Taking Liberties

Can love survive death? On its fading to the quiet and the still. Stubborn loneliness becomes its only possession; its will wounded, but not broken. A silent lake, surface dull, no rushing of wind or agitation of flocks, no echo or reflection. Yet it holds ground.

Taciturn by nature, Nazer Marić had gone silent after the deaths of his parents and sister. At least to those around him. He had never spoken to me much, and I felt he blamed me more than Richard or Louis for what had happened. Evil could just not pass through carelessly like that, wrecking utter devastation, destroying his life, without accountability. He used his biases to throw off a fraction of his bottomless rage at the horrible fate he couldn’t escape onto me—foreign, female, bent on corrupting Enesa. For my part, I had as much insight into his humanity as I had knowledge of the spiritual makeup of the fir trees outside, and no interest in acquiring any, stung as I was by his contempt, and made cautious by the possibility of provoking a latent violence.

This was many weeks before the operation into Novi Sad, where the horses were now stabled. Nazer would not, could not accompany us, obviously; a mere ghost without asylum outside his rubble prison, but he was essential in the planning. He hunched over maps of the area surrounding Novi Sad, speaking into a hand-held tape recorder. I later learned he was telling his story, then walking the talk—pacing the village streets, leaving fully recorded microcassettes to be found long after the tourists and dabblers had left town, and long after his death; some wedged in the crevices of balustrades arching over the village stream, others jammed between the cover and stitched binding of library books, a story within a story; not to be discovered by the sweeping forces of destruction, but by future forensic scavengers or through the serendipity of survivors.

Three others had joined our little band at this point: two German girls under cover as translators, who were, indeed, multilingual—and Olympic-level dressagers. The third person was an older man, a local, who was always about, it seemed; who talked mainly to Louis and who stared at me constantly until it was all I could do not to yell “What? What?” To myself, I called him “One-eyed Jack”—not because both of his eyes didn’t function simultaneously, but because I thought of him as a periscope, silently rising out of the floor boards, swiveling left and right, an entity always spying, identity concealed. Taking everything in and giving nothing out. He watched me watch Nazer. And I did study Nazer. I could see nothing of his sister in him. Nazer remained aloof, although he often spoke directly to the two equestrians, which surprised me because, based on my experience, I did not believe Nazer trusted women. “Jack” sensed my puzzlement, and jerking his head in the women’s direction and tapping his forehead, said simply, “Die Pferde,” gesturing toward the girls, “they speak to them,” indicating their possession of a cognizance and a skill level that negated to a sufficient extent, evidently, the anomaly of their gender.

Our cover was set up thusly: I was not told explicitly how the others would arrive, but Richard, Louis, and I would travel to nearby Vitez, where UN operations were based, and where a portion of the Cheshire Regiment of the British Army was deployed. Then we would return with a convoy back to Split, Croatia, where, serendipitously, the British maintained a headquarters and logistics base, and lastly, join a C-141 transport flight to London, location of the home office of Medicine Nonsectarian and our little offshoot operation as well. Our traveling with the troops was not officially approved, of course, but rather carried out without request, as there was a great love of horses among the command. A few days were to be spent in London, then we would fly back into Belgrade on a commercial flight with clean passports.

The grandfather of a doctor in Medicine Nonsectarian had recently died leaving a house situated not too far from Novi Sad, and Richard was returning as his grandson to close the estate. I was his fiancée, a position which allowed me to speak only English and a little German without suspicion. The others, when they arrived or appeared, assumed their role in a motley cast of characters: ne’er-do-well cousin (Louis), new-found acquaintances, and snow bunnies who had lingered past the season. Once settled, the word discreetly went out from the old Jovanović house that let it be known there were those in the grandson’s party who would not turn their nose up at the prospect of buying a few show horses on the black market—the rumor being the Lipik Lipizzaners were somewhere close by—one cousin acting as agent for some unnamed businessman. All of us kept a low profile, except Louis who made a show as a gambler, and in the service of veracity, once allowed himself to be rolled.

At first, I felt this was a different kind of danger than what we experienced in Travnik, much more Secret Agent Man, but this wore off after a few days, and it settled into the familiar bleak wariness. Of everything and everybody. ‘Who are you?’ was the question constantly asked before in Bosnia—former compatriot or newfound enemy? How do I know? Blue berets and white armored vehicles notwithstanding, in the absence of international political will, even humanitarian aid was suspect, and we were chimeras within a chimera. It made for uncertain footing. It was almost impossible not to end up at some point on the wrong side, in the wrong place; here everyone was a combatant, as Louis would say. After a while, it didn’t even matter, as the human chain kept splitting into smaller and smaller links until you trusted only yourself, and even then, your most secret thoughts were not invariably reliable. Smaller and smaller links that would no longer mesh together for any semblance of strength. Anyone with a grievance, anyone who believes righteousness is solely on his side, her side; anyone who lives in certainty is a danger, again according to Louis. Pick your team; have your team picked for you. I hated this arrogance and certitude; even as I had voluntarily placed myself in the middle of a stewing mass of it; it always ended up like this; it made everything a living hell.

* * *

So, sure enough, Louis was eventually taken around to where the horses were stabled. With this knowledge in hand, Richard and I took an evening spin a few days later and found ourselves near the identified farmstead. We parked our rental car on the side of the road and got out to look at the stars, as the affianced do. Or was it to calculate the distance from farmhouse to paddock, from paddock to stable, from stable to road? As twilight settled down over us, cloaking the landscape in deep blue and soft violet, a momentary sense of peace was offered, but any hope of Richard opening up and saying something off-message was snatched away by the sight of a dark shape bobbing on the road, headed our way. Slowly the mass defined itself as some guy slowly approaching, rifle slung casually over his back. It never was just some guy, though, was it? Although we could not name the exact nature of it, both of us could sense the menace. A guard? The police, some militia irregular? A common thug? Surely someone looking for payback for his grievances. Why didn’t anyone wear uniforms in this goddamn forsaken place?

“Don’t fight me,” Richard said, scaring me even more, if possible. He put a hand on each side of my shirt (my favorite shirt) and ripped off the top button. He took a flask out of his back pocket and poured a good bit of its contents down my throat, some of it spilling out of my mouth, running down over my exposed skin. He took several slugs himself, then crushed himself against me, pushing my back into the backseat door handle. It was as if I had been sucked up into the center of a tornado, and I tried to focus over Richard’s shoulder at the trees plastered against the night as he whispered in my ear, “Don’t look him in the eyes; don’t talk.” His mouth covered mine and he only released me as the unknown approached.

The man walked up to us, swung around his assault rifle, and grasping it in both hands, cocked it at Richard’s head. Somehow Richard appeared unfazed. He was cognizant enough to have grabbed his passport and wallet and now waved them in front of the man. “Hey, hey, American! American!” he chided our assailant, seemingly confident through a haze of liquor that this was a simple misunderstanding. The guard (or whoever) looked at his passport, threw it back to him, squatted down to pick up his wallet that had fallen to the ground, pulled out the wad of cash, and tossed it back empty.

“Wha . . . wha . . .”

Ignoring Richard’s protests, he pushed Richard away, then a look came over his face when he realized that was not all that was on free offer. “Your sister, yeah?” He pulled me toward him and my mind went blank with terror.

My constant fear back in Travnik, or wherever we travelled in central Bosnia, was that I would be caught in a shelling attack or felled from afar by some unseen, unknown agent. These thoughts were so present in my mind that I had accepted it as my fate and was merely operating stoically until that time; it was somewhat comforting in that it gave a sheen of imagined nobleness to my faffing about and provided some faux sense of progression amidst the chaos. To be presented with a violence so close in my face in the form of this man—a violence of such a corporal, sexual nature no less—was such an unconsidered way of going that it brought the liquor that had gone down my stomach so fast back up just as quickly, and I threw up on the ground, a good bit splashing onto the boots of my accoster, seemingly squelching his rank ardor. Deciding to cut his losses, he grabbed the slopped brandy flask, thought better of it, threw it through the open window of the car, ruining the backseat, then put Richard’s cash in the inner pocket of his jacket.

“You take your fuckin’ somewhere else from now on. I see you here again, you dead, and your sister be passed around like krofne.” Again pushing Richard in the back with the butt of his Zastava, he shoved us out of his way and left with his currency. Thank god for his fastidiousness; it seemed almost preposterous that he hadn’t killed us. What idiots we were.

When I came to after passing out in the stinking car on our drive back, it was two in the afternoon, and I had to sit in the living room back at the grandfather’s house amidst the packing crates and try to sip down coffee that tasted like weeds and thank Richard for mauling me, for taking liberties and saving my life, and I had to thank chance and serendipity for not being served up to satisfy unchecked perversion, and I never had a lower sense of self-worth that I could remember.

After washing up in the old bathroom, the water so hard and polluted, it left an iron stench that cut through every sensation; after squeezing out the last of the old antiseptic in its rolled-up tube to smear on the scratches that covered my neck and arms like lace; I went out to the back garden of shrubbery, the flowering white mounds silently emanating their scent under the lowering sky, and pushing my hands deep into their innards, through the many twigs and thorns, producing new self-inflicted wounds to mingle with the others, I grabbed hold of the branches, holding onto as if to a life-preserver, holding on for dear life, trying to steady myself, save myself, staring at the beauty of the blooms, straight into them, willing myself to feel nothing else but the sensation each individual petal projected until, finally, I could regain my bearings. And I stood there shaking until it became dark, just one lost soul and these branches of beauty in an atrocious world.

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Cat Rescuers & Seamstresses

sixth avenue (3)

The first time I saw Jay, I was wearing sweatpants and smelled of burnt chestnuts and urine. The smell of New York. I was sitting in the reception area of my mother’s office, just delivered from the police precinct station where I had been brought in for questioning on an attempted mugging—not my mugging of someone, of course, but of someone trying to grab me. Freida, my partner in lunacy, and I had been out and about in the early morning hours, wandering through the garment district and up across the street from the Port Authority, have-a-heart traps banging against our legs, looking for strays among the debris, the abandoned reclining armchairs that served as people’s beds; avoiding the chiffoniers and city gypsies, keeping an eye out for the mentally troubled and criminally inclined. We thought both our industriousness and the lazy habits of this population would protect us from harm, but we were the victims of our own prejudices.

Our plan was simple and free of any practicality: saved from wanton cruelty or the research labs, the captured felines would be carted off to our veterinary student friends who would neuter and vaccinate them, then take them to the shelter to find homes. Their “forever homes.” This phrase, though admirable, meant nothing to me. Forever stretched off into the distance for me. How long is forever when you’re young? How wide is the ocean when you’ve never been abroad? I was eager to move time and set sail. My mother could not stand this humane sideline of mine; she said it was a nasty streak of self-righteousness that ran through the family reaching its pinnacle with her sister, Jean. Mom was ready to push off my boat and wave from the shore.

Mom and Dad divorced while I was in college. Mom moved to New York and Dad stayed in the sticks. She always hated the country, and I was brought to wonder sometimes why they got married in the first place. After graduating, I moved in with Mom to make my way in the big city. Mom went into PR and ended up a management consultant in the entertainment and sports industry. She was right at home among the high achievers and go-getters. They possessed something Dad and I lacked.

So that’s how I found myself seated in her reception area that day when she walked by with Jay Burton, frontman for the rising roots group, Yellowbird. Why he was awake and here at such an hour, why Mom had not gone instead to see him, following at heel like a bird dog, I later found out had something to do with morning radio. Mom saw me sitting there, but ignored me; Jay turned to look at me a second as I’m sure I stuck out sartorially, but instead of looking through me as expected, a puzzled expression flashed across his face, replaced with the slightest of amused stretching of his lips, then he was gone. This glance lasted all of ten seconds, but it was enough for me, even in my agitated state, to post two thoughts in his favor: one, he was not half bad-looking; and two, he had not yet lost his mind.

On Mom’s return, I was called in to tell my story: Freida and I were in the lot across the street from the Port Authority. I had gone around the corner of a nearby building and was lifting up old, wet, half-deteriorated boxes when a sense of dread flooded over me so strongly I straightened up, senses on full alert. I turned around to see a large man—much larger, so much larger than me—about six foot three, drunk or stoned or both, blocking my way. I often wondered what I would do in a situation like this. Well, I froze. I couldn’t move or scream. This is it, I thought.  Right here in this ally.

Seconds of inaction passed, then the spell broke, and I casually tried to go by him, saying calmly, ‘I’m just going to go out here,’ but he grabbed me and put me in a choke hold, ripped open the Velcro of my fanny pack and took my wallet. I was pressed hard against him, struggling, rubbing against his filthy, stinking body. Freida, seeing this, dropped her cages and took off in the opposite direction. He jammed his hand down my jeans, trying to pull them down, but I had both my hands clutched over my belt buckle, holding on for dear life. What would have happened if an off-duty detective on his morning run hadn’t seen this struggle and chased the man away, I could well imagine.

I went with the detective to the local station to report the crime. Detective Cunningham said there wasn’t much chance of anything being done, and if I ever decided on doing something so stupid again, he would run right past. He let me call my mother from the phone on his desk and gave me cab fare to my mom’s office even though it was just a few blocks away. All I wanted to do was go home, take the world’s hottest shower, and curl up in a blanket, but Mom was hysterical at first and needed to see her girl alive and in one piece. Her relief at my survival had turned to anger by the time I went into her office. As with Detective Cunningham, she felt the responsibility for this upheaval of everyone’s day rested solely with me. Why wouldn’t that man want to attack me? That’s what muggers do. No more rescue work for me. From now on I could work in her office, filing photos as they came off the wire, and satisfying any higher calling by volunteering at the shelter.

Weeks passed, the seasons turned, but I never did regain my sense of normalcy. I just tried to stay out of everyone’s way. Every day I’d get off the train at Penn Station and walk to my mom’s office, up out of the fur district, dodging the men with their rolling racks of furs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, past Macy’s, up Sixth Avenue ignoring the public altercations that always seemed to be taking place between some man in a suit and someone who probably didn’t own a suit. This was also the era of the flyer, every shop or restaurant employing some poor soul to thrust its advertising at passersby. I took it as a point of pride that no one could make me take one.

Just before I turned the corner to my office, I would pass a mustard-colored building; there were always young women going in or coming out. The women were Asian, but I could not place them more specifically. Sometimes one of them would emerge by herself, but mostly they traveled in groups, and on the rare occasion I could overhear their conversations, it was in a language I couldn’t identify. Maybe because I was lonely and unsettled, I was drawn to these women. I wanted to know who they were. I fell into stereotypical thinking, seeing them emerging onto the street like a flock of graceful birds; I romanticized them, thinking they carried a sadness in their faces, a sorrow in their posture, though I realized reality was likely much harsher and grittier. Over time and repeated crossing of paths, I was able to recognize a few of them as individuals, and they seemed to recognize me. Though we never smiled at each other or looked each other straight in the eye, eventually there came to be some understanding, some acknowledgement as we passed that, Yes, there you are; we’re both on schedule, then. I came to the conclusion that they worked either in a brothel or a sweatshop. Given these two hard choices, given my recent fleeting brush with unwanted intimacy, I hoped to God it was the latter.