Former Yugoslavia

Tuesday at 4pm Radmilla stops by for our weekly rendezvous. I make tea, serve her cake, then in time take out pen and paper from my desk’s only drawer and settle down to the reason for her visit—correspondence.

“This week Bali I wish to send a note of gratitude to my doctor’s assistant Sarah. I’m not sure of last name but it’s no matter.” Radmilla directs with usual authority.

“What would you like me to say,” I ask

“Just tell her how wonderful person she is, so stylish, so elegant even in nurse’s uniform. Just put in your words Bali, very special, in educated way. Did you buy more writing paper for me this week, the good kind? Probably nobody knows the difference or even cares but no matter. Good quality is important Bali, it’s so important.” She almost pleads.

“Yes I agree,” I confirm without raising my head continuing to write.

Radmilla is illiterate. Radmilla is illiterate in the most arrogant way.

I write letters for her once a week in her tiny compartmentalized apartment, indicative of her tiny compartmentalized life.

Only the letters I ghost write reveal the warmth hidden beneath the layers of her grey existence. Radmilla keeps others at a distance lest they find out or even suspect.

Airs and graces can be effective tools in deceit. A brilliant ballet prodigy in her youth, Radmila spent her days in an Eastern European state run dance academy, where perfecting the young girl’s technique was given priority over pesky distractions such as—education.

Airs and graces camouflage, the years swiftly passed. Well-spoken, aloof and beautiful Radmilla’s lack of schooling went un-challenged–reigning supreme from her illiterate throne.

Well into adulthood, Radmilla religiously returns to her apartment unaccompanied, safe in isolation; still, she chats a little on the phone. Radmilla is illiterate but it is something she would never admit to, and anyway, no one knew.

I would see her occasionally walking the length our street for exercise. Although an elderly woman she was still a striking figure, one might say: skinny, always well dressed, almost pretty. It took seven years of our exchanging pleasantries before I was invited into her home, another two before she admitted she was all, alone. Then six months later a confession over afternoon high tea that she had wanted to send a particular gentleman a letter in friendship but had not the skill to execute the correspondence on her own.

“If I call you sometimes, just once in a while am I bother you Bali?” She inquired.

“No never,” I replied.

And so the weekly visits began. I became her letter-writing confidant, a person with whom she could enjoy good company, someone to bake for, sometimes to scold.

“You didn’t call me today like you said you would Bali,” Radmilla says, “no matter I don’t want to bother you anyway.