Aida's Wedding

My parents have always moved through this world with discomfort. Mom, it seems, because of my stepdad, as she experiences all of his difficulties as personal defeats, and my stepdad simply because he has so many. This is not to say that Minka doesn't have any difficulties of her own, sometimes she considers her whole life a colossal failure, but she experiences them especially through her men. After all, she comes from a patriarchal society and expects men to carry the burden of life on behalf of loved ones, so it especially disappointed her to never meet one capable of carrying that burden as bravely as she always has.

Except her father, him she held at a pedestal as an example of a real man. Proud, bright-faced, sparkly-eyed, and with an outstretched smile, she would frequently recall some random anecdote from memory. "Ah, sine, grandpa Ismet was always neat and elegant," which was an important fact since messy people are also evil. "Every morning after he would wake up, he would shower and get fixed up, put on his suit jacket and go for a stroll in the bazaar. Everyone knew and respected him." This everyone was a constant in all of mom's stories when she wanted to show something as undeniably true. I later came to understand it as a type of scholarly citation, a way to show that she didn't derive whatever conclusion on her own but with the help of immeasurably cleverer people, giants on whose shoulders she stood and whose wisdom she humbly elaborated upon. Like for grandpa Ismet, gaining respect from others was mom's greatest goal in life. When she received it, she wore it like a medal, and when she didn't, the world around her crumbled. Sadly, she rarely received it.

That day was Aida's and Tom's wedding. My former partner Amir and my youngest sister Dunja were there too, and we all managed to squeeze into one car and head for the wedding hall, which was not easy because we were all a little plump back then. The wedding was at Krikich's, a gentle man who recently lost his daughter to cancer. She was young, my age. They are also from Prijedor, so we were all proud that he made it, a rare thing that we as a community agreed upon. It was unlike us to view the success of one of our own as our success, but no one could hate Krikich. Everyone knew how much he helped people during the war and upon their arrival to this, now predominantly ours, St. Louis.

The wedding hall was a large structure adjacent to a restaurant that became a landmark of South St. Louis for all, including us freshly-minted, Americans. Amir drove, my stepdad sat in the front, while mom, Dunja, and I sat in the rear. Before leaving, and in familiar style, mom emphasized that Amir and my stepdad couldn't sit in the back because their legs were too long. She said it just so neither my sister nor I would get the crazy idea of sitting in the front or driving. It's true, both of them were over two meters tall, but there were also shorter men in the past who mom thought were entitled to the front seat. Thus, I concluded long ago that her reasoning isn't based on structural limitations of back car seats with respect to tall people, but the fact that in my mom's world men must always be given the right of way. I never understood why since, as she herself claimed, men were advantaged simply by the fact that they were born men and, at least in theory, were inherently desired and loved by their families. Thus, it made more sense to give preference to us unlucky folk of female persuasion, so that we may one day, with lots of hard work, become worthy. But I didn't say any of this because, if I had, she would look at me like some clown performing nonsensical acrobatics or a troublemaker who makes elephants out of micey things.

Neither did my stepdad nor Amir oppose her. My stepdad because he was submissive, although she always pressured him to claim his rightful place as the head of our family, something he neither desired nor knew how to do. Amir simply because he didn't speak naški, although our conversations rarely interested him in the first place. Dunja and I just rolled our eyes babbling in English while mom shot rigid stares our way, ready to issue a slap or two for unacceptable behavior. She always feared our rebellion, so she kept strict order. Any form of disagreement from us she perceived as a personal affront, so she ruled us like a governess.

My stepdad chain-smoked compulsively, throwing cigarette buds through the passenger window, while mom observed him closely muttering some nonsense: "Ah, Darko, please lean over that fucking window properly so that you don't get ash all over your clean shirt, you can't look like that at the wedding. Dear God, you are such a beter". My stepdad kept quiet and ignored her in a way he best knew how. When Amir was about to light his cigarette I objected, since some of us in the back didn't want to participate in this forced performance of mass suicide. Then mom jumped right in to caress his ego: "leave him be, let him smoke." And then in broken English she relayed over the men's shoulders: "Yoo go ahet Ameer, yoo smok if yoo vant to smok, I no it's hart honey not to smok vhen yoo vant." The last part was a projection of her fierce desire to light one, but she held back to show my sister and I that she stopped smoking, something she's been falsely claiming for years. Amir of course lit his cigarette. I would too if I received permission from Minka. She had such authority that in our household we feared her first, then jointly Tito and Allah. The latter two had no conflict since mom mediated between them, invented their shared mantras, and communicated them to us like a prophetess.

At last, we arrived at the crowded parking lot and rolled ourselves out of the car. We were all dressed in accordance with traditional wedding customs but none in accordance with our own style. If it were acceptable among our people, who are obsessed with etiquette, to be as we are, mom would much rather wear one of her colorful, short-sleeved, cotton t-shirts and shorts cutoffs, stepdad one of his white a-shirts that cover his oversized belly and pajama pants, Dunja one of her hoodies and tight jean shorts, Amir one of his hiking outfits, and I one of my hippy dresses. But we didn't, we looked respectable instead. And clean, of course, always clean.

Dunja and I waited impatiently for others to finish smoking so that we can enter the wedding hall together as a family. Cheerful young women, probably Aida's cousins, waited eagerly to brand us with white flowers to show that we belong, although there was no real reason for it since the only party there was Aida's and Tom's wedding, and we were clearly affiliated. When we finally entered, we greeted Aida's parents who were justifiably inebriated celebrating the marriage of their one and only daughter, our Aida. And if anyone deserves such festivity that's her.

Two years ago, Aida was shocked by tragic news. Her best friend Vedran, whom we all knew as Vedo, killed himself. She couldn't grasp why it happened and how she, of all people, didn't foresee it. She and others described him a cheerful, albeit cynical, person who had a hunger for life. But he was also a risk-taker, it was later established. He loved to zigzag his car across highway lanes while driving with smooth tires and worn-out brakes. Then there was that time when, a year prior to committing suicide, he traveled to Israel to see his big sister and, on the way there, learned that his cousin was murdered by his drug dealer. Later, while relaying the news to that sister, he laughed about the incident as though he was talking about an acquaintance whose shoelaces got comically tangled in an escalator.

It never dawned on anyone at the time, even the sister, that he was deeply disturbed. Perhaps it's because he acted in accordance with standards of acceptable public behavior. He was visibly obedient and considerate towards his parents and loved his sisters, and he studied business and marketing at the university where he was also learning Japanese and Chinese. Of course, there was also aggression that he frequently displayed in his childhood home, obsession and control with which he manipulated his partner, weird disappearances for extended lengths of time during which no one could reach him, among other things. But no one could see the whole picture and ultimately, everyone was afraid to discuss it openly. That kind of discussion, after all, isn't acceptable in decent social circles, just like cut-off shorts and stretched out a-shirts, lest someone think that the person is crazy or that he, God forbid, needs to see a psychologist.

But Vedo went to see a psychiatrist. Among other possessions, which he carefully packed just prior to shooting a bullet through his temple and recording a heartfelt message for his loved ones asking them not to blame themselves for his actions, they also found the phone number for a mental health crisis line. Earlier he told that same big sister that he started taking depression medication and he looked rather positive and optimistic, she recalled. Now we know that much of that was playacting, typical for people suffering from bipolar disorder, who feel pressured to weave tales to protect those around them. This is something that still remains with his family and friends. They just didn't know.

The wedding hall was packed. We sat at a table bearing our names and then dispersed along its circumference to discourage others from joining in. After all, we are not the kind of people that like to socialize with those we don't know, or even those we do know, since Minka taught us that people are evil and need to be treated with suspicion. This axiom, that people are guilty until proven innocent, which is contrary to the well-known American legal principle, is perhaps why she never successfully assimilated into American society. We saw other names on the table as well, some unlucky souls whom we tried to spare the presence of our rotten company, by clearly signaling they are unwelcome as soon as we saw them eyeing their chairs. Nevertheless, these two bravehearts, seemingly decent people, joined our table in spite of our best efforts. Yet after a short time, the heaviness of our presence was felt so profoundly that, to evade us, they began to blend into the white cloth of the chair skirts beneath them until they became nothing.

Aida noticed us and, with Tom in hand, came to greet the family. First, she hugged mom and Darko, then the rest of us, just as traditional code of conduct dictates. I didn't mean to cry when she approached me, but I cried anyway. Maybe it was out of joy because I really wanted her to be happy. Maybe it was because of mom. I don't remember who started first, but I remember I felt heavy, and I think I saw tears. Maybe they were mine.

I knew this was hard for Aida, so I wanted to be happy for her. It's not easy having a wedding in the absence of your best friend. I began to daydream reluctantly, just as I often do when escaping reality, and imagine the same wedding with Vedo's presence. He would've been Aida's best man, or woman, he could easily fulfill either role and she would be happy either way. He would certainly charm and entertain the guests in a way that only he knew how. He would be handsome, wearing a swanky suit with some prominent bow and shoes and bleached hair that he sported the last few years of his life. I yearned for my imagination to materialize in some alternate universe, where a young man, who incessantly rubs one eye with the palm of his hand while laughing, still lives and celebrates beautiful life events and those fragile twenties with his peers.

I was overwhelmed with emotions reminded that Vedo will never live to experience something like this, that we will never celebrate his graduation, his success, his wedding, the birth of his children, and that his life will remain stunted where he left it scattered on the tiles of his bathroom floor. I don't know that whether he ever wanted any of the aforementioned things for himself, but I simply wanted him to be able to want them. I knew that for the rest of my life, my little brother Vedo, whose diapers I changed, whom I lulled to sleep as a baby, and who was simply mine, will forever remain at the mercy of our storytelling, without an opportunity to object or confirm. This makes me ashamed to talk about him even now because I don't know that he would be pleased.

The folk music commenced. I glanced at mom and felt the depth of her agony which, like in purgatory, she experienced every time anew. I knew what she was thinking because I thought the same. I then remembered how she loved to dance, even though for a long while she would only do it jokingly when we prompted her to show us her moves. She would then brag about how talented she was when she was young, dancing as part of a traditional Bosnian dance group, and then to show us what she meant she would stand in the middle of our living room, throw her hands in the air, snap her fingers, close her eyes, plump her lips, and begin swaying her hips to-and-fro. Then she would lower one arm, pretend to be holding a def and gently knock it against her protruded hip. She looked magical then, passionate and self-assured, but after only a few minutes she would be dragged back to reality and become self-conscious and stiff.

In her surrounding, my mom, a lively and confident young woman living among conservatives and with strict parents, was somewhat cursed. She spent her whole life suffocating that inner blaze to become completely undifferentiated from others and thus earn their respect. Respect, after all, was not just a matter of social approval, rather it had concrete and tangible consequences, as did lack thereof. She learned this the hard way, first when she married at the age of seventeen to escape her father's oppression, only to find it again with mine, and then once more when she chose to share her life with a former Serb soldier, my stepfather, only a few short months after my father was killed in a Serb-run concentration camp. She lived through all of it, or rather did it all, but continued to stand behind her decisions and mistakes because they were wholly hers.

Dunja and I finally managed to convince her to get up and dance while Amir and Darko sat at the table, indifferent to the world around them. Mom entered the circle and we quickly linked hands with others to start dancing the kolo, since everyone knew that the wedding kolo must not be skipped. To do so would be to stick out unacceptably and might even be considered rude. Dunja and I hopped clumsily while mom hovered through the air. I felt like we were dervishes in a trance moving to the beats of music that conducted our bodies. I looked at my mom and could see what was coming. When the next song started, we transformed from the previously linked mass into individual tree trunks swaying at a new pace, with arms like loose branches trashing back and forth. There I saw my mom slowly lifting her arms above her head, closing her eyes, smiling, and almost imperceptibly winding her hips like a dandelion catching a mild breeze beneath the scorching summer heat.

For the first time that evening I rejoiced at the pleasure of seeing my mom happy. I wanted it to last but knew it wouldn't. I knew she would quickly retreat from her fairy world the moment she senses something amiss. This time it happened when she accidentally bumped into some guy next to her and then, as though she immediately felt out of place, she turned around and sat back at our table. My heart felt heavy as I just stood there watching her, because I really just wanted her to dance a little longer. I wanted to say something to encourage her, just as I often did as a child when someone would publicly humiliate her, but I didn't. I just stood there inebriated staring at the worn out expression that now masked the profile of her face and uttered in complete silence: "Let the fairy come back. Let her dance defiantly. I will keep her safe."


  • sine - meaning "son"; in some parts of Bosnia, it is also used when speaking to daughters.

  • naški - term used to designate a family of mutually intelligible languages that include Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, Serbian, and different dialects.

  • beter - someone with negative character traits, alluding to a range of possibilities such as, but not limited to, dirty, lazy, careless, repulsive, etc.

  • Tito - late president of the former Yugoslavia, a socialist federation that ceased to exist in the 90s.

  • Allah - meaning "God" in Arabic, used interchangeably as such by Muslims all over the world, including Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims).

  • def - frame drum, handheld musical instrument, commonly used by women to accompany steps and movement to traditional Bosnian dances.

  • kolo - traditional dance common in Bosnia and the surrounding region, where large groups of people link hands together and move in unison to generic set of steps.