99 Problems

Published on June 15th, 2017 | by Alina Stefanescu



Your mother is not like other mothers. She rarely picks you up from school—which is fine. When given a long carpool line, she honks her way to the front.

You sink into the cold leather back seat and disappear. Your friends’ mothers in your small town of Alabama have permed hair and patience. They arrive on time and know to wait.

You are late to church or to recitals. You worry about being late. When you express this concern, she insists it’s fine, shakes those springboard strawberry curls.

When she misses the green light while speaking in fervid lip sync to the mirror, you ask if she is talking to herself.

“No. Of course not! Mind your own business. I was talking to Uncle Niki.”

Her Uncle Niki has been dead for three years. Slow traffic is as good a time as any to ask the man in the mirror why he didn’t stop her from dating that bastard in the Communist party.

My parents defected from Ceausescu’s Romania. The defectors never stop concocting huge, impossible dreams, what they would do if they had time and money.

Somehow, they make both. You grow on sailboats and ski slopes wearing hand-me-down gloves with adult turtlenecks tucked into four pairs of leggings. In the lift line, skiers gawk at your unsportsmanlike clothing. Some point and stare.

The defectors pretend not to notice. They speak in Romanian, their hands fisting around ski poles. “It’s not polite to point,” my mother whispers. Pointing is a way to get attention; to decide who is strange and who stands out. You notice most pointers were born in America. They are free to raise a finger, free to flock and coalesce into cliques. They turn into hordes of toothy mammals, choired crowds, feathered giggle.

The girls giggle in unison.

How many times, how many places, do the girls giggle in unison?

The girls: everything they feel exists in one common, public language. Your feelings, on the other hand, are hard, kerneled secrets.

Mom does your hair cutting and styling on the back porch with a glass of Merlot and house slippers. She trims Dad’s hair and preserves the integrity of the jet black comb-over. For you and your sister, it is the bowl cut modeled after French songstress Mirelle Mathieu.

Your Alabama friends do not listen to French music. The French are useless complainers who have contributed nothing to civilization.

When you grow up, President Bush will tell you to eat Freedom Fries for our country. It will sound funny.

For the defectors, Romanian is a language in which words mean many things but for you Romanian is safe, solid, and concrete, unlike the half-drawn, tricky shades of the language of the girls. People say precious which means “beloved above all” when they want to insinuate worthlessness.

You watch all the James Bond marathons with your dad and the world is a Cold War that means nothing in particular. Except competition. You want to win the war.

Quick Magazine

You discover the story line is congenial to evangelical Christians who believe Satan has taken over Russia. They are fighting for the Lord’s territory in a ground chase game. Their God will win. So says the Bible. The defectors evidence the righteousness of the evangelical position.

Ollie North is an innocent man framed by pansy liberals who care too much about the law to know that might makes right.

If God is on our side, who can be against us?

The defectors have friends who love them for what they represent.

The cosmos captivates you. The male defector has a grant from NASA. His experiment orbits the planet in a space shuttle. You watch the launch on TV, tongue the word soldification.

As a child you watched the stars and imagined a man you might taste forever. Now you watch the stars alone and devise an excuse for falling asleep on the couch so you don’t have to go upstairs and be pummeled by lonely snoring sounds. The I’m-alive-but-you’re-still-alone sound.

You, the  defector’s child, grows up and marries into an American family only to find they have no word for heart’s-ease.

The space that opens between us and the sun is an orbit, a space defined by the movement around. Marriage is a disappointing social arrangement for those who like ovals. Marriage is a lasso that turns into a noose when it falls around your neck. Love is nothing to write home about unless you’re willing to admit your mother was right. You watch the stars sharpen into a man’s belt while your husband snores upstairs.

You sit at a dinner table where adults discuss the Christian message buried inside Super Bowl commercials. They forgive and forget. Mostly they forget. But as the defector’s child, you cannot forget the dinners when her grandfather got drunk enough on plum brandy to recite a hundred-line Romanian poem called Luceafarul.

You want to be like Ethel Rosenberg—to love a man so much that you’ll fry for him. This requires you to find a man with a glorious secret, a secret you’ll tend as carefully as you nurse his children. That is one side of you. But there are others.

When the male defector took a sabbatical in France, you visited Domremy-la-Poucelle, a tiny village with fleas in its title, the hamlet where Joan of Arc was born, raised, and received her revelation. Joan loved a flag she called God. But you can’t muster the right enthusiasms. From Ethel to Joan to Emma Goldman, whom you love for her freedom—an anarchist communist free enough to describe the failure of Soviet Russia. Courage is not conviction but humility. A devout communist decries the crimes of communism against the Soviet people. A defector’s child decries the crimes against her fellow Americans.

You married that man who whistles. A southern boy reared to believe the worst crime against a male is humiliation. As a result, he is constantly angry and humiliated, his eyebrows furrowed against incoming lectures.

If you tell him to fix the bed, he will do what amounts to the opposite. In this way, you learn it is not your place to give instructions. He says wives, like husbands, require training. He teaches you that to ask for something specific will feel like a punishment.

Wiser to want what is vague and undefined. A woman who knows what she wants will never be pleased. She will never get it. Aim for farmhouse lighting, evocative ambiance. Neighbors cram nylon flowers in the window boxes for yearlong brightness.

“This is my wife,” he tells the real estate heiress with a fake upper lip which you mistake for a canoe.

“Charmed to meet you,” the canoe quivers.

“Oh, the pleasure’s all mine, to be sure,” you smile wilted begonias .

He scowls—what on earth—“Please excuse my wife,” he corrects. “She homeschools our children.”

“How precious,” the canoe purrs.

“No, really, she’s very pretentious. Did you know homeschooling prevents a woman from helping out with dishes?”

“So then what do you do all day?” the canoe asks.

“Read Emily Dickinson. Especially the one about the loaded gun. Our five-year-old can recite it for company.”

Your children go coo-coo for cocoa puffs. You are the anxious mother of three American children who express selective preferences about chicken nuggets brands.

You make glitter-spangled posters against wars and senseless killings and march with a handful of protesters around a Tuscaloosa strip mall. Bare-chested boys in trucks scream “Hey MILF—we’ve got a piece for you right here.”

Angry man lyrics pour from the open windows of the truck.

An elderly lady honks her horn and gestures passionately. “Love it or leave it,” she brays.

The boys in the truck force a U-turn and drive back for seconds. “Go home bitch!”

“Shut up bitch!”

“Fucking love it or leave it bitch!”

Those are you children—the three little people looking up and trying to draw a line between the words they hear and the woman they call mommy. The bitch bearing a sign that says “Not In My Name.”

The younger tugs your shirt, the signal she gives. This is Alabama. You can’t nurse at the protest. You can’t even nurse in the children’s museum without being pointed towards a 2×2 closet with a sign in pink letters: “Nursing Nook.”

You put the sign down. You put the breast away. You put the kids in their car seats and the keys in the ignition.

You try to go home but home is confusing. Here, there, wherever— the story line is unidirectional, all roads lead to Alabama, the state which tells immigrants to Go Home.

Your real home is a postcard of Ellis Island.

You cry when your in-laws text smile-heavy selfies posed before the Statue of Liberty.

That flame is your home. That light is all you own of this country. The yearn of Emma Lazarus: “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” But you send a smiley emoji instead. Then a heart.

Your mother wins an Americanism award from a the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

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About the Author

Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Alabama with four incredible mammals. Find her poems and prose in recent issues of Juked, DIAGRAM, New South, Mantis, VOLT, Cloudbank, New Orleans Review Online, and others. Her debut fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, won the Brighthorse Books Prize and will be available in May 2018. She serves as Poetry Editor for Pidgeonholes and President of the Alabama State Poetry Society. More arcana online atwww.alinastefanescuwriter.com or @aliner.

2 Responses to THE STORY LINE

  1. Pingback: The FAM Newsletter – June 2017 – Split Lip

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