“Sure you’re down for this?” Jesse asked me.
I nodded and smiled nervously in his front seat, as he clanked the passenger side door shut and a strand of his messy hair fell across his eyes. Jesse intrigued me, for sure, but his car was the biggest piece of crap I’d ever sat inside. It reeked of cigarette smoke and dead butts filled the ashtray. It was a compact, twenty-year-old rust bucket, and—based on the strewn clothes, pillow, and blanket in the tiny back seat—it must have doubled for his bedroom on occasion. But that didn’t matter. I was glad he didn’t have a fancy car.
He’s a rebel musician.
Jesse raised the hatchback to put his well-worn guitar case and flannel over shirt in the back.
“Sparky’s pretty cozy, huh?” he said.
“Did you say ‘Sparky’?”
“Yep.” He gave the car’s fender a hard slap. “I call him Sparky. It’s a Chevy Spark.”
“Clever,” I said, unsure how he’d respond to sarcasm—or anything for that matter.
I don’t know him.
I’ve only talked to him once before.
He’s nineteen—three years older than me.
These facts hit me like the chill of biting into ice as he opened his door and slid into the driver’s seat. The paradox: I hated that cold shooting through my teeth, but still liked chewing on ice.
He craned his neck to look at the mess in his backseat, and I noticed a tattoo on his neck. Was it a black leaf?
He caught me examining his inked skin.
“You’re good to go?” he asked, as if it were a warning.
“Yeah, let’s go,” I said.
As soon as the words left my mouth, I half-doubted my decision to leave with this guy. My other half couldn’t wait to hit the road in a foreign land: California.
Two weeks earlier…
We arrived at the San Francisco airport in the middle of a bright July day. I walked into the terminal and through customs like a zombie—without sleep or proper meals for over fourteen total hours. Mom was zoned out, too. She seemed almost drugged as the immigration officer questioned her, an American citizen, as if she’d defected and was some kind of spy.
—How long have you lived in Bulgaria?
—Why did you leave?
—How long have you been married to a foreigner?
—What’s your occupation there?
—Have you been to Russia in the past twelve months?
—What’s your address here in America?
And almost twenty more questions, most of which sounded paranoid and ignorant. At the end of the interrogation he stamped our passports and offered us a big fake smile.
My mom spotted Grandma Ross in a sea of sign holders and random faces at the international arrival doors. I barely recognized her in the crowd. It had been four years since I’d seen her in Vienna, because she never came to visit us in Bulgaria. Mom told me she’d called it too “dirty and backward.” Only Western Europe was good enough for Grandma Ross—her somewhat impersonal title showing how much closer I was to my Bulgarian grandma, who I simply called Grandma or “Baba.” The last time I’d seen Grandma Ross her hair was dyed a very unnatural golden blonde. Since then, she’d let it go silvery white which was much better, but it did make her look elderly. After hugging my mom with her eyes closed tight, Grandma Ross reached out her hands to me.
“Oh my, Nia,” she beamed. “It’s been so long, sweetie.”
“Hi, Grandma,” I said and smiled.
She gave me a bear hug that smelled like she’d bathed in Chanel perfume. With her hands on my shoulders, Grandma Ross stepped back and sized me up.
“You’re absolutely gorgeous, Nia,” she said, her eyes all over me. “Beautiful skin, sweet smile, and such a good figure. Just lose that hideous nose ring, the shabby T-shirt, and you’ll be shaping up into a fabulous woman in no time.”
Weird. And rude.
Grandma Ross was judging me on my appearance alone, and wasted no time going there.
I forced a smile. What do you say to that? I hated the idea of being seen as a cute doll and nothing more.
“Mom, take it easy, you’re embarrassing her.”
“Oh, nonsense,” Grandma Ross said. “Nia, honey, are you okay? Flight was too long, huh? Or have you been in Bulgaria for so long you’ve forgotten how to speak English? Ha!”
She laughed too much at her own joke.
Mom gave her a courtesy smile.
“She goes to an American school,” my mom said. “She speaks English every day.”
“I know, Sara. I’m just kidding.”
Grandma Ross pinched my cheek, which might have appeared sweet from afar, but actually stung with condescension.
“Let’s go,” Grandma Ross said. “My new Benz is right out in the parking lot.”
Fun fact: my American grandmother had managed to annoy me within the first minute of our arrival.
Dinner at Grandma Ross’s wasn’t any better. The three of us sat at a long dining table. Grandpa Ross died when I was three years old, so I didn’t really remember him, but a grand framed portrait of him hung near the window behind where Grandma Ross sat. Her dining room with its ornate chandeliers looked like a private banquet hall in an exclusive, aristocratic club—beautiful, but stuffy and uninviting. The silence between small talk was almost creepy. And, yeah, the talk shrunk to super small.
How long was your flight again?
How’s the weather been in Sofia?
How’s your job been going?
All directed at my mom. I couldn’t tell if she was interested in answering these questions or not, but she did. Maybe she was just happy to see her mother for the first time in a while. Sifting through my shrimp pasta made by the housekeeper, I zoned out of the conversation until Grandma Ross roped me in with the ever-fascinating:
“How’s school, Nia?”
I hated this question from adults. On the surface it was simply unoriginal, but underneath it was potentially complex and too personal.
I opted to keep it simple. “Good.”
Grandma Ross waited for an awkward few seconds and then furrowed her brow before turning to my mom.
“Sara, you have to pull Nia out of that school. It sounds like her English isn’t quite what it should be. She’s not—
“Mother, she speaks English as good as I—
“Well. Not good, well,” Grandma Ross corrected.
“Whatever, Mom. Nia is getting a great education and she’s fine. I don’t know if she’s jet-lagged or—
“I’m just pointing out,” Grandma interrupted again in her grandiose fashion, “That’s she’s been here for half a day now and hasn’t spoken much to me. Articulation is very important. But I ask her a question and she—
“She is right here,” I said. “She is me, so why are you both talking about me in the third person, as if I’m not even present?”
“Oh, there she is, alive and kickin’,” Grandma said, “And a little feisty too.”
I bit my lip because I didn’t want to be rude or disrespectful to my own grandma on day one, but she’d already managed to get on my nerves. Had she heard stories about me getting in trouble at school? Running away that one time? Or had she simply labeled me as a bad girl, a teen punk?
“Ready to talk now, Nia?” Grandma added, condescendingly.
“Mom,” my mom intoned as if she wanted to defend me but feared committing to it. We were newly-arrived guests after all.
“I just think Nia…”
Grandma Ross went on, talking about me in the third person again while I sat right next to her. “...should open up and show at least a little polite interest, that’s all.”
“No disrespect, Grandma,” I said, “But I have no problem expressing myself in English or Bulgarian. And, yeah, I’m feeling jet-lagged, but I have no problem showing interest in answering questions... if they’re interesting questions.”
“Nia!” my mom shrieked.
Yeah, Mom was really good at repeating only our names to show her disapproval and perhaps discomfort, but not much else.
Grandma Ross tsked her tongue, her loftiness crystal clear.
“Well then, Nia, can you teach me how to ask an interesting question?”
“Mom!” my mom yelled.
“Stop repeating yourself, Sara,” Grandma said.
The tension thickened, making breathing a bit difficult. I wanted to get up and leave, and it was only the first night!
Grandma Ross turned her gaze on me.
“Are you going to answer me, Nia?”
What the hell is going on here?
Was this old woman on medication that made her extra bitchy? Or could there be some odd background information on her that had been kept secret? Had my mom said something to her about me that was offensive? What was I supposed to say to her?
“Sorry, Grandma,” I said. “But I’m not very interested in school at the moment. It’s summer and I don’t really wanna think about classes, my friends, my not-so-friends, the gossip, my teachers—I’m on vacation, right?”
Grandma Ross sighed, not in understanding but in disappointment.
“Then what interests you, Nia?”
“That’s a better question,” I said.
“Really? You approve of it?” Grandma asked facetiously.
My mother buried her forehead in her hands, making it obvious this wasn’t the family reunion she’d envisioned.
“Yeah, but it’s a tough one,” I said, glimpsing Grandma Ross’s cold, tight-lipped smile, wondering what I had done to upset her, and why I felt the strong vibe she didn’t like me. “I guess writing. Music. Traveling. Those all interest me.”
Grandma Ross turned to my mom as if she’d have a cue card with a written response ready. My mom had nothing for her. And the blank space between them told me—for the first time, though it seemed insultingly obvious—that they didn’t have the best relationship. And it hit me like a blunt object: That’s why Grandma Ross never visited us in Bulgaria! As a kid, Mom always gave me sugar-coated explanations as to why we rarely saw her, and over the years not seeing her had become the norm. Now, finally, came some clarity: She never visited because something went very wrong between her and my mom long ago.
“Oh my,” Grandma Ross said. “Nia’s one of those artsy Gypsy types. Sounds like she’s been in Eastern Europe for too long… But it’s good she’s here at least—to get a sense of American life, or should I say reality.”
“Mom, please. Nia’s fine and so is Bulgaria.”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said.
“Fine,” Grandma Ross said with thick sarcasm. “Everything’s fine and dandy then.” She sighed and glanced around as if she were waiting for a servant to carry her away on a throne. “Just leave your plates here. The maid will come get them.”
I left the dining room like an unwelcome stranger in my own grandma’s home—a foreigner in a country where I actually had citizenship but never lived.
My mom walked me down the hall to my own lavish guest room. She didn’t have much to say besides “Good night.” She neither apologized for her mother’s behavior nor scolded me for being impolite. She just gave me a helpless look and a shrug. Mom’s expression suggested a generic excuse for Grandma Ross: Give her a break, she’s old and she’s your grandma.
But that didn’t work for me.
Kurt was old—super old—and he was one of the best people I knew.
KURT’S FIRST EMAILS
Almost two years after the original paper letter he’d sent me, and one year after I secretly sent him fifty typed pages via snail mail (along with my email address), good ole Kurt broke down and figured out how to use the internet. He sent me the first email about a week before my trip to San Francisco. Of course, I didn’t tell my mom.
How are you? This electronic message may come to you with a bit of surprise at my use of the interwebs and email technology, something I couldn’t have accomplished alone. Thankfully my daughter, Sammy, helped me enter the 21st century this week!
I’m not supposed to communicate with you and, technically, what I’m doing here is illegal. But I have some great news for you, so to hell with Interpol! I’m not in Germany anymore, am I? This is a free country, right? Though I don’t give two damns about European laws and their judgment about your former runaway business, I do care about your parents and what we all went through two years ago. So I’ll stick to the point.
Remember those fifty pages you sent me? They were great! I’m so impressed with your writing. I took your words and pasted them into the story I was working on with very little editing. I kept your part of the narrative true to your voice. My part has been done for a while now. The good news is I sent the manuscript to Vagabond Publishing and they want to publish it! Apparently, this old fart still has a book in him to offer the world, or at least the few dozen people who might buy my—correction—our book. That’s right, I want you to check out the finished manuscript and approve it because I want your name to be on the cover as the co-author! Pretty snazzy, huh?
As you know, I’m older than old school, so I’d like to mail you the manuscript the old fashioned way: one hundred and fifty pages of paper. So what’s your address, Nia? How long will it take the US Mail to reach Bulgaria? Yeah, the Cold War is over, but sometimes Communist bureaucracies die hard!
PS: Perhaps you’ve done the math yourself, but I’m 91 years old now. Jesus Christ! Hopefully the manuscript will get to you before I’m dead and buried! Come to think of it, I might pay the extra few bucks for express mail.
I immediately emailed Kurt back and told him how excited I was about the book being published. Our book! I told him I couldn’t wait to read the manuscript, but I’d be in San Francisco most of the summer, not Bulgaria. Anxious to read the story, I urged him to send me a digital copy as soon as possible, or meet me in San Francisco. And I told him not to joke about dying because it wasn’t funny at all.
I didn’t receive a reply from Kurt until my first night at Grandma Ross’s, right after dinner.
I’m sorry you felt my last message was too morbid. I don’t want to upset you. But I hope you understand I’m at a stage in my life that I have to make fun of, otherwise it’s all too damn depressing. Also, honestly, I don’t want to live for too much longer. 92? 93? I can’t even imagine 95! My body is falling apart, Nia. I can’t take it anymore and I can’t trade it in for a newer one. Word to the youth: You only have one body in this life, so take care of it. Seriously!
As for your summer trip to San Francisco, I appreciate your idea to meet up for a coffee and manuscript exchange—honestly it warms my heart that someone your age would like to hang out with an old fart like me. But I also can’t imagine your parents being okay with that, and San Diego is a far drive from San Francisco. I can’t fly anymore, unfortunately. I don’t like to admit this because it makes me feel like I have one foot in the grave, but I’m damn near immobile now.
A few weeks ago, the doctors and I decided it was time to check into nursing care. I don’t know if that means anything to you, but I’ll put it this way: Old folks check into nursing homes, but they don’t check out alive! Reads like a corny horror movie line, but it’s not too bad. As I mentioned before, I’m ready for the afterlife—whether that’s eternal sleep or something else slightly more appealing. My daughter visits me everyday, and the food isn’t as horrible as it could be. Plus, the fact that our book is being published keeps my hopes up.
I understand you want me to email you the manuscript as an email thing you call “an attachment” because you’ll be traveling over the summer, but there’s something in my old bones that’s weary of throwing this entire book onto the interwebs, willy nilly. Can these attachments be lost? Stolen? Vaporized? I’d rather mail a tangible package to an address. Can you give me a mailing address in San Francisco? Or do you want to wait till you get back to Bulgaria to read it?
The phrase “mixed emotions” had never been more true. I was overjoyed to be reminded I would soon be the co-author of a book; that my name would be on the cover along with Kurt’s on some shelf in a bookstore; that some stranger would read our story and might actually like it, even be moved by it! Then there was the somber reality that Kurt might die of old age any day; might not have the pleasure of seeing our book on a shelf, or be able to hold the finished product in his hand. And something about his not being able to travel—with his hometown of San Diego not that far from San Francisco—made me want to visit him even more. Yeah, I wanted to read the manuscript, but, more importantly, I wanted to see Kurt while he was still alive.