As she was about to log off, she became aware that the house was unusually quiet. Back in the old days, when the kids were calm without adult supervision for more than a few minutes, it often meant they were up to no good. Once she even caught them making mud pies in the living room with the leftover fudge.
She found the boys in Allen’s bedroom, playing Nintendo. Ana headed next for Michelle’s room. It was empty. She checked the playroom and her studio, down in the basement. Nobody was there either. She proceeded to search in the front and back yards. Still no sign of the girls. “Rob?” she called out. “Where are the girls?”
Her husband was on the phone with a childhood friend. He winced at the interruption. “Don’t worry about it. They’re having fun.”
“But I looked everywhere and couldn’t find them,” his wife insisted.
“They’re probably playing outside.”
“At 10:30 p.m.? In the dark? By themselves?”
Ana’s anxious tone set off his trigger. “Listen, I’ll have to call you back. My wife’s freaking out about something,” he informed his friend, then turned to his wife: “Why must you ruin everybody else’s pleasure? Let the kids enjoy their childhood!” he exclaimed. Ever since Michelle and Allen had become old enough to have some independence, Rob resented his wife’s over-protective attitude. She’s just being neurotic, was his default explanation for most of her maternal anxiety.
“I’m just more responsible than you,” Ana rebutted. “I don’t let young girls run around unsupervised at night.”
“If you truly cared, you wouldn’t be answering emails or tinkering with your drawings instead of looking after the kids,” Rob objected.
“Excuse me, but I’m only human. I may need to take a break in the evening just as you do,” Ana replied, surprised by the shrillness of her own voice.
“A break from what?”
She could see disdain flaring in her husband’s eyes. A feeling of resentment welled up in her throat. At that moment, Michelle and her friend Marsha stepped in. Ana’s pent-up anger was instantly released: “Michelle, where have you been?”
“Outside. By the little stream.”
“What were you doing walking around in the dark without adult supervision?” her mother pursued.
“Daddy gave me permission,” Michelle fell back upon her usual defense.
Ana turned to her husband again. “She’s only ten. What if she gets kidnapped? There wouldn’t even be any witnesses around this late at night.”
“Mama, don’t be such a scardy cat!”
“I’m just trying to protect you from harm,” Ana replied more calmly.
“No, you’re not,” Rob countered. “You’re just being neurotic, worrying about nothing.”
“I may be neurotic, but at least I’m not irresponsible.”
At this point, Michelle intervened. She was growing weary of witnessing conflagrations between her parents. “Stop it. Both of you. Can’t you see? You’re both right,” she attempted to mediate. She first turned to her father. “Daddy, you’re right to let me do more things. I’m getting older, so I should have more freedom.” Then she addressed her mother. “And Mom, you’re also right to tell me that I shouldn’t go wondering around the neighborhood at night.”
Ana’s anger evaporated. She felt sorry for the girl, obliged by the mounting tension between her parents to mature beyond her years. She recalled several heated discussions with Rob that had been stopped by Michelle’s tearful pleas, “Don’t fight, because if you do, you’ll end up like Natalie’s parents. And I’ll kill myself if you get a divorce!” their daughter had threatened. Those words, and especially the desperation and intensity with which her daughter clung to an image of loving, unified parents, daunted her mother. For years, Ana believed that such an image was only a mirage, if it had ever existed at all. Yet she was afraid to shatter her daughter’s dreams of a happy family. “You’re right, Michelle. You may be only nine, but you’re wiser than both of us put together,” Ana remarked, looking straight into her husband’s eyes. Rob couldn’t understand the dangers out there, she told herself. The unforgiving harshness of the world. But she did. Because, unlike him, she had experienced real trauma rather than watching it on television as a form of entertainment.
When she went to bed that night, Ana could tell that she’d be overtaken by the spell again. The nausea rose from the pit of her stomach all the way up to her throat. She heard herself break into tears, in spite of herself, outside the realm of conscious control. Sanglots de desespoir, a French poet might have written with his elegant Monblanc fountain pen. Neuralgic hysteria, an old-fashioned psychiatrist might have diagnosed, prescribing some barbiturates to calm her down. As for Ana, she just called it unhappiness. A deep, visceral sadness periodically filled her with a negative energy without any identifiable source or solace. To help soothe her nerves, she went into the bathroom and removed the package of sleeping pills from the right-hand drawer. She gathered four little elongated white capsules into the cup of her hand, popped them into her mouth and washed them down with a glass of water. She then went to bed and slipped under the covers.
Her eyes wide open and her mind wondering far away, Ana had a flashback to a day in the park that, in retrospect, she viewed as the last day of her childhood. Ana recalled a Sunday afternoon when she was allowed to wear white again, since nearly a year had passed since her parents’ death in the Timisoara massacre. She was eleven going on twelve. The anti-communist revolution was already behind them and life began to change beyond recognition in Romania. Within the space of one year, the country suddenly transformed. It became filled with shops, markets, bars, strip clubs and a growing black market, as people, especially the seedier elements, thrived by consuming the corpse of the decaying communist society.
On that warm June afternoon, however, Ana was focusing on life’s simpler pleasures. She was licking a chocolate ice cream cone, glad that food was finally readily available. Feeling sympathy for the eleven year old girl who had lost her parents, Grandma Anca spent her precious savings on taking her granddaughter to an amusement park so that Ana could feel like a child again.
As the girl was enjoying her ice cream cone standing next to the carousel, Nicu, the neighbor’s eighteen year old son, who already drank too much and was what Grandma Anca referred to as a “derbedeu,” yelled out loud, among his group of friends, “Nice pink panties, Ana! Can we take them off?”
Perhaps that was only a harmless joke. But Ana blushed, not even daring to look down to check if her panties could be seen through her white summer dress.
“Don’t pay any attention to that hooligan,” her grandmother whisked the girl away from the group of rowdy young men.
But Ana couldn’t conquer her embarrassment. “I should have worn the white ones instead,” she mumbled.
“It doesn’t matter,” Grandma Anca said. “What matters is that you know how to respect yourself,” she peered meaningfully at her granddaughter through her large, pink-rimmed glasses.
“Okay.” Ana replied, eager to forget about the whole unpleasant episode.
But Grandma Anca squeezed her hand emphatically: “If you don’t treat yourself with respect, no man ever will,” she repeated. “They’ll only spit on you their dirty seed.”
“That sounds pretty gross,” the girl decided, throwing away the remains of the soggy ice cream cone.
As far as she could recall, that was the only birds and bees conversation Ana ever had with her grandmother. Yet she relived that moment in her dreams disturbingly often, down to the dusty, heavy feel of the hot air on that June afternoon; the derisory sexual comment whose sharp jab she had never felt before; the sense of shame towards her budding sexuality and her grandmother’s resolve to inculcate in her a sense of dignity that, the elderly lady sensed, would be her strength against the onslaught of predatory young men in a nascent capitalist society filled with a disconcerting mixture of opportunity and corruption.
Then, in another flashback, Ana saw Nicu again. He was bent over her, with his tender brown eyes, aquiline nose and an abandoned smile upon his lips. One moment he was gazing sweetly into her eyes, the next she felt the heat of his breath flowing in a string of incoherent words. She sensed him delving into her body, despite her repeated cries for him to stop. As so often before when she recalled her first so-called lover, Ana felt her skin become saturated with cold beads of perspiration. At first he had been sugary sweet, that Nicu. He reminded her of the honey drop candies her grandmother used to buy for her as a special treat, with their hard shell exterior and soft, nectar-like interior, which, once she bit into them with a crunch, spilled a gooey liquid into the cavern of her mouth, inundating her with an overpowering sweetness that bordered on nausea.
After that incident, Ana thought, her grandmother’s words of advice about preserving her feminine virtue became more or less meaningless, the way injunctions about propriety and honesty are rendered derisory by the reality of murder, famine and war. Live through what I’ve lived through at the hands of your fellow human beings, of your own friend and neighbor no less, she addressed her husband in her own mind, and only then you’ll have the right to lecture me about spoiling the children’s fun! He’ll never understand me, Ana concluded, feeling misunderstood and alone in her new country, in her own house. But I am not alone, she reminded herself. I have Allen and Michelle. Dear God, please let him not turn my own children against me, was Ana’s last coherent thought before finally drifting off to sleep.
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