I saw them on TV, and from that day on, the song went round and round in my head. I decided to buy their cassette, but kids back then didn’t have their own pocket money. I’d heard of the term “an allowance,” but believe me, in socialist countries something like that was just a myth because it was unthinkable for a kid to possess money. We were given no more than a bit of loose change to buy some chewing gum or a soft drink. Asking my father for money seemed out of the question. So I decided to skimp on the chewing gum for a few weeks and try to save up the money that way.
I stood at the counter of the cassette shop with the money in my hand. When they handed me the cassette, I felt as if they were giving me the Holy Grail. The cover depicted the band members leaving planet Earth, and to me it seemed as if they were flying directly into my mind. The cassette player resounded with unprecedented force, fueling dreams within me of something bigger and grander. I replayed the first song over and over again and . . . that afternoon, while sitting in my father’s room that was his private world—so remote and inaccessible—I saw it as conquering new territories of the mind, my own personal “Final Countdown,” a dream of togetherness, unity, and mutual understanding, something that eluded not only the two of us, but the whole country as well.
But the world kept going, the clock was counting down: 10, 9, 8 . . . we were getting ready.
“What do you need this for?” my mother asked me upon discovering a switchblade in my backpack.
“For self-defense. Everyone in our group’s got one,” I replied, puzzled, as if she had asked me why I needed a soccer ball or a bicycle.
“This is dangerous,” she said, and to this day I’m not sure how she managed to hide that switchblade without my knowing, stashing it somewhere I never found it again.
. . . 7, 6, 5, 4 . . . we got into the car. My sister and I sat in the backseat that was covered with the obligatory bed sheet as was customary on the long journey to the coast.
. . . 3, 2, 1 . . . we set off for the coast! My mother couldn’t keep her eyes off me. I was embarrassed, but I knew how much our first summer spent together since I was three meant to her, the first vacation my father agreed we could go on together.
It wasn’t that long ago I had “met” her, maybe a year before that vacation. Prior to that I knew her as “the woman who sent me packages,” which I awaited with joy and a sense of guilt in not replying. All the wonderful crayons and pens, delicious cakes, toys and letters that were a mixture of both joy and sorrow for me, but which I couldn’t associate with any face. And so that’s why I substituted it with my aunt’s or my best friend Hare’s mother’s face, and when I went over to his place, I fantasized that his parents were mine, that I was part of a whole, rather than divided in two . . . My mother was also divided in two—now that I’m a parent, I know that. But what we didn’t know was that the country was also divided between those who believed in it and those who wanted to separate from it. To those in the former group, the idea of separating was akin to condemning oneself to being an orphan, something that was unthinkable to them.
We in Bosnia were part of that half of the people who believed in Yugoslavia. In no other republic did people swear by the name of our “Dear Tito!” and in no other republic had the spirit of togetherness developed in the way it did in Bosnia.
“Let me take over now,” I said to Maher. I was turning the lamb on a spit in his yard for the end of Ramadan feast. We took turns, and whenever an older member of his family would come outside, he would give us a few coins. We’d be beside ourselves with joy, and we’d turn the spit even harder and faster. After a job well done, we were rewarded with a bit of flatbread and a piece of lamb that we ate with relish. We had full stomachs and full hearts; we were happy and content, just like at Easter when we cracked red eggs with each other. We shared and celebrated everything together, both Christmas and Ramadan, always with one another, until they separated us.
Every evening, in the year of “our lord and savior Tito,” 1986, we sat in the yard of the house belonging to my mother’s aunt on the island of Hvar, playing cards.
Only thirty feet down below us, the choppy sea was gnawing away at the rocks, and providing an abundant breeding ground for the mosquitoes. The noise of the crickets was outdone only by the song “Orion” by Metallica from our little cassette player, beginning softly and mysteriously, and then blasting the heavy air saturated with the smell of bug spray.
“You plays good,” my best friends from Hvar—two Hungarian brothers from Vojvodina—said to my cousin, a drummer from Belgrade, while we were listening to the demo tapes of his band Revolt.
Summer came to an end, and after just managing to load all our things into our Zastava 101, we turned back to look at the house that farewelled us with graffiti scrawled on it reading “Faggot House.” Quite simply we were the wrong people in the wrong place.
Excerpt from the book “3 Minutes and 53 Seconds” (Goten, 2015)
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015