(Mia, after she ran away the first time and Claire and Paul visit her in rehab)
Thank God they’re gone. I feel like shit. They look so miserable and confused. That’s why I never wanted them to see this side of me, why I kept it hidden. And they wouldn’t have if they hadn’t tried to find me! That’s why I get so mad, they fucked everything up and now I end up feeling guilty!
Two days ago I was so happy. Rain took us to the beach, across from the tide pools, to this huge drum circle. Joints and bottles were passed around and the beats being pumped out were so strong the sand seemed to shake. It was all so primal. It was a castaway circle filled with shouting Rastas, angry punks, hippie girls in flowing skirts twirling about like dancing fireflies. It was so alive.
It was awesome, one minute I didn’t know a soul and the next I had a group of friends and a place to crash. That’s what I love about the streets, how unpredictable it is, how chaotic and raw.
And now they want me to go back? Back to Hopkins’ manicured world? Back to hiding under a straight-A face, to walking around smiling and hollow? I’d rather slice my hand open to remind myself I’m flesh and blood and not plastic.
(Mia, six months later, after running away to rural Indiana)
The rain pummels down outside Warren’s living room. His son Devon’s playing his favorite video game, Street Fighter. As usual, he’s dirty and full of scabs from fighting in school.
“ You’re lucky, when I was a kid, my mom didn’t let me play video games,” I say, coughing in between words. My chest is on fire.
“That sucks. Here, play with me!”
I grab a controller and try to dodge the kicks coming at my character, an Asian girl in lime green. When Devon finally kicks the shit out of me, he jumps up, yelling, “Haha, I killed that dirty gook!”
I can’t believe the little snot just said that! I’m about to ask him where he heard that when Warren reaches over and roughs up his hair.
“Way to go, Dev, that’s what you gotta do to gooks, and niggers, get rid of ’em. They’re a total waste of space that steal our women and tax dollars. Remember those dudes Daddy beat a couple weeks ago after I picked you up from school? Those were fag bastards, which are just as bad as kikes, gooks, and niggers.”
My mouth goes dry and my high vanishes instantly as I realize that my new friends are probably the skinheads Aunt Vivian used to talk about. My heart is pounding so hard, I’m scared he’ll actually hear it.
The twisted and misshapen body of the neighbor Warren beat to a bloody pulp last weekend flashes to mind. It was surreal to watch, a kamikaze blur of arms and legs until the man spewed red like a fountain. And that was just for asking Warren to turn down his music.
I am so stupid, so blind. And so Jewish. For some reason, a memory from childhood comes up. Of standing at the kitchen counter picking out unwanted raisins from my cereal. To make sure I would have a completely raisin-free breakfast, I invented a game where the raisins were Nazis and the cereal flakes were Jews. I’d sift through my cereal and pluck out the Nazis, who shouted and protested that they were really Jews. But I was not fooled by their lies and would throw all the raisins in my clenched palm into the trash and slam the lid shut. I solved the raisin question!
But now the tables have turned and I wonder if the raisins know there’s one little cereal flake hiding in their midst. And what they would do if they found out.
(Claire, with Mia on the flight to the school in the Czech Republic)
Mia’s draped across me asleep on the flight to Vienna. I study her face like a specimen, a mutated species of daughter. I would give anything for a glimpse of my beautiful girl behind this ruined mask of leathery skin and sunken eyes. I inhale, eager even for a smell that’s familiar, but that’s gone, too. A user smells like drugs; her pores exude a wet copper stink.
Who is the girl in my arms I’m so desperately afraid of losing? This Mia who’s twitching from withdrawal while she sleeps could have grown up in the rural shacks with the rest of her Indiana pals, with their puke-stained, prison-visit, cow-tipping lives. I’m afraid Mia isn’t buried, but gone altogether.
I feel gone altogether myself. I hardly remember myself before all this began. They say our children raise us and it’s true; my circuitry’s been entirely rewired. Now, for example, when I see criminals on the news, I don’t think first of their poor victims, as I used to, I think of their mothers.
I also used to think that nothing, short of death, could be worse than my little girl molested, and that only angels worked miracles. Oh, what I have learned. Listen: a man takes a child in his hands and does things, rams their little life like a freight train. He casts a spell. But the devil’s mir- acles are both wondrous and sly, because he lies low, he bides his time. Far in her future, this child will defy physics, will herself become freight train, conductor, tracks, and target. She will lay her head on the tracks, keep one foot on the pedal and head straight for herself, laughing, calling it freedom. No mother can break that spell. Nothing but to lay my head down beside her, to be there when the end comes as I was there in the beginning and for every little sufferance in between.
After a few hours, Mia wakes up, takes my makeup bag, and heads for the bathroom. She returns made up like a whore. I glance through the makeup bag to be sure she hasn’t kept the tweezers.
“Afraid I kept the tweezers as a weapon?” she snorts, reading my mind. “I’m not stupid, I know they’re gonna confiscate sharps.”
“Sharps? Two days in the slammer and you’ve got the lingo down.”
She chuckles, yawns, and conks out again. Fury-laughter-sleep, in less than thirty seconds. “Mood highly labile.”
Still, one thing hasn’t changed, and it’s the only mercy granted me in this long night. She seeks me out in her sleep, finds her mommy’s lap. I should sleep, too, but I have so little time left with her. I stay up to let my eyes trace along her slender fingers, the tip of her nose, let my hands circle her tiny, bird wrists, feel her still-childish puff-breaths.
I’m memorizing her before I leave her.
(Claire, after leaving Mia at the school, followed by a week of misery and mishaps –she can’t visit Mia, loses her cash… and all dignity)
It’s after midnight, but I’m too antsy to sleep and I’ve already called Morava twice to make sure she hasn’t escaped. Around 2 a.m., my brain launches into its new favorite game—obsessing over the moment our fates changed. Finding the exact second in time, the One Thing. Do I think that finding the tip of our history’s funnel will narrow the focus of my guilt?
An event of such magnitude should be obvious, but it’s tricky, the choices are many. Such things are always and only visible in hindsight. Which means that all of our choices are carried out ignorant of their true significance, their final, lasting impact.
The exact second in time my hindsight focuses on tonight is this— that my child is imprisoned here because I stood in a doorway thirteen years ago and didn’t understand the questions of a sad, puzzled monster who wanted some explanation, some reason why decent people found sex with children a problem. Because I didn’t see his transformation any more than I saw hers, till too late.
We carve our destinies blindfolded, with sharp knives.
The lakeside restaurant is a Heidi-like affair nestled in the trees. A chorus of birds chirps back up to Barry Manilow and everyone stares at me when I enter. Big surprise. “Excuse me,” I say politely, for lack of a better greeting. A surprised waiter hurries over. “You are American! Hallo! I speak English, leetle.” I will learn two things tonight. One, an American here is always a Morava parent; the exchange rate and a broken heart means a tip equal to a night’s pay. They’ll trip over me the rest of the week. Two, when they say English a leetle, it is, in reality, far leetler.
Carp is a national dish, so I draw a fish. “Kapr, yes, good very!” He as- sures me no fried! Fresh yes total never fried! He bows and vanishes. He returns quickly with my fish, beaming. It’s been fussed over, beautifully garnished. And very deeply fried.
After so long without food, the smell of the grease makes me queasy. I ask for a bag to take it back to my room.
A handsome young man at the next table who’s been observing me leans over. He looks at me like I’m the Antichrist and sneers at me, actu- ally curls his lip at me. At this point, I’m not offended, I’m actually inter- ested, in an anthropological kind of way.
“American culture is sheet.” As in “shit.” He leans back, crossing his arms, quite satisfied with himself, rolling his eyes as Madonna’s “Vogue” plays. He’s wearing torn Levis, Nike knock-offs, and a black Metallica T-shirt.
You picked the wrong night, kid.
“Well, that’s true,” I say, politely, “my country does make a lot of shit. You seem to like eating it.”
I leave a great, big American tip and feed my fresh yes kapr to the stray dog in the parking lot of the Santon Hotel.
Brno hasn’t been spiffed up the way Prague has, but it’s charming nonetheless, with old fountains and outdoor cafés. All of which play American sheet. There’s even live sheet. On a platform in the main plaza, a band in cowboy gear plays Willie Nelson’s “You Were Always on My Mind.” In Czech, with a twang.
My ATM card won’t work anywhere and no one in the banks I’ve tried speaks English. I can’t find anyone that does. So far, the best thing about this place is that there are churches on every street I can duck into when I start to cry about leaving Mia or get too light-headed from hunger.
Growing up, I’d been to church with my paternal aunts far more than temple. Latin mass was enthralling and fantastic to a girl who lived in books—the ritual and incense, the graceful, cryptic gestures of priests in sparkling robes. I never tired of watching the sad, drooping Jesus on the cross, amazed and impressed that someone in such bad shape could have such a big following. I wanted to hold his hand, be a comfort.
All I want to do in these churches now is drink from the holy water basin when no one’s looking. I can’t believe this is happening to me. It’s the twentieth century and I’m about to plotz in the gutter from thirst and starvation like some medieval peasant. I don’t even have Czech coins to call Morava and beg for a spare potato to be left at the end of the drive- way, where Mia can’t see me and be “set back.”
The day before I leave Brno, a Czech staff member, Ivan, takes me to tour a nearby castle. On the way there, I buy my first Czech candy bar, which I happily consume as we drive past sleepy villages.
When we reach the mountaintop castle, I stick the candy wrapper in my purse before joining a group of elegant Europeans. Once inside its cool stone walls, Ivan politely points to my rear end. A hunk of chocolate must have fallen onto the passenger seat and melted. There’s a big brown splotch on the seat of my nice linen shorts.
Great. In an effort to blend, I’d slicked my hair into a French twist, worn my black Italian loafers, and I now look like I had diarrhea and the Depends weren’t up to the challenge.
I’d already cried through all my Kleenex, so I put folded toilet paper in my purse. I tear off a few sheets, back up to a shadowy corner and discreetly wipe off as much as I can. Which isn’t much. Ivan assures me with, “Don’t worry, Ms. Fontaine, everyone is interested in the castle, not your bottom, they will be looking up not down.”
He’s probably right, I think, I’ll just stay at the back of the line. When we come to a very narrow staircase, I lag and go last. Halfway up, there’s a rush of squeaking soles behind me, then a sudden gasp right below my butt. I freeze—it’s the aloof couple in Mephistos. Looking up.
There are murmurs of disgust beneath me, my translator is nowhere to be seen, and it’s too narrow to let the couple pass. So, I turn, point to my butt and say as graciously as I can—
“Chocolate—it is cho-co-late,” as if they’re third-graders, “caandy?”
They look at me as if I’m mentally ill. Worse, mentally ill and trapping them on the stairs to speak of things fecal. Quick, Claire, show them the candy wrapper! I jam my hand into my purse—and whip out a wad of brown-smeared toilet paper.
I can hear those Mephistos tripping over themselves all the way down.
My prayer tonight, my last night near my daughter, is that Glenn will find the precious Mia that lies curled inside the dark cocoon she’s spun around herself. That she will carve away from this stony Mia all that is not really her, the way Michelangelo released David from the marble by taking away all that was not David.
I still think that she is mine to fix, to save, by sheer force of will or by proxy. I still can’t see that it isn’t possible, that our paths have already been separated forever.