Still in Slovakia
4 years before departure
The Eighties – the last year of High School in Bratislava (special HS for girls, that is)
‘We are very lucky to live in our great Communist country, where there is no poverty and everyone is the same…’ our Economic teacher read loudly the news from the latest meeting of our leading Communist Party members.
Suddenly the classroom door opened and our principal entered. We all stood up in anticipation. I glanced at Emily still sitting at the last desk ignoring all the sudden commotion. She suddenly looked up at me with her glassy, dopy eyes and I knew she had taken drugs. Again.
All other girls stood tall and confident in their up to date outfits bought in the west by their important Fathers, who as our Communist leaders had been allowed to travel. There had been only three girls in clothes made in the Communist Eastern Europe: Emily, Mary and me.
The middle aged principal in his red shiny jacket looked sternly at us, while he spoke in his cold and informative tone: “One of your classmates was involved in a car accident this weekend. She survived but unfortunately her mother and brother died. Now, her Father, who was a driver is still in a police custody, serving him well, as we all know he is also a political dissident…well, take care of your classmate, when she comes back and show her that our Communist Ideals are the only ones she can trust.”
With these words our principal left our classroom. Our Economic teacher bowed towards the closing doors in respect and continued in his monotone and well rehearsed voice: ‘Our ruling working party look after all our needs and we all have to work hard to show our gratitude and respect towards our great and loved Communist leaders…’
Renata, sitting next to me, whose Father was the manager of the local meat processing factory and respected Communist Party member, whispered to my ear: “Poor saint Mary.”
“She is not saint, she is catholic, but you don’t know what that means.” I hissed back.
She opened the expensive French nail polish under our desk and started to paint her long well manicured nails: “Well, I don’t suppose to know, do I?”
I looked at her annoyingly but she decided to continue: “ All religions are forbidden, anyway just old people believe in that nonsense, because they don’t know anything about science and progress…”
“ Cut it out,” I hissed back too loudly as our Economic teacher looked up at me stopping in mid sentence: “ You again, just as well, I will have a talk with your stepfather, such respected and highly regarded Party official, being on your place I would be grateful to be at school at all and not on factory line, where you belong.”
Renata pulled her tongue at me and continued with her nail polishing under our desk.
“ Bitch, “ I said under my breath, when suddenly the door on our classroom opened again and Mary in black mourning outfit entered. Her tiny cross on a golden chain around her neck shined brightly in defiance.
On our Recess break we stood silently with Mary in the crowded corridor in front of our classroom while passing by students joked around us and chased each other.
“ How are you?” I asked stupidly not knowing what to say while I looked in her dark sad blue eyes.
She avoided my eyes and said resolutely pressing her thin lips together: “Fine, I don’t want to talk about it, ok?”
I nodded solemnly and looked around for some inspiration when I noticed our new English teacher fresh from UNI. I waved at him with badly hidden familiarity.
“Hello, girls,” he stopped by looking shy and uncertain, then he took Mary’s both hands into his: “ I am so sorry for what happened to you.”
Mary shyly smiled and withdrawn her hands: “Thank you, Mr. Kustral.”
He suddenly smiled at me: “I am taking the late bus home today, we can meet again in our café to continue in English lessons, what do you think, Bibi?”
Mary looked up at me with a concern in her eyes but I nodded eagerly: “Yes, Mr. Kustral, I will be there straight after school, do you have those new magazines about Lady Di wedding from London?”
He winked at me and then turned back to Mary: “ You should enroll in my English classes as well, Mary, drop Maths, I know that awful Mrs Novakova gives you hard time, you will do much better at final exams with English, believe me.”
Mary looked down confused and nodded: “Thank you, Mr. Kustral, I will think about it.”
When he left, I looked at Mary victoriously: “ Isn’t he cool and his wife gives him so hard time, you know she just fusses about that newborn baby of theirs and doesn’t pay attention to him at all…”
Mary looked me up and down harshly: “I see, I just wonder what your boyfriend would think about it when he comes on leave from his Army duties.”
I took Mary’s hands into mine and looked at her apologetically: “It’s not like that, Mary, I really want to learn English and travel, you know like we always talked about…imagine they let him to go to London to improve in English for a whole WEEK…”
“ I don’t remember YOU to be so keen on English when we had that old teacher, we used to skip the classes all the time, I don’t know how on earth you want to pass finals, I can’t for sure, just remember some words from Beatles song, my brother used to listen to, my brother….” Her eyes filled in with tears.
I embraced her: “Mary, it will be all fine.”
“ I am fine,” she pushed me aside and brushed her tears away: “ Anyway how do you plan to pass English finals with your poor knowledge as I don’t believe he actually teaches you English, you know…”
“ Mary, honest there is nothing between us, we just kissed OK?” I lifted my arms up in self-defense: “ Anyway, Mr. Kustral told me, I just need to pretend that I speak English, while they all sitting there, none of the teachers speak English, except him, you see.”
Suddenly Emily bumped into Mary laughing: “Come on, girl, I have something for you to cheer up after your AWFUL EXP..ppp..” She kept laughing when she staggered along the corridor towards the toilet while we followed her. Mary looked at me alarmingly: “I think she is doped again, what we are going to do?”
Entering toilets some of the girls, washing hands there, looked at Emily suspiciously when she laughingly entered one of the cubicles. We quickly pushed her inside and followed shutting the door tightly behind us. There was not enough space for all three of us, so Mary, the shortest from us, stood up on the toilet seat.
“Look, what I have for you,” Emily said victoriously pulling out a bottle of cheap rum out of her pullover. Her glassy eyes shined madly at us. She laughed at our shocked expression and gulped the quarter of the liquid down her throat in a second.
“You mad, Emily,” Mary took the bottle and holding it high above her head so Emily could not reach it, continued: “Where did you get it anyway, they check everything now, they are so scared of drugs more than political opposition…”
Emily laughed madly: “Did you notice our new cleaner at school, very cute guy, he let me get in through the back window when I am late…just for little favors.”
Mary sat down on the toilet seat holding the bottle tightly in her hands: “What is happening to you girls, don’t you believe in love, I mean real love?”
I took the bottle from Mary’s hands, took few gulps and look dreamily on Emily’s long shiny raven hair, which got loose from her lucky band and spilled on her shoulders: “ I love my boyfriend,” I smiled to myself: “ You will be my bride maids in two years time when he finishes his army duty. I will be the wife of an architect and have two not three kids and..”
“ I love myyy boyfrienddd…” copied me Emily laughingly and took the bottle from my hands. Before she put it into her mouth, she looked at me: “ His parents disapprove of you…Your family is not good for theeem…fuck your boyfriend, fuck you, fuck them…I am sick…”
Without a warning Emily spewed straight into a middle of their cubicle.
“Yuck, it is really gross Emily,” I shouted and opened quickly the cubicle door.
The toilet was empty and quiet. Mary helped Emily washed her face and her pullover, while I opened the toilet door and checked the empty corridor outside.
“I think, the typing lesson has started already, we are in trouble girls,” I hissed at them.
Emily looked at her wet pullover and growled: “This stupid High School for girls…you know where we end up when we finish…on a back sofa of some ancient Communist leader who will fondle your breasts,” she moved in front of mirror in slow sexy movement: “ That will be part of your personal secretary duties, girls…”
“Shut up, Emily,” Mary looked at her crossly: “ Just because yours and Bibi’s mum ended up like that…and anyway I don’t see you finishing any time soon, not in your state of mind.”
I waved at them from the door before entering the corridor: “Come on girls, the air is clear, we just say that Emily got sick and it is true anyway.”
Mary got hold of Emily, who tried to walk in straight line towards the door: “ They send me home like always and Mum’s boyfriend will fuck me, good on you girls…” she kept shouting so Mary covered her mouth with her hand: “ Shut up, you stupid girl, otherwise none of us finish this bloody school.”
The unfinished bottle of rum stayed behind next to the Emily’s spews but I calmed myself thinking about the cleaner coming after us and destroying all the evidence of our and his misconduct.
We quietly entered the typing room, where the girls sitting in rows in front of typewriters typed fast words, which stern looking teacher in old fashioned glasses barked at them. Once noticing us, the teacher stop barking and the girls stop typing. Before I managed to say something, Emily started laughing madly. She was sent home just like she predicted.
“I hope that ‘old fart’ stepfather of hers will not be at home,” Mary whispered into my ear.
“Maybe she will be lucky, he will have a meeting and she can dope herself even more,” I shrugged my shoulders.
I sat with Mary at the back row and started typing as fast as I could. This High School sucks, I thought, but what else I can do?
When we opened the front glass door of our School, the strong icy wind swept us of our feet and grey leaves, pieces of paper and dusty residues passed our faces and got tangled in my hair. I pulled the jacket tightly around me and covered my face with a scarf. I looked behind on the square, grey building of our school, so identical to all other building on a busy street.
“The same miserable weather all year around,” Mary sighed pulling her beanie down on her ears: “I don’t know if it is Summer or Autumn any more.”
I let a noisy old tram passed us and then followed her on our bus stop already full of students from our school: “ You know for sure, it is not Winter time, as the roads will be full of grey slush…yak, hate that.”
Mr. Kustral passed us getting hold of my arm for a while: “Will wait for you Bibi, don’t take long.”
I nodded and smiled. Mary looked at me disapprovingly and shrugged her shoulders.
“I saw that, Bibi,” Renata caught up with us and pointed on Mr. Kustral waiting alone on the further end of the bus stop to be away from the noisy crowd of students.
“He is cute, is he?” I smiled at her sweetly and she returned my smile.
“I saw you yesterday at your café, I know where you meet,” she whispered into my ear and hurried away before I could say anything else.
Bitch, I thought to myself and forgot about her. An old bus, already full of passangers stopped further away from us and students pushed each other to get in, but just a few managed to squeeze inside. I saw Mr. Kustral near the door before they closed shut. He waved at me and I waved back.
“Maybe we should walk to the previous bus stop, otherwise we never get in, what do you think?” Mary shivered in her thin black mourning coat.
“Don’t really feel like walking and anyway it is raining now,” I pointed at the grey cloudy sky from where a myriad of raindrops started to fall. A tiny group of students managed to squeeze in to the old weathered bus stop shelter while the rest of us stood there covering our heads with our school bags.
Suddenly a shiny motorbike stopped in front of me and a well groomed man in his thirties winked at me: “Hi, Bibi want a ride?”
“Gosh , that’s the guy from the modeling agency, do you know him Bibi?” someone shouted behind me, but I just stood there staring at him, knowing vaguely that I saw him somewhere before.
He started his motorbike again and shouted at Bibi: “Come on, your last chance, I am all wet, your Mum said you like motorbikes, so hop on.” I blushed suddenly, realizing where I saw him before. In my Mum’s bedroom, where else, I cursed myself for my stupidity. I quickly nodded before he could reveal anything else in front of my curious classmates and sat behind him while cheering went on.
“Sorry, Mary, I have to go, see you tomorrow,” I waved to Mary, who just sighed with resignation and started to walk towards the previous bus stop.
“So, how do you like it here?” He asked me jovially while checking the whiteness of his teeth on the back of the spoon sitting in a high class café in the middle of the city.
I looked at him suspiciously enjoying a piece of my favorite cake he ordered me. What else he knows about me, I wondered while eating, but I asked him loudly: “Does Mum know about this?”
“Me and you Mum plan to move together, she is finally ready to leave that old fart of hers behind.” He smiled at me broadly: “Anyway, my name is Benjamin, Benjo for short.”
“Yep,” that was my turn to smile: “Heard this before…my Mum has plenty lovers, you are not the only one, you know.”
Benjo kept smiling apparently unmoved by my rude answer: “But you have only one boyfriend, who loves you dearly, am I mistaken?”
“How do you know about him?” I asked suddenly feeling uneasy: “Why did you find me?”
Benjo started sipping his cocktail enjoying my confusion: “Anyway, I wanted to thank you that you saved my back, when my wife,” he grimaced, whispering to my ear: “Tell you secret, she is also an old fart with a big bag of money…”
I moved away from him: “I am not interested in your secret, I don’t understand why my Mum likes you…anyway there was not the first wife who came to look for her cheating husband,” I looked at him importantly: “So you can say I have experience to cover my Mum’s back, not yours in this matter…”
Benjo started to laugh: “Good on your sharp girl, we are just too similar…”
“We are not,” I protested loudly.
“Not you, silly bunny, you just little confused girl,” he carefully patted his shiny hair: “Me and your Mum, just too bloody similar…”
I sat up feeling insulted: “I will be eighteen soon, I am not little girl anymore and I plan to marry…”
He pulled his arms up in self-defense looking at me mockingly: “Of course, young lady and I assume the broom will be the young lad who disturbed me and your Mum last night in the middle of …you know what…”
I looked up at him in horror and he enjoyed it enormously: “Nice looking lad, I have to say, looking so serious in his captain uniform, must be 26 years old am I right?”
“It was not him, my boyfriend is in Hungary on a military campaign and Mum said nothing about it last night …”
Benjo shrugged his shoulders: “Your Mum was totally drunk when I left; I bet your stepfather was not happy when he came home…”
It was my turn to shrug my shoulders: “Don’t know have not seen him.”
Benjo stood up and picked up his helmet: “Have to go, need a change for bus?”
I shook my head and picked up my bag leaving the café without looking back.
“Don’t look at me like that,” my Mum said annoyingly stretching in her bed in her silky nightgown holding a white cloth on her forehead: “ I have a headache and don’t remember what happened yesterday, just go, go and leave me in peace.” she waved with her hand and closed her eyes.
I kept standing there so she opened her eyes again and shouted angrily: “Get out, will you?”
I turned around to leave when I heard her continuing more calmly: “Wish you would be more normal like other girls and stopped fussing about one stupid boy like there is no one else in the world.”
“What other girls, Mum?” I turned back to her, but her eyes stayed closed, so I continued: “Mary and Emily…”
She suddenly sat up looking at me angrily: “You are not allowed to see those…those…one religious maniac and another a junkie?”
“They are not…” I tried to protest weakly but she ignored me continuing in her monologue: “Look at your classmate Renata, so classy girl and her Father is such an important man, she called yesterday, we had a nice chat and she said you are now involved with your English teacher?”
“I am not,” I protested more strongly now, but Mum waved her hand: “I really don’t care my dear, if it helps with your school result, go for it, that is what I said to that boyfriend of yours as well, so there, I remembered, are you happy now?”
My face turned white with the suppressed anger and I looked at her with all the rage I could muster: “I just had a date with that stupid lover of yours on that shiny motorbike who checks his reflection in every mirror he passes, the most awful lover I ever met in my life.” With my last words out of my chest I stormed out of her bedroom, down the corridor and out of the flat leaving all doors opened behind me. My Mum followed me mad with rage. I heard her insults when I ran down the stairs in our block of flats.
“I know you didn’t, you stupid girl, you just want to insult me…just like your Father, stupid, mad and envious…yes envious and treacherous…a snake on my chest…get out of my house…”
It was midnight when I finally reached the long distance bus station. I caught the last bus leaving for Nitra, the little town in the Western Slovakia. I was relieved to leave the smoke and pollution of the capital city, of my home city behind.
It took us nearly two hours to get there. I could not sleep so I watched the lights in windows of towns and villages we passed by and wished to belong somewhere. Have my own place, to be part of a family, to be welcomed and loved and felt wanted and needed…I dosed off when I felt someone hands touching my tights. I opened my eyes to see a stranger sitting next to me. When he saw I woke up he changed seats. I shivered and decided not to look in his direction. There were only us two left on the bus.
When we reached our destination I let the stranger to leave first and then I moved towards an empty bus station. Few people shivered in the early morning chill on the hard seats. I took one of them and waited for the morning to come. I was too scared to close my eyes.
Suddenly I heard the first regular buses to start their town routes and tried to remember the number of the bus I took with my boyfriend when we went to visit his family, only one time in our three years together. When I hopped on the bus I desperately looked for some familiar landmarks to show me the way. My boyfriend so often talked about his hometown that I learnt some names of the streets. I admired an ancient church leaning majestically on a hill in front of us, a shiny river slivering through the town dotted by green tall trees…there were so many trees. I suddenly knew why he loves this town so much.
The old bus slowly moved upon the hilly road towards tiny houses littering the hillside like matchboxes. One of these houses belonged to my boyfriend’s family. I just need to look for the distinguished blue roof he talked about. Here it is. I hopped off the bus on the next station and cautiously entered the tiny front garden. The door bell ranged and a tall silver haired woman with kind grey eyes of my boyfriend opened the front door. She recognized me straight away as I stood there suddenly speechless.
“He is not here, my dear,” she said gently looking at me with a silent resignation in those grey eyes, I remembered so much: “Come in, I see you need to talk.”
I nodded suddenly feeling empty and lost. I followed her through a tiny corridor to a comfortable living room with a fireplace, which I vaguely remembered. She sat on a comfortable sofa and patted a place next to her: “Come on, sit down, I will not bite you, would you like some tea or coffee?”
I shook my head and kept my eyes on a beautifully decorated but worn out carpet. I was lost for words but my hostess seemed not to mind as she continued gently with her chatter: “As well, that no one is at home, we need some quiet time, do we?”
I did not respond and she continued: “Do you remember when you came here with Alex, it was three years ago, was it?”
I nodded again thinking what I am doing here.
“The time just flies and you have been barely fifteen, did you?” She chuckled: “And Alex was twenty three and so madly in love…wanted to get married straight away…my silly Alex always rushing without thinking…”
I slowly stood up: “I better go.”
She gently pulled me down: “ Please stay, believe me, I am happy that you met, you and Alex and shared something special, something that no one can take from you…you both will be better people for that experience.”
Two big tears rolled down my cheeks and I did not bother to wipe them: “I love him so much.”
She smiled at me sadly: “I know you do and he did you as well,” she gently stroked my cheeks wiping my tears with her hand: “The first love is just like that, full of pain and suffering and learning to love …again.”
“If he leaves me now, I kill myself,” I burst out suddenly, but she gently shook her head and hugged me tightly: “No, you don’t”.
She kept hugging me and talking to me in a quiet reassuring voice: “These past three years Alex was so unhappy, always coming home sad and angry because of another disagreement and another fight with you?”
“ We split up so many times,” I agreed smiling through my tears: “ But we always patched up, I just sometimes didn’t know what he expect from me…I just wanted to hang out with friends, to have a fun and he was so serious, more like my Dad..” I stopped suddenly confused: “I don’t know about that Dad stuff, I really never knew my Dad, but I mean…”
She nodded in agreement: “He is just too old for you my dear, I told him so, but he wouldn’t listen.”
“He is not,” I shook my head stubbornly: “He loves me and I love him and…”
“And the last year he promised to let you go…somehow he never managed to keep that promise, until…”
I looked up in expectation and she continued cautiously: “After he finished his Architect degree and came back to get ready for his compulsory two years’ stint with the army, he was very upset with you and took another girl for a ride around Nitra, well he was drunk and hit a tree ..”
“Was he injured, he never told me that,” I jumped in and she smiled at me patiently.
“He was fine, just few scratches, but the girl ended up in a hospital with a broken spine.”
I shook in a horror: “I never knew…if I knew I would…”
She hugged me again: “I think he wanted to tell you yesterday, when he was looking for you, anyway, the girl is learning to walk again and Alex fell in love with her…”
I looked at her in disbelief: “Fell in love with her?”
She nodded and patted my back gently: “They plan to marry once he comes back from the army.”
I started to cry feeling a pity for myself: “I was not good enough for him anyway, my Mum with her loose morals, my Dad somewhere overseas hiding from Communists…”
She shook her head: “No my dear, I don’t care who you are or where you come from, the only thing I care about is my son and your love nearly destroyed him…it was not real love, my dear, real love does not destroy, real love creates and brings life…if you really love him, you let him go…”
I was ready, I left my boyfriend and I left his little house on a hillside but I was not ready to leave his hometown. I needed something to hold on. It was as he after his departure passed his love for his hometown on me. I walked around the river under those tall green trees and felt suddenly at home. At the end of the tree line there was entry to University.
I will come to study here, I said to myself, not knowing what type of University it is. It did not matter to me neither my average grades. I had a dream and I knew I do everything in my power to make it true. I lost my love but I have found my town and no one will take that love from me.