LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2008 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 54, No 3 - Fall 2008
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Of New Things
(Excerpt from a novel)
Kelpsas served as a volunteer advisor to the Lithuanian
of National Defence between 1992 to 1993. During this time, he
facilitated relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. A
native of Chicago, he is a former U.S. Army paratrooper, combat
veteran, and officer. Bruno is currently working for a large software
company in the Seattle area and putting the last touches to his
manuscript of Of New
RERUM NOVARUM: \Latin\ Of New Things\ 1. The opening words and title of the Encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII (May 15, 1891). 2. Supported the rights of workers and the poor – despite Leo XIII’s opposition to Communism. 3. Memorialized by Pope John Paul II, claiming ‘The Hundredth Year’ anniversary of this Encyclical as the decisive turning point of the collapse of Communism by the peaceful means of justice and truth.
The night’s freeze still remained with the late birth of February winter. One of the many shades of gray reflected off the black limousine, morning’s best attempt at light. This was all the Lithuanian dawn could afford. From the sidewalk, Daiva watched her figure grow and twist in the vehicle’s window. In the reflection, she tried to find her blue eyes. Two years of living here – a diet of fatty meats, dairy products, and a pastry at every meal – were hidden beneath her charcoal overcoat. And her pleasant face, once so accustomed to laughter, had acquired a permanent frown. Too well the glass reflected this image, this transformation of demeanor and spirit. A mane of golden hair was pulled to the back, a ponytail falling on her shoulder, and a cold morning breeze soon wrapped itself around her neck. She turned away from her reflection and looked out at a schoolyard crowded with playing children.
Perched high on a hill overlooking the Old Town district of Vilnius, green and brown gables lined the streets of the upscale neighborhood. Ancient folklore figures were carved into the wooden curves of the gables, pagan tales woven so well they led one to believe that they complemented Christianity more than challenged it. Tall pines and barren maples surrounded the school. A grooming ground for the elite, these classrooms had gained popularity during the days of communism, and now it served the same purpose for a democratic nation searching for the lore of democracy.
Daiva had no children. Instead she had postponed love, marriage, and family for her career as a private assistant to the Prime Minister of Lithuania. Like many idealistic twenty-something Lithuanian-Americans, she had left her home in the Chicago neighborhood of Marquette Park – what many expatriates jokingly referred to as a suburb of the Lithuanian capitol – and came here to volunteer. Many of these cousins from abroad, including Daiva, were more than willing to contribute to Lithuania’s fight for independence from the Soviet Union; a lifetime of Sunday school lectures, summer camp indoctrination, and late night family tales of the ‘old country’ having groomed them for this mission, for this moment in time. Just last Friday, a college-aged Australian woman hailed her claim-to-fame to Daiva at a party of expatriates and reformed government workers, a beer bottle and cigarette in hand, “I checked on the map and Hobart, Tasmania is the farthest place an expat can be from!”
Events found Daiva. She was there at the Vilnius television tower to protest with others against the Russian military. She was there to save three protestors from being crushed under the tank treads, only to feel the butts of rifles into her stomach. Someone caught the incident on film, and her local reputation soared to the national level. Riding the wave of grassroots 33 popularity she was able to telephone back home for donations of cash, medicine, toys, and more demonstrations in the snow in downtown Chicago’s Daley Square. Two years later, Daiva’s loyalty was rewarded with a high-profile position and a chance to improve the world, or at least a small corner of it. And no great cause comes without a price, without regret.
In her overcoat pocket, a plastic cylinder of red and white capsules rolled back and forth under her fingertips, a reminder of her constant battle against depression: modern day’s medical term for one’s personal failure to contend with love, work, and family. Over her tight breath, she forced herself to listen to the voices of children, and she fought the lure of the medication. But the pills continued to tumble and rattle; they were good at that. She suddenly stopped, pulled her hand out of the coat pocket and ran it through her hair, tossing her thick ponytail over her shoulder. The cold wind across her temples and brow wakened her.
The limousine car door opened and Prime Minister Lidia Memel stretched out her legs. Her black overcoat opened, exposing a navy-blue suit, white blouse, and a brooch of an oversized amber butterfly glimmering on the suit’s lapel. Almost six feet tall, Lidia Memel was elegant yet imposing in that silent, passive Lithuanian way. Political wisdom should have forced her to cut her dark auburn hair, but this was Lithuania and tradition persevered, so she tied it into a neat bun. Long nights of vodka, cigarette smoke, and political debate had left gray shadows underneath her evergreen eyes. The bodyguard, who also served as her chauffeur, stood calm but aware. The Prime Minister’s voice warmed the February air: “Thank you, Stasys.”
Behind Daiva, women could be heard walking their children to the schoolyard. Here come the vultures. It was difficult to stay patient with society’s upper crust, a cast of characters who now had to survive the Old System while it stumbled into a new one. Lidia raised an eyebrow and grinned. Daiva returned a laugh, followed by the day’s first sigh, reminded that she should think better of others. Heads nodded to Lidia Memel, and the physician-turned-Prime Minister responded to those who greeted her with a sincere smile and a courteous dip of the forehead.
“Now can I go play, Mommy?” asked an eight-year-old girl as she pulled at Lidia’s outstretched arm.
Lidia was hesitant to let her daughter run off, and Daiva fully understood why the mother did not want to let go of the small hand. The little girl was Lidia’s first and, most likely, last child. Daiva couldn’t help but envision the chemicals of the Soviet factories spilling into the water and spreading into the air, a poisoning that was sanctioned by the state and let loose upon the population, upon mothers and their children.
“Mommy?” The innocent blue eyes looked up at Lidia.
Daiva wondered how difficult it was for a mother to refuse her little girl’s request to play.
Lidia relented, “Okay, but don’t get yourself too sweaty.” The small, warm hand slid from her palm.
The girl skipped toward the laughing children in the playground, her strawberry-blonde pigtails bouncing into the air and off her small shoulders, “Hi, Daiva! Bye, Daiva!”
Daiva chuckled, reaching out to touch the tiny gray overcoat as it passed by her.
Trying to make her voice forceful, Lidia yelled out, “Don’t sweat, you’ll get sick!” She gave herself a few more minutes to watch her daughter play and then motioned for Daiva to follow her to the wire fence that bordered the schoolyard.
On a round cement table a child’s gloved finger had etched a simple word into the thick snowfall from last night – sniegas. Daiva translated to herself in English, snow. She then remembered her own winter several years ago … a snowball fight in Marquette Park … with a boy. The young laughter she heard was theirs from the past, only now she asked: Where are you, Michael? What’s taking you so long to get here?
Watching her daughter play tag with a group of girls, Lidia asked Daiva, “Any hot water this morning?”
Daiva made her way to the schoolyard and smirked, “Just one temperature – cold!”
Both women released a hardy “Oi!” and smiled darkly at their nation’s dependence on Russian oil and Russian politics. Lidia was about to warn her daughter again not to play too hard, but resisted the temptation. Instead, she continued speaking with Daiva, “The cold water doesn’t bother me. I just worry about my little girl.”
Daiva agreed with a nod and then, a school bell interrupted her thoughts, drowning out the voices of the boys and girls. The laughter of the children turned into moans at not having enough time to enjoy the playground and its layer of fresh snow. Realizing that within ten minutes a collection of ministers from her cabinet would be waiting with documents and questions for Lidia, Daiva began with something light, “Tonight is the Swedish Ambassador’s reception. Do you still want to go?”
“Hm – Oh, of course! How can I pass up free Western champagne, Western food – ”
A blast ripped into the crisp Baltic morning air, cutting Lidia’s sentence short. Her mouth hung open in shock as another gasoline and metal explosion followed from the limousine. The detonation pushed Daiva off the sidewalk, throwing her body against the wire fence. She fell to the ground, her knuckles scraping the cement granules on the sidewalk. Braving a glance at the blast, she watched the flames consume the limousine, a column of pewter smoke mushrooming up from the disfigured vehicle. Young screams forced her to turn toward the schoolyard. Some of the children stood crying, while others huddled on the ground. Teachers attempted to control the fear in their voices as they herded the children into the school building. Daiva searched for Lidia. The Prime Minister was using the fence to help her climb to her feet and from out of the dozens of shrieks, she listened for a single call for help.
Lidia’s mouth fell open and she let out a dry scream, “Gražina!”
Daiva watched as Lidia sprinted to the school gate, but her vision was blurred by a moist, warm feeling over her eyelids. 36 Wiping back the loose strands of hair from her mangled ponytail, she looked down at her sleeve: blood and black soot stained the gray jacket. Dazed, she shook her head, demanding to know, Who would do this? Why?
Scanning the street, she was stunned by how easily the pieces of metal and glass had been strewn across the cement and snow, revolted at so much needless destruction. The driver was missing somewhere in the flames. “Stasys!” She struggled to one knee and stumbled into the street. The cries of women and children melted away. Ambulances could be heard ascending the hill, coming closer. She slumped over in the middle of the road, the approaching sirens becoming a dull drone in her head. Shock and pain forced her eyelids to close, bringing dizziness, the cement, and for some reason, her days in the snow with Michael.
* * *
The white cloth fell over the golden curved legs of the altar, hanging only a few inches above a floor of yellow tiles. Two sets of candlesticks waited to be lit. On the right side of the Lower Basilica of St. Francis, the Holy Father sat, absorbing the silence of the church. His eyes followed one of the ceiling’s arches and he watched it converge into the Four Allegories, a quadrant of celestial paintings that represented chastity, poverty, obedience, and the glory of St. Francis. Painted on the domed ceiling was a fresco of the patron saint of Italy being carried across a starry blue sky by saints and angels. Summer yellow, earthy green, and autumn brown were woven into the brushstrokes that formed this scene of God’s Kingdom. These were the colors of heaven.
And in such colors, the Pontiff found inspiration. He whispered the prayer attributed to the church’s patron saint, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me show love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness … light.”
Faithful, for as long as Grace would allow, he reached into his lap and held up the letter from his deceased friend. A small window across from the altar gave just enough light for him to read. The whispers of a man praying made him turn. Bishop Stephan was still kneeling at the end of the pew. Respecting the Pole’s private moment with Christ, the Holy Father returned to the letter clenched in his cramped hand. His fingers drew it closer, the wind – no, there was no wind – it was his own hand that shook the paper from the Parkinson’s disease that was destroying his nervous system. Against all of the ambitions of the day, cloaked in holy scarlet, against the political waters thrusting their salty load over the brim and into God’s lake, he read once more the most startling part of the letter left to him from the deceased Chicago Cardinal:
“ … there is very little we can do to stop Patriarch Vladimir from funding Igor Basil. Basil and his friends in the Russian parliament are eager to extend their influence into Lithuania and to discourage any expansion of NATO. Bishop Stephan shall inform you of all of the details. He is the only one in the Vatican who knows of Rerum Novarum, but you will not find yourself without outside support. We have allies who will provide funding and resources to support us. Stopping the Patriarch and Basil from buying votes in Lithuania’s parliament is in their interests. Be assured, they are devoted to spreading the Word of Christ in Russia and nourishing the faithful in Lithuania.
There is also one man in particular from my parish you should know about. His name is Michael Paulus. A former paratrooper and Army officer, I have known his family since childhood. He came to me after the war in Kuwait. His heart and soul were burdened from a mistake made in combat, and I gave him sanctuary in one of our monasteries. Perhaps our mission was blessed when the Chief of Staff of the Lithuanian military requested him to volunteer in Lithuania as an advisor. Our friends in NATO will provide special attention to Lithuania’s military and thereby give Michael the credibility he needs in order to gain influence in the government. He has a school friend, a woman, in the Lithuanian government whom he will visit. She will be able to warn him if Basil attempts any moves in the Lithuanian parliament. Once in Lithuania, Michael will tell us more of Basil and Patriarch Vladimir’s plans – and if God grants us favor, thwart them.”
The Holy Father’s somber blue eyes wandered to the frescoes from the schools of Cimabue and Giotto, his neck stiff and aching as he stared up at the ceiling. The haggard face, gaping mouth, and white beard of St. Ruffino returned a troubled look. I know … I know. Is my heart with Christ? Freeing himself from the saints and angels painted above, he returned to the letter:
“As you are aware, Cardinal Meletranno and the other Italians in the Curia never agreed with our plans to convert those in Russia. The Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse here in the United States will be his reason to focus the Vatican’s energy away from our new parishes in Russia and towards the possible need of managing dozens of lawsuits and public trials in the American media.
This cancer eats away at me. Even as I write, it robs me of blood and ink. Please bestow upon my Diocese a man who is worthy of its flock and those who serve its Secular Institutes. I pray that our Lord will bless you with his Grace and Love.”
Returning the letter to his lap, the Pontiff realized how well this plan to fend off this northeasterly storm – this Euroclydon – had been set into motion. Its clandestine nature seemed so much on the verge of the dramatic, but for good reason: plausible deniability. This was the honest excuse used by a politician that he was unaware of what his own people were doing. Being no novice to power – local or global, in the village or in the capitol, it was all the same – he stared down at the supporters listed in the letter, knowing there were others he could also rely on. He studied the names: men unknown to any circles, men of trust, whose experiences, beliefs, and faith forged their Spirit. They were true friends and lovers of Christ. They knew how to pray and how to serve. His heart then focused on this Michael Paulus, this stranded soul whom his colleague had once rescued. Who are you Michael? Why did my old friend entrust you with so much?
Noticing that the whispers next to him had ceased, the Holy Father glanced toward Bishop Stephan. The hazel eyes of the priest from Krakow were rejuvenated from prayer and they gave a dutiful look to the Holy Father. For a moment, the Holy Father stared at the follower before him, and he then lifted his eyes back up to St. Francis, recalling the chant. Where there is despair – hope.
No sunshine this afternoon. It was Michael Paulus’s first hour in Lithuania. Instead, a steady breeze greeted him with a kiss to the cheeks. Without even bothering to zip his jacket, he stood outside the airport doors with the many self-made traders and their overstuffed luggage, the air colder but far more welcoming than the stuffiness of a two hour customs line. Watching the passing crowd, he raised his cap and brushed at a strand of hair that had fallen across his forehead. The Lithuanians were easy to pick out, their hair being just as fair as his. And their eyes could be his own, a combination of blues and greens, full of past concerns and determination about the future.
A chill spread through his body and he was unable to hold back a long yawn, realizing he had still slept better than he thought he would on the overnight flight from Chicago to Vilnius. I’m running on adrenaline.
Gazing across the parking lot, his tired mind fell back into the past, the left side of his face twitching slightly. There were no nightmares from his time in Kuwait to wake him in the night, no screams of men dying because of his failures as a leader or the thundering guns of misguided fire. Instead, he endured demons who tortured in more silent ways. His pain came rather in the form of guilt and shame, of leaving her alone: Like a coward. All that he could remember from his time in the desert was a vision of winter snow settling under her window and sticking to the maple trees that lined the Chicago streets.
His guilt always forced his mind back to home, to love. Her name always warm in his heart... Daiva. How many times in the desert had his gaze lifted up to the stars for comfort and rescue, their birth having brought about the existence of all things, only to have his eyes shut and pray for the dawn. Would his wish for peace and love be answered by God?
Warm cheers came from the nearby curb as groups of smiling Lithuanians and Russians coddled their Western visitors, showing them the way to their cars and warm kitchens brimming with tea, bread, and politics. One group bubbled with gossip and packed themselves into a white van. The side door slid shut, an engine rumbled, and the van sped off. There was another sullen moment, another gust of Baltic wind. This time, the cold palms of February hardened his cheeks. Need to call her. . . so much to talk about.
As Michael stared at the pay phone, he recalled the words of a dying man, a Cardinal who was both holy and street-smart, even his own deathbed unable to hold back what needed to be said: “Your friend in the Prime Ministers office – Daiva – I knew her mother once, but she’d never date me. I was a few years older, mind you. And you know what the Lugans were like when they came over from the old country after the war ... doctors, lawyers, professors... looking down on us factory types. What, our fault that our families were peasants under the tsars? But we were tough. They got to give us that much. Your father was one of the best kids I had boxing in the Golden Gloves. His old man got on him when he saw blood on his shirt, thinking he lost the fight. Your father told him: ‘No dad, it’s not mine – it’s the other guy’s!’ Never mind ... this damn cancer is making me into a little baby. My mother would be knocking sense into me if she were here. Pass me the lighter. Come on, Michael – don’t look at me that way, son.”
“What was I babbling about? Oh, yes. Now, when you get to Vilnius, find out what our friends in the West and NATO can do to support the Prime Minister’s government. I’m sure Daiva will help you with this one — but she mustn’t know anything. Look at me now — nothing. Good. Ashtray.” Crooked fingers, bent from decades of prayer and gripping cigarettes, reached out to him. The old man continued. “Basil – with the help of 41 Patriarch Vladimir’s funding – is buying up votes in the Parliament faster than we can count them. It’s like the Cicero Race Track over there. They’re doing this to install a government that will slow down the Russian withdrawal and discourage NATO’s expansion. It’s the Patriarch’s way of getting back at the Vatican for opening churches in Russia – and at me.”
Michael recalled how the Cardinal then mumbled something in a northern Lithuanian Samogitian accent. Cancer couldn’t even discourage the old man from the next cigarette, the hospital window being his last and only view of this world.
Fighting the drowsiness, Michael now rehearsed his mission, realizing the old man hadn’t minded or cared that Michael would be unable to attend his funeral. And now he had to call a woman he had loved and left two years ago. She was waiting for him, but for all the wrong reasons. Or maybe they were right. This was the first step toward deceit: the old man’s voice even reminded him of it. “Don’t look at me that way, Michael. You know what needs to be done. You know the rules, how these things operate. You’ve been around the block. Just don’t stray – it’s easy to – Christ knows, I have. You better get going now. I have to finish writing an important letter to Rome... Lord be with you. Oh, turn on the Channel Seven news before you leave, all right? They’re updating me better on my treatment than my damn doctors are.”
Michael hesitated and then picked up the Soviet pay phone. It was thick, bulky, and covered in a scratched coat of silver paint: more suited for a ship’s steam room so sailors could call up to the upper deck for their orders. He hollered over the noise of a passing bus that was releasing a trail of blue smoke, “Daiva? Daiva? Can you hear me?”
“Michael... hey there...,” her happy voice was interrupted by static.
“It’s me,” he plugged an ear, “I finally got here – I’m at the airport.”
The connection toyed with her voice as if she were stuttering. “ ...send a car for you. Okay ?...”
His eyes squinted in concentration, as if this would improve his hearing. “What? A car?”
“Yes – Yes – I’ll send one of the drivers to the airport for you.”
“I’ll wait for him … .”
“Oh, it’ll be good to see – ”
The phone line fell silent, her happiness still ringing in his ear. Placing his hands in his pockets, he spent the next half-hour absorbing his new surroundings. He wondered what should be deemed beautiful and what should be considered dangerous: Maybe the blank-faced men smoking cigarettes near the taxi stand? The monotonous rows of Ladas and Zhigulis that could be holding a pair of trained eyes watching you? The adjacent cement building’s third floor window – wasn’t that curtain open a minute ago? The willowy blonde female student who already smiled twice at him? His next cup of coffee? The clouds? The day? As he was about to release a long yawn, a black Lada with a typical government antenna resting on its roof – the kind he had seen in movies – finally appeared. He entered the car, rested his head on the back seat, and rubbed the sharp stubble on his face. The driver muttered an apology for taking so long – something about student protests – and the Lada shifted into gear, driving off toward the Government Building and Daiva.
A few seconds later, a pale blue Zhiguli crept out of its parking spot. Keeping a safe distance, the vehicle followed Michael and his three bags.
Raindrops streaked the windows of the Lada, creating a twisted world of medieval avenues and cement facades. Beyond the glass, all Michael could see were the figures of pedestrians dashing about, trying to escape from the cold rain and the paths of vehicles – especially an official car like his. Overhanging from the roofs of medieval buildings, rows of gargoyles warded off evil. Michael slouched in the middle of the backseat and as the vehicle entered the circular driveway of the Government Building, a group of university students shouted slogans, protesting the slow pace of the Russian troop withdrawal and the even slower economic reforms. He heard fragments as they yelled over one another: “… stop the corruption … mafia car bombings ... we need jobs … you all missed the opportunities,” and finally, “they died for us.”
“Damn kids should be in class,” the driver said.
“How long has this been —“
“Two weeks already.”
“I didn’t read about any of this.” Michael looked to see if there were any reporters on the site.
“Give it time. Things don’t move quickly around here.” The driver paused, and then added, “My niece is going to medical school in Kaunas and she has been doing the same there. Those girls are always competing with the girls in Vilnius. Who is the prettiest? Who is more sophisticated? The other is more snobby … .”
Once inside the building, two security guards in the marble foyer asked him for his identification, double-checking one another’s work. He was handed a paper pass and then directed up the lobby’s wide, two-tiered staircase.
A woman’s voice hailed from the top of the first flight of stairs. “Welcome to the old country!”
Michael looked up to find Daiva standing with her arms open to greet him. She had changed. The blonde hair flowing over her shoulders couldn’t soften the pair of troubled blue eyes. He suppressed his surprise at how her skin had been weathered by too much politics, too much daily stress, and for a moment, he feared, too much of her past returning with all of its depression and its mind-tricks. Marching up the steps, he said in a deep Chicago accent, “How you doing?”
She smiled back at him, proud that another émigré had braved the journey, had cared enough. As he came up the steps, he could see how her blue eyes warmed. It was too soon for tears. At the very last step below Daiva, he stopped, ashamed at not showing enough emotion and appearing so distant. Or, that is at least what he read in her dry lips and waiting gaze, precious cheeks about to tremble. Not one word could be chosen in his heart – amongst the thousands. She held out her arms, “Come here you!”
Closing in on her, he opened his arms and squeezed more pounds than he had expected. Two years in Lithuania meant sporadic work hours and little time to exercise, Daiva’s glory days of high school swim meets were now a faint memory.
“Oh, it’s so good to see you,” she said as she pushed her chest hard against his and then pulled away, “It’s been too long – over two years!”
He held his head back to get a better look at his former lover, still so dear to him, and squinted. “What happened?”
She covered the bandage near her forehead with her hand. “Let’s go to the cafeteria. I bet you’re hungry.” Her thick, golden eyebrows rose, “A lot has been happening here.”
The scent of broth, cabbages, and boiled potatoes played in the cafeteria air while women in food-stained gowns and white cylindrical hats scrubbed dried soup and meat from the food line. Pots and pans knocked together and hoses hissed steaming water while the women gossiped and laughed, beads of sweat on their foreheads making their faces glisten. Here, against the backdrop of kitchen chores and a radio in the kitchen playing a Russian version of rock n’ roll, Michael and Daiva could speak openly until the government officials drifted in for their late afternoon tea.
“So, how was the trip?” she asked, as she added a lump of sugar to her tea. “You look pretty tired.”
“That obvious, huh?” With his fingers spread, he pushed back the hair from his brow, but its fine strands slowly returned back to their original state. He sipped at the sweet egg-white topping on his dessert coffee and licked the cream from his lips. “I guess that’s what I get for flying coach.” The tired sound of Daiva’s reply – an empty laugh – alarmed him. He wondered what caused the bags under her eyes. And those fingernails, once long and splendid, were chewed down to the fingertips. He fought back the urge to reach over the table, hold her hand, and remember a happier time.
“I don’t know what you heard back in Marquette Park, but this place isn’t the fairy-tale land of milk and honey that our aunts led us to believe.”
“No, things don’t look too cheery around here.”
Daiva watched as two cleaning women gossiped about one of the corrupt but more handsome ministers of state; their voices and laughter carried over the hoses and across the cafeteria. Concern tightened her face, “It’s hard to describe this place to you, Michael.”
As the sugar crystals dissolved on his tongue, he watched her struggle to find a clear way to explain. Patient as always with her, he waited, rubbing the coffee cup.
“I mean, on the one hand,” she raised a corner of her mouth and continued, “they have so much to be happy for – you know? – independence, freedom, capitalism. All of that good old textbook democracy stuff. And on the other, they can’t accept or cope with any of this.”
He realized that her eyes had not stopped staring out at the long rows of tables, making him ask, “What’s going on politically?”
“Politically, the place is bankrupt.” She took a small bite of a roll sprinkled with sugar.
Michael noticed how the light freckles across her brow began to stretch, the smile lines tightening into the corners of her lips. The dimple on her left check formed its own shadow. So many times in the past she would point at her right cheek and repeat to him, ‘My sister has the other one.’ How ungrateful he now felt of having grown tired of that family quip.
Daiva went on, “In Parliament you have the former communists on one side of the aisle, pro-nationalists on the other, and splinter factions in the middle playing off the larger coalitions – you know the saying, ‘Two Lithuanians, three political parties.’ ”
His brow rose once in reply.
After Daiva took another bite of pastry and a sip of tea, she went on. “Back in the Soviet days the old guard ran everything. The same is happening now. The stakes are just higher. Foreign investments and goods are already making many people millionaires several times over. These businessmen have to get things done quickly, smoothly, and quietly.”
“And you have to cooperate with these guys who are connected in order to get anything done?”
“You got it.” Daiva bit into her second roll. This one had an apple filling. She swallowed and shook her head in frustration. Shooting an inconspicuous glance around the table to ensure they were alone, she continued in a hushed tone, “There are a lot of people in high places who would like to see things go back to the way they were.”
“As long as they keep their fair share of the capitalistic pie, I bet.” Michael took another sip of the silky topping covered with melted sugar, tasting the warm coffee buried below. “Sounds like the ‘Syndicate’ around here.” That was a Chicago term. Daiva’s thick eyebrows rose in agreement and wrinkled the bandage on her forehead. “Not too many honest politicians out there. At least Prime Minister Memel tries to play it straight. But it’s hard,” her finger rolled around the rim of the mug, “and now with the attempt on her life, a lot of people are thinking that the government will –”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’ve been traveling. You probably didn’t hear. Memel’s limousine was bombed. It was just a matter of time.” She pointed to her head. “That’s where I got this.”
“But who?” He studied her forehead; and she raised her hand to cover up the bandage, but stopped short, pushing a string of hair behind her ear instead. An embarrassing smile followed. “The expats here think that it wasn’t an assassination attempt but a warning.”
“A warning for what?”
“For not cooperating with the corrupt politicians, businessmen, and former communists. Since the bombing, she hasn’t talked to me or anyone else about anything other than day-to-day business issues.” The set on the stage had already skipped to the next scene and the actors were about to change. Michael was searching for the script somewhere in Daiva’s eyes. I wish I could tell her everything ... why I’m here. About me.
She forced a smile, caught herself tapping on the table, and pulled her hands into her lap. She switched topics, “Are you excited to be working at the Ministry of National Defense? It’s great that you were able to volunteer for them. There’s probably an expatriate now in every ministry.”
“I’m trying to keep an open mind. They want me to focus on democracy building in the military. You never know,” (it was time for a little bait) “if they do it right, NATO may even consider them for membership.”
“NATO? First we have to get the Russian military out!”
“What’s taking so long?”
“Everything: Russian stalling tactics, ploys, accusations… too many of Moscow’s friends in the Lithuanian Parliament.”
“And it sounds like Prime Minister Memel has lost ground.”
“Yeah, don’t remind me. Who knows what’s going to happen next.”
Again, he sensed – knew – her feelings, her pain. It was time to loosen up his childhood friend – politics and promises to an old, dying man could wait. He gave her a boyish smile. “I brought some letters for you.”
A glow suffused her cheeks when she heard this. Mail from the United States was notoriously slow, taking at least six to eight weeks, if it arrived at all. She then added with cautious, upturned eyes, “Anything from my mom?”
“I didn’t get to see her – not that she would miss me anyway.” Reaching into his backpack, he drew out a bundle of envelopes held together by taut rubber bands, and said happily, “but both of your aunts found out I was coming here and they brought your mom’s letter to me.” Handing her the small package, Michael noticed Daiva’s slight hesitation at taking the envelopes; sometimes hearing from friends and family in the outside world was painful, bringing words that soon, in this place, would become vacant, meaningless, and discounted. Only after another hesitant breath from her did he feel the envelopes slide from his hand.
Daiva rested the package on her thighs, forming a silent “thank you” with her lips. She slipped the rubber bands from the package and studied the return addresses on the envelopes.
Leaning back in the chair, Michael let out a quiet sigh and thought of their past. He felt compelled to rub her shoulders, kiss her face, caress her wounds, but all he needed to suppress this fantasy was to remember the sudden end to their romance two years ago. Yet the love still lingered. They remained friends, soul mates even. And this was another level of loneliness for him to exist in. Smiling as he watched her, he said, “It’s probably nice to hear from the outside world. Your mom – she … .” He stopped himself, thought about what to say next, looked around.
Daiva pretended not to notice his discomfort, “I’ll wait until I get home to read these. It’ll be nice to hear how everyone is. Hey, we’ve only been talking about me. What about you?” Her voice became excited, those blue eyes widened, becoming clearer, happier, “You said in your letters that you’ve been studying – in school?”
“Yep, a bit of a sabbatical, now that I am out of the military, ... you could say.” He cupped the drink with both of his palms, his stare drifting down to the table. He could hear dishes and silverware being placed into wet stacks in the kitchen, women’s laughter.
Daiva reached her hand out to him and ran her finger over the ridges of his knuckles. “We all need a bit of a sabbatical, time to reflect, don’t we?” Michael watched as her finger traveled across his hand. Her touch calms the storm. He then smiled, the kind of smile he knew she liked. It worked, and Daiva grinned back. Her finger traveled to his wrist and Michael exposed his palm. Daiva’s hand rested in his and her fingertips rolled up his sleeve, following his veins: warmth upon his pulse.
For some reason, she noticed the clock on the wall. “Oh, I should go. I almost forgot. I need to prepare a statement for our government’s position on the student demonstrations.”
Michael cleared his throat and leaned forward in the chair, “I could tell they’re not too happy out there. I’m sure I’ll hear a lot more about the Russian troop withdrawals and the reforms when I start work tomorrow at the ministry. It should be an earful.”
“We’re at it all over again.” She pushed away her plate abruptly and leaned back in her chair. “First, there were rallies against the Soviets. Now, rallies against our own government.” At the sound of laughter in the kitchen, she glared at the women and then shook her head.
Her annoyance struck him; it was new and strange, nearly tragic. As he studied Daiva with tired eyes, he began to think of this country’s painful past – its martyrs, heroes, and saints. He thought of the folklore that he was told over and over again as a boy, each aunt shaping her own dramatic twist of the same family stories of the ‘old country.’ And now, another Lithuanian tale of love, tragedy, and deceit was being spun, and Michael felt an urge to pray. But Daiva’s eyes brought him back to earth, to the desires of the heart, of power, and of religious pride. With just enough belief and faith, he said, “This is what we have all waited for.”
Of new things. She. He. They. A tomorrow. Of new things.