by David Mladinov
“You can take this summer and shove it,” Marina grumbled, marking each word with a puff of smoke. She settled her feet on the wicker armchair and pulled the blanket up to her chin, leaving only her hand out with the cigarette. The blustery night wind scattered ash over the edge of the wooden porch into the dunes which dipped sharply downward toward a long, straight beach. Waves broke in rows advancing loudly over the sand.
“Remember my brother Miša?” she asked.
Back when they had been students in Belgrade, Marina’s brother was a good eight years younger than they. Leon had paid no attention whatsoever to the kid. At the time children annoyed him with their inanities. He vaguely recalled Miša as having a round head, a crew cut, and opening the door for him several times. Leon was not sure whether they ever exchanged more words than his asking Miša to let Marina know he’d arrived.
“Sure I remember him.”
“Did I tell you? He’s in Israel now. Three years. Since the war began. He wasn’t eager to be sent to Bosnia.”
“And how is he?”
“He left after our mother died.”
The summer houses around them were dark. The only building with all the windows still lit was where the teenagers were staying. Through the wide-opened light-framed doorway blared loud music, occasionally punctuated by penetrating young voices squabbling in English. Down on the beach, behind Marina, a couple was struggling to lug a sleeping bag flapping wildly between their fists like a flag in the wind. Their outlines became increasingly blurred as they moved away to the point where the beach faded into the gray mist. Marina lit yet another cigarette.
It used to be at their earlier meetings that all the participants smoked, but now only the two of them remained, apologizing each time they lit a cigarette, even on the porch, though they tried to sit away and blow the smoke downwind. When their friends went to bed, they felt a sudden surge of freedom.
“Unlike me, my brother was always the obedient one. As far as I can remember Miša’s only youthful rebellion was his decision to become a sea captain. And to make matters worse, contrary to all his expectations, my parents did not object. They thought it would suit him better to be a professor as they had been. But they didn’t try to stop him, so he ended up having to enroll in the Naval Academy. It turned out that being out on the open sea made him panic and on top of it all, he got violently sea sick. Nothing helped, not even medications. For awhile he navigated the river Danube, thinking that with land on each side it would be easier; even that didn’t sit well with him, so he quit working altogether.”
On the edge of the beach, right by the dunes, the boy and girl, braving the wind, had crawled into the sleeping bag. If he hadn’t seen them earlier, they’d look, now, in the dark, like a blacken log tossed up by the sea.
“After the disastrous sea captain business he married a girl named Jasmina, a student of linguistics from Montenegro. Romance languages. Meaning she knew a little Italian, took a stab at French, and probably had a semester or two of Spanish. Since she too was having a hard time finding a job they lived with my parents. After that came three children, no more no less, one right after another. So, of course, it was Mom and Dad who fed and raised them. Her parents helped as well. Jasmina’s father was a general or some other high-ranking military type, I can’t remember any more, but all that wasn’t enough. For years I told Mom and Dad they should make them stand on their own two feet, but Mom kept putting off the day. When Dad died it was clear to me that the situation was hopeless.”
Since more than sixty people had signed up for the reunion, the group decided to rent an additional Cape Cod villa as a common area. Villa was the word used by the tourist brochures to describe these wooden barracks where they were staying, an unsightly cluster of cabins with front porches among the straggly, wind-whipped shrubbery and twisted, dwarf pines. In this way they could spend time, like in a kibbutz, all talking, cooking and eating together.
At first they had met every other year for a weekend, but since the outbreak of the war in 1991, with the large influx of new people arriving from all over Yugoslavia, they settled on meeting yearly for a whole week. They dubbed the get-togethers the “Little Macabee Games” after the competition they had taken part in as students back home. Even then they hadn’t been particularly strong in sports, and now, after twenty years in America, all that remained of the tournament was an occasional round of volleyball on the beach. They abandoned the soccer as they approached their forties, when after the first games all the players had had to ice strained muscles and bandage wrenched knees for the rest of the vacation.
We haven’t changed a bit, they would say each time as they greeted one another with kisses. We all look great. Of course from year to year the women’s thighs became thicker and flabby. The first blue veins began to creep like delicate vines around the knees, and the double chins grew steadily fold by fold. Stomachs got plumper on the men who used to be boys, with their thinning hair steadily retreating toward the round tonsures atop their heads. There was something touching about these visible marks of time, which only together they managed to ignore.
Had they come to America a hundred or two hundred years ago and set out into the wilderness as a caravan of wagons, settling down in some uninhabited, out-of-the-way valley among the crags of the Adirondacks or Appalachians, they might have evolved into some unique Balkan-Jewish enclave, a sect with its special language, peculiar customs and costumes and could have ended up today like the Amish traveling from village to village in carriages.
Instead, spread out as they were from Canada to Texas, every year they used to go back for a few days to the Jewish summer camps in Rovinj or Split, to get-togethers in Subotica, Zagreb and Sarajevo, to the tribal gathering places of another age. They would exchange the latest gossip fresh from Tel Aviv and Belgrade, reminisce on the absent friends, still tirelessly retelling the war stories of their parents and their miraculous survival. Within the hermetic space of the minuscule fraternity the spouses and the newcomers, could discern only certain incomprehensible, barely visible outlines of the past events, unable to fully grasp or make sense out of the disjointed tales.
The children found in their distant past something mysterious which made them different from other American parents. The characteristics that set them apart intensified when their mothers and fathers got together with the old friends from Yugoslavia, stirring in the native progeny a protective tenderness mixed with a mild sense of embarrassment for the funny English pronunciation at the peculiar gathering, as the last visible mark of the enigmatic, distant land they had left behind.
“I was surprised that when the killing started in the new war, Jasmina was the one to insist they leave for Israel. My brother didn’t mind, but he did nothing to actually get them there. Jasmina did not want to come to America. I think she is afraid of me. And to tell you the truth, one of the reasons I am here is the fact that I couldn’t bear to see them slouching around all day long wearing pajamas in our parents’ apartment. It would have been ironic had they ended up grubbing about my house in Baltimore in their cotton bathrobes. But Jasmina is a woman of decision. She disposed of all our home furnishings for a pittance, sold the apartment, and with Miša and the three kids set off on a pilgrimage to the Promised Land.”
The war had ruptured the last bonds with the dwindling Jewish community and with the vanished country. Over time the ties had become fictitious anyway, an illusion in a gaping rift steadily deepening with each passing year. Only on their occasional visits to the Old Country did they realize that the wrinkles life had given them were entirely different from the wrinkles of those who had stayed behind. The decades of their absence had reshaped the few remaining common memories into separate puzzles impossible to piece together any more. In time they became an American island unto themselves, fully intelligible only to one another.
“When they arrived in Israel they were sent to an absorption center in Tiberias. That was fine. The first year everything was paid for by the government. The children learned Hebrew without a hitch, liked their new school and made friends. Miša and Jasmina also managed somehow. Have you ever been to Tiberias?”
“Then you know what a pit it is. The lowest-elevation body of fresh water in the world. The lake is nice enough, but there is no industry to speak of, no jobs, no theater, nothing. Everyone else leaves for Tel Aviv, or Jerusalem, fiddles around, finds something, but they resolved to stay. Fine, they got a decent apartment, and the weather is always pleasant there, the winters are mild, so I suppose, that should also be taken into consideration.”
They had all done pretty well professionally, teaching at universities, working as engineers and doctors, with nice houses in the suburbs, cars and winter vacations in the Caribbean. But still there was something that set them apart from their American colleagues. Other people they knew went back to their old neighborhoods, made peace with their alienated families, inherited homes, found confirmation of their status in the synagogues and church congregations their parents and grandparents had belonged to; in the mature years they restored their ties to the past, weary of rejection, after feeling they’d secured their own space. But unlike them, this group, even if they had wanted to, had nowhere to return to, just like in the Balkans where each new generation always builds again from the rubble.
“After the year of government subsidy, the time for fantasy was over and they had no more parents to lean on. Since Miša had told them he was a captain, they offered him the job of taking tourists out on Tiberias lake. It is like an Israeli version of Disneyland except all the sights are genuinely ancient, and, more importantly, all about God. Dressed up as the apostles, the tourist guides take the Christian pilgrims to the place where Jesus walked on the water. They take them by boat, of course. There are only three or four apostles to look after each group, since the sail boats are rather small. If they’d put all twelve apostles on the same boat, there would be no space left for the tourists. The pay isn’t great, but a job’s a job. And they get tips. My brother grew a beard, mustache and hair and became St. Peter. He looks marvelous, dark and slender, straight out of the Bible, a real St. Peter. The tourists go crazy when they see him, the cameras click, the videos buzz, and the women paw him and sigh. Since they’re devout they would never flirt with other men, but they allow themselves to touch the saints. Everyone knows him in town, every morning people wave as he goes down the street looking like St. Peter. The lake is small, no waves, no seasickness, Miša eats St. Peter fish, a specialty of the lake, there is a lot of fresh air, and in a word, the guy is having a blast.”
After the last war broke out, the customary routine of their meetings changed with the addition of new arrivals, mostly from Sarajevo. The old-timers had to listen to the gamut of prejudices about America, the lack of logic and consistency in life here, the long litany of troubles the newcomers had to endure, all first impressions of people who had barely scratched the surface. Maybe they, too, had been like this years before, but they had long since learned gradually, that the constant, negative comparisons make it more difficult to adjust, as life, which is only natural, proceeds differently in various parts of the world. However, there was no point in arguing with the new group. It was important to let them talk without contradicting their faulty statements. In their early forties, the new refugees needed to be allowed to fight with the anger, the impotence they suddenly felt for having to start everything, again, from scratch.
“What about Jasmina?”
“Recently everyone has been discovering their Jewish ancestors. She claims that some great grandfather of hers was a Jew. I don’t know what her father, the General, will have to say about that.”
“Maybe he was.”
“Maybe so. Montenegro was no Jewish Mecca, but now and then, a century or so ago a Jewish peddler might have turned up even in those mountains. Anyway, that is neither here nor there. In Tiberias Jasmina not only dug up Jewish ancestors, she even discovered she has an artistic bent. She started making jewelry for the tourists out of the lake shells, and she has been doing really well at it. Jasmina shines them up, glues them, daubs them with a little varnish and arranges them on strings. Their apartment is full of her handicrafts. The crosses sell the best.”
The fog from the ocean was spreading slowly up the beach. They could hear the dull, intermittent lowing of a horn out at an invisible lighthouse. The teenagers had turned off the lights, but rappers were still shouting obscene lyrics from the dark.
“His real success began when a tourist asked Miša to fill out a lottery ticket for her. She won something, not the largest prize, but in gratitude sent him five hundred dollars. His buddies-apostles told the other tourists about it and then they all began to ask Miša to fill out their lottery slips. Last year a woman, I don’t remember where she was from, Kansas, I think, an extremely religious evangelical Christian, hit it big. Actually, I believe the most devout are not supposed to gamble, but many ignore the rule. In any case, she sent him enough money to buy out the whole boat and become a Galilee captain. It’s true that the lake isn’t much bigger than a wash basin, but our parents would be overjoyed to see him now. They didn’t believe he’d ever make anything of himself, and it certainly never crossed their minds that he’d become a saint.”
Propped up on her elbows, Marina was trying without success to strike a match on a damp matchbox. The blanket had slipped off her legs. He turned his back to the wind and shielding a lighter with his hands, held two cigarettes between his lips giving her one when they were lit.
“I teased Miša over the phone that if I didn’t know him well, I’d send mega millions slips for him to fill out. He was a little insulted at my jibes because he takes his revelations very seriously. Miša tells me, and he’s not kidding, that a voice whispers which numbers he should pick. Maybe you’ll think I’m dumb, but today I sent him a couple of games to fill out.”
Leon had never given superstition much credence; black cats, four-leafed clovers, spilt salt, strange dreams. But maybe he could, even as a lark, ask Marina for her brother’s address. Miša would surely remember him. Why shouldn’t he ask the saintly captain to fill out a ticket? It was, after all, such a small favor. Leon had been here for more than twenty years now. It was high time he became an American millionaire.
Translated from the Serbian by Ellen-Elias Bursac
Copyright © D. Mladinov 2007