By Francesca Moisin
Cover design by Katie Schlientz, www.KatieSchlientz.com Cover images © wehrmann69/istockphoto.com; © ilbusca/istockphoto.com
By Francesca Moisin For my Deer, who came back to me.
“Something in the insect seems to be alien to the habits, morals, and psychology of this world, as if it had come from some other planet: more monstrous, more energetic, more insensate, more atrocious, more infernal than our own.” —Maurice Maeterlinck Playwright, poet, entomologist
“The Phasmatodea are an order of insects, whose members are variously known as stick insects, walking sticks, ghost insects and leaf insects. The name is derived from the Greek “phasma,” meaning an apparition or phantom… The classification of the Phasmatodea is complex. There are many people, including amateur entomologists, studying the order, and revisions are commonplace… There are presently 2,800 species, with many more yet to be described.” —Wikipedia
here is something both wonderful and terrible about having a mother who knows you’re destined for great success and perfect happiness. It creates a bubble, like the one Glinda the Good Witch of the North uses to float down to Munchkinland. For a long time I’m cozily encased within it. It’s transparent, so I’ve got a great view, yet made of adamantium, which means nothing bad can get inside. Life in my bubble is very easy, and that is very nice. My father, Mihai, spoils me. My mother, Michaela, adores me. As my parents’ child, teenager and young adult, I am coddled and protected. Things are handed to me—which in a way is only right, since these are things to which I feel I am entitled. Like a job in New York City. Or a boyfriend. Or my own cozy, clean apartment. I land in Manhattan on September 3, a Sunday in the year 2000. My sister Laura has already been here for one year, living in a cockroach-infested Chinatown dorm while attending New York University. I am the older one, which means that as children I used to lead the way. But now that we’re adults I follow in the paths she forges and move without hesitation to the city she has chosen. This is not a burden. Manhattan is ripe with possibility, and I know my Francesca Moisin narrative will unfold in a thrilling way once I settle into my own corner of the island. I don’t have an apartment, and this town is very crowded, but I’m not worried. I spend my first night in Greenwich Village, on my friend Mars’s futon. The next morning she leaves for work, and I decide to find my own place. I’m unsure of how to get one, so I go for a walk. After a while I stumble into a Citi Habitats office. The realtor sitting at the front desk is annoyed. Her client—single, female, twenty-two years old—is late. “I could show you the unit instead,” she offers me, a single twenty-two year old. I have no plans, so I agree. She takes me to an apartment in Soho, and that afternoon I sign the lease on a spacious studio. My mother, nervous about the perils of New York, is happy with the luxury doorman building. My father wires money into my account, and now I have enough to cover one year’s rent. I phone him and say, “Tata, Dad. I can’t wait for you to see my new place.” “Oh, Fran. I am very sad that you are not returning home to Boston.” “I just left Boston.” “Yes, I know. So why do you not come back?” 7
I say the likelihood of that happening is very slim. Which gives him hope because he says, “Just think about it.” So then I have to put my foot down and voice up. “I’m not leaving! I love it here. Laura’s here, and you’re not asking her to move. Why must you make everything so difficult?” “Do I?” “I don’t understand why you’re so opposed to us being in New York.” “Oh my, it is such a dirty place.” “Not really.” “Yes. It is just like Bucharest.” “Nothing about that statement is true.” “It is exactly like Bucharest. Do not tell me, because I lived there. The pollution, the people sleeping on the street.” “You’d find that in any city.”“New York is evil and immoral.” Then he packs the furniture I left behind. Hits the road two hours later, stopping only once on his long drive to pee and eat a Whopper. Thus, on my second night in Manhattan, I sleep in my own bed. As for a job, I have only the faintest idea of what I want to do. I know I like to write, but my Boston University degree says photojournalism. I ponder possibilities, then finally decide to pursue the career I’ve spent four years and $120,000 of my father’s money prepping for. Choice made, the details of my daydreams instantly solidify. For the next forty-eight hours I imagine myself as a quickly rising Time magazine star. I tell myself this vision’s realistic. I understand that for the first month I might have to fetch coffee. Every reporter has to pay her dues. What’s more, the indignity of being forced to perform this and other demeaning tasks will one day lend spice to my A&E Biography. But after six weeks of opening mail, the Time editor-in-chief—whose name I don’t know and haven’t bothered to discover, as I’m sure I’ll resolve this and other minor details after getting hired—will walk by my desk and notice my portfolio. Impressed and not timepressed, he will call me into his office. In I’ll march, wearing a lemon Chanel suit and meringue-colored Prada pumps. He will look up from his papers, and he will be gorgeous. Complicated, charming, in his early thirties. He will say, “Francesca. I’ve reviewed your work. It’s raw, of course. Yet your pictures capture the spirit of a moment in a way that’s hauntingly beautiful. Reminds me a bit of Robert Doisneau.” “Really? He’s my favorite photographer! And such an inspiration.” “Just keep doing what you’re doing, and I’m certain you’ll end up inspiring others. How would you like to tackle an assignment?” My heart will tremble, but I won’t let it show. I will smile my acceptance, and he will watch me as I walk away. One year later my poignant prints of wideeyed orphans living in the Harlem gutters will win a Pulitzer Prize. I’ll be sent to work in Paris, where the chances are very good that I’ll fall in love with a chateau-dwelling Frenchman, the first of his kind to embrace monogamy for life, and he’ll fall more in love with me. The reality of how I get my first job is a little different—though not by much. Day three is a Tuesday. I wake up early and pad around an unfamiliar apartment. Rearrange the books on my tall wrought-iron shelf. My parents 8
have already unpacked for me, a sweet surprise, so I have nothing to do until the phone rings. The woman on the other line identifies herself as Miriam, president of a recruitment agency and mother of a boy named John. John has a best friend whose name is Jack, and Jack is my sister’s boyfriend. Miriam and I exchange formalities. Then pleasantries. Then she says, “Fran, I’d like to help you.” “You would?” “You bet. Can you come to my office for a chat? We’ll see what we can do about getting you good work.” “Sure,” I say. “Sounds great.” I hang up and take a long time to get ready. None of my shorts or sandals or panties or bras are where I think they should be. I take the elevator to the lobby of my new building. The doorman says, “Good morning, Miss Francesca.” I want to ask him for his name, because it feels weird, like he’s my servant, that he knows mine and I don’t know his. But I hesitate, shy, and the moment passes. Outside is home. The entire panorama belongs to me. I own this narrow Thompson Street on which shoppers move fast. In the distance I fall in love with the Empire State Building. Its elegant Art Deco spire invokes goose bumps. I am the architect, gazing at my masterwork. That’s how good I feel. On Houston Street I step off the sidewalk, directly into traffic. I’ve never hailed a taxi in New York. Cars honk. Someone shouts, “Go back to Jersey, moron!” I am shaken, so I try hard to look cool. Wave my right hand vigorously. A cabbie understands the meaning of my fresh-off-the-boat gesture. Pulls over, and in I clamber. “Hi!” He glares out the window. “Um, ok. I’m going to number 213 West Fourth Street? Between Sixth Avenue and Seventh Avenue? Do you know what that means?” Silently he swerves back into the mobile melee. The name on the ID taped to the partition reads Butt, Mujahedeen. It takes him four minutes to drive from my building to Miriam’s office. To run a simple errand I now walk twice as long and call it a brief stroll, but that day is an early day. I haven’t yet mastered Manhattan with my persistent, high-heeled, wobbly-footed, drunkenstumbling, annoyed-at-slowpoke-tourists, giddy-in-new-love footsteps, so I don’t understand the spacing of its streets, or how one neighborhood relates to another in terms of distance and required travel time. Mr. Butt drives with one eye on the road, one hand off the wheel. He grips his phone and jabs the air, to underline points made in angry Urdu. Jerk-stops near the curb, and suddenly it’s time for us to part. I hesitate. I want somehow to acknowledge this occasion: My first time hailing a New York City taxi, followed by the culmination of my virgin solo ride. Inspiration strikes. I pass him a twenty. “Can I please have ten dollars back?” I’ll generously mark the moment by leaving a tip that equals the total fare. He digs into a back pocket and I wait, smiling slightly in anticipation of the impending joyous outburst. How vocally—in English—grateful he will be upon understanding the full measure of my bigheartedness. From his pants he pulls a mossy wad. Fans the bills across one dirty palm. Counts my sum 9
without pausing in his conversation. Shoves the damp notes in my hand. He doesn’t look at me, even though I’m sitting very still, staring at his nose. Then the person on the phone says something infuriating. Butt, Mujahedeen ejects a stream of throaty consonants, followed by a few four-letter words that finally get me moving. I scramble across the slippery banquette, out the door onto the street. “Ok. Thank you so much.” Mr. Butt doesn’t wait for me to step back from the curb. “Take good care,” I shout. “Thanks again.” He speeds away without a single rearview-mirror glance. “Bye,” I whisper. And though I can’t be certain, I think I see him pick up a new female passenger immediately after turning right on Seventh. Miriam’s office is on the third floor of a brownstone building. The slow elevator gives me just enough time to get nervous. When the steel doors part, I step into a loft. A dark-haired girl in a charcoal suit strolls toward me, smiling. “Francesca,” she says. It’s a statement rather than a question, like we’ve met before. Or she’s done her research. Exhumed my picture from a buried Web doc and knows exactly who to expect. “Yes?” Annoyingly, mine’s a query instead of a response. As though I’m learning for the first time that this, instead of Karrie, Jen or Sarah, is my name. She holds out her hand. Bestows another California grin. “I’m Emma. Follow me. Miriam’s ready to look at your resume.” Turning, shiny tresses flying on cue over her left shoulder, she begins a brisk walk to the only office in the open room. Her red pumps click, click, click on the hardwood floor. Heat rises from my stomach to my cheeks as her last word penetrates. I scurry to keep up, then call out, “Emma?” She turns back. “Yes.” “Sorry. I, um. Actually, I don’t have a resume.” Both eyebrows skyrocket. “You’re kidding.” What if there was a combination of actions a person could perform to stop a blush before it starts? Or instigate a set of sneezes, which I think feels delicious? Or turn off hiccups? Maybe because scientists know so little about the brain, they haven’t yet discovered the right recipe for controlling every human function. Maybe for avoiding blushes it would be: 2 thigh pinches, 3.5 counter-clockwise belly rubs, 1 yawn, 12 air kisses. Combine, stirring occasionally. To erase a deep, hot, crimson flush, double the ingredients. “No.” I squirm. “I didn’t realize I had to bring one.” She processes this new information quickly. “Right. No problem, we can figure this out. Come with me.” Sweat digs a trench down my spine as I follow, past a model-body blonde with bangs and cowboy boots, a lanky boy in Converse sneakers, a girl blasting Death Cab for Cutie on her Mac, a guy whose pink tie is Windsorknotted. Emma’s desk is very messy. Folders and papers pepper the surface. A ballpoint-pen bouquet blooms from the bottom of an “I ♥ NY” mug. Framed photos jostle for visibility, offering glimpses into other niches Emma occupies. There’s Popular Emma, wearing skinny jeans and a low-cut top, shoulder10
to-shoulder in the center of a smiling girlfriends line. Formal Emma, as evidenced by the strapless dress and red-velvet mouth. Vacation Emma, tennis racquet in hand, blinding in white next to her very own tan Ken. Job Recruiter Emma pulls up a chair for me. Plunks down in hers and wiggles the mouse to stir her drowsy computer. “So,” she says, fingers dancing over keyboard. “Tell me about your work experience.” “Well, last summer I actually interned at a magazine in Boston.” I wait for her to be impressed. “And what were your main duties?” “I was pretty much a staff photographer. Which means I had to walk around and take a lot of pictures for all these different stories. And then I used Photoshop—um, on my own—to touch up the images.” Emma stops typing. “But you’re not looking for a job as a photographer, right? Because we don’t really have availabilities in that field.” “Oh. Well, no. I mean, I guess I’m open to other things.” “Great.” She nods, fingers re-flying. “So we’ll say you ‘Acted as liaison between various departments to ensure proper communication’ and ‘Updated and maintained editorial databases.’ Did you ever answer a phone, get anyone coffee?” “Well yeah, sure…” “Perfect. So you ‘Handled all office correspondence’ and ‘Planned and coordinated corporate luncheons.’” She asks questions that I try to answer. After thirty minutes she fills one page of bullet-style lies. This synopsis of my life, printed on heavy resume paper, is unrecognizable. Emma smiles and says, “Time to face the music. And don’t worry about being late.” “Really?” “Totally. Miriam loves me. I’ll just say it was my fault.” It occurs to me that I should argue. This is a moment people talk about, when one’s true strength of character is revealed. But I get shy again and nod, silent, instead. Miriam’s door is almost shut, but Emma enters without knocking. “Here we are!” The woman seated behind a sun-splashed desk is nothing like what I have imagined. On the phone her voice echoed with authority, reminding me of Dynasty and tailored power suits. In reality, an orchid-printed muumuu caftans comfortably around her curves. Her office smells like cinnamon and dough. Fluffy brown hair falls to her round shoulders. The only sharp part of Miriam is her eyes, blue and bright as mountain streams I hiked past in Romania. She says, “Good timing. I was just about to organize a search-and-rescue mission.” “No need, we found our way. Sorry to have monopolized Francesca. We were chatting, and I lost track of the hour.” “That’s ok, honey. Thanks so much for all your help.” Emma smiles at me. “Good luck.” She walks away, and I instantly miss her. The world is darker now that she is not beside me, taking charge to fix every situation. Miriam approaches. Extends her hand, so I put mine in it. Turquoise bangles rattle as we shake, exchanging nice-to-meet-yous. Without breaking 11
eye contact she looks me up and down. She notices everything. “So, Francesca. I hear you’re interested in publishing.” “I am?” “Yes. Come have a seat so we can talk it over.” I do as I am told, then wait for her to settle comfortably. “What do you know about Panda Pei?” “Um…they put out a lot of books.” Miriam smiles. “Right. And today you’re going to meet one of the women responsible for accomplishing that task. I’ve arranged an interview for this afternoon.” “So soon?” “Yup. Time waits for no woman. So let’s go over what you’re going to say.” She waits. “What are you going to say?” “Oh!” My bashful top-of-spine sweatpore bursts open. “I guess I’ll say that I really like reading books…” “What I’d like you to say is that your journalism degree and combined internships have prepared you for an entry-level position in this field. You’re an energetic, motivated person who is inspired by the prospect of joining the dynamic Panda Pei team.” I nod, dumbstruck. “Now tell me what you’re going to say.” I have a good memory, so I regurgitate my lines. “Good. Should the interview go well, they might want to discuss salary. How will you handle the income issue?” “I guess I’ll ask how much they’re willing to pay.” Miriam shakes her head. “Francesca. Oh, Francesca. You will say that you would like to make between twenty-five to thirty thousand dollars, but you feel it’s most important to work with passion for a company where you can grow.” I wonder if that’s a little or a lot. “Ok,” I say. She quizzes me for forty-five minutes, then dismisses me with a final lesson. “I run a casual office, so it’s fine that you came here in a jean skirt and flip-flops. But for your next appointment, I’d suggest putting on a suit. Do you own one of those?” I nod, cheeks flaming. “Great. Run on home and change, then call me later.” She squeezes my arm. “Good luck. Remember what we talked about, and I think you’ll do great.” Her words mantra through my mind as I descend in the slow elevator hail my second New York taxi and ride home. I have just enough time to put on my Banana Republic suit, the first one I have ever owned. It’s made of cotton and polyester. When my mother bought it for me, I cringed at the price. “I’m not sure,” I whispered. “Are you sure?” My mother relinquished her credit card without a nanosecond’s hesitation. “Of course I am positive. Now you are ready for the world.” “It’s too much money.” “Stop talking stupid things.” “Mama. Thank you so much.” “Wear it in good health,” she said. She kissed my cheek, near the corner of my mouth. “And may it bring you all the success and happiness that you deserve.” 12
or a long time we don’t have any money, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t feel it, because we are happy. We move from Romania to Toronto when I am six years old. Like other immigrants, we are at first totally disoriented. We need a lot of help. My mother’s older sister, Lia, and her husband, Andi, let us live in their nice house on Rochester Avenue. They also have two kids, my older cousin Alex and his younger sister, Teo. Now the house is very crowded, but this is what you do for family. The Moisins don’t speak English. My father’s friend, a fellow engineer who only escaped from Romania a few months earlier, tries to teach him the words required for basic survival. “To get on the subway you must insert a small bronze coin into the machine,” explains Iulian, in Romanian. “So go up to the teller, and say you want to buy a ‘donkey.’” “A tonkey?” asks my father. “Nu. No. A donkey.” “Bine. Good.” “Then just drop this little donkey into the small slot, and you can ride the train all day, anywhere you want to go.” “Incredible.” “Now, there is a post office on the corner of Yonge and Lawrence. Tell the clerk you want to send a letter to Europe, and ask him for a book of maps.” My father nods. “So this is how you say timbru potal in English?” “Yes. I am pretty sure for Transylvania you need three maps per envelope.” Revelations such as these are priceless. My father commits the two new words to memory and uses them both the following week. He can’t understand why in reply he gets giggles and blank stares. But when it comes to other English language matters, he refuses to cooperate. The times I tell my family that from this moment I am to be called Francesca are too numerous to count. Whenever I make this announcement my parents laugh and kiss my cheeks. The next day, sometimes even the next hour, they go back to calling me Francisca, in the old Romanian way. The distinction doesn’t seem enormous. It’s the difference of one tiny letter— cousins, at that, belonging to the same immediate vowel family. Yet in my ear the jarring contrast between what I wish to be and what I am embarrassed to admit I am resonates and clangs. I am becoming frustrated. I stamp my foot, which is still ok because I’m only five. “Nu, Tata,” I scold, when my father once more ignores my request. “Say it like my teachers say it. Fran-chess-ka.” I speak slowly, enunciating every syllable. I want desperately to be one of the confident Canadian girls 13
with English words that drip so easily from tongues. No more getting stuck on my rabbit-like buckteeth. No more weird Romanian mispronunciations. Laura is the only one who takes me seriously, and I neither notice nor care. She listens carefully as I instruct my father. A crease wrinkles her forehead. She nods gravely. She is three years old and very cute, small and dense with meaty thighs, pudgy brown arms and a belly no shirt can contain. Her dark hair is cropped short. Her black eyes are enormous, inky, shaped like almonds like our mothers’. She has caterpillar eyebrows. On her face everything looks oversized, except one thing: a top row of tiny white baby teeth that protrude slightly, giving her a lisp. Three seconds after I have finished speaking, her brain issues a command. In response, the desired letters line up on her tongue. She scrunches shut her eyes, and the name I want to own tumbles past her teeth: “Fan-chwas-ka!” Except it doesn’t sound right. All kids produce funny mispronunciations, but that sound coming from her mouth while she grins and gazes expectantly around the kitchen is especially adorable. She’s very proud. She looks like a little gremlin. In her mind, two important tasks have now been accomplished. Apart from the successful execution of her big sister’s orders, the beautiful pronunciation of this foreign word clearly means she’s mastered a new language too. The next morning my father chases her around the stove, through the dining room and into the living room. When he catches her he begs, threatens, bribes. But even at this age, my sister is stubborn. She will not go to daycare. “But puiu, baby chicken,” he pleads. “Cum vrei snvei Englez dac nu te duci la coal? How will you learn English, if you do not go to school?” “I know English,” answers Laura, in Romanian. “No, you do not.” “I do!” A true mathematician, he throws logic at the problem. “Then why do you not speak it, if you know it?” “I do speak it.” “You speak it?” “Da. Yes.” “You are telling me that you speak English.” “Da.” Now my father looks upset. “Why do you lie to me?” Laura shoves two plump fists against his chest and wriggles in his arms. “I wanna get down! I’m not lying, Tata.” Now my father looks confused. “Puiu, if you are not lying, which I have told you is a very serious sin, then please say something to me in English.” From the shadows of the hallway, sweating in my blue plaid Blessed Sacrament uniform, I see my sister’s triumphant look. I grin, because I know what’s coming next. She throws back her head, opens wide her mouth and lets out an enormous roar: “FANCHWASKA!” Startled, my father drops her. She lands with a thud and starts a mad dash through the packed house, bellowing her version of my name. “Fanchwaska, Fanchwaska!” For the next few days, Laura can’t stop speaking English. 14
In the morning Mami, our grandmother, asks a question. “Ce vrei de mîncare, Puiu? Baby chicken, what should I make you to eat?” “Fanchwaska!” says my sister. She jumps from the table and sprints down the hall, searching. She runs with her mouth open, small teeth strong and primed. She wants to be bite-ready, in case she ever finds me. “Hai s facem o baie,” says my mother that night. “Let us go and take a bath.” “Fanchwaska, Fanchwaska,” Laura agrees. She grips Mama’s fingers as they go upstairs, and she has one Fanchwaska for each step. In the bathroom she rinses her brown hands, humming a Fanchwaska tune. My mother takes off Laura’s white undershirt, kisses her delicious belly and lowers her into the tub. Laura happily slams her fists into the water. “Fanchwaska!” Floating next to her is a Sesame Street book. Laura pulls it close. Flips idly through each plastic page. “Hmmm,” she murmurs thoughtfully. “Fanchwaska.” Thirty minutes later her olive-colored skin is just as wrinkled, but once submerged in any body of water it’s impossible to pull her out. My mother begs, threatens, bribes. “Nu!” cries Laura, writhing from her grasp. “Nu. Fanchwaska!” Finally she’s towel-dried, forced into a one-piece orange pajama and carried to the bedroom we share with Teo. My mother looks like she has been through battle. Her hair gets very curly when it’s wet. Damp patches stain her nightgown from the neck to knee, but still I sense that she is happy because she has again emerged victorious. Another day has passed in which her kids are fed, cleaned, tucked. Tata enters our room wearing the striped pajamas that make me think of a train conductor’s uniform. He kneels down, near the head of our bunk bed. “Our Father,” starts our father, “who art in Heaven. Hallowed be thy name.” “Thy kingdom come,” joins my mother. “Thy will be done. On earth as it is in Heaven.” Laura listens to the three of us recite the prayer. Then she listens as we pray to Mary; to Saint Theresa, that she may spill upon us her rain made of roses; to our guardian angels, that they may help us grow big because we’re small and strong because we’re weak. When we have finally finished praying my father kisses us and says, “Amin.” “Amin,” my mother echoes. “Amen,” I dutifully reply. “Fanchwaska,” Laura solemnly agrees, and rolls onto her side. I know my little sister loves me. But even at that moment, I still don’t get how much.
Naïveté, it is so charming
n the Panda Pei lobby, I approach a black security guard. Without glancing from the papers on his desk he intones, in a fake robot voice, “Please state your purpose for being at the Saatchi & Saatchi building, number threeseventy-five Hudson Street, New York, New York, one zero zero one four, United States of America, North America, Earth, Universe, Property of God.” I am confused, so I laugh weirdly. “I’m here to see Helen Baker.” “Company?” “Um, no.” I glance around. “It’s just me.” He looks up. “What company is she with?” he asks slowly. “Oh! Ha ha. Panda Publishing Pei.” “I think you mean Panda Pei Publishing.” “Sorry, right.” “And what is your name, young lady?” “Francesca.” “Yes?” “Yes?” “That it? Like Madonna and Cher? Or you got a last name too?” “Sorry, yes. My last name is Moisin. So it’s Francesca Moisin.” He picks up a phone. “I have a Fansiska here for Ms. Baker. Very good, I’ll let her know.” He hangs up and looks at me. “Molly will come down to get you.” I don’t know Molly, but, like Emma, she seems to know me. She approaches without hesitation, arm outstretched. She has curly red hair, and she is wearing tortoise-glasses with an emerald knitted sweater. Earnest and friendly, she talks like she is always slightly out of breath. I grin when I see her, because it makes me happy when people so perfectly match their names. She leads me upstairs to a bright conference room. One thing Miriam hasn’t prepared me for is a pre-interview before my interview, but I’m not nervous. I like Molly right away. Being with her is like drinking tea and flipping through an Anthropologie catalogue on a rainy day. To further set me at ease, she starts with a self-description. Originally from Kentucky, she now lives with her boyfriend in Tribeca. They have a cat called Sally. After two years working for Helen she has been promoted to Associate Editor, a giant boost. She asks, “Where are you from?” For every other person this is a simple question, but I hesitate too long, the way I always do, wondering how much detail is too much for this 17
particular occasion. Eventually I decide to skip the parts about being born in Transylvania, escaping from Romania, growing up in Toronto, graduating from high school in Chicago and getting stalked by my parents who relocate to Boston while I am in college, before finally coming to the city I always knew I’d one day inhabit. Instead I say, “My mom and dad live in Massachusetts, so I guess that’s home.” “Aha. Then you’re a Red Sox fan.” “Not really. I went to a few games.” “Don’t tell me you like the Yankees!” “No.” “Oh. Too bad. Helen grew up in the Bronx. You’ll never meet a bigger Bombers fanatic.” “Well, but…I like their uniforms! Those stripes are really cute.” Molly laughs and shakes her head. “Alright. Anyway, two questions before I take you up. First, how fast can you type?” I remember my freshman year test score and answer, “Thirty-three words per minute” without hesitation. “Great. And second: Who’s your favorite author?” It is a publishing house so I suppose the question’s fair, but still I hate it, along with “What’s your favorite place?” and “Who, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?” and “If you could only take one food with you to a deserted island and eat that food every day for the rest of your life what would that food be?” because it feels impossible to pick just one from a slew of so many that are wonderful. I think for twenty-seven seconds. Finally I say, “Ernest Hemingway.” “Interesting.” “And Kurt Vonnegut!” “Excuse me?” “I love them both. Please don’t make me choose.” Molly smiles. “I think you’re going to do just fine here.” On the forty-first floor I find the frosted-blonde boardroom tycoon I’ve been expecting. Helen Baker is more like it. She occupies a corner office with killer Hudson River Views. When she says, “Pleasure to meet you,” I am the one who’s pleased. Her voice is raspy near the edges. Her handshake quick, firm, clean. Molly asks, “Can I get you anything else? Some mineral water?” “Yeah Mol, that’d be great. Thanks.” At a glass-topped table under a signed Derek Jeter photo, Helen explains why I have been summoned. “Molly took this job to a whole new level, but I want to be clear: The position is still heavily administrative. You’ll have to answer phones, keep my calendar, book lunches, make travel arrangements. Does that seem like something you would want to do?” “Oh yes!” Until this moment I haven’t fully understood that I’m applying for the role of Helen Baker’s assistant. “Good. Because now I can tell you there will be fun parts too. You’ll get to talk to authors and meet agents. We receive a lot of unsolicited manuscripts in the mail each day—we call it slush—and after a while I may ask you to read through these piles and pass me the work you think I’d want to see.” 18
“That sounds fantastic!” Helen smiles. “I’m happy to hear you’re so enthusiastic.” “Absolutely!” “Let me ask you, why are you interested in joining this department?” “Well, to be perfectly honest, I feel that my journalism degree and combined internships have really prepared me for an entry-level position in this field. I believe I’m an energetic, motivated person, and I’m inspired by the prospect of joining your dynamic Panda Pei team.” Molly enters with a bottle of Perrier, two crystal glasses and a bowl of bright green lemons. Helen says, “You hear that, Mol?” “I did.” “So what do you think?” “I think she’s great.” “Right. Me too. Fine, one last thing. We need to discuss salary, and I’ll be honest back. My department has recently been forced to make dramatic cuts. How much were you looking to earn?” I intone, in a fake robot voice, “Ideally between twenty-five to thirty thousand dollars, but I truly feel it’s most important to work with passion for a company where I can grow.” I wait for Helen to laugh weirdly, but she laps it up and licks her lips. “Excellent. Let me show you around.” She walks me to the cubicle where I’ll be sitting. It’s a corner cube, the largest in the row, to match her corner office. Beside it, at a much smaller desk, a gorgeous girl with twiggy legs and curly hair is typing. The tag pinned to her fabric wall reads Penny. Everything is coming quickly together, and I am letting it happen. My Time magazine fantasy is disappearing faster than it formed. I haven’t even tried to interview at W, or GQ, or any of the other letter publications whose words I love and pictures I admire. In this job I won’t be writing, and I won’t be thinking hard. My Canon camera, with the expensive telephoto lens my father bought as a graduation gift, will get stored on a high shelf in my closet. I have no real interest in this position, but it’s too hard to turn down when it glided so easily my way. I meet twenty-nine new colleagues and forget twenty-nine new names seconds after learning them. Helen is sovereign over a sprawling domain. Nearly all her workers are pleasant in a tedious, corporately appropriate way. I smile manically and infuse my words with eager zest. Tell them what they want to hear, and they spew back what Helen wants to hear, and all of us are actors in a little play, and everyone seems happy. Then we march into our last office. Right away, I see this occupant is different. Standing with his back to us, he’s looking out the window. His crisp white shirt is tucked. Sleeves rolled up to the elbows. He is tall but narrow, and he smells delicious—sweet like freshcut grass, but also spicy like unsmoked cigars. “Jonah, please say hello to Francesca. She’ll be joining us full-time on Monday.” He turns without smiling. He has green eyes and bristly stubble on his 19
jaw.“Jonah is our Art Director,” continues Helen. “Which reminds me: I need those mockups for the new Catherine Coulter paperback.” He waves casually at a stack of colorful drawings. “Got them right here.” “Excellent. Come by later and we’ll narrow down the selection.”Jonah doesn’t reply. Instead, he turns to me. “How do you feel?” I don’t hear the question. I don’t register that it is interesting. I simply spew one of my standard answers. “I’m so EXCITED! This is an AMAZING opportunity! I know I’m going to learn A LOT!”But this routine doesn’t work with Jonah. He looks at me like I’m a bizarre specimen. Slowly shakes his head. “Oh God,” he says. “You’re so damn wide-eyed.” My mother has always loved this characteristic, what she calls my “naïveté, it is so charming,” while I’ve long sought to erase it. On the subway I’ve admired the native New York girls with Puerto Rican skin, tough expressions and fuck-off eyes. I’ve tried to change and be like them. It has never worked. Then, without moving, Jonah dismisses me completely. I note the sudden, total lack of interest. He is a complete stranger. But still, I’m vain enough to let his indifference bother me.
hen it comes to Laura as a child, I am callous and indifferent. After ten years in Toronto, my father finds a new job. Now he will be an engineer at Motorola, and we move to Chicago. I am devastated. I beg my parents not to separate me from my beloved older cousins. As a companion, my dorky younger sister is completely unappealing. I also dread the struggle of trying to make new friends. Getting the first set to accept me was difficult enough. At Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart, I rebel by mouthing the Canadian national anthem—“Oh Canada! Our home and native land! True patriot love in all thy sons command”—while all around me all the girls place hands over their hearts and join Sister Sophia in singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” Our house is the smallest in the neighborhood. This is embarrassing, yet I still secretly love our brand-new home. When sun hits our walls, they sparkle like a toothpaste-commercial smile. We’re the first people to ever occupy this space, which means ghosts don’t live beneath the floorboards. I’ve never slept in a house without a history. I find that it feels lonely. And yet, because Laura and I still share a room, I paradoxically whine about my lack of privacy and space. Back from school, I throw myself onto the couch and watch My SoCalled Life in moody silence. Only Jared Leto understands. I fantasize about meeting someone like him, with the same face and arms and angst, at the next Loyola High School football game. For several minutes I feel good—until I remember I’m fifteen and still sleeping in a bunk bed with my sister. How hard my rich classmates would laugh if they found out. I get angry all over again, and ignore Mami the first two times she calls us to the kitchen. Then I seethe while eating my chiftele cu pireu, the pan-fried meatballs with creamy mashed potatoes my grandmother has prepared. After food it’s homework time. I stack the contents of my backpack neatly: textbooks on the left, notebooks on the right, pens and pencils in the middle. Laura’s own ordered desk is ten feet away. She is sitting at it, brow furrowed over an equations page. Why can’t she see that X equals 4? The solution is so simple. I stare at her, irritated. She feels my gaze, looks up and smiles. That disgusts me. “Get out.” “What?” “You heard me. I want to be alone. You’re always in my head. Every time I turn around, you’re there. Why can’t I have just one minute by myself?” “I wasn’t even talking to you.” “I don’t care! Go add up your stupid numbers somewhere else.” 21
Her eyes are enormous. The corners of her mouth droop. “I don’t have to leave, Fran. This is my room too.” I shove back my chair. My teen hormones are raging, and I want to hurt her. My eyes dart from wall to wall and finally land on Rudy, the stuffed moose she has loved since she was a child. He’s sitting on her pillow, hooves tucked snuggly beneath the covers. I snatch him roughly by the antlers. “No!” she shrieks, and for one second the timbre of her voice makes me pause. “Leave Rudy alone.” I ignore her plea. Dash downstairs and fling open the basement door. This time I don’t hesitate. I hurl her best pal to his death. Down he topples, antlers over hooves, before landing on a pink fiberglass pile. Laura pushes past me, crying hard and screaming Rudy’s name. She throws her own body down the steps. Retrieves her moose. Brushes him clean of cobwebs. Cradles him like a newborn. Feels his legs for broken bones and massages his antlers, checking for torn cartilage. Then she buries her face in his brown snout and sobs. When my parents get home, I know I’ll be in trouble. But I pounce on them before Laura can tattle, or my mother can take off her coat, or my father can remove his shoes. “I need my own room. None of my friends share with their younger sisters. This just isn’t normal!” “Fran,” says my father wearily. “I understand how you feel. But tell me, what do you want me to do? I am more than happy to give you what you want, but please offer me some kind of solution. Where do you propose that I put Laura?” “In the basement.” “Ok, Fran,” snaps my mother. “Really, that is very nice. You want your own baby sister to sleep on a cold concrete floor with all the insects?” I glare at my father. “I thought you said you were going to fix it up and make it nice so I could have a place to hang out with my friends. Doesn’t anyone in this house know how to keep promises?” “Yes, Puiu. I do understand the meaning of a promise. I told you I would finish the basement, and so it will happen. But, you know, first I must have money to buy groceries and pay the bills.” “I hate this place! It’s too small. I can’t breathe. Why don’t you guys try sharing with Laura for a change and see how much you like it?” As I rant, I catch sight of my sister. She’s sitting at the kitchen table. Head bent over her algebra book, shoulders hunched around her ears. Trying not to hear the many hurtful things I have to say. My parents sigh and shake their heads but choose to ignore my latest suggestion. My father takes my mother’s coat. She tries to kiss and hug me, because I haven’t even said hello, but I jerk away. I am so angry. My heart beats fast. The core of me, my guts, are bubbling. Everything around my chest is getting hot. When this much pressure builds, something must explode. I feel unloved. No one takes me seriously. To them this is a silly problem. They don’t care that for me it’s a question of high school survival. I’m not interested in the how or where logistics. All I want is my own room. Nothing else matters. All consequences fade to insignificance and I go even farther than too far, bursting forth with the most vicious in my line of cruel remarks. “Why can’t Mami just move out?” I scream. “Why does she have to live with 22
us anyway? I wish she was gone. I wish Laura was gone. I wish I could just be alone.” My grandmother flinches, then smiles and offers to relocate to the living room. “It’s a good idea,” she says in Romanian. “At night when I can’t sleep, I’ll be closer to the TV.” My mother looks at me. Her eyes fill up at the corners. My father says, “Everyone ignore Fran. She is acting like a stupid. No one is going anywhere, those chiftele smell delicious.” Laura’s eyes meet mine. She doesn’t seem shocked, which is the worst look of all. I turn around and run upstairs, too ashamed to remain in their presence. I regret the words the moment they escape my mouth. But what good are regrets? Six months later Mami leaves Chicago and returns to Toronto to live with Lia. My parents don’t rebuke me, so I convince myself that I am blameless. This was always the original plan. If anything, I think, it was only very slightly hastened. In time I will miss my grandmother and the hum of her voice when she calls me Puiu. But for the moment I am gleeful. I have privacy, at long last! My father won’t let me put a lock on the door, but at least I have a door. The sound it makes as it latches firmly shut fills me with satisfaction. I hide my Marlboro Lights in a brown suede purse and bury the purse under a pile of sweaters at the bottom of my closet. Boys are starting to call. I lunge for the phone every time it rings. Sometimes I’m too slow, and my father answers first. He gruffly demands the full name of the idiot asking for his daughter. Or pretends that he is hard of hearing. “Whaaaat? Whaaaat did you say?” he whines in a nasal twang. “You want to speak to whoooo?” Anything to scare the boys away—and many do get frightened. Of my suitors, Troy is among the first to persevere. When he calls I bring the cordless phone into my room and wedge a chair beneath the doorknob. I don’t stand a chance when it comes to Troy. We are brought together by an extreme event that forces him into the role of savior and me into the part of distressed damsel. This appeals to my romantic foolishness, and I fall instantly into a heated teenage crush. My father unwillingly—yet nevertheless obligingly—assumes the evil villain lead, determined to keep the beautiful young lovers apart. Through his efforts he only manages to raise the temperature between us. Troy and I meet on a snowy January night. I’m in Kallie Silverberg’s basement, watching old Depeche Mode videos, drinking from a bottle of beer being passed around the circle. The flavor is repulsive. What I taste when I think of diluted earwax, but still I force myself to swallow when it is my turn because the reward can’t be beat. Soon I start to crave a cigarette. Fumbling in my purse, I pull out an empty pack. Hazily, I scan the room. Kallie, Matt and Ray don’t smoke. Tarah Keaning does, but she’s either cheap or poor because she’s always bumming off the group. That leaves Amber, who’s disappeared upstairs, or Austen, the guy sitting on my right. I touch his arm. “Do you by any chance have a cigarette I could borrow?” “Sure, hang on.” He searches the front pockets of his jacket and the back 23
pockets of his jeans but comes up empty-handed. “Yo, Matt. You got a smoke?” “Nah, man.” “Hey Ray, lemme bum a smoke.” “You know I only smoke herbal, dude.” Austen turns back. “Well, that sucks. Wanna go for a ride and get a pack?” I hesitate. I don’t really want to leave the gathering with a guy I barely know. But the thought of spending my last pre-curfew hours in this basement without nicotine makes my fingers shake. Before I can reply Ray issues an observation and comes up with a suggestion. “We’re out of beer. Let’s head to that gas station in Winnetka and pick up a few more forties. The guy there never cards.” A brief argument ensues regarding carpool combinations. Finally it’s decided that Amber and Ray will ride with Tarah, while Matt, Kallie and I will get in Austen’s car. Outside the snow is falling in big, sloppy flakes. The streets were slippery when I arrived that afternoon, but at least they had been plowed. Now as we back out onto the private road where houses hide behind pine trees, I feel the car fishtail on what’s become a giant skating rink. Austen tightens his grip on the wheel, but from my spot in the backseat his response seems delayed. I remember he’s been drinking for the last few hours. This bothers me—until Kallie turns the volume up. She rolls down her window, despite the bitter cold, and as quickly as they came my worries disappear. Matt’s body next to mine feels warm and solid, and I love this song. Seconds later we’re all hollering and hooting, dancing in our seats, screaming out the lyrics to “Red Hill Mining Town.” Infectious energy darts like a ping-pong ball around the enclosed space. It smacks Austen’s leg. In reply, he pushes harder on the gas. The road in this part of Chicago’s northern suburb winds sharply through a steep ravine. We make a quick left turn, followed by a right. Our car skids on ice, and I feel the moment in which we lose control. The guardrail jumps out from the shadows. Austen slams his foot two seconds late into the brake. The car refuses to obey. If only one thing had been different—if the sky hadn’t been snowing, or the driver drinking, or the passengers chaotically singing—we might have avoided the collision. Instead, we crash headfirst into a metal rail. Fifty yards away, Tarah pulls into a gas station. My first thought: How will I explain this to my parents? The four of us sit mute and motionless for what feels like a long time. Then, suddenly and simultaneously, we can’t eject ourselves fast enough. I push open the left passenger door and stumble into the deserted street. My coat has flown beneath the driver’s seat. I stand in the snow, dressed in brown corduroy pants and a leopard-print tank top. I don’t realize my naked arms and shoulders have flared an angry shade of red. I don’t feel cold at all. I scan my limbs for broken bones or bleeding gashes, but the only slight discomfort I can sense is in my neck. Tomorrow I will learn what severe whiplash feels like. Even stupefied on muscle relaxers, a millimeter movement of my head will trigger instant pain tears. For the next two weeks I’ll sport a bruise four inches wide across my chest, from where the seatbelt dug into my flesh and kept my skull from digging into the windshield. I will chart its fluctuation through the many 24
colorful stages, from ebony to eggplant, navy to azure, sea green to pee yellow. But for now, I turn to check on my friends. Kallie’s cold nature helps her keep cool in any scary situation, which at the time I consider a neat trick. She uses the car phone to call Tarah and explain. Matt looks unhurt too, though the expression on his face is horrified. He’s standing near the guardrail, staring down into the ravine. Idly I wonder how deep that chasm goes. A distant corner of my brain realizes that if we’d been speeding any faster or if the rail had been less sturdy, this would be a different type of accident. One involving officers and helicopters, with swarms of reporters live at eleven. Our vehicle and stuff and stupid selves would be getting hoisted from the bottom of a dirty hole. That thought will eventually catch up and cause some damage, but for now I can only think one thing: God I want a cigarette. Of the four of us, Austen seems to be in the worst shape. His door won’t open. I watch him crawl into the backseat and follow my escape route. He’s mumbling under his breath. I can’t hear what he’s saying, so I move a little closer. “I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m fucking dead. My dad’s new car. Oh shit, they’re gonna kill me. What should I do? I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead.” He bends and throws up in the snow. The sight or smell or even sound of vomit has always made me instantly vomit, but this time I don’t feel sick. I don’t feel anything. I put my arm around his shoulders and smooth back his soft brown hair, just like I did once for Tarah when she drank too many wine coolers. Headlights illuminate the darkness. Tarah drives back slowly, tires crunching. I’m wondering why the cops are taking so long to show up, issue DUIs and arrest us for teen drinking, when I see a second car approach. The driver cuts his engine, but leaves the blinding lights on. He steps out and slams his door. He’s backlit, so I can’t see the details of his clothes or face. This is it. Kallie throws herself into his hug. “Troy! Where did you come from?” “I bumped into Tarah at the Mobile. She told me what happened. You guys ok?” “Yeah, I think everyone’s alright.” Austen un-hunches himself, and I notice I still have my fingers in his hair. He wipes his mouth with the back of his right hand and says, “Everything is not alright. I’m fucked. I don’t even think the car will start.” He looks at Troy. “What should I do? I can’t just leave it here.” Troy wades through the snow and pats Austen on the back. “It’s ok, man. We’ll call a tow truck. They’ll be able to move it, no big deal.” Austen nods. “For now let’s just get inside, ok? I’m freezing my ass off.” Austen nods again. Starts to follow Troy, then turns back for one last look at his father’s shiny BMW. He pounds his forehead with his fist. Before anyone can stop him, he takes three quick backward steps. Kicks the fender with all the force rushing through his adrenaline-charged body. “FUCK ME!” His cry rips the muffled silence. Sound waves vibrate through the wide ravine. Kallie’s mouth falls open, but the take-charge words stay jammed in her 25
throat. As for me, I’m grateful. His roar does wonders for my mind, and with a jolt I understand how close we came to tragedy. Next I grasp that I’m standing half-naked in what’s become a blizzard. I start to shudder. My teeth chatter comically. Limbs quake as though electrocuted. I want to move on to the gas station, into Tarah’s car, anywhere warm and dry, but I am stuck in place and freezing. “Kallie, wait! Help!” My friends trudge away, and nobody looks back. This is what panic feels like. I am ashamed to say I give in without much of a fight, and it becomes impossible to maintain one coherent thought. My brain says to my foot, Take a single small step forward. But all I can do is stand and shake and shake. A pair of arms envelope me from behind. I jerk in surprise, then tremble harder. The hands attached to the arms remove their ratty brown gloves, and warm palms briskly rub my limbs. I look down. The fingers are long, with square nails and callused tips. I gasp because my skin feels like it’s burning, and the hands turn me around. The first thing I see is a black leather jacket. Damp with snow, it smells slightly musty. I continue to look up, though I don’t have to look far. The boy is only four inches taller than my 5’6”. He’s skinny, but wiryly muscled. Sinewy veins pop up in bas-relief beneath his skin as he vigorously brings life back to my upper body. My violent shudders calm. Satisfied, he steps back and wiggles out of his jacket. Throws it over my shoulders. Tucks my arms into the sleeves. He’s wearing a burgundy wool sweater, which reminds me of a sweater my father owned in the early 1970s. I know because I’ve seen pictures of him in it, longhaired and excruciatingly gaunt, standing with his brothers on a mountain in Romania. This is a lot for one night, but I think it’s the sight of my dad’s clothes on this person who is still a stranger that finally overwhelms me. I can’t help it. My body starts to cry. The boy pulls me in and rewraps his arms around me. This time my head tucks under his chin. “Shush,” he whispers. “Shush.” His fingers brush my hip as he reaches into the left pocket of his jacket. He pulls out a pack of Marlboro Reds. Puts two cigarettes in his mouth. Lights both, without asking. Sucks deep and hands me one. When I inhale, I look for the first time in his eyes. They’re wide and brown, with bits of yellow near the center. This is what I have been craving for a long, long time. We smoke in silence. Then Troy offers to drive me back to Kallie’s house so I can retrieve my father’s blue Ford Taurus. We leave without saying goodbye to anyone. We just get in his car and go. I love that. The quiet between us continues during the short ride, but his presence saturates the space. He smells like Cool Water cologne. The scent of him makes my stomach muscles tighten. I sit rigid in my chair, staring out the window. Ask me for my number. Ask me for my number. I will it. He doesn’t get the message, or else he chooses to ignore it. In Kallie’s driveway he watches as I unbuckle my seatbelt. Waits while I pad across the snow. I search for my keys, and still he sits unmoving. Finally I pull out. He follows. At the bottom of the driveway I turn left, and he goes right. I look in my rearview mirror and watch him glide away, back to where we started. 26
For five days I’m short-tempered and depressed. On the sixth day, Troy calls. I slowly discover things about him. Apart from knowing how to drive a stick shift, seventeen-year-old Troy has complete mastery over his dad’s motorcycle. That summer my parents think I’m spending lots of time at Kallie’s house. Instead, I fly around Chicago with my arms seatbelted around his waist and no helmet on my head. In his company my hormones dance and sing. Troy’s mother is from Vietnam. She wears short leather skirts and high red heels. His father is eccentric and a little scary, like many war vets. To me the product of their passion looks like a young Keanu Reeves. But when my parents meet my boyfriend, they are significantly less impressed. “Why does he wear pants that are so big?” asks my mother. “Sracu. Poor boy. He does not have money to buy another pair?” “Yes, of course he does. That’s just the style. Anyway, they weren’t that big.” “They were falling from his hips. I almost saw his entire bum when he stood up to leave.” “Mom!” “What, it is true. Luckily I look away in time.” “So you don’t think he’s cute?” “Aw. He is very cute. If you got married, I would hope you would have girls. A girl who is not so tall is ok. But a short man is just terrible.” “But…what about his eyes? Did you see how beautiful they are? They remind me a bit of Laura’s. So big and brown. Didn’t you think?” “I do not like him,” barks my father. “Este afumat. He smells like he’s been smoked.” “What are you talking about?” “Tell me the truth. Does that boy use cigarettes?” I glance away. “No.” “Does he smoke drugs?” “Of course not!” “Miroase a tutun. He reeks of tobacco.” “It’s probably because of the people around him.” “His mother smokes, does she not?” “No, no. I meant my friends. I mean, some of the people who hang out aroundmy friends. They smoke. And, um, that’s why my clothes and hair smell sometimes too.” My father peers at me, suspicious. “Humph,” he snorts, and I decide to find a deeper, darker sanctum for my Marlboro Lights. “So, anyway, a bunch of friends are going to North Pier this Saturday,” I say. Now is surely not the time to bring up my request, but I’m fifteen and terrible at picking moments. “What is that?” asks my father. “It’s a really cute outdoor area with restaurants and shops and lots of families. Everyone’s going there to walk around and have lunch. It’s really safe. And really cute. With lots and lots of families.” “It is downtown?” “Um, yeah.” “And how you plan on getting there?” “I’ll, you know, borrow the car and go.” 27
“Ha. M faci s rid. You make me laugh.” “Fine. Then Troy can pick me up and drop me off.” “Nu.” The alacrity of his rejection stuns me. I had so many valid points of argument, and I forget each one. “But why?” I dumbly ask instead. “I do not feel comfortable to have you driving with that boy.” “He’s a very safe driver.” “It does not matter how safe he tries to be. I think your recent accident proves this, no? He has only one year of experience, and I do not want you going on the highway in his car. If someone else does something unexpected on the road, he will not know how to react in time. He could make a very big collision, Doamne ferete, God forbid.” “But all my friends are going.” I hear the cry escape my mouth and know my case is lost. “So, why do we not do something together instead?” suggests my father. “Mihai, what a wonderful idea,” says my mother. “The four of us can go see the Art Institute museum. And then have lunch at Bennigan’s!” “Oh, that is great,” says my father. “What is that sandwich we ate last time?” “The King something…the, uh, Royal Carlo…no, the Monte Cristo!” “It was totally delicious.” My parents look at me with identical expectant smiles. The sight of them makes my forehead sting. I feel my last hope of success expire. The verdict came so fast. I should have pled my case a different way, but now it’s too late. All the fun I had anticipated vanishes. This thought fills me with despair, and my rage explodes. “I don’t want to hang out with you guys! I hate you! You never let me do anything! I can’t stand this anymore! I can’t wait to move out! Once I turn eighteen you’re never going to hear from me again! I swear to God!” I’m sobbing and my voice is breaking by the end of my tirade, so I turn around, run up the stairs and slam my bedroom door. I throw myself onto my bed and cry until I’m nauseous. My insults aren’t very original, but they are heartfelt. Thirty minutes later someone knocks and enters without waiting. I’m sprawled on my back, listening to Enya in the dark. Next to me is a hill of crumpled tissues. “Really, Fran,” says my mother. “Enough with the dramatics.” I turn on my side and stare at the wall. Go ahead. Make fun of me. Now I only hate you more. She sighs. “Ok. If you want it so much, you can go on Saturday.” My heart instantly softens, jumps, and I flip over. “Really?” “Da.” “Oh thank you, Mama. I love you.” “Mihai and I will bring you there.” I take a quick breath, but she stops me before I can convert it to a torrent of protest. “That is the only way. You are not driving to Chicago with that boy, and I do not care how much you scream.” I am familiar with that tone of finality. “Fine.” “Also,” she says, glancing away. “You have to bring your sister.” At that moment I understand. They’re not actually granting me an 28
afternoon of freedom. In their minds I’m still too young to go on dates and out for meals with friends, but neither do they want to see me sulk for the next week. To keep me out of trouble, they’re postscripting a chaperone to my day. When my mother says I want to be with Laura—that I, in fact, suggested she come—a feeling of elation rushes through my sister’s body and makes her chest feel warm. She smiles, timid and uncertain. My mother hugs her and does not let go until Laura squirms away. That night my sister lies above her blanket, too thrilled to sleep. She stares at her dark ceiling and wonders where will I take her, and what will I show her, and what will I ask her, and how will she answer? And best of all, when will Saturday finally come? And worst of all, when will Saturday be over? I care nothing of how she feels, because I’m fifteen years old. At this point in our lives, our relationship is normal and simple: I don’t want her around, while she would rather be with me than any other person in the world. On Saturday I beg my parents to drop us one block past the rendezvous point, but my father takes a few wrong turns, pretending to be lost. He pulls up ten feet from the pier where Kallie, Tarah, Amber, Ray, Austen and Troy are huddled, laughing. My father scowls, his face visible through the polished window. I open my door and pray that Laura changed her mind, but she eagerly disembarks behind me. My mother says, “We will be here at six, so please do not be late and make us worry.” “I heard you the first four times,” I hiss. She smiles and kisses me. “Have fun, kids! Be good, and take care of each other.” My friends turn and stare. Troy smiles kindly. Kallie and Tarah snicker. This is what mortification feels like. I approach the group with Laura following in my shadow. Despite the means of my arrival, its members greet me warmly. Tarah says, “What’s wrong with your parents?” There is derision in her voice, but mostly curiosity. “I don’t know. They’re assholes.” She laughs. “Seriously. I can’t stand living at home much longer.” Laura stares at me. Her eyes are huge. Her expression terrified. She truly believes that I might run away, and she desperately wants me to stay. This annoys me, so I turn until I can’t see her. I form a circle with my friends and leave her on the outside. I don’t introduce her, and no one says hello. Why is my heart so hardened? It is a toughened piece of gristle. Troy suggests we check out the arcade. He takes my hand, and we walk down the pier. Kallie and Austen are beside us, with Amber and Tarah following close behind. It’s a beautiful day. Lake Michigan looks like the ocean. Sunlight ices the lapping waves and makes their tips shine silver. In the distance all I see is blue, no land or shore in sight. Seagulls dart between the tables scattered on the wooden deck, and I love the noise they make. Their hungry, angry squawks remind me of vacation. I feel I can’t be any happier, but then the smell of juicy burgers and vinegar-soaked fries drifts up. My stomach growls in appreciation of even more good things to come. The next time I glance back to laugh at Austen’s comment, I spot Laura. 29
She’s fallen far behind the group. Walking with her head down, she’s staring at her shoes. I realize suddenly that she’s wearing her favorite light-blue bellbottom jeans. She’s matched them with her favorite top, a white shirt with John Lennon on the front and Imagine scrawled in cursive on the back. In anticipation of an afternoon with me, she’s carefully put on her best clothes. She has dressed up for the day. My stomach clenches. For a moment I want to jump into the lake. But then Troy stops to light my cigarette, and suddenly Laura is there, beside me. She grabs the Marlboro Light out of my hand. Flings it to the ground and stubs the lit tip with her sneaker. I’m too shocked to move. “What the hell are you doing?” “Fran,” she says. “You shouldn’t smoke.” “Don’t tell me what to do!” She stares at me. I reach into the brown suede purse that used to be my mother’s. Pull another from the pack. It’s windy by the water. Troy flicks open his shiny Zippo. Cups his palms around mine. The first smoke of the day always makes my brain tingle. I inhale deeply, savoring the sensation. Get in two good drags before the cigarette is wrenched once more from my fingers. “Stop it! What is wrong with you?” “Fran, no. It’s very bad for you. Please don’t smoke.” “Leave me alone, you annoying little brat. Quit acting like a baby.” She shakes her head and doesn’t move. I dodge around her. Run toward the lake. All my friends are gaping. I light a third cigarette. This time when she tries to snatch it, I stand on my toes and hold it high above my head. She jumps. Grabs. Misses. I lower it to my face, aiming for my mouth, but she bats my hand. Her fingers tap my fist. I fumble. Drop it. Now I am enraged. With one big step I close the space between us. Shove my red face into hers until our noses touch. My arms are shaking at my sides. “I am going to kill you if you do that one more time,” I say quietly. Laura’s mouth trembles. I know she wants to cry, but she doesn’t let the tears come. She doesn’t back up or back down. She looks into my eyes and says, “I’ll tell Mom and Dad.” “Oh. My. God. I can’t believe you’re such a giant loser.” Troy has been watching our battle, silent. Now he steps forward to lend his support. “Hey, stop giving your sister such a hard time. Why don’t you just sit here and chill out while we take a little walk?” He and I become a united front, but Laura is astonishingly brave. Two against one, but she’s intrinsically stubborn. She looks at him with raw dislike, then turns back to me. She’s pleading. In my head, I can hear her. The health lectures absorbed at school and bits of information gleaned from conversations with my parents have coagulated to a single terrifying conclusion in her twelve-year-old mind: If I smoke one cigarette, I will die. I am her big sister. She does not want me to die. For as long as she has had awareness, she has worshipped me. Sometimes I can be cruel, like the years I didn’t let her watch Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer because I wanted to see Girls Just Want to Have Fun for the uncountableth time instead. Or like today. Despite that, she loves me in a way that’s elemental. It can’t be put in words or formed into coherent thought, and that’s ok. It doesn’t need to be. It is 30
indestructible, without end or beginning, which is why she can’t let me destroy myself, even though it means she might get harmed in the process. Someday I will know how she feels. But not today. I reach for cigarette number four. Laura rushes me as I stand still to light it, but this time I am ready. I shove her. My fingers dig into her breastplate. It hurts, and she starts to cry. I inhale. She walks toward me again. She won’t give up! Despite myself, her courage astounds me. The Marlboro Light goes sour in my mouth. “Fine,” I say. “Stop crying. You win, ok?” She rubs her knuckles across her eyes. “Ok.” “I’m sorry.” “It’s ok.” “Laura?” “Yeah?” I didn’t mean to push you. “Don’t tell Mom and Dad. Ok?” Her voice trembles. “Yeah. Ok.” I sigh. Toss my cigarette in the water. When I hug her, she stands very still. She doesn’t squeeze back, but she doesn’t pull away.
“During the day, stick insects lay still on the tree or shrub. These creatures spend their days motionless.” —Royal Entomological Society of London “Stick insects sleep in the day. However, at night they spring into action and eat leaves.” —The Daily Mail, UK
Phasmantis Transformation Phase 1, On how stick insects are nocturnal
fter I leave Helen’s office I feel dizzy from all the introductions, and giddy because I’m now a career woman with a paycheck and a desk with lots of nooks and shelves and drawers in which to organize supplies. There’s one person in this world with whom I most want to share my happy news, but these days she is hard to reach. I’ve grown up, and wised slightly up, and come to appreciate her company. And in the process, Laura has outgrown me. Now a sophomore at NYU, popular and beloved, she can no longer be bothered with the older sister who for years could not be bothered. I use my new cell phone with the prepaid Daddy minutes to dial her dorm. The phone rings many times before she finally answers, sounding groggy. “I’m sorry! Did I wake you?” I look at my watch. It’s 4:18 p.m. “Yeah,” she mumbles. “I was napping.” “Are you sick?” “I’m fine. I was just out late last night.” “What were you doing?” “You know. This and that.” She yawns. “So what’s going on?” “I have some good news.” I pause. “I got a job!” Her voice perks instantly, which is nice. “That’s wonderful. Where?” I start to relate all the details, but she interrupts. “Why don’t you come over and tell me? We can celebrate.” Which is even better. 33
I decide to walk instead of taking a fourth cab. I turn right on Hudson Street, head south toward Canal, and it’s the first time I have ever gone this way. In Chinatown, the incredible new things distract me. Crates clog the sidewalk, and from them overflow green bamboo, brown mushroom and purple eggplant vegetables. Duck bodies—some feathered, skinned, raw; others golden, roasted, dripping—dangle from thick hooks in a row of windows. I see a restaurant, and in front of it there is a giant tank, and in this tank fat fish with Dali moustaches are swimming. I get lost. No one can tell me how to find White Street. The signs are written in scrawling Chinese script, and I’m illiterate. Finally a pretzel vendor points me in the right direction. I make a few turns, and the buildings become familiar. The security guard tells me to wait in the lobby. I do, until the elevator carrying my sister finally arrives. She starts to move my way, and it’s like walking under water. That’s how slowly the ten-foot span is bridged. But then, all at once as though no time has passed, she is beside me, so close that brows and orbs and bridge of nose are the only things in focus. “Hi, hi, hi,” we say into each other’s hair. Hers smells like a stale ashtray. She pulls back and I devour her face, scanning for differences that may have crept up in the last few weeks. She looks weary—yet also energized. Her eyes alight with a weird glow, which I mistakenly attribute to being nineteen. Drinking red wine until the dawn of any given Tuesday. Falling into a nap on the beds of classmates whose full names one doesn’t know. She’s also skinnier than usual. Long of torso and elongated in the limbs, like she’s been stretched on a medieval rack. She has on a new pair of raw Japanese denim jeans. They seem molded to her lanky legs. She looks like the model-body blonde in Miriam’s office, and suddenly I regret the Subway extra mayo cold cut combo I inhaled at lunch. In the summer she can roam the city braless, dressed in nothing but a tiny tank top. That’s a look I’ll never be able to pull off. Beside her, I feel unpleasantly curvy. We press back into the elevator. She says, “I want to hear everything.” “Ok,” I say. “When I woke up I lay in bed for ten full seconds, because I couldn’t remember where I was. Then I got up and found a bowl. I filled it, to the top, with Cinnamon Toast Crunch. You know how much I love that cereal, especially when it’s soaked in chocolate soymilk. But before I could take my first bite, Miriam called. And honestly I don’t even care that it got soggy while she kept me on the phone.” Laura interrupts. “So Miriam got you the job.” “Well. She sent me on the interview.” “Because I told Jack to tell John to make sure that she called you.” “You did?” “A few times.” “Oh. Well, thanks.” “Of course. Did you see her daughter?” “Who’s her daughter?” “Emma.” “Are you serious! Emma is her daughter?” “Yeah. John’s older sister. You didn’t know that?” Laura asks. “I didn’t know that,” I agree. 34
“You met her last year at John’s party, when you came to visit. Remember?” “No. But that explains a lot.” “She’s a bitch,” says Laura, unexpectedly. I glance away. I want to argue with her assessment, but suddenly I don’t know where I am again. Fresh-off-the-boat, I have buckteeth and a freaky family, while Laura is one of the popular girls who thinks my accent’s weird. We exit on the eighth floor. My sister leads us down a long linoleum hall, past doors personalized with photos of the rooms’ inhabitants. Some boast mini dry erase boards, on which private messages are posted: “Deb, your mom called, 2:10 p.m.” “Nick, we’re at Dojo, meet us there!!! xoxoxx, Chrissie.” “Sue, fuck you, you dirty skank. Love, Rob.” Laura’s door is bare, belying the decrepitude that lies beyond. I follow her inside, amazed as always to see stacks of dishes in the sink, on counters and, a new addition, piled in a corner of the living room. The carpet is studded with Cheetos chunks, while stains of varying intensity create a complex topography. Stella, one of her three roommates, is sprawled stomach-to-floor in front of the TV. She looks up and nods as I enter. Kyle jumps from the couch to kiss my cheek. His skin feels very soft, like the outside of an apricot. For a second our faces are so close. I can see the small scar on his nose, and below that, a pair of inflamed nostrils. “Do you have a cold?” “Why? Do I look like crap?” His hand flutters to his neck, his forehead. “No, never mind. I thought your nose looked red from too much blowing.” “That’s awesome!” shouts Stella. “Too much blowing, I fucking love it. Methinks it’s time to lay off the coke, buddy.” “Shut up!” squeals Kyle. “This time it’s not my fault.” “How come? Did you trip and land schnoz-first in it?” “Ha ha. No, actually I stayed at Stepp’s last night.” Laura sparks a Marlboro. Sucks deeply. Asks, “What’s Steps?” Stella groans. “Oh Jesus. Get with the program, lady.” She rolls onto her back. “Stepp is this week’s Little Hottie Boy.” “Except this time, it’s really true.” Kyle grins, crosses one leg under the other and folds himself onto the grimy couch. “He’s got that great mid-Western ass.” “I love me those heartland men,” says Laura. “Agreed,” says Stella. “They’re all so strapping. Must be that regular steakand-fried-eggs diet.” Kyle raises his voice to be heard above their laughter. “Listen! This morning was hilarious. His parents are in town, and they’d made plans to pick him up for breakfast, right? So the alarm goes off, but we sleep through it. Because we were, you know, up late. Next thing we realize, someone’s pounding on the door. I swear the boy flew out of bed. He starts running around, searching for his pants, while I’m trying to get all the blow and cigarettes and shit off the table.” Stella says, “You idiots. Did you get busted?” “Nah. I did a really good clean-up job. Ma and Pop still think their son is a straight drug-free virgin.”“But how did you explain your naked presence to his parents?” Kyle squirms. “Um. He made me hide in the closet until after they’d left.”“Oh 35
man, how fucking ironic! Here you were thinking you’d come out of that closet for good.” The three of them laugh until Stella squirts gin from her nose, and then they laugh harder. I’m more uncomfortable then I was when Butt, Mujahedeen ignored me, or when the Saatchi guard confused me, or when Jonah made me feel invisible, or when the shitting homeless man made me feel grief. I’m most uncomfortable now because Laura is the person I love most, and at this moment I don’t know her. She’s laughing without awkwardness and in complete enjoyment, the way we do when we’re at ease. I look at her and wonder if coke is what she does when she says she did this and that. My fingertips get cold, and I can’t stop myself from asking with forced casualness, “So. Did Steps give you the cocaine?” Kyle wipes the mirth tears from his eyes. “No. I had some, and he wanted to try it. He’s from Idaho. Or is it Iowa? Maybe Kansas. You know, one of those middle states where all they smoke is meth.” I know a few things about Kyle. Like his mother’s name, which is Crystal. She is a lesbian and aging hippie. He doesn’t know his father’s name, because Crystal never got it. At the age of nine, Kyle tries pot for the first time, after wandering from bed to living room during one of Crystal’s parties. “Baby!” she cries. “Come here.” Then whispers to her friends, “This will be adorable.” She passes Kyle the joint, but it keeps slipping from his pudgy fingers. Mom finally has to teach him how to hold it. By nineteen he’s moved on to snorting heroin, which is more attractive than injecting. Kyle is very fond of his slender, freckled arms. He doesn’t want them marred by ugly track marks. Now I can add one more bit of information to my list: Kyle doesn’t buy drugs, he supplies them. And to those he loves, he gives great deals. He stretches and snuggles deep into the couch. Stella props her head against his shins. Laura looks at me and says, “Sit down, I’ll be right back,” then disappears into her bedroom. From the bathroom I hear someone sneeze. “Who else is here?” “No one,” says Stella. “Absolutely no one.” Kyle says, “That’s just Thaana.” “Right. Like I said, it’s no one. Everybody ignore her if she comes out.” “Who’s Thaana?” I ask. “My fucking roommate,” says Stella. “What happened to Miranda?” “Bitch took off last week. Colin has some amazing loft downtown, and she moved in with him. Now she’s living in the lap of luxury, while I’m stuck sleeping next to a loser freshman.” “I thought most freshmen lived in Hayden.” “Right? So did I. Somehow the NYU housing people screwed up, so Thaana is all ours for the year.” “She’s not that bad,” says Kyle. “You know I’m going to punch you if you say that one more time,” says Stella. “You are aware of that, right?” “Come on. You don’t always have to be such a cunt.” “Hey, that’s unfair! I tried to get along. At first. But the girl completely hates 36
us.” “Yeah, and can you blame her?” “I can. I blame her for being boring. I swear to Christ if she asks me to turn my music down one more time, I’m going to set fire to her bed.” “Stel! That’s awful.” “What? It’d be a quick death. She probably wouldn’t even know what hit her.” “You really are sick.” The bathroom door creaks, and Thaana emerges. She darts into the living room. Glances from side to side, then opens the coat closet. She has a small face hidden behind thick black hair that hangs over her shoulders, past her chest, in frizzy un-brushed waves. She’s wearing a baggy NYU sweatshirt. Her jeans hug the baby fat she still hasn’t lost. “Heyyyyy there, Thaana,” Stella purrs, writhing forward on her belly. Thaana turns, enough for me to see her bushy eyebrows, dark sideburns and light mustache. “Hi,” she whispers. “Whatcha doin?” “Going to the library.” “The library again, huh? Are you sleeping with the microfiche guy or something?” Thaana looks horrified. “No.” “Well, don’t you ever get bored of studying?” “No.” Stella sighs. “Alright then. Whatever wets your whistle. But it is kind of late, and we know how mommy worries. I’m thinking we’d better wait up for you. Just to make sure you get home safe.” Thaana’s mouth trembles. She runs out without answering. The door slams shut—and I suddenly remember a day I hate. I’m nine years old. My parents pronounce their English words in a weird way, and all the kids at my Toronto grade school know it. On its own that might be ok, except I also look ridiculous. My head is bigger than my scrawny body. My top front teeth are huge, and they stick out a lot. It’s hard to get my lips shut over them. At lunch when everyone unwraps bologna and Kraft singles sandwiches on Wonder Bread, I pull out pumpernickel, spicy mustard and last night’s cold roast lamb. I’m so embarrassed. I try to keep it quiet, but the smell announces itself to every corner of the classroom. One day I furtively remove my sandwich, and a giant cockroach runs out of my brown paper bag. All the kids—including the boys—jump back and scream. After that, no one will talk to me. The only person who will even look at me is Sinclair, a scrawny Chinese boy who wears thick glasses and farts a lot in math class. When I get home, I tell my mother about the roach. She starts to cry, even though I know it’s not her fault. The bugs are everywhere, all over our apartment. At night they cast monstrous shadows on the wall. My mother sprinkles boric acid in the corners and behind the stove. Nothing helps. The roaches are fellow tenants in this building filled with immigrants. They ride the elevator with me, clinging to the buttons. Thaana’s terrified face now makes my stomach hurt, but next to me my 37
sister’s friends are cackling. I fidget in my seat. Kyle suddenly stops laughing. Quietly, he says, “Wow. You look hot.” I glance up to see what he has seen, and there is Laura.
If you enjoyed what you read and would like to read more, I’d be happy to send you the rest of my book, with my compliments. Just “Like” Phasmantis on Facebook, and I’ll email you the rest!