“Let me tell you young lady,” he paused and peered over his wire rimmed glasses, “war is shit.” He scrunched his nose in an attempt to push his glasses back to their original position and his face looked eerily disfigured. His eyes were dark, sunken into his skull as if his body was trying to stop the images it had seen by sucking them into itself. A heavy stubble of black hair forged an army along his face and neck and marched a line to a thick mess of graying black curls that appeared to have taken his head hostage. I nodded and looked away.
Instead, he changed the subject. “How many old are you?” he attempted a smile and I could see his yellow teeth and the black where they had begun to rot.
“How old you think I am?” His shoulders were slumped forward, his chest concave and his arms were slung out on the table, where his fingers nervously fingered themselves. I glanced at his hands and the index and middle fingers of his right hand were stained yellow from years of smoking. His fingernails were jagged and dirty and the thumbnail on his left hand was black where dried blood had been trapped between nail and skin.
“Thirty-five,” I said hoping he would not see my lie. He laughed, a wide open mouthed laugh, and I could see his tongue, pallid and yellow, a lizard in his mouth.
“I just have forty-one birthday.” I thought of other forty-one year olds I knew, but they were not comparable.
I was on a bus to Beli Manastir, Croatia. Outside the window I could see fields of sunflowers rolling out behind me, millions of yellow heads craning their necks to the sun, praising a bright golden God. And inside the bus, sitting across from me with a small Formica table wedged between us, was Drago.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I boarded the bus in Zagreb and buried my head in The National Geographic, picking a seat facing backwards. Drago boarded soon after and picked the seat diagonal from me. The acrid smell of cigarettes was pungent and stifling and floated off his dirty, disheveled clothes. I kept my eyes on my magazine, slightly afraid of the gruff man who had chosen to be my traveling companion. The bus driver ambled down the isle collecting tickets and when he reached me he said something in Croatian and took my ticket. In a pathetic combination of broken Croatian and English, I explained I did not understand. I could feel the eyes of the man across from me running the length of my face, but I didn’t make eye contact.
The bus began to rumble forward, the back and forth jostling became steady and I wedged my head between the itchy fabric of the seat and the cool of the window and fell asleep. When I opened my eyes, he was leaning across the table.
“You are American?” he asked eagerly in a thick Croatian accent.
“Yes,” I smiled, but he made me nervous.
His hands began to fumble wildy. “I have been to America. I have friend in Chicago. And I been to…” his eyes wandered upward searching the air for names of American cities he pushed aside to allow new names in like Srebrenica or Omarska. “Atlanta,” he said at last and looked at me triumphantly. “Oh, and Montana,” he added.
I smiled. “I’m from Montana,” I told him, tapping my chest .
“I always want to marry girl from Montana,” he stared at me and I looked away. “I am in Croatian army.” I glanced back at him and he was lifting up his shirt. Embarrassed and a bit frightened, I looked away again. But when I looked back he was showing me his undershirt with the Croatian army emblem on the back.
“Ten years I am in army. You know about the war?”
I tried to remember what I had studied in college about the Balkan war, but all the conflicting entities had gotten jumbled in my mind, so many different ethnicities struggling to form their own autonomous country. I simply nodded, not wanting him know the depth of my American ignorance.
“I was at front lines at Vukovar. Serbs are shit. I was sniper,” he said tapping his glasses, “before this.” He pulled his right arm back and extended his left arm as if holding an imaginary rifle. The index finger on his right hand snapped back, firing at an invented enemy. He stared at the place where the bullet would have punctured the seat and dropped his arms into his lap.
“Why you cut yourself?”
He was looking at a scar on my forearm where I had burned myself on the oven. I explained my cooking. He pointed to two scars on his arm and one stretching the length of his jaw. “From knife.”
“From the war?”
“Yes, enemy put knife on end of gun.”
He pointed to another scar, a large circular one, pink and bubbled like wax flowing over his forearm. “Explosion.” He nodded as if I knew exactly what he was talking about.
Outside the window, the streets were lined with old men in grey suits watching the traffic from wooden benches shaded from the hot summer sun.
“Give me a pen,” Drago demanded. I handed him my pen and he pulled a business card from his pocket. “If you return to Zagreb, I be your guide for a day…a month…the rest of your life.” I laughed, but I could see he was not kidding.
The bus rolled to a stop and Drago put out his hand. I placed my hand in his, but instead of shaking it, he pulled it up to his lips and kissed it. He peered over the top of his glasses and smiled, a devilishly forward smile, and I smiled back and this time I meant it.