A Memoir


‘I can’t feel anything. I can feel the blood, but I can’t feel the pain. Oh my god, am I paralyzed? Did it hit my spine? Don’t look. Don’t touch it. Fuck, you have to do something! You can’t bleed out under a bush in fucking Belgrade,’ my mind raced. 

I dropped the knife I had been holding in the event someone attacked me. My grip is so tight around it that my hand strains to release it. 

I slowly roll onto my back expecting the pain to start shooting through my body as if I’m being electrocuted.  I slide my right hand down the right side of my abdomen. Then to the pelvis, just inside of my hip bone. Then ever so slowly I reach the top of my thigh and I stop. I don’t want to touch the hole in my leg. I just need to get a sense of where it is exactly. Shock must be setting in I think. I inch the very bottoms of my fingertips down farther – I’ve never been shot before so I have no idea what this is supposed to be or not be, but I’m anticipating the pain I’m about to feel when I locate the wound. I’m terrified of looking down at my leg – I’m afraid of what I might see. I tell myself I have to look – “no one is coming to save you, you have to save yourself Thomas. Fucking Look!” I can’t see anything, everything is so black. Is this what it’s like to die? You feel nothing, everything is black, you’re blind and you don’t feel pain anymore? My hand reached my leg and I can feel the blood. It’s soaked. It’s warm, but cooling. Fuck, I’m going into shock aren’t I? I have to see how bad this is. I slowly bring my hand up to my face, inches aways. Fuck I’m blind, I can’t see my hand. It’s dark, but I should be able to see my hand. Then it hits me, my eyes aren’t actually open. I open my eyes and let them adjust as I move my hand closer, then farther away from my face – everything is blurry from having my eyes shut so tightly. Finally my eyes adjust as much as they can. I move my hand farther away from my face. What the fuck!? I gently roll onto my side again and poke my hand and head out from the bushes I’m hiding in, to try and get more light on the situation – I’m confused and need to be sure I’m seeing what I’m seeing. My hand has some wet dirt sticking to it, but there’s no blood. What the fuck?! I look down at my legs still in the bushes and slowly drag myself out far enough so I can see the blood and wound. My pants are soaked, but is this blood!? I rub my hand firmly on my thigh and then bring back to my face again. This isn’t fucking blood!

I flop onto my back staring up at the night sky, “are you FUCKING kidding me right now?! I exclaim allowed. I lift my head up and do a half ab crunch to look down at my legs and then fall on to my back again. I haven’t been shot. I pissed my pants…

“There is no shock setting in, no wonder there’s no fucking pain, it’s not because I’m paralyzed. Holy shit! What the fuck is wrong with me? I’m not fucking dying in Belgrade tonight…at least not from the imaginary gunshot wound to my leg that smells like piss.”

As I lay there looking up at the night sky of Belgrade I can’t decide what I’m feeling more, relief or shame. I swear to myself no one will ever hear this story. “I pissed his pants, how fucking embarrassing is that?” I think. I’m a grown man for goodness sakes and here I’ve gone and pissed my pants. I start laughing. Laying on my back I start laughing. At first I’m afraid someone might hear me, but I can’t stop the rush of feelings and emotions and exhaustion overtaking me in that moment and as the ‘feels’ come crashing down onto me, I don’t even fucking care anymore. Go ahead evil world come get the 21-year-old laying in his own piss in the middle of the night laughing in what could only be considered hysterical. You want some of this world? Here I am, I’m all yours! My tears of laughter roll into tears of sadness. I want to be someone worth caring for. I want to be someone that people feel is special. All I really want is to be loved. I begin to sob. I bury my face into my filthy hands – I’m ashamed of myself for wanting to be loved so badly that I would go on this ridiculous adventure that appears to be failing at every turn. I feel weak and ashamed that I even need love?

I lay there crying until I crawled back into the bushes. I pulled my knees up to my chest and I lay there in the wet dirt, crying until I finally fell asleep.

It’s bright out when I open my eyes. I have no sense of time. I know I’m cold and…wet. I look out from the bushes wanting to be sure when I climb out I don’t scare some old man feeding fucking pigeons. I see no one and I come out from under the bushes. My pants are still wet of course and needless to say, I’m filthy covered in wet dirt – in some places more than others, but I’m not looking either my finest or my sanest. I drag my pack and camera bag out from their hiding spot and look around. It’s for sure still morning and early morning at that – the sky is filled with an array of beautiful colors and an early morning dew glistens off the wet grass. I see the bus stop I arrived at last night – everything looks so different from the way I saw and experienced it just a few hours before.

I’m starving and incredibly thirsty. I need to eat. I need to eat and I need money. I need a bank to cash some of my travelers checks. After I get some food and money I’ll figure something out in terms of getting myself cleaned up. I know that should probably be priority number one, but I’m just way too hungry and thirsty to care about that right now. I walk through the park, not very far before I come upon a well trafficked road. As I prepare to cross the street I turn back to look at the park while replaying last night in my mind. Last night this place was a black hell filled with monsters and demons and now, shit, it’s a pretty nice looking park.

I cross the street and there is someone with a street booth of some kind with odds and ends – I can’t tell if he’s actually open because he still looks like he’s setting up. He sees me and his expression conveys to me that I’m looking as fucked up as I feel. I pull out my damp $5 dollar bill and ask him for what looks like some fresh baked bread, a can of warm coke (he has neither water or anything that would keep a can of Coke cool, let alone cold), and I ask him how much for the tourist guide book he has out. He doesn’t speak english and I, as we all know by now don’t speak Serbo-Croation, but I get the bread, the warm coke and the map for a damp $5 bill.

With regards to warm Coke…How in the fuck people drink warm soda is a mystery to me. The concept of ice and keeping drinks cold can’t possibly be foreign to parts of the world that have been around for so long. Honestly, I just didn’t get it back then and I don’t get it now. That said, I’m without options so I’m not freaking out about the bread being cold or the Coke being warm.

I tuck my new Belgrade tour guide book into my pack – I decide that once I get a couple hundred dollars in travelers checks cashed, figure out where I can get rinsed off and change my clothes, I can pull the city guide book out and start figuring things out. However, first things first; stuff my face and find a bank. I try to ask my new buddy, Mr. Warm Coke man, if he knows where I can find a bank. We go back and forth for a few moments until he understands what I’m looking for. As soon as he understands what I need, he points behind me. I turn around and fuck me, there are a set stone steps leading to doors with worn brass handles – and its a bank. “Hey, maybe shit is starting to look up for me after all,” I think.

I walk up the couple steps and give a tug on the door handle. It’s locked – they’re not open yet. I sit on the stone steps and I eat bread and wash it down with thick gulps of warm liquid sugar. When I’m finished with both I lean back watching the people of Belgrade wake up and walk into their day-to-day lives. I think about how much this looks and feels just like where I live. People coming and going – to schools, to jobs, to their lovers. I don’t know what their day holds in store for them, but I imagine it’s not too unlike what people back home will be doing when they get up this morning. “I bet you we are more alike than we are different,” I think to myself. “The differences are easier to see or hear or smell or taste or feel, but I bet we all want the same basic things. A safe home, companionships, a job that allows us to provide for those we love. To raise our babies into infants, into children, into teens. To see them grow and go and grow some more. To see our children grow into their own world, so they can live and love like we got the chance to do. To see our children fight and strive to do it better for their children than we did it for them. I bet we all want to feel love and give love. Yeah, we’re from all different types of places, we have different shades of skin tone, and different types of faces. Yeah, our costumes are different, but underneath I bet we all want the same things. Who knows?” I think. I decide I’ll tuck that theory into my back pocket and as I navigate through my life I’ll observe whether it proves true or false.

It isn’t too much longer of me loitering on the front steps until I hear the clickety clack of bank doors being unlocked. I pick myself up off the steps, brush myself off as best as one can under my circumstances. Needless to say that in the case of my circumstances, brushing myself ain’t doing shit for either my appearance or odor.

One of many old banks in Belgrade – I can’t tell if it’s the one I had the pleasure of being rejected at or not in the Summer of 1992. ©Ewald Judt

I enter the bank and while I’d love to sit her and tell you about the high arched ceiling with a beautiful Fresca hand painted by Leonard de Vinci himself, and the beautiful marble flooring and the thousand year oak wood partitions between each bank tellers, the truth is I can’t recall shit about the inside of this bank other than what took place…or better yet, what didn’t take place.

Being the first customer of the day I stood back from the single teller, a young woman who was busy finishing up whatever last minute to-do’s a bank teller takes care of before inviting a customer forward. I wanted to use this time to get a Traveler check out of my money belt, but then I’m figuring if she looks up and I have my hands down my pants this could turn out worse than the taxi ride in Budapest. I decide I’ll wait until I step forward and then I can get my hands down there without ending up on an episode of Cops in Belgrade.

The young woman gently waved me forward. “Hello, good morning,” I quickly blurt out before I actually reach the standard Banking Customer Counter position. I was attempting to beat her quickly to the “Welcome” intro we are going to have to exchange. The reason being is to cue her into the fact that I’m a foreigner of the English speaking variety and therefore she is going to have to get her English on or find someone who does English, because I sure is shit don’t do the Serbo. She catches the cue and returns my preemptive strike with a warm “good morning sir,” in English. There’s a few other throw away words we exchange as we are preparing ourselves for the purpose of my visit. “Well, yes. I would like to cash $200 dollars worth of my Traveler Check please,” I say as I magically pull a $200 American Express Travelers check from my pants. She looks at it, spins it towards her so she can read it right-side up and in the sweetest little English is my second language voice says, “I’m sorry sir, we do not accept these.” I look down at my American Express Traveler Check to make sure I didn’t pull something else out of my pants by mistake. I spin it back towards me so I can be sure in my state of exhaustion I’ve not gotten something mixed up. I haven’t, that’s a $200 American Express Travelers Check. I look at her with a slight half smile as if I must have misunderstood her, “I’m sorry, I thought you just said you do not accept these…” I let my voice carry off as I’m waiting for her to blush slightly for her silly mistake, perhaps take one of her slender hands with nicely manicured nails and cover her eyes as she becomes embarrassed by how much she has let her English skills slip. “Yes, this is what I said, we no longer accept American traveler checks. I’m sorry sir, is there something else I can help you with today?” she says. I stand there dumbstruck. My jaw is open and I’m not blinking. “Sir?” She says, but I’m lost in thought trying not to freak THE fuck out…”Okay Thomas, no big deal. You’re probably just in a bank that doesn’t provide that service. Easy big guy, you just need to find a bank that does provide the service…that’s all, you got this buddy,” I’m full on pep-talking myself from losing my shit right now.

“Oh, ok. I got it. Your bank does not provide this service” I say. She smiles, “yes sir, you are correct.” In my mind the conversation between me and myself continues all in an attempt to keep me from going over the edge. “See Thomas, that’s all it was. Just find the bank that does cash travelers checks and you’re good to go.” I come back to reality and ask “Ok, no problem. Could you please tell me where I can find a bank that does cash travelers checks?” I ask nicely. “I’m afraid there are no banks in Belgrade or the country that will provide such a service,” she says. “I’m sorry, what?!” I belt out. “Yes, I’m sorry sir, but we do not accept American travelers checks anymore because your country has economic sanctions against our country. No one will accept or honor these checks,” she says as she glances over my shoulder. I turn to see what she is looking at, it’s a line of several people forming behind me. “I’m sorry sir, is there anything else I can help you with?” She asks. “Now just hold on a minute! If you or no one else accepts Travelers checkers then that means I have absolutely NO money,” I say. “I’m sorry sir, but there is nothing I can do about this.” I stand there looking at her – eyes and jaw wide. “Anything else?” she says for her third or fourth time. I hang my head, “no, that was it…” I mutter as I slide my worthless checks and two bags off to the right of the teller so I can put the checks away before I leave and find a tall bridge to throw myself off of.

To the side of the teller window I begin to take stock of my situation;

  1. I have no money.
  2. I’m exhausted.
  3. I smell…like pee.
  4. I’m still hungry.

Okay, what are my options;

I have a return train ticket back to Budapest. I can’t go back. I can’t go back home like this.

What else can I do? There must be something else I can…oh SHIT!, I know what I can do! Why didn’t I think of this sooner!

Can you say, “U.S. Embassy” MF! That’s it! These three words immediately paint the most vivid picture in my mind as I stand in an old ass bank building in Belgrade.

What I envision is a mash-up of a lifetime of every U.S. embassy scene in a movie or t.v. show I might have ever seen. And the image I have in my head in that moment is rather grand – this would be the difference maker I was in need of. I envisioned a beautiful old architectural style building with 10-foot high black iron fencing all the way around it. You could see the building from the street given its size and grandeur, but it was set way back in the center of what was several acres of open green grass. There are two tall and broad standing Marines serving as Centuries just outside the black cast-iron gate. Only Americans were allowed in. You’d have to show your passport of course to gain entry. A Marine you could not see as you approached would step out and order you to present your passport. He would turn sharply on his heels and disappear to run your passport through some high-tech, deep-state, CIA developed testing to ensure that your passport was the real thing and not a forgery. When he returned he would hand it back to me all the while looking mean as hell, but as you reach to take it back the hardness from his face fades out and a grin the size of Iowa fades in. He’ll tell me, “you’re all clear, sir. Come on in,” as he orders the gates opened. When I step in he slaps me on the back letting me know how nice it will be to have a new face around for a few days. He’ll personally escort me to the doors leading into the embassy, not something he normally would do, but it’s me and he’s really stoked I’ve shown up. As we walk up a path in between the PGA quality manicured grass and the cobblestone driveway leading to the large roundabout at the front of the embassy entrance stairs, the rock hard muscular marine informs me they have a room ready for just such a time as this. The room I imagine them leading me to is not a massive suit by any means, but it has its own bathroom with an endless supply of hot water for when I’m ready to soak in the large soaking. The bed is only a queen I figure, but the sheets are freshly cleaned and the pillows are soft as if I were laying my head on clouds made by God’s own hands. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner is at a set time I’m sure of it, but I’ll be free to go down to the kitchen and get a hot dog or popcorn or cold American beer whenever I want. This is no bullshit, the image I have in my fucking head when I think “U.S. Embassy in Belgrade.” In my mind’s eye, I can see it all and it looks really good so I head out of the worthless bank knowing that soon I will have all the food, drink, rest, and safety I’m so terribly craving.

While I had never traveled off the North American continent until this trip, I’m no dummy…I knew it would be wise to have the phone number and address of the U.S. Embassy for the countries you would be traveling to, however, as I dug into my pack to find the hardbound brown envelope I carried important stuff in, I realize I forgot them…I’m such a dummy! I walked back over to the street vendor man I had purchased the bread, tour guide, and warm coke from earlier and I started trying to ask him if he knew where the U.S. Embassy was. He’s sitting on a stool talking with another man who is leaning against what I can only assume is his car. The two are sipping coffee out of what looks to me as to be some extremely small coffee cups. They both smoke cigarettes and seem at first glance to know each other. I interrupt and ask the street vendor if he knows where the “U.S.

Embassy” might be. He looks confused, as does his friend, so I repeat it and then point to the bank building. I do this a couple of times and finally a lightbulb goes off for his friend and he says some words I don’t understand and then the street vendor guy understands – he nods his head now – he gets it. I have my map out and hand it to him. He points to a spot on the map that doesn’t look too far away…by map standards anyway.

I thank them both, fold up the map, and point down the street where I think is the road I start on. He nods his head yes and I lug my pack onto my shoulders and turn to start walking. As I do, the street vendor whistles to get my attention, which he does. When I turn around he waves me back and begins talking with his friend. When they finish their brief conversation, the other man quickly tips his Barbie Doll size coffee cup back and sets it down. He then waves for me to come around  the back of the vendor’s shop where he opens the back door to his car. I walk around the back of the little shop of trinkets and start trying to let them both know I have no money to pay for this taxi ride. I start explaining I have no money, that I had spent my last $5 on “breakfast.” The vendor picks up what I’m saying, says something to his buddy with the car and the buddy says in very broken English, “no problem, no money, no problem – brothers, brothers,” as he points back and forth to him and the street vendor. I’m like, “oh, that’s cool. You guys are brothers, cool.” I have no idea why that fact is pertinent right now, them being brothers and all, but hey if them being brothers means I get a free ride to the U.S. Embassy then I’m totally cool with that.

This is a composite drawing of the US Embassy in Belgrade which was dedicated July, 2013. While it most certainly resembles my own vision of the US Embassy in Belgrade in 1992, I can assure you this is not what I experienced. ©

As I flop down into the back of the car I’m taken aback by the two men’s act of kindness in giving me a ride – especially now that I’ve just learned that the U.S. has levied sanctions against their country.

I mean I’m no student of Foreign Policy, but I have to imagine that a small country being sanctioned by a behemoth of a nation as the U.S., these people are going to feel the hardship of that soon, if they haven’t already and yet here they are treating me as if I was their guest, I think. And maybe that’s just it, the two brothers somehow see me as a guest. Hmmm…chalk one up for my theory that people, regardless of external circumstances, can see each other for how we are alike rather than how we are different.

The vendor’s brother, who I have no doubt introduced himself to me, but I’m not sure which word was supposed to be his name and which word was just a plain old word he was using in a sentence. As he heads out into traffic I start to feel a sense of peace. A sense of peace for the kindness of strangers. Peace because I’m exhausted and I’m not hiking across the city lost in my inability to know which direction I’m going. Peace because a bed, hot bath, and hot meals await me. My sense of peace starts to build into genuine excitement the closer we get; “Hot Damn! Hello US Embassy! Daddies coming home!” I shout, the vendor jerks at my sudden outburst from the backseat. He spins his head to see what in the hell I’m screaming about. I just smile real big, “we good my brother, we all gooood.”

The car pulls off a busy street into what is essentially a Florida strip mall. If you’ve been to Florida then you know exactly what I’m talking about, if you’ve not please stop reading and go Google that shit before reading onwards…never mind I’ll save you the hassle by adding a picture of one of Florida’s 12.5 million strip malls (that’s not a real fact – I have no idea how many strip malls call Florida home – it’s probably way more than 12.5 MIL)

Just one of millions of Florida Stripmalls – I would say this picture is one of the nicer ones I choose. ©River Brokers

So he pulls into a place that looks just like that, a Florida strip mall. I figure he’s making sure he’s going the right way or a pit-stop to grab a six-pack of beer and a carton of smokes. Shoot, maybe babies momma told him not to come home without diapers. I have no idea, but I’m figuring he’s gotta do what all people do when they pull into a place that looks like Florida strip mall – buy lotto tickets, buy a money order, get shitty tattoo from a kid named Frankie – I could keep going…The vendor’s brother rolls to a stop and puts the car in park. I’m waiting for him to get out and handle whatever business he has here. He turns around to look at me. He smiles at me, I smile at him. He keeps smiling at me. I keep smiling at him. He’s looking at me. I’m looking at him. He gives me a little “hey, whats up?” head flick, so I give him one back. Finally he says, “you go.” I look out the car window, “no, man I’m good. I don’t have to go.” I’m telling you these Serbs are nice people – the dude thinks I need to use the bathroom. “I’ll go when I get to the embassy,” I tell him. He looks at me strangely. “You go. Embassy,” he points to a small business out front that looks like it could be out of business or a new tenant is just moving in and they’re doing a bunch of tenant improvements before the grand opening. Shit, he’s at the wrong place! “No, the BIG U.S. Embassy,” and yes, I’m making as big and sweeping arm movements as I can in the backseat of his car. He turns to look out the window, cranking his head to get a better view of the entire building. He turns back to me and points “U.S. Embassy. You go.”

“What the fuck?! Are you kidding me right now? Where are the Marines? Shit, where the fuck is the acres of property and the huge building where I’m going to sleep and eat and recover? Shit man, this can’t be it. Are you sure we’re in the right place?” A lot of words, thoughts, ideas, disappointments and expletives are flying out of my mouth as I try to get my head around my fantasy compared to life’s reality. What I’m seeing with my eyes doesn’t not on any level match what I had seen with my mind.

I step out of the car, my hands tightly squeezing the top of the car door trying to get some grasp on this turn of events, “What am I missing?” I ask myself…apparently I’m missing everything. I duck my head back into the car, “are you sure, man?” He nods yes. I pull my head out of the car and start muttering, “that’s it, I’m fucked. What the fuck am I supposed to do now? You have got to be fucking kidding me. Where is the big ass embassy you see in every fucking spy thriller ever made? Oh, let me guess, it’s on the back-lot of some Hollywood movie set in fucking Hollywood. Man, FUCK Hollywood this is some false fucking advertisement right here. Why don’t they ever show the shithole embassy like this one? This is such fucking bullshit right now. I smell like PISS for fucks sakes…” I’m having what my close friends and family affectionately call a “Tommy Moment.” A “Tommy Moment” is where I lose my SHIT and no one (including me) can do anything about it once I go off. I’ve learned how to read the warning signs so I have few and fewer of these as I grow more mature, but once I go off it’s just best to walk away and let it run its course. More often then not it leads to scars and broken bones…and a shit ton of regret. Oh, you’d like an example? Okay…

My wife Angela and I are newly engaged. I’m on staff at the Boston Globe newspaper in…Boston, MA of course and she comes out from Seattle to live with me. However, my plan is not to stay on staff, but to work with an agency out of New York or London or France and freelance covering wars, conflicts, and general world chaos. So my soon to be wife (we’ll call her Angie because that’s her name) and I decide that we’ll move back to her hometown in the Seattle area, get married there and then we’ll reevaluate where we should live based on my career. So we decide we will do a road across the country making stops in different cities/states to share the news with the people we love. We are on the last leg of our trip and it’s a stop in my hometown of Mill Valley, CA. We are going to go have a night out with my three high school best friends and I’m going to ask them to be the Best Men at my wedding. We hit the famed/infamous 2 a.m Club in Mill Valley – lots of crazy wild nights in that MF let me tell you.

This image does not do this little hometown dive bar justice. Established in 1906, it survived through prohibition to become a feed & grain store (seems like a very convenient way to keep the ingredients for alcohol laying around). I’ll dig out some of my own pictures from inside asap. ©Benton00

We hit that spot up and I ask them to be the Best Men at my wedding and it’s all fun and games…and a good number of cocktails. For reasons I have no idea, we decided to head up to another known local bar in another town just a few miles away.

So we head there and we start rocking out to the jukebox, shooting pool and carrying on with drinks and stuff. It’s getting close to ending the night and three guys roll in and start playing on the pool table next to my soon to be wife, Angela and I. One of the guys asks if we want to play a game of doubles, two of them and Angie and I. We say sure and we start playing. Every time my soon to be wife leans over one guy in particular starts mouthing off to his buddies about my wife. I let him know how I feel about that and it would be in everyone’s best interest if he would refrain from doing that. Does he stop? Nope and suddenly I get triggered and here comes a “Tommy Moment!” I tell the piece of shit if another fucking word comes out of his mouth about my fiancee I’m going to kick his ass. At which he says, “you wanna take this outside?” And grinning from ear to ear I say, “yes, I really do.” So he and his buddies head for the door and I’m right behind this asshole and Angie and my three buddies are behind me. Now Angie has never seen a “Tommy Moment” before, in fact she knows nothing about said insanity as I failed to mention such an ugly thing while we courted. So Angie thinks she can talk me out of this fight that’s about to happen and my three buddies who I have known since I was in 8th grade are well aware of what is about to happen to this asshole and just stand back to watch the fireworks. As we are walking the doorway the asshole starts taking off his shirt…Let’s hit pause here so I can explain something: In my book, if some dude asks you if you want to take it outside, well then once both men are outside the fight is fucking on. I’m not going outside to talk about fighting, or do a bunch of pushing and shoving hoping someone will break things up before a punch gets thrown. I’m going outside to knock you the fuck out. If you want to talk, push, shove, dance or in this case taking your fucking clothes off you go right ahead, but in the mean time I’ve going to fight…Unpause: I’ve been in a good number of fights, I haven’t won them all I can assure you, but one thing I’ve learned from fighting is that I can take a punch. I’m not getting knocked out by no Average Joe and this guy is as AJ as they come. So he’s taking his shirt off and I pullback to throw a punch that I know sure as shit is going to set him on his ass and we can call this a night and as I go to throw it my soon to be wife in an attempt to try and stop me from fighting, steps in front of my fist. I just punched the woman I love and adore… in the fucking FACE!

When it happens, I’m like, “oh fuck!” The SOB I was about to blast and his two buddies are all but falling on the ground in hysterics. They are laughing their asses off. I’m standing there half wanting to help my wife up and half wanting to kill all three of these assholes. Seriously, at that moment I’m actually torn as to what I should do first. Clearly, I should be all about helping my lady and checking on her, but I’m insane when I get like this and hence I’m not making good choices right now. I finally decided to help my wife. By God’s good grace the punch didn’t hit her straight on, but glanced off her cheek. When I try to help her she is so pissed off at me that she storms away and yells, “I would rather go home with those assholes than you!”…ouch, that one cut deep.

Anyway, you get what I’m saying. “Tommy Moments” always end poorly for someone and that someone is usually me. 

…I snatch my pack and my darling camera bag out of the backseat with great force. I walk in front of the car so he can’t drive off without running me over – I really don’t want to separate myself from the vendor’s brother because if he leaves and this turns out to be some type of mix-up, I’m going to be walking wherever the real U.S. Embassy is located. I stay in front of him while at the same time trying to get a more direct look at this place he’s brought me to. Finally, I just have to commit to walking inside this so-called “embassy” to figure out what it is or what it isn’t. I give the vendor’s brother him as friendly a smile and wave as I can muster and head to the doors.

The door is heavy when I pull it open and I notice that the glass isn’t actually glass. I tap it with one of my knuckles as if I’m knocking to get in. It looks and feels more like thick plastic than it does glass. Well, that seems like the type of thing you’d want if you put your “powerful” and “prestigious” embassy in a fucking Florida Strip Mall. If there was a locked door, or a security guard I don’t remember. Had there been a Marine or even someone actually from America anywhere I would have remembered that, but to the best I can recall, I just walked right the fuck in. When I enter there is a fairly long wait at a glass booth. Someone is looking at documents and answering questions, but it’s all being discussed in not English. I’m still confused. Everyone in front of me is not from America…well, I should say, that no one in front of me is acting American – you know, obnoxious, self-entitled, or rude because no one is raising hell because they are having to wait inline. If you have no idea what I’m talking about then it’s for one of two reasons; One, you’ve never traveled out of the United States (Canada or Cabo don’t count)and hence, you haven’t seen someone from America act like a complete asshole. Or number two, you HAVE traveled outside the United States and you’ve not seen an American act like an obnoxious ass and it’s because you’re actually the one behaving like a dick.

I eventually get to the window and the glass/plastic is as thick or thicker than the shit the door is made of. “Uh, hi.” I don’t even know what to say. “Uhm, I’m an American and I’m going to be going into the war and I thought I should tell someone,” I say but I’m thinking unless I find a fucking genie in a bottle who owes me three wishes I’m not going anywhere, but home. “Passport?” the woman behind the thick wall of glass or plastic asks for. I slip into a slot and she takes it. Reviews it, writes my name and passport number down on a sheet of binder paper and hands it back to me. “Thank you, have a nice day.” And that was it. I took my passport back and stood there dazed and confused. What the hell is happening to me? The woman calls “next?” Which she hadn’t done one single time before I got there. I still haven’t moved. I don’t know why I would really, I have no idea what my next move is supposed to be. I have no money.  I know not a single person in the city and the one I do know, the old woman, I don’t actually know. I’m exhausted, dirty and no doubt smell like piss to some degree. “Sir, is there something else I can help you with?” I stare at her blankly, unsure what I can really ask her for that she could really provide me with. There is nothing left for me to do. I guess I lost.

Looking back at it all, I think this place was left to handle passport and visa shit, but as for an embassy, that shit was not open for business when I was there. I Google “US Embassy Belgrade” as I was writing this book and the Google Earth view shows a pretty expansive compound with what looks like a tennis and basketball courts. I can assure you, in the Summer of 1992 this was not what I experienced. However, when I think back to my initial vision of what the embassy would be to some degree, I wasn’t too far off. But like I said, the Google Earth version as seen today, was either shut down because of the sanctions and ultimately because America led the UN’s bombing campaign that would come a couple years later. Or the current set-up was not built yet – I have no idea. Regardless, the only play I have left right now is to catch a return train back to Budapest. That was all I could do. I got my map out, located the train station I had come in on the night before and started walking. To ensure I wasn’t going the wrong way, I stopped about every third person, showed them my map and that the train station was my destination. I got there without a wrong turn, thank God!

I stepped onto the Belgrade train fearing the worst. While the train platform was empty I had every fear that as I entered the train car it would be nightmarishly filled with throngs of stinky backpackers and I would be forced to sleep on my feet for some 12-14 hours back to Budapest. To my relief the train car was completely empty. Not a single person was in my train car. I chose the passenger cabin with the fewest seat stains and prepared myself for what I was hoping would be a long, long, long sleep. In the two days I had been in Europe I could not account for more than two or three hours of actual sleep. Having filled my body with alcohol on day one was just stupid. The best meal I had was the sandwich “Yvonne” had given me the evening before. Certainly that mornings breakfast of bread and a Coke was so not the Breakfast of Champions. I had little water so to say I was feeling dehydrated would be a complete understatement. The fear, anxiety and absolute terror of the night before and the train ride to Belgrade just yesterday had taken its toll. Add in that I hadn’t had a shower in as many days and now smelled like urine was the icing on the cake. I felt like a giant piece of shit.

Before the train began, I could no longer stand the smell of myself anymore. I pulled some clean clothes out of my pack, along with a small travel towel and travel soap and I made my way to the train bathroom. There I undressed and gave myself a bath as best I could standing in a train bathroom. With no care of the chilly water or the sloppy mess I was making on the floor I gave myself the bath of a lifetime or so it felt. Into some clean pants, socks, and a t-shirt I headed back to my cabin to do the one the last thing I had been so desperately wanting – some sleep. Once inside I dropped the window of the train car to its lowest setting. It was already feeling warm despite it still being early morning. I knew feeling the breeze on my sleeping body one we got moving would be heaven sent. From there I laid down taking up the entire bench seat with my head towards the door and facing the window. I knew it would only be a matter moments before I would be asleep, I liked the idea of falling asleep looking out and up into the blue sky. As I lay there, finally horizontal in a seemingly safe place, atop a softer than Belgrade park dirt, I struggled to weigh the feeling of being defeated to reach the war. My body felt as though it was bearing the brunt of the disappointment and shame that I felt for having not reached the dream I had set out to reach. The worst part was imagining how the conversations would go with family and friends when I returned and they asked how things had gone. I was already feeling the shame of those future conversations. Explaining how the stupid assumptions I had made before leaving sent the entire trip into chaos and that I was unable to make it happen. My insecurities around what family and friends would think was heavy all on it’s own. Once again Thomas has a hair brain idea that never comes together – poor Tom, they would think or say amongst themselves. I fucking hated the idea of it. I have to find a way to do this I thought to myself, but I was in know place to think about anything at that moment.

The train began to shake. Then rock. Then slowly the pull of the steel wheels began to turn. It feels like I’m being rocked like a baby by my mom I thought as my eyelids grew heavier and heavier. I was headed towards an afternoon of soft Summer sun dreams and I could not get arrive there fast enough. When I awoke many hours later, what I witnessed and experienced was beautiful and magical and unlike anything I have ever experienced before or after.

“Am I awake?”

“Am I dreaming?”

“Am I dead?”

It is as if I had awoken on a train traveling through heaven…

5 replies on “nine”

Thank you Heather – I really appreciate the comments and for hanging in there with me. Looking to have the next Chapter up and live by Friday, April 30th.

Probably way more curse words than anything you read in school too…not sure I can fix that

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