A text by the 2015 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow T.M. De Vos
There's a minibus going everywhere, I swear. Even in the shittiest little towns, six to eight people get dropped off every two hours. I couldn't imagine what anyone else wanted in Stefan Voda, unless they somehow had jobs and still wanted to live there.
It was picturesque, like Grigorievca, with tin-cutout wells and weathered gingerbread on the houses and gates. Some fluffy yellow dogs with curly tails were scuffling around by someone's fence. I remembered how no young people stayed in the village and wondered if they all – the girls, anyway – ended up like Cristina.
"Hey. Dis is it." It was bright green, with lace-edged curtains and a ramshackle porch. I wondered which of the windows had been Cristina's and my stomach feathered, the way it did on the first day of school. Calm the fuck down, I instructed my intestines. There was no way I could ask Cristina's mother to use the bathroom. At least not right away.
"You should go first. Looks weird if just some guy."
I clenched my stomach, stuck the bouquet I'd picked up on my last Coke Light run out of Abrišeni in front of me like a charm, and rapped hard on the green metal door. Something shifted inside. It's nothing, I told myself. Village houses shift a lot.
But there was a small puff of air, then the door opened. My heart stopped. A hoarse, raw sound came from somewhere in my midsection. I forced my stomach to tighten its grip as an older, flower-printed, and padded Cristina appeared in the space the door had occupied. Her hair was a brighter auburn than was plausible, and her voice was sweet.
"Dobroe den, dyevushka."
"Dobroe den. Nous sommes…crap. I mean, we're friends of Cristina's, and – "
"Cristina?" Her face froze, the way Cristina's had when I suggested writing the letter.
I waved the envelope. "She writes you letter." Her eyes stuck to it, and she murmured something else.
"Go in." Ev said, nudging the small of my back. "She invites us."
I kicked the snow off my boots and stepped into the dill-scented warmth, where the national flying cloth was pinned above all the windows. You could see in every door. The furniture was low and covered in a lot of white. None of the rooms were as full as the kitchen.
She indicated the couch. "Please." Her eyes were darting and warm, doglike. Testing. Trying to see if we would hurt her. Like Cristina's when we first saw each other, as Boris explained the rules to Ev.
I extended the flowers again. "Um, here gift."
I heard her exclaim about the krasivii svetii just as I glimpsed a pink bedspread in the far room. There was a plain cross above the head of the bed – just in case, I could hear Cristina saying – and a couple dolls sitting on the pillow. This was where Cristina had slept, before. I thought of my own room back home, everything pink, left over from a girly phase that had lasted about a year: the file cabinet with its broken lock, folders full of old notes and school pictures, old thank-you note cards I used to send back when the relatives still sent me presents. Before my mom had cut everyone off. The books on my desk, dusty by now, and the clothes I couldn't take with me, slack in my closet, waiting for me to come and animate them.
I didn't try to follow Cristina's mom and Ev as they talked. I just tried to get the air in front of me to stop fizzing. Ev was using his manly voice, not loud like he did with Boris, but soft. Like a funeral director trying to soothe the bereaved. I tried to be relaxed by it. I tried to stop thinking of my own empty room. I had no right to appropriate this moment: I hadn't been kidnapped, or trafficked.
My virginity hadn't budged. Even in a country full of traffickers, I thought, bitter, then admonished myself for being bitter.
Cristina's mom wiped her eyes with the edge of the tablecloth and shook her head, as if she'd just caught herself at something. "Excuse me." She got up and starting fiddling with the kettle.
I looked at Ev and raised my eyebrows. The movement made me dizzy again.
He leaned forward. "So I told her that we met and I would read her the letter."
"She can't read?" So Cristina’s intelligence was all self-made. There was a Latin phrase for that. We had learned it in biology.
"Her eyes are bad and one side of her glasses broke. And she is a little freaked out."
"Oh." I handed him the letter. When I moved, my stomach gurgled. I dug my elbow into it, hard.
Ev only had to read "Dear Mom," and Cristina's mother burst into tears. By the next line, my face was itchy and hot, too. I wiped the back of my hand across my eyes, and it came away with broad black streaks.
Sui generis. That was it. Spontaneous generation. I had doodled that phrase all over my notes that semester. I liked the idea of coming from nothing, even if it had been disproven.
The kettle started to whistle, but no one moved. After Ev finished reading, Cristina's mom got up with a gasp and grabbed it, pouring its contents into a teapot. She placed it on a tray with some
little green cups, a sugar bowl, little tongs, and cream. I was impressed. I barely got beyond a takeout container under the best of circumstances.
They went back and forth for a while. I half listened, still staring into the pink room and arguing myself out of feeling homesick. Homesick and something else. This weird feeling, like I almost knew what it was like to be Cristina. I didn't, of course. Wrong culture. Wrong continent. Wrong color. You couldn't reduce the experience of being a girl to a pink room and a couple of dolls.
But still, I thought, twisting my fingers in my lap.
"Thing. She ask you about yourself."
I pulled myself together. I could do this. "I'm American. I live in Abrişeni. I'm 18 summers. I teach English and do manicure and pedicure."
"Why…" was all I understood.
"Tell her why you come to Moldova."
"Uh, I study language." Not a lie. I thought for a second and added, "I like Moldova." I didn't want to seem like I thought it was all bad.
I heard something about krasivaya. She started to cry again. Then she asked a question. I only understood Cristina and prostitutka. Ev and I whipped our heads toward each other. We hadn't prepared for this one.
That was an answer. She scraped her eyes redder with her handkerchief. Maybe she thought Cristina had been a slut all along because she'd liked a boy. That had been innocent, but some people had a serious virgin-whore complex. I thought of Snezhana, waving her hand, dismissing the whole centru, maybe the whole idea of human rights in general: They know what they go to do. Maybe most people thought it only happened to girls who wanted it. But you couldn't always want it. Even I didn't. Some days you're bloated or cranky and just want to reread Wuthering Heights and order Dinersty, and you don't want someone in your room, lining his body up with yours like a python about to feed.
I spoke up. "She doesn't want. She is good." I wished my Russian vocabulary was extensive enough to say something that didn't perpetuate the virgin-whore dichotomy, but it was the best I could do.
She narrowed her eyes at me the way her daughter had, and I felt my pulse quicken. Had I said something wrong? But then she nodded, and I remembered she couldn't see well.
"I know, I know," she murmured, like a chant. After a moment, she stood up and beckoned us over to a little room. The pink one.
My stomach lurched anew. Be still, my bowels. I had been peeking in there this whole time, and now that I was invited, I was afraid to go. I forced myself to get up and peer inside. It wasn't like I was going to find a ghost in there. Cristina was alive.
A low shelf held a cassette player and a small stack of unlabeled tapes in cases. There were a few books – physics, Tolstoy, I pronounced silently, tongue against my palate. A picture of Jesus on the wall, gazing up through a cloud as if checking for rain. The dolls on the bed had long ringlets and looked as if they had never been played with. I thought of Misha and his painstaking walk to and from the toy shelf every morning and night with his truck.
Cristina's mom was talking, but I barely heard. I was thinking of the dolls my mom had bought me the first time she forgot my birthday. I didn't have time to get you a gift, she'd said, and I didn't understand, because she was always home. She took me to the doll hospital and bought me two. Their names were Samantha and Isabella, brunette and blonde, and they were pale and expensive and beautiful. I never played with them, only brushed their hair and held them when I wanted to feel well-bred and demure, like a girl from a British novel.
Maybe Cristina would want to see hers again. Maybe if she brushed their hair, the newness would rub off on her a little. I nudged Ev, who was nodding. He held up his finger to me and waited while Cristina's mom paused to wipe her face.
"Can we take something to her? And keep it for when we see her?"
I listened while he said Vesh. Thing. Hochet. Wants. Vesh sounded like another person, someone none of us knew. She wanted something that changed the endings of the rest of words in the sentence and required vocabulary I didn't know.
Cristina’s mom tilted her head and fixed her eyes on me. I tried to look both innocent and like I knew what I was doing, as if I could actually accomplish something in this place. My stomach dropped. I thought of asking about the bathroom, but I couldn't say tualet here in Cristina's room. You can't, I told myself. You just can't.
She picked up the brunette doll and held her out to me. Through the cold satin dress and slippery ringlets, the porcelain felt like a light, airy skeleton.
Even Ev couldn't resist reading her mom's letter back to her. We unfolded it in the minibus, each holding a corner, as if it would be dusted for fingerprints. "God will forgive you, my dear lost girl. What you must do, He will also forgive."
"What does that mean exactly?" The doll slipped in my lap, and I pulled her back upright.
Ev shrugged. "Maybe hurt someone – Boris."
"God should definitely forgive that."
He folded up the letter, slowly, and tucked it back into the envelope.
"I feel sick." My stomach sounded like it was dissolving something that was still alive. I hoped Ev couldn't hear the burbling over the rattling of the engine.
"What is she gonna do when she's older?"
He just shook his head.
"What if she gets AIDS or something?"
"I think of this, too."
I faced forward and rested my chin on my knuckles, the way Bobby did after he had chewed a rawhide bone to mush. I thought about entropy. About energy fizzing into nothing, like a sparkler. About Cristina pacing behind a locked door with only a few scraps of yarn and cheap nail polish and worn books to entertain her. About the Romanian and Russian and French and philosophy idling in her mind. All the years of school and eating at her mom's table and seeing her relatives at holidays and her high-school crushes and her mother overprotecting her so she wouldn't kiss some village boy.
T.M. De Vos is Co-Editor-in-Chief of Gloom Cupboard and author of Cimmeria (Červena Barvá Press, 2016). Her work has appeared previous in Folder, pacificREVIEW, burntdistrict, Quiddity, Hawaii Pacific Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Prime Number Magazine, Pedestal, HOBART, Dossier Journal, Bosphorus Art Project Quarterly, and the Los Angeles Review. She has been named as a semifinalist for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award and the Paumanok Poetry Award. De Vos is also the recipient of fellowships from Murphy Writing Seminars, Summer Literary Seminars, and the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library.