Why, the author asked him over the third (or was it the fourth?) bottle of wine, after midnight in the deserted dining room of the Hotel Moskva in downtown Belgrade, why, the author asked him, why are you always smiling?
He didn’t know what to say.
Why do you smile like that? Why are you constantly smiling? Why do Americans smile so much.
We learn it in school, he finally answered. It’s part of our American curriculum, he claimed.
He was unable— and this, perhaps, proved the author’s point — to respond with aggression of his own.
He had wondered about this.
Why was he so anxious to please? Why did he always express interest in the other person’s work while the other person ignored his own? Why was a smile his default response in company?
He drank his wine (the author’s choice—white wine—not his own) and pondered the author’s question while cursing the author for having asked it, for having asserted it, for having assaulted him with it.
Why did he smile so much?
He didn’t smile much when alone. He was no longer the optimistic enthusiast, the naively hopeful young man he had once been. He lived, rather, with depression. More often than with joy. Thinking that fact, he lamented the loss—and welcomed the insight.
Why then did he smile so much? The author was right, he thought. And he wished he were wrong.
Did his friend Zarko think he smiled like a silly American? Like a weakling? Like an idiot?
Did he really smile so much? Too much?
If he did, did that mean he was shallow? That he had no center, no will, no force, no purpose other than to please?
His friends (Alex, Sam, Steven, Zarko) were difficult, troublesome, cantankerous, brilliant men. Was he their friend because he smiled so much, because he put up with their assertiveness?
Was he a dog who wagged his tail in the presence of anyone who might have something for him? Was he the author’s dog?
Jebi ga! he thought. Fuck it! he thought.
And then he smiled again at the grim-faced author.