I had dinner with my childhood friend Alek the other day. At one point he said, "You know Tania, other than your brother I may be the first person you ever saw and still know. For sure, you guys are my oldest friends."
Neither of us remembers that first time when our families crossed paths briefly in a refugee camp in Trieste in 1950. Alek and his family left for Venezuela long before any memories formed in my infant mind. My memory of Alek coming to America when I was around 10, however, couldn't be stronger.
"Oh, I bet you had a crush on him," said his friend Jane as we waited to be served, smiling fondly at us, as if imagining that possibility.
I glanced blankly at Alek, and then we both laughed. By the time we reached young adulthood, Alek was a handsome Olympic-quality swimmer with a PhD in math from Berkeley. But the 10-year-old child my Mama took in the summer that his own mother was still trapped in Venezuela would have been on my hit list for torture or worse. Certainly a crush was not in the range of possibilities.
"Why can't you be more like Alek?" is all I can remember Mama preaching to me that summer at Stanislavka, our name for the converted chicken coops we summered at on the Stanislaus River near Knight's Ferry. You would've thought the sun rose and set on this detested suck-up who was always polite and obedient—behavior unimaginable to me.
Alek's mother Olga eventually made it to America, and tried to teach me to play piano for several years before giving up in despair. Alek and my brother became best friends. By high school I learned to tolerate him, and we were friends in college. Years later I became the nominal godmother to his son Adrian, in a Russian Orthodox ceremony at our home that had to be kept secret from his wife Janet's Jewish parents. Cancer took our spouses within months of each other a few years ago. Now our most regular contact is his annual question about where to send his Christmas letter. And yet we know each other's deepest histories.
This summer we might walk across Slovenia together, with a remote relative of a distant young cousin of Alek's whom I helped find a job in America when he was fleeing the conflict that decimated Yugoslavia. Last summer when Sasha and I were traveling in Serbia, visiting our own distant relatives, we ran into this young man—now living and working in Silicon Valley—by completely insane happenstance in the town of Novi Sad, and set off the train of events leading to this walk.
As I try to write this story in as few words as possible and still come up with anything that makes the slightest bit of sense, I see why my book about Mama's life gets longer and longer until I punch it back into obedience. Alek will probably not make it in, but perhaps there's another book here…