We arrived in the States in June and quickly found an apartment in a two family house in a small diverse city less than an hour from New York City. Our first purchase was the biggest bed we could find. We’d agreed on this after years of Neil twisting his 6’4” frame into pullout couch beds that left his feet dangling over the end. The new California King was so large we barely squeezed a bureau beside it. One year old Molly slept in her own room adjoining ours, on a futon spread out on the soft wall-to-wall carpeting. She rarely made it through the night alone, initially crying until I stumbled in to either lay beside her or bring her in to our gigantic bed. She soon found her own way from her room to ours, gently touching my face to wake me so I could lift her up and settle her warm body next to mine, inhaling her sweet scent.
Like Molly, I sought out company and delighted in easy conversation. Shamefully, I’d never mastered the languages of my host countries. Happy to understand and be understood, I greeted the cashier while loading my groceries onto the conveyor belt.
“Hi there! How are you today?”
“Good. Do you have a Shoprite card?” Absently, the petite Latina woman with large gold hoop earrings and impeccable makeup scanned my milk, butter, bread, toilet paper and other groceries.
“It’s so great to be able to buy everything I need in one place and not have to run around to 3 different shops to get everything!”
The cashier gave me a puzzled look as she bagged.
“I’ve been living overseas for the past four years and there weren’t any big grocery stores like this.”
“Oh. $76.78 please.”
“And so much cheaper too!” I exclaimed. She didn’t take my bait and ask me where I’d been, counting out my change before turning, I imagine with some relief, to the next customer. Pushing my cart out to the parking lot, I felt like a crazy woman.
I chatted incessantly with the mailman, other parents at the swing sets. Every encounter became a chance for connection. At first, I spoke about Bosnia but that was a mistake. Some listened politely to my war stories but most people looked at me like an alien.
Neil had better luck piquing interest with his English accent but his initial excitement about living in America was wearing off and he began to lose patience with the dull life I was reveling in. He struggled to adjust to the lack of helicopter rides, flak jackets and regular adrenaline rushes of danger and risk.
Our friends in Europe shared similar war experiences of shelling, sniper fire, living without electricity and water and spoke the same strange vocabulary of acronyms and military slang. Here we felt disconnected with the ‘civilians’ surrounded by fertilized lawns and shopping malls. Our tales about refugees who fled their homes and lived in chicken coops, sounded hollow in this landscape. Most people only wanted a quick anecdote, a paragraph on conflicts in far-flung countries, glanced at on the way to the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times. The war was so complicated and our tales too far from any relatable experience – or perhaps, what anyone wanted to believe really went on in the world so when their eyes glazed over, we changed the subject. I began to understand the silence of war veterans including Neil’s reticence to speak about his days as a soldier. No one really wanted a first-hand account of how inhumane humans could be.
The Balkans remained in the news and we followed every development, hungrily reading the newspaper on the sunny porch and watching CNN and BBC from our overstuffed couch. We searched the screen, looking for and sometimes recognizing faces. One evening Neil shouted to me, “Bloody hell! Look who’s still there! Quick, come see!”
Leading Bill Clinton through an overcrowded refugee camp of families who’d fled Kosovo was one of our former colleagues. Neil sat close to the television as if he might climb through the screen.
Creating a normal life for ourselves was not as easy as we hoped, especially in the limbo of waiting for Neil’s Green Card. While we enjoyed our unemployment during the early summer months, by the time August rolled around we were both irritable. Neil became bored without a regular structure and steady stream of new faces to entertain. He smashed the metal mailbox closed when there was still no news on the Green Card that would allow him to work.
“I hate this country. Why the hell does everything take so bloody long? Maybe I should just go back into the field. I could call someone at UNHCR and see if they would take me on and this time, get a good job with a proper contract.” He couldn’t stop watching the grim scenes of the newest humanitarian horror in Sierra Leone on our television screen. Some of our friends were there too and I felt a surge of panic that Neil might consider joining them.
“I thought we’d agreed we’d had enough of war zones – at least while Molly’s little. That we wouldn’t take jobs that would separate us?”
Neither of us had been inspired by the lives of colleagues with families on crazy international assignments. They often went months without seeing their children and we agreed, it put way too much stress on a marriage.
“I don’t want to, but I’m going mad not working. And it’s frustrating here watching these disasters on the telly when I know I could be doing something useful. You know I get things done that no one else thinks is possible. I should be there.”
“Go ahead and make some calls,” I said, shifting closer to him on the couch, nuzzling against his chest while doing my best to sound encouraging.
I didn’t want him to go to any of these terrifying places, or anywhere away from us, but his darkening disposition distressed me. Maybe life in the suburbs just didn’t suit him.
Unlike Neil, I was not chomping at the bit to return to work. I loved watching my toddler discover the world and wanted to prolong full-time motherhood as long as I could. But one of us needed to get a job before my savings completely disappeared and as long as Neil had no Green Card, it was up to me. I hoped for something close to home and flexible that didn’t require me to sit on my ass in a carpeted cubicle for eight hours a day and I found it, my perfect job: an community relations and events coordinator position at a Barnes & Noble Bookstore less than fifteen minutes from home.
At first, leaving Molly was difficult but soon I relished being back in the adult world, focusing on and actually completing tasks by the end of the day, something rarely possible as a mother. Walking into the store everyday and seeing all the new books (in English!) made my heart skip a beat. Life felt like it was coming together. We lived a stone’s throw from the beach, libraries, movies and good friends and Molly was growing into a cheerful, animated little girl.
Neil cared for Molly while I went to work and as far as I could tell, their days were often spent in front of the television and maybe worse: shopping. A day didn’t go by without a shopping spree. By the weekend, up to a thousand dollars might be gone from our joint account. When Neil picked me up at the end of my workday, the back of the car was always full of bags from Walmart, Bed Bath & Beyond and other stores he haunted.
“What did you buy now?” I asked, making no effort to hide my irritation as I pushed past the heap of plastic bags to kiss Molly in her car seat.
“Some bits and pieces for the kitchen and a little outfit for Molly. Right sausage?” He reached back to tickle her leg. She giggled, a box of sugary candy clutched in her hand.
“Don’t worry, everything was on sale,” he said.
“I know, but it adds up. We’ve got to be a bit more careful.”
I looked nervously at the bags. America was a shopper’s paradise compared to the dearth of things to buy in Bosnia and Croatia or prohibitively expensive Italy. I understood how Neil could get carried away. We did need a lot of things starting from scratch in setting up our lives here and Neil was making the apartment cozy and comfortable and he always had dinner ready for me. He was doing a great job of taking care of things at home and I should be appreciative. But the stress of his spending and unemployment grew. I constantly needed to shift money from my savings to our joint account in order to keep it open – my bookstore salary was not enough to support us.
I had no idea what Neil spent so much money on. The house-wares and nick-knacks he bought didn’t seem to account for what was going out of the account.
Even in the early days, money had been a touchy subject for us since Neil made less than me yet spent extravagantly. I felt like a tightwad. One evening in Zagreb, not long after quitting his job in Sarajevo, he called out to me from the bath. I was curled up with a book on the sofa in the living room.
“We should open a joint bank account!”
I pretended not to hear him.
“It’s part of being in a relationship together,” he continued, somehow knowing I heard him. I also heard the water sloshing about and imagining the flooded bathroom floor, resisted the urge to go mop it up, not wanting to engage in this conversation.
“Why? I mean, your money is your money and my money is my money. We both contribute to living together as best we can and this seems to work just fine.” I said diplomatically, because the truth was I paid the bills. But surely he would contribute once he had a job.
“It would just make a lot of things easier. And it’s a commitment. It’s what you do when you are in a committed relationship,” he said as if this was obvious and everyone but me knew it.
This was my first time living with a lover and Neil had been married and lived with girlfriends over the years and crowned himself as the relationship expert. I bristled at being patronized.
“Yeah, but I don’t feel comfortable with that. Not just now. Don’t take this the wrong way, I am happy to lend you money if you need it but I think we should keep our accounts separate,” I answered.
“It’s a trust thing. Don’t you trust me?” he asked. I heard the water splash again, definitely soaking the floor.
By the time we moved to Connecticut, I had set up an account in both of our names.
Neil finally received his Green Card in March and immediately, landed a job as a Land Rover salesman. He’d always bragged he could “sell ice to Eskimos” and “charm the knickers off a nun” and indeed, outfitted in his Burberry jacket, ascot knotted at his neck, he was perfect at pitching English luxury cars and soon came home announcing sale successes. I looked forward to the revival of our bank balance and Neil’s good humor.