by Christopher M. Hood
I don’t want to go into the psychology of it. I’ll just say that whenever I dated someone, I found myself wondering why she was at all interested in me, which led to wondering why anyone would be interested, and then I’d get depressed enough that she would stop being interested. At least with this, I knew what I was getting into. It was out in the open. She wanted a new life, and I wanted someone to share mine.
Issue #148 soundtrack: Blue & Gold "It's Only You"
She came from Wzifistan, escaping the terrible slopes of volcanic Mount Krzal. She was a slight blonde thing with tremendous eyelashes and a little scar along her left cheek, small enough that it could pass for a beauty mark. Her name was Irina, and I was at the airport two hours before her flight landed with a little sign, there to chauffeur her into a new world. She sat up front in the car, though, staring out the window at the strip malls, and when I asked her about the temperature in the car, she said, “I am okay,” and then repeated it, like a mantra.
She made me dinner when we got home. I tried to get her to lie down and rest, but she put her hands on mine and pushed me into a chair. Then she started trying to figure out the kitchen. She opened every drawer, looking for something, then finally made a gesture like she was striking a match and said, “Fire?” I turned the stove knob, the flame sparked on its own, and she smiled.
We had sex that night-- her idea-- and afterward, she lay there and sobbed. For 20 straight minutes. I couldn’t get her to talk or anything. And then she finally said, “I am sorry. You are good at doing sex.”
“I think…” She made a gesture with her finger, limp and falling.
“Okay,” I said.
“But you…” She made a surprised face, straightened her finger, and turned it upwards.
“It is my sister. Why I cry.”
I didn’t know if this was where the con began, or the story of trauma that would be the start of our emotional intimacy.
“How to ask?” She looked troubled.
“Ask me what?”
“You will… engage her?”
It took me a moment. “You mean get engaged to be married? I’m marrying you.” It was the first time I’d said it out loud.
“Her and me.”
“Oh, in America, we can only marry one…”
“Not marry. Just engage.”
She was looking at me, excited now, her eyes green and wide, but my head was spinning. It took us a good two hours, some scratch paper, and a little Google translate, but we got there.
Turns out, there was a mix-up in the legalese when the government people wrote up the regulations for citizenship through marriage for Wzifistani immigrants. They included the words “engaged to be” before the word “married,” and there it was in black and white. You only had to be engaged to an American to naturalize as a citizen.
“Get her engaged to someone else,” I said. “I have this friend…” I didn’t, really.
“No, you are grandfather!” She repeated this a few times, and eventually I figured out what she meant.
The functionary who screwed up realized his mistake. Damage had been minimal. Most people read a thousand online reviews before ordering a new coffee maker. Who would send away for a fiancée, sight unseen? There’d only been one lonely, pathetic soul who’d signed on to the program before it could be fixed. Moi. I was grandfathered in. All I had to do was get engaged, and her sister could come. And the laws against polygamy didn’t apply to engagement.
So, I agreed to do it just to get her over here. Then Irina and I could get married just as I’d planned. After all, my father and his brother came over together from County Kerry on the same boat, the Flynn boys going to America. Although it was a plane, I guess. A boat just seems romantic. Anyhow, my father was so excited to be an American that he named his son the most American name he could think of, the one from the book he’d read: Huckleberry. So that’s me, Huck Flynn, and if I have to put off my wedding to get her sister over to a better life, I’ll do it.
Irina got on the horn, speaking this fast Wzifistani that sounded like a cross between a flute and a typewriter. Her sister was on a plane before you could say naturalization papers. We met her at the airport together-- no sign necessary this time. They found each other as though by radar and hugged for a good two minutes before Irina turned and introduced me to my new fiancée.
“Vesta, this is Huckleberry,” she said. Her English was already improving. Vesta took my hand in her small, damp palms and said something that sounded like tomato.
“Thank you,” Irina translated.
“Tomato,” Vesta said again and pulled me into an embrace.
That night, they cooked dinner together, their voices collapsing into laughter that echoed around the kitchen, but every time Irina looked at me and smiled, as though to say, Don’t worry, we aren’t laughing at you. And I thought, This is the closest to being happy I’ve been in years.
So, when Olga showed up, I worried that our little family would suffer, that there would be a pack of Wzifistani women living in my house, and I would become increasingly irrelevant, once I’d gotten down on one knee for Olga, that is. But it didn’t happen. The more, the merrier. Irina presented me to Olga like I was a prize, like anyone would be happy to know me. And when I had my usual nightmares and woke up shouting, it was no big deal. They’d all seen some serious shit back in the ‘stan, just like I had in Iraq, and so they had nightmares, too. We’d wake up shouting together, then meet in the kitchen and have chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.
They started trickling in, a couple a week. My house was full-- it’s only got three bedrooms, and one was full of boxes--but they didn’t stay for long. Just long enough to accept my hand, then they’d head for this apartment complex on the other side of town that was owned by this Wzifistani guy who’d come over decades before. He seemed a little iffy to me, but Irina said he was okay.
The new women would get a little fresh sometimes, as though they figured the only way I would agree to help them is if I was expecting something in the bedroom. Irina said, “It is okay. If you want.” But I told her that she was the only one I wanted. And she looked happy about it, which was a relief. I’d been a little worried that she’d been planning to palm me off to one of the new girls and strike out on her own.
The first one to arrive with kids in tow was Vasilisa, and we had one terrible long moment when I thought I was supposed to put a ring on the finger of her six year-old, but when I called the local INS office, there was an extended pause, and then the guy said, “So you’re the one.” But it was clear there was nothing he could do. Everything I was doing was by the book, so he ended up being decent about it and telling me not to worry about anyone under the age of 16. They could just go with their mothers.
When Sonia arrived, I thought, Is this a guy in drag? But I didn't think so. I think she just had a masculine cast to her bristly face, and who am I to judge? I’ve been working on a paunch for a good decade now, and one of my eyes is all cloudy from that piece of shrapnel I caught in Iraq. And I know what you’re thinking-- lots of guys caught it worse over there, but I was in the first Iraq war, with the first Bush president, the one that we won in about 15 minutes. I was the only guy I knew to come back broken.
But when Stanislav opened the door, I knew for sure he was a guy. After all, he had a voice like rocks being crushed at the bottom of a well and a moustache like a baleen whale. I asked him what he was doing in my house as he stood in my kitchen, straining his mug of coffee for krill.
“You are homophobe?” he asked.
No, I was not.
“Gay marriage okay, yes?”
Yes, it was.
“Then put ring on it.” And he held out his knuckly, work-scarred finger.
So I started buying rings in bulk, rubber ones that stretched to fit anyone. And anyone came, along with everyone. They waited patiently in line for my proposal, as though waiting in lines were part of their DNA. Word trickled back to me that the airlines were scheduling additional flights, that Wzifistani town clerks were running out of paperwork for all the divorces and annulments people were getting before booking those flights. Each morning, there was a crowd outside the house, and Irina was meeting the airport SuperShuttle at the curb with pizzas and bottled water. A lot of them hadn’t eaten in days. A local medical clinic set up a tent in the yard so the refugees could access free care, and Irina bought fabric and a sewing machine and made me a little pillow I could put under my knee when I knelt for each one of them.
But she couldn’t give me the one thing I wanted, the thing that started this whole Wzifistani refugee experience: marriage. As soon as she took me off the market, boom, no more citizenship. The door would close. And yet that’s what I wanted: just a simple existence with a wife. What all the normal Americans seemed to have.
Instead, I had an assembly line. And then the old feeling started to come back. I’d see Irina bandaging some poor refugee’s wound, so kind, her hair up in a ponytail, so lovely, and I’d think, You sucker. Why would you ever think she could fall for you? I was just a means to an end, a proposing machine.
One night, I was deep in the dark thoughts. She was lying on my shoulder, her hair tickling my ear, and she was walking her fingers down my chest toward my boxer shorts. I said, “When are we getting married?” Her fingers stopped.
“What about them?” she asked.
“I didn’t ask for them,” I said.
“They are my people.”
“I’m supposed to be your person. That’s what getting married means.”
“You have to help them.”
“So, that’s why you’re doing this. I knew there had to be a reason you were willing to climb in bed with me.”
She sat up on her elbow, her brow drawn. “Why do you say this?”
“Come on. You’re beautiful. Why else would you be with me?”
“You are handsome and sweet and funny and good at sex.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“Don’t lie to me! It’s the one thing I can’t take.”
“What lie?” she repeated, and I got out of bed and went downstairs to get a drink, stepping over sleeping Wzifistanis in the hallway and on the stairs, snoring in their headscarves and newsboy caps.
The next day, I ran. I caught the SuperShuttle as it was leaving the house and rode it back to the airport where I bought a ticket to Wzifistan. It cost me a few hundred bucks, and I figured I’d have the plane to myself, that they were just zipping it back across the Atlantic empty to pick up another load of refugees to ship to my house. But the plane wasn’t empty. It was full of people with beards, newsboy caps, and headscarves, but they were all speaking English and the caps and scarves all had a little ironic flair. I realized they were hipsters, rich Americans who’d gotten pinged on their smartphones that tickets to Wzifistan were at an all-time low. I’d been so busy getting engaged to everyone that somehow I’d missed this whole cultural moment, and when I landed in Wzplatz, it was full of New Yorkers and Californians guzzling Wizz, the official lager of Wzifistan, sipping reindeer musk lattes, and talking up the local real estate scene. At first, local hustlers kept trying to give me Uber rides to the thermal pools beneath Mount Krzal or sell me time-shares on a glacial lake. But then a woman with only one arm, begging on the street, saw me, and her eyes opened wide. She said my name, Huck-ell-berry, and she cried and touched her forehead to the pocket of my fleece. She pulled me with her one arm into her hut, just a piece of plywood for a roof, and there on the wall was my picture, cloudy eye and all.
I followed her around for a day, and everywhere I went, people kept saying something that sounded like Crock-Pot. I figured it meant hello at first, but they were saying it all the time, so maybe it was like aloha and meant everything, so I started saying it too. People would smile when I said it and laugh, and finally I met a guy who spoke some English, and he said it meant “grandfather.” Then he pointed at me. I’m only in my 50s, and I thought I don’t look that old, but he repeated it, smiling. Crock-pot. I remembered Irina in my bed calling me the grandfather, and realized that’s what I was. That’s why my picture was on the wall. I was Crock-pot, grandfather, the grandfather clause, the living, breathing, walking, proposing loophole through which an entire suffering people could find new life.
All these people, living in alleys and overturned dumpsters that you’d never even see unless someone took you there, and I realized that they’d been tortured by the old Wzifistani regime, yes, but that wasn’t everything. They were priced out, too, gentrified out of their own country by all these rich Americans coming in. Wzifistan was cool now, but that didn’t help the Wzifistanis at all. It just sold tee shirts and made a lot of dough for the distributing company that had unknowingly acquired the rights to sell Wizz internationally years before when it bought out some Soviet-era distillery. I might be the savior, the one who offered them a way out of this, but I was the devil, too. A butterfly had flapped its wings in my backyard, and now a whole nation was being evicted to make way for the New Brooklyn.
I found my way back to the airport. I had to wade through crowds of people, all waiting to board a plane to my house. I got to the counter, and it broke my heart to hear how much the airlines were charging, how rich they were getting off this whole thing. But I pulled out the plastic and got myself a seat. I still had a good hour before boarding, so I borrowed a phone from this place that was renting rickshaws.
I called my house and asked for Irina. There was a long pause, and I could hear people wailing in the background. It was a terrible connection, all crackles and static, but finally, Irina was there.
“Hello?” she said. “Who is this?”
“I’m sorry I left,” I said. “It must be chaos there.” She didn’t say anything at first. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“I am okay,” she said. “I will marry you.”
“No, no,” I said. “I’m sorry. I was a fool. I understand now. I have a purpose. I am the Crock-Pot. I will get engaged to everyone. You can do whatever you like. You are free.”
I could tell she was crying. Don’t ask me how. The connection was awful, and she wasn’t sobbing, just quietly crying, but I knew. I could even see her standing in the kitchen, bare feet against the tile, one arm crossed against her body, the other holding the phone to her ear, her eyes wet, and I wondered if she could see me, too.
She found her voice. “I was so worried,” she said. “Come home.”
Christopher M. Hood is a graduate of UC Irvine's MFA program and is the Coordinator of the Creative Writing Program at the Dalton School. His work has appeared in the Santa Monica Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, and others. Follow him on Twitter.
Ben Gancsos is a cultural voyeur. Though lacking invisibility, he’s an unheeded presence as a “fly on the wall” observer. Based in New York City, Ben travels frequently to various parts of the country, as well as abroad, photographing architectural exteriors, interiors, and people. For more, visit gancsos.com.