Vladimir Vlahovic, Love of My Life

The last time . . .

Vladimir Vlahovic May 16, 1940 — June 17, 2016

The last time I saw Vladimir I recognized him immediately, but if not, I could have been smiling at a well-fed homeless man. I had flown into Philadelphia earlier in the week to visit friends and relatives and wanted to spend an hour or so with him. I called, “Can I drop by?”

He said he was on his way out and didn’t want to postpone his errand. My days had been full and the only opportunity before returning home to St Augustine was that day: March 7, 2013. “I’ll pick you up and drive you to the Social Security office?” He agreed.

After parking, I walked over to wait by the ten-foot iron fence that surrounded the complex. I watched him come toward me. As he approached the forbidding-looking gate, if I didn’t know better, the place could have been a prison. But I knew his apartment, at Twenty-first and South Streets, was in a secure facility for low-income seniors.

Vladimir and I first laid eyes on each other in the late spring of 1976 at Fran O’Brien’s, a popular singles hangout. I noticed him staring at me across the horse-shoe shaped bar. I met his eyes then turned to order. Before my drink arrived, he was sitting on the stool next to me. We talked—his English was fluent, with a Serbian accent—and danced for hours. The firm, secure way he held me would stay forever etched on my body. But I was in the middle of a separation, and he was going to Yugoslavia for the summer.

In the first week of September, Vladimir called. During the previous months, two postcards had arrived from Dubrovnik, and my husband had moved clothing and a few personal belongings to New York where he worked. By Christmas, Vladimir and I were in an undefined, intense relationship.

In the new year my husband suggested a reconciliation. A snowy weekend trip to Manhattan convinced me Vladimir had my heart. But I couldn’t give him the commitment he desired. Experiences with two failed marriages had persuaded me to value my freedom. I was thirty-four years old and living alone for the first time in my life.

The new year also intensified Vladimir’s insistence on a commitment. My children—living with their father in Harrisburg, visiting me often in Philadelphia—loved Vladimir as much as I did. There were times, I think two, when I gave in and said or wrote, “Yes.” Both happened when Vladimir proposed from a different continent. Once his trip was over, and he was back home, something—a new condition from him or an unknown piece of information—would negate my pledge.

Half-way through our fourth year, still desirous of each other, our romance came to an end. For years, Vladimir and I had little contact. I wanted to see him, be friends, which seemed impossible for him. Eventually he was willing to talk to me and sometimes see me. We always ended up arguing over whose fault it was we didn’t marry. My children thought their lives would have been better if I had. His and my understanding of words such as truthfulness and honesty and trust were at variance.

Michael, Vladimir, Peggy, Sherry Elkins Park 1978

After I no longer lived in Philadelphia, Vladimir and I talked more often. And once when I needed transportation coming or going to Europe, I stayed at his apartment, and we slept together like siblings.

When Vladimir and I spoke for forty-five minutes on his 75th birthday, I imagined I was close to getting him to come to St Augustine for a visit. I wanted to see him with my grandson Noah. And, of course, daughter Sherry would have been thrilled. She still remembers Serbo-Croatian words she learned from our time in Dubrovnik during a summer trip around Europe.

It took a few months after that May birthday call for me to realize how long it had been since I’d heard from Vladimir. I left messages on his cell, sent emails, and rang him on Skype. With his history of being abroad for months at a time, I wasn’t particularly worried. For years, maybe decades, he worked as a tour guide during the summers in Dubrovnik, only returning to the US in time to teach his university classes. I had spent several romantic and turbulent weeks with him there in 1977 and 1978.

Vlahovic Family in Belgrade, Yugoslavia 1977

After retirement he traveled abroad more often, and he did some teaching in Africa, I think. Because he had previously been treated for thyroid cancer, I once in a while looked for an obituary. Always relieved not to find one, I wanted more and more to hear his voice.

One night in September I typed in the words: Philadelphia Obituary Vladimir Vlahovich (the Americanized version, not Vlahović). There it was, along with a photograph. After all this time, there were no mutual friends I could call to learn more. His ex-wife and children were not likely to welcome a call from me.

When I picture Vladimir, often it is a photo of him cropped from one of us taken together. Stuck in a small frame, it sits nearby on my desk. Other times, I remember that long ago day in March when he strode toward me, and I waited for his strong arms to encircle me.

His hair and beard, once raven black, were now more salt than pepper. His hair, still thick and wavy, was uncombed, wild, and the mustache and beard I had only seen neat and trimmed, sprouted hairs that grew scraggly down his neck and poked from his cheeks. The added bulk to his six-foot-plus height pushed against his black pea coat, which was dirty and worn.

As he came through gate, his smiling eyes met mine. Here was something that hadn’t changed, same as always, from the day I first danced with him at Fran O’Brian’s bar on City Line Avenue. The fire was still there, and he was the attractive and appealing man who would forever be the love of my life.

Peggy & Vladimir Chester Ave 1979

Vladimir & Peggy 21st & South Street March 7, 2013

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