FIRST STEPS IN A TERRA INCOGNITA BY LYNNE SACHS
Feb. 17, 2001 I tell my next door neighbor that I’m going abroad for a couple of weeks and she wishes me a good vacation. I tell my old boyfriend Sam, I’m going to Sarajevo on a student exchange program, and he asks me how it will feel to be part of target practice. I feel a shiver surge through my body, pushing me to come up with some equally witty, sardonic retort. I never was as clever as he, maybe that was our problem. It’s as if I’d strolled into a restaurant to meet a guy I used to kiss but hadn’t seen in years. I’m in a new dress that I think makes me look very chic, and he asks me if all the pressure of being in college has forced me to stop running. I take a big gulp and start reminding this guy I hardly know or care about that the war in Bosnia has been over for five years. I recite statistics and quote diplomats and still feel somehow wounded. My muscles just aren’t what they used to be and I am actually wondering if I’m strong enough for this crazy journey.
You see, my step-father is Serb, at least that’s how he refereed to himself until I was about eleven years old. That was about 1991 and things were getting really horrible in this country whose name most of my friends could hardly spell.
My mom traveled by herself through Yugoslavia. She collected a drawer full of Tito paraphernalia. One evening when I was about eight, she regaled all of us with her adventures. Camping out in Lubjliana with two timid Dutch brothers, barricading herself into a rented room at the end of a dark hall in Zagrab, getting off the train at midnight in Belgrade with hundreds of soldiers there as if to meet her at the station. This was my first real chance to invite a bunch of girls to a sleep over at my house, and my mother keeps us up all night talking about her European escapades. All I can really see that came out of this is that she’s married to a man who now refers to himself as a Yugoslavian but who formerly was proud to say “I am a Serb.” Sometimes I wonder if the reason she chose him is because he reminds her of those adventurous years in her twenties.
Anyway, it’s all kind of complicated because part of the reason I’m going to Bosnia is because I really need to understand that time in her life. I need to know why she was so transformed by those few months she spent by herself in Yugoslavia and why she gravitated toward a man like him. The more I learn about this part of the world, the more I find my head starting to spin. By allowing their pasts to emerge through the landscape, I am able to pull apart a wrought mess of conflicting information.
May 18, 2001 I’m flying into Sarajevo now realizing that I don’t actually have any one place etched in my mind’s eye. For me, this ungrounded sense of the city’s physical qualities is something I will only be able to savor a few more minutes. Unlike Paris or Rome, cities with a specific, timeless character, Sarajevo is a mismatch of horror and multi-ethnic notions of community. I know there was a time when one could arrive in this city struck by the mingling of its people and its cultures. That’s what a bird might have seen from a car before all of this lively color was quickly dimmed, squelched and killed. So now I guess I should think about the mountains but all I really can wonder about it whether or not the kids will be smiling.
June 20, 2001 In the tub I am intoxicated by the warm, clear, clean water. My mind travels; my body stays put, and the room is locked shut, set apart from the busy chatter in the living room of Dzenid, my uncle; Amra, my aunt: and Timur, their teenage son. They talk of dinner plans, the closing of a Sarajevo bank, the last time they saw my stepfather Robert. Or at least this is what I imagine they are saying. Really, I understand nothing of Bosnian and so I invent not only the words but also the emotions. Everyone in this house is a character in my radio play, and I am the naked director in the tub, the privileged thief of all the hot water left in this city. For these fifteen minutes, this new family of mine becomes the actors in a story I’m free to improvise. Soon the lovely hot water will become tepid. There will be no more of the precious liquid until the morning. I grab a towel, dry off and put on my clothes. As the water flows down the drain, wickedly, as if to tease, I am quickly reminded of my own, unshakable awkwardness. Whoever said that ignorance is bliss?
These new post-war days are like a fabulous blue sky that engulfs us with warmth and good spirit. For my cousin Timur, however, each numinous cloud is a clever reminder of the rains that fell and fell and just wouldn’t stop. “This bathtub,” he laughs, “the one you claim each night as your private luxuryship, was once dismantled, carried four flights down to the backyard and filled with dirt. Of course no one had enough water upstairs to take a bath, so my mother claimed it for herself, filled it with dirt and watched her green beans and a transplanted rose bush grow there through four summers of shelling. Now that it’s back upstairs, I can’t imagine you could ever really get clean in it.”
July 3, 2001 The B shelf of the tourist section in the used bookstore on 7th Avenue is lined with vibrant paperbacks full of details about scuba diving in Bermuda, tropical adventures in Bali and cheap eating in Beverly Hills. There is nothing on Bosnia. I’m hardly a seasoned traveler, yet, but I do know that a dog-eared guide book can serve as a real companion when traveling alone. Yes, I have a few so-called family members who will meet me at the airport in Sarajevo, but how will I know what to do after that? Somehow I feel that my whole sense of independence as a 20 year old woman in a foreign country depends on my ability to look through such a text. But there is nothing to be found and so I carefully, almost apprehensively, unfold the wrapping paper around a book my step-father must have hid in my suitcase just a few days before I left New York. It’s a tattered, hard-back copy of some Balkan tome I’d never intended to peek into. You see, I met this gift with the hard-scrabble resentment an ice skater feels when someone offers her a pair of knee pads. I had no use and no interest in anything more Robert thought I would need. He’s the kind of man who considers himself an expert on everything from inter-galactic phenomenon to fashion so I really wasn’t keen on giving him the thrill of guiding me through his own country if he wasn’t even brave enough to return himself. He says he’s too old. Is he too old for the nine hour plane trip? Too old for foreign water? Too old to go back to the place of his youth where time has not frozen, pristine, tree-lined, scar-free. I didn’t even realize that I had actually lied to the airline functionaries when they asked me “Have you remained with your luggage the entire time? Are you fully responsible for everything it contains?” With the flippant brilliance of a girl on her own for what feels like the first time, I unpack my suitcase in my new Sarajevo home only to find to my complete surprise a well-worn copy of his book, Bosnia Chronicles. Now as I begin to read, I realize this is not actually a dry historical treatise, but rather a highly compelling philosophical voyage through a land torn by the yearnings of east and west, cosmopolitan desires and the reveries of geographic isolation. Despite myself, I am consumed.
August 5, 2001 I don’t know why a full eclipse sends shockwaves through my cornea. I don’t know why I can’t get along with the man my mother loves. I don’t know how my Uncle Dzenid holds a teacup with such elegance using only a thumb and an index finger.
Aug. 28, 2001 Timur and I are just about the same age, our birth dates hovering around the year 1980 like hungry flies on a peach. We talk about listening to U2 as teenagers. I in the comfort of my best friend’s refurbished Volkswagen bug and he in the basement of his four-story apartment building, pedaling a makeshift bicycle that generated just enough power to run a transistor radio. We sit drinking Turkish coffee in the kitchen. It’s Saturday morning, no work today, so he finally agrees to take a walk through Sarajevo with me. Somehow I feel that there is an unspoken contract, a promise of sorts, between us. We will talk about Madonna’s comeback at age 40 (the same age as our mothers so we giggle at this one), our interest in yoga, how much memory our computers can store, but we will not discuss the war. At every turn in the road, with each bullet hole I see in a wall, I resist the temptation to ask. I want him to tell me if these skeletons of buildings that look as if they were bombed not more than a week ago are there to remind us of the war, if they are invisible to the people who walk past them everyday, or if they have been left to decay, allowing the winds to carry their dust , grain by grain away to the sea. I never imagined that cement could be twisted into such horrid sculpture.
The bitter coffee burns holes in my gut.
Sept. 1, 2001 My mother called today, in the late afternoon, just as the prayers had begun at the mosque a few blocks away. I was watching the shadows from a group of swallows swooping and swaying through the air, listening absent-mindedly to the Muslim chants, thinking about nothing and feeling a heightened sense of presence when the phone rang. Aunt Amra, who speaks no English at all, picked up the receiver and immediately dropped it in my lab, as if to say she had no interest whatsoever in communicating with her brother-in-law’s family. Ever since I arrived here I’ve come to realize that she, more than anyone else in this house, resents that my parents did virtually nothing to help her or her children except for making an occasional, expensive international call. So now, when the phone rings, and she realizes it’s my mother, she uses a beautifully choreographed gesture of disdain to reveal her real feelings.
I’m no more happy than she to hear this familiar voice.
Sept. 4, 2001 My fingers follow a path through murky water, old, dry morsels of bread, broken toys. I touch a wall, before I know it is there, startled not by the wall itself, but rather by the cracks and fissures in its surface. At nine years old, I memorized the ridges and gullies of my grand-mother’s skin, observing an intricate web of surface texture that gave clues to the mystery of her life. Each freckle, each shift of pigment, each mole, the number and the star etched on her shoulder. I transcribed meticulously, as a way of unearthing an anatomy of time, when she slept, … as she did most of the daylight hours those months before her death. At night she was startled by the slightest shift of our old, rumbling house. Awake, awake, awake, she drove us mad with concern. And now in the squid ink darkness of this Sarajevo night, I am again confronted by her skin, this time as a wall in an ally behind our apartment. It’s as if she’s standing there before me, finally demanding an explanation for my invasion of her skin.
Sept. 5, 2001 My body is a suitcase full of souvenirs from the falls I have taken in my life. The scar between my eyes came from a dive I took at age seven into a backyard pool near my mother’s home in Memphis. My shoulder length red hair has just the slightest resemblance to a fried egg. It’s what’s left from my botched attempt to transform myself a few hours before college graduation. Too much peroxide landed on the back of my head that morning. I whispered some insult to myself and went on to accept a diploma in the afternoon. To this day, I am not sure if my grand-mother was weeping out of pride or sorrow.
I have a tattoo on my right hip that uses my own invented alphabet from childhood.
My voice is embarrassingly soft, so soft it draws far more attention than it deserves. People always assume I am telling secrets.
Sept. 5, 2001 An unforgettably warm winter day. I watch peer into the courtyard of the old mosque from my window three floors above. The young mother with the turquoise veil pulled tight across her head scoops the water into her palms, then tenderly lets if fall into the mouth of her son below. I watch his jaw, imagining the liquid as it passes into his throat, and down. How did it feel five years, I wonder, when her mother merely wet the inner lining of her cheeks? Was it enough for her daughter to forget her thirst? A tall businessman in an Italian suit looks left, then right, perhaps ashamed I think, bends over, awkwardly you know, like he’s wincing with an old back injury, takes a gulp of water without wetting his hands, then quickly scoots along. The white rabbit with a somewhere called nowhere to go. More water continues to form a liquid arch that soars up, then dives down onto the polished cobblestones below.
Sept. 7, 2001 Sarajevo airport. A place is not a thing, but rather an uncontrollable sensation of memories that twitch at my nose, make me swell when I have nothing in my mouth, bring a stream of tears to my eyes when I am not sad.
This is a place I don’t just want to remember. How do I keep the dirt under my nails? How do I breath the air and keep it there, locked tight inside my lungs. In a jar, I preserve a street I never had the chance to follow to the end.
Sept. 9, 2001 On a large treeless hill in a wooded area across from the house where I grew up, sit about a dozen stately homes half way through their construction. It’s late spring now and they’ve been that way for about six months. The first time I saw this new addition to the patchwork quilt of new housing communities, I decided I would use my imagination to inhabit each and every house. There were the Ringels with their just-a-little too rambunctious dog and their commitment to good cookware. Then the Bradley’s with two boys and one on the way, a playroom large enough for a track and a husband with a long-awaited promotion at the firm. In my mind, I couldn’t figure out why this impeccably dressed couple drove only one rundown car that needed a paint job. Their muddy yard titled on a grate that exceeded the forty-five degree limit for a swing set. Things just didn’t quite fit. In fact, I believe, it is the Davis’ fragmented, no longer modular, life that was the first clue that the situation on the hill was not what it had first appeared to be.
You see I’d known this particular hill on an intimate basis ever since the summer between ninth and tenth grade when there were still at least a dozen Japanese Maples left. It was there in that high summer glow of moonlight that I first let Phil, the gangly boy who walked with me silently to the bus stop, reach under my shirt. I figured nothing too complicated would happen considering Phil’s taciturn ways and his inability to do anything with great panache. He was so extraordinarily tall that I took great pleasure watching him wander absent-mindedly amongst the maples in the warm, midnight air. It seemed right that his head soared amongst the delicate web of branches that sheltered our place below the sky.
It makes me sad to think that I have absolutely no mental image of Phil’s face. He is even gone from my peripheral vision. All I have left is the memory of his strange smell — like dirt from a garden rinsed with Ivory soap– and his height. I remember something about his having had a twin brother who died at birth. Could that boy possibly have been as tall and also fit inside his mother’s womb?
With all of the maples gone, it is becoming more and more difficult for me to remember either the touch of his hands or even the way his curly hair would get tangled in the branches. I’d always thought I could come back to this spot, whenever I fancied, to claim those strands of hair. I would giggle, thinking what it would be like to come home after years away, how I would steal a moment from a family dinner, run underneath a maple and delicately untangle a lock of his hair. Then I would seal it in an envelope, look his name up in the phone book and send it to him. Somehow the entire gesture seemed more like an archeological research project than a mean-spirited mockery.
Sept. 16, 2001 A tornado is a spinning cyclone of nature. It stampedes like an angry bull through a tranquil pasture of blue violets and upright blades of grass. A tornado kills with abandon but has no will. Last Tuesday, September 11, I saw one of the two Twin Towers vomit dark clouds of venom into the air. Before my eyes, what appeared to be an unimaginable accident of chance was transformed into something unworthy of a breath. Unable to comprehend the reality of death, my neighbor’s son mourns the death of the twins. Like my friends in Sarajevo ten years ago, my house of drafts is pummeled by the danger that is now the wind.