Vaclav & Lena, page 12
“There is alcohol there?” she says.
“No, no. It’s a coffee shop. They don’t even have a liquor license.”
“Okay. I don’t know this place,” she says.
Vaclav understands. When he was a little boy, they discovered places together. Maybe other kids had a mom who explained to them, here is where you buy your subway card, and here is where you give the prescription to the pharmacist, and here is where you pick it up, and here is where you stand on line to mail a package, but when they arrived in America, Vaclav and Rasia learned together.
Now that they do far fewer things together, he is always doing something where she doesn’t know the place. This is something that can make a bruise on a mother, but Rasia tells herself that this is not so different from regular parents of regular American teenagers. But a little, she knows, it is very different.
“You know what, Mom? You should come. Come to Ozzie’s and you can see Ryan’s band, and you can see me do the trick,” Vaclav says.
“Okay. We see. I don’t know,” Rasia says. Rasia doesn’t want to feel this way, but she is scared of the idea of going to see Vaclav do a trick at Ozzie’s, where she will feel so out of place.
A sad silence inflates in the room, because Rasia and Vaclav and Ryan all know that Rasia will not come. Ryan finds herself not knowing what to do with her hands, finds herself making excuses. Making an exit.
“Oh, I have to get home for dinner. Thank you so much for having me over,” she says. Ryan rarely stays for dinner at Vaclav’s house. She tells Vaclav that her mother likes her to be home for dinner, which he understands to be the truth but not all of it.
Ryan doesn’t mind the food at Vaclav’s house. She minds the awareness, the very acute self-awareness she feels, the slow-motion awareness of her hands, her feet, the way she reaches for something on the table, the way she uses her fork and knife, the way she says “please” and “thank you.” She minds the way Rasia serves everyone instead of letting everyone take from big bowls on the table; she minds the way this makes her too aware of how much Rasia gives her, and how much she can eat, and the enormous gap between the two amounts. She minds the difference in condiments. These are small things.
The big thing is that she is aware of every word that does and does not come out of her mouth when she talks with Rasia, and especially with Oleg. She feels hyperaware of her words, her slang, her tone of voice; she is so often unsure of what they understand; she is worried that she might be condescending to them, speaking too slowly or too fast.
What Ryan really likes is having Vaclav over at her house. She likes showing him off, how he performs magic tricks for her sisters and different magic tricks for her parents, how he charms them. She likes how her dad will say, “Now, that is something!” and then talk to Vaclav about physics, which is his favorite thing in the world besides magic, or about baseball, which Ryan’s dad thinks Vaclav likes.
It is rare, though, that Vaclav can stay at her house for dinner. Rasia wants him home every night. And Vaclav never argues, he just goes home. This is irritating to Ryan, that he won’t battle Rasia for her. So she excuses herself and refuses invitations to dinner, and has Vaclav walk her to the Q train, so she can take the subway two express stops to her house and have dinner with her family and not have to think about how she holds her knife.
Rasia thinks that Ryan will not stay because she doesn’t like to eat strange food, and that to tell the truth, Ryan does not like to eat at all—just look at her, the evidence is in her wrists, she is so thin. On nights when Rasia is making something she feels with some level of confidence is totally normal and American, and healthy, she announces this loudly to Ryan.
“You are invited for staying here, if you like. Is grilled chicken. Healthy,” Rasia says, but Ryan thanks her, says no, begins packing her backpack. This healthy American dinner is appearing on her table more and more frequently, since the doctor told her that she was too fat, that she needed to eat less meat and more things green, and lose many pounds. Rasia has much faith in doctors, especially these young American doctors, with their offices like space stations, so when the doctor told her that she needed to lose pounds (at least fifty!) she asked him directly to specify, to enumerate and write down exactly what she needed to do.
When the doctor chuckled and told her that replacing a few dinners a week with lean protein and vegetables, like grilled chicken with asparagus or spinach, or a salad with grilled chicken, would be fine, and to take a brisk twenty-minute walk each day, Rasia nodded seriously and asked how many is a few. The doctor told her that he had always thought a few meant three.
Three nights a week, Rasia prepared grilled chicken with asparagus and spinach, and every day, when she came home from work, she put on her sneakers and walked around the block for twenty minutes.
Oleg did not join her in this exercise, and he was not enthusiastic about the grilled chicken with asparagus and spinach, and he lived for the days, especially Friday nights, when there would be borscht and challah and big chunks of meat in the borscht and a big piece of meat on his plate and a big bowl of ice cream after dinner.
Vaclav walks with Ryan to the door, retrieves her coat, carries her backpack. Outside, it is not yet dark. The sun is gone, but the light is still clinging to the air and the evening is at the moment when the light is just about to slip away. It is fall, and it is still warm, even as the sun goes down. It is four weeks until Halloween, and a week until the air starts to smell each evening of burning leaves.
Vaclav waits until they turn the corner to stop and kiss Ryan. Besides magic, French kissing is the greatest thing in the world to him, and these days during school he is thinking more about kissing Ryan and less about magic. No matter how many times he kisses Ryan, he feels nervous and good, like being at the top of the first big drop on the Cyclone.
Vaclav likes kissing Ryan on the corner, but he also thinks of everything else all the time, everything else that might be done between a boy and a girl, and how it would be and how many of these things they could discover together if only they had a bed and a room and a blanket and some pillows for an afternoon. To think of a whole night, of having a whole night, this to Vaclav is incredible, these ideas of the things he and Ryan might do. He feels all these things igniting inside of him when he kisses her, and so he loves this kissing more than anything. When he kisses Ryan he takes all his thoughts about the things that they could do if they had the time and the places to do them, and he puts them into the kiss. With the air from his nose he breathes them into her, with his tongue he shows her the wildness and wetness and intensity of these things. When he kisses Ryan, all of these things are inside the kiss.
Ryan is different. Ryan wants the kissing to be only a stop on the way to all the other things. Vaclav knows this, because she told him, and he also knows because when they kiss she doesn’t seem happy, she seems desperate, and her body presses into him too hard, and she breathes too hard, and her fingers dig into his skin just a little bit, and she pulls him toward her with too much force. When she does this, Vaclav feels the same way he does when the subway train is too crowded and everyone stands too close to one another; he can’t wait for the doors to open, to take a deep breath, to break out into his long, unhindered stride and swing his arms and walk wherever he wants.
They walk a block and stop and kiss, and walk a block and stop and kiss, and they rush a little bit because Rasia knows that it does not take thirty minutes to walk two blocks and that the rush-hour Q train arrives every eight minutes. When they get to the subway platform and have time to stand and wait for the Q train to come and take Ryan away, they kiss harder and harder because the clock is ticking, and any moment the lights of the train will come and ignite the tracks, and they will know the time is almost over.
Ryan steps forward and presses her body against Vaclav’s body just a little bit, and Vaclav steps back just a little bit, but she steps forward again, and she pushe
Ryan hugs Vaclav and then steps onto her train and waves as the doors close. He watches the train leave, watches it snake away through the buildings and the billboards and the treetops. He stands on the subway platform, lifted just above the roofs of Brighton Beach, and he can see down into the backyards of houses that live against the scar of the subway tracks, and in these houses, families are loving one another in Russian and Czech and Spanish while they watch the news, and in these houses, on the stoves, the mothers are making stuffed cabbage and pollo and creamed spinach, and they have their ovens set to 375 degrees to turn frozen apple pies from the supermarket into the smell of a real American home in just thirty minutes, and the wind from the Atlantic ocean, which is the only thing between here and there, now and before, new and old, blows the clam-juice smell of Coney Island into the windows.
ASKING THE UNASKED QUESTION,
OR THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG
As he walks down the stairs from the elevated subway platform back to the street, Vaclav admits to himself that he does not want anything more from Ryan. A little bit, he thinks, he is a little happy for her to leave. It is enough time together, and it is good for her to go home. Can he tell her this? No, he cannot. He does not want to spend more time with her. He does not want to involve himself with more of her body. She does want more, more time, more involvement, more knitting together of their selves. He walks faster. He shoves his hands deep into his pockets. Do I want less Ryan because she wants more Vaclav? Perhaps she wants more because I want less? Whose feelings came first? Do the feelings have anything to do with each other? Maybe I would want what I want no matter what, and she the same. This is a very frustrating game of ping-pong to play in his head, and he does not enjoy it.
Another thought is taking shape in his mind. Maybe this is how it always is. Maybe someone always wants more. Maybe everyone has a time when they realize that they’ve been accidentally lying when they say I love you, I miss you, you’re pretty, you’re the prettiest one, I never want you to leave. Maybe this time ends and it all becomes true again, as true as you ever thought it was. Maybe this time does not end. If this time ends, it would be a smart decision to wait it out. If it does not end, then perhaps you should not wait, and you should find another person to whom you can say these things without lying. But perhaps it always happens no matter which girl or boy you are trying to love, in which case you might as well stay where you are, because you would repeat the same process with anyone else.
He is walking on the block where he has lived since he moved to America thirteen years ago. The sidewalk is becoming craggier, more and more treacherous, every day, and Vaclav realizes that it has never been repaired in all the time he has lived here.
The light is just about gone from the street when Vaclav opens the front door to his house, and he smells dinner before his hand even leaves the doorknob.
“Vaclav?” Rasia is yelling. “Sit down! We are waiting! Dinner, it is getting cold.”
“I thought it was salad,” Vaclav yells back to his mother.
“It is salad. Is getting less cold. Whatever,” she says. Rasia says “whatever” now, something she hated when she first heard it on the television, and hated more when she heard it coming out of her son’s mouth, until she started saying it, and it wove itself into her vocabulary so easily and smoothly. This word, Rasia now thinks, it is very useful. It is saying the following things all in one word:
I don’t care
You are uptight
I am relaxed and free
I do not submit to your uptightness
Rasia likes to turn the tables and make it so that her son is the uptight one.
“Sorry, Mom,” Vaclav says. He understands that the rush for dinner has nothing to do with the temperature of the food, hot or cold, but has to do only with the happiness his mom took from making food for him and the extraordinary unfairness of his making her wait to serve it to him. This is a slightly self-centered view of things, but time after time it has been proven that his mother exists only for him. Everything she does, in some way, is for him, and everything she wants is in some way for him. He decides that he can ask her the thing that he has wanted to ask all day.
Vaclav sits on his chair at the kitchen table. This table has always been their kitchen table, as long as Vaclav can remember, like the sidewalk has always been the sidewalk, the same, forever. The span of Vaclav’s memory makes these things seem ancient, but thirteen years is not a long time for a sidewalk to go without repair, and thirteen years is not a long time to have a kitchen table. Thirteen years is not a long time to live in a country; it is a very short time to live in a country. But then again, thirteen years can be a long time in other ways. Thirteen years is a long time to be away from your old country, from your home. Even one year is a long time to be away from someone and to still think of them every day. Lena has been gone for seven years, and Vaclav still misses her, every day.
“Mom,” Vaclav says, as Rasia serves wilted Caesar salad with grilled chicken to Oleg, “do you ever think about Lena?” His question hangs in the air, changing everything. There was one unasked question in their family, and this was it, and now it’s been asked, and all the air has emptied out of the room. Rasia continues to drop the wilted chicken Caesar salad onto her husband’s plate.
Vaclav has known for many years that he is not supposed to ask this question, which is really the tip of an iceberg: an iceberg that might be labeled LENA, or perhaps WHAT HAPPENED WITH LENA, or perhaps WHAT HAPPENED TO LENA THEN, AND THEN AFTER THAT, or perhaps THE WHOLE LENA THING.
Twice since the night Lena went away, Vaclav has tried to ask. Once in the kitchen after Rasia found him at the sideshow, and once, two years later, when he was twelve. The second time, Vaclav asked Rasia, “Where is Lena now?” and she looked so upset that he knew immediately he should not have asked. She said, “How should I know?” and walked away, and though Vaclav was not sure why, it was obvious to him that he had made her angry. Even though he never asked again, and Rasia never spoke of it, the question was always with them. The iceberg was always there in the kitchen.
“No,” says Rasia. This is a lie. Vaclav knows it, and Rasia knows it, and even Oleg knows it.
“I do,” says Vaclav.
Vaclav has said good night to Lena every night since the night that she went away. Out loud. In a whisper. At sleepovers, if he has to, he says good night to Lena in the bathroom while he flushes the toilet so that no one will hear him. This is not because he is ashamed but because the words are only for Lena and not for anyone else; to waste his good night on anyone’s ears but Lena’s might usurp its power.
The power of saying good night each night to Lena is great. On the first night that Lena was gone, Vaclav said good night to her, put the good night out into the scary, lonely darkness, and meant each word in a very specific way. Good night. Good night. He wanted her to have a good night. Not a scary night. Not a dangerous night. Not a cold or lonely or nightmare-filled night. He filled the words with all his love and care and worry for Lena and launched them out to her, and like homing pigeons, he trusted them to find her, and he felt, that night, that his words would keep Lena safe, that if he thought about her and cared about her and showed this to the universe, then bad things would not happen to her. Vaclav was not asking an omnipotent god to grant him a wish. He was stirring in himself his own very true emotions, his pure feelings, and pushing them, birthing them in
Each night thereafter, he had carefully sent this good night into the universe for Lena, and each night after that, he had known if he did not take this precaution, that if he forgot or neglected or was insincere in his wish or in his mind or in his heart, that the good night might not come to Lena, and that would mean that Lena might have a bad night, and for Vaclav this meant that her life might be in danger.
“Do you know what happened to her?” Vaclav asks.
“No,” says Rasia. This is true and not true. Rasia has an idea of what had happened to Lena, and what had been happening to Lena, but she does not know what has happened to Lena in the years that have passed. She knows that Lena was taken by Child Protective Services but not where. Rasia also has no idea of what being taken by Child Protective Services might mean beyond what she has seen on television.
“What happened that night?” Vaclav asks.
“I do not know this,” Rasia says, and looks down at her Caesar salad with pieces of grilled chicken on top. She doesn’t want to answer these questions. Rasia has always imagined a time when Vaclav would want to know what happened to Lena. She imagined herself sitting quietly in an old-age home. (Oleg? Dead, of course. She is not being mean, just honest. This is what men do, they die, long before women. This is how it is meant to be, so that women can finally rest.) Vaclav would come visit on a nice summer day, and bring the grandchildren, and they would look out on the beach, where the grandchildren were playing in the sand (the old-age home was the nice one on the beach by Coney Island, of course), and Vaclav would say, “Mom, I know it was a long time ago, but do you think that you could tell me what happened with that little girl that I used to play with?” And she would say that she was surprised that he remembered that, it was so long ago, so long ago; could you imagine she is a grandmother now, and the little girl, she would remind him, her name was Lena, and she could tell him the story with misty, teary-eyed sweetness because it would have happened in such a long-ago faraway place.