By the time I turned thirteen, my favorite pastime was taking piano lessons from my classmate, Kristina. My parents wouldn’t even consider the idea of cramming a piano into our small apartment, and so I couldn’t take piano lessons at music school since it was a requirement to have a piano at home. This way, thanks to my friend, I could both have lessons and the use of a piano.
The autumn breeze was bringing the promise of snow, and I was spending more and more time inside. As I looked out of the window one day, thinking back over the summer, the calm, sleepy morning was suddenly interrupted by the jangling of the telephone.
“Hi, Svetlana. Are you coming?” I heard Kristina’s drawling alto on the other end of the line. My friend was somewhat large in size, but well-brought up and had a refined voice. I was glad to hear her. I leaned to one side, telephone receiver gripped between shoulder and neck, stretching happily at the thought of the day that was before me. My parents were at work, I was alone and had the whole day to spend on myself.
“Right away. I won’t be a minute. Get the piano ready, I’m coming!” I hung up the phone and went to get dressed.
Oh yes! Before I left, I had to get some books for Kristina. She represented the ninth generation of her family in Novi Sad. All of her ancestors had been born here and had left their bones to rest in this place. They lived and breathed Vojvodina—the northern region of Serbia where Novi Sad was. Anyone who was from this part of the world knew exactly what that meant, and that is why I gave her the title unser gnädige—her ladyship. An intellectual from an early age, she could no longer bear to be without the books that had been lying around my place for at least two months. Rushing to grab them I passed the door to Dad’s room. Oddly, it was closed. Something stopped me short, more a feeling than anything tangible. The closed door led me to believe that someone was in the room. A bad feeling came over me. I knocked once, twice—nothing. Nobody responded. I remembered something then that I’d stuck back into my subconscious: my parents had been in a very bad mood the last few days.
Should I open the door? I silently turned the handle and peeked in. Dad was still sleeping. He had not gone to work. That wasn’t like him at all. What was going on? As if in reply, my inquiring gaze took in the whole scene—the table and the empty bottles. I’d seen him have a drink before, but it had never been like this.
I closed the door as quietly as I’d opened it, making a conscious decision to ignore the uneasy feeling rising in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t want my day or my visit to my friend to be ruined. I picked up Kristina’s books, put them in a big yellow bag bearing an advertisement for Corn Flakes, and left the apartment, eager to leave this whole scene behind me.
The subject of the origins of life and of our place in the universe continued to occupy my thoughts as they always did. I just couldn’t find an adequate answer to the question, “How did we get here?” Several contradictory theories were clashing in my mind. One group declared their belief in evolution, another in Marxism. Even John and Yoko were trying to tell us about the essence of life. My greatest authority was still Dad, but he still didn’t have an answer. And that perfect story about evolution did not ring true. Something was missing. But what?
The image of my dad asleep—passed out?—that morning confirmed to me that he too was acting as though he lacked something. The human mind was another mystery. Was it possible that, regardless of science, achievement, and that supposedly brilliant system Marxism—with its promises of equality—a man could still be dissatisfied? And how was it possible that our internal thoughts continued to function while the mystery of life remained unsolved? There was no answer.
To me, however, logic said there must be an answer. I could not forget that starry sky and, more importantly, that Dad did not have the answers I sought. The human mind simply could not have happened by accident and with no purpose. If the human life, with all its knowledge and experience, collected so laboriously, could suddenly evaporate as though it never existed, then nothing made any sense. There was no point in submitting to anyone’s rules, you just needed to let go and live for the moment!
I opened the metal-and-glass door to the foyer of Kristina’s apartment block and walked into the cold, echoing atmosphere. Just as the foyer was cold, so was the feeling inside me. I don’t know if this was entirely because of how I’d found my dad that morning, or if it was an ominous sign of things to come, but suddenly the burden of meaninglessness lay heavy on my heart. As I climbed the stairs to Katrina’s floor, a scene flashed through my mind from some film I’d seen, of a half-crazed scientist spewing his views of the universe to a hungry audience.
What was the point of trying? If all natural laws were so logical, how was it that the laws of life and death were so illogical? Why make an effort, why be polite and think of others? Was someone watching us, who would reward or punish us if we failed to do so? Did anything at all in this world change if we suddenly decided to be evil? If nothing really existed, if one day I would simply disappear, why even care about my behavior?
Debating with myself, I didn’t even notice that I had reached Kristina’s apartment. She’d left the door ajar, expecting me. I found her scrambling under the bed in her room, looking for a slipper. “Aha!” she said, as she backed out, then stood. She was covered in dust bunnies, and I laughed, breaking the tension of the questions swimming inside my head. She slid her one bare foot into the slipper, and greeted me.
I greeted her in return, and went straight to the piano. This was only my fifth lesson, and I was eager to get at it. She showed me again how to play “Für Elise,” then I tried it myself. As Beethoven’s music filled the room like a warm tide, and a golden autumn breeze blew outside, I decided then and there to begin the search for answers to the questions that wouldn’t be silenced.
This was a huge turning point in my life, an invisible crossroads offering me several options, all leading in different directions. In my striving to achieve certain goals, had I forgotten about myself? Who was I? What kind of a person was I really? Was I who I was because of the influence of other people, or was I who I was in and of myself? Partial answers were not enough. Curiosity pulled me onward, and I was hungry for answers.
I played “Für Elise” a second time, becoming part of the music, not wanting to stop. So we played and we played the entire day, not even breaking to eat. Our backs ached from the hours we spent over the piano keys, but our joy for the music buoyed us up. Had I known that I’d never move another inch forward in my piano education, I’d have been filled with sorrow. But my quest for answers would move me toward more pressing goals.
I left for home at five o’clock. No one had looked for me all day. Kristina thought that was wonderful. Enviously she said, “Lucky you, your folks don’t keep a leash on you. You get to come and go as you please.” But when you’re thirteen years old and nobody cares where you’ve been all day, that’s not such a lucky thing. In fact, it’s a pretty lonely feeling.
As I returned to our apartment building I rummaged through my pockets to find the key to our apartment. In the dark foyer I felt for the lock. And then I heard shouting. There was no doubt, it was coming from our apartment. I leaned my ear against the door. I couldn’t make out the words very well, but I could clearly hear Mum crying and Dad shouting at her, his words slurred. I stepped back in shock, and it seemed as if lightning shot through my head, filling it with memories from my early childhood. I clearly saw Dad fixing the window in the rain and Mum holding up a raincoat. I saw their happy smiles as they stood, dripping, before the fire. But there were no happy smiles on this day.
I stood on tiptoe and peered through the keyhole. I could just make out my parents on the other side of the door. They continued to argue, Dad’s accusing tone rising above Mum’s tearful words. I’d never seen them like this before. I had to do something. I pushed the key into the lock and opened the door. My heart was thumping and crushing my chest. Another lightning bolt shot through my mind: Mum and Dad hugging, soaked to the skin, laughing. In love. The contrast between then and now was like a knife to my heart. At the same time, curiosity overwhelmed me. What exactly was going on?
When I walked into the living room it was empty. Hearing me come in, they had taken their argument to their bedroom. I moved in that direction, slowly, afraid that I’d see something I didn’t want to see. Anger fuelled by adrenalin began to surge through me. Finally I reached the end of the wall dividing the hallway from the wide-open doorway of the bedroom. I forced myself to look inside, and what I saw was the worst thing I’d seen in my young life. Dad stood over Mum with his hand held high, ready to hit her. My beautiful mum, her red hair falling around her face, cowered, trembling, at the door of the open wardrobe.
I stopped breathing, my whole world collapsing, until something exploded that had been building inside me since the day years before when my dad had thrown me onto the pillow. That explosion opened a floodgate, filling my soul with ominous shadows that had once merely danced around the room in which I was sleeping, but now, like a swarm of wild bees following their queen—the Cackler—they filled me with rage. I rushed at my father, threw myself on his chest, and began to punch him with supernatural strength. “Leave her alone!” I screamed, over and over.
At that moment my brother Zoran entered the room, terrified. The noise had awakened him and he’d begun to cry. In a kind of timeless slow motion, I watched as my dad turned toward me, his bloodshot eyes boring into mine. The hand with which he’d once stroked my hair under the stars was raised again. I felt a sharp pain on my cheek, felt myself losing balance and—with no feather pillow to break my fall—I struck the floor with all my weight. This time there were no concerned aunts in the doorway to intervene, there was no one at all.
The house on Kralja Aleksandra Street, the summer house on the Fruška Gora, the finger in the cake, the collective memory of my privileged childhood withered in that instant. Dad had broken his promise not to hurt me, and that knowledge was like a black hole in my spirit, sucking into itself all my greatest memories. In his drunken state, Dad was callously destroying everything that had been built up until now.
I stood, and harder than before, swung my angry fists at him. Out of the corner of my eye I was aware of Zoran, crying in the corner, looking in horror first at Dad then at me. Again slow motion, again the floor.
“You’re all useless,”... I’ll show you,” Dad swore, his rage finally winding down.
Mum came out of the wardrobe and begged him to go into the other room. He did so reluctantly, as he continued to grumble that we deserved nothing better, and slammed the door behind him. Finally, silence. Mum, Zoran and I hugged and wept for a long time. There were no words for this, only painful sobs from deep within us.
I was a different person when I arose the next morning. I made the decision to choose my own lifestyle from that point forward. To me it was the only decision I could make. Despite Kristina’s attempts to persuade me that this was not the time for hasty decisions, especially with regard to my appearance, I cut my hair short and dyed half of it a blazing red. I’d be a seeker after the essence of things, a hunter of the hidden, a warrior, and a traveler into the unknown. If I only lived once, I would really live!
I had no way of knowing then the devastation my decision would lead me into.
Had I been able to discuss my questions, my deepest longings, with Dad the night before like in the old days, things might have turned out differently. But everything had changed. Irrevocably.