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The Other Side (Part I)

Surrounded by snow-top mountains, icy lakes and bushy woods, Shoumen was, in fact, the perfect place to grow up. Until, one day, I woke up and realized, after my parent's divorce and my brother's death, this place no longer felt like home.

When I was 19, I decided to desert my native country, Bulgaria, and start a new life in America.
Shoumen was the city where I was born, where I learned to speak, read and write. It was a place where I lived for most of my childhood, where I found the meaning of friendship, relationships, love, life, and death. Surrounded by snow-top mountains, icy lakes and bushy woods, Shoumen was, in fact, the perfect place to grow up. Until, one day, I woke up and realized, after my parent's divorce and my brother's death, this place no longer felt like home. It was time to find a new meaning, a new beginning, a new life.

It was October 24th, fourteen years ago, when my brother died from cancer, a week after he turned 24. It was the day when my whole life and beliefs collapsed and formed the individual I am today. I was 16 at the time. Death was something still blurred back then. But for the first time that day, I realized that I would witness death, perhaps on many occasions throughout my life.

On the day of the funeral, I wore a green raincoat. It was a beautiful morning, the nature stood out more than ever. It snowed that October day, unusually early. The snowflakes, illuminated by the streetlights, looked like silver shooting stars. Then the magic disappeared and around noon the day become dark and gloomy, carrying its mood through my bleeding heart and my crushed soul. I stayed close to my mom who was crying helplessly and I didn’t know what to do with her, how to make her feel better. It was the strangest day of my life, packed with unknown emotions.

It wasn’t easy to comfort a woman whose child just died on top of losing her own mother to a car accident when she was only 20 years old. My mom's brother was the driver at the time of the car accident. My mom was there too. She witnessed her mother dying on the seat next to her, but it didn’t compare to the pain she felt as she witnessed her son dying painfully and slowly, so young. My mom never talked about my brother's illness or the possibility of death, as she was so afraid of the truth. Only towards the end, when my brother couldn’t handle pain any longer, my mom prayed helplessly to God to take her son’s life away and save him from suffering.

As a young woman, my mother was an actress and starred in a couple of movies. She bleached her hair when she was 19 and kept it that way, so I have never seen her natural dark-brown hair, except on a few high school photos. Growing up, she always wore red lipstick, short skirts and tall leather boots. She had her hair done every morning and was dressed up, even when she went to pick up milk from the grocery store across the street. Today, 60-year-old, my mom still looks lovely. She is still fascinated with fashion. She still tears pages from Vogue and gives them to me in an attempt to better my taste in style. I remember despite my refusal to learn during my teenage years, she kept insisting on teaching me how to walk like a lady. “Lengthen your spine, step on your toes first, then on your heels,” she would tell me.

When my mom was 20, she met my brother’s father and months later they were married. Under the Communist regime, it was very inappropriate for young ladies to be seen with guys in public, unless they were married. A few years later, in 1973, my brother, Spartak (named after Spartacus, the famous leader who led a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic), was born. When he was 4, my mom was already divorced. Then, she met my dad at a small resort on the Black Sea and, soon afterward, married. She wanted to raise her child in the presence of a father and have a family again.

Growing up I remember my dad spent a lot of time reading Hemingway and newspapers on the couch, while my mom swept around the house like a tornado. She never accepted the fact that he was unemployed (most of the time) while she had to work long hours and devote her spare time to cleaning the house, cooking, and making sure my brother and I did our homework. I suppose this was the main reason why, later, she divorced him. My mom is a hard worker, a hard-eyed realist, almost melancholic. My dad is a dreamer. Yet, being so different, they managed to stay together until I was 15. They wanted to raise my brother and me as a family. In a way, they did.

As kids, my brother and I fought a lot, too much. When I was eight, we had the worst fight. It was our 800th fight. My brother was in high school at the time, when one day, he came back home covered in mud and his nose was bleeding heavily. Apparently, he got into a fight with a classmate. I screamed at him, “You are an idiot,” and then threatened him that I would tell our parents. Without saying anything, he pushed me and I fell to the ground. I discovered new demons inside of me that day. I jumped on his back and scratched his face, then slashed his brand new t-shirt. I only survived by running away quickly when the damage was already done, or else I knew my brother would retaliate. I didn’t come back until I was sure our parents were home. I don't remember fighting too much after that.

I would never forget my brother’s true passion: stealing flowers from the neighbors. He climbed on the balconies, sometimes as high as the third floor. One time he fell from the balcony on the second floor, which was above our apartment, and broke a rib. After the incident, he still didn’t give up. He was a true artisan flower thief. He would neatly wrap the flowers in paper and leave them on my mom's bed, or surprise the old ladies gossiping all day on the benches across the street. Once I asked him, "What if you get caught?" He answered with a smile of a person who just brought to life ecstatic memories, "There is no better feeling than getting away with stealing and not being caught." Back then, I disagreed that there could be anything good associated with theft. But now I think there was something Robin Hood-ish, something romantic about stealing the neighbors' flowers to make our mom happy.

My brother loved my mom as much as she loved him. Sometimes too much. Even as a young boy, he worried about her like he was her parent, not the other way around. When she didn’t feel good or had bad migraines, when she was overwhelmed or stressed, he would stay home until she felt better. He would count his last change and run to the store for dark chocolates, which she loved. He was overprotective of her. Even when we grew up, he would get angry with me for leaving my bag on the floor. There is a Bulgarian myth saying that if you leave your bag on the floor, your mother might die. So he would grab my bag and store it somewhere safe, like the couch or the chair. He truly believed in stuff like this.


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