M is offered a job teaching American English to Bulgarian teenagers. On our first night in Bulgaria we eat dinner with P, a second-year teacher at once alarmist, deluded, and wise. Her boyfriend works for our government. If something goes down—“If what goes down?” “Don’t you follow the news?”—P will receive coordinates to a field south of Sofia, where a chopper will evacuate her out of the country.
We move to a border city in southern Bulgaria home to the world’s tallest statue of the Madonna. Beneath it teenagers sell marijuana. A paralyzed man scooters in circles. Street-sweeping women clear leaves from the streets using brooms made out of wires and twigs. Depleted, persistent, the women travel in teams wearing bright yellow vests with TITAN stamped on the backs. They burn their leaves in big tin bins fatted with ash. Into a dumpster I toss a kitten that lay wet, bloody, and dead in the street. A coffin as tall as my chest leans upright beside the entrance to an apartment. Stone-faced women file out the front door, lighting cigarettes as they walk. Signboards and telephone poles are papered with the faces of the recently deceased.
M and I both believe we will die in Bulgaria, thousands of miles away from our families—but aren’t we our family, we wonder. The comfort this offers is brief. Insomnia claws at our sleep. A virus contracted from petting stray cats reddens M’s eyes. She is practically blind. We walk through the woods. I’m cautioning her over roots and stones when the dumming of bells stills us. “Sheep,” I say, defining the cottony blur for her. What can we do for each other? What are we willing to do for each other? These questions raid the first year of a marriage.
We and the other American teachers are invited to visit our embassy. We pass through three security checkpoints. We pass a cut-out of Marilyn Monroe. We admire the toilets. They are ivory, enormous, flush with thunderous rumbles—a fat middle finger to the squat toilets ubiquitous in Bulgaria. We meet the embassy staffers, who are wrung-out, strategically funny, their eyes wide from decades of vigilance. One teacher asks about government jobs. Another asks where to find the best food in Sofia. M asks about the refugee crisis. We are given a pamphlet outlining how many terrorists our government killed in 2015. We are doing a wonderful thing, we are told, connecting with Bulgarian youths. We are swaying their hearts and their minds.
On New Year’s Eve, friends advise M and me to stay inside our apartment. Nevertheless, we explore, hungry, in search of a meal, but our city is shuttered. Every few steps we cower, we flinch, we crouch at the sound of explosions. “We’ll be fine,” I mutter, incant. M is squeezing my arm.
We fly on an old Russian plane the day after an old Russian plane explodes over Egypt. M massages my palm as we take off. When two people together are frightened it is easier for one person to pretend not to be. We are in Paris weeks after Paris. We are in Istanbul days before Istanbul. We are appointed a personal cop. We meet at the police station to discuss threats to our safety. “There was a bombing,” our translator tells us he tells us. “In our city?” “No, no,” the policeman admits, disappointed by our safety. A vigilante terrorizes refugees who pass into Bulgaria. It is unclear from whom he purchased his armored equipment and cars. We are out to dinner with M’s Bulgarian colleague who says, “My neighbors were hiding a whole refugee family. Thank goodness someone alerted the police. Who knows how many more would have come?”
On a run I trip on the sidewalk and land on my fingertips, popping off three of the nails. My arm washes over in blood. At a bodega I show the cashier my hand. She screams and I scream, fluent in the language of panic. I swaddle my fingers in the tissues she gives me. Outside, men carve trees into logs. The powerful growl of their chainsaws intensifies the pain I am feeling. M and I wander through the emergency room until we find a doctor willing to help. I look at him looking and will not look at my hand. He dumps alcohol on the wound. I threaten to faint. M is rubbing my shoulders. The pain does not dissipate. What can we do for each other? A second doctor, smoking an e-cigarette, steps inside to watch. So do a pair of police officers, four nurses, and a receptionist. My pain entertains. I threaten to vomit. Iodine paste the color of ketchup bleeds through the bandage. My hand takes the color of snow yellowed by dogs.
There is a dog that pauses at stoplights awaiting the signal to cross. There is a dog with the face of a sloth that M and I feed through its fence. There is a dog licking a skull. There is a cat lounged on a radiator, wheezy and thin, too sick to scram when M and I scratch its ears. You are not sick. You are not sick. You are not sick, M and I tell ourselves. But a cough could be cancer, a headache a tumor, and always we’re begging each other not to Google the symptoms. What are we willing to do for each other?
We pass a pine tree infested with girls singing Adele, the song accented and knotty. The tree rocks in the wind. The singing is silenced. A laugh, possibly two, both heavy with nerves. Two girls shimmy to the foot of the tree while another clings to the slender trunk at the top. Screams scrape through the laughter. M and I cannot look away. What is it we’re hoping to see? At a restaurant we hear American voices. Intrigued and elated, we approach their table to ask why they are here, in southern Bulgaria—to ask if they want to hang out, perhaps—in this city, home to nothing important. “Military,” they say. A drunk in the park stumbles over to me, M, and her students. He pleads, practically crying, begging us to speak in Bulgarian. “Everyone used to have jobs,” says one of the students, doing her best to explain. Three years ago the country was plagued by self-immolations.
M and I are driving to Hell, the Devil’s Throat Cave in southern Bulgaria where Orpheus ascended clutching Eurydice. It is a perilous drive. We share roads as skinny as straws with semi-trucks hauling lumber. M gasps as we pass the trucks. I rub her thigh, offering comfort. Boulders blown into rubble squeeze the sides of the road. Icicles hang inside of a tunnel, as knifey and numerous as the teeth of a shark, dripping, losing their grip, ready to slice through the roof. A river whips through the cave. Its water is a walloping white. Nothing that enters it ever emerges. Two divers—a man and a woman?—drowned in the water. Their sodden bodies were never discovered. M and I pause on a bridge spitting emotions into the river: Insecurity, Doubt, Cowardice, Fear, Terror, Fear, Anger, and Fear. Three hundred stone steps, slender and wet, stretch skyward out of the cave. I take the lead. I tell myself not to look back. A joke, at first, that becomes a compulsion the longer I go without looking back, the higher we climb, the slower we climb, the closer we get to that swallow of moss glowing green at the mouth of the cave. The steps are so steep that gravity tugs at my shoulders. M is directly behind me, I think. If I turn around I will trip. Tumble us back to the bottom. Thirty steps remaining—twenty then ten and then five. At the top I pause with one foot in the light. I want to look at my wife, to give her my hand, to help her into this luxurious light, but when I turn, extending my arm, she is so much farther away than I imagined.