Chapter 15

Connecticut 1997-98

Driving the streets of Connecticut I coveted the grassy yards and picket fences I’d once dismissed. I imagined our little family in one of these charming houses, the screen door slamming behind Molly as she came in from playing in our yard. I wanted a patch of my own to plant flowers and vegetables, to nurture my family in a normal life with friendly neighbors who didn’t harbor bizarre ancient hatreds. After four years in a war-zone I wasn’t even sure if I recognized ‘normal’ and my previous dreams of adventure had been replaced by a longing for stability and a home.

We decided to buy a house while we still had enough for a down payment and quickly fell in love with a white cape in a quiet neighborhood. As soon as we drove up to the corner property just shy of a quarter of an acre set back from the street, I knew we’d found home. Stepping inside the privet hedge that surrounded the property felt bucolic in spite of the drone of the nearby highway. On a September afternoon, the greens erupting into a flame of color, the owner, a woman in her eighties, stood on her small porch pointing out the variety of trees and shrubs on the property.

“What are these?” Neil asked gesturing towards some bushes in front of the porch.

“Azaleas in different shades of pink. And in the back there’s a whole row of peonies,” she said and turned to me, “I’ve lived here for 45 years. There are a lot of good memories in this house. It’s been a very happy home.”

“I hope it will be for our family too,” I said.

With glass doorknobs, hardwood floors and a sun porch, the 1930s cape was an antique compared to the boxy split-levels in the neighborhood. Satisfied that we would love her home as she did, the woman accepted our offer. We became homeowners just in time for Molly’s second Halloween.

 

The house needed an electricity upgrade, the bathroom’s pink sink had to go, the tiny hot water heater barely provided enough water for one quick shower. I paid for these things. Neil still didn’t seem to have money. Since he started selling cars, I thought he would be contributing more but it was never enough. I dreaded the mailman for the bills he delivered.

In life-before-Neil, I had loved opening my mailbox at the end of the day and never flinched at the sight of a bill because I knew what to expect, never had outlandish balances and paid them within days of receipt. Same thing with phone calls. Seeing a flashing light on my answering machine when I came home at the end of the day made me happy. What friend wanted to talk? What invitation awaited me? I hit the ‘play’ button even before taking off my coat.

This was no longer true. Now telephone calls and mail triggered anxiety. Even though Neil now earned more money than I did, his spending continued to be out of control but I could not figure out what he was buying. New charges and eventually, collection notices filled the mailbox. He didn’t seem to care about whether they were paid and hid bills. If I didn’t get to the mailbox first, balances remained outstanding until the following month doubled and with late fees.

When the phone rang, I held my breath, dreading a collections call. One regular caller frightened me but he wasn’t from a collections agency. Neil knew the guy but never picked up to speak to him and the man seemed to know we were there as he snarled out his message.

“Neil! Pick up the fucking phone. Neil! Neil! It’s Chet. I need to talk to you … now! You better call me back. I’m getting sick of this, Neil! I need my money. You better fucking call me back!”

That voice chilled the house. Sometimes I came home at the end of the day to multiple threatening messages on the answering machine and quickly hit the ‘off’ button so Molly would not hear the foul language. One night, after checking she was asleep, I kissed her dewy, toddler forehead and went downstairs to confront Neil. Still in his Landrover uniform of khakis and polo, he was sprawled across the couch watching English comedy reruns. He turned to me with a smile.

“Poppet asleep? Would you like a cup of tea?”

I picked up the controls from beside him and muted the television then walked over to the answering machine and pushed play. As Chet’s nasty voice came on, Neil put a hand to his face, fingers massaging his brow, eyes closed.

“Who is this guy?” I asked, a sick feeling in my stomach.

“He’s no one. I owe him some money – I’ll get it to him soon. He’s fine. Don’t worry, he’s a nice bloke, he just sounds bad.”

“You’re joking – a nice guy? He’s scary and I don’t want him calling here anymore. What do you owe him money for? And how much money are we talking about here?” I was shaking, afraid of his answer.

“Only a grand. Mike, the guy from security in Zagreb introduced me to him. He lent me some cash when we needed to fix the car and I didn’t want to ask you for it.”

“When was this?”

I searched my memory. In contrast to the fancy Land Rovers Neil got to drive, our car was old and needed constant repair – maybe he was telling the truth.

“But why would you go to someone like him for money? That’s crazy!”

“He’s a mate. That’s just how he is. He’s really okay. I made a mistake in borrowing from him but he’ll get his money. I’m expecting a big paycheck next week. I have a few big sales.”

“He’s not a ‘mate’, he’s a wack job. Friends don’t speak to each other that way – this guy’s a creep, don’t you see that? I don’t want him calling here anymore. Please, just get him out of our life.”

“I will, I will! I promise. Now, can I make you a nice cup of tea?”

He kissed the top of my head and hurried out to the kitchen.

 

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Chapter 14

Connecticut 1996-97

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.

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Chapter 13

Zagreb – Autumn, Winter, Spring 1995

Back in Zagreb, we moved to the same tree-lined street we’d lived on before. Our new apartment did not have the charm or fantastic view of our previous flat but nor did it have all those steps to climb with a baby carriage. We were within walking distance to the center of the city and my favorite open-air market. Zagreb’s markets paled compared to Italy’s where bouquets of herbs, varieties of basil, our favorite arugula and endless selection cheeses. Here potatoes and cabbages were piled unceremoniously onto cement slabs. Choice and charm were limited. But I was content to be at home with Molly and loved reconnecting with friends. Leah, a petite but tough nurse from New Zealand I’d worked with out in the field, had also recently become a mom. We rendezvoused at the main square, our babies parked beside us as we sipped coffee in the afternoon sun, marveling at how completely our lives changed in the last 6 months.

Before giving birth to her daughter, Leah had worked with MSF (Medicin Sans Frontieres – Doctors Without Borders). We last met in a makeshift refugee camp on the outskirts of Zagreb filled with thousands of people fleeing conflict in the northern ‘Bihac pocket’ of Bosnia. The Croatian government would not allow yet another wave of refugees, (and this group – Muslim) to cross the border. As a result, the entire town’s population was stranded in no-man’s-land – a buffer patch of a few miles between the official Croatian border and the United Nations Protected Areas where the Serbs lived. Ancient looking men, haggard women and their children crowded together in filthy chicken coops and sodden fields with no running water and an inadequate number of portable toilets. Leah and I reminded each other guiltily of the miserable conditions of these mothers and babies as we sipped coffee in the sunny square with our warm girls sleeping in their carriages.

“You know, Leah, I don’t think I can do it anymore. I just can’t imagine leaving Molly with someone and going back to work in the field. Could you?”
“No way! Look at Sally – she’s such a wee thing. I wouldn’t leave her, not now. No, I’m happy Dennis makes enough so I can care for this little one.”

 

Leah’s husband was a long-time United Nations staff member and they had traveled the world for years with Leah easily landing a job with whatever international organization needed her nursing skills.

“Isn’t it amazing how powerful this mothering instinct is? I never thought I would be so happy spending all of my time doting on my baby. I mean eventually, I’ll have to go back to work but for now I can’t imagine anything else I would rather do. Luckily I’ve been stashing away my salary for the past four years so I can subsidize my time at home. As an outside contractor for the UN, Neil doesn’t make enough to support us.”

“I know it’s really hard to make that jump from a contractor position to UN staff. I’ve seen it before when we were with UNIFIL in Lebanon. Maybe if you go to New York and he re-applies directly with Field Service or Peacekeeping he might get something. It’s worth a try,” she suggested, sipping her tea.

“That’s an idea. Neil’s so miserable in his new job and before we went to Italy, he just loved being in charge at the Dispatch Office. He’s really a very good manager and he got a kick out of having high-ranking staff sucking up to him when they needed a UN car. And the drivers were devoted to him.”

“That’s a shame. No chance he can get the job back?”
“It seems unlikely. Besides, there’s someone else in the position so he’s stuck.”

 

These days, Neil usually came home from work despondent.

“It’s so bloody dull! And the git that has my job is terrible. It really winds me up. All the drivers hate him.”

“Maybe you’ll eventually get it back then,” I encouraged.

“No chance. With this new restructuring, all management spots have to be filled by someone who is full United Nations staff – no contractors. They’re such idiots!”

“Well, talk to personnel about getting a different position. They like you. They’ll try and help,” I suggested.
“There’s no bloody way. There’s nothing in Zagreb. They’d want to send me down to Knin or into Bosnia and I don’t want to leave you and Molly.”

 

The ordeal of Molly’s premature birth still fresh, Neil and I guarded our time together. I didn’t blame him for wanting to stay close to home – I wanted him here too. Weekends we pretended we were still in Italy, sharing long lunches and afternoon siestas as the snow piled up outside. We tried to forget Neil’s dissatisfaction with work but I worried he would do something impetuous again – like quit his job.

 

Meanwhile NATO had taken action in Bosnia ending the longest siege in modern history with a few well-aimed air strikes, the guns bombarding Sarajevo were eliminated. In Croatia, while we were still in Italy, the Croatians had forcibly taken control of the UNPAs, driving out the Serbs from Krajina. Families who lived for generations in these small towns and villages, fled with their mattresses, refrigerators and any other possessions they could fit onto whatever truck, car or cart available to them. The UN protected areas in Croatia were no more. I wondered about my Serb friends and the family in Knin whose house I once lived in. Where had they gone?

Even if I had wanted to go back to my job with UNICEF, my position as the Project Officer for the Serb populated part of Croatia had brutally been made redundant. The international community was now moving on to other wars in Rwanda and Liberia in a kind of macabre migration of relief workers.

After years of negotiation and peacekeeping efforts, in the end it was violence that resolved the conflict and determined the borders formalized by the Dayton Agreement. For years, our ‘mission’ was to tread water in the hopeful sea of ‘peacekeeping’ but it seemed like all we managed to do was maintain a bizarre status quo. Aggression won and now it was time for us to leave.

Many of our friends and colleagues had already left for Africa where even more terrifying battles were being fought. I was not made of such stuff. I would not venture into those brutal killing fields. It was never in my make-up, but especially not now I was a mother. I had enough of this place where people seemed shameless about hating each another – Serb hated Croat, Croat hated Serb, Bosnian – depending upon where they came from, what brutality had been endured or recounted to them by relatives. A common language, even years of intermarriage, were not enough to keep the ancient stories of hatred told and retold through generations from blistering up again, the flame fanned by politicians and gangsters. How strange and maybe ominous, that my family began amidst this tortured history and boiling hatred.

 

My UNICEF-provided tickets to New York were set to expire in June. We would build our life in the United States. Neil was thrilled, excited by what he imagined as a new world of opportunity. And I was ready to go home. I would miss the cobbled streets, markets, café culture and other grace notes of European living but I couldn’t wait to see friends and looked forward to the ease of navigating through day-to-day life in my own language. Even after four years, my language ability was only good for shopping and weather chats. I missed the impromptu connections possible with strangers, so much more likely if you share a language.

We were to arrive in the United States a few days shy of Molly’s first birthday and four years to the day since I’d left. Neither of us had jobs waiting for us. Until Neil secured his Green Card, we’d have to live off my savings since Neil had never managed to put anything away.

 

“Maybe I’ll try and get back into the film game. I hear there’s a lot going on around New York right now.”

“I’m sure you could get into the film or television business there. You have some great connections – like the actor who you met for drinks in New York last January – Peter…”

“Peter Gallagher. Yeah. Maybe. Or I could drive a lorry. I’d love to travel across the country. But of course, I wouldn’t want to leave you two. Maybe you could come with me?”

“I don’t think so, honey,” I laughed. Molly was in her bassinet at the foot of our bed and we lay enjoying the morning light on a Saturday morning. I propped myself up on an elbow to look at him, his eyes still closed, one arm folded beneath his head.

“Come on! I could just see you in the front seat beside me and Molly’s little head poking out from the back cab – it would be fantastic!”

Neil’s future career was a recurring conversation as we tried to imagine what lay ahead for us in America. He wondered out-loud about possibilities and I cheered him on, reassuring him and believing, he could do anything.

“One of the exciting things about going to the States is there are all sorts of quirky, interesting jobs and with your experience, good looks and charm – you can do anything. A whole new world will open up for you there. It’s exciting!” I crawled beneath his heavy arm and lay my head against his chest.

We spent hours speculating about our future alternately excited and nervous. I wanted to be home with Molly and hoped his Green Card and a job would happen quickly so he could support us. He was so charming and Americans love an English accent. I’d seen him in action – I knew what he was capable of. We’d be fine.

 

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Chapter 12

 

Puglia and Zagreb, Summer 1995

 

Those early months at home with my baby flowed along in a sweet, slow rhythm of the hot Italian summer. Each time I lifted Molly up out of her cot and inhaled the scent of her downy head, my heart expanded more with love. To add to my joy, after weeks of frustrating attempts while in the hospital, we were now expert at nursing. Molly fed constantly and I felt triumphant watching the soft spot on her skull pulse with each gulp. She drank until her eyelids drooped drunkenly, her cupid bow mouth slipped away from my nipple, her breath rising and falling with mine.

My fantasies of being a mother, of living in Italy with a loving man and my baby had become reality. I basked in each moment. Waking in the morning, making pots of espresso, shopping in the market for basil and fresh cheeses, cuddling up with Molly and Neil in the darkened bedroom for afternoon siesta and finally, watching night descend dramatically over the Adriatic. I savored it all. Neil often came home and made lunch with fresh bread, arugula and mozzarella. We ate on the veranda overlooking the rose garden, Molly beside us or in our arms. Life felt too good to be true. The war across the sea still raged but we were ensconced in our dream. Sometimes the summer squalls that moved across the Adriatic delivered violent thunderstorms that reminded me of the bombs that fell through our courtship and I held my child close.

 

Neil made friends quickly and sometimes his new best friends were dubious. Lorenzo was definitely shady. Recently fired from his job at the UN base, Lorenzo was rumored to be Mafia. But Neil pointed out “in Southern Italy, who isn’t?” The guy had a car to sell and Neil wanted to buy it.

“It’s just gorgeous! A Maserati! And he only wants 10 grand for it and I could definitely resell it for a lot more either in Zagreb or back in England.”

Neil had been trying to convince me to buy the car for weeks before Molly’s birth, but it seemed such an unnecessary indulgence when I was already worried about how much money we were spending. I’d been dipping into my savings to sustain our sweet life. And besides, Lorenzo gave me the creeps. Yet only days after the birth, probably delirious from hormones realigning in my body and the joy of finally bringing my baby home, I caved and gave Neil the money.

I could hear the Maserati a mile away. “Oh my God, Neil! It’s way too loud. You need to get the muffler fixed.”

“It’s supposed to sound like that!”

“Seriously? Why?”

“It’s… never mind! I will, I promise. But isn’t it beautiful? Come take a look – the steering wheel is made from wood. This is a boyhood dream!” He swung me off the ground.

“Well, good: you have yours and I have mine!” I kissed his rough cheek and nuzzled into his neck, inhaling the familiar scent of cologne sweat and less potent but still there, cigarettes.

 

Everything felt right with the world. For the past four years on mission I had saved almost all of my salary. So $10,000 didn’t feel like much of a dent. A significant gesture of love and trust for Neil; I believed his assurances he would eventually sell and make a good profit when we left Europe.

Italy’s famous bureaucracy was bewildering. Transferring ownership of the car entailed jumping through many hoops. We had the car and Lorenzo had our money for over two weeks before the necessary documents were in order and ready to process. Neil and Lorenzo went together to the lawyer’s office to finalize the sale. Later that afternoon, the doorbell rang. I opened the door. Neil stood on the threshold, his face twisted with panic.

“Did you forget your keys, honey?” I asked, stepping back from the door, shocked at how pale he was. “What’s happened? What’s wrong? Are you all right?”

“It’s been nicked,” he mumbled without looking at me.

“What?”

“The car. It was nicked. Stolen.”

“You’re joking.”

“I wish I was. I picked up Lorenzo and we went to Caravigno to meet his lawyer. I parked the car right outside and when we came out it was gone. Gone. And not only that – our house keys, all our documentation, Molly’s birth certificate, our wedding certificate, the folder with all of that was in the car.”

“You’re kidding me? Shit! Did you go to the police?”

“Yeah. I filed a report. What they do here is take the car and then call the owner and demand money. You pay if you want the car back.”

“Car-napping? That’s crazy! Do you think that’s what’s going to happen?”

“I hope so. But I’m not waiting – I’m going to go talk to one of my mates who knows the mafia bosses in Brindisi and see if he can do anything.”

Neil talked to everyone in the heel of the boot of Italy until finally the word on the street was that nobody would do anything because too many people were involved. Even the local radio station made a plea for our papers to be returned to us, to no avail. The car was gone, our money was gone and I bet anything that Neil’s good mate Lorenzo is in his driveway today, polishing our Maserati.

 

The car theft dulled the gleam of our Italian life. Our joy at being there melted in the relentless August heat. Streets were eerily empty amplifying my feeling of isolation. Siesta time, the afternoon hours when families gathered at home to share a meal and rest, had lost its charm for me. When Neil came home for lunch, I ventured out alone onto the sweltering streets to buy milk or run other errands and felt irritated by the closed shops. I no longer felt in synch with Italian life, the dream-like quality of our lives, squelched by this mean theft, oppressive summer heat and my loneliness.

In September, Neil was assigned by the UN to go back to Zagreb. New York headquarters had decided only UN staff could hold managerial positions and as Neil was a subcontractor for the United Nations, he could not stay in Italy. Posts in this sunny port city were reserved for UN personnel only.

“As usual us contractors are second-class citizens even though half the time we’re the ones working harder than the overpaid United Nations prats,” Neil complained bitterly. He was disappointed. I felt ready to leave.

“Hey! Don’t forget I’m one of them!” I tried to joke. “At least you reap benefits from being married to one of us overpaid prats.”

“You know what I mean. It really winds me up how bloody stupid this system is.” Neil’s sunny demeanor was fading. He loved his job at the Brindisi base with his office looking out at the harbor and staff of devoted employees.

“When?” I asked.

“Two weeks time.”

“Wow. Okay. Well, we can do it. Look, we’re together and Molly’s healthy, we’re healthy. We’re moving on to the next adventure. Please don’t let this get you down,” I pleaded. The last thing I wanted was to Neil to descend into depression and sleep all day like he did in Zagreb.

 

Driving north along the coast we passed endless meadows of sunflowers and grape fields being harvested. When we lived in Croatia and Bosnia we regularly traveled to Italy for light, laughter and good food. Leaving now was bittersweet – it was the end of our Italian fantasy and Neil felt he’d been unfairly demoted. As we sped along the highway, I reminded him that we’d still only be hours away from Trieste. We were just off on yet another journey and anyway, after living in Sarajevo under siege, he could live anywhere. And I thought, ‘as long as you have a job’. I worried my pep talks would not be enough. Recalling how miserable he was when jobless in Zagreb, I knew he needed structured days and regular validation to feel good. And of course with a baby, I was sure there’s no way he’d sleep the day away.

 

 

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Chapter 11

Zagreb and Puglia, Italy – Spring & Summer 1995

I imagined a blissful pregnancy but instead my body ached and even at a few months, I had the sensation my baby might slip out of me. I walked like an old lady, one hand supporting my back and the other holding my middle, already heavy. We were having a girl! As the months passed, she seemed to be shoving aside my parts to make more room for her own.

Getting on and off airplanes and helicopters and driving on potholed streets was certainly more stress and bumps than recommended for a mother-to-be. My work with UNICEF-Croatia was mostly travel on lousy roads. I visited isolated villages to deliver vaccines and school supplies and met with local authorities to discuss their community children’s education and health needs. Mostly men, they badgered me to celebrate the impending birth with toasts of their homemade brew, slivovitz. I declined, instead lifting glasses of sok – a neon-orange soda they called ‘juice’ that was probably as lethal.

Alone in dreary hotel rooms, I listened to the sounds of fighting and explosions that no longer felt far enough away and wondered what the hell I was doing there. I should be living near my girlfriends who might advise me on my pregnancy and throw me baby showers. I should be home – although now I was beginning to wonder where home might be. At least I should be safely in Zagreb with my husband who pampered me with hot baths, delicious meals, propping me up with pillows. As my belly swelled, so did my sense of being in uncharted territory without a map and on these field trips, I felt really lost.

 

Six months into my pregnancy, Neil came home from work manic with excitement.

“They offered me a post in Italy! They’re setting up a new UN logistics base in Brindisi – right on the sea, sweetheart! I’d being doing what I do here — manage all the local vehicles and civilian transportation – only in ITALY. What do you think? Of course we’ll go, right? Italy, darling – Italy! We get to live in Italy!”

“Wow,” I rubbed my stomach as the baby shifted inside of me. “That’s fantastic,”

Living in Italy was one of our favorite fantasies and we often drove the 2-hours from Zagreb to Trieste just to eat lunch and absorb the joy and light of the country we’d come to love. But since becoming pregnant, I longed to return to the States to be near my sister and friends. I didn’t want to be lonely no matter how charming my surroundings were.

“I guess that means we won’t being going to the States.” I tried not to sound disappointed.

“We can always go there, sweetheart. But how often do we get a chance like this? We’ll be right at the port of Brindisi, we’ll have the sea, Italian food! What a great place for the baby. What do you say?”

“I agree, it sounds great – it’s an opportunity we shouldn’t pass up.” I tried not to sound disappointed. And he was right. “When do they want you?”

“That’s the thing – I’d leave in about ten days time. I hate to leave you…”

I cut him off. “Don’t be silly. I’ll be fine. You can get everything set up. I know you’ll find us a great place. I’ve still got two more months until my maternity leave kicks in so I won’t be able to leave until then.”

In fact I liked the idea of some time alone to contemplate my imminent new life.

“I’ll try and come back on most weekends. Are you sure about this honey?”

“Yes! I’m sure. I’ll call Chloe and see what she knows about the hospitals around there.”

Chloe was a UNICEF consultant and midwife based in England and we’d become friends on her last trip conducting breastfeeding seminars in the UNPAs. I liked her no-nonsense personality tempered by warmth and she’d agreed to deliver our baby at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford where she was based. I’d move there about two months before my due date, take Lamaze classes, shop for baby clothes and start nesting. Should I now change my plan to be in Italy? I called Chloe to update her and ask advice.

“What do you think about me staying in Italy to have the baby rather than travel to England? I mean I know that I don’t want to give birth in Zagreb; I’ve been in that hospital, but what about Brindisi? Do you know what it’s like there?” I asked.

“Yes. And honestly, if you are really thinking of giving birth in Southern Italy, you might as well go back to Sarajevo. The Italians are not very modern thinking when it comes to women and Southern Italy is poor – they don’t have the best facilities. I wouldn’t if I were you,” she said.

“That bad, eh?” I wasn’t sure if I was relieved or disappointed.

“It’s really not the best,” she said diplomatically.

We decided to stick with our original plan: I would go to Italy for a few weeks in July before traveling to England where, as planned, Chloe would deliver our baby. Maybe I’d be lucky enough to get one of the birthing rooms with a Jacuzzi we’d peeked in at during our visit to the hospital a few months earlier.

 

Zagreb’s relative peace unraveled a few weeks after Neil’s departure. Word around UNPROFOR was that the Croatians were fed up with the UN-maintained status quo and were going to take back the Serb populated areas (UNPAs) once and for all. As a last-ditch effort to keep the Croatians at bay, the Serbs retrieved the heavy guns and artillery supposedly under UN lock and key, and began lobbing shells into the center of Zagreb. This provocation was just what the Croatians needed to begin their counterattack. The war, only simmering in this capital city for the past few years, began to boil.

With each wail of the emergency siren, the elevator in my office building shut down and I lumbered behind my colleagues, climbing down 17 flights to the garage to wait for the shelling to stop. International staff, mostly veterans from Sarajevo and other battlegrounds, took these bombardments in stride, matter-of-factly speculating on the launching and landing points of mortars crashing into the city. Our Croatian staff members with homes and families in Zagreb were not so nonchalant. In fact, during these attacks, six people were killed and about 200 wounded.

 

As I leaned against a UNICEF Land Cruiser waiting for the okay to go back upstairs to my office, the director of personnel joined me.

“How are you feeling, Tricia?”

“Well, I am getting my exercise,” I gestured towards the stairwell.

“I was speaking with New York about the situation here and they agreed it would be best for you to take an early maternity leave. Starting next week. Do you agree?”

Feigning concern about my work, I tried not to let on happy I was for this get-out-of-town pass. Since the escalation in fighting, it was impossible to deliver vaccines and supplies or attend meetings with my Serb counterparts so I spent most days stuck in my office trying not to fall asleep at my desk. Besides, I was ready to be done – done with the war, done with the shameless-hatred between these cousins – all of them: Serbs, Croats and Bosnians. No longer did I have any illusion that I might be a vehicle for change. When I moved to UNICEF and began doing humanitarian work, I thought I would feel like I was contributing more. But in the end, I felt like an international social worker, providing band-aids to gaping wounds. Only changes at a political level would change anything. Disillusioned by my work, I was ready to focus on my life, my baby, constantly pushing and kicking inside me, she seemed to be urging me on as if to say, “let’s get out of here!”

 

Neil rented a large villa in Ostuni, a small town perched on a hill about 40 minutes up the coast from Brindisi. In one of our evening telephone calls he described it in detail.

“When you walk in, there’s a big, heavy wooden table that will be perfect for dinner parties. The floor is red tiled – just gorgeous and it helps to keep the place cool. The one bad thing is the kitchen was not designed for tall people. The ceiling is so low I can’t stand up straight in there so you’ll have to do the cooking and washing up!” he laughed. “Just joking, darling! I’ll help. But honestly, the ceiling is barely 6 feet. The rest of the villa is perfect. On the second floor there’s a big sitting room that has a fireplace and French doors opening onto the veranda. I’m sitting here now and the scent of the rose gardens is wafting in with a gorgeous breeze! I wish you were here now, darling! And we can eat out on the veranda. And the food is delicious – think about it: no more gristly meat and cabbage!”

I worried about the extravagance, but a week later, when Neil drove me through the automatic gates to the stucco villa, I was enchanted. I spent my days wandering from corner-to-corner of the house and puttering in the gardens filled with fruit trees including a hidden garden with a small grove of lemon and lime trees. In the front of the property were blooming rose bushes. I had landed in heaven.

After Neil left for work, the day stretched before me like a big question mark. For the first time in a decade I had no job to go to. My purpose was simply to wait, to hatch my girl. I passed the hours cleaning, furiously washing dishes, sweeping the tile floor of the kitchen and doing laundry. The clothesline was on the roof so I lugged the basket up the steps, dropping it at my feet. The heat was so intense, the black tar of the roof oozed up between gravel. A strange wind whistled in my ears. The Scirroco blowing in from the Sahara bringing heat and sand across the Mediterranean amplified the scorching summer heat of Southern Italy. My dress wrapped around my legs as I pulled a sheet out of my basket, gathering the damp fabric to spread over the clothesline as a fierce gust whipped the sheet out of my hand flapping into the sky towards the edge of the roof like a sail. I just managed to grab it, wrestling with the wind as I flung the sheet across the line and quickly clipped on half a dozen pegs to keep it fast, my hair flapping around my face.

The house echoed when I pulled the door shut behind me. Usually, I preferred light filled rooms, eschewing curtains or shades. Not here. Like my Italian neighbors, I drew the shutters closed against the heat and scorching wind. I crawled into bed and immediately fell asleep. My dreams were intense, fanned by the bizarre winds and woke sticky with sweat and anxiety about giving birth. I had barely thought about the details of what my body needed to do to deliver this baby. I longed to talk to friends, to have someone to compare notes with. Soon I’d be in England and without a language barrier, imagined bonding with other mothers-to-be in a Lamaze class. And I’d finally get around to reading those last frightening chapters of my pregnancy books.

The baby always felt like she was sitting very low on my pelvis, but these days I felt even more uncomfortable and the slightest exertion exhausted me. I passed hours prone on the veranda, gazing at the golden fields and the Adriatic sometimes visible, as a hazy ribbon gleaming between sky and land. But mostly I focused within, imagining my future child. What kind of person would she be? Would she look more like her father or me? We would show her the world! She would know she was loved and that her parents loved each other. If only we could agree on a name. One evening I looked up from the book I was reading and said to Neil, watching television beside me, “What do you think about ‘Willa’?”

“Naw. Sounds like a bloody tree.”

“Antonia?”

He dismissed these suggestions. Katie and Claire and Molly, were his current favorites. Molly Fiona was the only name we agreed upon.

 

A week later, almost 2 months before her due date, I gave birth in Ostuni’s little hospital. With no facility to handle premature babies, my baby girl was swept away for the 30-minute ambulance ride to Brindisi hospital. I’d barely gotten a glimpse of her. Craning my neck from the table where the nurses stitched me up, I watched the doctor examining my baby – her body still pink with blood, stretched out for the first time on a counter to my right. “Is she okay? Is my baby all right?” Neil had refused to budge from the doorway, when the nurses tried to chase him away, and called to me reassuringly, “She looks perfect! Look at her long legs. She’s gorgeous.” He followed the ambulance and when they arrived to the intensive care unit for premature babies and asked for her name, he named her: Molly Fiona.

Three days later I was released and would finally get to meet and touch my daughter. Driving to Brindisi to see her, I felt like I was going on a blind date – freshly showered and dressed up, excited but full of trepidation. Neil held my hand as he led me through the hospital halls to the Neonatology wing. Neonatology – a word I had never used in English and now I knew in Italian. He was already friends with all of the doctors and nurses and now gallantly introduced me as “the mama”. He showed me where to don a green gown and how to scrub my hands with the special soap, then led me into a small room full of beeping equipment attached to one open-air incubator. My baby. I had no idea what to do. The wires and tubes attached to every limb and the oxygen flowing into her nose made it impossible to embrace her – and besides, she was so teeny. Neil’s two daughters in England were now adults, but he remembered. Confidently, lovingly, he touched our little girl, one of his big hands large enough to cover her body. He held her head, gently whispering to her, “Your mum’s here, Molly! And Dadda’s here too.” He turned to me, “Go on, you can touch her – she’s yours! She’s your baby.” Stepping back from the incubator he drew me into his spot next to Molly.

I stroked the translucent, yellow skin of her cheek. I wanted to see her eyes but a gauze mask shielded her from the glaring lights for counteracting jaundice. Tubes came out of her ankles and her head and strapped to her foot was a small monitor that Neil told me was measuring her heart rate. I thought I might crack in two from the ache I felt looking at her. Why wasn’t she still inside of me where she belonged? I touched her miniature hand with nails like a little animal. She gripped my finger.

 

Over the next weeks, I remained in a dreamlike state spending every day at the hospital sitting next to and touching Molly. I joined the other mother’s diligently pumping our breast milk determined to do what we could to make our babies strong. After a week some of the tubes were removed from her ankles and I was able to hold her in my arms while the nurses changed her bedding. I gazed into her startling blue eyes and fell more deeply in love than I had ever been in my life.

I lived in a bubble – a surreal mix of trauma, new love and obsession, I rarely left the hospital. One day I took a short walk around Brindisi, an old port city and gateway to Greece, but soon turned and retraced my steps quickly back to the ward as if drawn by a magnet. My world and I had changed forever – I barely noticed my surroundings or other people. I only cared about getting my girl healthy. Neil went to work each day and came to pick me up in the evening, entering the ward like a tornado, showering us both with kisses. He flirted with the nurses, practicing the new, usually rude Italian words he’d learned and they laughed uproariously, charmed.

Evenings, Neil took me to a tiny restaurant near the ferry dock to sit outside in the evening breezes. The owner Roberto, had become our friend and like a doting uncle, personally chose and prepared my meals and then as he set plates of scrumptious grilled fish and garlicky greens and fresh salads, listed all the important amino acids and rich nutrients in each dish and explained how important they were for me to eat post-birth. Neil showered me with trinkets he’d bought during the day; a new dress, a gold heart engraved with ‘Molly’, a turquoise bracelet. At home he filled vases with fresh flowers, sat me in the cool breeze on the veranda and served me milky tea, kissing me as he set the tray in front of me. We fell more in love with each other during those hot June nights, newly alert to the preciousness of life. Climbing into bed I ached with longing for my baby, heartbroken at the thought of her swaddled alone in a hospital bassinet in Brindisi.

The neonatology unit was separated into three units, each marked the progress of our baby as she graduated from one to the next, determined primarily by the baby’s weight. Molly still looked like an undernourished child from a war-zone with limbs that looked strangely adult without the dimpled knees or knuckles I associated with babies. After 2 long weeks she made it into the last room. Meanwhile, newly admitted babies with mothers looking as shell-shocked as I once felt, made me feel like an old-timer. As the summer heat kicked into full throttle, the nurses rattled down the metal shades in our room early in the morning, and the windows stayed covered till evening. “Fa caldo!” we greeted each other by 8 AM, ready for our day’s work united by our focus and complaints about the heat.

Each day the other mothers and I waited anxiously for the doctor’s visit, standing like guards beside the plastic bassinets as the nurses brought our babies to the examination table at the center of the room. The doctor listened to lungs, poked and flipped our tiny babies as we all watched, hoping for him to say, “La bambina si puo portare a casa domani.” The doctor turned to me with a smile and I hear those words: that Molly was ready – tomorrow, she could go home! On July 4, after more than three weeks in the hospital, it was our turn. I called Neil excitedly, “Neil! It’s Molly’s independence day! She can come home!”

 

For the first few years of Molly’s life, as the heat of June cranked up and my little girl’s birthday neared, I flashed-back to those frightening first days when I wondered whether my child would survive. It seemed to me those steamy weeks in Southern Italy when she lay alone in her cot stuck with needles and attached to tubes, should have absolved her from any further childhood suffering.

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Chapter 10

 

Zagreb, Sarajevo and the Seychelles, August 1994

 

We would marry in Sarajevo in August. This impossible destination absolved us from choosing between divorced parents who refused to see each other, estranged siblings and extended family we never spoke with. Everyone would receive an invitation but no one could get into the city now under the longest siege in modern history. Instead, we would celebrate with mostly Neil’s friends who were either working or trapped in the city. Looking at photos of the wedding, I barely know anyone’s name but for the rest of our lives, we’d have a great story to tell.

Dropping a fortune on a dress I’d wear only for my wedding seemed ludicrous and never crossed my mind. Instead, I searched Zagreb shops and found a flowing, wrap-around silk skirt in buttery white. On one of our trips to Italy, I found an elegant ivory jacket with a collar of silk flowers in Bologna and a pair of soft-suede vintage shoes with a much higher heel than I was used to wearing. They were adorable and I could suffer them for a few hours for the enjoyment of being a little closer to Neil’s height. I felt proud of myself for cobbling together a wedding outfit for a pittance of what most women dropped on a dress. Neil, much more of a fashion plate, initially planned on wearing a gray name-designer suit but when a Scottish friend offered to loan him a kilt, he decided to wear that instead. He’d change into his handsome suit for the party afterwards.

Strapped in close to Neil on the plane to Sarajevo, I recalled my departure over a year ago, leaving depressed and defeated. Lacing my fingers through Neil’s, I felt victorious: committed to love even as this terrible war continued to rage. Our heads tipped together as we peered out the tiny window, down at the green mountains that hid the guns of the warring factions, a déjà vu of when we first met.

The airport was hot and gritty from the sagging sandbags snaking around the boarded-up buildings. Fellow UN staff members in Sarajevo knew of the unusual wedding taking place in this city of rare, happy occasions, and the Norwegian soldiers still manning the airport, greeted us warmly. Standing in the sweltering sun, I flashed back on the frigid winter day when I arrived in Sarajevo for the first time. I had waited in this same spot with other UN staff, for an Armored Personnel Carrier, a tank-like windowless vehicle to deliver me safe, but miserably uncomfortably to Kiseljak. Today, I climbed into a UN “soft-skinned” as opposed to armored, pickup truck.

Ducking into the driver’s seat Neil leaned over and kissed me. “Well, we’re here my love, and tomorrow we’re getting married!”

“I know! I can’t believe it!” I beamed at him, over the moon to be launching into life with this mad, magnificent man.

The road from the airport was still a treacherous stretch of no-man’s-land. A Mad-Max landscape of destroyed cars, buildings and graffiti marked rubble left from years of mortar hits and gun battles. Once again, I was grateful for Neil’s speed as he swerved around massive potholes towards the center of the city.

The Holiday Inn hotel staff greeted us warmly and exclaimed how fat Neil had become. Just like the old days, he doled out cartons of Marlboros as he collected the key to his former room. Neil ran around excitedly checking on bullet and shrapnel scars, switching the TV on to find out what channels were available, turning the water taps (there was water!) and checking the view out the window. Flopped across the bed, I watched him, in his element on the frontline.

That evening Victor hosted a small party at one of the restaurants still in business supplied by the black market availability of food and booze. Afterwards, drunk from too many toasts of Russian vodka, we returned to the Holiday Inn and fell into the familiar lumpy bed, Neil repeating, “I love you, I love you.” The snipers and big guns were silent, although I doubt we would have heard a thing.

The next morning, wanting time alone before the noon ceremony, I set off to find someone to do my hair. Even in the smallest hamlets in these countries of Former Yugoslavia, when every other storefront was closed from lack of goods, supplies or electricity, there would always be one place still in business and often full of laughter and chatter: the hairdresser. In any town or city, women attended to their locks, peering into mirrors lit by candles or the light of an open door. Young women were stunning in all the countries of former Yugoslavia taking great pride in their appearance in spite of bombings or sanctions. Sarajevo was the ultimate style capital – even under siege I knew I’d be able to find some place to brighten up my usually limp ‘do’ for my wedding day.

Stepping out from the shadow of the hotel out to the open street, the heat of August hit me like a wave. I imagined every sniper’s gun in Sarajevo trained on me. A ceasefire wouldn’t stop some drunken sniper from taking a potshot for entertainment. The street, wide as a boulevard was completely empty. Nicknamed Sniper’s Alley, this stretch was literally the front line. Heat shimmered in waves across the desolate stretch, an urban desert scene. I passed the towering, skeletal remains of office buildings sure I was being watched from the dark interior. I wanted to run but feared drawing more attention to myself – as if that were possible. There was no one else in sight. Neil had offered to give me a lift and I felt foolish for deciding I needed to walk on the most dangerous street in the city like a lost tourist who’d taken a wrong turn. I had wanted some time alone to reflect on marrying, to prepare myself for this next chapter of my life. It was all I could do to calm the beating of my heart, every sense alert as an animal, a sense my life was on the line.

Eyes on the mortar-pocked pavement, I lost count of the permanent splatter marks coined ‘Sarajevo roses’. How many of these concrete scars marked someone’s death? I looked ahead to the smaller buildings up ahead where Neil had told me I’d be out of the range of the snipers and stepped up my pace, jogging the around a corner, breathless and sweaty. The storefronts were dark and closed but for one doorway. Two middle-aged women in smocks sat on the stoop, as if they were expecting me. The sign above their heads read ‘Frizerka’ hairdresser. They looked at me with surprise, an obvious outsider. I greeted them excitedly, “Dobor dan! Ja sam treba hitna pomoc!” ‘Hello! I need emergency assistance’. They laughed, stood up and looping their arms through mine, led me into their dark shop. I mimed putting on a ring, and with the odd Bosnian word I knew, explained why I needed to look beautiful. The women kissed my cheeks in congratulations as if we were old friends and ushered me to a basin in the corner. Using buckets of precious water – perhaps collected rain or hauled from the only well in the city, carefully scooped out of a garbage bin, they washed and rinsed my hair. I was their only customer so they both pitched in massaging my scalp, laughing and joking in whatever snippets of language we understood between us. My racing heart, slowed and by the time they finished, I felt beautiful, my brown hair softly framing my face thanks to a blow dryer fueled by a car battery. The women kissed me again and wished me well, waving from the shop doorway as I made my way, a little less nervously, down the deserted street and back up sniper alley to get ready for my wedding.

 

A few hours later, we drove the pick-up truck to City Hall where we made our way through the dark hallway to the marriage office followed by a lively parade of friends and coworkers. Sarajevo citizens on their own business stared in disbelief at this weirdly jovial scene. We entered a large carpeted room decked out in heavy curtains and Bosnian flags and crested bunting. A man and woman of about 40 sat behind a large ceremonial looking desk from where, without cracking a smile, they conducted our wedding. A woman who worked as a UN interpreter translated the Bosnian vows, prompting us to say “Da” for “Yes” at the appropriate times, the only words we spoke during the ten-minute ceremony.

 

I never imagined myself marrying, never fantasized about walking down an aisle, facing my partner in front of others, declaring my love in public and vowing to make it forever. The wedding scenario, supposedly the pinnacle of couple-love was completely missing from my repertoire of dreams. I knew only a fraction of the people filling this grand room and counted fewer as friends. Still, there was an atmosphere of excitement and when I glanced over at Victor’s warm smile, I felt reassured. In the stuffy room on this August heat, my left hand clutching the small bouquet was cold while my right rested warm from the heat of Neil’s firm grip. Finally, we exchanged rings and kissed, sealing the deal. The crowd, staff from Sarajevo’s UNICEF, UN and the ICRC offices and a few journalists, burst into applause.

As we stepped out of City Hall, we were pelted with handfuls of rice courtesy of the World Food Program. An Associated Press photographer asked us to pose against a wall gouged by shell and shrapnel marks and Neil obligingly pulled me into his arms for a kiss. This photo, Neil in kilt practically lifting me off my feet, was printed in newspapers and magazines around the world. An English newspaper quoted Neil, “We wanted to get married quietly and someplace where our families couldn’t come.” CNN ran a piece with the anchor noting how unusual it was to be reporting “good news from Sarajevo”. We both look happy climbing into the little white pickup truck. Driving away from city hall, I remember both happiness and relief it was over.

 

We honeymooned in the Seychelles wandering the gorgeous islands, diving into the waves of the Indian Ocean. Neil signed up for every adrenaline-inducing sport on offer while I read my book safely on the beach. I attempted scuba diving but strapped into the heavy gear, made it as only far as the swimming pool practice before being swallowed up in a wave of claustrophobia and pushing up to the surface in near panic. Instead, I happily snorkeled in shallow waters as he explored deep-reefs and later went paragliding amidst the clouds. Flopping down by my side after one trip into the sky, he tried to convince me to join him.

“Come on, give it a try. You’ll see – you’ll love it. It’s so beautiful – it feels like you’re flying.”

I considered it briefly. Why couldn’t I just try it? Why couldn’t I be more of a risk-taker like him? It looked amazing but even thinking about getting into one of those harnesses and lifting off the ground made me ill.

“I’m just so terrified of heights, honey. I can’t. I think my heart will just stop. You don’t mind, do you? I’m really happy here with my book.”

“So it’s okay if I go again?”

“Yes! It’s fun to watch you.”

“Right! I’ll blow you kisses from the sky then!”

Even thousands of feet up, he struck a funny pose for me as I watched below.

A few months later we were in Florence for the weekend and picked up a home pregnancy test. Neil paced the hotel room while I went into the bathroom to pee on the strip: it immediately turned blue for ‘si’ and I ran out yelling, “Yes! Si, si, si’!” and tumbling into his arms, we fell on the bed and held each other tight, arms and legs around each other as if to seal in this new joy. My dream of a family was coming true.

 

 

 

 

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Chapter 9

By the end of the summer, Neil had a job as Transport Manager for the peacekeeping operation at Zagreb headquarters. Each morning he proudly dressed in the khaki colored military style uniform UNPROFOR civilian staff members were now expected to wear. The night before, he’d iron the shirt and slacks and shine his shoes as he’d been taught during his days in the British Army. Neil arrived early to his job, reveling in the responsibility and visibility of managing a staff of drivers for the fleet of UN cars in Zagreb. His desk was neat and organized and decorated with UN paraphernalia and plaques from countries in the mission – from Jordan to Nepal. He swaggered around the base like he managed the entire mission, teasing everyone from high-ranking UN personnel to the local cleaning staff, as he made one of his many trips to get coffee from the cafeteria or grab a cigarette in the courtyard. The vibrant man I’d fallen for in Sarajevo was back.

 

Unlike Neil, I was glad I was able to dodge the new UNPROFOR uniform requirement. I had landed a new job at the UNICEF, a humanitarian program supporting women and children. After months of paper pushing in the press office, I hoped as a field officer in the Serb held parts of Croatia, I’d finally feel like I was making a difference. My new office was on the opposite side of the city from UNPROFOR. I loved the 30-minute walk from our apartment each morning choosing different side streets, crossing cobblestone avenues and dodging speeding trams as I breathed deeply, smiling at strangers and myself about how perfect my life felt.

We’d also moved into a gorgeous apartment in a small house at the top of 100 steep steps that left us huffing and puffing by the time we crossed the threshold. We were rewarded by an airy apartment furnished with gorgeously shabby antiques with a view of rooftops and sky. It was also walking distance to the main square where a year earlier, Neil and I met for our first date. Depending on the evening, Neil cooked up a simple meal or we’d visit a local restaurant to share plates of local meats and a bottle of wine. Our more fulfilling jobs also allowed us to have most weekends off to enjoy each other, lingering in our sunny little bedroom on a Saturday morning felt like being in a tree house above the city.

 

In early in July we made the hour flight to Dubrovnik for a romantic weekend. Although badly shelled at the beginning of the war, Dubrovnik remained a gorgeous stone fortress of cobbled streets. Waves of the Adriatic lapped against the ancient walls surrounding the old town filled with cafes and seafood restaurants. After swimming in the crystalline waters for hours, we wandered the polished limestone streets.

The moon was full and the air beginning to cool after a sweltering day. Walking the short distance from our hotel just on the outskirts of the walls of the old city, Neil led me past the sculpture of Saint Blaise standing guard at the gates to a small harbor. Taking my hand, we stepped across the rough stones. Moonlight glimmered on the pulsing sea and buoys clanged gently.

I felt giddy but also weirdly detached, almost uncomfortable with the perfection of Neil’s barely hidden plan to take the once-promised knee. At the end of the pier less than 10 feet away from where we stood I noticed another couple that seemed to be fighting. The woman was yelling in Croatian at the man who was looking away from her, out to sea, his body language clearly indicating he wished he were anywhere else. Did Neil see them? I wanted to move away from what seemed to be the dissolution of this unknown couple’s relationship, but it was too late: Neil crouched before me.

“Will you be my wife? Will you live with me for the rest of my life?” Neil glanced around as he spoke, as if hoping someone else beside me were witnessing his beautifully choreographed scene or did he hear the woman’s angry voice growing louder? He opened the ring box and removed the simple little diamond set in a gold circle and slipped it on my finger.

“Yes, yes! I will!” I said quickly, distracted by the fighting and now anxious for him to get up. I kissed him and he pulled me to his chest, apparently still unaware of the drama taking place just feet away from us. Even with Neil’s warm lips on mine, I watched the woman’s gesticulations grew more dramatic and now the man held his head in his hands. This did not look like just a squabble – she looked like she was finishing it. I pulled Neil away from the harbor annoyed with myself for not ignoring those strangers and embracing the romance of my own experience. Why couldn’t I do that? Why did I feel like we were actors on this picturesque stage? Was it my ambivalence about marriage? Or because we had already agreed to marry and this dramatized proposal felt contrived? It was as if I’d just auditioned for a part, and although a terrible actress, was still given the role. The ring on my finger proved it. Neil on the other hand seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself: he knew he was the leading man. When I told him about the drama few feet away from our romantic vignette, he laughed and said he hadn’t noticed.

 

 

 

 

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Chapter 8

 

My day at work began at 9:00 and I woke early to eat breakfast and leave plenty of time to catch the tram. After staying up glued to the television into the early morning hours, Neil rarely woke until the afternoon. Before leaving for work I’d suggest reasons for him to get out of bed.

“Come meet me for lunch? You can stop by personnel and remind them you are here still waiting for a job,” I whispered encouragingly, bending over the mess of sheets and blankets to kiss him goodbye.

“Hmm.” He barely lifted his head pursing his lips up to me without opening his eyes.

When I returned home around 6 PM, he was usually in front of the television. As far as I could tell, his days were spent watching TV, breaking for naps and smoking cigarettes on the small balcony overlooking the neighboring buildings.

“Don’t worry, I won’t smoke in the apartment. And I swear to God, I’m quitting as soon as I get a bloody job,” he assured me.

I didn’t expect living with a boyfriend to be an easy adjustment, but nagging doubts followed me out the door each morning. Was he really the guy for me? What if he never got his act together? I rationalized that everyone goes through periods of doubt in relationships especially during down times. I’d also had a tough time when I left Bosnia. I needed to support him through his. This is what couples do.

Rather than search through my messy shoulder bag for my key, I rang the bell so Neil would have to buzz me, decreasing the chance of finding him still asleep in bed like I had earlier in the week. Today, my worry was unwarranted. Neil greeted me at the apartment door fully dressed.

“Welcome home, my darling,” he kissed me then guided me into the dining room where the table was set with candles, silver, napkins and wine glasses. The apartment was filled with smells of garlic and rosemary.

“Aw! How lovely! I guess you kept yourself busy today.” As the words slipped out, I berated myself for the innuendo.

“I had to do something! I’m going mad just sitting around. You know, I’m a real grafter. I need to be working. When are they going to call me? Never mind, I won’t spoil our evening. Today was a good day! I went down to the market and picked up some gorgeous veg and stopped into the butcher next to the square. Turns out, the butcher speaks German so that was handy. Wait until you see the steaks! Tonight my dear, you are eating like a Queen!”

“I can’t wait. Let me go wash my hands. I’ll be right there.” I went into the bathroom and closed the door. I shouldn’t doubt him. He’d just given voice to all my worries. We just needed to get him a job. I shook my hands and reached for one of the hand towels neatly folded next to the sink. These little touches were so charming. He kept a great home. For the first time in my life I shared a home with my lover – I needed to learn to relax and enjoy it. What was there to worry about? He would get a job soon. I made plenty of money. I should give him time and just relax and enjoy being taken care of. Folding the hand towel, I looked at myself in the mirror and smiled before joining Neil in at the table. He pulled out my chair and bowed while handing me a white linen napkin.

“For your starter, there’s boeuf consommé,” he said in a terrible French accent.

“Wow! Did you make it?” A clear broth with snips of chive steamed in the white china.

“If you call opening a can ‘making it’, yes!”

The steam from the hot broth smelled nourishing and tasted of beef. With a flourish he replaced my empty bowl with a plate of tiny roasted potatoes, brightly colored green beans with a drizzle of butter and a massive steak that sliced easily and was beautifully pink. I closed my eyes in pleasure as I slowly chewed the tender meat with just the right amount of saltiness.

“I can’t remember the last time I ate such a delicious meal, even when we were in Italy!”

“See! And they say the English can’t cook! You just wait and see the special meals I’ll make for you, my darling!”

We ate and filled each other’s wine glasses until the bottle was finished, then kissed over our empty plates until he lifted me from my chair, and with one hand, left my summery-skirt and blouse strewn across the floor on the way to the bedroom.

 

Some evenings we walked into the center of the city to sit at cafes on the main square. Neil gripped my hand as we sauntered down the narrow sidewalks, pausing to peer into shop windows. Zagreb felt like any normal European town with couples and families milling around the fountains, children chasing pigeons. It was easy to forget that only miles away, Bosnia was imploding. We sometimes rented a car and drove out of the city on weekends. I loved these adventures although Neil’s driving sometimes terrified me.

One Saturday as we hurtled towards the Croatian coast at his usual breakneck speed, the road twisting in an endless arc, up and down hills – trees, rocky cliffs, houses only a blur, I followed every curve of the road as if my visual vigilance might avoid the horrendous accident lurking in my imagination. When did I become such a worrier? The threat of shelling and snipers in Sarajevo never made me as anxious as Neil’s driving. I was sure he would kill us on these picturesque roads. Careening along the narrow route, I tried to believe, as he told me, that he was an excellent driver. The best. This is just the way they drive in Europe, I told myself gripping my seat for dear life.

“Please slow down. You’re making me really nervous!”

“Everyone drives this speed! It’s dangerous if you go any slower, I promise you. Don’t worry, love, you won’t find a better driver than me,” he said, squeezing my knee reassuringly. He lit a cigarette and sucked hard, holding his breath until he’d opened the window to release the cloud of smoke. He knew I hated the smell but I was so nervous I was barely breathing anyway. Only a few months ago, I appreciated Neil’s driving as he flew through Sarajevo and Central Bosnia, the better to dodge bullets. Now on these peaceful roads, it felt insane.

A pattern of light shimmered through the trees onto the pavement. The scent of sea and eucalyptus meant we were almost there. I closed my eyes and turned my head towards my open window, inhaling the reassuring fragrance. I thought about our destination. Maybe the Adriatic Sea would be warm enough to swim in.

Bang! My body lurched to the left hard against the belt, my neck snapping like a whip. With the sickening violence of scraping metal against metal we came to a stop.

“Are you all right? Are you hurt? Did you hit your head?” Neil asked, frantically checking me for injury.

“I think I’m fine. Maybe my neck, but…are you okay? What the hell happened?”

“I didn’t see him coming. I couldn’t even see there was a bloody road there.”

Shaking, I got out of the car. Neil went to the other vehicle. A Croatian couple with a young boy got out of the Mercedes, apparently uninjured and their tank-like old clunker was only minimally damaged. The front-end on the passenger side of our rental car was completely crumpled in against the tire. The family, perhaps thinking they might be held responsible and maybe unaware of Neil’s outrageous speed, left hurriedly, promising to call us a taxi from a nearby village.

Circling the wreckage of our car I exclaimed, “We could have been killed!”

“I know. We are bloody lucky.”

“Lucky? Luck has nothing to do with it, Neil. Your driving was crazy. You were careless with both of our lives. You were going way too fast. You always drive too fast!”

He didn’t respond, his lips drawn into a thin line and his eyes downcast. He unloaded our bags and put them by the side of the road.

“I mean do you have a death wish or something? You may have, but I don’t so please leave me out of it!” In our months together, I had yet to lose my temper but now could not contain myself.

“The taxi’s here,” he said, picking our bags up, hurrying to get away from the site of disaster and my wrath.

The taxi dropped us at a small hotel perched at the edge of the water on a cobblestone street. Neil stayed in the lobby to call the car rental company and deal with the mess he had made while I escaped upstairs, still trembling. Our room glistened with light from the Adriatic Sea, so close to our windows that waves seemed to be crashing against the foundation of the hotel. A stunning spot – but how could I possibly enjoy it now? My neck was already stiff. Suddenly exhausted, I climbed into the bed. Burying my face in the pillows, I curled into a fetal position, my back to the door.

When Neil came into the room and dropped our bags in a corner with a thud, I pretended to be sleeping. Without a word, he climbed in next to me. The bed sagged under his heft and I clung to the mattress edge to avoid sliding towards him. The accident replayed itself in my head, speeding around that blind curve and the crushing sound of metal against metal echoing again and again. Finally, I slept, waking often from disturbing dreams involving speed and fleeing.

The next morning, I woke to slapping waves and momentarily felt happy until I felt my body aches and the accident edged back into my consciousness. I tried to visualize the slow-motion images washing away with the tide. Turning in bed, I looked at Neil’s back. I would make peace. Stroking the hair cut short against his neck, I sidled up behind him and whispered “Come for a walk with me. It’s a gorgeous morning.”

Rolling towards me without opening his eyes, he kissed the air answering,

“I’m going to sleep a little longer. You go. I’ll find you in a bit.”

I drew back from him and yesterday’s anger flooded in the space between us. Throwing the blankets aside, I jumped out of bed.

“Don’t bother. I’ll just walk by myself. You go ahead and keep sleeping,” I said, silently added ‘jerk’ to myself and quickly pulled a pair of jeans on. As usual, he probably wouldn’t get out of bed until almost noon. I let the door slam behind me as I flounced out of the room.

 

The sky and sea were a wash of blue. I jogged towards the water, filling my lungs with briny air. Climbing onto a rock, I sat down and rolled up my jeans, savoring the heat on my calves. Edging down the sloping stone, I slid my feet into the icy water. Not even the Caribbean was as dazzling as the Adriatic Sea with its magical blend of greens and blues. I tried to focus on all this beauty to calm my doubting heart.

Lately, there were things that bugged me about Neil, but sleeping all the time was the worst of it. No matter how I cajoled him, he rarely got up with me in the morning. And it’s not like we were having any great action in bed either or I’d be there with him. As movie star handsome and affectionate as he was, with his sweet way of wrapping his body around mine at night and not letting go, that crazy, intense electricity I always associated with love, was missing. Recently, too many nights he simply kissed me and continued to watch television while I slid between the sheets alone.

I stepped off the rock onto the beach and kicking stones along the way, walked to the end of a sandy stretch to a jetty. I sat against a boulder, the warmth seeping into my sore back. I rubbed my neck, stretched my legs out, closed my eyes and turned my face to the sun. A fishing boat chugging out towards the horizon made the only sound besides the waves.

Yesterday’s crash replayed itself again and again. I opened my eyes and looked at the horizon. It had been an accident. The roads were treacherous – anyone could have crashed on that blind curve. Why did I get so upset with him? I couldn’t have it both ways: Neil’s crazy fearlessness made my last cold months in Bosnia bearable. Shelling or gun battles never daunted him, he protected me, always sleeping nearest the window and covering me with bulletproof vests at the first cracking sound. And he left his exciting job in Sarajevo to follow me, quit his job to be with me – I mean, how many guys would do that? I shouldn’t be upset with him for loving me so much. Funny, warm, generous, affectionate, considerate: Neil had practically all the qualities I wanted in a man. Of course I hated his constant smoking but he never smoked in the apartment and swore he would quit as soon as he was working. We were both stressed by his unemployment and he was a little depressed, that’s all. I picked up and released fistfuls of warm sand.

Besides, if I wanted a family I needed to get started. Neil promised children and continued adventures. Isn’t that exactly what I had wanted? I just needed to adjust to living with someone, to loosen up a bit. I stood up and walked to the water, wiggling my toes, I watched them disappear beneath the stones until the freezing temperature began to hurt. Leaping back onto the beach, I headed back to the hotel. Surely, this new anxiety knotting my gut since we’d lived together was about my own issues and fears and these would probably go away when Neil found a job. I headed back towards the hotel, the sand slipping beneath my feet.

“Good morning beautiful! I’ve been waiting for you,” Neil called to me from a little table set against a sunny wall of the hotel, the waves of the sea breaking only a few feet away.

“Actually, it’s afternoon by now.” I wanted to retract my snide retort as soon it came out, but Neil took no notice. He gallantly waved me into the chair next to him.

“I don’t remember seeing this table here before,” I said.

“I know. I had the guy from the caf’ help me carry it all out. What a waste that they don’t use this spot, I mean, look at the view!” he got up and slid the chair beneath me and kissed the top of my head.

The table wobbled on the cobblestones as I reached for the cup of cappuccino. How many guys would bother to set up this romantic scene at this hour of the day? He never failed to surprise me when I least expected it. I looked at him, wide-awake and smiling at me. Nuzzling my cheek, he whispered, “Let’s enjoy this beautiful day together, shall we?”

“Yes.” I smiled back at him, my worries already washed away with the waves.

It was simple: he loved me and shared my longing to have a baby. He would start working again and everything would be fine.

 

 

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Chapter 7

Zagreb, Spring 1993

 

In Zagreb, water flowed with the turn of a faucet and lights with a flick of a switch. I’d found an apartment on the opposite side of town from the UNPROFOR headquarters. A chipping stucco building from the outside, inside the heavy doors, the old Austro-Hungarian influence of the city shone with a grand marble staircase and thick beautifully tiled walls. The apartment was well furnished and airy with parquet floors and metal shutters that could be pulled down to keep out the heat of the sun. I never did that, welcoming the light. Returning home in the evening, I spent a few seconds searching for matches to light the candles before remembering, I no longer needed them. The normalcy of everything – people walking without worry of snipers, tulips blooming on the square – seemed unreal and almost wrong. It felt odd for cars and trams to be honking and clanging through the streets. How can life go on like this with war raging so close by?

Random moments triggered my tears. Inhaling the scent of a rose blooming in one of the squares, glimpsing a father holding his young child’s hand as they walked down the street, set off sobs. I sought heat as if to thaw my spirit frozen by Bosnia, crossing to walk on the sunny side of the street, turning my face upwards towards the light. At home, I let the hot water rush over my hands as I washed the dishes and took long, scalding baths that left my skin raw as if I might bake and steam my sadness away.

Mornings I squeezed onto a crowded tram for a 20 minute ride to the UNPROFOR headquarters where I reported to the Civil Affairs and Press Office. My new assignment was to answer phones and file papers. Dull administrative office work that I wasn’t very good at. Making copies of Security Council Resolutions, I inevitably mixed up the pages, feeling like a dunce not even able to manage the copier. I was miserable.

Peter, the personnel director who’d urged me to leave Bosnia, now insisted I speak with an UNPROFOR mental health profession. Peacekeeping operations are supported by nations around the world and for the last few years of UNPROFOR, the United States was responsible for medical care of troops and staff. I would be seeing a MASH shrink. I went into the first meeting with trepidation, uncomfortable with the idea of a uniformed American officer probing my feelings.

His office was in a building I’d never been to in the far corner of the UNPROFOR grounds. A man in his 50s in military uniform stepped from behind a massive wooden desk to greet me. I sat awkwardly in the vinyl-covered chair across from him, and momentarily felt like I was in the Principal’s office but he soon put me at ease.

“Call me Ken. What part of the States are you from?”

“New York. I was working at headquarters for 4 years before joining UNPROFOR last June. It’s been about a year now.”

“So you’ve seen some rough stuff?”

That’s all it took for me to dissolve into tears. He leaned across the desk with a box of tissues – Kleenex – not the cheap local stuff. I took two and they were soon soaked. I told him about the incidents in Kiseljak between sobs.

“Clearly you’re experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.”

“Really? How could that be? Compared to the experiences of many of my colleagues, not to mention the victims in this war, my life has been sheltered.”

“Look, you’ve witnessed bullying, terrorizing and have been witness to the aftermath of violence regularly.”

“I guess… there was that woman who lay for days by the road on the way to the airport. She looked about my age. It’s like she just was part of the apocalyptic landscape until someone finally ventured into that no-man’s land to retrieve Her. I thought about her there stiff from cold and death – who was missing her? Where was she trying to get? What right do I have to be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder? We drove right by, safe in our fancy armored car!”

“Well, first of all, how many hours are you working? Do you take down time?”

“Seven days a week and average of 10 hours a day, sometimes more. But that comes with the territory of being on mission, doesn’t it? I mean, it’s expected of us.”

“Well, in the end I think we’re seeing that the hours you spent at your job and your commitment to your boss goes above and beyond and is not healthy for you. That’s also what might be happening here. Burnout.”

“But since meeting Neil, I’ve been much happier – although also more resentful of how little time we have together. But what am I expecting – a normal life here? I feel like that’s wrong. I mean I knew, more or less, what I was signing up for. Lately I’ve felt so disheartened but how little I can do.”

“Well, I suggest you try to be conscious of setting boundaries.”

He pushed his glasses onto the top of his head as he looked across the desk at me.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“By boundaries? You don’t seem to draw limits in your relationships, at least certainly not with your boss. What about your boyfriend? So far limits have been set for you by circumstance but will you be able to be clear with him about what you need and say ‘no’ when you need to? Or will you give, give and give until you make yourself sick? I think you’re experiencing the results of doing that now.”

“I’ll have to think about that. But as for Neil – he’s the one who takes care of me,” I answered, thinking about how he spoiled me and made me feel so safe when we were together in Bosnia.

“Good, good, that’s fine. I’m only saying it’s something to be aware of in the future.”

 

I nodded to the guards at the compound gate and turned left to the street where the tramline ran so perilously close to the sidewalk, I sometimes imagined myself twisting an ankle and falling off the curb onto the tracks as the tram approached. Did that mean I had a death wish? My session with Ken had me second-guessing myself. I’d never thought of myself as a pushover as he seemed to suggest. I had a good work ethic so of course I never said no to Victor about working when he asked me to work on weekends or stay late to work on a report. He was my boss, I liked and respected him and for most of our time together, I was genuinely compelled by the work. It felt important. This was what everyone did here in this crazy war-world. We did whatever we needed to do.

But to Ken’s point, could I recognize and speak up when enough-was-enough, or did I have to fall apart? Did this relate to my relationship with Neil? I didn’t feel like it. He provided me with joy in this bleak world. Generous and warm, he put me at ease, made me feel loved – not like I needed boundaries. In fact, lately I’d thought it was about time to let down my guard when it came to love, about time to risk in a relationship like I was risking in this war zone. Neil and I would be fine: we loved each other. From down the block, I heard the rumble of a tram approaching, stepped up my pace to reach the nearby stop, and climbed on.

 

The tally of romantic liaisons I’d had in my life made me cringe, mostly short-lived episodes, high on drama and low on commitment. I’d never taken the plunge of living with someone while even the most unconventional of my high school and college friends were now married and having children. I never made that kind of connection with someone until now. At 34, it was about time. I couldn’t wait for Neil to join me in Zagreb.

 

Gradually, I grew used to the relative normality of my life. The war in Croatia had yet to spread beyond an occasional skirmish in the UN protected areas, circumstantially far away from this cosmopolitan, charming city. Walking freely through the streets, wandering the market, eating good food, I began to relax. Sometimes I met up after work with others from the Civil Affairs office. We spent hours at restaurants where whole lambs turned slowly over an open flame and shared chunks of roasted meat and grilled trout, their hollow eyes staring up from the plate. We drank multiple bottles of wine. Tipsy, I returned to my apartment to watch the non-stop news, following reports of battles only miles away across the hills. My relief at being in a warm, lit room was pierced by pangs of guilt.

Every Friday, Neil caught a flight up from Sarajevo. We went to fancy restaurants where he flirted with waitresses and befriended waiters to ensure the best service and because he couldn’t resist. After too many glasses of wine, we stumbled home to the flat and fell into bed. Hungrily, we rediscovered each other. Curled against his beating heart, I faded into sleep. On Sunday, he’d return to Sarajevo. These interludes brightened my weeks, but it became harder and harder for Neil to leave.

One Sunday evening, hours after we’d kissed each other goodbye, I sat reading in the front room. I imagined Neil in the Holiday Inn watching Star Trek or playing poker with the journalists, when the buzzer rang. I looked out the window and there he was, grinning up at me.

“What are you doing here?” I said, surprised at the panic in my voice. I froze at the sight of him on the sidewalk, his bags beside him. Why was he back? What happened? Turning away from the window, I pressed my back against the wall as if dodging a sniper. This was it. He was really moving in. I hesitated before leaning back out the window and calling down to him, hoping that I sounded excited, “Just a minute, I’ll throw you the key!” With a flourish, he caught the key ring. I opened the apartment door and listened as he shifted all his bags into the entrance hall, the heavy apartment building door banging shut, his footsteps on the wide marble stairs as he climbed the two flights.

He stepped across the landing, dropped the bags, spread his arms wide and said, “I’m back!” in his Jack Nicholson Shining imitation. He grabbed me, kissing me so hard on the lips I had no chance to respond.

“I know I probably should have warned you, but I decided so quickly. I got down to Sarajevo and it was so bloody depressing. I’ve had enough. So I picked up all my stuff from the hotel, caught a lift to the airport and here I am!” he explained while piling his bags inside the door.

“So you quit? Just like that?” I asked, the pinch in my stomach getting tighter.

“I left Philippe a note.”

“You didn’t talk to him? You left your boss a note? Are you sure that was the best way to do things?”

“Well, the UNPROFOR personnel office said there will definitely be a job for me so I figured why be away from my darling any longer? Right? I’m dying for a bath. You get so filthy on those planes and today I got a double dose, didn’t I?” He said proudly.

I went into the bathroom to run the water. Why was I shocked? Only weeks earlier I also left Bosnia abruptly. Except my boss told me to leave. I never would have quit my job without some kind of notice. It felt irresponsible and foolhardy. My stomach was in knots. Was this how he operated? It was too late. He was here and it was time to begin our life together and ultimately, to start a family. This was the dream I’d had and it was happening starting now. The water turned hot. I pushed the rubber stop into the drain. Sitting on the edge, I watched the tub fill.

 

 

 

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Chapter 6

Italy and Zagreb – Spring 1993

 

A day later I boarded a cargo plane from Sarajevo to Ancona, Italy and from there took a taxi to the resort town of Senegalia, populated in this off-season by relief and UN workers on leave. The hotels facing the beach were shuttered except for a bright blue building with doors propped open as if they were under-construction. I slipped in past the plywood into a lobby with sheet-covered furniture cordoned off like a crime scene. The owners, a smartly dressed middle-aged couple, greeted me warmly and explained in perfect English that they were painting for the upcoming season but I was welcome to stay in one of the rooms they’d already finished. The strange desolation suited me. Still feeling the vibrations of the military plane, I followed a maid to an airy room that smelled of fresh paint.

 

Less than 48 hours earlier I’d stood alone in my sandbagged office dialing the number for the head of personnel for UNPROFOR. We’d spoken only the week before about openings in the mission area, someplace where Neil and I might be sent together. He had seemed irritated with me for badgering him and I didn’t blame him. He had other things to worry about besides keeping lovers together.

“Peter? It’s Tricia calling from Kiseljak.” Merely saying the name of this town I broke down before composing myself together enough to launch into a rant.

“Listen, Peter, I can handle hardships like living without water and electricity, I can handle the shelling and snipers, but I can’t take being a silent witness to the ugly violence happening here. It’s horrible and we are doing nothing!” I hyperventilated between sobs.

“Okay Tricia. Tricia, pack your things and catch the next plane to Zagreb. Okay? Don’t worry about what’s next, for now I want you to leave immediately. Does Victor know?”

“Yes, he told me to call you.” I blew my nose into my soggy tissue.

“Good. Leave today, is that clear?” He sounded worried.

Sobbing my acknowledgement, I hung up the phone before putting my head on the desk to weep some more. I felt defeated and ashamed. And where would I go from here? I needed to tell Neil I was leaving without him. I took a few calming breaths and dialed the number to the ICRC office, hoping the phone lines to Sarajevo would be open. Neil picked up.

“Good morning sunshine!”

“Oh Neil!” I started crying again.

“What? What’s happened? What’s wrong sweetheart?”

“I’m sorry. I’m a wreck! I’ve got to get out of here. I called Peter and he said to pack up and go. I’m leaving Kiseljak today.”

“Leaving? Where to? What happened? Are you okay, darling?”

“Yes. Well, no. I think I’m having a little bit of a nervous breakdown. Last night these motherfuckers took a guy down the street away from his family. It was so horrible to watch. I watched and did nothing.”

I described the miserable scene I’d witnessed that I knew was being repeated in villages, towns and cities across Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia along with rape, torture and murder, minutes from where I lived. What house or factory did we pass every day that hid these crimes? Knowing how close and how impotent I was, we were, became unbearable to me, as was my silence. I was here under false pretense. I could save no one except myself.

“Come to Sarajevo. I’ll make you feel better. And there’s a party at the hotel tonight for one of the journalists. Then you can catch a flight to Ancona and I’ll meet you there for the weekend.”

“Okay. I do want to see you. I’ll go home and pack up and meet you at the Holiday Inn today.”

Sarajevo, a city relentlessly under siege as a destination to escape to – how bizarre. I went back to my apartment and within two hours had fled Kiseljak.

 

And here I was in Italy. I had escaped. I opened the window and a chiffon white curtain billowed around me on a gust of humid, salty air. I looked out at the empty beach, a stretch of sand leading to the shifting horizon of waves, barely audible. I breathed deeply and leaving the window open, pulled off my grimy clothes and stepped into the shower. As the hot water beat down on me, I began to bawl. Scrubbing my body roughly with a soapy washcloth as if I were filthy, trying to scrape my guilt and grief away. Wiping the steam from the mirror, I looked back at my swollen face. My mouth a grim line, blue-eyes rimmed red, skin pasty. I pulled a sweatshirt over a t-shirt and jeans and clutching my journal and book to my chest, went out to the beach.

I tried to focus on the pages of my book, but could not stop staring across the glistening Adriatic towards the madness I had left. With every breath, I tried to release the twisted knots inside of me. I closed my eyes but the sun turned my lids into disconcerting bloody red kaleidoscopes.

When my hunger grew unbearable, I found a restaurant. Pulling my hood up and wrapping a scarf around my neck, I sat outside in the wind with a bowl of pasta and espresso, grateful to be able to relieve at least the void in my stomach.

As dark descended, I missed Neil. Alone between the crisp, white sheets, I longed for his big arms to pull me tightly against his chest. Hugging a pillow, I listened for the sounds of tanks and shooting and heard only the waves of the Adriatic.

 

The next day I fell asleep on the deserted beach, my hands and feet dug into the hot sand, comforted by the sound of water gently hitting the shoreline.

“Hello my sweet. Did you miss me?” I opened my eyes to Neil’s heavy boots beside me. Dropping his pack he flopped down and pulled me towards him for a kiss.

“How did you find me?”

We’d agreed to meet in Senegalia but had made no plans beyond that.

“Easy. There aren’t too many places open and I went in to every one that was and asked if there was a ‘bella Americana’ there. They told me at the front desk that I’d find you out here. Looks like a nice hotel.” Neil pulled off his shirt and lay back on the sand sighing with pleasure.

I watched him surrender to the sun and felt a flicker of disappointment. I looked at his profile as he settled back, head propped on his backpack, his eyebrows spiking crazily against the cloudless sky. Why were we not scrambling across the street to the hotel to rip each other’s clothes off? I felt so numb, I wasn’t inclined myself but I hoped he might save me from this paralyzing funk. I tried to explain myself to him.

“It’s lovely, but I can’t shake off this terrible feeling. I’ve been looking across the water and all I can think of are the hideous things people are doing to each other – right over there!” I gestured towards the water. “Entire villages destroyed. No electricity, no water, not enough food. And here we are in this beautiful place less than an hour away and there is no sign of any of it. Everything is normal. It’s surreal to me that we’re so close to such insanity. I can’t wrap my head around it. I feel angry, guilty and …so sad!” I almost started blubbering again.

“Well, let’s enjoy it while we can! And anyway, you’ll be based in Zagreb now and soon, so will I. From now on, our life will be better,” he said without opening his eyes.

“Yes, our lives will. But I feel like it’s wrong for me to be able to escape while so many innocent people are stuck there.”

“I know, it is terrible,” he mumbled sleepily, squeezing my hand. I could sense he was getting annoyed by my dismal mood and had no idea how to talk me out of it. Besides, he was here for a holiday and didn’t want me ruining it. He sat up.

“Let’s go to the hotel so I can drop my stuff off. I’m parched and dying for a good cup of coffee and some decent Italian food.”

We gathered our things and headed across the sand to the ghostly hotel where we were the only guests.

For the next few days, we ate and drank too much, let our skin turn an angry red in the sun and slept past noon. I seemed to have lost the ability to feel pleasure. I embraced the excess hoping to feel something besides the twisting in my stomach and weight on my chest. At meals, I sometimes cried over my pasta. After two days of lying in the sun, Neil’s touch on my livid skin became unbearable. Making love hurt but we did it anyway.

Neil seemed relieved when it was time to leave, happy to be heading back to his adrenaline packed life in Sarajevo. He seemed to feel purposeful and thrived on the excitement, the constant danger whereas I felt exhausted and defeated by it, like I was giving up. We sat side by side on a roaring cargo plane, this time, holding hands. The Italian cargo plane was loaded full of relief supplies so we had to prop our feet on the boxes piled high and wrapped with heavy rope netting. Flying away from Ancona airport, Neil spotted the beach where we’d been hours before – and in less than an hour, we were over the snowbound mountains of Bosnia. I could feel his excitement at being back to the heart of the war while I was relieved to be moving on to Zagreb.

 

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