I don’t talk about my Croatian ex-husband much because people think I’m making it up. “We met at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve,” I’ll say. “On a cruise ship. Somewhere in the Caribbean.”
“Is that so?” some Carlsbad housewife at one of my sister’s parties will patiently respond while opening another juice box for little Maximillian.
“He was a maitre d’. I asked him for extra walnuts on my hot fudge sundae and he demanded a kiss in return. Right there at the buffet table.” As a former journalist, I had helped Aleks escape the Civil War in former Yugoslavia, marrying him seventeen days after we met. “Most of these were in Frankfurt,” I’d explain. “After the cruise line sent him packing for beating up the food and beverage manager in the galley.”
“Speaking of which, how about this spinach dip?” she’d say. "How does your sister do it?" Determined to finish, I would narrow my eyes, backing her into a corner. “The Serbs had bombed the airport in Dubrovnik, so that was as far as they could deport him! He had to escape back into the country by taking a blockade running boat from Vienna!”
“Maximillian!” she’d shout. “Mommy wants you to stop hitting your sister! Now put down the Whiffle bat and take a time out.” She’d then turn back to me, this deluded, would be screenwriter who also fancied herself some clandestine, international figure. “Please. Go on.”
Since Aleks was ethnically part Serbian, returning to Croatia would have proven particularly treacherous. Both armies would try to enlist him. If I hadn't saved him, he’d have never been sure whether to shoot the guy in the distance or the one beside him.
In film school I wrote a political thriller based on these events called “Cruising to Nowhere.” My instructor was Dan Pyne—who’d most memorably written Doc Hollywood and the Johnathan Demme re-make of The Manchurian Candidate—so I figured he’d get both the romance and the intrigue. Wrong again. “Can't we make some of this more plausible?” he asked, thumbing through my draft.
“Et tu, Brute?”
“Sometimes you have to boil even a true story down to its more pedestrian elements. Can you think of any of those?”
“Well, I tried to make his mother’s cabbage rolls one Christmas and it turned out they were Serbian instead of Croatian. He spit on my cookbook and threw it out.”
“There’s your poster moment.”
“No, that’s when his mother came in the flesh the next year and tried to tell me how to cook a turkey. The avowed Communist had my Butterball splayed out across the length of the oven with its legs in the air like a dead cockroach.”
Declining to fly her back over the next year, I kindly requested she fork over the blasted cabbage recipe. For Aleks, being raised in a socialist country had always meant observing the holiday on the non-secular New Year’s Eve. So, four years to the day since we met, I finally got his national dish right—but it was still in the oven when Aleks had to rush off. On the busiest night of the year, my big, hulking husband was set to work the door of a white hot Miami Beach nightclub called Bash, owned by the actor Sean Penn.
Lying alone in the wee hours of New Year's Day, I received a call from the hospital. Aleks had been seriously injured breaking up a barfight, nearly losing an eye.
He had a hard time bouncing back, marking the beginning of the end of our marriage. Living on disability payments, he spent his days drinking espresso and his nights drinking slivovitz, licking his wounds with some equally disenchanted expatriate friends. Finally, I’d had enough, sending him packing back to Europe by year’s end. He tried to join the French Foreign Legion, but was turned away after training, deemed to large for covert operations. Too drunk, too, I'm guessing. “He never got to eat those stupid cabbage rolls,” I told my teacher. “I hate cabbage. Cabbage stinks. That pedestrian enough for you?”
“This isn’t a spy story,” he said, handing me back the draft. “It’s a Christmas story.”
I suppose if I’d ever had the wherewithal to re-write it and submit it to Lifetime, I might have a mini-series under my belt by now. Millions of housewives would be tuning in for the details—including the mother of little Maximillian, president of my fan club's enormous Carlsbad chapter. The trouble is, another thing they won’t tell you in film school is that when truth is stranger than fiction, the bittersweet, life-affirming holiday version—complete with lingering kitchen odors—might just be too much to re-visit.