Descending the Balkans

creative nonfiction by Koji A. Dae

Descending the Balkans 

Winding my Subaru through the mountains, I let my mind wander on the tips of red fall leaves and over the rolling horizon. Blues croon from my radio, and my eyes only flit once to the carseats in the back, covered with crumbs but empty. No kicking or endless questions about every passing detail. I cease to be a mother and become an individual again--one with time and space to breathe. To dream. 

           A final sweeping curve spits me out onto the flat Sofia plain, and the city comes into view. Long before I can make out the edges of buildings or billboards, the thick gray smog betrays the expanse of the city. It stretches from the base of Vitosha mountain to the foothills of the ancient Balkan mountains. It seals in the city and, from above, looks almost peaceful in its stillness. 

           It's selfish to drive two hundred kilometers every week, adding my car's noise to the environmental soup plaguing our country. The world. I remind myself that I only use LPG, lowering my emissions as much as possible. The excuses don't prevent a fog from settling in my heart, though. It numbs my mind, and I can't grip a single thought. I shake my head, but it refuses to blow away, just like the smog over the city. 

           Once I drop low enough, I'm part of the blanket. Buildings rise, and I can no longer see the mountains. I turn up my music, slow my speed, and try to fend off the depression that inevitably threatens to swallow me. Just breathe. I put my air on recirculate, sealing off the particles from the highway. 

           I circle the block around my sister-in-law's apartment three times before a spot clears for me. I squeeze into it, pulling out twice to fix my angle before my car fits. People behind me honk, despite my parking lights. A smaller car tries to squeeze around, but there's no room. 

           Now that I'm deep in the city, I can no longer see the smog. My breath is heavier than it is in the mountains. My chest squeezes in on me, as if I can't get enough air no matter how deeply I inhale, and I try not to panic. It's just my imagination, and I can ignore it as long as I don't look into the distance. 

           I've parked near a kindergarten. A group of children, bundled in their winter jackets, play on the playground as three of their teachers watch from a bench. None of them wear the recommended face masks, even though the emissions app on my phone glows a warning orange. Their shouts and squeals bring a smile to my lips. This is why my husband encourages me to come to the city once a week. He wants me to see it's not so bad. It's got a lot to offer. The children here are happy. He's right. But children can be happy anywhere. They're more adaptable than adults. 

           I can't help wondering what their lungs will look like in fifty years. I squeeze my eyes shut so I don't see the pink of their organs pulsing through their jackets. 

           I tuck my phone into my purse, lock my car, and squeeze my way onto one of the ancient buses. As it stutters through traffic, I sink into my phone. An article comes up, detailing the issues surrounding pollution in Sofia. Despite what the average Bulgarian thinks, it's not the Roma burning trash because they can't afford wood in the winters. It's not even the bumper to bumper traffic. The real reason the smog stays sealed over the city is the recent development of skyscrapers blocking the breeze from the mountains that used to sweep down and carry the pollution away. 

           But away to where? The wind used to push it further into the cracks of the northern mountains. My mountains. The mountains holding the clean, crisp air my children dance in. It used to disperse until it was no longer visible. But it never went away. Just shuffled and moved. 

           I get off the bus in the center of the city, take a deep breath, let the poisons enter me. This would be my life if I lived here. Smog, but also dance. 

           Dance class is in a studio beneath the palace of culture. I'm among the first to arrive, and I watch others come in from the city, smiling and chatting. Sitting in the entrance hall, nerves make my hands shake. My anxiety threatens to take over. I can't do this. I can't talk to strangers, let alone touch them. 

           Before I can run from the building, I force myself to the door of the classroom. My membership card beeps as I enter. The instructor flashes me a smile, already warming up to a slow blues song. I fall in place behind her. As we bop and sway, the room fills, each individual becoming part of the group. 

           When the instructor yells to partner off, my stomach clenches. But it only takes a few seconds before I find a willing follow to my lead. By the end of the first song, my anxiety has faded to a mere buzz. For two whole hours I'm able to shut out the crush of depression and the race of anxiety as I lean heavy into strangers. 

           It's bliss, then it's over. 

           I hold the warmth of connection close to me as I board the bus back to my sister-in-law's apartment where we share details about our weeks and plans for the future. I sleep like I'm dead on her couch, no crying children to wake me in the middle of the night. 

           In the morning, I'm refreshed. Balanced. Ready to face another week. I unlock my car and slide back into the driver's seat. I let the engine warm while I check the weather and pollution levels. Still orange. Better than last year, though. I put the car into first and slide out of my parking spot, into the flow of traffic. 

           A cough shakes my lungs. I can't bring my children here. They can't live in this. 

           As I climb the mountain, helplessness spreads through me. I can't stop people building their empires or burning trash. I can't stop all the cars on the highway. I turn my music down, watch the leaves flutter in the breeze. I'm powerless. 

           There's only one thing I can control: whether I come back. Whether I contribute. Whether I'm strong enough to live in depression without my weekly dose of dance. My LPG beeps and switches over to petrol. I pick up my phone and thumb in a stop at the nearest gas station.

Koji A. Dae is a queer American writer living in Bulgaria with her husband and two children. She has work published in Daily Science Fiction, Short Edition, and The Preservation Foundation. When not writing, she enjoys riding her bike, looking for second hand deals, and dancing the blues. You can find out more about her at kojiadae.ink.

Koji A. Dae

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