By Valbona Musai Bozgo

Translated from the Albanian

By Koralda Kolimja 

 My name is Manoli, but I go by Mozi. In school, my full name is used only during attendance by the teacher. My mother affectionately calls me Mëzi, which means “foal” in our native language. Although Mozi is a shortened version of my name, it doesn’t sound similar to my mother’s endearing nickname for me. Unfortunately, people in my neighborhood and town refer to me as “Moz-Stupid” instead of just Mozi. Despite the use of the insulting epithet, I do not take offense because I know they do not mean to hurt me.

I came to realize that I was somewhat different from my peers. They often made comments like, “Mozi is slow at getting things,” and I began to believe this about myself too. However, this self-awareness was comforting as it reassured me that I wasn’t unintelligent. When my friends saw me from a distance, they would jokingly call out, “Here comes Moz-Stupid!” but they never intended to hurt my feelings. Even most of my family members referred to me by this nickname, almost as if it were my real last name. However, they all loved me, especially some relatives on my father’s side, who lived in a village more than an hour away from us. Although they didn’t visit often, whenever they did, they brought us beans, vegetables, and sometimes even a chicken for my mother, while they would hang baskets of fruit on my arms. “These are for you, Mozi,” they would say as they hugged me with affection.

I completed six of the mandatory eight years of schooling during the day, but I struggled academically and repeated grades frequently – almost every year. Eventually, I had to switch to evening classes to complete the final two years and obtain my certificate of completion, which I managed to do without failing.

Initially, I was upset about being taken out of day school, but I soon realized that I was significantly older than my classmates, despite enjoying participating in their games. During recess or between classes, I was often the center of attention, and my peers would jump on my back or hang on my neck. They even challenged me to arm wrestling matches on desks, but I would easily overpower them and celebrate my victory. However, my classmates never gave up or got discouraged; instead, they laughed and asked to play again.

Another reason I felt sad about leaving the day school was because I wouldn’t have the chance to see the art teacher anymore. She was a young, single woman who lived in the big city half an hour away by bus. I found her to be incredibly beautiful – the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, not just in my neighborhood or town, but possibly anywhere. I couldn’t say for sure if there were others like her in her city, as I had only visited there once with my mother and didn’t recall seeing anyone as stunning as her. She was of average height, had black hair that reminded me of raven feathers (as my mother would say), and big black eyes that were truly mesmerizing. She spoke slowly and was always willing to finish our drawings and help me out.

For these reasons, and others, I loved her deeply. During class, when we ran out of chalk, I would eagerly rush to bring her new ones. Her delicate fingers, resembling hazelnuts, had a tendency to break and disintegrate the chalk, leaving us without any. I would hurry to the teachers’ hall and search through the wooden boxes, filled with chalk nestled in sawdust. When teachers advised me not to take too much, warning that other classrooms would also need the chalk, I absentmindedly replied, “OK.” Returning to my classroom, I triumphantly unloaded the chalk on my teacher’s desk, admiring their crackle reflected in her eyes. She was surprised by the amount I brought, and her delight mirrored my own when relatives from my father’s side would bring me baskets of fruit.

Once, I failed to comprehend her surprise when she grabbed my pencil, its eraser badly blackened, and erased my mistake in the drawing book. She leaned so close to me that I began to breathe heavily, my blood rushing and something stirring beneath my pants. Unfortunately, we had run out of chalk that day, and she requested that I go retrieve some. I happily obliged and accidentally brushed against her as I left my desk. She appeared alarmed upon noticing my pants and blushed. Two days later, my mother was summoned to the principal’s office, and they informed me that due to my age, I had reached the limit set by the Ministry of Education for completing mandatory middle school attended during the daytime. I would have to attend the remaining school years at night school. No one was angry with me for causing the young teacher distress, not even her. To my surprise, my mother seemed happy about what had happened. After a few days of singing and tending to household chores as usual, she said, “Someday you will get married, so I can leave this world peacefully!”

I didn’t enjoy night school at all. It was vastly different from day school, where I was the oldest; here, I was the youngest. During breaks between classes, nobody played, and some people were even sleepy or dozing off. There was no art class, and I was still called “Moz-Stupid” by some, as they had in my neighborhood and the city. Graduating from school was a relief. I longed for my “day” school days. Afterwards, I spent my days doing nothing. I was no longer a child and couldn’t play on the streets. I helped my mother around the house when she needed it. A year later, I found work at a farm in our town. I was exuberant, strong, and tireless.

I went above and beyond with my work duties, and my mother always beamed with joy when I handed her my paycheck every two weeks. I also assisted my fellow brigade members whenever possible and felt a sense of acceptance, even though they playfully called me “Moz-Stupid.” I indulged in as much fruit as I desired, and I even offered all the fruit baskets that our relatives brought to my mother. She wholeheartedly agreed. Years went by, and I continued to work with the same enthusiasm on the farm. However, a little before my thirtieth birthday, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. It pained me to see her health deteriorate day by day, and I felt helpless. One evening during dinner, she suggested that I get married. I shrugged it off, knowing only how to work on the farm. She revealed that she had found a potential wife for me in the neighboring town. My mind immediately jumped to my art teacher, envisioning a woman with black hair and beautiful dark eyes like hers. However, I feared that she might reject me, just as my art teacher did. “She will accept you,” my mother confidently replied. I asked, “How can you be so sure?”

“She has been married twice. She divorced her first husband due to ‘irreconcilable differences,’ and her second husband died in an accident. Despite the unfortunate nature of these events, she seemed to mention them with a sense of detachment. As for the ‘irreconcilable differences’ that led to her first divorce, I had heard this reason given before, but I struggled to fully comprehend it. To me, it seemed that the couple simply could not reconcile their differences and could no longer live together. However, I have learned from my own experiences that even significant differences need not prevent close relationships. For instance, in day school, my closest friend was the top academic performer while I consistently ranked last. Despite this disparity, we remained close friends.

On this occasion, I was visiting the big city near our hometown to meet my future wife. Accompanied by my mother and my elderly aunt, who was struggling to keep up with us, we strolled along the city’s bustling main streets, which I had grown to love during my previous visits. We eagerly awaited the appointed time for our visit to my bride’s home.”

She was nothing like my art teacher; her short blonde hair and plump figure caught my eye. Her face left an impression on me, alternating between laughter and despair. I knew the cause of her laughter must have been me, but her despondency stemmed from two past misfortunes. As her future husband, I wholeheartedly wanted to ease her sorrow, but I feared I couldn’t, having failed to save my own mother. All I knew was farm work and house chores, and only when my mother asked me. Rona sat beside me, silent. She graduated from a technological high school and worked as a quality inspector in the conservation factory, never failing a grade and only attending day school. I admired her, telling her I loved her name and offering to help with the chores. She locked her eyes onto mine, saying nothing; perhaps she was suspicious, not yet knowing me.

After a few months, Rona and I tied the knot. Our wedding was a simple affair with only a few relatives in attendance. One of them brought a cassette player and some music tapes to liven up the mood. Rona looked stunning in her wedding dress, and my mother was beaming with joy. However, her tears puzzled me. Was she reminiscing about her past struggles?

As for me, I was dressed in a suit for the first time in my life. I couldn’t help but wonder if I looked handsome enough for Rona. Later that night, as we lay in bed, I felt a rush of adrenaline, reminiscent of my encounters with my art teacher. To my surprise, Rona was unfazed. She didn’t come closer or push me away, but simply turned to the other side, citing exhaustion. She seemed sad, and I couldn’t discern how to comfort her.

The next night, Rona smiled at me, and we made love. I had only seen it done in two “Yugoslavian” movies with my former close friend, but without Rona’s guidance, I would have been lost. Love was a beautiful thing, and I couldn’t get enough of it. However, Rona got tired, and I urged her to rest. I assured her we could continue the next night, but her response was a blank stare. Eventually, she fell asleep, neither smiling nor frowning.

My mother passed away a few months after my wedding. Just before taking her last breath, she expressed her joy for my marriage, and I responded with the same sentiment. However, after that, she never spoke again.

One evening, Rona approached me with a serious tone and said, “I need to say something.” I was willing to listen and do anything to help. “I don’t want to hear anyone call you ‘Moz-Stupid’ anymore.”

I didn’t know how to respond. Even though the nickname was meant as a joke, I understood why it was hurtful to Rona. However, explaining that to her would be challenging, and she might not believe me. I couldn’t force others to change how they addressed me either.

Rona spoke up confidently and said, “I have an idea.”

“I never had any doubts about her qualifications, since she graduated from high school as a full-time student without failing any grades. The following day, she suggested going for a walk along the boulevard. I enjoyed the pleasant fragrance of the Linden trees and their flowers as we strolled. The mild evening weather was a pleasant start to the spring season. Rona picked out a suit she had given me as a wedding gift and asked me to wear it after taking a bath. She adjusted the jacket to fit me perfectly, even undoing and redoing the first button a couple of times. Eventually, she decided that leaving the collar unbuttoned made me look more refined. She then helped me brush my hair. As we left the house, arm-in-arm, our neighbors greeted us with surprise and admiration, saying “Moz and his wife are going out” instead of their usual negative comments about me. Rona walked confidently and proudly, and even my neighbors began to see me differently, perhaps because I had a wife by my side.”

During the warm season, we would often walk along the boulevard in our town, almost every night. My wife, Rona, would carefully select different blouses, shirts, and pants for me to wear, and I would obediently comply with her choices. As we walked, I would place my arm on hers, and we would stroll with our heads held high and straight posture.

Occasionally, we would overhear whispers from passersby, “Moz is going out with his wife,” which would then change to, “Mr. Moz is going out with his wife!” Rona would beam with pride, but I never felt at ease. Even my mother, who loved me more than anyone in the world, had never dedicated so much time to wash, groom, and dress me as Rona did.

However, I continued to comply with Rona’s wishes because she had graduated from high school without failing any grades, which was an achievement that I had not accomplished. Moreover, she gave me immense joy in bed at night, despite the two misfortunes we had experienced before.

Rona often said that she had made me a “real person,” a phrase that I struggled to comprehend. I had always considered myself a person, even when others called me “Moz-Stupid.” My neighbors, relatives, and everyone I knew had always been sincere with me. However, as Rona claimed, becoming a “person” brought about strange behavior from people. Even their greetings seemed different, as if they were laughing secretly at us. Despite my wife’s belief that they would admire her for changing me, I could see that people were looking at us differently.

Rona seemed oblivious to the way others looked at us since she never turned her head or eyes. On the other hand, I was more observant. From what I could see, the more of a “person” I became, the stranger people behaved toward me. Rona had a better understanding of this phenomenon because of her high school education.

Eventually, I found myself overwhelmed with the routine of evening walks. However, one day during the beginning of autumn, I found solace in the rain. It fell softly and steadily, much like my mother’s lullabies from my childhood. I longed for her presence, her touch, and the rare moments when she would call me “Mëzi, my foal,” even as I grew older. Rona and I had grown distant, making love less frequently, and she would often claim fatigue, headaches, or other excuses. She seemed to be lost in thought more often than not, laughing less. However, she never missed our evening walks. Perhaps this was her way of “becoming a person,” as she had graduated and knew better than I did.

One rainy afternoon, we decided to stay home, and I couldn’t have been happier with that decision. However, our peace was soon interrupted by a loud knocking at the door, and before we knew it, my cousins from the village appeared with a cacophony of noise and commotion. They were carrying bags and baskets filled with goodies, and I was delighted to see them since they hadn’t visited us since my mother’s passing.

Upon seeing Rona, they greeted her with utmost respect and handed her the baskets filled with figs and grapes. They then turned to me and handed over sacks of beans, potatoes, and a freshly slaughtered chicken. As they hugged me, they shouted with joy, “Moz-Stupid, where have you been? We missed you!” I, too, had missed them dearly.

For the first time since our wedding day, I instructed Rona to take a break from cooking and let me assist in preparing dinner. We all worked together to create a feast, and the night was filled with laughter and joy as we caught up on each other’s lives.