By the summer of 1993, my father had had enough of the war and decided it was time for a vacation.
“We’ve been locked up for two years now, making food out of powder. Milk, mashed potatoes, soup,” he said, pointing at the boxes of donated food on the pantry shelves. “Americans play heroes when all they do is get rid of their expired Navy supplies.”
He closed his eyes, fists thumping at his chest as if bouncing off his heart.
“What we need are fire-roasted sardines, a slice of sheep cheese, tomatoes picked off the vine. Normal food.” My twin brothers and I watched the performance, passionate and suspenseful as always, ready for the big reveal. Tata opened his eyes.
“And it’s hot as balls here,” he said. He ruffled my hair, then my brothers’. “We’re going seaside. Tomorrow. Love, kids, pack your swimsuits.”
My brothers and I squealed. We were already stuffing our rucksacks with tank tops and trunks when Mama marched in from the kitchen and kicked one of the bags across the hallway before we could throw in our comics and colored pencils.
“If we don’t get killed by the militias on the highway, the snipers will get us on the pontoon bridge before we reach the coast. Do I really need to explain this?” She looked at Tata harshly, like an opera singer about to scream out a high note; though in Mama’s case, it probably would have been the bout of crackly cough that attacked whenever she spoke fast or in frustration.
Tata walked over to her, put his hands on her shoulders, and took a deep breath, summoning solemnity before laying bare the secret to the meaning of existence.
“I refuse to eat dust. I refuse to live a vacationless life.”
Now Mama cupped Tata’s cheeks, their stares unblinking: his tenderly resolute, hers charged with impatience. “If you’re in a rush to die, join the army. Get this shit war over with.”
They fought all night. With my sixth-grader’s authority, I told my second-grade brothers to keep quiet and pack. My brothers were wind-up toys, cute and giggly, here to disperse the gloom of wartime life. Mama called them jesters. I called them Lolek and Bolek, after the mischievous cartoon characters. But now I needed them to focus and follow my lead. I was Mama’s successor, the heir to her throne of prudence.
The air raid sirens wailed in the distance, followed by the muted grumble of brick. Some of our neighbors would be heading down the staircase to the fallout shelter. Others, like us, skipped the ritual. The faraway murmur of the grenades had become background noise. Out of habit I turned off the lights, lowered the blinds just in case. But mostly so nothing would distract Mama and Tata from the argument that we, the kids, knew would eventually resolve in Tata’s favor. Our favor. It’s always the same: Mama tries to be the voice of reason, Tata repeats he’ll not allow his family to become a victim of others’ dirty agendas, convinces her he knows what he’s doing, then puts on some Bob Dylan and dances with her to “She Belongs to Me” until she eventually smirks and tells him to fuck off, throws her arms around his neck and rubs her nose against his.