Claudia Serea

My suitcases were real. My life was make believe

June 21, 1995

I stayed up all night, packing my two suitcases, thinking what to bring, what not to bring.

I decided against the heavy winter coats as if I was emigrating to a tropical climate, and made room for white bed sheets, a towel, a tablecloth, and the steel flatware I bought at the Russian flea market.

My cat hid in the folded laundry and jumped out, making me laugh. I couldn’t take her with me, though.

I remember sunrise through the windshield and how my family stood at the gate for a last photo: my parents, my brother, my brother-in-law and his wife, my husband, even my other sister-in-law we only saw at christenings and funerals.

To be honest, it felt like someone’s funeral. An invisible corpse was hanging in the air above us—but I couldn’t quite put my finger on exactly who that was.

Once, I went to the Buzău River

One time, I took my wife and my mother-in-law to the Buzău River. It had been very hot. I didn’t have a bathing suit, but no one else was around, so I decided to go in the water in my underwear. After that, my wife hung the underwear to dry on top of the car, and I got dressed only with the shorts.

I drove back to the village, and we decided to stop by the bar to get a few beers. Some men were outside, watching who’s coming and going. Kids were running around, raising dust. The young men looked at us. I nodded, they nodded back. They all know me here. I got the beers and put them in the trunk. The sun was setting, but the evening was still hot.

We drove around, talking about who moved away, who stayed, and who died. A lot of people died, mostly men. It was Sunday, and all the widows were at the gates, dressed in black like crows, chatting. They gave us long looks when we drove by. You know who I’m talking about, those fucking babe who know everything. They are the village radio network and its secret police. They know how many eggs the chickens laid and if the newborns were given their bath. And they can give you the evil eye.

I could see their toothless mouths moving but couldn’t hear what they said. Like, who’s that in the blue car? Maria’s son who didn’t visit the entire year? Why is he coming home now? Certainly, to get some of that brandy, the drunk. He’s not good enough to pay his debts, or help his mother, but he can drink. And his lazy wife who never helps in the yard. They never help, but they always come to visit before the holidays to grab some country chickens and wine.

I saw them talking and looking, talking and looking. I nodded, good day, good fucking day, you old hags who know everyone’s business. And I kept driving. When we got home, my underwear was still on top of the car.


Lovage, Levisticum officinale, is a finicky herb that doesn’t grow in America—and I had to have it because the leuştean is quintessential to Romanian cooking. Its name comes from love-ache from the French name levesche, from late Latin levisticum, a corruption of the earlier ligusticum, “of Liguria.” I grew it from seeds I got from Mom and planted four bushes of Romanian love herb in my New Jersey garden.

I cut the long-stemmed, gold-powdered flowers and made a pungent bouquet for my kitchen window. In a few days, 20 small, black caterpillars emerged.

I called them chicks and fed them lovage leaves morning and night—and, in a few days, they got fat, light green with black stripes and yellow spots. My brother called me Mother Caterpillar when I posted on Facebook the blue vase with long lovage stems adorned with moving, chewing, dancing green flowers.

They made a mess, so I moved the weirdest bouquet of my life to the garage, and cut for my chicks bunches of fresh lovage for days. Soon, the catepillars cocooned everywhere: on my husband’s fishing poles, on walls and shelves, and in the bag with Miracle-Gro soil.

One morning, I found several big, black swallowtail beauties fluttering in the garage window. Next day, a few more. Wings elegant as evening gowns, they emerged in waves of glamorous, dark velvet edged with bright yellow and blue lace. My nickname became the black swallowtail whisperer—and I found out they are the official insect of the state of New Jersey.

I knew the butterflies were Romanian because they loved the lovage.

I helped them emigrate into the sky.

Claudia Serea is a Romanian-born poet with work published in Field, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, The Malahat Review, The Puritan, Oxford Poetry, Asymptote, and elsewhere. She has published five poetry collections, most recently Twoxism, a poetry-photography collaboration with Maria Haro (8th House Publishing, 2018). Serea is a founding editor of National Translation Month and a co-host of The Williams Poetry Readings series in Rutherford, NJ.
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Blogger Lynn said...

Impressive. Congratulations!


11:19 AM  

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