Authors: Andrea Thalasinos
Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Family Life
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For Marge Gibson, director of Raptor Education Group, Inc., and to wildlife rehabilitators everywhere, who tirelessly and with untold devotion strive to make this world a softer, better place
IN THE BEGINNING
You can never step in the same river twice.
, 535–475 BC
As a baby Paula Makaikis had trouble digesting milk products. She’d scream and double up with stomach cramps, kicking and drawing up her little fat-ringed legs in agony.
“Nothing stayed in this one for long.” Eleni pointed her chin toward her daughter, launching into the story for the millionth time—usually on someone or another’s Name Day. Paula and her two younger balding cousins (more hair on their chests than heads, clashing colognes) were trapped behind the dinner table against the wall. One cousin walked with a slight limp after having had his legs broken years ago by the mob; the other had served time as a juvenile for holding up a liquor store at gunpoint. A photograph of their three dead fathers hung overhead.
The two baldies traded insults, showing off to the blond
or outsider, girlfriends, who sat on either side of Eleni across the table. Each cousin was the spitting image of his father and seemingly oblivious that only a few years separated him from the age of their passings, thirty-five years ago, when a New York City clerk typed the names of Alex and Demos on the Certificates of Death.
Eleni paused and her two nephews nodded attentively. A cue they were with her. Both were too afraid of the older woman not to pretend they weren’t hearing the story for the first time.
“Uchooooo.” Eleni turned to Paula before she proceeded. “Too bad your husband’s not here to listen.” She then explained to the cousins, “Roger’s a scientist; always busy doing experiments,” her eyebrows closed in on her hairline as she nodded her head slowly before continuing on with her story.
“All the way from the subway steps on Union Turnpike,” Eleni continued, “
could hear that girl crying.” Eleni always spoke of Paula’s father that way, as if no one remembered him or she was especially proud of having been someone’s wife.
She clicked her tongue and shook her head, fanning her décolleté with a white paper napkin blotched with lamb juice, folded accordion-style into a fan. The memory is too much. Her dyed red hair, though at one time chic, makes her skin seem sallow; nappy and thin, it smells of cheap hair spray and old-lady sweat. Though to her credit, at eighty, Eleni’s cleavage—though crepey from sun damage—is still ample enough to cloister a thick gold chain jangling with Vassili’s wedding ring, a tiny blue evil eye, an Eastern Cross, and a round gold image of the Parthenon.
”—she paused to look up at the family portrait like it’s an icon of Jesus—“complains, when he leaves, Paula’s crying, he comes home that girl’s
crying.” Eleni mimics his facial expressions.
So different were those three brothers. In the old photograph, Vassili’s expression was defiant and cocky as ever. Demos looked frightened, as if a ghost was standing behind the camera. Alexandros the youngest brother’s face was blank. Perhaps his hope had the good sense to evaporate the day he stepped off their ancestral island in the eastern Aegean and headed toward the New World.
Po, po, po, po, po—
that’s it!’ he’d holler,” the elderly woman went on. “‘I’m going back to work another shift with Demos.’ Then
would turn around to walk back to the subway.”
Eleni’s bird eyes pecked at Paula, who listened, fingering the fold-over clasp on her antique Victorian bracelet with the pink topaz stones. There was always something hanging around her wrist to monkey with. Her mother recognizes it as a ploy to avoid eye contact, though Eleni never lets on that she knows.
And after hearing the same story for fifty years, Paula’s learned. Patience borne from the understanding that her mother needs to tell it more than anyone wants to hear it. With each successive telling new wrinkles and sags devolve Paula’s mother’s face, though Eleni’s still a handsome woman. Vassili’s bride—now a widow for more than forty years, who never gives the slightest inkling of being sad.
“No amount of singing or rocking soothed that girl.” Eleni dipped her chin, her eyes looking across the table at her daughter. “Only loading her up on the front seat of the 1962 red and white Oldsmobile we co-owned with both your fathers, remember that car?”
Eleni waits. They all nod.
Vassili and Demos had been waiters; Alexandros was a janitor. Sixty years later Eleni still works for the same furrier, hand-sewing raw fur pelts together into coats and jackets. A slight hump has formed between her shoulders after decades of stooping over a wooden worktable nine hours a day creating garments she neither wants nor can afford.
For Vassili and Demos, twenty years of running up and down cement steps shouldering heavy trays of food from a basement kitchen blew out their knees. Their hearts quit by forty-two. Alexandros, after decades of sweeping and tending to a taciturn boiler in a large office building, made it to forty-six. For all of Vassili’s swaggering, his
too big for underwear Eleni would allege after a few glass of Metaxa, often replete with a demonstration, “youda thought a man like that would live forever.”
“You know what calmed that girl down?” Paula’s mother asked.
Their eyes widen.
“Driving up and down Union Turnpike.” She looked at them, excited as if seeing the whole scene unfolding once again.
” Eleni clapped her hands, startling the
who hadn’t seen it coming. “That girl was out like a light.” As her eyes rested on Paula, Eleni leaned back, causing the rickety wooden chair to squeak. “And then that girl’s face was the most peaceful little thing in the world.” The old woman’s black eyes gleamed.
Paula looked up at her mother.
* * *
And so it was when Paula’s ten-year marriage dissolved, boom. Ten years. The last bloom of her youth spent sleeping on the downstairs couch. Clutching the cool flesh of her arms, confused and ashamed that Roger, her husband, didn’t long for her in the way she did for him. Too embarrassed to let anyone know that he slept upstairs alone—ears plugged, door dead-bolted, the bedroom filled from floor to ceiling with boxes. Piles covered the side of a bed that by marital right should have been hers. But no marriage was perfect, she’d reasoned.
Excuses had peppered their life together until one quiet morning a phone call from Celeste, Paula’s best friend, changed things forever.
—just like Eleni crashing her hands together. Paula woke up.
She would awaken from a decade-long slumber along the banks of the river Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, one of five rivers of the underworld in Greek mythology. Whoever drank of the river’s irresistibly pure, blue crystal waters would grow drowsy and forget who they were.
And maybe that’s why, even today, Eleni speculates that perhaps her daughter’s early cocktail for tranquility was what triggered Paula to embark on the longest drive of her life.
It had started out as one of the last quiet days of August. Down on West 4th Street overlooking Washington Square Park, Paula Makaikis worked as director of the Center for Immigrant Studies at NYU. The maples were beginning to singe red and orange; it was the twilight in between seasons right before the start of the new semester, when autumn surprises everyone with the first few mornings of chilly, fresh air.
Paula was struggling to relax by sneaking a cigarette. She stared out the office window, blowing smoke out the sullied bluish-black edge of the window screen.
While relieved the staff was gone for an early birthday lunch, the sting of their backhanded invitation still lingered. They’d gone to the Thai place everyone raved about. Paula likened the food to the detritus one clears from a kitchen sink.
“Paula?” Guillermo, the associate director, had asked. “You will join us, no?” He’d smirked and stepped back, folding his arms and shaking his sandy-colored pin curls. This was the man she’d called in every favor to hire, despite allegations he was a prima donna and intellectual lightweight. They’d believed he was banking on the legacy of his great-granddad who’d been assassinated, a leftist president from some Latin American country. The associate director’s smirk also triggered a dimple that he knew to strategically turn toward the young grad assistants, through whom Paula guessed he was working his way. A shaft of sunlight had broken through autumn’s early rain cloud, backlighting Guillermo’s hair as if he stood center stage in
Jesus Christ Superstar.
“Paula-a-a?” Guillermo drew out her name.
The staff cringed, hoping she’d say no. She felt it. No one thinks the boss has feelings. Her chest ached for a cigarette; and while she hated smoking, the road to destruction was paved with comfort.
“Thanks but…” She’d gestured toward her computer screen. A half-written copy block for the Web page announced the daily schedule for October’s Conference on the Seven Stages of Immigrant Adaptation. “I’m hoping to tie up more loose ends.”
Yeah, right, keep hoping,
Several of her staff harbored resentment over last month’s trip to Greece. This was the first time Paula had accompanied her mother on the annual weeklong trip. At eighty, traveling alone had become too difficult for Eleni; and, at the last minute, Paula agreed to help. Though she’d been back nearly a month, the staff still avoided eye contact—like she’d been hobnobbing on Scorpios with Onassis instead of cooped up in the mothball-smelling apartments of Eleni’s ninety-year-old first cousins. “
Christos kai Panayia,
may that be it,” Eleni had pronounced in the cab on the way back to the Athens airport. “What pushy people, eh?” She’d looked to her daughter for confirmation, but Paula was watching a handsome young man cup his girlfriend’s ass. Paula sighed; were it possible to die of aggravation, she’d have been riding back to JFK in cargo.
The conference schedule should have been finalized in April. Complaints were streaming into the Dean’s office. People carped to Christoff about mismanagement and having to make last-minute hotel and airline reservations. Yet despite the hullabaloo, Paula was preoccupied with the male cardinal that had landed on her window ledge.
Paula sighed, her cigarette a long line of white ash. She was sharp-tongued and sad eyed, with wild dark hair that no amount of expensive hair product would tame. Her eyes were light amber, a color that no one could recall having seen in either side of the family, that clashed with her drab olive complexion.
Three narrow silver Victorian bangles pinged together quietly like little bells as she pressed her stomach with her hand. Her gut churned. Early that morning she’d polished off yesterday’s half-eaten Egg McMuffin she’d tucked behind the computer monitor. Though its crinkly wrapper smelled of her cigarettes, the muffin felt fresh. As for the egg and Canadian bacon, in an office kept so frigid they wore sweaters year-round, she took her chances. The birds had scarfed up the crumbled bits of muffin she’d placed out onto the stone ledge. At one time she’d kept a bag of birdseed tucked beneath her desk, but the janitor left a note about it being a rat magnet.
Every day she set something out. Usually sparrows and chickadees gathered, with an occasional visit from an overly empowered blue jay. Pigeons avoided the ledge for some reason, and she was grateful to be spared the criticism of feeding “flying rats.” Birds would swoon as they’d land and peck at one another before looking questioningly at her through the glass. Their tan and brown feathers wove into perfect herringbone patterns where their wings met. Then they’d burst off in unison, like they’d been summoned.