When I immigrated to America, the thing I hated most about it was the bread. Or rather, the lack of good bread. Stores only sold sandwich bread, pumped full of preservatives, added sugars, and artificial flavoring.
What I wouldn't have given for a hot slice of Georgian tonis puri on my waitressing shifts at the 16th Street Diner. As I served customers their meals in plastic baskets lined with checkered paper, wiped down the cracked formica tables, or swept potato chips off the floor, I would fantasize about a crispy, slightly salty, yeasty bite of tonis puri. A fantasy so out-of-place in an all-American diner that mainly served hamburgers and hadn’t changed since the seventies.
A fantasy as out-of-place as Roger had been when he became a regular at the 16th Street Diner. I remember everyone looked up when he came in, pausing with their grease-encrusted hands halfway to their mouths. For a few seconds, their eyes took in his suit, slicked-back hair, and Rolex watch. Then their minds put the label of "Rich Snob" on him and they went back to eating.
Roger had shifted on his feet at the sight of oversized t-shirts and baseball caps, eyes darting to the door as he regretted his decision to eat here.
I also looked up from the dishes I was clearing away, and our eyes met. I recognized his discomfort that day, the feeling of someone slapping a label on you and putting you in a mental box. It was a feeling that had stalked me every day since I immigrated to America. The scrunched eyebrows when people tried to say my name, the empty smiles when I said I was from Georgia, the stony stares of government officials as they eyed my green card.
So, I kept eye contact, went over to Roger, sat him down at the nicest booth, and whispered in my rough Georgian-accented English, “You should order the daily special. Bacon-bean soup is the chef’s specialty.”
He smiled so brightly that the aches in my arms and legs disappeared. “Alright. One order of bacon-bean soup.” He looked at my nametag and added, “Thank you, Kate.”
Kate. My American name, since nobody could pronounce Qetevan. I hated it as much as American bread, but somehow it sounded nice on Roger’s lips.
I almost dropped the bowl of soup in my hurry to serve it to him, telling myself it was because I wanted a generous tip.
He came back the next day, and the day after that, and the whole week after that, always dressed in his suit. I lived for the moments when he pushed open the diner door, triggering the tinkling of the bell and an influx of gasoline-infused city air. He always winked at me and always ordered bacon-bean soup.
I said yes when he asked me to go on a date with him.
I said yes when he asked me to move in with him.
And I said yes when he asked me to marry him.
I excitedly video-called my parents after the proposal and saw them jump with joy on the pixelated computer screen. With every break in the audio feed, my heart cracked further with my longing for them.
My mother leaned too close to the camera and asked, “Khom gikvars?” You love him, right?
“Ki,” I answered confidently, yes, but the audio cut again, warping my voice into an echoing screech.
“Yes,” I said again.
Mother nodded, satisfied, and my father dug out a bottle of homemade wine in the background to celebrate.
I’d been baptized Orthodox, but we got married in a quaint Episcopalian church in Roger’s hometown. My side of the church was almost empty, save for a few friends, since my family hadn’t been able to get tourist visas in time.
Roger and I said our vows and the priest pronounced us husband and wife. My finger began sweating the moment Roger slid the ring on it.
Wrapped up in each other’s arms that evening, I asked my husband, “Can we go to Georgia for our honeymoon?”
“Oh, darling, I already booked a Caribbean cruise. Maybe some other time, alright?”
He twirled a lock of my ebony hair and pressed his mouth to mine, ending the conversation.
The first few months of marriage were a whirlwind of late nights and lazy mornings. Spontaneous dates and enough flower bouquets to fill a garden. Then Roger shattered the rose-tinted glass I’d been looking through when he announced, “Tell your boss you’re resigning, alright? I don’t want my wife working in a hole-in-the-wall diner.”
I looked up from the onion I was chopping. “But, I want to work. I went to university and–”
“Darling,” he said slowly, like he was talking to a child. "I'll work for the both of us.” Then his phone rang, and he stepped out of the kitchen. The tears that leaked out of my eyes weren’t entirely onion-induced.
Our trip to Georgia “some other time” turned out to be never, since Roger had a never-ending fountain of excuses. He was a lawyer, after all, and his words had a way of silencing my own.
But it was always me who had to tell my parents I was in the middle of the naturalization process, or Roger was super busy at work, or we wanted to finish moving into our new house. It was always me who saw their faces fall every time I said we couldn't visit yet.
“He can’t get enough of our Qeti,” my brother joked. He had no idea how right he was.
“I need you, Kate," Roger would wine every time I brought up going to Georgia alone. "I can’t live without you.” You need me to cook for you, I thought. You need me to do laundry for you, to be a trophy you can show off to the world. Even though I wasn’t a waitress anymore, I remained Roger’s servant.
One night, Roger took me to one of his work parties. He'd been made a partner at the law firm, so he dressed in his finest suit and I put on a tight rosy pink dress.
Roger held my hand the entire time, introducing me as his "lovely wife." I gave everyone a plastic, Barbie-doll smile, and my husband nodded at me in approval occasionally.
When Roger went to get martinis, one of his coworkers came up to me and told me he'd been to Georgia. My smile turned real as I babbled about my home village and corrected the pronunciation of a few words he'd picked up.
Across the room, Roger downed a martini and frowned at his colleague.
That night, when he crawled on top of me, he reeked of alcohol and arrogance. His hands left bruises both visible and invisible as he unwrapped my pink dress like I was a doll.
After he fell asleep, I folded my hands over my queasy stomach. I knew then Roger had planted a seed that would grow roots and anchor me to him forever.
I birthed Cecilia with a nurse holding my hand and my mother shouting at me to push on a Skype call.
Roger rushed in hours after the blood had been cleaned up, apologizing over and over about how he was in a “very important” meeting since his law firm was overseeing a major corporate merger, but I didn’t give a shit. I was too busy nursing my daughter and marveling at her teeny fingers curled around mine, and her slightly flowered scent.
She became the job I so desperately wanted, her triumphs my triumphs, and her losses my losses. I’d lived for Roger before, but now I lived for Cici’s first steps, her first words, her first day at kindergarten. I found a job, but it was like being in a box; I could never leave.
I stopped bringing up Georgia. My English lost a Georgian accent, but Georgian words began to sink in my brain like rocks.
Every conversation with my parents was a deep dive into the recesses of my mind, grasping in the murky waters for the lost pebbles. I would gape like a fish, searching for words, and on the screen, my parents' lips would get thinner and thinner as they saw their daughter become less and less Georgian with each passing day.
Every morning was the same. Driving Cici to kindergarten, then coming back to make Roger’s oatmeal. Cleaning our enormous house after he left, languishing in front of the TV, and then making dinner. I told myself I had a good life. I was lucky to be in America, the land of opportunity, instead of slaving away for 700 lari a month in Georgia. I was lucky to have such a hard-working husband.
One day, Roger was running uncharacteristically late because we’d forgotten to set the clock forward for daylight savings.
Fiddling with his tie, he called out, “Make me some toast, would you, darling? I really gotta run.”
Of course you do, I thought, and put two pieces of white bread into the toaster. The wires in the toaster turned red hot, and the fluffy whiteness of the bread became a toasty golden brown.
Georgians never toasted tonis puri, it was just so good on its own. I couldn’t even remember the taste of it anymore.
Once the toast popped out, I slathered the pieces in butter, the way Roger liked it. I wondered if he liked cholesterol-clogged arteries too.
I hadn’t even opened the jar of jam before he grabbed the pieces of toast and muttered, “Thanks, bye.”
“I love you–” I began, but the door had already slammed shut. The words echoed around the too-big kitchen, with no “I love you too” to quiet them.
Tears wobbled on my eyelashes as I wrapped a twisty tie around the bag of bread and shoved it in the cupboard. Too hard. The loaf smushed under my hand, soft and pliable. The plastic of the bag sparkled under the kitchen lights, mocking me.
The tears flowed down my face like a river. I was just like this loaf of American sandwich bread, the air and dreams and happiness squished out of me. The preservatives, added sugars, and artificial flavoring I’d sweetened my life with were gone. And I wasn’t sure what was left without them.