Hotel Tito

Ivana Simić Bodrožić

Illustration by Gianna Meola

It’s so strange, on the weekends, coming back to the hotel.

I feel as if I’m coming home, almost. Every year more of us go off to board in student housing, and then on Friday the whole horde of us comes trooping back, and the little old ladies cluster around the front desk, done up in black kerchiefs like birds on a wire, and oversee the noisy arrival. Mama is up in our room, poised to launder two bags of dirty clothes by hand, my brother gets in tomorrow morning. Kids chase each other around the halls, the drunks perch at the bar, it’s early yet, they have a hard night of it ahead, a lot of time has passed and there’s more to come. Grandparents die, younger people also die at times, the village cemetery is getting crowded. New children are born and no one will ever be able to erase the fact that they are native to Kumrovec, their numbers grow to make up for the ones who’ve passed on. Maybe someone has forgotten they settled us here and who knows how much longer this life will flow along, unchecked. It’s nice being home. “Whatever took you so long?” the barrage begins in the doorway, what can I say in my defense, my classes at school were in the morning but I didn’t feel like coming earlier, I waited for the others so we could travel together. “But I’ve been waiting, I wait for you all week. Almost every day I go to my job and then come back to this room, alone. Alone I go to bed, alone I wake up and I’m always thinking of you two, how you’re doing and when you’ll come.” I understand her, I felt that way, too, at first. Then I got to know some people and places, and I like the ones I don’t know yet even more, I relish being on my own in Zagreb. “Well the homeroom teacher signed me up for Japanese so I wouldn’t have too much time on my hands, and the class is Friday afternoons, so I can’t make the three o’clock bus.” “What right has she to sign you up, as if you’ve no other obligations and no family?” Mama’s miffed. “So she thinks, I guess,” I say in a conciliatory tone, I’m starting to bullshit, it scares me a little, and feels a little good. “Did you wash the sweater I left here last time?” This is a point of real interest because I’d like to go out tonight, because Igor hasn’t called in two weeks. He called the dorm only once, maybe ten days ago, but he wasn’t at the disco last weekend. I don’t know what this means or if we’re still together, but I do know I have to be there tonight. “I did, yes, why?” “Well I thought I’d wear it tonight,” I say, more softly. “Pardon? You were thinking of going out? Come on, really, can’t you spend just one night at home?” She sounds really disappointed, and then abruptly she stops and says, “Go, go wherever you like, anyway each of us lives our own life.”

I felt a little bad for her, I had an urge to stay in the room but I went out anyway, something was driving me. We assemble at the front desk, by now that’s ritual, we hadn’t seen each other for five days so there was a lot we had to tell each other. But they all room together at the dorm, Marina and her sister who has begun taking us a little more seriously now, and Božana and Vesna, and they pick up where they left off, and I’m not sure I always know what’s what. We go first to have a drink at Kopitar, as we call the only café there is to go to, and then we’re on to Oaza. We’re already regulars there. Tonight Klopišić is there too, though that’s not what we call her now, we’ve started treating her differently. Usually she never goes out, but ever since Tićo dumped her, her sister and her sister’s longtime fiancé take her with them to get her out. Tićo and she were engaged, too, but by the next week when I came back from the dorm, I heard the two of them weren’t together any more. He’s with this older woman now who has a son, and his mother and Nataša are frantic. Almost everybody’s here, we order bamboos—our favorite red-wine-and-coke cocktail—and Marina and her sister announce the drinks are on them tonight. We soon learn why. They’re leaving. They’ve been given an apartment in Osijek and they’re moving there after the fall semester. We hug and kiss, but it's not quite over. They aren’t leaving for another month but now we know the day will come and there will be one less of us. Little Ivana already left for Vinkovci, Jelena and her brother for Zagreb, and soon Željka and her mother are going. I try to imagine what life will be like without them all, when we’re left on our own. I finish off the last drops of my drink and say, “Let’s go! Time's up!” It’s maybe three hundred feet to Oaza, but we stagger, sing, and stumble, acting silly. My heart is pounding, as if someone kicked me in the gut and knocked the air flat out of me.

I’ll see him, very soon. It’s crowded inside, too early for dancing so better we order drinks and wait for things to pick up. Everything’s smoky and dark but I see just fine, I spot every mess who's about 5’10” tall, I'm a live sensor for long blond hair, a nice-looking face, lips my life is worth nothing without. There’s no one who looks like that on the horizon, for the third time I go to the restroom, soon it will be midnight, there are more people, it's smokier, but my excitement ebbs, I’m sadder. I go back to the dance-floor, Ivan and Miro are sitting at the bar, drunk no doubt, but they no longer look drunk even when they are, probably a question of training. “What’s up, the high-school kids don't hang around with us any more?” quips Miro, and I shoot back, “Never did.” They order me a bamboo, we clink glasses. “You aren’t still with that local clown are you?” Ivan asks me and, without waiting for an answer, he says, “It sucks when one of our girls hooks up with one of those blockheads. Why hang out with him. Look at him, so is he male or female! Just look.” I see Ivan gazing off somewhere as he describes him, and then I realize he's staring right at him, Igor, who is standing by the door and chatting with a friend. I see him, my heart pounds like crazy, he came after all, I’m so happy. Looks like he spotted me but he still stands there, and then he comes toward the bar and stops two or three barstools away. Now I get it, he couldn’t have missed seeing me, the only possibility is that he doesn’t want to see me so I, too, pretend, we don’t know each other any more.

I had a feeling this might happen the whole time. There’s no reason, I did nothing wrong, everything went like it was supposed to and then—it just crumbled. So predictable, like everything else in my life that has happened for no reason at all. OK, the Serbs did their bit, but the real reason, tell me, why is that? Ivan immediately sees Igor and I aren’t talking, and, beaming, he says: “Thank God you’re rid of him, how about another bamboo to your health.” He grins and I merely nod, I smile, and drink it down, to the dregs.

I need air, I have to leave, I don’t want to be here any more, other people are of no interest to me, all I care about is going home and crawling into bed. Home, I think, is where Mama is. On the way to the door I have to pass by him and I look at him, I look at him long and hard, and he only glances over at me as if we’ve never met, as if just a few days ago he wasn’t holding his hand under my shirt. The fresh air fills my lungs and at the same time it collides with something inside that wants out, nausea inches up my throat, but there it stays and chokes me. I’ve never drunk this much, I’ve always played at being a little tipsy so I’d look cool, but this is the real thing. I barely stagger over to a bench and plunk down. I’d like to see how long this lasts, but I can’t think, my head’s spinning, if only I could throw up. I can’t go up to the room like this, acid burns my throat, then down it goes, over and over, I don’t know if you can die from this, probably not, but that’s the way I feel. I sense someone coming over, but I can’t tell who, and when I think they’re calling me a gush of vomit spews out of me all of a sudden and sprays all over my feet, the bench, my hair. I can’t focus on what’s happening around me, but I hear panicked shouts: “Jesus, that’s you! We’ve been looking for you for half an hour. You’re drunk!” “As if I don’t know,” is what I’d like to say to Marina, but I can’t talk because I’m scared I’ll throw up again, I just look at her. Finally I muster the strength and say, “I can’t show up at my mother’s like this.” “Fucking shit, you sure are smashed,” observes her sister. I nod, what smells so bad, oh that’s my stinky hair, yuck. “Can you walk?” asks Marina. It will do to shake my head. The two of them consult and then her sister goes over to the phone booth. Marina rubs my back, standing as far away as she possibly can from me. I have been sitting for a whole century on this bench, Mama’s going to kill me, but my life is shit anyway so who gives a shit. After a century and a half up pulls a white car, Marina’s dad drives a car like that, and slowly (the thought takes twenty years to journey to my brain) I figure out that they called him to fetch us.

The first time in my life when I wanted to die of shame was when I threw dirt down from the balcony onto our neighbor Branka’s head just for the fun of it, and she came up, walked right into the apartment, and caught me with a clump of dirt in my hand. Otherwise I was famous for good behavior and being super polite. Now this was the second time, but the wave of shame was worse. When he got out of the car, first he looked me over carefully and I sank my chin as low as I could go. Then he shook his head a little, sighed, and came over. He looked me in the eyes and said, “Come on now, take it slow, we’ll have us a cup of coffee.” That was the last thing I’d expected him to say, my legs were wobbling and I was scared, but when he said that and even seemed to be smiling gently, I went limp. He grabbed me around the waist and I wrapped my arms around his neck, became him, let go and forgot myself. He almost lifted me up, he was strong, my head slumped onto his shoulder. I am such a little girl, all I know is how to prattle and cling to Daddy’s hand. I feel tears, but who cares, I’m drunk, and when you’re drunk you can do whatever you feel like doing. “It’s OK,” he says to me softly, thinking I’m crying for the shame, but that’s not it now. I’m crying because it’s my daddy holding me. Papa. “Papa, Papa, what did you bring me?” The car still hadn’t pulled into the parking place in front of the building, but there it is, an olive-drab Yugo, brand new. It’s the prettiest car I’ve ever seen except my uncle’s Mercedes. Papa gets out of the car, and I run into his arms and he hoists me up high, saying: “Who’s my little rascal?” “Me, me, what’ve you got for your rascal?” I answer quickly. Papa always has loose change in his pocket that he earned in tips on the night shift as the maître d' of the hotel. “Here’s for ice cream!” he tucks coins into my hand, and I race back to the building where my friends are playing skipping games with elastics bands. Whose turn is it, rock paper scissors, and Papa slips up behind me, thrusts in his hand as if offering a rock fist. The girls giggle, and then upstairs he goes, and, awed by his sparkle, Daria says, “You have such a super dad!” I'm so proud others can see.

Marina’s dad starts the car and we pull out of the parking lot. Our car is brand new. It’s parked in the yard at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, we’re washing it and I polish it with a chamois cloth. Only its lower sides, actually, because I’m still pretty small so I can’t reach all the way to the windows or the roof. When we’re done, Papa opens all the doors to let the car air out and I ask whether I can sit for a minute at the wheel and play. The handbrake is on, the keys have been removed from the ignition, so Papa lets me, when I ask him, he always lets me do everything. The grown-ups sit in the yard, they eat watermelon, my brother weaves in and out among them on his pony bike while I drive the car. I press all the buttons I can reach, I say rrm, rrm, and when I press one of them a little drawer pops open. Inside there are candies, no, pills, or maybe they’re little candies because they’re small and pink, my favorite color. Pills I know I’m not supposed to take, but I’ll try just one, lick it a little, pills are always bitter, no one will notice. This one's sweet, not too sweet but not bitter either so I pop them one after another into my mouth until the silver foil with little holes is empty. I could use it as a hotel for ants or something, but I’m feeling a little dozy, I’d like a nap. Suddenly everybody’s shouting things, Papa’s holding me in his arms like he does when we come home after we’ve been out visiting, except he keeps saying, “Don’t go to sleep now, don’t sleep!” I must’ve fallen asleep along the way, but we aren’t home. Something smells weird like a hospital and then I see it is, Papa isn’t holding me any more but I’m lying on a big bed on little wheels, they’re pushing me on it, but he’s here. His eyes are so big until he disappears behind white doors, and I hear an unfamiliar voice saying, “Now your tummy’s going to hurt just a little. “That’s not a little, I want my papa,” I shout, he comes in. “Better if you're not here,” I hear. “I wasn’t where I should’ve been,” says Papa. My hand is so small because Papa’s two big hands wrap around it. Again I wake, now I’m already in my bed, Mama is cuddling me and saying, “You gave us quite the fright, don’t you ever be doing that again. You ate Papa’s pills for his sinuses and the doctors had to take them out of your tummy.” “I thought they were candy. Do we still get to go to the beach?” I ask. “We do,” says Mama, “both you and Željka.” My delight knows no bounds, not only that we’re going swimming but that we’ll all be going together.


On Sundays Papa has to go to a drill for reservists. Mama is a little angry about it because he comes sometimes late to dinner, and sometimes he comes a little tipsy. She and Željka’s mother talk about this between themselves, because Uncle Whiskers is at the drill too. When he comes back he’s always in a cheery mood, usually the two of them come back together and then they’re silly and tell jokes. For me that part is interesting, I try to memorize them so I can re-tell them myself, because I know they’ll laugh. The other day, when Uncle Grgo was here, I stood up on the chair, waved my arms around, and shouted, “No Albanian is going to be the boss in my house!” though I had no clue what that meant, or what Papa’s joke meant that I later re-told. “What has a thousand teeth and two balls? A shark. And what has a thousand balls and two teeth? The City of Vukovar Defense Council. Ha ha ha!” They gasped with laughter and said, “You’ll grow up to be an actress!”

A lot of things happened out in the yard at Grandma’s house. In the summer, when my uncle came, they’d eat and drink in the yard, make plans, live. “Come on,” says Uncle, “stand there by the gate, we’ll take our picture. One, just of us, the men.” They lined up, Grandpa, Uncle, Papa and my brother, my uncle's wife took the picture. I sat on the steps of the house and tapped the pavement with my new Puma sneakers, no one has sneakers like these, Papa brought them when he came back from Germany. My uncle's wife turned around three times already and looks only at me, kind of chilly and fierce, I’m probably bugging her while she sets up the Polaroid. This summer I saw one for the first time, where the picture pops right out of the camera, but I’ll never ask, no way they’ll let me hold it for a minute. The men are taking their pose, but my uncle's wife suddenly turns to me and snaps: “Bitte!” I go serious all at once and already feel my chin start to quiver, I hate that, but it always happens when someone shouts at me. I try to catch Papa’s eye and when I do, I see him look over at me and he says, “Perka, come here!” I think he’ll scold me, I already know I’ll start to cry, but he just pulls me to him and says, “Stand here in front of me.” He strokes my hair and exclaims to the air, to no one in particular, “Well you sure can see by looking at her that she’s one of us!” The camera clicks and I’m standing there forever next to him, his hand shielding me, and me staring boldly at the woman behind the Polaroid, no one can touch me. The photograph is quickly ready and it moves to the front-hall table by the phone, and later it’s put in a frame. There it stands until the moment when a Chetnik comes into the house after he slit Grandpa’s throat and says: “Find me all the others from this picture. They all need to end up like Grandad.”

Now everything goes dark. I don’t usually go there. I come to the brink of the abyss, sniff the stench of death, stand for a minute or two and run back. Tonight I’ll do it, I’ll go there and walk straight in and let that be the end of me. As I move closer I can already hear the words: “Lie down! Lie down!! Motherfucking Ustasha!” He’s somewhere in the middle, his head is in the mud. He’s still not afraid, he knows this is the end of something now, but he doesn’t yet sense what. Until tonight he was wearing a national-guard uniform and yellow boots, but now he burned all his documents and donned a white coat like a lot of others at the hospital who weren't really wounded. The Red Cross would come. But the ruse is pointless. Everybody knows him. He’s the maître d’ at the hotel, he’s on jovial terms with everybody, he’s always there when people sing, and if he can’t be the loudest, he gives it his level best, the veins bulge out on his neck. All his life he was doing favors for everybody and they did favors for him, the man with the most friends before, with the least friends now. He loved people, but he loved Croatia, too, and when things began unraveling, Grandma and Grandpa fanned the flames. All those rallying cries and so on. And he did love to sing. Then the political rallies, the new President, the “white square first” controversy. Some people were rubbed the wrong way by that, many were bothered when they saw him walking, head held high, with his beautiful wife through town and how everybody opened their doors for him. But now it was their turn. The bearded beasts. They eyed it all from their lairs, from below ground, and bided their time. Now you’ll pay! He lifted his head up from the mud and saw one of his colleagues from work. He’d driven the man’s wife, when she went into labor, to the hospital in the middle of the night, and now the man was standing by an officer, pretending not to know him. Then he was smacked by a rifle butt and heard: “Lie down, you Ustasha trash!” He lay there for a long time like that. It’s cold on that cold ground, but they don’t feel it, they feel adrenaline, and now a little fear as well. The drunken hordes of evil, snot-nosed, shaggy apparitions careen around town on tanks, they sing There will be meat galore, we’ll be butchering Croats! they heave corpses into the Danube where they once bathed their hot youth. These are bogeymen from hell, only partly resembling people, they have hands, feet, and limbs, but with them they just butcher, slash, rape, no one can tell where they came from, some look a little bit like neighbors who used to invite us to their name-day celebrations. They leer with their rotten teeth, salute each other, gloat over mutilated bodies, guzzle brandy, there are women among them. How? How did they get here, by which route? It’s slowly getting dark, the day is short, a shame it’s the last. Out of the cellars clambered people, half-alive, and wan, sickly children, they're already on their way to the normal world, only a few miles away.

Now the time has come for the disposition of all those who remain. There’s a rumble in the distance, that’s buses on their way. A camp, that’s where they’re headed. That’s what he and Uncle Whiskers say to each other with their eyes, lying side by side, no one hears them. “Move it, swine, in you go!” A gauntlet forms of baseball bats, hoes, chains, rifle butts, and all objects capable of switching function. “Right this way, gentlemen, who’ll go first.” They shield their heads with their arms, the blows rain down on all sides. An array of different blows. Whacks, blows drawing blood, knocking the air out of the lungs, all kinds. Here’s the mayor, to see to protocol. Some already collapse here, not too many, they’re done for, the others watch, horrified. No need, they’re saved.  Finally they’re all packed in. Five buses pull away. Through the night, it’s difficult to see where they’re headed, into a night so full of death. It makes no difference, around them everything's flat, crazy flat. They don’t drive long, this isn’t Serbia, it looks familiar. The Ovčara industrial farm, a unit of the Vupik agricultural complex for husbandry and pig-farming. There are big farm buildings here with large metal sliding doors for storing field equipment and tools and small doors for people as well. For small people, ordinary people, like you and me. They take them down from the buses and have them run the gauntlet again. Go, go, Jovo, the once-over! They organize them by building, bus by bus, but not everybody. No, no, not you. They pull out ten men, these’ll be done by hand. Handiwork is always more valued, this assembly-line stuff, that’s a breeze. A bullet to the brain, anybody can do that. But by hand, you have to roll up your sleeves. You have to really get into it, your essence, creativity, people will talk about it afterward. He’s afraid. He cries. Tears run down his cheeks but he doesn’t cry out loud, though what’s the point of hiding it, no one can hear anyway. Everybody’s howling so loud, yelling for help, shouting, the gunshots deafen. There are cameras here, too. Probably stolen, but that doesn’t lessen the technological sophistication. “Motherfucking battery's dead, wait, Mile, for me to put in a fresh one.” Mile stops what he’s doing, drops his pistol to his side and waits for a new surge of energy so his glorious work can be made into a picture. “Done, shoot away!” Ten men stand in front of a building. The ten men think, let it be quick. One of them thinks of me. He thinks of my mother, of my brother. Of me again. There aren’t any clear thoughts here, it’s hard to maintain a flow, all that whooping, they smash, lop off fingers, shoot, stab, we're fine, we’re in Zagreb, we’re far away. They butcher. Handiwork. Done. Thank God. The one who's here to the end, he’ll have it worst. There’s another nine hours of killing to go, not an easy job, he’ll have to eat and drink something meanwhile, and maybe that will sustain him a bit, so he can be more effective. I'd like to think he was one of the first. But I know, what's in my head is an American movie, this is a fairy tale, a soap opera, never, never, no matter how hard I try will I be able to imagine that. And I’ll try. I’ll try my whole life. Amen.

Before I've even closed the door behind me, I’m greeted by her audible sigh. I know I’m irritating her by saying nothing, I make no excuses, I don’t even fight. My brother’s bed is made, she probably spent the whole evening by herself. All I want is to crawl under the blanket, fall asleep, and while I’m trying to do that her voice rousts me: “You must have had quite a night when you were out for so long. That’s OK, go for it.”

translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac