It is almost 7 a.m., four in the afternoon in Tbilisi. Maia has been up most of the night, dialing her sister, waiting for Lela to pick up the phone. Lela should have called her, hours ago. She can think of only one reason why she hasn’t: Gogi didn’t pass his interview at the embassy.
At her own interview, Maia had tried to stay calm when the consulate officer asked her about her salary. She’d told him she was an accountant at the poultry plant in Dusheti, but didn’t mention that the plant had closed down and that she’d been sitting without work for three years. Asked about her family, she started almost breathlessly to spread out the photos she’d brought along: of Gogi, then 9, and of her husband, Temuri. The idea was to convince the man that you had something to return to. And so, with all the other facts she’d omitted, it didn’t panic her to leave out that Temuri had been dead for five months. This was September 1996.
Through Mrs. Trapolli’s kitchen window, Maia can see daylight draining into the sky, bleaching it in bleary transparent streaks. Gogi’s visit has been a fragile thing to arrange. He bears only a minor resemblance to the photo in his passport. The passport belongs to a boy at his new school. For $2,000, the boy’s parents had agreed to let Gogi borrow it, and arranged for an uncle in Mamaroneck to send a formal invitation.
She can hear Mrs. Trapolli groaning in her bedroom, waking up. The old woman has not been sleeping well since her four-poster was replaced with an adjustable steel-frame bed. Maia microwaves the milk for Mrs. Trapolli’s breakfast while the call goes through.
“Lela, it’s me!”
“I was going to call you,” her sister says coolly.
“He passed the interview?”
“Can I speak to him?”
“Just don’t panic. He’s at the hospital.”
“Hospital?” The air goes out of her lungs.
“I didn’t want to scare you,” Lela says. “He smoked something. He was so happy after he passed the interview, I let him go to Dato’s house. Maia, I couldn’t tell him no. Another guy was there, painting the place. He gave them some garbage.”
“I don’t know. Fertilizer. Developing fluid. Something they mix themselves.” Suddenly she’s screaming: “I can’t control him! What do you want me to do, lock him up?”
“Did I say anything? Am I blaming you?”
Dato, the other boy, Lela tells her, passed out. That was when Gogi dashed into the alley to flag a cab to take them to the hospital. But when he came back to the house, he saw the painter forcing brandy down Dato’s throat.
“To make him vomit?”
“Making him drink it, Maia! So the police will think he got drunk. You know they don’t dig deep here.”
She’s surprised at how speedily Lela arrives at these explanations. Or maybe it is only that she, Maia, has been gone from Georgia too long.
“Gogi threw up in the cab. The doctors made him stay in the hospital so they could observe him. But he’s all right.”
For a sickening instant she imagines Gogi, not the other boy, passed out, a stranger shoving a bottle down his throat, dousing her son’s insides with alcohol. Dato—why doesn’t she recognize the name? Who are her son’s friends?
“He doesn’t tell me anything anymore,” Lela begins crying. “He’s always in some mood!”
Taking care of Gogi was not in her sister’s plans. Three years ago Lela was still working for the Finance Ministry. Now she relies on Maia to send the monthly cash: $700, more than enough to keep Gogi enrolled in private school, pay for his English classes and swimming lessons, and cover Lela’s expenses. Last year he also asked for a Sony PlayStation. The year before, for a Game Boy. Sometimes she sends him things he doesn’t ask for but only talks about: a portable disc player, baseball caps—anything somebody else might not have.
“I have to go,” Lela says. “I have to stay overnight with Gogi and sleep on the floor.”
“Thank you,” Maia says, as Lela hangs up, even though staying overnight is what any woman in Tbilisi would do for a child, nothing so special it needs to be mentioned. Must every simple decency now be counted?
"We brought you a present, Nana!” Amy announces, as she and Dawn dash into their grandmother’s room. They’re here with their mother for their twice-monthly visit. Mrs. Trapolli is in her wheelchair, tugging apart the wood jigsaw duck Maia gives her to keep her busy while she measures out her meds. Amy takes it away and hands the old woman a gift bag.
The girls aren’t fat, Maia thinks, just large in that full-scale American way, filling out the last corner of their natural dimensions. At 13, they’re already taller than their mother, Gloria, who is herself only a darker, more annoyed version of the Mrs. Trapolli in the old photographs, from when her frame was packed with many happy pounds of flesh.
“It’s foot lotion,” Dawn says, shaking the contents into Mrs. Trapolli’s lap. “We brought nail polish, too. Maia can give you a manicure!”
“Thank you, dear,” Mrs. Trapolli warbles affectionately. “And which are you?”
“I’m Dawn, Grandma,” Dawn says.
“And what about you?” she asks, turning to Amy. “What’s your number, dear?”
“You mean my name, Grandma?”
“Yes … what can I call you?”
“Amy,” Amy says, glancing at her sister.
Mrs. Trapolli smiles and shakes her head. “They’re forgetting things again.”
“Who is?” Amy asks.
“She means herself,” Dawn says.
“I thought it was right here,” Mrs. Trapolli says, searching for something on either side of her wheelchair. “They must have taken it back.” She sighs, then shakes her head in mock embarrassment, as if catching herself being crazy. Maia has started to notice this habit more, how the same person who forgets still realizes that she forgets. The sudden bewilderment or inexplicable bursts of anger are painful to watch, but not as painful as the quiet, confused regret that follows.
“Do you like your present?” Amy asks.
“It’s wonderful!” Mrs. Trapolli’s eyes are alert and intelligent again. “You are my best girls.”
When she finishes giving Mrs. Trapolli her pills and apple juice, Maia realigns the bottles on the dresser. She likes to keep them in the same order: Lactulose syrup, famotidine, sotalol, Seroquel, Coumadin, and now Lexapro for Mrs. Trapolli’s moods. For two weeks, just out of curiosity, Maia took a half pill of Lexapro every day, but the drug left her queasy, doing absolutely nothing to lift her hopelessness. It made her feel only more sad, indifferent, and somehow overweight.
“Maia,” Gloria calls from the kitchen. “Come take a look at this …” Gloria doesn’t lift her head when Maia walks in and takes a seat. Bills lie strewn on the mustard oilcloth, including letters from Empirical Medical Services and receipts from Grassy Sprain Pharmacy. Twice a month, Gloria looks at them all.
“What is this?” she says, flashing a blue bank statement in Maia’s face. “She’s overdrawn her emergency balance again?”
“We bought her new glasses,” Maia says. This is true, but the meekness of her voice makes the statement sound like a lie.
“That’s what I gave you cash for.” Gloria’s physical scale, along with her constant disaffection with everything, makes Maia feel diminished around her. Maia used to think Gloria was this way because she was a courtroom stenographer, robotically typing out the lies of criminals. But she has seen other women of similar character, at store counters and behind reception desks in medical offices, women whose patience and curiosity have been so blunted they have become the worst sort of snob, worse even than those who choke on ambition.
“Look,” Gloria says, “I put $200 in her wallet last week.”
“We went to the Taj,” Maia says.
Gloria lifts her face ceilingward, as if asking God to witness the madness. But even Gloria knows that her mother loves restaurants, and she’d rather give Mrs. Trapolli what she wants than struggle. Otherwise, the old woman might refuse to be washed or, worse, to eat. Gloria adjusts her shawl, an extravagant, embroidered piece of translucent wool. In the past few months Maia has observed Gloria dressing better, rarely without a manicure, now that she has power of attorney over her mother’s accounts.
“OK, the Taj. Anywhere else?”
Maia pretends to think, then shakes her head.
“Did you see how much my mother left for the tip?”
“Three—no, four dollars?”
“Come on, Maia, I’ve asked you to write this stuff down.”
The last time Gloria and the girls visited, they all went to the Taj together. Following Gloria back inside to retrieve a scarf she’d left on her chair, Maia had spotted the Indian waiter lifting a pile of cash from under Mrs. Trapolli’s empty plate.
“It’s none of your business,” the waiter told Gloria when she’d demanded the money back. “It’s how much she always tips.”
“Shame!” Gloria had shouted, moving her eyes rapidly from table to table to rally some voiceless consensus. But the other guests had only looked down into their plates. “Shame on you!” she’d hissed, until the waiter had slapped the money back on the table to quiet her down. Maia had been startled, but also impressed, by Gloria’s proficiency at bringing disgrace to another person. She’d never had a gift for such righteousness.
After Gloria and the girls had left that day, Maia scolded Mrs. Trapolli. “You should not give away so much. You will run out of money!” But the woman had only looked at her with a sclerotic glint in her eyes and said, “I’ve got enough. I want to use it before she does.”
“So you paid for the glasses with my card?” Gloria asks, looking at Maia for confirmation.
“I did.” She doesn’t need to tell Gloria that when the cabbie delivered them to the optometrist’s, the old woman had told Maia she’d left her wallet at home. She’d feigned an ache and stayed in the cab while Maia picked up the glasses. Later, Maia had asked the cabbie to wait at the curb while she ran upstairs for his fare. But he had only waved her off, speeding away as soon as she’d eased Mrs. Trapolli out of the backseat.
That day, she searched the whole apartment for the wallet. At last, as the sun was setting, she had collapsed in tears on the sofa. “But it’s right here in my purse,” Mrs. Trapolli said, innocently. Only then did Maia recall the cab driver’s uneasy hurry. “Did you pay him while I was in the store?” But Mrs. Trapolli had turned silent again, like a scolded child. The wallet, of course, was empty; $86 for a $16 cab ride!
Even when Maia had first moved in, Mrs. Trapolli was a generous woman, offering to buy her chocolates, glass figurines in shop displays. But now all the restraints on that part of her personality seem to have been lifted. Maybe she has always wanted to live like a rich person, shower others with rewards for merely being in her presence. And how can anyone punish her for this? When the past is disappearing so quickly, what’s left of a person but momentary pleasures?
At last, Gloria gathers the papers into a pile and starts to button her coat. To the girls, she yells, “Are we going to Woodbury Commons today or not?” In the hall, Dawn laces up her boots, and Amy snaps the metal buttons on her jacket. “I wanted to do all my Christmas shopping online this year,” Gloria begins to say, absently. “But the sizes are impossible. You’re a 12 in one store and a 14 in another. I don’t know why they can’t make all the sizes the same, like food labels. Doesn’t that make sense?”
“It makes very much sense.” The easiest part of her job is to agree with Gloria when she makes such pronouncements.
“OK, girls, we’re out.”
“One more thing.” Maia stops her at the elevator. “My son … he is coming next week. I’ll call Malgorzata.”
“The girl from my agency, to look after Mrs. Trapolli when Gogi and I go to New York. I told you a week ago.”
“Fine,” Gloria says, as the chrome doors slide open. “But I don’t remember this. You’re hard to understand sometimes, Maia.”