Pamela Schoenewaldt



"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 game."

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 believe me?"

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 to ache.

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 my house!"

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 me!"

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 this."

"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 it."

"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.

Copyright © 2003 Pamela Schoenewaldt.  All Rights Reserved.

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