A cigarette withered between the old man’s fingertips. Clad in a knit sweater and khakis, he had seemed harmless when we entered the cafe. Now, he stared bemusedly at Lori, a woman in her thirties with her hair buzzed short and a rainbow lanyard around her neck.
"If you were my wife, I would beat you every night,” he said. He spoke casually, as if discussing the weather.
Lori stared back at him, taking a deep breath before beginning to speak. As one of the founding members of the Feminist Traveling Caravan (FTC), a Serbian group I had recently joined, Lori was no stranger to encounters of this kind. During street theater performances about violence against women and children, Lori and the rest of our team had encountered audiences where men spat at performers in protest and threw bottles. They argued that the statistics--which I knew to be taken directly from police reports—were lies. Others cried out that women provoked men and deserved to die.
In the basement café of the National Theater in Nis, the credits to a film we had just screened had barely finished rolling when this old man, a retired theater actor and likely an inadvertent member of our audience, began to speak. He complained that our performance troupe was really a cult of drug-loving homosexuals. Apparently, this was a common insult in Serbia.
“Anything new that people here don’t understand is a cult,” Zoe, another of FTC’s organizers, had once explained to me.
I watched Lori speak back to the man, straining to keep her emotions in check. She was once a professor of Serbian language, but when the curricula in Serbian schools began to shift--when only certain literature was supposed to be taught--she decided she couldn’t teach anymore. She quit and became a full time advocate and performance artist. I watched her now, her eyes lit up, speaking quickly in the language she knew so well.
"This is one of those times I wish I understood more Serbian," I said, smiling at our tech guy.
"No," he said shaking his head, rolling up electrical cords from the projector. "No you don't. Not now. This is ugly stuff."
The man leaned over Lori, his voice patronizingly low, and repeated, "If you were my wife, I would beat you every night."
Upstairs, on stage, a Serbian epic play carried on. Bodies crashed to the floor above us. The violence reverberated through the floorboards, punctuating the old man’s monologue.
After a few more moments, it was a shouting match, with Lori and the old man standing toe to toe.
Suddenly, the door to the small basement cafe burst open. "Please, please," a balding man from the theater upstairs exclaimed in a whisper-shout, waving his finger and pointing at the ceiling. Lori and the old man continued arguing, leaning toward each other with mere inches between them. I wondered if she could taste the cigarette on his breath. I wondered if it would take a marriage license for him to make good on his threat.
The bald theater manager had had enough. He directed the barista to escort us out. A few minutes earlier, that same barista had been speaking warmly with me about my travels; now, he was hurriedly guiding me and my friends toward the exit. He opened the door to the rainy December night. As he stood shivering in a t-shirt, he looked at us and said curtly, "Sorry, this is Serbia."
He shut the door behind us. The old man remained inside.
We loaded into the van in silence, amidst a heavy quiet that's best left alone. As I settled into my seat, I went over the scene in my mind, watching it the way a bystander might. There she was—red-faced and flustered, an unapologetic lesbian, an angry feminist shouting with such force, berating someone who could easily be perceived as a helpless old man. I imagined the theater manager and the other people in the cafe retelling the story. How unfair, I thought, that in defending herself, Lori had legitimized the very stereotype that discredited her.
Why should anger mean the absence of rationale? There is, after all, plenty to be angry about--Serbian culture is still saturated with patriarchy, chauvinism and homophobia.
“Danielle,” Lori said. It was the first time I had heard her voice crack. The blue light of the van's interior illuminated her expression. She looked deflated, exhausted, old in a way I had never noticed before. But her eyes were still bright, and she met mine, without shame or apology.
"He's a professional actor,” she said. “He's been trained. He has that ability to command attention, but I didn't want to let him be louder. I didn't want to let this one man be louder than all of us women. I wanted to be heard."