The House of the Man You Do Not Know
When you go to live in the house of the man you do not know, he will give you an extra set of keys and tell you to help yourself to anything in the kitchen. You will notice the smooth countertops and the silver-colored appliances. You will notice that there is no dinner table, only a breakfast bar with three high-backed stools. In what should be the dining room there is a large poker table, and when you look at it a moment too long, the man will say, “I’m going to move that and get a proper dining room table.”
The man has set up a bedroom for you, and you will be surprised at both how large and how nice it is. There is a bed pushed in a corner against the window, a desk, a dresser. You have your own bathroom, knitted into a doorway inside the bedroom. You will put your backpack over the chair at the desk, your jeans and shirts in the dresser, your skirts and the cardboard box you brought with you in the dark, gaping closet. The man will tell you that if you don’t like the colors of the linens or the comforter he will buy you new ones. The man will tell you that you can paint the bedroom any color you like. He will tell you he wants you to feel comfortable here, this is your home now.
On the third day you live in the house of the man you do not know, two delivery men will come to deliver a large, oak table, and they will help the man whose house you live in now move the poker table into the basement you didn’t know existed. You will picture leaking cement and damp smells, like the laundry room in the apartment complex you used to live in with your mother. But when you go down into the basement on the fourth day, you will be surprised by how clean and bright it is, with spotless white carpeting and a big screen television and leather couches. The man will set up the poker table again just like he had it upstairs. You will learn soon that this is how he makes money, that he is used to spending weekends in Atlantic City and flying to Las Vegas once a month for tournaments.
At the end of the first week, the man will hand you a piece of paper and a pen and tell you to write down anything you’d like him to buy. He will say that he does not know what you like to eat yet. You will write down Pop-Tarts, because this is something your mother told you was a waste of money and too sweet for a meal. The man will come home with five different flavors of Pop-Tarts, he does not know which kind you like so he got them all, and he will tell you that he also bought Toaster Strudels because you inspired him. You will catch him, late one night, when he does not know you are awake, squeezing the icing straight from the plastic packet into his mouth.
At night, at first, you will not be able to sleep. The sounds of the city outside the townhouse are different than the sounds outside the apartment you used to live in. The bedroom feels bigger than that apartment. But soon you will begin to kick out your legs, stretching them to the corners of this large bed, pushing your arms out. You will be a star shape, breathing in the deep night.
Sometimes you will be able to hear the man in his bedroom. He has told you that if you ever need anything, he is “just down the hall here,” pointing to the door at the end of the hallway. You will think how different this is from your mother, who slept on a fold-out couch in the living room; who, at the first noise from you or anything else, hissed “Liniste!” You will think of all the small spaces that choked her.
The man will give you thirty dollars one morning and tell you that he will give you thirty dollars every week to buy whatever you need. The first week, you will take the bus to the grocery store and come home with eggplant, pork, tomatoes to cook a meal. It is not good Musaca, it is soupy and you forgot to buy bread to sprinkle on top.
When the man comes home his face will freeze and he will ask if you used the money he gave you to buy the ingredients and you will nod. He will say, “Audrey, I’ll take care of the groceries. That money is for you.”
This will make you feel bad, and your eyes will first feel painfully dry and then wet in a way that embarrasses you, and you will miss your mother.
The man will say, “This smells delicious. It was really nice of you to make dinner. I’ll set the table.”
You will want to shake your head because you are no longer hungry, you are unable to even imagine being hungry, and you do not want to sit across from the man and eat bad Musaca.
But you and the man will sit at the big oak table, too big for two people, and the smell of new wood will overwhelm the smell of the Musaca. Everything, you will realize, is new here, even in what the man told you is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Philadelphia.
Six weeks before, you learned that intestate means that someone has died without a will. You learned that a few old pieces of furniture can pay the cost of a cremation, that ashes are heavy and distributed in sturdy cardboard boxes. That you can feel their weight on your chest even if they are tucked into the back of a large closet deep inside a big, bright bedroom.
The man will come with you to enroll you in school. He will keep his hand on your stiff shoulder as he talks to the admissions officer. He will explain that you will take any placement exams they would like, because while he knows this is an elite school, you are very bright and a very hard worker and he knows you would do very well here.
You will spend the rest of the day taking exams in a quiet, windowless room, and though you know you should be nervous about your scores, you will think only of how calm you feel here, in this small space.
The night after you finish your placement exams, the man will come home with a box of DVDs. “Look what I bought!” he will say. “Your namesake.” He’ll show you the cover, a picture of Audrey Hepburn in a black dress and a tiara, leaning forward with a sultry look on her face, a long cigarette burning between her fingers. “How many of these have you seen?” You will tell him that you have not seen any of them.
“None of them!” he will cry. “Well, let’s put an end to that. You’re going to be a bona fide Audrey Hepburn encyclopedia before you know it.”
The man will tell you that you should start at the beginning, with My Fair Lady, because it is one that he used to watch when he was a child. He will tell you that it isn’t in the box set, but his own mother gave it to him for Christmas a few years before, as a gag gift, because he’d memorized all the songs when he was a child and sang them at the top of his lungs. You will think about how you could never imagine your mother giving anyone a gag gift. Your mother gave few gifts and accepted fewer: when people she worked for gave her extra money or fruit baskets at Christmas, she always returned them, wordless and cold.
When the man starts the movie, you will like it, you will see the shifts in Audrey Hepburn’s face that look like your mother’s, you will understand why your mother loved this actress.
“Are all the movies musicals?” you will ask the man.
“I think this might be the only one,” he will say. You will think this is a shame and try to remember if you ever heard your mother sing.
The man will bring home a new television and you will wonder how many televisions one home needs. There is one in the basement, one in the living room, and you know he has one in his bedroom. He will explain that this a television that will allow the two of you to watch all of Audrey Hepburn’s movies because you can download them right onto the television, that he’d been in the market for an LED for a while, and that your arrival and subsequent settling in seem like a good time to celebrate with this new addition.
You will know that you should be grateful for the purchase but you will be able to think only of how many homes your mother cleaned and children she babysat to pay for the little apartment the two of you lived in together. You will think of the scholarships you were on to go to school; of the time you heard your mother crying in candlelight because the power went off and she knew that you knew that the game she made up to explain away the darkness was a lie.
And this man lives in the townhouse in Philadelphia, with his televisions and bedrooms and poker tables and you have never seen him work.
You will learn that, in addition to playing poker, the man runs a website that teaches other people how to play poker. He manages two other people who help with the graphics and the content, and both of them work from home, too.
But the man still goes to tournaments, and he has a tournament to attend in Las Vegas. He will ask you if you have made any friends yet at school and if you might like to stay with them while he’s in Vegas for a few days.
“I’m afraid you won’t have much fun there, otherwise I’d bring you,” he will say.
“I have an exam,” you will tell him. He will pull a frozen pizza from the freezer and unwrap it to put into the oven.
“So no one you want to crash with for a couple of nights?” he will ask, and lick a small piece of frozen mozzarella off of his thumb. You will shake your head, and he will tell you about a woman friend of his who would be happy to come stay with you for a few nights. “This house can feel pretty empty when you’re all alone,” he will explain.
The night before the man leaves for Las Vegas, the two of you will watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s while you eat Chinese food, which you eat at least once a week now. When Audrey Hepburn is on screen in her gray turtleneck, her hair in pigtails, you will be unable to think of anything but your mother.
“My mother looked like Audrey Hepburn,” you will declare.
“Yes,” the man will say. “So do you.”
You will turn your head toward the kitchen so that the man cannot see that your face wants to cry, and it will feel like something is piercing through your eardrums when you hear him say, “I’m sorry about your mother, Audrey. I really am.”
You know that the man thinks, like everyone else must, that you watched your mother’s illness choke and then kill her over time. When really it was not until the end that you noticed she was even sick, and not until after the state ordered an autopsy that you knew tumors had eaten her ovaries from the inside out.
There had been no goodbyes and the night she died your mother had fallen asleep on the fold-out couch like any other night.
You do not know if she even knew what was inside of her.
The evening after the man leaves to go to Las Vegas, you will come back to his house and find a woman sitting at the breakfast bar reading a book. She is shorter than you, with full cheeks and wide hips and dark, brown hair.
“Audrey!” she will say and jump up from the stool. “I’m—”
“I know,” you will say. “Thank you for staying here,” you will add, though you do not know if you want her there.
“It’s not a problem at all!” she will say. “Did you have any ideas about dinner? We could go out somewhere, or order something.”
“There are lots of leftovers,” you will say.
“I heard you were shy,” she will say. “This must be a really big adjustment.”
The kitchen will feel cavernous and claustrophobic, and this woman too close, though you will feel profoundly alone. You will go up to your bedroom and close the door and stay there until the next morning.
You will not see her before you go to school, but when you come home in the afternoon she will be at the breakfast bar again.
“Hi Audrey,” she will say sweetly, and you will nod and try to smile. As you go to the cabinet to pull down a glass, you will feel her eyes on you. “I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable at all.”
“Okay,” you will say, finally, after the silence is long enough to make you uncomfortable.
“My mother died this summer,” she will say, and it sounds like an eruption, like she cannot control it, and so you decide you will forgive her. “I know it’s not the same. You’re so young and … well, everything else. But, I just wanted to say, I know at least a little bit of what you must be feeling, so if you ever want to talk, I’m definitely here.”
You will want to laugh because there is nothing you are less likely to do than talk to anyone, especially a stranger, especially this stranger, about a private thing like this.
When she asks you if you would like to watch television with her later that evening, you will hear something in her voice that will make you feel sorry for this plump woman who is lonely enough to come stay at the man’s house with you.
A few shows into the evening, when the glare from the television blurs against your eyes and your limbs feel heavy, you will hear yourself asking, “What did you do, after she died?”
“I took some time off,” she will answer. “I went to Vancouver for awhile.”
“No,” you will say. “I mean with her.”
“Oh.” She will pause and keep her eyes on the television screen and say, “I took some of her ashes to Vancouver and spread them over the Pacific. My sister has some she’s going to take with her to Italy next year.” She will not ask you where your mother is, and you will be grateful that you do not have to say aloud that you have taken her only into one more small, dark room.
When the man gets back from Las Vegas, he gives you two presents. One is a box of chocolates, and the other is a blown glass Christmas ornament with a picture of Audrey Hepburn’s face painted on it. You thank him and put both on one of the end tables in the living room.
“I saw it in the gift shop and thought of you,” he will tell you, pointing to the ornament. “It’s about time to put up a Christmas tree anyhow, don’t you think?”
You agree, and the next day, the man will drive the two of you to Bucks County to buy a Christmas tree. He tells you he has a friend from college who owns a Christmas tree farm out there, a place where you can cut down your own. You will be surprised when you are there in a little bit over an hour. You will ask if you are closer to New Jersey than you were in Philadelphia.
“Nope, but not really much farther away, either,” the man will tell you. He’ll glance over at you and ask if you’d like to go back to Jersey one day for a visit. You will not respond because you do not know if you want to go back to New Jersey, to Camden, to the block where you lived with your mother. “We’ll make a trip soon,” he will say. You will wonder if he means a trip to Atlantic City, a place he is more used to.
Once you are at the Christmas tree farm, which you learn is really a very large piece of forest, the man’s friend will come to greet the two of you. He will look much older than the man, and much heavier, and his cheeks will be bright red. You will not be sure if it is from the crisp, early-winter air or nips of alcohol or if it is just the color of his skin.
“Well hello! This must be the little lady,” he will say, and look at you. “Pleasure to meet you, madam,” he’ll say. “And you’re damn right,” he will look back at the man, “she’s the spitting image.”
“Thank you,” you will say quietly.
The three of you will walk into the woods, and then the man’s friend will tell you to pick out a tree together and he will come back and help you saw it down.
“Did you have Christmas trees … back home?” the man will ask you as the two of you wander into the thicket. He has asked you hardly anything about home or your life before his house, and it will surprise you, and you will feel yourself flush.
“No,” you will say.
“I guess it’s not too traditional,” he will offer, and you will scowl.
“Romanians have Christmas trees too,” you will tell him. You will want to say that your empty Christmas celebrations had everything to do with too little money and too little time, even though the man has endless time and money and could fit a hundred trees in his house and still have room for his televisions. You will not say this, though; instead, you will walk up a snow-trodden path toward a batch of thicker, fuller trees.
“Audrey,” the man will call after you, and it will sound like an apology. “I’m just … I’m trying to get to know you.”
“Ce drăguț,” you’ll say and know you are being rude. You will feel badly but you will not wish you could take it back. You will stay where you are, your shoulders set, your back to the man.
“Just pick a fucking tree,” he’ll say, low, like a growl, and you have not heard him sound angry at all before. You will wonder how angry he has been with you all along, how long he has boiled in your silence.
You will put your gloved hands up to your cheeks and though you cannot see the man you will feel him soften.
“Look, I’m sorry,” he’ll say. “That wasn’t called for. I think I’m jet-lagged from the red-eye. Let’s just get one of the pre-cut trees,” he’ll offer, and you will feel him touch your arm with one of his hands. You’ll turn with him and walk back to the parking lot, where his friend will help you tether a medium-sized tree, already wrapped in a sheet of plastic, to the top of the man’s car.
When you get back to the man’s house, the two of you will set up the tree together in the living room. You will have to move one of the big armchairs further into a corner to make room for the tree, and you will like the way the room looks in this new layout. The man has a box of ornaments that all look the same, something pre-packaged from a big box store. The two of you will hang these around the tree, and then the man will laugh and say, “We don’t have a star or anything to put on top.” You will smile and hold up the ornament he got you from Las Vegas, which has been sitting on the side table next to the sofa since he gave it to you. He will laugh loud, louder than the idea is funny, and he will say, “Perfect. You want to put it up?” You will shake your head no, and the man will pull the stepladder close to the tree and then stick the ornament on top, where it looks silly and sagged. “Well, we tried,” he will say.
He will ask if you want hot chocolate, and you will say, “Sure,” and both of you will walk to the kitchen where he will start steaming milk with the espresso machine and you will pull two bars of semi-sweet chocolate out of the pantry and start melting them on the stove. You will like the way the kitchen smells with the milk and the chocolate and the pine scent drifting up from the living room.
“What do you say we put on a movie?” he will ask.
You agree, and the two of you go back to the living room where the man fumbles around with the TV. “This is a special one,” he will say. “My very favorite.”
You’ll know what it is before the opening images of Roman Holiday even come onto the television, and you will be glad that the daylight is fading and there are no lights on in the room and that you can forget the man is next to you while you watch the film together. You will have forgotten about your hot chocolate, unsipped on the coffee table. When the movie ends, leaving Gregory Peck standing at the close of a press conference all alone, the man will turn on a lamp.
“Your mother ever tell you about that movie?”
“No thank you,” you will say. You will lean forward and pick up the mug from the table, standing so you can leave to go clean things up in the kitchen.
“I don’t want to hear.”
“I know,” he will say. “But I want to tell you.”
He will tell you, though you will not consent to it. He will tell you about a girl he met on a rickety train an ocean away right after the wall fell. How she spoke English better than he expected, and how severely she rolled her eyes when he told her she looked like Audrey Hepburn. How she said, “I’ve never been alone with a man before,” which you recognize from the movie, and how she followed it with, “Do you know how to say that in Romanian?” You will smile when the man tells you she said, “rahat,” bullshit when he said he spoke Romanian. How he followed her to the Black Sea and his friends continued their planned trip back up to Budapest, how she let her friends go back home to Pașcani without her.
“We called it our Romanian Holiday,” the man will tell you. Then he will say, “Well, I called it that, anyway. She said that was stupid.”
“I’m tired,” you will tell the man.
“I loved your mother,” he will tell you. “I did. And I loved you.”
You will walk up the stairs to your bedroom and shut your door and leave the cold cup of hot chocolate on your dresser.
You will not be able to sleep. You will think how far apart Philadelphia and Camden feel, you will think about maps of New Jersey you studied in elementary school, about the straight path from Philadelphia to Atlantic City, overpasses gliding above the crumbling apartments you lived in with your mother, straight lines to the townhouse where you live now. You will think about how you have brought her here, into your bedroom closet, into the man’s house.
“You’ve got to come out of there, Audrey,” the man will say, knocking on your bedroom door the next morning. “You’ve got to eat.” You will not respond, and the man will keep knocking, and eventually you will hear him walk away.
You will gather the comforter up around your ears, count the weeks backward since you moved west and your mother moved somewhere you aren’t sure you believe in. You will fall back asleep and wonder if it is possible for you to sleep for days, for weeks. To sleep for four years until you are eighteen and can leave, though you do not know where you will go.
You will wake up when the man begins knocking again, and the sun will be blazing through the window, sharp afternoon sunshine before early evening falls. “Come on Audrey, enough of this,” he will say. “I’m not afraid to come in there, just so you know.” You will wonder if he has left when you hear, “I’m not putting up with this. You’re coming downstairs and you’re going to eat dinner and you’re sure as hell going to school tomorrow.”
Because you are hungry, you will go downstairs, and you will keep your eyes to the floor and refuse to look at the man. You are prepared to make your own sandwich, but you will see that the man has set two plates of food at the breakfast bar. “Sit down,” he will say, and he will sit down also. “I understand you’re mad at me,” he will tell you. “You have a right to be.”
You will push a forkful of white rice into your mouth, let it feel like sludge as it seeps into your stomach. He will eat faster than you, and then he will wait for you to finish, and you will push your plate away when you are full.
“I want to show you something,” he will say. He will walk into the dining room and turn on the light, and on the new, big, oak table, you will see dozens and dozens of envelopes. All of them addressed to Elena Ionescu in the man’s blocky handwriting, handwriting that makes your mother’s name look all wrong. They are all directed to the smatterings of addresses where you lived with your mother in Camden. All of the envelopes marked, in your mother’s precise cursive, RETURN TO SENDER. “Go ahead,” he will say. “Open them. Open all of them.”
You will look up to him and you will feel like a child, like you are younger, even, than your fourteen years. You will reach out for an envelope, one that looks old, mail-worn. The postmark date is December 21, 1994, almost exactly ten years ago to the day, and you will peel open the edge. Inside you will find a letter, two pages long, and a check for an amount that you know is at least twice what your mother paid for rent.
You begin to open all of them, all the unread letters, all the uncashed checks. Hundreds of pages, you begin to realize, that your father had written you and your mother over your life, thousands and thousands of dollars he had sent to your mother.
“Why?” you will ask.
“So you would know,” he will tell you. “It wasn’t enough. I should have come to you.”
“Why wouldn’t she?” you will ask.
“I hoped you would tell me,” he will tell you, his voice quiet in a way you recognize, the way yours sounds when you do not want to cry.
On Christmas Eve he will offer to take you to an Eastern Orthodox Church, but you will remind him that your mother sent you to Catholic school, told you to go to Mass and obey but cross yourself the other way. You know he was raised Catholic and he will take you to the church he grew up in, and it will be filled at Midnight Mass and though he is the only person in the packed building you know, you will feel less alone than you believe you ever have before.
When the two of you go back to his house, he will open a bottle of brandy and pour himself a glass, and you will pour yourself some eggnog, and the two of you will sit at the oak table, and you will miss your mother. You will think of the Christmas Eves when it was a different set of two of you, when you would go to Midnight Mass with your mother, then you would make and eat Cozonac together, and she would tell you how she and her sisters and mother used to go around town singing together at Christmas with the whole village, and you would ask her to tell you about it over and over because it was all she ever told you of her own mother.
You will go to your bedroom and open your closet and bring down your mother, setting her on the table between you, and the man will not look shocked or even upset, he will only shake his head and bring his eyes to yours.
“Elena’s mother died right before I met her,” the man will tell you, circling his glass of brandy in his hand. “It was … a brief illness, I think.” You did not know this, and it makes you wish you could tell your mother that you know now why her face seemed never to be able to smile. “That might have been the only reason she ever loved me, or pretended to. She was heartbroken, I guess.” You are afraid that if he begins to cry, you will cry too; you are afraid that if you begin to cry, he will begin to sob. “She didn’t love me, I guess. But I wish she’d let me love her at least a little longer.”
He clears his throat and blinks, then stands. He walks down to the living room and pulls a wrapped present out from under the Christmas tree. When he comes back, he places it in front of you and says, “Merry Christmas.”
You unwrap a framed picture of your mother, younger but still so much the same as she looked the last time you saw her. Audrey Hepburn with lighter hair, lighter eyebrows. She wore a black, full piece bathing suit, her back to the camera, facing the Black Sea. You know your father was the photographer, watching this woman watching this sunset over the water of the only home she’d yet known. The beach is strangely empty in the picture—and the man will tell you that it is because it was too early in the season to be at the beach, really, only late April, too cold for most people.
You will cry, let your throat announce it, let the man put his foreign-feeling arms around you, because your mother crossed the Atlantic Ocean and you forged the Delaware River and when you put the photograph down and close your eyes you can see the mythical moonlit sky, your mother’s thin, bare back, wading into the waters that would one day bring you to this place.