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Summer/Fall 2018

The Difference Between a Window and a Mirror

 

By Alina Stefanescu

 

LEFTOVERS

When I left chicken bones on my plate, Uncle Costica ogled a family portrait and wagged a thick, hairy forefinger near my face— If you leave leftovers on your plate, you will marry an ugly man. His eyebrows torqued upwards, aimless as a pair of black sheep.

I stuck out my tongue and counted to thirty. One, two, three, and so on….

 

ASH HEAP

I never planned to get married or get serious about raised bed herb gardens but things happen and only the sky accepts blame.

At the wedding, Uncle Costica hovered near the fruit tray table. He didn’t acknowledge my handsome, dark-haired husband. According to my cousin, Uncle Costica wasn’t sure how to pronounce the name Derrick. Americans were not accustomed to having their names mispronounced by aliens. His avoidance was eager to please.

Man with name Der-rique must to be ash scrap pile in Romania. This is what Uncle Costica said to me at the wedding.

Of course, I was an affable bride. A name is no biggie. What’s in a name besides the early acne of childhood? This was an American dream union. Why import the immigration-trauma-drama cycle into our fancy, faux-barn with its white silk awnings?

Of course, I smiled and waved to Californian guests from the cake table.

 

WEDDING RAIN

It rained twice during the wedding. At first, the drizzles slid across the windows like jazz brushes, a light, sexy percussion. But the sky grumbled and growled during the reception. Some guests left early to beat the flash flood warnings.

My sister swore on the invisible, ever-present Bible that a rainy wedding meant good luck.

Guests gathered inside or rushed away. The rain extinguished the splendid bonfire Derrick had nurtured from long-collected kindling, all twigs and tiny tree limbs. He nudged the smolder with his shoe.

My mother-in-law beamed. He looks so happy, she cooed.

The marriage had been his idea, I reminded.

Nonsense. He looks so happy because he is doing what he loves. Derrick has enjoyed playing with fire since he was a child.

When she spoke, her tone was all Avon lipstick but I sensed an undercurrent of phalates, sulfates, and coral-colored parabens.

 

LOST SHOE

Despite the drenching, Derrick carried me over the threshold. I held my breath and vowed never to tell Mom that I lost a shoe somewhere between the entryway and the bathroom. Entering the house with one shoe means bad things will happen any minute.

 

LOST NOTHING

Honeymoons are commercial events. When I considered all the commercials I’d seen as a child, I cried because I couldn’t lose my virginity. It had been years since I’d lost that thing. The loss of my bride price grew more dramatic with each passing year. I was a worthless, fake-white popsicle.

Derrick said he didn’t mind. It was no biggie. He pawed me with his warm paws. One man’s hymen is another man’s not-so-much.

 

SHOE AGAIN

The first time Derrick wet the bed, rain fell in football riots over the tin roof. I listened as the drops extended into primary, secondary, and tertiary echoes.

Oak branches clawed and slapped at the flimsy metal screens. Had we left a window open?

The rain was a surprise. The bed was soaked. The open window was missing.

I shook Derrick’s shoulder until he woke up— What? What?

The rain came in, I whispered.

Certain elements combined like an eerie montage of Alfred Hitchcock episodes. For example: it was dark and we could not see each other. We had not purchased a bedside lamp and the light switch was located in the hallway, which felt far-away in both the movie and real life.

Derrick pulled me close to the hair of his chest. No, baby. I wet the bed.

Like two mammals conversing across an airport customs line, our words took the form of heavy-lettered signage with arrows underneath, but the gist of things was a translation problem. I failed to understand at first.

I peed in the bed, Irina. I urinated. With my willy.

Since Derrick was bear-like, I could not reconcile a large, hairy, forest-dwelling mammal with the word willy. I sat in the shock and awe of trying, trying.

He fetched a bath towel from the closet and positioned it over the moist area and then sunk back into the soft engine puffs of sleep.

I felt the urine on my back where the towel half-covered the spill.

The cool sensation of spousal urine behind me, I listened to the rain pummel the roof.  Thought it must have been the shoe. I’d been raised by Romanians. Nothing we did was accidental. The good luck of a rainy wedding cancelled out by the bad luck of a singleton shoe.

Why couldn’t the wedding rain and post-pee rain have more in common? Did one rain lead to the other? I imagined myself in plastic flesh-tones and counted Barbies along the highway to sleep.

 

SHOE PLUS FIRE PLUS TUESDAYS

Two weeks later, we visited his parents in Chattanooga, and the bed got wet again.

I knew why. I knew Derrick had peed. I knew the shoe was fucking powerful. Or had I missed a step?

My mother-in-law said Derrick had always wet the bed. Since he was a baby. He was a happy-go-lucky, carefree adolescent boy who wet the bed once a week. When he went off to college, he became like most other boys, frequently drunk. Probably wetting the bed.

You should’ve added rubber sheets to the registry, she said.

I texted Mom as my mother-in-law continued her kitchen dialectics.

It was the bonfire, Mom texted back immediately. Don’t you know that playing with fire causes the players to wet the bed? It’s a form of cosmic punishment involving trees.

Recent engagement of fires and bed-wetting merged into a historical explanation. Communism had come to Romania when the shepherds gave up their sheep. Because the shepherds gave up their sheep, Ceausescu became the shepherd, and Romanians his sheep. What else could they have done? A sheep has its uncanny avenues for dissent against a shepherd. It was the shepherd’s fault.

I told my mother-in-law about the relationship between pyromania and bed-wetting.

What’s next on the no-fun list? snapped my mother-in-law. A campaign against Disneyworld?

She said men needed to have a good time. Derrick wasn’t a little boy anymore. If I wanted to be married to a man, it was time for me to let him act like one.

I thought his mother was missing something in her calculus. Clearly, Derrick was a bear who played with little boy toys, including fire and BB guns. I thought his mother was missing a level of equation analysis offered in early high-school math.

No worries, baby, Derrick rubbed my shoulders.

He dealt the poker cards and promised to play with fire less. When he played with fire, he would lay a towel over his side of the mattress as preemptive strike.

But Derrick washed his hair every morning— including on Tuesdays— so I knew the bad luck would be back. I was not sure how persons survived marriage in the United States of America, the Land of Nothing Sacred.

 

BROKEN WINDOW

On Wednesday nights, Derrick experienced Man Time with his buddies. This required him to come home plastered.

I remember the particulars of one Wednesday in the year I got pregnant. Before he wet the bed that night, Derrick tried to kill a bat which he believed was flying through the den to make a nest. He chased the bat with a hammer. Since the bat was located outside the window, Derrick’s hammer shattered the glass instead. A pile of glass pieces glistened on the hardwood floor.

Derrick’s black curls quivered, his shoulders burled, his knees tipsied with disbelief.

I’m sorry honey, he slurred, I’m sorry that bat got away.

We can always get another window, I assured him.

From inside the womb station, the precious fetus kicked my hand. One side-effect of pregnancy was an enchantment with Scriabin. I listened to Scriabin while burning casseroles. I believed the composer was trying to tell me something. The passionate tenor of this relationships between belief and the subtle harmonies of Scriabin’s atonal scale rendered me hopeful. Perhaps the broken window promised an end to our bad luck.

As I swept up the glass, Scriabin’s “clavier a lumieres” appeared in the shards. A beautiful terror in which the composer revealed Derrick might have broken a mirror.

I had a few questions for Scriabin, including: Isn’t every window a mirror in a dark room at night? What about all those glass storefronts? Don’t we use them for mirrors more than windows? Aren’t we trying to see ourselves first? Had Derrick broken a window or a mirror?

The light responded with kaleidoscopes of colors. There was no way to be certain unless a member of the family died.

 

BROKEN WINDOW WAS PROBABLY A MIRROR

One week later, my paternal grandfather died while reading a newspaper at his favorite sidewalk cafe across from the family cemetery in old Bucharest. Bystanders said he closed his eyes softly before his head drifted towards the table, settling into a comfortable slump. The waiter believed he was napping until he spilled hot tea in the old man’s lap.

The grandfather did not move. He could not be scalded. If windows didn’t morph into mirrors, the grandfather might have just napped.

I sewed curtains for the bedroom windows influenced by Ravel’s gentle impressionistic flurries. In my heart, a tiny hole for Scriabin, the lover who ruined my life with light.

 

WHAT I WORE

Our daughter, Mihaela, crowned with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. She displayed an early penchant for moodiness and morbid cartoons. Her eyelids were heavy and reckless, tumbling like bedsheets through mischief.

My brother blamed those eyes on me. What had I expected– wearing that green pashmina scarf while pregnant?

I nursed Mihaela for seventeen months. Her teeth came in eight months late.

My mother-in-law suggested I check my calcium levels. There is such a thing as weak milk, you know. With you being such a toothpick, I wouldn’t be surprised….

Derrick said it wasn’t my fault. He witnessed my calcium supplement regimen every morning for two years.

My mom doesn’t know you like I know you, he promised.

Cross your baptist-faced heart, I begged.

 

OWL

The second birth presented Derrick with a son. He was ecstatic. Now I have someone to go fishing with!

Couldn’t you fish with Mihaela?

Derrick paused, perplexed— How?

We named the baby Darren after Derrick’s favorite missionary to Southeastern Asians. I sincerely hoped Darren would not become a missionary and said as much. At that point, I was eating copious amounts of Greek yogurt and feeling guilty for the export of democracy by drone. I read alienation into science fiction. An owl warned me of coming death every night.

Derrick collected candles to fill the den and bedrooms, each candle unique in color, shape, and scent. In the evening, he lit candles as we ate dinner. He made eye contact with the candles while monologuing on quiche.

 

RUNNING INTO A PRIEST AT THE MARKET

Living in the deep South, there was no way to avoid crossing paths with a straight-up Pastor at the farmer’s market.

I assured myself it did not indicate an omen of bad luck— only Eastern Orthodox priests in long black cassocks counted. A Romanian superstition could not very well absorb Senegalese rain dances or debutante balls. What felt like an omen might be trapped gas, a common condition following the ingestion of cruciferous vegetables.

When Mihaela and Darren rushed through the front door after school, their backpacks rose from the floor like Appalachians. After a glass of milk, they flew out the back door to commune with the hens. I purchased the hens in the hope of fresh, free-range eggs, but the hens ogled, clucked and refused to get broody. The hens were a high-maintenance disappointment. In this sense, they resembled our blessed progeny.

Those are moody hens, Derrick surmised from the patio, leaf-blower in hand.

Our children enter the house through one door and leave through another— what would you expect? What good can come of this?

 

A SHALLOW GRAVE

A fox from the woods behind the house dismembered the moody hens. I worried about how this might affect the children. Would they have reason to hope for sunshine and positive change in the world after such an untoward event?

Derrick buried the hens near a flowering dogwood but he didn’t dig six feet under. The first spring rain flooded the backyard with feathers and chicken bones.

 

WHISTLING IN THE HOUSE

When we got audited by the IRS, Derrick stomped about the garage, voicing his complaints.

I told him things would work out, but he should reconsider his habit of whistling in the house. If one whistled in the house, financial ruin would follow.

But you loved my whistle, Derrick insisted.

It is impossible to describe how much I loved (and love) his whistle. Derrick whistled Led Zeppelin guitar solos in the nude, his buttocks quivering like amped-up strobe lights. One whistle and the room became a disco.

Maybe it’s a question of love or money, I mused. Maybe the question hid behind a choice.

Don’t you love my whistle, honey? Derrick nuzzled my neck, his warm nose burrowing like a small garden slug, wet at the tip.

I married you for that whistle. And for how you built a fire from scratch— how you could create a warm space from a handful of twigs. Even though you tend to pass out and leave it burning…

Because there are times when a girl needs to unwind beside a fire she didn’t start. A fire some friendly bear-fellow lit for her. There are times in the course of a life when she needs the flame but not the man himself. Times when all she needs is the fire and the outline of a furry mammal.

In the kitchen, Derrick whistles the first notes of a Beatles song. Nude but for apron.

I close my eyes and consider the bad luck I wouldn’t re-gift for this.

When the risk of living rubs against the fear of loss, I train my eye on the big picture, the tantalizing package including my spouse’s ass. Because love and luck are separate but similar occasions— the difference between a window and a mirror.

 

[Check out Alina Stefanescu’s back porch wisdom]