Staccato vibrations buzzed against her bum.
Hot July air wafted lazily through the screen of the sliding doors. Morning light sang through the glass door, bouncing from the dining room table up to Nadezhda’s face.
Her back pocket continued its jolty hum.
Two rings. Three rings. Four rings. Stop.
She counted things. It kept her calm. Usually.
The number of seconds she was able to hold her breath as he fucked her. The drips from the bathroom faucet as she lay awake next to him for most of the night. Each slice of the knife as it cut through onion, potato, cucumber, carrot. She even managed to keep mental running tallies of the times her boys had seen him push her up against a wall, throw her into a chair, or yank her arm almost from its socket.
But the phone rings made her nervous. Once they had stopped, she tried finding peace counting each smack of his greasy lips as he chomped fried onion and potato.
“We need to take the kids to the river today,” he said, his voice thick with Ukrainian Russian. Small, shiny slivers of silvery-white onion escaped his mouth.
“Sure. It’ll be nice,” Nadezhda answered.
Again, the phone began to buzz. She avoided eye contact. She could go to the bathroom and answer it, but he would be listening, and it wouldn’t be difficult for him to hear her in this tiny apartment. She could feel him watching her.
It wasn’t worth the punishment, the verbal onslaught of daggers and boxing gloves. If it was important, they’d leave a message and she could call them back when he was at work on Monday.
She’s ignoring me again in that bitch whore way of hers. Sitting there, eating nothing, pretending her phone isn’t ringing. Who the hell’s calling her?
The phone stopped. She hadn’t moved. He hadn’t reacted. But he’d be storing it up. Waiting.
“We’ll take a picnic and stay the whole day,” he told her.
“Ok.” It would be nice to be in the sun. Hopefully they’d have a good day. She knew it would make her boys happy.
Just try and get out of this. You’re not going anywhere without me today.
Willows draped the edges of the river, full and lush, gracefully swaying, almost still in their heaviness. Nadezhda sat rigidly in the folding chair, disorganized curls escaping the claw-clipped tangled bun dangling tentatively from the back of her head, wisps catching the slight breeze.
She watched, conflicted, as her boys and their father picked up stray willow branches and cast them into the water, mimicking the action of the spinning reel. Back home in Ukraine they would have brought their real fishing rods and cooked freshly caught fish over an open fire. There would be dill ladened cucumber and ripe tomatoes, with lemon squeezed all over, and they would eat the vegetables and fish there and then in the punishing heat of Ukrainian summer.
But here in Canada, Pavlo refused to purchase a fishing license, grumbling often about the stupidity of such Canadian bureaucracies.
“Papa,” Vasyl, the elder of her two boys, beckoned. “Look over here. There’s a plane in the water!” The boys chattered to each other excitedly.
At the river’s edge, tangled in tendrils of matted willow hair, was a model plane. A red and white wing tip broke the water’s surface. As it bobbed, they could see, through the rippled surface, it had a blue stripe down one side. The nose was buried, gingerly grasping the dark muddy bank of the fast-flowing Niagara River. Mostly, the willow kept the plane’s hold to the earth as the eddies gathered and dispersed, gathered and dispersed. The tail swayed back and forth above the water, the Canadian flag, barely visible, faded, centimetres below the water.
Pavlo reached down, squatting on the edge of the bank, using his willow branch fishing pole to try to pull the plane out of the water. He could not get purchase, and the branch had no rigidity with which to exert any force.
“Papa. Can we keep it?” her little one, Mykola, asked, jumping up and down, flapping his arms at his sides.
“Konechna, dorogai – Of course, dear,” Pavlo answered patiently. “Hold my hand so I don’t fall in the water.”
Mykola and Vasyl grasped onto their father, the older fully taking his hand, the younger placing a tiny hand on his father’s wrist, ineffectual but with loving purpose.
Pavlo, having tossed the willow branch out into the river where it was swiftly carried away toward the Falls, reached his free hand down into the water touching the visible wing with the tips of his fingers, but he couldn’t get close enough to grasp it.
He casually kicked off his running shoes and began removing his socks.
“Pavlo! Take care. It’s very dangerous.” Nadezhda remained calm. “The water has a strong current and we are very close to the waterfalls.” She did not want to stop him. She wanted her boys to be happy with their new toy. She knew this moment would be an important memory for them; she wanted them to remember this joy.
Just fucking keep out of this, bitch. Sit there and keep silent.
She knew his thoughts, imagining then the water pulling him in and dragging him to the brink of the Falls and down and over, away and gone forever.
But not here, not like this. Not in front of her boys.
Not at all.
She sat up straight and consciously pushed the image out of her head. But she remained in her chair, on the edge.
“Papa! Be careful,” Vasyl shouted as his father balanced one leg on the bank, anxiously dipping his other foot into the water.
“Pavlo! Grab the tree there,” Nadezhda called out, instinctively. “Hold on. You’re going to fall!”
“Kharasho – I’m fine!” he snapped back, but took the living tendrils in one hand for security.
He found a foothold under the water, letting his other leg drop halfway down the slight bank. Balancing on the tripod of limbs holding him fast, he reached down and began ripping the wispy willow hair from the plane. Then, feeling about for the tip of the plane’s nose, he slowly scooped at the mud with his fingers. After a moment of digging, he moved his hand gently along to the top of the plane and grasped it as best he could, wiggling the plane from side to side, up and down, till he felt its freedom.
He had just enough grip to pull the plane up, allowing it to bob fully to the surface. He then let go of the willow swinging his now free hand around in front to grab the plane with both hands before it had time to fly away on the driving current.
His foot slipped from the riverbank and he teetered for an instant on the brink of balance.
“Pavlo!” Nadezhda screamed. “Grab the tree!!”
His foot fell flat, splashing water up into his face, but within a second he had maintained his balance. He swung the plane gracefully across his body and flung it to the grass reaching for the tree in one swift movement. He caught the wispy branch firmly in one hand.
The plane glided across the surface of the grass and came to rest at Mykola’s feet.
Pavlo pulled himself out of the river jumping easily to his feet.
The boys screamed with excitement and began instantly creating acrobatic flying sequences as they ran with the plane through the freshly cut grass.
Once they were out of earshot, Pavlo began digging at her.
“Who called you this morning?” he said, standing directly in front of her as she slid back into the chair, her phone pressing into her backside as she tensed.
“I don’t know,” she answered. “I didn’t look.”
“Why do you lie to me? I know you’ve checked.”
“I haven’t looked,” she replied softly and turned her head toward her boys, watching them as they flew around the trees and grassy riverbank with their new toy.
“You don’t need to talk with anyone. Who the fuck do you need to talk to?”
“It was probably just a sales call. I don’t know who would call me.”
“Let me see your phone.”
“Pavlo. It’s no one. Honestly.”
“Give me the damn phone, now.”
“It’s nothing.” Her voice was blank. Years of abuse had wrestled any pleading tone from her. She thought to reach for her phone then and just let him look, but he beat her to the proverbial punch.
He grabbed her arm forcefully, pulling her forward. Reaching behind her as her body came forward, he thrust his hand into the back pocket of her jeans for the phone. But he had gone for the wrong pocket.
“Give me the fucking phone,” he yelled as she pulled herself from his grasp and dug herself back into the chair. Now she felt the fight.
“Palvo! Why are you doing this? It’s nothing.” Anger bubbled up within her and began to escape momentarily. “What’s your problem?”
This time he grasped her hair, a full handful of soft curls, and yanked her head forward so fast and hard that her neck twisted sharply, and she felt a loud crack.
“Let go.” She tried to keep her voice low and quiet. “You’re hurting me.”
He pulled her head more, down so her body was crumpled over into her knees, and snatched the phone now being squeezed out of her back pocket by the force of her jeans straining tightly around her waist.
Still holding her down, her hair almost ripping from her head, he fumbled with her phone in one hand.
He knew the pass code. 0000. She’d kept it simple for emergency speed. But he’d beat it out of her. Better he know and could check than continually suffer the consequences of his insecure belief, she had misguidedly thought.
“Who the fuck is Helen Anderson?” He let go of his grasp.
“It’s one of the teachers at the school.” She straightened herself up and replaced her hair uncaringly into the claw clip, then began massaging her tender neck.
“Why is the kids’ school calling you?”
“No. The ESL school.”
“What!? I told you before. You don’t need to go back to that stupid school.”
“I’m not. I don’t know why she’s calling me.” Helen had become her friend, but he didn’t need to know.
“You don’t need to learn any more English. I already told you. Just stay home and take care of the house and kids. What do you need more English for that?”
“Yes. I know.” She had forced the anger back inside and her words came out calmly and flatly. “I’m not!”
“What the fuck,” he spat, “does she want?”
“I don’t know Pavlo. Please leave me alone. The kids can see.” Rubbing her neck, in an attempt to keep down her frustration as much as to relieve her pain, she looked up at him, fatigue gathering around her eyes. “What is wrong with you!?”
He threw the phone in her lap and walked away toward the boys.
“Boys! Bring the plane over here. Let’s see if we can find out what kind of plane it is.”
“I think it’s a fighter plane,” Vasyl yelled.
Pavlo took out his phone and began searching the internet for Canadian military airplanes.
Nadezhda watched her men as they sat together in the grass, the boys clinging to their father lovingly as they looked into the phone at the various possibilities. Vasyl looked up, furtively, and met his mother’s gaze. They smiled at each other knowingly.
“Well, I think it’s this one,” Pavlo said, pointing at his phone.
“Yeah,” said Mykola. “But I think this one is much smaller.”
“Yes, of course, dorogai,” Pavlo laughed. “This one is just a model. Looks like a Canadian CT-114, Snowbird plane.”
“What’s that?” Vasyl asked, now drawing his attention back to the plane.
“They’re the show planes that fly in formation. Those ones that look like the way the Canada geese fly.”
“Oh, yeah. Those are so cool, Papa.”
“But there’s lots of damage to this one,” Vasyl said.
“Yes, dorogai. There’s a lot of paint missing and looks like this wing is cracked.”
“Can we take it home and fix it up, Papa?” Mykola asked, tugging on his father’s arm.
“Well, we’ll take it home and see what we can do.”
That evening she watched her boys sitting with their father at the dining room table. They’d stopped on the way home from the river to pick up modelling glue, tiny tins of modelling paint, and some tiny brushes. He had been struck with momentary generosity, perhaps, she thought, because they had both been aware that the boys had seen the encounter in the lawn chair. Mykola was now playing chopsticks with the brushes, trying to pick up a paint tin in their feeble grasp.
Nadezhda sat in the old armchair, her legs tucked up under her. There was nowhere to go. The evening meal had been eaten and the kitchen cleaned up. She picked at the tattered and fraying material on the arm of the chair.
There was no TV or computer in the living room, or anywhere else in the shabby apartment. The walls were bare, the furniture vintage Goodwill. Pavlo’s engineering salary accumulated effortlessly in the bank; every bag that entered the apartment was inspected.
But every trip to the grocery store brought Nadezhda forty dollars closer, cash withdrawals being squirrelled away in a shoebox in the bedroom closet of her closest friend.
She had a few friends here in Canada now, but they could never contact her while he was around. During the day, while he was away at his job, and the kids were at school, she met with her friends briefly, hurriedly, always vigilant of the time display on her phone. And then, before he came home, she madly rushed about, trying to get something in order. Anything she could manage.
But she had no idea if it would happen. The chances seemed very slim. She needed him. This truth killed her every day. They were living in Canada on his work visa. She had no status of her own. Their application for Permanent Residence, bureaucratically slow, was a family application. If she left him now, there would be no legality to secure Canadian life for herself and she would lose her boys.
“Can I fix the flag, Papa?” Vasyl pleaded.
“Yes, of course, my dear,” his father answered gently
“Here. Just carefully dip the tip of the paint brush and then wipe the extra paint on the sides of the tin.” Pavlo guided his son’s little hand with the paint brush, and then left Vasyl to attempt the job alone. He watched with one arm on the back of the boy’s chair as the child tentatively dabbed the faded Maple Leaf with red paint.
Nadezhda knew it would be a fight to stay in Canada. The biggest struggle the one inside her, knowing she had to take her boys away from their father. She didn’t want to do it but didn’t know how else to be alive. Without her boys, there would be nothing.
She sat in her chair, doing nothing, waiting, again, for some kind of action to help move her forward.
She got up and walked to the bathroom. She didn’t need to go, but it was something to do. She stood for a few moments in front of the sink, doing nothing, then flushed the empty toilet and washed her hands slowly. She took a deep breath and turned to open the door. As she turned the lock on the handle, the door flung open violently and the edge hit her sharply in the temple. She lost her balance as momentum carried her backward into the sink, followed by the driving torrent of his rage.
He grabbed her angrily by the arm dragging her through the short hallway and into the bedroom. He swung her around with mighty force so that she was facing him, then pushed her, hands heavy into her chest. She fell backwards onto the bed.
“Who the fuck were you calling?” he spat, under his breath, so the boys wouldn’t hear. Wisps of spittle landed on her face as he climbed on top of her pinning her to the bed.
“No-one, Pavlo!. I just went to pee!”
“I didn’t hear any pee,” he hissed. “You lying whore! Who the fuck do you need to call?” He raised his fist in ready. “Tell me. Now!”
“Pavlo! I just went to pee,” she spat back, though with far less spite. “I don’t even have my phone!”
He grabbed her arm and roughly flipped her onto her side. He dove a hand deep into her jean’s pockets once again. But found no phone.
He pushed her deep down into the bed as he raised himself to stand. He walked out of the room and back to the boys calmly, noticing her phone on the arm of the chair as he walked past.
She lay where he left her, not moving; inertia constantly lingered while he was there. She wished he had punched her, given some more proof that she could use. But what good would all the proof do her? She was no-one. No status. Of no consequence. All she could do was wait. Once the Permanent Residency came through, she would have access to social services, shelters, lawyers, help.
But now she had nothing but a shoebox full of useless cash. But she had that. It was something at least. And she had the will of her endurance, and she had her boys. She still had her boys.
Photo courtesy of https://pixabay.com/users/graham-h-5475750/