As the plane hummed through the blue and clouds of the sky, Aria thought about the delicate wings of her baby birds she’d saved, and how big the wing of th plane was and flying away. Her birds had a choice of flying away or making their homes in the trees in her yard. Most of them flew away. One became a nuances, always pecking at the window for food or attention. The only thing she knew how to do was to save their lives but not to teach them to be birds. She worried about that one, maybe she shouldn’t have saved it, or maybe she should have done more.
She spent the rest of the time on the airplane modifying what she’d say to her mother, if she saw her again, to include as much information as she could in two minutes. Just in case her mother blamed herself, she’d remember to tell her it wasn’t her fault for running late or not coming to find her. Yes, this would be important to say.
The last hour of the trip she tried to imagine her uncles, these strange men that her father seemed to be running from that she’d never met. Her fingers were exhausted by the time she got settled in the New York rental car.
The video camera rested, nestled in the valley of her lap. One tired index finger moved over the buttons as if they were rosary beads; lightly pressing each before moving on to the next. The crimson hoodie raised her temperature too much on this spring day. Excessive, yet comforting, given the situation.
Wind rushed through the open windows of the car. She hooked one finger around the collar of the hoodie, creating a passage for the air to billow through. The corkscrews of her hair stretched back like little springs, and her eyes stung when the air hit them. Her father jabbered on about New York landmarks, food, and old friends. It was all meaningless to her.
It had only been twenty minutes since she and her father left the airport in the rental car. The bumps and jostles of the ride along the black tongue of the New York highway loosened memories of Herr Rausch’s yellow pegged teeth, musty smell, and knotted trench coat. She hoped burying the cassette would have stopped the remembering the incident.
S-n-e-e-u-q, s-n-e-e-q, s-n-e-e-q, she repeated to herself.
Like the clatter of cymbals and drums, the sounds expanded and pushed the vile thoughts into a small manageable corner of her mind. In the weeks following the incidence with Herr Rausch, some four years ago, night terrors became a problem. Her mother suggested pushing the images in her dreams out of her mind by telling them to “Get out. Get out.”
Reciting letters was along the same vein. Maybe it would have helped to tell her mother what happened, but it might have given her a reason to leave sooner.
Herr Rausch was the only other person who knew about the molestation. Her mother, certainly not her father, who had been gone for a good year by then, had no clue. Herr Rausch was dead, now, lucky for her. Someone shot him the day her mother disappeared. That day she remembered being filled with agony and relief. Agony because, though assured by the adults her mother would return, something in Aria’s gut told her she wouldn’t. On the other hand, the evening television broadcast the story of an old man who had been shot. He had no relatives and several prior accusations of inappropriate conduct, but all had been thrown out by various judges who determined that his contributions to the advancement of youth were outstanding. Stanley Heinz, father of a schoolmate, Vera, had been hauled in for questioning related to the shooting. There was some sense of relief realizing she would never have to run into Herr Rausch again.
Haunting memories were the least of her problems at the moment, it was the immediate future that was more worrisome. They were making their way to Queens, New York. Imagining scenarios of the soon-to-be meeting with her uncles distracted attention away from the buildings and landmarks they passed.
She knew only snippets about the uncles. This information was gathered throughout the years, caught on tail ends of conversations before she was shooed away by the adults. Apparently, they were an odd crew: depressed and argumentative. One of them slit his wrists with a broken Pepsi bottle, and made a living off what sounded like throat singing. Another born plain ole’ ‘angry and unreasonable’ according to her father, and yet another that lived in silence, walking around in his own world. This last guy didn’t sound all that odd, sounded like he lived an attractive existence. And the youngest, well, not too much information on him. He was a bit of a mystery to imagine. Blood, however, did not make strangers less dangerous: anything could happen including incidents like those of the past. She squirmed and glanced at her father.
“Why’d we have to leave Germany so fast?” Aria asked. “Did it have anything to do with the police coming again?”
“No, and we didn’t leave fast. I’ve been thinking about going back for the last six months. The police came because they’re still investigating your mother’s disappearance. Thank you very much Oma and Opa.”
“Then why?” she persisted, leaning forward and toward him.
“How many times are you going to ask me that? I’ve told you Aria, there wasn’t much there for us, anymore,” he said from the driver’s seat, fingering the bumps along the steering wheel.
“Maybe not for you, but Oma and Opa, they’ll miss me. You saw their faces when we left.”
He drove brightening up as he looked at smiling at signs along the Highway that he must have had some history with. The guilt trip hadn’t worked, not even a slight sympathetic grimace appeared on his face. She collapsed back into the seat, wrapping her arms around her churning stomach.
“You’ll learn; people have to get on with their own lives.” He kept his eyes fixed on the road. “There was nothing left for me in Berlin except Oma and Opa’s grief, police visits, and memories. Time we moved on. Plus I’ve got some things to resolve with my family.”
“We could have waited for her.” She stretched her legs to make room for the expansion of feelings.
“We waited for three years.” His hands landed back on the steering wheel after a brief release.
“We could have waited for her to come back. She will come back.”
Aria repeated, “We could have,” her voice trailing off. If she could take back all of herself from him she would, but there wasn’t much he held because, Aria thought, there wasn’t much he knew about her.
“Well, we’re here now. You have the option of making the best of it or being miserable. Your choice,” he said.
He never dug deep into his emotions, she thought. It had to be the steam of his anger and dissatisfaction kept him above the emotions of his heart. Had to be. Nonetheless, his distance was fine for her option of vanishing, she reasoned.
“And what about July seventeenth?” she asked studying his face. He’d answer this one wrong too, she just knew it.
“It’s just a date.”
“Not to me and not to Oma,” her eyes flashed, a surge of heat rose from her belly, “It’s the date of the Batizada do Saint Anastacia. You know if I don’t keep to it, I won’t be initiated into Mama and Oma’s group. It’s not just a date. I promised Oma and it means something to her. It’s not just a date,” she repeated through clenched teeth.
“Okay, Bird,” her father finally said.
“It’s my connection to them,” she mumbled.
“Okay, Bird,” he sighed.
“Plus, I don’t even know any of these people,” her voice amplified.
“These people happen to be your people, too.” He threw her a gentle smile. “They’ll all be there, it’s Sunday and that means family dinner.”
The voluminous hoodie seemed even bigger when she sank down in the seat and imperceptibly shrugged her shoulders. Twisting her lips in what felt like a knot kept her from deflating.
“Relax, they’ll love you. You just have to get past this initial meeting with them then you’ll be okay. You always are.” He turned up the radio and sang out loud to Boy George. “Karma, Karma, Karma, Karma, Karma Chameleon, You come and go, you come and go….”
She repeated his mantra, “You’ll be okay.”
She knew the finger dance was strange, randomly and simultaneously, bending and extending her fingers, the articulations of the small joints rolling and popping. Oma had warned her to control this before she left. But it was a distraction from memories, and the anxiety that was making its way from her gut to the top of her throat. And at this point there was no use worrying about what others thought.
By and by the cost of abandonment and the weight of the secret were being charged to her character. The disfigurement was not external. It lay just below the surface, feeding off her chronic disappointment with adults in her life.
Answers up to this point were far from clear. People her age had hobbies like knitting, writing, and sports. Hers: planting herself amongst adults in conversation, observing, silently waiting for clues to everything. Clues to why people leave their children, to erasing oneself from existence, to why the sky always had to be so blue instead of red or brown. But then again, she had only sat amongst her German kin. These New York relatives sounded grim. They probably sat around the table silent, mulling over their miserable existences.
“Saint Anastacia, help me,” spilled from her mouth as she rolled her head toward the passenger window.