Joyland

Toronto |

Heimat, Mutter

by Lydia Perović

The mother still takes her long walks through the hills surrounding Cetinje well into the fall. Remarkably little has changed in her routine in the past eight years while I’ve been away. The start of heavy rains still means a shift from the space heater to the wood furnace. The glass door to the living room will now have to be closed. The smell of apples, bought in bulk every October and kept in a crater in my parents’ bedroom, will again fill the hallways of the chillier rest of the apartment. The nap is still to be taken at three in the afternoon, after the last of the sinkful of dishes has been washed and put away. Neighbours will always come for longer coffee visits at ten in the morning or five in the afternoon. The days followed this pattern even after father’s illness worsened and the mother had to keep a tight schedule of his insulin medication. Since he insisted that he hadn’t entirely lost his eyesight, she had to add discretion and a tone of deference to her help. When my father passed away in his sleep, and the rush of neighbourly help of the first two days subsided, with all the paperwork and required wakes completed, the mother was able make out the contours of the rest of her days. They looked comfortably like her early days of retirement. The grief would ebb away. And there was grief — in spite the fact that the husband who stood out in her memory was the person whose frailness and stubbornness rapidly grew in direct proportion. I was not here to witness any of this. I was away in Canada, on my third year after emigrating and just out of school, looking for work, holding much promise. When I got a part-time administrative job with a vanity press in New Brunswick, I started saying that I worked in publishing. Later I worked at a university, for a national association, and in non-profit sector. Why would anybody back home have to know that those were secretarial jobs? I kept my odd restaurant job out of both the Canadian and the old country résumés because it’s nobody’s business, really. It was a decent immigrant career trajectory. I always try to educate friends from high school who manage to track me down on social media and who, after browsing my pages, have the innocence to ask whether this new job means I have been promoted. Yes, from one sector to another! It’s called lateral promotion. You’ll learn more about this complex North American economy when you come and visit, I tell them. None of them ever did, luckily. I like my high school to stay in the past. Now that I am back, keeping it there may be a little more difficult, but as I often said in job interviews in my just-concluded Canadian life, I welcome challenges. And living with the mother is just a temporary arrangement, until I find some paying work in the capital. All in all, I am glad I am back. I am saying this to Lenka and Vera, two of the many family friends who have been stopping by to welcome me back and assure me that I will always belong. The ladies always add a touch of ceremony to those first visits, as if they are giving me back the keys to the city. Reopen your bank account, get a cell phone, subscribe to Monitor. Then sit down to have coffee with the mother’s friends. Coffee is of the Balkan kind, served black and unfiltered in minuscule cups with chinks and clinks against saucers punctuating the conversation. “Yes, the rat race was getting a bit much, everybody in the West is always work-work-work and no play,” I add. Clichés will often do. “We always thought you will reconsider, for the sake of your mother,” Lenka says. “People go away but should always come home. All on your own… Must have been harsh having to speak a foreign language.” “Not terribly. People move all the time. And English was becoming my first language.” “Is that really possible?” Vera takes over. “How extraordinary. Good that you came back now. You lose yourself if you start forgetting your first language.” “And your mother is very happy to have you back. She was on her own after your father passed away, and your sister moved to the coast… All that took some adjusting.” Lenka looks pointedly at the mother. I manage a laugh. “My mother has a busier social life than I. She’s always visiting and having people over. But tell me, how are my old high school pals, Sandra and Draga?” “Just marvellous. Her firstborn is now five. You know what he said yesterday when we asked him what he wanted to be when he grows up? He said he wanted to be a pensioner! We can’t get enough of the two rascals. Sandra thinks I’m spoiling them rotten. Draga and her husband just moved to the new three-storey that his construction company built. Oh, I didn’t tell you? Yes, she married last year. He’s a developer specializing in medium-size seaside resorts.” “You remember Jelena, from your grade school? She got twins last month,” the mother decides to chime in. “Mina’s oldest, who I know since he was this big, is now working as a diplomat before the EU. It helps to have an uncle in the government to obtain jobs like that, of course, but he is bright and unlike his superiors can actually speak French. Another one of your classmates, Branka, Marko and Vida’s daughter, is now a big-shot communications manager at some ministry or other.” “That’s all good news,” I say, and quickly offer sociological analysis. “In a country in transition with such high unemployment, it’s nice to see some positive developments. I hear too many people are still unemployed, women stay-at-home moms, men working under the table or still living off their parents’ pensions.” Everybody is now sighing, stirring their cherry juices, agreeing that our town has been particularly unlucky. “The important thing is that you are now back home. I am sure you’ll find something in no time.” And then the inevitable. “What about you? Any news in the… emotional field?” The question even more frequent than the roundabout queries on how come I decided to come back after eight years, and what is my next career move. “Nah, not really.” But that is nowhere near enough. Vera presses on. “Such a pretty one like you must have had no problem finding a boyfriend.” “You know how wonderful it is to have somebody to share your life with.” This is one of the mother’s recurring. “And being thirty-five is the perfect time for something long-term.” “Gosh, look at the time, could it really be ten past eight? I must excuse myself, ladies. La Piovra has already started. Give my best to all, and we’ll talk soon I’m sure.” As I close the glass door and hear the conversation moving on to the Italian mob drama, the late autumn chill of the corridor feels welcoming.
The bus is doing its utmost best rolling up and around through the mountains on its way back to Cetinje. I am returning from a job interview with an NGO which has partnered with a private university to create a policy grad school for students who are willing to pay 2,000 Euros per semester. Nobody there really knows me or my references, so I don’t have high expectations. It’s all good practise, though, going to interviews. It might not have helped that I mused out loud how mindboggling it is that there are students just out of high school who can actually pay those tuition fees in this still fairly destitute country of ours. It’s been years since being stunned by somebody’s income and its source stopped being done in Montenegro. New riches are already getting a patina of legitimacy. My etiquette is eight years old and it needs updating. The view over the Lake Skadar reaching into Albania is new again. I used to be fed up by the postcard-quality vistas readily available on bus trips north to the capital and south to the Adriatic. Now they are worth paying attention to again. Back in Toronto, where rains never fall too ferociously, I’d often remember the racket of Cetinje rains, if not exactly miss it. Now I’m back to being able to hear the rains rise again, lying on the bed in my old room, eyes to the ceiling, the window left ajar. There is the consistent background of swoosh to the distinct timpani sound of the streams running wild through the eavestrough. A few moments later you will begin to hear the lower range gargle of water cascading down to the main drain on the concrete playground behind our low-rise. Same swoosh-timpani-gargle on many a morning and night, between opening your eyes and getting out of bed. Swoosh before walking to school, swoosh before a doctor’s appointment, swoosh before catching the train. All this is alive again, and waking up to the traffic noise of Ossington Avenue is in the past. The other day I headed out to the Vietnamese-owned Fresh Mart round the corner and realized at the door that I will actually find the store called Tutti Frutti, managed by the cousin of one Milan who used to date my sister when they were both giving the idea of university a try. The bus finally arrives and I walk back home taking the side streets. It is not raining today, surprisingly, although I wish it would. No long conversations with people who will recognize you on the street can take place if you are both struggling to keep your umbrellas open against the wind. I don’t see this one happening, I tell the mother from the door before she can ask about the interview. She comes in from the kitchen and pulls the chair up. “I’ll continue asking around. I’ll phone other people… Maybe Yana’s side of the family will know somebody. You know it takes political connections, darn it… And your dad just wasn’t that kind of a man.” Yes. Dad has always been honourable to the point of not having left us a single useful connection anywhere. Honourable, or perhaps unable to keep friends. I don’t say anything. Although I am back home, I am not ready to touch family myths. “At any rate, there’s no pressure for you to leave. I love having you here, after eight years of missing you like hell. We can live decently on my pension and savings. I’d rather cook for two than just for myself any day.” The waves in her short hair have considerably thinned over the years. The left side of her face is still a little slower than the right, consequence of a minor stroke ten years ago. That aside and a bit of high blood pressure, the mother was a healthy seventy-year-old. I used to think of her as overbearing and couldn’t wait to leave home. Now I am fine with her need to keep her children close. Where else could I have gone? “How sweet of you. But you know I must keep looking while I stay on. The savings I brought back from Canada are running out, and the rent in the capital… well, I don’t need to tell you about that.” I get ready to get up. “There’s… another thing,” she adds hesitantly. Her look is now intently on the crocheted tablecloth, picking out the crumbs from between the lace flower petals. “Yes, I will tidy up the logs in the shed before the end of the week. And sweep up the shavings. And clean the little window.” “No, it’s not that. Sit down a moment.” I shift weight to the other leg, and lean over the chair. What then? With all the visible crumbs from the bottom of the table cover removed, she interlaces her fingers and looks up. “Well… we had one of those crank calls. Or should I say, harassing calls.” “What ever do you mean? I always thought you were beyond that age.” But she remains serious. “The crank calls when you were much younger?” I start thinking. “I do remember that crank calls were an ordinary thing when I was a teenager. Do kids still make them now? I even made a few myself occasionally as a teen. The usual stuff, offering fake fridge fixing or paint services. Asking to get the dog on the phone.” Our one and only state-owned phone company didn’t do call screening and tracking at that time. “Remember those persistent crank calls when you were seventeen?” The mother is unperturbed. “A younger female voice, always phones when everybody’s in, hangs up if you pick up, continues speaking if it’s me or your father?” I resist the urge to massage away the pressure in the temples which I suddenly notice building up. I manage to shrug my shoulders. “Vaguely. As I said, cranks were a fact of teenage life.” “These stood out, as you may recall. The voice would go on without a trace of hesitation or shame. It was so determined that we thought it was pre-recorded and played to us. But it was a live person every time. Person who would pick up the phone in the early evening, dial our number and spew the filthiest things imaginable about you.” Oh. Those calls. “I can’t bear to remember it. Your daughter is a dirty lesbian. No man will ever touch her. She… does things with other women… down below. I can’t repeat it. And on and on in the same vein. Well, they called again today. Pretty much the same wording. I kept asking, Who is this, why do you have to hide if what you’re saying is true, but the voice just went on as determined as then. I felt sick all day. I got the phone company to track down the number, but they say it’s a blocked one, information not available. Don’t have the name, can’t even say the area code. Oh, what is going on, do you have any idea? Have you said anything to upset anybody recently, can you remember? Your dad and I never believed in any of that filth when you were younger because we knew you, knew it was some sort of a personal teen revenge. Why are these resurfacing now, do you know? Do you think the rumours are going to start?” She stops for a moment, but the beseeching look goes on on her behalf. “Oh don’t be silly, Mom. Somebody has too much time on their hands. I remember now, those calls gave me a very eventful sex life. I’d never even dated anyone at that time, let alone had sex. Remember, no dating and no makeup before eighteen? I was the least rebellious kid you can find.” “That is true…” Now the mother starts picking out imaginary crumbs one by one. “But why do these things always have you associated with women? Is it because you’re single all the time? Help me understand.” “Of course it’s because I’m not married yet! Something that certain birdbrains around here can’t fathom!” I yell. “It’s always been like this, can’t you see? Have a little independence as a woman, don’t get married out of high school, and you must be a lesbian.” “I know… But you can understand why I get upset. It’s the ugliest, most unnatural thing. Can you imagine two women or two men in bed…? Utterly disgusting. I don’t want my daughter to be associated in any way with such… perverted lunacy.” She dejectedly looks at me, then at her hands. Me. Hands. “What did you do when you had to… deal with them abroad? How did you survive all that free display of homosexuality?” I tell her I coped just fine. “I didn’t really care who people are sleeping with, you know. Didn’t ask very many questions. Didn’t care.” “You mustn’t be so tolerant, honey. Their choices are offensive. They should be confined in a special part of town, and not be allowed to mix with the rest of us. Now they even want to adopt children.” “Mom. Don’t be a fascist.” But she will not allow room for humour. “Oh so now we should all embrace homosexuality! Are you now saying we should welcome that kind of life, out in the open with it, and we won’t care about our children and their need to grow up in normal families, surrounded by normal people?” I grab my coat off the chair. “Okay, Mom, I have had enough of this, and of you in this state. I am going out for a walk. When I return, I hope to see you reasonable again. See you later.” I walk out, then walk faster. Nowhere in particular, just down the street, then to the right and down again. No, running will feel better. I start running and think, why don’t I take up jogging? Nah, it’s a tiny place, no one can jog very far before hitting a mountain. Maybe hiking then.
The mother now claims I barely leave my room, which is not true. I tell her she just likes rushing into diagnoses of that kind. She says I am back to my old habits of seclusion, but I am proving her wrong by going to see relatives and old school friends, where I cheerfully give an account of my life so far. Right now, I am keeping her company on one of her hikes and the weather is still holding. It is a shopping tour, as she visits the farm that she knows has the best smoked meat and another one with the best fresh eggs in the region. She’s surprised to hear about the return to the local food in North America because her diet was always a-few-kilometres diet anyway. Yes, beats me too, why would anyone want those awful strawberries in January or tomatoes in February, and so we chat away. People who pass by often know her and say hello or stop for a brief exchange. My sister is due to arrive today and we’re thinking of what to bake. First an archaeology student who could not pass the mandatory course in Marxism and had to drop out, then an office employee of a prominent socialist retail corporation, she now works as a coat check at a 5-star hotel catering to a wealthy international clientele. Her husband stayed unemployed for years and unable to afford getting his teeth fixed since the delisting of dentistry. He recently bought a used van and started offering rides to and from the airports. Some money is trickling in, especially when he forgets to pay the taxes. Things are looking up. The mother says hi to a man I don’t know. “You remember Mihal, no? Always good-humoured, ready to land a hand… At least I thought so until I heard how he treats his poor mother. She’s been ill and bed-ridden for months now. They had to amputate her left leg to save her life. She is slowly recuperating. Slava and I have visited. But what did her good-for-nothing son do? When your leg has to go, you bury it in the grave that will be your final resting place. Family tomb, what have you. To save himself the trouble, our Mihal here” …she lowers her voice… “found himself a secluded hilltop and dumped the leg from there. As if it was piece of garbage. To the wolves with it! Fukara.” Later we talk some more about my sister’s marrying down, her smoking habits and that she should visit more often. Did I ever attend any gatherings of the society of expats when I lived in Canada — no? Perhaps I should have. Then the bills come up. “I got a phone bill statement the other day, honey. I usually don’t ask for the breakdown, but this time the bill was unusually high so I asked for one.” “Yeeess?” “It shows somebody phoned a Canadian number seventeen times one night and all the calls lasted exactly thirty seconds. You know anything about that?” How stupid of me to expect this would go unnoticed. “Oh really, they were registered as actual calls?” I look baffled. “A former boss emailed me and asked me to phone him so he can give me an update on a project we completed just before I left the country. He thought I’d like to know that it’s been going well. So I tried to phone the other night, but kept being cut out. Who knew! All those attempts were charged as calls! And I never even got to talk to him.” The mother was considering all this. “But why call at night? You can call when I’m around, you know I can’t speak a word of English.” “The time zone difference, you know. They are six hours behind us…” “Oh, I see. Well, as long as we keep our bills at a reasonable level.” “Of course. I can also ask him to email me his update, rather than give it to me on the phone.” And I sense that one is finished, not to be brought up again. Could it really have been seventeen times? I phoned seventeen times just so I can hear somebody’s greeting? I was sure it was just a few times. I will have a look at that bill. How weak must I be to allow myself this. I know it is a cottage phone number, and I know it is the end of November, but what if somebody was there and picked up? What if the cottage phone has call screening? Oh, that was stupid. I must get used to the fact that all that is in the past now and an ocean away. My life is what I have here, and the other one is not returning. We unlock the apartment door, turn the lights on, get the bags in the kitchen and put the food away. Sister is not here yet. I get rid of the boots and go to my bedroom to pick up the paper spread out on the bed since breakfast. The four unpacked boxes are still sitting there. My possessions from Canada arrived yesterday. I came on a plane, but the boxes took a boat trip across the ocean. Things that I could not bear to part with now I do not seem to be in a rush to open. As if there will be no blending and no translation between the existing stuff and the old stuff. If I cut through the duct tape and try getting anything out, things will bounce against a rubber screen and spring their way back into the box. I’ll open them later. Maybe I can donate the lot unopened. The doorbell finally rings and the mother yells from the kitchen that I should get that as her hands are already covered in flour. We are genuinely glad to see each other again, my sister and I, and the hug and the words are real. But she holds me a little too long, then keeps her hand on my elbow and asks with great concern: “So, how are things?” Oh, I see. The mother probably told her about the harassing calls. They seem to have stopped. “It’s good. I was close to taking that interpreter contract, but the pay wasn’t much, the costs of the commute plus change. And how was your trip here, how is the weather down below?” We cover everything that needs to be covered. The mother’s back in the kitchen and there is a comfortable lull in the conversation when my sister finally gets into what was on her mind all along: “I needed to tell you something… I received a letter last week, which I thought you should know about.” What is it now, I wonder. She reaches in her bag, opens it with a click, and pulls out two pieces of paper. I get the envelope first. A locally sent letter to her home address, no sender information. “It contained a photocopy of a press clipping from an English language newspaper. Look here. The story is from May this year.” Oh god. Oh god, oh god, oh god. I come closer as she unfolds the piece to have a closer look. “You know I can’t read English, but I skimmed the text and there’s a name that keeps recurring, which seems similar to yours, except in English spelling. The image is blurry because people are in movement, but one can see a woman and a man entering a building — a municipal building of some sort? — surrounded by a small crowd.” “Interesting. Somebody has a name similar to mine!” “…I asked Mila to translate whatever she can. I trust her completely.” “You involved other people! For heaven’s sake!” The mother suddenly opens the door and asks us to help her choose between two types of pie filling. Both types have their pros and cons. We talk it all over and with the decision made she finally returns to the kitchen. Sister and I move to the other end of the living room and turn our backs to the kitchen door. “Don’t worry about Mila. I trust her completely. Whatever this is, she’ll keep her mouth shut.” “What do you mean, whatever this is? What is it?” “This is what I gathered from her translation. She didn’t know all the phrases, but she translated most of the report. She didn’t know what a ‘restraining order’ is, for example. But anyway, this woman in the picture is apparently a Toronto university professor and she’s entering a courtroom with her husband. It says here that somebody with the name similar to yours and who she only knew superficially, it says, had made certain advances and followed her and phoned her at all times of day and night — what do they call it? Stalked her? They say the individual was disturbed and claimed to have had a brief relationship with the married professor. The professor apparently always claimed she barely knew the woman.” Barely knew. I see. “The report says this poor disturbed person… What is the word? Crossed over? Oh, trespassed? Trespassed on their property, tried to break into their home in order to quote leave messages unquote, and on one occasion broke a window when the couple were out. This namesake of yours was taken to the court and quote was lucky to get out with a restraining order only unquote. Which essentially means,” my sister concludes as she hands me the paper “that she had to leave Toronto.” I give out a long sigh. “How very special. I have a double! It’s still roaming around Ontario, frightening poor university professors, just not in Toronto anymore.” She does not move. “Don’t be insane! This can only be another one of those not so innocent pranks smearing me, and it must be coming from somebody around here who apparently has a lesbian obsession, and nothing else to do! Press clippings now, I ask you!” “Why would anybody do this now? Take the time to photocopy and send it to me all the way in Budva? What if they sent this to the newspapers here? Oh, what can we do if local papers take this up?!” She looks frightened now. “The papers would have nothing to go on. Does it say where this woman is from? She can be from anywhere where people with names like ours happen to reside. This is all just a coincidence. Look at me: this is nothing but a vicious insinuation.” My sister is quiet. The barely audible radio sound is changing from talk to music. The evening is descending like a shroud. “Look, can we keep the mother away from all this. She tends to make a crisis out of nothing,” I interrupt the silence. “What if they send one to the mother? What if some other people receive this, and believe it, and start talking?” “Let’s just keep her out of this for now. If she gets the letter, I will tell her what I told you, and that’s the truth.” Okay, she says, and really appears calmer now. I am grateful. We carry on with the rest of the evening. We have supper with the mother, hook up the new curtains, receive a visit from the upstairs neighbour, and then sit down to watch TV. We exchange quick looks now and then, I to check if she is still tranquil, she to confirm that she indeed still believes me. During the last segment I excuse myself to go out and get some fresh air. I leave them half-asleep to the closing credits. Ah, nowhere is the night sky this clear and the air so brittle. But people should mind their own goddamned business. Why would anybody invent stories about others to make their own life more interesting? Press clippings, can you imagine. I left this place eight years ago for economic reasons, and I came back for similar reasons. I decided to return when I realized that after a lifetime of work I would reach retirement age with no savings and no property. Life in the West is not what we often expect. I start to run. I run all the way, until I hit the mountain.