Her name was Ljiljana, Serbian for Lilian, and she was my first love. To be sure, in kindergarten I was smitten with Milica, who did not reciprocate, but that doesn’t count anyway. One had to be in the gymnasium (the European equivalent to high school) to experience the pangs of real love.
Ljiljana Nizetic (pronounced LYILyana NIZHetitch), to give her her full maiden name, was a couple of years younger than I, and the sister of my classmate Branko. There was also a younger sister, Vesna, a tomboy. But as my recently deceased, somewhat older friend, Voja, remarked, “Everyone was in love with Ljiljana.” I’m not quite sure just who everyone was, but I fully believe it.
She may well have been the most beautiful young teenager in all Belgrade. I have one photograph of her at maybe twelve, standing in front of our villa on Lake Bled, wearing a folk costume and looking adorable. The only other snapshot of her, age sixteen, is of quite a young woman already, wavy hair down to her shoulders, as she kneels amid tall grasses and blinks into the sun.
She was shy as a little girl, and did not in any obvious way respond to my sleeve-worn love. But many, many years later, in her penultimate letter, she said that all the other young girls envied her for being my inamorata, and that she was rather proud of it too. But that was all; not so much as a kiss, ever.
Take the evening when my mother and I left Belgrade, thinking mistakenly that it wouldn’t be a definitive break. My father was already in New York, but my mother, in the company of an old family friend, was waiting anxiously for me at the railway station. We were to catch a train to take us to Genoa on the first leg of our exodus to America. Where was I?
I had gone to say good-bye to Ljiljana, Branko and the other Nizetices at their apartment, luckily not too far from the train station. I had acquired a fancy Borsalino hat for the journey. When I tore myself away, very late, I grabbed someone else’s similar hat, much too big for me.
I ran all the way to the station, but if Mussolini had also made the Yugoslav trains run on time, this one would have already left, with serious consequences for us. Even so, I got two hard slaps from the old family friend. Another mother and son, our friends and traveling companions, were waiting for us in Genoa. We caught a train for Rome, but from there, the other mother didn’t want to take the boat to Lisbon—German submarines were said to be active around—so we flew instead. On the plane, I was slightly unfaithful to Ljiljana, writing a poem for a friendly Swedish opera singer, Margit von Ende, traveling with her lover, Berlasina, a famous Italian soccer referee. But on the beach at Estoril I made up for it, gazing longingly at a young girl who looked a bit like Ljiljana, and whom I desperately and foolishly wanted to be her.
Towards the end of World War Two, I was in the Air Force, but because of problems with my inner ear, at a non-flying job, teaching shell-shocked pilots French and German, supposedly as a transition to civilian life. Somehow Ljiljana and I managed to correspond a bit. She was in Prague, in medical school. Her father was a distinguished ophthalmologist, which Branko too was to become in Belgium; she, however, became a pediatrician. In one of her letters, she wrote that she fantasized that when American planes flew over Prague, I was in one of them. Little did she know that I never even came close to a military plane.
Years pass, and my then girlfriend, Patricia Marx, and I are traveling through Europe, and hit Belgrade. Naturally we look up Ljiljana, by then a respected physician. Pat and she hit it off well. Though Ljiljana was lovely, she was rather petite, and I liked taller women. Because Pat worried about her prominent father’s hearing about our traveling together unmarried, we pretended to be respectable spouses. I can still see Ljiljana getting into her car and saying to me, in Serbian, how much she liked “my sweet little wife.”
More years pass. I am in various Yugoslav cities lecturing on behalf of the State Department about American literature, about which I know precious little. My expertise, if any, being about European literature. But so great was America’s prestige in Yugoslavia that anyone who could lecture, however vaguely, about anything in the U.S.A. was welcomed with open arms.
I saw Ljiljana again, now married—lovelessly, alas--to one Marjanovic, a medium-high Communist functionary. More important, she was in what was to be lifelong mourning for her dearly beloved son, Zoran. In his early twenties, he happened to be outside a children’s playground when a ball landed at his feet. Bending down to throw it back, he suffered a lethal stroke.
Ljiljana showed me a photograph of Zoran, a handsome young man, which she handled like a sacred icon. We were sitting in her living room, her husband having sequestered himself in another room. Every night, she said wistfully, he would go off to the kafana (pub) for booze and cards with his chums, but not this night, because of my presence. Otherwise she would have so liked to sit with me amorously on a park bench, but as it was she felt she couldn’t leave the house.
We talked about all sorts of things, though I recall only her indignation at the Swedish tax bureau’s persecution of Ingmar Bergman. There was a bust of her and an oil portrait, both capturing her loveliness, and I made her promise to send me pictures of them, which she never did, probably out of shyness. She did, however, give me as a parting present one of her favorite books by Andre Maurois in French, and inscribed it to me. Shamefully, I never read it, and now, like her last letters, it too has disappeared. I do remember one thing she said: that she had seen the novelist Ivo Andric in the street , blowing his nose into his fingers, not a very nice thing for a Nobel laureate to do.
Years go by again, and we are now in the recent past. Somehow we exchange a couple of letters each. She writes those letters in her large, bold, openhearted handwriting. In one of them she assures me that my Serbian is still fine and my style extremely poetic. She fills me in on her life as a widow, but there are also flashbacks, such as to when she drove me on a visit to the house that my family had owned and I grew up in. It was now a music school, which she deemed a fitting afterlife.
What I do recall from her last letter is “Did ever a woman of 84 get such a glowing tribute?” She also included a funny postcard from Branko, who now, along with sister Vesna who lovingly tended him during his last infirmity, was long dead. She herself was happiest alone, in a villa her family owned on one of the lesser islands off the Dalmatian coast. I can see her puttering and gardening there in the company of her memories.
Finally, postmarked 02.04.13, but dated 26.03.13, a very brief letter came from London with a curious cancellation that reads “Royal Mail supports PROSTATE,” then something illegible, and finally “Delivering first class care for men.” It was from Philip Nizetic, who must be a son of Branko’s, and said “Dear Mr. Simon, It is with sadness that I am writing to you of my aunt Ljiljana’s (Nizetic-Marjanovic’s) death last month in Belgrade. Warmest wishes, [signature illegible].”
I immediately wrote back to him asking for further particulars, but got no answer. I take a modest satisfaction from having made an 84-year-old woman feel briefly young and beautiful again.