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              The Barcelona Review

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At some point in the evening I woke and smoked the last of my marijuana. I listened to the dull sounds of the house: my mother fussing around in the kitchen, making sure she had my father’s evening glass of travarica and plate of dried figs, and my father on the telephone to one of his friends in the government. It was New Year’s Eve, the end of 1991, and I couldn’t face another year of the same.

I left the house. The night air cut through my peacoat. I slipped onto a tram without a ticket and rode it across the city. On government buildings, Croatian flags flapped in the wind, and policemen stood on street corners watching over the partying crowds. A large group of men set off fireworks and chanted the anti-Serb slogan: Za dom spremni!

The tram switched tracks at the interchange. The concrete towers of Novi Zagreb loomed in the dark: the seventies-era buildings housed tens of thousands—an envisioned Yugoslavia in miniature—of which my father disapproved for his own inexplicable reasons.


At Zapruđe I jumped off the tram and headed south to the Travno quarter. A maze of paths crisscrossed the land between the blocks of flats but few people were on foot. By the side of one building, radios and televisions blared the evening news.

Luka stood on a bench in the park, looking upward to the dark sky. He was wearing his marble-gray Nike hoodie, all worn elbows and frayed cuffs, and a Dinamo patch stitched over the swoosh. I envied his blue jeans, white T-shirts, the gold-link chain around his neck. Luka watched American movies with his cousin, and he liked to talk about protection rackets and the Mafia. He tried to convince me we could get rich while everyone else was fighting for our independence from the Serbs.

Luka hopped down. “Ready to make some money?”

Though I was, I said nothing. For days I had watched him rob men walking home or heading to a café. He threatened the guys, made them cry and piss their pants. Even if they handed Luka all their cash, he spat in their faces, sucker-punched them in the belly. I pretended I didn’t care. He gave me some of the money, for no reason. Right away I spent it on marijuana. Luka bought pills, trying to impress this komad, Elena. But he knew she had a boyfriend, some guy named Bruno.

We waited around for an easy mark. A gray drizzle hung in the air, wetting the boughs of the leafless plane trees. Ice had formed on concrete walls and the communal squares.

Luka flipped through a book I had lent him. He’d wanted to know more about the heated political arguments erupting on television and in the city’s cafés, and I had told him Marx was a good place to start.

“I can’t understand any of this,” said Luka.

I had never seen Luka open The Communist Manifesto. He’d kept the thin book rolled up in his back pocket.

“It’s about class struggle,” I said, “and the redistribution of wealth.”

“That’s what we’ve been doing. Mafioso style.”

“First there has to be an accumulation of capital. So we can all live in a Socialist Utopia.”

“That didn’t work out,” said Luka. “So, what did this Marx say about living in a concrete slum?”

“He said if we unite, things will get better.”

“And what if they don’t?”

I turned up the collar of my peacoat. “Fuck. I can’t keep doing this.”

“Explaining books to me?”

“No, the cold,” I said. “We should rob strangers in the summer.”

“Or move to the Bahamas.”

“Da,” I said. “I can picture myself taking some guy’s wallet on a beach. He can only hide it in his Speedo.”

“Are you turning fag?”

“You know what I mean.”

“Why don’t you get your father to fly us out to the Bahamas?” Luka dumped the book in my lap. “He’s wealthy enough.”

Before I could argue, a man with a blond ponytail entered the park. He wore a brown leather jacket and dark pants, smoking and singing to himself. He waltzed through the gravel area old men used for bocce. We rose from the bench and went after him.

“Got a spare?” asked Luka.

The man kept singing. It sounded like a childish melody.

Luka blocked the man’s path. “A smoke?”

The man turned and ran, the cigarette flying from his mouth. It always surprised me how people knew they were in danger. They must have seen something I didn’t. I stood there. Luka chased after him. The man looked like he might get away. Luka dove for the guy’s legs and caught one of his heels. The man tumbled over into a flowerbed. Luka scrambled onto the man’s back, breathing hard.

I scooped up the cigarette and took a long drag. A column of smoke tunneled out of my lips. The guy eyed me. I couldn’t help him—I needed the money as much as Luka. When he realized I wasn’t going to intervene, he cried out about his wife and kids. Luka laughed and stuck his hand in the man’s jean pocket to retrieve his wallet. He removed some dinar and credit cards, tossed the wallet over his shoulder.

“Anything else?”

“Serb thief,” said the man.

“Who’s a Serb?”

Luka rifled through the man’s coat pockets and brought out a small baggie of colored pills. He chucked the baggie to me, and I held it up, tried to work out what they were. Amphetamines, Ecstasy, pseudoephedrine—I had no idea.

“You shouldn’t have lied,” said Luka. “Or called me a Serb.” He kicked the guy in the ribs over and over. I heard the bones cracking. He rolled over, holding his side, arm outstretched. His blond hair was matted with dirt.

“Your turn,” said Luka.

“What do you mean?”

“Kick him. Fuck him up.”

“We should go,” I said. “He’s already fucked up.”

“He’s still moving.”

“I’m not killing anyone.”

“It’s not about death. It’s about respect.”

I flung The Communist Manifesto at him. He caught it. “Respect your fellow worker,” I said.

The man rose and staggered away. I sensed Luka was about to launch another assault, so I grabbed his arm. “Let’s go see Elena,” I said.


We arrived at the club close to midnight. The building had once been a warehouse and still had a concrete loading ramp and barbed wire on the roof. The club was near the river and the air stank of oil and industrial chemicals and sewage. All the girls in line held their noses and sprayed aggressive puffs of floral perfume. Both of us eyed the girls’ legs, hoping they would notice. Luka still had the guy’s blood on his knuckles. It didn’t seem to bother him. Maybe because of the pills he had swallowed on the tram.

“Do you think that guy is all right?” I said.

Luka winked at a girl in a pink miniskirt and black leather corset, a diamanté choker around her throat. The little crystals twinkled each time light escaped from the opening of the club doors. “Forget about him,” he said. “We need to find Elena.” Luka turned back my way and opened his hand to reveal two pink pills. “I have these for her.”

“Are you hearing anything I’m saying?”

“You’re talking about the wrong things.”

The doorman waved the girls in, then held up a hand to us. Miniskirt girl laughed. Luka and I shared a cigarette as we waited for the doorman to let us inside. My girlfriend had no idea how I spent my time. I hadn’t seen her in days. I brushed her off to hang with Luka.

The doorman let us in. We went through the lobby to the girdered archway, stunned by the deafening thrum of techno. Green and yellow lights blinked to the rhythm. A DJ stood in his box spinning records and pushing buttons on his deck. Blue lasers strobed into blasts of dry-ice fog. Young girls gyrated on the dance floor, hip to hip, kissing for the attention of the rich, old men lining the perimeter.

Luka shouted about the men. “They wouldn’t know how to handle those komadi. They don’t have dicks anymore.”

He seemed to want to fight them all, and I knew he would start trouble if given a chance. “I’m thirsty,” I said. “Let’s get some drinks.”

We went to the counter. Neon palm trees were tacked to the backbar—the electric pink light shined through dozens of liquor bottles. We ordered two bamboos, a sickly mixture of Coca-Cola and red wine. Luka removed his Nike hoodie and tied it around his waist, flexing his sinewy arms for the komadi next to us. I sank half my drink and scanned the crowd. At the four corners of the dance floor stood elevated podiums with steel cages at the top. Three had girls in them, one had a muscled guy decked out in a leather thong and cowboy boots; a Chinese dragon tattoo covered his chest, its spiral tongue and tail curling around his nipples.

“Look at her,” he said.


“Above the other bar.”

Elena gripped the metal bars and bent over, her butt wiggled in the air. A group of men below cheered. Their shouts were subsumed by the sound system. She spun around, swung her hair in a wide circle. She wore a sequin bra and tight black shorts. Painted onto her tan midriff was a glow-in-the-dark smiley face.

“How are you going to speak to her?”

“You worry too much, Marin. I’ll find a way.”

He swallowed one of the pills and pressed the other into my palm.

“Isn’t it for Elena?”

“She’s busy,” he said. “Come on, we’re celebrating the new year. We’re gonna make a lot of money.”

The pink pill had no markings. “What is it?”

“The future,” he said.

I placed the pill on the center of my tongue and washed it down with the rest of my bamboo. Immediately I regretted my decision. I rarely took pills. I told Luka I needed a piss, and I left him at the bar. I shouldered through the scrum of revelers. The bathroom stank of a catastrophic bowel movement. Someone had shat in the stall and left smeared feces across the tiled floor. I stood over the bowl and stuck two fingers down my throat. Red meaty vomit splattered against the bowl. I couldn’t remember what I had eaten. I didn’t care. I had to get out of the stall.

Colored lights pulsed across the club. People danced wherever they could. I tried to get my bearings. Luka had moved from our place at the bar. I glanced up. A smoked-glass VIP section overlooked the dance floor. Bruno loitered on the staircase outside its entrance. He had a stout body and a thick neck of corded muscle. His cleanly shaven head accentuated his widow’s peak. He leaned on the guardrail, peered out on the crowd. His jacket fell open, and I saw a silver pistol tucked into his waistband. He shouted to someone and pointed to the other side of the club.

I tracked the line of Bruno’s finger. Luka had wrapped his legs around the pole and was attempting to climb into the cage. A bouncer grabbed the tail of Luka’s T-shirt and wrenched the fabric, using his weight for leverage. Luka held on for a moment, then fell onto the polished concrete floor. He sprang to his feet and spear-tackled the man. He swung his arms wildly against the bouncer’s thick body. The bouncer pounded his fists on Luka’s back. Another bouncer joined in. Together they picked him up and threw him out a side exit.


The night stretched out as we roamed the streets. Luka gave me over half of his marijuana and we smoked a little of it as we crossed the Sava River. We stopped at a supermarket and bought a bottle of red wine for Elena. Luka knew where she lived. Several weeks ago, after Elena had bragged of leaving home for an expensive apartment, he’d cajoled her into revealing her address. His lust for Elena was intense. I was unsure if she was still in school or had left.

Elena’s apartment was in Donji Grad. Grand old buildings lined the street. In the glare of lamppost light, the houses appeared similar to the ones in my parents’ neighborhood. I felt tired as we thumped up the stairs. But still I didn’t want to go home.

Elena opened her door wearing a black silk nightie. Flat-chested without her sequin bra, she eyed us like she was drunk. “What can I do for you boys?”

Luka brandished the bottle of sweet red wine. “I bring a gift.”

“Finally,” she said. “I’d been feeling neglected.”

She didn’t show any surprise that we’d tracked her down. She invited us in. Her apartment smelled of floral perfume and leather. The living room had a television set and VCR and an expensive stereo system. Red shag carpeting ran wall-to-wall. There was a solid mahogany coffee table, and flush against the wall were two bookcases lined with CDs. It all looked out of the price range for a seventeen-year-old.

“Take a seat boys.”

We slumped on the sofa. The muted television played footage from the ending of the siege of Vukovar. The camera panned past burned-out houses to corpses in the street and an old woman crying and screaming. In the past months, thousands of Croats had died. The Serbs had completely destroyed the city. There was a brief shot of President Tuđman making a speech.

Luka and I tried to make sense of the reporter’s facial gestures. I felt stoned and drunk.

“What the fuck’s happening?” I said.

“It doesn’t matter.”

“The Serbs are coming for us.”

“Milošević won’t make it to Zagreb,” he said. “Besides, while everyone’s killing each other, we’re gonna get rich.”

“Money won’t be much use to us if we’re dead.”

“You need another drink.”

Elena returned from her bedroom carrying a large baggie of coke.

“Where did you get that?” I said.

“It was a birthday present,” she said. “From Bruno.” She turned off the TV and sat next to me on the sofa.

Luka seemed angry that I was hanging around and spoiling his chances with Elena. He hunched over the coffee table. He pushed the wine bottle to the side and brought out a bankroll and fanned out the bills. As if he hadn’t quite yet made his point, he hurled a dozen credit cards onto the stash pile. “I’ll buy you anything you want,” he said. “You don’t need Bruno.”

“Who do you think pays for this place?”

“You can live with me.”

“You’re crazy.”

“He’s an old man.”

“He’s in good shape,” she said. “Better than you.”

Luka gathered up most of the bills and stuffed them into his pocket.

“Don’t be like that.” She lifted the baggie and tipped a healthy amount of the white powder onto the coffee table. She picked up one of the credit cards and carefully cut the pile into six lines. “Now enjoy.”

“I’m serious,” said Luka. “You can live with me.”

“Bruno would shoot me, and shoot you,” she said. Then she nodded my way. “He might even shoot Marin.”


Elena rolled up a bill and snorted the first line of coke. “Have some. Forget about Bruno.”

Luka waved her away. “When’s he getting here?”

“Late,” she said, passing me the bill.

I fumbled with the banknote, unsure what to do. I pitched forward and snorted a line. The coke numbed my septum, flattened the sensations on the left side of my face. I winced, unsure of what was happening.

Elena laughed and said I should rub some more in my gums. She changed the music on the stereo. The opening bars of an American disco song rumbled out. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s dance.”

Luka refused to stand. “Not to this music.”

A man began to sing, slow and melodic. He sang about love and sex in a language I had hated to learn. For years my parents had paid for private English lessons, but I preferred to let the tutor smoke while I spent my time reading Kafka.

Elena tugged my arm, her surprising strength easily got me to my feet. She twirled me around. I laughed. Awkwardly, I danced next to her, even when she gyrated her hips against mine. I couldn’t see Luka’s face, but I was sure he was mad. The coke filled me with confidence, and I was tempted to ask for Luka’s lines still there on the coffee table. Elena seemed more interested in dancing. I tried out my best moves—my long limbs flailing. She slowed down, rocking side to side and clicking her fingers. I wanted to forget about my girlfriend. I wanted Elena instead.

At the end of the song, she ran her fingers tenderly through my hair. Luka rose to his feet and shoved me onto the sofa. He put his hands on the small of her back. They slow-danced and Luka kept his head cocked as though he would lean in for a kiss. Another disco hit came on—this one more electric. They both jumped up and down. Then they held hands and spun around in a circle. The bottom hem of her nightie flew up, revealing the edge of her blue panties. As she kept dancing, the straps of her nightie slid off her shoulders and showed us her small breasts. Elena burst out laughing and shouted my name and pointed to her nipples. I half-shielded my eyes, feigning a cringe.


It was past four in the morning. Luka and I were walking back to Travno. There were several kilometers left to cover and it had begun to snow. The dense clouds in the sky promised a squall. Luka stopped by a closed newsstand kiosk and leaned against the shuttered window. He brought out his pack of cigarettes and tweezed out the end of a joint.

“Fuck.” He lit the joint. “Elena really wanted it.”

“I don’t think so.”

“She’s just on her monthly.”

“She has a boyfriend.”

“Bruno? Ugly hair. Ugly teeth.”

“And you’re real handsome.”

Luka punched me square on the arm. “You think she likes you?”

“I have a girlfriend.”

“Don’t forget that.” He offered me a drag.

“I can’t smoke anymore,” I said.


I looked at the stone-clad buildings across the street. I didn’t recognize them. I felt lost, stoned. My body was crashing from the coke. My parents’ house was not too far, I knew that, and I considered letting Luka walk to Travno by himself. “I’m so tired and cold,” I said. “I don’t know if I can make it to your flat.”

Luka pulled on his hood. “I’m going back to Elena’s.”

“She’s asleep.”

“She’ll wake up for me.” Luka had a glazed expression. He wouldn’t stand a chance against Bruno.

“You should leave her alone.”

He took one last drag and flicked the stub into the road. “Fuck no.” He started to walk away.

“Wait,” I said.

Luka turned around, and I punched him in the gut. Hard. His body jerked and he crumpled to the sidewalk. He lay on the concrete groaning, the snow falling on him. I helped him sit up on the curb.

“What the fuck was that?”

“Let’s keep walking,” I said. “It’s going to take us a while.”

© Christopher Linforth 2023