You know everything now: names of animals, flowers, trees; how to do chores. You can reach the clothesline and run errands and learn anything you copy down in your theme book.
You’re twelve, but you haven’t got a mother to explain what’s coming. When you first started to swell up top, you thought you had boils.
You’ve got a sister, who tells you nothing. You see her turn moody each month and hold the old cat on her lap till it scratches and runs away. She wrings out her bloody cloths in the basin like a murderer.
You don’t remember your mother: she’s just an idea. She doesn’t have a laugh or a smell the way she does for your sister. You used to think her picture in the hallway was an ikona.
You’re smarter than your sister. She sleeps in the same spot, hair spread like a doll’s, and your father finds her every time. She doesn’t wind the blankets around her or sleep under the bed. No matter how much you argue and snatch at her arms, she won’t hide with you. In a fairy tale, she’d be the first one the witch ate.
Listen at night. Listen to the sounds of the front door opening, of your father doing the things a man does when he arrives at home. Taking off his hat, his jacket and shoes. Calling out to his daughters. Kissing his wife.
Only his wife isn’t here. But he doesn’t know that right now: his breath is bitter, and he crashes when he walks. When he comes in, cover your mouth and listen more. To the wet slaps, like the cat licking herself. To your sister’s groan.
Your mother was a girl herself when they were married. She didn’t get so far in school, only a year more than your father. You’ve already passed them both.
Think about the lovely stampa of your notes in your theme book, your neat sums. Be proud of being practical, not caught up in anyone’s foolishness.
You’ve gotten it. You’re part of the club now. In spite of the pain and the mess, you’re pleased. Like the Young Pioneers, only instead of tying the red scarf around your neck, you have to pinch it between your thighs.
Fight with your sister over who gets to hold the cat. Wash your cloths together in just-boiled water, turning it brown as broth.
Flick water at your sister. Joke about the girls all over Yugoslavia dying the Pioneer scarves red.
She doesn’t even smile. She just turns away, as if you were making more work.
Ask why she’s no fun. Tell her she should be glad one of you thinks of something besides laundry and stews.
The nights your father stays away, tease her after lights-out. Pres your bottom against her and expel a perfect cloud of bean and carrot, turning the room into a rank barnyard. Cover each other’s mouths and shake with laughter.
You’re in the bakalnica, picking up some bouillon and a few onions, when your sister sees a girl from school. She quit going in her last year of primary, but she greets this girl as if they still shared a desk.
The girl lives on her own, with friends, in Beograd. The capital of the whole country, she adds, puffing her chest. She describes the balconies, the banners on the Parliament building, the Party members strolling next to well-dressed ladies.
Stand and imagine the streets, the tramvai attached to cables in the air. The people streaming into factories and taking their places next to gleaming machines, almost part of them. Like the old lady next door who knits straight from her rabbits.
You’re staring, rapt, into the bin of potatoes. Snap out of it.
The girl tells you they need apprentices at her factory, girls who can follow directions. Girls who want to learn to make gloves.
Realize, just now, that this is the only thing you’ve ever wanted. When the girl invites you back with her, pinch your sister’s elbow until she says, we’ll think on it.
Board the regional train with the girl. She’s got your arm, as if she’s handing you in for a reward.
Your things are under you, in a leather case that was your uncle’s. Your sister packed you in a hurry, tossing in a wad of socks and yellowed underwear. Neither of you asked your father.
The girl tells you about the others in the flat. Close your eyes and picture them: the one who’s always falling in love, the one who studies all night for her translation course, the pretty one who has lipsticks in every shade. And herself, just a regular girl who sends money home. She tells you who’s arguing with who this week, whose way to stay out of at that time of month.
They need you; the open cot is a sign that you belong. Decide to be the funny one.
The girl tells you everything: what time the landlady locks up at night and what side of the door you’d better be on. About shared Sunday dinner. She’ll cover you, she promises, until you get your first paycheck.
Nod and thank her. Make sure she doesn’t change her mind about you. When she looks away, pass your tongue over your front teeth and clean off the floury paste from the last kifle you’ll ever eat at home.
When the girl says what a pity it is your sister can’t come, tell her that’s how she is; she’s always been a stick in the mud. Don’t even flinch.
There’s a pecking order in the factory. Start at the bottom; stir the skins in their stinking steaming pools. Someone’s always yelling at you, running you here, there. Slapping you. It doesn’t hurt; they just want to see you work.
Act eager. It’s not an act for you: you really want to see how the rank wet hides turn into gloves. Bolt your pašteta and crackers and spend your lunch watching the stitchers. Study how they roll the thumb like a loose cigarette. Mimic them with the label from the pašteta tin, rolling the gritty pink of the fake ham to a point.
By next spring, you’re scraping the skins, stretching them again and again over the edge of the work tables. Keep asking questions. Watch the old woman who sets out the patterns. Take the lumps on the head when you try it yourself.
Follow the grain. Waste nothing; leave only the tiniest strand between pieces. There’ll be new girls by then, wide-eyed and chased-looking. They scurry around the pools, stirring the skins, scalding their faces.
At home, entertain everyone; cheer the other girls up. Pull your nose like the pattern cutter; smooth an imaginary mustache like the clock boss. On cabbage nights, blast a raucous cannon of gas into the bedroom you all share. Let the giggles rain over you like hot sparks.
Lay your dress in the cold cube of air by the window. Sleep in your slip. Buy a second dress, and toss your head like a grand lady when you choose one in the mornings.
Settle down a little; learn how to do fine work. Stop turning around to see who’s looking at you.
You sew now, in a bright room full of metal forms. They’re propped on the tables, fingers spread, like a schoolroom full of girls who know the answer.
Your heart lifts at the pile of leather pieces stacked at your place every morning: thumbs and fourchettes, cut by apprentices. Girls like you were.
Touch every piece, whipstitch them in place. Attach the thumbs, finish the wrists. Think that this must be what it’s like to have a baby: frowning over each tiny finger, pulling the skin together in a single buttery piece.
Meet some boys; walk with them by the river. They all follow the news; they’re all trying to join the Party, to rise in their jobs. They’re the same person in the same suit, all nice enough. Make them laugh. Kiss a few, to learn how.
Write your sister; offer to send a ticket. There’s room; you could move your cot over. Wait for a reply, but nothing comes.
You have more dresses now, and a real wardrobe to hang them in. A few lipsticks. You’re as good as anyone. Fall a little in love with the stamp of your new boots when you jump down from the streetcar.
The others organize dates, big groups that start out stiff and awkward and end giddy, at the door of your flat. Boys like you: your figure is good from standing all day, and your skin is clear from all the steaming at the factory. My day spa, you call it. Hear your own scratchy alto, and understand that it’s sexy.
Kiss the way you speak: teasing and open. Turn the boys serious and short of breath. When they ask who you kissed last, laugh and say it’s a secret.
You could walk forever in your loose group, spreading out to cover the whole sidewalk.
One boy separates you from the rest. He’s new to Beograd, high on the crowds and streetlamps. Lonely, probably. He’s trying to break your curfew, get you back to his flat.
As he leads you down street after street, he goes on about Nikola Tesla, how he’ll be like him someday. He even looks like him—tall and lean, light-eyed. He works in a factory that makes farm equipment and calls himself an inventor.
Goad him. Be coy. Suggest a turn here, another there, until you’re back at your own door with time to spare. Slip inside and call over your shoulder, Tesla didn’t chase girls!
They’re all nice, or nice enough. But you don’t know how you should choose. You’re not like your friends, who fall in love and can’t bear anyone else.
You haven’t met the right one, your friend explains. Shrug and say you suppose not. Change the subject; demand what the others are getting up to when they wander off in the park, now that it’s warm. Jab them with your elbows; make them giggle.
Think about what you learn from them. How it will hurt. Slide one finger in, then a second. It’s just skin, or something like it. Stretch it. Prepare.
Smile at a man on the street. You like his looks: dark features crowded onto a clean-shaven face. Slow down; let him catch up. You’re not in a hurry; accept his invitation for a coffee.
He’s in the army, at a desk for now. He explains what’s happening with the Croats, the Slovenes, all the separatists they have to watch.
Whip the milk in your tiny cup into foam. Think of the little coffer you’re building at home with every paycheck. Of the letters you’ve sent your sister, all unanswered. Keep your eyes on his face so he thinks you’re listening.
He doesn’t ask you questions until after, when he walks you back to your flat. He tells you he’s an orphan. Tell him you are, too. Feel relieved to call it something.
He’s what a husband should be: older, serious, full of grave things like war and paperwork. Good and decent, always pressing you to eat. Offering his jacket.
I need someone who makes me laugh, he tells you. So it’s settled: he needs something; you’re it.
Marry soon. Wear a hat and nice dress, not even white. Invite your friends. They bake you a little cake, give you some china. A couple of his colleagues attend, stately men drowning in mustaches. If you could go home afterwards, you’d put your hairbrush up to your face and make a pompous toast around it, mocking them.
But your hairbrush is packed now, moved to your husband’s flat. When you lay out the things that crowded your old room, they shrink.
Get used to the dig of the thin band on your ring finger. Announce your new name at the factory; have a new identification card made. Walk very straight when you do the shopping. Write your sister and tell her your new name. Give the street number of your old flat as the return address.
Visit your friends. Answer their questions about marriage, sharing a home with a man.
Tell them it’s like being a child: sharing a bed and the chores. Lying still and taking your lumps.
It doesn’t sound nice, says the one who’s always in love.
While she mopes, talk to the others. Answer their questions about children. Tell them not yet, because it’s what you’ve said to him. He finishes outside, then gets you a towel.
Resolve to make one joke per day. Save them in a ledger at the side of your mind: the stray cat, the soiled sheets on Sundays. Wait for his laugh: the bass ha like a drowning gasp.
Win an award: ten years of service. With it, a raise.
He’s going to be sent away. It’s a good mission, an opportunity, he explains. Not a bit dangerous.
Taste the words Israel and Suez. Promptly forget them.
After he leaves, have the girls in. Wish together that it was always like this.
Write to him, and feel friendly. Read the headlines on his newspapers, which keep coming. Take in a kitten, and stack the newspapers in a corner for her. Put her in the hall when he’s home on leave.
Imagine the women he flirts with: heavy-lidded, with hair like black ropes. Sensual and slow-moving, like the cat. They’re not smart-mouthed and chipper; they don’t wince in bed. Experiment with feeling jealous.
Stitch the limited-edition gloves, a gift for the wives of Party elites. Your stitches are invisible; your fingerprints stick in the buttery kid. You’re part of history, in a way.
Open the telegram. Think briefly of your sister and father. Feel glad your husband is away, in case you have to tend to them.
But it’s your husband who’s gone, full stop. Know you are responsible, somehow. Guilty. Of not needing him. Of not making enough jokes. Of not liking to be in bed.
He was a good man. See it printed, over and over, in the letters that come. Kind. It’s true; he was always kind to you. He needed you to make him forget the dull pages of maneuvers, sheets of strategies and assets.
Think of him in bed, on top of you. Think of how lonely he must have been in his dormitory beside the canal. Whisper a thank you to the golden women who might have comforted him. Shed a tear for the things you never asked him. For the mornings you feigned sleep.
Press all these thoughts to him like a soft badge, a patch you can stitch to his breast and put away.
Take a lover, just once, to see if it’s the same. It is.
Explain that you can’t do it again, and ask him to be your friend. He swears at you, but he meets you at the kino every Wednesday. Take his hand during the newsreel. Make it a habit.
There’s nothing else but work, so do more of it. Gather the pieces in your arms as if you’re feeding a beast that survives on calf and kid. Pretend you’re stitching your husband back from the dead, your seams silky and pale. Remember the gamy, sleepy scent of your husband’s ear.
Put down your work. Go to the washroom and scrub your face with cold water. Your productivity is high; you could stay in here for an hour.
Talk to the lean, hungry girls who sell trinkets in the square. Tell them about apprenticing: the tanning pools, the metal patterns, girls younger than them making money. Tell them you were their age when you started. Tell them about the flat, Sunday dinners, service awards. The piles of finished gloves, each pair costing more than you make in a month.
Sleep fitfully. Dream of your flat, but full of life, the clamor of joshing girls. Wake with the rain. Stand and wait for the girls to show up with their boxes. A man is there instead, round-bellied and unshaven. Run away when you he shoves a cheap umbrella at you.
You’re only in your forties, but you start drawing your pension. On your last day, accept your service award and a nice pair of gloves you made yourself—you recognize your own stitches. You’re not sure you deserve this: you would have done anything you’d fallen into.
Grow bored of walking through the shops and sitting at every kafana in the square. Wander into the library, into the room with newspapers draped over dowels and walls of jacketed magazines. Copy down recipes, dividing every measure in half as you write. You still have too much left over.
Branch out. Find some stories you read as a girl. Wonder what you’d have read if you had stayed on in school. You’d liked reading, once; you don’t feel you know how anymore.
Find the encyclopedia: copy some facts about the Suez Canal onto a scrap piece of paper. Fold the paper into a respectful square, and place it in a drawer with your husband’s things.
Start on novels. Stop taking notes; read through the day. Stop only for the toilet or lunch, and barely that. Walk out in the evening in a clammy daze.
Try to be part of the world. Visit your friends. Consider going back to your village. Dream of monster children with bitter breath and your sister’s hair. They burst through doors, tear the wash from the lines. Don’t go.
Take the train, nowhere in particular. Get out at the stations and mix with the crowds before buying a ticket back to Beograd. People look the same; there’s no sign of the tensions.
Only once, a young man looks at you and spits. Serb bitch.
Don’t answer: you’re a Serb, sure, but you don’t do anything wrong. Let the curse wash over you.
Don’t buy the papers: read the headlines as ragged children thrust them at you in the square. Pass them some coins, sometimes, and think of the girls who disappeared.
You’re visiting your friend when she tells you about a man: he’s Macedonian, looking for a wife. He lives in the države, the States. Will you write to him?
You’re taken aback. But why?
She rests her hand on your shoulder. She’s worried about you, rattling around in the library, on trains to who knows where. You can’t just read books until you die. You’re not some scholar, some monahinja in a cloister.
Protest. Your life isn’t so bad. There’s only been a few demonstrations, only a few people angry at the Serbs. If you had your sister, maybe…but you don’t.
Write the man the next day, from a carrel in the library. Scratch out a greeting and something about how funny it all is: In your parents’ generation, everything was decided at age fifteen, after a dance at someone’s wedding. But God has other plans for yours.
God looks funny on the page, like a Turkish word. People say it, of course; it’s a figure of speech, but you’ve never written it. It makes the letter more serious. Somehow.
Anyway, you’re a dull old widow who likes coffee and a day at the library. Seal it up and drop it into the letterbox, before you change your mind.
He writes back quickly. His printing is small and quick, all sloppy Roman letters, as if he’s got something better to do than hold a pen.
He worked in Detroit, at an avto factory. F O R D, he writes out, spacing the characters across a whole line.
His wife died years ago, in her forties. Grow intrigued by the story: the wife devoured by cancer, the husband turning wicked after her death. A parade of women, because no one could replace her. Understand that if not even a parade can replace her, you won’t either.
Say yes when he suggests telephoning. When your telephone awakens and shrieks, stare at it for a moment before answering.
Clear your throat. Assure him it’s you. Ask if it’s really him. The confirmation fills more of the vacuum than you expect.
He asks about your husband—anyone else?, he adds, like an official checking going over a form.
You haven’t touched another creature since your cat ran off. There’s only been that once, with your friend. You still meet at the kino, still hold hands.
Wonder who your friend will meet if this all goes off. Say of course not.
He switches to a friendlier tone, starts talking about his village. It’s perfect, he says, with a nice view and a waterfall. Best place on earth.
You’re ready. Quip, yet you don’t live there?
There’s a tense second while the cables scratch and settle. Under the Atlantic somewhere, you guess.
Then he laughs. It’s always the way. When you’re here, you want to be there. When you’re there…He trails off. So you have your pension then, from the fabrika?
Is that what you ask all the girls, about their pensions? You’re talking back to the other chair at your kitchen table as if he were in it.
I’m no Romeo, he agrees, and you both laugh.
Fall into a pattern: one making a mock complaint—you weren’t home when I called, you haven’t answered my letter—and the other teasing—oh, and should I drop everything and run up the stairs?
After a few months, he tells you, I’m thinking of coming over. To my house in the village.
Tease; buy time. Oh, that paradise on earth?
He goes on, doggedly, like a boy giving a book report: I could stop by Beograd.
Make yourself up. Feel like a crook about to unload a gutted Yugo, a briefcase full of sawdust. Open your mouth wide and check your back teeth, as if he’ll ask to see.
Meet in the square. Recognize him immediately among the men hunched over coffee or cigarettes or chessboards. He’s larger, cockier. Because of America, you guess. A Yugoslavian man keeps his hands in, his gestures small. This man gestures as if he’s ready to pay for anything he knocks over.
He’s old; he’s got twelve years on you. But he acts like a boy, showing off in English. Loudly, so people can hear. It sounds like Macedonian, only with short, bleating vowels: Hello, baby, a-where you from? You like to eat the ham burger?
Laugh, because he’s putting on for you. Wonder if anyone in that Detroit place can understand him. Follow him to a kafana. Hope that he’ll want to hold hands, talk about films.
Share some wine instead. Listen as he complains about the women in his village. They ask what car he drives; they say, Mama is sick, could I borrow a few hundred?
Mama is always sick, he says, grinning. His teeth are red from the wine. Wonder how the women got him alone to tell him all this.
He’s staying at a hotel, but lead him back to your flat when he asks. Watch as he moves through it, stopping in front of your pictures, the things on your dresser.
Haunt the doorway until he switches off the lamp. He’s ready. Satisfied, maybe: no signs of anyone else.
He’s quick with his pants, like a boy hurrying to the toilet. It’s the same with him, rough and sore-making. He finishes without asking you anything and leaves you to clean up.
Look away as he dresses. The outlines in his thin briefs remind you of roots wrapped in burlap.
He’s talking business; the act has shaken something loose in him. I don’t need it so much anymore. He shrugs at the bed. A few times a year. Women don’t much like it, I know.
Try to think of a way to explain you don’t mind other things. Things he could do beforehand. Realize that he didn’t do them, so you’d have to bring up other men. Stay quiet.
Just be good to have someone around, get old together, he adds, reaching for the worn-off patch on the top of his head.
I’ll send you a ticket, he says, and watches your reaction. He’s waiting for you to ask for money, like the women in his village. He’s old, but he’s sharp: no one’s going to fleece him.
Nod; agree to be sent for. As if a couple hundred American was enough to run off with. As if you needed to run off.
Go and sign some papers. Walk with him to the visa office; let him see you handing over the documents. Go for a coffee after.
While you wait, look up Detroit in the encyclopedia. Try to keep your heart from sinking when you see the pictures of smokestacks, the abandoned factories. There’s no plaza, no kino; no library in sight. No tramvai.
Put your things in order. Arrange to sell the flat back to the landlord. Keep meeting your friend. Keep taking his hand. When your ticket arrives in the mail, ask if he minds if you go.
When he says, I couldn’t keep you from a husband, wonder why not.
Your new husband’s house is in a suburb. Not in Detroit. Not in the row of steaming chimneys you pass on the way from the airport. Look into the crumbling factory windows and wonder what was made there. Lean against your window as if you could fall over the railing and into place at the assembly line beneath.
His house is identical to its neighbors, square and brick, with patches of grass in front. Try not to think of a prison when you see the yards, all concrete and cyclone fence. Hold your breath inside; it’s so dipped in smoke you can taste it.
Follow him into the bedroom, to the bed you’re to take half of. Tense beside it. You’re tired; you couldn’t possibly—
He notices, and says: I don’t want anything from you. He gestures at his belt. It’s rare for me.
Nod; take in a sip of air. Turn it sour in your mouth.
You’ll meet everyone, he says, gesturing to the photos on the dresser. You recognize his sons right away: they look just like him, with strong noses and sunken eyes. They’ll hate you. For not being as good as their mother. For turning down their requests for loans—handouts, really. For living too long on their inheritance. You can almost see the words forming on their smiling, frozen mouths.
Spot his wife on a table of ikonas. Meet her eyes. They’re tolerant, long-suffering. She never complained about the smoke, just let it build up inside her. There was a girl like her at the factory: quiet; never late, never absent, head bowed to the bosses. As if she had never stopped being grateful for the work.
He takes you for rides: parking lots, malls, drive-thru windows. Make a game of seeing how much food you can get. Try the word bottomless. Unlimited. Everything is sweet, down to the steak. Ask your husband what the sauce on top is called. Repeat after him: gravy.
You’ve never eaten so much in your life, but you’re hungrier, somehow. Add to your game and find the cheapest things at the supermarket. Sound out the orange stickers: Manazher’s spetsial. They’re on everything: cakes with neon script, meatloaf in red syrup, cherry pie filling, cans of fruit cocktail.
Try this internet that’s supposed to have everything. Tap the search bar on your husband’s laptop and type Serbia. Read the encyclopedia entry; ask him who wrote it. He shrugs, already bored.
Type your sister’s name, then yours, but they’re too common. There are hundreds of you.
Grow tired of men. Of your husband’s smoke and belly and evil breath. Of his sharp yellow toenails.
He doesn’t speak except to argue, so pick fights with him. About the cost of the groceries you buy for almost nothing. About his sons, and his son’s sons, always asking for money. Demand Doesn’t anyone work in this country? and slam the screen door.
Serb bitch, he mutters, so you can hear.
Dumb selak, you return, even though you’re from a village, too.
Complain about him to your daughter-in-law, while he complains across you to his son. Call her when your husband won’t drive you over for coffee. Complain some more. Live for Easter luncheons and name-day dinners when you can trade jabs with the other women over weight and mustaches and roving husbands.
You don’t ask for much. You’re a den animal, have always been.
T. M. De Vos is a teacher, survivor, and activist. Her short story, “The Wrong Sort of Woman,” received the Paper Darts Short Fiction Award, judged by Carmen Maria Machado. Other recent publications include Gyroscope Review, Tinge Magazine, Embark Literary Journal, Juked, and Folder Magazine. She is currently wrapping up Face Control, her first novel.