What's Best for the Family
The yellow sunrise light soaring over the bleached bones of the Coliseum and the arched churches of Rome (many of the latter built with marble stripped from the former) illuminated recently-washed piazzas and opening trattorias across the city, dancing on the surface of the Tiber and not yet obscured by the smog of early morning traffic. The light reached even the cramped bedroom that Mirela shared with her younger brother Nicu, and for one brief moment the peeling ochre wallpaper shone like cathedral gold. But the glow faded as Mirela's eyes adjusted to the light. Nicu, exhausted from last night's expedition, groaned and rolled over on his pallet, pulling a worn blanket over his head. Mirela smiled at him as she swung out of bed, but her smile vanished when she stepped onto the stone floor--it must have been a damp night, because her knee buckled under her weight when she tried to stand. Biting her tongue so as not to wake Nicu, Mirela grabbed the edge of the dresser they shared and pulled herself to her feet.
It was going to be one of those days.
Still, the room was larger than the one she had shared with her brother in Galaţi, back in Romania, and even her dingy underclothes were nicer than the peasant hand-me-downs from her older cousins. While Nicu snored on, Mirela continued to get dressed. When she had first come to Rome, she had dressed as finely as Uncle Markos could afford, working the tourists in the Piazza del Popolo, impressing them with bits of trivia from the United States or Japan. "As cute as a button," one waddling American woman had once said while handing her crisp, fresh-from-the-ATM bills, and even though Mirela didn't think there was anything cute about a button, she had curtsied and said "thank you" like a polite American schoolgirl.
That night, Uncle Markos had congratulated her in front of all the other children and given her a pink ribbon of her very own. That ribbon, along with a faded picture of her parents and a doll given to her by her grandmother, was hidden in her dresser in a small box that also contained Nicu's only keepsakes of Romania. Sometimes, if she came home early after a good day of begging, Mirela would rub the satin ribbon in one hand while she traced her parents' faces with the other, whispering their names and trying not to forget the sound of their voices. Nicu, who had been so much younger when they came here but was now taller, couldn't remember, and she feared that someday soon she would forget as well.
Favoring her good knee, Mirela began to strap pillows around her midsection--she was no longer young enough to earn her keep from tourists, and instead worked the citizens of Rome feigning pregnancy. At first, it had bothered her to do this because she could tell from their eyes that the marks thought she was an incautious prostitute. She had even returned to the apartments one day with barely a dozen lira, refusing to tie the pillows on ever again. Uncle Markos gave her another gift that day, again in front of the others, and her knee still hurt when it was cold and damp. Like today. Eventually, Mirela learned to use pity and disgust to increase her earnings.
Nicu, too, had aged beyond the stage of "cute" begging. He had always been a favorite of Uncle Markos, smart and cunning. He could name every American president in order and knew how to say "I am your friend" in half a dozen languages. But now that his growth had come he no longer inspired charity. He brought in more than double Mirela's earnings in small thefts, although Uncle Markos had been sending him on larger and more important missions with the oldest boys, learning the trade. She worried he would be caught by the police--she, like all the children, had heard stories about how the Roman police beat gypsy children. Uncle Markos could be cruel, but he was family, and he protected them from the corrupt government.
All that morning Mirela begged by a fountain older than Christianity, moving in the afternoon to the curb near a restaurant nearby graffiti marked as kind to vagrants. The lunch crowd was stingy with its euros (even the money had changed since Mirela first came to Rome), but the waiter "spilled" a basket of bread onto the ground and gave it to her, so at least she wasn't hungry all afternoon. Evening came prematurely in the form of a broad belt of clouds. The cold rain made the after-work crowd generous to a dejected and shivering young mother-to-be, and so Mirela returned to the apartments with almost double her usual take, passing it along to Amadeo, an Italian who was nonetheless trusted by Uncle Markos.
"Wait, ragazze." Mirela stopped, shocked. Usually Amadeo, a thin, shrewish sort of man, only grunted by way of greeting when collecting the evening money. "Your uncle, he wants to see you." When she opened her mouth to protest, to explain that she needed to dry off before she caught a cold, he twitched his head sharply. "Now, he said. Go."
Uncle Markos had an office in the basement of the apartments, and the children gossiped about all the money hidden there, with its secret escape route that they'd all take if the police ever came to storm the apartments. But none of them (even Mirela, who at fifteen was one of the oldest left) had ever really been inside. Uncle Markos delivered his gifts, both the pleasant and the less pleasant ones, in the public room. Mirela's hands shook with more than just the wet cold when she approached the ajar door.
"Come in, Mirela. Come in." The office was as tiny as her bedroom, stacked with papers and cabinets. There was no sign of wealth or a secret escape tunnel, but Mirela was much more interested in the aging, loud space heater in the corner. "Sit." Uncle Markos, sitting behind his desk with a pen in one meaty hand and a sheet of paper in the other, pointed at the chair by the door, far from the heater. Mirela sat.
"How are you doing, Mirela?" he asked. She stirred, uncomfortable. Uncle Markos did not make small talk with his children. Uncle Markos did not ask his children into his office. "Is it raining today?" Uncle Markos did not ask his children about the weather. Whirring and clacking from the overworked space heater, which Mirela could not see from her seat, filled the space between them.
"Your brother is doing fine," Uncle Markos said, abruptly, so loud Mirela almost jumped to her feet. She sighed in relief, realizing that a small part of her had wondered if Nicu was in trouble somehow, if his afternoon thieving had gone awry. "He will be one of the best before long." With each pause in the one-sided conversation, Mirela became more unsettled. This was an unnatural event, this audience. The pain from her knee started to throb in time to the space heater's convulsions. He coughed. "It's about time you started thinking about doing what's best for the family as well."
Mirela blinked slowly, realizing with collapsing spirits the reason for this unusual occurrence. She was not foolish--every girl in the apartments knew about "the talk," the one that preceded a move to the ladies' house a few streets over. For some, especially those without younger siblings, "the talk" came earlier, and for one blond gypsy from somewhere on the Baltic it had come even before the more confusing conversation with Felisa, the next door washingwoman who Uncle Markos paid to explain life's changes to his female children. Mirela had known "the talk" would come for her soon, but she had thought Nicu's success, and her own, would have bought her more time. It is like death, she thought, always expected and somehow always a surprise. It had been a surprise for their father.
"You are a smart girl, Mirela. You know what I mean." When she did not respond, Uncle Markos stood up and repeated the line. Not meeting his eyes--he did not permit his children to do so--she nodded. "Say it." The space heater rattled in its corner. "Do not make me order you again."
"I did not hear you clearly. The heater is very loud."
"Whoring." Again, louder. "Whoring."
"No, no, ragazze." Uncle Markos came around his desk. Mirela tautened in preparation for the blow, and all her confusion returned when she found herself embraced in his giant arms. "No, Mirela. No relative of mine will become a whore." She tried a few times to phrase a question, but she could not articulate the words. Hope, always a stranger, wriggled in her mind. Did Uncle Markos intend a different future for her? "Whores walk on the streets, doing terrible things for drugs, Mirela. You will have a room of your own, and fancy clothes, and a cell phone even, and you will have clients, not johns." Her hope flailed wildly, strangled by the garrote of his embrace. "You want a cell phone, don't you?" Because he expected and demanded it, she nodded against his shoulder. Because he expected and allowed it, she cried into his sleeve.
When Nicu came into their room that night, he found Mirela wearing heavy pants and their grandmother's shawl, perched on her bed with the pink ribbon in one hand and the cracked photo in the other. "What do you think you're doing?" he whispered, not wanting to wake the children in the next room.
"You know. You must have heard."
"The talk." Mirela did not know how he could say it so emotionlessly. "Go back to bed. Pretending to run away will only make things worse for you."
"Quiet!" They both froze, but none of the other children responded to her cry. "You're being a stupid girl, Mira. Uncle won't let you go. You know it has to be this way." He reached over and turned off the small lamp Mirela had left lit, so that he heard, rather than saw, her start to sob. "What? You thought I would come with you? It is the way things are. We all do what's best for the family. You go to the brothel and I, well, I become the greatest thief in Rome." Mirela knew his confident grin so well, the one he used to present to tourists he had completely won over. She muffled her crying.
"Nicu, I am going, with or without you. I will not become a whore." She shivered every time she said the word out loud.
For the first time, she heard him swear. He opened his own phone, lighting his angry face with a blue glow that left his eyes in shadows. "You selfish slut." Nicu slapped her, hard enough that she had to bite on her tongue to keep from crying out. "You remember what happened to Ferka, after his sister Tsura tried to run? Markos lent him to those Greeks for an entire week." He slapped her again. "They found him in an alley." Slap. "He killed himself because of what they did to him." Slap. "And he was younger than I am now. What do you think Markos will do once he finds out you are gone?" He stopped beating her, tired. "I won't be anyone's bitch."
He undressed and crawled into his bed. "How far do you think you can get with that knee, anyway, Mira?" Mirela had not known Nicu was capable of such scorn. He had learned so much from the older thieving boys, enough to sound like one of them himself. "Not back to Romania, at any rate."
She waited until he was asleep. She had hidden her bag in the bathroom earlier, while everyone in the apartments was eating dinner. Shoving the ribbon and the photograph in her pocket, she left Nicu dreaming of glorious heists. She stepped over the sleeping bodies of the newest children in the common room and tip-toed down the hall to the bathroom. The bag was still there.
Mirela walked out of the apartments into the misty grey of just before dawn, the lights of the city visible in the sky but not in this dark alley. She turned to look at her home one last time.
"Mirela, I thought you knew better." She spun around to find Felisa, the Roman washerwoman, sitting on her stoop. "They told me Markos had called you in for 'the talk,' but I didn't really expect to find you here."
"Don't try to stop me, Signora Felisa."
"I won't. But listen a moment, child. You have some money saved, no doubt. Enough to take the Metro outside the city, perhaps, and to buy a few meals." Mirela did not have even that much, but she did not interrupt. "When that money runs out, and you find that begging outside the city doesn't bring in much cash, and you are nowhere close to even Croatia, much less Romania or Bulgaria, what will you do? Will you starve to death? I do not think you will, Mirela. You are too strong to give up and die in the street. You will find a man and he will pay you enough to live on for a little while. To travel a little longer." Mirela's mouth tightened into a straight line.
"You will tell yourself it is the only time. You will tell yourself this until the next time you face starvation. Soon you will start to tell yourself that it is only while you are traveling. You will say, 'When I get home at last I will stop this.' You may never get there. But even if you do, you will find that Bucharest or Sofia or wherever you came from is just as bad, but by this time you will know how to survive. But inside, you will know what you have become--the very thing you set out to avoid." Mirela quivered, shaking with the effort of suppressing an outburst.
"You will be sad, and angry. You will find that there are men who can take those feelings away, but only if you pay them. To pay them you will need to find more men with money, who will pay you for your services. This will make you sadder and angrier, and before long you will do anything for the money to make the feelings go away." Felisa's voice was soft and gentle--sad, perhaps, and without a hint of harshness or judgment. "If you are lucky you will die there, a drugged-up whore on the street. If you are unlucky some men will kidnap you, ship you like a pig back to Rome, or Berlin, and you will live as the slave of some evil rich man too vile to attract women on his own." Mirela collapsed onto the alley pavement.
"I have seen girls like yourself run from Markos after 'the talk,' only to turn up back on these streets, murdered by an angry john and covered in needle scars, just a few years later. But the girls who stay with Markos, they are out in the malls, buying clothes and having fun. Would you rather be dead in an alley or shopping for cute dresses?" Mirela did not respond. Felisa turned and walked back inside her house.
Mirela walked to the end of the alley. Felisa had spoken for a long time, and the sun had already begun to rise over Rome. The city, still wet with last night's rain, sparkled in slick refractive glory. She sat on her bag and watched the sun illuminate dark places until the first sounds of cars startled her into action. She picked up the bag and, slowly, walked back into the alley.
Much later that night, after the fat American businessman left the room Uncle Markos had prepared for her, Mirela took the ivory-handled lighter she had stolen from him and set fire, first to the pink satin ribbon, and then to the wrinkled, aging photograph.