Sofia, just let me be.

I’ve shifted gears since leaving Croatia. I was moving too fast, finding that it took more energy than I had to continually be in the planning stage of what next, where to stay, how to get there. Better to pick some place and stay put for awhile, a week or ten days, and pursue my intention from the start: just be. I am not a tourist, and I can barely be called a traveler. What I am doing, in body and mind, is wandering – what else can you do when you are simultaneously exhausted and restless – trying to find places where I can feel comfortable putting myself for a bit.

Sofia, the second oldest city in Europe, is good for this it turns out. It is pronounced not like the woman’s name, I learn, but with the accent on the first syllable. Either way I love the way it sounds, the way it feels rolling out of my mouth. I’m in a flat, a spacious, clean and well-stocked one bedroom about 45 minutes walk from the old town which is where the museums etc are all located. I haven’t been down there yet and probably won’t go. The past few days have been very heavy, the build up and come down to do with Mother’s Day, for a start. These days – holidays, birthdays, anniversaries of death – they suck. For now anyway, they are days just to be borne, to live through, fraught as they are with the dark kind of possibility. I’m thankful to be in this quiet, private little place, where my agenda is my own and there is no one to disappoint when I don’t get out of bed.

When I’ve ventured out it has been to the parks and outdoor markets in the area, and once to a grocery store. I pass old dun-colored communist era buildings that are so hostile looking in their stark uniformity that you could almost wonder if they were all prisons at one time. But they weren’t, they were and some still are office buildings, government offices, apartments and the like. Interspersed among them are newer buildings of color and imagination, and frequent, some rather large, patches of green space, burgeoning now with bright colors and scent.

There are always people out, walking on the streets, lingering outside shops and in doorways. The younger ones wear T-shirts with words like “Choose you today,” “Watch, Italian, Love,” and “I’m sexy and I know it.” I see a boy in a Batman shirt, another with Disneyland character clothes and accessories. Many people I pass have an interested, curious air about them when they look at me. It’s not smiling, but it gives me the impression they wouldn’t mind knowing more. This isn’t a place that’s been inundated with tourists, not yet anyway, and that feels like a good thing to me. Unlike Croatia where I continually felt the friendliness was, if not forced then born of a need to please as a means of making financial ends meet, the gestures of hospitality here feel more earnest. Several times I’ve stopped people to ask directions and only once was I rebuffed with a shake of the head, and I think that was only because she didn’t speak English. Otherwise the residents I’ve tapped for information have been very helpful and kind, two women actually walking with me to my expressed destination each time though they were clearly headed somewhere else when I stopped them.

As always since Jackson died I’m alone almost constantly, by choice to some extent and by necessity the rest. Every now and then it feels like too much, and I need to hear another human voice beyond “turn left and go three blocks”; I need to look at someone else’s face, perhaps clasp their hand in greeting, be reminded of my inclusion in the species. So when an acquaintance who heard I was in Sofia gave me the name and phone number of a friend who not only lives here but has a motorcycle (“She said she will be happy to meet you and ride with you!”), I took a deep breath and dialed her number. I introduced myself and said I was here for a week and would enjoy riding with her somewhere, anywhere really, she might be going if she didn’t mind the company. She surprised me by saying, “You must come to my house. Come for dinner. You will be my guest!” When? Tomorrow? The next day? Now, she said. It was after 7pm. Before I had time to think it over and possibly invent an excuse, she instructed me to go outside and hail a taxi, then call her and give the driver the phone. “I wait for you!” She declared, and hung up.

I knew the risk I was taking, but I didn’t see a civilized grown up way out of it at this point; it was me, after all, who had initiated the contact, though this wasn’t what I’d had in mind. What the hell, I thought, and did as she had said. Though it took half an hour to get there and four separate calls from the cab driver before he located her apartment, I arrived to meet a vivacious, attractive 40-something year old woman who hugged me as soon as I stepped out of the taxi, then ushered me first to see her Harley (“a limited edition, see?”), then upstairs to the apartment she shares with her husband (away on business) and 17 year old son. She poured us both a glass of white wine and took me outside to her patio, which is when I realized how far I had come in the taxi. She pointed in one direction – “There is Sofia,” – and in the other was green, up up and up, shrouded in a light evening layer of fog. We were on the side of the mountain called Vitosha. We made a bit of small talk, or rather she chatted away as I nodded and murmured and wondered, like I always do, if there were a way I could stretch the small talk out for the duration of the evening (how many dinner courses would there be?) or if I could leap somehow into big talk, deep and important but not personal, purely philosophical perhaps… when she turned to me abruptly and said, “Violeta told me. About your son.” There it was. Just like that it was done, and like it always does my heart seized up with the spoken acknowledgment of this reality. I crumpled and she pulled me into an embrace. When she stepped back she crossed herself three times, then asked, “How did he die?” I told her. She wanted details. Reluctantly I gave them. I cried harder. She squeezed my hand. A door banged from the inside and she left me to go greet her son. I wiped my face, alone on the terrace, and hoped that would be all. That the subject wouldn’t come up again, at least not the subject of his death. Let me talk about him, if I choose, but let it come from me. Let me decide.

When I wandered back inside her son came up to me and offered his hand. “Dimitri,” he said. “Julie,” I replied. We sat down at the large patio table in the sunroom and I asked him about school. He was soft spoken, and if not quite reticent, certainly less gregarious than his mother. Perfect, I thought. Soon there was a knock on the door and a tall thin pretty woman in her early forties breezed in, her young son trailing behind her. A former model and Miss Bulgaria, I soon learned.

Dinner was served (delicious, 2 courses) and we talked casually for a time about world politics, the history of their country, and travel. I apologized as I always feel I should for Trump and assured them he doesn’t represent all Americans by a long shot. I started to breathe easily, to enjoy the taste of the food, the distinctive flavors in the sauce, the heady feel of the wine swimming through my veins. Mostly I was enjoying being in the soft, gentle company of other women. When they heard where I was headed next and when, my hostess dismissed the idea with a wave of her hand and said “No! Don’t go. You can stay here, I have an extra room. You can stay as long as you like.” I laughed and protested. She insisted. Could I? I wondered. Could I just stay here? All eyes were on me as a silence settled over the table. In that moment I was tempted. Stay. Be fed. Be looked after, shown around, taken for rides on a limited edition Harley. I thought about my Airbnb reservations in Macedonia and Montenegro, trying in vain to recall the cancellation policy of each one. And then, as if she had been biding her time all along; as if I were wearing a sign taped to my forehead that read, Atheist, vulnerable, give it your best shot!; my hostess started to talk about god. God in terms of bringing me here, god in terms of helping me, god in terms of my son’s current whereabouts and my salvation. Inwardly I groaned. Oh no, not this again. I had thought it might be different this time. I so wanted it to be different.

I stood it for as long as I could. I stood it while we sat there eating the remains of our meal and I stood it while she dragged me into the apartment to see the shrine of Jesus and Madonna she’d made at the entrance to her bedroom. I stood it while she informed me she was lighting a candle (“Look, right now I light this candle!”) for the soul of my son. I thought about her hospitality, how good the food was, and how nice it was to eat a meal with others. I didn’t want to repay that kindness with conflict, with argument, and I tried, I really tried, to just keep my mouth shut.

Finally, weary from the effort of pretense, I couldn’t take it anymore. If this is the price of human company, I thought, I won’t pay it. It isn’t worth it. I said I wasn’t religious, I didn’t believe in any of that. “I understand why you do, but it’s not for me,” I said. I thought I was being diplomatic and respectful, if assertive. But my words to the two women (Dimitri, perhaps the most mature person in the room, wordlessly busied himself clearing plates while the little boy had long since retreated to the living room and television) were nothing less than a challenge. For what seemed like hours they pummeled me with exhortations and what I can only believe was to them, reasonable explanation for their faith in god (“You can say ‘the universe’ if you prefer to” offered the beauty queen, as if it were simply a matter of semantics that I hadn’t considered.) They suggested that I was merely angry with god because of my son’s death and would find faith “again”; that I wasn’t in the right place emotionally to be able to accept his benevolence; and that science was proving, with increasing evidence, that there was definitely another plane to which people ascended after death. It was inconceivable to either of them that my belief system never did and never would overlap with theirs.

When the little boy approached his mother to fix him a late night snack, I used the opportunity to take my leave. Much later than I realized…didn’t sleep last night…yawn, yawn, could you please call me a taxi? It arrived, mercifully, within five minutes and I hastily bid them goodbye. My hostess, walking me to the street, insisted that I come back in a couple of days and spend the night, with the idea that we’d go riding the next day for a few hours. “I’ll show you beautiful countryside,” she said. I nodded, and opened the taxi door. I turned toward her and as I leaned in to hug her goodbye I felt an unexpected rush of gratitude, and I kissed her cheek. “Thank you,” I said. I wanted to believe that maybe I could come back and it would be this that would prevail – the camaraderie, the warmth – and that the subject of religion was exhausted between us, leaving room for everything else. But she grabbed me tight and whispered in my ear, “You must believe in god!” I knew then it would never be over for her, she’d never stop. Even if I suddenly saw the light, all the more reason to talk about it. I’d be her miracle; the woman she had brought over from the dark side, singlehandedly. “I’ll call you,” she said, releasing me. I settled into the backseat of the cab, knowing I’d never see her again, knowing I’d feign illness when she called, make retching sounds into the phone if necessary, or claim my plans had changed and I was leaving town sooner than anticipated. She waved as we pulled out into the darkness, and I waved back, sighing, a mixture of relief, sorrow and resignation filling the stale night air of the car.

I want to believe that we’re living in an increasingly secular world, but evidence all around me points to the contrary. Movements like ISIS are gaining momentum around the world, attracting young men and women who feel disenchanted, disenfranchised, and in dire need of an, apparently, violent, self-righteous and divisive cause; there are very few countries in the world, if any, where a political candidate can admit to being an atheist without being disqualified in the minds of voters in spite of any separation of church and state that might supposedly exist; pseudo intellectuals attempt to use the legitimate science of physics out of context to support their mystical and superstitious mumbo-jumbo; and a bereaved mother or father can’t disclose the death of their child without other people pouncing on it as an opportunity to proselytize.

I wondered how long it would be before I feel brave enough to try again. Better luck next time, I tell myself.

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