Vaclav & Lena, page 19
Does Vaclav think of telling Ryan, his girlfriend, about this big thing? No, he does not.
Vaclav can only think of meeting Lena on Monday. He does not think of Ryan at all.
Lena starts to work on her plan.
VACLAV IS A HEAD TALLER THAN EVERYONE ELSE
Lena never cuts school, but Monday morning, she decides that the idea of staying at school is untenable. Declaring that the argument to stay at school is untenable soothes Lena; she likes the simple categorization, the absolute quality of it: School absolutely cannot be tolerated today. The idea of staying, of sitting in calculus, is untenable today. All weekend her anxiety grew exponentially. She kept thinking of Vaclav’s voice on the phone and losing her breath. Untenable.
Lena leaves school and takes two buses to Fort Greene, to sit across the street from Brooklyn Technical High School, to sit on a bench and wait for Vaclav for three hours. She looks at the building; she counts the stories, the windows, the doors. Vaclav is inside this building, inside a classroom, sitting in a chair, listening to a teacher; he is in there. He is alive. He is a real person. He is probably nervous to see her. Does this help calm her own electric nerves? Not really.
The day is fall, definitely fall, but warm. There is no fall crispness in the air; it is a soft baked day. The leaves are changing, barely, just the tips are turning orangey, losing a bit of green, nothing wild or dramatic yet.
There are bunches of kids already passing by on the sidewalk, even though school is not out yet. They have free periods, or they are leaving early, or they are cutting class. But what it seems like most of all is that these kids are just leakage, that a school the size of Brooklyn Tech is going to ooze some kids onto the neighboring sidewalk.
Lena’s bench is under a maple tree that is sending down little whirlybirds, little brown two-winged fliers, like nature is just having a ball, designing trees that send their seeds down in a tailspin. Lena picks one up and peels it in two, folds back one of the halves of one of the wings, thinking cotyledon, from biology, thinking this thing is from a dicot plant but forgetting what the implications of being monocot or dicot are.
A bell rings inside the school, and this bell is so loud as to be audible to Lena. Within moments, doors are thrust open and kids are gushing out onto the street. Lena becomes agitated. There are too many kids. Their meeting is going to be impossible, he’ll never see her, and she does not want to be looking eagerly at the crowd, craning her neck, guessing. She wants him to just find her, to just be there. There is an incredible amount of noise coming from these kids; some of them seem to be yelling, screaming, just to use their voices after the day of enforced quiet; everyone is talking loudly, laughing loudly, yelling to one another, and whooping. Some boys are actually making wild bird-whooping noises at one another.
Lena can’t think of a time anyone at her school has ever been this loud. Maybe, she thinks, when you’re part of it, it doesn’t seem so loud to you. Lena’s school is tiny, gorgeous, private, and quiet.
On the sidewalk alongside the school there are several clusters of kids, and they’re all dressed in extreme ways. Instead of just people with accessories, they appear to be in costume, and it’s too much. She thinks smugly about her small school, where everyone can just be, whatever they are, and then feels a wave of something.… Privilege? Luck? It feels unfamiliar. This school where you have to be so loud in every way, so big, would be exhausting to her. It would hurt.
In one of the little clumps of people she notices a boy who is taller than everyone else. He’s taller by a head, or even by a foot, and he sticks out over the mass. He turns to talk to someone, and Lena sees his face. It’s unmistakably Vaclav, but he looks completely different. He’s an adult man, smiling Vaclav’s smile. He hasn’t seen her yet. Lena wonders about the coincidence of her attention settling on this one person, this one back of the head, and having the back of the head turn out to be Vaclav, but, of course, he’s tall, so anyone would notice him. Who would have thought Vaclav would be so tall? But then again, what are the chances that the one person Lena is looking for, her one person who is so special to her, and is also so special in the whole universe, would stand so high above everyone else, that he is so obviously spectacular, luminous, charming, and magic?
She’s sitting there wondering if Vaclav will recognize her in the same way when he starts walking across the street, charging straight through the crosswalk toward her. His hair is so dark—it is like Superman’s hair from the comics—she expects almost to see flecks of electric blue highlighting its contours. It’s wild, like he’s been twisting it into horns all day. She’s thrown by his hair, but most of all, she can’t take her eyes off his eyebrows.
Vaclav’s eyebrows are large, they are dark, but they separate from each other, they do not meld in the middle, they do not collapse into each other’s weight. They are heavy and dense but somehow light, somehow airy, like charcoal but shinier, livelier, glowing? Could they be glowing? He is smiling with his whole face, a smile that is expanding and expanding even when it is at its maximum smiling capacity, his smile is expanding, impossibly, and she is smiling too, and she is standing up from the bench, because he is right there, in front of her, and she isn’t sure if they are going to hug or not, but then, yes, they are hugging, and then, yes, she is up in his arms, and her feet are off the ground, and his face is in her hair, and she is laughing, laughing, laughing, and he is making a sound that is a little like a yell when you go down the steepest waterslide at the park, and they stay that way forever.
THEY DIDN’T STAY THAT WAY FOREVER, NOT REALLY.
BUT SOME MOMENTS DO SEEM ETERNAL, NO?
Vaclav had already known that she was sitting there before he even saw her. He had felt her looking at him. He had known it was her, it had to be her, because he felt, suddenly, the compulsion to turn and look at that bench, to look in her direction, like there were magnets in his eyes and she was a supermagnetized hunk of some other planet, just fallen to earth.
She was still small, she was still dark, her eyes still unsettling, but now all the parts of her face were becoming graceful. She had a head of hair so curly, so frizzy, so unruly, it was like a mane around her head; it seemed a part of her like those collars on lizards, the ones that flare up their necks when it’s time to do lizard battle. Everything else about her face had become more confident. Here! I’m a nose, I’m a mouth; this is what I do. It all seemed to have poise; it all seemed to belong. He couldn’t have imagined her looking this way, but now that he’s seen her he can’t imagine anything else, anything else at all. And then he’d wanted just to hug her, but when he leaned down and she leaned up it was as if she was weightless and just wanted to spring into his arms, and then he was holding her, which he had not planned on at all, and he felt worried, because the moment he put her down, they would have to get a bit awkward, he is already feeling the awkwardness nibbling at their heels, just itching, itching to spread.
He puts her down, on the sidewalk, and there are other people trying to get around them, which is a surprise. A moment ago, while she was in the air, in his arms, there had seemed to be no one else in the world. She looks up at him and smiles, and her smile is toothy and goofy, but her lips are beautiful, and Vaclav smiles back.
“I want you to come to Russia with me,” she says.
“Sure,” he says.
“I’m serious,” she says, smiling.
“I know,” he says.
“Do you want to go somewhere?” she says.
“I thought we were going to Russia,” he says.
She puts her hands on her hips and gives him a stern face, one eyebrow up, one eyebrow down, chin commanding attention, the same stern face she gave him the last time they saw each other.
“I meant now,” she says.
“When are we going to Russia?” he says.
“Soon,” she says.
“This afternoon?” he says.
“No,” she says.
“Good, because I’m not packed.”
“I’m serious,” she says.
“When?” he says.
“We’ll see,” she says.
“Where are we going now?” he says.
“To eat something, maybe?” she says.
“Okay, cool. Because I’m really hungry,” he says.
“I’m not,” she says.
“I’m always hungry,” he says.
“You must be growing,” she says.
“You think?” he says. “We can get pizza. Do you like pizza?” Such a strange question to ask the most important special secret person in your life, but he has to ask; he doesn’t know. He’s never seen Lena eat pizza.
“I’m not hungry,” she says, “but I’ll sit with you. We have a lot to talk about.”
“No shit,” he says. She is surprised to hear him curse but excited at this reminder that they are both grown-ups now. His saying “shit” makes Russia seem possible. The Russia plan is a thing she is holding in her head, and she pokes it, like a loose tooth, to see if it is real. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it feels good, sometimes very bad. Today it’s feeling really good. Really real.
They start walking down the sidewalk together, side by side, looking down at their feet. They are unused to navigating the sidewalk together; they do not have a pace for walking together, like couples in the city do, like old friends do. Vaclav walks slowly, to keep pace with Lena. They squeeze awkwardly past lampposts and groups of people, and find crossing the street awkward.
“What have you been up to?” Vaclav says.
Lena smiles at him mischievously.
“A lot,” she says. “What have you been up to?” She smiles; it is so strange to ask him what he has been up to. Like meeting the president and saying, “Hey, how are you doing?”
“Same thing,” he says, meaning same thing as when you left, meaning still magic, still trying to take care of you with my mind, still trying to control events using supernatural powers.
A SECRET MISSION
It’s unbelievable to Lena and to Vaclav that they are sitting in a pizza dive, across from each other, just ordering pizza, like everything is normal.
Luckily for Lena and Vaclav, it is assumed by Vaclav, and unchallenged by Lena, that as Vaclav eats he cannot talk at all. Vaclav eats like a pig. Lena is afraid that she might be sprayed with pizza sauce, burned by hurtling molten cheese. While Vaclav eats his first three slices, Lena picks the cheese off a slice and explains to him the Russia plan.
“I want to find my parents,” she says. “I mean my biological parents. I have a mom now, an actual mom, my real mom. She adopted me. I love her. I just want to know about my real parents.” Vaclav notes the striking calm in Lena’s voice when she talks about her new mom, her actual mom.
“I want you to come. It’s going to be really hard to find them. I don’t know yet how to go about doing that, but I’m sure we can find them. I mean, it can’t be impossible. I’m sure they’re there, so it’s just about figuring out how to find them. Through documents and whatever.”
Vaclav pauses eating, just momentarily, directs his eyes up at Lena; he wants to ask her a question, but his mouth is full and she’s not stopping.
“We’ll do as much research as possible here, before we leave, and we might be able to make some progress, but I’m sure that we’ll hit a wall, and we’ll need information that we won’t be able to get unless we’re actually there, you know? We might have to knock on doors and ask questions, or find records in some obscure place, or whatever.”
It is becoming quickly very clear to Vaclav that much of Lena’s concept of this plan is based on television shows. But then again, much of the brashness of her plan is based on the confidence of a straight-A student, the confidence that with diligence, with hard work, with dedication, with exhaustive research, questioning, planning, any result can be achieved. Vaclav too is a disciple of this method of living. It is precisely why he is sure that he will, someday, be a successful magician. “The problem is just getting there—specifically, the money to get there. But that’s just a number; you count to all numbers one at a time. One dollar at a time,” she says.
This is again the thinking of a person who is smart enough to know that they are smart, and that even in a very big world, there is no one significantly smarter, and so anything can be accomplished. There is nothing so childish about wanting to find your parents. This need, he thinks, must be innate, natural, eternal. Lena is like a homing pigeon, a boomerang. There is a motor inside her, always seeking them.
She isn’t done talking.
“The main thing is, we can get there if we just decide to go, you know? And I know you understand that, that if we just decide to make it happen, then we can. Then it is done. Basically.”
“You know what Houdini said? He said, ‘I have done things which rightly I could not do, because I said to myself, You must.’ ”
“I like that,” she says.
“I thought you might,” he says, and they both blush. “First of all,” he says, “yes, of course I’ll go with you.” Lena never doubted that Vaclav would come along. She nods.
“So I just want to get that out of the way, because of course I’ll do it, I just have a few questions, and some ideas and stuff, about the plan. But I don’t want you to worry that in any way I’m not on board, because I really am,” he says. “First of all, are you completely sure that they’re in Russia?” he asks.
“Why?” he asks. “If you don’t know where they are, how can you be sure they’re not here?”
“If they were here, in America, they would have contacted me. They would have found me. At some point.” Lena says this as fact. Vaclav is less sure.
“How do you know they’re still alive?” he asks, and then immediately wonders if this is a question he can ask. It seems like such a cruel question, such an awful question.
“Doesn’t matter. If I find them and they’re dead, that’s still finding them. I just want to fill in the holes. I don’t want anything from them. I just want to know. I want to know why they came here, and why they left me. I think anyone would want to know that.”
Vaclav thinks about how his parents too came to America, brought him here. He thinks about how they haven’t discussed it much, not in years. He hasn’t asked his mother or father what their lives were like in Russia, why they left, anything. Their dinner table discussions are about school, about politics, about everything else. Vaclav remembers a little bit of living in Russia when he was little; he remembers a day he played with another little boy outside of their big apartment building, and a windup spaceman toy that he cried about when they landed in America and he realized he had left it behind. He remembers that he took his Houdini book with him on the plane. These are only vague memories he has from when he was little; life before Vaclav is never discussed. Vaclav wants to tell this to Lena, to say something like, “My parents live with me in my house, and I don’t know these things that you think most people know. He does not say this. I could know if I wanted, he tells himself, and that’s the difference.
“Are you going to tell your parents about this?” he asks, realizing, again, that the very basic things he does not know about Lena’s life would make a long list.
“Parent. It’s just my mom. And no, I’m not, because she would never let me travel alone. I mean, alone? To Russia? Never. It has to be a secret.”
This is a mission. Vaclav understands missions, understands the need for secrecy when something is so important.
“I won’t tell my mom either; she would flip out.”
Lena almost cringes at this mention of Vaclav’s mom, and wonders why. Why would the mention of Vaclav’s mom make her feel anxious? Her brain is full of holes sometimes. Having Vaclav here feels good, but she feels like he’s poking around in some dark soft spots. His questions are harder to answer, harder to hear, than she thought they would be, like h
“Yeah,” she says. “I feel like it’s best if no one knows. Easier.”
“Okay,” he says. He doesn’t even wonder why they would have to go alone, why it therefore has to be a secret, he so much likes having a secret with Lena again.
They walk outside the pizza parlor, and Lena tells Vaclav that she has to go, she has a meeting. School council. Yes, it is boring. She’s the president, and it’s still boring. Yeah, good for college applications, she tells him. This conversation, this small talk about high school politics, it is all just words to fill the air while they stare at each other. They never want to leave each other’s company, and they do not know how to say goodbye.
“Oh, wait!” Vaclav says. “What about your aunt? Would she be able to help us? Does she still live on Seventh?”
“She moved,” Lena says. “Back to Russia.”
“Oh, too bad,” Vaclav says. “She probably knows, right?”
“Yeah,” Lena says. “I wish I could just ask her, but she’s gone.”
There is a pause, and Vaclav fills it with “Can I see you tomorrow?” and Lena hops on the end of tomorrow with her yes. Here, after school. Okay, they say, too many times, okay, okay, okay, smiling, on the verge of goofy. They are about to turn and just walk away from each other, not knowing at all what to do with this departure, how it should go, and then they step forward into each other’s hug space, which as soon as they are doing it seems like the reasonable thing to do. Two long-lost friends hugging. Reasonable. Except there is too much contact between necks, between the softness at the intersection of neck and jaw, not enough friendly vigor, too much of the world falling silent while they hold on to each other.