Kamelija meets her at the little airport in Zagreb. She is driving a beat-up VW Passat with no driver’s side mirror. They squeeze Elise’s suitcase and bag into the trunk, next to the engine.
The apartment is up a steep flight of stairs followed by a short elevator ride. Inside, the commode is in its own little room, just off the front door. The sink, a half-size bathtub, and a tiny washing machine are down the hall.
For dinner, Kamelija stands at the stove and fries sardines, big ones, nothing like the bite-sized fish Elise would find in small silver tins in the grocery store at home. On the other burner, Kamelija cooks chunks of potato in a bath of butter and milk and fresh herbs. She serves the fish and potatoes with wine and a salad of lettuce, tomatoes, and sautéed red bell peppers with chunks of feta and green olives and pumpkinseed oil, and crème brûlée for dessert.
Elise has only known Kamelija for six months. They were thrown together at a conference, the only two women in their group. Kamelija is self-conscious about her spoken English but more confident in writing. “When you are in Europe, you must visit,” she told Elise. “I will take care of you.”
They sit in the living room after dinner. Kamelija has collected miniatures from all over the world, and she keeps them in display cases and scattered around the room on tables and bookshelves. She points out a chain of carved elephants, a painting the size of Elise’s thumb.
Kamelija has brought in bowls of fruit and chocolate, and they drink black wine. White wine, Kamelija told Elise at dinner, has the same meaning in Croatia. Red wine, though, is what Elise would call rosé back in the United States, and “black wine” is an American red. After a couple of glasses, these distinctions no longer seem notable.
That night, Elise has trouble sleeping. Kamelija has made up a bed for her on the couch. Outside, it is raining lightly, and Elise tiptoes over to the window. Kamelija’s bedroom is right next door, and she doesn’t want to disturb her.
As Elise returns to the couch, her slippers brushing against the rug, the television suddenly flickers on. The connection is bad—it’s nothing more than loud snow. There are two remotes on the coffee table, but neither seems to control the TV. Elise stares at the gray screen. This feels like a message, some ghostly communication. Her heart is beating too fast. It takes her a few seconds to snap out of it. She pokes the power button on the front of the screen, and the light fades. Elise sits on the edge of the couch, breathing hard, shaken.
In the morning, she asks Kamelija if the television woke her, but she shakes her head no. Kamelija rose early; she has already laid out a breakfast of homemade bread, slices of meat and cheese, fresh apricot marmalade, and strong black coffee.
After they have eaten, Kamelija shows Elise around the city. They start near the Communist-era gray cinderblock buildings and continue past the older, more ornate shops and churches. At the top of the hill, overlooking the city, Kamelija buys Elise a paper cone of hot chestnuts from a street vendor. They walk back down on a steep, winding path lined with trees and lanterns.
Elise is cold as they walk back. It is 5º Celsius and the wind is picking up. She thinks longingly of a pair of lined gloves on a shelf in her closet at home. On their way toward the hill, they already passed the fishmongers and piles of fruit at the daily farmer’s market, but they are returning from a different direction, walking past the flower stalls. Kamelija pauses only briefly in front of the roses and birds of paradise.
They cut through an octagon-shaped building with an ornate stained-glass panel in the ceiling. Inside, though, out of the wind, they find a photo shoot in progress. A woman, bent at the waist, has on her back a young white cat wearing a harness and leash. A second woman is waving a feather toy hanging from a stick, trying unsuccessfully to turn the cat’s attention toward a man with his face painted to look like a cat.
When they get back outside, Kamelija says, “It is time to stop for first aid.”
Elise shakes her head, uncomprehending. Kamelija points toward a nearby building and draws a plus sign in the air in front of her. It takes Elise a moment to realize that Kamelija is making a joke. She takes Elise into a coffee shop and orders them each a slice of chocolate cake and a cup of hot tea.
It’s late afternoon, and the sun is already low in the sky by the time they leave. They pass by a row of shops. One window has a sign in English, and Elise stops to read it. Museum of Broken Relationships. A mistranslation, she thinks.
Kamelija has also stopped.
“What does this mean?” Elise asks, pointing.
“It is the museum,” Kamelija says. When Elise gives her a questioning look, she nods. Then, “Do you want to go inside?”
They have never spoken about anyone in their personal lives outside of their parents, siblings, and various friends. Elise doesn’t want to stir anything up. She is curious, though, and Kamelija seems untroubled by the idea. Elise tries to hand her 50 kuna, but Kamelija waves the money away and pays the admission fee herself.
Inside, they don’t stay together. Elise walks slowly past the exhibits. It’s a relief to be here with someone who never knew Michael, who doesn’t ask any questions.
Just before she left for Europe, Elise received a note from a university professor. The woman had interviewed Michael not long before his death, and she sent her condolences. “I’ll send you a copy of the interview after its publication,” the professor wrote. “I’m sure you’ll want to see it.”
One of the items on display is a white toaster. The submission is from someone in Denver, Colorado, who wrote, “When I moved out, and across the country, I took the toaster. That’ll show you. How are you going to toast anything now?”
She is still looking at this card when Kamelija reappears.
“Elise,” she says, and Elise looks up.
“You are hungry,” Kamelija says. “Let’s go.”
She waves her hand in the direction of the front door, the world outside. She starts walking and looks back, gesturing again. “Come. Elise, come.”
Elise hesitates. She looks back at the white toaster. She has to resist the urge to put her hand on the pedestal to ground herself. She wants something to hold on to.
Kamelija is waiting. “Come,” she says again. Elise closes her eyes for a second, and then she turns and follows Kamelija into the future.
Leah Browning is the author of three nonfiction books for teens. Her fourth chapbook, Out of Body, is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Browning’s fiction and poetry have previously appeared in Fiction Southeast, Bluestem Magazine, Cape Fear Review, Storyscape Literary Journal, 300 Days of Sun, Toad, and Glassworks Magazine, as well as on a broadside from Broadsided Press, on postcards and bookmarks from Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf, with audio and video recordings in The Poetry Storehouse, and in several anthologies. In addition to writing, Browning serves as editor of the Apple Valley Review. “Elise in Croatia” is the third of three linked stories.