To tell you the truth I can not stand Christmas. I bet, you'd think I am crazy. Hold that thought. I guess it has not always been the case. In fact, when I was a little fellow, I always got presents for Christmas. Sure, you've got to be really messed up not to like that! Or there was another one we had at my distant cousin's house when I was fourteen. She was not particularly good-looking, you know, may be just cute. That's it - she was cute and a really terrific kisser. Sure, I liked that Christmas too. So why in the world would I loath it so much?
Well, there was one Christmas I'm going to tell you about. You see, I'd just landed my first job in October and was due home for the holidays and all. Sure I was looking forward to seeing my parents and Ashley - my baby sister. Ashley was only eight at the time, but she was really smart. Languages were her thing; she studied Latin, Greek and German, or maybe it was French. I am not sure. She was a very bright kid. It is kind of funny though - she spoke all these languages and had practically nobody to talk to. You see, when you are really smart, it is kind of difficult to get friends. However this also means that I must be not as nearly as intelligent, as I could not wait to call all these good-for-nothing friends and easy going gals I made acquaintances with in the past twenty-five years.
As I stepped into a cab at the airport, I asked the cabby, "What is all this big hoopla with the security and short-skirted girls holding flowers at the terminal?"
"Don't you know, sonny? They are bringing the troops home for holidays, or something," he said shoving my bags into the trunk. Then he added, mostly to himself, something about shorter skirts and lousier tips in wartime.
Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention that there's been a war with some goddamn banana republic. I do not remember exactly what the matter was, but things got slightly out of hand. And sure enough, there was a call for the Federal troops to go there right around last Christmas. That time it totally ruined the spirit of the holidays as everyone was glued to short-wave radios and TVs tuning into news bulletins about the brewing war.
You have to admire modern news media though. They bring war practically into your living room. Just grab that beer and pass those chips. You've got to admit, it is the greatest reality show! It started with a neat and comprehensive carpet bombing of disobedient cities. Oh, boy, did they light the skies or what?! Then our tanks poured in from all over and a horrible slaughter commenced. It got so bad, they even had to halt the war coverage as somebody spilled his goddamn intestines right in front of a wide-lens camera. So all in all, last Christmas was rather a non-starter.
However, I am not getting all that worked up over a stupid war. They are still fighting. They could do it `till the Second Coming, for all I care. I told you I hated Christmas, but it had nothing to do with the war - it had everything to do with a girl. Now, why do I have this awful tendency to get ahead of myself?
Anyway, this time around, holidays started with surprises. As I got out of the cab in front of our building, there was a new doorman who didn't know who I was and had to ring our apartment. You see, they've got this short stocky guy for a doorman who watched me the whole time I spent in the lobby. I guess guys like that have a lot to compensate for. The surprises didn't stop there though. As soon as I walked into our place, I learned that Ashley got a live-in governess. We have had help around the house before, thanks to my rather well-to-do dad. A maid would come twice a week for cleaning, laundering and pressing. But why, on earth, do you hire a live-in governess if you don't even intend to home-school your child?
"Evita is all right, I like hanging out with her," said Ashley. She was showing me her latest collection of tapes and CDs in her room. "I really do! She never talks down to me and we've been going to movies."
"This is very nice of her." I said absently, and then I picked a Mildred Bailey's `Smoke Dreams'. "Since when do you listen to this stuff?"
Ashley got a little bit defensive.
"It's a Christmas present from Evita. It's not just `stuff', you know."
It wasn't like I felt jealous at that moment or anything. It was just that stupid straw hat I got for my baby sister this Christmas. It really looked like a good idea at the time except, that everybody on the goddamn plane was dying laughing at me with that hat in my hands. Well, now I suppose I should go and buy something else for Ashley, may be a Louis Armstrong's CD or stuff like that. What is more important though, I didn't hold any of that against Evita. As you probably may have noticed by now, I am a very reasonable guy.
It turned out that Evita just got a degree in philology. Frankly, with this very useless diploma, she had a very difficult time of finding any decent job short of serving drinks in a bar or stripping. Apparently, a mutual friend referred Evita to my parents and that's how Evita came to our house as a live-in governess.
Now, the whole live-in thing is a bizarre concept to me. These people are sort of there and, at the same time, not really, if you know what I mean. Do you make them feel as a part of the family or ignore them as fellow humans? I guess, the right thing would be to stir right in the middle - you know, occasional small talk, maybe a little something for holidays. Avoid anything personal. Especially, if a live-in is practically the same age and intelligent and at all cost if she is cute.
In my opinion, Evita was not breathtakingly beautiful, far from that. In her early twenties, she was on the skinny side, tall and with the rather modest plumpness of her chest. Perhaps, the only thing really going for her was her eyes. Calm and pensive or dark and furious they set her apart from any girl I ever knew. You see, at best, Evita was just an average-looking girl you would turn your head for on a subway. But then again Ashley would say that my standard of feminine beauty was all over the place.
Anyway, Evita would never be a real recipe for disaster, especially, since she had a small flaw. A flaw?! The sad matter of the fact was that the very banana republic I just spoke of was where Evita came from. To make it worse, her house was destroyed by one of those thousand pound bombs, which obliterate an entire block at a time. The good thing was that she was far away from her house that night, sleeping in her room at the Imperial University dorm.
Naturally, at any casual mentioning of the war Evita would march to the poorly lit back stairway to smoke. With her back against the wall, she would fold her arms and hold a cigarette close to her pale face and nervously let smoke out. Her gaze fixed on some immaterial point far, far away. Half way through a cigarette, however, she would squash it into an improvised ashtray sitting right next to her on a steam radiator and light another one. I don't think Evita was a chain smoker otherwise.
Sometimes I thought she must have been outright crazy. Once she told the old lady next door, whose son was in the army, that it was indeed he, who bombed her house. To a guy with a German Shepard in the park, Evita said with a polite smile that she sincerely hoped he would get drafted into the army and get killed. I guess she had her own private war going on. To me Evita never said anything. To me she was as talkative as a warden on a goddamn death row.
Here we were having breakfast on the twenty-fourth: grapefruit, French toast with black cherry spread and black coffee. Newspaper, milk and cranberry juice were optional. No cereal, no cream cheese and bagels, no fruit tarts. God, this drove me nuts! I went straight for coffee loading it with sugar and milk to overcome the bitterness of Columbian roast that my mom always buys at a gourmet shop. Ashley was dealing with a grapefruit and Evita sat next to her also having a cup of coffee. Dad read the newspaper and mom was going through a pile of junk mail for Christmas sale ads. It would have been a typical holiday morning, if you could have ignored this awkward silence you always get when you have a stranger in your house.
"Hey, Ashley," said I. "Do you like any boys at school?"
"Well, there is one, sort of good-looking," said Ashley. "He always stares at me but never says anything."
"Well, he must be smart then?"
"I think he is stupid. Evita told me to talk to him at the break, but he just pushed me aside and ran away. I think all boys are stupid!"
"Don't say that, Ashley." Evita entered the conversation. "They might be cruel and stupid now, but they will eventually grow up and become like normal people. At least, some of them."
I didn't like this "at least some of them" business even a single bit! Not only did Evita take my usual role of teaching Ashley what real life was all about, there also was something else in this phrase.
"Yeah, sure, Ashley," I intercepted. "Boys are very predictable. But the flip side of it simply is that girls always have unrealistic expectations. And then girls also grow up."
To tell you the truth, I'd already regretted saying this the moment it came out. I was so annoyed with Evita infringing onto my territory that I was not sure whether my last remark was directed to Ashley or Evita.
"Uhum," said Ashley, splicing firm pink texture of her grapefruit with a spoon.
Evita silently took another sip of coffee without even looking at me. Not liking where the conversation was going, I decided to change the subject. I put forward an innocent question, small talk, rather,
"Evita, what are you going to do for Christmas Eve?"
She looked directly in my eye and said in an even voice,
"There is no reason to worry about me. I know that Christmas Eve is a family affair. Just tell me what time I could return home tonight, so I wouldn't be in your way."
Evita knew perfectly well what I meant, yet she purposely answered this way. This really got me going. Evita was not interested in superficial chatting. Oh, no! She wanted me to feel bad about her having nowhere to go to this evening. Well, we were all aware of her circumstances, thank you very much!
I guess, being a victim meant you just have to pick up a nasty habit of blaming everybody in the world for what's happened to you. What a terrible thing to do! Or was it really my fault that things turned out to be the way they were? Sure, I pay taxes, which the government spends for troops and bombs, but is the war or any of it my fault? Hey, after all, it's her guys shooting at ours!
I know why Evita did it. It was in a way a reprisal for me having a family, my own roof over my head and this goddamned Christmas!
My father lowered his newspaper to come to the rescue,
"Actually, Evita, we are going to my sister's tonight. So if you'd like to stay, you are more than welcome. If I'm not mistaken, there is a goose with apples in the fridge and for sure there is a bottle of good cabernet in the house. Why go anywhere?"
Evita drank her coffee without a word, while considering what my dad just said. I already felt really lousy for asking my stupid question. After all, whether she is from the rebel republic or not, Evita deserves better than celebrating Christmas all by herself. I've got an idea. I went to another room and made a phone call to my aunt,
"Listen... Maybe we could also bring Evita. You see, she really has nowhere to go to..."
Initially my aunt did not understand,
"Evita? Why? Irene can perfectly handle everything. We are so blessed with Irene...You know, it is nearly impossible find good help these days."
"No, you didn't get it. Let's invite her as a guest."
"Oh... C'mon now! You know that it is family only. Oh, my! It's a quarter after, I've got to run." Here my aunt resorted to the voice she used on me when I was four year old. I absolutely hate when she does that: "Don't be mad with me, sweetie. We'll talk tonight, all right? Love you!"
Then she hung up. Had it not been Christmas, say, President's Day or even Independence Day, I would have not been that upset. And it was not that I'm a good Christian, nothing like that, trust me. But to deprive a person of Christmas was a totally rotten thing to do!
I came back to the kitchen. Evita was loading cups and other stuff from the breakfast table into the dishwasher.
"You know, Evita, it is actually not so bad that you don't have any plans tonight. Maybe we could go to a club or something?"
Evita continued with the dishwasher as if I was not even there. Ashley was methodically devouring the second half of her grapefruit. Mom and Dad were staring at me as if I was a deer heading in the wrong direction on a highway.
Ok, ok, I made a scene. You know what? Sometimes getting away from family makes you realize how mundane your relatives really can be. It dawned on me that having Evita around was just a thing of convenience for them. For my mom there was someone to take care of Ashley after school; for my dad, with his typical disapproval of war, it was a public statement of his views; and for Ashley there was someone to talk to. You see, now I think that was the exact moment when things started to go wrong. Apparently, any attempt to be even a half decent human being somehow always gets me in trouble.
Anyway I was not really interested in what my mom and dad must have been thinking. What Evita had to say was all that really mattered. Meanwhile she closed the dishwasher door, set it on a washing cycle and only then looked at me. I detected a shade of surprise and hesitation in her eyes. "Aha, you thought that I was just another lousy cynical snob!" I was ecstatic.
Mom recovered first.
"Indeed, this is a swell idea. You know what? Kooners is throwing a Christmas party for those he calls `bright and young'. This might be interesting." She gave me a look, "You do remember, Kooners, dear?"
Evita didn't really object and mom produced two invitations to the party from her purse.
I should add that Kooners was the one who referred Evita to my parents. I guess, he got tired of her crashing on the sofa at his place or something. To tell you the truth, I did wonder a little bit if Kooners slept with Evita. Why did he let her stay at his house in the first place? Why did he let her go?
Well, for one reason or another, Kooners didn't mail an invitation to Evita. Maybe he simply wanted nothing of Evita's craziness at his social event. Well, then he was in for a rude awakening, I thought, as we were knocking on Kooners's door.
Once inside we were immediately immersed into an atmosphere of what people have got to imagine a nineteenth century upper-class salon should have been like: exotic Chilean and Greek wines, endless hors d'ouevres, and a discreetly faint scent of marijuana. The good portion of the atmosphere was the people who actually managed, I swear to God, to use words like "charming" and "ambivalent" in the same sentence. There also were a few city celebrities, a couple of "up and coming" poets and people discussing recent works of Kozunari Ogata at will (or may be it was some other Japanese name).
Evita took a glass of wine from a waiter holding a silver tray in white gloves and a black suit. The poor guy had a sour smile as if he was wearing shoes at least two sizes too small. I helped myself to a drink too. When I turned back, Evita had already disappeared in the crowd and I was left all by myself to rub elbows with the City elite. There was that famous chess player turned politician. The grossmaister had traveled the world, had impeccable education and clearly enjoyed the followers who were eagerly munching on his every word. I hated him right away. What a show off! He even talked as if he was running for office,
"This administration," he emphatically gestured in the air, "has been rushing the public from one spectacular debacle to the next. Take this war, for example. Does anybody know how much it will cost to re-integrate our soldiers into society?"
He paused for an effect and looked around, being rather pleased with himself. Into this small opening in the flow of his speech, I interjected with something silly,
"I donno..." I just couldn't resist deflating his ego a bit. "As much as turning their society into soldiers?"
Grossmaister stumbled with his next word, while locating me in the crowd,
"Ehm-m, young man," something in his voice betrayed his annoyance with me. "Indeed, there is yet another aspect of this unfortunate political quagmire."
A guy on my left in a bright jacket of seasonal colors dismissively shook his head. A woman next to me in a beautiful velvet dress showcasing her tanned cleavage looked at me with disapproval. What a bunch of snobs!
At this very moment Kooners came by and called me to another room where with deep concern in his voice said:
"I hope that you know what you are doing." - And observing a perplexed look on my face he added an enigmatic phrase, "Make no mistake, desperate people are no strangers to desperate measures. I am talking about Evita, of course."
I had no clue what the hell he meant by that, but before I was able to come up with some sort of a response, Kooners was gone. As on cue Evita came in. Her eyes were blazing.
She took my arm,
"Could we please go?"
And we just left.
Streets were nearly empty except for a couple of people hailing a cab and a drunk you always see on a corner this time of the year wishing everybody a "Merry Christmas". A lonely street car passed by with its lights out. As we were walking back home I looked at Evita. I could not help to wonder what Evita must have been through. What is it like not to know whether your parents are alive? How long you could pray for their survival against any hope? What is it like to have all your stuff, like childhood pictures, your old teddy bear with small brown buttons instead of eyes, your school desk, where you sat at in the first grade - irreplaceable things like that - everything, vanished, gone, erased from the face of the planet as if never existed? Then who are you? How do you define your world without those small, fleeting things? How do you stop the sands from burying what you once were? Would you care at all or desperately try to reinvent yourself?
Now, could you blame Evita for being a little bit crazy?
My dad used to say the most difficult thing in life was to unreservedly accept fools and sincerely praise really smart people. I do not know about all that, but crazy people must fit somewhere in the middle and ought to be a hell of a lot easier to put up with. So, I guess, crazy shouldn't be that bad after all.
Evita was ignoring my stare. She was clearly mad with something. For some reason I thought that it actually went well with her dark eyes. Positively, Evita looked like any other girl who is upset over an ex-boyfriend or something. Yeah, just like the girl next door that you would take a walk with in the Imperial Park, write a silly poem to, or at the very least ask to a movie.
Then, out of the blue, Evita stopped and looked at me,
"All of you are all so strong, proud and smart. Aren't you? You are free, you can have any job you want, you are entitled to a normal life... Why do you deny me all of it? Why?"
I was literally stunned,
"What the hell do you want from me? Personally, I did not deny you of anything! Quite the opposite, I am trying to help you out." And calming down a bit, I pointed out, "By the way, doing so with a great risk to my mental health."
"You don't get it, do you?" She walked quietly for a minute. "Do buy me cigarettes."
It was incredible that she was staking the higher moral ground! I said:
"You know what? I have this rule not to buy cigarettes for friends. But I will gladly make an exception just for you. Please smoke them all, for all I care!"
The rest of the way home went without a word. She went to her room and I went to mine to read a novel by Kafka I was trying to finish since last summer.
I must have read the same sentence a dozen times."The street he had taken did not lead to the Castle hill, it only went close by, then veered off as if on purpose, and though it didn't lead any farther from the Castle, it didn't get any closer either." Why it has to be so boring? Whatever. It is truly a pathetic thing to do - read a fricking novel on Christmas Eve! I must have been insane to think that helping out a distressed human being would not end up in a disaster. After all, it is only human to bite a helping hand. Right?
I left my room to talk to my mom on the phone. Apparently, dad had a few and now he was taking a nap in a guest room right in the middle of the Christmas dinner, which left my mom to handle a riot that ensued.
Before hanging up though she said, "By the way, dear, Kooners just called. I hope Evita is all right." And then she casually added, "She is such a nice girl, isn't she?"
I frowned, "It's easy for you to say."
I've heard this question from my mom a thousand times before to know precisely what she wanted to say. She didn't give up,
"Dear, you wouldn't..."
"Mom, ple-e-ase!" I interrupted. Why was everybody getting on my nerves today?
"No, sweetie, you can be so careless..."
"Mother!" I said articulating every word, "I am not going to sleep with her! Good night!"
And I slammed down the receiver. Jesus H. Christ! What a day!
When I came back Evita was standing in the center of my room. She was studying my posters. No longer proud of my poster selections, I ignored Evita's presence and returned to the comfort of my sofa. I picked up my book and tried to concentrate on the novel.
Even without looking I could feel that she was examining my face. After a minute or so she said in a small voice,
"I could really use a drink..."
"Dad said there is some wine somewhere in the house," I said without taking my eyes off the page. "Help yourself."
She did not move. I guess some people are really gifted in finding ways to annoy others. I looked up to ask her to leave but I couldn't help to notice a little puffiness around her eyes. It was evident that even within this cold and unassailable fortress she got for herself, Evita's soul was haunted by demons. Good, I really didn't mind!
"Oh, what the hell," I got up and with a face of thorough boredom which enables people to ride a subway, off I went to look for that goddamn wine.
I came back to my room with a bottle of Cabernet and two glasses. We wished each other a "Merry Christmas" and had some wine. We managed to talk like normal people do and even laughed a bit. After we downed half of the bottle I suggested we would call it a night, but Evita asked why and if there was any problem.
"It feels so... normal," she said. "Could we talk for a little bit longer?"
So we drunk and laughed some more. At some point she wanted to dance and brought a CD with Frank Sinatra from her room. You understand that I did not volunteer my opinion on her choosing. So she put her arm on my shoulder and the whole time was looking away apparently lost in her thoughts. Although you could hardly call that a dance, Evita seemingly did not mind awkwardness of my movement. With her face so close, I did not pay any attention to it myself. I found myself watching her lips and instantly became aware of mine. It was getting really weird and I had to say something.
"Oh, by the way Kooners called. He was very concerned..." I started.
"He really does not care," she said without turning her head. "You know what is really bad? That I still love him"
* * *
Around midnight we finished the bottle I went to the kitchen to get a bottle of sherry. When I came back, Evita was asleep. As a matter of fact I found her asleep in my room, right on my sofa. I sat on the floor with my back against the wall and for the longest time watched Evita sleeping. Evita's face was so close; she slept like a child with her lips slightly open and corners of her mouth pointing up as if she was about to smile. You could tell by occasional movement of her eye lashes that she was dreaming and for once it ain't so bad.
Did she need a reason to hate me or could she possibly care for me? Or may be she just needed somebody she could really trust?
Well, in some impossible way, she probably felt that I was falling for her, while I would have been the last one to admit it. Well, I could save Evita, shield her from this cruel society and may be she would have a chance for a normal life. Well, maybe I would even get rid of this unmistakable sense of guilt I had for everything that had happened to Evita. Well, everything was so simple, literally in an arm's length.
I thought about what an irresistible narcotic is to feel strong enough to save someone, to change someone's life, to deal over the cards once dealt by God! Then I thought about Kooners and what he meant by "desperate people are no strangers to desperate measures". No, that would have somehow fueled Evita's war against the world and this war just has to stop! I got up and went to Ashley's room to sleep.
The day after Christmas I was leaving. The doorman has already called that a cab was here to take me to airport. As I was saying good byes to my parents and Ashley, I could not help thinking of Evita. She was not at home and I would have hated to leave without seeing her.
Noticing my hesitation, mom rearranged scarf on my neck and said: "Aren't you are going to be late for your plane, dear?'
I took my bags and off I went.
The short and stocky doorman downstairs gave me a suspicious look. I didn't really care. The cab driver was anxious to leave. The trees's shadows were lengthening and moisture on dark asphalt was turning icy. Evita did not come.