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She called me Phillipo.
It always seemed to comfort her, coaxing a smile onto her weathered face and making her sad eyes shine. “I clean, Phillipo,” she would say in her heavily accented voice. And clean she would, all the while singing woeful melodies in a foreign tongue.
When her day was done she would knock on my bedroom door and mutter, “I go, Phillipo. I going now.” She would stare at me as if this would be the last time she would see me, her face a mask of sorrow and fear.
“Bye, Maria,” I would always say with a slight note of concern. Despite these agonizing good-byes, she would always return the next day, her head bowed slightly more than the day before. She often came bearing gifts and food for me. “Here, Phillipo,” she would say proudly, handing me a box of strange-looking cookies. “Take this … it special of Poland. Very good, I promise.” I would take a bite and more often than not have to conceal the disgust that flashed onto my face. “You like?”
“Yes,” I would say, trying with all my might to swallow the ghastly treat.
“I bring more tomorrow! It Polish, you know. We Polish make best food in world. Very best.” To this I would nod vigorously so as not to insult her. She would always clap her hands in delight. “Tomorrow I bring you more, Phillipo!”
“No, no, it's quite all right. You really don't need to spend your money on me.”
“No, Phillipo. I want to show you my country, and this is way to do.”
“Maria, you don't need to buy me anything. Just tell me about Poland. What did you do before you left?”
“I was, uh, how you say … social worker? Yes, yes, I was social worker.” As she said this her gaze became withdrawn, her eyes misty. “I help the kids who no got no mother or father. They all beautiful, very special to me. They come with me wherever I go.” She rubbed the gold locket around her neck and slumped back into her chair. “I go clean now, Phillipo.” And with that she quickly retreated behind the kitchen counter, scrubbing the marble as though it were gold.
In her youth, Maria must have been beautiful, but the years had been unkind to her. Long blonde hair that at one time might have been impeccably groomed was now pulled back in a lackluster attempt at a bun, and her fair skin was heavily wrinkled. Her most striking feature was her eyes. Steel gray, they seemed to radiate hopelessness and fear.
It wasn't until Maria had been working for my family for three months that she mentioned her son. The air on this dark November night was frigid, making my breath dance in front of me like a dying soul.
“Phillipo,” she said as we exited her car. “It all right if my son come with me tomorrow? He very good boy. Very smart boy. He is in college, you know?”
“Oh, that sounds great. Where does he go?”
“He is study engineering at Westchester Community. He came with me when I left Poland. He only been here four years and he know everything about English!”
“I'm excited to meet him,” I said half-heartedly.
“Yes, he's very good boy. Beautiful boy, precious boy,” she reiterated while stroking her locket. “Phillipo, I so sorry my English not good but I go to school every night after I done working and it help.”
“Your English is fine, Maria. You just need practice.”
“I know, Phillipo. I try very hard but the words just won't remember.”
“Your English is much better than when I first met you. The difference is noticeable.”
“Thank you, Phillipo,” she said as a grin slowly formed. “I go now. Good night.” I waved to her and then quickly ran into my house.
The next day Niko arrived.
He was tall and skinny with blonde wavy hair and gave off a feeling of indifference. He walked over to me and shook my hand. His grip was firm, his expression stoic. “My name is Niko.”
“Hi. I'm Philip.”
“My mother has told me about you. She say you are very nice. She say you like her cooking. Is that true?
“Yes, it's very good,” I replied hesitantly.
“Ah, an American with taste. Very rare these days, I think.” I smiled at him.
“Niko!” called Maria from the adjoining room. “You come help me?”
“Yes, Mama, I am coming,” he yelled back, with a slight hint of impatience.
That day was much different from any other Maria had worked at my house. Her usually haunting melody was replaced with a vibrant and strangely beautiful duet with her son. The sounds of the harmony carried throughout the house.
This momentary happiness was not to last.
I began to notice purple and red marks on Maria's neck and shoulders. She claimed nothing was wrong, that she had slipped on the ice. Sometimes my dad would press her on the matter, but she refused to admit that she was suffering.
The marks started to appear more frequently, nasty bruises that discolored her pale skin and made her bow her head even more. She could barely lift the broom that she used to handle with such pride. She limped around the house like a wounded animal with nowhere to turn, completely disheartened.
Then Maria arrived one day with a large bruise below her left eye. She cleaned the house slowly and methodically. The heart-wrenching sound of whimpering and weeping had replaced her melodic tunes. “Phillipo,” she whispered to me. “You like my cooking? You really like?”
“Yes,” I said sympathetically.
“My husband … he no like my cooking. He really no like.” Her voice trailed off to little more than a whisper. I gazed into her eyes. In them I saw nothing but the cold steel gaze of a broken woman. A single tear fell down her cheek. She paid it no attention.
That night I heard her whispering urgently to my father. “I need to go, Marko. I no can stay there. He hit me again. I know he hit me again.”
“It's okay, Maria,” he said reassuringly. “You can stay here if you need to.”
“No, no, Marco. He find me. I leave tomorrow to live with my sister in city. She know I come. She hide me. I be safe.”
“Then stay here at least for tonight. You can't go back there.”
“No, Marko, I go. I get my things and say good-bye to my son. But I no come here tomorrow. I so sorry.”
“It's all right. If you ever need anything, please call us.”
“Yes, Marko. I do. Can I say good-bye to Phillipo now?” My father nodded. I walked into the room, my head slightly bowed. “Phillipo, thank you. You precious, Phillipo, you precious.” I hugged her close for a fleeting moment, and then she turned away.
This was the real good-bye, the final good-bye, and it was agonizing.
Maria turned and walked out the door into the cold February night, vanishing into the darkness like an apparition.