Chapter 3

Bosnia – January 1993

 

Back at my desk on Monday, I read though a stack of grim situation reports and a wave of guilt flooded out the thrill of the weekend. While I was drinking cappuccinos and cavorting with Neil, families hid in basements while mortars destroyed their homes. Deliveries of food and medical supplies and evacuations were blocked in places the UN had just declared ‘safe areas’ while we, the international community, had done nothing to make them so. I punched holes in the slippery fax paper and filed more terrible stories away in my binders. Looking past the sandbags in the windows, I replayed scenes from Zagreb as if remembering a dream, the warmth of my hotel room at the Intercontinental, the softness of the sheets, room service, Neil.

The hotel door clicked shut behind us, we dropped our coats onto the thick hotel carpeting, and Neil steered me to the wall. His hand behind my head as a cushion, he kissed me hard as I stood on tiptoe to reach his warm lips. Eyes closed, I grasped the jam of the bathroom door to steady myself. He pulled away for a moment and gave me a mischievous smile.

“Just a cuddle, eh?” I said breathlessly.

Laughing, he lifted me up, kissing me while stepping with two strides over to the gigantic bed where he gently lay me down, peeling off our winter clothing, first his own – pulling his jacket off, snapping his ascot off with a flourish, unbuttoning his shirt, then turning to me, my hair crackling with static as he slid my turtleneck over my head. In bed with this long and big boned man, I felt petite and safe as I burrowed into his chest, exhaling in relief after months of guarded living. We explored each other’s bodies. His skin was soft, just the right amount of hair on his chest, Sean Connery style military tattoos on his forearms including a heart with the words “True Love Roslyn” etched in the middle. I held his arm out and pointed.

“Roslyn?”

“That’s ages old! My ex-wife. I’ve been meaning to get that taken off. Anyway, I don’t want to talk about her now – I only have eyes, and lips and …”

 

“What are you day dreaming about, Treesha?” Victor came bustling into the office. “A good weekend?” His eyes twinkled. He already knew. Of course, he did – UNPROFOR was such a fishbowl and one of the Russian officers from Kiseljak had been checking out at the same time I did, with Neil by my side.

“Who told you?”

“Ah, I have my sources! I’m happy for you. It’s good to have love in the midst of this mad war. We need to go to Pale after the my morning briefing – half an hour?”

“Sure. I’m ready when you are.”

Neil did not, as I expected of men, disappear behind what would have been the believable excuse of the usually dead-phone lines or long workdays. Instead, he came up with reasons why the ICRC needed to travel to the UNPROFOR base 20 miles of muddy roads through military checkpoints to visit me. And when we had meetings in Sarajevo, I could spend the night in Neil’s room at the Holiday Inn.

A bright yellow box of a building right on the front line along ‘sniper alley’, the Holiday Inn was a strange flash of color in the grey landscape. Only the side facing away from the Serb neighborhood of Grbavica was considered safe enough to stay in. UNHCR plastic covered the blasted windows like bandages. Neil’s room was on the second floor.

“Look at all the souvenirs I have in here. There’s some shrapnel lodged in this corner and I pried a bullet out of here – you can still see the hole,” he said, proudly pointing out the scars in his walls.

He pulled the heavy blackout curtains tight across the windows meticulously making sure there were no cracks of light to attract alcohol-stoked-soldiers on sniper duty. Popping a ‘Phantom of the Opera’ or Freddy Mercury CD into his boom box, he opened two beers and we settled back into his double bed, piled with extra pillows he’d cajoled out of the housekeepers.

“What do you think? Not a bad setup, eh?” He grinned at me proudly.

“It’s very cozy. You have everything you need, don’t you? More than I do in my cold little place.”

“Now that you’re here, I do.” He said reaching for my bottle and setting it on the side-table then pulling me close.

“Time for cuddles,” he whispered, swooping me beneath him and lifting my sweater up to lay his warmth against mine. I lost myself between his kisses, beneath his heavy limbs, intoxicated by the still-new but already familiar scent of him. Our skin pressed close and damp, the battles around us melted away in the heat of our love. Pressing my face against his chest, I felt home even as machine gun fire echoed through the streets outside.

After I untangled the knots in my hair, we floated hand-in-hand down to the window-less dining room at the center of the hotel. The carpeting and moveable walls muffled gun battles but mortar shell hits sometimes rattled the china. Tables were set with linens and the waiters wore mustard-yellow jackets with black bow ties. Neil knew them all.

Kako ste, moja Muslima friend?” He teased a favorite waiter, affectionately grabbing him in a half-hug. The waiter, like the rest of the hotel staff, seemed genuinely fond of him. Neil explained that he “looked after them” regularly bringing them presents of cartons of Marlboros and bottles of Johnny Walker for use in place of the useless local currency or to feed their own habits. Everyone in his orbit seemed to enjoy Neil’s kooky humor and the waiters always offered him an extra portion of instant mashed potatoes or butter when others were told nothing was left.

Dinner at the Holiday Inn consisted of dubious meat and overcooked vegetables but we ate with pleasure with Neil’s ICRC colleagues and other humanitarian aid workers and journalists. Christian Amanpour might be at the next table, Bianca Jagger once made an appearance and Susan Sontag was a regular, parked in the same corner each night, deep in discussion with her journalist son David Rieff.

 

The Holiday Inn felt the center of the world but I felt like a fraud there. These journalists regularly lambasted the UN as being idle witnesses to the war, or even complicit. I was beginning to agree. I’d filled books of meeting notes on the front lines of this mission, repeats of the same entreaties, accusations, atrocities, and the sense of doing any good had faded. I felt increasingly frustrated and impotent. I wanted to do more and envied my colleagues working in humanitarian relief. Earlier that week, to placate me, Victor assigned me to, along with a US civil affairs officer, meet a young girl who’d come to Kiseljak headquarters to ask for petrol for their car to escape to Moslem territory as tensions and violence was building in the Croat run town. The girl was sixteen – sent as her families’ emissary because she spoke the best English. The family was frightened. The answer was no. UNPROFOR could not be seen as assisting in ethnic cleansing, it was not in our mandate to provide petrol to individuals. I felt sick. And sitting at the Holiday Inn with journalists and relief workers that did provide real aid, I felt like I was on the wrong team. I kept a low profile, not engaging with anyone but Neil and his coworkers, ashamed and also wary about saying anything that might show up in an article.

We usually sat with the more staid, ICRC table. “Bonsoir,” Neil’s colleagues greeted us as we joined them for dinner. Like the hotel staff, they appreciated the crazy Brit responsible who got them safely to and from meetings and prison visits while cracking jokes, enjoying the comic relief he provided during and after a grueling day in the field. My favorite of this crew was Alberto*, a soft-spoken Italian who specialized in helping new amputees adjust to their prosthetics. He had taken leave from his usual post in Afghanistan to help out in Bosnia for a few months. Neil regularly harassed Alberto on the madness of this.

“How many people take a break from one war zone to work in another? My friend, you’re either a saint or insane,” Neil regaled Alberto, who smiled and shrugged, adjusting his rimless glasses while answering softly,

“It’s what I do. But I miss Afghanistan, I can tell you.”

“You’re taking the piss, right? You’re from Italy, one of the most beautiful countries in the world and you’d rather be in Afghanistan with the mujahdeen?”

“I’m serious. I’ve been here almost a month and I miss the people and my work there. The Afghans are the warmest you’ll ever meet in your life.”

“Bloody hell! Isn’t this place something?” Neil shook his head.

Alberto made a point of trying to engage Neil beyond his jokester persona, gently urging him to cut back on his smoking, questioning him on why he chewed his fingernails to the quick. Alberto worried about Neil even as he chuckled with the others at his comedic antics.

 

After dinner, we climbed the steps back upstairs to his room (the elevator never worked) for a cup of what he described as “proper English tea” made from his stash of PJ Tips, just in time to catch Star Trek on television. Neil had literally taken control of the hotel’s television selection by sneaking up on the roof of the Holiday Inn to tilt the satellite dish while communicating via ICRC radios one of his Sarajevo colleagues who sat on the bed and guided Neil while risked sniper danger and tilted the satellite dish until Star Trek reception was just right. The next morning at breakfast, Neil laughed into his coffee as a CNN reporter complained to the hotel manager, “Hey man! What’s happened? We can’t get our news station anymore. You need to get that fixed. I mean we’re paying for almost all the rooms in here.”

“I’m very sorry sir, I don’t know what happened. The satellite must have shifted. I’ll see what I can do.” The manager looked at Neil and shrugged. Eventually, CNN and Sky News dominated the screen again but not until more complaints came in and someone else was willing to brave the snipers.

 

Entering the UN offices in Sarajevo together, Neil draped his arm over my shoulder, leaning down for a kiss as we neared the gates manned by French Legionnaire soldiers. I squirmed at his public display of affection but he tightened his embrace, as the soldiers hooted approvingly.

The French Legionnaires are a special French army unit of volunteers from many countries. Some were fleeing a shady past, like the Texan who told me he held a degree in graphic design and hinted at trouble with the law. He’d previously been a mercenary in Central America before deciding he wanted the more formal structure of the Legionnaires. This exotic army of renegade soldiers spoke French between themselves but when talking to us, often broke into English that revealed a twang or brogue. Once, crossing the parking lot of the PTT building with helmet in hand instead of on my head, a Legionnaire yelled at me from his guard post with a Cockney accent, “Eh! That’s no’ a bloody pocket-book, y’know!”

Neil struck up a friendship with a freckled soldier from Belfast, the name O’Connell incongruously embroidered above the French flag on the sleeve of his uniform.

Twenty years ago this Belfast soldier and Neil had been deadly enemies. Neil joined the British army at 17 to escape the boredom of the West Midlands and landed right into the killings of Bloody Sunday. Neil was armed with a rifle to O’Connell’s rocks and Molotov cocktails, both only boys. They shared cigarettes and stories and when they thought me out of earshot, talked about women.

“Did you see that bird there? ‘Caw, she’s lovely,” O’Connell commented as a group of local women who worked in the kitchen and as interpreters passed through the security check outside the former telephone company building that had been taken over by the UN.

“Not my type,” Neil answered, “Besides, I have my love from New York.”

I sat in the ICRC car with the door open, pretending to read. Neil blew a kiss in my direction then turning away from me, continued in a lower voice,

“Although there’s an interpreter in the UNHCR office that if I weren’t with Tricia, I wouldn’t mind doing.”

What the hell? But I knew he was a flirt and it’s not like I had exactly stopped checking out the multitude of men around me. How could we not? I chuckled. In fact, eavesdropping on these former adversaries sharing cigarettes and banter on a cold Sarajevo afternoon comforted me. My Brit and this Irish man were proof that the terrible generational cycles of hate and ancient wounds could heal. There was hope for this torn land too.

Neil clearly bore deep wounds from his military service but was uncharacteristically mum about the time he served. When I pressed him he said what he had seen and done were too awful to tell. But sometimes I glimpsed his torment when I woke to him sweating and flailing beside me. In his dream, he was fighting for his life and he always worried he’d hurt me by mistake. I never pressed him for details about his nightmares unsure I wanted to know about what haunted him.

* Alberto has yet to lose his love for Afghanistan and in fact was just awarded citizenship there! Check out his TED talk to get a sense of what a special man he is. https://www.ted.com/talks/alberto_cairo_there_are_no_scraps_of_men?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare

 

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Chapter 2

Zagreb – January 1993

The next day, I rifled through my backpack as if a more flattering outfit than my faded turtleneck and corduroys might miraculously appear. I felt frumpy compared to the elegant women in Zagreb. People in Europe seemed so easily stylish. Even in under-siege-Sarajevo, with no electricity and running water, the women were stunning with coiffed hair and perfect make-up. Sighing, I swabbed on more mascara and coated my lips with tinted balm. After some fussing, I finally pulled my hair back in a bun to accentuate my blue eyes. As I passed through the lobby I glanced at myself in the glass doors. I looked fine.

Crossing the long blocks to the city’s main square, I turned my face up to the sky to feel the sun’s warmth.  We had arranged to meet at 3:00 at Zagreb’s standard rendezvous point in front of the saber wielding man on a horse. Jelacic Square bustled with people meeting friends and lovers. Everyone in Zagreb seemed to be out on this fluke, warm winter day. I saw him from a distance, tall and handsome. Even amongst this crowd of attractive people dressed-to-the-nines, both men and women did a double take, like maybe he was famous. I walked faster as if to keep up with my racing heart, pigeons flapping out of my way. Neil bent to kiss me on the cheek. He smelled of aftershave. Around his neck he wore a red ascot neatly tucked into a pressed white shirt poking out from under his jean jacket.

“Hello! I’m happy to see you again. You look beautiful!” He took my hand. “Let’s sit outside,” he said, steering me towards the tables set up in front of one of the coffee shops where young and old couples, entire families and groups of friends sat enjoying the sun.

“It’s nice to be able to sit in the open. Can you imagine doing this in Sarajevo with all the snipers?”

“It’s too bloody cold there. But yes, there are actually a few little places tucked away. I’ll show you when we get back.”

I loosened the scarf from around my neck. Was it the sunshine or his presumption of a future between us warming me up?

“Dva kava molim!” he called to the waiter as we settled into a table in the last patch of light. “You want coffee, right? I’m sorry, I should have asked. I love the local coffee but maybe you’d prefer a cappuccino?”

“No, I like the coffee here too.”

The waiter delivered our order, barely a shot glass full of thick coffee in little cups. I watched as Neil piled an alarming number of sugar cubes into his.

“When I first got here, it took me a few cups before I managed to not end up with a mouthful of muddy sludge from the bottom of my cup.” I was chattering, still stirring my one cube of sugar into the cup and he’d already downed his and was waving at the waiter for another.

“So what were you doing before you got into all of this craziness?” I asked.

“I worked in the film game.”

“Cool! Doing what?”

“Ducking and diving. I doubled for a lot of the taller actors and sometimes did stunt work. But I don’t think I’ll go back to it. The business slowed in England; there’s not much happening at Pinewood Studios these days.”

He puffed on his cigarette, looking over my head and across the square, turning the dregs in his coffee cup round and round.

“What actors?”

“Let’s see, Chevy Chase, Christopher Reeves, Jeff Goldblum (he’s kind of a pratt). I did all the shite that they didn’t want to do or that their contract won’t allow. The last film I worked on was Hamlet with Mel Gibson. I was a Queen’s guard. Mel’s a nice bloke, good fun. Loves to take the piss. I also worked on A Fish Called Wanda, The Tall Guy… loads. For a few years I was also a minder with a couple of bands. Do you remember Spandau Ballet?”

“I can’t place their music but I know the name. Maybe they weren’t as big in the States. It sounds exciting – why did you stop?”

Neil lit up another cigarette and exhaling slowly, stared at the disappearing smoke before answering.

“I got tired of it. I was watching the news about everything going on over here when the war started and I wanted to do something. That’s just the way I am. Remember when they discovered all those neglected orphanages in Romania? No one else could get in and I made it through with a convoy of supplies. When things blew up here in Yugo, I called the ODA (Overseas Development Agency – a UK relief agency) and they hired me straight off. Years ago I was in the military so they jumped at my experience. And when the British offered to supply the ICRC with armored cars, I applied to be their man here. So now I’m a minder for all of the boring Swiss Delegates in Sarajevo.”

He lit another cigarette. I tipped my espresso cup to my lips in search of a last bit of liquid but only the bitter residue of grounds remained.

“Are you getting cold? Should we move somewhere inside?” He downed his second cup then tossed some crumpled bills on the table and gallantly stepped around to pull my chair back for me. I shivered and tucked my scarf closer around my neck. The sun dropped on the horizon and like that, winter’s cold returned.

As we crossed the square, he took my hand in a gentle, almost tentative grip. I curled my fingers around his massive ones. Matching his long strides as we walked down a cobbled street, I began to feel taller than my 5’ 6” as I kept pace with him.

“Where should we go?”

“How about the bar at the Intercontinental?” He glanced at me coyly as he said the name of my hotel. “You know, the one on the top floor. There’s a nice view of the city from there.”

He was moving fast now. Why not?

“Okay. Should we walk?”

“Let’s grab a taxi.” He ushered me to a line of old Mercedes waiting on a side street.

The hotel bar was empty but for the bartender. We could see all of old Zagreb tinted by the last glow of the day. Neil ordered a whiskey and I asked for a beer.

“I don’t actually drink that much,” he said as the bartender set our drinks in front of us.

That information went into the ‘positive’ column of my mental checklist about him. Most of the men I’d been with loved drinking and in the past, getting drunk became one of our primary activities. Recently, I’d been trying to limit myself rather than become like my mother who fueled decades of bitterness after my father left her, by rarely making it to 5:00 PM before she started to slur.

“I’d like to tell you something,” Neil said, lighting another cigarette. He appeared to have an endless supply of these gold packs tucked away in his jean jacket.

I looked at him expectantly. He drew in a smoky breath followed by a swallow of drink, his eyes on the bottles behind the bar. I wondered if I’d heard him correctly because now he didn’t seem to want to tell me anything. A wave of dread rose from the pit of my stomach. Here goes: he’s probably married. Didn’t he say on the plane yesterday he wasn’t? I shifted back in my chair.

“I didn’t tell you the whole story of why I came here.”

“Oh?” I waited hoping my face looked neutral, like I expected nothing from him although my heart sunk.

“I had this problem … it started after working in the film and music industry,” he paused again.

“What kind of problem?”

“Blow.”

“Excuse me?”

He turned to me and laughed, tension draining out of his face. I didn’t understand.

“Blow what?” I asked.

With a nervous chuckle he leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, drew his chair and body closer to me.

“Charlie. Cocaine. I had a problem with cocaine. I was working with the band when I tried it. One of the guys offered me some and that was it. I got hooked.”
“Oh.” What else to say? What was I to do with this information? I’d always been leery of trying drugs when there were plenty around in college and the restaurant business where I’d logged many hours. And I didn’t understand how people became hooked on, well…anything. That wasn’t my personality.

“I got pretty messed up with it,” he continued. “So about nine months ago I checked into rehab for a month and when I got out, decided to stay clear of the film and music business since charlie is everywhere there. It was bloody hard.” He turned to me with a triumphant smile. “But I’m okay now!”

“Good for you!” I answered with enthusiasm mostly from my relief that the news was not about the existence of a wife or beloved girlfriend.

“For some reason I wanted to tell you.”

“I’m glad you did,” I said as I peeled the soggy label off my beer bottle.

“I mean I feel like we could have something here. I find you attractive and well, I want to be honest with you from the start.” He swirled the whiskey in his glass.

“I appreciate it.” Rolling my beer label into a ball I tossed it into Neil’s ashtray.

The bar was still empty. Neil torpedoed his cigarette with a sizzle into the damp paper ball in the ashtray and leaned in for a kiss. He tasted like cigarettes and whiskey, neither flavors I liked, but he was a good kisser. I thought of the spacey potheads I’d known over the years – my only close-up experience with drugs. Drunks were my expertise. As Neil’s tongue searched my mouth, a surge of desire swept all the way to my toes. He pulled me closer and breathing felt unnecessary as I lost myself in his warmth.

Sitting back in his chair with a smile, he said with a sigh, “That was nice.”

“Yes.” I felt dizzy.

“So…what are the rooms like here anyway?”

“Really?” I pretended to be shocked.

“Well when you know something is right…” he looked at me expectantly.

“Do we know that?”

“I do.”

“How can you? We haven’t even spent 5 hours together.”

“I just do. I know that you’re the kind of girl I’ve been looking for.”

I looked at him skeptically. What did he mean? A girl who doesn’t know what ‘blow’ is? Is he for real or yet another sweet talker? I wasn’t sure what to make of him.

“I only want to cuddle,” he cajoled, taking my hand.

“All right. Let’s go.” I took my bag off the back of the chair and stood up.

He grinned. “Hey mate! Can we have the check, molim?”

 

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Chapter 1

My basement has stacks and rolls of moldy drawings, walls are covered with collages framed for past exhibits and peeking out of corners of my small house are dusty wood sculptures carved long ago in Kyoto. For years, I wanted only to make art. But I was never obsessed nor particularly good, and eventually writing became a more compelling creative outlet.

Words take up less physical but still claim psychic space – and it’s time for me clean house. I worked on my memoir for years, religiously waking at the crack of dawn and putting in almost an hour before work every single day, writing and re-writing. Driven perhaps by the desire to understand what happened, to answer my own questions. To remember.

August 25, would have been the 25th anniversary of my wedding in Sarajevo. Neil wanted me to write our story although we both hoped for a different ending. Molly has read and approved. I’ve gotten lazy about trying to flog this in the traditional publishing world and rather than have all this work languish in my Mac, I thought I’d start posting chapters here. A little bit more of letting go. As always, thanks for reading.

Sarajevo – January 1993

The day I met Neil at Sarajevo airport, staccato bursts of gunfire cracked the frigid air but we heard no mortar thunder. Seven years earlier international athletes arrived in droves for the winter Olympics but now only United Nations staff, relief workers and journalists scrambled across the artillery-pitted runways to board planes in and out of the besieged city. Military aircraft lingered long enough for cargo to be unloaded before lifting back into the sky. Sarajevo’s citizens remained trapped for almost four years while us foreigners hitched free rides on humanitarian aid flights for weekend getaways. Incoming, planes were loaded down with supplies but the heaviest weight on flights out of the city was the occasional dead body of an international peacekeeping soldier or civilian. Sharing one such ride with a fallen colleague, I spent the hour-long trip staring at my book, pretending to sleep, looking out the window – anywhere but at the body-box tethered to the center of the plane.

On a late January day, stepping through filthy slush, I followed a wall of sandbags to the airport’s makeshift arrival and departure building. A young blond soldier greeted me from behind a metal desk, spitting tobacco juice over his shoulder before stamping my blue UN passport with the clever “Maybe Airlines” logo. I peered into the waiting room. Frozen clouds of breath and cigarette smoke hung in the air like cartoon bubbles illustrating the cacophony of languages spoken by the two-dozen or so waiting passengers. British accented English of the BBC crowd in the corner drowned out the hum of Italian, French and Spanish occasionally punctuated by shouts from the Norwegian soldiers manning the airport.

A towering man with an ascot knotted around his neck stepped out of the shadows and walked in my direction. I’d seen him earlier in the week smoking cigarettes in a hallway in the abandoned factory where I’d been at a meeting taking notes for my boss, Victor. We nodded at each other as I hurried out to the next appointment. “There’s a handsome guy,” Victor whispered, elbowing me, as if I hadn’t noticed. Now that handsome guy was sauntering towards me like he was at a cocktail party. He flashed a grin of straight white teeth and offered me his hand, “Hello! Neil Hamilton. Didn’t I see you a few days ago? You’re with the UN, right?”

I put my frozen fingers in his warm grip and he held onto them until I reluctantly pulled them away.

“Yes, I remember you from the other day. I’m Tricia with Civil Affairs UNPROFOR – based in Kiseljak. Are you’re with the ICRC? I know you were at that meeting at the Coca Cola factory in Hadzici.

“So you remember me!” He winked and sounded pleased. Surely he knew he was memorable. He was gorgeous.

“Are you with the ICRC?”

“Yes. I was brought on as the transportation and security guy. Part of the package with the British Red Cross. The Brits donated an armored Land Rover that I drive for the Swiss. And I do – I drive them mad!” He laughed at his own joke. “You’re on your way to Zagreb too?”

“Well, unfortunately I couldn’t find any flights to the Bahamas from here.”

Why did I have to be a wise ass? To make up for it, I gave him what I hoped was a fetching smile as I ran my hands through my helmet-flattened hair, trying to fluff it back to life.

“Ah, wouldn’t that be lovely! A beach!” He leaned in towards me. “Anything special planned for the weekend?”

“Not really. Good food and lots of hot baths. I just need to get out of here for a bit.”

“You’re bloody right. I’m dying for a good soak and decent nosh. I’m based at the Holiday Inn here and the food is awful. How is it in Kiseljak?”

“The Danish Battalion runs the place so there’s good bread and lots of herring. I’ve had worse. You should come try it.”

“Is that an invitation?”

We were definitely flirting. I needed this.

January had been an endless routine of hopeless days. Speeding through ravaged villages in our armored car, I took copious notes for Victor as he negotiated with men who later ended up convicted of war crimes at The Hague. Meetings were held in a haze of cigarette smoke and usually in unheated schools and defunct factories like the one where I’d met Neil. Afterwards, Victor and I went back to our sandbagged office and drafted reports we faxed to UN headquarters in Zagreb, that sometimes were used to draw up agreements they warring sides mostly ignored. At first, I imagined we were making progress towards peace and found the work compelling. But nights I returned alone to my freezing flat that often had neither electricity nor water. As the war escalated, I began to feel like I was being swallowed up into the abyss of darkness and evil around me.

That morning in the airport, leaning against the frozen cinderblock wall, I shivered with a sense of possibility. Maybe this guy was the man of my dreams. In any case, he seemed a damn good prospect for the weekend.

“UNPROFOR flight is leaving. Please, make your way to the plane!” the soldier called from behind his desk, “Be quick!”

The Antonuv engine roared on the runway ready to lift straight up and out of range of bullets and mortars. Strapping on my blue helmet, I scurried through the tunnel of sandbags, sure Neil was behind me. Heart pounding, sweat trickling down my back in spite of the cold, I sprinted the open stretch of tarmac, imagining a drunken soldier about to take a pot shot at me. I jogged up the ramp to the plane, the metal rattling with each step. Setting my pack onto  webbed bench, I pulled off my helmet, shook out my brown hair and turned expectantly and immediately felt foolish. He wasn’t there. I peered out at the runway beyond the plane’s tail where he stood talking to two ruddy-faced men out on the open tarmac. Finally, they shook hands and Neil strolled to the plane.

“Sorry about that,” he said, leaning close to my ear so I could hear him over the noise of the engine. “They’re mates I haven’t seen in ages. I was an ODA convoy leader for a few months before taking the ICRC job and they were my drivers. Great lads. We had some laughs.”

The bellowing engine grew even louder. He reached into a breast pocket and pulled out a pack of Benson and Hedges, offering me one.

“No thanks!” I grimaced.

“Right, it’s a shit habit but I can’t quit now. Do you mind?” Without waiting for an answer, he shook the cigarettes, pulling one out with his teeth.

“No, but I don’t think you’re supposed to smoke on the plane.” I yelled, pointing to the international signs and Cyrillic letters that I surmised meant “no smoking” in Russian. He shrugged and lit up, motioning towards the cabin, “The Ruskie’s don’t care. Look at them up there puffing away.” Sure enough, cigarettes hung from the lips of the crew standing in the cockpit. Neil turned to me. “Are you married?”

I leaned back in mock surprise. “My! You get right to the point don’t you? All right then – no, are you?”

“Well, there’s no time to waste, is there?” He smiled. “I’m not married either. I was once – as a kid – barely eighteen. I have two beautiful, grown girls in England. I also lived with a bird up until about six months ago. It’s over now. She wanted to get married but I knew she wasn’t the one.”

Did he give me a meaningful look? I turned away to fuss with my backpack so he wouldn’t see me blush.

We looked out the same window, his face inches from mine. Thick eyebrows grew out in straight tufts over his hazel eyes lending a dash of seriousness to his gaze. He shifted closer and a scent of tobacco and cologne filled the shrinking space between us. The plane lifted off the runway and over the destroyed homes, blackened-walls of caved-in kitchens once full of warmth, bedrooms with love, now brimming with frozen snow. Our heads nearly touched as we watched the battered city disappear behind the clouds. How easily we get to leave the suffering behind, I thought with a pang of guilt. I stole a look at Neil’s handsome face as he peered out at the wreckage as if searching for something.

During the hour long flight, Neil told me jokes, did goofy magic tricks with a rag he found under his seat and probably would have done handstands to keep me laughing. By the time the plane landed, my cheeks ached from smiling and we’d agreed to rendezvous the following day. I couldn’t remember when I felt so hopeful about a date.

Nine months earlier I’d departed New York City with a broken heart, anxious to get far away from the man I loved who married another woman. From my position as a Public Information Assistant at UN headquarters, I applied to UN Peacekeeping Operations and was accepted to UNPROFOR – the mission in former Yugoslavia. As June temperatures cranked up, I felt glad to escape the heat and the subway’s relentless press of sweating humanity. And the mission took me far from reminders of my lost love.

It worked. The change of scenery and abundance of swaggering young soldiers from around the world not to mention my front seat to the woes of war, quickly put the pain of my failed romance into perspective. For the first few months I buried myself in work. But three seasons had passed and the harsh winter felt like it would never end. I longed for a little action not to mention some warmth during the frigid nights. Of course, I wanted more than a fling; I yearned for a bona-fide, monogamous relationship. For many years I’d been happy enough with my bohemian life, including almost 4 years of living in Kyoto, Japan. But baby longing changed everything. I wanted children. Preferably with a soul mate – if such a thing existed. But time was running out and I could not ignore the urgency of my diminishing fertility.

Yet I wasn’t ready to shut the door on adventure. I still wanted an interesting life. I imagined myself on a European street stepping out of my sun-filled flat for good coffee and bread, baby strapped against my heart. Peacekeeping Operations seemed as good place as any to connect with a man to fill in the blanks to make this dream come true. A war-zone may not be the first place most women would look to start a family but I thought it made sense for my fantasy future. Besides, the pool of men had to be better than the shark waters of NYC where I’d been swimming for the past four years.

I enjoyed flirtations with soldiers from the ranks of British and Danish battalions but imagining them sharing tales of conquest with their troop was enough for me to keep my distance. UN’s Kiseljak headquarters, a 70s style hotel designed to accommodate 200 guests now packed with over 600 soldiers, was too much of a fishbowl to mess around in. This handsome British man staying at the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo a half-hour drive away held promise.

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Just Past Dawn on a Sunday in My City

My little old house is not air conditioned and this weekend was very hot. We have window units but they’re ugly and I don’t like the noise. Molly installed one in her room so if I get miserable, I can go in there and cool off. But I’m okay with heat most of the time and am content with the breeze of a ceiling and window fan. Besides, these scorchers make feel like I have permission to slow down. Yesterday I spent the whole day reading – something I never allow myself.

These hot days make me a more enthusiastic morning person. I always wake pretty early but rarely get up and into the world beyond a walk down the street with Rufus. But one day last week I was out early enough to take him for a longer walk along the river before work. I met the early morning scullers – few women my age and two men instead of the usual group of private school kids I see goofing around in the evenings. One of the osprey I’ve been watching since they moved onto the big industrial machine in the gravel pit, dove into the river and scored a fish. I stood and watched him deliver the flopping creature to the nest and then call to his family that breakfast was ready.

This morning Rufus got me up at the usual 5:30 hour with a bark from Molly’s air conditioned room. I took him for only a short walk, anxious to get to my plot in the community garden before the sun got too high. It’s a 5 minute drive on the highway with no traffic. Usually there are other gardeners either in the lower or top level plots but at that hour it was only me. The sun had yet to rise above the tree line. Perfect for weeding, fertilizing and harvesting the lettuce, the leaves breaking off with satisfying snaps. The crazy rains of last week followed by the heat were great for my plants. So gratifying after trying to do this at home for years with not enough light and too many greedy creatures.

My bag loaded with lettuce, a few peppers and exactly 3 cherry tomatoes, I drove to the beach to suss out whether I wanted to load up the kayak and get a paddle in before the Sunday crowds descended. No. Instead, I walked the almost empty length of it encountering other walkers – every single one greeting me warmly as if to welcome me to their morning parade all beating the heat and the crowds. And I thought (not for the first time) I should get up and do this every morning!

As I headed to the pier, a few fisherman were leaving. I asked one man pulling a cart loaded with his fishing gear behind him if he got breakfast. Just one, he said. And we wished each other a good day. I walked to Shady Beach (it is that and it’s called that) where you can rent a table. $5 for residents, $25 for non-residents. Some were already claimed with paper tablecloths weighed down by chafing dishes stacked and ready for what incredible food, I wondered. From past experience I conjured up the good food smells, sounds of music and laughter that would fill this space within a few hours.

Chairs in a circle set up for a party or maybe a religious service. I didn’t stick around to find out. I took the shady path back rather than walk along the beach and across the stretch of grass, there was a group of 5 older men talking loudly in Italian as they made their way along the sand, the joy of their friendship echoing across. I passed the volleyball court where a group cheered and jeered each other in an East Asian language I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t even 8 o’clock yet – how had they managed to muster the bodies and energy at this hour?

One man with a metal detector paced along a grassy knoll near the parking lot, searching for treasure. Further down the beach, another man was one bin ahead of the garbage truck behind him, dove in and rifled through for cans and bottles, lugging his black plastic bag.

I adore my rich and varied city on this early Sunday summer morning.

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Calling the Dead

selective focus photography of black rotary phone

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about something I saw about a week ago on BBC News. On a hill in Japan there is a  white telephone booth where the grieving go to call their deceased loved ones. The phone is located in northeastern Japan near to where thousands of souls were lost in the 2011 tsunami. Lives, whole villages, were wiped out in that nightmare wave. The booth is white and looks to be on a hill in the middle of nowhere and the phone connects to nowhere and nothing except the hearts of the grieving.

You can watch it for yourself here  but grab a tissue first. It’s a brilliant, poetic idea. A universal, non-denominational but literal space and ritual for the grieving. For those of us without a clear faith or physical grave to visit, it’s a beautiful notion.

I’ve been thinking about who I would call, what would I say? Of course, I sometimes ‘talk’ to those who I loved who died – mostly Rob and Neil – usually when I see something around the house or yard that sparks a memory of them. It’s not all sweet words, I assure you but I am heartened that my memories become more loving with the passage of time. But neither left unintentionally, gently and they both left some lingering havoc behind.

I am writing this on Father’s Day and Instagram and Facebook is filled with images of both living and gone dads captioned with proclamations of love and appreciation. I hate to be a spoiled sport since I was lucky enough to get this sweet treatment from my daughter on Mother’s Day and loved it, but these holidays can be hard for many of us with problematic relationships. I hit the jackpot on that – especially with the departed men in my life beginning with my father. Yes, obvious connections there and endless opportunities for the couch.

So what would I say into the telephone on the hill? I have questions. I don’t think I’d be like that dear, sad man calling his lost son, lovingly speaking speaking into the receiver. I imagine myself uncharacteristically quiet on the end of that phone line, waiting, listening and hoping for explanations, maybe apologies. And there would be silence or maybe the sound of the wind. Still, I’d try it.

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Creature Update

The complaint is always that Spring is short – sometimes only days of freshness before the temperature sky rockets into Summer. I am not moaning. Nature does its thing magnificently and I feel exhilarated by the shift out of winter whenever it happens. Mornings are now a pleasure of light and bird song.

A quick walk with Rufus just as the sun begins to light up the street. He tugs the leash to reach his preferred corner of the hedge where he lifts a leg not noticing the chipmunk scurrying off into the wood pile. To my right I see a rabbit on the patchy lawn. They’re all over the place this year and seem very bold lingering like house cats on lawns in the neighborhood, their marble eyes almost haughty as we draw closer. Just try and catch me, they seem to say before turning to flash their cute white tail. No chance with this dog who’s no bigger then they are. The ground hogs are laying low so far this year although Molly spotted one she thinks lives below our back deck.

It’s the birds that thrill me most. My favorites are the catbirds – the crazy songs they come up with. And the wrens are sweet- so teeny with such an earnest song. A family returns every year to the same back corner where we once had a house for them – since rotted away. There are too many trees for a good vegetable garden here but it’s a bird paradise.

Rufus is obsessed with the squirrels. Included in our morning ritual, post early walk, feeding, quiet time for me and then up again to start the day, while I’m making my food for the work day, I put him out on the lead in front. At the door he turns into a screaming little banshee, so crazed to get out to chase the squirrels. He leaps off the porch and scrambles up between the trees, barking, barking, barking. I’ve asked the neighbors if he disturbs them and they say no – perhaps too kind to complain – but I’ll take it. It’s usually only a few minutes of crazy joy as he watches the many squirrels, my peach and pear thieves, scurry and chase each other through the branches and away from the annoying little dog. He will always try but never catch them.

 

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Making Hay While the Sun Shines

Like a miracle, yesterday the sun appeared for a few hours in the afternoon and I seized the opportunity to mow the knee-high grass. The only problem was my lawnmower was barely functioning last Fall and had been sitting in the garage all Winter. I know there’s Spring maintenance necessary – out with the old gas, in with the new, etc. but I don’t do mechanical very well. I knew that since the thing is a bitch to start at the best of times, there was no way I’d get it to start up for me. But tucked further in the back of the garage was what I call the Barbie mower. It’s electric, very light and plastic like a toy- not a machine. Like if Barbie were to have a lawn mower. A kind neighbor showed up with it a few years ago when I’d asked for help in getting the gas one going. It’s not as powerful as the gas one and the whole extension cord thing is a real pain. But Barbie mower works. In fact, it works very well for my purposes. It’s basic and barrels over everything.

I wanted to mow my lawn is because I needed to add to my ‘lasagna’ plot but don’t want to ask for grass clippings from someone else as most of my neighbors and friends fertilize and use chemicals on theirs. I do not. I am not ashamed of my patchy lawn. You can eat from mine. And that’s what we plan to do.

After mowing, I did something I don’t ever do: I raked up the grass clippings. I usually leave them on the grass as mulch but I bagged yesterday’s bounty and took it to my plot to add another before the rains came. Today it’s been torrential and I don’t mind, imagining my lasagna garden cooking up nicely with yesterday’s added ingredient.

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Fragrant Evidence

Shhh!

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Screen time

I came home from work and started binging on the Netflix Series, ‘Dead to Me’ – a dark, funny, thriller. It’s smart and on the mark about complicated grief, relationships, forgiveness.

“If he did, I didn’t see it.” Boy does that line ring true. Deception is also a theme. Oh, so much deception! I’m ruined for writing anything tonight. Beware of losing many hours of productivity – but seriously- watch it!

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Bloom Report

There’s a crabapple tree in full bloom at the end of my driveway. Out with Rufus for our morning walk, I pause under the white petals just beginning to fall like snow. The daffodils are mostly shriveled but the few tulips that survive the squirrels are sticking around a little longer this year due to the chilly days. But it’s these delicate blooms completely covering the tree that give me a pang, a sense of time moving too quickly. I could spend a day just watching, inhaling the pink tinged blooms. Is The fragility moves me and how their disintegration is so visible. By the end of the weekend I suspect fallen petals will carpet my cracking driveway.

I feel sentimental about lilacs too. My love of that flower inspires me to be a thief. I am planning my flower heist. Neighbors I don’t really know who live across the street have a wall of lilac shrubs. They are out of the country and the tenants they are renting to have yet to move in. I can see from my window they aren’t quite ready but in a day or so I’m going to wander over with my clippers and grab an armful of those beauties. I don’t think they’d mind, do you?

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