Authors: Harry Steinman
ne week before her departure from Sofia to attend a special high school in Los Angeles, 13-year-old Eva Rozen had awoken to the sounds of Mama and Papa fighting. She had been accustomed to shouted curses, taunts, and screams, even the crisp crack of hands on flesh. Those sounds had not bothered her. To be roused from sleep, however, was to lose its comforting amnesia. That did bother her, and a reckoning had been long overdue.
She slipped past Gergana’s empty bedroom, gaze fixed ahead, and crept down the spine of the railroad flat to the fracas in the kitchen. Separate rooms and separate lives were connected by a dark hallway as grim as Eva’s thoughts.
Eva stepped in unnoticed. Mama’s screams alternated with Papa’s. Eva looked around. She heard a thought, as if from a separate intelligence within her.
Use what’s at hand.
She found a wine bottle. It was an easy task. They littered the kitchen. She hefted one to test its weight, and gripped the neck, entered the field of combat and swung two-handed.
Eva was smaller than an average child on the cusp of adolescence and her aim was low. But she wielded the bottle with the predatory ferocity of a weasel and the roundhouse blow drove into Papa’s left knee with a satisfying crunch. He bellowed as the kneecap shattered. Eva regarded her mother, swung and caught Mama just below her hip. The impact was cushioned by the soft tissue of Mama’s thigh, once seductive territory that had first captured, then repelled, Papa. Mama cradled her leg, and sobbed. Eva regarded her parents, sprawled on the floor.
“That’s for Gergana.” Her voice was impassive.
She returned to her small bedroom where memories came, unbidden: Mama’s indifference, Papa’s drunken visits, and Gergana. Most of all, Gergana. Eva imagined what Gergana might have said to her tonight, tried to feel Gergana’s cool hand on her forehead. She would have told Eva that she was very brave.
She wanted to sob but choked back her tears. At that, she heard a low murmur of approval. Startled, she sat up and looked about. The whispers would not have been from Papa or even Mama. They were still in the kitchen. Papa was moaning in pain and begging Mama to call an ambulance.
Eva heard the murmurring again. It was distant, yet...interior. For a moment, Eva imagined the voices coming from within her pillow. She sat up and then walked to the door. The sound grew and followed her. She heard notes of pride, of encouragement, of approval. The words were indistinct yet the meaning was clear: she had done well.
Then a second message emerged from the swelling clamor, increasing in volume, building in pitch and resonance, blotting out any other thought, a boulder rolling slowly at first, then crushing every obstacle in its path. “Strike first!” she heard from within the din. “Strike hard!”
Eva listened. She could pick out individual calls and caws. She strained to identify one voice. It would have been a quiet one. But Gergana’s crooning was lost in the uproar.
From Eva’s first hours of life, uneasy forces shaped her. Her birth was a brief cause for celebration, as Gergana’s had been some years earlier. Mama and Papa displayed Eva like a gauche traveler waiving a first-class airline ticket. But soon, parenting enervated rather than enlivened them and Mama and Papa’s interest decayed. Eva was demoted from an object of inestimable worth to that of a curious gewgaw. Then they nurtured Eva as they might a caged falcon, tossing scraps of attention as they might have cast bits of offal to the raptor. The bird survives but is stunted, fettered by self-doubt, never to soar, always ready for a sharp-beaked defense of its circumscribed territory.
The roles of mother and of father fell to Gergana whose
parenting was as tender as Mama and Papa’s was feckless. When Eva looked for comfort, her eyes lit on Gergana’s smile. Eva’s ears heard her sister’s soft lullabies and her hands played with toys that Gergana somehow provided. When Mama ignored Eva’s cries, Gergana cleaned and changed her infant sister. When Papa stumbled home, Gergana stood at juvenile Eva’s doorway.
Eva nursed on Gergana’s attention and Eva’s loyalty was as fierce as a samurai’s. Gergana adorned their bleak lives with bedtime stories, fanciful embellishments to bring hope.
“Little One,” she’d say, “I’ve got a story for you.” She portrayed the family as heroic figures in a romantic adventure. Gergana transformed Papa into a sea captain whose perilous journeys accounted for frequent absences. Mama was a member of the exiled royal family of Simeon II. “Little One,” Gergana told Eva, “one day you’ll be on that throne.”
Gergana’s stories and dreams were grand, but Eva saw life with open eyes. She fought to reconcile Mama’s weak chin and perpetual air of distraction with the royal station of Gergana’s tales. Eva saw Papa return, not from the high seas with sun-bleached hair and the tang of brine, but from a nearby tavern, red-faced, stinking of tobacco and stale beer. Sometimes the stench lingered, and Eva showered before returning to sleep.
“I don’t want a story tonight,” Eva announced one evening. Gergana had seen to Eva’s bath, changed her into nightclothes and shut Eva’s bedroom door so that Mama’s weepy ramblings and Papa’s snores were dampened.
“No story, Little One? How about a song?”
“How come? You like bedtime stories.”
“They’re not true. You made them all up.” Eva’s voice was flat, almost uninterested.
“They’re supposed to be made up. Something nice to think about before you go to sleep.”
“Mama’s not a princess. Some days she doesn’t even get out of bed. Papa is no sea captain. Sailors have sunburns. Papa’s skin is all white.”
“Well, stories are for pretending. I don’t have to make up stories. I could read books with fairytales,” Gergana offered.
“No. I don’t want stories anymore. That’s for little kids,” said nine-year-old Eva.
“Well, don’t you play pretend games with your friends?”
“I don’t play with the other kids. And I don’t like pretend games.”
“What about your friends? Don’t they like to play house or have tea parties?”
“I don’t know,” Eva said. “Anyway, you’re my only friend. And I’m not Little One anymore. I’m a woman.”
Gergana chuckled. “You’re a woman now? How very grown up. When did you become a woman?”
“A while ago,” said Eva, in a matter-of-fact voice.
“Oh, a while ago, eh?” Gergana teased. “And how did you decide that you’re now a woman?”
“Papa told me.”
Gergana began a vigil outside Eva’s door when Papa staggered home. She was Eva’s guard. Sometimes she was Eva’s alternate. She had no choice. She would protect Eva, no matter what.
What replaces fantasy and imagination for the child exiled from the acres of make-believe? Where does the mind travel when fairyland becomes forbidden territory? Eva found sanctuary in science with its logic and its immutable laws. Banished from enchantment, Eva found chemistry. She could create new worlds, real ones. Leave illusion to children who could pretend in safety. Science offered Eva the means to travel from her perilous world to an orderly one.
Sisters grow and sisters change. Gergana ripened into eye-catching adolescent beauty. She bore the hallmarks of classic loveliness—symmetrical features, full lips, high cheekbones and captivating green eyes—and her interests centered on boys. Gergana’s breasts were full, and she turned and stretched to display them. Her toned legs drew admiring eyes up to wide hips. The owners of those eyes sought to accompany Gergana. Eva no longer had an unrivaled claim to her sister’s attention.
Eva considered herself in a mirror. Her hair was unkempt, her features mismatched. She had no experience with style. Her single experiment with makeup led to calamitous results.
“How come you’re so pretty and I’m so ugly?” Eva asked one evening as she walked into her sister’s room following Gergana’s return from a social outing.
“Would you knock before you come into my room?” The tone was abrupt.
“Why are you ignoring me? Those boys don’t care about you as much as I do.”
“Well, I like boys and it gets me out of the house.”
“I wish you would play more with me,” said Eva.
“Little One, we’re not little kids anymore. You’re my sister and I love you. But I have friends. You will, too.”
“I doubt it. I’m not pretty like you are.”
Eva clung to her sister but she was as awkward as a skittering foal and her efforts to hold onto Gergana fed the distance between them. The distance grew as Gergana’s experiments with boys became experiences with men, her delight in schnapps and then liquor broadened to include marijuana and then cocaine.
Late one night Gergana stumbled home. Her key fought with the lock until the tumblers clicked into place and she staggered in. Her hair was matted, her clothing rumpled. Her words were slurred and coated with the sweet aroma of a flight of vodka. Eva helped Gergana into her bedroom, helped her get undressed. All the while, Gergana was singing popular songs or talking about her boyfriends, comparing one to another.
“Why do you do this?” Eva asked.
Gergana was lying on her bed. She reached for a stuffed animal, a plush pink rabbit with a blue waistcoat. Thin flexible wiring inside the toy’s ears held a shape, and Gergana alternated between bending the ears down, flopped over one moment and then alert and erect the next. She brought the bunny up to her face and cooed to it as she stroked its length.
“Why do you do this?” Eva repeated.
“Get drunk. Get stoned. Give yourself to the boys. That. Why do you do it?”