Fiction Fiction Issue

Maia in Yonkers

It was hard to be alone, so far away from her son. Could she bear to deny him this one thing?
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At one in the morning, Maia awakens to a deep winter chill, sits up, and pulls a scratchy wool blanket over her com‑ forter. In another two hours, she knows, she’ll wake up again, this time damp in her flannel gown as the radiator blasts hot air. These abrupt climate changes in her room have made her think of it as the “menopause room.” Whenever she goes back to sleep, she does so with this grim anticipation, aware that her own body, at 37, is nearing its own early climax. Can such rapid aging really happen from living too long by the side of an old woman? From filling her sugar drip, lifting her up and wiping down her flesh, permitting your body to synchronize itself to the meter of her dying?

When she can’t fall back asleep, she thinks about Temuri: his big sloping shoulders, his frank, curious formality. At these moments, she doesn’t feel that her life with him has ended, but that it’s still playing underneath her present life, like a song turned down to a low volume while people talk.

The last time they saw each other, in December of 95, she had begged him to stay in Dusheti a few more days. But he had to return to Astrakhan in time for the New Year’s export rush. He’d gotten his job through a cousin who’d left Georgia after the first civil war, in ’92, to start a business on the Caspian, exporting sturgeon and caviar. Back then she was still working at the poultry plant, showing up every day on rumors of promised pay; if she’d stayed home, she’d have gone crazy. By the time the plant closed down, Temuri was sending back enough money to keep them all fed.

In April came the call from Temuri’s sister, Luisa. He’d been shot, along with two others, after a meeting to renegotiate protection payments. “What was there to negotiate about?” Luisa had cried hysterically. “You don’t outsmart Russians anymore— they outsmart you by putting a bullet in your head! Did he think he would be feeding cognac to some Moscow bureaucrats?” Maia let her go on like that for a few minutes, not asking whats or whys, thinking only that Temuri was gone.

The trouble was getting back his body. Another cycle of fighting had started in Chechnya, and no planes were flying from Astrakhan to Tbilisi. They called everyone they knew in Astrakhan and found two Russian officers willing to stuff the body in an ammunition crate and fly it with a jet load of soldiers to Groz‑ ny on their next mission—for $500. Another $200 for a driver to take the crate across the mountains to South Ossetia, where Luisa’s husband would pick it up and bring it to Dusheti.

After the funeral, Maia had sat with her sister and Gogi on the sofa. Two weeks had passed since Temuri had been killed, and they had no energy left for demonstrations of grief. All through the burial, the kelekhi supper, Gogi had watched her with an adult’s appraising seriousness. Now, on the couch, she sensed in him a new kind of silence—the tormented endurance of a child waiting to speak. When he quit dangling his foot, rubbing it on the carpet, he looked up at her: “Maia,” he said, calling her for the first time by her name. “You’ll have to do something now.”

Gogi’s plane arrives late in the afternoon. At the sliding glass doors, a few chauffeurs hold up their cardboard signs; the others wait with ready faces, the slightly suppressed excitement of people in airports. She doesn’t see him at the gate or the baggage claim. Of the passengers emptying out, she spots the women—middle-aged, a few squat grandmothers— all arriving to scrub toilets and change sheets. Her first afternoon in America, she’d stood outside the terminal for three hours, then four, watching the sky darken as taxis pulled up to take people home. She’d guarded the luggage while Sophiko, the woman she’d flown with, disappeared to the pay phones to dial the Brooklyn agency that had paid for their tickets. In Tbilisi, they’d been told someone would meet them at the airport, but they had not been smart enough to ask for the agency’s New York address. In the weak, graying sky, Maia saw the blinking lights of aircraft in liftoff. In her throat she could feel a spasm of rising tears, but her bathroom trips on the plane had left her too dehydrated to cry.

At 7:30, the woman arrived, the one who was to have picked them up at three. She did not help them carry their luggage to her van, and she said little besides “Sorry, I forgot.” They drove through the low blocks of Queens into Brooklyn. From the back of their jolting van, Maia could see the shapes of smokestacks, the black skeletons of iron girders. She spent her first night with five other women in a tiny apartment whose floor was coated with a waxy film of aging dirt. In the night, she’d crept to the bathroom and squatted carefully over the seat, taking care not to step in the thin brown rivulet spilling out on the tiles.

The agency had taken their passports, which were to be returned when they’d worked off the money for the airfare. In the morning, they crammed into the same van, which this time took them to Rockland County. She and Sophiko stayed together and were dropped off at a split-level residence that appeared to be between owners. They spent the day up on chairs, washing ceilings, until Maia felt a chip of paint drop into her eye with a hot astringent sting. “You put too much bleach in the water!” Sophiko had cried, dragging her to the bathroom and forcing her face under the rushing cold water. The last thing Maia had seen clearly were the three delicate steps rising into a half-sunken jacuzzi. On the dark ride back to Brooklyn they sat in the back, whispering with the tactical calm of hostages. “We have to stop doing this,” Sophiko had said. “We have to stop, or we’ll die.” They left three weeks later, when Sophiko learned of an agency that could arrange for them to look after old people. They got their passports back, but were not paid.

At once she sees him, off from the crowd, rolling his suitcase toward her. He slows down, his eyes tunneling in on her. He is thicker in the chest and taller, but his neck is still a boy’s neck, thin. He’s wearing the items she’s sent him: Hilfiger jeans and lumberjack boots, a gray fleece pullover. She’s forgotten how healthy Gogi has always looked, with his shiny black hair that almost radiates blue, his pale skin, the pink solar flares in his lower cheeks. His brows have turned thick and dark, like Temuri’s, nothing like the feathery watercolor lines she remembers.

“You are here!” she says, stepping forward. She wants to sling her arms around him but isn’t sure which part to hug, the shoulders or the waist. He doesn’t make a move, only stares back with his clumsy half-smile, his lips locked in place, not willing to spread a centimeter farther.

“I was afraid they’d stop you at the last minute.”

“Retardeds,” he says. He tugs the passport out of his pocket. “They’re too busy checking if the photo is glued on straight to see if it’s you.”

It’s a miracle he’s slipped in under so many eyes. And maybe he was able to only because all of it is a game for him. He’s still a big child, with a child’s magical oblivion to danger. This is why children win Olympic medals, she thinks, why audiences go to hear 10-year-old violinists; at their age, the music is still more real than the crowd.

On the train back to Yonkers, Gogi is quiet, watching the river of homebound traffic. He glances around at the commuters, men with briefcases on their laps, leafing through the New York Post. He turns back to the two-toned world outside the window, and his eyes follow the cars on the expressway that narrows with the tracks, then angles away sharply into the engulfing wilderness. He finds little to see out there besides the beige cubes of storage depots, walls defaced with graffiti, a row of retired school buses, bafflingly painted white. These are the backdoors of towns, their ugliest parts, Maia thinks. She is ashamed this is what Gogi must see first.

The elevator greets them with a faint odor of cat piss, a scent she’s breathed in so many times she can smell it now only because Gogi is inhaling it too. The light is on in the living room. Malgorzata sits on the couch with her eyes closed, a magazine wrinkled in her lap. She twitches awake. Maia opens her wallet. “Everything was OK today?” “She wanted to go outside,” Malgorzata says. “So I rolled her to the elevator. She told me, ‘I prefer to take the stairs.’”

“She forgets she’s in the wheelchair sometimes.”

“I said no stairs. She made so much noise, I took her back inside.”

She pays Malgorzata while Gogi walks in ahead, stepping onto the deep carpeting. He touches everything, the brushed-aluminum lamps, the paneled drawers. When Maia closes the door and turns around, he’s staring up at the oil painting, a desert sunset lit like a masterpiece under its own spot-lamp. He looks at her and sniffs the air. It doesn’t reek like the elevator’s, but the apartment smell is stale and medicinal, only weakly masked by the dry cinnamon potpourri. In their phone conversations she left all this out. Here it is, she wants to say. Here is where your mother wakes up in the mornings and goes to bed at night.

“Who’s this?” He picks up a photo of Dawn and Amy.

“Her granddaughters.”

“They’re fat,” he says, and puts it down again.

Maia heats up lamb kharcho for him on the stove. The refrigerator is stuffed with food—chicken in walnut sauce, pie with salted cheese, and red bean soup. He doesn’t want any of it tonight, he says. They were fed on the plane. “Do you sleep in the same room with her?” he asks.

“I have my own room, Gogi.” She is stunned by the question— hasn’t she complained a dozen times about the vengeful radiator in her room? On the phone last week, he reminded her of a pair of headphones she’d promised to send him and forgot. But this fact about her life he can’t remember?

While he goes to wash up, she puts freshly laundered sheets on the couch. A new toothbrush is next to the bathroom sink. When he comes out, he crawls under the blanket and props a pillow behind his shoulders. She sits down on the edge of the couch. “I’m going to read a little,” he says, as if in warning.

“That’s fine. I’ll just sit here.” She smiles. He takes his book off the lamp stand. On its jacket is a picture of deep space with a single levitating planet that looks like Earth except for the unfamiliar pattern of continents.

“I’ll see you in the morning, Maia,” he says impatiently. She stands and kisses the top of his head while he finds his page. In bed, she lies listening to the shallow sounds of Gogi coughing and turning over, until the band of light at last goes out under her door.

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