Dead Friends I Have Loved
The last time . . .
Vladimir Vlahovic May 16, 1940 — June 17, 2016
The last time I saw Vladimir was March 7, 2013. I recognized him immediately, and 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 him: “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 this was the only opportunity to see him before returning home to St Augustine: “I’ll pick you up and drive you.” 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 his apartment, at Twenty-first and South Streets, was in a secure facility for low-income seniors.
His hair and beard, once raven black, were 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.
Vladimir and I met in the late spring of 1976 at Fran O’Brien’s, a popular singles hangout. I noticed him staring at me across the horseshoe-shaped bar. I met his eyes then turned to order. By the time my drink arrived, he was sitting on the stool next to me. We talked—his Serbian-accented English fluent—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.
During the first week of September, Vladimir called. In the previous months, two postcards had arrived from Dubrovnik, and my husband had moved his clothing and a few belongings to New York where he worked. By Christmas, Vladimir and I were in an undefined, intense relationship.
At the start of the new year, my husband suggested a reconciliation. A snowy weekend in Manhattan convinced me Vladimir had my heart. But I couldn’t give him the commitment he desired. 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.
As we approached the summer months, Vladimir’s demand for a commitment (or else!) grew more intense. There were times, I think two, when I said yes. Both occurred when Vladimir proposed from a different continent. Back home in the same city with me, he’d reveal something—a previously unknown piece of information—and I’d retract my vow.
We carried on, sometimes turbulently, but always full of love. During Vladimir's summer-long stays in Dubrovnik, I joined him for a few weeks in 1977 and 1978. I brought home memories of sunbathing with the waves of the Adriatic pounding against the rocks, walking on the marble-cobbled lanes in old Dubrovnik, and dancing on the hotel patio at night.
Halfway through our fourth year, still desirous of the other, our romance came to an end. For years after, Vladimir and I had little contact. I wanted to see him, be friends. This seemed impossible for him. Eventually, he was willing to talk by phone, but rarely agreed to meet. Our talks, invariably, included some discussion about whose fault it was we didn’t marry. My children thought their lives would have been better if I had.
But Vladimir’s and my understanding of some words—honesty, truthfulness, trust—were at variance. Perhaps, deep down, commitment is not part of my nature.
During those years with him, my children lived in Harrisburg with their father, my first husband, but they frequently visited me. They also loved Vladimir. I sometimes imagine an alternate life in which we marry, my children move in with us, and we have more children, creating a happy, blended family.
As a result of my move away from Philadelphia and the passing years, Vladimir became more relaxed about staying in touch. 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 had the impression I was close to getting him to come to St Augustine for a visit. I wanted to see him with my grandson Noah. My daughter Sherry would have been thrilled. She still remembers Serbo-Croatian words she learned during our time in Dubrovnik on a summer trip around Europe in 1978.
The poster of the walled city of Dubrovnik I brought home from my first visit to Yugoslavia hangs on my balcony in St Augustine.
It took months after that May 2015 birthday call 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 summers in Dubrovnik, only returning to the U.S. in time to teach his university classes.
After retiring, he traveled abroad more often and taught in Africa. He had been treated for thyroid cancer and never entirely gave up cigarettes. I hoped he was out of the country, but began looking for an obituary, each time relieved not to find one. I wanted more and more to hear his voice.
And then late one night, I searched again and there it was, at the top of my screen. Vladimir and I no longer had mutual friends I could call to learn more. Neither his ex-wife, nor their children, were likely to welcome a call from me.
A small, framed photo of Vladimir sits next to where I do my writing. It’s how I most often think of him. Other times, I remember him striding toward me on that long-ago day in March while I waited eagerly to feel his strong arms encircle me.
As he came through the 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.