An American Story
by Kelly Lundgren Pietrucha

photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Just as I’m filling my mother’s glass with more wine, she tells me she doesn’t love my father.

Don’t say that, I tell her.

You don’t know me, she says.

She takes another drink of her wine and returns the glass to the table. We have just finished eating dinner. My husband is away and she says so is hers, but she does not mean it in the same way I do. My husband is fighting a war in Iraq and her husband is asleep on their twenty-year-old couch. It’s like we are living in two different worlds, my mother says. I wash the remains of our dinner into the sink and flick the switch for the disposal.

We have dinner together in silence, she says.

But my mother and father have always been silent with one another, even among words.

Behind my mother, on the buffet my husband and I bought together with our wedding money, there is a picture of my grandmother on Ellis Island. She is only eight years old in the photo, strapped to her uncle’s side like paste. I found the picture in my ninth grade history textbook, in a chapter called “The American Dream,” and despite the years I recognized her immediately. I showed my grandmother the book and she couldn’t stop touching the glossy pages.

Maybe you just don’t want to love him anymore, I say to my mother. She doesn’t answer. She picks her glasses up from the table and begins rubbing the lenses with her napkin. My napkin.

The day after my grandmother saw herself in my book she decided to take me to Ellis Island. You are a woman now, she said, and ready to know about struggle, the inevitabilities of life.

The American Dream, I said, remembering all I’d learned in school.

Genocide, she said, also remembering.

She had only been back there twice: once with my grandfather, and once with my mother. We walked through the building and said nothing to each other. Outside, between the East River and the Atlantic Ocean, between Brooklyn and Manhattan, between Manhattan and New Jersey, between New Jersey and Staten Island, between so much world and us, my grandmother said this: The worst was leaving my mother in Armenia. She kissed me and I knew we wouldn’t see each other again.

My mother puts her glasses back on. I should have known you wouldn’t understand, she says. She gets up from the table and walks into the bathroom. She turns the light on, stares into the mirror, looks back at me, and then closes the door. She does not come out for almost fifteen minutes.

When I first brought my husband home to meet my family, my grandmother didn’t like him because he said something about how Armenia and America are almost the same but with just a few letters in different places. She smiled to be polite and then left the table.

Come out of the bathroom, I say to my mother. It’s time for dessert. I can see her feet under my newly painted bathroom door, so clean and bright in its whiteness, just as I had wanted it to be. I walk back into the dining room and hear the handle turning and the bathroom door opening, and soon we are both back in our places at the table, eating dessert.

I’m leaving him, she says, her mouth full of chocolate cake. She has icing on her chin and I want to say something to her, but all I can do is hand her a napkin.

It’s not fair that they will take your husband like that, my grandmother said when I told her he was being sent to Iraq. There was a hummingbird feeding on sugar water outside her kitchen window.

Mom, I say and she stops thinking about whatever it is she is thinking about and turns to me. What did you feel when Grandma took you to Ellis Island? I have been wanting to ask her this for thirteen years.

Loneliness, she says. The tablecloth is worn and dirty and unsuitable for use anymore. And also anger and sadness. For her. What about hope, I say. I thought it was supposed to be a place of hope.

My mother leans back in her chair. I guess you know what everything is supposed to be, she says. She is moving the stem of her near-empty wine glass in circles on the tablecloth as though she is getting ready to drink the first sip and not the last.

It was not an easy life, my grandmother said on the ferry ride home from Ellis Island. I was never American.

You could have been, I said.

She looked at me, cold and foreign, and said: You think everything is so easy.

My mother gets up from the table and goes to the closet for her coat. I want to offer her something else but there is nothing left: the wine bottle is empty, our plates are bare and there are no words left for us to say.

The night before my husband left, he asked me how to fight for things you’re not sure you believe in. We had just finished making love and his chest was still heaving under the sheet. I reached to the nightstand and turned the light out, because it was all I could think of doing.

I can’t stand the way he breathes, my mother says at the door, one more grievance to add to the list, as if she is still required to convince. He pushes the air out of his lungs so forcefully, like he’s disturbing it, making it do something it doesn’t want to do.

You have a choice, I say, because I still want to believe in something.

Kelly Lundgren Pietrucha holds a Masters in Fiction from Temple University, where she now teaches creative writing and literature. She also teach at Rutgers University and Camden County College in New Jersey. Her fiction has appeared in Pindeldyboz.

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