Shardsby Ismet Prcic
Ismet Prcic’s brilliant, provocative, and propulsively energetic debut is about a young Bosnian, also named Ismet Prcic, who has fled his war-torn homeland and is now struggling to reconcile his past with his present life in California.
He is advised that in order to make peace with the corrosive guilt he harbors over leaving behind his family behind, he… See more details below
Ismet Prcic’s brilliant, provocative, and propulsively energetic debut is about a young Bosnian, also named Ismet Prcic, who has fled his war-torn homeland and is now struggling to reconcile his past with his present life in California.
He is advised that in order to make peace with the corrosive guilt he harbors over leaving behind his family behind, he must “write everything.” The result is a great rattlebag of memories, confessions, and fictions: sweetly humorous recollections of Ismet’s childhood in Tuzla appear alongside anguished letters to his mother about the challenges of life in this new world. As Ismet’s foothold in the present falls away, his writings are further complicated by stories from the point of view of another young manreal or imaginednamed Mustafa, who joined a troop of elite soldiers and stayed in Bosnia to fight. When Mustafa’s story begins to overshadow Ismet’s new-world identity, the reader is charged with piecing together the fragments of a life that has become eerily unrecognizable, even to the one living it.
Shards is a thrilling reada harrowing war story, a stunningly inventive coming of age, and a heartbreaking saga of a splintered family.
* A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
* A Chicago Sun-Times Best Book of the Year
* An Oregonian Top 10 Northwest Book of the Year
* Shortlisted for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award and the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize
* Winner of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction
* Winner of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award
"Impressive . . . Inventive . . . Pushes against convention, logic, chronology . . . Ambitious and deep . . . [Prcic] succeeds at writing an unsettling and powerful novel."
The New York Times Book Review
"Fierce, funny and real, it also says much about war, exile, guilt and fear."
Chicago Sun Times, Favorite books of 2011
"Prcic captures the insanity of war and its unceasing aftermath."
"A playful but heartfelt debut . . . Brightly detailed . . . [Prcic is] a spirited, soulful talent."
"Brilliant . . . With verbal glee, Prcic serves up a darkly comic vision of the terrors and misunderstandings of immigration. Tight, glorious little tales-within-tales abound, rattled off with a quick, artless naturalism. . . . The writing is packed with one original metaphor after another, language that's almost drunk with colorful, startling images. . . . Brimming with scraps of memory, regrets, and rationalizations, Shards leaves an indelible scar on the reader's imagination. Prcic has pieced together a young man's story from the torn and exploded remains of his former life, and the sheer power of his language leaves the reader shaken."
"The experience of reading Shardsthe deliberate disorientation, the layering and morphing of events that characterize the bookreveals in a more visceral way what it might be like to live always with a full awareness of the tenuousness of civil society, of the terrible precariousness of calm."
St. Louis Beacon
"Compelling, sensual detail . . . Prcic’s prose is effective both at delineating the psychological nuances of his characters, and the sometimes-dodgy circumstances of the outside world. . . . There is a strain of dark humor running throughout, and an elastic joy in storytelling and linguistic expression that prevents this from being a simple recitation of atrocities and pain. . . . Well-written and thought-provoking . . . The story it tells is as unique and individual as the author who penned it."
"Experimental and brutal and heart-wrenching . . . You just give in to it, as you do when reading someone like Faulkner. . . . What makes Shards so compelling is, first of all, the language . . . which has an almost ferocious beauty. Secondly, and as important, is the organization of the book, which gives it a sense of urgency. . . . Ismet's confusion is so vivid that it becomes ours, making us participants in this story. . . . To have had such a life when you are so young is hard to convey without becoming sentimental or pathetic, yet Prcic has done it brilliantly."
The Arts Fuse
"Innovative in form and startling in its storytelling, Shards is a brilliant debut novel from Ismet Prcic."
"Ismet Prcic has taken apart the complexities of war, love, family and home and scattered them across a novel that is as heartbreaking as it is beautiful. Shards is an original work of art, brutal and honest, and absolutely unforgettable."
Dinaw Mengestu, author of How to Read the Air
"Ismet Prcic's prose is a gleaming pinball kept in inexhaustible play, kinetically suspended in time and space, endlessly flung away from its inevitable ending, colliding with memory and invention. This is writing fed by skill, inertia, horror, and sorrow, a survivor's story of triumph and guilt. Yet Prcic's sensibility is at once brutally and tenderly comic. Humanity seems to run deepest among those who have survived its near-absence in the world."
Brad Watson, author of The Heaven of Mercury and Aliens in the Prime of their Lives
"A brilliant debut that manages to be both experimental and emotionally resonant. Comparisons to that other Bosnian-American writer, Aleksandar Hemon, will be unavoidable, but Prcic’s work is completely and wholly his own. Shards will come to be seen as the definitive novel of the Bosnian war and its resultant diaspora."
Philipp Meyer, author of American Rust
"This novel moves at light speed, with shattering immediacy, through the parallel universe lives of two young Bosnian menwho may, in fact, be one person. Like fear, it will make you open your ears."
Rae Armantrout, author of Versed
"The reason this novel is so good, hard, beautiful, and disturbing is that there is more than one Ismet delivering the many sharp pieces. Shards feels like a primary document torn from life by a powerful new talent."
Ron Carlson, author of The Signal and Five Skies
"A passionate heart beats in these pages devoted to the reassembling of a life sundered by war. Ismet Prcic’s debut novel Shards is an outsized, outrageous, outstanding performance."
Christine Schutt, author of All Souls
"[A] heartbreaking, rude, surprisingly compassionate, and still violent story about a Bosnian refuge who is trying to make sense of his new life in southern California . . . You're not going to find many sentences in any book, anywhere, like the sentences you find here. . . . Prcic makes use of preposterous and somehow dead-on analogies and allusions, profanities and profundities. He celebrates the hieroglyphs of punctuational tics, smears words, elevates typefaces, deploys footnotes, diary entries, memoirisms, blasphemy, theater, treachery, vulgarisms, and it works. . . . This book cannot be explained. It is to be experienced. Sentence by sentence, scene by scene."
"I read the book with my mother, we were laughing, we read passages to each other, we said: Look, it’s giving me goose bumps, and then mother was crying quietly, and I thought: What a great book, what it is doing to us!"
Saša Stanišic, author of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone
A playful but heartfelt debut reflects multiple aspects of the Bosnian War via the perspectives of one Muslim teenager who escapes military service and another who does not.
Not just shards, fragments and brief episodes but a character who may be an alter ego or even non-existent enhance the multi-faceted nature of Bosnia-Herzegovinian-born Prcic's brightly detailed, sometimes hallucinatory story of the shattering impact of age-old enmity and conflict on a civilian population. His central character, also named Ismet Prcic, is observed in two timelines, growing up in Tuzla and as a refugee in the U.S. Diary accounts and notebook passages are interspersed with the story of another character, Mustafa. Although young Ismet finds himself living in a war zone in Bosnia, his life has its conventional dimensions too, like girlfriends and an interest in theatre which gives him his chance to escape the besieged city, to perform at the Edinburgh festival. Mustafa's experience is more shape-shifting. Did he die in the shelling, or witness scenes of appalling brutality while serving in the military, or is he a character in the memoir Ismet is writing to deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder? Depressed, deserted, increasingly unhinged in California, Ismet sinks into despair, his story concluding with the sound of terror and Mustafa's haunting presence.
Too long, but evidence of a spirited, soulful talent.
The New York Times Book Review
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Read an Excerpt
In wartime, when his country needed him the mosthis shooting finger for defending, his body for a shield, his sanity and humanity as a sacrifice for future generations, his blood for fertilization of its soilin these most pressing times, Mustafa's special forces combat training lasted twelve days. He ran the obstacle course exactly twenty-four times, he threw fake hand grenades through a truck tire from various distances exactly six times, he practiced marksmanship with an air rifle so that bullets were not wasted, he got covered with blankets and beaten by his peers for talking in his sleep at least once. He did countless push-ups and sit-ups, chin-ups and squats, lunges and curls, mindless repetitions designed not to make him fit but to break him, so that when he was, the drill sergeant could instruct him in the ways of military hierarchy and make him an effective combatant, one who was too scared not to follow orders and who would fucking die when he was told to fucking die.
At some point he was introduced to the real weapons. "This is an Uzi, this is how it works, we don't have any Uzis, so forget what you just learned. This is an LAW, this is how it's used, we only have a limited number of them and they are in the hands of people who already know how to use them, so you'll never get in contact with them, so forget what you just learned." And so forth.
The knife guy taught him where to stick the knife for what effect, and he stabbed hanging sacks of sand with people drawn on them. The mine guy showed him how to set up antipersonnel and antivehicle mines and pointed out all their deadly charms. The army doctor took a swig of plum brandy and told him that war was a giant piece of shit and that he, Mustafa, was a chunk of corn in that shit and then warned him not to come to his office again until he had a gut wound so big he could canoe right through it. That was, about, it.
In the end he got a Kalashnikov like everybody else, one clip of ammunition, one hand grenade, and one knife and was sent to the trenches with the regular army for a week, just to sample what war had to offer, to read the manual, as it were, before they decided what special unit he was fit to join.
NOTEBOOK ONE :
* Sent to Eric Carlson at ____ Los Feliz Dr., Thousand Oaks, CA 91362, by Ismet Prcic ; at ____ Dwight Street, San Diego, CA 92104, postmarked August 27, 2000.
(. . . cheese . . .)
As the KLM flight finally touched American soil, the white-knuckled Bosnians in the backpeople for whom just a few months ago airplanes were but thin lines of cloud, silently crisscrossing the skies above their godforsaken villageserupted in spontaneous applause. I joined them, despite the queasy feeling in my stomach brought on by the cheese and fruit we'd received somewhere over England. The cheese had been yellow and maybe rancid, and throughout the flight I'd hurried up and down the aisles in search of an unoccupied lavatory, wherekneeling awkwardly in front of one tiny toilet or anotherI'd find myself unable to hurl.
These people, my people, the refugees, they were fleetingly happy and stubbornly perplexed. They smiled but also furrowed their brows at the unfathomable patter coming from the speakers. The plane came to a stop at the gate at JFK, but the little belt buckle next to the crossed-out cigarette over our heads remained lit. We sat there. The man in front of me, a youngish fellow with a wife and a daughter and a mouth of cataclysmic teeth stuck his head over the seat and peered at me through glasses.
"Are we there, or are we just getting gas?" he whispered to me in Bosnian, eyes bulging, half-fearful and half-embarrassed. Despite his attempt at discretion, everyone heard him, and they turned to
me , the only Bosnian on board with any English, for information.
"We're here," I mumbled, nodding.
Murmurs of approval spread from seat to seat. The man turned back around.
"I thought so," I heard him say to his wife.
"Don't pretend you knew," she said.
"You always have to turn the harvest combine off before refueling, otherwise it's a fire hazard," he explained pointedly. "Same goes for planes. Machine's a machine."
"Yeah, yeah, you know everything."
"Shut it, woman."
It had begun with politicians fighting on television, talking about their nationalities, their constitutional rights, each claiming that his people were in danger.
"I thought we were all Yugoslavs," I said to my mother, although at fifteen I knew better. You had to live under a rock not to see that the shit was about to hit the fan. I don't know why I said it. Maybe the Communist message of Brotherhood and Unity had been so thoroughly drummed into my head that it surfaced robotically and overrode my actual experience. She told me to shut up and turned up the volume on the television.
Then reports had started coming in: sieges, civilian casualties, concentration camps, refugees. Croats and Muslims being slaughtered left and right by Serbian paramilitaries and by the Yugoslav People's Army, who, as their actions made evident, seemed not to really belong to all of the peoples of Yugoslavia.
"Which ones are we?" I asked my mother, still playing dumb, hoping that my willful denial could erase the images on the screen, erase my fear, make everything normal again. Again she told me to shut up and turned the volume even higher, until the downstairs neighbor started broom-handling our floor and my mother had to turn the TV down.
All at once your nationality became very important. There were reports of Serbian paramilitaries stopping all men trying to flee Bosnia, ordering them to drop their pants and underwear to prove they were Serb. Being circumcised meant your ass.
All the Bosnian cities and towns, if not overrun, were suddenly under siege. This went on for years. Civilians chopped down park trees, got buried in soccer fields, burned books and furniture, kept chickens on balconies, duct-taped their footwear, caught and ate pigeons, made makeshift stoves out of washing machines, grew mushrooms in basements, replaced broken windows with murky plastic, went nuts and jumped off buildings, drank rubbing alcohol diluted in chamomile tea until it was no longer flammable, rolled herbal tea cigarettes in toilet paper, suffered, hoped, waited, fucked. Authorities emptied the jails and mental institutions because they couldn't provide for the inmates and patients. Thieves and murderers went back to their families. Lunatics walked around town doing funny things like comparing people to watermelons and sad things like freezing to death behind churches. Soldiers fought for all of them and for themselves. My father, a chemical engineer, got lucky and came up with a contraption that turned industrial fat into edible fat and got paid ten thousand German marks by a small business entrepreneur and war profiteer, which saved us. My mother ate just enough to survive, because she felt so guilty about not being able to quit smoking. She rationed her cigarettes as much as she could, walking around the apartment like a restless ghost, playing her solitaire, counting seconds before the next one. Sometimes, my brother and I stole a cigarette when the pack was close to full and hid it somewhere in the apartment just to pull it out, unexpectedly, when she didn't have any left, just to see her eyes light up for a moment. Later it would break our hearts to see her fingering the wool of the large tapestry in the corridor, looking for our stash, her forefinger touching her lips, her eyes on fire.
The airport corridors glowed majestically. The current of passengers moved us along. You could tell who was a refugee and who wasn'tfacial expressions, postures, surety of stride. The natives and the tourists walked briskly, trying to get it over with, catch their next flight, and be somewhere else. Their bodies were streamlined. The refugees, we walked like somnambulists, clutching our carryons, putting them between our bodies and the new world as if for protection. Hungry-eyed, we took in the wall posters advertising liquor and Disneyworld, the tiled floors, our stolid shoes, our knobby knees, our hands against these unfamiliar backgrounds. We drank it all in, giddily and guardedly at the same time.
But what I thought was going to be a short, silent, incognito burp turned out to be a mouthful of cheesy vomit. I stopped, dropping my bag next to the wall, and choked the burning, foul liquid down. It made my eyes water. I kept swallowing, trying to coat the inside of my throat with saliva. Then I realized that no one was passing me. When I turned around, sour-faced and disgusted, I saw that all the Bosnians were queued up behind me, waiting, all eyes. They had been following me. Even the few who had been walking ahead had stopped where they found themselves, looking over their shoulders.
"You all right there, pal?" the harvest combine operator asked, carrying his blonde-angel daughter in his arms like a sack of grain. His wife, a loose white headscarf over her head, was lugging two bags behind her and scowling.
" Zgaravica," I managed, and they all made sympathetic faces. Indigestion. I picked up my bag and started walking again, swallowing. There was poison oak in my mouth, my throat, the middle of my chest.
One part of me felt pride to have fifty people stopping when I stopped, going when I went. The other part was embarrassed by them, by their bucolic cluelessness, their needy, confused eyes. I fought the urge to run ahead and merge with the natives and the tourists, to ape their body movements, roll my eyes at the slowness of the line, pretend I cared about what time it was, and become one of them.
The corridors spewed us out into a huge room. A black woman in a uniform stood motioning with her hands, first to the right and then, just as eagerly, to the left. Her lipstick was bright red and you didn't have to be close to notice that some of it was on her teeth.
"Citizens and resident aliens, line up to the right. Everyone else, please keep left," she said, impatiently eyeing a Bosnian family of six, who, painfully baffled, planted their feet and gawked at her, holding up their manila refugee envelopes like signs at a rally and impeding the flow of traffic.
"Go left," I yelled ahead in Bosnian, and the family hesitated, turning to me. When I nodded, they lowered their envelopes and lined up to the left, checking to see if I really would follow suit.
The right-hand line was moving fast. Immigration officers waved the Americans to their stations, opened their passports, shot some shit with them, stamped the stamp, closed the passports, and, smiling, welcomed them back. Pretty soon the right side of the room was completely emptyuntil another wave of Americans, from some other flight, crowded it again.
The left side was uniformly compact, with foreigners inching down a monotonous maze. At the front, stepping over the yellow line became an issue. Officers kept repeating their admonishments with disgust, and the refugees kept looking around the floor, wondering why the hell these Americans were yelling and pointing at the tiles, checking their pockets to see if they'd dropped anything important, shrugging their shoulders.
When it was my turn at the yellow line I stood as close to it as possible without going over, like I was about to shoot a free throw. My heart rocked my body; I could feel its beat behind my eyes, on the sides of my neck, at the tips of my fingers, in my toes. For a moment I forgot about the rawness of my throat, about the putrid weight in my stomach, the bad taste in my mouth. I stared ahead at the PLEASE WAIT FOR THE NEXT AVAILABLE STATION screen, praying silently, sending good vibes, and visualizing the perfect outcome.
The screen changed to a flashing number eleven. I swallowed and crossed the yellow line toward the station where a young Sikh gazed at me politely but without emotion. I approached with a smile, psychically projecting Koranic verses instead of uttering them, and handed him my everything.
"Welcome to the United States. Good luck."
I wandered out of the immigration maze on a pair of legs that weren't mine.
There was a man with a sign in his hand that read BOSNIA , a chicken of a man in gray woolen pants, an off-gray jacket, and long navy blue coat. He had one of those comprehensive foreheads that, over the years, creeps up to the top of an egg-shaped head and a pair of eighties-style aviator eyeglasses, the top of which were tinted and flush with his eyebrows; the bottoms drooped to the middle of his cheeks. At the end of the corridor behind him was a uniformed copthe last line of defensewhose forearms seemed rooted to his Batman utility belt. He was a huge redhead with the voice of a gargoyle and hands that could squeeze a confession out of a sculpture.
"What nation is abusing us now?" he boomed at the man with the sign watching me come down the corridor. But seeing me slow down, the man disregarded the question and came toward me.
"Bosnian?" he asked in Bosnian, and I, surprised, said yes in English. The combine operator and his wife attacked the man with a salvo of overlapping questions. As soon as they heard somebody speaking in a language they could understand, my fellow refugees turned their backs on me. I was instantly demoted from general of this ridiculous comedy to grunt, no one paying me any mind, some even pushing past me to get closer to this tiny man. I remembered how six months ago, on the way to Scotland, aboard a ferry from some French town to Dover, my friend Omar and I had separated from the rest of the theater troupe and walked around the boat, crudely insulting everyone we encountered in our native tongue, terrified and giddy that we might stumble upon the one passenger who, realizing he'd been told he was spawned by an ass-eyed, donkey-raping water buffalo, would kick our heads in.
"If you're from Bosnia, let's gather over here," yelled the man with the sign. "I'm Enes, and I'm from the Bosnian consulate. Welcome to New York City. The majority of you are trying to catch a connecting flight, and I'm here to assist you in"
The Bosnians went fucking crazy, speaking to him all at once, waving their tickets, their yellow immigrant envelopes, pushing to the front. Enes tried to calm them down, shaking his head, shouting that he wouldn't help anyone if they didn't queue up.
I felt a little sad witnessing this, so I pulled away. My flight wasn't until the next day, so I knew I would have to stay in New York overnight. I meandered a little way from the group, trying to look native. My stomach cramped and again I felt like I could burp. Fooled once, I swallowed down some spit instead.
"The rats are a-coming," said the redhead cop to a passing American who had noticed the commotion. I glared at him, right into his green blue eyes. He held my gaze.
"You speak English?" he boomed toward me, overpronouncing.
There's a word in Bosnian, zapr?ka, which is a culinary term for the finishing touch to a lot of Bosnian meals. It's golden butter melted in a pan with red paprika, a violently orange sauce (the exact color of the cop's hair) that is poured into stews and over stuffed peppers.
" Zapr?ka," I said to him, smiling my best fresh-off-the-boat smile, " jebem li ja tebi mater hrdavu, jesi'l c '
\ uo ! " A couple of Bosnians heard me and scoffed and chuckled at the insult.
"I know you understand me," yelled the cop, but I took my ticket out of my pocket, pushed myself in between two Bosnian women and waved to attract Enes's gaze.
" Hej care, kad je avion za Los Andeles?" I called.
I sat there people-watching, the shoulder strap of my bag wrapped around my ankle in case somebody tried to steal my wrinkled clothes and smoked beef and the slivovitz I was smuggling as a present to my unclestuff he couldn't get his hands on in California. After telling me to wait, Enes had led the rest of the Bosnians away to catch their flights to cities like Nashville, Fargo, St. Louis. I sat there thinking I was cold. My jaw was jumpy. But the more I pressed my arms against my body the more I became aware that it wasn't the cold making my teeth chatter. I looked around. People: shapes, races, demeanors I'd never seen before. They were walking in groups or pairs, or were at ease with their aloneness, purposeful, while I sat there trying not to puke.
Other men with signs displaying the names of other sad countries rolled by with gaggles of confused immigrants, yelling in exotic languages, leaving behind one or two other petrified saps who, like me, tried to occupy as little space as possible. There was a gangly black man in a black suit sitting with four veiled women (resembling babushkas) in a range of sizes, pretending he knew what was up, but clearly scared. Only a young African woman in dark jeans and a white blouse, with closely cropped hair and shiny eyes, behaved with any sort of confidence. She took her seat, took a book and snack out of her carry-on, something noisy and, by the look of it, covered in salt, and proceeded to read and munch like she was on a park bench. I wanted to lay my head in her lap, to be touched and told that everything was fine.
Eventually, an airport shuttlea smelly, back-loaded van of some kinddrove us through New York to where we were to spend the night. I caught only glimpses of the passing buildings, cityscapes, and cars; the African woman was next to me and our thighs were warmly touching. Feverishly, I imagined her taking my hand in hers, looking deep into my eyes and loving me wordlessly. I could see us hugging, touching, holding each other, walking along the beach, cuddling on a love seat, checking on our sleeping brown babies with their Slavic foreheads and African lips.
"Here we are," the driver said.
The van pulled into the parking lot of a dingy motel and shat us out the back. The driver said to prepare our documents and follow him inside. I could tell he did this all the time, his body familiar with the asphalt beneath his feet. He knew to pull the front door instead of push it, though there was no sign. You could see that he hated but tolerated the manager, a shaggy man of Arab descent, who asked me: "How many in the room?"
"One, one," I said showing him my index finger. He looked at my passport and had me sign next to my name on a faxed list. Then he shoved a key into my hand. The orange plastic rectangle to which it was attached read 7. He pointed, then turned to the African woman.
"How many in the room?"
I lingered, acting like I was having trouble picking up my bag, hoping to catch the number of her room, but the driver waved me over.
"Indian or Italian?"
"Bosnian," I told him.
He rolled his eyes.
"To eat! Do you want Indian food or Italian food for dinner?"
I wanted to stomp on my own balls.
"Indian," I said, figuring there was less of a chance of ending up with a plateful of pork.
"We're leaving at six sharp. I will come and knock on your door. You should be up and ready," he warned, jotting down my choice.
Rooms 1 through 14 were in the basement, and I followed the arrows through halls lit here and there with chipped sconces that shot murky light at the ceiling in repetitive, throbbing patterns. My room was in the corner, down the length of the corridor from a dazzling behemoth of a Pepsi machine. I unlocked the door and went in.
Room 7 was surprisingly big: a king-size bed with magenta sheets, a TV presiding, two nightstands with lamps, and a table with two chairs and a phone. It smelled of orangey bleach and dust, of cover-ups and FBI sting operations, sex for money and crimes of passion, alcoholic self-pity and junky visionsall the stuff I'd seen in American movies.
I tried to lock myself in but couldn't turn the key. I tried in both directions and it wouldn't budge. I opened the door, closed it, and tried again. Nothing.
I looked through the peephole and saw two teenage girls giggling by the Pepsi machine. One of them had a head scarf and looked European; I wondered if she was Bosnian. She covered her mouth when she laughed. The other one looked Arabic but was in a pair of ripped jeans, which exposed her scabby knees. Their faces glowed red and blue, in turn. I'd always been a loner and proud of itpeople were something you had to deal with or avoidbut now, standing on a worn patch of beige carpet, on my first night in America, I longed for somebody, anybody.
Then I felt my stomach turn. Somewhere in all of this, the cheese puke I'd kept down had somehow turned to shit. I ran to the bathroom, and it came out of me in stormy gusts and thunderbolts. When I was done I felt rejuvenated, glorious.
Still, I didn't want someone silently slipping in while I was asleep and cutting my throat or, even worse, knocking me out with a chloroform rag, turning me into a hustler rent boy or forcing me to work twenty-four hours a day in an underground meth lab. I didn't want to wake up with missing kidneys, liver, heart, or eyeballs. I'm in America, I thought, and that meant I was in a movie; the fact that I couldn't lock the door from the inside was one of those little details upon which terrible plot shifts would depend.
I was paranoid. I looked through the peephole againnothing but red, white, and blue lights telling me that I was thirsty. The girls were gone. I opened the door and studied the lock in vain. I dragged over the table and jammed it under the knob. To get in, the crackhead nutter would have to push hard, which would make a noise, which would wake me up, which was my best chance of survival. Now I needed a weapon.
Someone knocked on the door and my heart kicked against my ribcage like an angry baby. I looked through the peephole: the driver. I dragged away the table and opened the door.
"Indian?" he said, looking over his paper.
He handed me a couple of Styrofoam containers and put a check next to my name.
"Tomorrow morning at six," he said, and made as if to go.
" Uhh . . . ," I started, and he stopped.
"My . . . my . . . my key," I stuttered, "I . . . I can't . . . uh . . . lock the door on the inside."
He looked at me with obvious disdain.
"It's automatic. You don't have to do anything. You close the door and it's locked."
Before I ate, I jammed the table up against the door again, together with the chairs and all my luggage. Fuck the driver, I thought, he might be in on a plan.
The shower had no faucet, just a knob in the middle of the wall, and I couldn't figure out how to make it get hot, if there was hot water in this place to begin with. The best I could do was not-icy, and I stepped in for a quick soap and rinse. By the time I was donetwo minutes topsmy lips were the color of eggplant.
Channel 4 was newsfast, indecipherable English I found comforting in the absence of flesh-and-bone humans. I shivered under the covers. I heard the click, click, clicking of women's shoes outside my window and snuck a peek through the magenta curtains, up through a grate below the street. I saw a woman's legs and a big man in a mink coat holding both of her wrists and yelling at her. I'm fucking staying up all night, I told myself, but I woke at five thirty to the sound of the alarm, alive and unmolested, all organs intact.
* * * The driver drove us to the airport. The African woman sat behind me this time, so I got to see some of the city. It was mostly New York motorists in profile, sipping from thermos bottles, yelling out of windows, smacking their dashboards, smoking, putting on makeup, singing, dozing off and waking up just in time to brake, playing air guitar, looking at me with what-the-fuck-are-you-looking-at on their faces.
Enes met me at LaGuardia, showed me where I was to wait for my flight to Los Angeles, shook my hand limply, and shoved off. I sat on another plastic chair and waited.
I kept thinking, You made it, man, not believing it. I looked at my hand, this thing I'd been living with all my life, and it felt like I was seeing it for the first time. It seemed only vaguely familiar, yet I was somehow in control of it; it was my hand to use. I glanced up to make sure that what I saw around me was America, confirmed that the seat next to me was a part of that country, then placed my strange hand on its cool plastic surface, and told myself again: You made it; you escaped.
Two other Prcic ;s made this journey before me. There was my granduncle Bego, who fled the Nazi invasion via Paris, settled in an apartment in Flushing Meadows, and died there, alone. And then there was my uncle Irfan, who fled the Communists in 1969, ended up in California, and twenty-six years later invited me to live with him. We were all from the same town in Bosnia but had fled three completely different countries. Bego escaped the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Irfan , the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. And me, the newly formed independent state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Says something about the Balkans: Regimes are plentiful, they don't last long, and they make people want to run away.
What came to me then was the voice of my paternal grandmother. She had told me once that every time Bego or Irfan returned to Bosnia to visit, they had seemed to her like different people. Un
recognizable . She had blamed this on America.
I looked at my hand again.
Through the airport window, I could see a homeless man in a filthy camouflage jacket sitting on a curb, his back to me, playing fetch with a dog. He'd fight the plastic bottle of Dr. Pepper out of the Alsatian's mouth, tease her with it, and then throw it down the sidewalk. She'd chase after it, her swollen teats swaying, bring it back to him, and the scene would repeat. I sat there mesmerized, telling myself again that I had made it, wishing I had a dog or something warm to touch, to look in the eye. It was then that the morning sun sliced through the clouds, its light hitting the window in such a way that suddenly I saw my reflection. I saw a young man sitting alone on a plastic chair, white-knuckled and wide-eyed and zit-faced, happy and perplexed, and I knew why my grandmother couldn't recognize her own son, why I was wielding a stranger's hand. I knew that someone new would get off this plastic chair and board a plane for Los Angeles and that all the while an eighteen-year-old Ismet would remain forever in the city under siege, in the midst of a war that would never end.
Just as it came, the sun went away. The homeless man threw the bottle. The bitch ran after it. I looked at my hand, then at everything else. I was new and America seemed too big a place to be alone in.
From the air Los Angeles was vast and gray and pockmarked with light blue pools. Down at LAX, it was hot for a winter afternoon; it was amusing. There were palm trees through the terminal window and people wore sandals in earnest.
Coming out of this one corridor I saw a man and a woman in their fifties, white, dressed in shiny red-white-and-blue frocks and top hats with stars all over them. They walked through the crowd, handing
them things. The woman came up to me with an ear-to-ear smile. "Hello, sir!" "Hello." "Could I ask you a couple of questions?" She was speaking slowly and clearly. I was glad about that. "Yes." "Where are you from, sir?" "Bosnia." "Are you visiting us for the first time?" "I am refugee." "So you're here for the government cheese." She said this very loudly, looking around and trying to get every-
one's attention. "Well, sir, here you go," she said and gave me a brick of yellow American cheddar. "Welcome to America!" I noticed that there was a man with a camera taping me. I smiled and waved the cheese at him. Isn't this something, I thought. In New York they call you names and in Los Angeles a lady wearing the American flag gives you some cheese.
I knew then that I was going to like Los Angeles much better than New York.
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