Mia purchased the small peach Vespa because the hue was drum loops and syrup drizzle glimpsed across a used car lot. What she saw was herself astride the scooter in a black and purple flower rayon skirt floating through silent traffic in an early Italian movie.
I fit into arthouse films, she said. As her friends, we suspected the medium of poster suited Mia more than the film itself. Mia’s mute elegance was hardly plot-driven. And maybe that’s where she messed up—in seeing herself as a movie rather than its advertisement, the belief that she was the content itself rather than the promise.
The crossness of our tone is intended to foreshadow problems. All problems begin in a petri dish but the power of magnification blows them into proportions we permit ourselves to take seriously. A virus seems tiny at first but winds up massive. At its best, an epidemic. Though we don’t want to scare you because this is not about ebola outbreaks or Jerry Falwell’s HIV theory. This is about Mia. Our friend, Mia.
Her first ride would have been exhilarating if it weren’t for things she didn’t expect. The two-inch bulb-faced speedometer that wobbled and swayed in complete disregard for the frantic flow patterns of rush-hour traffic. Add to this the fact that the skirt did not bloom from between her thighs like a wind-throttled wildflower. Add to this the complete absence of a billowing effect. Accept, instead, the back and forth heaving of a skirt, its motion abrupt as an Alzheimer’s patient scooting his walker over bright linoleum floors in a room with no marked door.
She hid her disappointment inside the unripe tomatoes procured from a nearby street vendor. Then she parked her peach dream inside the covered garage and climbed the six flights of stairs to the apartment. We did not see her climb the stairs but we have seen her do it before.
The loft smelled of wet leather and things leftover. Mia shut the door quietly but did not bolt it (she did not believe in bolts or helicopter parents) then hung her helmet on a protruding nail by the door, the one she affectionately dubbed Hat Rack.
If she owned a small furry mammal, this is the point at which said creature would swish and bounce against her ankles, maybe nip at the skin just under her kneecaps. This would be a Warm Welcome. Instead, she faced the ellipses of unclumsy silence.
Amir rubbed a palm over his eyes and observed that she was late. En retard. Again. He did not use French to express himself the second time. Her Habitual Disinterest in Others had been facilitated by the choice of a slowgoing Italian scooter. A motorized fascist mobile. What she needed was a Suzuki motorcycle, or at least a regular bus route taped inside her eyelids.
Oh, Mia said. How was your day, Amir?
Amir stared at the ficus while speaking, his voice strained like music from another room where only the bass was left. No comment on the skirt. No mention of the day which had just passed, leaving slivers of gold and copper on the sofa.
We don’t remember what he said but the silence afterward was a spanking.
Mia told us about the scooter and movie. There was a soundtrack, she whispered, as if music might give her away. A dog barked from the alley behind the building. She knew the dog’s name—a small terrier with eyes like a well-nursed baby, eyes that didn’t want to stay awake. When Mia spoke, we listened because she couldn’t say things she didn’t believe and we were enchanted by the naturalness of her belief in what she said.
We didn’t know what to make of Amir. His poetry readings bristled with irrelevant pantomime, the verses worn down by an undercurrent of parody. We like irony up front. We appreciate a good turn of phrase provided it comes out personal. The sympathy we felt for Mia was inexpressible, our pity would result in a further reduction of status. We refused this sympathy. Refused to reduce her to the pitiable face. Certainly it was love for Mia that brought us into an uneasy friendship with Amir.
On June 7th, Amir laid in bed. Mia told us he was being tested. For epilepsy. Many Great Writers suffered from epilepsy and Amir would bear his lot with stoicism. Grit his teeth and suffer the lot of the Greats.
We wanted to check on him—to see if, in fact, Amir looked Great. To verify the suffering itself with extant chapbooks and Marvel comics in hand.
He wore an expression of unenforceable resentment—no object to hold the facial muscles stiff against, no velvet glove to ease the tension—attended by a dirigible accounting sheet of brow furrows and folds. A calculus of x’s and o’s, the balance sheet unfavorable to any face nearby. Even the grin was bankrupt, the capital of which had been over-solicited. A check marked Void before cashing. A half-broken awning still hanging. There was no denying Amir was Magnificent, the suffering edged outward like suburban sprawl. We kept a safe but cordial distance.
Two days later, Mia said the tests had come back negative for epilepsy. Amir had been spared the worst, which dramatically magnified the acreage of his suffering.
We brought pot brownies. He suffered in plain sight, pacing from the kitchen to the entryway, pausing to perform his unhappy marriage at us. It was impossible to ignore the Stravinsky involved.
Amir performed it at us even though we had not come to watch, even though the audience converged from accident. We had not expected to share a room with him. The room with the nervous alarm clock flashing red numbers, the unset time a weight one felt obliged to lift—here, let me set the time—the day itself a flat tire one must assemble with engine smoking overhead.
We had not expected Amir to rue his normal health. And Mia? Mia stood near the small potted fern and pretended to examine a frond’s underside for perfect brown dots. These are the seeds. A fern with a future bears seeds. No one mentioned fruit. It was clear she wasn’t examining the fern while rubbing the same frond rhythmically, patting the frond without drawing any conclusions.
Maybe the future was not about fertility. Maybe Mia wasn’t thinking what we thought. For example, she might have been comparing recipes for flan or concocting a related grocery list. Alternately, she might have been concocting an unrelated grocery list. There are many things she might have considered even though the fern was not one of them.
It was Jackie who caved. What she’d witnessed in the loft disturbed Jackie so deeply that she purchased a yellow dwarf-rose shrub which she then repotted in a sky-blue ceramic container with a braid design along the upper rim.
It’s lovely, we assured her but Jackie was beyond aesthetic succor. You shouldn’t go alone, we said. Jackie manages the Avatar & Logo Dept. of a marketing agency. This—and the way she groomed flyaway hairs in the hallway mirror—made it clear she preferred to go solo.
I’m going to drop it off after Ashtanga, she said. Maybe we can meet for coffee afterwards. Then a grimace in the hallway mirror—high ponytails never stay sleek for long. She would see us later.
We forgot to catch the sunset given the lull of fluorescent lights in our respective gyms. The moon hid her face behind midtown warehouses. Slightly exhausted, we convened at Elmer’s place for Irish coffee and coconut scones. I wish Mia was here, Elmer admitted. A few minutes later, he made another wistful Mia pitch while dropping a pinch of flakes into the goldfish bowl. Mia loved feeding my goldfish, he said. She would sit around and feed goldfish all day if it weren’t for that narcissist she married.
Jackie blotted her lips with a pre-folded paper napkin. She wouldn’t go quite as far as Elmer but she knew for a fact that Mia missed us as much as we missed her. Especially since Amir’s decision to become a rabbi had recast the co-payment of rent from an economic, Marxist-feminist issue to a theological one.
Elmer blanched—A rabbi? When did he say this?
When Jackie stopped by with flowers. After Amir lambasted the insularity of yellow roses. After he expressed scorn for the privilege of household flowers—given all the heedless spiritual suffering in the world, and how did these selfish little flowers help?
Oh, I think your wife could use a little cheer, Jackie had insisted. Doesn’t hurt to do good where good is needed.
Elmer asked about Mia—Was she even there?
Mia was there but wordless.
Elmer tilted his head in the classic Greta Garbo. There’s no way Mia could continue teaching kindergarten and pay rent on the loft if Amir declined to use his CPA for a second income.
Elmer had a point—we knew he was right—but it seemed beside the point to dwell on what we couldn’t alter. Finally, after watching the fish for three vacant, oblong minutes, we asked if Mia liked the flowers.
Of course, Jackie nodded. She loves yellow roses. T.S. Eliot and shit.
Elmer’s eyebrows twitched and hovered over the angora-blue of his eyes. How…he paused and tried again—How…well fuck if I’m not going to come right out and address the elephant in the room, how did Mia look?
Fine. Tired. Like a mayfly on its final descent. Her cheeks were slightly chapped, the overall effect disheveled, as if she was caught between things.
Maybe between things she’d done and things she needed doing, we mused.
Jackie confirmed it was unclear what Mia was dressing for next. A workplay look about her in an era when we’d gone beyond such idealistic fusions.
We nodded. We’d seen that side of Mia before. The whatnottedness of a loose bun secured with sewing elastic. A half-lit mother’s love that failed to keep loneliness from ever coming to her face in late afternoon sunlight. The tawdriness of pale blonde lashes which left the face free of strong topography, a face like the Great Plains or some pocket of Nebraska—untouched or over-mined. Hard to say which was which with Mia. Hard to say how ordinary words became tongue twisters when combined.
We concluded that it was the last-peck look. The look-but-don’t-touch. The coloring simultaneously not-enough and over-much.
Amir had never written a poem that surpassed the fourteen-page exegesis of Mia’s post-marital abortion. That was four years ago but murder was still his favorite muse. Mia would do anything for Amir except kill someone. She was pro-choice so the abortion had been a way to placate his anxiety about finances and Montessori preschools. It was a choice she made for him given what he expressed of his Values.
We are pro-choice as well as pro-life. But we think life begins after birth and kindness to developing nations is the single greatest drain on personal karma.
The wife of a rabbi can’t ride around on a postal Vespa, Amir declared.
You’re not a rabbi yet, Jackie reminded him.
Mia asked if anyone wanted a drink of icy mint water.
We were hydrated and we had to go. We promised to return next week. Amir chanted some litany in Syriac which led us to wonder whether he understood the difference between Hebrew and Aramaic. Elmer posed the question.
Bah, Amir sighed, Syria is not even a country and Yahweh is a country unto himself.
The days passed like wooden birds striking out from the confines of a Swiss cuckoo clock. There was a time when we could purchase such clocks at Urban Outfitters but not since Mandala Madness had taken over. We felt nostalgia for the cuckoo clocks of earlier purchase. We reminisced about our childhoods through the screen of beloved former toys. We felt united in our hatred of cockroaches. Mostly, though, we missed Our Friend, Mia.
We knocked and expressed surprise when Amir opened the door. He was performing hospitality all over the place while Mia rendered charcoal versions of imaginary puppies. It’s a new lesson plan, she said.
Amir had grown slimmer—more slender and bonyscaped than Mia—which we suspected to be part of the hold he exercised over her psyche, part and parcel of the guilt he leveraged. I have found my calling, Amir announced obliquely. Elmer looked away. Where was Mia—apart from the sketching—and why was she humming a song we didn’t know?
She was laughing without looking at Amir. I’ve been busy, she said. With work and school and Common Core. I’ve been learning how to be a better teacher. The rabbi rolled his eyes and schlupped into the kitchen. Whatever Happened made the well-lit room feel ominous.
We learned that she was trying to sell the Vespa without telling us why.
Why, we said. But it sounded like a question.
The morning sky, overcast with heavy strokes of painter’s grey, could make night believe the day was mad at itself. An almost-angry day. A day where one might take after Amir and return to one’s bed. What was the point of striking out in this weather?
We agreed there were limitations to our vantage point on Mia and Amir. We agreed the weather was a factor in human behavior. But mostly, we missed Our Friend, Mia.Alina Stefanescu is the author of Objects In Vases (Anchor & Plume, 2016). You can read her poetry and prose in PoemMemoirStory, Tinge Magazine, Jellyfish Review, New Delta Review, Lunch Ticket, Change Seven, Poetry Fix, and others. More online at www.alinastefanescu.com.