Stargazing

Sretan sips his rakija and watches the fire’s flames rise up into the tall starry sky. His house here is called “Zvezdar” (Sky watcher), and his house in Serbia is located at the highest point of Belgrade, bearing the same name.

‘The place is weird, it’s only 200 metres above sea level, but the sky feels so close to you as if you were at a 2000 metre altitude’, he says. ‘I often switch off the light and just sit here for hours, watching the stars. Don’t take me wrong – I like company, and I have many friends who call me and ask me out, but I feel so complete with this sky that any other experience feels excessive’. When building this villa, Sretan’s wife Ljuba told the builder to leave half of the terrace on the upper floor roofless. The builder looked at her as if she wasn’t all there. ‘Watching stars? Really?’ ‘He thought it was much better to watch the ceiling,’ said Sretan, ‘and he continued building the roof.’ Ljuba asked the builder to remove it.  He turned to Sretan for common sense, hoping for him to cooperate, ‘But Sretan, you don’t want your terrace to get flooded in winter, do you?’ ‘I told him just to do what she wants,’ Sretan made a whistling sound. ‘He then decided I too wasn’t quite there. But you know what, Ljuba places a mattress and sleeps there whenever the weather permits. And I’m happy that she is using it, and it wasn’t only a whim. I stay there with her until she falls asleep and then go downstairs and fall asleep watching the ceiling’.

– How long have you been together for?

– 20.. no, it’ll be 21 years this year. I moved out my parents’ house quite early in life, we could afford to. Back then I started to realize the importance of compromise. You meet your neighbours in the morning, and you greet them and say good morning, even if you don’t like them and don’t wish them well at all. Then you go to work and you smile at your colleagues or your boss who you probably can’t stand – that’s the way I was brought up, that’s a normal code of behaviour in society. There’s a way to avoid following that code – you can go and live in a forest, on your own. But I’m not a recluse, I like company. And part of a city life is the ability to compromise. I’ve learnt to accept that. Yet, there’s one place where I wasn’t prepared to compromise – my home. Once I enter my house, I want to be free, I want to be myself, without reservation. That was my challenge in finding a partner who’d feel the same, and with whom I wouldn’t have to compromise. I do like women, I’ve always been open and met and dated different people, but I never found what I was searching for, except for brief periods. Later in life I accepted the fact that I most probably wouldn’t find someone and was totally fine with that. One day, I was at a restaurant located in a cellar, I was alone. I saw her walking down the stairs. I didn’t look at her as a woman, like men normally do, appraisingly. I saw her and I just knew – this is my woman. It wasn’t attraction, it was much bigger than that,’ Sretan draws a big circle in the air. And pauses for a moment, his eyes – dreamy, he’s drifted away to that moment in the distant past. ‘As it happened, my friend, the owner of the restaurant, who shortly joined me, knew her – he went to say hello to her. I asked him whether she often comes to this restaurant. That was my only question. I didn’t ask him whether she’s got someone in her life or if she’s married. Just that. She worked across the street from the restaurant and she came there regularly, mostly with her colleagues. I came there again one day and found her alone. I walked over to her table and said: “Who are you?” It was a weird question to ask. But I am not the type of person who approaches women and flirts easily, I can – but I don’t like to. She looked at me and said: ‘I’m your Evdemona.’ She said it softly and nicely. Evdemona – what a weird word. What on earth does it mean? I was so taken by her reaction that I retreated back to my table, without saying another word.’ Sretan’s phone rings – it’s Ljuba. ‘Hello, my love’.

His voice becomes warm and tender, one word of endearment follows another. He’s only two steps away and I can hear his part of the conversation, a conversation of two lovers who are full of the excitement that accompanies the start of a romantic relationship. He finishes the conversation, comes back, watches the fire for a while and then continues.

‘When I saw her walking down the stairs for the first time, my table was facing the stairs, and she saw me too as she was entering. And she recognized me, the way I recognized her… It’s the war that brought us together. We met when Serbia was being bombed that’s why only the cellar restaurants were open. Ljuba worked for a leading Yugoslavian newspaper in Rjeka, Croatia. When the war started, she volunteered to be a war reporter. She moved from one flash point to another, and one day she was stopped, they put a sack on her head, tied her arms behind her back, and took her someplace, where she spent two nights and three days, without food or water. In the meantime, the authorities of both Serbia and Croatia, and the EU – the head of which was then located in Germany – discovered that she had disappeared. They found her and took her to Serbia. She left everything behind, her cosy life, the photos of her as a child, her little apartment in Rijeka, and never went back. She had a brand-new start in Belgrade.’

– ‘What happened to her family?’

– ‘That’s a whole different story that I’ll tell you another time… She continued working for that same newspaper in Belgrade, their office was located across the road from the restaurant where we met. I had occasionally come to that restaurant before, but I’d never seen her, or maybe I did, but not truly so. People meet their soulmates, or it seems that they do – but it only lasts for a brief period. With Ljuba, it just lasts. I am not a fatalist, but I believe in fate to a certain extent.’

– ‘Do you think it’s possible to bypass it?’

– ‘Oh yes. And I know people who did. And I know those who recognized that they did so later in life.’ – ‘It’s probably best not to know.’

– ‘Yes, it’s very sad, I try to solace those friends of mine by telling them that at least they saw a glimpse of that dream, most people don’t get that chance. At times you also watch two people and you see that they are meant for each other. But they don’t see it. It’s probably just a matter of luck, and very few are lucky. But it’s most important to pay attention. People don’t. They wake up, get in the car and drive to work, maybe go for dinner after work – and that’s the life of a person living in a city. I asked my friend once: what was the sky like when you walked to your car this morning? He looked at me as if I were mad and said: “Are you kidding? What sky? What are you talking about?”– “That’s where your problems start,” I said.’

I’ve been watching Sretan’s face transform as he continued his story, the years – receding, his eyes – turning bright, his lips curving into a wispy smile. I saw past time and age, a handsome man who once was lucky to recognize and be recognized. I stayed watching the sky, saw a falling star and made a wish.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=932LG_BldGA

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