Authors: Francine Prose
My New American Life
he day after Lula's lawyer called to tell her she was legal, three Albanian guys showed up in a brand-new black Lexus SUV. She had been staring out her window at the drizzly afternoon and thinking that the mulberry tree on Mister Stanley's front lawn had waited to drop its last few leaves until it knew she was watching. Obviously, this was paranoid and also egocentric, but in the journal that her immigration lawyer and her boss had suggested that she keep, she wrote: “October, 2005. Does a leaf fall in New Jersey if no one is there to see?”
Don Settebello and Mister Stanley would go nuts for a line like that. They were always telling Lula she should write a memoir about her old Albanian life and now her new one in the United States. Don even had a title,
My New American Life
. Lula had a better title,
Stranger in a Strange Land
, but she'd already seen it in the public library. Maybe she could still use it. Maybe no one would notice.
Raindrops beaded the SUV as it trawled past the house where Lula lived and worked, taking care of Mister Stanley's son Zeke, a high school senior who only needed minimal caretaking. In fact Zeke could do many things that Lula couldn't, such as drive a car. But since Mister Stanley believed that teenagers shouldn't be left on their own, and since he went off to Wall Street at dawn and didn't return until late, he had hired Lula to make sure that Zeke ate and slept and did his homework. Mister Stanley was very safety-conscious, which Lula found very admirable but also dangerously American. No Albanian father would do that to his son and risk turning him gay.
Lula's duties included making sure there was food in the house. Most afternoons, Zeke drove Lula to the supermarket in his vintage 1970 Oldsmobile. Considering how little they bought and how much of it was frozen, they could have shopped once a month, but they enjoyed the ritual. On the way, Zeke gave Lula driving tips: who went first at an intersection, how to speak the silent language that kept drivers from killing each other like they did constantly in Tirana. Zeke might have been explaining the principles of astrophysics, but Lula appreciated the gesture, just as Zeke liked feeling superior to Lula and better about having a nanny only nine years older than he was. The word
was never mentioned. Lula explained to Zeke that in her native country only party bigwigs were allowed to own the black deathmobiles that sped through Tirana in packs, and then the economy tanked and no one could afford a car, so now Albanians drove their hot or secondhand Mercedes like kids who'd had their licenses for about five minutes.
As had Zeke, who still wasn't legal to drive at night. But he'd grown up in a car culture, driving was his birthright. Every country had problems, but when Lula saw how Americans drove, how American
drove, she couldn't help feeling cheated for not having been born here. Her dad used to borrow her uncle's car, and then he sort of stole it and smuggled it over the border from Albania into Kosovo, where both her parents were killed in a car wreck. Lula had never mentioned this sad fact to Mister Stanley or Zeke. It would only have upset Mister Stanley and made Zeke suspect that his driving lessons might not be enough to put Lula on the road.
Mister Stanley said Zeke could have the gas-guzzling-pig Olds if he hardly ever drove it. If he had to drive at all, his dad preferred him in a tank. Zeke was so in love with the Olds that he kept it in the garage and rode the bus back and forth to school, and Mister Stanley parked his seven-year-old Acura minivan at the end of the driveway. Officially, Zeke was only allowed to drive to The Good Earth Market, which his father liked, because it was close and had organic choices, and which Zeke also liked (it was practically the only thing he and his father agreed on) because he believed in staying small and locally owned and off the corporate grid, though his actual food tastes ran to mesquite-flavored corn chips and microwavable ramen. Zeke didn't notice the other shoppers looking down their rich straight suburban noses at what he and Lula bought. Probably theirs was the only household in which the Albanian girl let the American teen decide. Lula had cooked vegetables, many times, but Zeke refused to eat them. Let his wife worry some day.
After she and Zeke got back from the market, Lula mixed them each a mojito, a splash of alcohol in Zeke's, a healthy splash in her own, heavy on the sugar and mint. Zeke sat on a kitchen stool and watched Lula make dinner. Most nights they ate pizza with frozen crust, tomato sauce from a jar, and mozzarella that, refrigerated, would outlive them both. Sometimes Lula unpeeled tiny ice-dusted hamburgers, which, steamed in the microwave, were surprisingly delicious, surprisingly like a street snack you could buy in Tirana. Bad food made Zeke feel rebellious, which every teenager needed. The better Zeke felt about himself, the more secure Lula's job was, and the likelier her chances of staying in this country, though Mister Stanley and Don Settebello had made it clear that their helping Lula was not about her working for Mister Stanley and being good for Zeke.
And now, hooray, she was legal! Lula inhaled and shuddered, half at the shiny black Lexus still patrolling the block, the other half at her daily life. The life of an elderly person!
Last night, like every weeknight, Lula and Zeke had eaten dinner in front of the TV. Lula made them watch the evening news, educational for them both. The president had come on the air to warn the American people about the threat of bird flu. The word
was hard for him. His forehead stitched each time he said it, and his eyelids fluttered, as if he'd been instructed to think of birds as a memory prompt.
“At home,” Lula marveled, “that man is a god.”
“You say that every night,” Zeke said.
“I'm reminding myself,” she'd said. Her country's love affair with America had begun with Woodrow Wilson, and Clinton and Bush had sealed the deal by bombing the Serbs and rescuing the Kosovar Albanians from Milosevic's death squads. Even at home she'd had her doubts about the streets paved with gold, but when she finally got to New York and started working at La Changita, the waitstaff had quickly straightened her out about the so-called land of opportunity. And yet for all the mixed feelings shared by waiters and busboys alike, the strongest emotion everyone felt was the desire to stay here. Well, fine. In Lula's opinion, ambivalence was a sign of maturity.
Yesterday night, as always, she'd felt sorry for the president, so like a dim little boy who'd told a lie that had set off a war, and then he'd let all those innocent people die in New Orleans, and now he was anxiously waiting to see what worse trouble he was about to get into. He seemed especially scared of the vice president, who scared Lula, too, with his cold little eyes not blinking when he lied, like an Eastern Bloc dictator minus the poufy hair.
“There is no bird flu,” Lula had told Zeke. “A war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, sure. Maybe one chicken in China with a sore throat and a fever.”
But by then the city police chief had appeared on the screen to announce that the alert level had been raised to code orange because of a credible terrorist threat against the New York subway system.
Lula said, “There is no threat.”
“How do you know everything?” Zeke asked. “Not that I don't agree it's all bullshit.”
She'd been about to tell Zekeâagain!âabout having grown up in the most extreme and crazy Communist society in Europe, ruled for decades by the psycho dictator Enver Hoxha, who died when Lula was a child, but not without leaving his mark. The nation was a monument to him, as were the seventy thousand mushroomlike concrete bunkers he'd had built in a country smaller than New Jersey. But before she even had a chance to repeat herself, she'd been distracted by an advertisement for the new season of
“Look, Zeke,” she'd said, “see that gurney rushing in and doors flying open and all the nurses throwing themselves on the patient? Other countries, no one rushes. No one even looks at you till you figure out who to pay off.”
As a reward for sitting through the news, Zeke got to watch his favorite channel, which showed grainy reruns of a cheap black-and-white 1970s series about a small-town mom and daughter both in love with the same cop who grew fangs and bit girls' necks. Zeke was obsessed with vampires and with the 1970s. He predicted that vampires were going to be huge.
“One problem with vampires,” Lula told Zeke, “in my part of the world, harmless people are always being burned at the stake because their neighbors think they are blood-sucking bats.” She hated lying to Zeke. But vampire lynchings had happened. She'd just changed one little phrase,
, and put it in the present tense. She never, or hardly ever, used to lie at home, where for decades mass lying had been a way of life, where you agreed that day was night if you thought it might help keep your children safe. She'd almost never lied at all until she'd applied for her U.S. tourist visa. But ever since she got here, she couldn't seem to stop.
Zeke said, “Why would people do evil shit like that?”
“Because they wanted their neighbor's house or husband or wife?”
Zeke said, “That doesn't happen here. Vampires are a metaphor.”
“A metaphor for what?” Lula asked.
“For everything,” Zeke replied.
After dinner, Lula plastic-wrapped the leftover pizza in case Mister Stanley came home hungry, which he never did. She'd worked for Mister Stanley for almost a year and still had no idea what he did for food and sex. Maybe he was a vampire. Mister Stanley's milky skin was so translucent that, until she tired of it, Lula liked standing where she could see him backlit so that his bat ears glowed like a pair of night lamps.
ow as she watched the brand-new SUV prowl the suburban street, she was sure, or almost sure, it had nothing to do with her. For one thing, she didn't know anyone in this snooty town, and no one knew her. Mama dead, Papa dead, may their souls rest in peace, not that she believed in the soul. She hoped they were in a heaven (which she also didn't believe in) that was as little as possible like Albania. But would they have wanted that? When her dad drank, which was constantly, he said he would die for his homeland, and in his own way, he had.
Lula still had a few aunts, uncles, and cousins sprinkled around Albania and Kosovo, but they'd lost touch. An Albanian without a family was a walking contradiction. Of course she hadn't said this to the embassy officer in Tirana who'd approved her tourist visa. She'd brought in pictures of neighbor kids, whom she'd claimed were nephews and nieces she could hardly bear to leave for that last-fling vacation before she came home and married her childhood sweetheart. She said “Christmas wedding” a dozen times so the guy wouldn't suspect she was half Muslim. Dad's mom, her granny, was Christian. Wasn't that enough? Anyway, Muslim meant nothing in Communist post-Communist Albania. An American wouldn't know that. Muslim meant Muslim to him.
She'd said, “I want to see the world, starting with Detroit, where my aunt lives.” The officer smiled. How cute! His heart flopped for the Albanian girl so innocent she thought Detroit was the world. One look at Detroit, she'd jump on the first plane home and shrivel into a raisin before she was thirty-five. Lula crossed and uncrossed her legs. On the visa officer's wall was a poster of the Statue of Liberty. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. Lula had to convince him that she wasn't planning to stay. Everyone lied to the embassy. It didn't count as a lie. Since 9/11 they made you lie, but that hadn't stopped one Albanian girl or boy from wanting to come to New York.
The Lexus turned and passed the house.
Mister Stanley had given Lula a cell phone that he liked her to keep charged, though she never called anyone, and no one had called her, not since her best friend Dunia had left the country and gone home. Mister Stanley had programmed in their home phone number, Mister Stanley's cell and work phones, Zeke's cell phone, and Don Settebello's office. She was the only person on earth with five numbers on her phone!
She was like the girl in the fairy tale. The princess in the tower. One of the made-up “traditional” folk stories she'd written for Mister Stanley and Don Settebello was about a beautiful maiden imprisoned in a castle. A prince sees her at the window, falls in love, and, unable to reach her, transplants a strong, quick-growing vine from his native region. The good news is, he climbs the vine and rescues her; the bad news is that the vine grows and grows and wipes out the local farmers, their punishment for locking up the princess in the first place. Don especially liked that one, which, he said, proved that indigenous folk cultures foresaw the threat of species importation and genetic engineering.
Next fall, Zeke would leave for college, and Lula would have to figure out the next phase of her new American life. That is, if things went according to plan, though Lula couldn't have said what the plan was, or who'd designed it. She'd saved fifteen hundred dollars, which was reassuring, though hardly the astronomical sum she might have thought before she saw the drink tabs at La Changita. She kept the money in cash in the secret compartment of the old-fashioned desk in her room, the so-called guest room, though Zeke said they'd never had guests. Next September was the cutoff date, her target day for leaving. By then she would have spent almost two years at Mister Stanley's, a fact she tried not to dwell on. She was too young to have her life fall away in chunks like the glaciers crumbling nightly on the Nature Channel.
Deep autumn had already come on when she'd answered Mister Stanley's ad on Craigslist. Dunia was still in the country, their tourist visas were expiring, they were waitressing illegally at La Changita, near Tompkins Square. All evening, Lula and Dunia drank what the loud, young, undertipping Wall Streeters left in the sweating pitchers painted with happy monkeys. After the owners, Rat Face and Goggles, went home, Luis the cook fed the waitstaff his special
, and everyone got drunk and bet on who'd get deported first.