[FLASHOVER] n. the moment a conversation becomes real and alive, which occurs when a spark of trust shorts out the delicate circuits you keep insulated under layers of irony





Roba was in a fitful state. He and his father were fighting every day about rehab. “I am not going,” Roba told us. “This is problem, okay. I need to not drink. I can admit marijuana is problem. Big problem. But I can stop all of it now. I will stop now.”

“Ljubić,” Kata said. We were sitting in a café called Aquarius near Grbavica Shopping Centar. It took Kata and me five minutes to walk from our flat, but we’d never thought to have coffee here till now. The place was packed, a fishbowl of smoke. Aquarium, I called it. We were nearly shouting—in English, as I was present. Roba didn’t care who heard us. Kata went on, “How do you think you can do this by yourself? I cannot fix myself, and I am not an addict with years of using heroin.”

“I have tools, ljubić. I was in rehab five years. I will practice what I know. You do not go running to rehab the minute you have emergency.”

“So you admit this is an emergency?” I said.

“Is emergency if I do not stop it now.”

“Well, I am leaving this city, ljubić,” Kata said, taking out her cigarettes. “I am going to see the doctor. Yancey will keep the flat, yes, but I am going away. You will be without me. Who will you talk to then?”

“The guys in the church.”

“Are they strong enough to support you?”

“We are all ex-addicts, ljubić. There is this understanding. I am not worried for this. It is my father that makes me worried. He is saying if I don’t go to rehab, I cannot live in the house. This is threat. He said to me, ‘I am putting you in charge of too many things at our company. I now have lost trust. I cannot keep you in company like this. The only way I can trust again is if you go back to rehab.’ I said, ‘What? For another five years? You are crazy.’ He was not liking that I called him crazy. He became very angry. His face was red with these spots like Sunce has all over him.” He meant Sunce his Bosnian sheepdog. “So then he said to me, ‘You will go five years if that is requirement.’ I say, ‘You will be without your son another five years? I will have more than forty years then. I want a family.’ He says, ‘I want a healthy son.’ So it is like that. He gives me one week to decide. He might throw me from the house. But I will not go to rehab. And I will not leave the house. I can say this is going to be a very hard week.”

“I do not know, ljubić,” Kata said, smoking now and inspecting her nails. “Don’t do it,” I whispered. “What?” she said. “Start chipping the nail polish.” “I don’t like this color.” “You just put it on.” “It is too dark and makes my hands look old. But, ljubić,” she continued. “What if you are wrong and you cannot stop on your own? Now you have your name on record with the police for this marijuana in the car.”

“No, ljubić, my father got that taken off.”

“That is not honest, ljubić. That is not like you.”

“He just did it and told me after. I do not have energy to go back to policija and insist they change the record again.”

“Ljubić, I am worried you do not have good judgment. You may just go crazy if you stay here.”

“I will only go crazy if we don’t get married. Are we getting married?”

“Majko mila, ljubić, I told you. I want to get married, but we should not make plans like this. I go now to the doctor. You might go to rehab. What is that? We are not yet ready for marriage.”

“I will not go to rehab, I told you.”

“But what if it gets worse?”

“It will not.”

“But if it does, would you go to rehab then?”

“Not for five years. I want to marry you. I want to have kids. I will not go for five years, and no one will make me do that.”

“Couldn’t they let you stay three months or something short term?” I asked. “It’s on the coast. You’d be close to ljubić.” Kata was moving in with her family near Gradac.

“Oj, I do not want to think like that, Yancey. I will be fine. I can do it myself.”

“Ljubić,” Kata said. “I will not marry you if you are not dealing with your issues.”

The conversation went on this way: around and around, until Roba finally agreed that if he couldn’t deal adequately with himself, he would go back to rehab for a limited time; and if they said he couldn’t stay short term, then he would find another option; he insisted that he would work on his issues and that he would marry Kata, who again said, “You must be honest with yourself, ljubić, because we cannot get married if this dark thing in you is right at the door. Right there knocking. Because then it will enter our marriage. And marriage will definitely be katastrofa.”

“Oh, the dark thing knocking, ljubić!” Roba said, laughing uncontrollably. “Watch out for this dark thing. It is at the door. I can hear it. It’s over there trying to enter café-bar. Aha, it is making me want to order rakija. Ten rakijas!”

“Don’t, ljubić,” Kata said, putting out her cigarette. “We cannot joke on this.”

“Why not? We have to joke on this. Even you are laughing, ljubić. Look, Yancey is laughing, too.” And I was.

“That doesn’t make it good,” she said, eyeing me.

“See, ljubić,” Roba said. “This is why we must get married. We will laugh the rest of our lives.”

“Yes, laugh with the dark thing making us do crazy things and then both of us dying at a young age. God forbid we have children.”

Roba looked at her very seriously. He’d forgot I was there. “Do not speak about our children in that way, ljubić. Anything else but not children. And do not say ‘God forbid.’ I do not like those words coming close to talk of children.”


Stacy Mattingly is a Boston-based writer and founder of the Sarajevo Writers’ Workshop. She has just finished a novel set in the current-day Balkans. “Aquarium” is adapted from that book.

Visual: Magdalena Modrić