My visa expired while I was living in Serbia. I had to exit the country and get my passport stamped. My dinara were dwindling and I didn’t have enough money to go on a trip. I could’ve written my folks and asked them to send the money—my dad would’ve loved that, another reason for me to get citizenship…but I wasn’t about to capitulate. My short-lived, booze-filled career as a footballer ended, anticlimactically, and amidst plenty of pivo. I just wanted to drive across the Croatian border and get it done with quickly.
I phoned my uncle who lived down the street from me—not far from the house he and my dad grew up in. I could rely on my uncle’s discretion not to relay our occurrences across the Atlantic. He and I’d grown close; he always made a point of showing me his favorite hangouts—kafane that were small, cramped, and overflooded with folk music and drink stronger than moonshine. Needless to say we bonded at those small cafes. I knew he would help me out of this bind.
He arrived in the morning with his neighbor, Falcon, in Falcon’s small coupe, claiming his car was in the shop. I knew it was a lie, but I kept quiet. I had a grumbling hangover, and, besides, who wants to drive ninety minutes to the Croatian border in a Chevy Spark? The little thing barely got around Belgrade.
It was 7:30 and we were all groggy. As we drove along we awoke slowly, and Falcon started warning me about the border. This was serious business. After all, even though I had a traditional Serbian name, I was on an expired visa with an American passport. He said the last part with dark undertones, like it was a disadvantage to have an American passport. I couldn’t argue. And, my uncle added, probably more for himself, it didn’t matter that I had Croatian blood. But I knew that. The Serbo-Croat conflict. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard as a kid a million times before. I learned when and where to keep silent.
And it was all fine, I thought, because I knew they had my best interests at heart. They agreed to give up their morning for me after all. And in some divine way, I felt like there was purpose in my uncle and Falcon taking me across the border. When I first met Falcon earlier that month (I never figured out why it took me months to finally meet him—he lived next door to my uncle) and he discovered I came from Chicago, it didn’t take long for our conversation to reduce to—“Chicago! You must know my childhood friend so-and-so. He has a daughter about your age.”
The Serbian meet-and-greet.
Except the divinity wasn’t only that I did know his childhood friend. No! I actually had a passing you-know-what with Falcon’s childhood friend’s daughter. Wasn’t there purpose in that? I mean there are small worlds and there are small words.
I tried making sense of it all, sitting in the back seat while the two up front continued expounding upon what a catastrophe these gung-ho border laws were compared to the old days when they drove around Yugoslavia to their hearts’ content.
We pulled up to the kiosk at the border. My uncle began freaking. His passport was on the heater at home; he could see it. Falcon felt his pockets. Nothing. Outside, the patrolman, who had been hovering over the coupe, walked away gruffly to discuss with his fellow patrolmen. Falcon suggested I drive across the border alone, but my skills with manual transmission were pitiful.
My uncle started swearing and lit a cigarette. I followed suit. Falcon joined us, and as he lit his cigarette, the patrolman came back to our car. Falcon offered him a smoke. The patrolman took one without a word. I knew the game. They made small talk. The patrolman kept glancing at me, probably assuming I didn’t understand. I could play the game. I gave him my passport and he went away again. My uncle exhaled curses under his breath. Falcon shook his head. They agreed, not only were these patrolmen dimwitted, but they were wasting our time.
The patrolman came back, this time with the chief. My uncle and Falcon, both bright-eyed and smiling, wondered aloud if there was no way this could be fixed. Some nice pečenje for dinner, a nice roasted pig perhaps? On us, of course. The chief laughed. We laughed. The game. He informed us my visa expired yesterday, a problem he could fix for us, but there might be trouble on the Croatian side. Not to worry though, he would radio them, give them a heads up. He was good friends with his Croatian counterpart. It would all work out. Except I’d have to walk there.
I clutched my passport and started walking. My hangover vanished. There was that sliver of my soul wanting. Maybe I was granted something I silently wished for. After all, Serbia wasn’t cutting it. I had family in Croatia. But that wouldn’t be a new start, just a continuation. All I needed was to get through this international charade. The Serbian chief was beyond fair and accommodating. But that was the game. Hopefully the Croatian side would play.
I made it to the Croatian border, standing in a line of cars. My turn came, I handed my passport to the patrolman, and he stamped it without speaking or raising his head. The Serbian charm; not much different in Croatia. Hvala lijepo, I said. Most likely I wasn’t only the first (and last) person that patrolman saw through on foot, but also the first (and last) person to say ‘thank you.’ He looked up at me and managed a thin smile. The little victories.
I walked back along that stretch of highway to Serbia. Between two countries; two antagonistic countries. Between two worlds.
Voyo Gabrilo won the Oakton PlayOn Playwriting Competition and Festival in 2014 and 2016. His fiction has appeared in The Manifest Station, and he is currently in the Program for Writers at University of Illinois Chicago.