I’d spent the morning at home with grandma. We had been watching Looney Tunes and I played with my dolls, trying to put on a show for grandma. In the show, I was the teacher and the dolls were my students. Grandma had a soft smile on her lips, as though she was somewhere else, anywhere else but there with me. It seemed as if her mind was tying to travel into the future. She was certainly worried about my future. She saw it as her duty to be worried.
She’d arrived from the village two days earlier. I loved when grandma came to visit. She always brought tasty food with her. The eggs, in particular, were tastier then those we could buy at the supermarket. The yolk color was dark gold and their taste was sweet. Zucchinis tasted sweet and fresh, too. Sweet, sweet taste.
My mom finally arrived from work. Her face looked a little bit more tired than usual. I had a sudden surge of empathy with her over her fatigue. We always went to the park after her work. It was different today, though. She would have to invest extra effort to go out again.
“Mom, we don’t have to do go today, or I can go with grandma,” I said.
“It’s okay. I’m not as tired as I look, and we’ll take grandma with us too.
She’s already missing nature here in the city.”
Grandma just nodded. A couple of moments later we were all ready to go.
It was late afternoon and the sun was less intense. Pale rays of champagne-colored sunshine were touching the surface of perfectly mowed park lawns.
Green lawns were the only thing that grandma found small in the city. Everything else seemed giant to her.
A breezy wind infused the summer afternoon with serenity. It reminded me of optimism and happy endings.
My mom and grandma went looking for a bench to sit on. They soon found one in the middle of the park, behind a mermaid-shaped fountain. It was private enough for their conversation to go by unnoticed, and for me to be within their sight.
I decided to play with pebbles from the fountain pool. I got them out and then threw them back in. The pebbles broke the surface of the water and made splashes. The water looked slightly different than before; it was now moving around in circles in the fountain. Water in fountain pools looks trapped, almost dead. Streams of water in them are predictable. Fountain streams are like human lives trapped by useless conservative social norms. In fact, a life that’s fully dictated by the society cannot even be called a life. Such a life is just an imitation of a life.
I enjoyed watching the splashes. When I’m in the mood for play, I’m mostly in the mood to play alone. I simply slip into my imagination and analyze the details of the game without interruptions.
It was the same this time; pebbles were to take part in a competition against each other, and the reward for the winner was returning home with me to join my toy collection.
About five minutes into the game, a pebble flew across my shoulder and won the competition.
“Who did this?” I asked in a threatening tone.
Behind me, a male voice spoke in a friendly tone: “My pebble saw your competition and decided to join without your permission. I’m really sorry.”
I turned around. A chubby man in his mid-forties was standing in front of me. His height was average, but he seemed tall to me at the time. He had white, salt-pepper hair and a beard concealing a wart on his right cheek and scars which I guessed were caused by acne. He also had thick eyebrows, a small round nose, and large dark brown eyes. What did I see in the eyes of that stranger? I saw darkness with traces of light, a dying goodness in his eyes. He was just a man with traces of darkness in his eyes.
“So? I know that my pebble should be disqualified but could you make an exception, please? I was listening when you announced the rules and opened the competition, and I know it’s against the rules. But could you please take my pebble home with you as the winner?” he said in a begging voice.
“Why should I do that?” I replied sharply.
“I know you don’t know me, but I think this pebble could be a way for us to get to know each other better.”
“Who are you?”
“An old friend of your mother.”
“What’s your name?”
“I don’t remember my mom ever mentioning that name.”
At that point, my mom broke off the conversation with grandma and turned her head towards me. She stood up and came running, but her pace told me something was wrong. I was scared when she grabbed me by the shoulder.
Yes, something was definitely wrong about my mom’s old friend, but she was trying to act as if everything was okay.
“Hello, Jay,” my mom said in an almost fearful manner.
“Hi, Danny,” Jay said in a cheerful, friendly manner.
The difference between their reactions was obvious, even though my mom thought I couldn’t pick up what was going on.
She pulled him back from me and took him a couple of steps aside.
I could just hear my mom whispering: “What are you doing here?”
“I was just passing by and I saw this little girl playing. Then I saw your mother and you on the bench talking. I thought it would be nice to say hello,” Jay said in a subdued tone.
“Now that you’ve said your hello, you probably have to get going,” my mom said pushing Jay in front of her.
“Yes, I know,” Jay said in a fake tone.
He turned to go and suddenly stopped.
“Hey, I forgot to give you the winner pebble back.”
He went back a couple of steps and offered me a gray mid-size pebble on his palm. His hands and fingers were chubby and his wrists were wide because he had big, wide bones, not because of his weight. His hands had a greedy look, as though they were meant to take things from someone, not give them back.
And yet, that day he gave me a pebble as a friendship offering. A gray, smooth pebble with white three lines around it.
On the way home, my mom and grandma talked about things which sounded confusing to me back then. Grandma was telling my mom how embarrassing my birth was for the family and how she still walked with her head bent with shame.
My birth was also the reason I never got to meet my grandpa. He was angry with my mom for giving birth to me without a man to call the father. Back then, I had no clue why it had to be that way; even now, their arguments about the embarrassment don’t seem any clearer to me.
“Why are we bringing shame to them when we are perfectly happy?”
I didn’t go to the kindergarten; I had a nanny called Lena who took care of me while my mom was at work. Lena was in her mid-fifties back then and she’d raised two kids. She was caring; she wasn’t holding onto the job just for the money. My mom and Lena were friends and they shared secrets. The most important survival lesson I learned from Lena was to “always be who you are and to never forget who you are when danger strikes.” Later, this lesson turned out to be extremely useful.
* * *
The days of tranquility were now behind me, and days of school were straight ahead. My life in the cocoon had come to an end. The cocoon opened and I stopped being protected from everything and everyone. For me, school was a place where I needed to be locked down in order to learn. For some reason, I had to explain to myself why being in a room with twenty five other pupils repeating the same things over and over again was good. For as long as I can remember in those first school days, I was always slow. You know that feeling of being the last one in the classroom? One of my first thoughts was: “Why has everyone left?” Probably because nobody wanted to be called slow.
As I was going slowly down the stairs towards the school exit, I noticed that sunshine had turned to moonlight. It made me think about how much time it took me to pack my things.
My mom was waiting for me in front of the school and she didn’t notice the time or how slow I was. She just couldn’t wait to see me after the long day.
I wanted the same thing. To see her as soon as possible. I ran to her across the four stairs of the exit. The next thing I remember was me lying on the ground with dirt and some blood over my palms and hearing the laugher of no more then five persons. When I recalled my memory of that event later, their laughter sounded like mice squeaks.
“My love, are you okay?”
“I’m fine mom, don’t worry.”
She helped me get up. Checking myself, I noticed that my trousers were torn and dirty and my palms were covered in blood.
I was dragging my right foot even more now. I felt it as a burden. My entire right side was slower and weaker. In my mind, the others were copying my movements. People in the street stared at me as I walked. Some did it out of curiosity and others did it out of boredom so that they’d have a thing to talk about.
After that experience, I used to ask my mom a question, and it was always the same question:
“Mom, why are those people staring at me?”
Usually, she answered: “Because you are beautifully different.”
Her answer just wrapped me up in my own world. I couldn’t notice I was different. Individuals who are different don’t perceive themselves as different, but the world around them passes judgments based on the way they are different from others. I could never understand how someone could try and be different. One can never notice when they’re not like the others. So, trying to be different is just not possible.
Then again came the school. School children were the first ones who judged me based on how different I was. They were the first ones to make judgments about me based on the shape of my leg and arm. Based on how slow I was, based on my clothes, based on the way I speak, based on how they were better then I was. These days, I no longer blame them; they were just a mirror of the current situation. They were what they were expected to be.
A couple of years before that, the country their parents lived in had ceased to exist. The values of solidarity and social justice became just a myth. A war broke out in the neighboring states. It lasted five years.
Our life at the time was on the modest side but we were happy thanks to my mom’s efforts to find additional jobs. She’d lost her first government job due to the changes in the country and the change of the ownership structure from social property to private property.
At the time, some strange individuals were becoming owners of apartments, cars, companies, and all types of property that could be purchased and sold. Thanks to the strange new owners, my mom was arriving home later and later with each passing day, and I was spending more and more time with Lena and grandma. Those strange owners slowly began to change and run our everyday life.
Grandma came whenever she could without telling grandpa about it. Grandpa wouldn’t do anything bad to her because of her visits to us. She just wanted to avoid discussions.
One afternoon, the silence in our home was interrupted by the phone ringing.
I was doing my math homework, trying to ignore the phone.
Lena took the call.
By the look on her face, I noticed she heard some bad news.
“Lena, Lena, what happened?”
There was no sound that could be heard from the corner of the room. The air in the room was so heavy I could feel it leaning on my back. I could almost see the color of the air; it was black.
“It’s nothing, sweetheart, nothing,” she replied so quietly I could barely hear her.
She immediately phoned mom who was at work.
The tone of her voice was now a bit higher.
“Come home as soon as possible. Something has happened to your mother.”
That afternoon, I had to accept the fact that I won’t be seeing grandma ever again.
We didn’t attend the funeral because of the shame my mom had caused to the whole family.
In my mind, I’m still waiting for grandma to come and visit us.
After grandma’s death, my mom developed fear of loneliness for the first time in her life.
It wasn’t obvious; she hid it well for my sake. She didn’t want to make me feel insecure. My mom strive to keep up the image of the woman I could always rely on.
As I was passing trough the park returning from school that day, I felt that something was going to change forever. The late fall weather, the buildings, the faces of people in the twilight, the humidity in the air, it was all creating a special kind of melancholy that can only be found in spots on the fringes of civilization. During the collective property era, the buildings were mostly colored gray, the color of soot. Those buildings were built purely to serve a purpose, not to be beautiful. The small balconies with black fences around them looked like prison cells to me.
Walking upstairs, I had a feeling something or someone was waiting for me in our apartment.
As my finger pushed the door bell, the feeling of change exploded inside me and made me anxious.
As my mom opened the door, I realized why the feeling had appeared in the first place. The reason was standing in front of me. Deep brown eyes with darkness in them, and barely visible shades of light shining through them. Jay. The man from the park. My mom’s old friend. He had come to stay with us. He asked her to stay for just a couple of months, until renovation works in his apartment are over.
“Six months tops. Please.”
Mom looked at him dubiously. She couldn’t make up her mind.
“Can I get back to you on that next week?”
“Of course,” he replied with a fake friendly smile.
Once he left, my mom phoned Lena.
My mom seemed to have lost some of the strength in her voice. Her tone wasn’t the same anymore.
“A woman alone, at a time like this. You should think a bit before you let him move in. I know he decided to leave, back then. You know, when you needed him most,” Lena said in a preaching tone.
“So you think it would be okay to let him stay for a couple of months, no longer than that?”
“Yes, why not. Maybe you two could manage to make it work together.”
“He decided to leave us once.”
“Maybe he changed,” Lena said, smiling naively.
Jay moved in. First he brought with him just one suitcase. An old brown suitcase. I thought that would be it. A few days later, he brought all his belongings including some furniture.
It turned out that even though he came to stay for six months, he ended up staying for six years.
Everything seemed perfect in the first year of our life together. Jay used to leave our apartment in early mornings and return in late evenings. My mom didn’t care where he’d go for as long as he had his keys with him. He would always have a meal waiting for him. Even though my mom had never been a traditionalist, she believed she was now experiencing the joy of family life with a husband and daughter. She was now socially fully accepted. She had fallen into the trap.
Jay’s behavior began to change when his brother died. His brother had been divorced and had a history of domestic violence. They used to be close. For some reason, Jay decided to become like his brother. It was his way to grieve his death and keep him around.
That’s how our life drastically changed. The fact that he was able to move in gave Jay a feeling of power. He could finally be socially accepted and live a life of a married man.
Now, when I think better about what brought my mom and Jay together, the only common goal they could share was the intention to live up to the social norms and be accepted.
The woman who wanted to raise a family on her own fell down on her knees under the burden of social demands and her fear of being alone.
Jay had a bohemian, artistic lifestyle had he used the privileges he had as a member of the autocratic ruling party to publish poorly written stories and buy cheap real estate.
Jay never really liked women, but he did his best to make as though he liked them since his passion and love for men were unaccepted.
Sweat would cover his head and face and run across his arms and legs every time he thought about the time he’d spent with his male lovers.
Not only did his male lovers provide physical pleasure to him, they provided him with emotional pleasure as well.
Jay had a need to hide my mother from his friends. He did not want her to find out about his passion and love for men.
He knew that if my mom was to find out about it all, his reputation would be endangered forever.
During the years he stayed with us, he used to do all he could to isolate my mom from everyone.
Paranoid thinking became a habit for him. How to mask his love for men? How to hide it? How not to hide it from those potential partners?
His paranoid thoughts didn’t only help him hide his passion and love for the same sex, but they also gave him away.
In the end, everyone knew.
He took the last steps to mask his double life. He grew jealous of everyone who approached my mom.
In Jay’s eyes, every person who’d get close to my mother was a potential lover. He would interrogate her every time she returned home from work.
His interrogations usually lasted for two to three hours.
During that time, my mom would deliver a detailed report of her daily activities and the people she’d met that day.
If Jay was drunk, the interrogations would end up with him slapping her in the face.
He would raise his hand high above his head, swing it down, and hit her face and head with an open palm.
In those moments, she would protect herself by simply covering herself with her hands and arms.
Once, he went beyond slapping her in the face.
We had one one really big screwdriver with a black handle in our toolbox.
Mom loved to fix electronics in our house. For that reason, the screwdriver with the black handle was always somewhere in the house.
There was something that infused me with fear every time I took a look at that screwdriver. Its big black, heavy handle seemed to me like something that could be used to hurt a person.
One night, Jay returned home around midnight. The air in the room that night was heavier then usual. The sour odor of Jay’s sweat spread through the room.
His body odor smelled like the mix of sweat and alcohol. Probably his liver couldn’t process the alcohol he’d consumed that night. His sight, however, still hadn’t gone blurry. He was drunk enough to release all his fears, anger, guilt, and anxiety.
His thoughts were destructive. Destruction was the only thing that could bring him relief. He sat at the kitchen table and ladled the warm chicken soup onto his plate.
He spoon some soup in his mouth and commented: “Disgusting. The bloody whore whored around and hadn’t had enough time to make a good soup.”
He said that loud enough so that my mom could hear it.
For Jay, the plate of soup was an opportunity to unleash his paranoia and to provoke mom to react and feed his appetite for destruction.
Mom entered the kitchen angrily and said rebelliously:
“Get out of my house, immediately, and find tastier soup. This is my house.”
Jay put down his hand on the kitchen table and took the screwdriver that mom had left there. She felt relaxed as she had been fixing things in our house.
That screwdriver’s handle was then used to hurt my mom’s head.
The green kitchen floor tiles were partially covered in red. The blood was dripping over the top of my mom’s head and face, straight down to the dark green kitchen tiles.
Jay dropped the screwdriver on the floor, put his shoes on and escaped through the door.
Mom’s head was bleeding, but she was fine.
She was fine and furious. Rage helped her keep it together.
Soon afterwards, she cleaned her head and floor with alcohol.
Lena came to our apartment. Mom refused to go to the ER.
Her head wound healed fast but it took more time for her memories to heal.
I never asked if her memories ever truly healed.
The screwdriver with the big black handle and the image of dark red blood across her pale face will always linger in my memory.
Ten days after the incident, the dictator accepted the fact that he had lost the elections and resigned.
Jay now lost the support money he used to receive.
For mom, this meant freedom.
She could finally get rid of Jay.
This came as a direct impact of a historical event on a person’s life.
Jay never returned to our house.
Mom won her freedom back and decided to donate all Jay’s belongings to charity.
Luckily, we never got to meet Jay downtown.
Truly, it was the air of freedom.
As time went by, we recovered and almost forgot about Jay.
The only time I remembered Jay was when I came out to my mom.
She was neither angry nor sad when I said to her that I like women.
Still, there was a burdensome sentiment around my coming out.
We had never discussed about it but both mom and me knew, even if it never directly involved myself.
The reason of our uncomfortable feeling over my coming out brought Jay indirectly into our lives once again. Or, at least, the ghost of his presence.
After Jay had left, mom found out from some friends about Jay’s affairs with men.
She didn’t care. She could understand that Jay liked and loved men.
What she couldn’t understand was the entirety of Jay’s wickedness and why he needed her pain to feel better.
Now, I as her daughter, was telling her: “I like and love the same sex.”
That sentence alone was enough to bring back the memories of Jay.
It took a lot of effort to separate memories of Jay from my coming out. I even hated myself a bit because of who I am.
Although our society was also in the process of recovery from dictatorship, those who looked or acted differently still weren’t welcome. Our society had freedom but we didn’t know yet what to do with that kind of freedom in our lives.
Most of the people really couldn’t guess that people in hiding and their secret everyday lives would become less of a secret.
Jay had left us almost ten years ago. It had been ten years since he left our apartment.
Jay had lost his protection. He was now a member of the party that had lost almost all its power. He could no longer call just about any number from his phonebook and ask for favors.
All of his social “power” had been crushed. Jay, the great, brave man who could do everything with his party comrades’ help had turned as fragile as a little child.
Mom and I were free to live our lives the way we wanted. We could breathe.
We had almost forgot Jay had ever existed, or we at least we made ourselves believe it.
Our recovery from Jay’s presence was miraculous. We looked safe, and we felt safe.
All the hardships we had gone through strengthened our mother-daughter bond.
Although I was growing up, I needed mom in my life as much as I did before.
* * *
I was 21 when I joined an NGO the first time. My steps were light, and the same sense of lightness pervaded me. Lack of expectations took all the anxiety away.
I wasn’t there because I was motivated to participate in changing people’s opinions about those of us who are attracted by the same sex or looking for a same-sex partner.
I had none of those usual motivators. I wanted to stay out of dirty and low-key political games. I was there just to listen. I wanted to hear the stories of the people who were similar to me and those who are different than me.
At first, I was completely incapable of introducing myself. I simply didn’t want to make the effort. I just wanted to listen.
I sat in the next three meetings without moving or trying to speak up. In their words, I was in search of my true self. Long walks after our meetings helped me understand what they were talking about better. Those long walks helped me recall my memories of returning home from school. Those were the same gray and wet streets. This time my thoughts were less bitter.
I gave myself the freedom to learn to forget and to create different thoughts and memories.
Memories are not just some leftovers of the past inside us. Our memories are a strange mix of past and present moments. The present moment always wears a mark of past events.
* * *
I can still remember the first invitation to the local Pride March.
Now, the part of the identity that was not publicly displayed was supposed to be a reason to take a walk.
To march. To protest. To be there.
“Sexuality should be a private matter,” opponents of the march were saying.
Despite the fact that sexuality dictates the majority of our social activities.
Our sexuality is the most hidden but most sensitive part of our identity.
When the dictator left, most of the people were convinced the freedom had finally come.
What kind of freedom? The freedom we were yet to find out about. If there is nothing new to learn during the times of big changes and social transitions, those transitions lose their social impact and power.
I was thinking about my steps during the Pride March. Will my steps be as light as they were when I crossed the doorstep of the organization?
Will my steps be as joyful as they had been when I was returning home from school the day Jay left us?
My steps are slower than the steps of other people who don’t walk the same way I do.
The way I walk has always been an important matter to me and it would also be during this walk.
Not only the way I walk, but the reason why I walk.
* * *
The weather forecast said that it would be a bright, sunny day. I could wear lighter clothes.
I love that comfortable late September breeze.
The late September breeze always wakes up the city and brings back the big city life routine.
Although fall is the season when nature dies, in big cities, fall is the season when life begins.
For me, that in word “urban” always stood for people leaving and people returning to the big city. It didn’t matter if they had just left for the holidays or if they were going to leave the city and go to another place and then return. The U in “urban” is and always will be my first association to the people going in and out of the big city.
That big, populated place which brings people together and creates the sense of community.
People meet each other all the time, they are surrounded by others and they are physically near each other.
Their little apartments are separated by massive concrete walls, but the walls that separate their souls and hearts are much higher and thicker then the walls that stand between their rooms.
The walls that stand between the souls, minds, and hearts of the people who live in the big city made me look for the people who are similar to me.
Those who love the same sex.
* * *
The people started to gather in the small square. The small square is one of the usual gathering places. The central part of the square is made of white stone and decorated with various kinds of flowers. The little cafés weren’t crowded that day. The police made one big circle around us.
That big circle made of policemen was supposed to protect us from counter- protesters.
Two opposite sides, face to face. It smelled like a change.
Twenty minutes afterwards, two hundred people stood in the central part of the square.
The rainbow-colored flag and other colorful flags still hadn’t been released high in the air.
The police officer told us to start entering the newly formed circle.
Soon, we made a big walking line. We were fully surrounded by riot police.
There was not a trace of fear inside me. I felt trapped but not scared.
That was when I took her hand in mine, for the first time, out in public. This move was the only thing that made me feel free. Her beautiful radiant smile made me feel relaxed.
Our palms were getting sweaty and sticky. At one point, I thought that our hands were glued together.
The rainbow flag and flags in other colors were now flying high above us.
We were walking. In the distance, we could hear shouting: “Kill the faggots, kill the faggots!”
Our opponents were still out of sight. We kept walking.
I could feel her curls on my face as light wind was blowing.
The shouts were not far away anymore. The shouts were getting louder and clearer.
I could feel the smell of frankincense; the shouts were mixed up with priests chanting. On their serious bearded faces I could recognize hatred, as well as hunger for power.
They were praying for our salvation, holding icons and frankincense holders.
The others were holding rocks and shouting: “Kill the faggots” and similar slogans.
Their faces were red and deformed with hate. There came the sound of rocks hitting police shields.
It reminded me of the sound of shoveling dirt onto the coffin, but this sound was stronger.
Somewhere in that bloody sweaty crowd separated from us by riot police, I noticed a chubby old hand, not so high in the air, holding a mid-size gray stone.
It looked so close to me. The policeman was trying to push him further from our crowd.
As the policeman pushed him back, I caught a glimpse of the man’s face.
He was almost bald now, with a little bit of long gray hair tied in a pony tail.
The eyes were still dark but there was less depth to them. There were no longer traces of goodness in them.
I could notice some fear now too, instead of hatred.
Jay had recognized me.
His hand was no longer up in the air.
He put his hand down and over and tried to stretch it over the policeman’s body.
In his hand was now a gray middle-size stone.
I suddenly remembered the pebble Jay had in his hand many years before.
He turned his hand toward the ground and let the stone drop.
I couldn’t hear the sound of the stone hitting the ground. Shouts and prayers were louder.
Jay disappeared, his face blended with the many bloody, red, sweaty faces.
She hugged me as we walked.