I Make Mistakes

Winner of the 2014 Close Approximations contest for emerging translators (Fiction)

Tanja Šljivar

Illustration by Leif Engström

They tell you it's wrong if you don't bring the change home when you go to the store. It's true, I'm telling you that, too. I'm your oldest friend. If your mother tells you to buy half a kilo of lemons, a loaf of bread, cream, and milk, you buy that. There is absolutely no money for the soccer stickers you collect, there's a war going on, you little dumbass, and Mom just loves to dole out slaps if any extra expenses pop up. Now you find those stickers disgusting just because they were forbidden at the time. Change must always be returned to Mother, who earned the money and entrusted it to you.

I am telling you it's wrong to peek through holes. The holes on a circus tent, keyholes on the bedroom doors of the people you live with, spy holes on the doors of other people's apartments. And magnifying glasses and microscopes. I will tell you what's right, because I make mistakes, so I know. Actually, I'll tell you what's not right. What is, figure out for yourself. Well, you are twenty-one years old. The same as me. We're peers. While we were lying on the grass behind our building, holding hands, you told me how you watched the naked bodies of men and women through the holes in a circus tent back in the country, where you're from. This, of course, happened after the show and before you moved into the town where we met. And you told me they were kissing each other on the lips. This felt strange to me—why the lips when they had such a huge surface of nudity at their disposal? I knew then that it was all wrong. You and me on the grass and our hands and their kisses, too. Mother told me that, that's what she taught me. Then you told me the man was kissing the woman's breasts and I felt warmth between my legs. You felt it, too, and again we knew that it wasn't right. Then you did what your mother taught you—you spoilt the story. You might have made it up, or maybe you told the truth. However, you did right. It's me who's telling you that, poet. It's what I told you when you were still in your navy blue knee-length pants and striped shirt, and I'm telling you that still, now that you're wearing a cheap jacket at the launch of your poetry collection that makes up for everything. It doesn't matter, you tell me, that after me you fucked this one and that one—it's me the collection praises, so that solves it all. And there, below the tent, the man—in your words—stopped kissing the woman's breasts because they were hairy. He made her pluck the hairs. Right there, below the tent, in front of him, with tweezers. And the warmth in the crotch, both crotches, disappeared. I still have hair on my breasts; I don't pluck it with tweezers and I don't wax it, because it protects me. It protects me when I don't want a man kissing my breasts. I just tell him that, like you told me then. My breasts are hairy, they're not even a woman's breasts, that's what I tell him and the warmth between the legs disappears.

That summer, you took me to the countryside where you come from. My mother thought it wasn't right for me to sleep at your grandparents' house. And it wasn't. But your mother, so naive, saw nothing wrong with it and took us. There I made friends with a girl whose mother was a hairdresser. The two of us used to lock ourselves into a small wooden house in her grandmother's yard and play games there. That kind of game is never right. You looked for me, called; you wanted us to throw stones into a well. That wasn't right, either, your mother would have ripped out locks of our hair had she found a rock in the water drawn from the well. But she never found any, because I wasn't there to throw rocks with you, and doing it by yourself wasn't fun enough for you. I was with her. You were alone. I'm sorry. You are my oldest friend. I've known you the longest. And her, I'd just met that summer when you brought me to the countryside.

She was fat and had huge breasts. At least they seemed huge to me then, because I was small, because I had no breasts. And I was afraid they would grow. If they grew, I prayed for them to be hairy. At least around the nipples, like you told me. We would lie on the wooden bed and watch a soap opera. It was something that was also forbidden to me. Mom and Dad said: "You're a smart girl. These narratives, dragging on for a hundred and fifty episodes rife with banal declarations of love and paralytics who suddenly start walking, are not for you." I have yet to figure out which declarations of love are banal and which are sublime. You are the only one who made such a declaration to me—just once, you and no one else, so I have nothing to compare it to. In that moment, when you really said it, when you transformed it from a feeling into a sound that filled my room, it didn't seem the least bit stupid. But what did I know—I was just a seventeen-year-old kid. I no longer watch soap operas. Neither do you. I am proud of the two of us. Still, the hairdresser's daughter loved them. I loved them too, then. The best thing was that we spent seven days at your place in the countryside. That meant five weekly episodes and all the reruns on the weekends. All of them, one after another. I decided not to watch the show at all on weekdays; I spent that time with you. I told you, I don't care about the show—but I was actually waiting for Saturday so I could spend hours with her on the bed. Pleasures are greater when they last longer. I was never one to nibble at something bit by bit. I would always swallow everything whole, so that when it's gone, what's done is done. Don't be mad, scatterbrain, don't be mad, dandy. You know me best. Who else could have I told this to but you?

You took me to a pigsty and to fields planted with tomatoes. There were pigs with pierced noses in the sty. Wild boars who, somehow, had managed to convince everyone that their skin was pink, not grey, and that their muzzles were smaller, that they were tame, that they didn't eat their young. All you had to do was lean against the fence to know the pig still has rough skin, bristles, all of those disturbing things, regardless of the absurd pink color. We imagine licking the pigs' skin, the bristles making our tongues bleed. I look at you and see the blood gushing from your mouth. And we both know: these pigs in the sty are not the ones we devour in celebrations. Somebody's lying, someone's shutting up wild boars in our pigsties and making us say that their skin is pink and their tails are curly.

We ate watermelons that your mother sliced for us and then fed the pigs with the leftover rinds. They were so juicy that we, too, nibbled on the rinds like pigs, we even ate the pale green parts, remember? You were so cute. And so voracious. We would throw the watermelon rinds into the pigsty and watch them disappear instantly into the digestive tract of whichever pig snatched at them first. The sty seemed huge to us, immense. We were mad that they had such a vast playing ground at their disposal, unlike us. We only had the yard bounded by a wooden fence because we're making a mistake (your grandma would tell us) if we go down the road, to the forest. It made us angry—they're pigs and they have an entire sty, and we, the kids, only have the yard. The sty was shared. It belonged to both pigs and people, but only to grown people.

You, confused boy, put two rings on your body. You didn't remind me of the pigs with pierced noses, not when you did it. You put two earrings into your left ear. For quite a while I really loved the taste of metal on my tongue and I used to take your ear into my mouth. I would suck on those two earrings for hours. I don't do that anymore. You met a lot of girls after me in that town of ours. Yes, I was the first one you held by the hand in the meadow behind the buildings, but the ones after me were more right. You also have one of them now. She's young. A high school student. I had to get a look at her, although I knew it was a mistake. You think she's prettier than me, you told me so when I insisted you admit it. I think so too: she is prettier. But I pretend that I'm leading a life more valuable than hers. Like, I didn't only visit the countryside with you, I travelled to America and stuff, and she's just a kid who'd never dare to read anything more recent than Baudelaire.

Back then, in the countryside, looking at the pigsty that divides your yard from the yard of the hairdresser's daughter, I felt the warmth between my legs. I wanted to go to her, but I knew that the day still hadn't come; it still wasn't Saturday, the day we watch the five weekly episodes. Mom and Dad shouldn't know. They shouldn't know I watch soap operas or that I want to be pretty like the girls in them or that the hairdresser's daughter is lying beside me and warming me with her big body. Promise me. You know everything. You made me happy more than anyone. And hurt me more than anyone. The same as I hurt you, after all. Then, when I left with her, and many times after. Mom and Dad know none of this about me. You were the only one who knew it all, and then forgot it.

I jumped the fence, quite suddenly, and found myself in that vastness. In the sty. The devastating fact was that it, too, was bounded. I didn't invite you to join. You remember, of course, because every time somebody doesn't invite you somewhere, it hurts. To a birthday, to a picnic, to a pigsty. Forgive me. But it didn't take long for you to return the favor. The pigs were everywhere and, naturally, I got scared. If Mother finds out, if Mother finds out, if Mother finds out. I was dirty in the pigsty and I'd violated your grandmother's ban. Pink hue, grey hue, hair on my breasts, the bristles, pierced muzzles, your two earrings, sex with other people, sex with animals, sex with people of the same sex. Those who are not you. The moment I slept with someone who wasn't you, I could have easily raped a child. The pigs in the sty became curious. They wanted a piece of me, a piece of my clothes. I climbed a tree. I'm always making mistake after mistake after mistake.

Long after, the two of us were listening to music and lying on the bed in my room. The lights were out. Those were the days when we pretended to be in love with each other. And we weren't making mistakes then. Everybody was saying "It's right, you've known each other for so long, ever since he moved to town. You're wonderful kids." We both consider those days to be the happiest. But I'm forgetting them. Now I only have words. You know, you little rogue? I tell everyone: I loved, he loved—but I don't know if that's true. I'm just pretending. Yes, we were happy then, and what else would we have been? And I remember those moments, I remember them, but I don't feel them. I know for sure that there have been several times since I've known you when I've felt that I don't need anyone, anyone but you. No one. Let them all die, everyone but you, and I wouldn't blink an eye. You were soft and obedient and I loved to put your earrings in my mouth. And today I only boast of once feeling what was right. I loved. I loved a boy. And I wanted to marry him. And give him children. We had known each other for so long, ever since he came to town. I had known his mother and grandmother and grandfather for almost as long as I had known him. And that was nice and good.

Then, in the pigsty, on the tree, I was hoping we were so close that you could read my mind. I laughed and waved at you from the tree, but I thought you knew that I was scared and that it was time for us to play boy and girl, only for real. Girl needs help, boy saves her. You didn't want to know that. You just waved back. I hated you at that moment. There, you see, now that I'm telling you this, you're laughing, you think I'm overreacting. Well, I'm not. You're right, though, once again, I have no proof I hated you. I might have actually been quite satisfied by your upstanding behavior. You won't climb into the sty, you won't step in the mud, you will stay clean for your mother.

There was a time, years after the sty, when we were just a few years younger than now, that we loved each other. And now you write about that. And now I write about that. And I'm telling you all of this now, right now, just before your book launch. Now that we are grown and that we are proud of each other. We are both studying and we've both already made some money. And we're alive, we're breathing. And we are the ones who go to the theatre. And to parks. And we don't listen to folk music like the hairdresser's daughter. And we know what electro-pop is. And we don't eat fast food. We both cook. We learned how. But then, when we were a little younger, we didn't like to go to the theatre and didn't cook. At seventeen we drank a lot. That's when we made the most mistakes, but we thought we knew something. We had convinced each other that our mothers had no idea what was right and that drugs were good. And concerts. And lack of sleep. And fast food. We were one another's excuses.

That was when you jumped the fence of a mental institution in the town—our town, because it had already become your town, too. I taught you how to speak so that no one would recognize where you came from. The guard gave you a warning, but you ran across the yard of the nuthouse like that time I ran through the pigsty. You got your revenge on me, partly, because you didn't invite me to jump the fence with you. I didn't expect such courage from you. I thought crazy stuff was my exclusive right. I am the only one who knows what's forbidden, so I can break the rules, while you, you're a country boy so I need to teach you. How come all of a sudden you possess such boldness? Still, I was happy; I mean, I'd changed someone, for what I thought at the time was the better. And now . . . well, we don't do that anymore, we are twenty-one years old and we jump no fences.

And in the countryside, naturally, the big Saturday came. I woke up early; I couldn't wait for the hairdresser's daughter and five episodes of the TV show. One after another. You don't have to wait until tomorrow to see what will happen; the next episode is aired straight away. And you believe the couple in love will be together in the end and that the poor girl will finally get rich and quit selling flowers in the streets. Your grandma made us a cheese pie. And we drank milk. Homegrown cow's milk. We used to go into the stable, but after I saw your grandma milk a cow, I wouldn't set foot in there anymore. I even cried. And only you saw me. I think you knew the reason. You didn't? Funny, I was sure you must have noticed it, too. The cow's udder was hairy. I'd never milked a cow; I'm a city girl, and you're from the country. Maybe hairy breasts seem natural to you. Not to me. They're not. And after breakfast you asked me what we were going to do with our last day in the country. And I told you I was going see the hairdresser's daughter. You ran into the house and I didn't care. You never know what I want. Even if I had drawn it, sung it to you, you wouldn't have realized that at that moment what I really wanted was to be with her.

Everybody has a lot of houses in the countryside where you grew up. One where people live, another where animals live, then barns, summer kitchens as I think people call them. The hairdresser's daughter and I were in the summer kitchen. There, we had a bed and a TV. The first episode started at noon sharp. I turned on the TV with the remote. I didn't know where you were. I was imagining you lying in some field feeling like eating watermelons. She lay on the bed and watched the show. I sat. She was big and I was small. She took me by the upper arm and told me to lie next to her. Never before or after have I felt such warmth. Maybe because no one before or after her was so fat, so full of mass. She said to me, we're going to play mom and dad. I was to be the dad. She gave orders like that, she was older, and she knew what was right. But I wanted to be the mom. If I'd played the game with you, I would have certainly been the mom. And she told me that I was weird. That I was different in how I played that game and all other games. I make mistakes, I make mistakes, I make mistakes. But I couldn't do it any other way. How was this possible? My dad and mom are male and female. My dad is a man. My mom is a woman. And that's love. They were in love and that's how I was conceived. Then how come me and her are dad and mom? That wasn't right and I knew I was making a mistake. But the hairdresser's daughter didn't think so. She was dumb and ugly. But no one, before or after, made me warm like she did. I can talk to you about this. Don't be angry, don't get mad. I know that in half an hour you need to step out in front of all those people who know nothing about you and recite your poetry. But that's exactly why I had to tell you this now. You see, to make things worse, I didn't bring a razor blade to your book launch to ruin everything. I just put on my little dress and high heels and I look great. I don't have the razor blade to cut my tongue so I wouldn't tell you something you didn't want to hear on such an important and extraordinary day as this. I couldn't talk about anything with her. What does a stupid hairdresser's daughter know? It doesn't make a difference to her if the two of us are mom and dad or mom and mom or dad and dad. How is that possible? She's not like us. She won't show up at your launch party tonight. She won't come tomorrow to that gig our friend might be playing. All she loves is to touch. And watch pretty people on a screen.

And I agreed to that stupid game. I no longer knew if the couple in love would live happily ever after and I didn't care. I didn't care for Cassandra, for Luis David, for Acapulco, I didn't even care for the immortal soul you get if you confess to a priest. I was only interested in the body. With my body I felt her. And then her grandma called us. We snapped out of it and buttoned back up the few clothes we'd taken off of each other. And I thought I'd never be able to look my mother in the eyes again. As soon as she sees me, she'll know about my mistake. She'll know I was a boy when I was supposed to be a girl. She'll also know about the watermelons and the pigsty, but the worst thing is she'll know about this: the summer kitchen, the soap operas, and her, the hairdresser's daughter.

I ran to your grandparents' yard and called for you. I didn't know how much time had passed. Now you remember, huh? You had a fever then. Well, yeah. Don't sweat, calm down. You're a big poet and a big boy now. In the country, they wouldn't let me see you; they didn't want me to catch what you had. Your mom promised my mom everything would be just fine. I lay on the wooden table below the vine. It now seems to me you once told me about how the pigs escaped the sty and climbed up on the table. How can a swine climb onto a table? It wasn't you who told me that. Your grandma was telling it. It happened a long time ago. No, she didn't say it. It was my dream. It was your dream you told me about. We were imagining it when we were bored. I told it to you.

When we got back to our town, we once again lay on the field, held hands, and talked for hours. I haven't told you where I spent that Saturday until now. You claim your poems are about our adolescence, when we loved each other like a man and a woman. They're perhaps more about childhood. About the time when I let you down. That's what people always write about. Who writes when they're happy or have better things to do?

You have something to tell me, too. What is it? Hurry up. Can't you hear the murmur in the auditorium? Both your mom and my mom are there. Waiting for you to say something about them or their children. I know, scatterbrain, I know. I know what the ceiling in your room looked like when you had a fever that summer in the country. The lines were dancing on it. Curved, fat and short. Red. Blue. Yellow. Green. Orange lines, too. You were trying to see where they came from, to track where they were hiding, and sometimes you even succeeded.

The ceiling in my room can always look like that. I just press my eyelids and through them my eyeballs with my fingers. I press them hard. Then I know I'm not making a mistake. That's the only time I am certain I'm not making a mistake. I open my eyes and I see the lines. But I have no idea of where they came from or where they're going, running away from me. You found out, but never told me.

Here's the applause, it's for you, kiddo. Now get out there.

I make mistakes. And you've become someone.

translated from the Serbian by Cory Tamler and Željko Maksimović


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Read the original in Serbian

Read translator’s note

Tanja Šljivar was born in 1988 in Banjaluka, Bosnia and Herzegovina. She received her B.A. in dramaturgy from the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade, Serbia, receiving the distinction of highest-ranked student in her class. She has published a book of short stories, Room on the Third Floor (2010, Knjizevna Omladina Srbije), and the plays How Much is Pate (published in Scena Magazine and in a collection of Serbian plays published by the Heartefact Fund, Belgrade) and Scratching or How My Grandmother Killed Herself (Teatron Magazine). How Much is Pate was produced in Belgrade's Atelje 212, directed by Snežana Trisic in January 2012. Scratching... was produced in September 2012 (Bosnian National Theatre, Bitef Theatre, and Heartefact Fund, directed by Selma Spahic). Šljivar has won the Slobodan Selenić and Borislav Mihajlović Mihiz awards for playwriting. In 2012, her script for the short film Something Sweet (directed by Jelena Gavrilovic) premiered in the Sarajevo Film Festival.

Cory Tamler is a playwright, theater director, and writer. With Yinzerspielen, a collective of theatermakers she co-founded, Cory has produced performances and projects that investigate urban space use, radical interactivity, collaboration, and site-specificity in New York City and in Pittsburgh, in Germany and in Serbia. She was a Fulbright scholar to Berlin, where she studied contemporary German theater practices and wrote on the 2011 Theatertreffen blog team. Born in 1986, she holds a B.Phil. in writing, physics, and philosophy of science from the University of Pittsburgh. This is her first collaborative translation.

Željko Maksimović was born in 1985. He studied English language and literature and Japanese language at the Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade, and graduated with a degree in acting from the Faculty of Dramatic Arts, University of Arts in Belgrade. He is a working actor and translator. His published translations include essays in the field of theatre theory. He has translated essays by Janelle Reinelt and Milija Gluhovic.


I received the paperback copy of Tanja's short story collection in the mail, from her parents, which lent a retro touch even to my first encounter with the stories. I loved Tanja's style—short sentences, clear thoughts, raw constructions—but it quickly became clear to me that there was much more to her short sentences than meets the eye. The social context and colloquial language of someone who grew up in post-war Bosnia during the '90s and 2000s weren't easy to translate into English. Of course, I had Cory, a native English speaker, as my stronghold, so I just relaxed and did what I could do and transferred all the hard work and the responsibilities to her. Still, it was hard to be sure what we'd captured of the story: in terms of its feel even more than its sense. When I saw the illustration that was to accompany the published piece, though, I relaxed. It's dreamlike, colorful but nostalgic, and has that retro touch. It's truly in the spirit of Tanja's story as I first experienced it in Serbian. That's when I knew we did a good job. Now I am just thankful and honored that our work will be published.

—Željko Maksimović


Shortly after we met for the first time, Tanja Šljivar and I spent several days ringing apartment building intercoms (for reasons not worth getting into here). We were in Serbia, in Belgrade. When someone answered, we'd try to sweet-talk them into letting us into the building (Tanja would sweet-talk, I'd listen and wait for her translation). One of these intercom conversations lasted longer than usual; by the time she hung up, Tanja was flushed red. "She was upset because it's three o'clock," she said of the woman on the other end. We'd rung during the two hours in the middle of the day traditionally reserved for resting. That Tanja is originally from Bosnia is no excuse (Bosnians observe the same custom, and Tanja does, in fact, know about it); that she's a twentysomething for whom the tradition doesn't have practical meaning is maybe a better one. Still, she slapped her forehead, frustrated at the slip.

Translating is like this: You're always sticking your foot in the middle of things (turns of phrase; traditions; histories; bits of pop culture) you didn't know existed. As Željko and I translated Tanja's story, our work was the work of orienting and re-orienting ourselves within one another's languages and cultural context. Each of us checked the time and slapped our forehead over and over, remembering what three o'clock means and struggling to explain it to the other.

The characters at the center of "I Make Mistakes" struggle with a kind of translation, too: a cultural one, city girl and country boy, navigating first love and developing their understanding of right versus wrong. It's the strangeness of the powerful, at times deeply uncomfortable sexual awakening the narrator recalls for us that makes it so familiar. Details like wars and pigsties, soccer stickers and three o'clock siestas, these differences don't provide distance. They pull you closer.

—Cory Tamler