If It's Anywhere, It's Behind Us
Winner of the Eleventh Annual Boston Review Short Story Contest
February 1, 2004
Feb 1, 2004
20 Min read time
Nearly 700 people entered Boston Review's 11th annual short-story contest. From the impressive pool of entries our judge, Ha Jin, selected D.S. Sulaitis's "If It's Anywhere, It's Behind Us" as the winner. Ha Jin writes: "The story is subtly structured and written in lucid, elegant prose. The author's mastery of the craft of short fiction is evident everywhere. Above all, the story reveals the complexity and mystery of human drama."
I waited on the stairs, looking at him. I didn't want to go down. He was alone, but my mother was somewhere close by. He was waiting for me; she was waiting for bells. She arranged these visits, invited over nice Lithuanian boys from nice families, boys with a future in medicine or law to fall in love with me, her 17-year-old daughter.
I looked down into our amber living room. Amber everywhere—little amber princess statues, amber crosses, huge chunks of amber bound together like rosary beads and hanging on the wall.
He was sitting on the couch with the embroidered pillows. I'd seen him before. He was from Boston. I called him Luscious because of his lips—big, like a clown's. I hate big lips.
Boston was far, which meant he was here for the weekend. I glanced out the window. There was his car, a VW Rabbit. I knew his overnight stuff was on the back seat.
He was holding a teacup, sitting with a straight back, facing the opposite wall, with its scenes of Trakai on plaques inlaid with amber. Trakai—a castle on a lake island.
Luscious probably had one of those plaques at home, in Boston. He would have had the pillows, too—red or blue, with embroidered tulip patterns.
He turned and smiled and put down his cup and saucer on the amber table. He said my name in Lithuanian: "Agne." An old-fashioned name. I was named after my mother's childhood nanny, a woman who loved dogs.
We spoke in English. After all, we were born in America and had that in common.
"What are you doing here?" I asked.
"Your mother asked me over."
I knew that.
"Are you still stealing things?" he asked.
"I couldn't believe it when you told me."
"I've never known a thief."
"Drink your tea. I'm going out."
I thought of those big lips slurping from our cup. I would never drink from that cup again. Then, worse, I thought of those lips on mine. I hated him. Outside I swatted at the tiger lilies with a stick. I headed down the road, then went through the woods. I was going to the house with the guns on the wall, the house where I had sex.
• • •
Luscious and I met at a Lithuanian dance festival. He wore a giant high school ring with a blue stone, the deep blue of the embroidered pillows. He was standing around the hotel ballroom with the Boston boys. Boston boys were blond, cute, and did a lot of drugs. Boston boys liked New York girls. New York girls wore a lot of makeup and smoked cigarettes. Except me. I was always alone in a corner, staring at nothing, bored.
Luscious came over to me.
"Go away," I told him. He stared at my dress—calico, gathered, tied at the back. "It's stolen," I told him, then felt bad for saying it. I imagined my mother appearing, saint-like, money in hand, smiling anxiously.
Luscious didn't go away. He was waiting to hang out with me that night. Later, he followed me to my room in the hotel. He stood stiffly in his white turtleneck, navy-blue blazer, and big ring, hair parted to the side, styled like a pimp. "I'm going to be a doctor," he said. Later I made the mistake of telling my mother I'd met a doctor.
The Lithuanian community is like that phone game. They all know each other from the old country, land of rain. Name someone in Cleveland and your mother or father will dig in their memory bank and come up with "Oh, I was in sixth grade with her." Then comes the networking and the call to Cleveland.
So seeing Luscious on the couch was no surprise. Boys appeared before me. My mother's anxiety brought them from afar. I was to date and then marry a Lithuanian.
• • •
I undressed in the cool, dark gun room of Liver Man. He was much older than me—an American, with muscular, tattooed arms. He had a beard and wore grass-stained jeans.
He was a mountaintop-tree expert with a truck and a crew and machines that chopped up trees into chips. I met him when he was pruning our giant red oak. He asked me to get our old dog out of the way. I was in shorts, legs all bitten from bugs, and I knew he was staring as I pulled the dog out of his dugout and went off through the field.
My parents didn't like him. My father said, "No-goodnik." I didn't get that, since he did a good job with our oak tree. I'd think, why no-goodnik? and then sulk.
Maybe it was because his hair was long and his eyes were dark. Never trust a man with dark eyes.
• • •
We didn't talk much. We had nothing in common. His house was never locked, so I just walked in, undressed, and stood naked by the wall with the guns.
When he came in from the back he was happy to see me and got two beers. He took off his baseball cap and closed his eyes to kiss me. He sucked my mouth.
"I want to do things with you," he said. That's how older men are. They want to take your hand and put it in their butt. They want you bent over naked, hands on their kitchen sink, legs spread, while they drop their pants and grab on to your thighs. He moaned, and I felt powerful. In this house with not much in it, it felt exotic. American. There was a shelf with canned goods, a lampshade with a picture of a trout on it, a TV, a filing cabinet with frog magnets.
We kissed at the door for a long time. I tried to go, but he pulled me back, kissing me some more. Finally, as I left, he said what he always said: "Don't ever love a man with a bad liver."
I cut through the woods to get home. If my parents saw me, they'd think I was out there doing nature things—collecting rocks and leaves and sticks.
When I got back, Luscious was exactly where I'd left him in the amber room. Only there was no teacup, but instead a plate of pastries. My mother always brought boys plates of sweets. The intoxicating, rib-sticking potato stuff came later, at the dinner table.
I thought of asking Luscious if he wanted to play—play in the woods, find caves or waterfalls or big, flat rocks to sit on. But I knew he was a dud, his big, doughy hands used for calculators and microscopes.
Since he'd come to see me, I had to sit with him. He was interested in me and raised his eyebrows. "Is there anywhere we can go? A movie?"
"There's a diner. It's gross, though."
"We'll have dinner soon."
"Okay," he shrugged.
"My dog is covered in cement dust. You want to see her?"
He didn't. "Dogs can bite," he said.
I took him to a guest room. There were many guest rooms, each with a white linen cover on the bed, a table, a chair, white curtains, an oval hooked rug next to the bed. And there was metal. Tons of it. Some of the guest rooms were like medieval museums, with suits of armor just like Duke Vytautas would have worn. There were metal plaques—Vytautas on horseback with a sword. War scenes. This is the sort of room I took Luscious to.
One of the other rooms—where I used to pretend I was already at college, far, far away—was the juosta room. Juostas are woven sashes used as belts or for ceremonies or as decorations. They're woven in geometric patterns of pine trees or little windows. In this room they hung on the walls like streamers, most of them in earth colors: dark yellow, deep orange, blood red, brown.
I'd lay on the floor of the juosta room, on the hooked rug, same as in the other guest rooms, and I'd imagine I was in college, meeting boys who carried art stuff—boxes of paint, brushes, and canvas.
• • •
Luscious stood there with his athletic bag. I was embarrassed because everyone knew my mother "solicited" boys for me. Embarrassed because I was ugly. No matter that people said, "Ta Agne, tokia grazi" (Agnes is so pretty). I didn't see it. There was no beauty in my braided hair, plain, pale face, and eyes too dark blue, like the too-deep part of the cold oceans.
The dining room table was covered in traditional raw linen with embroidered vines and leaves. My mother wore her gourmet's apron—bright white, full-bib style. She'd picked dahlias from her garden for the centerpiece. The china was our fanciest. There were candles in crystal holders. I'd folded the napkins into cones on the plates like I'd learned in the convent, where I spent all my summers growing up. This was my first summer home. My mother insisted that I put what I'd learned to use. I had a book, a hardcover blue book about etiquette for Lithuanian girls. "A young girl honors her parents. She is polite. Always aspiring to be helpful at home, she is interested in keeping order, cleaning the rooms. She knows that a house filled with too many flowers makes one sleepy. Each room should be clean, neat and tastefully decorated. Windows, floors, and walls are scrubbed with products designed for disinfecting. When everything is clean, furniture dusted and put back into place, the home is now in order. Sutvarkytas."
I ate and thought of Liver Man. I thought of tearing off my clothes in his living room, under the wall-mounted guns. I couldn't wait to see him. I was addicted. I sat at the table, listening to the click of silverware on plates, thinking, I will never love this kind of boy-man with big lips and a big high school ring and plans of becoming a doctor.
I came out of this dinner sick. I wanted to run to my room, but everything was moving slowly. Dessert was tortas with layers of wafers, jam, and chocolate, cut into tiny wedges. Luscious ate four pieces. Growing boys eat lots of desserts, and we all counted. "Va, dar gabaleli": one more. Good. Smiles came to his blubbery lips, stretching them like wads of hot wax. I felt myself lean away. I could hardly enjoy my tortas. He stank of pine cologne. His nails were clean, perfect, like a G.I. Joe doll.
"Nori paziureti televizia?" My mother asked. Would you like to watch TV? But it wasn't a question. It was on the schedule.
"Nu gerai," he said. Okay.
He spoke perfect Lithuanian. My mother beamed, stood holding out her hands, welcoming him into her wide world—the house, the garden, the forest.
Luscious relaxed a little, took one more tortas slice and retired to the TV room, a room filled with handmade baskets.
• • •
The next morning I hung upside down from an apple-tree branch. The sky was everywhere. I stayed like that for a long time. Then I took off.
Deep in the woods there was a small waterfall that fell into a wide pool. Next to the pool, nestled between large, flat rocks, was a bed of moss, deep and luxurious.
I knew someone had followed me into the woods, and when I got to some steep rocks I turned around. Luscious. He stood like the statue of an oaf. He was holding a can of bug spray.
"Hello," he said, and lifted a hand to wave.
"Don't spray that around here. It'll kill everything."
"What about the mosquitoes?" he asked.
I wondered where he got the can. My parents knew better than to buy that stuff.
"What kind of doctor are you going to be if you don't respect life?"
"I'll be a good doctor."
"And you know that at 17?"
"So, what's in these woods anyway?" he asked.
"Look around." I used my nastiest tone.
By now he'd come closer to me. He was wearing loafers. I wanted to pull them off and throw them into the woods.
"Your mother set this up," he suddenly said. It was these words I hated. Hearing that made me feel like shit.
"Your mother says you're going to art school. Design school," he said.
"You want to see a moss bed?" I asked him.
"My moss bed."
He smiled, thinking, this was it: the moment when I'd lay down for him. "Beautiful," he said when we got there. I stood to the side of the moss, but he stepped right on it.
"Take off those shoes. No shoes on the moss."
He wore Gold Toe socks. He carefully rolled his cuffs up to mid-shin. The bug spray sat on a rock.
I was wearing overalls, a boy's undershirt, my heavy Swiss hiking boots, and thick wool socks.
"Lay down," I told him.
"Won't I get grass stains?"
"Moss stains. Go on. There's a surprise."
"Well," he said, and pulled his shirt out of his pants. He sat on the ground.
"Lay down," I told him, standing over him.
"It's wet," he said. "It's like a sponge."
He lay down on the moss, the thick green bed, inches deep. He stretched his arms out to his sides, palms up, Jesus-like.
He sank. Green rose up, moss sprouting between fingers, until his hands disappeared. His blue-and-white striped shirt vanished in the thick, wet place.
His eyes were closed, and he was smiling. He waited. I took his shoes. Then I took the bug spray and went off for a while. When I came back, he was sitting up, a little drugged-looking. Heat and sun had made him sleep. He looked up at me, shielding his eyes. "Give me my shoes."
I stared at him. I held a bunch of fern leaves.
"What's the matter with you? Where are my shoes?"
I shrugged. I really didn't know. Sometimes I blanked out. I had learned to do this.
My mother thought that we'd gone for a romantic walk. Nothing bad would come of that. We owned acres of woods and surely we were on our land, property that was familiar and safe.
We were on a walk—a hopeful walk, and she waited in her garden of days, on a pine bench near the bird bath, under a canvas umbrella, in her large sunglasses, her back to the woods. Every now and then, she'd glance back to see if her daughter and the future doctor would appear, hand in hand.
• • •
Following the family tradition, we all sat bunched up on the couch for a formal farewell photograph. My mother clapped her hands.Smile, everybody! She had a nice smile—small, perfect teeth. My smile was crooked, my eyes squinted. Luscious sat next to me. By then he hated me. It was more like repulsion. He was ready to drive off earlier than scheduled.
Then it was over. The photographs proved that Luscious, son of Dr. So-and-so of Boston, had been here. My mother walked him to his car, expecting me to follow. She apologetically carried his moss-stained clothes in a plastic bag. I'd ruined them. Then there was the matter of the shoes. Everyone in Boston would hear about this. The gossip would spread and flourish.
My mother had had enough. Back to the convent I went. And it was there, alone in my room, in the iron bed, that I first heard the voice in the ceiling. "If you can't marry rich, look into being a librarian." The next morning before breakfast, I ran through the field and toward the stone chapel, crying, hoping for a branch through my chest, a skull cracked on a rock—hoping that I would die.
• • •
I saw Luscious ten years later. I was on a Finnair flight waiting to take off, and I saw him, across and up an aisle: Luscious, his head like a mushroom, and then a turn of that mushroom and those lips.
I'd been spending a month each summer in Lithuania, and on those flights it was not uncommon to see people you knew or had met once in your life, which was the same thing. It was August, and he was in a bright canary-yellow sweater, and I wanted to take that little pillow shoved under his neck and smother him.
I waited until we took off and the drinks came around, and then I got up and came up behind him and bent over him, close to his ear. I didn't say anything because I couldn't think of what to say. He turned a little with a sour face. Then stared at me. Smiled. "Wow," he said.
"I never thought we'd meet again."
"We didn't meet, we're just on the same plane."
"Going for a visit?"
"For a month."
"I'm going to a conference," he said.
"Are you a doctor now?"
"A hepatologist," he said. I went to sit back down. I stared at him for the next few hours, like you do on planes. I thought about how my life would have been different if I had cooperated, married whoever was introduced to me, expected nothing more of myself, made the best of it. Once or twice Luscious turned back to look at me while I went on staring. "You're like a kid," he said at one point.
He'd filled out, a lean but strong body, and after he took off his sweater, I saw his shirt was the pale blue of professionals, starched, perfect. His hair was longer now, pulled back into a tight, short ponytail. His blond hair had turned darker, almost brown, like the hair of people in southern Russia—mysteriously dark, overhanging glum faces.
Late at night, while I was up doing yoga arm rotations in the back of the plane, I heard the ceiling voice. It was loud, over the engine: "Brush your hair and put on a little lipstick." The blue book floated above me, as it did sometimes in my dreams: Hair that is messy, falling over the eyes, has not been brushed for days will always make a girl ugly and ruin her overall appearance. I looked around. It was the dark part of the journey, lights dimmed, passengers sleeping. In front was a ridiculous map that showed the plane as a dot moving over the ocean. I got scared and wanted to hold someone's hand. I looked around for a stewardess.
In the morning the sun came in bright and strong, the way it does over the sea. My mother had put envelopes in a pouch that was tied to my waist, tight against my skin, under my shirt. The envelopes were marked with family names, money to help them pay for upcoming winter heating bills.
It occurred to me that Luscious might be carrying similar envelopes. I wondered about that, looking at the dot on the map, and I thought of my boyfriend back in Manhattan, an artist who defaced dollar bills. As I looked at the dot and saw how close I was to land, I thought about the safety of land, trees, and woods. My thoughts went to the convent, to nuns in their thick dresses, walking with me, telling me about the importance of trees—oak trees—how they are sacred and how only priests are allowed to burn their branches.
• • •
I went to the bathroom in the Helsinki airport. I stayed in there, hiding with all my carry-on stuff, waiting for the flight to Vilnius. I was looking at myself in the mirror, in the eerie fluorescent light, when Luscious came in. He stood in the doorway, sort of smiling, like I imagine he did with the sick.
"You look good," he said. He watched me as if amused, arms crossed, casual, seductive. We were alone.
"I heard about your designs," he said. "You design aprons?"
"What about them?"
"I heard you're doing well."
"Everyone wants aprons," I said. He knew nothing. "You'd better close the door," I told him. He stepped in, letting the door swing shut. Then he leaned back against it.
• • •
The blue book had sections on identifying poisonous mushrooms, boiling potatoes, counting rosary beads, tying knots, making casual introductions, but nothing on sex. Much of the book was based on disaster—keeping order, tying tourniquets, surviving in a forest filled with wild beasts.
I remember suddenly wanting to kiss Luscious, kiss him the way I'd kissed Liver Man. I took a step closer to him. Then I lifted my shirt a little and showed him my travel pouch.
"Armed, huh?" he said.
He actually looked normal with his shirt untucked, pants hanging off him loosely, and when I looked down I saw he was wearing new hiking boots. He caught my glance.
"Maybe we can go hiking around Trakai," he said. "Or maybe we can meet for dinner."
Suddenly I felt sick with a thought. I wondered if my mother arranged this—for us to take this flight together. I wanted to throw up. I didn't know what to say. But then a woman walked into the bathroom, pointed to Luscious and said, "You, out." As he left, I was hit with strange feelings—interest, curiosity. It occurred to me that things could have been a whole lot different if my mother hadn't been involved.
• • •
I didn't see him on the short flight over the Baltic. I slept. After we landed, one hundred relatives surrounded me with garden flowers, wreaths, juostas, and candles, and photographed me with them. Luscious was out of sight, gone.
During that trip, I took a boat ride up the Nemunas River. There were army tanks along the shore. The Soviets lingered even though the country was now free. The tanks were pointed at our boat. Behind the tanks were castles and green meadows, the same deep, lush green of my moss bed. I thought of Luscious. I hoped to see him again. I didn't want our last conversation to be in a toilet. I heard the ceiling voice. "Agne, negrazu." You were not nice. In the blue book the message was always clear. Love and beauty will help you survive.
The wind blew, and I held down my hat with a hand. Here and there strangers stood on the shore waving at us, and I hoped to see Luscious in his canary-colored sweater, but we moved quickly, going north, heading toward the sea.
When the boat docked near Witch Hill, my relatives grabbed me, saying "Tikra mama." She is her mother. I was whisked away like a Hollywood star, holding bouquets of soft garden roses. They took me to the graves of ancestors, buried among the oldest of oak trees. I imagined Luscious on a similar route, somewhere in this country, standing over graves, looking somber, holding a lit white candle for someone never to be forgotten.
• • •
When I got back to Manhattan, to my boyfriend, who was busy stitching crosses over the face of George Washington, I told him about Luscious and how my mother had probably arranged for us to meet again. He listened while working, then stopped. "If he hated you so much, why would he have gone on the plane with you?"
I got back to my own work—designing a survivalist's apron, with deep pockets for flashlights, water bottles, and knives. I knew the answer.
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February 01, 2004
20 Min read time