My Life Without Me

ovo je pocetak knjige koju zavrsavam ovih dana…ja je zovem laznom autobiografijom…

Where was I when it all started?

In the hospital, some fifty years ago, but not in the delivery ward, where most children get their umbilical cords cut. No, I was in the cancer ward, where my mother worked. She was a cancer ward paediatrician, and that night, the 7th of March, after a long game of cards with her friends, she went to work on her night shift.

You must understand that my late Mom was a historical communist, one of those who risked her life when she was seventeen for ideals of justice and truth. An activist paediatrician she chose to work at the toughest places, with dying children alone in the ward without their own parents. My mother was all they had, and she loved them more than herself.

She even loved them more than my own little self, who, in her eyes, lacked the stark appeal of a dying creature whom she could save. On the contrary, I was big, healthy and plump. She called me SPOILED, and furthermore, denounced the rest of rich family as “kulaks.” The original kulak was my grandfather, a gentleman father of six who as an ignorant first-generation capitalist invested his money in the first bank founded in Serbia. The bank failed immediately because the owner ran off to London with the loot (an evergreen characteristic of Serbian banking system).

Then my mother, the failed banker’s youngest daughter, set fire to the library as a political act. Luckily the rest of the house stayed intact, remaining the family’s last grand possession after decades of depredation by Serbian swindlers, German occupiers, Russian liberators and the communist regime.

My pretty little mother, convinced of her ideological merits, implemented them in radical deeds. She married her husband, my father, the moment she set eyes on him. He was a Communist, clean and hard working: dating and love was for sissies.

The ambitious young couple had no time to waste. My mother was obliged to complete her medical studies, so her husband used to heave both her and her medical textbooks on top of a cupboard, a towering structure where she could not climb down alone. He was ahead of her in his studies, which was why he got to freely pace the floor of their small student dorm. She always admired him for this decisive act.

My mother, small and dainty and dressed in her worker’s clothes, was hugely pregnant as she passed her last exams. The professor quizzed her on infanticide. She didn’t blink, she answered with her usual preciseness and melodic absolute pitch. He bowed at her in admiration, offering her his hand as a sign of respect. But when she stood he blushed in deep embarrassment:

-My comrade colleague, but you are pregnant!

-My comrade professor, my mother answered promptly, the fact that I am a woman does not make me less a colleague.

She worked throughout her pregnancy. From her first months she vomited incessantly, finally dosing herself with American imperialist pills to stop the nausea. I still wonder if those hazardous pills made me the way I am: the dissident traitor writing this book.

She may have miscounted the weeks and months, for, after the night’s card game, she felt a sudden and violent pain in her uterus.

She screamed for help, and the comrade-colleagues diagnosed her.

– The delivery is underway…

– No way, she started scolding them, no way, it is too early…

They examined her.

– Your baby is indeed on her away and she is arriving upside down, ready to jump on her feet.

At that news my mother lost control and every facade of comrade bravery, she started screaming that she would not survive the shame and pain and demanded a caesarean delivery. Too late: the wrong headed baby was kicking her way out. In order to calm her down, the comrades doctors lied to her (another common method between comrades), telling her that they were preparing the room for her operation. In the meantime I managed to abandon her body. They took me from the cancer ward and put two flights upstairs in the delivery ward.

The next day my mother returned to her senses. Small as she was, my mother had huge milky breasts. I can still remember pumping them and playing with them, but I had to earn a right to them, and that was not simple.

In those days in that country, newborns were densely swaddled, much like nuns and bread loaves. My mom received her identical white loaf, she examined the wrapping professionally and the bacterial aspect of the cotton… She then glanced at the baby and looked severely at the nurse:

-Comrade nurse, this baby is not mine.

The comrade nurse glared back at her even more severely. Maternity ward nurses in communist regimes were emergency workers, like firemen. They called all women “Mothers”, screaming, scolding and barking orders at them so that the women never had a moment to relax and experience postpartum depression.

-Comrade doctor, said the nurse, this is the baby you’ve got and you are going to feed it.

My mother stubbornly snatched the baby and unwrapped her little hand to check the bracelet around her wrist. The bracelet was there, it had her own name on it…

– There you go, triumphantly and defiantly said the comrade nurse.

But wow, once the hand was unwrapped the rest of the swaddlings went.

– Comrade nurse…this infant is a boy…I was told I had a girl.

The nurse wrapped the baby back in a businesslike manner, not much upset, and said, – – Couldn’t you feed it anyway while I find yours?

At that moment, the search for myself conclusively began. I have never had any certainty that I am who they claim I am. No one has ever done a blood test or DNA test, and in those days the locals went physically searching, seeking clues like detectives: who worked the shift last night, who carried the baby, where? Finally they found the personage that is now writing, being breast-fed by a gypsy woman who had delivered her fourth child the same night my mother gave birth.

The comrade nurse said to the woman:

-Woman, this baby is not yours.

The gypsy mother angrily replied:

-I love all my children and even if I am poor nobody will take them from me!

The nurse undid the baby wrap and there I was, nude as only a girl can be.

– You had a son, you silly woman, said the nurse. The gypsy mother backed down with some sadness and yet relief…girls are far harder to bring up.

-Let me feed her first, look how hungry she is.

And she did it. My first milk was a milk from a gypsy whose name I never knew and which was not meant for me but for her son, my milk brother.

Many times I have asked myself, is he dead or alive? A gypsy’s life is often brief. Did he ever go to school? — gypsies in Belgrade scarcely allow their children to go. Was he handsome, was he miserable, did he have children of his own? Did he beg in the streets as a child and collect rubbish as a man, beautiful as only gypsies can be in yellow dashing suits of the garbage men. Am I risking incest?

Today as I walk the streets of Belgrade I look at the men of my age who could be gypsies, and I think of him. I am an only child, so, thanks to that first meal of my life, he was my only relative. It seems I enjoyed it so much that even the comrade nurse didn’t complain. Although my mother never admitted it to me, my gypsy milk brother sucked my mother’s sweet odorous milk. It was some kind of rape, she confessed to her best friend. The nurse made her do it.

I fantasized about my milk brother. In school I always sat beside a gypsy boy during classes. When I grew up to be a young woman, I started belly dancing with the gypsies, singing in those mysterious and segregated places where only gypsies were admitted. Though I was blonde, they would let me in (besides, where my mother comes from, the gypsies were all blonde). One of them said: if only you were not so blonde I would marry you, since you sure can dance and sing and make money. (Maybe HE was my milk brother!).

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

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

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

– Mom, if it is born here in Egypt, will the baby be black? My mother burst into laughter. My father stood up from his chair.

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

I pondered this seriously and said: OK.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When my grandma came to visit her son in Belgrade, she would behave as if I didn’t exist. Once I nearly died because she conspicuously ignored the 2 year old in the room with her.

Fifty-one years have passed since then, but whenever I achieve some success, my father asks me: who did that for you? Worse yet, l also ask myself: who made me do that? Is it really me who did anything? I credit circumstances for my success, while my failures are taken for granted. Because I was born a girl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When my mother denied me ice-cream saying:

– ice cream is not good for you, you will get sick and die…

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

– cream is not good for small children, they will get sick and die…

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

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

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

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

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

My father promptly barked:

– how many people in the world are dying of hunger and she wants DOLLS!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once I entered the Italian office where my father worked. He had become the general manager of a big import export firm. The secretary let me in without announcing me: and he stood up from his desk, offered me his hand for a shake with : pleased to meet you.. He simply didn’t recognize me.

I was on the verge of tears; what is it that’s different about me here? My father started guessing, didn’t even try to turn it in a joke:

-It’s the hair?

– No.

– Oh I know, the Italian dress?

– No.

– Wait, you have high heels.

-No way.

So says he, giving up, WHAT ?

-Nothing, said I, there is nothing new on me.

-Maybe that’s it then, said he… It’s that it’s ‘nothing new.’

In those greatest hours of his success, he didn’t have much time to spare for me or family. In those hours he spent with us he certainly did not look or listen to us. From the point of view of a paterfamilias, we had more important things to do: collective walks with traditional family rules, telling tales about the past of the family, singing in verses, issuing warnings and orders, and preparing for the death of each of us.

I was not even seven when my father bought a fancy family grave in the central cemetary of Belgrade. We could have bought a flat for that amount of money, but Serbian culture is pagan and necrotic. A graveyard means more than a flat, for a grave lasts forever while a flat lasts only while you live there. Plus, a very important distinction: the grave belongs to the family, while a flat by communist laws belonged to the state.

My father took us all to the graveyard and showed us our names engraved in marble. Date of birth and a dash…I didn’t even know what was missing there. I thought that now that we were officially born and registered in marble, we had to do something about it; like being admitted to a school.

I was proud, but then my best friend who knew all about that kind of stuff (and also that babies are not brought by storks), told me that the only thing that was expected from me in a graveyard was to die. I felt worried: shall I make it through the gates? Was I supposed to die at a certain time? My parents didn’t give me instructions yet.

Of course those instructions arrived for me in due time: very soon my father explained to me all the possibilities in a mathematical way, who among us would die, first or last… We would be a family forever after, he said.

I felt taken care of and reassured. I never thought I would have any other family but them. How could any other family compete with this fine marble plot in the center of Belgrade, among the war heroes and anonymous rich people whose tombs were bigger than their homes? They persisted forever there, as opposed to those squabbling mortals whose houses were destroyed by bombings, lootings, earthquakes, miseries…

In my mother’s family, by contrast, death was not considered possible. My grandma would always say if somebody died:

– Oh death is a lie , God is the truth.

She used to tell me this story as proof:

A man in her hometown died. Then, after a day, while he was lying in public, in display as in southern Serbia is the common custom in decent houses, while other people stood around eating and drinking and wailing, all of a sudden he opened his eyes and came back to his senses.

Then he told his amazed guests what had happened to him, with a most natural tone. He was conducted through dungeons in a very dark place under the earth to an office where a man was sitting behind a desk. They made him dress up properly, in a suit and with a tie, exactly as he was dressed here now in display in his coffin. He he had to approach the man behind the desk, walking on a red carpet.

The man lifted his eyes and asked him, are you XY? The deceased man said, sure I am.

The death clerk looked at him more carefully.

– How old are you?

Our man said, 54.

The man behind the desk stood up angrily and shouted at his escort,

– What on earth have you done, this is the wrong XY, not the one who was supposed to come!

The escort was really upset, ushered out the deceased man in a hurry, didn’t even make it to take off his funeral clothes, led him to the air and space and here he is now, breathing and talking.

He stood up from his coffin. His wife embraced him crying with happiness, his mother too. The children were slightly afraid.

The gathering turned out into a feast which lasted for three days as it was planned for a proper funeral. At the end of the third day, while the guests were pretty much tired and drunk, since all the town heard of the news and came to celebrate the return of the deceased, news came to them. At the other side of the town an eighty year old with the same name XY has died.

I never doubted my grandma’s stories. But I asked: was his suit really from the underworld?

– Of course it was, nobody in southern Serbia at that time wore the English tweed suit and a Burberry.

When my grandmother was 88, she said to all of us, especially her daughter the doctor:

-Leave me alone, I don’t want to take any pills. One has to die of something when time comes.

When my father turned eighty, he changed all his funeral dispositions after a long dramatic brainstorming. Every time I would visit him before going on a long or a short trip ( for him made no difference, the physical distance between the two of us was the only thing that mattered, the length of the umbilical cord was transgressed) he would seat me and repeat the funeral dispositions. And as time went by those schemes were longer and more detailed and we would not even be seated anymore but we would rehearse his funeral.

That day he was lying in his very neat white bed, on his back and eyes turned to the ceiling…he was hardly moving the lips but his concentration was infallible for those who could be mistaken that he was really sick. I wonder, can that man ever die? Or lose concentration on his death and us he controls as proof he is still alive?

-So, my dear, I will probably die and you won’t be here, I will die alone but never mind, that’s the cruelty of life. Children never pay back their parents. The love and care they were given, they pass on to their own children…

I wriggle and feel guilty, even though he is ghastly right in some ways, I know he means wrong, he actually is jealous of all children and all people that don’t take him as the central figure of the world. And now I the daughter will pay for his hurt feelings. Who else?

-Dad…

-Don’t dad me, take that safe (a movable safe from World War II, a very heavy metal box) and open it…you have dispositions in two copies there. The news is that I want an open coffin funeral, announced in the public media so that people don’t miss it.

– But who would miss it? All your people are already gone, even Mom.

– I count on your and my granddaughter’s people. You are a public person, you will write a nice necrology, publish it.

– But Dad…

-Don’t you dad me he said and put the white sheet over his mouth.

That meant the conversation was over and he wants to go to sleep. But his face was covered like that of a newly deceased.

He talked to me always as a commander to a soldier. His dad talked to him that way…and everything different was considered a joke. He could joke, oh yes, but never when funerals and coffins were concerned.

OK dad, a big public funeral, I lied to him… and that would be my revenge, I thought. But a couple of days later, I was not sure whose revenge it would be, his or mine. How would we know we had won?

About jasminatesanovic

Jasmina Tešanović (Serbian: Јасмина Тешановић) (born March 7, 1954) is a feminist, political activist (Women in Black, Code Pink), translator, publisher and filmmaker. She was one of the organizers of the first Feminist conference in Eastern Europe "Drug-ca Zena" in 1978, in Belgrade. With Slavica Stojanovic, she ran the first feminist publishing house in the Balkans "Feminist 94" for 10 years. She is the author of Diary of a Political Idiot, a war diary written during the 1999 Kosovo War and widely distributed on the Internet. Ever since then she has been publishing all her work, diaries, stories and films on blogs and other Internet media.
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