It’s a coincidence that I’m here tonight.
Coincidence – a word often abused and misused. The guy who’s been hanging around outside your work is now hanging around outside your house. Not a coincidence. Call the police.
An ex-girlfriend who sends you an SMS every now and again that says, “what are you up to?” then shows up at your friend’s party. Not a coincidence – she wants you. Take a hint.
A coincidence is when things get weird, unexplainable, in a divine intervention or otherwise creepy way. So, when I say that it’s a coincidence that I’m here, that’s kind of what I mean – it’s creepy.
A lot of people ask me, what are you doing here? It’s unbelievable to most people in Serbia that I would leave behind the USA, a superpower, for a ‘transitioning’ country. Many ask the question like I must’ve done something wrong: ”Are you lost?” “Are you being punished?” or that I have some other agenda. I get asked this question so often that I’ve started to make my answers a bit more…interesting.
Sometimes I say, “I’m a spy” followed by a laugh. You can almost see the gears in people’s heads turning: “Only a spy would joke about being a spy…hmmm.”
Other times I say it’s the food: “Nobody stuffs my cabbage like you do. Ajvar – I’d paint my walls with that stuff.” This is a crowd pleaser. I make a lot of friends that way.
Sometimes I say I came for love. This satisfies the skeptics, and the romantics, who willingly accept that that all-powerful feeling of love is one of the only excuses to come to Serbia.
But none of that is true. Here is the true story.
When I was living in Chicago I met a Serbian woman. No coincidence there, I’m sure everyone here is related to someone in Chicago. But this woman was my costume designer for a play, and a new friend. We’ll come back to her.
Shortly after meeting this new friend, I ran into an old friend; a middle-aged woman who I had worked with years before. I ran into her on the train. It had been almost a year since we had seen or spoke to each other, even though we were close when we had worked together – just one of those things that happens in the busy, modern world. She sat next me on the train. We hugged. She looked across the aisle and said, “Look at these people, so young. With earphones in their ears. I never wear earphones in the city. I want to hear the city; you don’t know what will happen to you tomorrow. When you listen to the city, you’re in it, part of it.”
It was a weirdly profound thing to say, but that’s how we had always talked to each other. We parted ways with a promise to keep in touch. But, of course, we didn’t.
In the meantime, I finished the show with my Serbian costume designer. While we worked together, she told me about her country. She was a new émigré, and dealing with the culture shock of moving in the US. So I offered what help I could.
Two months passed. One day, I was sitting at a coffee shop, using their better Wi-Fi connection, when my phone rings. It has my old friend’s name on it, and I’m thrilled that she had kept her word, a little embarrassed that I was the weak link. But I answer quickly: “Bev, so glad you called.”
The voice on the other line wasn’t Bev. It was a man.
“This is Officer Shaw,” he said. “Your friend has been in an accident. Can you contact her family?”
At first, I thought it must be a joke. “What?” I said. He went on to tell me that my friend had been hit by a bus and was at a hospital, and gave me the name of the hospital. Again, he asked if I knew any of her family.
By some fortunate coincidence, I did – I happened to be friends with her niece. On my way to the hospital I called the niece and all her colleagues, trying to get someone to pick up the phone. She eventually did, and I delivered the news. She met me at the hospital, where we were given Bev’s things and led to a tiny, private family waiting room with low lighting and no windows. A place where they put you when you’re waiting to hear if your loved one will live or die.
Why the police called me of all people, I still don’t know. But I have a hunch. Constance is a pen name, but my real name starts with a letter that comes much later in the alphabet: the odds that he scrolled through her entire phonebook and called everyone until someone picked up is unlikely. I found out later that Bev was on her way to a meeting with a theater owner. She had told me that if she ever got her hands on a theater, she’d call me. She wanted to produce my work. It is possible that in her excitement about her meeting with this theater owner she had called me, got distracted, and veered off the crosswalk in front of a bus. A strange coincidence. A creepy one.
A few hours after waiting in this tiny room, we were allowed to see Bev. She had survived, but with a major brain injury. We were taken to the room where she recovering from a life-saving surgery that removed a part of her skull, and inserted it into her abdomen to keep the bone healthy until it could be replaced. She was hooked up to so many wires and tubes that I felt like I had walked onto the set of a sci-fi movie, and Bev’s disembodied voice would start speaking to me from the “other side”, but it didn’t. The doctors said that she might be able to hear us, so we should talk to her. They said that talking to someone recovering from a brain injury seems to help them.
Nobody knew what to say. Her niece and grown daughter were in shock. The two of us there who weren’t related felt awkward. The nurse present seemed to sense this, so she suggested that we just explain to her where she was, or describe what things look like. I didn’t see how describing a clinical hospital would help in the healing process, so I began the one-sided discourse by telling her that she was in the penthouse suite at the Hilton. A fruit basket with some champagne was on the desk, satin sheets, a bunch of roses. To further assist her healing, I told her that a gorgeous, topless George Clooney lookalike was massaging her feet.
She was in therapy for the next few weeks. She had to learn to walk, talk, write, and recognize people again. She is still alive, but may never be independent again. Her personality is no longer her personality. I couldn’t help but think of what she had said to me two months before the accident on the train: a woman who listened to the city was hit by a city bus.
I started to see what Bev said as an unconscious warning. You see, I empathized with those young people with earphones in their ears; I didn’t want to hear the city. I was finished with Chicago, or it was finished with me. If I was honest with myself, I never was good at living in the Midwest. I tried to force the place to fit me, rather than adapt to it, and that’s a sure sign that it wasn’t meant to be. I was the ugly stepsister pushing her foot into a shoe that was just too small, but I wasn’t willing to go so far as to chop off toes to make it work.
That brief conversation with an old friend on the train that finally made me realize it. Her accident that made me understand the consequences of ignoring this fact – that this place, this sprawling blue-collar, winter-worn city wasn’t the place for me, because as my friend said, “You don’t know what will happen.”
It wasn’t an epiphany. I don’t have epiphanies, generally speaking. The decisions I make feel like they’ve always been there, waiting to be discovered. My mother has the nose of a bloodhound, and “I smell burning,” was a common exclamation from her when we were young. I smelled the burning a long time before finding the source. I have Bev to thank for pushing me to do something about it before it burned down the house.
I worked on one more show as an actor, again with my new Serbian friend. Shortly after rehearsals started, I bought a one-way ticket out of the country. Not to Serbia, but Spain. But I listened to the stories my friend told of Serbia, and I remembered them as I traveled around for two years. I didn’t wear earphones for those two years. I listened, watched, and tried my best to keep my mouth shut, so as not to be distracted. I stayed on couches, in family homes, helping out with people’s kids, helping them fix up their houses, whatever I could to make myself useful. I experienced many more coincidences: running into a school acquaintance from DeKalb, Illinois on a European city street, nearly missing both an extremist attack and police brutality, and meeting a new friend halfway around the world because we were both published by the same publisher back in the States.
All these coincidences led me to Belgrade. I listened to the city. I smelled it, I watched it, and of all the cities I listened to, this was the one. It’s a city of stories; some brutal, others hopeful. It is both a big and small city, where people live their lives outside of houses. It’s a city of contradictions, a place both crumbling and building.
Chicago always felt like it had to prove itself. Not Belgrade. Belgrade doesn’t have to prove itself to anyone, but it does question itself. I’m sure this says more about me than it does about the city, but either way – a very strange coincidence indeed.
Constance A. Dunn is an American writer living in Serbia. She is the senior articles editor at The Missing Slate, a literary and art magazine based in Pakistan, and a regular contributor to the Prague Revue. She recently edited and curated the publicationPOPLAVA showcasing young Serbian writers and artists. Her first full length work of fiction, “ApartFrom”, was published by KUBOA (an arthouse press) in 2013. Read more at www.constanceadunn.com