On Highway 29, south of Lynchburg, I wind my way through the damp country of southern Virginia. Trees drip with kudzu, clouds drip with humidity, I drip with sweat.
The air conditioning is busted in this old Audi, so I’ve opened all the windows. Over the roar of the wind, Modest Mouse escorts me with their clamorous soundtrack of the lonesome west, foreign music now in this eastern world.
Periodically, small storms appear, shade the blue skies with their slate-gray fabric, spit rain, and disappear, leaving the sky alone and empty. Towns appear and disappear, too, towns with names like Eden and Tightsqueeze. I cross a bridge across the Mocatan, the water running thick and brown with silt from the recent rains. (Later, in an attempt to verify I wrote these names down properly, the maps show only silence and open space.)
I pull off at a convenience store to gas up and stretch my legs. An older gentlemen has set up a skeletal vegetable market on the sidewalk outside the store. No structure: only cardboard boxes on the concrete with fruit and vegetables, an orange plastic chair, and the man, sitting under the bright Virginia summer sun.
He looks at me as I head towards the door, and mentions the weather, as one does. It’s humid, isn’t it? And hot? His voice warbles from his jaw, which is clearly deformed, or damaged. I nod.
He croaks, ‘Where you from?’ I relate my usual story: Born in DC, live in Portland. He nods, and says, ‘Not from Bulgaria?’
Bulgaria? Not the question I expected. But in fact, my grandfather’s family is from Romania, I tell him, and I did travel there, years ago, not long after Ceaușescu fell on that bloody Christmas day.
‘Where?’ he asks. I had made a slow circle around the northwest part of that country, riding the rumbling Romanian trains through the lands of Transylvania and Bukovina, stopping in Cluj-Napoca, Suceuva, Brașov, Sighișoara. How do I still remember? I recite that itinerary, now dusty with time.
He nods again, knows the places — says he was born in Germany, but grew up in… and out of his ruined mouth come those old smoky Slavic phonemes, hard in the throat. The place he names is unfamiliar. I shake my head. He says, simply, ‘Yugoslavia.’ This time, it’s my turn to nod; the land of disappearance, of dissolving identities, of writing history and rewriting again, a land both false and true.
His eyes sparkle, and though his twisted mouth is filled with bad teeth, he smiles, smiles at the memory of that lost land, smiles at this stranger standing in front of him, this stranger from both the west and the east.
The sky darkens, and I look up towards the coming storm. When I look down again, the gas station is gone, along with the man and his boxes of fruits and vegetables. The highway is gone, too, and so is Virginia. I’m back on the rough asphalt of the Romanian roads, walking on the rocky and littered edge, while tiny Russian cars clatter by, spewing black diesel smoke. Off the road, small and ancient houses dot the verdant landscape.
A couple in a donkey-drawn wooden cart clatter past, look at me, stop. The man speaks a phrase I do not understand, motions towards the cart, unspoken: ‘Get in, get in; we’ll give you a ride.’ I hop on, in the dirt and hay; the man gives a short whistle, and the donkey bumps forward, the iron wheels grind against the stones, and we are off. It’s barely faster than walking, but I am tired, and thankful for the rest. ‘Mulțumesc,’ I say, thankfully, the only Romanian word I know. The man looks back, grins, his smile brilliant through his twisted jaw.