Saskia waits for me at the airport, cup of bijela kava in one hand and a cigarette in the other, yet she seems impatient, unsatisfied. Later, in the warmth of her sheets, this image of her still strikes me as troubling, even as I roll out of her bed and take a piss in the bathroom down the hall. She shares the apartment with Colin, an architect from Ireland. He loves Croatia, especially the city life of Zagreb. The people, he tells me time and time again, share the same spirit of rebellion. He argues both countries are perennial underdogs, always will be. The British were his oppressors; the Serbs for the Croats. As I fetch a glass of water from the kitchen, I want to forget about Colin and his cultural analysis. I want Saskia to live with me in D.C. I have never been happy with her sharing an apartment with a man. He works out and likes to roam the place in his black silk boxers and play his Martin guitar through the night. Saskia joins in, sings “The Bold Fenian Men,” and dances around the living room.
In her bedroom, she opens one eye and looks at me—scanning my potbelly and gray hair at the temples. I feel all of my forty-two years. She’s a decade younger, her body thin and muscular. Her honey-colored skin and natural blond hair appear unaffected by her chain-smoking and short sleeping hours. Sometimes I barely know her at all, and I think this is because of the age difference. We met on a reconstruction project eighteen months after the war. My job was to facilitate the rebuilding of the electrical grid. Several power plants had been crippled by JNA artillery and aerial bombardment. She worked as a translator, coordinating the paperwork and liaising between the Croatian government and the company I worked for. Our meetings blossomed into dates and then a long-distance relationship that has been atrophying for the last seven years.
“Alexander,” she says. She’s the only one who calls me this. To everyone else it is Alex. “Can I have it?”
I pass her the glass and slide back into bed. Her fluency in English has always thrown me, kept me off-guard. She can slip between languages, navigating complex ideas with more insight than I could ever muster. She studied French literature at Sveučilište u Zagrebu and then completed an intensive summer course at the Sorbonne. She worships Voltaire and Sartre and likes to quote from Candide or Huis Clos at dinner or on our walks. For her coursework she wrote long analytical essays on notions of the real in Zola, and she now keeps the papers stacked on her nightstand, pinned by a statuette of Marianne. Saskia has the mind of the philosopher, an existentialist forever questioning meaning. She once told me she learned Italian in her gimnazija in order to claim Dalmatia back. By disentangling the language from the land, she would be able to discover the purity that existed before the invasion. I know she would like to do the same thing for Serbian, but the languages are too similar, and I have seen her say Josip Jović in pain.
“Do you want to go out for breakfast?” she says.
“I have a meeting,” I say. The project I have worked on all these years is coming to an end. Soon there will be no reason for me to be in the country. Saskia knows this, yet has offered no thoughts on me leaving for good.
She snorts and wraps herself in the sheets. “Say hi to Tomislav for me.”
* * *
I drive Saskia’s Yugo from her tower block in the east section of Novi Zagreb to the center of the city. In the crisp November light the concrete buildings are thrown into sharp contrast—rectangular outlines flat as monoliths dominate the skyline. Near the river I hear the clanging of the tram and see, as it turns the corner, old women staring out from the dirt-smudged windows. It has been three months since I was last here. My job requires tri-annual visits, each lasting a month at a time. Our relationship is built on these tenuous periods. We eat out a lot, drink pivo and rakija, talk with her friends. They seem enthralled with the new Croatia, a country on the edge of Europe but not allowed in it. They barely mention the fall of Communism, the name Tito a distant memory, a fragment that still scares their parents. They don’t think much of Bush or America, viewing the country as colonizers, slijepi warmongers. Sometimes I reason this is why Saskia has not ventured to D.C. She says her job keeps her busy all of the year. There’s distrust, a sense I am trying to take her away.
In Tomislav’s office, I sit and wait for him to arrive. He has never approved of my and Saskia’s relationship. He was jealous, wanted her for himself. We are of a similar age and he has a wife now, from Karlovac, though I frequently mispronounce her name.
“Alex,” he says, entering. His tone is warm, and, as I stand, he shakes my hand. “Good to see you again.”
He looks the same: his dark double-breasted suit, taupe T-shirt, and a gold curb-link chain just visible around the bottom of his neck. When I first met him he took me out to shoot a game of pool, and after I beat him, he challenged me to an arm wrestle. That night he introduced me to Saskia, said she was his assistant. He groped her knee in the darkness of the bar, and she looked away unable to make eye contact with either of us. Then he had children—Marko, Jelena, Renata—and quit drinking. He blamed his past behavior on his youth, on the fact he needed a woman to translate for him.
On my computer I run through charts detailing contingency plans for the electrical grid, but I keep thinking of Saskia in bed and Colin in the room next door. She has told me on several occasions she doesn’t find him attractive, that she finds his near-nakedness funny and his accent engaging—like a lost troubadour finding his way in the world. She rarely speaks about me in those terms, or even says what she thinks of me, what she admires or hates.
“Are you well?” asks Tomislav.
I nod, and carry on, sleepwalking through the PowerPoint. I click through the slides of the latest efficiency improvements at the Peruća dam. The concrete rampart was cracked by JNA explosives and threatened a dozen small villages in the lower valley. It took years for Hrvatska Elektroprivreda to re-start power generation. I talk of the possible future developments and then, after I am finished, he passes me a handful of documents and I check them over and slip them into my briefcase.
“I’ll get these authorized and then we’re set,” I say. “Done.”
“It has been good working with you,” says Tomislav.
“Hard to believe all the years that have passed.”
“What will you do next?”
“There are several projects in India,” I say, standing. “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
“Good luck,” he says, showing me to the door. “And tell Saskia if she ever wants her job back…”
I block out his words, but the sound of his of voice lingers—even as I exit the building. Saskia confessed in the early days of our dating that she had slept with Tomislav, that she felt forced to in order to keep her job. Neither of us brought it up again. In the car, I rest my head on the steering wheel. The Yugo insignia on the column has been stickered over with a map of France. I peel it off, smell the cheap glue on the reverse, and glance at the two crooked lines that form a Y. I replace the sticker, press it down hard with a flattened palm. On the way back, I stop at a kiosk to buy glossy postcards of the Well of Life and the Ethnographic Museum, cheap versions of my memories. In one of the exhibition halls, as we indulged in the folk costumes, I had given Saskia a chance. Said I would move in with her. She told me to focus on my career, for she was not worth the sacrifice.
* * *
Saskia’s on the balcony, smoking a cigarette and eating black cherries. Maria Callas croons from the portable stereo by her feet. I imagine Saskia’s thinking of me, and what she’s going to do once I leave. My flight departs in the morning. No month this time. Soon I am going to living back in my row house in Tenleytown, pacing through the neighborhood, checking my messages, and occasionally gawking at the exchange students at AU, wondering if any of them are from the Balkans.
I press my face against the glass door, trying to get a better view. Colin is resting in a deckchair on the far side of the balcony. He holds a beer and a cellphone in one hand, while he swirls the other in the air to reinforce his joke about Bush’s resemblance to an ape. He delivers an obvious punch line, and she laughs. I tap on the glass.
“Alexander,” she says, turning. “How was the meeting?”
I crack open the door. “I’m about to pack.”
“Stay,” she says, “have a cherry.”
I shake my head and go to her room and toss my shirts into my suitcase. The postcards I sent her are tacked to the dresser drawers. She once said the White House looks funny, like an old plantation house. If she saw it in person, she would say it looks small—like everyone else. I keep the one letter she has written in my medicine cabinet, rolled tight in a plastic sleeve. When I see my reflection, I think of her and what she let slip. She sent me the letter a week after I first left and wrote of a book historicizing the romance of the theologian Abélard and his student Héloïse. In her scrawl I learned that Héloïse’s uncle castrated Abélard for wanting to marry the girl. She became a nun; he a monk. For the rest of their lives they communicated through letters. For two pages Saskia deliberated on the romance and underlined a sentence about unity in distance. She argued our time apart strengthened us, kept us together. I was never convinced and pleaded for a little leeway. She allowed me weekly telephone calls and e-mails, though no other letters. I have flown in for multiple visits, saving my flextime to spend long weekends with her. She used to relish these short stays, but over the last months she told me to save my money and spend it on something else.
Saskia knocks softly on the door and comes in. “Are you all right?” Her brow is wrinkled, and her left hand touches her lips.
“Fine.” I fold my suit in half and throw it into the case.
She steps closer and caresses my shoulder. “What was that back there?”
“We should talk about it.”
“Where do we go from here?”
She looks down at the hardwood. “I don’t know.”
This is the first time I have seen self-doubt in her. Usually she’s confident, like nothing can touch her. That every word she says is the way it is.
“I was waiting until you left,” she says, “to see how I really feel.”
I don’t understand why she still is unsure. Saskia is so different from the other women I have known. Anya, the girlfriend prior, was a Peace Corps volunteer. She built a school in Angola and then taught English. I let her go—wanted her to earn her Ph.D. Then there was Elizabeth, my college girlfriend. At William and Mary she was a psychology major who wanted to become a behavioral counselor. We assumed we would marry post-graduation. She changed, or I did, in D.C., the city too much to bear. Sometimes I blame myself, my propensity to romanticize and ignore my own failings. I try to rationalize Saskia’s behavior in my head, relate it to her father killed in the war and her mother drunk on domaća šljivovica. But no. I have met many women over here who want to settle down, start a family, make a life after all the bloodshed.
“O.K.,” I say. “I need to finish packing.”
She slips out of the room, and I sit on the foot of the bed. I am not sure how this situation has come to pass. Over the years, I have worked myself up from an assistant project manager to executive. Yet our roles have reversed. I am consigned to be her inferior. Each action she completes is on a higher order and mysteriously imbued with meaning. She leaves me deciphering, trying to ascertain what to do next.
* * *
When Saskia asks me to go with her to the market, I agree. How can I not? It’s located a few streets down from her apartment and we walk, side by side. Her hands are sunk in her woolen overcoat, probably so that she doesn’t have to hold mine. It’s strange, though. I like her clothes. She has an offbeat style: mud-brown corduroys, cork-heeled wedges, a purple scarf loosely wrapped around her neck and over her right shoulder. I rarely break from my dark suits and white cotton shirts. My tie, though, sits squashed in my pocket. I caress the silk as we hook a right onto a concrete plaza jostling with people navigating the stalls. Produce vendors, women from the countryside outside of Zagreb, cry out, encouraging people to buy their homemade cheeses and flatbreads. In the center of the market stands a bronze statue of King Tomislav riding a horse. The marble base is scrawled with graffiti, and a group of teenagers leans against the slab.
“How did your meeting go?” she says.
“The usual,” I note. “He looks good.”
“When was the last time you saw him?”
“A while ago,” she says, pointing to one of the stalls. “I want quince.”
“I thought we were getting food for dinner?”
“Fine,” she says, and leads me to a man selling grains pooled in plastic buckets.
I buy five hundred grams of wheat flour to make dumplings.
“Chicken,” she notes. “We need some.”
We head to a stall, find trays of butchered meat, and I pull out my wallet and count my remaining kuna.
“Saskia, what about these?” I turn and she’s gone. I think I see her through the crowd. Sloping away. I shake my head and purchase a handful of chicken thighs, enough to make a rich soup. Her mother taught me the recipe on the second day I met her. I don’t think she remembers the first. A Christmas years ago Saskia coaxed me onto a train heading east to Slavonia, to a rural town close to the Serbian border. The carriages were full of grizzled men smoking and arguing over the exact position where Croatia ends and other places begin. In a taxi to the house, she told me what the men had said and that the men were stupid for fighting over the land. Her mother was in the yard with a tall glass of šljivovica in her hand and standing over a pig roasting on an iron spit. After she kissed me on the cheek and learned my name, saying it slowly three times, she ripped a hunk of bread from a large circular loaf and dipped it in the liquid pig fat caught in the silver foil below the carcass. She handed the sodden bread to me and laughed as I coughed up the salty dough.
In America, I am rarely that daring; I spend my days avoiding new experiences. I focus on my job, the planning of sustainable Third World electrical grids. I rethink the infrastructure, shifting the energy mix from crumbling coal plants to wind farms, hydroelectric dams, and nuclear installations. I demand backup generators in hospitals, and I pilot residential microgrids in the favelas. I help people. I power the homes of families. Makes my life feel it is worth a damn. Perhaps in a small way this makes up for Bush. It is a strange kind of delusion—one that keeps me going. When I am here, with Saskia, her friends treat me like an oddity. They invite me to cafés, encourage me to drink and smoke, to relax and forget about work. They recount stories of sexual misdeeds, and hurl Ti si šupak and Idi u kurac at each other, and in their whispers I hear fragmented critiques of both Communist rule and capitalism. I feel serene, above the words, like a U.N. observer. A stranger who can barely navigate the peculiarities of translation, and yet I hope when the right words can’t be found they see the good in me, the foreigner. And when Saskia’s cold she will remember what I first said to her in the bar and come around. Take me back. I wrestle with my faith in her, in us, on the walk to the apartment. Colin lets me in. He’s wearing an emerald-green kimono, a swirling black dragon embroidered on the back.
“You look like shit,” he says, grins.
I step inside, think at least I don’t sing like it, and begin to put the groceries away. He comes into the kitchen, maneuvers around me, and snatches a beer from the fridge.
“Is Saskia with you?” he asks.
“Sounds about right.”
He doesn’t wait for my reply. He goes to the living room, and I follow him to give him a better answer, to show him I am with her and that he isn’t. He sits at the dining table, his laptop displaying the schematics of a modern industrial building.
“Designs for a museum,” he says, tapping his fingers on the screen, “to document the Homeland War.”
“When will we see it?”
“I’m not sure it’s going to be built. Bureaucracy is killing the funding.”
“Life of an architect, I suppose.”
Colin laughs. “Yeah, that’s right.”
“Saskia’s at the market.”
“Gotcha,” he says, returning to the designs. “Grab a beer. I want to show you something.”
“I’m good,” I say, sideswiped by his warmth. “What is it?”
He loads up a three-dimensional image of the museum. With his mouse he rotates the building, clicks on the portico entrance, and zooms in. “The thing that kills me is I’ve spent longer on this project than anything else. Fucking years.” He pokes his finger at his initials hidden in a stone recess. “I gave the place my mark.”
“Maybe it’s for the best,” I say. “I mean, the country can move on from the war.”
“Man, you don’t understand Croats at all.”
I don’t want to think Colin’s right, that he understands Saskia better than me. “I know about her father. That he was a police officer who fought the Serbs.”
Colin mumbles a “Yeah.” He’s not looking at his computer anymore. He’s looking at me.
“Killed,” I add.
“And her brother,” he says.
She never told me of a brother. Though, thinking back, I recall seeing a photograph in her room in Slavonia. He had a shock of dark hair and a thin face. I presumed he was an old boyfriend. “What was his name?”
“Stjepan,” I repeat.
* * *
Saskia shows up after eight. Crescents underneath her eyes are tinged purple. She sweeps back her hair, wraps it with a blood-red neckerchief, and touches my shoulder. She looks into my eyes, and I question what she’s finding. She wants me to be angry, to chastise her for leaving.
“Hey,” I say.
“I needed some time,” she replies.
“Sure, I understand.”
She guides me to the kitchen. We cook dinner as if nothing has happened. She has walked off before, told me she wanted a cigarette. Knows I don’t like the smoke. But I don’t remember her ever going for this long. Her hands look cold, almost blue. She says they’re fine and boils the dumplings and chops the carrots and cabbage, while I prepare the chicken. I slice the flesh from the bone and cube the meat. As I pan-fry the chicken I think about where she went, who she was with. She has a lot of male friends: Vladan, Ivan, Tomislav. I have met each of them over the years. Hated them all. Stjepan complicates things, makes me search for what else she hasn’t told me. Maybe it’s me, wanting her to open up my life.
I drop the chicken into the pot with the vegetables. I can hear Colin in his room, playing his guitar. I switch on the TV; tell Saskia there’s a news segment I want to watch. She laughs and says my Croatian is terrible, that I will not be able to understand what they are saying. She’s right about my language skills. Being with her meant I didn’t have to pick up that much. Still, I know one or two words. Early on I learnt how to say volim te, and in the first months I told her often. Saskia refused to reciprocate, said our relationship was different to love, transcended it.
We eat the dumplings and soup and drink a whole bottle of red wine. I pour Irish whisky into two tumblers and nudge her to the bedroom. Lying in bed, she unbuttons my shirt and runs her hand through my chest hair. She looks to the ceiling as she curls the black hairs between her fingers. She always liked doing this, calls me her grizzly bear.
“Found a gray,” she says.
“Matches my hair.”
She plucks the strand and rolls to the other side of the bed. “I have it now,” she says.
I rub my chest, feeling the sting of the plucked follicle, and inch over to her. She’s lined up at the edge, staring at her desk, or the college papers, or Marianne. I hook my arm around her waist and ask, “What are you going to do with it?”
“Pass my drink,” she says.
She’s bored with the flirting, with me. We each drain our respective glasses and then, as I take her tumbler, she kisses my cheek.
“Don’t you want to make love to me?”
She used to say fuck. Love is an acquiescence to me—a sign of regret, a mellowing of her sexual desire.
“I don’t think it’s right.”
She whispers words of cryptic Croatian into my ear, her tongue tracing the contour of my lobe, and then she cups my face, angles it toward her. There’s a slow meeting of our bodies. She latches us together with her limbs. They’re limber, strong. Her hips grind mine for what seems like hours. The deep grooves on the inside of her legs bore into my body. I run my fingertips down her back and over the scars. She pushes my hands away and shakes her head. Lifting herself off me, she collapses onto her side of the bed. She has never explained these marks, and really I don’t want to know.
* * *
I wake to see dark sky through the parting of loose curtain. Saskia’s still asleep. I think about calling a taxi, not saying goodbye. I need a reason to keep the pain going or end the relationship for good. I nudge her shoulder and kiss her forehead. Her eyes stay closed. She smiles and throws her arm around my neck, kisses me on the lips. Her sour breath tastes of a last time.
She drives me to the airport in the creep of dusk. Her car struggles with the incline, and we can both hear the hum of the trucks as they overtake us. Out of the window the scouring light reveals the jagged gray mountains on the horizon. I turn to her, place my hand on her knee and squeeze it gently. She stares forward with hands unmoved in the two-and-ten position on the wheel. She’s wearing a military overcoat and a pale yellow slip underneath. Her effortless beauty makes me jealous, makes me wonder. I am not sure what she does when I am in D.C., grinding through sixty-hour weeks. She says she translates government documents, goes out with friends to the bars on Tkalčićeva Street, devours the novels of Simone de Beauvoir, calls her mother and tries to understand how they have drifted apart.
The terminal comes into view, a large block of concrete and glass. She pulls into the parking lot and finds an empty space. She switches the engine off and unbuckles her seatbelt.
“You don’t have to come in,” I say.
“We should take a coffee,” she replies.
“If you want.”
“Of course I do.”
“Will you tell me about Stjepan?”
She glares at me, trying to piece together how I found out. “Colin told you.”
She’s quiet for a moment. Her face is flushed red. “He was shot.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“You’re a fuck.”
“He was five years older than me. He taught me how to ride a horse. He gave me my first cigarette,” she says, clasping the handbag in her lap. “I remember him every day.”
I want to thank her for sharing with me. But I know she would curse me out as American, all touchy-feely—constantly having to express.
She opens her door. “It’s time.”
We head inside the terminal. I show the attendant my passport and collect my ticket. We stop at the bar and get two cups of bijela kava. She lights a cigarette and inhales a long puff of gray smoke. She notices me watching her.
“I’m going to quit,” she says.
I laugh. “Sure you are.”
She squeezes my hand and tells me I should come back. I nod, not sure if I will. She doesn’t seem affected by my response. She’s prone to stoicism, to internalizing her emotions. She would just say she’s being Slavic.
“By the next time you’re here, I’ll be free.”
“Yeah, I know.”
From her handbag she removes a book. She places it on the counter.
“A gift,” she says.
It’s a rare edition of The Letters of Abélard and Héloïse. I can’t tell if this is meant to be symbolic of us parting or that it’s a reminder we are still together.
“I’ll read it onboard.”
“Wait until you are home,” she says.
We look out the large plate-glass windows and watch a plane land. I check the departure board. See that the numbers are orderly. She starts to talk about the flag on the rudder, what the design means, but I can only focus on the people swarming the gate.