Under Xhovalin

Portrait by Freyja Zazu
Portrait by Freyja Zazu

July 1st, 1999

I cleaned up a soccer field full of garbage and poo today. One of the goalposts was turned on its side with dirty comforters draped over it, a makeshift tent, and inside were piles of human poo. I didn’t see any toilet paper, but there was a lot of crumpled newspaper in another pile.

Soooo many other things there. Lamps and rotting armchairs, half-eaten cans of beans, car batteries, mini-mountains of dirty diapers baking in the sun. There were dead appliances and their entrails, a briefcase full of commie propagandas (but also full of mud and mold, so I didn’t take it back to headquarters). If I were being poetic, I would say that these were the dainty treasures of any given wasteland. Truly, I would say, the debris was impressive and terrible.

I don’t feel very poetic today because actual rats ran around in broad daylight while we were cleaning up. Albanian rats–I wonder if they’re a different species? It’s rat heaven here. They must gorge themselves by day and sleep all night, waking only to make love among all the broken plates and dreams of this scabby little city. See? I just can’t stop the poetry.


-Three dug-up stop signs

-American Mormons with golden hair pulling slick black suitcases on wheels

– A bootleg liquor stand selling beer in old milk jugs

– Someone burning a bicycle tire in the middle of the town square

– An old man shooing away a beggar child with an amputated arm

Trevor the Australian told me that some of the beggar moms amputate their kids to make for more lucrative begging.

Anyway, we’re supposed to be clearing and cleaning the soccer field again tomorrow. The whole project is meant to make the field usable to the local kids so they can actually play soccer, but so far it looks like we’re just moving all the garbage off to the sides, and there’s broken glass everywhere and no grass. Is it still noble, what we’re doing? Who knows. Nine hours of moving garbage around in the hot sun better be useful to someone. Some people wore dish gloves on their hands today. I wore plastic bags secured with rubber bands.

As of April 1999, I’d spent four solid months in my pajamas, watching daytime TV and eating ten or twelve Costco yogurt cups a day, which I hid under the couch until they started to smell. My mom was getting concerned. She took me to the doctor and he prescribed Prozac. I took one pill and gave the rest to the toilet.

“Look, you’re an incredibly privileged young woman living in one of the safest, richest countries in the world,” my dad told me on our monthly lunch date at Ho Tong. “You don’t have a goddamn clue what other people on this earth go through. Why don’t you try to help people? Get out there and do something good, instead of sitting on your ass and contemplating your navel.”

That very afternoon, I saw some coverage of the Kosovo crisis on TV, did an internet search, and found a fledgling NGO called Broken Balkan Petunias. I filled out an online form and didn’t mention that I was a high school drop-out whose most impressive humanitarian experience had been helping the morbidly obese guy from the group home pull up his pants in the bathroom of the coffee shop where I worked.

I am a kind soul, I wrote in the application, and my only wish, my most fervent and unwavering life goal, is simply to wipe out all suffering on every corner of our beautiful planet: Earth.

I heard back within hours.

Dear Freuline Turlough,

Hello! We are so pleased to have you expressed some interest in our very special group. When would you like to join the BBP? We are impressed by your very loquacious words and your bright spirit. We are in need of young individual energetic people to come help this great cause and we are very much looking forward to meeting you and some of your friends too, if you wish. Do your mom and your dad know you would like to join us? Please affix their benevolent tidings to the number below and we will proceed with approving your application immediately and forwarding you with a listed schedule of your new jobs.

That was that–becoming a humanitarian was dead simple! Within a week, I was on my way. I flew to Germany and made my way to Tirana in the same linear way that anyone goes anywhere: plane ride, train ride, ferry ride.

My first night in Europe, I checked into a youth hostel in Stuttgart, where I got into a screaming match with the manager, a whiskery fellow in a wheelchair with one arm that was a flipper. He screamed at me first, something about arriving half an hour late for check-in , and he refused to let me use the communal showers because of my tardiness.

“I am sorry that I’m late,” I told him, “but it’s not my fault your mother used thalidomide, buddy.”

He charged at me in his chair, screaming “Get out, America bitch!”

“I’m Canadian, you fucking Nazi!” I said.

That’s probably not actually what I said at all, but it’s what I documented in my journal. Probably what actually happened was that I argued politely about the shower and then slinked away, but it was important that I document it differently because I wanted to remember myself as a confident rebel.

Later that first evening, I ventured out in search of food and got lured to a “student documentary film festival” with promises of a handsome buffet by a young woman handing out fliers outside a closed market. When I got to the festival, which was being held in what looked like a law office down a long cobblestone alley–inexplicably bright and humming at 10pm–I realized it was neither a buffet nor a student documentary film festival. I did get a private showing of a film short about Scientology and was shown through a three-room L. Ron Hubbard exhibit before being ushered into a private office.

The whole time, I kept asking: “Where is the buffet?”

In the office, I was hooked up to an auditing machine by a grandpa-type named Wim. The results of the audit were not revealed, but Wim did give me an armful of L. Ron Hubbard literature. He was pretty excited to find out I was en route to Albania, and he instructed me to disburse the lit among the children in the refugee camps. I ended up gifting them as tokens of friendship to a group of self-satisfied American university students at the train station in Milan two days later. They were traveling to Bari and taking the ferry to Greece, just like me. I was hoping they’d invite me into their private cabin, but they just took the flyers, laughed all grown-up and knowingly to themselves, and abandoned me to sit on my backpack in the corridor while they drank wine and read L. Ron aloud.

Down the Adriatic coast. Long shadows in the evening, golden Italian light, all that stuff.


July 2nd, 1999

A puppy crawled out from an igloo of trash and wandered around my legs today, dumb and confused. I picked it up, cradled it. Its belly was warm and linty with fleas.

I asked it: “Can you see my Thetan?”

It looked up at me through eyes sticky with yellow mucus.

I really wanted to feel at one with the luminous, chaotic, tender, stinking shitpile of the universe, but I didn’t. I put the pup down and it didn’t even stay close to me–there was no bond at all. It climbed into its junk igloo and didn’t come back.

I talked to Mom on the phone today and she said that Gregor has actually done it: ran away with that landscaping chick from Montreal to get married. They’re hitchhiking to Niagara Falls.  So I’ve decided that tonight I’m going to seduce the 30 year-old Albanian guy who sleeps on the balcony at headquarters. His name is Xhovalin – pronounced Jo-Va-Lynn. Pretty romantic name.

Xhovalin was an easy target: slightly cretinish, prognathic jaw, blotchy skin, and abnormally sharp teeth. The teeth looked like they’d been filed down to points on purpose, but I knew he was from a tiny village in the north, so reasoned that they were probably the natural gifts of incest. It didn’t matter–he wasn’t intimidatingly handsome like Hans from Berlin with the dreadlocks and elegant nose. I needed some validation, and his would do.

Once all the other girls in my dorm room were sleeping, I padded downstairs and poured a bowl of cereal. There he was, just where I knew he’d be, reading a Glamour magazine on the couch like a creep.

“Hey, you.” I said.

I sat down beside him with the cereal bowl in my lap.

“Hello, Mia. How you are? It’s late now.”

“I’m good. I can’t sleep.”

“I, too, cannot sleep tonight. I need to be early to prayer for tomorrow.”

“Oh, okay. You know, your English is really good.”

“Yes. You know, I always like to read magazines like this. I find these fashion books in our local hotels. And I also enjoy the Bible to read out loud. To my friends.”

“Oh. Jesus, eh?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Jeeeesus Christ.”

“You think Jesus is a joke?”

“No. Never mind me, I’m just tired. I like him… he has a sexy beard.”

“You shouldn’t say that kind of thing.”

“I’m fucking kidding.”

“Excuse me for saying so, but you should not say ‘fucking.’ Pretty girls do not say ‘fucking.’

“I do.”

Pretty, yes! I took a big, sexy bite of Cheerios and yarded up my bra, hoping he’d notice. He did.

“May I say something?”

“You can say whatever you want, and I will too.”

“Okay, I will say…”

He took a deep breath, leaned forward and clasped his hands, staring at the tiles on the floor.

“Mia,” he said, “you are being so beautiful tonight.”

“Oh yeah? Thanks. Geez.”

“I like you very much.”

“That’s nice of you.” We had only ever had a few conversations, once when I asked him where to get rum (nowhere), and again tonight, but I giggled anyway and gave him my best bashful smile.

He took a few more big deep breaths, then stood up and reached for my hand.

“I sleep to the balcony,” he said, “just there, to the door.”

I took his hand and squeezed.

“I sleep in the girls dorm,” I say, “Just upstairs, to the right of the bathroom.”

“Yes,” he says, “and I like to show you outside now.”


Two minutes later, my tank top was hanging on the balcony railing and each of his hands were on each of my tits. It was cold, my skin was turkey flesh and all the stars in the universe were rushing at my face.

It was electric.

When I did it with Gregor, my high school sweetheart, a full moon was streaming into my little brother’s room while he was away at camp. Me and Gregor had spent a whole year together dry humping on each other to the sexy Tim Curry parts in my Rocky Horror Picture Show video, but I’d been ready for more for a long time.

“You have to be sure,” he would tell me when I begged him to get it over with, just put it in.

“It’s not something you can get back,” he would say.

“I don’t care!” I would say. So that night, the night he finally relented, we snuck into my brother’s empty room and he stuffed his thing inside me until it hurt too much to think, and then he took it out and hugged me while I cried.

Now, with Xhovalin, I could feel his little pecker searching against my leg.

“You are so beautiful,” he said.

“Shhhhhh,” I said, “you’re ruining it.”

When it happened, when he got it in, it didn’t hurt at all. It was nothing and everything, and as Xhovalin slid in and out of my actual body, I thought of the boys on my school bus growing up, how they’d slide their index fingers in and out of holes made with their other hands. And I found myself wishing that Gregor could see me here, no longer a slighted teenage virgin whose boyfriend had met a much-older landscaper and hitchhiked to Niagara Falls to marry her. I was with a real man in a fucked-up country, a real grown up man with a fucked-up face and monster teeth whose breath was ragged and smelled of goat meat and pepper and grease. I was making love like a real woman, throwing caution to the wind and–

Splat. Right in my belly button.

It had been less than 30 seconds.

He rolled off. Somewhere in the night, a goat was bleating.

“You will be a good wife,” Xhovalin said.

It was really that easy.


Words: Freuline Turlough

Portrait: Freyja Zazu