Magdalena Pryscz never asks for help—not from me, not from any- one. But as I listen to her croaking over the phone, sounding 20 years older than she actually is, I know this is no joke.
“I think I can drive,” she reports. “But I haven’t tried sitting down yet. I know I can’t lift it. Damn machine is heavier than it looks.”
“I’ll be there in five minutes, don’t worry,” I assure her.
I’m closing the grocery store tonight, so Lena is lucky. I have all afternoon to check up on her.
“Thanks, Riz,” Lena says as soon as I’m out the car door in a stranger’s driveway.
There’s a lot I have to ask her, but I do a double-take when Lena says my name. My driver’s license may spell my first name R-Y-S-Z-A-R-D, but once my manager’s name tag christened me “Richie,” the Anglo version stuck. Only people from way back—we’re talking preschool—still call me “Riz.” I hope Lena didn’t hit her head.
While I wait for Lena to speak, I survey the McMansion behind her. This part of town has been built up so much I hardly recognize it. It was uncanny to see that they’d named every street in this new development after something that begins with an “I.” From Ionne Avenue I turned onto Ivy Way, and so on, until I found my oldest friend in the world hunched over and pale in the driveway.
“At least I finished the job first,” Lena says, at last.
Her usually wild curls are tied down with a bandana. I’d make a joke about her old lady babushka, but it doesn’t look like she’d laugh.
“I was locking up and headed back to the car. I think the cord was wrapped around my leg,” she points her foot toward a carpet shampooer a few feet away.
With little emotion, Lena continues. “I fell on my back. I heard a crack when my ass hit the ground. This goddamn thing landed on one leg and hip.” She kicks it as if in retaliation.
“You were sandwiched,” I say, trying to hide the fact that I’m cring- ing. On the phone Lena told me the fall happened in the driveway. She didn’t even have carpet to cushion her landing.
“Knocked the wind out of me,” she spits.
I pick up the shampooer and pop the trunk of my car. I’m a guy, I’m in good shape, and I was surprised at how heavy the thing is. I wonder how Lena’s been huffing around with it for all these weeks.
“You can load it in mine,” Lena says, meaning her ancient Corolla.
“That fall sounds bad,” I say. “I’ll at least get this thing home for you.”
Before going home, Lena insists we stop at Fast Chek for coffee. It’s really code for her to inhale several Marlboro Reds between sips. Lena calls this “The Domestic Worker’s Diet.”
“You want to see?” she asks, a glimmer in her eye that reminds me of playground mischief.
Before I can respond either way, Lena has her back to me and is roll- ing up her shirt against her spine. I see an unnatural pond of swollen purple flesh and immediately taste bile.
“Bad?” she asks.
“Oh, Lena,” is all I manage to say.
“I’ll have to stand in front of the bathroom mirror to see it myself,”she says. “And I haven’t even checked the leg.” “Should we go to the ER?”
“No,” she scoffs. “I’ve been in worse situations, trust me.” And I do.
Once we graduated high school, Lena became a nomad. She’ll come home for spells to look after her widowed mother, who is on permanent disability with carpal tunnel. (Thirty years of factory work will do that to you.) Lena spends her few months home working punishing shifts with old Mrs. Siemanski’s cleaning company. She’s an unusual employee for many reasons—for one, she’s young, and for another, she’s a third generation American citizen. Usually Mrs. Siemanski only hires immigrant labor. Lena says she misses hearing English after a few months on the job.
This is ironic because Lena has spent so much time outside the country. She works for half a year at most, then jets away to do farm work in Mexico, to teach English in Thailand, to volunteer in Kenya. She hoards money, leaves as soon as she can, and returns like the Prodigal Daughter with nothing to show for a year abroad.
“I may be telling Mrs. Siemanski that this is it,” Lena says, running her hand down her bruised right leg.
“Well, it had to end eventually,” I say. “Maybe it’s time to apply for college.”
“Why rush?” Lena says, grimacing. “I’m only 25.”
She switches her footing with care, flinches, sucks on her cigarette for dear life.
“I think you need worker’s comp for this,” I say.
“You know I’m not on the books,” she says. “No sick time, no worker’s comp, no health insurance. Just take me home now.”
I haul the carpet cleaner up Lena’s front steps and set it to the side of the living room.
“I said, put it in my car,” Lena says with a frown.
“Not now,” I say. I feel certain it’ll be a long time until she needs to drag the offending appliance around again.
There’s always comfort to be found in the sights and smells of a familiar house, but my heart skips a beat when I look up to see Mrs. Pryscz staring at me. She’s wearing a bathrobe and looking sleepy. It’s 2 p.m. “Richie, so good to see you!” she says as she wraps her arms around me.
I kiss her on the cheek. “How are you?”
“More of the same,” she says with a smile, which I recognize as Lena’s. “Lena, you look tired!” She rushes over to her daughter.
“Yeah, ma.” She leans away from her mother’s hug. I’m not sure if it’s because of her new bruises, or some other kind of pain.
“Well, I’ll leave you guys to it,” she says, then looks me in the eye.
“See you Sunday, sweetie.”
I nod. She means St. Paul’s, the church where all of us were baptized.
Mrs. Pryscz never misses a Sunday.
I haven’t seen Lena at mass in years. I asked her once if she lost her faith in all those foreign cities, but she wouldn’t say yes or no. She only said she was sick of the parents of our former classmates coming up to her afterwards with questions. They’d say things like, “I can’t believe your mother let you go there,” or, “Your life is here, why spend so much time over there?”
I never understood why those questions made Lena so angry. I wonder those same things myself.
“Thank you, Richie,” Lena says, looking into my eyes.
“You can always call me,” I say. “Let me know how you feel by tonight.”
“First period ended already,” Stefanie Wojcik laments, and I could almost believe she was solely upset that I was missing the game.
She puts a beer in my hand and her head on my shoulder as I settle into her family’s living room for a Devil’s match. I breathe in the fruity smell of Steffy’s hair and feel instantly relaxed.
Everything about Stefanie is familiar; even her touch on my cheek is soothing. I know her inside and out. Her steady blue eyes, which are never stormy, the same color as the only shade of denim she’ll ever wear. Her dreams—to be a nurse, to have three children, to own a home. Her hates— bad breath, a messy room, and lately, Lena Pryscz.
“Did you take her to the emergency room?” asks Stefanie.
“No, she wouldn’t go,” I say after swallowing some Rolling Rock. “No insurance.”
Stefanie crosses, then uncrosses, her legs. “Is she going to ask you to carry her equipment every day?”
“No, she’d never do that,” I say, then peel my eyes from the TV screen and really look at my girlfriend. “I don’t think she’ll be back at work for a while. Don’t worry, she’d never ask something like that—she knows how busy we are.”
Stefanie is distracted by her cell, which rarely has service from inside her own house. “I can’t stand this phone,” she says in a huff. “Is it worth it to replace it, when…”
“I’m not saying a word,” I say with a dramatic shrug. “But if you’re eligible for an upgrade on your parents’ plan, I would take it. What I’m plan- ning for you is so much better than that.”
Her twenty-first birthday is a few weeks away, a fact that everyone, Lena especially, gives me mountains of shit for on a daily basis. (I’ll be 26 this summer.) Regardless, I want to plan the perfect day: sightseeing in The City, roses, dinner out. I was checking out prices for a limo to drive us around that night, and while it was steep, it was a drop in the ocean compared to the rings I’ve been pricing out as well.
Steffy and I broke up last summer for stupid reasons: I never had enough time to hang out; she spent too many hours with her ex-boyfriend; I missed a party her family was throwing. None of those things really matter. I don’t want to let her get away again.
Lena has been sending me incoherent texts at odd hours of the night. When I finally get her on the phone, I confirm that she’s missed the last few days of work.
I worry about her through a long shift of telling high school students to smile at customers and honor coupons that don’t scan at the register. My staff is surly and resentful in ways I can’t remember being.
Lena was, though. In high school she laughed at me for working hard at service jobs, for seeing any future in them. She rolled her eyes at difficult customers when she was a clerk, and walked out on a half dozen jobs with a smirk on her face.
My shift is over, my back is aching, and I have late dinner plans with Steffy at 9. But I swing by Lena’s house just to check on her before I go home to change.
Lena is wearing old sweats and has the TV on at low volume. The den smells like weed, so I ask if her mom is home.
“Yeah, but passed out for the night. Why do you ask?” She raises an eyebrow in a way that is sexually suggestive, but also dismissive of her own attempt. I laugh.
“How’s your back?”
“Don’t ask,” she says.
“Lena, if it’s this bad, you need to go to a doctor.”
“Can’t afford it. I’d have to go to work just to pay for the healthcare that work doesn’t provide. I have two words for you: ‘fuck’ and ‘that’.”
“I’ll loan you the money,” I say. “Pay me back whenever.”
She sizes me up from across the couch. “No, if I remember Steffy, you’ll need every penny. She start sending you engagement ring pictures again?”
I don’t laugh. “I think I know what style she wants.”
“You’re serious?” Lena struggles to lose the anger in her voice. “Well, isn’t that exciting?”
“It is,” I say, “but you still need to ask me if you need anything.” She scoffs.
“Lena, I’m serious!”
“You can’t give me what I need!” she cries. “I don’t want to go to a clinic and I hardly want to go back to work for Mrs. Siemanski! I need a fortune teller, or an interview with Bóg.”
She rolls her eyes and does an impression of a priest while she says that last word. God. She’s asking for an interview with God.
“And what is it you need?” I say, squirming in my seat.
“I need to know I’m not trapped here,” Lena says, lowering her voice. “Not just this house, but this whole godforsaken town. I haven’t been away long enough, seen enough of the world. It’s too soon for me to wreck my body and get stuck, like…”
Her voice trails off, but I know Lena is thinking of her mother.
Lena may seem paranoid, but there’s something to her dislike of those other families we grew up with. They want her to fail, at least in her mission to continue exploring the world indefinitely. They want to see her humbled, living the life that people around here are expected to fall into. It doesn’t help that she bears the Polish name for the woman who washed Jesus’s feet with her hair and tears. Our former classmates are itching to see Lena atone, but I suspect she’ll die before she gives them the satisfaction.
“I have to head out,” I say, glancing at the time on my phone. “But I want you to know that—”
“Don’t keep Steffy waiting,” she says, and won’t look me in the eye as I head for the door.
I arrive at Clay Oven one minute late and am greeted by the smell of pizza, baked in the same brick ovens our great-grandparents used. The collar of my shirt feels too tight, but I try to focus on something else.
Stefanie looks great. You’d never guess she put in eight hours at a daycare today. I tell her so, and she sounds genuine when she returns the compliment. As I buttoned my dress shirt in front of the bathroom mirror, I swear I saw my father staring back at me. Mom tells me almost every day that I’m looking more and more like him—shoulders that could take up a whole room, wide hands, even his creases at the sides of the eyes. All I need is the grey hair and a prescription for bifocals, and I’d start collecting Social Security.
It’s rare for us to go out on anything like a date at all, though this place is mostly known as a bar after 10 P.M. I wonder if it even counts. The most expensive item on this menu is $15. I wish I could give Steffy so much more. I’ll work until I can give her more.
“Heard from Lena?” she asks.
“I don’t think she’s leaving the house these days,” I say, which is true, but not a full answer to the question. I feel sweat drops forming at my neck. “Aww, poor thing,” Stefanie says. “She should come out with us Friday. I’ve never really seen Lena in a club, but maybe she needs a change?”
I kiss Steffy on the cheek and say, “You’re sweet. I’ll ask.”
Days pass in a blur. I restock returned merchandise. I issue rain checks on sold-out items. I replace burned out light bulbs in my parents’ house. I remember what days the trash cans go to the curb, then come back inside. I fight to stay awake to spend time with my girlfriend. I let the expectations of others guide me through the week. A task needs to be done, I complete it, for a paycheck or out of respect to the people who raised me. I assure Stefanie that her hard work and sore legs and dwindling gas tank will pay off in the end—they’ll propel her where she needs to go. I remind my parents that I’ll always take care of them.
Finally, it’s Friday afternoon, and I find myself knocking on the Pryscz front door again. Lena opens up and takes a few second to respond at all, as if she’s forgotten my face.
“I was just stopping by to see if you want to come out with us tonight,” I say.
“We’re going to Nine—you know, that club on Route 35.”
“No offense, but I haven’t left the house except to go to work in a
week,” she says. “The first time I really go out, it’s not going to be out to Nine.”
I open my mouth to tell her she doesn’t have to be so rude, but when I really look at her, my stomach drops. Her eyes won’t focus anywhere. She’s hunched over where she sits, like she can’t trust the couch enough to lean on it properly. All I see are knots in her hair and bags under her eyes. She looks at the television screen as if it’s the most perplexing device in the world. It’s only now that I realize: Lena has medicated herself into a stupor.
“But I’m back at work,” Lena says through gritted teeth. “I can make it through the day— sometimes three whole houses!”
I see her fiddling with her blanket, and out of the corner of my eye I catch it—a Ziplock bag, filled with pills.
“Lena, I see what you’ve got there. I’m guessing that didn’t come from a doctor.”
“Anthony gets them for me. They really do help—I can finally sleep at night.”
“Well, I’m not happy, but it’s not like I can stop you.”
“Sounds familiar,” she says with disdain.
“And what does that mean?” I demand.
She wouldn’t bring that up today, would she? A rainy afternoon with a cab for LaGuardia waiting in her driveway. A new passport sitting between her fingers. Lena was leaving the country for the first time, five months after receiving our high school diplomas. She’d been promising to leave for years. I never believed she would. I waited for the taxi with her, and when it got there I lost my mind a little bit. I begged her to stay. She kissed me on the cheek, promised she’d be back, and walked through the downpour to load her own luggage. She didn’t even wave as she drove away. I thought I’d wait for her forever.
I press her again. “Do you have something to say, Lena?” “Princess Stefanie, your underage lover.”
“Cute. You’re so charming. And you’re such a relationship expert, right?” I’m furious now, I can’t help it. “Glad to see you’re still in touch with Anthony Salas. You fucking him yet? No, don’t tell me, let me guess. Just don’t come crying to me when he plays you and breaks your heart. Just like high school.”
“That’s not what’s going on,” Lena says in a dead voice. “We’re just friends.”
“You could never resist that Spanish stallion,” I say, hoping to see her smile and end this…whatever this is.
“And you’re a bigot, like the rest of the white trash in this town.”
I stand up. “I don’t even know why I’m still here.”
“No!” she whimpers, anger apparently gone. “Stay. I’ve been thinking about you all day.”
She grabs me by the arm and pulls me back onto the couch, closer to her than I was before. She rubs my arms up and down a few times then launches a rave.
“Anthony reminded me of something today,” she says, trying to pat down her tangled hair. “That summer before we could start working, the last summer before any of us turned sixteen. Do you remember how we had nothing to do? I mean, the second we were old enough we got those working papers, but there was that one last summer, after freshman year, and I swear to God all I did was sleep and watch soap operas. You’d go to the gym. An- thony lay out in the sun all day. His skin would get so dark, pissing off his mom to no end.”
I tense my shoulders. Where is this going? Is this how life will seem to Lena if she can never comfortably go back to work, or leave the country? Her half-smile chills me. “Anthony and I used to spend the whole day at the park. He told me he’d teach me to play dirty, dirty street ball. I told
him I was good—I’d been practicing with you.” I laugh in spite of myself.
“But he creamed me. We’re talking, wiped the floor with me. No mercy. You know what I realized that day?”
I don’t fill the silence with any answer.
“You’d let me win. Every time.”
She reaches for my hand. I recoil.
“Lena, you’re so messed up right now—I can’t stand to watch this.
You don’t know what you want.”
“I do,” she said. “I told you. I want to know if my wings are really clipped—if I’m here to stay. I thought I’d have so much more time than this. But I also want—”
I try to cut her off, but she waves me away.
“I also want you back—I want the boy who always walked me home from school, who helped me study for French exams, who called me ‘Maggie May.’”
“Oh, the one who was in love with you? I bet you do.”
“Riz, don’t be angry!”
“So I get to see you three months out of every year, whenever you burn out from bumming around every corner of the globe?” “I just—”
“Want me to wait! Forever! Until you’re ready to love me! Maybe that game works on Anthony, because he’s never going to change. But most of us, we’re not stuck in time here, Maggie, while you’re away. I’m getting older, I want to start a family. I am in a serious relationship. And I’m ready to commit to her. I can’t believe you still expect me to wait.”
“I didn’t say wait,” she says with red-rimmed eyes. “You could come with me.”
I get one day off every week: Sunday. I usually pick Stefanie up for 10:30 mass so we can sit together. We grab a long breakfast out at IHOP or Denny’s or some diner, then it’s home to change and back to St. Paul’s. I coach the intermural basketball team, so I’m running laps with those kids until the sun sets.
My mother keeps dinner waiting for me, and sometime in the evening Stefanie wanders in. We stay upstairs in the family room, where my parents can see us, usually watching TV until one of us fades.
Back when Stefanie and I first got together, we wanted to be alone so badly that we’d wait for my parents to leave the room, wash up, and finally shut off their bedroom light. Then we could both breathe easier, even if it was just to cuddle the night away. Sometimes we’d be bold, doing whatever we could that still kept our clothes on—you never know when Mom or Dad would wander back in to check on us.
But these days I anticipate my opening shift too much to try to out- last my parents. Six A.M. seems to come earlier every week. Stefanie never complains; she says she just wants to be in the same room with me. I’m lucky to have her.
So the fact that we’re spooning in bed is nothing short of a miracle. My parents are out of town, visiting family in Pennsylvania for a long weekend. The house is quiet. I play with her hair and drift in and out of sleep.
Then I find myself underwater, though I don’t struggle to breathe. I watch a scene unfold as if it’s on TV. I can see Stefanie but I’m facing her back. Her dirty blonde hair floats around her in the stream, and I want so desperately for her to turn around. But she won’t face me; in fact she starts to swim away. I stretch out my arm but I can’t speak at all, and that’s when I see something horrible. Starting at her lower back, Stefanie’s skin is purple. Her legs are fused, like a mermaid’s, but the sight is gruesome. The tail is mottled and bumpy. Bruises. Her legs are destroyed by bruises. I just need to see her face, to know she’s all right, but Stefanie gets smaller and smaller in the distance.
Soft hands shake me awake.
“Richie! What’s wrong?”
My eyes adjust and I see Stefanie looking down on me. I touch her neck.
“You were swimming away from me,” I say, and I know I sound like an idiot.
Stefanie takes this seriously. “I’m right here, babe,” she coos, and lays her head on my chest.
All I can do is grip Stefanie tighter, praying she never slips away.