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from the July 2017 issue

Losing Ground

In Croatian writer Zoran Janjanin’s short story of personal love and loss complicated by national conflict, two ex-lovers assess the impact of the Croatian War of Independence on their teenage relationship, twenty years later. 
 

He noticed her out in front of the courthouse on a sunny spring afternoon. He couldn’t place where he knew her from; intrigued, he followed her for a few minutes before he mustered the courage to speak up.

As graciously as he could, he smiled. He hoped he wouldn’t put her off with his six-foot, 250-pound frame. 

“Hi. I know this must seem odd, but I have the impression I know you from somewhere. Am I wrong?”

The woman might have been about thirty-five, a head shorter than he, short black hair, and wore a well-used leather jacket. Her eyes were hidden behind sunglasses. She was reserved but she didn’t appear alarmed.

“I don’t believe I know you,” she shrugged. “Sorry.”

Instead of retreating, Zvonko was compelled by curiosity.

“Are you from Karlovac?”

“Yes. Well, used to be. I don’t live here anymore.”

“Karlovac High?”

“Yes . . . or no actually . . .” Her insecurity exposed a growing sense of unease. “Ninth grade, then I left.”

“Maybe that’s why you look so familiar,” said Zvonko with a broad smile. “Really, I’ve no evil intentions. I’m married with two kids. I promise I’m not hitting on you, it’s just that I felt so strongly I was seeing someone I . . . ” He stopped when the women removed her sunglasses. Flooding back came the identical feeling as when those same pale blue eyes drilled holes in his head. He’d hated her for them and adored her. “Mother of God,” he said. The woman pushed her glasses back onto her nose and turned.

“Gotta go.”

“Petra!”

As if his voice weren’t his own but the shy kid’s from years past. Paralyzed, he watched her walk away. As if they were back in the corridors of their high school. Or that evening when he’d escorted her home, walking her bike back for her. It was early in 1991 and kids had already taken up their parents’ habit of passing judgment on neighbors. His mouth dry, he’d asked whether she needed help. “No,” she’d said, “unless you have a spare tire handy.” He shrugged. “At least they didn’t puncture both,” he grinned, hoping to coax a smile out of her. But she was on the verge of tears. So he offered to see her home. He walked the bicycle all the way to Udbinja, though he lived in Grabik. Along the way, Petra warmed up a little, even smiled a few times. She was a girl any high-school kid would have been crazy about if only the times had been different. And if the times had been different she’d never have looked at him twice. As it was, she even laughed at his jokes no matter how dumb they were. That evening, it took him a long time to fall asleep. He was smitten.

Zvonko strode along and reached for her arm, She pulled away, shooting him a glance over her shoulder as if he were crazy. He shrugged, all innocence, to make it clear he was no threat.

“What do you want?”

“Nothing! I’m surprised is all. Shocked, actually. How come you’re here?”   

“Croatia, I reckon, is a free country. People, presumably, have the right to be here . . . ”   

“Hey, you know what I mean. Don’t make this worse.”

She was quiet and watched him. She was holding a file. She didn’t look as if she were about to say anything. 

“How can any of what happened be my fault? I was just a kid. And you were a kid.”

“Are your parents alive?”

“Yes,” stuttered Zvonko. “They’re alive . . . They still live in Grabik. And yours?”

“Dad’s alive. Mom disappeared with Grandma and Grandpa in ’95. Your justice system informed me today that I have no right to compensation because they were killed in the war zone.” A wry smile escaped her. “Tough luck for them that they were civilians.” Zvonko remembered Petra’s plump mother. She was always urging him to have a little more cake. He was her daughter’s first boyfriend.

“I’m sorry, Petra, really I am. But that was war . . . ”

“Spare me, Zvonko.”

Petra turned to walk away, but this time he caught up and walked beside her.

“Sorry, that’s our typical knee-jerk reaction: justifying everything. Of course I’m not saying your family should have been killed.”

She stopped and looked at him.

“Please, I beg you, leave me alone. You don’t owe me anything and all is forgiven.”

She went on walking, while Zvonko stood there, frozen.

“What do you mean, all is forgiven? What did I do to anyone?”

Petra didn’t look back, she kept walking toward the pedestrian underpass. Her close-fitting jeans confirmed it . . . she still had that same firm little butt. He’d adored watching her when she rode her bicycle.

“Hey,” he hurried after her. “How could any of it be my responsibility?”

 

 

For her sixteenth birthday he’d given her a cassette of Joyride by Roxette. He didn’t dare admit he liked the music, too; he pretended he was listening to it just for her sake. She got her hair cut just like Marie, she looked like she was above them all. None of his friends envied him for anything before Petra came along; some of them called her a whore, or a Chetnik slut, some said her dad had posed for a picture with Šešelj, the Serbian firebrand, that she always first wrote out her homework in Serbian Cyrillic. Zvonko was indifferent to these aspersions. He adored her. Despite his poor posture, his clumsiness, he had a beautiful girlfriend who let him push his tongue into her mouth and grab her rear. Maybe she really was a slut, he thought once, but if she was, she was his slut.

“Petra, please,” he groaned behind her.

She stopped. She bowed her head, worn down.

“Zvonko,” she said, without looking at him, “there's no point in doing this now. We were something, now we are completely different people.”

He stopped in front of her.

“You still look terrific.”

Her shoulders straightened.

“You don’t. Well actually you never were much of a looker.”

“Why were you with me, then?”

“I felt desired and that was nice, I guess.” She looked him straight in the eye while she said this, but in her sunglasses he could see only his forlorn expression. “I often wondered whether I might have dumped you if one of your better-looking buddies had asked for a date. I think I would have. I’m sure of it.”

“Miroslav Bijelić was a Serb, wasn’t he? But still he didn’t ask you out—”

“He started out as a Serb, but then his folks converted. They became more avid Croats than the Croats. And your friends were more avid nationalists than you were.” She gave her wry smile. “You weren’t a bona fide Croat, Zvonko. You cared more about your prick than about patriotism!"

“So did they, but they figured that out too late, when I was already in the picture . . . Things have changed, Petra. Croatia is not the same place it was in ’91. We know now that things are much grayer than they are black and white. You don’t have to feel you don’t belong here.”

“Still, I don’t. They let me know that at every step. As if, single-handedly, I murdered half this city.”

“You’re here because of your mother? What happened to her?”

“Not much, actually. In ’92 we fled to Belgrade. In the summer of ’95, Mom was staying with my grandmother in Virginmost when the Operation Storm military onslaught began and my folks, with a few others, were killed in a column of fleeing refugees shelled by planes. Apparently pigs devoured their remains.”

“For real?”

“Sadly yes, for real. Some of the families sued Croatia, but Croatia didn’t give them so much as the time of day.”

“Fuck it, war is war. People die,” Zvonko shrugged.

“Do you say that about the people who died in Karlovac, too?”

“Pardon? No. But . . . they were civilians.”

“My folks were civilians.”

“Sure, but . . . You have to understand how we felt. You’re living a perfectly normal life and then out of the blue . . .” he fell silent when he saw the irony play in her eyes.

“I, too, was living a perfectly normal life, Zvonko. And then out of the blue . . .”

“Sure, but you were . . .”

“What? Tell me. What was I?”

He sighed, seeing he’d walked right into that one.

“You weren’t, Petra. I know you weren’t.”

“You were! You weren’t! You were! You weren’t! Zvonko, where did you get this idea that every Serb in Karlovac knew what was going on and was guided by some secret Serbian plan? My dad was a judge. Mom worked at Karlovac Bank. What were they scheming? What did they plan to destroy? Their lives and the life of their only daughter?”

“Why tell me this now? Did I ever say anything about your ethnicity?”

Petra sighed.

“You were a kid, Zvonko. You weren’t thinking with your head. You wanted a girlfriend and you got one. When your dad said, ‘Dump her,’ you dumped her.”

Zvonko stared at Petra. If they hadn’t been on the street he would have slapped her.

“I . . . I would have done anything for you, Petra! I’d have thrown myself in front of a car!”

“So, did you?”

“What? Throw myself in front of a car? No, I did not but . . .” he stopped. There he was, a thirty-year-old engineer, married with two children, standing by the entrance to the pedestrian underpass, trying to persuade a person who’d disappeared years before that he wasn’t a total cad. “What do you want me to say?”

“Nothing. You came running after me just like you did twenty years ago. You don’t need to say a thing.”

 

Petra was the girl Zvonko lost his virginity to, long before his friends, the cool kids, lost theirs. He drank in her blue eyes as he climaxed and didn’t give a shit that his dad was a member of the Croatian National Guard or that his grandfather, tears welling in his eyes, put the portrait of the Nazi puppet dictator Ante Pavelić back up on the wall. All he could see and feel was Petra.

He hadn’t merely loved her, he'd worshipped her. There was nothing he wouldn’t have done for her. Why couldn’t she see that?

    

“I enjoyed our first time much more than you did. I know that today. I couldn’t see it back then.”

“I don’t blame you,” laughed Petra, “I truly don’t, all the women I know say that when they first had sex they thought the sky was falling and it was sheer coincidence that the cataclysm ended with no victims . . . Zvonko, our relationship was no different than a million others, regardless of the civil war.”

“Actually, it was a rebellion,” Zvonko corrected her.

“Pardon?”

“It wasn’t a civil war. It was a rebellion.”

“A rebellion? Do you really need to tutor me in history right now?”

“No, it’s not, but . . . Just saying. It was not a civil war.”

Petra watched him.

“It was a rebellion? And it’s OK to rename the town of Vrginmost ‘Gvozd’?”

Zvonko coughed, cleared his throat.

“Yes.”

“So who were the rebels in this rebellion?”

“Well, the Serbs.”

“Was I one?”

He squinted at her.

“No, of course not.”

“My parents?”

“No. Wait, you didn’t rebel but other Serbs did. They weren’t for a free Croatia.”

“And what does this have to do with my parents, Zvonko? Why were bombs planted twice in our house? Did you know the first time my legs were all lacerated by the broken glass? They weren’t the second time because I pulled blankets up over my head after the blast and sobbed. I thought about how I’d see you the next day and how everything would be nicer then. Dad called the police so instead of you I saw some cop standing in our garden with a flashlight eating strawberries. Where were you that day?”

“But you . . . ” stuttered Zvonko, “fled to the Serbian-held territories, didn’t you? Your dad was . . .  ”

“My dad was what?” Her voice was calm; it didn’t sound as if she were expecting an answer. “He was shooting a sniper rifle from the courthouse roof? No, he wasn’t. Depending on whom you asked, half the Serbs in Karlovac were ninjas.”

“It was a war, Petra!”

“A rebellion, Zvonko!”

“Now you’ll be rubbing my nose in it.”

“You’re the one who started in with the facts.”

Zvonko sighed wearily. This was getting out of control.

“Listen, you left without a good-bye. One Monday you weren’t at school and that was that.”

“That Saturday they’d set a bomb off in our house for a second time, Zvonko. Dad maybe wouldn’t have left, but Mom was on the verge of collapse. We went to Hungary. Nobody cared what I had to say about it.”

“You know what that looked like to some people? Nobody runs away for no good reason.”

“No good reason? Hey, man, they blew our house up while we were sleeping in it!”

“Sure, but . . . You know yourself what people around here were going through at the time. Many saw the blowing up of Serbian houses as a kind of justice.”

Petra smiled and spread her arms, incredulous.

“I’ve heard that a thousand times. That I should accept them destroying our life because other people were suffering and felt better when we did. But did they? Feel better, I mean. Did anyone ask them what kind of justice they desired? Can one injustice be made right by more injustice?”

“Listen, there were a lot of people who didn’t think blowing up Serbian homes in Karlovac was an injustice.”

“I know,” nodded Petra.

“I’m not speaking for myself. Damn it, according to you I should be walking around wearing one of those black T-shirts the Fascists wore. The idiots blew up empty houses, too. Even my dad felt that was pointless, and you know what he’s like. He watched the Serbs being run out of town and wondered why we were doing our level best to undermine our own city all by ourselves.”

“Such a rational, orderly, legalistic mindset.”

The two of them stopped, their gazes scanned the surrounding buildings. They knew their discussion wasn’t over, but they couldn’t pinpoint what was missing. Petra lit a cigarette. She offered one to Zvonko but he waved her off.

“I called you after the first bomb went off in our house. Your mother picked up. At first she sounded overjoyed that a girl was calling her son, but as soon as I gave my name she hung up on me.”

Zvonko’s eyes widened.

“My mother? She never said a word.”

Petra shrugged.

“And she never will. Now she’s probably too ashamed.”

Zvonko stared at the ground, shaking his head.

“I’d never have thought that of her. Today she and her Serbian neighbor are best friends. Why didn’t you say something?”

“What would have been the point? I had the impression it was just a matter of days before we, too, would be leaving . . . or disappeared. And your mother is forever.”

Zvonko looked up at Petra’s glasses.

“Not for some.”

“Oh, you get used to it,” Petra shrugged. “Sometimes I feel as if Mom, Grandma, and Grandpa never even existed. As if I’m grieving for shadows.”

Among the rare passersby in front of the pedestrian underpass Zvonko spotted a cousin and waved hello. His pot-bellied cousin walked away with a brief, curious glance over his shoulder. Zvonko knew he’d be met with questions from relatives and friends. And his wife!

“There are people,” said Zvonko with resignation, “even today you are the Petra whose dad was a sniper who, when push came to shove, fled to Krajina and from there continued shooting at his former neighbors. There were rumors he was killed in Operation Storm.”

Petra’s emotions weren’t legible behind her sunglasses. She replied coldly.

“I know people here constructed him into a Chetnik. In 1994 Dad managed to open a law firm in Belgrade. He is working to this day, though he’s not earning much . . . How do you think it was for me in Belgrade with my Croatian accent? During my first month there I’d slip up and say bok for hi. Nobody called me a Chetnik slut there, of course, but other nicknames dogged me. In sophomore year I was even pummeled in the school hallway.” She smiled sourly. “Just girls. I often wondered whether it would have been the same if I'd been ugly.”

“I’m sorry, Petra. But how was I to stand up to bigotry?”

“I can't believe a Croat would have the nerve to say that!”

Petra glanced around, as if out of habit.

“I admit I’m no saint, but I think there’s no way we’re worse than the Serbs. Especially the Serbs from Serbia.”

“You’re referring to faceless masses,” whispered Petra. “How do you know which you belong to?”

“Pardon?”

“Nothing. Just something a woman, a poet, once said.”

“See, you didn’t come back to Croatia expecting anything positive. You came to judge and be judged and that’s what you got.”

“Well of course, who could there be to blame but me?” Petra gestured to a man who was dumpster-diving by the pedestrian underpass. “You have your freedom, Zvonko. You’ve had your Croatia for twenty years now. And what have you made of it? How can the Serbs still be your worst nightmare?”

Zvonko shrugged.

“There’s a crisis on everywhere. Have we elected thieves to office? Sure we have. Are things any better in Serbia?”

“Probably not. But why do you need so badly for the Serbs to be worse off than you are? Besides, I don’t live in Belgrade any more.”

“Really? Where are you now?”

She looked at him for a few long moments, tossed away her cigarette, and stubbed it with the toe of her shoe.

“Doesn’t matter. I’m off before my parking meter runs out. Don’t follow me, Zvonko.”

Her words stung him.

“Don’t follow you? I’m not a high-school kid any more, Petra. I’m no stalker.”

She smiled. “How could I know that? I don’t know you, Zvonko. And you don’t know me. Twenty years ago we shared the most intimate things two people can share, but now we know nothing of each other.”

“Maybe that’s what you think.”

“It’s what I know.”

“Bullshit.” He could feel anger crack his voice. “Do you know how my friends treated me after you fled? They used to whisper that Zvonko’s girlfriend hotfooted it to Krajina after spreading the Chetnik virus.”

A smile escaped Petra.

“They said that to you? For real? What can you expect from such friends? I, too, had loads of friends who became strangers after ’91.”

“You find that amusing? After you disappeared nobody would speak to me for months. None of it would have bothered me if you’d stayed. Or at least said something before you left.” His voice shook. “Didn’t I mean anything to you?”

Petra watched him from behind her dark glasses.

“You’re asking if I was in love with you? No, sorry, Zvonko. I liked you, but you were not my type by a long shot. A person does what needs to be done to survive. Your mother, for instance, hated Serbs during the war but today she probably doesn’t hate them anymore. I was a kid. It made sense to have a boyfriend. It turned out you were the boyfriend. It allowed me to feel normal. Despite the war I went out on dates, I had posters on my bedroom walls, there was someone else besides my parents who’d remember my birthday . . . Sorry if I hurt your feelings.”

“No, no, you didn’t,” Zvonko shook his head firmly. “Though I don’t remember you being so cold back then. Can anyone be so calculating at fifteen or sixteen? Was it all just an act?”

Petra watched him, turning her head slightly.

“Well, who has the right to control my life and my feelings but me?” 

Zvonko looked at her askance.

“Meaning?”

“On the one hand, my parents and I were expected to embrace the newly founded Croatian state, and we did, without much fuss, but then they planted bombs in our house, treated us like Serbian extremists, and wondered why we hadn’t yet left for Krajina. When we did flee in horror, everyone was fine with that because Chetniks were supposed to flee. When most of my family was killed in a column of civilians escaping the onslaught on tractors, they said: 'It’s their own damned fault, why were they fleeing anyway? Why didn’t they stay and embrace the Croatian government?' But if they’d stayed and were killed on their front doorstep, would that be their fault, too? Zvonko, why does my mother’s loss still hurt so badly after all these years?” Petra took off her sunglasses so they could look each other in the eye. “I was eighteen when I lost her. Don’t I have the right to grieve?”

“Who says you don’t?”

“Everybody! Sure, my mother, grandmother, and grandfather were civilians and utterly innocent, but a Serb in some other place killed a Croatian mother, grandmother, and grandfather, and everybody seems surprised that I’m seeking justice for my family. I don’t remember when I last heard as much song and dance as I heard today in that courtroom.” She stepped toward Zvonko for the first time, close enough for him to smell a mingling of perfume and tobacco. “My mother lost the right to be innocent in Croatia, and I lost the right to mourn her. It’s as if one's right to grief is measured according to a point-system. I do not have the right to grieve more than Croatian daughters grieve.”

She was about to touch him but pulled back when he gave a barely visible cringe. An older woman who was walking by with a white poodle eyed them with curiosity.

“I never saw any sort of plan for a greater Serbia,” sniffled Petra, stepping back. “I never contributed to it, I never advocated for it. If such a thing did exist, it destroyed my life every bit as much as it did many other lives. How am I to feel responsible for something I never could have known about or prevented?”

“No one holds you responsible,” muttered Zvonko.

“Everyone holds me responsible. My mother was responsible, probably her mother as well. If we weren’t responsible, then we reaped what the Serbs sowed, and we deserved it.”

“Petra, you have to understand that . . .”

She raised her hand and he stopped.

“Don’t. I can no longer bear to listen to how I have to understand why it makes sense that my family was killed.” She put on her glasses and her blue eyes disappeared again. Zvonko’s heart sank. On the one hand, he wanted to tell her how deep an impact she’d had on his heart and soul all these twenty years, on the other hand he itched to set her straight on some of the delusions she was evidently still clinging to. Maybe his dad could have explained to her what the Homeland War was all about and what it meant for every Croat.

“Now I’m really going,” said Petra. “Sometimes I have the impression that it's no longer even possible for Croats to live here. Have a nice life.”

She made no attempt to shake his hand. She simply turned and continued toward the pedestrian underpass. Just like that, as if they’d be bumping into each other the next day, too. She was walking away again, except this time he was watching her do it.

“The third of April!” shouted Zvonko after her. “April third is your birthday.”

Petra turned.

“And what’s today’s date, Zvonko?”

He swallowed hard. Petra grinned and continued on her way. He stood there, lopsided like a half-empty sack. “Oh shit,” he muttered.


 

© Zoran Janjanin. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Ellen Elias-Bursać. All rights reserved.

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