Andreea's Road Trip by Alina Stefanescu
Andreea's Road Trip
Andreea Eminescu was a rare bird. In a story, she would be the character that dumped the well-educated boyfriend, decided to birth the baby alone, and then drove cross-country to visit Lila, the ex-boyfriend's mother, a retired school-teacher, underwater art pioneer, and renowned specialist in the application of color theory to self-improvement.
Driving to Ohio with her baby and Romanian nanny in the backseat, sunlight shimmering across the highway’s blacktop, Andreea considered her single bumper sticker, the pink vinyl with bold black lettering: "Warning: Feminist At the Wheel."
She thought about her father, the physicist—his frustrations when trying to help her with calculus.
"Focus, Andreea, focus," he would say, "Math is no time for ontological digressions."
She put her foot on the gas. The physicist emigrated from Romania but saw in his daughter a restless American stranger who ran wherever the paved roads might take her. "Why Ohio?" he asked.
"It's genetic, Dad. You and mom ran from Romania to Mississippi. Besides, I'm just going for a weeklong visit."
Andreea shivered a little, remembering how he smoothed his graying hair, said that they ran so she would never have to run. The soft tenor of his voice when he told her they did it for freedom, which didn’t explain why he look so defeated.
Mimi, the Romanian nanny, fanned herself desperately in the backseat, her hair freshly-lacquered in that brilliant shade of post-communist, Eastern Bloc crimson. After raising her own children and losing her husband to cirrhosis of the liver, Mimi decided to earn a little pocket money as an American nanny for a year. She was a firm advocate for the miraculous healing powers of the dollar.
Andreea appreciated how Mimi coddled baby Ion, boiling his organic milk with the piety of a monk preparing communion. In response to Ion's sudden coos and grunts, Andreea fiddled the finicky radio knob, seeking public radio, crossing her fingers for bluegrass, the music that made his tiny fingers twinkle. A brief news report interrupted the music.
“I don’t know this American language,” Mimi complained in Romanian. She expected a constant translation of billboards, radio jingles, Jehovah's Witness pamphlets.
“It’s not important,” Andreea assured her.
“How do you know?" Mimi scolded. "Maybe it’s a report about bad weather or a new danger. What are they saying?”
Andreea remembered a book about dodo birds in which the author defined being rare as having a “lower threshold of collective catastrophe”. For the rare breed, any misfortune bears the possibility of becoming a total misfortune. A final one.
“What does that sign say?” demanded Mimi.
“That one up there—the big one with the woman in her underwear showing us her breasts.”
From her peripheral vision, Andreea sensed Mimi making the sign of the cross. Or perhaps Mimi was trying to tame her poofy pink hair. She gazed at the billboard and tried to imagine how Mimi perceived the cleavage-oozing female leaning over a vacuum cleaner in what could only be described as a halter-top smile.
“It just says you should buy this vacuum cleaner if you want to be happy.”
“Nu se poate,” Mimi scoffed. “Why do they show the breasts to make you buy a vacuum cleaner?”
Andreea sighed. “It’s all connected, Mimi. A woman is guaranteed happiness if she can marry a man and keep him happy.”
“Baaaah. Men are never happy, Andreea—it’s not in their nature. And, of course, it’s not their fault that God didn’t trust them enough to allow them to bear the infants in their womb.”
Andreea snorted, changed lanes, and checked the rearview mirror. Whenever Mimi spoke, it was as if she conveyed a conspiracy theory, shrouded in religion’s most velvet esoterica.
“You laugh but it’s true,” Mimi continued with confidence. “And men know this secret—they just can’t admit it. It’s very hard for them, you see.”
What Andreea could actually see was the red-blue flashing hairpiece on an Ohio State Police vehicle. She checked her speedometer, noted she was only driving five miles over the speed limit, then slowed down gradually to park in the roadside emergency lane.
“Who is that? What are you doing?”
“It’s a police officer, Mimi, and he’s pulling me over.”
“But who is he? Who are his parents?”
“From his lack of 5-mile padding, I’d guess he’s an anal prick. But he’s probably also a police officer on the side.”
Mimi began moaning, invoking the full, unblemished name of her God in a chain of Eastern Orthodox prayers. Andreea watched the police officer sidle up to her car, a wad of gum or snuff moving about inside his mouth.
The police officer was a fan of ritualized exchanges. He made frequent use of eye squints, which Andreea interpreted in the obscure manner bequeathed by her Punjabi ex-boyfriend.
“Hi officer,” Andreea blurted out, hoping to charm him with a friendly greeting before he thought too long about his ticket quota for the month.
“Ma’am, you can call me Deputy, seeing as how I am the Sheriff’s Deputy in these parts. Any reason why you were exceeding the speed limit by six miles per hour?”
Assuming the buckle in the deputy’s tone of voice was tightened by habit, Andreea fought the urge to take it personally, or to try and redeem herself. Everyone knows justice is what happens after the ticket is written, not in lieu of the ticket itself. Justice is supplemental to the scene.
Things happened in slow motion, exaggerated into sitcom bloopers. There was certain pre-game day anticipation in the air that Andreea imagined football fans feel as they prepare for homecoming. But the only part Andreea appreciates about football is the free-flowing beer. She stared at the wheel and considered calling Lila on her cellular to explain the situation.
Instead, she passed her insurance and registration papers to the deputy, who kept glancing into the backseat suspiciously.
Mimi’s face looked like a headshot, frozen in apprehension, waiting for the scene to unfurl, a bribe to pass through hands, the relief of having money and what it can buy.
“Give him a Playboy,” she whispered. “I’ve never met a policeman that won’t look the other way for a Playboy.”
“What’s she saying?” the deputy demanded, nodding his head in Mimi’s direction.
“Oh, she’s just saying she’s tired. And… well, she wants to know when we can get back on the road.”
The deputy smirked. “Back on the road, eh?”
“Well, you can tell that nice old lady it might be a while before things get themselves all sorted out.”
Andreea stared at the deputy’s face, noting the plaque on his lower teeth and the vulgarity with which he ran his tongue over them.
“Okay.” She smiled to the deputy and turned to begin translating in Romanian.
“Mimi, he said he doesn’t want Playboy because he has all the porn he needs delivered straight to his home by satellite. What he wants is money. What he wants is more money than I’ve got.”
Frantically, Mimi began fumbling through her purse, looking for her wallet—“Tell him I have $20!”
“What’s she doing?”
“Oh, she’s just looking for her heart medication. She has a weak heart and blood pressure...issues. I think this is stressing her out. Can we expedite things? For her sake, I mean.”
The deputy looked back at Mimi. “I’m afraid we can’t do that, miss, but I’d be happy to call an ambulance for her if you’d like.”
“What’s he saying?” whispered Mimi.
“He’s saying $20 won’t cut it. I think he’s holding out for $200…”
Mimi let loose a gurgling noise and pressed a palm to her cheek—”God, oh God, what have we done? The cops here are too rich for Playboy. God have mercy.”
As Mimi squirmed in the backseat clucking her tongue and shaking her head from side to side, the deputy scratched his ear. He wanted to know what she was saying.
“Oh, she said she’d rather die right here on the side of the interstate than go to a hospital in an ambulance with a bunch of Americans who can’t understand a word she says.”
“I mean, this situation is getting close to what some might describe as metaphysically demoralizing…”
“Now look here, miss, I’m an officer of the law and I won’t accept any foul language.”
“Oh, I wasn’t…”
“You can tell that old lady back there that this is the United States of America so we speak American here and if she plans to stick around, she needs to learn it.”
“Seriously? I mean, are you sure that’s what you want me to tell her?”
“Sure is,” the deputy said in the appropriate makeshift tenor.
“Mimi, this deputy is a nut-job. I’m sorry about this but I have a feeling he’s about to give me a ticket.”
Mimi glanced at Ion who was sleeping and tried to compose herself by consulting the panopticon of superstitions that smelled like home. Her voice thinned. “Is there any way you could close that window? The draft has been bothering Ion’s ears for at least ten minutes and pneumonia comes quickly when the draft is involved.”
“What did she say?”
“She says my son is getting an ear infection because the windows have been open too long and there’s a…. well, a draft. Like, a breeze only more dangerous. Romanians call it curentul.”
“Are you trying to get smart with me again?”
“No, that’s what Mimi—the old woman—said. I swear.”
“Where’s she from again? Bulgaria? What sort of nonsense do they teach those people over there? A breeze never hurt anybody.”
“Well, actually, my son’s physician did tell us that covering his ears and protecting them from wind would reduce the severity and frequency of his ear infections.”
“Hogwash. Get an American doctor who knows something about medical stuff.”
“Ion’s pediatrician is actually as American as apple pie,” Andreea insisted. But the deputy was eyeing Mimi.
In a daring demonstration of loyalty to Ion and homegrown medical folk-say, Mimi had started circling her fist up and down, gesturing to the deputy that the window should be rolled up. The deputy glared at her for a moment, and then decided ignoring Mimi was the most professional policy. He gazed down at the little black handheld computer tracking Andreea’s license number all over the barely United States of America.
Andreea couldn’t imagine what was taking so long. Punching a few numbers into his handheld, the deputy asked to speak with the sheriff.
“Can’t you tell him it’s the deputy sheriff speaking and that I’ve got a situation here?…. What? A fraternity hazing ritual? Twenty-four of them, you say? Don’t they have mothers? It doesn’t sound like police work to me. Giardiasis? Isn’t that caused by bacteria in food? An immediate investigation, yes, sure thing. Okay. Yup. Got it…. No, I’ll handle it, Jill. Thanks.”
Andreea admired the deputy’s police sophisticated machinery. “What did the sheriff say?” she asked, feigning obliviousness.
“I was unable to consult with the sheriff since an unexpected situation at a fraternity house has tied up all our resources.”
“Wow, you guys must be understaffed.”
“Usually we’re not, but seeing as how a couple of fraternity mothers fainted just now, things are tight. The human side of stuff is draining our local investigative staff.”
“Sounds like they could use your help, deputy.”
“Look, miss, it is my responsibility to serve as an arm of the law and to apprehend criminals where I find them…. It’s not my job to sit here and chit chat with you and that old Bulgarian woman about the finer points of police work.” The deputy straightened his back and stood to attention.
“Miss, I’m going to need for you to step out of the car at this point… Never mind. I mean, wait just a second, stay right there until I get back.”
“Where are you going?”
“I need to get another reading on your driver’s license number but I’ll be right back.”
“I can’t fucking wait,” Andreea mumbled to his reflection in the rearview mirror.
She tried to explain to Mimi that she was going to have to get out of the car.
“Holy Mary Mother of Baby Jesus Christ!” she gargled. “Are you drunk?”
When the deputy returned, Andreea was still sitting in the driver’s seat, hoping for a supernatural intervention. The deputy looked annoyed, so Andreea sublimated her own annoyance by thinking about what color Lila might call the deputy.
“You can tell that old lady that you are a fugitive from the laws governing the state of New York and these….”
“Excuse me, what did you say?” interjected Andreea, not quite believing her ears. Had he called her a fugitive?
“I said that you can tell the old Bulgarian the truth about what you did in New York.” The way he spoke made it all sound very exciting.
“She’s Romanian, not Bulgarian, deputy. Holy frankincense, what are you talking about? What does this have to do with New York? I haven’t been to New York in years!”
“The fact that you failed to pay a ticket two years ago involving the very serious malfeasance of talking on the cellular phone while driving.”
Suddenly, Andreea remembered the freezing cold night in question when a New York police officer—very similar to this deputy, in fact—wrote a ticket and made her cry. She took a deep breath for Mimi’s sake, and tried to clarify the misunderstanding.
“You know that I’m probably going to have to arrest you, right?”
“Mr. Deputy, I know my rights. To forestall a possible miscarriage of justice in the courtroom, we need good records. I want you to write a report detailing exactly how and why you arrested a single mom for a traffic ticket she was given two years ago in a different state for talking on a cell phone while driving completely lost somewhere near Cornell trying to find campus before the roads froze.”
“You could have asked the officer who pulled you over for directions.”
“I did! But he had to pull me over for me to get his attention. I couldn't very well call him on my cell phone, now could I?”
“You knew the law, miss.”
“That’s just it, you see—I didn’t. The law had just been passed, and I was one of its first beneficiaries. I’m from Alabama, sir. We don’t have laws there. How could I know while driving through the state of NY that such a law had just been passed?”
“The state of New York was a model for the rest of the country. The governor paid for seven billboards on major highways to educate drivers about that law. Don’t play innocent.”
“I don’t read billboards while driving. My dad told me it’s not safe—it manufactures an inauthentic desire to own things you can’t afford.”
“Are you saying you couldn’t afford the ticket?” The deputy appeared genuinely confused, the steady rhythm of his chew diminished to an occasional chomp.
“No, deputy, I paid the ticket. Actually, my mom paid it when it arrived at her Alabama address, which was the address on my license. I was touring graduate schools and finishing my application interviews. She said she would pay it.”
“Well, she didn’t.”
“How do you know?”
“It’s listed in our police report as an unpaid ticket.”
“She paid it with a check.”
“A personal check?”
“That’s what we do in Dixie.”
“That’s not how the world works,” the deputy snapped. “Why would we trust a personal check from a criminal?”
“How about a criminal’s mother? She’s good for it since she remarried that big shot developer.”
“She’s good for something,” the deputy muttered derisively. Clearing his throat, he added, “If your mom sent a personal check, then she was thumbing her nose at law and order.”
“Are you calling my Catholic mother a scoff-law?”
“No, but I’m calling you a flight risk. We have no reason to believe you’ll pay this ticket given that you’ve run from the law before.”
Andreea tried to ignore Mimi’s furious whispers to Ion as the deputy drew a series of arrows and rhomboids on his notepad- the path of a fugitive running across borders for years. He pointed to the places where the fugitive had stopped. Andreea recognized them.
Suddenly, Mimi’s sharp fingernails dug into Andreea’s shoulder. “What’s happening, Andreea? I need to tell Ion.”
“Mimi, Ion is a baby—he won’t understand.”
Andreea ignored the deputy’s agitated request for translation and considered how she could explain the ridiculous train of events.
“He’s going to arrest me, Mimi. I need to call Lila so she can come and get you guys. I don’t want you to worry—everything will be fine.”
“Dumnezeule,” Mimi said, crossing herself insatiably.
“It’s because of an unpaid ticket for using my cell phone while driving in another state. Tell Ion it’s going to be okay.”
Mimi’s voice narrowed to a spiteful hiss. “Don’t play games with me, Andrea. I know what’s really going on here. You wear those skirts—like that one—that are shorter than your knees because you’re trying to hook men. I’ve suspected it for a long time. Now, you’ve left this poor man with no choice except to arrest you. Men are smart—they know a prostitute when they see one…. Dirty girl, you’ve given him no choice!” The Romanian tirade continued.
As Andreea stepped out of the driver’s seat, leaving behind the thick pollution of Mimi’s righteous rage, she glanced down at her flowery summer skirt and sandals. Then she shook her head. The cars strobed past in one color, the hue of accelerating highway-induced fleetingness.
“My friend told me they only arrest women in America if they are prostitutes.” She overheard Mimi pontificating to Ion as the deputy told Andreea to face the car and put her hands behind her back.
For a second, Andreea remembered being grass green. She fought the impulse to flinch when the metal handcuffs snapped around her wrists, tried not to draw unnecessary conclusions about color schemes and power imbalances.
“You poor little boy. Not your fault that your mother couldn’t find a husband because she is a prostitute,” Mimi sobbed to Ion. “It’s just you and me and our heavenly Father. What are we going to do now?”
“Anything is possible,” Andreea whispered, her forehead pressed against the car’s hot black exterior.
The only relief was the sensation of the cars speeding past—the wind toying with her skirt, throwing it upwards, revealing the pink cotton panties. She tried not to laugh when it tickled.
Alina Stefanescu lives in Alabama with her partner and three opinionated mammals. Every Mask I Tried On, a fiction collection, won the 2016 Brighthorse Books Prize. Her first poetry collection, Stories to Read Aloud to Your Fetus, is available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press (September 2017). Find her in current issues of Cloudbank, New South Journal, DIAGRAM, and others; or online at www.alinastefanescu.com and @aliner.