Sex didn’t help me out of the war in Bosnia. A matter of misjudgement, naivety, bad luck, or fate. Take your pick.
On a snowy February 14, 1993, the tenth month of the war, my mother was wielding huge kitchen scissors, which chewed my hair as she struggled to cut the locks held steady between her fingers. The hair fell to the floor and I sobbed. I was nineteen.
Mum comforted me like a crooner without music. “Don’t cry. It’ll grow back again. It’s better this way. Easier to keep clean. Keeps the lice away.”
“I hate it.”
“You’ll look at least four years younger.”
“I don’t want to look younger.”
Mum kept struggling with the dull scissors, muttering, “At least soldiers will keep their eyes off you.”
“Maybe I want them to see me.”
“I don’t want to see you with a rifle.”
“Maybe a handsome Dutch officer will take me to a land far away and long ago. Like Lara.” My old girlfriend Lara was way luckier to hook up with a French UN officer, an old fellow, man enough to knock her up but take responsibility.
She hit me on the neck with the smooth part of the scissors. “You’re so fucking dull.” She hit me again.
“All right Mum, all right, knock it off.”
I looked at her trying to see the traces of the woman who, back in the sixties, had spread her legs to an old city slicker to escape her mountain village and freshly manured fields. She’d left her mucky footwear and ran barefoot to a small Sarajevo flat with a shiny wooden floor, straightened her back and ironed her clothes, her fat feet sweating in hard high-heel shoes as if they’d never experienced the comfort of rubber galoshes.
She ruffled my now-mowed hair, laughed, went to the kitchen, fetched the little broom crudely made of thin twigs, and brushed my shoulders. She said, “Look at you. Now you’re a little boy.”
I checked my hair in a little piece of broken mirror. I looked nothing like my late father. I’m blond, my nose is perky and freckled, my lips sensual. Mum’s friends used to stop us in the street, scan me and say with those peevish voices, “You’re the spitting image of your mother.” I hated the word “spitting.” I’d wipe my hand across my eyes and my cheeks. That was before the war, when the only things we had to hate were petty things. I said, “Come on. Damn ugly. Now no one will ever look at me again.” I went to my bedroom, but I could hear Mum saying softly, “That’s the whole point.”
The walls of my room were full of holes but well patched with cupboard doors, floor planks, linoleum, you name it. I pushed the piece of a flattened tin that covered a grenade hole and peered out just to see the same old street life. In the distance was a woman trying to take the short cut between two twenty-story “towers” on the way to the water and food supply at Merhamet. There was a sixty-percent chance she’d stay forever in that spot, her blood basking in the weak winter sun. I’d seen two guys betting as to who’d get to pass with their skin intact and who wouldn’t. A shot hit her and she fell, plunging face forward into the asphalt.
I slipped into my jeans, which were torn, but now no longer fashionable. I put on my father’s white shirt with a dark stain around the collar. My father’s throat was slit by a flying piece of car shell outside his downtown office, but the piece of metal had been overheated and it’d scorched his flesh, cauterizing the wound with surgical precision. Some blood had come out after all. I zipped my jacket up to the chin to hide the shirt and a bracelet I’d made of dulled barbed wire and colourful threads. Then I heard what seemed like a distant knocking on the front door. I walked to the kitchen, saying, “Must be Jasmina.”
Mum was sitting at the kitchen table, close to another big hole in the outer wall, which was covered with plastic shaking in the wind. The table’s legs were half sawed off and there was fumeless coffee in a small cup. She looked up from the table and sighed as I opened the door an inch and winked to Jasmina to wait there.
Mum muttered, “Where are you going?”
“Can’t you go down the street and see if the cistern’s arrived yet?”
“Please, my hands are killing me.” She pointed to two ten-litre canisters and a broom handle.
“So we’ve got two now. Awesome.”
“Minka upstairs gave me one. There was still some oil in it so you’ll get extra fat nail soup tonight. Come to think of it, no, we’re out of nails, it’ll be a bullet soup.”
“Look at you, so skinny. Nothing to fill those clothes.”
I grabbed the canisters and the broom handle. “Knock it off, Mum. Fat is bad, even in war. I’m out of here.”
Mum finished her coffee and turned over the cup, pouring the resin run out, and then examined the pattern it had left on the cup walls.
As I struggled with the slippery canisters, my shirt came untucked, showing from beneath my jacket. She hollered, “What’s that you’re wearing? You little ... why are you wearing your father’s shirt?”
“Fuck you, Mum. I loved him too.”
She lifted her hand with the coffee cup still in it and was about to hurl it at me when she must have realized she only had the one cup, and she put it back with an affectionate look and without a word. I inched out as she slouched over the table whispering something to the cup. The canisters had a life of their own when I dashed out and nudged Jasmina on her shoulder. Her face looked like a country of pimples. She had pretty much the same clothes as hundreds of others in the city, very warm stuff that had fallen from the sky by the dozen two months earlier. The door slammed but only bounced back and forth against the doorframe because the lock was broken. My father didn’t get a chance to fix it, and Mum wouldn’t let me do it either.
Outside our five-storey building that looked like a sieve, it was snowing, and the snowflakes, as big as a child’s fists, were eddying in the sky as if this was their last chance to fall. We walked down the street and towards a place where, usually, a row of people waited with canisters to get their water ration from the cistern.
Jasmina asked, “Is that your father’s shirt?”
I said nothing.
“How long has it been now?”
“The stains ... you haven’t¾”
“Mum won’t wash it.”
“I guess it’s the only thing we agree about.”
Jasmina said, “I still can’t believe that arsehole said you were lucky there wasn’t much blood. Bastard Blue Helmet.”
“No, he was our guy. He looked like he was with the Smurfs, blue uniform and all, but this was before the UN came. He even spoke English as if he’d just fallen from Mars or something.”
“You never told me that.”
“Whatever.” I put the handle and the canisters over Jasmina’s shoulders and started to whistle a tune. She laughed and I scampered down the street, every now and then swimming into the snow that was growing thicker all the time. I cast clumsily made snowballs, which exploded into thousands of shiny feathers as they hit shuttered shops windows and broken street lights, vanishing like fireflies coruscating in the air.
I stopped at the cistern, in front of a straight line of sour-faced people. “Look at this shit. It’ll never stop. I feel I’d fuck anybody or anything to get out of the whole mess. Lara was so damn lucky with that old Smurf.”
“At least you look good. Who’d want this?” Jasmina grabbed her own flat breasts and then her butt. I put both my hands inside my jacket pretending to have big balloons myself and played a little. “Oh Monsieur Blue Coat, would you please rip me out of my beloved motherland?”
Jasmina guffawed but the other people in the queue sneered at us. I put a finger over her mouth, giggling. Jasmina choked a laugh.
Half an hour later, I waved goodbye to Jasmina and walked back alone with the full canisters yoked over my shoulders. A mile down the street, I bumped into a middle-aged man, let’s call him Sadik. He pulled his bulky stomach in, tightened the wool scarf that was dangling over his chest, straightened his marine blue shirt inside a beige leather jacket, and with all his fingers combed his greasy hair backwards. He looked pretty much like the late sovereign Tito in his Partisan years. He said with the biggest grin, “You need a hand?”
“Come on, you can barely walk. Let me help you with that one.”
Sadik pulled one canister off the broom handle. I lost my balance and fell backwards. He was flustered. “Sorry sorry sorry.” His hair became unwieldy, and his greasy locks glued to his already sweaty forehead. He even managed to pierce one of the canisters against the crumbled curb. I kicked it. “Shit. Look what you’ve done. Mum will kill me.”
“Watch your language.”
I took the broom and stuck it under his nose. I hissed, “Back off!” Then I started to move away from him, clutching the canister that was still in one piece.
He cried, “Hey, wait. I’m sorry. It’s my fault. Please come back.”
When I was thirty meters away from him, the magical words came. “Wait, I’ll pay for the water.”
I went stiff.
Later, we were sitting in his office. It turned out he ran a travel agency, which was decorated with phony greenish neon letters from the eighties: Fly with Sadik. He had the same in miniature on the wall behind him. He also had a low, small desk scattered with papers and a multi-coloured pen. There was an old computer, one of those first and totally worthless Commodore machines, well, hardly a machine. The whitewashed walls were uncomfortably naked and cold, in spite of the colourful photo of the former President put between two bleached posters of a lime white beach with a palm bending all the way down to the foamy water.
“Nice, huh?” he said through his big white teeth. His breath was fresh like mint. I wondered how he managed that.
“I wouldn’t mind going there myself.”
“Why don’t you?”
“Have to help people. It’s my holy duty as a citizen of this beautiful city that is being destroyed piece by piece.”
He fetched us both a beer. I took a sip and held back a retch. I hated beer, the drink of real men. “How does running a travel agency in the middle of a war help anyone? Are people taking a week or two of vacation from all this shit?”
“You’re clever. I like that.” He fidgeted with his pen, changing the colours and testing each and every one by drawing squiggles. “People are trapped in the city. There are few channels through which they can escape and move abroad.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“Here’s the trick. The travel agency is a cover. I get people out of here for good. I send them on a lifelong vacation to Germany, Austria, the U.S., Scandinavia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, you name it.”
I started to sweat like an old bitch and almost let my tongue fall out of my mouth to cool myself and ventilate. Back then, one warm word was enough to set my imagination going. From the hint of a smile behind that mask of professionalism, I could tell that he knew he’d broken my defence.
I gathered myself and said, “You are fucking with me.”
“No, not at all, well not yet anyway.”
I thought what the hell. I nudged the water canister with my knee and it glided a little. There was a small pool on the sand-coloured floor. I could already imagine myself running around on that beach, which ought to be fresher than in that picture, drinking and eating that all-exotic stuff, wearing fashionable clothes, walking like people on a catwalk. Mum could do whatever she wanted. Maybe he wouldn’t take her with us. Shit.
I rose, picked up the canister, which kept slipping from my sweaty hands and hurdled myself over the high threshold. “I have to think about it.”
“So, you don’t want to join the happy company.”
“I don’t know. It’s kind of strange, you know.”
“Don’t worry. Let Mr. Sadik here take good care of you. No problem. Let me just make a phone call and I’ll get back to you.”
He gave me that smile with a wink again and now I was the one fidgeting around. Before making the call, Sadik pulled a small heater out from a drawer and turned it on. I inched toward the desk. “You have electricity?”
“Only for my special guests.”
“Wow. That’s awesome. Really. How does it work?”
He opened the drawer further and showed me a hidden chaos of wires and small contraptions glued together and attached to a huge lorry battery and a little gas-driven generator.
“You really know what you’re doing, right.”
He grabbed my hands and pulled them closer to the heater. Then he picked up the phone and dialed, all the while glancing and smiling at me. He said to someone on the other line, “Hi there, you old bastard. How’s it going? Fine fine, everything’s smooth. Listen, I have a client here. Yeah, exactly, ready for a flight. I mean you know me, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.” Then he interrupted the conversation and turned to me. “You’re over eighteen, right?”
He went on, “No problem. Maybe you can help us out a little, what do you say? All right, see you later alligator.” He put the phone down. I wriggled in the yellow, steel chair, pulling wry faces the way an actor might before walking out onto the stage. He gave me that wink and smile again, and I wondered if I’d come out cheap. I used to do it for drinks and old records of the Stones. It’d been a while since I’d last got laid and I was feeling kind of rusty and tight. Well, tight was always appreciated, but perhaps not too tight and, besides, I’d been having regular haemorrhoid attacks for two months. I was trying not to be shy while looking intensely at the tall Sadik as he went to check if the door was properly bolted. A gust of wind brought some snow into his face and hair. He shook it off and dried the water from his face with his sleeves. His shirt, patched at the elbows, came off. I was starting to have a little crush on him.
The scene started without words. We both knew what exchange of gifts was going to take place. I was impressed by the bulk in his crotch. He pulled me up from the steel chair, pressed my back rather gently until I was bent over the desk, and he whispered, “Don’t mind the papers. Take a grip of anything you need.” Strangely enough, he suddenly smelled of grass, or no, it was more like hay, that was it, hay, as if we were rolling in some country stable.
I dragged down my jeans, revealing my naked butt. Not hesitating for even a split second, he straightened, unbuttoned his trousers, and leaned over me, anchoring into my warm embrace like a skillful sailor, releasing the sound of pleasure of a lost explorer who finally fell upon an oasis. I looked up at the poster of the beach and Tito’s portrait and moaned in pain but dragged him hard to me. It felt like short, sharp cuts. Lukewarm fluid ran down my thigh. The lingering pain rippled to the edges of my body, imposing a sense of being cuddled. Then he put his big hand between my legs and massaged me.
We lay content over the desk, he over me, our bodies twitching from time to time until our limbs relaxed and we turned on our sides. I watched him, his eyes still closed and his facial muscles contracting as if in pain. He said, “This is just what I needed. It’s like getting rid of a yoke I’ve had on me since the war started. You were great. The best I’ve had in a long time.”
“You were pretty good, too.” I smiled. “I’m so glad I met you.”
“Yeah.” He pulled his pants up, straightened his hair and took a long swig of the beer.
“You could leave this business and go with me.”
He lifted up his head a little, his eyes almost crossed, his expression that of a businessman. “What the hell are you talking about? We? Very funny. Nobody’s going anywhere.”
“You didn’t really think I could fix you out of here, stupid? Ha, you’re amazing. If I could, I’d get the hell out of here myself. Go with me.”
“Of course I did. You said...I mean we, we just¾”
“I just shagged you, silly. It doesn’t mean I want to share my life with you or anything. I’m fucking married.”
“You asshole!” I pushed him. He hit a wall and began to laugh. The poster of the beach fell down. I shouted. I had nothing else to come up with but the plain old “Fuck you.”
“I just did.”
I darted out into the snow. Somehow, it seemed warmer outside and I started to sweat. Sadik threw out my canister. I stood there for a moment, then jerked up the canister, and started walking across the city, skillfully navigating through safe zones. In an alley close to the Holiday Inn, reporters were fondling some girls. Up in suburbia, I saw two boys quarrelling. Somebody cried “Fight” and a bunch of boys and girls appeared from nowhere, making a ring around the two fighters. Then, before you could say “jiffy,” the fight was over and they dispersed.
Walking back up my street, I noticed nothing out of the ordinary. Every face looked the same like when you watch an old Chinese film for the first time and the people all look like clones. I guess we look like clones to them too, if they are following this war on the news.
It was an average afternoon: people passing by, no one laughing; women coming back from imagined bazaars dragging empty bags; children wading in oil pools around burnt cars, some of them dashing off to their homes then coming back running and waving buttered slabs of hard bread; mongrels barking-yelping-squeaking when chased by the kids; cats lying silently on garbage piles like small guardian sphinxes; occasional sniper shots missing or hitting their mark, their accuracy probably depending on the brandy reserves up there in the Jewish cemetery.
The only new thing was some lost peasant yelling at his horse, which was struggling to pull a cart overloaded with firewood that the man was trying to sell to other penniless people. He lashed the animal over the legs and groin. It sounded like glass breaking. The horse was almost burying its head into the ground like an ostrich. The man cried in a shrill voice, “Jihaah, lad, jihaah! Up with the head!” He then took a tin, went over to the feeble runnels of thawing snow dripping from the roof of a closed-down grocer, filled the tin, drank from it, filled it once more, and poured the stream over the horse’s head. It snapped open its big black eyes, shook off the fluid, neighed as if it was going to increase its pace, then dropped down onto its front legs. The children ran around it, shirking the eyes of the owner and yelling, “Come on, lad! Come on!” The horse jumped up and pulled onwards.
That cheered me up and I ran up four flights of stairs to our flat. Mum was still where I’d left her, at the kitchen table. On a huge plate she’d neatly put two sardines. “Where’s the other canister?”
“A soldier pushed me around and punched a hole in it. He said I was trying to go before others in the queue.”
“Motherfucker,” she said.
“Ah, never mind, it’s not your fault. Why did it take you so long? It’s almost night.”
“I was with Jasmina.”
“Is Jasmina your new girlfriend?”
“No Mum, we’re just friends.”
“Pity, she’s such a great girl. I mean she’s not pretty but she’s nice. I know it sounds crazy, but I keep thinking about little feet, you know.”
“Knock it off Mum.” I took both fish into my mouth at the same time.
“Hey, your jeans are wet.”
I felt my behind and it was all wet and sticky. I said quickly, “I slipped and fell into a pool downtown.”
“Go take them off.”
I went to the small bathroom, looked at myself in the broken mirror, took off my jeans and smelled them. I threw them into a corner, grabbed my buttocks and moaned in pain. I scratched my testicles and checked my butt in the mirror and put on my long johns.
Then Mum came in with a chair. “Come here. That haircut’s awful. Let me fix it.”
I stared at her as she poured a little water into a bowl and put it on under the tap that hadn’t seen water for a year. I laughed when she spruced my face a little and pulled me back to sit down. I took a piece of the broken mirror and tried out a few smiles. Mum dipped her hands into the water and ruffled my hair. I stopped her hand for a second and caressed it.
Adnan Mahmutović (b. 1974) became a refugee of war in 1993 and ended up in Sweden. He worked for a decade with people with brain damage while studying English and philosophy. He has PhD in English literature and MFA in creative writing, and he is currently a lecturer and writer-in-residence at the Department of English, Stockholm University. His stories have dealt with contemporary European history, and the issues of identity and home for Bosnian refugees. He has published three books Thinner than a Hair (novel), How to Fare Well and Stay Fair (short-stories), and Ways of Being Free (academic).