they were the only ones who met on new year's eve 1999

My grandmother’s name is Sala
Sa-la
A hard L- the kind where your tongue has to push against the back of your front two teeth
My grandfather’s name was Mustafa
But we always called him Tati
Ta-tee
They grew up in the same village
And played together until the age that boys and girls are separated to learn their roles
My grandmother retreated to her father’s house, learning to cook and clean
And my grandfather started going to school
My grandmother blushes when she admits to me that she used to sneak up to the roof of her house when dawn came
Just to see my grandfather walking to school, books clutched against his chest
Every morning, him and the sun
It seemed to her that the sun rose with him,
That it could only be coaxed eastward if he pulled it with him
My grandmother married the boy who pulled the sun up for her every day
And they had six children
Seven, if you count the one who died before his first birthday cake could be made
My grandfather was, as they say, “ahead of his time"
He was an intelligent and forward-thinking academic living in Communist times
His children came home from school each afternoon singing songs about the benevolent nature of their leader
Tito belongs to us and we belong to Tito, they hummed
But when Tito died, the tides changed
And when my grandfather spoke up opposing the nationalistic movement against Albanians- which would one day grow into full-fledged ethnic cleansing-
He didn’t make it home from work
And my grandmother wondered how to explain ‘political prisoner’ to her children
One night, months after my grandfather’s disappearance,
My grandmother saw a blue-eyed stranger trudging up the village hill
In his hands- a note scrawled in my grandfather’s handwriting
Sell everything. Meet me in Rome.
So she did
She sold everything, kissed her weeping relatives goodbye
And trudged across Europe with her children
In Rome, a reunion
We’re going to America, my grandfather said
We’re refugees, he said
America- the word was bulky in my grandmother’s mouth on that sundrenched day in Rome
And even now she can’t quite wrap her tongue around it
Amer-eek, she said
Amer-eek, their children mimicked in high-pitched voices Amer-eek!
My mother, an 8-year old pig-tailed refugee in Rome
On her way to Amer-eek
New York City, to be precise
Their first house was right off of Ditmas Avenue in Brooklyn
A crumbling 3-family home shared with other Albanian refugees
Where, during that first year, English was spoken so rarely that you could almost forget you’d left home
The house was right underneath the Cortelyou Road subway station
Every time the trains rumbled past, the walls of the house shook and trembled and my grandmother prayed under her breath
My grandmother- a woman who gave birth to seven children and raised six of them
But never learned to read
Every morning she sent her children to school, a place she would never set foot in, a mystical land where knowledge and learning were the status quo
They came home speaking English, which my grandmother was glad for only so that they could translate for her at the grocery store or the doctor’s office
My grandfather worked days in a factory and spent his nights smoking and reading about the land that he’d left behind
As his sons and daughters grew into young men and women,
Their old country smoldered-
A fire quietly growing
It would spread soon, my grandfather knew
It wouldn’t be long before the name of his country became famous for all the wrong reasons
Blasted out of radios, smeared across CNN
Serbian forces move to Kosovo
Ethnic cleansing
Genocide

But that wasn’t until the ‘90s
And in the decade before his country was ripped apart by misplaced nationalism,
My grandfather sent my 18-year old mother back home
Go to college, he said, get a degree
Meet a nice boy
, my grandmother said, get married
She did both
And when she finally returned to America a couple of years later,
It was with my father and oldest sister in tow
My parents made their own home in America in the mid-80s
By 1985, my second sister made her appearance-
the first of the Latifi’s to be born in America
Meanwhile, my father was studying for his medical boards and his ESL class at the same time
And my mother was raising my sisters in the bustle of Brooklyn
The 80’s faded and in the first year of the 90’s, my brother joined our family
My father named him Kushtrim, which means battle cry
And was fitting because as my brother was taking his first steps,
Our Bosnian neighbors were being brought to their knees
By the time the war spread from Bosnia to Kosovo,
I was 5 years old and living in Virginia with my family
In a sprawling brick house surrounded by a lush green lawn that my father mowed every Sunday
Just like a real American
But the news was on every hour of every day
And some of my earliest memories are of peeking over the living room couch,
Straining to see what was happening in the country where my family started-
Where my grandparents met as children
Where my parents fell in love as college students
My brother and I were deemed to young to watch the news with my parents
So we snuck looks from behind doorways,
Sat on the stairs that wrapped around the back of our house-
Anything to catch a few words from Christiane Amanpour’s mouth that would explain why my mother jumped every time the phone rang
And my father sat in front of the TV with his mouth pulled into a tight line
My brother and I whispered to each other from our hiding spots,
Pulled dictionaries into our room and blew the dust from their pages
Genocide: the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation
My brother read the definition aloud and I tilted my head to the side
Why us?
He slowly shook his head side to side
8 years old
How was he supposed to know?
In the spring of 1998,
I sat on top of my father’s shoulders as we marched through Times Square,
Chanted in front of the United Nations building in Midtown Manhattan
Around us, the crowd swarmed
Red and black t-shirts, the Albanian eagle stamped on every single one
Free Kosova, U.S.A.! we yelled
Free Kosova, U.S.A.!
In 1999, Bill Clinton became the hero of Albanians everywhere when he ordered NATO to launch an air strike against Serbia
78 days later, the war was over
But what we didn’t understand then was that it had just began
The first time I saw the country of my ancestors was in the summer of 1999
British army tanks rolled down the streets instead of cars
And my mother tried to distract me by pointing out landmarks
That’s where your father and I used to have coffee
That’s where my dorm was

But all I could see was the soldiers guarding the entrance to my aunts’ apartment building
And the pile of rubble that used to be my father’s childhood home
I looked out with my big brown eyes
And saw an entire country bleeding and breaking
I went back to America after the summer of 1999 with the taste of my homeland burning my tongue
My grandfather-
Tati, remember?
He lived to see the war start and end
But died before anyone recognized our independence
A snowy New Year’s Eve
2003 slipping into 2004
A heart attack
A widow
A funeral
The first time I saw my mother cry
My youngest uncle washing my grandfather’s body
My baby sister only three months old, screaming like she felt our pain
It’s been 10 years and my grandmother is still mourning my grandfather
It’s been 15 years and my country is still mourning our lost souls
But my grandmother has stopped wearing all black and she laughs with her grandchildren like we’re the only thing that keep her breathing
And my country just celebrated 6 years of independence
I know my grandmother is lonely
She talks about my grandfather like he just stepped out of the room for a moment
And I know my country is hurting
We still hang flowers on the mass graves of our countrymen
But we’re all healing
Which reminds me of the best advice my grandfather ever gave me-
Shpresa le te v’des e fundit-
Let hope die last
—  Fortesa Latifi - The Plight of the Refugee & Their Family
OQ Week Prompt 2- Pretending to be a Couple

In order to get her son in the best private school she can Regina asks her new friend Robin to pose as her husband. Modern AU.

———–

Regina smoothed out the creases of her suit as she climbed out of her SUV. Henry gave her an amused look as he stepped out of the back seat.

“I just want to say again that I can’t believe you’re actually doing this,” he said shaking his head.

She sent him a frustrated look. “Hey it was either this or you go to the high school with the metal detectors at the door.”

They heard the passenger door slam as Robin climbed out of the car. “Trust me Henry you should be grateful to have a mother who cares this much about your education.”

Henry smirked at him as he rolled his eyes. Robin was one of his mom’s new friends from work. To be honest he was little surprised that she’d been able to connect with someone so soon after their move to New York but Robin seemed to be a decent guy. He was a graphic designer at the new advertising firm where Regina worked and he’d sort of taken her under his wing. He was quickly becoming someone she could count on. So much so that she’d asked him to pretend to be her husband for their interview with the headmistress of Henry’s intended private school.

“I just think it’s ridiculous that she has to have a husband before they’ll even let me in,” said Henry indignantly.

“Well you’re not wrong but that’s private school for you,” said Robin. “They take everything into account with new students, even home life.” To be honest he wasn’t so fond of his new friend bending to the school’s wills either. He was a firm believer that all education should be free to the public, not guarded behind tuition fees and iron gates.

“I know it’s insane Henry,” said Regina fixing her hair in the car mirror. “But I want you to have the best chances in life and this school is one of those chances.”

Blanchard Academy was the best prep school in the state. Their teachers were well traveled and educated. The classes were small. The campus was beautiful. More than half the students went on to Ivy League schools. It was a parents dream to get their kid enrolled. Henry had passed the entrance exam with flying colors and due to a large inheritance from her father she could more than afford to pay tuition. The problem lay with her marital status. She’d read on more than a few forums that the headmistress of the school had a firm bias against single parents. When she and Henry had been invited for a pre-enrollment interview the receptionist had asked if her husband would be joining them and before she could stop herself she blurted out yes. Thank god Robin had agreed to play along with her insanity.

She took one last look at herself before nervously turning to her son and (fake) husband. “Okay one more time. What are the stats?”

“Henry is 14 and his birthday is May 30th,” replied Robin automatically. “You are thirty-seven and your birthday is July 15. You adopted Henry when he was three months old. I met you both a year and a half ago on a business trip to Maine. We dated long distance for 9 months. I would visit you every other weekend and you both would come see me for holiday visits. I proposed to you on New Year’s Eve with a ring Henry helped me pick. A month later we were married in a courthouse ceremony. I set up things here while you finished out the school year in Maine with Henry. We’ve only been married six months.”

Regina let out a relieved breath. “Okay. Henry, stats?”

“Robin’s 38,” replied Henry. “His birthday is April 18th. He was born in England but he moved here with his parents when he was 15. He went to college at USC, graduated in 1999. He was married before you but it didn’t work out. He has one son named Roland. He’s seven, brown hair, brown eyes, dimples and loves Adventure Time, Spiderman and anything made by Pixar.”

“Spot on,” said Robin with a grin.

Henry smiled and gave him a high-five. “I’ve always been good at tests.”

Regina took another deep reaching into her purse and slipping on one of her mother’s old rings. It felt strange having a ring on her finger again. She hadn’t worn them since Daniel died. This is for my son’s education, she silently reminded herself.

“Okay,” she said nodding her head. “Let’s head inside.”

They took a few steps before Robin called out to her. “Wait. Perhaps we should… hold hands?”

She stared at his outstretched hand and hesitated before grabbing it with her own. What the hell, she thought to herself. Might as well fully commit.

—————

They’d decided to let Henry wander around campus while they had their meeting with the headmistress. Frankly Robin was glad he wasn’t here for this. Something about the woman in front of him put him off. Headmistress Blue was a good-looking women. Her features were delicate and she always had a small smile on her face. Yet somehow whenever he looked into her eyes Robin saw something he didn’t trust. Something extremely strict and judgmental. Something cold.

She looked over Henry’s file with a discerning eye. “Your son’s test scores are quite impressive.”

“Thank you,” said Regina with a smile. “I’ve always tried to remind him of the importance of education.”

“His participation leaves something to be desired though,” she drawled flipping through the folder. “The file from his previous school says that he’s not involved in any clubs, sports or theatres. How would you explain that?”

Regina hesitated before answering. “Well Henry has always been a bit shy around others.”

Robin quickly grabbed her hand and squeezed it reassuringly. She’d been more than a little jumpy during this whole interview process. “I think introverted would be a better term darling.”

She sent him a grateful look. “Right. Henry is very passionate about many things but they’re usually things that he can do in solitude. Reading, writing and drawing.”

“It’s why we’re hoping he’ll get a chance to attend your school,” said Robin with a smile. “We read up on what amazing creative writing and literature classes you have here. We’re hoping they’ll give Henry a chance to branch out and meet more people with his interests.”

Regina raised an eyebrow him, clearly impressed. He actually read the pamphlets I gave him, she thought to herself.

The headmistress leaned back in her seat and looked them over. “I will say that I am impressed with Henry’s grades and test scores. According to what I’ve read he’d be a good fit for Blanchard Academy. However, I do have some concerns about his home life.”

Regina glanced at Robin apprehensively. “His home life?”

“Yes,” said Blue with a nod. “He’s been through quite a few changes this past year. Your marriage, his move here, having another child in the house. Children who experience changes of this nature tend to go through an adjustment period where they act out and misbehave. I worry that if I admit Henry now he will begin to show these symptoms during the school year.”

“Trust me there’s no chance of that,” said Regina with a chuckle. “Henry has always been particularly well-adjusted and he knows that he can come to me with any issues that he has.”

“Well I’m just not sure I believe that,” said the headmistress in a superior tone. “I’ve worked in education for many years now and I’ve seen plenty of boys in his situation go down rough paths. Especially ones that come from homes with your background.”

Regina clenched her jaw and leaned forward in her seat. “I’m sorry. With my background?”

“Single mothers with sons,” clarified Blue. “Given the absence of a father figure in the home most boys in the situation begin to think of themselves as stand-in protectors for their mothers. They like to take care of them and when their mothers begin to date and remarry they begin to angry that they’ve been pushed aside.”

Regina stared at her with wide eyes and began to ball her hands into fists. She couldn’t be serious. She couldn’t honestly think that by marrying someone else Regina would begin to neglect Henry. It was preposterous. She was so insulted she couldn’t even speak. Luckily Robin could.

“Did you actually use the words ‘pushed aside?’” he said in a low voice.

“Well studies do show that the boys tend to feel neglected-”

“Wait neglected?!” he interrupted angrily. “That’s not much better now is it?”

Blue pursed her lips at him. “These are just the facts Mr. Locksely.”

Robin scoffed at her. “No the facts are you have chosen to judge my… wife and her son based on one inconsequential fact about their lives. If you had taken one minute to look beyond what I assume is an outdated and sexist study about middle class families you would see that there is nothing my wife cares about more than her son. Because I’ve been able to see it from the moment I met her.”

Though she kept the smile on her face they could both see that Blue had begun to seethe with rage. “Now are you sure that you can be such a good judge of character Mr. Locksely? Given that your first marriage ended in divorce.”

That was enough to raise Regina out of her stupor. “I don’t think I appreciate your tone Headmistress Blue. My husband’s previous marriage has nothing to do with his judge of character.”

“Well divorce is never good for any child Mrs. Mills,” said Blue. “I’m sure despite his best efforts your stepson, Roland, felt the effects of his parent’s separation.”

By this point Robin had gone red in the face. His grip on the chairs handle bars seemed to be the only thing keeping him in his seat. He shivered when he felt Regina place her hand on top of his. She ran her thumb over the top of his hand and they exchanged a look. She stared into his eyes and silently said, let me handle this.

She turned to Blue with a dangerous smile on her face. “Headmistress do you have any children?”

“I do not,” said Blue firmly. “I prefer to focus on my work.”

“Right,” said Regina. “And have you ever been married?”

She saw the headmistress clench her jaw before shaking her head. “No I have not.”

Unsurprising, thought Regina. “So given you lack of experience in both areas why do you think you have the right to judge either of us so severely?”

Blue gave her a pitying look. “Mrs. Mills-”

Regina raised a finger at her. “No I am not done speaking so do not interrupt me,” she said in a harsh voice.

Robin didn’t even hide his smirk as he saw the smile drop off of the headmistress’s face.

“Now my husband’s previous marriage might not have worked out but that has nothing to do with his ability as a parent. He loves his son just as dearly as I love my own and for you to sit there and belittle us for the situations we were forced to raise our children in is the height of despicability! I will not tolerate it! Especially not from someone whose name is no more than a color!”

Blue’s jaw dropped as Regina rose from her seat and looked down at her.

“Now it’s more than clear to me Henry could more than excel at this school but I’ve now decided that I don’t want him anywhere near it. Not with someone as toxic as you running it.”

She turned to Robin. “I’m going to grab Henry so we can get the hell out of here.”

“Right behind you, love,” he said rising from his seat as she stomped out of the office. He turned to grin at the headmistress. “I hope you have a miserable day.”

He relished the look of shock on her face before he slammed the door.

—————-

Since Regina’s rage seemed to be filling every corner of the car on the ride away from the school Robin suggested stopping for lunch so she cool down. After twenty minutes of awkward silence while Henry ate and Regina picked at a salad he encouraged Henry to play in the arcade.

“You know any decent parent would’ve done the same thing,” he said gently.

She scoffed at him. “Trust me I don’t regret a thing. She definitely had it coming. I’m just mad I have to find another school for Henry.”

“Well if you show half the ferocity you did in that office any school will be far too scared not to accept him,” he said with a smirk.

She winced at him. “Was I really that bad?”

“At one point I was concerned you were going to light her on fire with your mind,” laughed Robin.

She let out a breathless chuckle. “Don’t think I didn’t try.”

Robin smiled at her from across the table. “You know judgmental headmistresses aside, I kind of enjoyed being your husband.”

Regina raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re not proposing are you?”

“Marriage? No,” he said. “But perhaps dinner wouldn’t be so bad?”

She felt a smile tug on her lips. “Maybe it wouldn’t.”