My very first job was in a clothing store called Happy Woman, and it was two blocks from Steinway Street, the busiest shopping street in Astoria, Queens. The couple who ran the shop were in their mid-thirties and they had moved to New York after the Iranian Revolution. He was of average height, with thick hair and a mustache. She was a petite woman with dark, wavy hair that reached down to her waist, and she had the most beautiful green eyes I’d ever seen. She was also extremely pregnant.
I remember her kind smile when I walked in and pointed at the Help Wanted sign in the window.
“I need job,” I said in my broken English. The husband had looked me up and down. Maybe he too had smiled, but his mustache was thick, like a dense hedge, so I couldn’t tell. He had kind eyes though, dark and wet.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Fourteen,” I lied. I had the working papers in my coat pocket. Forged, of course.
“You work in a clothing store before?”
“Yes, in my country.” Another lie.
“Are you Greek?”
There used to be a lot of Greeks in Astoria. Maybe there still are but I haven’t been back there in more than three decades. They owned most of the stores and coffee shops in the area, from Ditmars Boulevard to Broadway. I had gone into many of those places looking for work, but I didn’t speak Greek, so they wouldn’t hire me.
“I’m Romanian,” I told him.
His mustache twitched. “You gymnast like Nadia Comăneci?”
Most people’s reaction when I told them I was Romanian was to ask me if I was a vampire. Being compared to the 1976 Olympic gold winner who was the first to score a set of perfect tens and who was Romania’s biggest success story, was a step up.
“I was on gymnastics team in my country,” I said.
“Okay. You have job.”
Six months earlier, my sister and I had arrived in New York on a hot and humid August day from a direct flight from Bucharest. My mother, who had waited three years for us to escape the communist country, had to wait an additional two hours outside of John F. Kennedy’s international gates for me to pee and to clear customs (in that order). Apparently “WC” is not the universal language for bathroom. Nobody we asked understood us, not even when my sister wrote the letters on a piece of paper thinking it was our lack of English that was stumping everyone. It wasn’t until she demonstrated to a police officer the act of peeing by squatting and making the pssss sound that he smiled in understanding. He showed us to a door and cocked his head in a what-are-you-blind kind-of-way while he pointed above the entrance, to a drawing of a woman in a flaring skirt.
In Romania, we put signs on the doors.
What I mostly remember of our first weeks in America are the following things: orange Tic Tac’s, coconut flavored ice cream, roaches, the songs of Olivia Newton-John, and how New York smelled like dirt caked under your fingernails. I also remember my sister and I spending a lot of time alone in the apartment. My mother worked as a seamstress in Brooklyn; she’d leave for work at five in the morning and wouldn’t get home until after seven in the evening, bone-tired and seething with resentment. In her other life she’d been an accountant and a doctor’s wife.
In January, five months after we arrived in America, my sister and I came home from school to find an eviction notice taped to our door.
Happy Woman was about the size of a garage, with double racks that ran alongside the store’s walls: shirts on top, pants and skirts on the bottom. A fitting room was wedged in the back, with a curtain for a door. The store seemed to do okay business—it was on 30th Avenue, which was a busy street between what used to be the R line that took you to Manhattan (it was changed to the N line before I moved away), and the IND Queens Boulevard line that carried you deep into Jamaica, Queens. Because of its location, the store was busiest after five in the afternoon, when people came home from work. My schedule was four days a week, for three hours, starting at four o’clock. The wife came in the other three days.
At first, I was too shy to approach customers—the idea of having a conversation in English would make me break out into a cold sweat. All that translating and conjugating verbs in my mind, and then having to put those words in the right order: subject, verb, object. But my boss, who’d turned out to be the mentoring kind, patiently corrected me whenever I made a mistake. “Don’t worry about your accent,” he said. “It’s more important that you remember to give compliments. You have an honest face.”
By the third day I had built up enough courage to walk up to a shopper. I still remember the woman: she was standing before a mirror modeling a blue shirt on a hanger, elbows up in the air. I took in the navy color of her coat and scarf, and the teal eyeliner that outlined her light eyes, and I knew what to say to her because my sister had said the same thing to me many times: “Blue is your color. It matches with your eyes, makes them more wow.”
The woman glanced at me and smiled. The strap of her briefcase cut into her shoulder pad, made it look like wings. I figured her for one of those business women I would see every day marching to and from the train station: teased hair and heavy make-up, wearing an ankle-length coat and sneakers, briefcase in hand. One day, I told myself.
“Try it on,” I said to her.
She went into the fitting room and asked me to go in with her. I helped her out of her dress and when we came outside, I did her button in the back while she looked in the mirror and did a couple of half-turns. “I’ll take it,” she said.
My boss, who was sitting behind the cash register by the door, smiled at me approvingly.
He was soft-spoken and full of advice, and he treated me like an adult. I liked him.
“You want to work tomorrow, Saturday, make extra money?” he asked me before I left that day.
“Good. I will tell my wife to not come. She must rest. The baby is almost here,” he said nervously.
On my way home, I tried to imagine what my father was like when my mother was pregnant with me, if he’d been nervous. Was that when he began drinking, or did he start when my mother was pregnant with my sister four years earlier? All I know is that after my mother defected while on an excursion in Austria, our family fell apart. I’d like to say that the reason my father threw away his medical career and took up drinking in earnest was because he was heartbroken over my mother leaving, or that he was overwhelmed with having to do his part and bring us to America, but that would be oversimplifying his disease.
After my mother left, my father embarked on a complete breakdown where he’d drink to the point he’d have seizures and we’d have to call the ambulance, and then, just for good measure, he also threw in doing something that was illegal in Romania: abortions. I remember going into my parents’ room the day they arrested him at work and finding a metal pan under the bed. It was filled with water and it had a plastic tube floating in it. I threw them away.
My work schedule that Saturday was from one o’clock to closing, at nine p.m. I remember walking to work and feeling the warm sun on my face despite the low temperatures. The store was busy that day, and I got to practice my English. I was in and out of the fitting room, helping the women change and getting them garments in different sizes or colors. It didn’t slow down until about five o’clock, when the sun went down and the biting cold came back. Another hour and it had started to snow. Bored, I began unbuttoning and buttoning shirts.
I had my back to the front door when I heard a click. When I turned around, I saw my boss turning the lock and peering out through the glass door.
“We are closing early?” I asked.
“I think so. There’s a big storm coming tonight.” He then went behind the front counter and waved me over. “Come here,” he said.
I walked over to him. Outside, a couple hurried by, shoulders hunched against the cold. Snowflakes the size of cotton balls dropped from the sky. I was dreading the twenty-three blocks I had to walk home.
My boss reached under the desk and took out a department store circular. He placed it on the glass counter, licked his finger, and flipped to an earmarked page.
“You like this?” He spun the advertisement around so I could see better.
I leaned in and saw that he was pointing to a pair of gold earrings.
Before my sister and I left Romania, the police agents at the airport confiscated our gold jewelry. I only had my earrings on, the same ones I’d had since getting my ears pierced as a baby. I tugged at my earlobe now and felt the empty hole. It was like pinching a small marble between my fingertips.
“Your wife will look very pretty in them,” I said in my newly acquired salesgirl tone.
“Not for my wife. For you.”
I looked at him, not understanding.
“I will buy the earrings for you,” he said.
I still didn’t understand. Was he offering to pay me with jewelry instead of cash? Because that was not what we had agreed on when he hired me, and I didn’t think that my landlord cared for earrings. “No, thank you,” I told him.
He turned the page and pointed to a necklace. “Okay. How about this?”
“I don’t want any jewelry,” I said.
His face hardened. “Then pick something else. Anything.”
I opened my mouth but nothing came out.
His shoulders dropped, and he let out a heavy sigh. “You don’t understand what it’s like,” he said. “My life…It’s so hard.”
I waited for him to elaborate but instead he reached for my hand and stared deep into my eyes. I saw a lot of pain and anguish in those eyes so I didn’t pull away. He began to talk about his life in Iran, about his brother, and close friends. About how difficult it was for him to adjust to America. He complained about how little this country had to offer when it came to culture and traditions, how nobody here celebrated the winter solstice or read poetry. How people had no passion. Then he dropped his head and said: “My wife… I love her very much but her stomach… The doctor said I can’t be with her until after the baby. In my culture, men don’t wait. We have more than one wife…We have other women.”
I still didn’t understand that he was getting at, but then he took my hand and put it on his crotch, and I felt him get hard. I quickly pulled away and stepped back. My heart raced as if a car had just plowed through the front windows and slammed into my chest.
I don’t remember getting my purse or my coat, nor do I recall walking to the door, but I have a vision imprinted in my mind of shaking the front door handle so hard that the windows rattled. When my boss came around to unlock the door, I coiled back and then bolted out into the street like an animal, panting.
I walked home clutching my coat to my chest. I kept going over what had just happened. Was it possible that I misunderstood him? His words kept swimming in my mind. It’s so hard.
I thought of his wife—arching her back so she could carry the weight of the baby when she walked, her ankles grotesquely swollen. I thought of my mother crying by the Christmas tree while my sister and I pretended to be asleep. I thought of the Romanian agents at the airport taking my earrings and making me renounce my citizenship, me agreeing to never return to my home country. I thought of the last time I saw my grandfather, sobbing on the train platform as the train pulled away.
When I got home, I didn’t tell my mother or sister what had happened. I was too embarrassed. How could I tell them that I had felt a man’s penis? What could they do to take the shame away? I wanted to bury the memory, to put it behind me as quickly as possible. But that Monday morning the landlord came by for the rent, and we were short once again. I had to go back to Happy Woman for my paycheck; I had no other choice. So, that day, after school, I stood across the street from the store until I made sure that the wife was there, too.
When I went inside, they both looked up, surprised. She was in her usual spot, seated behind the counter, and he was leaning on the edge of it. There were no customers.
“I came for my money,” I said right off the bat, afraid I’d lose my nerve if I didn’t speak up right away.
The wife rubbed her swollen belly in slow, circular motions, like someone who’d just had a satisfying meal. I wondered what he had told her.
“You lied,” he said.
I was so caught off-guard that my first thought was that he must have found out my real age, that I was only twelve years old.
That wasn’t it, though.
“You told me you had experience selling clothes. You don’t,” he said.
My eyes stung so I dug my nails into the flesh of my palms, but the tears still came. “It’s just me and my sister and my mother,” I said without looking up.
His wife said something in Farsi. Reluctantly, he opened the cash register and counted out some money which he put on the glass counter.
I stood there, frozen, staring at it. It suddenly felt wrong to take anything from him, even my earned pay.
After a while, his wife scooted off the chair and grabbed the cash. She came around the counter and put the money in my hand. She waited until I looked into her eyes. “I’m having a girl,” she said.
I wanted so badly to tell her what had happened but instead I made a tight fist and pocketed the money.
“Good luck,” I told her and left.
Gabriela Pura Suarez is an MFA graduate from Florida International University. Her work has appeared in Sliver of Stone online magazine, and she is currently working on a historical fiction book. She lives in Miami with her husband and three children.