Volume 46, No.4 - Winter 2000
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2000 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.



Vanda, a cousin who came from Lithuania only for a Visit but stayed on as an illegal immigrant, calls to say she is getting married. It is to be a registry wedding. Vanda, who has found a job, an apartment and now, a potential husband, has two children back home in Lithuania, left in her mother's care. Marriage would make Vanda's standing in Canada legal.

We arrive, my father, my sister, myself. Vanda is wearing a short, white, strapless dress with three tiers of heavy fringe. A pearl necklace covers her from chin to breasts. Her blond hair is swept upwards, her lipstick is pale pink, her earrings are large teardrop pearls. A beauty with a strong clean face and a sideways smile, she turns heads. Men watch her pass, their gaze intensifying or growing hooded, like a hawk's.

"I'm a friend to men," she confided once, having come to pick up pots and pans and bedding for her apartment. "They visit me. Tell me their troubles. But women," she shrugged, "they don't seem to like me."

Vanda introduces the groom. It is the first time we meet Jerzy, a round, bouncing ball of a man with small rimless glasses and hair slicked straight up with gel. He is wearing a silk navy suit, silver shoes, and a silver bow tie. John, his best man, is a quiet, dark-haired boy with dense, red acne.

My father stares, his mouth half open.

"Daddy, your mouth's hanging open," my sister says.

With a sheepish grin, he shuts it.

The minister, his instructions smooth as stones, ushers us to our places. The high-ceilinged room is filled with heavy old furniture. The wallpaper is faded yellow, the carpet rose-clustered. The minister's wife, a deeply bosomed woman in a flowered dress, starts the wedding march on a cassette deck. My sister leads, doing the bridal step. Her look is serious. Vanda, following on the arm of the minister's wife, is just this side of laughter.

She stands before the minister. Her back plunges naked inside her dress. We step up, enclosing the bride. In Lithuania, Vanda has many brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins. Here, in Canada, there is just us.

The ceremony proceeds. I snap photos. Vanda and Jerzy joining, hands. Vanda and Jerzy exchanging rings. Jerzy's eyes are bulging, but Vanda holds back laughter. I catch her eye. She has to look away.

After the ceremony, we wait in the parking lot in idling cars for the procession to begin. We are going to a restaurant for lunch, but Jerzy will not tell us where. It is to be a surprise. He runs over to our car and puts his sweaty face in our window. "Please, would you mind waiting just a few minutes. There is one more guest expected. My partner from the pizza outlet. This is the first time we will both be away together." He plumps up with pride. "It's a good business. Takes in four thousand dollars a week."

It falls together now. Jerzy owns the pizza business with his partner. John is the pizza jockey.

Suddenly, we are on the move, Jerzy having decided to wait no longer. John drives Jerzy's rusty old station wagon. Vanda and Jerzy sit in back. The groom leans forward, gesticulating to the driver, then leans back, expansive, one arm around his bride.

* * *

At 3: 00 pm on a Sunday, the Movenpick restaurant on Bay Street is deserted. Jerzy holds us at the door while he goes to make sure all is ready. He returns, plump and smooth, proudly leading us to a table. He orders champagne. He rises, proposing a toast, and I wonder if he knows about the two children in Lithuania. He knows about the previous husband in Lithuania—there was difficulty getting divorce papers—but perhaps, not the children. We know nothing about him.

Politely, I ask questions. He answers with the regard due to family members.

"Who are your parents?"

"French father. Polish mother."

"Where do they live?"

"In Poland."

"How long have you been here?"

"Five and half years."

"Are you a citizen?"

"No. Not yet. But maybe later this year."

This is beginning to sound like an interrogation. But I am curious.

"How did you leave Poland?"

He turns to me, half exasperated.

"Via Italy. I was working in refugee camps. In immigration."

Then, as if determined to have nothing but fun, he raises his arms and laughs. "My own application didn't have to wait. And when I came to Canada, I already knew eight thousand people. Ten thousand people. Everyone knew Jerzy."

"How did you come to Canada?"

He puts a fingertip to his lips. "Ah, there is something I don't talk about." He smacks his thigh with relish. "Hah. Nobody knows Jerzy and everybody want to."

He turns to his bride. He takes her chin between thumb and forefinger, trying to make her look at him. She squirms away, rolling her eyes, inviting us to join in her laughter.

"Can't you look at me once in awhile?" His fingers sink deeper into her flesh.

She slips away again, coy.

He sits back, petulant. He jabs a finger at her hemline.

"Why you wear so short?"

The pizza partner has still not arrived. Jerzy decides to order dinner. We select frugal items—pasta, omelets—after all, Jerzy is paying. With a flourish, he orders entrecote. I take mussels, an enormous portion that comes in a copper bowl with a hinged lid. Jerzy stares at them with the intensity of someone who has known hunger.

"I haven't seen such mussels in Canada," he says, then orders a portion for himself, which he eats with zest, along with the entrecote.

Finally, Gino, the pizza partner, arrives. He is short and stocky, dark and sleek in a pale, immaculate suit. Jerzy jumps up to greet him. It is soon clear that Gino is Jerzy's boss.

Now, we are a party of seven. Bride and groom. Best man. Pizza boss. My father, my sister, myself. Strangers around a restaurant table, a small island of would-be celebration.

I turn to Vanda. "What about a honeymoon?"

She yawns, her chin resting on one hand. "Not 'till January." She has been here two years now and her English is good.

"I would like to take her to Hong Kong," Jerzy whispers to me, "but don't say anything. It will depend on her papers." He flings his arms wide. "More drinks. More champagne," he cries, his delight pure, his love blind.

When the wedding cake is set down in front of the newly married couple, it is pitiably small. Jerzy, who has arranged it, just as he has arranged everything else, cannot contain his disappointment.

"But I told them a big one," he cries, a protest so sincere that it is impossible not to like him.

He orders more drinks, more food, trying to whip up celebration. But we are a party that cannot get going. Soon, we are wondering when it might be possible to leave. We look to my father to make the first move. It is not long in coming.

"Well, Jerzy," he rises, scraping back his chair, "thanks for inviting us."

"But we are just getting started," Jerzy cries. "We are going dancing afterwards."

We are rising now, ready to go, wanting my father to lead us out. We edge away, depart. Vanda's gaze follows us, steady and contained.

* * *

Vanda and Jerzy set up house in an apartment close to the pizza parlor. There is a new couch and coffee table, a beige carpet, a mattress on the floor in the bedroom, not much furniture, but also a sense of waiting, of not wanting to buy just anything, of holding out for better things.

Jerzy is out a lot, Vanda tells me when I visit. He works long hours. She is often alone.

We don't have much to say to each other, my cousin and I. We are people from different planets. She seizes upon the idea of watching a video of her children in Lithuania. We sit side by side on the couch, watching two small children scamper about in a garden back home. A boy and a girl.

They come when Vanda's mother claps and calls. She turns them round to face the camera. Points.

That's your Mummy. Wave.

You can see her mouthing the words.

On the couch, Vanda bites her thumb.

* * *

Before Jerzy, there had been Antonio, a fifty year old Italian real estate agent with a Cadillac. A wedding was in the offing. He'd come to meet us. Raincoat draped over well-suited shoulders, he'd perched against a kitchen stool, a gray haired suitor meeting the family. My father, standing in for Vanda's father, his brother, did the vetting. No one had much to say.

But Antonio also had a wife from whom he was separated, and a daughter. When the wife heard of the wedding plans, she threatened to take the daughter and go live in Italy.

So Vanda looked again and found Jerzy.

Over the next year, we heard about Vanda occasionally. My father stays in touch with her more than my sister or I. She gets a job in a laundry, then quits, saying it is too hot. She tries a restaurant-cafeteria, but doesn't like waiting on people.

"Jerzy says she spends money faster than he can make it," my father says.

It is no surprise then, when a few months later, we hear that she is back with Antonio. As if Jerzy never existed.

They come by, Vanda and Antonio, to a Christmas gathering at my sister's house. This time, Vanda wears a red jacket, a short black skirt, fishnet stockings and leather ankle boots with spike heels. Antonio waits outside on the porch. She comes in.

She has brought gifts. For my sister and I, nail polish. For my father, a tie.

How difficult to accept a gift from someone who has nothing and wants so much.

There are the easy bits of guilt. We, who have not been expecting her, have nothing to give in return. Her present— a trio of frosted polish in white, mauve and pink—is one we will never use. Her money has been wasted. But there are the deeper, inescapable guilt: her own culpability, us as saviors, pushed into this position by history.

After that, she drops out of sight.

* * *

About a year later, she calls, first my sister, then me. She asks if we can get her a phone. From this, we deduce that she is no longer with Antonio, but living on her own, though we no longer inquire after such things. We have long ceased to ask questions, knowing the vague, half-laughing answers she will give.

She doesn't have a social insurance number, so the phone would have to be in our names. We have visions of long distance phone calls to Lithuania, bills that we will have to pay. We say no. We feel like heels, my sister and I, but we say no.

She asks if she can use our social insurance number so she can get a phone herself.

It's illegal, we want to explain. But in Lithuania, where it's a source of pride to try to outwit the system, this is a foreign concept, so we don't try.

Once again, we say, No.

This time, she drops out of sight for good.

* * *

I work at Confederation Life, a dull gray building at Jarvis and Bloor. I am a consultant and my hours are my own. Sometimes, I leave a bit early, at 4: 00 pm. Walking to my car on Huntley Street, where the red light district begins, I see the girls. In the broad daylight of afternoon, they are waiting for end-of-day trade.

Better an office worker in a daylight hotel than a stranger in a car at night. It is a resourcefulness that it is hard not to admire.

Then, one day, Vanda is standing there, on the sidewalk, across the road from the parking garage. She doesn't see me. Or perhaps doesn't want to.

I don't know what to do. Whether to cross the street and speak to her. Take her home.

Or leave her alone.

I remember the jobs she s had—the bakery, the cafeteria. And then men. Jerzy, Antonio, the husband in Lithuania. Would it make a difference? To feed her. Clothe her. Find her a place to live. Give her money to spend. And a phone.

I stand there for a while. She looks up the street, intent on business. In her short leather skirt, thigh high boots and jean jacket, she looks ready for anything.

Perhaps she is.

Mūsų gražuolė, they called her back home. Our beauty. The youngest and the prettiest, sent to Canada to find a husband, to become an anchor holding the rope along which the others would come.

In Lithuania, two children wave at the camera and wait.