Stella Leventoyannis Harvey is a fiction writer whose short stories have been short listed in contests such as the Writers Union short fiction contest. Her stories have appeared in The Literary Leanings Anthology, The New Orphic Review, Emerge Magazine, The Question and The Dalhousie Review. Her non-fiction has appeared in Pique Newsmagazine and the Globe and Mail. Her latest novel, Nicolai's Daughters, was released through Signature Editions in October, 2012.
A social worker by training, she ran a management consulting practice in Canada and abroad, developing business and strategic plans, implementing mergers, acquisitions and large change initiatives and helping ease the transition of employees caught in corporate downsizing. She was born in Cairo, Egypt and moved to Calgary, Alberta as a child with her family. Much of her family still lives in Greece, where she visits often, indulging her love of Greek food and culture and honing her fluency in the language.
Office intrigue in a foreign setting
got something different for you, he says, early one Thursday morning in
May. He's called you to his air-conditioned office where the tinted
windows defy the force of the unrelenting Roman sun, drape the outside
smog in light grey. You sit in the leather chair in front of his desk,
notebook and pen positioned. He paces and eyes you out of hazel slits.
You know he's looking for the light fleck in your green eyes. He and
others have told you this happens every time you get excited, angry,
express emotion. You look at your notebook, scribble the date in the
left hand corner. He says, Last week you complained you were bored. Well
my dear Raffaela, I think I've found something more challenging for
He's drawn you down this dead end before. Each time you believed. Now you know nothing will change. You cock your head and smile like a doll whose string has been pulled. You briefly wonder what numbers will need smoothing now.
As special projects coordinator for one of the largest banks in the country, you work with round numbers you squeeze into squares on a spreadsheet. Appearances rather than accuracy matter in this business. You've heard this from your boss. He's also told you how smart you are. He takes the opportunity to tell you this anytime he wants something, those extras beyond calculating profit margins and spread. His smirk never falters. You counter, Not that smart, and you avert your eyes, you know he assumes you're being humble. You know what you mean. Not smart enough to get out from under him, out of the place leeching any enthusiasm you might still have. Numbers, unlike people, can be transformed and delivered. Another important lesson you've learned in this job.
Head office is sending us an outsider, he says, interrupting your thoughts.
This is different. He adds, Americana.
What are they looking for?
Further efficiencies, new directions, he says and rolls his shoulders backwards, an attempt perhaps to work out a kink. You fantasize, as you've done before, about slipping something obscenely sharp into the exact same spot he's kneading. Basta already. We've boiled the bones, he says cutting into your daydream. A slight twitch on his upper lip threatens his composure.
What does this have to do with me? You notice you're tapping your pen. You stop and the sudden silence makes your hands itchy, your mouth dry.
You speak English. Help her understand our ways.
In other words, find out what she wants.
You're such a smart girl Raffa, he says, using the nickname reserved for family and friends.
Although Jan is a mass of curly red hair and pale freckled skin, her eyes are a deep shade of coal. She has never liked this bequest of her mother's and would have covered her eyes with tinted contact lenses except she's afraid of sticking things in her eyes. This fear, she's convinced herself, comes from being hit by a rocky snowball when she was in grade two.
Her boyfriend loved her eyes, or at least that's what he used to say. They stand out, he said. I can tell how angry you are just by the shade they fall into when you're yelling at me. I never yell, she replied, but he left anyway. What persists is this job.
Now her company has given her an opportunity to go abroad, get international experience. She doesn't speak the language, doesn't understand the culture, and although everyone thinks she likes change—a testament to the various company and position moves she's made over the past ten years—she harbours a secret desire for stability, a small group of friends, a man, and a place she can settle into. She bought new chairs, extra guest towels, and sheets in anticipation of the dinner parties and visiting friends she expected when she moved to Vancouver. Things now in storage until the day she comes back. She knows her desires are cliché, out of some woman's magazine where doing and having it all is salvation.
The company offered a translator, a car and driver, a downtown apartment, a salary and cost of living adjustment, and help with getting all the necessary legal documents. Whatever she needed. She accepted the offer, ignored her sore stomach and the clumps of hair falling into the bathroom sink. This is an adventure, she tells herself as she looks down from the airplane window.
Through the smog, she sees the beach at Fiumicino, the surrounding brown landscape, parched and needy. She read about the beach—dirty, too close to Rome to enjoy a clean swim—in her guidebook. In a few minutes, she will touchdown in a city described as chaotic, but no less romantic or fascinating to the traveler. Will I always be the traveler passing through, she wonders. She should be excited, as excited and animated, as she was when she told her colleagues about her assignment to one of Italy's largest banks. Instead, she feels empty. Again, she sees her colleagues' smiles propped to mask envy, hears their banter about the Italian culture. Jan, as soon as you try to tell them what to do, the Italians will send you packing. I never tell anyone what to do, she countered, I influence. They laughed. Is that what you call it. She smiles as she feels the bump of wheels touch down. She didn't think she'd miss those lugs so soon. She shrugs off this sentimentality, jet lag.
Back in your family's apartment, a glass of red in hand, the television's muted blinks fill the space crammed with family pictures, books, a large terracotta otre handed down from your great-grandparents. You don't think about your lack of privacy, or how there's nowhere to sit when you're in this room with the rest of the family, or your desire to have your own apartment as you usually do at this time of the night. Instead, you take the rare opportunity to stretch out on the two-seater divano and think about Jan.
You met la straniera earlier today. You had donned your linen suit, starched blouse and replaced collant with beige fishnet stockings even though women in Rome don't wear suits or pantyhose to the office after mid-April. After work, Jan invited you to dinner, said she'd love the company. When you told your boyfriend you wouldn't be having dinner with him and his family as planned, he told you to have a good time, he'd explain. Your girlfriends call you lucky because your boyfriend doesn't expect you to clean up after him, cook his favourite dishes or iron his shirts. You've reminded them on a number of occasions that he has his mother for these things. You haven't thought about your good fortune. All you know is you are bone-tired most days and the opportunity to have dinner with a stranger seemed to give you a burst of energy.
She asked you to meet her at her apartment. I don't know the city, she said, but there are lots of restaurants near here. When you arrived your eyes took in the stone arches, the wood beams, the antique doors and windows of the restored 17th century palazzo, large enough to accommodate two families. She lives in it by herself. As she watched you, her smile set off her high cheekbones; her eyes receded into an even darker shade of black that struck you as too exotic and mysterious for someone from the Anglo Saxon part of the world. She said, The owner is an actress. When you commented on the paintings and sculptures you know are the work of a famous Italian artist, she said, It's like living in a museum. You ran your hand over a small bust on the piano, the head of a baby swaddled in a blanket and cupped in a large hand. That's the actress at six months, she said, chiselled by her father as she lay sleeping. Later, you stared at the painting of black and red slashes and made out a distorted face, a storm of red surrounding it. You told Jan, This was the artist's most famous work, done before he committed suicide. She nodded and released an odd hum. You assumed this was her way of showing interest. But she made no further comment, asked instead if you wanted a drink before dinner. You thanked her, but declined. She poured yellow liquid into her glass. Canadian rye, she said. Getting to this part of the day is what helps me get through. Her head tilted to receive the next mouthful.
She asked you where you live. Near the airport, you said. With my family. Oh, like your own apartment within the home, she said. My own room, you replied. It's nice how families stay so close here, she said. If you ask me, we're far too independent where I come from. You wanted to suggest trading places. You know she'd change her mind if she lived like you do.
At the restaurant, you asked the polite questions you'd practiced before the evening began. She told you about her various moves, jobs, and men in one breath. I'm like Teflon, she said, men don't stick to me. Her hearty laugh surprised you, as did her openness. She met your eyes directly, leaned forward when she made a point as if she wanted to be assured you were listening. This straightforward talk made you uncomfortable. At the same time you admired it. No one you work with or know talks this way. Yes, colleagues and friends will raise their voices in feigned emotion, but this simple diversionary trick to mask genuine emotion is taught early in your country.
It is very difficult to get ahead here, you said. A university education doesn't guarantee anything. You need connections.
You mean other women who are willing to help. Mentors. Like that.
No. It's about who you know and who they know.
Sounds like the mob, she said, and rolled her head back in unabashed laughter. Sorry, too many Godfather reruns.
It's our reality.
Things must be changing.
You wanted to challenge her to count the number of women in senior positions at the bank, but kept quiet like you've learned to do when there is simply no point in explaining.
She gulped her wine and managed to pour more in between spurts of talk. She told you about the pretty fleck in your eyes and added, You've got the eyes I was supposed to have. My eyes are so dark and ugly, she said. With the red hair and black eyes, I can't disappear. But hey, who cares about me? It's the same boring story. Tell me about you. She smiled again, leaned forward as if inviting you to share a secret.
Jan returns to her apartment after dinner. She gets ready for bed and snuggles down, grabs the extra pillow and places it length-wise at her side, cuddling it close. She loves feeling the warmth beside her. Her loneliness never quite disappears, but the longing in the pit of her stomach is less compelling tonight when her thoughts wander to her new friend. That's such a romantic name, she said to Raffaela when they first met at the office. My grandmother's, Raffaela responded, eyes averted.
She thinks about Raffaela's hazel eyes, the light fleck that trembled when she talked about the art in Jan's apartment. Raffaela knew a great deal about the artist. I can never retain that kind of information, she thought as she listened to Raffaela, too much junk about improving efficiency, service, and the bottom line in my brain to grow an appreciation for art and its history. Self-conscious about her lack of knowledge, she had asked Raffaela if she'd like something to drink. What an idiot, she thinks now.
During dinner Jan had felt as though she was doing all the talking. I've been very lucky, she'd told Raffaela and felt her face redden. Jan's colleagues and family assume she's comfortable talking about herself, tease her that she's always got something to say. She knows it's a role she puts on, like the suit and high heels she slips into every morning.
Raffaela asked a number of questions—how did you get into this business, where did you work before, why did you decide to come here. Jan understands the questions were Raffaela's way to make conversation, stave off nervousness. As the evening progressed, Raffaela's cherubic polite smile widened. They teased one another about their accents, flirted with the waiter, tried each other's food. The arrabiata was too spicy for her, the saltimbocca too lemony for Raffaela. At the end of the evening, Raffaela gave her the customary double-cheek kiss, invited her to dinner on Sunday and suggested Jan call her Raffa.
Reserved for a friend, Raffaela said. And now that we're friends I can give you this back. Raffaela handed her the tip Jan had left on the table for the waiter. We don't tip like you do in America.
The waiter understands. We all understand.
She started to say something else. Instead she nodded as if she understood, slipped the bills in her purse.
Jan repeats the one word Raffaela said, friend and falls asleep content.
Nervous and irritated, you remove the coffee grounds from the porcelain sink, rinse the stain and, when it doesn't flow away, you scrub it into a white shine. You then wipe the counters. Your boyfriend, who seems to stand like a cardboard cutout in front of everything you need, wonders out loud when this burst of energy struck you. You feel driven to choke someone. He seems the perfect target. You ignore him; ask where his mother's salad is. Was I supposed to bring the salad, he asks, but when he sees your reaction, he puts his arms around you and says, It's in the bowl Raffa, in the fridge along with the chorizo and bresaola. You hug him and pat his back, look at your nails, think of your appointment next week. He senses your limp response, lets you go.
She'll love us, he says.
You wonder, what's to love, but say, Don't forget to pay me for half the food I bought for lunch.
Your fifty-fifty thing drives me crazy.
The receipt is on the counter.
You take one last look at the table you've set when you hear the buzzer. Your mother and father wait your signal. You look at your boyfriend; he smiles and crosses his fingers. You nod, run your fingers through your hair and walk out into the corridor to answer the door.
Three hours later, you are finishing your last planned course. Jan practices her Italian with your boyfriend, your parents have gone into another room to watch the early news. You sip espresso, pick at the watermelon pieces turning into watery mush on the plate in front of you. The early awkward moments of introductions and quiet smiles have washed away. You are satisfied with the linguine and mussels you prepared, the discussion over lunch, despite your mother's gushing over your guest's dark eyes—My daughter should be so lucky, the unfortunate one has her father's eyes—and your father's monologues about young people, their inability to appreciate what they have. You remained quiet so as not to encourage him; your forced smile permanently stuck. Jan looked across at you and winked. She asked questions, listened intently while your father spoke, and then said, My father feels the same way. And who could blame him. He sacrificed a great deal to build a life for us. Your father nodded in agreement, and smiled. She charmed him into silence. You haven't been able to do this since you were a little girl, making up stories while sitting on his knee.
Your boyfriend is making a point you haven't caught. Where are you? he asks as he puts his arm around you and calls you, mia sognatore. He tells Jan it means my dreamer. He gave you the nickname a long time ago because listening is not your strength. He winks and his face brightens into the kind of puppy-dog innocence and attentiveness you once found attractive.
You say, I listen when there's something important being said. You roll your shoulders as if trying to shed something. He doesn't move his arm. You lean back squeezing his arm against the back of the chair. This time he's obliged to free you.
Jan smiles, looks at her watch and says, I've really enjoyed this.
Your boyfriend reaches over and touches her forearm. We hope to see you often, he says. You notice Jan's dark eyes lighten, her face redden.
She was very nice, he says to you as he helps you clean up. A great person to work with, no?
It's difficult for strangers to fit in, you say.
He's about to say something else but as you scrub settled tomato sauce from the counter's grout with a small metal brush you bump his mother's bowl. It crashes to the floor. You stare at the pieces of blue ceramic while he searches for a broom.
You are sitting in Jan's office early Thursday morning. She's telling you how lucky you are to have a boyfriend like Stefano.
Yes, everyone tells me.
He's so charming, she says. How long have you been together?
That's longer than any married couple I know.
He wants me to move in with him and his mother when we get married. I'm not rushing.
It's hard to find a man like that.
Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Your discussion is interrupted by your boss. Ladies, he says, I need to speak with Jan. Will you excuse us Raffaela?
You notice the smiles they exchange. You leave Jan's office irritated with him for interrupting your time with her. Later you realize you're irritated with her. You ignore the feeling; concentrate on the forecast numbers due today.
Time passes, Jan thinks, as she tries to concentrate on the news program. The volume is high, so she can hear each word enunciated. I've been here a month, and I'm getting the gist. It's Friday night and she's waiting for Raffaela. When she arrives, they'll walk over to the trattoria. Raffaela is forty-five minutes late. Rome is a big city, Raffaela said when Jan confronted her a couple of weeks ago after waiting in the busy Piazza de Popolo where she jostled with motorcycles, pedestrians and tourists for space. While she waited, Jan watched the chaos, listened to the bits of conversations of people bumping up against her, wondered again about the phenomenon she'd observed since moving to Italy³short older men with young leggy beauties on their arms.
The excitement of being in the busy piazza fizzled into irritation when fifteen minutes passed, then a half an hour. Claustrophobic, eyes burning from exhaust fumes, she tried calling, but Raffaela's cell phone was off. She stood for an hour, refusing to leave the spot she'd agreed to meet Raffaela.
It's difficult to be on time, Raffaela said when she arrived.
Not if you leave enough time.
When in Rome. Raffaela shook her head. Americana.
After a bottle of wine and dinner, Jan relaxed. Raffaela had a point. I'm too uptight.
Old habits die hard, she says to herself now, bored with the news, pacing. Her stomach rumbles. She grabs some grapes, then hears the bell.
Can you let me in, Raffaela says.
I'm starving and hot.
Jan grabs her purse, locks the door and walks down the stairs to open the wooden doors to the parking area, trying to ignore her recurring thought. What about me?
They walk to the trattoria, a ten-minute walk, focused on avoiding cars, dog shit and groups of tourists led by umbrella-carrying guides blaring the history of the Piazza de Spagna in French, German, Japanese and English. Small motorcycles screech by, their riders with cell phones tucked underneath unbuckled helmets talk and guide their noisy beasts through the crowd. When they arrive, the waiter tells them they were about to lose their reservation. Their cut-off is one hour. Raffaela says, The traffic was especially bad tonight. They exchange smiles. Jan notices the green sparkle in Raffaela's eyes. She knows the waiter has caught it too.
A charmer, Jan says, when they are seated.
Everyone understands traffic in this city, Raffaela says. It excuses many things.
So it wasn't the traffic.
I met someone at a party my sister gave last week. He called. Raffaela takes a sip of wine. She dribbles onto her blouse.
It's a hazard to drink and smile.
Raffaela's smile stays in place.
I'm going out with Marco later tonight.
I take it you're not happy with Stefano.
It's more complicated than that. Families are involved. He's at my house for dinner three times a week. My mother invites him. Or his mother invites me to their house. This is how things continue. Twelve years pass.
So if you break up, you break up with the whole family.
I'm not talking about breaking up. I just want to have some fun. Make sure there isn't someone else for me.
Fun is good, Jan says. Understand what you're doing.
A man puts his hand on Raffaela's shoulder, smiles pearls at Jan and says, Ciao belle. Jan feels his eyes scan her face. She returns a smile and averts her eyes. Raffaela stands and towers over Marco's muscular but small frame. They kiss each other on the cheek while Jan watches them. Good looking, but shorter than Stefano, Jan thinks. Raffaela introduces Marco. His hand is damp, and limp, Jan thinks and pulls her hand away quickly.
After dinner, Jan gave Raffaela the keys to the parking garage and told her she could return them on Monday. She doesn't have any use for them anyway.
Back at the apartment after dinner, she watches the lights of the Via del Corso and the stragglers leaving the enoteca on the corner. She wonders what it would be like to be in a relationship for twelve years. The longest she's been able to manage is a year. And she screwed that up with a Marco-type fling of her own.
She sees Marco and Raffaela walk up the street, continues to watch them as they stand under her window. He's greasy, Jan says to herself, and chides herself, but what do I know. Raffaela is talking animatedly, her hands moving. Jan can't hear what they are saying, but she hears Raffaela's laugh. It's different tonight, loose like her shoulder-length hair. Her face bright, open under the streetlight, for once not veiled in etiquette, doing what's proper. She likes to see her friend this way. Jan resolves not to spoil Raffaela's happiness. She'll keep her own experience to herself.
You sit in your car, wondering if Jan is asleep. You want to discuss Marco, the way he held your hand, moved a strand of hair from your face, said he didn't want anything to stand in the way of your smile. Instead, you sit in the car mouthing the words he said, how he looked directly in your eyes as if he was serious about getting to know who you really are. The butterflies in your stomach make you smile. Again, you think about ringing Jan. You decide to keep this pleasure to yourself. You'll talk to her on Monday.
Jan and Raffaela are huddled in Jan's office. The door is closed, and they talk quietly about Marco. This sharing reminds Jan of high school and the best friend who confided exploits with the psychology teacher. That was the last time she remembers having a best friend, shared secrets.
He's a peacekeeper, works in Bosnia.
What's he doing in Rome?
A one-week break, Raffaela says. Then he goes back.
Don't know. I'm seeing him tonight.
I told him I was having dinner with you.
I don't want to do this. I like Stefano.
I don't have anyone else, Raffaela says, places her hand over Jan's.
Okay. Okay. Until you figure stuff out.
And Marco? What do you think of him?
You guys look good together.
We do, don't we?
I can't reach him, Raffaela says over dinner two weeks later.
He's in Bosnia, Jan says. I'm sure telephone calls aren't easy to make.
He told me to call whenever I wanted.
Look at you, Jan says. I haven't seen you this nervous.
Give him a chance, Jan says. She wants to hug Raffaela, or reach out to her, but stops herself.
When she first arrived in Rome, Jan was uneasy with the open displays of affection—male colleagues linking their arms in hers as they walked down the hallway discussing quarterly results, the secretaries in the office hugging her, the cleaning lady pinching her cheeks—and stiffened to the touch. She slowly relaxed into the Roman affection and stopped holding her body rigid as though an imaginary ruler delineated a two-foot demarcation zone. Instead, she allowed herself to feel the other person's body against her own, with everyone that is, except Raffaela. Jan couldn't explain this to herself. It was what it was.
A week passes and you've finally talked to Marco. Over the persistent static he told you that he enjoyed the time you spent together, but he doesn't feel a relationship is in store. You said, I don't understand. He said, I have to focus my attention on my work. I have no time for anything else.
When you told Jan she said, I understand where he's coming from. I've focused on work my whole life.
Stefano is a good man.
Maybe you need a break from him too.
Tell your family you need some time away from Stefano. Tell them what you're thinking, what you want.
Naive Americana, you said, and wondered why you confided in her in the first place. She hasn't been able to understand your reality. Not with Stefano. Not at work. Just last week, when you didn't get the month-end report done on time, she confronted you. You told her some of the senior managers didn't provide the data you needed to complete your analysis.
Have you tried talking to them? Jan asked.
In my position, I can't go into a senior manager's office. Make requests.
If you don't say something, how will they know what's expected?
I do not expect, you say.
She ignores you, talks about sending a memo to all senior managers setting out timelines and expectations. If they know what you want, they'll give you what you want.
Another month passes. Jan meets with your boss a couple of times a week, taking your place. Initially, you didn't mind, now you wonder what they talk about. When you ask her, she says, He likes to talk through ideas, get a second opinion on plans he's making. It's all talk, you say. It's better not to feed him any ideas. Just listen. She teases you about being unfair, says you're the half-empty type. She later explains the expression you aren't familiar with and you feel insulted. You are sure your eyes give you away.
And besides, you know I have an opinion about everything, she says. I can't just shut up, be polite, and not contribute. You wonder if she's connected your politeness with not contributing, made other assumptions about you.
I'm suggesting we merge the three human resource agencies we acquired when we bought out the two community banks, she says. Save a ton of money.
There's no will. The heads of these agencies are defiant. They will not allow a merger to happen, you say in an attempt to warn her.
This is a great move for our shareholders.
That is not how it works here.
No harm in shaking things up.
This is not a game.
She's already picking up enough of the language through tapes and private lessons that she doesn't need you to act as interpreter. She could, however, use a lesson or two in the realities of your culture. You think of suggesting this to her, but decide against it. She'll learn. Besides, you don't have the time to give her these lessons. You've gone back to playing with numbers.
In bed at the end of a long day, Jan wonders why Raffaela has become distant. Jan convinces herself she's pushed Raffaela too hard, hasn't taken the time to understand how difficult it must be for Raffaela to do her job in a bank where it's easier to talk about each other than to talk to each other. And they call this bullshit being polite. Easy for me to say what I think. They expect this from la straniera. They expect something different from their own. And sure, she needs less of Raffaela's help with translation. Raffaela couldn't possibly resent this could she? She's a smart woman who should be looking for other challenges. The translation only adds to Raffaela's workload.
Then again, maybe it has nothing to do with work at all. She does spend time with Raffaela and Stefano. Maybe too much time. Last Sunday when they were in the car heading to the beach, Stefano quietly said, I asked her if she'd like to go to the flea market later today. Raffaela replied, I wouldn't be disappointed if she didn't come. Jan plays with the notion she might have misunderstood the Italian, but when she repeats the words, she knows she understood them correctly. Her stomach aches.
She gets out of bed and paces. She will need to talk to Raffaela. This friendship is too important to lose.
When you arrive at work, she calls you to her office. We need to talk, she says. She tells you how much she appreciates your friendship, the difference it made in her transition. You think, your boss has already spoken to her. He told you yesterday that he would. We're letting her firm go, he said. When you asked why, he replied, the HR heads are after me. Calling me at home about the Americana's crazy ideas. She takes things too far. You found it hard to contain your smile. It's difficult for stranieri, you said, to understand. With his back turned to you, he said, She doesn't really belong and you felt vindicated. He finally gets it.
I think something's happened between us, Jan says now. I'd like us to resolve things. This friendship is important to me. You stare at her, say, I don't know what you're talking about. You seem distant, she says. I've been very busy with marriage plans. You're getting married? November. Stefano is such a great guy. Yes, you reply. She asks, Are you happy? Jan, you think too much.
At that moment, your boss calls Jan. He wants to talk, she says. Go, you say, he needs you. Her dark eyes needle you. You realize she doesn't know what's about to happen. For a single breath, you think about warning her, and in that same breath decide to say nothing. It's not your place to get involved.
You sit in her office for a few more minutes and look around at this beautiful space she acquired because she was la straniera. You wonder if he'll give you this office now. You doubt it. People cannot be transformed as easily as your numbers. Besides, there are more important things to think about, the addition Stefano's family is building on their home for you, the child that will come shortly after you're married. You return to your cubicle and the only thing you are sure of, your numbers.
Veinakh (our people)
Recounts the motivations of a potential female suicide bomber
I walk downstairs, I will hear my mother say to my father, “Why does
she need to be different?” Her voice will be low. She will shake her
head and make that familiar tisk sound. My parents will have just
returned from work and be sitting over the porridge my father made last
night before they left. Milk will dribble on my father’s chin. My mother
will balance her head on her hand covering an ear to muffle his slurps.
Why can’t she be more like Zoë?
They won’t say it, but I know they will think it. My mother will nudge my father and point to my football bag. They don’t like how I dress and they don’t approve of my involvement in football. If I wear my new vest this morning, my mother will notice and say, “Money flows through her hands like water.” My father will ignore her, crunch the stale bread he dries out each night to accompany his porridge. Honey will drip onto his shirt as it does every morning.
My older sister dresses in the cover-up garb of our Chechnya homeland and wears her white scarf proudly even though the old ladies on the bus stare and talk about la straniera as if Zoë can’t understand what they are saying.
“I don’t want to stand out,” I will say.
They will reply, “Girls your age fought for the right to wear the hijab for their identification card picture. You should be filled with as much pride as your sister.”
We’re immigrants in a place where Il Papa encourages tolerance and acceptance. And yet, we are looked upon with suspicion. They call us clandestini. Pictures are flashed on the news each night. Large ships and small boats filled with people just like us wash up on the shores every day. They are searching for a new home. And if our adopted country’s glossy-haired political leader asked his Russian counterpart what motivates these people to flee, he might get the standard answer, “They leave of their own volition to avoid the terrorist tactics of the rebels.” Russia’s human rights record and their complicity would be left out of the discussion.
How can we be filled with pride? I want to ask my da but that would only add vinegar to his puckered mouth.
“You must study. It is the only way to get ahead,” my father says.
I don’t ask him how he uses his own doctorate in philosophy or how nana uses her masters in biochemistry when they work alongside one another six nights a week, vacuuming floors, dusting windowsills, wiping urine from toilet seats. Or how any education will free us from the ghetto we have settled into. “It’s good to be with our own kind,” I once heard my mother say to my sister. “This is how they keep an eye on us,” my sister retorted.
The vest I’m thinking of wearing today lies on the bed behind me, black and form fitted; the dangling fringes give it a cool retro look. I see its shadow in the mirror as I sweep mascara onto my lashes. In it I will disappear into the crowd. I lighten my skin with pats of beige and brush a hint of pink onto my cheekbones just like my friends do, but I can’t do anything to cover my deep brown eyes. They look menacing, even to me and again I’m reminded of my sister’s words.
“They make sure we settle in certain areas, live with our own in cramped squalor so they can control us. We are appropriately registered,” Zoë complained one night when we were huddled in the double bed we share, “under the guise of getting government benefits.”
“No,” I whispered. “That’s not true.”
“Not much different than what was done to us at home.”
“People are different here,” I said, but I’m not sure I believed what I was saying.
She was staring at the ceiling and I knew she was planning her next rally—deciding on the messages for the placards, wondering how to get our community to participate, strategizing ways to improve media exposure.
“There they banished us to the mountains and took our oil to sell to the west,” she said. “They only want the refinery in Groznyy for themselves. They don’t care about the people.”
I turned over and pretended to sleep but the image of our mountains, the ones between our own Black and Caspian Seas, would not disappear.
The mountains hid the sun until mid morning but that didn’t stop Zoë from nudging me out of bed before sunrise on the last March 22nd we would celebrate at home. This was the day of the equinox, an important spring holiday that ushered the start of a new farming season. An old tradition we observed even though it had fallen out of fashion. We’d scrubbed our copper kitchen pots to the kind of shine that would attract the sun. Then we took them out into our yard, situated them on the fence for maximum effect and waited for the sun to climb up and out of the mountains’ shadow.
“Everyone must eat today,” Zoë said and sprinkled bits of bread and seeds on the ground for the birds. She wore her traditional new party dress underneath her heavy wool coat. “If we wear our new clothes today,” she reminded me when we got dressed, “we will wear new clothes all year long.”
I felt lucky to have customs we could rely on.
As we stood with our neighbours, we talked and stamped the cold out of our feet. The early morning frost underfoot thawed. When the sun peeked over the top of the mountains and into our valley we clapped, embraced and shook our neighbours’ hands. The smell of bread lingered on my da’s sweater as he hugged me into his chest.
The sun’s glare ricocheted off one of our pots and shone a spotlight on Zoë’s creamy complexion. She was sixteen and beautiful. I could see her breath as she laughed and talked to her boyfriend, Aslan. At that moment, I wanted to be just like her.
“He’ll build the biggest bonfire tonight and jump higher than any of the other boys,” she told me. The boys pay tribute to the sun by building bonfires after dark and then play a jumping game to determine who can jump the highest. The aim is to jump over the fire. “One day I will marry him,” Zoë said, and “you can come live with us.”
“We can’t live together forever,” I said.
“Maybe not in the same room, but we can live in the same house so we can talk into the night like we do now. Nothing will change.”
Now, Zoë marches in protest rallies down the Via Veneto and organizes rallies. She thinks she can change things. “This is the only way the world will know what is happening,” she says. I prefer listening to the gossip at the bar where my friends and I grab our shot of espresso. I think about the matches I see every Sunday between Lazio and any one of a number of rivals. I try to ignore the pictures in the papers or on the Internet—families grieving over another decomposed body found in a field or left by the side of the road.
We’ve been in Italia for half of my life and my father refuses to give up the past. “I used to make a difference,” he says. “One day we will go back, things will be better,” my mother reassures him. But, I know our veinakh’s history as well as anyone. Our three hundred year opposition dating back to the Ottomans will not suddenly soften or find compromise with the Russians just because my family wants it this way. When I realized this a few years ago, I doubled my efforts to forget the past. I was my high school’s valedictorian and helped tutor younger students after school. Scholarships sent me to university where I joined the girls’ football team against my parent’s wishes. I’ve made captain. Not sure what kind of leader I am. I’m mostly terrified I’ll screw up and be discovered.
Enough with the make-up. I must get ready or I’ll never get out the door this morning. I search for and finally find my sneakers under the bed and stuff them into my bag. This simple act for some reason today tires me out and I lie down across my bed.
We left our country the year of our last equinox celebration. I was eleven. My mother told us we were going. I still remember her smile that day; it was on her mouth but not in her eyes. She bit her upper lip, slowly chewing it inch by inch. I remember thinking her lip would disappear if she kept it up.
“I don’t want to, Nana.”
She ignored me. My sister pinched me. “There is nothing left for us here.”
“Just because Aslan is gone, doesn’t mean we all have to go,” I said.
Zoë slapped me. “Don’t talk about him.”
My mother helped us pick out what we would take, my father fashioned large garbage bags into packs. I used to think my father was the smartest person in the world. He talked about important things, his voice raised but in control, his eyes lit with conviction. His students, members of our community, everyone he met liked to hear him talk about resistance through education. But on that day his eyes were dull and unfocused. Would we have fled if my aunt Zamira and my uncle Shamil hadn’t disappeared; if Aslan hadn’t been found in that way? I heard my parents talk about it one night, catching only my mother’s words, “Who will be next?”
I’ve never told them. Instead, I gnaw at the inside of my cheek whenever my aunt or uncle or Aslan show up in my dreams.
The night we left, I scratched my name into my dresser with a rusty nail. Maali. In my language it means blessed. I wonder if the dresser is still there or if another family has moved in and chopped it up for firewood. In my homeland I wanted to be known and remembered; here I hide behind make up, good marks and football prowess.
I lay still now, my arm over my eyes. All light gone. Then, I remember the snow angels my sister and I used to make in our old front yard and I move my legs back and forth. I feel myself smile. My foot touches something and I look up to see the vest near the bottom corner of the bed. My hands are wet.
“I like it here,” I said the first time I was approached about my politics at school.
“You must have seen what those dogs do to us,” the recruiter said as we sat in the cafeteria. I see images of Aslan jumping over the fire during our last spring celebration at home. Then I see the charred body the soldiers dumped a few months later at the gate of his parents’ yard. His resistance and jumping skills didn’t save him.
“Your sister lost her friend,” the recruiter said as if reading my mind. “And your aunt Zamira made sacrifices too. She had plans for you.”
“How can you ignore what is happening to girls like you,” he said. “Zamira would never do such a thing.”
“She has been rewarded for her efforts in heaven.”
My aunt loved to cook, adopted every stray cat that found its way to her door, and hugged me into her large breasts whenever my mother yelled at me for not doing my homework. When I’m really quiet, I can still hear my aunt’s heart against my ear.
This recruiter didn’t know my aunt, but they find whatever information they need. They put as much zeal into their recruiting efforts as they do into fighting our enemies. Now I’m talking like they talk. I didn’t mean our enemies, I meant their enemies. I haven’t bought into the doctrine but I listen because I loved my aunt and knowing this other side of her—the rebel leader side this recruiter wants me to believe—makes me feel close to her.
“I want to belong here, not to the past,” I said.
His voice softened. “Maali, with a name like yours, a name that means so much you should know that belonging isn’t without hardship.” He touched my hand. All the things I struggle with everyday—fitting in, being teased about my unusual name, hiding where I come from—didn’t matter. I went to a few discussion groups. Being me became a little easier.
I couldn’t see anything the night we left our homeland, except my sister’s heels, the soiled white soles of her new trainers. I trembled through the many layers my mother made me wear that night. My feet were cold and soaked. I kept my head down, didn’t look out at the darkness around me, afraid I might see something I wasn’t supposed to see. The night my aunt and uncle disappeared was the same dark blue, the ground wet mush.
I don’t want to think about those nights anymore. I get up and pick up the sweaters heaped on the floor in front of the bed. I hang up the two blouses I chose not to wear today, stare at a particular old dress at the back of my closet, then call my friend Sara and get her chirpy voicemail. I have to leave soon but sit down on the floor anyway, pick at a carpet thread until it begins to unravel.
My plan had been to stop in at my aunt Zamira’s on my way home from school, see what she wanted to talk to me about and have some of her zigal. I could taste the pumpkin, the buttery pastry melting in my mouth. I skipped down the road avoiding the muddy puddles. Instead I jumped on every fallen leaf I could find, just to hear the crunch. Fall was my favorite time of the year. The last bunch of leaves concealed a small puddle and when I leaped with both feet, drops of mud splattered my socks, calves and dress. I knew my aunt would clean me up before I had to go home so I wasn’t worried.
I came around the back of their house. I could hear my own heart beating in my ears and not much of anything else. My uncle was lying on the ground as if he had simply tired and fallen into a nap. Blood seeped and formed a black halo on the ground around his head. His leg was twisted outward at the knee. I wanted to run to him. I don’t know what made me think to hide but I did. I could see them but they couldn’t see me.
Five uniformed men surrounded my aunt as she lay on the ground. Another soldier was on top of her. She made no noise. There was no sound at all, no birds, no cicadas, not even the beating of my heart. The cool fall breeze had stilled. I heard shouts but they seemed muffled, as though they were coming from a television someone had left on behind me. I tried to turn away, run for my da. My feet sank into the mud and held me in place. I heard a loud bang and thought my head had exploded.
I stared at the back wall of my aunt and uncle’s house and tried to make myself very small. I didn’t want to see anymore. Someone called out a name but I couldn’t make it out.
“I’m here,” I heard someone say as if he were beside me. I looked up to see the soldier. We stared at each other, both of us in tears. He wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve, spewed his snot by pressing his index finger to his nostril. It landed just in front of my right foot. “All clear back here,” he shouted and whispered to me, “today you are blessed.” He stood so close I could smell sweet pumpkin on his breath. He touched my face, then left without another word.
When I heard them drive away, I slipped to the front of the house and stood still for a long time. My own urine stung the inside of my legs but I felt cold, couldn’t stop shivering. I washed the mud out of my dress with my uncle’s hose. My shoes were soaked. I will always hate that squishy noise, the rubbing, the clammy cold.
On the night we left, the sky was brightened by flashlights. Small boats docked, groups of people stood around with similar garbage bags in hand. It struck me then, how it’s possible to shrink everything we once had into a few small bags. I don’t think the people in my new country could reduce their lives so quickly. Necessity has made us good at this basic skill. It has made us fighters, and fuggitivi.
A large bearded man with a small clipboard approached us and took my father aside. I saw my father take off his belt and hand it over. The belt was used to hide money. I’ve known this and have understood it since I was a child. Just like I’ve always been able to identify and understand the kind of greed I saw in the way that man snatched the belt, counted each note and hid it under his jacket.
We were marshaled to a small boat. Cold water splashed at my feet and soaked the bottom of my good dress, the dress my grandmother had made for me, the one I was wearing the night my uncle and aunt disappeared. I keep it in the corner of my closet now even though I outgrew it long ago. I’ve never been able to remove the muddy stains.
The small boat carried us to a larger one. The flashlights reflected off the water and lit our way. We climbed so many rungs my hands ached. Later, crowded in the bottom of the ship, we heard the thumping of engines, each other’s sighs, and parchment wrapping torn from the sandwiches of those fortunate enough to have brought food. A baby began to cry but I was already too old to cry.
After six days of living with and smelling other people’s waste and vomit, I woke and realized the boat had stopped swaying. The knock of the engines was gone. The noise had been such a constant I’d stopped noticing it until it was no longer there.
On solid ground again we were greeted by shouts, line-ups and carabinieri asking us for papers. The police had guns at their sides and skinny, ostrich necks. Their strange official hats cast shadows over their faces and couldn’t cover the sneer on their lips. It was hard to see their eyes then, just as it is difficult to see their eyes now as they patrol the tourist areas around the Piazza di Spagna, the Rotunda and the Colosseo. They don’t stare at me anymore, and yet my feet turn to ice as I walk past them no matter how hot the day might be.
I look at the vest. Why would I want to give up invisibility and the promise of a future to fight an old war? I don’t know that I do. All I know is that I have no answers and I cannot talk to my parents or sister. Even with all that has happened to us, they believe only peaceful protest brings about social change. “At least in this country we are fortunate enough to speak our minds,” I heard my sister say to her friends as they prepared for another rally. “It is a luxury we never knew at home.”
“What difference have your protests made to those we lost,” I said.
“Forgive her,” Zoë said to her friends, “she doesn’t know what she’s saying.”
As I pace, words run through my head now—iza as tsa dina: I didn't do it, and q'in teera waalalaH suuna: I apologize. I’ve become more aware over the past several months of how my old country’s language nokhchiin muott comes into my dreams. Yes, I hear it spoken at home and I respond in my new language. This is my home now. So why do I think about what I can do for my old country with this vest, designed with sleek, even fashionable lines that conceal nails and glass meant to tear and maim.
“Are you ready, Maali?” My mother’s voice comes from the bottom of the stairs.
“Soon,” I whisper and wonder if she’ll come and get me like she used to when I was a child and I didn’t want to go to school.
I stand in front of the mirror. The make-up I put on earlier seems to disappear and my dark features reveal themselves. I turn my head slightly and the shadow is gone, the fresh-faced university girl is back. I change the reflection back and forth with a slight tilt of my head and try to figure out which one is me, the one who provokes fear and second looks, or the one who blends in and doesn’t warrant a passing glance.
“You are blessed. You will enter heaven,” the recruiter told me. I know there will be no celebration.
“Like your aunt and all resisters before you, you must be of a focused mind,” he said. “If we stop this meeting between Exxon and the Russians there will be no agreement. We will succeed in saving our oil reserves.”
To get to the meeting, I must take the bus I take everyday to school. I must not look into the eyes of the old lady who sits across from me or stare at her wrinkled hands as she grips the purse on her lap, her cracked lips open. How can I not look? I must not listen to the little boy’s plea to his mother when he asks, again, why she must go to work and leave him alone in a daycare. How can I not listen? I must not think about how often the driver utters the words good morning as passengers climb aboard and how often I’ve questioned his sincerity. Why would he repeat it day in and day out if he didn’t mean it? I must not think about the boy who sits beside me in class or how his green eyes spark each time he’s asked me out for a coffee or how he’s assured me with his side-way smile that he will keep doing so until I agree to go out with him. He is a different boy than the one who gave me this vest. That boy said, “For us there is no peaceful protest.”
“Why do they expect something from us they will not do themselves?” I asked the recruiter.
“They lead. We do,” he said. “There is no other way for people like you and me.” Is there no other way? Not sure.
I must not think about the girls who sit in the same class and how they allow me to lead them onto the football battlefield each afternoon. Today, no one will question me as they did in my old country, quzaH tsHaa guuranash yui, are there any booby traps near there? Today, I have put on extra woolen socks to keep my feet warm and to stop this cold shiver. Why doesn’t it help?
“To make this journey, think of your reward,” he said. “Zamira knew what she had to do and did it willingly until she was caught.”
I have listened; shown him the face he thinks would carry out such a thing. To everyone else, I will tilt my head just so and show them the freshly painted face of the university student in their midst.