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.”
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.
“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.
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 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?”
“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.
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