The rim of the green plastic potty was digging into my butt. My mother, father, and grandmother huddled around the radio that sat on the kitchen table under the window. The big window was closed despite the heat – only the small, lift-up window in the sloped ceiling let a trickle of fresh air in – but I was too focused on the adults to care.
“Dammit they’re jamming the station again. Vlada, try a different frequency!” My grandmother recognized my father as the fixer of all things mechanical. My father obliged. An excited voice came out of the box once again, but it was the wrong kind of excited.
“They have tanks in the Wenceslas Square,” my grandmother said, and I knew what a tank looked like, because my father drew it for me once along with cars and dogs and airplanes.
“She should go to sleep,” my mother said, but there wasn’t much resolve behind her statement. Lately, when the grownups sat around the radio, I got to stay up too, mostly because my little bed was in the kitchen. My father lit up a cigarette and took a pull. The acrid odor of the spent sulfur match mingled with the familiar smell of tobacco smoke. My mother pulled one out as well, fumbling with nervous hands.
“Light me up,” she said, and my father leaned over. She touched the ends of their cigarettes together and made the tips glow. Then she leaned back and let the smoke out of her mouth in a dainty stream. I liked the way it swirled in the air, growing thinner and thinner, until it finally dissipated in the stuffy kitchen air. A droplet of sweat ran down my nose and to my lip. I licked it. It was salty, like buggers.
“Jaja, don’t smoke!” My grandmother told my mother.
“Katka, don’t pick your nose!” My mother told me.
“Oh, dammit. Here, gimme that. Those godforsaken Russians!” My grandmother took my mother’s cigarette and pulled on it hard, making the tip bright orange. We all had something in our mouth that didn’t belong there. I dug a finger up my nose once again just as my grandmother began coughing.
A sharp crack split the air. The light went out and I felt a shower of hot glass on my arms and in my hair. The silence stretched, punctuated by a few lone crackles on the radio. Then I began to cry.
“Somebody shot out the light!” That was my grandmother’s voice. It was dark outside, but my little eyes began to adjust and I quieted down and looked around.
“Don’t move,” my mother said. Someone clicked on the small kitchen light behind me, and I felt her so close her breath stirred my hair. She touched my arms with careful, light fingertips. “She’s covered in glass!” When I heard the alarm in her voice, I began to cry again.
“There’s that sniper across the hill,” my father said. “He must have shot the light out through the roof window.”
The hushed, grownup discussion was drowned out by the alarmed voice on the radio and the Wheeeee-wheeeeee-wheeeee sound of the radio jammer.
My father considered the little light in the cooking alcove of the kitchen. “This has a red lampshade and a small bulb. It shouldn’t be visible from across the hill,” he said. “Let’s get the glass off her first.”
The sun woke me up in the morning and I stayed still, listening to see if the grownups were awake yet. Usually, my mother would sneak into the kitchen to make coffee. Nobody came into the kitchen today, though. There were no signs of glass on the floor, the green plastic potty was by my bed as usual, and there was a new light bulb in the large lamp that hung from the middle of the ceiling. It was as though last night had never happened. I sat up. Being unsupervised opened up all kinds of possibilities. I crawled from under my blanket and stood up, but before I could even put my slippers on, a booming noise enveloped me. I froze. The glass panes in the windows began to rattle like they wanted to jump out at me, all broken into pieces and the hot glass confetti of a broken rushed back into my mind. I screamed, stretched for the door handle I didn’t know I could reach, and opened the door that divided the kitchen from the foyer.
A door from the stairwell opened just three steps before me. My mother peeked in with a smile that was beyond cheerful. “You’re up! And wasn’t that a big noise?”
It came again, unpredictable and scary. Like thunder. The glass panes that made up one of the stairwell walls rattled again. Between the boom, and the glass that threatened to attack me again, I plastered my snotty face into my mother’s shoulder.
“Would you like to see some airplanes? Come see the airplanes! They are flying up in the sky!” Her voice had the kind of cheerful tone she always put on in the doctor’s office. Something bad was going to happen again, and it was going to hurt, just like when the doctor said, “Now take a deep breath.”
The booming noises and the rattling of the glass panes went on and on.
“Come, I’ll show you airplanes! Everyone’s on the terrace!” She took my hand and led me through a door to a large, flat-roof area that was fenced on all three sides. I was never allowed up there by myself, because I could easily fit between the rungs of the railing, and it was a long way down. Being three stories up, almost on the roof, was an unexpected treat. I saw the tops of the trees in the yard. The surrounding houses had roofs made of red tiles, just like ours, and just like ours, every house had a chimney and a lightning rod. People who lived in the other houses were out on their terraces, or just in the windows. They were all looking up.
I did, too.
There were airplanes in the sky. Many of them. Every time one of them passed there was a huge boom, but I didn’t hear the rattling of glass anymore, so I just covered my ears.
“Those goddamned stupid Russians,” my grandmother said.
“Jarka, be quiet. Somebody will hear you,” my grandfather said. He tapped the ash off his cigarette into the gutter next to him, not even looking at the airplanes. He looked like he didn’t know what to do.
“Those pigs shot up the National Museum!” my grandmother shouted, but her voice was drowned out by the boom of a fighter jet overhead.
“If I only had a rocket launcher,” my father said. “Their flight pattern is crossing right over the house. We could pick them off one by one.”
“No, Vlada. Don’t say that.” My grandmother said, and shot a loaded look toward where I stood with my ears covered and my eyes wide open.
“Alright,” he said. “It’s too late, anyway.” He looked down at me. “Would you like to ride a horse?” He asked. That’s what we called it when I sat on his shoulders. I shook my head. I could never keep my ears covered and hold onto his ears at the same time.
“No?” He looked surprised. “Very well, then. But look at those airplanes! Those are fighter jets. MIGs. They are all Russian. Aren’t they fast?” He was merely informing me, but I did not respond. I was terrified of their loud, booming noises. In my mind, I held an indelible image of the way he stood there just a minute ago, pretending there was a long rocket launcher on his shoulder, aimed at the loud, scary planes overhead. I wondered what they would look like falling down.
“Goddamn stupid Russians,” I said few hours later.
The grownups looked at one another in alarm. One of them snickered, though, and that was very interesting. The five of us sat ready to eat the soup that my grandmother always served before the main course for Sunday lunch. I smelled the grownup flavors of drowned, salty vegetables and didn’t particularly want any.
“Goddamn stupid Russians!” I said again. It was funny.
“Don’t ever say that,” my grandmother said with a stern glare. “If you say that and somebody hears you, the police will come and take your father away, and you will never, ever see him again!”
I looked at my father, who always sat next to me. He must have seen the alarm in my face, because he turned to his mother-in-law. “You don’t have to get her all terrified. She isn’t even three yet.” Then he looked down at me. “Nobody will take me away. Don’t worry. Just, don’t say anything to anybody. Understand? Just don’t talk to strangers. It is safer that way.”
I nodded. If it was safer, then talking was dangerouser, and maybe my grandmother wasn’t entirely wrong. I applied my attention to the soup. It was too salty and had mushy vegetables in it, but as long as I kept eating, my grandmother kept praising me for using my spoon so well. As long as she was praising me, she was too busy to talk about scary things, so I ate, and ate, and ate.
Every Monday was a milk day. My mother buckled my shoes and took the dark red shopping bag off its hook. “Come, we will go buy some milk!” I held her hand as I walked down the seven flights of stairs, and then down the concrete staircase that led to the garden gate. The world beyond the gate was forbidden to me. Only an adult could open it, and as she did so, I spilled out onto the sidewalk with its gray and white paving stones and the pictures they made under my feet. We turned the corner and hiked up a steep hill to the next street. The corner house had a dairy in the basement and that’s where we bought milk. Except the milk wasn’t there yet. People stood in a line that snaked back and forth in the small courtyard. Standing in line was boring, but we did it often and I knew I could play by myself as long as I stayed by my mother’s side.
“When are they supposed to get here, again?” The question came from an older man. I knew his face, but I didn’t know his name.
“They should have been here two hours ago,” a woman replied. Everyone was so old, grey and wrinkled and smelling of cigarettes. Either old, or kids, except the kids were older than me, and I wasn’t allowed to play with them anyway. My mother let go of my hand, though, because that way I could spin. And when I did my spinning dance, I liked to sing.
“Aww, she is so cute. How old is she?” a neighbor asked.
“Two and a half. Almost three,” my mother replied.
“And look how she keeps herself entertained!”
I spun a bit faster. “Wheee!” I said and laughed. “Wheee!” Spinning was so much fun. “Wheeeeeee-wheeeeeeeee-wheeeeeeee-wheeeeeeeee-wheeeeeeee says the radio!”
My mother grabbed my hand and pulled me to her side. I heard snickers from my appreciative audience.
“Shhh. Don’t say that.”
I nodded. I didn’t repeat anything I heard my grandmother say, because I didn’t want the police to come and take my father away for ever and ever. I only made a noise I heard on the radio. There was nothing wrong with just a radio – was there?
We made it home with two glass bottles of milk, which my mother put in my grandmother’s little refrigerator.
“Kids this age are like sponges. They will parrot everything,” my grandmother said later that day. “Now everyone knows we’re listening to Radio Free America and BBC London.” She put up water for coffee. “Then again,” she said philosophically, “doesn’t everyone?”