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Authors: Francine Prose

My New American Life (12 page)

BOOK: My New American Life
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“Don's a hero,” Lula said.

“That he is,” said Mister Stanley.

Chapter Six

ust when Lula had given up hope of ever seeing the Albanian guys again, Alvo showed up. He had a gauze bandage wrapped around his hand, and he flinched when he shut the front door behind him. There was something sexy about his wince and the whiteness of the bandage. When Lula asked, he told her he'd cut himself when a saw blade snapped. Being in the building trades was an accident waiting to happen. He said, “The workman's compensation board loves it that nobody's legal anymore, so nobody files claims.”

“I didn't know they had workman's insurance here,” Lula said.

“They used to,” Alvo told her.

“Coffee?” asked Lula. It was noon. She had been delaying the moment of making a sandwich from the last of Granny's red pepper jam and realizing that this would be the best part of her day, and that it was already over. She should offer Alvo something to eat. Zeke's leftover pizza? She could make an omelet.

Alvo said, “I was just in the neighborhood. You want to go get lunch?”

“Do I need to change?” Lula hadn't intended to make him look her up and down. Why had she quit dressing nicely and putting on makeup? Because she had no patience.

“Jeans are fine,” Alvo said.

She'd expected to find Hoodie and Leather Jacket waiting in the Lexus. But the SUV was empty.

“Are you okay?” Alvo asked.

Why did everyone ask her that? Was every emotion so plain on her face for the whole world to see?

She said, “At university I played poker. Lots of times, I won enough to buy my friends drinks at this club where we hung out in Blloku.”

“What club?” asked Alvo.

“The Paradise.”

“I used to go there,” said Alvo. “How come I never saw you?”

“I was there,” Lula said.

Alvo started the SUV and pulled away from the curb.

“I wish I could drive,” said Lula.

“I could teach you,” Alvo said. “It's easy. Babies drive. Senile grannies drive. It would take one lesson.”

“Two lessons,” said Lula.

“One lesson,” Alvo said.

Leftover drops from a morning shower sparkled on the fallen leaves and the brownish grass. They drove past a golf course on which there was a structure with three roofs, pointed like witch's hats.

“Look!” she said. “It looks just like that snack bar in the park in Tirana.”

Alvo nodded. That he knew which snack bar she meant made her senselessly happy.

Eventually, Lula and Alvo slipped into something resembling a companionable silence, the calm married-couple happiness that Lula, despite the odds and the evidence, still hoped someday to experience. With Alvo? She was dreaming.

The silken GPS voice guided Alvo through a series of turns. Then it murmured: “Approaching destination.” Alvo parked in front of a restaurant with a black curtain covering the window. Almost Albanian looking, except for the Asian lettering.

“Old Sam?” read Lula.

“Old Siam,” said Alvo. “Old Sam. Very funny.”

Lula said, “Go ahead, laugh. Nice guy. How do you know I'm not dyslexic?”

“Albanians don't get dyslexia. It's a disease Americans invented so they won't have to admit their kids are retarded.”

“Maybe I caught it since I got here,” said Lula. From this point it should have been easy to steer the conversation toward spelling. If only she could find out if Alvo could spell
. That would answer a lot of questions. Or anyway, one big question.

Alvo said, “We should get out of the car.”

“Sorry,” Lula said.

There was a worrisome scarcity of vehicles in Old Siam's parking lot. Two sips of a sweet umbrella drink—next stop, Bangkok whorehouse. No wonder her social life was in ruins! Who would date a girl who couldn't tell being trafficked from a lunch date? As they crossed the asphalt, her fingertips and, weirdly, the surface of her scalp seemed to be responding, independently of her brain, to Alvo's lanky physical
. It was impressive, how a few nerve endings firing at once could silence Lula's sensible doubts about being alone with a man she'd met when he came to hide a gun in her house.

Alvo said, “This Thai guy from work told me about this place. I love that about this country. Some people live here a lifetime, they only eat Albanian. But I like restaurants that serve the real deal from countries Albania never heard of.”

“Me too,” Lula said. She imagined herself and Alvo, brave culinary explorers, eating their way around the world without leaving the tri-state area. He'd said, A guy from work. Maybe he and the guys ran a crew. Maybe they had Thai workers.

“Queens is the best,” said Alvo.

“I've never been to Queens,” said Lula. “I'd love to go to Queens.”

There were no other customers to spoil the pristine perfection of the tables set with yellow cloths and folded napkins. Someone switched on a sound system, and a girl with a baby's voice cooed and hiccupped her way through a song that sounded like a lullaby but was surely about lost love. If Lula ever had a child, she would play it music like that.

The Asian woman who came out from the back of the restaurant was so glad to see them that Lula was frightened to look directly into her joy.

“Water?” The woman smiled, setting menus before them. They nodded. “Beer? Thai beer?” Nod nod. More smiles. Lula watched her walk toward the kitchen door, where another Asian woman and two blond men in white shirts and ties waited tensely as if to debrief her after a top-secret mission.

“Mormons,” said Lula.

“That's what I was thinking,” said Alvo.

Lula said, “How did they get in? Even under heaviest Communism you saw Mormons in Tirana.”

Alvo said, “Someone paid. Someone always pays.”

The walls were covered with mirrors in which Lula saw herself and Alvo beside a canal in Bangkok. An optical illusion: A poster behind them pictured a temple with orange dragons coiled beneath its pincerlike spires.

Lula said, “Have you eaten here before?”

“Never. I like to change things up from day to day. Never the same thing twice.” Alvo's tone was unsettling. He hadn't sounded like a laid-back, self-employed contractor wanting to maximize his fun, but rather like a gangster or politician describing security tactics designed to foil an assassination. Or was it a philosophical statement? Lula didn't feel she could ask. Maybe it was personal magic, a secret he had with himself, like the female CEOs wearing French underwear to board meetings. Alvo's gun was in Lula's underwear drawer, wrapped in those filmy garments that might not, after all, have been such a waste of money.

He said, “Also in private life. You don't want to be stupid. The place where lovers get blown away? It's always the lover's lane. The bench overlooking the Hudson. What sane person would go there? Some psycho sneaks up behind you. Blam. The perp's halfway to Pennsylvania before the ambulance comes.”

He's paranoid, thought Lula. Another thing they had in common.
was English for Balkan common sense. Lula could live without making out on a bench above the Hudson. But what would it be like to have a boyfriend who never did the same thing twice? Sexually, it could be interesting. Where was she getting
? From one Thai meal? If lunch was a relationship, Lula and Don were married.

But wait. Was that a hair on her plate? No, a thread from her glove. Lula picked it off, but not before her lavender soap, inscribed with a copper hair, hovered like a disgusting mirage above the sparkling china. In seconds it vanished, but not before Lula was able to positively match its color with Alvo's.

She said, “Have you ever stalked someone?”

Alvo said, “Strange question, but okay. You want me to stalk you?”

“Look in the mirror,” said Lula. “There we are. Eating lunch in Thailand.”

Alvo looked. It didn't interest him. After that there was silence.

Finally Alvo said, “I wouldn't go there. I know this Sherpa guy. Buddhist. Hard worker. Never lies. He told me there's this dog at home that brings down yaks by reaching up their asses and pulling out their guts.”

“Urban legend,” Lula said.

“That's what I thought,” said Alvo. “Then I saw it on the Internet.”

“If it's not a hoax,” said Lula, “why aren't those dogs the hot new pets for rap stars and Asian drug lords and Mexican narcos?”

“Good question,” Alvo said.

The waitress brought their beers.

,” Alvo toasted Lula.

,” Lula said.

A few swallows infused Lula with a fizzy optimism. Life was not so bad. Back in Tirana no one was taking her out to lunch, and this place would be fancy, and it wouldn't be Thai. At home there was only Albanian. And Chinese, which was the same lamb, only candy-coated and orange. Just before she left Tirana, a Mexican place opened up, Señor Somebody's, where waiters in cowboy hats served melted sheep cheese and corn chips to missionaries from Missouri. Dunia and the Belarusian model had taken Lula to a Thai restaurant on Rivington Street for her twenty-fifth birthday, so she'd eaten Thai food. Once.

“Why the big sigh?” asked Alvo.

Lula said, “I was thinking about a friend.”

“Friend as in boyfriend?” said Alvo.

“Friend as in homegirl. Last night, I couldn't sleep, I got up and went downstairs and turned on the TV and flipped through the channels. The best thing about my boss's house is, the walls are so thick no one hears anything.”

“Excellent,” said Alvo. “Let's say if you have guests.”

Was Alvo flirting? It could be embarrassing to mistakenly assume he was.

“I never have guests,” Lula said. “So last night on TV this Albanian girl was talking about marrying a rich mafioso and falling in love with his brother, who took her to Italy, where he beat her with a belt and turned her out as a prostitute until her uncle found her and an Albanian lawyer got her back. Two other girls were interviewed, both with similar stories, ghosts with smeary mascara running down their face. The thing was, I'd been lying awake worrying about my friend Dunia. She was here in New York with me, and she went back, but it's like she left the planet. She smart, she's tough. I tell myself she's okay. But maybe I'm just being lazy—”

“I've eaten lots of Thai food,” said Alvo. “But I don't recognize hardly anything on this menu.”

Lula said, “Pad thai is all I know. Why is this place so empty?”

Alvo said, “Maybe everybody in New Jersey is too retarded to know that Siam means Thai.”

He waved the Thai woman back, then looked into her eyes so warmly he could have been her favorite son stopping by for lunch. The woman nodded and waved her arms, sign language for I'll-take-care-of-you, and disappeared into the kitchen.

“Nicely done,” Lula said.

“Some people you can trust,” Alvo said. “You know right away. Which we learned growing up, am I right? I read this book about bodyguards who work for the mob and the British royal family and Saudi diplomats. The Arab drivers are the brave motherfuckers. The ones who get sent to Guantánamo.”

Lula said, “My lawyer has a client in Guantánamo.”

“Too bad for him.” Alvo crossed himself. “Too bad for his client.”

“You're Christian?” Lula asked.

“I'm nothing. I'm Albanian. Like you.”

“Like me. I mean, if there is a God, why is he so pissed off at Albanians?”

“Maybe God has a lousy personality,” said Alvo.

“Could be.” Neither had anything more to add on the subject of God. The conversation faltered until, even though it was a boring first-date question, Lula asked, “When did you come to this country?”

“1990, luckily for me. Or I'd still be there. You must have some hotshot lawyer to get a work visa after you're already here.”

“He's famous.” Lula tried not to think about Don's hand dropping on hers.

“If he's so good, why's he got a client in Guantánamo? Crazy country.”

“It beats home,” Lula said.

Alvo said, “The U.S. saved Kosovo from being ethnic-cleansed by the Serbs. No matter what else, we should be grateful. . . . But you know what? Sometimes I think this country's becoming like Albania, and Albania's becoming like this country. Like we're on opposite escalators meeting in the middle.”

“In Albania's dreams,” said Lula.

“We should be in the EU. Forget the trafficking, the drugs. If we had oil or even natural gas, we'd be in the EU yesterday! Then you get these deluded Albanian brothers sending the wrong message by plotting to blow up some army base in South Jersey. How does
make us look?”

“What plot?” said Lula. “What base?” Mister Stanley must have decided not to call her attention to that news item.

“Born-again jihadis,” said Alvo. “It's a problem. No one in our family would go to my second cousin's wedding because he wouldn't allow alcohol or music. What kind of religion would even
about a dry wedding? Bad way to start off a marriage.”

Lula almost mentioned that something similar existed in her family. Not that she knew her own jihadist cousin well enough to be invited to his wedding, or even to know if he got married. But something kept her from volunteering too much personal information. Who was Alvo, anyway? How had he found out her name? Cousin George? His aunt in immigration? Or was he an INS spy?

Lula said, “Would you know how to locate an Albanian girl if she went back home and vanished?”

“Why? You plan on vanishing?”

“My friend,” said Lula. “Dunia. The one I'm worried about.” Tears popped into her eyes. Alvo looked alarmed. In their brief acquaintance, he'd already seen her start crying and not be able to stop. He probably thought this was something she did all the time.

BOOK: My New American Life
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