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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, she thought.
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.
Her window ledge was a regular stop on the circuit. It was relaxing to watch, reminding her of the years she spent between high school and college working in a pet store on Union Turnpike in Queens. Those were the most meaningful years she’d spent working anywhere, explaining to people how to care for their pets, finding homes for the animals—an event always tinged with sadness, but also happiness. Despite all the personal turbulence of her early years, days spent handling birds, guinea pigs, snakes and a mean-spirited chinchilla named Chilly were some of her most enjoyable ones.
During long staff meetings she’d excuse herself to dash downstairs to the basement vending machines. Repeatedly inserting a wrinkled dollar bill, she’d impose her will onto the electronic sensor until it caved. She’d get a Pop-Tart to crumble into small pieces for the birds, lest they think she’d abandoned them.
Guillermo would sometimes glance from his desk, watching as Paula spread crumbs. She could feel him watching. “Ella poulakia,” she’d murmur to them in Greek. How pathetic she looked. The whole staff found the devotion odd, yet glimpses of their boss’s loneliness were too raw to make fun of. Everything else was fair game—the bird-feeding, brilliant, dowdy director who had donned princess jewels and was obsessed with hair-straightening product. She’d given them a lot of material.
So far she’d frittered away the entire morning bird-watching, stalking and swatting flies instead of returning her e-mail. Then the Dean called.
“Paula. What the hell is up?” Christoff slowly enunciated each word. “For God sakes people are calling; they need to know if they’re presenting; you haven’t returned e-mails in weeks.” It was a mouthful and she heard him pausing to lick his lips, as they typically dried out during confrontation. “Is … everything all right … at home?”
It took her by surprise. She’d anticipated a collegial nudge but not a probing. There’d always been special warmth between them since it was twelve Junes ago in Christoff’s living room that she’d been introduced to Roger.
“Take the work home—get a bottle of wine,” Christoff instructed. “Go through the papers and decide. There you can smoke yourself to death.” Six months ago she’d have eaten her own entrails to avoid this conversation.
Funny how no one complained about smoking at department parties when everyone was drunk and puffing away, trading sly looks, being so clandestinely dangerous. Cool like Che Guevara. Paula had grown up to Eleni walking around, lips pursed, gripping a cigarette, farting as she explained how smoking helped her move her bowels. Vassili never wasn’t smoking. Even in the shower, an ashtray was balanced on the windowsill. He and Demos would have smoked as they delivered food had it been allowed. Paula would have bet a paycheck Alexandros had smoked as he’d checked for gas leaks. Smoking was their way to give life the finger.
Paula tugged on her dark bangs, a habit from childhood. Humidity was springing them into corkscrew coils. “Shit,” she sighed deeply. One thing was clear; though her work and home life were on the verge of collapse, they also threatened to grind on forever. The boss doesn’t walk away with grant money sprouting on trees. And with a third marriage you force yourself into acceptance.
Life was easier when she alone comprised the Center for Immigrant Studies. But after ten years of meteoric success, grant money pouring in, people begged her for a chance to hop onto the gravy train. The Center had taken on a life of its own; it had reared its quantitative wings and turned on her, confronting her like an alien creature out of her control. Her staff regarded her as an artifact—by their sighs, silences and expressions, she knew. And in the quiet, still moments she believed it, too.
And if the staff elbowed her aside she let them. For better or worse, Guillermo was the hungry one, the ascending boss. She felt it, knew it, and he was better at it anyway. Sometimes gaining footsteps in the stairwell prompted a glance over her shoulder, wondering if he would just as soon shove her down the stairs like some nut-job in late-night reruns of Murder She Wrote.
Turning fifty last month hadn’t helped. She’d been unexpectedly rattled. Music from the Weather Channel made her tear up. While standing behind a broad-shouldered, heavily tattooed Polynesian-looking man in McDonald’s on her birthday she’d fought the urge to rest her head against his back. It looked so nice and comfortable.
But all hating aside, Guillermo was right. A delegator she wasn’t. He was the stronger one. She had neither the heart nor the backbone to tell her staff what to do. It seemed bossy and mean, and she’d gotten enough of that in childhood. And while Greece is long credited with being the Birthplace of Democracy, the Greek family couldn’t have been credited with its conception. She’d more “suggest” to the staff than issue directives. At first they were elated by their good fortune at getting the “cool boss.” But within weeks she’d get the stink-eye when asking them to do something that interfered with their coffee breaks.
Roger was stronger, too. So were the flies she couldn’t kill and the recurring plantar wart on the bottom of her heel for which she lacked the endurance to follow through with the directions on the package and tend to every night.
She smoothed back her hair and sighed. “Dendron,” Eleni likened her hair to the tree-like seaweed that washed ashore on their ancestral island within view of the Turkish coast. Her relatives had hopped from one tiny island to another only to then be stranded with eight million people between two rivers on the other side of the world. Such was her inspiration for creation of the Center—to gain understanding and perspective and maybe even to bridge the gap between grandparents who’d been shepherds on a remote island with no running water and a granddaughter with a Ph.D., who taught at a college, was married to kseni and lived in Manhattan.
Paula’s stylist had promised transmutation through a new hair-straightening product. But product isn’t alchemy. Not the miracle tears allegedly cried from an icon of Panayia, witnessed by an old widow living on the sun-bleached island of Kos, where some still hang out the bloody sheet after a wedding night. Paula wound back her hair and clipped it even though it exposed the gray roots. Damn, there were so many things to worry about. Her bangs had spiraled like bedsprings to her hairline; it looked like her grandmother’s 1920 immigrant passport photo.
Roger didn’t mind Paula’s hair. Curly, frizzy, straight, he didn’t care. Neither did he care if she was fat or thin or wore makeup. For months they’d avoided eye contact, and she wondered if he could pick her out of a police lineup. Sometimes comfort is born of neglect—a fine line between acceptance and not caring at all.
Roger was the strongest yet most fragile man she’d every known. He’d take a bullet for her yet wouldn’t move the piles of crap off his bed to clear space for her. Shoulder-high stacks of astro- and particle physics journals served as his foot- and headboards; piles of clothes draped over chairs to form haystacks. The closets were packed and rendered useless long before Paula’d arrived. Yet she’d doggedly believed that the magic of those first months of courtship (along with a Greek church wedding) had formed a sacred union. Her commitment was such that she’d never once doubted that someday one of them would bury the other.
Her first glimpse of Roger in Christoff’s living room years ago had left her thinking that he looked “humanoid.” His shiny pink head and sharp-ridged cheekbones made the skin look newly stretched—dewy, like he’d just stepped out of a pod where he’d been spawned. But, except for Heavenly and Tony, Roger was the only person with whom she didn’t have to fake a laugh.
She was enthralled by his electric blue eyes—alight from years of peering deep within the recesses of the universe, into the spaces between particles—and even more by how his penetrating gaze sought that which bound her together. From that first meeting on, his unusually intense stare made her knees relax and part ever so slightly. “The urge to merge,” he used to joke.
Roger’s eyes were framed by white eyebrows, those you’d expect to see on Santa. After they’d make love Paula would run a finger over one and then the other in wonderment at their silky fur. She’d marveled at the tenderness in her heart. This was the shard that pierced—that he cherished her in a way her parents hadn’t, in a way no one had. She’d kneel on the couch on the lookout for Roger after he phoned from his office at Columbia saying he was on his way. Like a joy-struck, besotted dog at the window, twitching with anticipation for the first signs of her master. Even the sounds of Roger rummaging upstairs at all hours of the night in his vampire way were comforting. It was a landing spot she’d fought long and hard to find. And while she was prepared to do battle to make this one work, little had Paula known that Roger would require full surrender and retreat.
And so it would be until the day she left for lunch and never came back.
* * *
The first time she stepped into the foyer of Roger’s brownstone she’d caught a whiff of musty basement odor. As Roger unlocked the door and stepped inside, he must have had second thoughts, and then turned, using his large frame to block Paula’s view.
“Hey—what are you doing?” She’d chuckled and turned it into a game by poking him where she knew he was ticklish. As he ducked and grabbed his sides, she glanced past his shoulder, eager to see what he didn’t want her to. The cardboard boxes.
“You moving?” It was an innocent enough question.
She’d squinted in dim light to get a better look. “Looks like you are.”
“Ummm … I’m just reorganizing—ignore all of this,” he issued the disclaimer, and seemed edgy. She’d never seen him unsure or tense.
As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she panned the foyer. There was a lot to ignore. Boxes piled several high, stacks of academic journals, some to the top of her head.
“Most of this was my parents’.”
Peeking around the corner, she spotted a pile of folded Oriental rugs stacked on top of a piano (she could see the legs) so high they grazed the white plaster ceiling medallion. It looked like a madman’s warehouse.
“I’m sorting,” he’d explained. “Cleaning—I hadn’t planned on company.”
She looked at him. The comment stung. She was on the verge of saying, Hey, bucko, you invited me here, but didn’t. A self-imposed gag order set into motion with a silent agreement.
“‘Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,’” Roger deflected her with a joke. It worked; she laughed. “And don’t worry,” he said, looking deep into her with those eyes of his, “If we get married we’ll sort this all out and make it our place.” He’d lowered his face, his breath tickling her skin.
“Marriage?” she joked, play-shoving him back. She then stepped onto the tops of his boat-like shoes, facing him as he began walking her out the door. She’d slipped her arms around his neck and drew him closer. “Who said anything about marriage?”
And so she’d laughed along with her witty beau. Who keeps a tower of three-legged broken chairs, tangled and intertwined like a strand of DNA? A thick layer of frost-like dust like that doesn’t accumulate overnight? But like many women hopelessly mired in the throes of early hormonal love, Paula turned a deaf ear, instead hearing only refrains of “love will find a way” whirling about in her poor love-starved heart.
The next ten years played out so bizarrely that she couldn’t have explained it with a gun held to her head. One can only explain what they understand. It had been an out-of-the-blue-freak-thing-that-she’d-never-in-a-million-years-seen-coming. But what bride gets married thinking a cardboard box filled with two hundred can openers (saved just in case the one in the kitchen drawer breaks) would be more important than her?
Even after all these years she’d still bump into people who’d swear, “God, Paula, that wedding of yours was the most lovely, heartfelt one I’ve ever been to.” Then her heart would rush with hope. Their words were sincere enough, but chilling. As if the wicked fairy of Sleeping Beauty had been in attendance; perhaps Paula had pricked her finger on the spinning wheel. But she hadn’t felt a thing that afternoon and instead marveled at how she could be so lucky and that finally, finally, her time had come.
But like the fairy tale, it didn’t take long for Paula to sink into a silent sleep.
* * *
The cell phone buzzed in her black leather purse. “Fuck.” Paula turned away from the window, cigarette burned clear down to her knuckles. What now? She’d just started to unwind after Christoff’s warning. She looked back out the window, resting her forehead in her hand. Ignore it. Maybe it was Roger calling about the NSF grant. Even so, he wouldn’t call. He was too calculatingly cheap about wasting cell-phone minutes. “What’s the fuss? I’ll see you later,” he’d dismiss. “Go ahead; waste your minutes.” They’d always kept their money separate.
Thank God the phone finally stopped. She sighed and watched as birds gathered, chased each other, and then flew off. Did they ever lose their way? She watched one flapping its wings in a puddle next to the bench. Were they ever afraid of getting lost? Did they make friends? If they did, how did they ever find each other again in the vastness of the sky?
A voice from down on the sidewalk made her look. A middle-aged blond woman chatted and strolled arm in arm with a much taller man who was smiling shyly. How she liked men with shy smiles. Roger’s smile had been like that. The woman sported a yellow plastic tote bag she swung seemingly without a care in the world. What must their lives be like, the stuff nobody sees? Who would suspect how she and Roger lived?
Without thinking, she shoved up the double-hung window farther and switched elbows. Thick air collided with the bone-dry air-conditioned room. The din of street noise was calming, horns from everywhere blended into one long complaint. Bus exhaust and urine, aromas of week-old garbage in alleys across the street, rushed in like a humid belch.
Her desk phone rang and it startled her. No one ever called.
“Shit.” Maybe it was Christoff again, newly baptized as Mr. Micromanager.
Mashing the cigarette butt, she waved away the smell and shut the window. Her tight black cotton skirt bunched up around her hips; it was roomier a month ago in the fitting room at Bloomingdale’s. She yanked it back down to the tops of her knees. Her underwear felt like a girdle; a new roll of fat hung over the top elastic.
Paula picked up. “Queens County DHSS.” It was Celeste.
“Who died?” Paula’s pitch lowered on the last word.
“No one yet,” Celeste mimicked.
Paula’s best friend was nicknamed Heavenly by fifth-grade boys after a science class on astronomy, as she was the only girl with fully developed breasts—heavenly bodies. The name stuck, even with her parents and eventually Tony, her husband, too.
“You busy?” Heavenly asked.
Paula gave a nasty laugh. She glanced at the seventy unopened e-mails on the computer screen. “I should be.”
“Hey—take a long lunch,” Celeste coaxed. “I’m at the hospital. Sounds like you need a break anyway.”
Paula snorted. “Yeah, something like that.”
“They just brought in an elderly man speaking Greek,” Heavenly said. “Looks indigent, probably homeless.”
“Greek? Who?” Paula’s mind ticked off all of the old people in Eleni’s neighborhood in the vicinity of the hospital.
“Never seen him,” Heavenly said. “No ID. Can you come translate?”
Paula thought of all the old Greeks. She’d never once heard of anyone being homeless. Even if a Greek managed to get everyone to hate them over the course of a lifetime, someone still took them in. It was more shameful to leave them to the kseni than to face down a lifelong grudge. Surely she would have heard about it from Eleni.
Heavenly explained that the man had been walking with a large black dog before he’d collapsed. A Korean grocer on Northern Boulevard reported seeing him listing to the left as he walked the dog on a rope leash and carried several plastic grocery bags. The man first sat and then lay down on the sidewalk just under the storefront window. Thinking it bad for business, the owner called the police. Squad cars arrived. Next paramedics and Animal Control were on the scene. There was a commotion before they whisked him off to Queens County Hospital. He’d become agitated, calling to the dog as they struggled to lift him onto the gurney. The dog had bitten one of the officers and fought like a wild animal against the grab leash until Animal Control could subdue him. “How fast can you get here?” Celeste asked.
Paula hesitated. Curiously, her stomach burned with the old sickness, as she called it. An unease not felt in years, normally elicited by tense childhood family dinners and hurt feelings she’d have to hide or risk getting slapped. “Stop with the long face, katsika [goat face].” Vassili and Demos would sit elbow to elbow in white shirts so freshly starched they smelled like rice. Humid house aromas of lamb cooked with garlic and the oily cinnamon fragrance of moussaka. The brothers brooding as they shoveled down mouthfuls of yemisis, the rice mixture falling in flakes off their spoons. “Smile, goddamn it, for once. Fake it,” Vassili would come up for air to bark between mouthfuls. Paula’s stomach would fall to her knees. “Sit up straight,” Eleni would then correct. All forks would halt, eyes focusing on young Paula’s slouch. Once she inadvertently knocked over her milk, which loosed a flood of curses as to how she’d ruined yet another dinner, as if by that one mistake, a shaky little hand, their entire lives had become so miserably hard.
The unease emanated from somewhere. Perhaps a muscle she’d not used for millennia. “You there?” Heavenly asked. “He won’t make sundown.” she whispered. “I need a name—a relative.”
“Yeah.” Unease tickled inside Paula’s chest cavity.
“Time is critical, miksa mou,” Celeste said, calling her my little snot face in Greek, an old nickname from childhood.
“I’ll get a cab,” Paula said in a quiet voice.
“Thanks, kiddo. I owe you.” Celeste paused. “You okay with this?” Heavenly was surprised by Paula’s reluctance.
“I’ll call from the bridge.”
For months she’d dodged Heavenly’s “you look sad” observations.
Well, who the hell isn’t? Paula had wanted to carp back.
“You know—it wouldn’t kill you to go talk to someone, Paula.”
No, but it wouldn’t help either. Nothing could help. Speaking of it would be disloyal to Roger. She’d felt sworn to secrecy; no one knew, not even Celeste, though Paula could tell she’d found something odd about how Paula and Roger lived. Celeste and Tony had always figured Roger for an oddball.
“Hey,” her husband, Tony, always the detective even when off duty, would break Roger’s balls on their way to dinner, “you guys got illegals up there, meth cooking in the bathtub?” to which Celeste would shoot him a don’t spoil dinner again or I’ll kill you face.
At dinner Paula and Roger would each pay separately. So many times they’d swing by the brownstone to pick up the couple for an evening of seafood out on the Island, and it would be Paula, standing alone out on the front stoop. “Hey, Roger can’t make it, so I’m your date.” There was Paula alone again. Even when Roger would join them, Paula looked alone.
Over time Paula had become masterful at hiding. “Roger prefers to meet people out for dinner,” she’d explain. “How about we take you guys out since you had us over last time?”
But Paula’s composure had begun to unravel three weeks ago in the ladies’ room. She looked into the mirror to enjoy the reflection of her beloved and most precious of cameo pins, the carving of Psyche, the Greek goddess of the soul. To Paula’s horror, there was an empty oval in the gold setting where the cameo had been. Her jaw dropped. She’d stood staring under the unflattering fluorescent bathroom lighting, which makes even eighteen-year-olds look like hags. The emptiness bore past her collarbone and deep into soft tissue. She’d not been able to move, her mouth open, lips slack, like a stretched-out piece of elastic.
She’d dashed into action, searching around the toilet area behind sweaty metal pipes. Flinging open doors, she retraced her steps, asking at the Welcome to NYU Center if anyone had turned in a cameo. An elderly white-haired woman patted Paula’s hand, saying, “Relax, dearie. Give it time. It’ll probably turn up.”
She ventured out to McDonald’s on Fifth and then back to their brownstone—as if anything could be found there. The cameo had probably fallen down a sidewalk grate or been crushed unceremoniously under the wheels of a city bus. As Paula bent over, scouring the pavement, her insides gnawed, like she’d lost a finger. And though she’d unpinned the empty frame of the brooch and tucked it into her purse, she felt Psyche’s absence on her chest.
Passersby paused at her posture, looking on the ground, too. “Lose something?” they asked, but she was too stricken to answer. Such was the fate of the carved piece of Italian helmet shell complete with the classic butterfly hovering just atop Psyche’s head—which had survived innumerable births, deaths, not to mention wars. The first piece of antique jewelry Paula had ever purchased. It had been on a six-month layaway in a junk shop in Berkeley, her reward for finishing the set of twelve-hour Ph.D. prelims. And while not her most expensive piece, it was the only one she’d have grabbed in the event of a house fire.
She hung up the phone with Celeste. With newfound purpose Paula stuffed twenty-three conference submission papers into her bag, vowing that later she’d find a quiet bench in one of Manhattan’s hidden Victorian parks to review them. They’d been printed months ago and hauled around until their edges were bent and ratty. The shoulder strap rocked into its familiar groove as she rushed downstairs. She kept an eye peeled for Psyche on the gray cement stairs. Her bag tapped against her hip as if to hasten her along.
Pushing open the front door of the building, Paula clutched her torso as she looked up to the sky. Explosive bursts of wind signaled an incoming rainstorm. It had gotten so gloomy that the park lights flipped on, twinkling through maple branches that seemed to bow toward their breaking point. Their leafy arms waved like lantern-carrying roadmen advising travelers to seek shelter.
A red dragon-shaped kite swirled in arcs against the slate clouds just above one of the taller oaks in Washington Square. Its long tail streamed a flight path. Paula traced the string. It stopped at the higher branches. No desperate kid dancing to untangle or scramble up the tree trunk to get a leg up on the lower limbs. No telling how long the kite had lain in the upper branches of the oak’s canopy, waiting for the arrival of a storm front to trigger its flight.
Copyright © 2013 by Andrea Thalasinos