I was standing at the edge of the world with Ana on one side and the war on the other. I was holding her hand, teetering on that flimsy line, and knowing full well that once I let go I might never get it back. At least that was how I felt when I awoke that morning.
It was hard to be happy about the wedding, at least through the jaundiced prism of the war. A battle erupted in Grbavica as I dressed. A series of ear-shattering explosions shook the plaza. The Serbs had collapsed part of an apartment block to keep the Bosnians from taking it. The detonations set off a storm of gunfire from both sides. A grenade exploded against the parliament building showering the streets with shrapnel. Then, with one gigantic eruption, the fighting ended.
Hasan offered to lend me a suit for the ceremony. It was a hopelessly out of date maroon suit, with huge bellbottoms and wide lapels. I wasn’t sure whether that particular shade of maroon even occurred in nature. Still it was a thoughtful gesture. Ana, however, insisted on a “war wedding.” She wanted me to wear the khaki pants and shirt I had worn into the city. They would be the same clothes I would wear in the attempt to reach the tunnel after the ceremony.
A number of Ana’s friends were waiting at Opshtina when I arrived with Nadja and Hasan. They were gathered together near the front steps. There was even a scrappy blond Croatian guy, a friend of Olja’s, a sniper, who had taken the afternoon off for the wedding. He walked the two blocks or so from the frontline. I didn’t know him well. I knew his mother was hiding in Serb-held Grbavica, where she had been protected by Serbian neighbors since the start of the war. He watched her daily through the scope of his rifle, but dared no other contact.
Beside him was a sweet young woman named Nermila. She lived with her brother, Sanin, below Ana’s flat. Nermila’s parents had been killed just a year earlier, purposely bracketed by Serb mortars as they went for water.
Olja arrived with her boyfriend, a local blackmarketeer named Edin. She gave me a big hug then burst into tears. Edin’s chin quivered, but he turned to light a cigarette hoping no one would notice.
I was shaking, afraid I wasn’t a good enough man for Ana. Plagued with a sudden shower of misgivings, I feared disappointing her, or worse yet, failing her. I would almost rather risk never seeing her again than allowing that to happen. I wondered if something in my eyes betrayed all this when Olja reassuringly rubbed my shoulder.
Ana was late as usual. Apparently they had trouble getting a car. She stepped out in a borrowed red dress, more beautiful than I ever believed a woman could be. In her arms was a bouquet of bright red roses. I smiled, and recalled how much she said she hated roses. They reminded her of funerals. I felt like a pauper before her exquisite vision, and felt less than worthy as she took my arm. We went slowly up the steps and into the building.
“Nervous?’ I asked.
“Kill me,” she replied, squeezing my arm tight.
“You look beautiful,” I said. Ana beamed. Distant gunfire was drowned in the roar of a passing tank.
“And you look very handsome.”
Everyone crowded into a small second floor office overlooking the river. It was an unromantic place, with dull eggshell walls and a photograph of Tito beside the door. Not of Tito the wartime leader, or the elder statesman whose power waning in proportion to resurgent ethnic nationalism and division. Rather it was the postwar Tito, repackaged into some sort of romantic leading man, glancing over one shoulder with a fatherly smile.
Four folding chairs were arranged facing desk. According to tradition my Kum, Hasan, was seated beside Ana, while Keka, Ana’s Kuma, sat next to me. I looked around the room at the faces of the people there. Even Nadja and Hasan were strangers to me, but I felt safe among them all. More than that, I felt loved.
Vesna, presided over the short ceremony. The old professor, struggling to translate the proceedings in to English, elicited occasional chuckles from the others. Not that any of what was being said mattered to me. The words and signatures were the formalities of men. They were legal courtesies and social ceremony, for I had been married to Ana from the moment I saw her.
I looked over at her. She beamed like an angel, her face as bright as a child’s on Christmas morning. She seemed to know that I could not take my eyes off her. Ana bit her lip to keep from crying with joy, and covered my foot with hers.
“William,” Vesna said at last, “Do you take Ana Toshich to be your wife?”
“Da,” I replied without hesitation. Ana squeezed my hand tight.
“And Ana, do you take William to be your husband?”
Ana’s eyes were filled with hope and expectation. She answered quietly. “Yes.”
Nadja, Renata and several others were already crying. Fighting back her own tears, Vesna rose. “It is with great pleasure that I pronounce you both man and wife.”
The room erupted in applause. Renata kissed my cheek and welcomed me to the family. Olja called me her big brother. Hasan swept me into his arms. His voice cracked as he congratulated us.
We hurried downstairs to a waiting car. Somebody mentioned rice, but lamented that it was far too precious to throw. As we pulled away Ana’s girlfriends were cheering and whistling. She turned to the back window and playfully flipped them off.
Both of us were laughing, until we passed the cemetery. It was another reality that we could hardly ignore. So many lives had been interrupted so that Ana and I could find one another. It all seemed so terribly selfish. I pulled her to me and kissed her soft hair. We turned up the hill away from the graveyard. I found Ana’s eyes and wanted to tell her not to feel guilty, but couldn’t find the words.