I want you to say it like this: Yazz-mee-nuh Kawn-treh-vitch. Very good. You’ve noticed already: I don’t talk like a Jasmina Contrevic. I talk like a Betty Smith, a Shirley Martin, a Heather Warner.
Not all of the Serbs were guilty. But bombs are indiscriminate. I was five, living on the outskirts of Sarajevo. The night was cold. My parents left me home, for safety. I stood at the window to watch them drive away. I felt the rush of air. They were vaporized.
I ended up in Bergen County, New Jersey with my second cousin. The trees were bursting with color, and Laszlo’s backyard felt like a country estate. He bought me a swingset, and we spent the afternoon putting it together.
Laszlo was so affectionate, for such a long time, that I did not recognize when it was that the line was crossed. Looking back, it was the introduction of the penis, but at the time I suppose I thought of it as a new toy. At twelve, after much painful effort, Laszlo put his penis inside of me, and it was then that the triggers finally went off.
I went to the library and scoured the biology section until I discovered the word intercourse. If Laszlo continued, I would have a child in my belly. I didn’t want that. Over the years, Laszlo gave me little cash gifts. I took all that I had saved, plus the diamond engagement ring that he kept in his dresser, and bought a ticket for Minneapolis.
I ended up in Mill Valley, California, a dollhouse town guarded over by redwoods. I work at the old moviehouse, where I take tickets, clean the theater after screenings, and work the box office. But I think of myself as the popcorn girl.
It’s been raining for weeks. The hillsiders are walking their perimeters, looking for signs of mudslides. Down here in the village, with our asphalt and storm drains, we feel pretty safe. Although the corner by the Depot is beginning to resemble a koi pond.
It’s January, so I don’t expect shoppers, but the gray desolation is getting to me. I hang the Back in 15 sign and walk a cigarette to the bridge.
Not so much a bridge; the creek crosses under the road through a concrete tunnel. I’ve seen kids hiking the tunnel in summer, and I’m a little curious about where it ends up. Some of the bigger mysteries are right beneath us. I lean over the railing and watch the water as it roils into civilization. It’s downright river-like.
“Isn’t it magnificent?”
To my right is a white hood.
“Do you ever picture a single raindrop falling into the water like a tiny kayak, and the wild ride it must take before it reaches the Bay?”
I take a drag and let it go – a stall tactic.
“Oddly enough, I do. Only, for me it’s a raft. Like Huckleberry Finn.”
The hood angles away, revealing a remarkable pair of eyes. Round as marbles, black irises, glimmering in the faint light. She smiles.
“I love Huckleberry Finn.”
I can’t speak. She glances at her cell phone.
“Oh shit! Gotta go.”
She crosses the street to the moviehouse. She takes off her jacket, revealing thick black hair, falling to her shoulders in sidewinder waves. Egyptian princess. Russian czarina. My cigarette burns down to my fingers. I flinch, and it falls to the water.
Why do people find it so difficult to be nice? There are certain (blonde, lazy) employees who expend large amounts of energy being surly, acting like each customer through the door is another one-ton weight upon her oh-so-frail back. People often tell me how pleasant I am, but really I’m just taking the logical path. I am being paid cash money to engage people, to be nice to them, so I embrace my role, and the day goes by much faster. And here’s the key to the whole thing: I ask people how they’re doing, and then I listen. You’d be amazed at how many people are desperate to talk to someone.
The owner, Fosh, is a Persian man with a jowelly brown face. He reminds me of a cinnamon roll. The rest of the staff is a little scared of him, but I just treat him like another customer: I ask him how he’s doing. Sometimes the answer is very long, and I have to remind him that I need to get to work. Fosh is long-married, to a woman who looks like an ambassador’s wife. I’m betting it was an arranged match. I’m betting he hasn’t had sex for years, and I’m betting she does not ask him how he’s doing.
Tuesday evening – very slow. An older couple. The man has silver hair, but retains a bit of youth in his face: sharp features, blue-gray eyes. The woman is well-preserved, but much of it is artificial: the $200 frost-blonde hairdo, the tight, expressionless face. She looks bored. Most of the terrible stuff in the world is perpetrated by those who are bored.
Fifteen minutes into the movie, Mr. Silver returns, armed with a soda. He wears a gray suede jacket, knit collar, very nice. He breathes a sigh and hands me the soda.
“I’m sorry. Could I get a Diet Coke? I could have sworn she said regular.”
“Happens all the time. How’s the movie?”
He rolls his eyes. “Chick-flick. But I’m tough; I can take it. How are you doing today?”
Ambushed by my own trick.
“Slow. It’s harder when it’s slow.”
“I know precisely what you mean.” He eyes my name tag. “Jasmina. Gorgeous name.”
“And you pronounce it so well!” I snap a lid on his Coke and hand it to him.
“Lucky guess. What’s the damage?”
I smile (this being just the right time to smile). “Let’s just pretend that the whole thing was my mistake.”
He smiles back – a small smile, a little controlled. “You are a gem. It does an old man good to be served by a young beauty.”
“Enjoy your chick-flick. Take notes.”
“Oh I will.” He laughs and turns to go. Ten feet away, he stops, comes back and hands me a business card.
“Jasmina, could you email me sometime? I have some business I’d like to discuss with you.”
I slip the card into my jeans pocket. “You’d better get back to your wife.”
“Yes I’d better. ‘Bye.”
Mr. Silver lopes away. An hour later, I take a bathroom break and give the card a scan: Anthony Francis, attorney, tax specialist. I envision my most recent trip to the ATM, the drop in my stomach when I saw my balance. The Minneapolis cushion is gone.
I have what you would call an ineffectual smile. When I manage to get it to make an appearance, it is inevitably off-kilter – too small, listing to the left, a square of gritted teeth. I have landed only one natural-looking smile on a photograph, at my sister’s wedding, when my uncle made a fart joke.
For the girl in the white hood, this is not a problem. The counter of my shop is positioned in such a way that my gaze falls on the box office of the moviehouse. A customer approaches. She flashes that smile as if it were hooked up to a light switch, and it is always perfect. I am terribly envious.
I have found the secret to those dark eyes. I apologize for not knowing a better word, but her face is porcelain. The contrast is alarming, a woman in black and white. And thick lips, as if she is permanently pouting. Unless she’s smiling.
I am an accidental stalker, a victim of feng shui. And it surprises me. After all that… nonsense, I thought I had lost these urges entirely, had tossed them into the creek like a useless appendage.
At the end of her shift, she counts up her cash drawer and takes a moment to gaze out at the street. Her face takes on an expression of despondency, as if someone has just told her the most awful news. For those two seconds, she is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.
I work hard at my sunny disposition, but some days are tougher than others. Anthony has taken me to lunch twice. He is charming, genteel, but I wish he were a little more rude. I need to know what he wants. More importantly, I need to know how much he intends to pay for it. But I have learned my lessons from Minneapolis. You need to let things unfold at the customer’s pace. Even if you’re a week late on rent.
The weather’s not helping. The skies have been gray for a month, and the moviegoers are irritable. My stress buttons are out there, waiting to be pushed. When I duck my head into the box to scoop some corn, the popper spits a drop of hot oil onto my cheek.
I take time with the butter, hoping to quell my frustration. But my customer has noticed, so I’d better acknowledge it.
“Sorry. Our popper likes to spit oil on me.” I hand her the bag.
She smiles. “Maybe it’ll leave a beauty mark and you’ll look like Cindy Crawford.”
She’s a blonde lady in her fifties. Something about California baby boomers makes them cooler with stuff like this. God bless her.
“Hey Jazz. Why don’t you take your lunch?”
Javid, my savior. He always knows what I need. If he was thirty years older, I might go out with him.
“Thanks, Jav. 45 okay?”
“Go for it.”
I am thankful for the power bar I had at break, because I have something in mind that is not related to food. I head across the street to the store with the curious name. The owner is perched at his counter, applying price tags to a stack of Darwin fish magnets. I’m tempted to do the noncommittal browser thing, but I’m short on time, so I head straight for the source.
“So what does The Free Thinker mean?”
He laughs, and I realize right away that this is his calling card, his secret power. It’s a deep, manly laugh, absolutely heartfelt.
“I thought of calling it the Atheist Shoppe, but I thought that might be a little forbidding.”
“That’s funny,” I say. “I’ve been thinking of becoming an atheist.”
I feel a little rush, like I just stepped off the high dive. He makes again with the laugh; he really should hire out to comedy clubs.
“I like the way you put that. But there is a distinction. You don’t really become an atheist. It’s more like discovering you’ve been one all along.”
Behind his spectacles are small eyes that appear to be hazel, but they give off flashes of blue and green as he shifts his gaze.
“So how does one go about discovering one’s atheism?”
“Ooh. Tough one. I would say, you should start by studying some Christian history.”
“Isn’t that what I’m trying to get away from?”
“A religious upbringing is miles thick. You’ve got a lot of mythology to shed. And the best place to start is Paul.”
He pulls up an old-looking green book.
“It’s an analysis of the New Testament, and especially Paul’s epistles, written by a Talmudic scholar.”
“The Torah. The Old Testament. Paul basically created Christianity, and this…” He stops himself. “I’m sorry. Why don’t you read this without any pretext? We can always talk about it later."
“Awesome! How much?”
“I tend to find these at yard sales.”
I hand him money that should be going to my rent. When he hands me my change, I see his long fingers and I smile.
“Hey! You’re the guy with the raindrop riverraft.”
“Oh! Yes.” He gives me an awkward smile.
“I’m Jasmina. I work at the moviehouse.”
“I thought you looked familiar. I’m Paul.”
“Now that’s funny.”
He nudges his glasses. “Should I tell you the standard story?”
“By all means.”
“On the road to Tarsus, I was struck down, and I saw a bright light. Then I realized it was a BART train, I was in Berkeley, and I was very drunk.”
“That’s good. But then, shouldn’t your name be Saul?”
“I enjoy the irony.”
“Irony is good. I’d better get going so I can grab a snack. ‘Bye.”
“Thanks for coming in!”
I exit to find the sky still gray. The green book feels hot in my hand.
Exit Wonderland is playing in a meadow near a Canadian glacier. The fans go on forever, and each of them holds a single orange gladiola. A dark-haired groupie rushes the stage to throw corn flakes over my head. Billy plays the intro to “Change.” When we hit the triplet at the end of the line, the crowd claps along. The triplet gets louder each time through, until I open my eyes and it all goes away. Except for the triplet, which is sounding from the front door. I pull on some clothes and wander downstairs.
I creep to the counter and scan the window. Mill Valley’s a pretty tolerant place, but still I’ve had some pretty nasty threats from so-called Christians. A woman appears at the glass, using her hands like blinders so she can peer inside. I walk to the door and undo the latches. I have barely opened it when she flattens her face to my chest and wraps her arms around my torso. She is sobbing violently.
The sensation of touch is overwhelming; it makes me realize how deprived I have been.
“Jasmina? What’s wrong?”
There’s no way she’s going to answer. She’s shaking, and gasping for breath.
“Well. Come in.”
I take a slow step backward and pull her inside, then I reach past her shoulder to redo the latch.
She has clamped on to me like a barnacle, and I’m not sure what to do. I wrap my arms around her back, lift her off the ground and carry her down the aisle to an armchair. I turn around and sit; somehow she ends up on my lap, her face pressed to my T-shirt. I find myself with a close-up of those amazing curls, serpentines that just keep going and going. I would like to touch them, but I’m unfamiliar with the protocol.
She is not going to stop crying, so I have all the time in the world to ponder my situation. Perhaps I am being punished for wishing too hard. A father catches his son smoking a cigarette, so he buys him a pack and makes him keep smoking until he gets sick.
Jasmina smells of flowers. Gardenia, magnolia. Shampoo, perfume. Her breathing begins to slow. She lifts a hand to my collarbone. Cars roll past, sending washes of light over Voltaire and Jefferson.
I wake up in Paul’s armchair, two wise men watching over me. A third appears and nudges me on the arm.
I sneak a hand to the crotch of my jeans. The pain is still there, but nothing fluid.
“I’m all right.”
“Unfortunately, I’ve got to get going.”
“Take me with you.”
“Well, you’ll probably be…”
“Okay. I’ll be right back.”
Behind the shop, Paul’s got an old pickup truck. The bed is packed with round black objects. He hands me a violin case and drives us to the freeway.
Marin County at night has the feel of an overgrown village, round hills speckled with houselights, boats grazing on the edges of the bay. We roll into San Rafael and take an eastward jag, ending up in a neighborhood of flat, straight avenues overgrown with trees. Paul turns into a dirt driveway stacked with cars. A truck at curbside has a sign that says Roamin’ Hounds.
The backyard looks like an outdoor rec room. A large tent shelters a ring of old sofas and camp chairs. A bar juts out from the house, lined with Christmas lights. Off in the corner is an old-fashioned detached garage, a strip of light seeping under the door. Paul motions me into a chair.
“Stay here. I just want to make sure this is okay. Protocol. Here.”
He takes off his jacket and lays it over me. I pull it up to my chin. A minute later, Paul returns and leads me into a side door. The garage is a chaos of equipment. Egg crates cover the ceiling; the floor is a motley of rugs. I see a guitar and finally make the connection: the black objects in Paul’s truck are drum cases. Paul takes me to a low vinyl chair and sits me down.
“I get the feeling I don’t have to ask you to keep quiet. We’ve got a gig coming up, so we might be a little intense.”
A small brown dog jumps into my lap.
“Well! Augur likes you.”
Augur gives me a sad look – likely his permanent expression. A nice-looking blonde lady hands me a beer.
“Hi. I thought you could use this. I’m Anne. Keyboards, backing vocals.”
“Whoops! Gotta check my mic.”
Once Paul assembles his drums, they jump into a run-through. Anne calls out the songs. The band is rounded out by the lead guitarist, Billy, a thin man with long brown hair, and the bassist, Smeed, a stocky man with long black hair and chiseled features with a touch of American Indian.
The singer, Pamela, is a svelte brunette. Her voice is not showy, but it’s got a soulful edge. Her delivery is marvelously direct, blue-collar. I suspect a lot of the lyrics are political, but I’m too exhausted to piece them together. The music sweeps over me, but I can tell there’s a lot of variation in rhythm and style: funk songs, rockers, surf songs, a bit of Ray Charles, a metal song, a power ballad. And a bit of three-part a capella from Paul, Anne and Pamela that shakes me out of a nap.
Most of the entertainment, however, comes from dog number two, a reddish-chocolate dachsund who seems bent on destruction. Pamela spends much of her time chasing Jasper from hazardous areas and pulling foreign objects from his mouth. Billy is halfway through a guitar solo when Jasper decides that his wah-wah pedal is a see-saw. Billy nudges him away and says, “Dachsund slipper!”
Thinking that things are under control, Pamela delivers her next song while striking various yoga positions. Jasper saunters by and pees on her mic stand.
“That was hilarious!”
We’re taking the back way through Larkspur, dark little houses flying past. I am re-energized, filled up with music. Paul looks like he’s about to ask me a question, so I ask one first.
“How did you get into this band?”
He finishes taking us through a long curve. “I started as a fan. Saw them one night in Sausalito and fell in love. Their songs are so straightforward and self-contained. They’re songs. So I got their schedule and went to every performance. There’s something very pure about being a fan; it’s an unselfish part of your being that you really need to exercise.
“I did, however, have a chink in my armor: I could see their fatal flaw. Just about every band in the world has one. I’m convinced that the bands that make it are the ones who have the cojones to get rid of that flaw. What’s worse, it was the drummer. Guy had chops – long, impressive fills, rapid snarework. But he belonged in a metal band. Exit Wonderland needed a no-nonsense type, a drummer who could create funky beats, throw in a snappy fill, a well-timed cymbal shot. Who could play the song. And that was me. But I couldn’t say anything, because I was trying to maintain the purity of my fanhood.
“Anne came by the shop one night and handed me a CD. Their drummer had a foot infection, they were playing a picnic the next day, and my job was to play it with them. Cold. Talk about adrenaline! But I drew on all the tricks I’d learned in jam sessions: stick to the backbeat, no big fills, follow the cues, play a little laid-back so you can react. I had the luxury of a couple rehearsals before a house party the next week, and I guess I planted a seed. Three months later, I got an email inviting me to be their drummer. I finally found a band that fired somebody, and that’s why we’re so good.”
“When’s your next gig?”
“This Friday, right here in town. The Sweetwater. We’re opening for the Baby Seal Club.”
“Baby Seal Club. You gotta see the Baby Seals.”
“I am so there. By the way, what the hell is a dachsund slipper?”
“That’s what you get when you put your foot up a dachsund’s ass.”
This has the effect of taking all of my great stress and turning it inside out. I giggle and cackle till I’m out of breath. This gets Paul laughing, too. By the time we recover, I realize that we’re nearing Mill Valley. I have to decide whether to divulge my place of residence.
“So are you going to tell me?”
It takes me a second to compute the question. “I’m sorry. No. It’s too… it’s embarrassing. I don’t know you well enough.”
“But you know me well enough to come crying to my door.”
I don’t actually know why I went there – I was pretty much out of my mind. It might have been simple geography. But I think Paul deserves something better.
“I feel comfortable with you. You’re very kind. And… I hope you take that the right way.”
He laughs. “I’d have to work pretty hard to take that the wrong way.”
I’m grateful when he pulls in behind his shop, removing the other dilemma. He takes me to the sidewalk, gives me a hug and a wave. Crossing over the creek, I rediscover my pain. Tony was no gentleman, he was much too big for me, and if it weren’t for the money I would have to say it was rape.