Domnica Radulescu: “We’ll Always Have Hollywood!”, an Excerpt from Country of Red Azaleas, a Novel in Progress

Marija was not answering the phone and I stood confused in front of the Los Angeles airport, not knowing what my next move should be. Tanned, slender and over confident Californians passed by me as I tried to take myself out of the existential torpor that was descending upon me. I wanted to be in a white room with no noise and no strident colors. By some stroke of luck the taxi driver I flagged down was a kind man from Uzbekistan who decided to give me a tour of the city and then drop me in front of a lovely white hotel with blazing azaleas hanging from every window on a sunny street in Los Angeles. I couldn’t say no to anything and to anyone on that day of extreme jet lag and existential murkiness and the taxi driver must have taken my dazed smiling as a sign that yes, he could just take me on a two hour tour of that dizzying conglomerate of highways punctuated by short tours of LA neighborhoods and areas. It didn’t matter that I had no spatial direction and knowledge of where I was, since I had no idea where any part of my life was going. Maybe from the meeting of two chaoses some sharp idea of order would reemerge.

The hotel room was white and plain just like I had wanted and as I sat down on the white armchair and stared in a daze at the white wall funny bird figures started drawing themselves onto the chalky surface. It was as if actual birds were visiting me in my room and decided to draw their own portraits on the white walls of my azalea hotel room. Specks of darkness and redness like splintered body parts from a recent bombardment were also portraying themselves onto the wall of my room and it turned out those specks were miniature paintings, the visual art abridged version of my life: I had a daughter who had been split in two by a wicked divorce, I had a daughter to whom I had lied in order to carry out an extramarital affair in Parisian hotels and rural Virginia motels where truck drivers slept with hookers. I had once had a handsome smart and accomplished husband who now despised and hated even the thought of me and who believed I was the female incarnation of the Devil, the new Eve. I had had a chance at a real career as a political science and political philosophy professor in America, the country I had wanted to come to since the age of six, when my mother brought us a glass figurine version of the Statue of Liberty and I said then: “I want to go to the country that has this.” I had once had a smoldering sexy lover who was also a smart professor and who for all I knew was now trying really hard to stay erect while in bed with an Algerian woman and while probably crying for love of me. I had done bad things and I was all alone in a white hotel room in Los Angeles. Whiteness was a fraud, purity was a fraud. Only specks of blood and darkness were real.

My friend Marija whom I had so loved through our childhood and all of our school years and our college years at the University of Belgrade, had been raped by Serbian soldiers and now she was looking for me because a child came out of that blob of darkness. Maybe he was a three headed monster or maybe he was a murderer child like the fathers who had engendered him. Why in the world did Marija want that child? And then suddenly out of those crowds of black specks that were all the bad things in my life, Marija walked towards me like a goddess of fire, more beautiful than I had ever seen or remembered her. She wore dangling sparkling heavy jewelry all over her body, even on her ankles and in her nose, and her eyes were blazing, but not with hatred, with love. Her eyes were shining with golden love like a benevolent sun. She told me to go with her. And I did.

My cell phone rang and without even looking at the number on the screen I said: “Marija? I’m in LA.” She had the same throaty, warm, somehow ironic voice I remembered. She didn’t sound a bit surprised that I was in LA. She even laughed. How did one laugh after one had been through what Marija had been through? But laugh she did. Her voice seemed to match the image of power and beauty I had just had of her in my vision. There was no whiteness in her voice, but neither was it all speckled with blood and darkness. It was a voice like a flooding river which swept you away and overpowered you. Marija was going to come pick me up at my hotel any minute, she knew where I was, “Fancy, fancy!” she said and laughed again. The azaleas on my terrace blazed and the white walls of the hotel framed me like a painting. I saw myself in the mirror and did not recognize my white face, my sparkling blue eyes and dark blonde hair against a white background with crimson azaleas in a corner. I was my own illusion in a city of illusions. I felt a terrifying numbness and I clang to Marija’s voice to make myself feel something again. Even if it was going to be horrible, it was better than that glacial whiteness numbness nothingness that choked me.

I waited for Marija sitting on the steps in front of the hotel, framed by enormous pots of azaleas, like a girl in some Mexican painting I once saw. The street was uncannily quiet as if everybody had died. Yet the sun shone with such warmth and conviction onto everything and enveloped me so lovingly that even if everybody on that street was dead, the warm light made it all right. I dozed off for what seemed to be a fraction of a second and when I opened my eyes a red car appeared from around the corner like a blazing eagle. It sparkled in the sun and for a second it looked like it was all ablaze. But then Marija got out of it wearing a black and white simple dress and a yellow headband. She had none of the colors I had expected. She was a black and white movie with a speck of yellow. The speck of something that seemed both amiss and necessary, both attractive and irritating. Marija looked somehow unchanged and yet a completely different person, as if time had not touched her but as if she had gone through a transformation that changed her completely. My greatest shock was that she looked neither devastated, nor broken, nor a pulsing blob of raging anger as I would have probably been, had I experienced what she had. She laughed when she saw me and her laughter scratched the surface of my brain sharply and deeply all the way to the last memory I had of her laughing and talking in the hallway of Belgrade University, surrounded by a group of men and women that all seemed to be mesmerized by every single word flowing out of her mouth. War, genocide, mass rapes, NATO bombings, bloody divorce and custody battle in between two of Marija’s laughs stretched across a full decade and some. She wore dangling jewelry too.

Marija had a glass eye and a reconstructed nose but you couldn’t tell. It was all done to perfection by a plastic surgeon in LA who operated on movie stars, on people like Cher and Michael Jackson. During the attack, the rape, the murder of her family, she obtained an injury that crushed her optic nerve and her nose. She used the word “obtained” as if it was something one would ask for. She passed out from the pain and didn’t remember the rest, it was a blessing she said, others remembered everything; there was always someone worse off, for instance a woman and her twelve year old daughter who had been raped repeatedly in front of each other in a school gymnasium that had been turned into a rape camp, over weeks and weeks. The mother killed herself. She didn’t say what happened to the daughter. Marija was frighteningly beautiful while she spoke, like an inhuman apparition, like an Indian deity of suffering and revenge that I once saw in a Museum of Oriental Art in Greece. At some point her glass eye produced a tiny sparkle in the sun in the café on Sunset Boulevard where she took me. And at that exact moment something cracked and I started sobbing with uncontrolled rage. My body shook from its core and my chest was heaving in excruciating pain. Marija held my hands without moving and without flinching and without blinking until my sobbing crisis passed; she told the blonde tanned waitress who asked if we were all right and whether we needed anything, to stay away from our table and not to bother us again until we called her. The people at the surrounding tables cast surreptitious glances and pretended not to hear or see anything. They dug into their salads and sipped their diet drinks. Only a Russian mother and daughter were having the fight of their lives and were louder than my sobbing for a while, their heavy avalanches of Slavic consonants poured on even into the silence left after my sobs. Their violent squabble soothed me. It was then only that I realized Marija and I were speaking English and not Serbian. It felt perfectly normal to speak in English to each other about Serbian atrocities. You saw everything in LA and nobody cared. Everybody carried their little pathetic spectacles with them from sunny place to sunny place and then went shopping or got tanned. Marija paid the bill and said “Let’s get the hell out of here. I want to show you something.”

I followed Marija into her red convertible car. I would have followed her to the moon. She seemed superhuman or immortal to me, only her glass eye — the idea of it — gave me an unbearable wrenching feeling that left me breathless. It hurt me more than the idea of the rape, while to her it was a “blessing” because it reminded her that she didn’t remember what had happened. She needed to be reminded that she didn’t remember. She didn’t want to talk about the war and the horror of that day, only about the future. It wasn’t clear to me what future she was talking about. She asked me about my “adventure” in Paris with a throaty laugh. I poured everything out to her as if she was my personal therapist. She was whizzing across serpentine LA highways at the wheel of her red Corvette with her shock of black hair rising in the wind like a magic bird. She said: “That’s awful Lara, what an awful thing to happen to you, I would have strangled the man. What an absolute bastard, to tell you that he loved you so much he couldn’t get it up when he tried to screw other women!” Then she said: “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” then she repeated yet another time that she was so sorry. Nothing made sense. How could she be so sorry for me and my little pathetic Paris melodrama, when she survived the unsurvivable?

She must have guessed my thoughts. “Everybody’s suffering is their own, Lara. We all have our own boulder to carry up that fucking hill. If we choose to. We can also just finish it off with one quick swish of a blade. If we choose to.”

Her forearms were covered in shiny brass bracelets that jingled like little bells. I was in awe of Marija. I was inside a breathtaking dance of clashing colors. I had broken right through the middle of white icy surfaces and the wildest colors crackled all around and through me. Black was a color too and it was my favorite. Because Marija spoke a lot in riddles and aphorisms, I had to construct the puzzle of her full meanings in my mind as we talked while also paying attention to her and observing every one of her expressions and gestures. It was exhausting and thrilling, like a carnival of the mind. I felt I was being taken on a spatial journey in Marija’s red Corvette and all the questions that were scorching my mind about her past were pulverized into fine dust. At some point she turned towards me smiling lovingly and asked: “How are you doing girl?” then she said: “Just because one went through Apocalypse and back doesn’t mean we have to wear dowdy clothes and look like shit and be miserable all day long, right?” Soon after that she pulled into a location called Burbank and showed me a sign that said Warner Brothers Studios. “Come let’s see behind the illusion and deconstruct it,” she said smiling again. We got on some kind of small tram and we got off at a set that looked French. “We’ll always have Paris?” she laughed heartily. “Paris be damned!” I said. But then it clicked and I burst out laughing too. It was the set where the Paris flashback scenes were shot in Casablanca, Ingrid and Humphrey driving in a convertible, drinking Champagne at a piano bar, dancing, swirling, laughing and kissing, all on a make believe concoction imitation cardboard reconstruction of Paris. It had all started with Marija: my fixation on Casablanca. We were in sixth grade and Casablanca was playing one night at the cinema where they showed old movies in the center of Belgrade. Marija had borrowed the pass from a friend whose father worked in animation and had the pass to all the movie showings in town. She told me I could get in on her pass too. That night I was going to spend the night at Marija’s house and I was ecstatic. Marija had cans of condensed milk in her pantry that we ate as desert. We ate a whole can together and felt lightheaded from the sugar. We took the tram and went to the cinema with our hearts pumping fiercely in our chests. We told our parents we were going to visit Sabina, a friend of ours from seventh grade because we needed her to help us with our geography homework. Sabina was also Bosnian like Marija and I loved going to their houses because it always smelled of good food and there were no icons of the crucified Christ and of Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus on their walls like in our own apartment. Throughout the whole movie Marija and I held hands and cuddled next to each other unmoved. At the end we sat in our chairs while everybody was leaving the theater and we cried like we had just watched the funeral of our parents or something tragic like that. We stayed up all night talking about the movie and arguing whether Ilsa should have gone with Rick or should have done what she did. We decided we did not like Ilsa as a character either way but we still wanted to be like her – sort of — only I would have gone with Rick, and Marija would have left both of them and gotten on the plane alone. I didn’t get that about Marija at the time. Why was she going to dump them both? “To increase my chances at happiness and adventure,” she had said then and I remembered admiring her so much for the courage of her freedom. I also laughed imagining the perplexed faces of both men as their beautiful Ilsa got on that ugly war plane without either of them. Then we opened and gulped down another can of condensed milk from Marija’s pantry and we fell asleep holding hands and drowning in sugar overdose. From then on all throughout high school and sometimes even when we ran into each other in the hallways of our university, once in a while Marija would stop and look at me and tell me a line from Casablanca. It was our inside joke. “But what about us?” she would say looking at me teary eyed and I wouldn’t answer with the most famous line but the one after that and would say: “We got it back last night.” The “We’ll always have Paris” line was embedded in silence and we swallowed it with a greedy gulp like the best spoonful of condensed milk in the world, sweet and creamy.

She now stood in front of me in her black and white floral design dress with the bright yellow silky headband holding back her thick glossy black hair (that I always envied when in school together) and uncovering her high smooth forehead. She was so beautiful that it didn’t seem right. I felt shreds and shreds of my heart and memory become loose and fall off me like I was a skin shedding animal. The time in sixth grade when we first saw Casablanca and ate two cans of condensed milk had been packed inside a rocket and catapulted into space. We were two little specks of sugary innocence flying through the cold galaxies. What came soon after that was indescribable and filled with stench of raw human flesh and deafening screams. And above it all Marija stood in front of me having walked through all that, with a glass eye and a yellow headband and an irresistible laugh. She guessed my thoughts again and said: “You either survive something like that or you don’t, you know. And then if you don’t die you might as well survive with flair. Would it be better if I looked worn out, devastated and broken? Should I cover my face in soot and wear muddy shoes or something? I’d rather be beautiful, it’s my revenge!” Then without me realizing it the string of words came out of my mouth with an ironic rumble: “What about us?” I said. “We got it back last night,” she said. Then she embraced me with such fervor that I lost my breath. When I recovered it, we were both laughing, but really it also felt like we were crying and then also like some new kind of laughter, a new invention of laughter for people who had travelled to Apocalypse and had come back.

“It’s all shameless make believe,” I said. “They could have at least gone to real Paris to shoot the scenes.”

“Sure it’s shameless make believe, so is about half of everything we experience in our lives. So was the socialist utopia of President Tito who wanted us to believe Yugoslavia was God’s gift to World Communism, and the pageants and the Party pictures and so are the books that made our education, your Plato and Descartes and Locke and the whole lot of them. How could we live without make believe? I think it’s cool they could create this amazing illusion of beauty and happiness and Parisianness right here on a constructed locale, location, set, whatever. We need make believe. I mean real make believe, the one that actually makes you believe that something beautiful exists when it actually doesn’t. Like happiness on the planet earth or something like that.”

Marija sat on a bench in the fake street in the make believe Paris built for the filming of French scenes in movies like Casablanca, then she produced a perfect Gala apple from her purse and bit into it with greed and a sparkling set of teeth. She offered me some and I bit into her apple trying to match her greed. It felt refreshing and soothing. I started to have the uncanny feeling that my person was finally starting to take a definite shape and contour and clear edges on that day when I met Marija which seemed like the longest day on the planet. Then Marija said: “You know, what you hear a lot from all sorts of people – activists, artists, teachers, politicians – that we have to remember, to keep the past alive, we have to keep telling our stories, to keep the memory of suffering and violence alive?” I thought she was just saying that rhetorically, but she waited for my answer. I was startled and surprised every second on that day and was irrevocably falling in love with Marija. I whispered: “Yes, of course I know, I used to say that too. I still do. Don’t you?” She took another bite from the apple and said: “I used to, yes, all the time. But that was before… I haven’t for a while, I don’t any longer. My question is: why keep remembering? Look at it … it’s not true that people remember and then they don’t commit atrocities anymore because they remember past atrocities and don’t want to repeat them. On the contrary, they have the model of past atrocities and they keep perfecting that model … they do! And then books are written about holocausts and genocides and movies are made where they make a bunch of actors look gaunt and emaciated and you have all sorts of horrors being portrayed realistically on the screen in this notion that we have to bear witness, we have to keep remembering… What happens actually is that people become even more desensitized, they experience aesthetic pleasure, they cry, they feel good about themselves because they emote in front of a film about the Holocaust or about the Rwandan Genocide. And these are the best of them. Then there are those people who actually get stirred up and excited at the sight of make believe blood and tortured bodies. They like it. That’s not the kind of make believe that movies should be doing, because it is real, it doesn’t need to be made believe, those horrors actually do happen to real people.”

Here she made a pause and took a deep breath, because she was one of those real people. I took her hand and held it tightly. It was incredibly warm, like a heated bird that had just landed exhausted in my hand. “I’m not saying it should all be forgotten,” she went on with new energy and a swift move of her head, “but it shouldn’t be remembered this way, like not forget it but not remember it either. I don’t know exactly which way. I think they should stop making Holocaust movies, and Rwanda genocide movies and if anybody ever starts making a movie about the Bosnian war, I’ll set myself on fire right in the middle of fucking Universal Studios, like that student in Prague in ‘68, remember? I think we should start a new slate — a clean, fresh, sparkling new slate of life and history– erase the memory of carnage instead of keeping it.”

Marija circumvented time in her speech and never said “before” what or “since” when, she just used the words “before” and “since” and “after” indefinitely letting them hang in a fluid past. And after our talk at Warner Brothers Studios she never used those words anymore. She shrouded us in a cozy cooling silence forgetfulness dis-remembering that wasn’t really like you forgot everything but like you remembered but it didn’t touch you and you said good bye to it. I also knew that when Marija said she would set herself on fire she didn’t use that as a metaphor but that she would actually bathe in gasoline and strike the match. I was praying that Hollywood wouldn’t be as misguided as to think of making a movie about the Bosnian war and genocide by Serbian armies any time soon.

She came to my hotel room and we sat for a while in silence on my bed holding hands and looking at the white walls. The red azaleas on the balcony were reflected in the mirror and a feeling of rosiness entered the room with that reflection. The birds on the walls had disappeared, and so had the speck miniature abridged versions of my life. The walls were just white walls in an LA hotel. Then she said: “How is she?” And I knew she meant my daughter Natalia, I was catching on to Marija’s puzzle system of dialogue. “She is beyond words wonderful! A star! And also fragile and strong. And funny too. She went through so much. She was a kleptomaniac for a while during the period of the divorce.” I started crying again, I had to make up for all the uncried tears up to that point in my life and also for what was going to come, which I knew was going to be beyond tears, right there in the last circle of hell where tears hang frozen on your cheeks like icicles. I needed Marija more than she needed me and I felt strangely soothed and puzzled by that. Both soothed and puzzled, like you can’t believe a medicine is actually relieving your pain after a long period of suffering.

Then Marija did something perplexing again: she got up and circled the room a few times humming an old Serbian tune, the tune of a Serbian pop star in the eighties, a song about loving someone in the spring and feeling reborn. She went to her white purse, carefully searched through it and produced a photograph. “Here, look, that’s him!” This time I too knew who she meant: the boy, her son born in 1996. The photo was of poor quality, with pale colors and showed a tiny boy with a round head and very short haircut in the arms of an older woman with a scarf wrapped around her head, in a garden next to a well. I couldn’t make out the features of the boy other than that he did not have three heads and displayed no evident signs of monstrosity as I was imagining, and that he was small and round. I was intrigued by the well in the garden and wondered what part of Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia that could have been. “Isn’t he beautiful?” Marija said with a sigh and there was a completely new Marija emerging in that sigh and that statement: all bending, elastic and mellow and matching the silky headband on her head. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything and I didn’t think anything in that picture was beautiful. “I know what you are thinking, Lara. But the thing is this creature is here on this earth and I am his mother and he is there and I am here.” I was trying very hard to fill the space in her sentence before “But.” Why did she say “But,” what was that in contradiction to? Was it that I thought the “creature” that came out of a monstrous act could only be a monstrous creature and any contact with that creature would only rekindle, refresh, restart the oozing of the wounds, the gashes, the monstrosity that came with its conception, the broken optic nerve, oh the unbearable crushed optic nerve? I just couldn’t tolerate that.

“I had no idea I was pregnant until almost the birth,” she said. “That’s because I had separated myself from my body – there was me – this abstract me and there was my body – a blob of pulsing flesh. There was this woman … this woman who was caring for me and told me it was time to give birth … she knew it and I didn’t. I had been vegetating for months on her bed, in her room with my belly growing into this big balloon of liveliness. I didn’t feel a thing throughout the birth, as if I had been under anesthetic, and it just slithered out. One second I was crouching and squatting in this woman’s room, the next second something with a head and four limbs slithered out of me. I didn’t want to look at it. I just asked her what it was. I told her to keep it, I didn’t want it then but told her I would come back to get it one day. I said I would go back for it. Just like that as you would leave and come back for a coat or some other object like that. Now the time has come that I want it.”

At that point Marija took off her yellow headband and suddenly with her black hair all over her face and the imperceptible crookedness of her left glass eye she looked terrifying. I startled and became afraid of her. For a moment I wanted to run away from the room and run all the way to Washington DC and to my Natalia as if all that had been a bad dream and Mark and Natalia and I were still together and happily so and my lover Karim had never existed. Mark was both Mark and Karim in one and I had Paris and Washington and Belgrade with him – with this man who was all the men in one and was also my husband. That same moment I thought: “How did I get myself into this? Wake up and run, Lara, run!”

“We have to go to Serbia and get him, Lara, that’s all, you have to help me and you have to come with me,” Marija said very gently, almost like a lullaby. I sat on the bed transfixed, wanting to move and run away and not being able to. What was Marija talking about, I wasn’t going to go with her in search of the child resulted from Marija’s, from Marija’s …from the … I couldn’t say it to myself any longer, I couldn’t say it out loud, I couldn’t say it as a whisper, I couldn’t say it inside my head in my thoughts, as if that cooling forgetfulness that Marija talked about earlier was taking hold of me too.

“Bring Natalia with you,” she said. “It will be good for her to see her mother’s country of birth, to see something different.” How did Marija know what was good for Natalia I thought in rage, she had no idea about Natalia and the kind of person she was and what she needed and what she didn’t. I didn’t want to bring Natalia to my country of birth, it was a genocidal country. I should have listened to my sister, she always knew, I should have listened to her premonition that this was dark, unbearable stuff, and that neither of us could deal with it. It was un-dealable.

Marija sat down in the armchair across from the bed and next to the window and the last rays of the setting sun lingered on her. The sadness that spread on her face was luminous. It was as if the moon had melted onto her face. It was immense like an entity in itself, palpable like a living thing. Here was Marija, here was Lara and here was Marija’s sadness raining all over us and drowning us. I knew I wasn’t going to run away and that I was going to go with her to Serbia and to the end of the world and to the empty space in the sky that was left after the meltdown of the moon onto her face.

We slept in my hotel bed holding each other like two fugitives on the run. Marija’s sleep was so deep and so dark that at some point during the night I thought she died. I lay unmoved until my body went numb for fear not to wake her in case she hadn’t died. In the short periods I fell asleep I had dreams that made Frida Kahlo’s paintings of eviscerated hearts and bloody fetuses look like innocent still lives: pears and grapes and feathers on a country table. Marija’s eyes kept opening up like dark endless holes and whole armies of horrid creatures were coming out of them. Marija’s limbs were falling off of her like a doll’s limbs, and Natalia was holding one of her limbs and crying over it; the little boy with the round head in the picture was shrinking and becoming a spider. The well in the picture was bubbling with rotting bodies, the bodies of Bosnians killed in the genocide and a yellow ribbon was tied to the well saying not to drink that water. I desperately wanted to hold the spider in the dream and protect it. Then I woke up with a jump and had to rush to the bathroom to vomit. When I came back Marija was sleeping in the same position I had left her, unmoved, almost without breathing. I fell back asleep next to her terrifyingly silent body.

At some point towards morning Marija made coffee and started talking about postmodern theory. I couldn’t tell precisely whether I was hallucinating or dreaming or whether Marija’s words were actually real and happening in real time in my hotel room. I thought I had said something like: “Are you kidding me Marija, postmodern theory at four in the morning? Just shut up please and let me sleep!” She said postmodern theory claimed that everything was text, even us, humans were texts and what was the real then? There was no real, only a concept of the real that was different for everybody. Everybody’s real was different. But then, she said, if you had your optic nerve crushed under the back of a rifle, then you were not text anymore. Then you were a handful of screaming flesh and that was the only thing that was real and if you took a million people and did that to them, if you took the entire planet of people and did that to them, that would be the only thing really real for everybody and nobody could say that was anybody’s text. Postmodern theory was bullshit, she concluded, the self-indulgent wonderings of pretentious intellectuals having nothing better to do with their lives than create useless theories in a world that was already using people as texts and as objects just to see how real they were. Just like that, out of senseless cruelty, out of a desire for experimentation. At that point in my dream or in the reality of Marija talking about postmodern theory at dawn in the LA hotel room, I remembered my tenure: had I gotten it or not, what had the vote been, what day of what month were we, had spring break ended, were Mark and Natalia back from Chicago, and what in the world was Marija doing for a living, how could she afford an expensive brand new convertible, where did she live, what was she doing in LA, why did she get there in the first place?

When a bright irreverent LA sun shone its late morning rays onto my face and I opened my eyes I had no idea where I was. Then it all rushed in: the previous day with Marija, a day so long and so jammed with surprises and startles that it seemed like an accident in the cosmic calendar. I got up and looked for Marija but she was nowhere to be found, the room was picked up and seemed unused except for the bed I had slept in. The bed we had slept in. I felt heavy from the horrid dreams, exhausted from the nocturnal conversation about postmodern theory, with my head screwed on all wrong. Then it hit me: the pang of pain from Marija’s absence. I didn’t want her to be gone even though her presence made me experience psychic shocks that were the human equivalent of earthquakes of the degree of a ten on the Richter scale. I felt a gaping hole so deep and so excruciating that I bent over and held myself in a folded position at the edge of the bed. Marija rushed in through the door with a tray filled with pastries and fresh fruit, in her black and white dress and the shiny yellow ribbon holding her freshly combed hair.

“Have you found a new religion, who are you praying to, Lara dear?” she said laughingly. “Here have some breakfast, you had a rough night, must have had bad dreams, ha?”

I wanted to kiss Marija’s face and hair and scream with joy at the sight and the sound of her. Then she asked me: “So what do you want to do today, my dear?” Again I felt that tightening of my person into a definite and clearly contoured me the way I did the day before when I saw Marija eating her Gala apple on the French set of Casablanca. “Here is what we are going to do,” I said. “We will have this delicious breakfast together, then you will go home, wherever that is, and pack a few things, and then you will take me to the airport. And then you and I will get on the first plane to Washington, DC. And once there, you will meet Natalia and we will make plans to go to Serbia and get the boy. What do you say?”

Marija smiled her most ravishing smile and said: “We got it back last night!” The memory of a long gone summer evening in Belgrade when we drowned in the sweetness of condensed milk and Hollywood romance shrouded us in the white hotel room with its pots of irrepressible crimson azaleas hanging in the window.


Read Domnica’s interview about “We’ll Always Have Hollywood” and Country of Red Azaleas, her novel in progress