Vera Petrović: A novel

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Chapter Two

Chapter Two

The next morning, I was ready on time, and we went together to the police station. In a few minutes, the lady came out dressed in a simple black, elegant English style dress with a green scarf and a shiny black pair of shoes, which matched her bright black bag. There was no makeup on her face, which reflected a natural beauty. We went to the police station, which was located on the street behind the house.

Within five to ten minutes, we arrived, and the lady asked a policeman,

“Could you kindly show us where we can do the police registration certificate for a foreign student who resides in my apartment?”

“Yes, ma’am, head down the hallway to room four.”

“Thank you.”

I asked her if she needed my passport!

She replied, “I have no idea, we will know shortly.”

We arrived in room 4, and two police officers were seated opposite each other. They were having coffee and smoking cigarettes, and the aroma of the coffee mixed with the odor of the smoke-filled the room. One of them started staring at us! They were dressed similarly to many police officers in that part of the world in a sky-blue uniform with a shiny black pair of shoes and golden sparkly buttons.

The police officers are quite unique in Belgrade. Tall and well-built with apparent physical strength and athletic looks. They look perfect with barely any big belly or a deformed figure. They are also smart and appropriately dressed, and they do not joke at all. They even seem severe and focused at work. The athletic build adds to the uniform indeed.

“Excuse me, we are here to issue the police registration certificate for this student, please.”

“Hand me your student ID, your passport, and your address, please.”

“Here you go.”

“It will take 10 to 15 minutes. You can wait outside, and when we are done, I will call you in.”

“Thank you.”

We went out and sat on the wooden benches. There was barely anyone else. After about ten minutes, a man called us in and handed us the documentation. He said that I needed to take it everywhere I went and that she needed to notify the police if I left her house.

“Actually, this is the first time I have done such procedures, and I know very little about such issues. Be assured I will literally do it all.”

“Thank you.”

We left the police station, and the lady headed to work right away. I went home and got ready for University.

I came home after attending my classes at four, took a bath and went to my room. I tried to lie down to rest. At six, I heard the door unlock, but I stayed in bed. After an hour, I listened to a conversation, but I preferred to stay in my room.

In a few minutes, the lady was knocking my door, saying, “Can you come to sit with me, please?”

“Yes, sure.”

Concern crept into my heart when the lady came home and knocked on my door for the second day in a row. Maybe she needs someone to keep her company! However, I told myself, this person will not be me. I went out and sat, and she was frowning. Her facial expressions exposed a terrible mood. Suddenly, she gazed at me and said:

“Adam, am I an annoying person?”

This was the first time she had said my name.

“No, not at all, why would you say so?”

“Nothing in particular.”

Suddenly, she rushed to the kitchen to hide her emotions. She returned with a bottle of spirits, brandy, which was a local drink and her favorite. She lit up a Sedef cigarette and watched TV. The news used to be aired live at 7:30 pm.

“Politics will turn this country upside down because corrupt politicians are only concerned about their own interests. They also pretend to be patriotic; they are merely losers, evil and liars. You can use all negative words to describe them. This is the least I can say about them! The working class is at the bottom of their concerns! They can go to hell!”

I did not have any interest in discussing politics. I barely knew anything about politics or politicians there.

She asked, “How is it in your country? Is it the same? Do you have corrupt politicians? Do you have minorities or people of other ethnic origins who fight for no reason? Do you have any political figures who control you as people and decide your destiny and future as we do?”

I tried to answer with diplomacy, “In fact, we do have corruption, favoritism and nepotism in addition to cliquishness. As you know, we live in the third world with a modest economy. We strive to live well. We have several minorities.” I noted that my country receives immigrants such as Circassians, Chechens and Palestinians. “There are families of different origins which reside in my state. However, the good thing about my country is that everyone has equal rights and duties. There is a considerable number of expatriates and Arabs who have found peace, security and stability and therefore stayed. As for faith, Muslims and Christians live side by side in Jordan in the utmost harmony and without any conflict. We have strong relations and are not intimidated by authority or power. The governing law is tolerant and not bloody, and we all feel secure and reassured. This is the case in my country.”

“In Yugoslavia, we live in a swamp of nationalism, where the Serb sees himself as a God, and the Croatian believes he is better than this claimed God. The Bosnian feels marginalized by the GOD, and the Slovenian believes this GOD should not have authority over him. At the same time, the Macedonian is distanced from this GOD and does not recognize his power. Each one of them awaits the right time to attack the other and get rid of this claimed GOD. We live in the shadow of a corrupted political class which revives nationalism to dominate power. The royal and communist eras have imposed the domination of the Serbs over the rest of the nationalities. This so-called nationalism announces its enmity in public or keeps it in secret, the so-called Serbianizing.”

I was not quite aware of politics in her country, yet I was enlightened by the intense information she was providing. I felt a bit tired and tried to withdraw diplomatically, so I excused myself and went to bed quietly. I laid down, and ideas started to attack my head. I concluded that this lady was suffering. This suffering could be due to the solitary confinement she was in! I could not decide if her loneliness was the reason, for I have not lived with her for long. She stayed the same for two weeks in a row. Her routine never changed. She would finish work, arrive home at the same time, and prepare a light dinner, which would mostly be the same sort of food, and then light her cigarette and sip her alcohol. She never changed the drink or cigarette brands. After she felt settled, she launched her analytical discussion and comments on everything she was watching on TV. She had immense information and reflected sophistication and a high level of culture. She also possessed a sharp memory, by which she could discuss almost anything. She sounded like a complete archive!

The month came to an end, and I was waiting for her to come back from work because I wanted to pay the rent. I prepared the lease and electricity money. I waited in the living room, watching TV as she came in around her usual time. She was visibly nervous and outraged.

She said, “Good evening, Adam.”

“Good evening.”

“Up to this moment, you have never uttered my name! Do you know my name?”

“Of course, I do. It is Vera.”

“This is the first time you sat waiting for me. Is there anything wrong?”

“No, but I would like to pay the rent”

“No rush! I did not ask you for the rent.”

My friends told me that their landlords were quite pushy when it came to renting! But this lady was quite different and generous. Yet, I decided to hand her the money in a straightforward manner.

Then, I tried to return to my room when she said, “It is Sunday, and there is a café nearby. Would you like to go with me? We can spend some time there and enjoy it.”

“I am sorry, I cannot.”

Something inside me was wondering, why not? But I did not want to cross the line and impose. Thus, I decided not to go. Then I retreated to my room!

It was such a peaceful night. There were breezes of joy and reassurance. The house was very friendly and tranquil when all of a sudden, the door opened annoyingly. It was 11 pm, and some rude words and curses were voiced. I decided not to interfere and remain put in my room because it was tense. Despite that, the unrest continued for half an hour before the house has restored to its tranquility and peacefulness.

Days had gone by with me living in this disciplined house. Our relationship became amicable. The landlady started being more and more familiar with my presence. She got used to me listening to her in addition to our discussions. She decided I must have dinner every night with her even if I did not split the cost. However, I decided to pay my share starting the next month.

One day, the lady came home in the evening and changed and had a shower. She then started preparing a sumptuous meal of grilled chicken and vegetables in addition to some Serbian soup. The vibe was festive, and I had no clue why. After dinner, she brought along a cake and surprised me that the occasion was my birthday. I laughed deep inside because I totally forgot with all the burdens of my study and responsibilities. In my culture, birthdays were not significant events to celebrate. I really appreciated her gesture, and then she lit a cigarette and started sipping her usual drink. Suddenly, I felt that she was haunted by another spirit. She had tears in her eyes, impulses to move her hand through her hair, as well as a distressed smile, which reflected nothing but a broken-down personality and defeat. This smile was filled with a damped down passion and formed with sorrow and pain.

When I was young at school, they used to teach then test us. However, life tests you then show you the lesson! The lesson she received by experience was quite painful and cruel. As for her smile, it was defiant as if saying to sorrow, “No, you will never defeat me!” It is true, you could see a smile, but how about her heart? Was it smiling or hurting? You could sense her pain, and how deeply rooted in her heart it was. I also observed her dignity and pride, and how she encountered such grief and hid it with a smile. In my view, this kind of sorrow was the highest and most painful indeed!

This smile was her alternative conviction by which she attempted to look sharp, one that showed strength, challenge, and a strong will. At that moment, I recalled a saying I had heard that “a person seeks another individual who shares two characteristics, joy and sorrow.”

She looked at me and asked, “Adam, do you know how old I am?”

“No, actually, I do not.”

“How old do I look?”

“The mid-thirties, I would say.”

“Are you complimenting me?”

“Of course not, why do you see it as a compliment?”

She gazed sadly at me and said, “Do you have any idea about the brutality of people in this part of the world? Do you know how sly they are and how they strive to set one up? Of course, you do not! You are still young with barely any experience in life. Did you know, Adam that I have withstood so many storms and earthquakes in my life that no one can tolerate?”

I said to myself that she might have been carried away due to overdrinking!

She resumed trying to justify something. “You are a foreigner who resides in the same place that I do. However, you never try to bother me. You respect yourself and never interfere in my life or impose, which is a privilege. Besides, you respect all terms and conditions which we agreed upon at the very beginning.”

Suddenly, she became silent and smiled again with tears about to jump from her eyelids. Her tears were struggling to break free, but she managed to hold them in. Every time she became close to opening up, she would shut herself down to avoid anyone being able to scrutinize her or understand her. However, the different parts inside her were struggling, each attempting to understand the other.

Suddenly, she said, “The face and heart before you have been through a lot of pain and sorrow; however, life has taught me to rejoice and to spread joy, to be happy and make others happy. I try to conceal my grief whenever I feel it and keep it to myself. Life has also taught me to wear pride, dignity and chastity, to be the deeply rooted tree and never to let the wind or a storm bend me! I made a decision not to show my vulnerability or grief to anyone, whoever he may be. I wonder why I open up to you. Something in you makes others open up and tell you their feelings. You make one feel that heaven has opened up its ears to listen and that heaven urges you to accept its gifts with pleasure. One day, Adam, one day, I will tell you everything!”

Sad words had erupted from the lady’s mouth just like a raging volcano, and only God knew what made them explode! I was puzzled, lacking the experience to tackle such issues. However, I suddenly tried to ask her something that was baffling for me! Her reality was as bitter as a gourd, and I still did not know why I posed such a question! Maybe it was an attempt to relieve her.

I frankly said, “Why do you live on your own? You have few friends, and your life is limited to work, home, and the coffee shop next door.”

She answered me again with tears struggling in her eyes to revolt against its imprisonment, a hidden force pulling them back.

“I will tell you my story and the complications that almost finished me had I not been used to trauma. Are you ready to listen to my story from A to Z?”

“Of course, with pleasure!”

“If you have no one to share your sorrows, pains, dreams, smiles, drinks, or cigarettes with, you turn into a confident person, waiting for life to end! Or maybe you become insane! Or even dead! Whichever is closer, you have to accept it. It is challenging to live alone, with no lover or relatives, but with monsters waiting for you! A dying life and death waiting to happen! When you live on your own, you ought to establish a strong relationship with yourself and make a great difference in the way you interact with others. This can contribute to understanding your own feelings of compassion towards others. Finally, living on your own, whether by choice or forced by circumstances, means that there is a good chance of spending time alone! For those who seek tranquillity in their lives, it would be easier, but for others, it might take a while to adapt to this lifestyle.

I thought maybe she wanted to relieve herself from all her distress, and she probably felt I was a good listener! I promised myself to listen to her until the end and not ask, comment, or piss her off!

She continued and recalled, “Listen, my life started ideally, in a loving family, and I was the special one amongst my siblings. I was ambitious and full of life and trusted others quickly. Life for me was but a beautiful aromatic rose, which is never dull to sniff. I have never attempted to harm anyone nor abuse a being. I always offer help and assistance, and I tend to be a giver rather than a taker. I was quite happy to have my father, my siblings, and even my neighbors. However, when it was time for me to go to University, I asked my father to allow me to move to Belgrade, the lovely city. I have always wanted to live there, considering the differences it has when compared to where we lived. My town was dull and lifeless at night and is nothing like Belgrade, which stays up all night! It has restaurants, cafes and discos, the Lovers Street, churches, museums, theatres and concerts!

“My father adored me and was the closest to my heart, so he asked, ‘what do you intend to study at university?’

‘Medicine.’

He laughed himself to tears and said, ‘But there is no doctor in our family. Do you feel confident you can achieve it?’

‘Yes, father, do you question my abilities?’

‘I do not, but you know that medicine as a field of study is complicated and requires exerting a lot of effort to pass and succeed.’

‘I will meet your expectations.’ I looked at my mother who was quite cynical as if she was saying, ‘Do not rejoice, you are doomed to failure!’ I happen to be the youngest of my siblings, two girls and one boy. The same look was on my siblings’ faces. I have always felt that my brother is closer to my soul than my sister is. I have no idea why! Things should be the other way around because my sister and I are both females and closer in age. My brother had concluded his studies in Civil Engineering, and my sister specialized in Education. On the other hand, my father was a public employee, and my mom was a housewife.

“I excelled in my high school, and my father asked after a while, ‘When do you plan to go to university?’

‘I will try to go next week for registration. I will also try to inquire about the dormitory and the expected costs of living in the city.’

‘God bless you, daughter, in case, you need anything, please let me know. Do not be shy!’

‘Alright, father, I really appreciate it.’

On the registration day, my father had left me some money before leaving for work, and mom said, ‘Try to be prudent with the money. Do not waste it recklessly.’

‘I will do what you say, mother.’”

“On that day, I had a quick breakfast, and I quickly picked a cute, appropriate outfit and left in a hurry for the bus station. I was aware of the bus schedule; therefore, I arrived on time and got on the bus. I chose to sit by the window, and the bus started to explore its way to another life for me, a life of details and aesthetics are very different from mine. I envisioned myself as if seated in a cinema watching a lovely movie full of scenes and images. This movie came in segments.

“The first scene: I arrive in the city and get to know it. Then comes the university life, and I happen to be excelling in my medical specialization. I become a professor in medical sciences at the faculty of medicine just according to plan.

“The second scene: I meet the man of my dreams who will hold me and protect me, and we will build our beautiful house and fill it with kids and noise.”

“The third scene: my spouse and I age together, watch our offspring and grandchildren, and play with them. Then, we try to provide them with our life experiences and offer them love alongside their parents.”

“Such scenes raced into my imagination just like racing cars. However, I was suddenly interrupted.”

“Young lady, this is the last station, or do you wish to return!’

“I tried to sound in control and said, ‘Thank you, sir, I am quite aware of that, but I am exhausted that I barely noticed!’

“Oh dear Belgrade, you are the closest city to my heart! I took the tram to university and went into the registration department, then asked the man in charge, ‘Excuse me, sir, how about the required documents?’

“His answer was weird, somehow. He said, ‘You need no documents, pretty!’

“I convinced myself that I did not really understand that. I was actually living elsewhere. I have never heard such an expression because where I come from, people know each other and hold respect for our culture and traditions. The city was a different setting. I was not sure whether to categorize what he said under courtesy or rudeness.

“He noticed my annoyance and continued with further disrespect,

‘You will hear such words a lot here, and if you wish to live in the city and cannot handle it, go back to town.’

“I decided to ignore such a rude being and his silly actions.”

“Maybe you cannot hear me well! I am only asking about the required documents for registering at the faculty of medicine. Is it such a hard question to answer?”

“He answered rudely, ‘Since your reading skills are weak, I will answer. All of your required information is written on the board. You do not need to ask.’

“Who the hell was this man? I rushed to the board that he pointed to and wrote down all the required information. Then I asked a lady who was sitting next to the rude guy, ‘When am I supposed to bring these documents? Also, should I bring them to you?’

“She gave me a look that I could not explain and continued, ‘Next Thursday is the deadline for accepting applications, and you will not be admitted in there is any delay.’

“Thank you, ma’am,’ I said, but she acted deaf to my words and turned her face away!

“I went straight home and found mom waiting. She was worried sick and asked right away, ‘Did you spend all the money?’

‘No, dear mother, I have not spent a dime!’

“She was surprised and said with rage, ‘I never told you to do so! I said not to spend it all!’

“This has nothing to do with what you said! I found myself going back quickly because I was not very comfortable. It has to do with the city, the bus driver, the admission officer, and his female colleague. They all made me come back to the kind people in the place where I grew up as quickly as possible.’

“My mother looked at me with astonishment and said, ‘This is your first day, and you come back with such feelings! Please do not give your father a hard time by telling him this nonsense. This is how things are. You are a beautiful, attractive lady and you will see a lot of this! Just get used to it!’

“In the evening, my father came home and asked, ‘Were things all right?’

“Yes, father, I will prepare all the required documents and return next Thursday in time for registration.’

“I really felt that my father was thrilled. Why wouldn’t he be? He was my idol, my backbone, and a symbol of giving, mercy, love, and strength. He was for me like the soul is for the body. If the soul leaves the body, it would certainly die. I am so lucky to have had him as my father. He taught me what life is, he guided me through it and patted my shoulder when I felt happy or sad. He supported me and has always backed me up, even if I was wrong. Father was my mentor, guide and advisor. No matter what I say about him, it cannot do him right and express my feelings for this great man! God knows how strong my opinions are toward him! It was my turn now to exert my best efforts and make him proud of me! They always say precious things only come once! That is why we only have one father in our lifetime! I used to feel my father’s love through his compassion and some incidents are so memorable and relevant to him. One day, I told him what the writing teacher told us, on mother’s day. On that day, I asked him if he was interested in listening to the story, and he answered: “of course, I would love that!”

So I said: “Today the writing teacher reminded us of Mother’s day and asked us to write about it, but she told us a story on this occasion. It was the story of a girl who lives in another faraway country. One day the principle of the school sent for a parent of a student. The father works as the gardener of the girl (student). His job is to water the plants, trim them, and take care of the garden. When the administrator told him that the principal wished to see him, he was worried but he decided to go. It turned out he misunderstood the whole situation! His feet barely took him to the principal’s office and he felt that it took him forever to get there! He washed his face and hands before heading to her office to look appropriate. His heart beats raced as he got closer and he was very confused with all sorts of ideas jumping in his head! He was sure he did nothing wrong! And was always loyal at work! He never evaded any duty! He knocked on the door and said: “ma’am, you sent for me.” She responded: “yes, please come in.” Her answer made him more anxious.

She pointed to a piece of paper on the table and said: “read it”

He answered: “I am illiterate and cannot read or write, and I do not speak English! Please pardon me if I have unintentionally committed a mistake, please give me another chance! I will never forget the favor you did to me of letting my child study free of charge at your school as long as I live!” then he started to cry and shiver!

The principal looked at him in surprise and said: “what are you talking about? You are assuming things! It is your right for your daughter to come to this school because she is an outstanding student and you are a very loyal worker. You perform all your duties perfectly. I will ask a teacher to read this piece of paper for you and translate it from English. This is your daughter’s writing and I would like you to know what she has written.”

The teacher read and translated his daughter’s writing into the poor man’s local language. His daughter wrote: “our teacher asked us today to write about Mother’s day. I come from a tiny far away village, where all medical and educational facilities are very modest. Women die every day while giving birth, and my mother was one of those. Therefore, she was not able and will never be able to hold me in her hands. My father was the first to hold me… or maybe the only one who ever did! The whole family was extremely saddened by my mother’s death and by me being a girl who has caused her own mother to die! Right after my mother’s death, the family asked my father to remarry but he categorically refused. They tried to explain all the emotional reasons that would make him remarry but he still refused. They wanted a grandson and thus threatened him that they would stop contacting him and would deny him from inheritance but he held on to his decision. He left everything behind, the land, a good life, a comfortable house, and everything else and came to this huge city with me in his arms! Life was very difficult and he had to work day and night to raise me with a lot of love! I began to understand why he would say that he dislikes certain foods to leave the last bites for me. When I grew up, I started to understand the sizable sacrifice of my father! He provided me with the best in accordance with his situation! This school gave my father a place to stay, respect, and a lot more like a place for me in it! I need to say that if a mother is defined by care and love, then this definition applies to my father and if passion and sympathy are characteristics of a mother, then they apply to my father as well. If self-sacrifice is a mother’s it is my father’s. A mother is made of love, care, sacrifice, and compassion and thus my father is the best mother on earth.

Today is Mother’s day and I wish my father all goodness and love, for he was the best father ever, I salute my father, the gardener, who works hard in this school.

I understand that I may fail this essay writing after my teacher reads it, but it will cost me a price, I am not reluctant to pay towards honoring my father. My father has never been selfish in his love to me. Silence was deafening in the room and emotions were silent coral. All you could hear is the crying of the girl’s father, whose clothes were dampened by sweat due to the heat of the sun. The words of his sweet girl drowned his chest with tears. He stood hand folded and took the paper from the teacher… he held it close to his heart and continued crying.

Suddenly, the principal stood up and offered him a glass of water, and a seat to sit down, and said in her warm voice: “dear respectful father and hardworking gardener, your daughter got a full mark on this essay, 10 out of 10.” This is the best essay that was even written on Mother’s day in the history of this school. Tomorrow we will hold a celebration and you are going to be the guest of honor for this event. This is the type of appreciation and gratitude for love and sacrifice that a man would exert to raise his children. We need to show that a father does not have to be a woman to be an optimal father. Today, we pride having your daughter in our school and having you as one of the best fathers. Your care in the gardens is obvious but in real life, you have proved that fathers can be mothers too.

When I finished telling my father this story while sitting in his lap. The rain was falling heavily, so I looked at my father and said:

“Why are you crying, dad?”

He answered: “the story is really touching daughter!”

I felt that my father’s tears are a very honest expression of his love, and was sympathizing with me, just like the father in the story. On the other hand, my sympathy towards my father is similar to that of the girl’s sympathy towards her father.

“Our house was more divine this day, lighter, happier and hopeful, and I overheard my father saying to my mother in his bedroom, ‘She will be a great person. However, she is too innocent, and you should make her stronger and teach her how to stand up for herself! After all, she is going to a community of wolves where mercy does not exist. This city is attractive and dreamy, and when I was young, I experienced how it could destroy youth and crush their ambitions. I heard of people who have gone there and never come back and of those who entered mazes, which led them to failure! Some of them have even committed suicide due to their inability to confront their folks eventually!’

“I was shocked as I listened to my father. He never spoke to me about his sufferings in the city, or what he thought of it, but why would he let me go there? Only then had I realized how much he loved me! He did not want to stand in my way or restrict the fulfilment of my ambitions. Something profound hurt him and reminded him of the past! Yet, he chose to ignore it for my sake! Therefore, I decided to meet his expectations and to realize his wishes.”

“My sister and brother came back from work, and my sister asked, ‘How was your day?’

“Everything is fine. It seems well.’

“We went to our room, which we shared, and she asked, ‘How are city boys?’

“To be frank, I was disappointed today. I only saw a few people, and they were rude and disrespectful!’

“You should have seen that coming. Just be healthy and civilized. Do not be an easy catch at all! I wish you would leave as soon as possible so that I can enjoy some privacy in this room. This way, I can legally get rid of you.’

“We started laughing and recalled some funny things we had experienced in the past. This was our way of saying goodbye!”

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