“Come in,” I said. “Thank you for coming.” And because I’d been in Bulgaria for a long time, “sit down.”
Predictably for early summer in Sofia, the day had begun with clear skies and fluffy white clouds, then opened up with monsoon rains at exactly the time my guests had shown up.
I released the hand of Ali, the last member of our conclave, and waved him to his chair.
Six people in the greenhouse was a bit of a squeeze. Once again I caught myself wondering if organizing the meeting this way had been a mistake. We could be in the house or in a café, or not doing this at all.
I am worrying about whether my guests are comfortable.
Narrating my anxious thoughts to myself didn’t change their content, but the sense of chattering urgency evaporated. I could feel the breeze through the greenhouse’s open windows and smell the rain. Orchids peeked between fig and banana leaves, although none lower than the reach of my younger daughter Mikhaela. Somewhere a confused cricket chirped. My guests were smiling awkwardly at each other.
“Oh, right,” I said. “Dimitar, this is Ali. He’s another medical student.”
Ali and I had met through a volunteer organization. I’d joined it because it needed Engish teachers, and so had Sofia’s British medical students like Ali and Sada, American gap-year kids like Madison, naturalized refugees like Mohammad, and people like me, who are uncomfortable being called ‘expats.’ The organization had its Bulgarians too, of course, but I hadn’t clicked with any of them, so I’d expanded our circle with my friend Dimitar.
“Who wants coffee?” I asked. “Tea? Cupcakes? My daughters helped decorate them.”
They were pink, with unicorn sprinkles.
“Oh!” said Sada, who I realized had been waiting all this time for a cupcake to be offered her. “They’re light.”
“They’re chocolate soufflés. Julia demanded them and Mikhaela helped whip the egg whites.”
I am worried that I’m showing off. I’m worried that my kids are watching TV instead of coming out here and entertaining our guests.
The noise in my head receded enough for me to remember the reason we were all here. “I want to talk about balance,” I said. “I want to do more good, but I always want to be a good father and husband, and I can’t quit my job.”
It was hard to say. I waited for someone to say “you poser. You just want to make yourself feel better, but you’re not willing to sacrifice your comfort.”
Instead, Sada said, “Yeah. I’ve got classes.”
“I’m not learning to be a doctor or anything,” said Madison. “I can spend more time volunteering than you guys, but, you know, I’ll be gone in a year.”
“Kakvo kazhete?” asked Mohammad. His Bulgarian was better than his English.
“Um, iskame nie da napravime…dobro…za organizatsiyata…” I stumbled through the beginning of the sentence before I remembered that Dimitar was sitting next to me.
I am afraid that I look like an idiot, showing off my Bulgarian skills in front of a native speaker who is also a professional translator.
Dimitar swallowed his cupcake. “…no nyamate vreme?”
Mohammad bobbled his head and said something to the effect that a hundred people doing a little was better than one person doing a lot.
Dimitar translated for the benefit of the other three while I thought: I am worried everyone will think I’m an arrogant asshole for taking charge like this.
But was the one who had invited everyone here. If I didn’t get to the point, they’d just sit there.
“I want to work smarter, not harder,” I said. “I want to leverage the little that we can do into a big effect. Do you know what I mean? Like, I’m an English teacher, so I teach English at the refugee camps. But wouldn’t it be better for me to teach other people to teach English? Stuff like that.”
Dimitar edited down and translated that for Mohammad, who said, “Ima nuzhda za drugo osven urotsi po angliiski. ” We need more than English classes.
He counted things off on his fingers: help with immigration and medicine, professional qualification, child care during the day.
I took notes until my phone buzzed. It was a message from my wife.
“Your 30 minutes are up. Time to switch.”
I started at my phone.
We’d planned to both be part of this meeting, but then it had rained. The girls couldn’t play in the garden while we ate cupcakes and solved the world’s problems. We couldn’t cram them into the greenhouse with our guests.
I’m angry at myself that I insisted on doing this in the greenhouse.
I’m afraid that it’s not possible to juggle all these tasks and our jobs and lives.
I’m afraid that all my kids ever do is watch TV in the house.
I pushed back my chair. “That’s Bozhidara. She wants her turn talking to grownups. And, segue, I think we will need a manager. At least one person who’s focused full-time on this project.”
Dimitar pointed up. “You mean Bozhidara?”
“God, no. But maybe someone who could be Bozhidara’s client.”
“You mean bring someone else in?” said Sada.
“And pay them,” I said.
“You mean start another NGO?” asked Madison. “We’re already volunteering at an NGO, and you said you don’t have time to do more.”
I’m scared that this is too big.
I took a deep breath. “What if instead of an NGO, we had a social business?”
“Ha!” said Mohammad. He knew the term. “Iskash da zvanesh Mohammad Yunus?” Do you want to call Mohammad Yunus?
“Who’s that?” asked Ali. “What sort of business?”
My phone buzzed and a voice called from inside the house: “Daddy! Mommy says! Mommy says!”
“Uh. Bozhidara will explain.”
I hopped up the short flight of the stairs from the greenhouse and into our dining room and slipped out of my shoes. Bozhidara was waiting for me and gave her hand a slap as passed. “Tell them about Mohammad Yunus.”
“Okay. I’m going to bring them inside, too,” she said. “So clean up the living room first. It has a dolly hospital in it now.”
“I want to see if I can contact Yunus.”
“Fine,” as if I cold-called Nobel laureates every day. “But first move the dolly hospital.”
“Those are Mikhaela’s dolls,” said Julia, who was watching TV from the middle of a pile of toys and sofa cushions.
“Mommy says I’m not allowed to play in the virus anymore,” said Mikhaela. She had no pants on. “You have to wipe my bottom.”
“Mikhaela tried to bite me,” said Julia, “but I bit her first.”
Laughter from the dining room. They were coming in.
I am scared, I thought, and angry. My kids won’t go away. Neither will the work I have to do.
That’s probably a good thing.
I told my older kid to clean up and took the younger by the hand.
The hand was very damp.
Daniel M. Bensen