In our apartment life was a rotten potato lost between the fridge and the counter. No matter where you went, the stink followed. But at Dad’s, excitement and novelty made our troubles invisible. My step-mother proved a riveting distraction, a mischievous sprite out to grab your soul. I understood why Roxy shot down the stairs like an arrow every time Dad came to pick us up, but I was still avoiding his house as much as possible.
“School is out for the summer and you have plenty of free time. Don’t you want to spend it with your father?” Olga would say every time I tried to get out of visiting. A question that could only be answered in one way. It wasn’t just Olga’s presence; after that first channeling session, she’d been trying on “nice.” Mostly my reluctance had to do with the habitual way Dad and Olga used me, like my mother had, as their interpreter. The ironic part was that they didn’t really ask but embarrassed me until I volunteered.
At a doctor’s office once, my father got down on the floor and started pumping push-ups to convince the man that he had the heart of a lion.
“Quit acting like an imbecile,” Olga hunched over him, shouting.
The doctor clutched his file with both hands and retreated into the corner.
Dad jumped to his feet. “You call me names in front of the good doctor?”
“I’ll call you whatever I want. We’re married!”
“They’re always this loud,” I said, in case the poor guy wished to take notes. “Eastern Europeans always sound like they’re arguing.”
“So they’re not?” he asked quietly.
“If you want to stay married, you’ll get the hell out,” Dad was saying.
Olga yanked open the door. Some of the nurses had gathered outside, pretending not to appear curious or worried. Dad and Olga hollered things about each other’s mothers loud enough to make me want to hide in the cupboard under the sink until Olga stormed out.
Our first trip to Santa Monica, Dad drove up to a man on the corner of Highland and Sunset to ask for directions. He rolled down the window and said, “Excooze me, sir. You know vay to bitch?” At a drive-through, Roxy or I would beg to order to stop Dad from saying things that could land him in jail. Things like “I hav six penises of change to that dollar.”
Only one thing granted me the get-out-of-jail-free card: getting my period. As long as I blamed “female problems” for not coming over, Dad left me alone; he had great fears of anything concerning childbirth, menstrual blood, and especially tampons. In Romani culture men don’t usually participate in female matters. A woman on her period is unclean and to be avoided. Even when married, it’s encouraged for the wife to keep her menstrual and childbirth issues to herself. Roxy and I would work out a story, and once there, she’d go into detail describing the cramps rendering me bed-bound.
One day Olga called and pleaded with me to come by. She wouldn’t say why over the phone, but it sounded serious.
“Oh! You’re in love,” Olga said almost as soon as I’d stepped through the front door.
“What?” I said. “Don’t be crazy.”
I began to defend myself against her silliness when I noticed another person in her kitchen, and I went silent; I had too much dignity to discuss this in front of a stranger in a pink velour jumpsuit. Olga’s guest was roundish, with short, red, spiky hair and a rat face.
“So what do you need?” I asked, crossing my arms and avoiding eye contact with my stepmother.
Hands on hips, Olga clucked her tongue. “Oksana. You know I’ll find out one way or another. You can fool your father but not me. All I can say is that it better not be some pimple-faced gadjo.”
“Stay out of my business.”
Narrowing her eyes, Olga sat down beside the woman and put an arm around her shoulders. “Svetlana’s husband is cheating on her, so we need to go to the deli up on Highland.”
No other explanation was offered; Olga often assumed that other people read minds, too.
As if on cue, Svetlana pressed a napkin to her forehead, mopping sweat from under a shock of red bangs. Normally Romani women wear their hair long, but Svetlana had reinvented herself after leaving her first husband, a drunk from Siberia, for a sober Russian Jewish accountant.
“Oh, my Igor, my sweet Igoriok,” she moaned. “How could you do such a thing? Cheating! Damn your black soul. May your balls dry up into raisins, you bastard.”
As Svetlana continued her lament, Olga tried to comfort her with Twinkies. I felt for Svetlana, but more so for Igor.
“Oksana, please. Can’t you see how the poor woman suffers?”
“And how is this my fault?”
All of a sudden, Svetlana was on me, squeezing my hands. “Oksanochka, sweetheart, he must return to me,” she wailed.
“And I’m supposed to make that happen how?”
“The witch works at Giuseppe’s Deli,” Olga said.
“Ashley,” Svetlana said, looking like she’d tasted a rotten egg. “American.”
Olga patted her client on the shoulder. “Oksanochka, we need you to go inside and get one of her hairs.”
I pried my hands from Svetlana’s, slowly, so as not to disturb a woman clearly insane. “You want me to steal a hair.”
“Yes,” they said in unison.
“From a deli. With customers and meat and stuff.”
“Yes, yes, what’s the matter with you?” Olga said. “I need one of her hairs for my spell. That’s all I ask. I’m not an evil stepmother. I don’t make you scrub floors. This one simple thing is all I need from you.”
“If it’s so simple, why don’t you do it, then?”
Svetlana grabbed me again before I could protect myself. “Sweetie, she’ll suspect something if one of us goes. She probably knows what I look like. He’s my husband,” she moaned. “Please, I beg of you. Go in, buy a pound of roast beef, and on your way out, pluck one of the bitch’s hairs.”
I couldn’t stand the idea of assisting Olga in any way, but as Svetlana bawled, her makeup running, she looked at me with so much desperation that I could almost feel it wrap around me like cellophane.
In front of the deli I swung out of the car and Svetlana squeezed my hand and kissed it. I turned around and walked to the store with downcast eyes.
OKSANA MARAFIOTI is the author of AMERICAN GYPSY, a memoir of a Romani (Gypsy) childhood, published by Macmillan’s Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July 2012. Her short stories have appeared in several anthologies including THE PERPETUAL ENGINE OF HOPE: SHORT STORIES INSPIRED BY ICONIC LAS VEGAS PHOTOGRAPHS (Stephens Press, November 2010), and FAIRY TALE REVIEW, GREY ISSUE (University of Alabama Press, January 2012) Currently, Marafioti is a BMI-Kluge Center fellow in partnership with the Library of Congress, where she is working on a novel of magic realism.