When Oren hears people saying that Passover is coming, he says, “Violeta will come. Violeta from Italia.”
He is almost 27 now but because he is on the autism spectrum, his mind works a little differently from most people’s. I think he says this because he likes the sound of it, the way it almost rhymes. But he did like Violeta, who had a Seder of sorts with us when he was 10. I remind him that Violeta from Italia is back in Romania, where she was actually from, and that she won’t be stopping by this year.
When she knocked on the door of our house all those years ago in the early evening just before the Seder, I hoped it was actually Oren’s father, coming home. He had walked out the week before and said he was going abroad for the holiday. He’d be back someday, but just to pack up. There would be lawyers; this time it was it. Somehow, I was still optimistic, and so I brushed my hair and tried to smooth out my T-shirt and jeans before I opened the door.
The early spring air wafted over me with a hint of jasmine from the neighbor’s carefully cultivated garden in that way that makes you feel crazy that you have been indoors when it’s so beautiful outside. When I saw Violeta, I was taken aback because I had no idea who she was and because I was disappointed not to see Oren’s father.
Violeta was about 40, wearing a leopard-print blouse and an old lady-ish skirt. She had pale white skin, blue eyes and a fleshy body that was very attractive if you weren’t hung up on the supermodel kind of ideal. But what I really noticed was that she had bright red hair, as red as a lobster or a sunburn. Her fingernails were painted to match her hair, and in one hand she gripped the handle of a suitcase.
“Niko?” the redhead said.
Of course, she was looking for Niko, a Romanian handyman who was building apartments in the basement of our house with his son, Andrei. Niko was probably the handsomest man I had ever seen, ever would see, and she was not the first woman who had come by looking for him. Imagine Paul Newman’s head on John Wayne’s body, and you get the idea. Oren, who had been doing a puzzle in the living room, came over and said, in Hebrew, “Who are you?”
She smiled at him. “Violeta.”
Hearing her accent, he switched to English, as he did very easily, saying, “Where are you from?” He liked to ask people questions, either What time is it? or Where are you from?
“Where I from? From Italia. Violeta from Italia. I here to see Niko.”
“Niko.” He smiled. Oren loved Niko and trailed me as I took her down to the apartment where they were working.
It was dark in the small room because the wiring was not yet in place and they had the door wide open. Andrei glanced over at Violeta as she pronounced Niko’s name and kept on plastering the wall, turning his back to her. Niko wiped his hands on his jeans and stepped out into the sunlight, smiling but somehow not really looking happy.
“Hi, Niko,” Oren said, for perhaps the 20th time that day, and Niko looked at him with a genuine smile, as if it were Oren he had been waiting for all along.
“Hello, my friend,” Niko said in English.
“My friend,” said Oren.
Violeta looked at Oren, but of course he didn’t take the hint.
“Come on, Oren, let’s finish the puzzle,” I said. He turned toward the house but did not walk away, and I admit that I was also in suspense over what would happen. Niko was married, I knew that from Andrei, but his wife was in Romania.
VIOLETA STARTED speaking to Niko rapidly in Romanian. Obviously, I didn’t understand a word, but it was all too clear what was going on. Oren, who had taken a ball decorated with Sammy the Fireman, threw it to Niko, in spite of me telling him not to, and Niko palmed it after one bounce and sent it right back.
I tried to get Oren back into the house but he wouldn’t budge, watching as if it were a movie. After Violeta said what seemed like a thousand words, Niko responded with three, and she stormed off, sobbing, and collapsed against the stone wall in the garden.
“She go soon,” Niko said, in Hebrew. “I go work more. See you later, Oren.” He spoke the language incredibly well for someone who had just picked it up here and there, and I wondered what he might have become if he hadn’t been born in a small town in Romania.
“It’s Passover,” said Oren.
“Oh, yeah, you have holiday. Happy holiday,” he said.
We weren’t going anywhere for the Seder because I hadn’t told anyone that we were alone. I certainly couldn’t face having the holiday meal with my soon-to-be ex-mother-in-law. We were just going to have matzah brei and ignore the whole thing.
“On Passover, we eat matzah,” said Oren.
“It’s like crackers. It’s part of it...“ I began.
“Niko will eat matzah,” Oren said. He had stopped asking if his father would be home for the Seder.
“Niko will eat dinner with Andrei,” I said. I told Oren again to go inside.
“Niko will eat matzah,” Oren said. As I took his arm and tried to get him to move, he began crying and wriggling away from me, making a kind of squealing noise that usually preceded his tantrums. Mostly because I had no energy for a tantrum right then and a little because I was being nice, I asked Niko to bring Andrei and have dinner with us. He, as I expected him to, demurred, but I persisted.
“Please, Oren would like it. Please. Their father, he’s away and – ” My throat closed up and for a few seconds, I thought I would join Violeta sobbing. Just then, she flounced out of the garden and onto the path that led down to the main road.
“OK, we come, we come. We bring you something,” he said. I said they didn’t have to but, of course, Niko insisted. Once, he had asked me for two teabags and later in the week, he returned two teabags to me, of the exact same brand. Niko had pride. He used to offer Oren’s father beer when they sat on the steps, looking at the stars and having deep discussions about life. I knew that when it came to certain subjects, they had a remarkably similar worldview.
WHEN WE went back in, Ben, Oren’s brother, who had been playing video games, came downstairs. “Mom – Mom – Mom!” he said. “There was a lady crying in the garden.”
“Yeah, it’s OK. She came to talk to Niko.”
“Why was she crying?”
“I don’t know.”
Oren finished his puzzle and said he was hungry, too, so I made the matzah brei with a lot of eggs as one of those brief Middle Eastern sunsets filled the sky with pink-tinged clouds. I sent them both to get Andrei and Niko, and a few moments later they burst in, carrying a half-package of cookies, the ones with powdered sugar and jelly in the middle from the little store on the moshav where everything was covered in dust. We couldn’t have been less strict about the holiday observance, and I had Niko put them on top of the refrigerator until after dinner so Oren wouldn’t grab them.
“Oh, so that’s why you bought the matzah,” Ben said, as I served the matzah brei. I also poured Andrei and Niko glasses of red wine.
“Yeah, a little tradition.”
Ben, who was seven and knew absolutely everything, said, “Tradition is bullshit, Mom. You don’t believe that God cares whether we eat crackers this week, do you?” He turned to Niko, hoping to find an ally. Niko had that kind of charisma where everyone looked at him as soon as they said anything. Niko gave him a nod and Ben added, “The only good thing about Passover was the plague of locusts. And the frogs, the frogs were good, too.”
I doubted Niko knew the word for locusts, but he said, “Smart guy.”
Ben beamed, the way he would have if his father had been there and had praised him.
Oren finished the matzah brei before everyone and wanted more. I was filling his plate when, for the second time that day, there was a knock.
Niko answered the door and Violeta came in, speaking Romanian breathlessly, looking only at Niko.
“There is no bus no more,” he explained. Of course there wasn’t. I invited her to sit down and offered her some wine and some matzah and she took both, not touching her plate but gulping down the red wine.
“Violeta from Italia,” said Oren.
“She say she is from Italy?” asked Niko.
“She is working there for maybe two years, maybe one year,” he said with a grimace, as if he were an HR executive who discovered an applicant trying to embellish her CV.
Hearing that he was speaking about her, she smiled radiantly, and although my sympathies were with his wife back home, I felt sorry for her. In a lilting voice, she sang a song in Italian, a sweet song that I was sure was about love, and looked from Oren to Niko.
A few minutes later, Ben and Oren took Niko and Andrei to the porch and showed them a gecko that we had adopted, that had gotten so used to us that it would let us get quite close.
As I put the cookies on a plate, Violeta said, “Maria and Niko, bad. Laura and Niko, bad. Violeta and Niko, good. You tell him.”
I shrugged as I heated up water for tea.
After the tea, we all watched as Niko and Oren tossed Sammy the Fireman back and forth.
Violeta of course wanted to stay in the half-finished apartment with Niko and Andrei, who had sleeping bags, but I insisted with a firmness unusual for me that she sleep on our couch, earning me a look of eternal gratitude from Niko.
In the morning, while we were eating breakfast – matzah brei again, the holiday would be over before both boys got tired of it – a small pick-up truck pulled up outside. Niko had apparently called a friend of theirs. Oren trailed Violeta downstairs, but Niko didn’t stop plastering and simply mumbled goodbye as she hovered outside the room where he and Andrei were working. To me, she said, “Violeta and Niko, good,” with a sad smile before climbing into the truck, and I thought how much better this world would be if people didn’t stop being in love.
“Bye, Violeta,” said Oren.
OREN STILL asks about Niko and I say he went back to Romania, but he didn’t. Andrei did, not long after they finished working for us because he was arrested and deported. But Niko evaded the police and got a job renovating an apartment in a haredi neighborhood of Jerusalem, until one day he fell off a ladder and hit his head. Word reached me on the moshav that he was in a coma and I would have gone to the hospital but I couldn’t get a babysitter.
By the next day, I heard that he had died. It still hurts, the thought of Niko alone in some morgue. I have a picture of him with Oren on our terrace from that Passover. Violeta had wanted to get in the photo, but Niko shook his head and I snapped it too quickly.
We sold the house not long after that. I wonder where Violeta is now, if she ever heard what happened to Niko. Whenever we see a redhead on the bus, Oren and I look to see if maybe Violeta has come back to Jerusalem. He’s probably hoping to see Niko, too.