By Lorry Blath
This was the year my foreign-born wife, Alma, asked what the chant “build the wall” meant. This was the year she came, the year we married, the year our daughter started school. This was the year of the accident.
That’s how Alma described it, accident.
I was St. Louis-born to a Bosnian family who came here in the nineties along with a wave of 50,000 others. My parents and their friends spent their time reminiscing about the old country, nostalgic for a Bosnia that exists only in their memory. But I’d always felt all-American. I played soccer in high school, bought myself a used Camaro with money I’d saved from shoveling snow, and I went to every movie with a slew of friends. My family lived on the south side in a small brick house near Tower Grove Park. When I moved to a neighboring suburb, a long overdue shift, I was 28.
Coincidentally, my mother ran into me with my Latina girlfriend at the Galleria, and called me the next day. “I’ll find you a nice Bosnian girl. Someone who makes gurabija and hurmasice. Someone pretty to have babies with.”
My Jewish friends would say ‘oy.’ I wasn’t interested in searching for a wife. Mama nudged, Papa nudged and my sister, the traitor, likened it to Match dot com. I gave it a go, only calling friends of friends. The fourth woman I met online was Alma, my sweet Alma. Her pretty, blue eyes twinkled when she teased me. She wore her wavy, light brown hair close around her face. She laughed at my jokes and made fun of my old-fashioned Bosnian idioms, the only ones I knew.
“I have something to tell you,” she said on our third online visit. “Something serious.” She looked somber for the first time. “I am a widow. My husband died in a tractor accident on my parent’s farm.”
“I am so sorry, Alma. How long ago?” I wanted to take her hand.
She explained how she was ready to leave, ready to start a new life, and wanted to get to know me better. I felt selfish wondering if I could marry someone who’d think of her deceased husband every time we sat down at dinner, went for a walk in the park, went to bed.
“There’s more,” Alma said.
I looked at her face that came to me from a distant satellite. A solemn face, sincere. I didn’t waver and kept my eyes on hers.
“I wanted you to know so there would no surprises and if you don’t want to meet with me anymore, I will understand. I have a little girl, Zara. She is four years old.” Her face brightened when she said, ‘Zara.’
“Tell me about her,” I said.
I cried in kindergarten today. I miss mama and our far away farm. No other kids seem to cry unless their feelings get hurt, or they are pushed on the playground. When that happens our teacher Miss T. tells the kids she will have to call their mothers for making bad choices. I don’t have a choice.
In the second week of school Miss T. taught us how to introduce ourselves to each other.
“Hi, I’m Zara.” I tried with Iris.
She was supposed to say, “Hi, Zara. My name is Iris.” But Iris looked down to her untied shoes. Iris is tiny. I wondered if her voice was tiny too.
Our teacher told us that seven languages were spoken in our school. Spanish, English, French, Chinese, Syrian, Nepali and Bosnian. When Miss T. said Bosnian, I pointed to myself and whispered, Bosnian, to Iris. A few days later when we were in line for the water fountain, Iris whispered to me, Chinese. I still haven’t heard her real voice, just her whispering one.
One morning a fire truck drove right up on our playground. We took turns climbing on it. Iris and I tried to drive the big steering wheel, but we had to stand up to even reach it.
The fireman wore black with bright yellow stripes, “So you can see me in the dark,” he said. “If you see a fireman like me in your house, run to us, and we will get you out.”
I am new to America from Bosne. Widow in Bosne, come here St. Louis with daughter. Most important now is learn English. I need it for to get job. I go International Welcome Center. I study there. They teach how to bus, how to grocery, how to pay things, how to post office, how to English. I have one childrens. Zara is kindergarten. She is fast reading group. I am proud of my American girl.
We choose St. Louis because of him Luka, my husband, who born here. Brother Petar live in Chicago where I stay for week before here to marry. There are many from our Bosne here. That makes easy. The apartment is nice. Sometimes two families sharing. But not us. Luka say I work or not have to. I want.
I ask Zara help for to English. “Tell me the name of this,” I say her. She speak perfect.
Hardest part learning all the time. All the time. No time for not paying attention. Breakfast easy words – kafa is coffee, secer is sugar, tost is toast. Notes from Zara school not easy. Wait for Luka tell me. Word dozvola is permission for field trip for Zara. Dream Bosnian, try think English.
Many time Luka take me and Zara to grocery, to library, to doctor. Everyone speak fast. Now Luka goes work, we learn bus. It all confusing. I do not see many womens in stores with hijab. I do not see them in Wal-Mart, on buses, or park. Only I wear mine to mosque. Zara ask why. “Look like everyone,” I tell her. “Can I wear one?” I will have to think. Siledžija is why I worry. “No bullies,” say Zara. “Be American,” I tell her. “Do not tell at school I cannot English in case.”
“In case what?” she ask.
Seem smart to be careful.
Before she came here, Alma and I face-timed often and emailed nearly every day. Eight in the morning here was three in the afternoon there. We talked about my apartment, our parents, religion, and of course, Zara. Her apprehensions faded as the weeks went on. I described St. Louis as the same size as Sarajevo, even though she was from Mostar. She had heard of Ferguson but I explained it was not close by, and where I lived it was safe. Relatively.
Alma’s worries centered mostly on Zara. Once in a while, she let Zara face-time with me. Zara giggled when I called her a little doll baby, lutka. I sang to her and she hummed along. I sent money for Alma to take English lessons, but she used it for Zara to learn instead. Once, Zara enchanted me by singing a song from Frozen.
“I will learn when I get there but Zara will be overwhelmed if she can’t understand a word,” Alma said.
I wondered how long it would be before Alma would say those words in English, but I was fine with her decision. Alma could decide to come to be my wife, but Zara had no choice. She would come with some English, and I would get her every book in the library.
Alma’s brother Petar lived in Chicago. He hadn’t even met me, yet he encouraged her to come. Curious about the man I liked before we met, I drove to Chicago a few weeks before she arrived. We had good Bosnian coffee and burek. There was no lack of conversation with Petar. Eight years ago when his father insisted he work with him on the family farm, he declined and came to Chicago. We had that in common. I never wanted to work with my father either. We talked about our jobs, about baseball because it was playoff season. Finally, we got around to wedding plans.
“I want her to choose where,” I said. “If she wants the ceremony at my parents’ home, your family will be welcome to stay with me in my apartment.”
He smiled. “I barely know Alma anymore,” he admitted. “She was fourteen when I left. I don’t know what she will want, how Zara will feel.”
Alma and her husband had applied for visas to come here before Zara was born. She told me the process took years. I’d had no idea. When the visas finally came through six months after we decided to marry, my apprehension was no match for hers. Obstacles I couldn’t imagine were all a tremendous leap of faith, and the fact that I was the impetus was foremost in my mind.
As I drove to Chicago to meet her plane, even though she would stay with Petar for a while before the wedding, I felt giddy. Petar and I drove together out I-90 west to O’Hare. As we drove, I saw he was nervous too, fiddling with the heat, the radio, drumming the steering wheel.
I have cousin coming from Bosne. Passed vetting in three years. Took me five. When first husband died, vetting start over. Cousin study English good before come. She wants be waitress to get own apartment. She sleep on couch. We buy sheets at Goodwill store. Luka not complains.
Quick quick she get job. Two weeks. I, I’m glad she here. I need more family. Mother-in-law sweet, bossy sometime. Father-in-law do not talk much. He smile. He play catch in yard with Zara. She make him smile bigger. He own vegetable stand at big Soulard Market. I help him some days. He not pay to me but buys for Zara. A doll. A football, clothes at Target. She love her pink socks.
Cousin move to share room with other girl. Both waitress. Cousin save money. Not buy too much clothes, not do nails, not movies. Save for school to be nurse. Her dream. Luka say, says ‘Alma is dream come true.’
After Zara in school a few weeks, after I in school too, there is open house at my International Welcome Center. For our students and families. Luka cannot to be there. He have meeting for work. Springfield. He call often. Zara talk on phone and tell him new thing at school.
“We go Botanic Garden,” she say him. “See dome, see glass floating on water, see pretend sheep, see flowers and growing cabbage.”
I take Zara to International Welcome Center. Just us. It is field trip, I tell her. We can take bus in dark. Is safe. I want Zara to know about my school. How I learn American. They will have treats and coffee. Not good coffee, but still nice. We will meet other families, some Congo, some Thailand, some Afghanistan. We all in same boat, teacher tells us. I like saying that, same boat.
The night we go to Mama’s school, we have sandwiches instead of a big dinner. Mama says, “There will be cookies later. Be there hour only.”
“Be there ‘a’ hour.” She always forgets the ‘a’ or the “the.’
When I’m almost finished eating she says to hurry hurry. I see she’s nervous, combing hair, putting on lipstick. On the way to the bus we swing hands like she’s keeping beat to some song she sings to herself. We wear the same jackets because it is chilly, even though I don’t like them. Not pink but blue for the St. Louis Blues Hockey team. The cars whish past us as we walk to the bus, blowing little puffs of air, but I don’t mind. I’m glad I don’t have to tell Mama how much to pay on the bus anymore. I look out the bus window as we go along. Everything seems different in the dark, even my new pink shoes and pink socks.
“This will be like party, a party,” Mama says. She wears her new shoes too, black with white on the bottom part.
It does look like a school! We go up the walk and climb one, two, three, four steps, then four then four more. The open entry hall inside is loud. I lean back and look up to the high ceiling, windows at the top. I’ve never seen windows on a ceiling before! Everything echoes. “Hello,” I want to yell, but Mama wouldn’t like that.
She leads me right down a hall, smiling all the way. I feel her excitement.
We walk into a classroom with chairs in a circle. On the teacher’s desk I see cookies and apple slices. I’m still hungry.
“Not eat. We wait.”
Mama talks to a lady whose daughter is a girl from my school. A first grader, Lila. I didn’t know she was Bosnian. After Mama introduces me to her teacher, we find seats near Lila and her mother.
“We have five minutes. Do you need bathroom?”
I shake my head. For a second when she leaves I worry, then Lila pulls hair ribbons from her pocket and hands me one. People talk to their children and each other in different languages. I start counting the chairs.
Suddenly, a loud boom shakes me, shakes the room. And a flash of light and a wooshing sound.
Waking up on floor. On my side. Right arm hurt, pulled far above head and is, is klinast. English word hard remember. Can’t make fist.
Eyes feel gritty. White dust cover me, on floor, on everything. Jacket white now not blue. Air not clear. Snowing white dust. Is in eyes, in mouth. Need to wipe eyes but hands too sandy.
Have to free stuck arm. Something on it. I pull and pull until it move. One leg move. Other leg heavy. I try lift head but neck sore. Everything like on black and white TV. No color, just sandy bumpy chalky.
I lean forward. I feel heaviness on leg move away. It bang to floor, blowing up more white. I lie on back. Close stinging eyes. So dizzy, feel like room rolls. But where is room?
I hear dripping dripping and remember. Bathroom. I left Zara to go bathroom.
“Zara,” I try. Mouth dry like cotton. Can’t to make louder sound. I swallow.
I listen for other peoples. My ears hum so loud, so loud. Like next to jet plane.
Must get Zara.
I think broken right arm. Or broken wrist. Or both. I run other hand over body to see if cut or blood. Hair damp. What I know is achy all over, head hurting and broken arm. Maybe more.
I try sit up. So cold. Glad for jacket, wish for blanket. Zara must to be cold. I start to hum lullaby. Soothing me, her if she hear. Loud noise in head fade to buzzing. My body want to lie down but my Zara need me. I stand. Room moving, stay still few seconds.
I take inside shirt hem to wipe eyes, lashes, forehead. I step to wall for to steady. See pipe in wall where sink was. Water come out like sprinkler in wall. Reach to get hand clean. Put drops to lips from fingers. Puddle under where sink was is all lumpy paste. Soon room be all doughy thick, puddle-y floor.
I hear sirens. Help coming. Help for Zara.
“Zara,” I say. This time words not muffle. But not loud.
I look at broken-off sink. Mirror gone. Pieces on jacket, on pants, on hair. No wonder head sting like pins. Carefully, carefully take steps. Thankful for good shoes. Hard to lift feet with white mud sticking, gluing, sucking shoes down. Stand in doorway. Which way classroom? Must guess.
Hall narrow with wall parts on floor. Wires. Bent metal. Taste metal. Taste vinegar. Stutter along in steps and stops. Shoes so heavy. Come to classroom. Is empty. How be empty? Shivery cold and dizzy spinning. See footsteps from others. Far into hall see white-covered people limping along, tripping along. Must follow. Must keep moving to Zara. Keep stepping. Crunching beneath feet. Gummy gravelly glassy slippering.
Hear banging, metal on metal. Also hear voices. Shouts. Hear crying. Smell burning but no fire. Smell sour. Keep eyes watching. Careful. Go around sticking out metal. Go over fallen down wall. From ceiling white dust slowing down but still foggy.
Pretty lobby gone. Stained glass windows in ceiling gone. No welcome sign. No posters. No office walls. This place that help so much gone.
Tears fall. People coming in building. People leaving building. Hubhub, same word in Bosne. See no children. Where Zara is?
Paramedic take elbow. “Come,” he say. “You need to lie down. Do you understand?”
“Understand, yes. Daughter,” I say. “Daughter, Zara. Five years old. Where childrens?”
Look past him but lobby dark and foggy.
“The children are all outside. We’ll find her outside. I promise.”
I sit on edge of stretcher. He wipe my face. “No blood,” he say. “Are you hurt?”
“Think arm broken.” I move right elbow. “Let us find Zara.”
“Yes, ma’am. I need for you to lie down. We’ll carry you outside.”
I do as he say. I hear a lady call for person with Blues Hockey jacket.
“That me! Blues Hockey Jacket. My daughter the same.” My voice weak and whispery. “My husband out of town. Must call.”
“Yes, of course. Let’s find Zara first. Then I’ll get all your information and you can call.”
More people from classes in lobby. On stretchers like me. Then in line we get carried out. One after another after another. Outside lights from cars blinding at us.
Paramedic points. “The children are over there by ambulances.”
He push stretcher. Now I see better. Cars on lawn with lights. Policeman directing. TV people. Fire trucks. My tears streaming. My heart beating faster faster. Not calm until see Zara. Stretcher stop. I sit up.
“Here’s your mom, Zara,” lady paramedic tell her. “Zara is fine,” lady say. “She’s tired and has a few small cuts but she’s going to be fine. We’re taking her and Lila to Children’s Hospital.”
“Hospital?” ask Lila.
“Biće u redu,” I tell. “No worry. Be fine. No worry.” I lie back down. “Can to go same ambulance?”“Sorry, no,” paramedic man say. “The girls must go to Children’s Hospital. You need x-rays and your arm set if it’s broken. If that’s all you need, then you will be released.” I don’t know released. But I understand most. He kind man, speak gentle. I see Zara hand up in wave. I reach toward her. Too far. My heart burst for them. For me. For Luka.Can’t to talk more. Voice cracking. Throat swollen. Head still throb. Ears still buzz. Must let paramedic do job. They take care us, of us. The girls put in ambulance. I know they fine. We fine. But tears come anyway. Relief tears. Tired tears. Before ambulance leave, lady say she has my phone. I smile to self. Zara know number. I pull phone out for to call to Luka. Phone not light up. Dead.
I have the TV on at a Marriott Courtyard when my phone rings. The caller ID says ‘Alma Mešić’. Hearing a stranger identify herself as a policewoman using Alma’s phone, I automatically leap to my feet and start pacing.
“Luka Mešić? Your wife will be fine. Your daughter too. There was an explosion, and they were taken to the hospital.”
“What? Explosion? Can I talk to her? I’m out of town.” Dazed, I don’t know what to ask first. I want to hear everything at once.
“The doctors are setting Mrs. Mešić’s arm right now. But I assure you she will be fine. Mostly she’s just bruised.” I hear hospital noises and shouts in the background.
“Is Zara there?”
“I know Zara is fine. Nothing broken but I haven’t seen her. She was taken to Children’s Hospital. We don’t know how many were hurt. We don’t think there were any deaths. We have interpreters here for the injured at the emergency room.”
“You mean Zara is alone? How could you separate them? She’s five years old!”
“I know,” she says very quietly. “Sir, I’m so sorry. Children’s is the best place for her. Alma is in part of the same complex.”
“Wait, Wait. What happened exactly?”
I sigh. I sit. I get up. I cradle the phone on my neck. As I listen, I start throwing my clothes in the suitcase. My heart is racing.
She explains there had been an explosion. Two hours ago now. She explains that Alma tried to call but her phone needed charging. They don’t know what caused the explosion yet. Since it is at the Welcome Center, they assume it is an anti-immigration thing. I have no doubts. As soon as I jot it down the nurse’s number and hang up, I grab my suitcase and I’m out the door with one quick look around the room. As much as I want to rush back to St. Louis, after an half hour into the ride, I pull off for coffee and gas. It occurs to me I should call Alma’s cousin to go to the hospital since I’m still an hour out. My phone rings as I fill the tank. “Mr. Mešić, I am an ER nurse at Children’s. I have your daughter on the line.” “Daddy, I’m at the hospital.”“I know, Baby Girl, my lutka. I’m on the way. Hear me?”“Yes. Come fast, Tata.”“I’ll be there soon. I’m coming.” In the chilly darkness under the bright florescent lights of the gas station, I squeeze the pump harder as if that would hold back my emotions. Tears stream down my face anyway, not that I care now. I have to pray that what the police officer had told me that they were fine is true. Bog se brine o mojoj porodici. God take care of my family.
On a stretcher in the hall of the hospital, I sit up and wonder how far away Mama is. I stand, leaning, while people walk around me like I am furniture. I feel a bit dizzy and my head aches all over, so I sit right there on the floor. I know I can’t get up again. Across the hall Lila is still asleep, facing the wall. I wish I noticed her before, it would have been nice knowing that I am not the only lost little girl.
Then a man with a white coat lifts me back onto the stretcher and looks at the white bracelet on my wrist.
“Zara Mešić? I’m Dr. Sammy. How do you feel?”
I can’t even answer. I just shake my head.
“Do you speak English?”
“The nurse tells me your dad is on his way. He should be here soon. Okay?”
“Yes.” I try to smile.
“From what I know you are fine but have a tiny piece of glass stuck just above your ear. I will wait for your dad before I do anything.”
“She’s next door.”
I look toward the doorway.
“No, sorry, I mean she is in a nearby hospital. I will have someone come check on you and Lila until your dad comes.”
Someone pushes our beds into a room about the size of my bedroom. It is so bright in there that I put my hands over my eyes like a cap.
Lila lifts her head and looks at me. We smile, but not a happy kind of smile but a tiny smile that says we are here together. Neither of us know what to say so we wait.
<prosesubhead>Cousin</prosesubhead>When I get home from waiting tables, I turn on my taped shows. With the TV on in the background I look through want ads online for better paying positions. As a waitress, everyday a customer asks where I am from, reminding me of an accent I don’t hear. I know they’re just curious and well-meaning.Right in the middle of Modern Family Luka calls, and I pause it. He explains he is on his way home and that Alma and Zara are in the hospital. Actually, he has to tell me twice. I am crying and he is also. He asks me to go to the ER to see Alma. “Not Children’s?”“I don’t know. I don’t know. I spoke with Zara and I’ll go find her first. They couldn’t get Alma on the phone for me. I can’t even imagine…” I pause. “I guess you should go find Alma first.”“Of course. How far away are you?”“Maybe forty-five minutes to the hospital.“Drive carefully.” Zara Daddy has this habit of going “Ahem.” He calls it allergies. Mama and I tease him that we can always hear him coming. Once at school Daddy was bringing a signed paper for Miss T. and I heard him all the way from the office to my class at the end of the hall. Tonight I hear him coming before I see him. The doctor said to lie still for a while. I don’t know how long a while is, but now with Daddy coming, it doesn’t matter. I won’t have to find Mama by myself. I won’t have to talk to the nurses and doctors who keep checking in on me and Lila. I won’t have to worry anymore. Daddy is here.
[Read Full Issue]