Vaclav & Lena, page 24
“What did you do?”
“I brought the baby home.” She stares at Vaclav, challenging him to ask for more.
“So her dad didn’t want her?”
“The man who was tried with Yelena, who knows, maybe the man it wasn’t even her father. Anyway, whoever her father is, either this man or some other drug dealer pimp whatever. Not someone to give a baby to, right?”
“Forget the father,” she says. “He is dirt or nothing. Dead. A criminal. A nothing. Forget.”
“How did you get here?” asks Vaclav, promising nothing in the way of forgetting Lena’s father.
“My mother didn’t look at the baby or touch her or hold her, nothing. I could tell she wants only to forget Yelena. This baby, it was too much for her, this she did not want. I was buying formula and trying to take care of this baby and go to my job, and having girlfriends come over to watch the baby, my mother, she would do nothing.
“One day she gives me a passport with Yelena’s name on it, and fake papers for the baby, and airplane tickets to New York John F. Kennedy International Airport. She tells me to pack and leave in the morning. She didn’t pay for these tickets, there were men in the family already in Brooklyn, men who are involved, importing, exporting, whatever, drugs and girls and selling stolen things. Some of these people, we are related to them. So my mother gets in touch, and she says she has a girl and a baby to send to America, and we will be useful, and she puts us on a plane to America, and that is it.”
“Why did the passport have Yelena’s name?”
“This I think our mother was doing for her before she went to prison and died. Arranging for her to go to United States.”
“She was trying to save her?” Vaclav asks, lost.
“She was tying to sell her,” the Aunt says, “like she sold me.”
“She sent me here to work for these men, and the lie is that you will work off the money that they have spent to get you here, the money spent on fake passport, on airplane flight, and they put you up in apartment and pay for green card, and do all sorts of other lying in your name so that you are trapped to them and you cannot go to police and escape. They make credit cards in your name, and a loan on a car in your name, because your credit is clean, and you cannot afford these things without them, and they are saying that you owe them money already for these things, and it is adding up every day. Some girls, they think they will work it off, and they count their dollars and every day they are thinking about how this work is getting them to freedom, but eventually they all give in to it being permanent slave to these men, and instead of dreaming to get out they start thinking this is the way their life will be always, and they start dating one of these men, and they take the drugs and let these men make their life into disaster.”
Vaclav knows that this is not some girl’s story, this is Trina’s story.
“The man I was dating, he wasn’t the one who touched Lena.”
“What?” says Vaclav, stunned, confused.
“Some friend of his, some drunk thug from the club. He comes that day looking for me; I wasn’t home, he finds Lena. I tried always to keep her out of the house, but this day she stays home sick, I did not know. Anyway, your mother comes, she sees, she sneaks away and phones 911. By the time they come, he is gone. So when the police come, they say, ‘Who did this,’ I gave them the name of my boyfriend, the man who has my debt. I say that he is always beating us, always touching Lena.”
“What? You lied?” Vaclav asks.
“The man your mama saw, he went away free. The man who was my boyfriend, they put him in prison and I am free, and they take away Lena, and I am free of her too.”
“But he never touched Lena?” Vaclav asks.
“No. He would never do this. I would never let this happen to Lena; it happened once, this man who comes and barges in, drunk, looking for me. But I knew if I said that my boyfriend is always touching her, and they see the evidence on Lena, and what your mama said she saw, that he would go to prison forever, and we would both be safe.”
“But the man who did it … he got off?” Vaclav says, enraged.
“He escaped the police on that day, yes. Now he is dead,” Trina says.
Vaclav tries to understand.
“I was trying always to keep Lena only fed and going to school and to not see anything of these things that are happening to me, to us. When we came to this country, I gave her to the old woman, but then she died. I did not want Lena. I want her not to see or be seen by these men, these scum, to see these things, the club where I am working or the drugs or these criminals or anything. I want her and me to get out of this horrible place that my sister made us go to.”
Trina stops; she relights a cigarette that is already lit.
“I love my sister. I want to make something good from her, for her.”
Vaclav lets her stop for a moment. He looks away while she wipes her eyes with the backs of her hands.
“When they take Lena away, I know she will finally be happy. She will live in a place that is clean. She will be safe from seeing me and my life; she will be safe from these men and this way of living. This is what I always want for her. I am glad that this happens, you see?
“And then this man goes to prison, and I am free from him. I am going to school now all the time to be a nurse. I am dancing only to pay for this; this is the only way. And that will be my freedom, when I am RN—and making salary and benefits and all this. I have only one year to go. Starting salary for nurse is ninety thousand. Is good. Then I will see Lena, when I am good for her. When she is grown up and safe. That is all. That is all I have to tell you; you know the whole story.”
Vaclav does not know what to say.
“You want to go tell Lena this, and I will ask you one thing and then you will do whatever you will do. I know this, you are a boy, and with your ideas you will do whatever you are thinking is the right thing.” She pauses, and smokes.
“But this is this thing. Lena does not know any of this. She is protected from all of this horrible things. I protected her. I sent her away from this. And now you will bring it to her. I am thinking you know that she is not ready for this. She is still soft and not a happy and ready grown-up person. I do not know. I have not seen her. You know the best. Maybe she is ready.”
Vaclav searches her face and sees that she is toying with him, that there is something that she wants him to do or not to do but that she is not going to say it.
“I am thinking that since you are here, and she is not here, this is a sign that she is most definitely not ready. Now you will go from my house. I am done talking with you.”
She turns her back on him and goes to the kitchen, runs the water. Then she turns around, looks at Vaclav, and tries to soften.
“I am very tired. Goodbye.”
BROOKLYN IS ONLY A BOROUGH
Vaclav walks to Lena’s house. It is far to Lena’s house; all of Brooklyn is between them. But Brooklyn is only a borough, it is not a country. Lena’s house is six miles away, and Vaclav can walk every step. Vaclav must put one foot down and then another foot down and push the sidewalk behind him; he must move himself over the ground, and feel that he is a person moving himself through the world. First he walks up Ocean Parkway, and he walks through all of Midwood, through the gaggles of Hassidic girls in their navy skirts, the mothers with their strollers and matching hair. He walks through Ditmas Park, where one side of the street is big Victorian mansions, holding forth proud porches and manicured lawns, and the other side is bodegas with their signs painted over eight times. He walks through Prospect Park, where the trees are exploding in color and all the people running or walking their dogs or talking on cellphones underneath seem not to notice.
Vaclav walks and walks and walks some more.
By the time he gets to Lena’s house he knows what to do.
Lena’s neighborhood is beautiful in a way that Vaclav’s i
Lena’s house has accomplished the easy Americanness that his house never could. His house always has the wrong smell, the wrong mat at the door, the wrong stance.
The doorbell makes a wonderful sound, a deep ringing, like an actual bell, and there are two long, slow, grand tones, ding, dong. Ding, dong. There is laughing inside; there is yelling inside. “I gooooooot it!” Laughing on the way to get it.
A woman opens the door with great effort; it is a heavy door. The inside of the house is full of a warm light, like Lena’s mom has somehow learned to magically make lightbulbs out of clementines.
Lena’s mom is small, maybe the same height as Lena, shorter than Vaclav for sure. Her hair is long, and gray or blond, or graying blond, but she looks young; her chin is young and she has bangs cut straight across her forehead. Her eyes are crinkled at the edges, as if she knows things, but she still looks young. She is wearing a black dress, and her arms are showing, and she’s wearing a scarfy thing even though she’s inside. She has bracelets on, a lot of bracelets, like armor, from her wrists halfway up her forearms. She has rings on her thumbs. She is smiling at Vaclav, he realizes, and she knows who he is, and she grabs his shoulders and hugs him as she pulls him into the house.
“Vaclav,” she says, like she has been expecting him. She takes his hand and brings him inside. Vaclav realizes that Lena must have told Emily everything.
“Come,” she says, “come.” She leads him through the house, which is weird but still normal. This house is not trying to be normal; it has weird things all around. There are colorful pieces of fabric everywhere, and nothing matches, and there are so many paintings on the walls that there is no empty space, but it still looks nicer than his house.
The kitchen is nothing like his kitchen. It is big, and there are books in stacks on the counters, and there are three different bunches of flowers in three different vases, and there are pots hanging from the ceiling.
Lena is sitting at the kitchen table, reading. When she sees Vaclav, her face freezes.
“Lena,” Emily says. “Let’s not be dramatic about it, let’s not be Days of Our Lives. Let’s just be people. He is here because he cares about you. It’s okay, we can all just talk, right?” She looks at Vaclav.
He hesitates, staring at Lena. Lena is wearing pink plaid pajama pants and is hiding her arms inside of an oversized fisherman-knit sweater. She looks smaller than ever, huddled at the table.
“Yes,” he says. “I want to tell you the truth.”
Lena can say nothing.
“About your parents,” he says, “I know.”
Lena looks at her mom, like a toddler the moment after she’s been stung by a bee, just as it starts to sting and burn.
“Vaclav,” Em says, “why don’t you sit down?”
Vaclav sits down, feeling awkward in the chair, feeling like he does not know what to do with his face, with his hands, with anything. No one talks.
“I’m here to tell you the truth about your parents,” Vaclav says, and Lena looks him right in the eyes.
“I went to see your aunt, your mom’s sister. The one you lived with when we were little. She still lives in the same apartment. I remember now how nervous it used to make me to go there. She told me about your mom and dad, all about them.”
Lena’s eyebrows show him how desperate she is to know, and also how terrified. Emily sits down at the kitchen table next to Lena, and nods at Vaclav.
“I know you didn’t want to go there, and I know you didn’t want me to go there. I know why you didn’t tell me about it, and it’s fine. I went, and everything is fine.” Vaclav takes a breath.
They were students. Your mom and dad were both Ph.D. students at the University of Moscow, both there on scholarship, they were so brilliant. Your aunt said that everyone knew they were the smartest people; everyone talked about it.
She was a scientist, and he was a poet. They were in love from the first moment they saw each other in the university cafeteria. They saw each other across the room, and they just went to each other. They both knew instantly. They walked out of the cafeteria together, silently, and then they both saw the sky and the trees and the grass and the domes above the buildings for the first time ever. They held hands only for the first month, not out of duty or respect or ideals or religion or to abstain but because they knew that anything else would be too much too fast, would destroy them, would kill them, would explode their hearts and their skulls and their fingertips.
Of course, they didn’t wait forever.
There were protests all the time, then, there. Student protests, uprisings, against the government, against the tyranny, against the bread lines and the concrete and the grayness of the sky. Against the terrible oppressive architecture of all the buildings. They went out together to protest, with the other brilliant writers and poets and scientists and sculptors, writers of papers and explorers of new things, new ideas, and new theories. They stood in the street and held signs, they marched and they chanted songs, wonderful uplifting songs of the strength and the beauty of the world.
They were rounded up and beaten by policemen. They were brought to jail for their beliefs, for their conviction, for the pure beauty of their ideas. At this time, you have to realize, people disappeared for thinking the wrong thing, they were made to disappear by the government. Getting thrown in jail, no one got a fair trial or anything like that.
She sent him a final message, through the prison, to tell him she was pregnant, with you. It said: We will be together, in the stars, in the grass, in the concrete, in the sound of the trees at night, in our daughter.
He sent her a final message. It said: I love you. I had the most beautiful life anyone could have. They can take nothing from us; we had everything.
He received her message the day before he was executed. She received his the day before she gave birth.
They took her away as soon as you were born, and they gave you to her sister. They gave you her name, a beautiful name, Yelena. Light.
Your aunt did the best that she could. She brought you here; your grandparents helped her get you safely to America. She was young; she tried her best. It was hard; you reminded her of the sister she lost; her beauty, her brilliance, are all in you. She knew she could not take good care of you, that’s why she left you with that old woman for a little while. She’s so glad that you’re safe now. She loves you. She is so sorry, her heart is breaking all the time.
PEOPLE WHO KNEW HE WAS LYING
Lena’s real mom, Emily, knew that this was not the truth, but she also knew that Vaclav was not lying.
Vaclav knew that he was telling the truth.
Lena knew that it was a lie, but she loved it and believed it, like a fairy tale, like a song, like a bedtime story, like a magic trick.
She loved Vaclav until it became the truth, and so it was.
Thank you, first and foremost, to my parents, the best parents in the universe, bar none. You gave me everything.
Colin. You are my best friend, my right-hand man, and the safest place I could fall. Thank you, little brother.
Lindsey. Thank you for everything that you are. Thank you for always sticking up for me, even when I am being stupid. I love you desperately. Thank you, little sister.
Thank you to my grandparents, who taught me what it means to love someone forever and ever. It is one of the great secrets of the universe, and I will be forever grateful.
Enormous thanks to Molly Friedrich, Lucy Carso
Susan Kamil and Noah Eaker helped this book become everything it could be. Any imperfections that remain are mine.
William Tapply taught me how to write, and told me that I must; his memory is with me every time I put pen to paper.
Spasibo to Sebastian Schulman for last-minute Russian translation.
Julie Sarkissian read this book before it was a book, and she is the only reason I survived writing it. She is my best friend and soul mate, and I am lucky that she also happens to be such a brilliant writer and reader.
All my friends in Brooklyn, with your beautiful minds and hearts, and my extended family in Tennessee, the very best people in the world, you keep me dancing and laughing and surrounded by love. Thank you.
Finally, I have taken a few liberties with facts concerning Coney Island. I won’t list them here, but instead encourage you to take the Q train to Coney Island, ride the Wonder Wheel, watch the lovely and talented Heather Holliday perform at the sideshow, and find out for yourself.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
HALEY TANNER lives in Brooklyn.
This is her first novel.
Haley Tanner, Vaclav & Lena