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Authors: Francine Prose

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BOOK: My New American Life
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Leather Jacket and Hoodie lunged for the doorknob, but Alvo said, “After you.” There was a pile-up, almost a scuffle, as the two guys stepped back and let Lula, then Alvo, through.

“Albanian cavemen,” muttered Alvo. As Lula scrabbled in her purse, searching for her keys, Hoodie patrolled the front walk until Alvo said, “Cut that shit out,” and Hoodie waited under the mulberry tree, where Leather Jacket joined him.

Alvo said, “Neanderthals. They still think women should follow five paces behind. Like my granny, rest in peace. Fifty years of eating my grandpa's dust.”

“My granny too,” said Lula. “My keys are in here somewhere.” Did Alvo wonder why she was bothering to lock the door when guys like him could stroll in and shower whenever they wanted?

“Our friend Spiro,” said Alvo, “he finds this high-powered Albanian girl, Columbia B-School graduate, no one believes such a smart girl would marry Spiro. But women are desperate, I guess. They get engaged, fly up to meet his family in Toronto, and he asks her if she could walk into the house behind him. Just this once. So this girl gets behind Spiro and takes off her nine-hundred-dollar Manolo Blahniks and smashes the high heel into his skull so hard he bled like a goat.”

“I guess that ended the engagement,” Lula said.

“They're married! They hold hands now. They both work on Wall Street. The modern Albanian couple. My granny should have done that. She didn't have the right shoes.”

“I got the keys!” sang out Lula. Alvo was careful to walk beside her and not hurry ahead, a positive sign of reconstructed Balkan male behavior. That Lula should even register—and appreciate—this was depressing. But comforting, in a way. She liked being with someone who knew what it was like to watch your genius granny tag after your birdbrain grandpa. It was so hard to live among strangers with whom you shared no history, no knowledge of a way of life that went back and back.

Halfway to the car, Alvo put out his arm. “Let them get in first.”

“In case the car blows up?”

Alvo's smile was all tolerance at her failure to appreciate his gesture of macho courtesy, making sure the vehicle was warmed up for the lady. Beneath the grin was a question. Why was Lula so jumpy? Lula's smile said, No reason. Really, no reason at all!

Alvo opened the door for her, and Lula slipped inside. On the dashboard was a TV screen, and as Leather Jacket left the curb, a blinking violet cursor imitated everything they did. Albanian hip-hop boomed out of the speakers.

“What group is that?” asked Lula.

“Keep It Bloody,” said Hoodie. “You know them?”

“Sort of,” Lula said. Regardless of the language, it was always the same guys yelling about how tough they were. The difference was the bitches whose asses these guys were going to kick were Serbs.

“Sort of?” said Hoodie. “Either you know them or you don't.”

“Let it go, dumbass,” said Alvo.

Lula said, “A bunch of guys driving a Lexus with black windows, and you play this music, this loud? How often do you get pulled over?”

Alvo said, “Good question. I like how this girl thinks.”

Leather Jacket said, “Never. New Jersey's finest know better than to fuck with us.” He took the prettiest streets, past mansions with white pillars and brick facades veined with dead ivy. They floated so high above the road they could have been in a balloon. Lula touched a button, and her window slid down to admit a gust of chill air, perfumed with leaf mold.

Leather Jacket pulled into a strip mall and parked in front of a supermarket with hand-lettered signs in the window.

“Need anything?” said Alvo.

“No, thank you,” Lula said.

“Want to come in?” Alvo asked.

As Lula and Alvo crossed the parking lot, she felt buoyed by an updraft of something like exultation. Everything seemed natural, effortless, as if she and Alvo were a couple, young, in love, enjoying their courtship freedom before they had the two kids and bought the brownstone in Brooklyn. Where had
this
fantasy come from?

The few elderly shoppers stared at Lula and Alvo as if they were celebrities they couldn't quite place. The dying fluorescent light and sour-milk smell were happy reminders of Tirana. Alvo paced the aisles, checking out the cans and packages but also the walls and the ceiling. He said, “We are in construction. I mentioned that, right? I notice construction details.”

“What kind of construction?” said Lula.

“Commercial only,” said Alvo. “Residential is asking for headaches. First the client wants wallpaper, then she wants it ripped out. Businesses, they know what they want. Aisles, cash registers, shelves. Especially cash registers.”

Alvo seemed to know what he was talking about, and the sound of the words—commercial construction—was honest, industrious, solid. And the gun? This was New Jersey. You'd be crazy to be in the building trades and not carry a weapon. Alvo picked up a quart of orange juice and a carton of Camels. So that
was
his sales receipt Estrelia found in the cushions. Lula had saved it in her desk. Alvo's shoulder brushed against hers as they—ladies first—left the market.

But as they approached the SUV, Lula felt the temperature between them drop. She said something lame—testing, testing—about the weather, but Alvo didn't answer. This time he opened the door on his side and let her open hers. This time Hoodie took the wheel with Leather Jacket beside him. Alvo frowned into space. Lula had no idea what had gone wrong, or how she could fix it.

Hoodie's aggressive driving style matched the new mood inside the Lexus. The cursor on the GPS danced across the screen, and its female voice cried plaintively, “Reconfiguring, reconfiguring.”

After a while, Alvo said, “My friend Spiro, the one with the stiletto heel in his head? That's why you don't want an Albanian boyfriend, Little Sister.”

Little Sister. Alvo's fraternal romantic advice made her heart hurt. But why had she even thought that Alvo wanted to be her boyfriend? Maybe Lula was losing her charms. Welcome to twenty-six.

Lula said, “I dated this Argentinean guy, Franco, he was ten times crazier and more jealous than the worst Albanian shithead.”

Alvo said, “What did he do, this Franco? For a living.”

“An artist,” Lula said.

Alvo glared at her. “Let me get this straight. You fucked an Argentinean?”

“No,” lied Lula. “I said dated.” First he'd told her not to go out with Albanian guys, and now he seemed ready to honor-kill her for dating an Argentinean.

“Glad to hear it. Dated.” Alvo nodded at the front seat. “My gorilla pals here get very upset when they see Albanian girls going outside the community.”

Lula said, “Good luck telling an Albanian girl what to do.”

“Funny,” said Alvo, mirthlessly. “Here we are. Home sweet home.” How had Hoodie managed to find all new streets and arrive at her house without her realizing they were close? The SUV jerked to a stop. No one spoke. No one mentioned seeing Lula again, and the Lexus roared away before she'd unlocked Mister Stanley's front door.

Chapter Five

D
ays passed, then more days, with no sign of Alvo. What did Lula have to look forward to? The college trip with Zeke and his dad? Zeke's departure for school promised deliverance, of a sort. But Mister Stanley would find a reason to keep Lula around. He would pay to have another human watch him sip his water. How would Lula break away? Home comfort was seductive.

Oddly, the gun reassured her. But was that really so odd? Lots of people felt that way. For example, her father. Lula told herself that the three guys would return, if only to pick up the pistol. Handguns were costly, hard to obtain. Meanwhile her challenge was to keep busy and stave off worry about her future.

One morning, frustration drove Lula to travel into the city and check out the supermarket from which Alvo's receipt had come. Useless, as she'd known it would be. What did she think would happen? That destiny would deliver them both there at the same moment? What a coincidence, our meeting here like this! So now it was her turn to be the stalker in this romance.

Parked outside the supermarket was a construction van. From the door she could see that repair work was being done. She peeked through a gap in the plastic curtain. The workers were Chinese. Maybe her friends were in charge. She knew that a lot of Albanian guys ran construction crews. She'd met some of them in a bar on Second Avenue on the night Albania competed in the World Cup.

She walked down the supermarket aisles, pretending to look at food, until she saw a checker watching her in the security mirror. She bought the costliest peanut butter, hand-shelled on a farm in Georgia, along with a jar of organic strawberry jam from Vermont.

She was taking off her coat when Zeke walked in the door.

“What's this?” Pointing accusingly at the peanut butter and jelly, he seemed upset that Lula had gone grocery shopping without him.

“I went into the city,” Lula said.

“You went into the city to get peanut butter and jelly?”

“I got it especially for you. I read about this brand in the paper. Try it. Trust me, okay?”

Zeke said, “Did you get crackers?”

“Use a spoon,” Lula said.

T
he weather turned even more dismal, and after a week of gloom, Lula powered up Zeke's computer and closed out a cascade of girls in bikinis wanting to chat. She imagined her own cascade, snapshots of lost keepsakes and loved ones gone forever. Back home in '97, when the economy tanked, everything went missing: doorknobs, letterboxes, public toilets, storm drains. Thieves would come in the night and steal the swings from the children's playground, the drinking fountains from the park. But who would want to read about that? Who would care about the neighbor who almost got lynched for stealing paper from the communal toilet?

The true stories of her childhood were tales of grubby misery without the kick of romance, just suffering and more suffering, betrayal and petty greed. It was nicer to mine the mythical past. Wasn't that the Albanian way? Five minutes into a conversation, Albanians were telling you how they'd descended from the ancient Greeks. The Illyrians. Those folktales had come from somewhere. Hoodie said they were all related. Every Albanian fairy tale was someone's great-granny's life story. Little Sister, they'd called her. For all Lula knew, it was true.

She could write the most famous legends and pretend they were family stories. For example, the tale of the heartless girl everyone called Earthly Beauty, who put her prince through hell before he could make her his wife. Lula wrote, “My grandfather's half brother fell in love with a woman known as the Earthly Beauty. She charged him money for peeks at her—a finger, a hand, an arm. He paid for every inch of flesh he saw, he spent his dead papa's fortune. And every inch, every beautiful inch, made him want her more.”

Don and Mister Stanley were so good to her. It was sinful that fooling them should be easy and even entertaining.

Oops. Now came a part about the boy finding a hat that made him invisible. Lula would have to leave that out if she wanted her story to have any credibility whatsoever. The same thing went for the bottle from which genies appeared and threatened Earthly Beauty on our hero's behalf, genies whose power she turned against him by making them work for her. Lula imagined Earthly Beauty looking like Angelina Jolie. She turned the genies into thugs whom Earthly Beauty seduced, but ended the scene just short of her having gang-bang sex.

But still the tale had one final twist. The hero finds some enchanted grapes, red and green. The red grapes make horns grown on Earthly Beauty's face. The green grapes make the horns drop off. Magic cosmetic surgery. So the red grapes let the prince wreck his beloved's looks, and the green grapes turn her back into Earthly Beauty. After which she's so grateful she marries him, even though he was the one who destroyed her face in the first place. But then he fixed it. And he loves her.

She wrote,
My grandfather's half brother found some grapes
. No wonder there was such bitterness between Albanian men and women. This was their version of Cinderella. What do you do if the girl doesn't like you? Throw acid in her face, then pay for the plastic surgeon. If you believed the story, Earthly Beauty deserved it, stealing the guy's money for a glimpse of her hand. But that was how women were! That was why you took your girlfriend out for an expensive dinner and then refused to pay for your wife's dentist and let all her teeth fall out. If you still had any money left, you divorced her and found a younger wife who still had her own molars.

Lula deleted the last line. Then she typed it again. “My grandfather's half brother found some grapes.”

She saved the file under “Earthly Beauty” and shut down Zeke's computer. She put on three sweaters and a coat and grabbed an umbrella and headed out the door.

The library was deserted except for nice Mrs. Beller, who had introduced herself early on and who always seemed personally disappointed that Lula could never provide the documentation required for a borrower's card. Were Mrs. Beller's tremors worse today, or was some bad news on her computer making her shake her head? She didn't acknowledge Lula. Had Lula offended her somehow? Could the librarian have unearthed some awful secret about her?

Lula went to the magazine rack and was soon engrossed in an article about a Texas dynasty literally and figuratively screwing each other for generations, when they weren't crashing cars into trees or jumping off the roof. The story cheered Lula. It sounded like a family you might hear about at home, though the money would have been different, as would the trees and cars and roofs. An hour passed, then another. Without the quiet welcome of this undemanding place, she might have fled Mister Stanley's long ago. Which might have been a good thing. Who knew where she would be now, how much better off, or worse?

Eventually, she made herself stand up and put on her coat. She was relieved when Mrs. Beller said, “See you soon, dear. Stay dry.”

On the way home, Lula passed a drenched terrier guarding its owner's front porch. Ugly Dog to Earthly Beauty. What if the magic fruit didn't make you grow horns but created some more believable, less disfiguring problem? A bad mood. Bipolar depression. The magic green-grape cure could be some ancient folk pharmacology that would thrill Don and Mister Stanley.

Back in the house, Lula tossed her wet clothes into the laundry room and went up to her desk, where, she was surprised to see, she'd left Zeke's laptop on. She was always careful to shut it down, especially when it was raining. Many friends at home had had their hard drives fried by lightning.

Obviously, she was losing her mind. She'd left the Earthly Beauty file open. The cursor blinked at the end of the text. Lula read through the final section.

My grandfather's half brother brought Earthly Butey the pretty red grapes, but they were poison. She fell ill and almost died while he searched the world for help. Finally he found an old heeler in the mountains who said, feed her green grapes. That wouldn't have been the guy's instinct, the red grapes had done enough bad. But he did what the heeler said, and Earthly Butey got better and fell in love with him and they married and had fifteen children and lived happily ever after, and she never complained when the guy had young girlfriends well into old age.

Lula hadn't written this. She knew how to spell
beauty
and
healer
. Her story wasn't about poisoning a girl and then curing her and she's yours. Fifteen children? The wife who doesn't mind the old guy having young girlfriends? What sicko male pig wrote that? A male pig who couldn't spell.

Or maybe someone was trying to make her think she'd lost her mind. She and Dunia had watched an old black-and-white movie on the Belarusian model's TV about an evil husband convincing his wife she'd gone mad so he could put her in an asylum and steal all her money. But Lula was sane enough to know that someone had sat here and read what she wrote and finished her story for her.

This was creepy in the extreme! Had Lula come home sooner, her chair might have been warm from her self-appointed ghostwriter's ass. Frantically, she searched the house for signs of alien presence. Nothing had been disturbed. She should run back to the library and throw herself on Mrs. Beller's mercy. But what would happen when Zeke came home to find the intruder still here? Lula should dial 911 and tell the police that someone had broken into the house to write fiction on her computer. She'd like to hear how that went. Anyway, no self-respecting Albanian called the cops for any reason, good or bad.

Lula checked the house again. She even went down to the basement, which scared her in the best of times. Really, it was fortunate she didn't believe in ghosts. When Franco, the waiter-sculptor, took her to his loft, he'd told her a story about angels finishing an artist's work while he was away. Franco must have believed that spirits worked on his crappy sculptures, assembling the rusty bedsprings into outer space creatures while he was off serving red beans and rice. It was one of those things guys said when they wanted you to get you in bed. Could Franco have tracked her down and done this? Franco was grateful that she'd never once mentioned their one-time-only drunken night of awkward sex.

Unless Lula had written some notes to herself and forgot, notes so rough she never bothered correcting the misspellings? She would have remembered. She had to be logical, look at the facts, be her own detective.

It had to be an Albanian person who knew about Earthly Beauty. It was Alvo. It had to be.

Maybe Alvo's ending wasn't so bad after all. Readers might prefer the randy Albanian codger with the fifteen kids and the harem. And what became of the Earthly Beauty? Whiskers, sagging breasts. Most people would think she got what she deserved for making her boyfriend suffer.

Lula corrected the spelling and grammar and printed out the story, and that night asked Mister Stanley if he would mind looking at something she'd written. From across the kitchen, she watched him read. As he turned the last page, he said, “This is excellent. Can we share this with Don?”

“Naturally,” Lula said.

T
he next week, Don Settebello called and asked Lula if they could have lunch tomorrow. Just the two of them. During her work-visa application process, Don had several times taken her out for a burger to keep her informed about her case. All very proper and professional, the kindly hip avuncular lawyer reassuring the client in whom, he said several times, he saw his daughter, grown up. Surely he didn't mean Abigail, who had better start eating right now if she planned to turn into Lula. She'd assumed that Don meant his feelings for her were the purely paternal good wishes that a powerful older man feels for a bright, deserving young woman.

Don said, “Let's go to Mezza Luna. At the moment it's very hot, but I'm sure I can get in. The line cooks are all my clients. I need to ask you a little question. Maybe two little questions.”

Lula couldn't say no, though it made her uneasy to recall that subliminal sexual thrum she'd picked up from Don at the steak restaurant. Dear God, don't let him hit on her and make life complicated. She had to admit it was flattering that an important guy like Don would knowingly violate the ethics of his profession for a shot at Lula, who lately had not exactly enjoyed an excess of male sexual attention.

“Two little questions?” repeated Lula. She hadn't meant to sound provocative. Could one be: Will you blow me? Don would never say that.

Lula dressed up in her new clothes, this time without Zeke's scarf, and took the three buses that, against all odds, got her to the restaurant on time. Don rose to kiss her cheek. On the table were a glass and a half-empty bottle of red wine. Half full, Lula reminded herself.

“Something to drink?” asked the waiter.

Lula pointed at Don's bottle, and the magician-waiter produced a glass from thin air.

“Brilliant choice,” Don said.

Don asked after Stan and Zeke. Fine, they were fine, everybody was fine. When Lula asked Don how his cases were going, he stared into his wine and was silent for so long she wondered if he'd heard her. He said, “I went to Guantánamo.”

Lula said, “What happened?”

“It took me two days before they'd let me talk to anyone, and then another two days before anyone would talk to me. And then . . . the stories they told me, it was worse than you can imagine.” Don closed his eyes for a few moments, leaving Lula free to look him in the face and see more anger and torment than she wanted to see in her lawyer's face, or in anyone's, for that matter. “You know what they call torture? Enhanced interrogation techniques. You know what they call a beating? Non-injurious personal contact. A suicide attempt? Manipulative self-injurious behavior. If I told you what I heard there, they'd have to kill us both. I could lose my security clearance, and my poor client would be fucked. Except he's already fucked. I'm not going to tell you his name, he's a Harvard-trained Afghan cardiologist, he went home to start a clinic, and some piece-of-shit neighbor got two grand for turning him in as a Taliban leader. The neighbor probably wasn't even a shithead, just some desperate slob who needed the money. Meanwhile my guy gets three years of torture. No sleep. No food. Constant loud noise. Made to eat his own shit. Shackled and hung from the ceiling. Razor cuts on his penis.”

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