Teta-Štefica enjoyed murder and death. She would slurp coffee with Lućano’s mother and exchange stories like the one about the woman whose son slit her throat so thoroughly that her head was hanging on a strip of neck skin. Teta-Štefica claimed she knew this woman; she occupied the same reality as the mother and the son who decapitated her, but she was not troubled by it at all. She was never afraid that something like that could happen to her; indeed there was a certain joy in her delivery of the morbid stories; she seemed amazed and delighted that such things could happen in this world, that there was darkness others could not see, but she could report it. She would dip a sugar cube into her coffee and put it in her mouth, and while it was still melting, the sweetness spreading all over her taste buds, she would tell her friend (and, by default, me) about a passenger on a fast train who stuck his head out the window to see if the next stop was coming up, but it turned out that what was coming up was a telephone pole that took his head off.
After a while I developed a suspicion that she might be exaggerating. But I also knew that if she could imagine it, it could happen. If a question can be formulated, there is an answer. She told me once about the baby that was left alone in the kitchen where there was a bunch of green onions on the counter, and inside the plume of one of those onions there was a snake. Snakes are attracted to milk, as everyone knows, so this snake crawled out of the green-onion plume and across the room and into the crib and then into the baby through its baby mouth because it smelled of milk. I believe she said that the baby died. I don’t know what happened to the snake. This story affected me, because green onions and babies were part of my experiential domain, of my reality. If my mother brought green onions from the market, I’d sit there and monitor the plumes, too afraid to check them for snakes, but brave enough to keep watch over my baby sister. Never again in my life—including the present depletion—did I look at green onions without considering a snake inside one of its plumes. For the world to exist there have to be objects, and inside those objects there has to be nothing, and inside that nothing there are memories, and inside those memories there are snakes.
A mob of boys lead by Dule advanced down the street in a V formation, like geese. Dule would’ve been a high-schooler had he not dropped out; he was tall, lanky and stinking of sweat, missing some of his front teeth, his shirt unbuttoned to the navel, all of which meant he was tough, a jalijaš. The boy mob was on a retributive mission: some of them had been smacked around by an older kid, not from our street, who had caught them behind Kino Arena; he shook them down for money so that he can go see a Bruce Lee flick. This happened centuries ago, during the Kung Fu Era. The shaken boys had hurried to fetch Dule, whose duty, by virtue of being older and toothlessly ruthless, was to protect the little raja, the kids from his street, who, as part of the tacit code, would pay their tribute by fetching for him cigarettes or titty magazines.
So many of these pieces I start out by saying, or thinking, I don’t remember, and then I proceed to remember.
So, there was the advancing Dule unevenly grinning, followed by the excited bloodthirsty boys. The adolescent kid who shook down my raja lingered behind the movie theater with a couple of sidekicks, assuming a pose of confidence and cockiness, much too precocious and unwise. I watched it all from the wall above the street, as if from the bleachers. This is what I remember better than anything: as the kid was mouthing off with his cocky attitude, which would’ve been enough for us to accept defeat and retreat, Dule just walked up and kicked him in the head with such speed and force that the boy’s nose instantly exploded, blood splashing on the pavement before he even hit the ground. Within a moment, the kid was moaning in shock and terror, shrimping up to protect his stomach. Dule kicked him in the head one more time, just to show that he could beat him for as long as he wished, then turned around and walked away. He was not mad, he said nothing, for he needed no words to produce a clear meaning. I could see his incisors, like goal posts. The sidekicks vanished; we watched, horrified and triumphant, because this meant that the kid and his raja would never again come close to us, let alone bully us—our standing in the hood had just significantly and irreversibly improved.
The kid got up and tottered away, leaving a trail of nose blood and a single canvass tennis shoe behind, while we taunted him. The whole thing lasted but for a couple of moments. The brutality was exhilarating, the exactness of the violence awesome, the release of tension so pleasing, the victory sweet. None of us in the little raja could simply walk up to another kid and annihilate him without negotiation or mercy; watching Dule, we learned that to win a fight you have to be willing to destroy your opponent totally, that you must never consider his body, worry about his pain. Do not start a fight unless you can destroy the opponent; do not start a war unless you’re willing to commit genocide.
But I was not—am not—willing to destroy others, it is my greatest shortcoming. From my high position, despite everything, I felt sorry for the kid. I saw his blood, his terror, and, the worst of all, his dirty tennis shoe. He was going home without that shoe. His parents would ask him, Where is your shoe? and send him out too look for it, and he would know where it was, but he would not dare get anywhere close to it, and he would wander around his hood, crying, his face swollen with pain and bruises, breathing heavily through his broken nose, imagining ways of revenge, knowing all along that it could never happen, that he was comprehensively and forever defeated, that he was nothing but a plain, cowardly bully and not a destroyer, he wasn’t strong or fast or ruthless enough to be one, and he’d go back home and tell his parents that he couldn’t find his shoe and his father would whip him with a belt, or slam his face against the cupboard, make him go barefoot to school. Some time later, he’d destroy some other kid, maybe even me. This is the way of the world. So many of these pieces I start out by saying, or thinking, I don’t remember, and then I proceed to remember. The domain of memory is surrounded by a universe of oblivion, which is just outside of what I know. Every time I recall, I take off my shoes, dip my toes into that darkness, and it’s as cold as the snow melting in the spring.
The Bosnian word for jerking off is drkanje, an ugly cluster of consonants perfectly matching Lućano’s rapid dick-tugging.
Lućano lived in a basement apartment, just across the hall from Dule. Teta-Štefica liked to rehash rumors of gruesome murders over coffee at Lućano’s mother’s, so she’d bring us along. She’d never let us eat anything there, because, she said, the food could be poisoned. Sometimes Lućano would be present too, slurping coffee from a demitasse, glancing at me from below, sucking on his cigarette, the tip of his upper lip creeping up the filter like a leech. His hair was receding even if he was in his late teens. Not so long ago, I realized Putin reminded me of him; they must have come from the same unquestionably Slavic genetic cesspool, Lućano’s faux Italian name notwithstanding.
One day, Lućano recruited a bunch of neighborhood boys, including me, to jump the fence and sneak into the construction site across the street from our building. He wanted to show us something, he said. We were ten-year-olds, didn’t know any better and were inclined to obey the older neighborhood boys because they provided protection from roaming bullies, including themselves. What Lućano wanted to show us was his dick, and he did so by pretending to be explaining to us how dicks worked. He pulled his kurac out, got it hard and stroked it—uncircumcised, thick-veined—thereby introducing us to the age-old craft of jerking off. The Bosnian word for jerking off is drkanje, an ugly cluster of consonants perfectly matching Lućano’s rapid dick-tugging. He instructed us to try it, so some of my friends dug out their penises from the depths of their pre-pubescent shorts and imitated Lućano’s moves. I didn’t do it, I was disgusted. Lućano clearly enjoyed the boys hopelessly milking their tiny dicks, his nipple lip trembling with delectation.
A picture is a fact. Still panting, Lućano then introduced to us, the ten-year-old boys, the idea of kurton—the condom—which, he told us, collected the sperm. For what, he didn’t say. Situations can be shown, but not given names. He used the word sluza—slime—for sperm, and then his dick spurted it as he came. I never told anything to anybody, never discussed what happened on the construction site with any of my friends, let alone my parents. The English language doesn’t have any words like kurac, drkanje, kurton, sluza, but I could seek no protection in it, as I couldn’t speak it then. The limits of my language were the limits of my world; Lućano was enfranchised in it, and I was not. The troubling knowledge he imparted was indelible, absorbed by my body, despite my body, which I recognized could enact it in some terrible future, thus completing the abasement. I didn’t know what to do. If it ever came to that that I could no longer be a boy, I wanted to be like Jerry Lewis, the man who never grew up. I wanted to seek ways of being that required no shame, just a body that loved itself.
Jerry Lewis Lives
First, there was the goofy body: the knock knees, the monkey-long arms, the jutted jaw, the crossed eyes, the whining and the nasal voices, the rag-doll flopping on the floor. I wanted to be was as funny as Jerry Lewis. I’d watch the movies, roar with laughter, than replicate the sketches and pantomimes and facial convolutions for the sole audience of my cousin Ljilja, who would be giddy with mirth.
My body didn’t belong to the world; rather it was the limit of the world.
Occasionally, my friend Mirza and I would choreograph and practice the routines before performing them in the kitchen, where the area near the stove and sink served as a stage. We would even improvise, sing ridiculous made-up songs, sometimes in made-up English, slip on imaginary banana peels, bend our faces into grimaces of hilarious pain and confusion. Ljilja’s shrieks were heaven. The golden standard, the level of silliness we strived to reach, the funniest scene ever, was the one from Disorderly Orderly where Jerry—our friend—wheels Mrs. Fuzzybee around as she describes her many symptoms with unrelenting hypochondriac relish. Jerry has trouble with his exaggerated empathetic identification: whatever symptoms and health disasters Mrs. Fuzzybee describes, he feels them in all their intensity, which can be seen in the twitching of his face, in the intricate contortions of his rubber body. He takes her suffering far more seriously than she does, because he cannot help but imagine every bit of it: her perforated gall bladder drip-drip-dripping bile into her stomach where it mixes with acid; her leg broken in four places, her shin bone sticking out; her kidneys, the weakest of anyone in the hospital. He turns his discomfort into ballet, his awkwardness into art, his idiotic boyishness into hysterical charm.
He is a silly ten-year-old boy in a very hairy body, he has aged without growing up, his innocence preserved in his sexlessness, in his total inability to desire other bodies, though he can feel them, feel their pain inside his own. He spends a lot of time in his movies imagining being someone else, pretending to be a conductor, or a chairman of the board, a mambo dancer, and he always performs this imaginary self when no one is looking, at a safe distance from the dull and judging adults, who wear suits but have no imagination and can no longer remember that the body was once a star about to turn into a supernova, that whatever they perceived could be other than what it was. I’d look at myself in the mirror, ignore the incipient pimples to recognize the physical similarities, to identify Jerry-Lewisness in me, to map that firmament before it exploded. I wanted to be Jerry Lewis because I was Jerry Lewis.
After the drkanje incident, not only did I avoid Lućano, staying away from any space where he might materialize, but I was also disgusted with the very idea of sex, with the possibility that there would be hair growing in the nooks my body, that my penis would become a kurac and produce sluza. My body didn’t belong to the world; rather it was the limit of the world. I found kurtons—Ris No Risk, imported from Czechoslovakia, whose sweet, slimy smell I can still recall—in my father’s suit pockets and was tormented by the knowledge that my parents did what Lućano talked about, and in the very same bed where my insomnia frequently placed me. I’d rip open each kurton packaging, unroll the lubricated rubber and flush it down the toilet, but it wouldn’t sink, and I kept flushing it and flushing it, the bobbing balloon refusing to submit.
Mirza’s legs got hairy before mine; in the sofa in his living room we found magazines featuring pictures of naked women, therefore as distant and mysterious as black holes; we read the sex advice columns and I grew ever more confused. He said to me, You’ll like it one day soon, you’ll see. But I thought that there was no one greater than Jerry Lewis, that one could use one’s body for something better then generating sluza. One could, say, make a goofy face, do the knee-knock walk only to flop on the floor and make Ljilja screech with joy. I thought that there was no a priori order of things, that I could stay someone other than myself, other than my incipient kurac and hairy legs, that I could continue being Jerry Lewis. He is still alive, you know.
Excerpted from My Parents: An Introduction / This Does Not Belong to You by Aleksandar Hemon. Published by MCD, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux June 11th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Aleksandar Hemon. All rights reserved.