HER FIRST BULGARIAN OCCUPATION
"My hair stands on end when youíre talking to me," Josieís adopted daughter
Maia has just announced. "I see your face and want to scream." Even if she
doesnít scream, Maia stiffens when Josie walks into the room, more and more
since Maiaís breasts began to bloom. Now that sheís crossed menarche, her
dark eyes launch spears.
Lately, itís been even worse. Josieís house is invaded,
occupied, nearly possessed by a stubby Bulgarian woman named Svetla, who is
Maiaís birth mother. Svetla dumped the child in an orphanage when Maia was
six years old and too much in the way. When Josie fights with Maia now,
Svetla is always somehow in the room, watching from the shadows or slipping
out the door. Josieís therapist keeps saying: "The past wonít go away. Try
to honor it while you build your new life together. Be patient, this phase
can be a struggle." Actually, itís trench warfare; itís a world away from
the peace Josie feels now only when she watches Maia sleep, turning and
sighing, clenching the teddy bear that Robert and Josie gave her on their
first night together as a family.
These days thick gray smoke from Svetlaís Balkan
cigarettes clouds the air inside the house and makes it stink. Josie feels
Svetla at her back, making ugly faces when Josie fights or even talks with
Maia about homework, chores, the epic bouts of screaming when Maia doesnít
get her way, the books and toys she regularly hurls from her room, the
broken promises or wild threats she makes on the slightest provocation.
Nearly every talk ends with Maia shouting: "Shut up, Bitch, I hate you!" or
"If you donít like me how I am, put me in an orphanage. I know youíll do it
someday. See if I care." Then she stomps up to her bedroom. When Maiaís door
slams shut, the whole house shakes. From behind the door come muffled sobs,
but if Josie tries to enter, shoes are thrown at her, books, balled-up wads
of homework, once a glass that shattered on the wall.
Since Maiaís was "an older child adoption," a judge
asked: "Maia, do you understand what adoption means? Do you want this new
family? Do you want to go to America with them?" Back then, Maia answered,
"Yes, oh yes." Now she screams, "I didnít know what a shitty mom youíd be."
"Too bad!" Josie shouts back when sheís mad enough. "Iím
the best youíve got."
Of course they have some lighter moments. When they shop
or cook together, Maia giggles and plays. When sheís sick, she lets herself
be held or even read to, old as she is. Once she did concede, "Nobody ever
read to me before, not ever." Sometimes Maia takes a pink, sugar-reeking wad
from her mouth and waves it at Svetla, right in Josieís face. "See?" Maia
gloats, "I get real gum now!" She crams it her mouth, then blows
enormous bubbles. In Bulgaria she pulled chunks of asphalt off the street
and chewed them. She didnít know better and nobody told her not to.
But there were other things she knew. She knew when to
leave. Svetla brought men home or moved in with them. If she couldnít stash
her kids with relatives or job them out to neighbors, she hauled them to the
newest man. Cramped, drunk, tired of noise, one of these men hurled Maiaís
baby sister through the window on a winter night. Maia and her mother
scavenged in the dark, feeling the frozen ground through shards of glass
until they found the cold, bruised baby, too stunned to cry. At five years
old, Maia had a plan: "Let him drink. Pretty soon heíll fall asleep," she
whispered to Svetla. "Then we run away." They did just that, packing
quietly, muffling the baby and hurrying through unlit streets to a new manís
houseó "my real father," Maia insists.
"Good for you," Josie says carefully to this story. "You
knew how to take care of yourself." She doesnít mention what the lawyer
said: this man, if he was her real father, ran away from her birth
certificate, leaving no trace of his name behind.
Itís November. Maiaís grades are in free fall. "I donít
care about school," she announces, "Iíll be poor anyway when I grow up. I
can be a beggar. And donít say, ĎStudy with Dad,í because I wonít." A year
ago, sheíd spend at least an hour with Robert doing homework after dinner,
sullen, but at least mildly attentive. No more. Itís also true that after
Robertís promotion, heís more often gone. Heís gone right now. He just
called from Chicago to say heís sorry, but heís trapped: a project due to
end this Friday will last through Monday. Svetla stays away when Robertís
home. Now sheíll be bold all weekend.
"Oh yeah, right," Maia mocks when Josie explains the
change of plans. "I just bet ĎSomething came up.í I bet you even believe
it." In fact Josie does believe, but how could Maia, when every man she ever
knew either hurt or used or left her? When Josieís washing dishes, Maia
appears in the doorway with Svetla grinning behind her. Maia says, "I bet
Dadís with another woman now. Why should he come home if youíre all stressed
and Iím so bad?"
"Ignore the provocation," Josieís therapist says. "Get
out of the house if you need to." Josie needs to now. She goes grocery
shopping, then meets a friend for coffee. When she comes home, itís six on a
Friday evening and Maiaís already asleep, her face pressed into the bear.
Schoolbooks are spread out on the bed. Josie covers her and hopes for a
better tomorrow. Svetlaís nowhere around.
Saturday morning, very late, Josie tries to rouse her
daughter: "Maia, remember, you need to rake the leaves before the soccer
Turning, groaning, Maia kicks her books on the floor.
"Later," she mumbles. "And forget soccer. Itís boring. I dropped the team."
By afternoon, a brown curled carpet coats the lawn. Maiaís watching
television. "I did rake the leaves; wind must have blown them back,"
she insists, pointing the TV control at Josie and pressing "Mute."
"Maia," says Josie as calmly as she can, "you know the
leaves werenít raked and there wasnít any wind today."
Maia screams: "You always say Iím lying! Why canít you
Now Josie feels wind at her neck, her hair on end.
Svetlaís behind her, blowing acrid smoke and angry words that Josieís sure
she understands, even in a language she canít speak: "Forget this
Americanski. Sheís nobody to you, just documents. Itís blood between us. Iím
your real mother. I made you and youíll be just like me. Besides, one
day sheíll take you to an orphanage. Count on it. Youíd make any mother
crazy, you lazy, stupid, worthless girl." Leaning closer, breathing in the
childís face, she must be saying: "Arenít you grateful youíre
adopted? Why not rake like the nice lady wants?"
Svetla stalks away, leaving Josie and Maia stinking in
her smoke, dazed and fighting over leaves again. Josie breathes deeply and
tries to remember, as Robert often says, just whoís the child here. Iíll try
tomorrow, sheís about to conclude; thereís no point fighting everything
today. But now Maia kicks over a flower vase, screaming, "I wonít rake your
goddamn lawn, not now, not ever. Get it? Get it!" In the ringing silence all
Josie can do is the dull obvious. She writes "no" on a chore calendar
provided by the family therapist. Each week has more noís. "And I wonít get
my allowance, you donít have to tell me," Maia shrieks from the next room.
"Demonstrate cause and effect," the therapist keeps
insisting. "Give consistent rewards and consequences. Eventually it sinks
in." While Josie demonstrates cause and effect, she hears a banging in the
garage, then a fast, hard raking in the yard. Suddenly exhausted, she
crosses out the "no" and goes up to her room to read. She should be
relieved, she should call Robert to report this little peace, but all she
can do is try to read, gripping the book so tightly that her fingers start
An hour later, when Josie comes down to the living room,
she canít see the carpet ó itís covered with dry leaves. Outside the yard is
clear. Maiaís watching television. The leaves beneath Josieís feet crackle
when she walks, breaking up in tiny shards. Now she feels Svetla behind her,
close as a shadow. Josie smells heavy rose perfume, tobacco and sweat-soaked
synthetics. She spins around. Svetla steps back, pudgy face smirking. This
is the first time theyíve been so close. That smirk ó Josie sees it daily on
a smaller face. She tries to remember that face and how it seized
both her and Robert when they first went to the orphanage: Maiaís fragile
beauty, her tiny smile and brave lift to the chin, and yet such haunting
longing in the eyes, the way her slight fingers slipped into their hands and
waited for their grasp.
Svetla points to the curled brown leaves and bursts out
laughing. Her bracelets jangle like dull bells. She digs another pack of
smokes from inside her shirt. Is she padded with packs? There are a thousand
fights to choose from, but this oneís right in Josieís face: "Donít smoke in
Svetla shrugs as if she doesnít understand. But when
Josie bats at the now-black smoke rolling over them, Svetla smiles and
mimics: "Donít schmoke in my house!" Her ashes vanish in the leaves.
Furious, Josie grabs for the smoking hand, but Svetla
skitters away to the dining room, crunching on leaves. Stupid, what would I
do if I got her, Josie chides herself, shake her like a rag? What good is
that? Think of her life, get into her skin, just try. Imagine: poor
and ignorant, no skills to sell, no social services in a disintegrating
post-communist world, losing her looks, hunting men whoíll trade for room,
board, and smokes, children screaming, thrown from windows, chewing asphalt,
her lovely little daughter too much noticed by boyfriends, uncles and old
men. All this may be true, Josie concedes and yet hereís another truth: two
mothers, but one signed papers: I relinquish, I renounce, I give up this
child forever. The other signed: yes, we want her, forever. And whose house
is this, about to burn, and whose daughter now? Josie shouts to Svetla: "Get
out!" She points to the door. This much the woman has to understand:
pointing, doors. "Neh," no, Svetla shouts back, stamping her feet and
planting herself like a tree in the dead leaves.
The shouting brings Maia, gripping the station changer.
Will she mute them both? When Svetla turns to stare at her, Maiaís hard,
lovely face begins to thaw and crack, like winter passing, all her
pre-adolescent sureness melting down to bewilderment and rage. Now she
bursts out screaming: "Why did you give me away? Why? What did I do? Tell
Svetla doesnít answer, just tugs at her necklace,
clacking the beads. All the business with the leaves, all of Josieís other
business shrinks to smaller than a necklace bead. "Tell her why you did it!
Give the kid some peace!" Josie shouts. Svetla turns to glare, as if to hush
a whimpering child. "Tell her!" Josie shouts again. "I want some peace
myself. Tell her, then go! Leave, get out of our house!"
Svetla turns away, but not to leave. Thereís a table near
the front door, waist high in the crook of the stairway, piled with mail,
keys and objects on their way upstairs. Svetla shoves all this aside and
climbs onto the table, filling up the space.
"Tell her she canít stay," says Josie.
Maia translates. Svetla rests her head against the
banister and lights another cigarette. "What now, Lady, call the Police?"
she must be saying.
"Say I wonít feed her, ever," Josie tries.
Now Maia stiffens. "Donít be stingy."
"Iím very stingy. This is the House of Stingy,
tell her that." Smoke is thicker now, like a cloud. Svetlaís barely visible
inside it. Keys fly, knocking, scraping; is she ripping the house down?
"Stop that!" Josie shouts. The smoke clears. She knows
what Svetla must be saying: "I would have kept you if I had a house like
"Oh yeah?" Maia screams, then slides back into Bulgarian.
Josie doesnít understand a word, but from the little screaming face she
reads her daughterís childhood, pain on pain. Svetla stares, smoking hard.
Afterwards, Maia is exhausted; sheís panting and her slight shoulders shake.
Josie grabs her, holds her tight and says, "Shh, youíre here now, home.
Weíre your family. She wonít stay; soon sheíll leave for good."
Maia sighs, pure Balkan teenager: moms and Americans,
donít they get how dumb they are? They think: study hard, do your chores,
get a job, pay your bills, donít mess up and things work out. What do they
know of life in her country? Not everything works out. "Maiaís wounds
are deep," the therapist has warned them. "I canít promise that sheíll make
"No, Mom, she wonít leave for good," Maia
concludes, precisely as sheíd say, "No, Mom, Iím not studying."
"Well then," Josie says, "what should we do?"
Maia cocks her head. Is it so rare sheís asked for
opinions? Perhaps so. Sheís still breathing hard. "Iíll tell her she can
stay on the table if she leaves us alone in the rest of the house," Maia
hazards. "We could put all that stuff on the coffee table." Josie could have
guessed ó Maia hates any kind of cleaning, straightening or putting away
possessions. She wants everything she owns in full view.
Josie considers the cherry-dark wood of the coffee table, a smooth oval
lake, calming to see. "I guess we could do that," she agrees. She and Maia
move keys and mail while Svetla glares at them. "And now," says Josie, "itís
time to take the leaves outside."
"No, Mom, itís not time," Maia answers, seizing
the remote. "Itís time to watch TV."
"Really?" says Josie. "Think about it." She makes herself
leave the room and find a long, noisy job in the kitchen. An hour later,
most of the leaves are out of the house and scattered back on the lawn.
For the rest of the day, each time Maia stomps past the
table, she barks into the smoky cloud: "Why? Tell me why!" From the cloud
comes, "No," or "I donít know." Never more than this. On Sunday afternoon,
Josie and Maia rake the lawn together ó grimly ó but they do it.
Svetla slowly drifts away from the table and finally out
the door, although the acrid smoke remains. Seasons pass and clumps of
curled old leaves remain as well, in corners or sometimes crunching
underfoot, even if Josie and Maia do lay out a few clear paths for daily use
inside their living room.