In Leila’s Balkan country most people cowered in permanent unease. Anxious about the propuh, an ill-meaning air draft apparently possessed of ambiguously mystical but lethal powers, their wet hair after bathing, or sitting on cold stairs because if you did – your bladder would catch the ‘bladder flu’. Or, you could get brain inflammation from that un-dried wet hair and die. Or pneumonia. And die of that too. Danger lurked everywhere. It was present under leaning ladders, in a black cat’s saunter across the road, in a fortuneteller’s tarot card or a gypsy’s sideways glance.
When she first arrived in Oregon, a refugee of war, a little insane because she couldn’t un-see what she had seen and coiled with grief like a snake, Leila had envied the ease of Americans and their superstition free world so unlike the Black Mountains of her homeland. Americans’ toasters and perfectly sliced bread. Their firm tomatoes and slick cars. Their wide highways. Their snow-white teeth and the fact that Oregonians wore shorts in winter. Back home everyone wore layers of clothing and if they could afford it, thermal underwear. But nothing compared to Leila’s enthrallment with the American magical soundless flushing toilet she first saw in their pastor’s home in Lake Oswego. Leila used the toilet twice, flushing repeatedly. Isuse, you are not ten, she told herself afterwards.
What was it about these American people? Leila observed them with the same attention she gave to the exotic butterfly species at the Japanese garden in Portland. Americantsi, a nation flamboyantly imbued with an energy lacking in her Balkan one. Yet, even after a year amongst this baffling species, Leila struggled, often finding the Americans’ ways mysterious and inaccessible.
Now Leila waited at the bus stop on Barbour Blvd. Wind blew crystalline snowflakes in her face and mouth and she licked her lips. Her gaze rested on Mt. Hood rising above the city. White-capped, cloaked in a snowy haze it presided over all things Oregon. It was on the postcards Leila sent back home to grandmother. Look how lovely it is here, her unwritten message asserted to family and friends. Yet, Leila hadn’t even been up there yet. Between two jobs and English classes for non-native speakers at Portland Community College she didn’t have time or energy left for fun. Then, there was Marko.
“When will you be back?” her husband had asked her that morning. He fondled her breast. An icy whiteness waited for her outside and she dreaded leaving the safety of his warm body.
“You know when.” She snuggled her backside into him. He kissed her neck. They made love. Afterwards, they each said I love you, but their thoughts, like caged sparrows, wished to be elsewhere already. Leila, pulled on sweat pants and a thick sweatshirt over her thermal undergarments. Their gas bill had doubled last month and they now used it intermittently. They had lived through much worse. This apartment didn’t have bomb-blasted windows and walls like the one they left behind.
She brushed her teeth and peed, then washed her face with ice-cold water and then rubbed in a coin size of Johnson and Johnsons’ baby cream. She lingered on her reflection in the mirror. Had she really aged this much? Her skin felt taut and thin as crepe paper. She didn’t recognize her own eyes anymore. They used to twinkle like magic Black Mountain pixie stardust, they said back home. Feverishly, she searched her eyes for the stardust in the bathroom mirror every morning, and when she didn’t find it, she gnawed her cuticles until they bled.
In the kitchen she scoops Turkish coffee into a small pot of boiling water. She sips while stirring scrambled eggs and bacon in a saucepan with one hand. Fat sputters over her skin. The coffee is hot and sweet on her tongue, almost as good as her dead mother’s.
“It’s freezing.” She yells, but Marko doesn’t answer. Leila warms her hands on the mug. It’s a grotesquely smiling reindeer and one of its antlers transforms into a handle.
Marko is watching Fox News. His profile is Romanesque, his hair golden, and his body chiseled Montenegro granite. His one eye is equally blue and green and the other is gone. The war took it. She hands him his coffee in a large mug with I heart Oregon scrawled on it then watches him slurp. She leans over him and touches her lips to his cheek and his glass eye. He smells of their sex and her coffee.
He mumbles, “ah Bebeh,” into her ear but quickly turns his attention back to the TV. He is like a one-eyed Slavic god, she thinks to herself and pulls on her coat and gloves.
Their moldy, one-bedroom apartment is in a compound inhabited mainly by Kurdish, Bosnian and Croatian refugees. Hundreds of vacant-eyed people haphazardly dumped together in the land of the free. And brave.
“A refugee camp,” Marko said when the church community moved them in a year ago.
“Of course not,” Leila whispered. “Marko, pazieh, be careful. We are not citizens yet.”
Her husband didn’t care who heard him. He complained and griped to anyone and everyone about their misfortune. The war, his eye, his brother missing, her mother shot in the head… and now here they are, discarded like two potato sacks left to fend for themselves in an alien land. Everything was difficult in America he repeated. And then he would point to his glass eye as if it wasn’t already as visible as the sun in a cloudless sky. “Marko, we had no choice. Now stop complaining. They have done so much for us.” She feared what he might say or do next.
“It’s obvious he has combat related trauma.” She told their church caseworker. The neighbors. Herself.
Leila hurries downhill to the bus stop. Her toes feel frostbitten already. Fuck the cheap knee-high boots she bought from K-Mart. She wonders whether her flesh is decaying just like this neighborhood. She lights a Camel light. Nicotine releases the stress, she explained to repulsed Americans before they started to object. In her country, everyone smoked. Even during the war. Recently, keeping up with the Americans was making her irritable and resentful. These Jane Fonda aerobic zealots wouldn’t touch a cigarette, counted their egg yolks and cooked their food in Pam. As if all of their craftiness could possibly cheat Death. Rain or shine there they were, in their Nikes and elaborate getups as if preparing for combat, when all it was just a jog around the block. Leila exhaled smoke through her nose.
She found America slightly boring – frigid somehow, like a woman deprived of a man for too long. Ah, how she missed humid evenings back home before the war and the passionate insanity of her own people. Singing soulful folk songs into the cedar-infused night. Dancing to Balkan pop. Getting drunk on Slivovica. The air smelled different there, pungently ripe, like that of breathless teenage lovers and perhaps, saturated by all that dense soil that cradled its many dead from its many wars. Back home, tomatoes tasted like tomatoes should. Sweet and fleshy.
She lit another cigarette. Her head hurt from theorizing about Americans. She didn’t know what she wanted anymore. At first her plan had seemed clear. Get out of the Balkans. Learn English and find a job. Start a new life in America. Forget. Take the magically offered hand for help.
But now, Leila wanted more.
She teetered on a precipice, ulcers bleeding into her stomach and the American dream seeping through her meticulously established barricade, poisoning her mind. None of her relatives and childhood friends who still hid in cellars from snipers must even know this.
And so here she is, a shiny new person, soon to be an Americancah. In a few weeks she will even raise her hand in front of judge and God, alongside her one-eyed husband, and pledge allegiance to her new country. And yet, look at her, shameless, wanton …willing to sell her soul for all the things she never needed before. Like the perversely coveted four-slice toaster and frilly pillows for their loveseat, pumpkin scented candles and hazelnut coffee and waterproof mascara and those luminous American-style teeth. She yearned, God help her, for one of those slick cars and those crimson leather boots calling to her from Nordstrom’s window display. She wanted them all – and the possibilities churned up the bile eating at her her stomach, making her vomit.
She wanted something translucent and magically wonderful, like fairy tales of Black Mountain forest fairies and pixies born of dawn drops and nectar. Something that tasted warm and thickly sweet on her tongue, but cooled her fiery heart like spring water.
And one day, she promises herself as she climbs onto the bus, she and her broken husband will own even that goddamn soundless toilet.
Zvezdana Rashkovich is an American writer who was born in the former Yugoslavia and grew up in the Sudan. A global Nomad from the age of seven, her writing is imbued with the nuances of cultures she calls her own. Her work can be found in anthologies and literary journals both in print and online. The Tea Maker, her hybrid story, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She writes about displacement, the complexity of identity, women as healers, mothers, revolutionaries and those marginalized. She lives and writes between Connecticut and Dubai, with detours to her other magical homelands.