In front of the row of townhouses, there was a deflated kiddie pool filled with green water, leaves, twigs, and cigarette butts. The ground slowly ate it. Nobody remembered who put the kiddie pool there and nobody planned on moving it. A kid must have splashed around in it at some point in time.
Iva Todorov sat on the concrete steps of her townhouse, spooning mayonnaise from a jar. The white paint on the metal railing was peeling, leaving rusty freckles everywhere. The wind outside made her long black curly hair fly wildly. A yellow leaf got caught in her hair but she didn’t pull it out. This was her first Canadian winter and her husband had bought six jars of mayonnaise in bulk. Since it was 1999, he worried that the apocalypse was coming on January 1st. Although it was surely a running joke, they’d hoarded enough canned beans in the basement to last them a decade. And mayonnaise, because mayonnaise is what you need when the sky swallows the earth. Iva was very pregnant. The baby was going to be named George. Little George kicked in Iva’s swollen stomach as she watched the leaves dance around the kiddie pool. There seemed to be a dead bird floating in it, but she was slightly myopic. It could’ve also been a very realistic toy bird—pigeon in proportions—bobbing up and down like a drunkard bobs to a sick beat. Iva quickly abandoned her squinting.
Inside the house, Milan Todorov knelt beside the VCR, prodding it resignedly, his mind on other things. He’d promised to fix the VCR because Iva wanted to watch the movie she’d rented from the library before the return date. He didn’t watch movies. Milan was a writer. He kept an old copy of Crime and Punishment on his bedside table. It was filled with annotations and exclamation marks from his university days. With time, the cover had accumulated a modest layer of dust. He used the book to balance his bedside table, which wobbled not so seductively every time he reached for the lamp. For a while now, Milan couldn’t see himself. That’s the only way he could describe it. When he looked at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, it was like he wasn’t there. Tile walls would stare back at him. Sometimes they would hum. It hadn’t always been like that. The VCR spat out the cassette. Milan got up and went outside to join Iva on the front steps with a cigarette.
“Stop eating the mayonnaise. You’ll get sick again,” he said.
“Did you fix the VCR?”
“No, I couldn’t. I think it’s pretty damaged.”
“Look at all the leaves… they’re so beautiful.” Iva pointed. In that moment, she was the girl he’d fallen in love with in 1989. Milan rested his hand on her head and watched the leaves. He should’ve probably written that moment down, but his notebook was lost somewhere. He lit his cigarette. Iva shook her head. He took a long drag.
“You shouldn’t smoke anymore, with George coming.”
“Iva, I can’t right now. I have to finish my book first.”
“Your book! What book? The one where you sit around staring at paper but never actually write anything?”
“It’s one of my only remaining rewards in life, Iva. I don’t even smoke inside anymore. Isn’t that enough?”
“It’s a filthy habit.” Iva took the yellow leaf out of her hair and closed the jar of mayonnaise tightly.
“I’m going inside,” she said. Milan nodded, averting her eyes. Recently, her round pretty face had morphed into a porous pancake.
“I’m going to go see if I can fix the VCR,” she said. “Stop throwing your cigarettes in the front lawn. We’re not trash.”
That night, Milan got drunk. It was his day off and he needed to clear his mind. He couldn’t write unless he cleared his mind. Iva couldn’t fix the VCR so she’d have to return the movie to the library without watching it. Now they’d have to get a new VCR and those were expensive. Iva lay on the couch with cramps. It was probably the mayonnaise… or maybe it was that bean stew she’d reheated in the microwave for the third night in a row. Milan paced in front of her.
“I hate his fucking guts,” he muttered.
“That old cripple that lives next door.”
“Oh, just leave him alone already.”
“You know, he fucking accused us of stealing his jobs? Can you imagine? That fucking cripple thinks we stole his jobs… can’t even walk.”
“You’re drunk, Milan. Go to bed.”
“No, no. I won’t let this one go. I’m tired of letting things go. I’m no pacifist. I’m a fighter. I’m going to go over there, right now, and beat the shit out of him.”
“No you won’t.”
“Iva, why do you say that? You’ve always thought I was a coward. A lazy, stupid coward. Even back when we were—”
“Milan, go to bed. I’m not going to fight with you. Leave the old man alone.”
“No. No, I can’t. I’m not a coward. I’m going to ring that doorbell. I’m going to ring that doorbell and beat the shit out of him.” Slowly, holding her stomach, Iva got up from the couch.
“Goodnight,” she said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“You’ll see, Iva. I’m not a coward!”
Iva climbed up the stairs, her body aching. When she reached the bedroom, she heard Milan crash into the dining table. And then the thud. She fell asleep relieved.
A few hours later, Iva was abruptly awoken by a sharp lower abdominal pain. Calmly, she put her hair up in a bun, smoothing down the stray curls. She picked up the little leather suitcase that stood solemnly beside the bed. That was the suitcase she’d landed in Canada with. She stopped in the bathroom to look at herself quickly. In the mirror, there was an unknown moon face blinking back at her. But there was no time to think about moons. Softly, she came down the stairs. The muted TV filled the living room with an eerie white light, like one from a miniature UFO. Milan was lying beside the dining table, snoring. That sour tart smell filled the room. Iva picked up the phone and called a cab. She waited outside on the front steps.
The cab smelled of curry. The kiddie pool got smaller as the car moved down the dark street. Soon, Iva would be bound by another human being. And that being, little George—with his black eyes, curly hair, and round head—would one day ask her about “them”. She closed her eyes. What story would she tell him? Surely not the one about the day of his birth. She’d tell him about the muggy summer day in 1989 when she and Milan hiked up Vitosha with nothing but two backpacks and a picnic basket. They wanted to get to Cherni Vrah, the highest peak of the mountain. Shortly after dawn, they set off with only black coffee churning in their stomachs. For hours, the towering Balkan pine trees and sweet birches sheltered their young and sweating backs. In the picnic basket, they carried bread, cheese, and two flasks—one filled with water, the other with red wine. Milan spoke a lot on that hike. He spoke about the endurance of the human body, selling your soul, and free-market capitalism. Iva listened a lot. When they emerged from the shade of the forest trail, the sun baked their naked shoulders. Both were golden by the afternoon. At the summit, they smoked and looked down at their red-roofed city. Her heart swelled. How small Sofia was… Milan picked a purple orchid and tucked it behind Iva’s ear. Then, he got up and announced that he needed to piss. She watched him walk away and trip going down a rocky mound. He receded. For a while there was only the singing birds. When he came back, his hands cupped a dozen small raspberries.
“Look what I found,” he said, “these are the best raspberries in the world.”
He shoved one playfully against her closed lips. The juice trickled down her chin. They saw each other in that moment: malleable, strong, and alive. Later that day, they took out the picnic blanket and fell asleep. They only woke up when the mosquitoes started humming in their ears.
For a brief second, Iva smiled at the back of the curry cab, her vision blurring. And then she winced.