(This story was inspired by Jen Udden, who had the idea and tweeted about it.)
Jeff knows instinctively that Papetarie would be a different environment from what he’d had at Trader Joe’s back home. No one gets that psyched for office supplies, not the way they do for cookie butter or bacon-flavored popcorn or the Peppermint Joe Joes that are only available during the holiday season. And certainly people won’t be as susceptible to his charms at the register; they’ll probably just nod rather than engaging in conversation as he rings up their orders, and his conversational Romanian isn’t great anyway. In short, he thinks as he packs everything he owns into three giant suitcases and eats the last black and white cookie he’ll have for sometime, it’s not going to be as fun. But it’s in Bucharest, and Cara’s in Bucharest, and that’s what really matters.
Mere weeks later, Jeff begins to realize that he may not have been right about everything. Sure, Papetarie is quieter than Trader Joe’s, and he’s still not sure how he feels about the Romanian pop music that plays on the store’s speakers all day, but his coworkers are pleasant enough and the clientele is more … placating, he supposes, than he’d expected. They don’t always take the conversational bait, but they’ll return his “Ce mai faci?” with a “Bine, mulţumesc. Şi dumneavoastră?” and that’s good enough for him. Plus, Cara’s a much better cook than she was in college, and her grandparents are just about the kindest people Jeff’s ever met. Bunică—because that’s what Jeff calls her, it was her idea—is already brainstorming ideas for the wedding next year, and Andrei teaches Jeff a new card game nearly every time they visit. Overall, it’s a much quieter life than he and Cara were leading in Brooklyn. But in a way, he’s happier. He misses Trader Joe’s. But he doesn’t miss it that much.
That’s what he tells himself when an especially sullen-looking man walks into Papetarie one day, face mostly obscured by a baseball cap, sunglasses, and greasy-looking hair. It’s not bright enough outside for sunglasses, but apparently the guy doesn’t want anyone to look too closely at his face. Jeff decides to focus instead on the woman buying a rainbow pack of Sharpies.
“Acestea sunt frumos,” he says, and the woman smiles.
“Pentru fiica mea,” she says.
“Ea îi va iubi.” Jeff hands her a receipt and the Sharpies, which she slips into a tote bag, smiling and grinning and wishing him a good afternoon as she goes. The sullen guy is examining a display of Moleskines, flipping through the pages of the ones that aren’t shrink-wrapped and eventually settling on a fairly standard style—not what Jeff would’ve picked, but functional enough, and sized such that it’ll fit in the backpack the guy has slung over one shoulder. He moves toward the notes and tabs endcap next, frowning at the neon Post-its and, with his shoulders a bit more slumped than they already were, reaches for the sticky tabs in primary colors. Jeff tries to act naturally as the guy approaches the register.
“Bună ziua,” says Jeff, and the guy smirks—not unkindly, but it’s definitely not a full-on smile.
“Your Romanian isn’t bad,” he says. “But you should work on your pronunciation.”
It’s not the nicest thing to say, but Jeff’s so relieved to hear someone speak English that he says an emphatic “Thank you. My fiancée insists we at least try to speak Romanian at home, and it helps, but—it’s just really hard to get a new language down when you’re already in your late twenties, you know?”
The guy shrugs one shoulder. “Not really.” He doesn’t elaborate. “Your fiancée make you move here?”
“Didn’t make me, I wanted to,” says Jeff. Normally, he might not answer such an invasive question from a customer, but it’s asked in English and the guy seems harmless enough, despite having had one hand in his pocket throughout their entire interaction. “I miss Brooklyn sometimes, but—”
“Brooklyn, huh? No shit. I grew up there.” The smirk inches ever closer to a smile. “Don’t know if it’s much like how I remember it, though.”
“It’s always changing,” Jeff says. “Gentrification and all. But I loved it. Went to school there, met Cara, found out Cara wanted to move to Romania to be with her grandparents for at least a year or so, and got used to the idea. It’s nice here. Quiet.”
“You said it.” The guy looks at Jeff’s hand hovering above the scanner.
“Oh. Right. Yeah. You probably want this stuff, huh?”
“That’s the general idea,” says the guy. “Wish you had grey or black tabs. I kinda don’t like the colored ones.”
“Post-it doesn’t really make neutrally colored products,” Jeff says. “I could look into it, see about a special order if you want.”
The guy waves his hand dismissively. “Nah, don’t worry about it. They’ll do.” He pulls a wallet out of his back pocket. “How much?”
“Oh, that’ll be 84 leu,” says Jeff. The guy turns his wallet upside down and shakes it. Several 10 leu notes and a photo that looks to be cut out of a newspaper fall out. Jeff can’t help peering at the photo, a black and white image of Captain America. The guy snatches up the photo and crumples it in his fist, then immediately looks regretful.
“He’s in the newspaper a lot,” Jeff says. “You could probably find another picture.”
“He’s not usually smiling,” says the guy.
“Should I ask?”
The guy lets out a deep sigh. “Only if you buy me a drink.”
Bucky—because that’s what he wants to be called, and it’s how history knows him, so Jeff goes along with it—stays with Jeff and Cara for a couple weeks. At first, Cara has some concerns about hosting a killing machine, but she’s read Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism so she kind of gets the whole brainwashing thing. Plus, it’s Captain America’s best friend, and she’s always had a thing for Captain America, no matter how much she tries to deny it, and Andrei and Bunică love Bucky, who’s pretty damn charismatic, especially after he’s showered. Personally, Jeff thinks Bucky’s penitent about the whole thing, penitent and hurting and not quite ready to see his friend again. When the Sokovia Accords pop up in the news and Bucky’s picture’s in the paper—and Jeff and Cara and her grandparents know he didn’t do it, because a long game of Macao, a couple huge meals, and a good long rest had taken up all of their schedules the day of the murder—it’s time for their new friend to go, and it’s harder than Jeff expected to say goodbye. Bucky’s just started smiling again. To see that taken away—well, it hurts. But Bucky insists on leaving.
“You need to make us plum dumplings one more time,” Cara says after Bucky straps on his pack, and he rolls his eyes.
“Stevie’s gonna be looking for me already, Cara,” says Bucky.
“Please? They’re even better than Bunică’s.”
He sighs heavily. “Fine. But then I’m gone.” Before he goes to his favorite fruit stand for the plums, though, Bucky hugs Cara, then gestures at Jeff, who’s been chopping vegetables in the kitchen throughout the whole exchange. Jeff puts down his knife and walks over to Bucky, who hugs him tightly.
“Thanks for the Post-its and the notebook,” says Bucky.
“Next time I’ll give you a discount,” Jeff says. It’s then that he knows he’ll likely never see Bucky again, unless it’s on TV. Hopefully it’ll be good news. Hopefully he’ll get back to his Stevie. For now, though, he lets go and he smiles, and for once, he gets a full-on grin back.