eyes told a lot. She was talking to herself, then headed straight to her bedroom and changed her clothes. She took a shower as usual and then went to the kitchen to prepare a sandwich. She ate it and came back with her bottle, which was more of a weapon she was not willing to let go.

When I first moved in, she drank moderately, but now she drinks more and more, especially when she is upset. Vera was flipping the TV channels when she found a program talking about a Yugoslav philosopher, a Croatian who won the Noble Prize in literature.

Therefore, she got up and went to the library, took out a book, and said, “You need to read this novel, for this program talks about the author. At some point, Yugoslav literature, or literature in general, was not amongst my interests, but this novel hit a sensitive spot for me.”

She looked at me and she was about to cry. Her tears were waiting for the right moment, then she said, “I have read most international and Yugoslav novels. I used to stay home every day just to enjoy reading a novel or a short story, and I used to borrow these books from the school library, then I borrowed them from the university’s library. When I graduated and got a job, I started to buy books, novels, and short stories.”

She held a novel in her hand and said that, in addition to Mehmed “Meša” Selimović’s novel “The Death and the Dervishes,” it is one of her favorite novels and the closest to her heart. She was greatly impacted by them. She has never had enough of these two novels. The one she was referring to was Ivo Andrić’s “A Bridge on Drina River.” He received the Nobel Prize in Literature. She started talking about the novel as if it was an amazing drama scene.

“The events of this novel revolve around the bridge which is located in the Višegrad city,” she explained. “It is the focal point of the novel, and all of the events are connected to it in one way or another. It tells of historic events related to this bridge and connects them together. The author could have wanted to express the historic events through certain characters, and through the depth they provide. The most interesting thing about this novel is that Ivo Andrić was able to portray all ethnic origins that lived there and their ability to adapt and coexist. The novel tackles the relationship between Serbs, Bosnians, Croatians, Slovenians, Macedonians, and Albanians, in addition to their different faiths including Jews, Christians, and Muslims. All of these were explicitly described in the novel.

“Between Bosnians and Serbs, there is a river of stories that flows endlessly… these stories were engraved on the bridge and in the memories of the people of Višegrad and left a memorable scar. Through this historic epic, Ivo Andrić was able to convey the story of the bridge that connected Bosnia and Serbia as two different regions under the Ottoman Empire. This bridge was witness to the history of this region from the 16th century until 1914.

“Despite the charm of the Drina River, in all its detail, the groups of people who crossed it had dreams, ideas, and also, grudges. The bridge had been a stage that witnessed many scenes and events. The beauty of this novel is summarized in the sequence of its events. The author has defined the bridge in a sensational way and takes us on a realistic journey while exploring the character of the person who built the bridge, as well as when it was built.”

“The author also paves the way for the reader to empathize with the local people by introducing the stories of mothers who lost their children as a “blood tax” paid to the Turks. The children were forcibly converted to become part of the Turkish Army. Ivo Andrić did not stop after this agonizing description, but continued and told the sad story of Abed Agha. He was assigned to supervise the great building of Minister Mehmed Paša Sokolović, who was born in a village in Bosnia close to Višegrad. The first chapter describes how the minister himself was part of the blood tax and was taken away from his mother as a child. He was taken to Istanbul, converted to Islam by force, and became a Turkish officer.

He was eventually promoted to the position of minister and to supervise the building of the Bridge. The author portrays the suffering of the people of Višegrad and how he used to torture them and impale them to death. This way of execution created constant intimidation for them. The author also describes the vandalism that Radisav carried out, and how he was exposed and captured, and then impaled.

He is a peasant and a Serbian worker at the bridge. He destroys at night what he builds during the day that is why he was abducted at the bridge location, as a warning by those who oppose the establishment of the bridge. This happened in the presence of the locals. He was placed on the stake for several days, and the locals were watching in fear! They were intimidated, for suffering under the Ottoman occupation.

“The events happen in sequence but always seem to be connected to the bridge. Events such as the economic changes, the railway track construction which devalued the bridge, the social movements, the Balkan Wars, the emergence of new rebellious generations, the killing of Archduke Frantz Fernandez in 1914, the Serbs and the Austrian – Hungarian war, and finally, the first World War which led to the tragic demolition of the bridge.

What calls me to talk about this novel is what happened to me in my past relationships. I am a person who looks at people equally and I have never had a superiority perception to any person. I respect everyone and trust all people and I treat them the way I like to be treated.”

Vera spoke to me as if she wanted to burst, but she hesitated. I tried to make her speak out more about her life, but I did not want to invade her privacy or interfere in her life. Nevertheless, I attempted to draw her out and asked, “Why haven’t you chosen the right person to marry and settled down? I see the institution of marriage as a means of settling down and creating stability in one’s life. It creates peacefulness and a sense of partnership in times of joy and sorrow. Don’t you agree?”

She answered, “In fact, everything you said is absolutely right, and no one can claim otherwise. But I will take you back to the beginning when I met my neighbor’s son, Boban Nevkolić. It was an innocent relationship but despite our young age, he aimed at taking something from me that I was not willing to give away. He was friendly and tried to approach me in every possible way. However, I had a hunch that warned me that this boy was after something. He was really handsome with blue eyes and blond hair, blushing cheeks, and strawberry colored lips. He was tall with an athletic built, but I just felt something was not right. When he knew he would not get what wanted, he tried to take it by force by raping me. He tore my clothes and was very aggressive but I was brave enough to stop him.

“One day, I found him flirting with my colleague Dragana Milić, who was the prettiest girl in class. She had wide green eyes just like an oasis, and golden blonde hair, a tiny beautiful nose, and a face as bright as the sun. Her figure was stunning for she was a gymnast, and her charming smile was mesmerizing. She knew he tried with me on several occasions, but this did not stop her from being with him. I saw what he did as a kind of betrayal. When he broke up with Dragana, he tried to get back with me, but I was firm and prevented it. I told him that I would expose his actions in front of everybody.

At this point, Dragana came to apologize, but her actions had hurt my feelings, and I was not willing to forgive her nor overlook what she did. Therefore, I made it clear that I would not accept her apology, and I ended our relationship at this point. This story hurt me a lot when I was a child, and it left a scar that is difficult to ignore at a young age. Since this incident, I have become more cautious with people who approach me. I have some past scars, some of which I can talk about and others I would rather keep to myself.”

I have always wondered, despite her beauty and intelligence, why she could not adapt to her surroundings. The problem could be in others rather than her. At that point, she wanted to end the conversation, so she stood up, put the bottle back in the fridge, and went to her bedroom.

The next morning, I heard a loud argument but I could only hear her voice. I wondered if she might be speaking to herself. She did, in fact, speak to herself when she got really mad. After a while, she left the house, while I had breakfast and left to go to university.

That evening, we started talking about different issues as we watched TV. Suddenly, the face of Slobodan Milošević was displayed on TV as he was zealously delivering a speech. At that time, I was not very knowledgeable about the political situation in the country because I was not that interested. After all, I was in this country for a specific objective and only for a specific time frame.

Yet she said again, “This man will be the cause of our downfall. In his arrogance, he will destroy us seeking after his own interests, despite having had such a desperate life himself!”

I asked her, “What do you mean?”

Vera answered, “His life was desperate because the separation of his parents devastated him. Some people say that his parents committed suicide. So he led a devastated, complicated childhood, particularly after the death of his father when things got even more thorny for him.

However, he started to attract attention despite being an introvert and lacking the necessary characteristics of an eloquent speaker, let alone a leader. He has been stressing an obnoxious thing since then, Serbian Nationalism, even though that is against all the principles of the great Yugoslav leader, Josip Broz Tito. This leader established a state based on a racial, national, and faith balance in Yugoslavia through its federal system.

Unfortunately, the hate speech Milošević introduced, warned of rejecting other nationalities and minorities, in addition to the trash Milošević implied. The separation signs started surfacing,” she added.

“In Yugoslavia, and since the establishment of the state, we have been living on love and brotherhood. You could find a Serbian married to a Croatian and a Bosnian married to a Serbian, and a Slovenian married to a Croatian. We never felt any differences between us! Therefore, when someone would offer his friendship, whether Albanian, Macedonian, Bosnian, Slovenian, Croatian, or any other nationality, I never hesitated to befriend him. We have always been one unit and one person.

The problem lies in a bunch of politicians who seek their personal interests, characterized by narrow mindedness and corrupt agendas! Those are the people who seek the destruction of the country by barging into wars based on obnoxious nationalism. The worst of those is Slobodan Milošević, the most prominent political figure to proclaim a vision of a Great Serbia. He has managed to convince many others of his convictions and get to the top tier in the leadership of the Serbian Communist Party. Politics was the reason the Yugoslav Union was frail, and nationalities had a hidden conflict. In the era of these new politicians, who hold grudges and greedily seek authority and power, nationalism has become more obvious and is being declared more vehemently! This will have a very negative influence on people and will lead this country to chaos. Civil war will be inevitable.

“Serbs see Milošević as a real hero who will establish great Serbia, despite the fact that many intellectuals believe he will create catastrophes with his discrimination. His policies recognize only Serbian nationality as superior. His wife has a great influence on him as well and has contributed to the dictator he has become. Mira Marković comes from a political family.”

She was indignant as she spoke, and commented as if she was a politician herself! I asked her, “Are all Yugoslav people aware of these facts?”

She answered, “Only the intellectuals who read are aware of such political setups. As for the laymen, they do not have time for politics. They are emotional and can be easily manipulated.”

I asked again. “I mean, how do you know all this information, which needs to be analyzed by a politician?”

She answered, “You only need to be a good reader and to follow what’s happening, then all facts reveal themselves.”

Vera told me about what a good follower she was of the political situation. She resumed, “We used to live in harmony until things got worse with those filthy politicians. I have never been affiliated with a political party. All political parties, in my opinion, are parasites that feed on the dreams and ambitions of others. They are opportunists, hypocrites, and imposters, who only seek their personal interests. They form political parties based on favoritism, not on any real sense of belonging, therefore I chose to stay away.”

After this conversation, and this analysis, I thought she was a perfect lady, yet something was ruining her life! We each went to our bedrooms and I started to think about the political complications in an attempt to understand the situation.

The next day, I heard her speaking to herself as usual, but this time she was yelling as if she was telling someone off! I could not take much more of this!

In the evening, when she came back from work, she was pissed off and not herself. This time, however, she did not feel like talking and went to prepare dinner. She came back as usual with the bottle, her weapon, in one hand and her cigarettes in the other. She poured a drink and lit her cigarette. A popular Yugoslav celebrity singer appeared on TV, so she asked, “Do you know this pretty singer?”

“Not really, I do not know much about singers and songs in Yugoslavia.”

She smiled and said, “This is Lepa Brena, the most famous pop singer in Yugoslavia. She is a Muslim from Bosnia, and I am a big fan of hers. Some people in Serbia believe she is Serbian, and others think she is Croatian. They all need her to be anything but Muslim. Even in art, there is discrimination and prejudice. I cannot understand what is happening anymore!

Lepa has responded to the general mood in the country and presented a song entitled “Long Lives Yugoslavia” in which she revealed her political perspective. This is what the Union was established upon! She clearly sided with the unity of Yugoslavia! In 1986, she became the most popular public figure in the country! One needs to side with the state or, in other words, the politicians. They can dispose of you if you don’t. Lepa was smart enough to adapt to the state agenda! The agonizing thing is that we are all aware that these politicians are bloodstained. They collect their wealth and ride in fancy cars by ripping off the people. As I said before, this country is doomed indeed! Lepa says she is Muslim, others claim she is Serbian, or some claim Croatian! The state and Nationalism seem to know a person more than he would know himself! Nevertheless, I enjoy her voice, and this is what matters!”

Day after day, I felt she spoke too much and mixed things together. At one point, she would discuss literature, and at another point, she would discuss politics or history. She clearly had a problem, and it became more obvious every day in her words, her laugh, and her actions. She was exposing pain and agony, but I was not able to help her! One day, I was home when she opened the door in a rush and said, “I left work without an excuse!”

“Why would you do such a thing?”

“I am not sure,” she answered. “I felt upset, so I took my bag and walked out! Everyone was staring at me, but I paid no attention to them and left!”

She changed her clothes and brought the brandy, which had become inseparable from her! She took a sip from her glass, lit her cigarette, and said, “Sometimes, as I am working, I see people as monsters! Silly human monsters rather than wild innocent monsters! I have lived with many such people, but I was always cautious, even in my neighborhood. I cannot remember when I started to feel unstable and unable to have the reasonable control of myself. I started scrutinizing people and could not believe them anymore. I do not know how to deal with them anymore and cannot handle their grudges and dark souls! People have become more materialistic and less sympathetic, and they are very reluctant and fearful. I started to see faces immersed in sorrow and lives in crisis.

Poverty and wealth have become more obvious. The quality of life an individual leads is evident. Fancy cars of all makes are roaming the streets along with fashion, fancy outfits, lots of money, and wealthy lifestyles. Meanwhile, you can also spot a high percentage of poor people. The wealth of many people was illegally gained. No one knows how they got such huge amounts of money. People have noticed that life has started costing more and more, and everyone anticipates that something will happen. No one knows what it will be!”

At this point, she turned to the past and said, “The past speaks for itself. Everyone I know from the older generation which has witnessed World Wars and regional conflicts agree that they led a better life then. They had peace of mind. Despite the progress and development since then, the old days were better. People took care of each other and shared pleasure, sorrow, and pain. Brotherhood was essential and managed to unify them. They were like one body! Today, however, every person is busy with his own business! An individual does not care about others! The people closest to me yesterday are strangers to me today! Barriers have been established and no more love nor sympathy exists! I once attempted to help those people for moral and humanitarian reasons, rather than faith ones. One day, I was home when a forty-year-old man came by. He knocked on my door at around eight o’clock in the evening and asked if I could lend him some money.

“I had some money left from my salary so I gave him all of it, and I did not bother to ask when he would repay me! I did not care when he would pay me back, but I remember that I needed money a couple of days later! However, my conviction to provide help to others never changed!

“Today, however, I have changed, and I would not help anyone even if I had plenty of money! I do not sympathize with others the way I used to do! I feel that our culture has changed. Now everyone is selfish and only looks after his and his family’s needs. Friends, neighbors, and acquaintances have become insignificant. To be honest, even personal desires have changed. Had you asked me a couple of years ago about my desires and wants in life, I would have answered that I only needed shelter and food. The size of the house would not matter no matter how much money I had! Today, I think of things that never occurred to me and seemed silly to me before! Thinking of such things for me was immoral! However, circumstances have changed and the materialistic situation is overwhelming in society!

“One day, I was at the coffee shop next door when a homeless man entered and asked if anyone could help him. Nobody responded! He made a series of sudden moves, and a clear disturbance in his metal state became evident. Some people thought that this was an act designed to get sympathy. Clearly, it was not working! One person said, ‘Shame on you! Do not beg, in such a way!’

“Everyone looked at him with contempt, and another person told him to go somewhere else where he could get fools to help him. I looked at him and said to myself, ‘What if he is really sick and cannot work! What if he is unaware of the time and place? Maybe he tried to get a job and was unsuccessful!’ All of these questions were like waves clashing with each other. Suddenly I asked him to have a seat at my table and asked defiantly what he would like to eat.

“He answered reluctantly that he did not wish to eat in. “I just need some money to buy a sandwich. I haven’t eaten a bite since yesterday!”

He was clearly afraid of the reaction of the other customers, but I insisted and ordered him food and drink. He ate and thanked me profusely. I also offered him money, but he refused. As he was leaving, a customer asked him why he had not taken the money that I had offered. He answered proudly, ‘I only needed money to eat, and she offered me a meal. I do not need money anymore!’

“Another customer asked, ‘Why don’t you work if you have so much pride?’ He answered with his head down that he suffered from Huntington’s disease, so another person asked him what that was and how it prevented him from working.

“This disease is called the dancing disease, it is a genetic disease, and no cure was discovered yet!”

I listened to him in pain and asked: “would you accept my help?”

He proudly answered: “no, I am not a beggar! I cannot work! I am just waiting for my time to go, to die!”

Everyone was moved by his words. One of them said, as he looked at me: “We are sorry for doing that, we apologize, you were the wisest among us and were nice to him, but we were not!”

I answered: “my friend, what you did today, tells a lot about how our values and social conventions change day after day. I believe that we will get further one day, but I really hope I die before that day comes.” There were mixed feelings in the pub. I asked myself, is this humanity? Can we really get this morally degraded? Do we still really feel for each other? There were millions of questions in my head, I decided to go home and cry despite that I was completely satisfied with what I did. I managed to give these stupid people a lesson.”

My emotions were in conflict, and I asked myself why they couldn’t sympathize with that man. Had we declined that much? I decided to go home and cry my feelings out in spite of the satisfaction I felt in giving those people a lesson.

“I am only trying to clarify the humanitarian and moral change that has afflicted the society in addition to corruption, violence, lying, arrogance, and cheating. I have told you a couple of stories from our time. Let me tell you some stories from Yugoslav folklore about the significance of cooperation, mutual living, and helping others. Yugoslav people used to tell these stories to their children to teach morality and wisdom.

One story goes as follows. A simple shepherd was sleeping under a tree when a group of travelers woke him up and asked, ‘Shepherd, can you show us an inn in this town?’ He answered that there wasn’t one in the town but that they could stay at his house. They said they did not wish to bother him, but the shepherd insisted that they follow him. He arrived home and excused himself to tell his wife about the guests. She started shouting and hit him, so he ran out before the guests! The wife followed him and said, ‘We do not have any flour for baking! We cannot afford to light a fire! This husband of mine has wasted all of our money! We became poor as you can all see! He used to be the wealthiest man in town!’

“The man was kind to others, and the wife felt lucky to have him when he was rich. He was always helpful to poor people and transformed his house into a place in which he hosted poor and simple people. When he became poor and needed help, however, no one helped him or checked on him!

“The travelers chose to leave the shepherd fighting with his wife. One day, as the shepherd was napping under the tree, a fire started in the forest and he woke up to the sound of animals fleeing the fire! He tried to put out the fire, but he suddenly saw a serpent trying to survive the fire. He climbed a giant tree and took a big branch. He offered the serpent the branch and thus saved him. The shepherd was shocked when the serpent spoke and thanked the brave shepherd for saving its life.

“Oh my Lord! A serpent that can talk! This is impossible!’ he exclaimed. The serpent said that he would take the shepherd to his house so that his father could reward the shepherd for saving its life. He said, ‘Just hold my tail!’

The shepherd grabbed the tail as he was told, but soon the shepherd told the serpent that the narrow paths they were using were suffocating and that he did not want any reward. The serpent insisted and said that when they arrived it would ask its father to teach the shepherd the language of animals. The shepherd asked, ‘The language of animals?” “Yes,’ answered the serpent, ‘Do not ask for anything else!’

“They finally arrived and when the shepherd saw a large number of serpents there, he panicked and tried to escape. The serpent reassured him by saying, ‘Do not fear anything. This is my father.’ The serpent told his father how the shepherd saved him. The serpent’s father asked the shepherd how he could reward the shepherd, and the shepherd answered that he only wanted to learn the animals’ language.

“The serpent’s father responded by asking, ‘What use is it for you? We can give you gold and jewelry and these would be better for you!’ The shepherd answered that he had not saved the serpent for money and does not want any of that.

“Alright, I understand that you are not a greedy person and that you have a lot of courage and integrity. Therefore, I will teach you the animals’ language on one condition!’ The shepherd asked what this was, and the serpent’s father said that he must agree to keep this a secret and not tell anyone. If the shepherd did, he would die right away. The shepherd agreed and promised to keep the secret.

“The father serpent taught the shepherd the language, and the shepherd left and returned home. The next thing the shepherd knew he awoke in a panic from a deep sleep under a tree thinking he had had a very realistic dream. Suddenly, the dog addressed his master and asked him what was wrong. The shepherd then knew it wasn’t a dream! Two crows came and stood on a branch of the tree and said, ‘This lazy shepherd always sleeps under this tree but does not know that there is a treasure of jewelry underneath it.’

When the shepherd heard what the crows said, he started digging with his bare hands and quickly found the treasure! He returned home with his dog and told his wife what he had found. She was thrilled, but when he said that they could now invite the poor to their house and feed them, his wife responded in anger.

“No, you will not touch these jewels. I will handle them!’ The shepherd deferred, telling her to do what she thought was right. The wife managed their money and bought them a bigger house. The shepherd’s life changed, and he became a rich trader. As he was riding horses with his wife, he overheard the horses speaking to one another. The shepherd’s horse asked the other one why she was walking so slowly. The second horse replied that she was pregnant, just like the woman on her back.

“When the shepherd heard this, he got off the horse and congratulated his wife on her pregnancy. She was surprised and asked how he knew because she had not yet told anyone. He answered that he could not say, so she was enraged and demanded to know, threatening him. He answered, ‘I will tell you but you need to give me some time.’

“The next day, the now wealthy shepherd began to prepare his coffin. He knew that he would lose his life if he told his wife his secret. As he was preparing the coffin, he saw a rooster with a worm in his beak. The dog asked the rooster how he could eat when the master would die soon. The rooster replied, ‘Our master lived stupid and will die stupid.’ The shepherd’s dog asked why the rooster said this, and the rooster answered, ‘He has not asked himself what good he will be to his wife when he is dead. Has he asked his wife if she would prefer his death for the sake of knowing the secret?’

“The shepherd heard the rooster and, rushing to his wife with a long stick, asked her if she wanted to know the secret. When she said yes, he asked her again if she would want to know even if telling her the secret would cause him to die. She answered, ‘Yes, even if you die. I need to know!’ He said, “Then you will get what you deserve!” and started hitting her with the long stick. She began crying for help and yelled that she would never ask him about the secret again if he would stop.

“The shepherd stopped hitting her, and she never asked him again about this secret. After this, he lived on, enjoying a good life with his wife, and listening to the animals.

“The moral of this children’s story is to help them understand the importance of sharing and helping others. The society of today is the opposite of this story! People are selfish and are not willing to share or help others at all. You can see these traits in the wife of the shepherd who became poor after being well off. Nowadays, our children learn how to be wolves, and this will haunt us one day.”

When Vera finished telling the story, she saw that the bottle of brandy was empty, and I felt that I needed to withdraw. She was deeply troubled and was getting worse each day. I seriously thought of leaving the house because I could not handle the deterioration in her personality and was not able to help her. I worried, however, that my leaving might cause her to deteriorate even more. I was the person to whom she told everything, and she seemed to feel much better when she got all of these thoughts out of her system! She repeatedly said that I was a good listener, so I decided that I need to help her get over these negative feelings! At one point she would be very desperate, and extremely sad and depressed. However, the next day, she would be perfectly fine, and on top of the world.

Lately, she had been very pale and skinny. She had no motivation to leave her chair in the evening, and she sounded like she was having difficulty breathing. I thought she might have a blocked nostril, but later it turned out she was totally depressed. She began to be absent from work, and other times she would go in late without any excuses. She told me once that she was the vice-chairman of the bank, the person who had the key to the vault.

One day, she was late to work as usual. She asked me to pick up the phone that was ringing. It was someone from the bank. It turned out they needed the key as soon as possible. As for the family and neighbors or even colleagues, her relationship with all of them was not going well. She had nothing to do with her family members, like her brother and sister. She once told me that she usually tells people she is an only child and has no siblings. It seemed agonizing for her to talk about her siblings. She saw them as enemies rather than family! In the beginning, she avoided mentioning them, but as time went on, she started to be specific and even aggressive whenever she mentioned them.

Sometimes I felt that she was very close to committing suicide due to living in lengthy periods of depression. Sometimes I felt she needed to cry and that her tears were just waiting to begin, but she always managed to control herself as if she was using a remote control. When she felt that way, she would start laughing hysterically, but it was really a combination of rage and sorrow disguised in a laugh. It was certainly a fake laugh.

I also noticed that she stopped going to the coffee shop next door and stopped contacting her friends. I tried to understand these changes but I was not sure. Therefore, I directly asked her for more explanations on a couple of occasions, but she avoided answering me. Most evenings, we sat down and talked especially about her, but it had been four evenings in a row of her deciding to stay in her bedroom until the morning. I had no idea what was going on, but I decided to give her space and respect her privacy.

One day, she came back home, as usual, prepared a simple dinner, then grabbed her bottle and sat down to watch TV. She suddenly asked, “Why haven’t you inquired about my going to bed early the last couple of evenings?”

I answered, “Sometimes one feels like that and chooses not to talk to anyone other than himself!”

She said, “This is partially right. On the other hand, this person could be experiencing a phase of silence that could make him insane or lead him to commit suicide!”

I replied, “I do not think a woman as smart and as reasonable as yourself would think of those things!”

She smiled cynically and said, “Who? Me? I am a wreck. I have nothing to be proud of! No successes, achievements, or anything! I am a failure!”

Her self-perception shocked me. I asked, “Why would you say such things about yourself?”

She answered sadly, “This is the truth! You can fool everyone but yourself!”

I said, “You are an educated lady. You have a successful job, and your life is stable. You have everything!”

She answered desperately, “Do you think these things are the most significant in life? It is more important to be happy and to have peace of mind. When I graduated from university, I was happy with such an achievement. But I was aware of the troubles I would face after graduation. The time I lived after graduation was a bit dark, but I managed to get through it with perseverance and hard work. When I started working at the bank, I was harassed and suffered from other problems, but I decided to move on and ignore all these distractions because I had no other choice!

After I got my apartment, which cost me considerably in terms of both effort and money, my sister and her boyfriend tried to rip me off and take it away! And when I trusted people and tried to help them, they tried to rape me and assault me in my own house! Whenever I trust someone I turn out to be mistaken! They are not trustworthy at all and they seem to all eventually have sexual greed! All of these negative things happen to me because I am a lonely woman, with no one to protect or defend me! Everyone believes they can get rid of me or take whatever they want away from me by force! To their surprise, I turned out to be stronger than they knew! I was resilient and survived!”

I asked her, “Do you really see all people as this evil?”

She answered, “Not at all, but the ones I met were extremely evil!”

I responded, “Bad choices?”

She replied, “Maybe, but I never sought company with any of them. I have always been myself and never ran after men! I am not that type of woman at all. I was satisfied with my life and very self-confident. Let me tell you a story. One day, Gorica Marković, a friend of mine, but not an intimate one, as a matter of fact, I cannot remember having an intimate friend, anyway, this friend asked me, ‘Why don’t you pick a man who is compatible with you? A man other ladies would kill to have? Aim high!’

“I answered her, ‘My life experience does not include such men.’ I was being silly, but unfortunately, she thought I was serious. So she said, ‘Don’t worry! I will arrange a date for you with a man like this. After you meet him, you will be sure that every date before this one was a waste of time!’

“After a few days, she called to invite me to her son’s birthday party. I promised to come. She stressed I should come well dressed, and added, ‘As I told you a couple of days ago, he is quite a catch!’ She was referring to the man.

“I arrived at her house on time and had a gift for her child. When I had a look at the pile of gifts, I noticed they were extremely expensive. I tried to sit far from the other guests. The birthday party started and I was sitting on an isolated porch. After a while, my friend came over with a well-dressed, handsome man and said, ’This is Mr. Zoran Mladenović”

‘Nice to meet you.’ I said.

“My friend added, ‘You will never find a man as perfect as Zoran Mladenović! Therefore take good care of him!’

“He looked at me and said, ‘Are you a villager or are you from Belgrade?’

“I looked at him from head to toe and said, ‘I think you must be an expert and should be able to tell who is from a rural area and who is from an urban area! These things are important to you, aren’t they?’

“He blushed and answered, ‘No, not at all. I just like to know the background of the person with whom I am talking.’

“I answered, ‘I work at a bank. I am the vice-chairperson. I am from Belgrade, and therefore, from an urban area!’

“At this point, he seemed satisfied with the answer I gave so I tried to tease him by saying, ‘So where do you work, Mister? Are you a villager or a city slicker?’

“He got mad and answered, ‘Isn’t it obvious that I come from the city? Never mind! I am the manager of a large firm in the car industry. I receive a lot of allocations and a very high salary.’

“I said, ’Were you serious when you asked if I was from a rural area or an urban one?”

“He answered, ‘Totally! What is so strange about that?’

“I said, ’We are close to the new millennium. You happen to be the manager of a large firm, and yet such silly things still matter for you.”

“He replied, ‘Such things are not silly or insignificant! We live in a society where each person deceives the other. This person could be a cheap girl who tries to set me up, or who sees me as a raft to save her from drowning in her desperate poor reality!’

“I said, ‘I think you are referring not to love but to a totally different thing here. Are you really trying to find a partner based on these standards?’

“He said, ‘When one chooses to enter a relationship, whatever sort it is, he needs to bear in mind all details and aspects!’

“I answered in such a way as to end this conversation, ‘Are you married?’

“Obviously, my question made him angry, and this could have been because it was a personal question.”

“I do not like such questions, but nevertheless, marriage should not be an issue, should it?” he said.

“I replied, ‘Maybe for you, it isn’t an issue, but for me, a relationship should be clear and should not assault the dignity of someone else, like a husband or a wife! In other words, how can I have a relationship with a married man and be the reason for hurting his wife? How can I break the connection between them?’

“At this point, he gave me an incredulous look with a ridiculous smile and asked, ‘Are you living in this era or what? Do you realize what society we live in? Are you even serious?’

“I said, ‘Absolutely! I could not start a relationship with someone without a mutual attraction between us. I would need to be 100% sure that this person would only be mine. I could never imagine my partner to be in another relationship or to be married. I could never start my happiness on a crooked foundation, or make someone else miserable because of this relationship!’

“He laughed and said, ‘Your friend never mentioned that. She only said you needed someone to have sex with you and to keep your company for a while! I am a wealthy man, and I can provide you with fun and sex at your convenience indeed.’

“I laughed and replied, ‘Can you define women like this?’

“He said bluntly, ‘A whore! Yet a balanced one!’

“So I said, ‘Do you see me as one?’

“He said, ‘I am not sure! Nowadays, you can never tell. Your friend, for instance, is married with children, and a loving husband who meets all her needs, yet she is a whore! Every now and then, she comes to me, and I give her plenty of action. She appears to be a loyal wife and faithful friend, but at the end of the day, she is, in fact, a devil! She deceives everyone she knows!’

“I said angrily, ‘Shame on you for speaking ill of my friend. It would have been nice if you kept your relationship with her, confidential rather than exposing her before me. As a matter of fact, if she is a whore, then so are you! No one would feel safe with a psycho like yourself. I have met your type! I might be poor but I have dignity!’

“He said cynically, “you mean like your friend’s dignity?’

“I said, ‘She is not my best friend, but an old one. When she offered to introduce us, I thought she was referring to a normal person, not to a pervert, a lunatic, and a psycho!’

“He answered, ‘Are you referring to me?’

“I replied, ‘I certainly thank the Lord that I did not get involved with you. You are not my type at all. Your wealth means nothing to me. I am a person who seeks feelings and relationships based on integrity, faithfulness, and loyalty!’

“He said, ‘Is this available in Yugoslavia? Let alone in Belgrade?’

“I answered, ‘Of course it is available if you are lucky, and it is even reasonable you will be able to find it. The problem is that I must be looking in the wrong places, otherwise, I would not have met people like yourself, and would not have embarrassed myself in silly situations!’

“He asked, ‘What do you want?’

“I instantly said, ‘To get out of this house as soon as possible and forget this silly conversation with an arrogant individual like yourself! I need to hold on to my values and morals and never compromise when it comes to them!’

“I headed to the door as I said those words, and my friend Gorica followed me. ‘What happened? Where are you going?’

“I said, ‘This person you wanted me to enter into a relationship with is anything but a man! For the sake of your marriage, stay away from him!’

“She said in rage, ‘Did he tell you about us?’

“I replied, ‘He told me everything! How can you trust such a man! What about your marriage? The good man who lives with you? How can you cheat on him with his friend? You not that type of woman! so why?’

“She burst into tears and said, ‘My husband is the reason! He invited this person to our house with his wife, and things sounded perfect until I noticed my husband’s weird behavior when he was around this lady. I could see hidden smiles and gestures, and some way or another, I knew they were having a relationship. I could tell they used to meet up in different places. When I confronted her, she did not deny it at all! She even told me that she was trying to avenge her husband who seduced women and had indecent relationships with some of them. When I confronted him about it, he totally denied it. He even claimed that he was not that type and that he respected his family. At that point, I decided to keep my family together and to keep as quiet as possible about it. However, I warned my husband that we should stop having anything to do with this person. Currently, my husband only cares about his family and his career.’

“I said, ‘Can I give you advice?’

“She nodded so I said, ‘You need to stop seeing this man and keep a healthy relationship with your husband and family. Never do anything to destroy your family! Try to keep your husband away from this man as well!’

“She agreed with tears in her eyes, ‘You are right! I will do everything you said!’

“I hugged her goodbye and noticed the look of sorrow on her face. After a while, I heard neither she nor her husband contacted that man ever again.

“This is one of the many stories I lived but really try to forget. Sometimes, I recall it to remember a lesson I learned, or to tell others who seek my advice in similar situations,” Vera said.

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