It was a cloudy Sunday morning and Vesna was cooking up a storm for her two colleagues from work, Cornelia and Aurelia. All three of them were immigrants from Eastern Europe with similar pasts, comparable presents, and daunting futures. Back in their youth they were oblivious optimists, but a series of debilitating clean sweeps gradually turned them into neurotic toilet scrubbers who could not afford to think about their looming doom.
Vesna got up at six o’clock, made herself a cup of coffee and had two sips of it before she started slicing and dicing. Three months had passed since the last time she entertained guests at her cramped studio apartment. She fondly and often remembered the elderly Jehovah’s Witness praising her baklava and pleading her to submit to the undeserved kindness of God.
That morning, Vesna placed mushroom soup, fish stew, and dolma with mashed potatoes on the menu, with plum dumplings for dessert. As she stuffed some green peppers with minced meat, rice and all kinds of spices, Vesna experienced a fleeting hint of the gaiety she used to feel for weeks at a time during the holiday season in her native land. She especially missed the rituals and celebrations of her family’s patron saint, a house full of guests eating and bantering for hours on end.
At that moment Vesna remembered her neighbor Milivoje and smiled from ear to ear. Milivoje was an old bachelor and somewhat of a local celebrity poet. He rhymed when he spoke and nothing gave him more pleasure in life than making people laugh. No one could spin a yarn like Milivoje, and Vesna remembered one of his favorite tales, which went something like this:
Kragujevac, Serbia 1941.
“It has been decided. Get the firing squad ready. Today we are going to execute class 8c.”
“Jawohl, mein Kommandant!”
“Because of frequent sabotage and attacks on our army, as a reprimand and a warning to the rest of you, we have decided to execute an entire class at this school. We drew slips of paper out of a stahlhelm and class 8c was chosen. Leave your books behind and line up on the playground.”
“Be courageous, my children. Show them that you are not afraid.”
The entire class lined up on the playground and the soldiers were given the command to aim.
“Children, let us show the fascists that we are unafraid. Let us sing a song!”
The students started singing, quietly at first, but then louder and louder. Their song shocked and disturbed Herr Kommandant. He observed them, all of them proud and unafraid, probably singing some Yugoslav Partisan songs, cursing and mocking their enemy. In the middle of the row however, there was just one student who was rubbing his red cheeks and crying his eyes out. Herr Kommandant approached the student and snickered at him.
“What happened? How come you are not brave like the others? A moment ago I was convinced that every student in class 8c was happy to die in the presence of their enemies. Why are you crying?”
“How could I not cry…? I am from class 8b and I just came to 8c to borrow chalk for my class.”
As she stirred her fish stew and took in a deep breath of its aromas, Vesna wondered what happened to old Milivoje and whether or not he ever married. Was he still wandering around and making some people laugh, and others uneasy, with his morbid tales?
The stew was almost done and it was time for Vesna to smoke her first cigarette of the day. Ever since the price of a pack of her favorite cigarettes became astronomical, she promised herself she would not smoke more than three a day. As she inhaled her first drag, Vesna’s next door neighbor, Chris, with whom she shared a balcony, came out of his room and asked her for a cigarette. Since Chris had never took anything from anyone without repaying or returning it the next day, Vesna was happy to offer a cigarette and ask if her neighbor wanted to take an additional one for later.
Chris talked for a while about his career as an Uber driver, how he drives to San Francisco to work every Friday and sleeps in his car to save money. He told Vesna that as a black man in America he has to work twice as hard and behave twice as good as an average white man to be considered an acceptable member of society. “I made my peace with all of that,” said Chris, “and I consider myself fortunate and proud that I am able to endure everything that’s thrown at me.”
Vesna wanted to offer a word of support and express her dismay at such blatant injustice, but she did not know how to go about doing that in English. She sighed and hesitated, and the moment to say anything of that nature slipped by and evaporated into thin air.
They smoked their cigarettes in silence until the savory aroma of Vesna’s fish stew found its way to the balcony and presented the two neighbors with a new topic of discussion.
“That smells really good,” said Chris. “What are you making?”
“I make fish stew,” said Vesna. “It’s old recipe from Yugoslavia.”
“Nice,” said Chris. “How do you make it?”
Giddy that she was able to talk about her area of expertise, Vesna stretched a wrinkle on her inadvertently sexy pajamas, took a deep breath to collect her thoughts and started explaining how one goes about making a Yugoslavian fish stew.
“Yes, I cook sardines in special sauce. It is very good, very delicious. You need go to grocery and pick little sardines. You buy tomato sauce… better from can, it’s less sour. You pick lavorika leaf… I don’t know how to say in English. You need fry sardines, but not a lot. Then you take big pot, put layer of sardines, layer of lavorika, layer of sardines, add parsley, little salt, little pepper, little onions, little paprika, little cumin, little Vegeta… I don’t know how to say in English. You cover everything from tomato sauce from can and add little water. Let it bubble for little. Fire need be low, not nine or eight, but two or three, and you let cook for hours.”
“Ok, ok,” said Chris, a bit impatiently. “When do you know it’s ready?”
“It ready after several hours,” said Vesna. “Little sardines need be soft and everything need be mushy.”
Chris took a look at his watch and stated that he needed to eat his breakfast and get ready for work. He thanked Vesna for the cigarette and told her he was going to buy a pack after work.
Vesna walked back inside to set the table and wait for her friends. She tried but couldn’t recall the last time she felt so happy and so confident.
Since everything was ready, Vesna decided to put her feet up and watch some television. She watched a comedy show and understood nearly everything the actors were saying. She even understood some of the jokes and laughed out loud a few times.
At four o’clock in the afternoon Cornelia called and informed Vesna that she could not come over because she needed to babysit her grandson. At four thirty Aurelia sent a text message in which she wrote that she had a Bible study group she could not miss and apologized for cancelling.
Vesna sat at the table and ate a few spoonfuls of fish stew. “I put too much pepper,” she thought to herself. She made tea and ate a plum dumpling with it. There was a game show quiz on TV, but Vesna could not figure out the rules and did not understand why the contestants were giggling. She first lowered the volume and after a while turned it off. It was time for her second cigarette and Vesna walked onto the balcony. The wind kept blowing out her matches and she wasted five of them before she was able to light her cigarette.
At one moment she thought she heard Chris come out, but when she leaned over the railing she saw that his car wasn’t parked in its usual spot. “I will leave the stew in front of his door,” Vesna thought to herself. She threw the cigarette away, rushed back inside and started pouring the stew into some Tupperware. The plum dumplings she covered with foil and the dolmas she left in a pot. She carefully arranged everything in a plastic bag, walked back out and placed it in front of her neighbor’s door.
The excitement she felt earlier in the morning suddenly returned and made her feel slightly dizzy. She spent the rest of her night sitting on the couch, watching television and carefully listening for her neighbor’s footsteps. She peeked through the blinds every now and then, went out to smoke another cigarette, but Chris was nowhere to be found. That night Vesna tried but could not fall asleep until three o’clock in the morning. She got up at seven o’clock and promptly rushed out, skipping her morning ritual and coffee, and walked over to her neighbor’s door. The plastic bag was still there.
“He probably went to San Francisco,” Vesna thought to herself. “The food is cold and probably already spoiled.” She smoked a cigarette and then picked up the bag and walked back inside to make coffee.
Illustration: Milan Djurasovic.