The lights flicker when he enters, and go dark when he closes the door. Hearing his shoes shuffle in the cement hallway, she rises from the couch, then at the threshold, feeling for each other, hands, arms sensing then squeezing, they embrace blindly. Laughing, he pulls back and kisses her firmly, with much noise. They hear two muffled booms, and wait for the repercussion, thankful they didn’t hit nearby. This is the third time the lights have gone out while he entered, and after their embrace, she feels him shaking his arms as if electrified, and they lean into each other laughing. Since the bombing started, they laugh at different things.
His shaking arms remind her of the baby formula she fed Saska tonight. It’s been three days of no milk in the stores. She stopped breast-feeding when she went back to work. She used to give Saska formula from a bottle to calm her, holding her in the cruck of her arm against her breast, cooing to her, until she fell asleep. She hadn’t fed her a bottle in weeks, but tonight Saska was off, likely the beginning of a cold. Everyone in the building seemed to be coughing. Or maybe it was the distant shelling, although Saska seemed to have adjusted. The canister of formula was behind the rice and noodles, and it was less than a month past date. She surprised herself by forgetting the proper proportions after doing it for months. She re-read the instructions. The process of taking dried powder, adding water and shaking, was like Jesus turning water into wine. It was difficult to believe it was food, but it worked for Saska.
“Come,” she pulls him by the hand, “the angels are sleeping. See?”
“Amazing they can sleep. What they don’t know.” He squeezes her hand.
“Yes, it could be worse.” She squeezes his hand back.
The children are what connects them. They have so much to focus on, and with the sense of time leaking out, their minds go in different directions. He, Fedi, has been a rock since the first shots were heard, smothering her with wet kisses and hugs designed to catch her breath, while he thought of where to find food, or ammunition.
There was a sense of heaviness, like dense humidity before a storm, settling over them, and she waits for an opportunity. In three days, he’ll drive them as close to the border, then he’ll return alone. He wants to fight, which was easy to say when you have no choice.
If she wasn’t married, she wouldn’t stay in the city. She’d be living in the country, living simply and thinking of how to attack. She knows of a couple living in the countryside, sleeping in an old cellar, handling guns, and sleeping well. The couple isn’t married. They have no children.
She’s married, and a mother of two small girls, three and one-years old. In this crazy time, it feels like she was branded with the White Letter M. For Mother, and Milk, and Mild. She didn’t always feel so predictable, so boring, and now this stupid war brought up those adolescent feelings of hopelessness, of disappearance of self, of standing alone in the dark.
It’s a thing amongst her friends in the city not to let this stupid war pull them apart. They’re strong, and as brave, if not braver than the men. This sense of gallantry, which has grown between them, wasn’t normally given to women, so they’re reluctant to let it go.
Now her grandmother in Romania, her mother’s mother, is calling. Baba wants to tell her again the room she stayed in as a child hasn’t changed, and is available. She remembers the smoke-stained wall paper in the bedroom, and what the color once looked like when new, hiding behind the painting of a street scene in Paris. She assumes it’s Paris. The feeling of being abandoned by her mother at Baba’s. Baba tried to comfort her, but she felt empty that year. Now she understands, her mother needed to work in Belgium and France, but the emptiness stays. Baba tells her she can stay again, but they both know many things have changed, except the wall paper and feeling lonely.
The phone ringing ends, and the silence crowds around. Their kitchen window is completely broken and they knocked out the glass pieces stuck in the molding to remove any hazard of the glass falling inside. It’s remarkable how quiet it is when the war stops, how quiet the living has become.
Nadia was the first to leave, and they understood. Nadia, with her pierced nose and weaves of purple hair, has two small children too. She’s in Berlin, living with friends from Uni, and already has a part-time job. Nadia could get her a job too, but she’d have to find her own place. They could watch each other’s kids when the other went to work. She imagines Nadia twirling a purple strand around her index finger while she talks. Nadia says Stan, her boyfriend, father of her two boys, is safe in the underground. He got stuck there when the trains stopped, and goes back for safety. He swears he’ll never ride the subway again because of the strong stench of shit and piss in the cars deep in the tunnel.
Things changed after Nadia left, not because Nadia was the leader, but because the bubble burst. She tells Ana and Inna she wouldn’t leave if she didn’t have kids. She’d survive with Fedi, or die by his side. They know it’s only the words talking. It’s all words now, hollow, like an apartment when a missile hits.
Their last conversation went to whether they’d kill. Not a situation of kill or be killed, but a plot of revenge, even hatred. A kitchen knife to the throat, blood spurting out is the way she envisioned it, twisting the knife for good measure to cut the last words in half. She said she would, and Inna would too, but Ana couldn’t say, which was another bubble bursting because the three of them knew they wanted to, but could they? They knew it was the action, the swiftness, and if they flinched because they thought instead of instinct, they’d be the one dying. Even on instinct, they could be the one dying. As young teens, they studied together, listened to their teachers, and leaned on each other. She thought of spin the bottle, her girlfriends circling the idea of boys, and music, and drugs, and would they be sucked in. No, killing was not the natural progression. Violence would’ve been like smashing the bottle with a hammer as it was spinning, shards flying as her friends leaned in. The three agree it’d feel good to kill one of those bastards.
She met Fedi when they were nineteen, at a party. They chatted for almost an hour, until his girlfriend arrived, and then it was face plant into a wooden post. He didn’t even say goodbye. The girl must have sensed it, because when she met Fedi by luck a few months later, it was like they were long lost lovers. When he asks her tonight what she saw in him when they first met, she says she didn’t like him at first, thought he was conceited. She makes a big deal of it, hands and words in motion, because he is a bit conceited, but she also thinks he has a right to be. He smiles the smile of a man who knows not to say a word. She doesn’t mind the look because it’s followed by him rubbing his fingers under her chin to get her to look at him, which she loves.
Having been many times to Baba’s city in Romania, she doesn’t want to go back. Baba told her what happened to her during and after the big war. Hearing Baba’s past showed glimpses of her future, a fairy tale where the moral is she has no future. She’d been to Berlin once, two years ago, and loved it.
In her memory, all the apartment buildings in Baba’s city were scuffed shades of grey and beige, the windows looked black, like a hole, instead of reflecting the sky. The people mirrored the buildings, devoid of color, lacking flair. No ribbons in women’s hair, the men only wear black or blue, and the planted trees on the pedestrian street were dead. Her Baba lived on the fifth floor, the top floor. Second to the memories of stained wallpaper, her strongest memory was of how there were no lights in the long hallways, another scar from Ceausecu. At each end of each of the long hallways there were grey windows, and in the middle of the long side there were windows for the one stairwell where slivers of natural light snuck in to illuminate the steps. Fedi joked it wasn’t a design flaw because there was no design, and she wondered how the residents managed in the halls at night.
The ground level was dingy, like the walls and floor were cold and sweating, but it was the illusion of dim light on the painted cement. As you went up the stairs, it became less dark, like clouds lifting, a feeling of becoming lighter, rising. On the top floor it was lighter, but there was still a sensation of something closing in on you, like a cloudy day about to rain. Leaving the stairwell walking towards the window at the end was like driving through a tunnel in Germany. At the end on the right, next to the window, was Baba’s place, across from Mister Faltinsky. She imagined the small jungle of potted plants Baba had created in the dead space between her door and the window, a memory she loved about Baba’s. Her girls would love the jungle too. She hoped Baba still had it.
Tuesday is the planned day when everything will change. Since last week, she’s been writing a letter in her head to Fedi, and it keeps changing. The plan is for Fedi to drive as close to the border control as possible, and then she’ll walk the rest of the way with the girls. She was given a two-child stroller from an acquaintance. She hopes the walk is less than three kilometers. The stroller is prepared, water and canned food mixed with the diapers in the netting below. Inna called to say she’s thinking of taking her grandmother to the border. Inna wanted someone to look after her Baba, but both knew, if things became desperate, the old would be left behind.
So many thoughts in her mind, an uneven mix of importance and irrelevance as she rubs Fedi’s back. He is heavy like a stone, and she a gust of wind. They both lie down on the bed, their shirts, trousers and socks still on, and say good night.
She wakes up at five, lying in bed while her mind ranges all over, which reminds her of the last time they made love. It was bad. Or it wasn’t good. Both had similar worries, hiding in the dark bedroom with them. The concerns for the future interrupted by the rattle of machine gun fire, she guesses about ten blocks away. Then quiet again until she recognizes the soft breathing of Fedi.
Yesterday the shelling was heavy, sometimes shaking the pictures on the walls, with one freeing itself only to slide down the wall, breaking on the floor. They were close to the suggested refugee corridor, so they felt the repercussions and trembles in their building. Early in the siege their place shook so much she thought it was going to crash down upon them, trapping them below ten stories of rubble.
She doesn’t mention her new plan. The old plan was wait until Tuesday, or until the tanks begin surrounding the city, then he’d drive them to the border.
Two days ago, while Saska slept, Nina saw tears in her eyes.
“What’s wrong Mama?”
“I’m sick today,” she said, holding her head with her hands over her ears.
“I’ll take care of you, Mama,” Nina left her doll on the floor and reached up to hold Mama’s head in her hands. “I’ll be the best nurse. I’ll make everything better.”
This made her cry more, which frustrated Nina, until Nina became annoyed and went back to her doll. She turned back to the window and wiped away the tears herself. She refuses to cry the on the last time they’ll be together.
Yesterday, when the shelling began during the declared evacuation, cars were left in the middle of the street as people came back screaming. When the quiet settled again, before he came home, she called Inna.
“After Fedi leaves, we’ll drive for the border. It will be clear because those bastards think everybody is afraid to come out,” she said.
“You think so.” Inna was considering if this was an order, or a suggestion.
“They’re fucking with us. They want us to feel hope before they crush it.”
“You think so?”
“Inna,” she screamed through the phone, and both girls looked at her. She breathed twice and says “We won’t regret leaving early. We will regret leaving late.”
The crying doesn’t change her mind, it’s one of symptoms of so much of life being out of her control. She hasn’t told him, but she doesn’t want Fedi to take her near the border. She suspects he knows what she’s thinking. Maybe, with his new sense of death standing over him like a nightmare, he wants it the same way, some distance to ease the pain.
She wants to flee to keep her mind out of the ditch of the what she can’t control. If she forgets things when packing, she’ll bitch, but they’ll survive. She watches Fedi sleep, until she nudges him, then she watches him eat some stale bread before he runs off to join the guards. She calls Inna. In fifteen minutes, she’ll be riding with the girls and Inna’s Baba.
She packs efficiently, in ten minutes, her mind clear. A stroller and a roller bag are all they can take. Five minutes until Inna comes.
She writes five run-on sentences, then stares out the window or at the wind-up clock, watching one round of the second hand slowly climb, then fall. Saska is crawling around the chairs under the table, and Nina leans against the cold radiator, telling her doll what not to do if they’re captured. One thing they can’t forget is the doll. Would she forget Fedi? Never forget, but might never see him again. She senses he’s in a neigboring building, standing behind tattered blinds, crying, waiting to wave goodbye.
She doesn’t know how to end the letter. It’s five drab sentences about what has been. She can’t write what is next. Where would they be living? Would his beard grow bushy? The weight of uselessness returns. She grips the paper to tear the letter up, and start anew. She hesitates, until a car horn sounds below the broken window.
“I’ve loved you since the day I saw you.” She writes and draws a smiley face. “You knew I was lying.” Another smiley face, this one with tears coming down the circle. “I hope we survive, and fall in love all over again.”