The people in the neighborhood called her the Unbendable Woman. Not because she was inflexible, though she certainly was, but because of the smiles she gave everyone as they walked down the road. Every woman in the neighborhood had watched the men waste away money as they stayed, chained to the indoors, unable to earn a dime—but only the Unbendable Woman grinned above her bruises and black eyes and told the daughters of the neighborhood to stay in school.
“Out there nobody can stop you from making money except yourself,” she told the teens harshly when she found marijuana and birth control pills under their mattresses.
Standing in front of her own son, however, she was weak.
Fifteen years. Fifteen years had gone by since she’d last seen him, since they took him away and promised an education, a job, a future. They sent letters every now and then, and if she could read English, she would know that he was a diligent student who was soon to be a freshman at Yale in the fall. But it didn’t take a genius to infer that her son was one of the big boys now—the whole neighborhood knew by peeking scrupulously through the window at his neat blazer, intellectual look, and the silver Mercedes by the curb.
“I’m so glad you could make it,” she told the translator, who repeated her words to her son in English. That was the only language he spoke now. She had been taking English lessons from an old man at the end of the street, but she didn’t know enough to hold a conversation—just a few words: “clean,” “country,” “immigrant”.
Her son gave her a tight, uncomfortable smile and the slightest of nods, running his hands down his crisply ironed khakis. He muttered something curtly, and the translator licked their lips visibly and didn’t repeat it. Perhaps he was cold, she thought. The same sun shined both here as in the city, but it was always a little darker and chillier here.
“Would you like some food?” she asked her guests, gesturing towards a tinfoil-covered pot and grinning her famously broad grin. She had been cooking for three hours, tasting every morsel. She remembered all of her son’s favorite foods—a mother never forgets.
Her son narrowed his eyes and whispered something inaudible to the translator. The two shared a small laugh. The Unbendable Woman watched them both and giggled—she didn’t know what they were saying, but they were laughing, and she felt that she should laugh as well.
The translator politely declined the food. The Unbendable Woman was surprised. She was sure her son was simply being a kind guest.
“Just a small bit,” she urged them. But the translator shook his head firmly, without consulting her son. The Unbendable Woman shrugged and carried the pot back into the kitchen.
When she returned, her son was rubbing his hands together and blowing out air in big bursts. “He is feeling a little cold…could you turn on the heater?” asked the translator.
The grin on the woman’s face faltered. Her eyes fell a little closer to the floor and she responded softly, “We don’t have heating. No money.” Her son met her eyes for the second time since he’d arrived.
“Money, money,” she explained to him in heavily-accented English. The smile returned to her face and she gesticulated for clarification.
The son cringed and mumbled something incoherent to his translator. He stood up, but the translator placed an admonishing hand on the wrist of the young ward. So he sat back down reluctantly, his face a tumbled mixture of impatience and some other emotion that maybe only native-born people had.
The odd trio sat, swamped in the dim kitchen light, as the sun crossed over to the city in a hurry. As the darkness inched closer, centimeter by centimeter, TVs came to life around town, flickering and spluttering, in the wealthier houses of the neighborhood. A pair of women came to the house to invite their friend over for cards and gossip, but turned and left when they saw that the Mercedes was still parked out front. They assumed that the people inside felt much happier in each other’s company than with the poor neighborhood folk. They were wrong. It was oppressively lonely.
The Unbendable Woman knew she should be much more worried that her husband’s dinner was getting cold than if this near stranger in front of her said those three magic words. But she wasn’t. Instead, she felt defiant. Instead, she questioned herself, “How dare he try and attack me for talking to my baby. My baby, my baby.”
So she asked her baby questions about the city, about his schooling, about his future career. She told stories of her own past, so quickly and rapidly that soon the translator couldn’t keep up and it was only her throwing sacks of emotion at her son’s face through words. It didn’t matter—the stories were more for her than for the son. She asked him, “Do you remember? Do you remember?” but it was only a formality—as if it was possible for him to remember such things.
How could this young man remember the time he gave his ice cream cone to his mother because she was crying in the doorway? How could he know the day she took him to the school and he played all day on the swing set? How could he recollect the hours he spent watering his orange tree in the backyard?
“I can’t understand, lady,” her son repeated, his face reddening with each repetition. If the Unbendable Woman had been paying even a grain of attention, she would have noticed her son turning to the translator with a strikingly irritated expression. The translator simply shrugged.
And suddenly the son stood.
Without looking at his mother, he said something cold and sharp to the translator. When the poor translator attempted weakly to argue, he said it again, louder and colder and sharper. He picked up his coat and walked out of the house without another word.
His mother didn’t try and stop him. How could she have? She was small and chubby and too tired. She admonished herself. What had she expected? For the boy she’d known only as a toddler to come back looking the same? With the same smile? Loving the same food? Hugging her with the naïve vulnerability that every toddler has?
As the young man marched out of the house in clear annoyance, the neighbors subtly let their dirty curtains fall back over the windows from which they had been observing. The translator slipped into the backseat of the Mercedes and let out a private sigh—these meetings never worked.
The Unbendable Woman chased after her son, nearly tripping on her feet. As that smart, bright young man stood perched with one leg inside the vehicle and another out, she placed a wrinkled hand on his shoulder. He turned abruptly, a glare of outrage alight on his face.
She faltered. She didn’t know the English to tell him what she needed to say. She wanted to say that she had begged her husband seven times to sign the papers so this smart young man could visit her, that she stole dimes from her husband’s wallet, paralyzed with fear, to pay for these four precious hours. She wanted to say that when her husband returned that evening, he would know his dinner was cold, and the truth would come tumbling out, and she would pay the price, not with dimes but with her flesh.
Once the car door shut, he would be gone. Maybe one day, as an older, wiser man, he would return, but the Unbendable Woman would be dead. She didn’t know what to ask, what to say. So she faltered, and her fingers trembled, and she felt like a small porcelain doll sitting in the window of an abandoned store.
He said two words that she remembered very distinctly learning from the old man on the street, just a few days before her son would arrive, only a few hours before she had bought a brand new lipstick to wear on the day her darling baby came home.
The car door shut in her face and off went the silver Mercedes.
The neighbors whispered all around the Unbendable Woman. Everyone expected that this moment would finally break her, that they would find her weeping on the porch like every family had found their women on some day. Oh well, they thought, with a sigh of shallow sympathy, he’s just like all the others—how disappointing.
The Unbendable Woman’s face was unreadable. She stood watching the street where the Mercedes had disappeared for a long time after the neighbors had dispersed, until darkness overpowered the flickering kitchen light and the TVs. She stood watching until she heard the drunken songs of her husband echoing down the alleys.
Her son would never know her language, her love, her food. He would never know thirteen year olds who sold crack because they didn’t have lunch money. He would never know being told to hide upstairs when Father came home. He would never know the weeping women on the steps. He would know only one thing—a bright, sleek silver Mercedes, speeding off into the future.
And a Mercedes was so much brighter than the pair of old light bulbs dangling in the kitchen.