By K.

Yugoslavia. 2001

“Don’t you think there’s more to you?” Aleksandr asks. Naked, he curls his knees to his chest and relaxes against the headboard.

“You dink dere’s more?” Laila swings around and perches on the edge of the bed. Summer presses on the single-room apartment. Sweat trickles down her bronzed lower back. She leans against his leg and turns to face him.

“I do,” he says, brushing her hair off her eyes.

She blushes, unused to tenderness. “More to me? Or more to dis?” She pauses, giving him a chance to answer. He takes a quick inventory of her room: spare bed sheet folded on the dresser, tasselled lampshade, various outfits to suit clients’ tastes hanging in the closet with no door.

On the floor, Kayla’s wooden duck sits by Laila’s foot. Laila leans forward and kicks it beneath the bed. He looks at her, surprised. He knows about Kayla; the toy hadn’t bothered him.

He shifts, knocking the scrunched brown paper bag off her night table. Three bottles of children’s acetaminophen rattle onto the floor. Her eyes immediately brim with tears of gratitude, but he looks away.

“Why you only see me? So many girl,” she says. Her voice sounds gawky in the silence. He follows her eyes to the clock even though he knows their time is over.

She tenderly cups his testicles and holds them before bending over and pressing her lips on the head of his penis with a gentle peck. She waits there, her warm mouth his a moment longer, before she pushes herself off and stands, whispering, “You go now.” She hands him his clothes, re-applies her lipstick, and wiggles into her bra.

He hunches at the edge of the bed and stares at Laila. He breathes deeply and then clumsily asks, “Why do you bother to put on a bra? Aren’t you just going to take it off?”

She sighs. “Happy. It makes them happy. To remove it,” she says. “Like they seduced a woman.”

“Time’s up,” Bratislav, the floor guardian, calls from outside.

Alek glares at the door, his breathing more pronounced. He never finds a good time to say what he wants; he always leaves things unsaid, hoping the world will eventually separate his intention from inaction.

“He okay. Keep us safe,” she says, buttoning his shirt. “Bratislav one of good ones.”

Alek studies her olive-shaded eyelids, her mink lashes. He gazes into her eyes as if he were pausing in a doorway to a place he’s never been yet whose details he knows intimately. “Laila, come with me,” he says awkwardly. Finally.

Without looking up, she leads him to the door. “Slavyiana. My real name is Slavyiana,” she whispers.

 

***

 

As he describes his night, Aleksandr raps on his hardhat for emphasis. “So, she’s sprawled across my lap, and I am slapping her ass.” He eyes his co-workers as he speaks. “And she says, ‘I’ve been a naughty girl. You should punish me.’ But then she looks up, mid-moan, and sees her old man coming up the walk!” The men groan in empathy. Alek grins. “Next time I see her, I’ll let you know what her punishment was.”

The men break into laughter. For the last six years now, despite being five years removed from Canada, Alek has been appropriating from Adam, the high school senior he’d only spoken to once, but whose wild tales of seduction made him legend. By telling such stories, Alek revelled in the attention and maintained the need of being continually ingratiated among his coworkers.

“Okay, story time’s over,” Alek says. “Gentlemen don’t kiss and tell. But I will tell you this: I’ve never met a girl who didn’t like her ass slapped.”

“To be young!” Stan, the new young father, says with a laugh. He mentions how long it’s been since he’s had sex with his wife. “It feels like three years.”

“You fool! Your boy is only six months!” they say.

“That time didn’t count. That was work.” He laughs uproariously. “Anyway, you don’t have a kid for the sex; you have it because you love its mother.”

Alek falls quiet and leans against a tractor. The men innately tighten their circle around Stan as if his marriage were a sacred thing requiring protection from philanderers like the boss’ nephew.

One of the men turns to Alek. “Wait, you were at her place? I could have sworn I saw you in the District. Then again, you outsiders all look alike,” he says to the laughter of the others.

Alek smiles. “I’ve never been to the District,” he lies. “Just poets and prostitutes.”

Stan is nodding. “The District,” he interrupts, “is not where people go for anything beautiful. Not conversation, not even sex.” His face sours. “They go to feel power, power over someone else. Everyone needs to feel that. In this place, no one wants to admit he is powerless.”

Alek stares out onto the road before him. It is a dusty snake, wending and grading erratically. Why was it not laid straight? He wonders. His mind returns to the jagged uneven paths of the District, all leading down into its dank underbelly where stumbling drunks, sobbing prostitutes curled behind dumpsters, and bartering tradesmen—exchanging gasoline in whisky bottles for food, cooking oil, and medical supplies—create a desperate community mired in loss. He feels instantly filled with grief, blending Slavyiana, the rat-filled alleys, and the wayward grading into one tangled mass.

Looking out at the construction site, he muses, “Why don’t we just go straight? If the shortest path between two points is a straight line, why are we building roads that wind? It’s like we’re going around invisible boulders.”

A few of the men glance at each other. But they say nothing, instead preferring the silence.

Alek sees Lily’s face.

She has a girl too.

He doesn’t know his daughter’s name.

 

 

Back in 1990, Aleksandr’s family foresaw the sectarian violence, a violence fomented between long-time ethnic neighbours who, despite having lived peacefully for generations within a once-united Yugoslavia, were suddenly in bloody conflict. The genocide was midwifed from buried grievances that, like ancient bones, once unearthed, demanded fresh corpses be buried in their place. A natural evolution.

The family managed to immigrate to Canada a month before the violence took root. Alek’s family was proud, and in their adopted country, they reinstated their culture, traditions and values, both to inculcate their children and keep them pure and to maintain their esteem in their new Slavic community.

Alek and Ljiljana, called Lily, met in Yugoslavian Sunday school. Alek held Sunday school in low regard and typically didn’t pay much attention. He preferred to stare at Lily. Their first make-out session was initiated from one of these prolonged looks. Though he felt awkward around girls, Alek had memorized the landscape of her face so it felt innate and familiar. He uncharacteristically walked up to her and touched her elbow and with a jolt of electricity extending from their pounding hearts to their limbs and fingertips and buzzing lips, he, without thinking further, kissed her and started their fire.

After numerous weeks of Sunday school lunchtime hook-ups, their make-out sessions turned from light to heavy, which would continue from one encounter to the next as if there had been no break at all.

Her menstrual cycle had always been irregular and she had routinely experienced bouts of inexplicable nausea, so it wasn’t until she was donating blood at the high school and fainted that the nurse whispered to her what was happening.

She was terrified and said nothing, not to Aleksandr, fearing he would no longer love her, and not to her parents, not knowing how they’d react. With Alek, she blamed being moody and quiet on trouble at home, and her parents blamed teenage hormones.

By the end of her first trimester, she felt peace. Somehow the prospect of becoming a mother left her in a happy daze. As she was not permitted to wear tight-fitting clothes, her normal attire masked her pregnancy, and for a while, though she was still not showing, she let herself believe that things would remain the same. Her relationships. Her body.

But things did not stay the same. Alek saw her only one time after her parents found out, when both families met in the Slavic community centre conference room to mediate an agreement. Alek’s parents would pay, and Alek would disappear, go to his uncle back in the motherland where he owned a construction firm and could put his wayward nephew to work. They had brought him out of violence only to return him, exchanging one kind for another.

Lily had sat in the chair with her arms crossed as if she were there but not there. Her head drooped into the collar of her over-sized coat from which her sweet round tummy peeked out. Until this moment, Lily being pregnant had been an abstract idea. He hadn’t fully appreciated a living being as a true epiphany born from the spark of their love. Yet here it was. He saw it now, no longer his.

Lily was his girlfriend. His lover. Soon, she would be a mother, a role she would have for the rest of her life. And he was the father, yet he was being severed from it all. He wanted to unwrap her arms from where they cradled their baby and throw them around his body to save them both. He tensed his arms to try to imagine hefting her new weight. Could he carry them both out? Why did love bring shame? “You will not cut off your mother’s nose with this,” Alek’s father had said.

His parents were wrong and small to be so concerned with their reputation and social value. He and Lily had created life; such will of God should triumph over silly notions of propriety. The adult voices rumbled around him. His arms felt numb, foreign, as if they were branches grafted from another tree. The sight of her in such a state stirred him; if only he could reach for her.

As if sensing his attention, she finally looked up. Her eyes a clear deep blue sea. Her pupils blended into the blue in her eyes, as if she were floating away from the surface, away from the last remnants of light towards the greatest depths of the ocean. She looked up, and their gazes held. He could see in them that she was doing as she must, saving herself, herself and the child, and drifting away, the murmur of their parents now complete. He slunk down in the chair, stretching his foot beneath the table. She extended hers so they could touch. She looked up in hope. Then despair.

Alek’s father cleared his throat loudly, glaring at Alek. Alek, paralyzed in the moment, sank deeply into his chair and disappeared from Lily’s field of vision, sucked into the darkness beneath the conference table as if he were a scrap piece of paper in her life, washed down a sewer drain.

***

“Well, not all of us are the boss’s nephew. Time to get back,” the men tease, picking up their tools and returning to their work cells. They slap Alek on his back and restart their machines. He runs his hand through his hair and takes a deep breath, still lost in the memory.

His uncle, making his daily rounds to oversee the site, straggles from worker to worker. Alek makes and holds eye contact with Uncle while he traverses the construction site. With his first step towards Uncle, like every time they are together, he walks through the haunted door of memory. Today, now, he is alight with loss. He feels reckless. “Paving over a road that’s already paved,” Alek waves his hand over the land. “We lay concrete on concrete, but when the concrete is disturbed, we don’t fix it,” he says. “We go around. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to go straight?”

Taken aback by such directness, Uncle stares at Alek. As is his habit, he presses against his left shirt pocket five times, ensuring the small stones he always carries are present. He unearthed the agate, amber, and jasper stones excavating these roads. His hand lingers at the centre of his chest, and he leans against a one-person skid-steer loader, his face obscured from Alek behind the lattice-like screen that protects the driver from objects and dust.

“You ever tell yourself a lie?” Uncle confesses. “You know it’s a lie. Most people know it’s a lie, but you tell it anyway. You don’t need anyone to believe it. You only need a part of yourself to believe it.” He pauses. “This lie is different. When you speak this truth, although everyone knows it’s the truth, no one accepts it. Because it is an open wound. And you can’t imagine a solution. The truth becomes irrelevant. Then it’s just survival.”

Alek processes Uncle’s words. “Why?” he finally asks.

“So we can one day tell the truth,” Uncle says. “When we ourselves are ready to listen. And ready to forgive.”

“Forgive?” Alek closes his eyes against her. But she is still there.

“Forgive ourselves for not being what we said we were,” he says. “And for not telling the truth earlier.”

Just then, the operator from the front-end loader shouts and waves his hands frantically from his open door, trying to get Uncle’s attention. Uncle runs over, followed by Alek.

At the threshold of the pit, the dust dissipates and rocks scatter. After removing the upper layers of soil, the front-end loader shoves backwards, its reverse alarm screeching. Alek leans in to see the contents of the pit’s full belly, unsure at first of what he’s looking at. Then his chest contracts and squeezes his lungs and heart. A light grey mound of ash, lime, and soot lies mostly undisturbed save for the pattern traced into the top layer by the swirling breeze. Fleshless femurs and forearms, like cigarette butts in an ashtray, jut out in all directions.

Uncle grabs Alek’s wrist as if to catch him from falling. “Don’t look at them,” he yells. “They’ll dig their fingers into your eyes and scratch their faces into your vision. Like a crack bolting across a frozen lake that causes you to fall through the distorted ice into drowned arms.” He motions to the truck to cover them up. “They’re already dead. They’re not the ones who need saving.”

Wind whistles through the brown porous bones. The truck rumbles to life and pours dirt into the open mouth of the pit.

“Who did this?” Alek murmurs.

“The Vikings,” Uncle says, shaking his head. “Who else could be capable?”