When I was finally allowed to leave home on my own, my sister accompanied me on the train from Moscow. For the first leg, anyway. In the morning, she would get off and I would go on to Croatia, alone. We knew the instructions well. No sooner were we inside the sleeper cabin than my sister set to blocking the air vent with clothes and duct tape. It was 1998, and, along with the first popular elections and counterfeit jeans, the Russian Wild Nineties had brought rumors of enterprising thieves who pumped sleeping gas through trains’ ventilation systems, and then went through the cars relieving unconscious passengers of their valuables. Local friends had cautioned us to keep our passports on our persons at all times. But at sixteen, I was short, shy, self-conscious, and prone to vivid imaginations. The prospect of strangers running their hands over my body—unconscious or not—seemed far worse than that of losing my passport, so I left mine in my bag on the seat as a decoy.
It wasn’t my first time moving to a new country. The sixteen years of my life so far had been lived between four continents, eleven countries, and even more cities. But it was my first time splitting away from my family, my first time going off on my own. And so, as I reminded myself again, with a visceral vault of terror and delight, it was my first time away from home.
It didn’t hit me until the train whistled us awake in Austria, at which point my sister kissed my cheek and disembarked. Then, I felt even smaller. I latched the door and curled into the lower bunk, holding my bladder so I wouldn’t have to venture out, my heart chugging time with the engine.
On the connecting train from Zagreb, a persistent porter pointed at my suitcase and wanted money. I had none, so I fixed my gaze straight ahead and pretended not to understand. In the seat across, a woman with stiff, bleached hair looked over the rim of her National Geographic magazine. The woman said nothing until she passed me on her way off the train. Then she pressed a twenty-Deutsche Mark bill into my hand and said, Good luck.
Mr. Alfson came alone to collect me from the train station. He was a tall forty-something with patchy pink skin, dad jeans, and puffy pale sacks under his eyes. I remembered him as having more hair. Now, five years later, only a few wispy strands remained, swaying along with the general breeze.
Back when I knew him in Denmark, Mr. Alfson was just another adult. Back then, there were about a hundred people living together inside a sprawling, many-roomed building that had formerly served as an institution of some sort. Adults joked with us kids sometimes, but mostly they just walked around with stern faces talking about God’s will and telling us what we could and could not do.
My family had branched off since then, God’s will directing us into a series of other homes around the world. By the time we received the Alfsons’ newsletter, we’d been living in a communist-era apartment in Russia for more than a year. My life back then felt like the apartment’s central heating system—operated completely outside of my control. Inside our apartment, the temperature swung capriciously between holy-hell stifling and teeth-clattering cold. During the cold swings, with nothing else to do, my sister and I put on long johns and scarves and sat by the frosted kitchen window, playing tic-tac-toe on the frozen glass.
Like my family, the Alfsons had also branched off since Denmark. But unlike my family, the Alfsons were now running a legitimate, tax-deductible, humanitarian operation in the Balkans. Just the two of them, their daughter Angelica, and four other teenagers—my age. When the Alfsons’ newsletter arrived inside our gridded metal mailbox, featuring full color photospreads of young people my age smiling in the sun, I took it as a personal invitation.
Outside the train station, with the sun glinting off the few cars in the parking lot, Mr. Alfson put my suitcase in the back of a rusty cargo van. The van, he told me, stepping into the driver’s seat, had been donated by a church. His team used it to deliver aid to remote villages and refugee camps. The engine started after a couple tries. As he drove, Mr. Alfson gave me a brief rundown of the local situation, as he called it. Croatia in 1998 was only about two years out of war. Since declaring its independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991 until the fall of 1995, the independent nation of Croatia’s early years had been marked by fighting and violence. Motorway signs still bore the formatting shared by most former Yugoslav states.
Keeping his eyes on the road, Mr. Alfson asked about my family and about the train ride. I told him about the nice American lady and showed him the twenty-deutsche mark bill. Mr. Alfson reached over to take the bill, eyes shifting between it and the road ahead. He turned it over, rubbed his thumb over the watermark. The deutsche mark is even a bit more than the dollar these days, he said, pocketing the bill.
As the traffic thinned, the van sputtered less, began to move faster. Mr. Alfson’s questions grew longer intervals between them. Then, as the highway forked and tapered into switchback, they stopped. We took a blind curve and then came out into a sight that made my heart surge. There, in front-row-view before me, splayed out like a centerfold, was the Adriatic Sea, spreading far into the horizon. Turquoise water lapped at the base of the cliffside, which curved and dropped, exposing layers of sediment, and was dusted with grass. Earth, sea, and sky seemed all stacked up like a tiramisu that you could eat and eat but it would still go on forever. Mr. Alfson cranked the window down. Sweet, salty air rushed in. He rested his elbow out the window, leaned against the headrest, exhaled. All the fine hairs on his arm and even the few on his head craned out toward the sun-speckled sea.
The house in Dubrovnik had wildflowers in the driveway, wildflowers on the front lawn. Wildflowers linked together to dance up and around the tall date palms. Honeybees and butterflies made small pirouettes around the petals, which sprung all shades of purple and gold from the red tile roof and from cracks in the white stucco walls.
Mr. Alfson’s daughter Angelica was there to greet me, along with the other youths. Angelica was my age, or, as she used to say back in Denmark, younger by two weeks. She still had baby-smooth skin and chubby cheeks, but otherwise, she was all grown up—all legs and hips and glossy pout. The other girls were equally beautiful, and equally made up, but with different shades of lipstick, different colors of hair. Standing together like that, they reminded me of a row of popsicles at a vendor’s stand. Or, because there were posters of them everywhere, the Spice Girls. Angelica introduced them one by one—Lara, Ruby, Marie. And Aaron, the only boy. They nodded. I held my bulky gray suitcase in front of me.
The inside of the Alfsons’ house felt dimly familiar. The furnishings were sparse, in the manner of occupants who were more concerned with the hereafter than the here and now. Framed in the living room was the same blond, long-haired Jesus that had hung inside the building in Denmark and which also adorned a wall in my family’s Volgograd apartment, a soft, sad grin on his face, one beckoning palm out.
I had known of the Balkan Wars when I sent the letter asking the Alfsons if I could join their humanitarian operation, but it had been less a concern than a background feature in what I saw as my new, exciting life. Even my mother hadn’t seemed too concerned by the recent fighting when she agreed to let me go. War, like life itself, was just another one of those earthly things that operated according to a higher plan.
Mr. Alfson tried to explain the war, but it was clear that even he didn’t fully understand it. Something about old rivalries, three primary clashing religions, bad blood. Borders drawn and shifted behind closed doors. Old seeds of hatred that lay dormant until the climate was just so. Some locals still flinched when jets cut through the sky; elderly neighbors dropped their potted plants and ducked inside. There were still unexploded landmines left over from the fighting. Less so here in the tourist city of Dubrovnik, but nevertheless. As a general rule, he said, don’t step off the path.
Back when I knew the Alfsons before, in the big house in Denmark, Don’t step off the path was something the adults said often. The path, of course, was the path to heaven, and you stayed on it by believing and obeying and leading others to the path. There were many worldly things that would try to lure you off the path, including outside books, music, movies, cigarettes, alcohol, and traditional jobs. Even worse than a landmine, which could only harm your physical body on this Earth, the risks for stepping off the path to heaven could damn you for eternity.
Even though the Alfsons had branched off since then and were now running a legitimate, tax-deductible humanitarian operation, even though they wanted to help ease the suffering of people on this Earth, even though landmines were real and they meant it literally when they said don’t step off the path, Mrs. Alfson saw to it that there were religious fliers inside every aid package.
I remembered Mrs. Alfson from the old days, because she was from Finland and pronounced vacuum as “vacc-a-uum,” which delighted us kids to no end back then. It was the only time that me and the other kids were on the same team, with Mrs. Alfson, an adult, at the disadvantage. So, I often strived to work the kids into chanting, Say “vacuum,” or, when Mrs. Alfson tired of that, we’d get creative: This broom doesn’t work on the carpet. What should I use instead?
Mrs. Alfson still had a deep, nervous laugh that came out oh-ho-ho, especially when she was meeting someone new. She still said “vacc-a-uum.” But now I noticed that she never seemed to use a vacuum, or do much of anything, really. She had a way of brandishing headaches to get out of daily cleaning duties in the three-bedroom house we all shared. But when we handed out aid packages, or posed with religious literature, or when we got an audience of schoolchildren to bow their heads in prayer, she was there with her camera. The other girls told me it was she who kept our little aid operation running, she who had the contacts, she who put together the newsletters that kept the church and corporate donors sending the money and the van and then filling the van with supplies. And yet, when the sun was low in the sky, and we all piled into the cargo van headed for the touristy part of the old town, Mrs. Alfson predictably stayed home with a headache.
Two years out from the war, tourism, the lifeblood of the city, was back on the rise. Travel brochures invited visitors to Plan a Holiday in Dubrovnik; they juxtaposed glossy prints of the ancient city with photos of young, thong-clad women splashing in the blue-diamond sea.
As the afternoon turned to twilight, the five of us girls traded our daytime outfits for matching rhinestone dresses and practiced our evening set. Tourists also paid a big chunk of our rent.
Mr. Alfson always drove the van, holding the steering wheel with one hand and rubbing his eyes with the other. In the absence of Mrs. Alfson, Aaron, the only boy, predictably took the co-pilot seat. Behind, in the cargo seat, the five of us girls sat thigh to thigh in our twinkling dresses and strappy, three-inch heels. Since there was no room to hold the guitar horizontally, we practiced our set a cappella, Angelica tapping out the intro on the case.
Our voices trembled into vibrato as the van’s wheels went over pebbles and rocks fallen from the cliffs above. A sudden dip into a pothole would send our tenuous harmonies into a jumble. A voluptuous curve in the road sent us leaning into each other, giggling. Then the road turned smooth and the medieval walls of the old city appeared, jutting forth from the sapphire sea. With the sun setting fire over the horizon and streaks of pink and red slashing across the sky, it didn’t matter which part we were singing or what Mr. Alfson was saying up front. All of our voices would catch in our throats, and the van—for just a moment—would go hushed.
As the evening matured into night, we sang in the old city, our dresses twinkling in the thickening dark. We sang on restaurant patios where white tablecloths were held down by bottles of red wine. We lined up in our matching dresses and different-colored hair and sang against the din of lovers’ laughter, the clinking of wine glasses, the tinkling of silverware dropped against the cobblestones. We sang in formation, cocking out hips now and then to allow slick-haired waiters to pass through. Busboys followed behind, holding trays that trailed ribbons of steam through the air and stirred my stomach into a yearning hum.
Because the tourists responded best to songs they knew, our set was mostly composed of popular songs. We pulled the songs right off of MTV (often while hearing them for the first time), fumbled them into guitar chords, transcribed lyrics and memorized them from the subtitles.
On MTV, while we waited for the Top 20 Video Countdown to return from commercial break, pens poised to transcribe, crowds of girls danced and jumped around on a beach as a camera lens panned over them all. When the camera paused on one or two of the girls, they shrieked like they’d won the lottery and lifted their shirts. On the screen, their tits were redacted by a blocky graphic, but an enthusiastic male voice said, Girls Gone Wild! See it all on VHS.
Even though our voices couldn’t quite scale the bridge of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” the tourists went dreamy-eyed, and when we passed the hat after the set, it came back more paper than coin. The tourists were mostly wine-tipsy or in love, anyhow.
The NATO soldiers were even easier. All we had to do was line up in our showgirl minidresses and they would start hooting and whistling and calling for encores. We sang a song by a group called Savage Garden, alternating the lead, each girl taking over from the last so that one would be your dream, your wish, your fantasy and the next would be your hope, your love, be everything that you need.
“Zombie” was the most difficult, technically. We couldn’t break our voices the way The Cranberries did, and the way we sang it, it sounded kind of like a church hymn. But the NATO soldiers loved the song, and we usually sang it toward the end of the set, when they were all pounding on the table with their beer steins. Properly sloshed by then, they would put their arms around each other’s shoulders and sway along.
With their tanks and their bombs
And their bombs and their guns
In your head, in your head, they are crying
The NATO soldiers used both hands to shovel kroner bills and phone numbers into our hat. With sexy British/Spanish/French/Dutch/American accents, they invited us to parties.
We had just barely learned the lyrics to these songs, much less considered their significance, the implications.
There, with the smell of the ocean and fish grilling in the balmy air, with our long hair tickling our backs and our heels going click click over the cobblestone, with phone numbers pressed into our sweaty palms and a bright moon bulging over the city walls, neither death nor religion was on our minds.
Because the hats came back less full when he was around, Mr. Alfson made himself scarce during our performances. He dropped us off with the sunset, returning to pick us up when the moon was high. He stayed quiet on the drive home, but we could see his head angle toward us when we whispered and giggled in the back. Then, as we scrubbed the concealer from our faces and changed into loose nightshirts, he’d sit at the dining table and sort through the night’s take. The bills he smoothed into a layered stack, the phone numbers he ripped into mounds of confetti, which Aaron, following behind, swept into the bin. Sometimes, though, if the soldiers were especially cute, we would slip their phone numbers into our purses like talismans. Or tickets.
Ruby usually got the most phone numbers. Ruby had tits like torpedoes. She had cat-green eyes that popped against the copper-red of her hair, and a snaggletooth that was cute and made her slightly more approachable. The army guys went blushing and boylike when they tried to talk to her one on one. They called her over as a pack—a blur of uniforms beckoning with single, suggestive fingers. Even though Ruby’s singing voice sounded like breath through a straw, the NATO guys whistled and clapped like gunfire when she took the lead. The passed hat filled and overflowed. Later, we’d see that half of it was phone numbers folded on napkins, but still, the increase in our take was notable. Ruby hated taking the solos; we had to prod her to the front. But it didn’t matter that she whisper-sang, because the men hollered and whistled through the whole song anyhow.
By the time they called for encores, we would have exhausted our repertoire, and then we had to resort to a song we all knew—generally a religious song. This would kill the mood just enough for us to make our getaway.
Marie seemed the most grown up of all of us, maybe because she had a boyfriend—Aaron, who was plain and pleasant, and who looked at Marie in a forlorn way when he strummed the guitar. Aaron didn’t speak much—he must have been seventeen or eighteen, but I didn’t know for sure. I often forgot he was even there.
Once, though, when the power went out, as it often did, Aaron stood in front of Marie—who was sitting beside me on the couch—and took her by the hand. He didn’t say a single word as they left the room, but in under a minute, there was a steady bang-bang-bang sound coming through the walls and what must have been Marie’s voice, making strange, catlike sounds. I didn’t know what to do, so I just sat there, still as I could, in the dark.
Angelica’s mom called her Angel. Angelica seemed determined to fulfil this role. When we lingered too long at a table full of off-duty soldiers, it was Angelica who herded us along. She assigned house duties in her mother’s absence and, because we were the quietest of the bunch, tended to pair Lara and me together for the less desirable tasks. When Mrs. Alfson took photographs for the newsletter, Angelica grinned widely, angling her dimples toward the camera lens. But during our “off” time, when it was just us girls fooling around, Angelica also liked to take center stage in photoshoots where we posed pouting, chests and hips jutted out.
Once, Angelica came back into our shared room holding a pack of freshly developed photograph prints. Some, Mrs. Alfson had taken for the newsletter. In these, we were dressed in the costumes of our Nativity performance at a school—the other girls (with Angelica in the forefront) dressed as angels and me as the Virgin Mary, arm cradled around a swaddled baby doll. Others, we had taken on the beach, for fun. In those, the five of us girls posed like the women in the travel brochures, bikini-clad and kneeling in the clear, shallow water. Angelica said that the man who developed the prints had looked long and hard at the one of all of us in our bikinis, and had asked about me. It’s probably because your butt is sticking out, Angelica said, sulking, when she relayed the story. It was true—in the picture, my butt was out of the water and sun-cast in a halo glow that highlighted the curve just right. Still, a man had looked at the five of us in our bikinis. And asked about me.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the fighting had been more intense, we were especially reminded of the most important rule: Don’t step off the path.
Don’t step onto the grass, not even if you see a lovely tree polka-dotted with fat, purple plums. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, there were landmines everywhere. You read it in the news: someone stepped into a field, then boom, no face. Landmines sprinkled across farm fields, over lawns where wildflowers grew. Landmines left by retreating and gaining armies both, anyone’s game. Sometimes, the landmines were left in diabolical places. There were stories about landmines placed inside teddy bears.
It was the same with rape. Generals even worked it into the fucking manual. Rape as a tactical weapon of warfare. Physical and psychological explosives buried deep.
We heard about the rape and the landmines, and we shook our heads. And, at first, we watched where we stepped.
Landlocked. Mr. Alfson used that term when he described the geography of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Actually, he said mostly landlocked, since Bosnia does have one narrow, undeveloped outlet to the sea, but landlocked is the word that had stuck in my head ever since he announced that we were moving our operations there.
The house in Bosnia was bigger, an old farmhouse with three floors and creaky stairs. We used the basement to assemble the donated goods into assorted packages. Shirts with corporate logos, toothbrushes, socks, multivitamins, booklets with the Word of God—all the essentials; one of each went in each bag. It was February 1999 and Bosnia and Herzegovina was three years out of war, same as Croatia. But Bosnia and Herzegovina had been hit worse. You didn’t have to go far down the mud path outside our Vitez home to see houses with missing windows, or whole rooftops crumbled in.
In Bosnia, tourism had not bounced back. The Vitez views were less awe-inspiring than those in Dubrovnik, placid rolling hills instead of sea and grand fortress walls. We girls didn’t go singing in the evening anymore. We traded our showgirl dresses for clown costumes and performed during the day—for kids in orphanages, schools, refugee camps, whatever Mrs. Alfson had booked ahead.
The crowds in the refugee camps were dense, thousands of people living without power in an abandoned Coca-Cola factory, or warehouses that were somehow cold yet sweaty, smelling of body odor, iron, feet, and bone broth. In that setting, from my vantage point on a former loading dock that now served as a stage, it was easy to see everyone in the crowd as a mass, to forget that every person there had had a life before, another story, a home. It was even easy to forget that we were not so very different, that I too had once lived in a building filled with other people, hedged in by rules; that, even then, I had my own personality and talents, my own longings and fears and dreams.
Jesus stuff was especially tricky in Bosnia and Herzegovina, since the war was mostly divided along religious lines. So we dressed in fun costumes and slipped prayers into performances sneakily, the way parents of a finnicky child might fold a bit of vegetable into a slice of cheese.
We were at a Youth Club, a makeshift assembly in the windowless basement of someone’s house. We had been invited by the organizers—some local youths—to interact with the members, let them practice their English. The organizers must have been our age, sixteen, seventeen, but like most young people there, they looked at least middle-aged. The woman who was leading the event had boy-short hair and wore baggy clothes that hung like drying laundry over the thin line of her body. The game went like this: You picked a question from a hat and then argued your position to the group. I was anxious about public speaking, even though there were only maybe nine people in the room. When the hat stopped in front of me, my hand was shaky as I pulled this question:
You have been raped and are now pregnant. Do you have an abortion?
One of the characteristics of a place that has just been through war: you skip the small talk. At one camp for a group of people who had been squeezed out of their homes along ethnic and religious lines, a group of children lined up to perform a song for us. It was a jolly-sounding, upbeat jingle and we clapped along. But later we learned that the translation went, They killed my mother, they killed my father, and so on down the line.
That night I was relieved by the hard question. I knew the answer. I uncrossed my legs and filled my lungs and began to talk. My voice shook at first, then gained strength as I went. The more I talked, the louder and clearer I spoke, the more I felt the power. The power of God and the power of quick-talking and of knowing the answer. Only the answer was not mine. It was prepackaged, rehearsed, spoon-fed.
The room went silent, with—I was sure—awe. The young, older-appearing woman looked at me with the full of her eyes and when she spoke it was like a mournful echo:
Even if the woman was raped?
I was sixteen, and I had never deep-kissed. Rape was something rhetorical, abstract.
I was sixteen, and I knew the answer. I was sure.
After the shows (during which, at some point, we tried to save souls), we’d go out into the throng and pass out material things: clothes, shoes, vitamins, whatever our sponsors had donated that month. In the more crowded camps, kids elbowed one another and the littlest ones got flung to the back—everyone screaming and calling and pressing in, and you had never seen so many outstretched hands.
Still, when we visited the tents, our hosts insisted on serving us cups of coffee, even if they had to build a fire in the snow and scrape the very last of their rations. Back home afterward, we marveled at the urgency, the selflessness of their giving. We marked it down to generosity, or to custom mandated by religion. But I wonder if it didn’t have to do with agency too, the power and dignity that comes from giving, even when everything has been taken and there’s nothing else left.
We girls felt like celebrities when we passed out aid packages and made animal balloons and signed autographs for girls our age who asked us to say hello for them to Britney Spears.
Britney was all over the airwaves then; she was the hottest thing on TV. At least once a day, her midriff appeared on MTV, her glossy lips and schoolgirl outfit and little-girl pigtails.
We also visited military bases. Like this, said the man in charge of the largest one. This is the kind of outfits you should wear when you come perform for the men.
In the photograph, I was wearing a crop top that showed the pink flat of my stomach.
Behind us, an area was marked off by yellow caution tape. Signs bore the skull-and-crossbones symbol that warned of landmines.
While Bosnia in 1999 lacked a thriving tourist industry, there were plenty of army bases. These now made up a big chunk of our rent. In months when sponsors were tight, we went to the bases and asked for the man in charge. The officers or generals (we didn’t know the difference) would flip through our books—folders full of newsletters showing our good works— and run their eyes over the images as though the newsletters were catalogues.
Like this, the officer said again. He stabbed at the photo with his pointer finger, leaving a jagged nail print on my laminated belly button.
The main hall of the army base was packed thick as the refugee camps. As rowdy, too, but in a different way. Through the backstage curtains, we peeked into a sea of camo, all ruddy cheeks and hats-in-hands, close-cropped hair like fresh-cut hay. A hush fell over the crowd when we began our set, the same songs we’d sung in the restaurants for the tourists, plus some religious songs, and a few livelier numbers we performed at the schools. After the show, we’d go down into the audience, where men who towered over us winked and whistled, biceps bulging under rolled-up sleeves. Then, passing the hat around, we would get enough money to pay our rent. But up on the stage, with the men cheering in undulating waves as we danced our choreographed numbers, we were the ones in charge.
Fuck that, we began to say, over the remains of one-pot dinners, after Angelica and Aaron and the Alfsons had retreated to their rooms. We can dance at the bases to beg for rent money, but we can’t go dancing for fun? Other girls our age went dancing at night, we were sure. Most of Europe had a legal drinking age of sixteen, and even that was rarely enforced. We were seventeen and eighteen and deserved, we said, more and more often, to be treated like adults.
In theory, all decisions on our team were supposed to be made by popular vote. In practice, decisions were made in prayer behind a closed door in the Alfsons’ room, after which either Mr. Alfson or Angelica would come back out to deliver the verdict. The verdict was invariably no.
There’s wasn’t much we could do about it. Mrs. Alfson had the purse strings, Mr. Alfson had the driver’s wheel. As it stood, it was only petty decisions, like which of us girls would cook dinner, or who would have to play Joseph in our Nativity production, that were decided through popular vote.
Fuck that, we said, louder and more often.
One night, Angelica walked into the kitchen with a message. My dad said to tell you that we can go to the club, she said, but we have to be back by ten, and we have to stick together, and no drinks. It was only later, in the strobe-lit club, over a round of free vodka-sodas, that I looked at Angelica and understood that she was not, had never been, the enemy. Ruby understood something too. She screamed it over the frantic crescendo of a house beat. They had to let us go. Even if they said no, what could they even do if we all decided to go out anyway? The record scratched. A new song began. We looked at each other around the semicircle of the booth, eyes and teeth glowing purplish in the blacklight.
And then, one day, they were gone. Lara, Ruby, Marie, Aaron. I don’t remember the explanations or the goodbyes. Even Angelica left for a mission base in Botswana. I tried to leave too, latching on with a passing team from the U.S. who were setting up in Croatia. They seemed lax about everything, fun. But this team was ill-prepared. They had no sponsors. No proficiency in the local language. Within a few weeks of living with this new group, the whole thing dissolved. With nowhere else to go—my mom was now in the Philippines—I wrote the Alfsons in a humbled state, using superlative terms. The Alfsons voted to let me return. They explained their decision in an email, spelling out their rationale:
You make a good clown.
When I got back to the Alfsons in Bosnia, there were four new recruits: Clara, a pale-faced hulk of a girl; two similar-looking brothers from the U.S.; and Shannon, who had an Aussie accent and short black hair. Shannon looked like a young Oprah, people said. Also, there was a dog—a golden retriever whom Mr. Alfson fed from his own fork at dinner.
All the newcomers leaned in when Mr. Alfson led the daily brief. The brothers nodded solemnly. They used their pointer fingers to press their glasses into their faces, blinked only when Mr. Alfson paused in speech. Clara was nearly seven feet tall but seemed to wish she were invisible. She crossed her legs and folded her arms and pressed into the farthest reach of the couch, as though she could disappear inside the crack. Her outfit of choice was a baggy, mismatched sweatsuit. She looked vaguely embarrassed all the time. Shannon never once interrupted while Mr. Alfson talked, not even with a grunt of approval. During meetings, she alternated between taking notes and listening, neck out, head nodding, Go on, the same way Oprah might. When Mrs. Alfson left meetings early, citing the usual headache, Shannon’s voice would bloat with sympathy as she offered to go to the store for Tylenol.
The rule, of course, was Don’t step off the path.
The rule was also Always go out with a buddy—even when the sun is shining and the clouds are cartoon-puffy and the grassy hills roll one to the other like the pages of a storybook.
I walked in silence beside Shannon on the country road. She took the high ground, stepping around wild daisies and vulnerable snails, while I stomped through tiny puddles left over from the previous night’s rain.
You know she doesn’t really get headaches, I said, then immediately regretted it. Shannon looked at me out of the sides of her eyes as if she was trying to make up her mind about something. Then, in a single, combined motion, she smiled and opened her purse for me to see inside—empty but for a bright flash of red. Shannon looked over each shoulder, then stepped off the path (breaking the rule), leaned on a tree, took a cigarette out of the pack, put it in her mouth, and lit it, cupping her hand around the end.
Through the free side of her mouth, she said, I’m not really going for Tylenol.
The rule had many parts, but the consequences for breaking them were just about equal, and all ended in death. Don’t step off the path. Don’t go out alone. Obey orders and pray. Never smoke cigarettes.
Shannon looked at me looking at her and took another deep, grateful drag. Then she extended the smoking cig. She said, My friends call me Shaz.
Onstage, Shaz and I made excellent clowns. Mr. Alfson was the main clown, of course. He came onto the stage first, while the crowd was still clapping, worked up from the introduction and the long wait. He came on flopping his extended shoes and swinging his long yarn hair and always wearing the exact same face paint. Have you seen Fifi and Lulu? He would ask, honking his red foam nose. There would be a pause while the translator translated. The kids leaned in, and their eyes grew wide; they held their breath and shook their heads. That was our cue. Shaz and I came onstage, two small ragdoll clowns with hearts on our cheeks or sometimes daisies or stars. We made big shushing motions as we followed Mr. Alfson, who was looking for us, around the stage. Inside our formless clown pants, our legs mocked his gait with silly, exaggerated strides. When he stopped to scratch his head, so did we, behind him. The kids tucked their heads into their shoulders and laughed into the cups of their hands. Their eyes shone big and wide and bright. As a clown, Mr. Alfson was more animated than he was the rest of the week combined, but Shaz and I got the better laughs.
When we arrived in Kosovo, the rule constricted: Don’t step off the pavement. Traffic lights were unreliable in the capital, and drivers didn’t obey them anyhow. Mopeds, cars, tanks, and vans with NGO logos sideswiped one another in passing; horns blared a mournful cacophony against the gloom. But, more importantly, landmines were abundant in Kosovo. Only the main roads had been cleared. Kosovo in August 1999 was only months out of war. The landmines there were fresh, eager to explode.
We saw them in the newspapers: people who stepped off the pavement, or sometimes just outside the front door—grainy images of bodies with limbs knocked off at random places, or horizontal body-shapes, white sheets with pools of red showing through. Sometimes these images shared the front page with scantily clad women; other times, Bill Clinton—grinning in profile, or pointing off beyond the frame. Bill Clinton was a hero in Kosovo, for dropping the bombs that persuaded the Serbian troops to withdraw, and also because he got blow jobs in the Oval Office.
Now, instead of plane-dropped bombs, there were kitchen-made car bombs. Men in camo uniforms with side berets were replaced with British SFOR soldiers with silly tall hats. Tanks lumbered over the roadways while army jeeps whizzed past and cars blared their horns. From the back of the cargo van, Shaz and I waved at the men inside the jeeps, rows of young-faced men in uniform, rifles standing barrel-up between their legs.
I dare you to flash them, Shaz whispered from our bed in the back of the van. The bed was made of boxes filled with the aid we were bringing into the newly autonomous region: sanitary products, soap, cans of beans and soup, clothes with corporate logos, sneakers. Over it all, we’d laid a sheet of plywood, a foam mattress fitted with sheets and topped with blankets. Shaz and I even brought our pillows. When we weren’t sleeping, we schemed, using the pillows to muffle our voices.
The fighting had officially ended on June 11, 1999—only sixty-three days before we arrived. The capital city was buzzing, the place to be. NGOs, SFOR, UNESCO, IFOR, well-funded representatives from them all—every hotel was booked to the armpits. Even motels with the kind of bedspreads that are made to camouflage cum stains, motels with half their walls blown off, charged tropical-vacation rates. Hotels that had been used by paramilitary generals as rape houses flipped their signs to Open and invited foreign emissaries to kick off their shoes. Old family houses had been converted into makeshift hotels, and still there was no vacancy for paying guests—much less the five of us, who were not corporate-funded and asked to stay for free.
The sun was setting across the jagged-toothed horizon, casting Prishtina in a warning-level shade of orange by the time—just in time—our little team had found lodging for the night. Clara and the brothers would stay in a guest room in a kind elderly couple’s home. The Alfsons had somehow negotiated a motel for themselves and the dog. Shaz and I were to be paired together for the night. We were delighted about this—until we saw where we were to stay. The van peeled out of sight, and our duffel bags sunk heavier in our hands. We had been dropped off at a convent.
The rules were laid before us by an emphatic nun as she led us through the echoing grounds. We were not to leave the room after seven. It was after seven already, and we had no food with us, not even a snack bar. Our stomachs griped audibly. The rules were not to be broken, the nun said, in broken English.
The room had two narrow cots, one against each wall. The walls were stone. There was one small window that opened into a barren courtyard. The window was barred with iron grates. When the nun left, Shaz exhaled like she’d been holding her breath for an hour. Thank fucking God. She tore through her bag and produced two Marlboro Reds, which we lit posthaste. We held the smoke in our lungs until they stretched and burned; then we exhaled greatly through the grates. Only two proper drags had been had between us before the nun barreled back through the door crying No no no and cutting the air with her sleeves.
The nun ratted us out. Mr. Alfson glared at me when he explained, again, the gravity of breaking the rules. But he looked at Shaz like he was surprised. Disappointed. Like she was someone he didn’t know. When he shook his head, the brothers did too, grinning like smug little fucks. They were just as bad as the nun. By now, Shaz and I had come to call them Tattle and Tell.
The good news was that we didn’t have to spend another night in the convent. A nice man had offered to let us stay in his vacation house on the hill. This man had another house on the other side of Prishtina, so we had the place all to ourselves, key and all. “Vacation house” was an understatement. The place was more like a castle—mazelike hallways and countless rooms. All the rooms were dimly lit, filled with plush furniture that absorbed the sound of our boots, purple-fringed couch cushions and ornate gold mirrors. We went from room to room, changing our minds about which one we each wanted to claim. The brothers chose a room on the third floor, to the right of the master bedroom, where the Alfsons had already flipped back the velvet bedspread.
For the first time in my life, I could have my own bedroom. I could spread out my clothes and leave them where I pleased. But something about the way the brothers made cryptic jokes about checking first before diving into the cushions, something about the scent of perfume that hung thinly in the air, drove the three of us girls into the same room.
We had been in the vacation house four days, were deep into the dark of the fourth night when we heard a heavy pounding on the door. Nine or ten girls were outside. Their house was on fire, they explained to the brothers in childlike English. They were to stay here, in the vacation house. The man who owned the house said to tell us so.
The girls are hot, the brothers said, in the morning. The brothers held their coffee under their glasses and grinned from hook to hook. The girls had Russian accents. Or Ukrainian. Lithuanian. The brothers couldn’t tell. Long, naked legs in high heels.
Girls our age.
As if you stood a chance, we girls said to the brothers. Though we shared the house, we never saw the other girls. They slept through the day and disappeared at night. It was as though we occupied parallel dimensions. But we saw evidence of their presence scattered here and there: a hairbrush on the bathroom vanity, a long blond hair in the sink, a whiff of musky perfume. Like traces left by ghosts. I didn’t know then that the owner of the “vacation house” had likely been holding the women’s passports, that they didn’t have the option to leave. Still, there was something unsettling in the atmosphere there. I did my makeup quickly, barely glancing up at the mirror.
Girls cannot venture out alone in Kosovo, the Alfsons said; they cited this rule every time Shaz and I asked. We asked more and more often, began to negotiate. What if Clara comes? we asked, pointing at her with open palms. She’s taller than the brothers both and could do more damage, too. Clara didn’t mind being used as a bodyguard. She dressed like a guy anyway. We could tuck her ringlets under her beanie, and she could paste on a scowl, and then for sure no one would mess with us. We can’t stay cooped up in the house every night, we said. We’ll make new contacts with the NGOs. We asked and asked, more emphatically each time, and finally Mrs. Alfson retreated with her headache and Mr. Alfson pinched his eyelids and said, Okay.
The bar was wardrobe-sized, with tiny square tables, blue-tinted lightbulbs, and low-hanging clouds of cigarette smoke. We were all dressed in our standard evening costume, Shaz and I in miniskirts and Clara in her baggy man-clothes, hair tucked into a beanie. Our new friend—a young local man—wore a T-shirt and jeans.
We were all laughing and smoking like everybody else when, out of the blue haze, he asked, What do you want to do with your lives?
He looked at each of us: Shaz, Clara, and then his gaze landed upon me. He asked again, like he really wanted to know. With your life. If you could do anything, what would you do? Nobody had ever asked me this before. Not like this, like the answer mattered. Like it was mine to choose.
I squirmed in my chair. Glanced around. Took a deep drag from my Marlboro Red. Laughed through my lipstick. Bounced a shoulder, held it against my cheek.
I would party, I said.
Our guide looked at me very seriously then, cocked his head like he was trying to understand. His response was low, but clear.
You cannot only party forever.
The night was dark. The air had the pitchy quality of late summer. A summer coming to its close. The moon was mostly in shadow, just a silly, narrow grin that looked wrong in that sky. Glass, brick, porcelain, and rubble crunched underneath our soles. The narrow moon grin diffused over the rubble, casting what was left of the city block in an eerie glow. Our local guide—I couldn’t remember his name—swept his arm over the desolate landscape. He pointed at a mound of debris, indistinguishable from the rest. Over there, he said, a sudden spark of excitement coming through his voice, that was the Blue Dolphin.
Our guide told us how he used to go there with his friends, every afternoon, before the war. They had the best happy hour in town. One by one, he said the names of his friends. Then his voice caught. It was dark, but I could see his shadowed outline, his head angled toward the ground. For a long time, he said nothing.
A few blocks away, in the pumping heart of downtown Prishtina, the party was swinging like it did every night, like there was no tomorrow. Pretty girls in tube tops and eyeshadow picked their way around street vendors’ blankets in clicking heels. Men in leather jackets smoked and laughed and swung their arms. SFOR men in uniform propped drunk mates between them and dragged them into bars. Restaurant tables spilled out onto the sidewalks, packed with men and women in evening wear. Long-haired musicians picked out the chords to “Hotel California,” and men cinched deals by clinking glasses, shouting to be heard over the singing and the guitar and the patrons from neighboring bars.
In the not-too-far distance, someone was singing karaoke, probably from one of those little machines they set up on the street in the evenings. Boyz II Men, NSYNC, heavy bass from a club, I’m blue, da ba dee da ba di.
A cloud passed over the foolish moon. The remains of the Blue Dolphin and everything else went into dark.
The blood ran deep here, our guide said. Long before the plane-dropped bombs and the landmines and kitchen-cooked car bombs, before the Blue Dolphin and before our guide and all his friends, before Communism, before the Second and First World Wars, this square had been a place where Christian kings had hung heretics to their death.
A few blocks away, the karaoke song ended. For a long and ancient moment, the only sound there was our breath. Then, to lighten the mood, probably, one of us started singing; others recognized the words and joined in. We sang goofily at first, but the jagged rubble caught our voices, sent them back in refracted echo:
It’s the same old theme
In your head, in your head, they’re still fighting
As we went on singing, the song took on a slower, mournful pace. As if we were beginning to contemplate the cyclic nature of power structures, organized religion, patriarchy, control. As if we were beginning to see the connection between the stories we believe in and the ones we repeat. As if we were beginning, just a little, to understand.
There was no power when we arrived back at our Vitez house after two weeks in Prishtina. We built a fire in the furnace, igniting wood splinters first, then stacking incrementally larger pieces, until the flames were strong enough to feed from whole logs. We put candles in all the rooms and blew on our hands. It was the day before Christmas Eve. Mr. Alfson said, Peace on Earth and goodwill to men.
Behind the fireplace, where I stood with her for warmth, Shaz whispered, What about women?
There was a crucifix on the hill. A plaster Jesus Christ with red paint blood running down from the crown of thorns on his head. The blood gushed out of his side and from the nails in his hands and feet. We were in Međjugorje, a place of Catholic pilgrimage after the Virgin Mary was claimed to have made an appearance there in 1981. People had placed votive candles all around the dying Jesus. The pathway that led to him was lit on both sides by little shimmying flames. Don’t step off the path, Mr. Alfson said, as always, as he and the others headed back to the van. Shaz had asked them to go on ahead, said we’d meet them back there in a minute. She wanted to light a candle, to say a prayer.
When the others had left, she lit one of the candles, her lips moving to a silent something. She cupped the nascent spark with her hands until it had settled into a steady flame. She used the flame to light her cigarette and lit one for me as well. She didn’t say anything as she walked down the hill, off the path, away from the macabre scene. But she seemed serious, contemplative, when she lay in the grass and turned her face to the stars. I lay beside her in the wet, cool grass, looking up at the abundant sky, at the stars that shimmered there like little reflections of the candles, like wildflowers, like tiny echoes of private prayers. We lay there, the two of us breathing in the dark, and then Shaz leaned over, and her breath was on me, and her lips were both soft and hard-pressing over mine. Maybe it was the gory Jesus, so close by, or the path all lit up like it was the only one. I had never even thought of Shaz like that, and I got the feeling this was a surprise for her too, but we began to kiss like this was all there ever was. We rolled in the grass, crushing wildflowers, tongues in throats, arms gripping and tangled. We kissed with eyes wide open, like there was fire in our bellies, in our mouths. It was hot and furious, and I had the distinct feeling that if we went on pressing our heat together, we could burn the whole world. We rolled around in the wet, dark grass, and our arms and legs and tongues were powerful, and the stars pulsated in the holy, silent night.
The neighbors called every few nights to invite us girls over. The neighbors were a rowdy bunch of men—from Britain, New Zealand, Australia, and Ireland. The men were all generals or officers, but to us they were just a bunch of flirty guys with beer in their fridge. It started when the Alfsons sent us around the neighborhood with cookies, part of their tactical plan to keep good relations. The locals reciprocated with offerings of cubed meat fat, trays and trays of it, far beyond the point when we could eat no more. Our nearest neighbors, the rowdy bunch of men, did the same thing, but with beer. Then the next day, and the afternoon after that, they phoned the house to invite us over again, this time to celebrate New Years Eve.
New Year’s Eve 2000 was to be the start of a new millennium and maybe also the end of the modern world. The problem had something to do with the way the computers had been programmed. Some dude forgot a 0 or a 1, and all the bank accounts, all the power, all the emails, the nukes, all the flight controllers, AOL, everything would likely go haywire and short out and we would all be fucked. No one knew for sure, though; it was a waiting game, and we wouldn’t know until the world counted down.
We gathered around our little box TV every night after dinner. First, we heard about it from serious-eyed newscasters on CNN; then the local news came on and Bosnian newscasters spoke against a backdrop of garish Y2K graphics. We couldn’t make out most of what they were saying, but the tone was about the same as the one they used to describe the daily car bomb threats.
Mrs. Alfson said we shouldn’t worry. The power goes out so much anyhow, it won’t make much difference here. But she laughed her oh-ho-ho laugh, which meant she was nervous.
The brothers shook their heads and turned to us girls and explained again what was going on. Then they went to bed, and we turned the channel to MTV, and J-Lo came on wearing a shimmery gown that accentuated her world-famous ass. She sang, Waiting for tonight, oh, when you would be here in my arms. But the music video was about the countdown to Y2K, when the world would end.
What I couldn’t stop thinking about, that night, was the fact that everything in the known world ran on programming written by an exclusive group of men. That one man, or a few, held the power to write—or end—the story for us all.
Because New Year’s Eve 2000 was the beginning of a new millennium and because it also meant the modern world might end, the Alfsons had an extra-special event planned for the evening. In the drafty living room, they closed the drapes and pushed the ratty sofa against the wall; they set candles on the mantel above the fireplace and on the windowsills around the room. In the center of the mantelpiece, Mrs. Alfson placed a framed portrait of a pretty-boy Jesus and lit candles around him so that his blue eyes sparkled in reflection. The candles burned throughout the afternoon. Mr. Alfson placed his office chair in the center of the room, and beside the chair, on the floor, he set a basin filled with warm, sudsy water.
He wants to do a foot-washing ceremony, Shaz told me, after checking behind her, both ways. Like in the Bible, only Mr. Alfson is going to be the one in the chair getting his feet washed.
Fuck this, Shaz said, up on the balcony outside our room. She ducked behind my back to light her Marlboro Red.
Fuck this, I said, ducking in turn behind her to take a pull.
Shaz told me it had been scientifically proven that whatever you were doing when the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve is what you would do for the rest of the year. Or, in this case, she said, eyes pooling as though she was only realizing this for the first time, what you’ll be doing for the whole millennium.
Or the end of the world.
We may not have been allowed to party, but we sure as hell weren’t going to spend the millennium washing Mr. Alfson’s feet. While the sky grew dark and the world held its breath, Shaz and I were outside on the frosty balcony both of us having reported the same sudden and gruesome-sounding onslaught of stomach cramps.
The second hand on Shaz’s wristwatch quivered toward the stroke of midnight. Shaz’s gaze kept shifting between her watch and the sky, with its spattering of stars. She was looking up when she said in a half-whisper, What if you imagined what you would be doing. Would that count?
Her question, coming at the approach of this particular stroke of midnight, with the fate of the world hanging in balance, seemed less rhetorical and more urgent than it might have otherwise. Because I had realized something, as I lay awake the night before, thinking about Y2K in the dark: It was true that only a few men were in charge of the story, that they had the power to write it, or end it, for us all. But even more incredible was the realization that the story itself was fallible. That, by altering a single digit in the sequence, the code could be rewritten.
Across the way, there were lights on in the neighbors’ house.
Shaz stuck one leg through the railing, pressed the tip of her sneaker into a fresh layer of snow. In a perfect world, I mean, where you could do anything?
The truth is, I had been imagining often those days. Someone had given me a Bosnian business planner, and I’d been writing tightly packed stories inside the pages. I still have the business planner to this day. I laugh when I look at it now, because it was made for a meatpacking company. Between full-page calendar spreads of minced meat, I wrote smart, funny, angry, rule-breaking characters who bore a suspicious resemblance to girls I knew.
I said I thought imagining might be the very best way to start.
A firework or a gun sounded off over the hills. There were still lights showing through the windows of the few surrounding houses. Others flickered on. It was a new millennium, same as ever, or maybe not. The world spun on.
*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved.
Vix Gutierrez has lived and learned in more than twenty countries. Her work has appeared in Subtropics, The Timberline Review, NAILED, and elsewhere. Her essay “Dark Sky City” was a notable in The Best American Essays 2021. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Florida.