Marija Stajic
Marija Stajic


What are her intentions?
When she buries everybody
Only me, she brings back to life

Does Ana have a real reason
To sleep so beautifully…
Branislav Petrovic, Serbian poet

Ana took a sip of red wine, chin-down, while scanning a sea of young women, in evening dresses and high heels, at the “I completed all my courses but it could still take me 10 years to graduate” party. This party, at a restaurant near the University of Nis, was a combined Yugoslav literature, English literature, Physical Education and Chemistry gathering, all together comprising Faculty of Philosophy’s class of 2000. An all-male band played fast, popular Serbian music, but the guests were still just warming up, talking loudly through it and drinking. White wine spritzers, red wine, Jelen (Deer) lager beer and rakija, Serbian brandy, in hundreds of cheap glasses were placed on bleach-white tablecloths, next to large oval plates filled with barely touched Serbian burgers or pljeskavice, kebabs or cevapi, white snitzels and grilled sausages. No one seemed to be interested in eating, but everyone drank standing up, waving left and right like bare branches in light wind.

Ana wore a lavender, form-fitting Mango dress she had bought in Budapest during a recent class trip, and dark gray high-heel shoes. Both presents from her parents for completing her courses on time and with high grades. Her hair was up in a stylish bun her hairdresser worked on for three hours, until her neck got so stiff she couldn’t keep her head up straight. She saved money for six months in order to look exactly as she did that night—hair, makeup, underwear, shoes.

“Those pictures are forever,” her friends said. And they were right. It was all worth it, Ana thought.

“That dress looks like it was made for you,” a Chemistry student said to her, blinking fast. She smiled at him and said: “How do you know it wasn’t?” He blushed, wiped the smile and began looking for a friend. He was nice, Ana thought, but short, had facial hair, and reminded her too much of her father, which usually made her turn and run in the opposite direction. Or in this case, with alcohol in her bloodstream, she had an urge to sting him. Her father was the worst cliché of a patriarchal Serbian man, treating her mother like a free housekeeper, while he reserved the right to behave like a bachelor. He was the reason Ana swore she would never marry a Serb. She considered Serbian men to have only one purpose—to be used for fun, then thrown away like clothes with holes in them.

Stasa was next to her, gently swinging from side to side and singing, with a shot of rakija in her hand. Ana hadn’t eaten much, partly because, for some reason, it was embarrassing to eat a lot at parties, partly because her dress looked much better without food in her stomach. She would get tipsy fast, especially when she neglected to eat very much. She could get tipsy from looking at wine.

When Ana got tipsy, she became selectively flirty, and playful. So she decided to play.

“I’m going to say hello to the Professor!”

“Are you already drunk? But it’s only 10pm. Eat something first,” Stasa said.

“I’m not hungry. Besides, it’s all meat,” Ana said.

“What, now you’re a vegetarian?! A vegetarian Serb? Yeah, that will stick! Fine, go play with fire, but I want it on the record--I’m not holding your hair afterwards!”

“Stasa, even the band can hear you!”

Ana made a 180 degree turn to go behind the wall where professors drank and ate.

“Hello! Having fun?” she said to the Professor and his young colleague. The Professor’s eyes sparkled. His ears barely contained his smile. His resembled a bobble head doll and a dog at the same time, piercing his eyes into Ana’s body, left and right, about to salivate.

“You look…just…please, join us.”

He pulled out one of many available chairs around him.

“What are you drinking?” he asked.

His younger colleague looked away toward the band and the drunken dancing crowd in front of the podium, who were euphorically jerking, jumping and swaying while yelling the song in sweet delirium, with closed eyes and clenched jaws.

“Red wine,” Ana said, smiling at the glimpse of her colleagues’ celebration. “But I think I had enough.”

“Oh, but I disagree. You didn’t have nearly enough. Are you having fun?” Jovan asked, smiling and pouring her another glass of wine.

“Time of my life…”

He glanced at the podium.

“Would you like to dance with me?”

His grip was tight. They touched at the waist. Everyone stared at them. He seemed enchanted by her, and she felt an addictive power over him that rose in her body and took it over, power over this strict, older Professor who was known to be difficult to deal with and extremely demanding in class and exams. Students would spend years studying for his exam and still fail. It was fun knowing that most of the crowd was wondering what was going on between them. Is she sleeping with him? Is she going to sleep with him?

She knew some women envied her, some were disgusted by her audacity and men were intrigued and attracted. As she was being swallowed by his heavy breath, she saw her colleague Sladjan.

He was one of the few male students who managed to survive in the sea of women by sucking up to the male professors. He was always in their offices, fetching whatever they needed like a trained dog. Ana thought they were actually using him to spy on their own students. They were playing their own games. It beats the boredom, and isolation Serbia was in.

Sladjan was short and almost obese. His round soft face was freckled and his light-brown curly hair greasily fell on his small forehead. His cheeks were bursting red. He smelled of fresh sweat. He was the best student in the accent class, due to his Western Serbian origin. Apparently people from Negotin spoke Serbian just like Modern Serbian language creators intended-with all four accents. People from Nis only used one. It literally made them into two different species in college—people from South Serbia were numerically and territorially dominant but still inferior creatures, who spoke like they were illiterate, while a few accent-detecting aliens were a minority, but an envied one. Sladjan was the first student to finish his Accentology written exam, and exit the amphitheater while the rest were giving him the evil eye while silently cursing their ancestors for bearing them on a land with only one accent.

As a senior, Sladjan finally had found a girlfriend, a year-older, female version of himself. Ana barely knew her since she failed a year and only joined them during their last one. He still looked at Ana in the same way an imprisoned man looked at the sky through bars.

The music stopped. The Professor grudgingly let go of Ana’s waist and masterfully kept a hold of her right hand, leading her back to his table. She minded his sweaty, hairy hand but didn’t know how to get hers out without offending him.

“I have a bottle of old French Cabernet Sauvignon at home. I was saving it for a special occasion. Should we open it?” the Professor asked, as he was pulling out a chair for Ana.

By this time, it was almost five o’clock in the morning. Ana felt like one of those people who had gaps in their memory, huge black holes of time passing by and no memory of what happened in it. The sounds of dishes filled the air, and the smell of thick, strong Turkish coffee.

“I should go home,” Ana replied, and put a piece of bread in her mouth, so she wouldn’t feel faint.

“No, you should have some expensive wine with us. You’re only young once.”

And for you that was a long time ago, Ana thought, smiling at him, even as she was drawn to this older creature.

“What a coincidence! Ana was just telling me the other day how much she loves French impressionists!” Sladjan said.

“We better not talk about 20th century poets, otherwise, not even Cabernet could keep me awake,” she said, leaving the Professor contentedly smiling.

He lived close to the restaurant, only three blocks north. The four made their way to his apartment in Nis’s empty, quiet, early-morning streets. The Professor didn’t seem at all tired. He seemed like one of those people who sleep during the day and are on top of their game at night. He lobbed his witty remarks toward the other three, who were still running on wine, coffee and excitement but slowly sensing their tiredness and the prospect of suddenly running out of energy and just collapsing. After a five-minute walk, the Professor opened a chipped, white door to a dark, black and white stone hallway, with graffiti on gray walls, and broken wooden mail boxes. He led them up a flight of cold, stone and steel stairs with a gray rubber handrail. He didn’t turn any lights on.

A Vampire, Ana thought, and felt the cold, smoothly painted wall, looking for a light switch. She was wary since often these switches were broken and she was afraid of being electrocuted. So she slowly and carefully felt around to make sure it was safe. Then she pressed it. The light flickered for a second, then barely lit the narrow hallway of the second floor, with three apartment doors on it. The light startled Sladjan and his girlfriend, who were leaning on the rail halfway down the hallway, kissing. I guess these railings are stronger than they look, Ana thought and smiled. They looked at Ana, a bit startled and unembarrassed. The Professor was nowhere to be seen.

Sladjan pulled his girlfriend by her hand and continued going up. Ana was right behind them. She smelled her way down the hallway, and as she was climbing she tried to decipher smells. Fried eggs, and coffee, and fresh bread! I’m guessing, sunny side up!

The light switched off. The next thing she saw was a light in the background, and a skinny silhouette.

“Welcome,” he said, and as Ana walked in, he brushed up against her hip. I love subtle men, she thought.

He walked into a long, carpeted hallway that led into a bright living room. Sladjan and Jelena were already there. Ana’s eyes fell on an old peach-colored sofa next to a dusty orange armchair. There was also a brown wooden dining room table, and four old, chipped brown chairs. The walls were bare, dirty-white.

Would it kill him to buy a painting, Ana thought, and quickly sat in the armchair. Sladjan and Jelena sat on the sofa with the Professor, who chatted briefly about the rented apartment and his weekly commutes from Belgrade where, they had heard, his wife and children lived. But he never mentioned them. Then he quickly got up to bring the promised wine.

“Are you ready?” Sladjan asked Ana, with Jelena holding on to his biceps as though she was trying to measure his blood pressure.

“For what?” Ana said, confused.

“For the exam, of course,” Sladjan said and smiled.

“Of course not,” she said, and stared directly into Sladjan’s eyes, until he looked away. Who do you think you’re messing with, you, wanna-be-pimp, she thought, and as she looked at Sladjan like a hawk about to attack a rodent, the professor waltzed back in, whistling the last song from the party, with four wine glasses, two and two, crossed in each hand. He quickly gave one to each, and ran back to the kitchen, leaving a trail of words behind him: “I let it breathe for a bit…”

He came back with a bottle of Domaine de Trevallon from 1991 and a tray of aged, fatty Serbian cheese—kackavalj. Ana was trying to read the rest of the yellow label’s red letters: “Vin de Pays des Bouches-Du-Rhone. Sounds nice! Where did you get it?”

“Oh, a gift from a happy student. I sent her to France, actually, I recommended her for a Masters in France. It’s a full-scholarship,” he said.

“A bottle of wine for a scholarship in France. I’m sure Ana would be more generous,” Sladjan said.

Ana cut his face in half with her eyes.

“I hope she would,” the Professor said, smiling. “Would you like to go to France, Ana? Do you speak the language?”

“As a matter a fact, I do. And I would. Depends on the price.”

“You wouldn’t have to thank me in expensive wine,” he said.

Ana hesitated a bit, smiled, then decided to keep playing what she thought was a game.

“What would I have to do?” she said.

“We can discuss than later, colleague. But you can start by having another glass.”

She stuffed a piece of cheese in her mouth, and let it melt. She made herself more comfortable in the chair by sliding down, exposing her white, long, shiny legs. Both men looked, and she pulled her dress down and her body up. She was smiling and nodding, as they were talking about Baudelaire and his Evil Flowers, then fast forward almost a century and James Joyce was being recited and crucified, and critiqued to death. She looked for a clock, then glanced at everyone’s hands. Both Sladjan and the Professor had watches, but they were too far away, and she couldn’t tell the numbers. Is it seven? she wondered, and in her attempt to read Sladjan’s watch her eyes caught Jelena’s smirk, and her x-raying looks. “She must hate me,” Ana thought, as Jelena looked away, and whispered something to Sladjan. Great, she can talk, just not out-loud, Ana thought.

“Thank you Professor, the best wine I ever tasted. And the best conversation. We should do this again, maybe just a little later in the day,” Sladjan said, getting his large, oval body up from a hole it made in the sofa, and extending his hand to his shadow of a girlfriend. Ana looked at that sofa cushion, pitying it, as it struggled to restore its previous form.

The Professor looked at Ana. She froze for a couple of seconds. It seemed much longer than that, as though the air was bubbling with silence, waiting for her to break it, so it could breathe again. “I agree, great wine, great poets. Let’s do it again some time. ” The Professor’s face became somehow stern, he got up and implored them: “Stay! Let’s have some coffee!”

Suddenly, Ana felt a mixture of disgust, anxiety and shame. Did he really think I would stay?! If she had stayed, Sladjan and his girlfriend would broadcast this to the whole city. In a few days, every living soul would know that she had slept with him. Even if she didn’t.

She picked up her small, sparkling purse from the chair, and put it on her right shoulder.

The three students left the Professor in silence. This time, the light was on in the hallways. In front of the building, Ana parted ways with her colleagues, again in silence. As she turned away from them, they looked almost as disappointed as the Professor.

A few minutes later, she slowed down and looked back, as Sladjan and Jelena were strolling slowly down the street, toward the city center, hugging each other’s round, soft bodies.

She suddenly stopped. There was a red, rusty metal banner across from her, inviting the eye with its corrosion and flashy pictures of Socialists trying to get reelected. Their airbrushed faces and white sparkling teeth were gleaming at her, mocking her. Their promises, below their dark blue suits and red ties, were as fairy-taley as usual. Ana’s mind read them as: “For better future, vote for Milosevic’s cousin; It could be worse, better the devil you know; Capitalism is the devil’s playground.”

She pulled a pocket mirror out of her purse, and looked at her face in the light of the cloudy day. She looked up wondering if it would rain. The sky was gray, as gray as the walls in Professor’s building. The sun was somewhere behind the flock of clouds, trying to open them like broken sliding doors. Ana saw warm, pointy glimmers of it, like fingers of a person drowning.

Her mascara slightly ran, so she gently pulled the skin with her right pinky toward the corners of her eyes. She pulled out a lipstick and spread some on her lower, then her upper lip. A middle-aged woman in a suit passed and frowned at her. “You better take a book into your hands, not lipstick,” she said to Ana, walking away. Ana smirked back and almost yelled at the woman’s back: “Yeah, I can tell, books made you very happy!” The woman never looked back. Ana fixed her hair, tucked her belly in, and turned back.

The Professor’s hallways seemed even darker and colder than before. She turned the light on instantly this time. She thought about turning back a hundred times during those 48 steps. She played different scenarios in her head. Spending the rest of her life in this God forsaken country, this village of a city, with its small-minded people whose only ambition in life was to feed on their parents like parasites for as long as they could, kick them out of their houses, and put them up in studio apartments, then procreate as soon as they got engaged to their high school sweethearts. Then cheat, for the rest of their lives. Like her father. And his friends. And friends of friends.

How bad can it be? she thought.

Ana stood in front of that white door. The light went off. She stood there in silence, like a rock, hoping something would happen to help her decide, hoping the earth would shift and open right in front of her and swallow her into peace. It was easier to think in the dark. It was easier to imagine never seeing the world, always being an outcast, an animal to civilized people, war-hungry, stamped like cattle by what happened in Bosnia and Kosovo. And how many other wars is Milosevic going to get us into, she thought. Then she thought of France which she’d never seen, her dreamland since her first French class when she was 11. She crisply remembered the day her teacher showed her pictures of strolls along the river Seine and gave her bites of stinky Camembert on French baguette. Her teacher looked fresh, sophisticated and happy. Everything Ana wanted for herself.

“Oh, screw it,” Ana whispered, and rang. The bell screamed, and it seemed so loud to Ana that she turned around, still in the dark, thinking that someone else might have heard it. Panic started enveloping her, stepping on her head, brick by brick, until it was hard to keep it straight. Her shoulders sank, and she stepped back. The time seemed to be ticking in her head, fast, and she wanted to slow it down. She turned around, her back toward the door, and reached for the railing when she heard the door open. She could almost feel the Professor’s stunned eyes jarring her back. Her neck popped. She clearly saw gloating in his eyes, like a cat’s in the dark. His white shirt was pulled out of his pants, and he was barefoot.

“Tell me about France again,” Ana said, and walked in. The lock screeched and Ana felt as though she were behind bars, walking into a cell.

Jovan’s face was distorted with desire. He dropped his cup of coffee on the floor, and pushed her against the wall. Then he violently kissed her incessantly until her lips hurt. He was grunting and breathing heavily. Ana felt like a fly in a spider’s web. She let her body go limp, just a vessel for her brain that was already in Paris, sipping café au laits and eating croissants with the view of L’Arc the Triomphe. He distorted this movie in her head when he picked her up and carried her into the bedroom. He laid her on the bed, like a corpse, and she saw his grin under his small eyes that were darting into her body constantly. She could feel them burning into her skin, into her insides. She still couldn’t move. She was hoping that some crumbs of pure animal need would come out of her so she could at least have a modicum of a chance of enjoying this tryst. But her body was resisting. Her every muscle was tight. She tried to recall all the passionate moments she had with her boyfriends, while the professor slowly took her clothes off, enjoying every touch, every lick, like it was his last. He kissed her legs up and down, left and right, without an obvious pattern, told her repeatedly how beautiful she was, while Ana silently sang her favorite song, the ones her friends had said it must have been written for her: ”You live in the clouds my dear, and my voice can’t reach you, you haven’t given yourself to anyone yet, and you can’t even imagine what kind of bliss awaits us…

She relished singing it and thinking about herself in such a way—innocent, just waiting for someone to worship her, put her on a cloud, and applaud. The professor took his clothes off: his white shirt, his jeans, his glasses. He was now on top of her, scratching her neck with his goatee, tickling her. He was kissing her breasts, playing with her small, firm nipples as though with lollipops. Ana jerked, and pulled his face toward hers. He pulled her hands above her head, then kissed her like he wanted to bite her face off. Ana struggled to breathe, but then he was inside her as she was slowly floating away, above herself, watching this whole scene unravel, not understanding it, like a three-year old. “You live in the white clouds, come closer to hear that song; I would want to share with you, small joys in a dream…” She thought about the Eiffel Tour, and Les Champs Elysee, and The Belgrade street she heard existed there. She thought of the Pantheon, and fancy street signs always starting with Rue de… She thought of Montmartre and what ladies of the Moulin Rouge must have endured in their lifetimes. She was sweaty, but it was his sweat, his old smelly sweat soaking into her skin. He was making all sorts of animal noises, grunts and hums. Ana thought about closing her ears, but her arms were pinned. Then, he just stopped, kissed her again, and rolled over. The sun now climbed the sky and the birds had stopped chirping. The sounds of cars and horns, and people yelling, filled the room. An alarm clock went off in the other room. Their bodies were touching at the waist, once again, sweaty, and suddenly Ana felt cold. She lifted her upper body with difficulty, slowly, like an injured athlete, and picked up her clothes from the floor, still sitting on the bed. She quickly got dressed, while feeling his eyes searing her back. She put her dress on, then got up. She turned the corner, dragged herself into the small bathroom, and locked the doors. She looked at herself in the mirror. She looked like a clown with her makeup smeared all over her red, bruised face. She couldn’t bear to take another look. She put the toilet seat down, sat on it, and cradled her head in her hands. Then she turned around, lifted the toilet seat and threw up. Tears built in the corners of the eyes, when she heard his voice outside the door: “Ana, are you alright in there?”

“Yes,” she said. “I’ll be right out.” She splashed her face, tapped it gently with cheap toilet paper, pinched her cheeks and removed her makeup with her fingertips. She glanced once again at herself in the mirror, cringed with disgust, and opened the door. The professor was standing there with a fresh cup of coffee.

“Colleague, I thought you could use some, while we talk about that scholarship.” Ana stood there for a second, silent, looking at him, then used her remaining molecules of energy to generate an artificial smile. She took a cup from him and took a sip, while he pointed his right hand toward the living room. The coffee was strong, bitter, and she was surprised at how good it felt going down her esophagus and stomach, warming them, even though she usually drank hers with lots of cream and sugar. She downed the whole cup. The shivering stopped. The streets quieted.

This is what dying must feel like, she thought, lacking any feeling in her body except an urge to sleep, forever.

“Professor, “she said to Jovan who was in the kitchen. “Could you call a taxi for me?”

“I already did,” he said from the kitchen, then snaked into the dusk-like space between the hallway and living room. “I can tell you are tired, and I thought, we didn’t finish that last bottle, maybe you could come back next week? Should we say, Friday, around 10 pm? After all, you, and only you, my dear Ana, bury everybody, only me, you bring back to life…