Cozy Cabin, A Tale of Immigration


by Skip Toumalou

LIKE MANY COUPLES, WE MET AT WORK. Well, she was working. Hell I was working too — working at stuffing my entire paycheck into her gold mesh g-string, that is.

The day had been been a rough one. My roommate had just announced he was moving out to shack up with the psychopathic hottie with whom I'd set him up the year before, and I realized there was no way I'd be able to keep my luxurious, two-bedroom Astoria walk-up on my own. I set out to drown my sorrows in bucket of a rye and a barrel of bare ass in the seedy confines of the LaGuardia adjacent, Cozy Cabin.

She was an Israeli of Latvian and Estonian extraction, with a Bond-girl accent, no rhythm or fashion sense and a chipped front tooth. It wasn't love, but she was brilliant. Okay, not brilliant. But she had cultivated one night of exceptional conversation and it worked for her.

We talked a lot considering the setting. Thirty minutes on, thirty minutes off. Never talk to strippers. It's not what they're there for and it's distracting to everyone. On the other hand, once you do, its much easier to feign awkwardness in tipping.

Hours on Balzac, Shakespeare, Albee, and Shaw gave way to the prosaic stuff of life. She'd been an explosive ordinance officer in the Israeli army, twice decorated for infiltrating something and blowing someone up. She told me of her difficulties in remaining in the U.S. I complained of my impending homelessness. A lightbulb above my head. Two first-class tickets to Maryland purchased with a bra full of beer soaked ones, and I was tongue kissing the bride before the summer sun turned the Chesapeake to gold.

Amazing how little you can learn about someone if you really try. We lived together for a year and a half and we found we didn't know a thing about each other. We were a couple by situational default. Funny thing about fake marriage, it makes the details of your personal life a touchy topic to potentials lovers. "See, I'm living with this woman, right . . . and we're technically married, but not really . . . Hello?"

There we were. Convenient? Maybe we were married. We had a license. There was a ceremony. We shared an apartment and we slept together. But at the end of the day, you just can't fake the funk. You can bang anyone convincingly, but intimacy is a much harder game to fake. Indeed, the missus and I screwed like death row bunnies on a sinking prison ship, but you couldn't call us close. To each other, we were just who happened to be there.

To quote her, "It's not that I don't know you're alive. I just don't care if you die." How could I take that personally? The feeling was absolutely mutual. This hundred pound eastern-European middle-easterner was the most menacing and hostile person I had ever encountered and I was her closest friend. There was a ruthlessness, a resolve, a toughness that I respected, even when it was aimed at me. Many was the time I tried to defuse a vicious argument, retreating behind a closed door only to have that door torn open. There she'd stand in the doorway, too skinny even to cast a shadow. "I'm not finished with you!!!" I remember beads of sweat pooling up at base of my spine.

She went home one time to see her family, and a small war broke out over there. Before I knew what I was doing, my fingers were dialing her number in Tel-Aviv, time difference to New York City be damned. I had to see if she was okay. "War?" she asked scoffingly, "that's only in the north." "Only in the north? That's like if I said there's a war, but only in Brooklyn." She called me a wimp and hung up on me. In the end I chalked it up to a life surrounded on all sides by old enemies and a finely honed skill at making new ones.

There we were, a week away from the whole point our uncomfortable cohabitation, and we couldn't answer the most basic questions about each other. Upon her return, we began a seven-day training regimen rivaling Navy Seal training.

Mother's name. Favorite color. Where did you meet? Who's her best friend? On what side of the bed do you sleep? Are you going to have children? Do you get along with his parents? How does he like his eggs? We thought of everything. We fabricated and memorized answers to everything. Telling any truth would have denigrated the in-sanctity of our fraudulent union.

More than words and trivia, my bogus bride and I set about preparing a photographic record of a beautiful life we never shared. Images taken on expensive SLR cameras, cheap throwaways, and camera phones. Fake candid shots in embarrassing states of dress, in parkas on the Staten Island Ferry in 80 degree heat, in front of a summer discounted Christmas tree with a menorah in the background to highlight the challenges we face as a modern multi-faith couple. Oh, we were good and we were ready.

We arrived at our appointment a respectful five minutes late and were called us in a disdainful eighteen minutes late. We were careful to evince just enough newlywed bliss to mask our utter cockiness at the quality of our preparation. The interviewer started us off with a pure softball question: "So, what is her birthdate?"

The sounds of the office and the city beyond fell away and I found myself somehow under water. From what seemed like a great distance, I could see on my wife's face a look I'd only seen in movies. A false calm on faces of mob bosses, staring down turncoat former associates as they testify: "I am going to kill you, you know it, I know it, but let's not tell anyone in this room."

Without saying a word I got up and I left. I couldn't tell you were all i went. Maybe everywhere. Aimlessly, I wondered a city I suddenly didn't recognize. I was unable to talk for a long time, and my mind kept looping to those kids that flunk out of televised spelling bees. Do they feel like this?

By now it was late and I was on a bus. A peculiar wave of emotion washed over me as the lights of the Cozy Cabin flashed past. Time felt synchronized again and I was ready to go home and face her.

Midnight rang out from the spire of the Church of the Most Precious Blood as I arrived home. No sound within. My key felt different as I turned it in the lock. As the door opened I expected her to descend upon me, on fire and ready for combat. Instead I found nothing. No clothing. No furniture. No carpet. No books. Not a fork or a knife or a refrigerator. No towels or toilet paper. Even the top of the toilet tank was missing. There I stood for what seemed like a long while, in the middle of what had been home for six years.

I slept that night wearing my clothes in the middle of what had been my living room always expecting her to come back to do battle. She did not, and I left in the morning.

Vague feelers were put to friends and associates about my need to relocate in short order and almost instantly, I was steered to a nice one bedroom in Jersey City.

After few months, I was able to settle my remaining Astoria lease with my old landlord as well as replace the missing refrigerator and the toilet tank top. A few months after that I'd saved enough to buy a used Hyundai.

Four years have passed since that night in the Cozy Cabin, and I never saw or heard anything about her again. Truth is I don't want to know. I get official looking letters from the INS occasionally, addressed to her. These are the only mail items of hers that forward to my new address. What the letters say, I couldn't tell you. The letters all go through the shredder unread and unopened. Not sure why, but I burn the shreds.

Two weeks ago I found an envelope slid under the door. No writing. No return. I open it and there's a picture in it. Looks to me a lot like that day on the ferry. We're not in the picture so I don't know for sure. I find for some reason that I still hope she's okay.

Much as I loved my apartment in Astoria, I love Jersey City now. I never go to strip clubs anymore. And I never ever start my car without looking under the hood.

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