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?

In New York City, nothing impresses him. He drags his feet when they run to catch buses. “Why do they have their flag hanging everywhere?” he asks every five blocks. “Is it a holiday again?” For two days this goes on.

On the third morning, after standing in line at the Empire State Building, Gogi seemed to expect the elevator to ride them all the way up the building’s hypodermic spire. When it let them out at the observation deck, on the 86th floor, he turned disappointed and moody, and wandered away from her. She’d stood there, facing the Whitestone Bridge and covering her ears against the stinging wind. She had given him her hat because he’d left his own at the apartment.

Afterward, crossing the runways of Park Avenue as the lights were changing, she’d grabbed his hand and hurried to beat the oncoming traffic. But, in the middle of the lane, he’d let his palm go limp in hers. From the safety of the sidewalk she’d turned to see Gogi idling behind, indifferent to the cars screeching to brake around him. And now, returning on the ferry from Liberty Island, he doesn’t even look at the skyline, only at the water monotonously lapping the side of the boat.

They’ve filed in behind a crowd of 14-year-olds, a class trip. The boys busy themselves spitting over the side of the boat. Some of the girls compare souvenirs. They wear no hats, only bright fuzzy hoods around their shoulders.

“One picture?” Maia asks, lifting her camera.

“No!” Gogi snaps, glancing sideways at the teenagers.

“Please, Gogi, before the view disappears.” All day he’s refused to be photographed. She has four empty rolls of film in her bag. “You’re embarrassed in front of them? You’ll never see them again.”

“Why do you push, Maia?”

One of the girls, pointing her camera into the foggy distance, says, “She’s got a small head.”

“Fool, how many pictures you need?” says her friend. “It’s a statue. You act like she’s got a hundred of them expressions.”

“Don’t stare, Gogi.”

“Why do they talk like that?” he asks.

“Like what?”

“Like they don’t know English. They live in this country, don’t they?”

She’s speechless. Who taught him this? Where does this antipathy come from? “They understand each other,” she says. “What’s wrong with you today?”

Gogi cranes his neck and gives her an impassive look. The rest of him stays slouched over the metal deckside. What is so grotesque about her kindness that he needs to punish her for it? To Mrs. Trapolli, he’s courteous and sweet. In the mornings he asks the old woman if she slept well, if she wants anything special to eat. Last night he carried her warm cereal to her, and she told him she was proud of him, as if to account for the possibility that they might be related.

“Don’t you like this trip?” Maia asks.

Gogi shrugs. “I can see it on a postcard.” He turns back to face the water.

“Look at me!”

What?” he asks too loudly. The girls glance over.

“You don’t want to do anything. What do you want to do? Go back and smoke your insect poison with your friends—go!”

Gogi narrows his eyes and takes a step back, as if she’s a crazy person on the street. “Then don’t show it to me!” he shouts suddenly. “Why are you showing me all of this? I can’t stay here anyway!”

More people on the ferry turn to look, but only for a second. This is New York, after all, where the only faux pas is to express surprise.

“Gogi,” she says quietly. “What do you want to see?”

He opens his mouth, starts to say something, but stops himself.

“Anything you want,” Maia says. “We’ll do it.”

Beauty and the Beast.”

“The musical, for children? You want to see that?”

“Yes! What’s wrong with it?”

She recalls the signs up in Times Square, the advertisements on buses all over town. Of all the things they’ve seen, this is the one that got stuck like a bramble in Gogi’s imagination.

“OK, we’ll go,” she says. Such a sentimental thing, really, for a boy his age to want. But maybe not. Maybe, away from his friends, such a desire isn’t so strange at all.

At the two o’clock matinee, she’s amazed to see not just families inside but also adults, elderly women paired off or sitting by themselves. The auditorium is domed and ornate, sealing off the noises of the street.

“Do you want a drink from the lobby?” Gogi asks, leaning over.

“A drink?” She opens her bag and passes him the small juice box she packed before they left the apartment this morning. Gogi examines it like a curiosity, then hands it back to her.

“Maia, I didn’t say I wanted a drink,” he whispers. “Do you?”

She can’t help herself. All her tedious selflessness—no wonder he finds her tiresome. She can smell her shampoo in his hair, bends forward and kisses his head as the lights start to dim. He doesn’t jerk away this time. He doesn’t smile either, but for a second something like a shadow of pleasure seems to pass over his face.

Fairy tales, even here, Maia thinks, when the play begins. A few weeks ago, Sophiko told her about an Armenian woman who worked on Central Park West, looking after a lady whose son was a Wall Street tycoon. Every Saturday, she chaperoned the old woman to her brunch in East Hampton, the same restaurant for three years. Now, everyone learns, she’s become engaged to the chef. Meanwhile, the tycoon, who’s on the board of trustees at a college upstate, arranges for the Armenian woman’s 17-year-old son to come study on scholarship. True story, says Sophiko.

Maia has met her for lunch in Manhattan while Mrs. Trapolli is at one of her full-service checkups. “Is she beautiful?” Maia asks. Sophiko shrugs, as if to say, Who knows what their type is here? Sophiko works as a nanny now, looking after children with long names like Jeremiah and Adelaide.

“I’ll tell you what the problem is with these Americans,” Sophiko loves saying. “Their mothers telling them all the time they are so special. Then they grow up, and nobody is good enough for anybody else.”

Back in the day-lit lobby, Gogi’s skin glows with rest.

“Should we take the subway back to the train station?” she asks.

“No. Let’s walk,” he says. “I want to walk.” The lamps are on up and down the street. In the last hour before twilight, the light seems to be taking a rest and settling evenly over everything.

She can still return to Dusheti, she thinks—not be alone anymore. But who would pay for it all? Or she can commit to staying here—hire someone to marry her, pay rent on an empty apartment so she can show a joint lease to the immigration authorities, get her green card. All of this takes money, and coordination, of which she has little at the moment. Gogi is leaving the day after tomorrow. This is all she can think about right now.

“Tell me,” she says. “You and Dato smoking that junk, it was only one time?”

He keeps walking, looking at the window displays, the hood ornaments on the parked cars.

“Dato smoked too much,” he says. “He’s one of those people who gets stupid two hours a day.”

“Who gave you that stuff?”

Gogi shrugs.

“Listen to me. Those people don’t care what happens to you—they only want your money.”

“He didn’t ask for money.”

“Then they’ll ask for something else. You don’t want friends like that.”

“It can have some advantages.” His grin makes him look stupid, she thinks, like one of the hoodlums idling on Rustaveli Avenue, leaning up against the buildings all day as if their backs were holding up the walls.

“Remember when Lela got robbed?” he asks. “If you know one of them, you can pay a commission, and they return everything. But if you’re their friend …” He smiles, “If you’re their friend, you don’t get robbed in the first place.”

“If you were friends with them, Gogi, they’d make you do the robbing for them. You understand?”

“God, Maia,” he says, rolling his eyes. “Why do you talk to me as if I’m a half-wit? I’m not saying I like them.”

“Good. They have nothing to like.”

He turns back to the window displays. For almost a whole block, they’ve been walking past a sporting-goods store. Gogi’s eyes move from snowboards to a red canoe dangling by chains from the ceiling.

“Do you want to go inside?” Maia asks, leaning on the glass door and pushing it open. She wants him to see all this, to imagine some world other than the one he knows—a world where people live more vital, graceful lives, where they go sledding and skiing and paddling boats.

“Maia, look!” he says, walking past the snowshoes to a revolving rack of puffy jackets. They hang in every color, but he pulls a black one off the rack and holds it close to his chest. “It’s getting cold at home. This won’t take up any space in my suitcase. I can wear it on the plane.” She can see him getting fixated, getting ready to act wounded if she says no. He slides his arms into the sleeves. “What do you think?”

She finds the tag on the zipper and pulls it closer: $300. “You don’t need it,” she says. “You have the one I sent you.”

“This?” he pinches the fleece underneath. “Maia, I need something serious.”

“Then buy one in Tbilisi. It’ll be cheaper.”

“It’s all Turkish-import crap. They don’t even have the logo.” He runs his hands along the shiny black quilting and turns to examine himself in the mirror. “You had money to send Lela a leather coat.”

“Don’t act deprived, Gogi. I sent Lela a coat because her coat was stolen when she was robbed.”

“And what if my coat is stolen? Then you’ll send me this? That makes no sense, Maia. We’re already here.”

“You plan on getting your coat stolen?”

“No, that isn’t what I’m saying! You’re here. I’m here. What’s the point of my even coming? Sitting on a plane for 12 hours just to—” he stops, aware of his misstep.

“What’s the point of your coming?”

He looks down and inhales sharply through his nose.

“Take it off right now,” she says. She should slap him. She should leave her handprint on his spoiled face. A handprint, he might understand. “Now!”

They don’t speak on the train, or in the elevator. In the apartment, a draft from Mrs. Trapolli’s room carries in the familiar smells. Once Malgorzata is gone, Maia turns to Gogi and points to the couch. “Make your own bed tonight.”

He unhooks his backpack and slams it onto the couch. “Did I ask you to make my bed?”

“No. You don’t ask for ordinary things.”

“I don’t need your rags, Maia! You’re here. You can keep your crap here.”

“You know why I’m here!”

“I don’t know anymore. Every year, you say ‘It’s one more year, one more year’!”

She opens her mouth to speak, but can’t. His words are like knocking blows to her heart.

“Maia!” Mrs. Trapolli yells from the bedroom.

Mrs. Trapolli is deep in her chair when Maia runs in, a cross-hatching of tiny veins reddening her cheeks. “There’s someone in the house,” she whispers hoarsely.

“No, Mrs. Trapolli, it was only me and Gogi.”

“Somebody was shouting.”

“I’m sorry we scared you, Mrs. Trapolli.”

“Where is Gogi?” Mrs. Trapolli says.

“Gogi!” Maia shouts into the hall. “Come say good night.”

He drags himself in and stands in the doorway. “Good night,” he says, and circles around to leave.

“You’re being rude, Gogi.”

“What’s wrong?” Mrs. Trapolli raises her face to Maia. “Is he angry at me?”

“No, at me. I didn’t buy him a jacket.”

His eyes narrow with anger. “Why are you telling her?”

“This is true, Gogi? You want a jacket?”

“No!” He looks at Maia. “I don’t want it. And it’s too much money.”

“It’s not about money, Gogi!”

But Mrs. Trapolli is no longer listening to them. She’s leaning over her armrest and taking her pocketbook out of her dresser.

“No, Mrs. Trapolli,” Maia starts, as Mrs. Trapolli reaches in with a shaky hand and plucks out a tight roll of cash.

“Come,” she says, nodding at Gogi and holding up the pile with a trembling wrist.

“We can’t take it, Mrs. Trapolli,” Maia begins.

“You’re talking nonsense!” she snaps. “It’s my gift—my gift!” Her eyes glow like a fanatic’s. This isn’t about politeness; it’s a point of honor for her.

“Come over here,” Mrs. Trapolli commands.

“Go,” Maia says softly. “Take it.”

She can put the money back in Mrs. Trapolli’s purse tomorrow. But what about Gogi, making him take it, then taking it away again—how long can she keep doing this to him?

Mrs. Trapolli grabs his hand, stuffs the cash in his palm, and closes his fingers over it. “I want to see the jacket tomorrow.”

They stand, saying nothing, until the radiator stops hissing, and the room becomes quieter than even their silence.

At the airport terminal, she thinks: Always, fewer going than coming. Some of the passengers for Gogi’s flight are col‑ lege students. Also a few pudgy businessmen clutching laptop cases while they check in their bags. Gogi’s suitcase is bulging, bloated like a bug with all the things he’s bringing back, gifts for Lela and the family, indulgences.

“Let me take a picture of you,” she says, when he gets his tags. He poses against the terminal’s glass doors, tucking his thumbs into the pockets of his new jacket. It does something for him, she has to admit. They had taken the bus to the mall in the morning and found the one he wanted. What can you really teach your child, she thinks, by denying him? At home, they paraded it in front of Mrs. Trapolli, who clapped her hands while Gogi took it off and put it on again.

“You look expensive in it,” Maia says. He tries to resist smiling, but the smothered smile is even more pleased-looking than an ordinary one. In front of the security check, she snaps another photo. “One more,” she says, shyly.

“Promise you won’t work so hard, deda,” he says when he hugs her good-bye.

He takes out his ticket to show the airport attendants. And here she is, going through it again—the separation she never thought she could bring herself to make even once. From behind the security check, he waves to her one last time, then rolls his bag down the corridor. He’s flying east, with a stopover in Frankfurt. Tomorrow he’ll be back in Tbilisi, walking up Sololaki’s cobbled streets, past balconies throwing their diagonal shadows over the lime-washed walls of the lower stories. The whole view will be steeped in a dying yellow sun. His pillows and sheets will be in the living room where he left them. Maia won’t take them off or fold up the sofa for a few more days. She’ll sleep there at night, while the radiators spit and hiss down the hall.

Sana Krasikov was a 2007 Fulbright fellow in Moscow. Her first collection of short stories will be published in the summer of 2008.
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