On a bus to the airport in Split, Dina sees her father now: trapped in their small, wrecked apartment on the eighth floor, squatting over the hardwood planks, his back propped up against the front door. His face is pinched, his gray hair thin from worry. The windows are draped with old bath towels, the fabric orange and ragged.
He struggles to remain awake.
Dina knows that most of the men in Banja Luka stayed behind because it was expected of them. When Serbian tanks roared down transit roads, positioning themselves on the horizon, some men bought freedom, sent their families away to Germany or Croatia, even Italy; somewhere safe, somewhere remote.
But Dina's father couldn't buy his family that freedom. They stayed and risked it all. Eventually, the Serbs seized their building and used it as their own. They made her father, the man of the house, stay. It was a shame. He had to watch his family trickle out of the apartment building with hardly the clothes on their backs. He had to watch his little daughters and wife climb into an army jeep and trail off down the road without him.
That last moment spent with each other now sits heavy on Dina's chest and chokes her throat. She inhales the chaos, ingests the commotion outside the apartment. The smell of gasoline and gun oil. The matted, chugging sound of their world collapsing. Then stillness as her father put his damp hand to her shoulder and squeezed and said, Easy, Ćupco. Easy.
Her father made up the word years ago, and it referred to Dina's stubborn cowlick. Her hair was always messy as a child, unruly. The dent in her hair has long since disappeared, hidden with various hairstyles and eventually wilting with age, but the nickname lingered. It was always present in pictures. Lurking at family gatherings and remembrances.
Then Dina sees this nightmare resurface again, clear as day: a sniper in the next building over, bored, patiently waiting for a ripple of movement, waiting for her father's head to pop up, the cast of a shadow, a wild streak across the room for a glass of water.
The city of Banja Luka is in ruins. Sarajevo, too. The Markale market, a place where Dina's mother would buy vegetables as a child, was bombed today, destroyed; rinds of peppers on the ground, apple guts and eggshells scattered on the remains of a wall.
Dina listens to the news broadcasts on a black transistor radio she's managed to escape with. With her mother and sister safe, staying with distant family on the Croatian seaside, she is riding a bus, alone; the road bumpy and barren, the people—Muslim refugees, just like her—glazed, dead on the inside, like tree stumps in an unwanted forest.
In Split, a plane will take the entire cast away to America; a city called Chicago. Dina is frightened by this word: Chicago. It sounds harsh and guttural to her. She is frightened by its concept, its recklessness and breadth.
Dina dislikes the radio reports. She wishes she didn't have to listen to them. The words are violent and often vague. The situation isn't getting any better. But, she needs to ingest it all; the blasted buildings, the rubble, the executions, the people starving.
She needs to know. She has to know.
The voices say it was a non-hostile takeover in Banja Luka. Dina knows this is not true. People were hurt. People suffered. She listens. She listens, hoping these small glimpses of violence will remind her, someday, that she had no choice; that leaving her family and father behind was the only way.
As the bus trickles out of the Dinaric Alps and crosses back into Croatia (a wayward route, avoiding checkpoints), the air thickens, the spare flora becomes lush, alive. An old lady from across the aisle finally asks Dina to turn down the radio. The old lady is polite and has eyes like gray stones. Her face is sallow and ratty, her teeth unavailable.
The reports make me worry too much, she explains to Dina with a dry, mottled mouth.
Dina turns off the radio and bows her head, stares at her feet. She listens to the bus wheeze along the dirt road, the undercarriage rattling around each time they hit a pothole.
Looking outside, Dina catches her reflection in the window. For a moment, she checks her teeth, her posture. Her hair is tied up in a knot, the russet-colored strands falling on her pallid cheeks. There is tension in her neck. There is dread in her heart. It is all visible.
She looks away, back at the old lady, who is glaring at her with those concrete eyes. Dina knows that look. She knows what the old lady is thinking. She is thinking:
You should be ashamed by your vanity.
Indeed, Dina is ashamed.
Dina remains quiet for most of the trip. Consumed with guilt. This has all been very difficult, especially for her parents and her sister, Sanela, who is a few short years from womanhood. Dina thinks this war has made her sister older, bitter. Sanela is only twelve, but she now straddles the cruelty of adulthood. She has creases in her brow; creases that don't belong on young children.
The whole country is old now. When Dina looks around, she sees that everyone bears the same puffy eyes and swollen face of a consumptive. Dina herself is only nineteen, but her hands are thin, bony. She wishes she could be more plump. She's lived an eternity within these last three months.
As the bus approaches the airport—security guards with black rifles, razor-wire fences, muzzled German shepherds—Dina worries about her father; his health, his well-being. He is alone in that apartment, and she's afraid he will starve.
What is wrong? the old lady asks.
What about him?
The only dish he knows how to prepare is scrambled eggs, Dina says. Maybe he knows how to make rice, or fry potatoes.
Sweetheart, the woman says with a laugh, potatoes are probably a luxury he cannot afford.
Dozing to the lull of the bus, Dina imagines her father sitting in a dark cornice of the kitchen, lifting runny eggs up to his gaunt mouth, the warmth affecting his molars, expanding his cavities, wondering if the sniper in the next building is keeping a regular schedule.
The plane ride over the Atlantic Ocean is long and blue. It makes Dina think of her mother and sister in the northern tip of Croatia, on the Adriatic coast where the water is as dark as sapphire. Her plan is to bring them to America when she gets a job and can pay for their trip. Dina secured the money for her own trip with the help from a Bosnian-American organization in Chicago where a distant friend of the family lives and works.
There was only enough money for one trip.
Dina has never met this woman. She has no idea what she looks like. But that's the way life has been lately. Dina has to trust people she does not know or has not seen. She must put her faith in the faceless.
For the last three months, Dina and her mother and sister have been on the run; staying with family in Croatia, distant cousins in Zagreb, friends, strangers, whoever would take them. Bounced from one refugee camp to another; spare bedrooms, couches, turning aside resentment, turning aside a growing and gradual indignation. When people looked at Dina, she could feel the hatred in her bones. She could feel the entire country blaming her.
In Croatia, Dina was unable to find work as a refugee, her sister unable to finish high school because of her religious beliefs. Before the war, no one in her family even thought about being a Muslim. They never thought too much about what it was like to be different from Serbs or Croats.
We're all Yugoslavians, her father said as the reports came through and panic settled in. They'd all hoped the war would end before it started, before they had to flee. Then they heard the shelling, the heavy footsteps of the siege.
In a way, her mother once told her daughters, as they were doing laundry in the nearby river, the food in the refugee camp growing scarce, the Serbians are defining us as Muslims. They are responsible for our identity. It's a shame.
She shook her head like the answer was there all along. Dina could see that her mother was ashamed because the Serbs had to point this fact out, like they were idiots.
It's taken years, she sighed, her warm hand on her Dina's shoulder, but we've finally found ourselves now. We're Bosnian Muslims. We should be proud.
The cabin of the plane is stale with the breath of a thousand ungracious passengers. While eating dinner—a sliver of turkey, a scoop of mashed potatoes with a thin drool of gravy—Dina wonders about securing a job in this new American city.
Chi, she practices when she is alone, cago.
Dina is excited, but nervous. She's taken the lead for her family. Heavy burdens await. I cannot fail, she thinks manically. I cannot fail.
Perhaps she will get factory work in Chicago; sewing pillows, or repairing furniture upholstery. Dina is good with her hands. She has been sewing clothes for years; a button here, letting out the inseams there, knitting winter hats, building the dexterity in her fingers.
During a rumble of turbulence, Dina imagines her lunch breaks at her new job; her fingers speckled with dried blood, her cuts salty with sweat. Perhaps there will be a picnic table outside of the factory, a place where she can sit alone and quietly pray for her father, her family. She will pray that he's alive and eat sandwiches with American mayonnaise.
She didn't think America would smell like turmoil and years of musty sweat. Didn't think the country was old enough to smell so arcane, so dead. As Dina fills out the yellow INS forms at Kennedy Airport in New York City, she feels the urge to turn around and get back on that plane. She wants Bosnia. She wants Banja Luka. She wants her home.
Dina's INS contact, Esma—turns out she's a squat, stubby Bosnian woman with the battle of age on her face—tells her this particular area is affordable and relatively safe.
There are black Americans everywhere, she tisks in their native tongue, a pouch of flesh hanging underneath her chin. But the rent is cheap and the neighborhood is centrally located.
As Dina fills out yet more paperwork, Esma goes quiet. She is disturbed, eyes darting like a hungry mouse. Dina thinks it strange. The two have been in contact for months now, sending letters back and forth between the U.S. and Croatia, getting the paperwork situated. She feels they know each other.
In America, Dina thought they could be friends. Esma was gentle in her letters. She had a soft tone when telling Dina about her previous life in Sarajevo; her big-bear-of-a husband, and her son, the scholar, the medical student, who now lives in Sweden with his wife and daughter.
It's now quite obvious to Dina that they will not be friends. It will not work out.
Unlike her letters, which were verbose and lengthy, Esma doesn't speak much at all. She doesn't speak of the war. Doesn't mention her brother-in-law. Doesn't mention that he was beaten to death in Srebenica. Dina learned this in one of Esma's letters shortly before she left Croatia. She felt connected.
As if she were forced by gunpoint to avoid personal interaction, Esma doesn't ask Dina about her family, whether or not her father is still alive or when her mother and sister will join her in Chicago.
Instead, she gives Dina enough American money to rent an apartment and acquire food for a week or so. After this, she says, shrugging her shoulders, shuffling Dina out the door like an unwanted customer, you're on your own.
Getting off the bus at Broadway and Montrose, Dina sees broken cars, shards of glass, garbage scattered along the sidewalk. She cannot believe, even in the middle of the day, there are girls outside selling their bodies, selling their time, their lives.
For an instant, Dina imagines what it must be like to be a prostitute. She had never seen one in Banja Luka, but she knows they exist, behind closed doors, down in dark basements and back rooms. She wonders what kind of American man might want to sleep with her. Perhaps a doctor or a professor or an engineer.
The apartment building she is to live in for the next ten years is on a busy street corner. It is an old walk-up tenement across the street from a home for retirees. Out in front, Dina sees slow-moving men with walkers, old ladies hobbling. A bus drones by with heavy breath and squeaky brakes.
After she speaks into the speakerphone on the front stoop (I am here for apartment, Dina tells the man), the door buzzes and she walks into the building. She grips the banister as she descends the stairs. She wants safety, even simple safety. The hallways are clean, empty of stains, empty of life.
There is a scruffy man inside one of the barren apartments. He hardly glances at Dina, who enters his line of vision in the doorway. He is busy painting the ceiling. Little splotches of white speckle the man's hands and face. He's unshaven and motions for Dina to have a look around.
"Please," he says.
Dina stands still, inspecting the apartment, wary of her every movement, her heart pulsing. The unshaven man then turns to her. "You take room?" He puts down his roller, the sun beaming in through the bare windows. It is late afternoon.
Dina still doesn't answer.
Instead, she concentrates on the smell of the fresh paint, the cloying sting. The smell sets her off into a dizzy spell, much like vertigo.
Dina thinks the feeling must be the same way Jimmy Stewart felt in that movie she'd seen years ago. Alfred Hitchcock had been her favorite. The theaters in Banja Luka would play all the black and white American movies, though once in a while they would show the color ones, or those silly French ones. Dina can still taste the pastries she and her sister would eat during the films. She remembers how much her father loved Audrey Hepburn.
Not out of intimacy, the man slumps closer to Dina and says, "Is nice room, yes?"
The accent is Russian. Dina swiftly moves away, walks to the other side of the room, wrings her hands. Maybe Ukrainian.
Without words, Dina agrees. She fights off the urge to confide in this man. Though his face is crooked, his breath grainy with spirits, she wants to tell him where she's from, what's going on in Bosnia. She wants to confess her guilt for leaving her family, her father.
"How much?" Dina asks, uncomfortable in this new language, inspecting the kitchen. Despite how clean everything else seems, the oven is dirty with blackened crumbs, and the faucet runs with rusty water, spitting out white spiders and other debris when she turns the metal knob.
"Cheap," the man says. "Tree hundred."
Dina pulls out three bills, hands them over, and notices the plaster underneath the man's fingernails, the dried and cracked paint on his pants. Once, her father repainted the apartment in Banja Luka, just before the war. Dina remembers how irritable and cranky he was that week, touchy.
Cleaning houses is much better than Dina expected. Most of the time, she's lost in dreams, living back in Bosnia. Normalcy is restored. She's left alone to do her work and has relatively no contact with the owners.
Dina's co-worker is an old woman who's been in the business for over thirty years. She smokes heavily and looks like something that lives on the floor of the ocean, a bottom-dweller, a scavenger. She often tells Dina—in a raspy, gravelly voice—that she should slow down and not work so hard.
"You make me look bad," she complains.
Dina pays the lady no mind and cleans the bathrooms with her heart, scrubs kitchen floors with determination. Some customers appreciate Dina's effort. They recognize something in her, her struggles perhaps, the pain in her face.
Others care less, tip her less, and give her furrowed stares when they see her working so diligently. They don't seem to understand Dina, though she is learning English fast enough.
At the end of the day Dina is usually sore, but she also feels a sense of accomplishment, pride, and she strives to make cleaning her purpose. She thinks the people in America are too busy and don't have the time to care about their homes.
It's my job to make them feel clean, safe.
Dina can't help feeling empty without her family. Her apartment is too quiet when she comes home; the closing of dresser drawers too muffled, the sound of the shower too much like the patter of a light but long, interminable rain. There's no movement, no arguments, no waiting for the bathroom.
Dina saves every penny and watches the news before bed every night. The war in Bosnia continues, but has slipped from the media's attention. It's a blip in history, no matter how many men are slaughtered. The anchormen are more concerned with Bill Clinton's sexual affairs.
Late at night, Dina turns off the lights, the TV, and thinks that Monica Lewinski could be attractive if she didn't wear all that heavy make-up and lost a few pounds.
On the morning ABC producer David Kaplan is shot to death by a Serbian sniper, Dina receives a letter from her mother. In her finely-tuned penmanship—the words meticulously printed, the punctuation perfect—Dina learns that her father is alive but still trapped in Banja Luka. Her mother talked to him once. A broken telephone conversation. Voices cutting in and out. There is a man in Belgrade who is supposed to help him escape.
We're all praying, her mother says. You should, too.
At the end of the letter, her mother also mentions her heart problems. The hospitals in Croatia aren't very receptive. Dina's sister is still unable to finish school. In general, things are not so good. Tourism in the seaside town is below average. The weather is turning cold.
Riding the bus down Sheridan, Dina realizes what a regal city Chicago is; tall muscular buildings, some thin but stately, handsome. Having been in the city for only eight months, she finally feels Chicago is her home.
Dina does, however, miss the little things in Banja Luka: the bazaars, the kiosks, the quaint cafés and smell of tobacco. She misses her mother's food, the spices, the coffee. American coffee is too weak and tastes like a puddle of dirty water.
Tomorrow, after working her spare nights in a warehouse and saving enough money, Dina's sister will be the first to arrive in Chicago from Croatia. Her mother will not be joining her. She is too ill to make the long journey.
Zooming downtown for work, watching the rough, choppy waters of Lake Michigan, Dina thinks about Sanela's plane trip, which will be her first. She will be certain to shy away from the experience. She'll be ignored by the flight attendants, jump at every pocket of turbulence, and not use the bathroom at all during the flight. It will be an exhausting trip.
When Sanela exits the airplane runway, the tunnel expanding and contracting like an accordion, she is thin, skeletal. Dina is almost unable to recognize her with the short, scraggly strands of hair and unpainted face. Dina sees that her sister's fingernails are not manicured. They are bitten to stubs. Her shoes are scuffed and broken, her face boyish, awkward.
Dina embraces her sister and kisses her face, unable to mask her excitement. "Oh, I missed you so much," she says in English, stops, then corrects herself in Bosnian.
Sorry. The only way to learn the language, Dina says, is to use it as much as possible.
Dobro, Sanela says, it's O.K.
Have you been practicing your English?
Malo, her sister says, pinching her thumb and forefinger together. Malo.
Dina smiles and watches her sister set off in an intimidated bramble. She begins to yap on about the city, about America and how wonderful it is. Both sisters wander through the huge airport, walking like they don't belong.
Do you like it? Dina asks, waving around her arms, as if to reveal the sacred secrets behind all of Houdini's tricks.
Sanela inspects her new world. The people around are busy; walking fast, talking on cell phones, sidestepping the elderly. She shrugs her shoulders.
It's just an airport, she says.
As they board the train back to the city, Dina recognizes the lost look on her sister's face, the unfamiliar ground with each step she walks. She understands the loneliness, the hollow pit in her center, the same as when she arrived a year ago.
Dating some of the Bosnian men in the community is not good for Dina's face. Too often they get drunk and mean, out of control. Some have hit her for no apparent reason.
Sanela complains about this without words. Every time Dina comes home with a new bruise, her look of worry and shame is enough. Sanela usually retreats to the other side of their small apartment and ignores her sister for the rest of the night.
Dina looks past the first few incidents. She blames their anger on post-traumatic syndrome, a term she learned while watching a special on Oprah, with children who'd gone through events like war and hurricanes, their homes seized or destroyed.
Dina is tired of the bruises. She despises having to hide the green bumps, the busted lips, the fear. When she looks in the mirror, she sees the cowlick slowly returning, her hair mussed and difficult like her life, and she hears her father, What happened to you, Ćupco?
Dating American men, however, is out of the question. Some are nice and attractive, and most have good hygiene. But others wear jeans with stains and huge holes. They listen to loud, heavy metal music in their cars. They're not as forward as Bosnian men, true, but they don't know much. Unless you mention the 1984 Olympics, most don't even know that Sarajevo and Bosnia exists.
Out of comfort, Dina dates a Bosnian man named Amir, a friend of a distant cousin. Amir doesn't have a job and has been in America for ten years, long before the war started. He is from Srebenica and lost his father about a year ago.
My father was beheaded, Amir tells Dina with some pride, his thumb raking across the bottom of his neck, his Adam's apple dark with wiry hair.
Dina sees through his playful gesture. She senses that Amir hasn't yet come to grips with his father's death. He says he often sees the old man in his dreams, when he sleeps at night, alone in his apartment.
In my dreams, he is always carrying a rifle and a dead animal slung over his shoulder, he says, sipping coffee. Did I tell you my father was a hunter? He had instinct.
At first, Dina thought Amir compassionate, sensitive. His face had a brooding but gentle shadow, and he genuinely cared about his family. That meant something to Dina.
Many men died in my city, Amir tells Dina on more than one occasion, sometimes even on the brink of crying, his eyes watery. Srebenica was supposed to be a 'safe' city. My father, he was a strong man. Stronger than any man here in America.
Although he gets angry and often frustrated, Amir doesn't hit Dina. He is more listless than anything. There are times when he doesn't call Dina for days. Their dates usually consist of dinner and coffee at his apartment. They watch the news or a movie, or sometimes they talk deeply, though the focal point is always about his father, his problems. They never once talk about Dina's father or her family.
When Dina and Amir make love, which is not as often as Dina would like, Amir can barely get erect. He doesn't seem to enjoy the act very much. It's almost not worth the trouble Dina has to go through to get him aroused, or interested in her body and appearance. Still, she clings to what intimacy there is, and she hopes for a quick turnaround.
After two months of dating Amir, Dina's hairstylist, Melisa, lets her in on a secret.
You mean you don't know? Melisa gasps, snipping away on Dina's chestnut hair, chewing gum.
No, I do not know, Dina confesses.
Melisa is from Mostar, one of the oldest cities in Bosnia. Every time Dina comes into the salon and sees her, she thinks of a bridge crumbling down. Each brick slowly detaching itself and splashing into the water below. Melisa came to America slightly after the war started, and she has this certain unevenness about her legs. She hobbles more than she walks. Despite this handicap, Melisa has a bright face, a rather golden hue.
Amir is a drug user, she tells Dina, almost with glee.
Yes, heroin. It is deadly stuff.
Are you sure, Melisa?
Positive. You should talk to him. It kills people.
It is quite typical: Bosnian women in America love to gossip. Especially Melisa. Since Dina has been coming into her salon, she has heard about many scandals in the Bosnian community through this woman. More often than not, the rumors are true.
Dina sits back and thinks about all the times Amir went missing without calling. It would explain the listlessness, the sexless nights. She's never met any of his friends. He never has money. He is never interested in anything she says.
Melisa finally finishes Dina's hair, which doesn't look as good as she had hoped. Dina wanted something that would make her appear girlish. She wanted her face to be small and round. Instead she looks like her mother. Old-fashioned.
At the register, Dina pulls out money and gives Melisa a good tip, even though she feels that it is quite unnecessary with the bad hairstyle and ruined relationship.
Don't worry. Melisa places her hand on Dina's shoulder. There are plenty of mice in the sea.
On their next date, as Amir rolls up his sleeves to wash his hands before dinner, Dina notices the pinholes in his arm. His fingertips are burned. There are patches of hardened skin on his palm. Some of the skin is peeling away like old paint.
What are those holes in your arm?
Those holes. What did you do to yourself?
They look like needle marks.
Are you sure?
What are you accusing me of?
Nothing. I just wanted to know.
Amir huffs and begins to thrash his hands in the sink, scrubbing the dishes hard. Dina stares out the window. It is winter. It is dark outside.
Never mind what they are. It is none of your business.
After he cleans the coffee pot, Amir becomes reflective and confesses, It is true, Dina. I use drugs.
It is the first time Amir has addressed her so frankly.
Why? Dina asks, though she begins to detach herself. She doesn't want to know. She doesn't have it in her to care.
I have not yet been able to cope with my father's death. He stands at the sink with the suds dripping from his fingers and says, I still have much pain in me.
Amir continues to scrub his hands like a surgeon, using a horse brush to clean his blackened fingertips. For the first time, Dina doesn't know what to do. Even when her city was taken over, she had the urge to flee, to escape. When she had nothing in Croatia, no food, no clothing, no shelter, she knew where she had to go, knew what she had to do.
Dina doesn't have that urge now. She has no instinct. It's dead like the many men in her country.
I can't quit now, Amir finally says over his shoulder, his words lax like damp leaves. If you don't like it, you can go.
But Dina cannot go. She cannot move. It is that simple. She stays for dinner instead. Suddenly, she is hungry, ravenous.
The table is set. The glasses are filled with wine. The food is on the table. Amir picks at it and cradles his stomach, occasionally lifting mashed potatoes to his mouth.
I am not hungry because I am a junkie. He snorts through his nose like it is a joke.
Dina says nothing and cleans her plate. Afterward, the two have coffee and watch television, methodically. When Dina grabs her coat to leave, she says goodbye, lightly, the words almost imperceptive. She vows never to call Amir again.
Amir, in turn, never calls Dina.
Weeks later, a package arrives from Croatia. It is from Dina's mother. Inside are the photographs she'd managed to take before fleeing their home in Banja Luka.
Dina remembers her mother scrambling through the apartment, throwing open drawers, dragging out the albums, being as selective as she could, stuffing the photos into her purse and pants as Dina's father hurried everyone along.
We must go, we must go, she kept saying to herself. Still, her mother was the one lagging behind, clinging to their life. Dina and Sanela were already at the door, waiting, the army jeep spitting out exhaust.
On the backs of the photos—about a dozen in all, most of them from an instant camera Dina's father had bought in Germany—are little inscriptions; the date, the time of year, where the photo was taken, who was in the photo.
Dina notices, through her tears, as she and Sanela thumb through the images, that a few even have comments written by her mother:
July, 1983, Banja Luka, Sanela riding in a wagon. She never left that wagon. Moja sreĆa!
September, 1979, Jajce, Mom with a nice new hat.
January, 1989, Dina and Sanela sledding down the hill in Banja Luka. They both fell off at the bottom!
October, 1964, Tucepi , Mom and Dad, shortly after getting married. Look at how pretty we are.
Summer, 1981, Banja Luka, Dina and Sanlea out in the yard with sun hats on their heads. They look like two little mushrooms!
Dina fingers the photos. Runs her finger over that persistent cowlick in the pictures. Sees her father outside the apartment. Feels his hand on her shoulder like a wet towel.
In the letter attached, Dina's mother writes that she hasn't yet heard from their father, nor the man in Belgrade. There've been no letters. No phone calls. In fact, she's been unable to reach anyone at all. And she fears the worst has happened.
At the end of the letter, she says she is finally out of the hospital. She is ready to make the trip to America.
The girl at the airline counter is wearing a maroon uniform. Dina thinks the uniform is too tight, ill fitting. She imagines the roughness around the collar area, the stiff polyester material scraping the delicate skin of the girl's neck. Also, there is a little gold cross on her necklace. The cold pendant is dangling in the nook of her windpipe. Dina watches Jesus vibrate with each terrible word.
"Your mother had complications during the flight from Frankfurt," the girl says.
"What kind of complications?"
"She suffered a mild stroke." She points to the medics at the mouth of the runway. "She's O.K., but we've called an ambulance just in case."
Dina and Sanela look at the medics who are waiting for their mother in front of the terminal. The stretcher is ready, but the two men are certainly bored.
"What can we do?" Sanela asks.
"I'm afraid there's nothing you can do," the lady replies.
Dina puts her arm around her sister. With passengers waiting for their next flight, their next destination, Dina hides her emotion, suppresses the screams inside her head.
Why does this happen? Sanela asks. Why?
Dina shrugs and watches the medics.
One of the men is slumped against the wall, calm, collected. The other is tall and lanky, dark, attractive. Dina makes eye contact with the dark one. He smiles and nods apologetically. She senses his pity.
When her mother emerges from the tunnel in a wheelchair, Dina braces herself against her sister. She is excited. She is scared. She feels a deep sting in her bladder.
Her mother's face has changed. The left side is sloping and soft. Her breathing is labored and she is wearing a clear oxygen mask, condensation growing on the inside. Her eyes are swollen. They are red, irritated slits. Like she's been crying for hours.
This isn't what Dina and her sister expected. They'd cleaned the apartment. They'd made Welcome banners and greeting cards and bought gifts. They'd made cake and pita and bought lepina and were going to fry up fresh Ćevapi. Dina now thinks of all that food going to waste. Pulling down those poorly constructed banners. The glitter from the homemade cards gleaming in the shag carpet for weeks afterward.
Finally at her side, Dina and her sister hug their mother lightly. They do not want to create a disturbance. They do not want to panic. But Dina can smell the sterilized blanket draped over her mother. Cotton that's been washed a million times. It makes her ill.
With an incoherent grumble, her mother holds up her hand as if to say, Easy girls. I'll be fine. She then falls unconscious.
At the hospital, it's impossible to find out how Dina's mother is doing exactly. No one updates the girls. No one explains like the doctors on television. No one is compassionate. No one tells them the situation is under control and will be O.K. The two girls wait on a couch that smells of pain, disaster.
Later, as Dina stares at a vending machine that spits out coffee, a doctor finally arrives. He is an Asian man, small, delicate. He introduces himself as Dr. Kim and sits down.
"Your mother is fine and in stable condition. Just a small stroke brought on by stress." The doctor scribbles in his notebook.
As soon as he sits, he stands.
"Off to see another patient, I'm afraid. The nurse will take you to see her now. We'll talk in a few hours." He trails off down the hallway, blending in with a mess of white coats, blue and purple scrubs.
At her bedside, Dina's mother is barely audible. Her eyes are thin slits, moist. She mumbles in Bosnian.
They are taking my heart. There is no feeling. Where is my heart? Why did they take my heart?
"Without a translator, we couldn't understand her," the nurse says, patting her mother on the hand, the tubes running up into her arm. There are purple welts in the pit of her arm. They had trouble finding the vein.
Mama, we are here now.
Where is 'here'?
We are in the hospital.
Another hospital? Are we in Croatia?
"She might be a little disoriented for the next few days." The nurse takes her leave.
"Thank you." But Dina doesn't know why she should be thanking anybody.
She looks back at her mother. Since she's left Banja Luka, Dina has never felt so lonely. It's a sudden rush of vacancy, the wind swept out from her stomach. Next to her, Sanela begins to cry and retreats to the corner of the room.
Don't worry, mother. You will be fine, Dina assures her.
Her mother closes her eyes and sleeps, her face twitching, eyeballs roving underneath the eyelids. She turns to her side, the plastic tubing following her every move. The girls wait. The anticipation is almost unbearable.
On her way to work, while her mother recuperates in their small apartment on Broadway, Dina sits next to an elderly woman waiting at the bus stop. She's probably from the retirement home, Dina thinks. Usually, at this particular time in the morning, there is no one at the bench. It is too early.
All around Chicago, the season is changing from spring to summer. The smell of cement and broken earth is opening up the senses. There is still a crisp sensation in the morning, but it feels good because warmth is soon on its way in the afternoon.
Down the block, a street sweeper approaches. The old woman turns, first to the awful noise from the street sweeper, then to Dina. The two ladies nod at each other, politely, exchange pleasantries without saying a word. This is how Chicago works. It is a world without words. Not inanimate. Not dead. Just without words.
Dina knows that if you break this code, you will sometimes be treated like an outcast. But, as the din of the street sweeper fades and the birds continue chirping, she turns to the old lady and sees comfort in her face. Her face is like a nest of warmth for eggs to huddle together, and she says, "It is beautiful day."
Not even startled, like the other times Dina has tried to initiate conversation between her and strangers, the old lady nods her head warmly, her thin charcoal hat tipping toward the ground, the little sprig of flowers tucked safely in its crease.
"Indeed it is, sweetheart."
The two sit and say nothing. Traffic is nonexistent. There is a quiet, comfortable calm that exists between them. Dina feels like she has found someone she can finally talk to, though she doesn't say a word. This continues: every few minutes, they turn to each other and smile, warmly, without strings.
The bus finally arrives in front of the two ladies. Dina stands up, slinging her bag over her shoulder.
Dina is confused. She readies her money and says, "You are not getting on?"
"You have nowhere to go?"
"Not exactly. I'm just sitting. I like it here."
The bus door flops open like a silver tongue.
"O.K., have good day." Dina is slightly embarrassed at her misspoken phrase.
"You, too." The lady wrinkles her nose.
Dina steps up, pays the fee and sits down on the bus seat. She sets her bag next to her in the empty spot and looks out to see the lady still sitting there, smiling, though she is no longer smiling at Dina, particularly. The lady is content. The lady reminds Dina of somebody she once knew.
The next day, getting ready for work, Dina peers out the front window and onto Broadway. At the bus stop, she sees the same lady from yesterday.
Ciao mama, Dina says at the door, her mother on the couch resting, looking healthy and safe, Prijatno.
Hvala, Dina. Prijatno, her mother says.
Outside, the spring sun rests on the sidewalk, the buildings, covering everything like a yellow blanket. Dina rushes over to the bus stop. She is eager to see her new friend.
"Hello," Dina says.
Dina isn't sure the lady recognizes her. Perhaps she calls everyone 'dear.'
The old lady scoots over to make sure Dina has enough room. It is one of the nicest things that has happened to her here in Chicago. Again, the two wait for the bus in silence, occasionally nodding at each other, politely.
When the bus comes, Dina again is the only one to get on.
"Have a good day," Dina says, proud that she's got the salutation right this time.
"I'm sure I will, dear," the old lady replies.
It already feels like a comfortable routine.
Dina wonders who she is exactly. She is probably someone's mother or grandmother, certainly. She is probably just out getting some air, time away from the retiree home. Why isn't anyone taking care of her? What is she waiting for?
For the next few weeks, it is the same thing every day.
Sometimes there are more words exchanged between the two, but it is usually simple idle talk. Dina does not know her name. She does not know where she is from. The old lady appears to be waiting for no particular reason, and she is always gone by the time Dina gets home late at night.
Dina is satisfied with this relationship. It is much less daunting than her life at home, more pleasurable. At home, there is tension. Although her mother continues to get strong, she constantly paces the house worrying about Dina's father.
Where could he be? Where could he be? she says, wringing her hands, her heart palpitating, the aortic walls growing thin.
Mama, you need to sit down and rest.
Nonsense. I need to know where your father is!
But you can't keep pacing and worrying like this.
I have no choice, Dina. I have no choice.
According to cousins, the apartment in Banja Luka is deserted now, empty. There is nothing but rats and dogs and young, parentless children in the building. It is dangerous to even go near its vicinity.
Furthermore, there is no sign of Dina's father, no word on his departure. The man in Belgrade has disappeared, too. Dina's mother calls her cousins in Croatia every day and she is always greeted with the same news.
We do not know where Kasim is. We have not seen him for weeks. We are sorry.
The cousins have now stopped answering the phone.
One morning, right after a heated argument with her mother, as she stomps toward the bus stop, Dina sees that the old lady is not there.
Dina sits at the bench, alone, wondering where the old lady could be. She's scared, her stomach tensing with nausea. She looks up and down the street. Nothing. Niste. There is a long sidewalk that careens into oblivion. That's it. A settling fog shadows the spring sun. It is humid, almost wet.
With everything going wrong, Dina doubts whether she can even face the day. She doubts whether or not she can get through her work without breaking down and crying, weeping for the old lady's return, an old lady whom she doesn't even know.
The bus finally arrives. Again, Dina checks the area, frantically scans the retiree home across the street, looks at the little mini mart on the corner. She sees nothing. No trace. The lady is just gone. And there's nothing she can really do.
Sitting in her favorite seat, Dina dreads coming home later that night. She cannot face another night in this city. She isn't sure where the strength will come from, to face her mother, who has all but given up on her father's whereabouts.
It's hard enough for Dina to come home and watch her mother pace about the room these days, worrying herself to death, calling everybody she knows. Usually, there's a glow of warmth in Dina's stomach, an extension from her mother's unfailing hope that her father is indeed still alive, making his journey over. They all felt he was still alive.
That glow is now gone. That hope is dashed.
Dina cleans her homes, then later the offices. She takes her time, which she normally doesn't do. She's even late to her last job of the night. She cleans deliberately, stubbornly slow. She doesn't want to leave. She doesn't want to smell that apartment on Broadway.
On the bus ride home, Dina thinks about staying out all night, wandering the streets of Chicago. As the bus turns the corner, she can see the retiree home down the street. It's a large and bulky building, awkward. She feels like riding past it all, traveling further away from her problems, her family.
Getting off the bus, Dina has the notion to scour the earth for the old lady. Leave no stone unturned. She's determined, and she starts to walk up the street, away from her own apartment building and toward the retiree home. Marching with purpose.
Halfway there, Dina stops. The weight is unbearable. She cannot carry it anymore, and she turns around. She is tired. She doesn't have the energy to look for the old lady. It would be impossible to find her. The city is too big.
At the top of the stairs, as Dina readies her key, she hears voices from inside her apartment. Guests, she sighs. Guests are the last thing she needs. She yearns for a warm meal, the nook of her comfortable bed, perhaps a magazine to read. Something, anything to stop reminding her that she is in this country, that she has no father in Chicago.
Dina opens the door and sets down her things. The world is on top of her. She is bending. She will break. At the base of the closet, Dina notices a battered suitcase she doesn't quite recognize. It has international stickers stuck to it. Some are peeling and faded. It's been all over the world. Slovakia. Germany. Amsterdam.
From the kitchen, there is the smell of cigarette smoke, fresh coffee, pastries. Dina can hear drinking glasses tinkle, voices suddenly shushed. Dina is surprised, pissed. How could her mother invite someone over at such a time? It is too late for this nonsense, and for a small moment, Dina falls asleep, her legs buckling, her stomach fleeting.
Instead of greeting the guests in the kitchen, as she would normally do, Dina continues down the hallway to her room. Creeping, blending in with the walls. She doesn't even look in the kitchen, as she hopes to go unnoticed.
Dina stops mid-stride, her weight suddenly becoming two-fold.
Come into the kitchen and see who is here.
Her heart crushed, Dina turns her heel and walks back down the hallway. All she wants is a few minutes to ready herself for the company, to enjoy a quiet moment alone in her room before entertaining whomever is at the kitchen table.
She approaches the kitchen doorway and looks inside, dreading the face, dreading the small talk. Under the bright yellow lamp of the kitchen, almost hidden beneath an umbrella of shyness, is her father. He is sitting at the table with a glass of wine curled up in his knotted right hand. He is surrounded by Dina's sister and her mother and a few Bosnian neighbors from down the street. It is him.
Their eyes connect. Ćupco. Her father says the word as if he's said it a million times in his head, his voice curdling, his brown eyes glassy and big as saucers.
Is that really you, my Ćupco?
My God! Tata?
He can barely speak.
Dina rushes over and hugs her father, squeezes him like a stuffed animal. In her haste, she knocks over a glass, the remnants of someone's juice pouring off the kitchen table and onto the linoleum floor and staining a placemat. A stain which will live in that placemat, in Chicago, for many years to come, until the family buys replacements for their newly-bought home on the outskirts of the city.
Dina! Be careful! her mother says, leaping up to get a rag.
The neighbors laugh. They are happy. They cheer. They put their drinks in the air as the two hug for a long, long time. They toast each other. They drink to good health.
It is so good to have you home, Dina says.
It is good to finally be here, her father says. He then gathers himself, addresses the kitchen and drowns his next few words in seriousness. But this… His head swivels on his shoulder. This is not my home.
Dina pulls away and the old man falls silent. He is skinny and emotional and tired. He is embarrassed because he cannot stop from crying. He is a man, but he is a different man now. Dina hugs him more and more. She cannot get enough.
Let him breathe! her mother says.
Yes! Let the man breathe and let him drink! the neighbors say. He is finally here in America!
Dina looks into her father's face and she sees that nest of warmth, that place of refuge she's been seeking. Tata, look at how skinny you are! Have you eaten?
The old man looks glumly about the room, taps his slim tummy. He then breaks into a weary smile. Nothing but scrambled eggs, sreĆa. And I am very tired of scrambled eggs.
Everyone laughs as Dina starts to prepare her father a home-cooked meal. Some potatoes and beef. Perhaps some soup. Her father always like soup before a meal.
After seeing the neighbors to the door, Dina and her father linger in the small foyer. Her sister and mother retreat to the kitchen. The dishes clank and the silverware rattles. So exhausted and weary, the old man doesn't even notice the picture frames Dina has hung on the wall opposite the front door. The ones her mother escaped with and sent.
These pictures are the only possessions they have left from Bosnia.
She notices her father's body is sludgy and uncooperative. His mind restless. The night is late. In this awkward silence, they avoid looking at one another. Dina doesn't ask how he survived. She doesn't ask about the sleepless nights and hungry days. The empty phone calls. The snipers. The bullets. The land mines. She doesn't need to know.
She doesn't want to know.
She simply touches her father's hand and nods to the picture frames.
I put these photos here, she says and smiles, to remind ourselves.
Swallowing hard, her father inspects the collage. He then clamps his hand to his trembling mouth. His eyes are moist as he inspects each one carefully and then finally stares at the bottom picture. He focuses hard on the prominent cowlick in Dina's hair.
Messy and beautiful and resilient.
Ćupco, he says quietly and smiles.
It will be with us when we leave and with us when we get back. It will always be with us.
Dina squeezes his hand and hopes her father can learn to understand. Just as she did. She knows it will take time. She knows there'll be moments of frustration. Learning the ways and a language that is not their own.
The old man looks deep into Dina's eyes.
Tomorrow there is a film we should see.
I'm not sure I'm up to a movie, sweetheart.
You will like it. It is a musical called My Fair Lady. With Audrey Hepburn.
Her father hangs his head and makes a sound as if his lung has been punctured. He stops then takes slow, deep, controlled breaths. Dina isn't sure what this means exactly. But she hugs her father. She hugs him hard and long.
She then tells her father to unpack his suitcase and get some rest.
Title graphic: "Unlocked" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2009.