He almost made me cry the first time I put on the purple winter jacket and purple rubber boots my mother had brought home from the Red Cross warehouse.
“You look really manly in purple,” he told me through obnoxious chuckles. Worst of all were the restrained but nevertheless noticeably demeaning smiles on the faces of Perica’s blond groupies.
Even prior to their mocking, my head had started spinning and my cheeks blushing when I spotted about a hundred other immigrant boys and girls in the school yard wearing the same purple winter jacket and purple rubber boots. I wanted to get rid of my clothes, cut them with scissors into small pieces and throw them into a dump. But knowing how effortlessly my lungs attracted pneumonia and how furious my mother would be upon discovering out that I had gotten rid of the only warm winter clothing she was able to get her hands on, I kept my purple garb and pretended to like it.
Perica came from a wealthy local family. The first post civil-war boutique in the small Herzegovinian town of Gacko was opened and owned by his parents. While all the other mothers were elbowing and arguing with each other in waiting lines for food and clothes, Perica’s mother hired a professional tailor to make a coat and fitted jeans for her only child. Whenever he wore his long black cashmere coat and the original Dr. Martens cherry red boots on his feet, I was reminded of why he was so popular.
There were other reasons why I utterly despised Perica. He was the only boy in the whole neighborhood who owned a proper football and basketball, and that meant that he was the one who decided when, how, and with whom the rest of us were going to play. Perica usually selected the best players for his team and never felt a scrap of compunction when his team destroyed the ill-equipped opposition. After the game, golden-haired fans hugged and congratulated their heartthrob, telling him, depending on the sport we played, that he reminded them of either Zinedine Zidane or Michael Jordan.
“How can he look like both of them when one has white and the other black skin?” I would irritably inquire.
“You are just jealous,” they would reply in unison.
It was the rich and snooty Perica who ruined the game of tag for me. His blondies were designated chasers, but they only ran after Perica. The rest of us stood in place and thought about the far more entertaining pursuits of chopping wood and milking cows.
“Why don’t you try to tag Svetozar,” I would call out every now and then. “He is fat and slow.”
“You are just jealous,” the blondies would reply.
“I might be fat and slow, but at least my nose isn’t the size of a squash,” angry Svetozar would say, punching me in the shoulder.
But the main reason I hated Perica wasn’t his sports equipment, expensive clothes or his popularity. I hated him most for the food he flaunted in front of our starved eyes. While most of us ate sandwiches made of cheap spam, and if lucky, thinly sliced “slanina” (high-fat bacon), Perica’s bakery roll was usually stuffed with mustard, enough Trappist cheese to make three sandwiches for three hungry adults, and real smoked ham.
A week before the start of school, neighborhood boys gathered in my front yard to discuss the upcoming ‘Back to School’ football tournament. Perica walked through the gate, sporting brand new Reeboks and trailing a giggling blond herd, munching a freshly-made sandwich and drinking a can of Pepsi.
I, on the other hand, was struggling to bite the burnt crust of my grandmother’s homemade bread. Baba Jela baked our daily bread in a cheap metal pan, and it usually caused the sides and the bottom of the loaf to burn while the interior remained damp.
“That crust looks delicious,” Perica smirked. “Chew it carefully or you’ll break your teeth.”
All the boys around us kept laughing for a long time, even though their diets were identical to mine. They all knew that, just like me, they, or something they wore or did, could at any moment become the target for Perica’s derision.
“It usually isn’t this burnt,” was all I managed to say. I wish that I had said nothing at all.
Just as the laughter subsided, Baba Jela appeared out of nowhere. She approached us with ginger steps and a friendly smile on her face.
“How is your mother?” she asked Perica, but before he was able to answer, Baba Jela leaped like a professional male ballet dancer and slapped the sandwich out of Perica’s hands. He fumbled it for a moment, but his shiny, crispy and crackling crusty bread was all he was able to save. Two thick slices of smoked sham and an even thicker slice of cheese were now lying beside his feet, covered in dirt and dust.
Perica looked at her in disbelief for ten unbearably long seconds. Then he turned around and walked away quietly, rubbing tearful eyes. His blond gang followed shortly after.
When everyone, including my Baba Jela, disappeared from our front yard, I picked up the piece of ham lying in dirt, blew on it and wiped with a sleeve of my shirt, and took a big bite out. It was the first time I had tasted smoked ham and that is how I discovered (and to this day I still hold the same belief) that ham is not that great.
Blog post courtesy of Milan Djurasovic, a Bosnian American collage artist, blogger, and book author. He currently lives and works in St. Petersburg, Russia. His educational background is in psychology and history.
Illustration by Tomás Pichardo-Espaillat