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Authors: Francine Prose

My New American Life (3 page)

BOOK: My New American Life
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Probably everywhere was the same. You paid and paid, and when you stopped paying, the favors stopped. Also this was New Jersey, the Mafia's home state. Lula watched
The Sopranos
with Zeke and Mister Stanley. Maybe the black SUV had come because Mister Stanley or Don quit paying a few months early.

The SUV reached the end of the block and pulled into a driveway. Lula watched it turn again and head back down the street. She wished she weren't alone in the house. Why was she so edgy? Could it be the residue of her Communist early childhood? Blame her delicate nervous system on growing up under a system that thought the Soviet Union was too liberal and was best friends with China until the dictator decided that China was too liberal, and China cut them loose. Blame it on the neighbor woman in Tirana who got sent away because her son rotated the roof antenna so he could hear a chesty Italian girl sing his favorite song. The reception was too fuzzy to see, but the audio was enough to get his mom dragged off in broad daylight. It was one of Lula's first memories. Everyone was afraid. Her dad was taken away for one night. But the next day, he came home.

Even though Lula's immigration status was secure for now, she felt her future depended on the web of lies she had started spinning the first time she'd met Mister Stanley. It was Mister Stanley's fault for asking her a question he could have answered, though she knew it was something any prospective employer might wonder.

“Why did you leave Albania?”

She'd gazed into her Frappuccino. “Listen. Mister Stanley, you have to understand.”

“Call me Stanley.”

Of course. Stanley. Mister Stanley had to understand that in the part of Albania where Lula grew up, blood feuds still raged for generations. Revenges. Bride kidnappings. Their idea of courtship was still the fireman-carry and rape. Her Cousin George was involved in one such case. The couple holed up in a cave and the girl's relatives blocked the mouth of the cave with stones, and the lovers suffocated. Lula thought it was smart to emigrate while she was several rungs down the hit list.

“Dear God,” said Mister Stanley.

So it really was his fault, falling for such a story. Hadn't he been a professor? Shouldn't he have known better? She did have a Cousin George. But the story happened in the time of her great-great-grandfather, when the family slept in the same room with their donkey on a mountaintop in Shkodër. Her actual Cousin George had one of the bigger Mercedes dealerships in Tirana, and when she imagined him holed up in a cave, she saw him yelling about bad cell phone reception and blaming his wife, who looked like a fatter, older Donatella Versace. Besides, no one considered a woman or child worth the bullets and ill will. A woman's blood was worth less than a man's. Now the blood feuds were all about real estate. Very unromantic.

Mister Stanley should go to Albania if he wondered why she'd left. Who would choose Tirana over a city where half-naked fashion models and their stockbroker boyfriends drank mojitos from pitchers decorated with dancing monkeys? The land of opportunity. Hadn't Mister Stanley heard? But America was like Communism and post-Communism combined. You weren't supposed to be materialistic until you got successful, after which it was practically your duty to flaunt it in everyone's face.

The lie about the blood feud had been a mistake. Mister Stanley asked if those vendettas ever carried over here. Lula said her clan was superstitious about crossing water. Anyway, her family hadn't lived in that part of Albania for generations. Her great-grandparents, rest in peace, had left the north for the capital, where she'd studied English at the university. When her parents got caught in Kosovo, she'd stayed behind at school in Tirana. After they died in the war, she'd graduated from university and lived with her aunt and uncle and taken more English lessons until she'd figured out what to do next.

Mister Stanley complimented her English. He'd said, “That story about the cave . . . you should write it down.”

Lula said, “That's what I should do when your son is at school.”

Maybe that was part of the reason she was hired. Mister Stanley got a babysitter and his own private art colony for the same low price. The Lorenzo de Medici of Baywater, New Jersey.

Mister Stanley was all business, working and doing his job. He slept through most of Saturdays, which Zeke spent with his friends, girls and boys, all with dyed black hair and facial hardware. Neither Mister Stanley nor Zeke was big on family life, but Lula felt it was only friendly to offer to cook them Sunday breakfast. Mister Stanley said, Thank you, that would be nice, but no bacon, egg whites only. Cheerios or oatmeal. His bad cholesterol numbers were high.

No one talked at these Sunday meals. Zeke's chair was not even a dining room chair but an armchair pushed to the table, so Zeke could nod off, or pretend to. It was awkward, eating egg-white omelets with silent Mister Stanley and his snoozing son. It was as if there were two Zekes: the agreeable boy he was with Lula, and the furious troll he became around his father. Lula told Zeke he should be nicer to his dad, and Zeke agreed, but he couldn't. It would have meant going against his culture.

Sometimes Mister Stanley got annoyed at his son. But his impatience or disappointment or hurt (it was hard to tell) expressed itself as sadness rather than anger. By Albanian standards and even, Lula suspected, by American ones, Mister Stanley had a narrow emotional range. Nothing in Lula's past had prepared her for his baby-bottle lukewarmness. Especially when they'd been drinking, her father and her uncle believed that pointless yelling was not just the prerogative but the proof of maleness. Because they did so much shouting, no one paid attention, so the end result wasn't so different from the end result of Mister Stanley's composure.

At home, family parties always ended in fights, but never once was there anything like a family gathering at Mister Stanley's. Wasn't there an Albanian-style widowed aunt or grandma who could have moved in with the dad and son and kept house? Mister Stanley had neither parents nor siblings, and on those rare occasions when Ginger's parents phoned from Indiana to speak to their grandson, Zeke instructed Lula to tell them he was out.

On Sunday afternoons, father and son did father-son things—baseball, tennis, the park—inspired, Lula sensed, by their need to prove something to the disappeared mom: how well they were doing without her. Mister Stanley had a boyish love for buying sports equipment, and he was at his most cheerful (not very) when he and Zeke left to try out a new racket or catcher's mitt. Each time they returned, Zeke had sustained some minor injury that required a bandage or ice pack, which his father seemed to enjoy providing. The happiest moment of the week arrived on Sunday nights when Lula and Zeke and Mister Stanley watched Tony Soprano and his even more messed-up family drive their gigantic vehicles through neighborhoods flatteringly near Baywater.

Mister Stanley had mentioned his Sunday outings with Zeke at Lula's job interview. Meaning he wasn't adopting Lula, she shouldn't expect to be invited. That was fine, Lula said. That was when she mentioned that she didn't drive. Mister Stanley had said
that
was fine, but she might feel trapped in the suburbs, and she'd said, No, that was fine, she was a big reader, it was how she'd learned English, and Mister Stanley said that was excellent. Zeke wasn't much of a reader, maybe it would rub off. The sweet little public library was within walking distance. Lula worried she would be expected to have books around the house. She was reassured when Mister Stanley didn't ask what she liked to read.

Lula had told Mister Stanley she wanted structure. Well, structure was what she'd got. Walls, a roof. A front yard. Be careful what you ask for.

Sometimes on weekends Lula went into the city. The happy shopping couples, the giggly groups of girlfriends, could see how lonely she was. Sometimes she thought they were laughing at her. Stranger in a strange land. She was always happy to get back to New Jersey.

Another problem with lying was how often lies came true. Now, for example, since the public library was one of the few places she could walk to, she had become a reader. She'd looked up Albania and spent hours reading the novels of Ismail Kadare, her country's greatest novelist, who until now she'd only pretended to have read. Trying to imagine the words back into Albanian was good for her English. Not having gotten one piece of mail—let alone a utility bill—at Mister Stanley's, she couldn't apply for a library card. But now that she had her work visa, maybe she'd try again.

She had also started writing, another lie come true. Zeke let her borrow his laptop when he was at school. He made her promise not to look at his files. Touched by his trust, Lula never mentioned the beautiful girls who kept popping up, asking Zeke to get back in touch. Who knew if they even looked like that, or how old they thought Zeke was? Lula e-shopped for luxury items—garden furniture, scented candles, motorboats—she would never buy, priced itineraries to places she would never travel.

Eventually, Lula buckled down and wrote a story in English, with the help of a dictionary and a thesaurus she found in Zeke's room. In the flyleaf was an inscription. “To Zeke, Happy Birthday from Mom, may words give you wings!” What heartless witch gives a teenage boy a thesaurus for his birthday?

Trying not to think too hard, Lula wrote a story about the blood feud in her great-great-grandfather's time. She pretended that her Cousin George was the bridegroom's brother and added a long poetic passage about the bride walled in, stone by stone. There was also a lot about muskets, information that came easily, her dad having been a gun nut, and finally lots of folkloric stuff, curses and proverbs she found on Albanian online forums. She put in everything but the sound track of Albanian folk songs.

Mister Stanley liked her story so much that it became part of the package they gave Don Settebello, who now listed writer among her skills, along with translation and childhood education. Independently, or maybe not so independently, Mister Stanley and Don suggested she write a book. Lula couldn't imagine why a country would want a citizen from a long line of blood feuders. So to tip the scales in her favor, she wrote a sad story about the day she heard that her parents had been killed in the NATO bombing.

“I'm so sorry,” Mister Stanley said.

“I'm okay,” Lula assured him.

It was true, they'd died in the war. So what if they hadn't really got stuck in Kosovo when the war broke out, but had sneaked across the border when it was almost over? Thousands of refugees had been fleeing from Kosovo into Albania, from the Serbs and from NATO. Only her crazy father had stolen his brother's car and, fueled by drink and misguided patriotism, driven himself and her mother in the wrong direction. His Kosovar brothers needed him! Her dad had gotten it into his head that the Kosovo Liberation Army could use his collection of tribal muskets. So what if it wasn't the NATO bombing that got them, but an auto crash, and her dad was driving drunk? They'd hit a NATO tank. Lula's private opinion was that he'd been on a suicide mission. The six years since her parents died sometimes seemed like an eye-blink and sometimes like forever. Some days Lula could hardly remember them, some days she couldn't stop seeing their faces. She still cried whenever she thought about her dad's funny porkpie hat, a style increasingly popular with hipster boys in Brooklyn.

“You should write a memoir,” Mister Stanley had said, that first conversation.

“Maybe short stories,” said Lula.

“I don't know,” said Mister Stanley. “Don says nonfiction sells better. A memoir of immigrant life. Coming from the most backward Communist country and moving here—”

“Not the most backward,” said Lula. “You're forgetting the stans. Turkmenistan. Uzbekistan.”

“Sorry,” said Mister Stanley. “That was thoughtless.”

“Don't mention it,” said Lula.

B
y the time the Lexus had passed the house four times, Lula had progressed from being sure it had nothing to do with her to thinking it was no wonder that the car had come to punish her for lying.

The Lexus stopped. Three guys got out and ambled toward Mister Stanley's. No double-checking the address. They acted like they lived here. All three wore black jeans streaked with white dust. Maybe they were in construction. Had Mister Stanley hired someone to fix the house and not told her?

One of the men wore a red hoodie appliquéd with the black double-headed Albanian eagle. Not exactly regulation INS business wear. So it made sense, of a kind. How many Albanians were there in the metropolitan area? The odds were against this being a random home invasion. Which wasn't to say that her fellow countrymen wouldn't rape and kill her for fun. But the odds were also against their doing that to an Albanian girl they didn't personally know.

Had Mister Stanley called Albanians to work on his house? Surely he would have said. Lula sometimes watched a TV show that warned you about the latest dangers—phone scams, dust mites, black mold, carjackings. But the series was in rerun, so you couldn't tell if the threat was current. Not long ago she'd seen a segment about a gang that went door-to-door and offered to fix your roof, and if you refused your house burned down.

The three guys were like a comedy act. Two of them looked like twins. Same body type, black cop shades, overly gelled spiked hair. Stocky, big hips, fat asses. She'd gone to high school with guys like that. Maybe she even knew them. The one without the hoodie wore a long black leather coat.

The third was taller, red-haired, and fell in behind the other two. Cool, both hands in his pockets. Cute. He glanced up at the window and saw her. He had a mustache and longish hair. He reminded her of a boyfriend with whom she'd sniffed glue when she was young and crazy and going to raves in the bunker fields. Now that the Cute One had seen her, pride wouldn't let her lock herself in the bathroom and pretend not to hear the doorbell.

BOOK: My New American Life
7.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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