Some orchids are capable of living for decades without ever inserting their roots into soil. In the humid, thorny forests of eastern Paraguay grows an orchid called Aspasia lunata, its fleshy white roots exposed, wrapped around rocks and Palo Borracho tree limbs, absorbing water and nutrients from the air. These delicate plants do bloom indoors when cultivated for home adornment, but only if the quality and nutritive content of the atmosphere is just right. Most simply perish.
Charlotte. Awenasa, Georgia: 2000
Charlotte finished shaving the woman's delicate scalp. Octogenarians were like onions with their nearly transparent skin and layers of history buried within – a pacemaker from 1986, an appendectomy from decades ago. She swept up the hair with a damp cloth and checked the level of formaldehyde in the tank. There was a long list of organs to prepare before the med students arrived in September, but this was the last cadaver. Now it was happy hour. She carefully slipped the papery body into the tank, holding her breath over the dizzying fumes, and snapped the closures of the heavy lid.
In the buzzing wasp light of the employee bathroom she changed out of her scrubs and glanced in the mirror. Her dark hair was always yanked into a ponytail like a harried soccer coach; her eyes watched hopefully under spiky brows, like heavily redacted words which stamped her face with hidden meaning. “You're the spitting image of your Grandma Antorini,” her mother always said. When she was a child she hadn't wanted to hear this. Her grandmother, the refugee. She didn't want to be related to a starving foreigner. Thanks for the eyebrows, Grandma. Everyone else in high school seemed to have grandparents with Cadillacs and southern drawls who were alive and well and sent cute birthday cards with crisp one hundred dollar bills inside. None of those kids wore second-hand clothes, none of them had to eat the free lunch at school, and they all had color televisions. She had been the gawky girl pulling at her lip while doing math problems or reading Nancy Drew books, who loved science class but knew her whole life she could never go to medical school. Now Charlotte was twenty-four, and realized for the first time that a European grandmother could be a distant door to a romantic place with laughter and exotic strangers who didn't care what she ate for lunch.
She shoved open the hermetic door of the refrigerated anatomy lab, bracing herself for the sauna of Georgia summer. She crossed the softened tar parking lot of shimmering cars to her rusting Toyota, cursing the heat and her grandmother for having married someone from this backwater swamp after making the hellish trip on those crowded boats. Why couldn't she have stayed in Italy? What made her think it would be so much better here?
Charlotte knew Grandma Antorini had come to this country as a young woman from a small village. World War II killed the rest of her family, mostly in battle, said her mother with a dismissive wave of her hand. There had been an older brother who died of tuberculosis, but that was it for family connections. Grandma Antorini had married the first American vet who took her dancing and she never spoke Italian with her shiny new American husband. As a result, Charlotte's mother, Valentina, was about as Italian as pizza-flavored potato chips. She had grown up hearing English mangled by her mother's immigrant accent, cringed when the cashier ladies at the super market didn't understand and cried out to the manager for help. Valentina was 100% American. She sang the national anthem with sincerity. She wore men's Levis and chewed gum and only spoke one word of Italian, when she was punishing her daughter. Whatever wrong Charlotte had committed – breaking her mother's fruit bowl, secretly talking to boys on the telephone late at night – had ended with this ominous Latin-tinged thunder. “You’re grounded! Capisci, missy??”
She squeezed the Toyota into one of the last slots of the packed parking lot of the new Mega Mart and trudged what seemed like a mile through seas of cars and overflowing shopping carts to the pharmacy. She had to pick up her father's pain medication before the weekend. He was nearly out and Charlotte knew this could instigate a crisis for her mother, one that led to shrill accusations and tearing off to the pharmacy like a hurricane. It was cool inside, arctic. The fluorescent bulbs were buzzing overhead as she took her place behind a large woman and three pudgy kids who were squabbling over a toy, none of them wearing shoes. Wasn't that illegal or unsanitary or something?
“Shut up, Dale, or I'll smack you into Sunday morning.” The woman was loud. Charlotte wasn’t surprised no one confronted her about the lack of shoes. “Here, now shut it,” the woman snapped, and pulled a bag of Twizzlers out of her cart, which the kids promptly tore into. Charlotte pulled at her lip and waited.
The woman received her discreet white bag and moved on. Charlotte received hers. It was like a church communion – “You take care now, ok?” – and the next person stepped up for their needs. The pharmacists were polite, elevated behind their counter in their white coats. And they never seemed to notice that this particular prescription was never-ending. Her mother had been 'borrowing' pills from her father for years. Charlotte wasn't even sure he took them anymore, he had so many other pills to take every day.
Charlotte crumpled the pharmacy bag into her backpack with her smelly lab coat. She should probably pick up a bucket of KFC for dinner, too. She knew her mother would eat the chicken on the sofa, fall asleep in her uniform as the late night comedy shows ended, and Charlotte would pick up little wing bones from the coffee table before going to work.
Finally escaping the shopping center traffic she passed Awenasa High school where the football team was doing warm-ups in the heat; idiots. The cheerleader girls were in a huddle on the bleachers, smoking and painting their nails. When she was at Awenasa High she'd been envious of the cheerleaders, petite girls the boys wanted to pick up like puppies. Charlotte Wilde always had to have her trousers lengthened and no boy had ever picked her up. At school the jocks had called her Linebacker and, with the cruel insight of teenage insults, she did have impressive shoulders, the deltoids tapering to unfeminine points. She kept them hunched under sweatshirts all through senior year. Other names she could remember were Giraffe Girl, Wild Nerd, and Cheese Whiz. This last one was because someone found out her family received oily orange blocks of government subsidized cheese to supplement their diet. She refused to eat the cheese, she'd rather starve. Her mother threw her hands up in exasperation, “Its food, why should you care where it come from?” oblivious to the harsh realities of high school. Charlotte couldn't understand why this life was agreeable to her parents. There was a huge world out there to explore. She found her solace in books, having read nearly everything in the shabby little library with the broken water fountain by the time she hit puberty.
She pulled up to the house and heard “Wonder Woman, how's it going?” Her father grinned and waved from his chair on the porch. He always called her that, which she chalked up to his love of comic books and her resemblance to the Lynda Carter version from 1976. Also, she had made the grave error of dressing up as the super hero in sixth grade, her pudgy thighs sprouting out of a pair of boy's blue Underoos. It was the best she could do. Back then her mother worked night shifts and was sleeping when Charlotte glued the costume stars over the fly. They fell off one by one as she walked to school.
“Fine, Dad. I'll get you a drink ok?” She kissed his forehead. He had flaring joint pain and couldn't get around well after the accident. Her mother said it was the lupus.
Like most people in Awenasa, Gary Wilde had worked for Southern Fruit. Before the injury her father's friends would come to play poker and the house smelled like jam on toast for a week, the fermenting fructose was soaked permanently in their skin. The forklift that crushed his vertebrae changed everything. His bones couldn't heal completely and for the last few years he mostly sat propped up in a stuffed recliner. It would have made her scream. But he seemed serene, maybe catatonic, reading Spiderman or watching Judge Judy with a smile on his face. Every month a disability check arrived in his name, but the screen doors were still ripped and the fridge still oozed a brown liquid that had stained the floor like blood.
Her mother, Valentina, olive-skinned with furrowed brows just like her grandmother, was in the kitchen wiping yogurt from yesterday’s feedings from her uniform. She was now Head Assistant Aid at Green Meadows, a nursing home for the more affluent in Awenasa. “Hi Charlie, oh good, give me that. You're a dear,” and she took the pharmacy bag from Charlotte.
Her lips were always chapped and her skin rough, but there remained a glimpse of Mediterranean sultriness under the years of cigarettes and fried chitlins. The crown of her dark hair just reached Charlotte's chin, but her stout arms easily lifted the frail nursing home residents when she changed their sheets. Charlotte got her height from her father, though she hadn't seen him standing fully upright in a while. He was getting a paunch, and losing his hair.
“I have to go, Mom, I'm meeting Lucy.” Charlotte grabbed a glass of chocolate milk for her father and pecked her mother on the cheek.
“You should bring that girl here for dinner, Charlie, it's cheaper. Or she comes from too fancy a place for that?”
“Atlanta is not fancy, Mom,” Charlotte sighed. It irked her mother that most of the med school students were from out of town, like wealthy usurpers come to make the lives of the paupers unbearable. “You look snazzy, eh?” Her mother was wearing the scratchy white Green Meadows uniform; she could add a dinner plate belt buckle and do Elvis impersonations.
Her mother scoffed with the impossibility of beauty being a part of her life. “Listen child, I left you and Dad a tub of mac and cheese in the fridge, make sure he eats something and don't crash drunk into a tree, ok?” She moved off to the bathroom to ingest her selection of pills in private.
It was a relief to get to Jim's. Charlotte had been coming to this bar since she was fourteen. Big Jim never asked anyone for ID. He'd died a few years ago but she had been too young and embarrassed to go to the funeral. His daughter, Mabel, had said at the time, “Yeah, diabetes took him before his time.” She now ran the place.
Charlotte burst into the cooled air of the bar. The smell of stale beer and decades of cigarette smoke blotted out the summer sun. At least there was AC. Mabel raised a hand and flipped open a bottle of Corona before Charlotte had even removed her backpack. “Hey, Charlie.” Mabel had been a confident beauty surrounded by boys during high school. She'd done a bit of modeling for Sears, even. But alcohol and fryer fumes had aged her once-porcelain skin.
“Nice tat,” Charlotte said, sliding onto a stool and lifting her bottle at the reddened epidermis around an intricately-inked phoenix on Mabel's shoulder. Mabel's whole left arm was now covered in entwined birds and snakes, the green in their feathers and scales setting off the fiery red of her hair dye.
“Brenda's good, huh? Look, you should come to the shop tomorrow, Charlie. While you're there we could do something with your face,” and she moved away to wipe down the bar. Jesus, what's wrong with my face? Charlotte thought. Brenda was only five years older than Charlotte but already well-known in Georgia for her intricate tattoo and make-up work. Still, Charlotte didn't want her sister permanently etching animals or anything else on her skin. She had seen cadavers with old tattoos. After death and pickling they were sad memories, like the childhood drawings of people who were now in prison.
Where the hell was Lucy? Charlotte had an appointment at the travel agency tomorrow and needed to give verbal life to the plan she had whirling in her head. If she didn't tell Lucy she might chicken out.
Halfway through the beer Lucy blew through the door, curls springing, lab coat flapping, the usual chaos. “I lost track of time looking at slices of myocardium!” She squeezed Charlotte and waved to Mabel. “So, Charlie, tell me. What's the big news? Wait...are you going out with Airhead Radiologist again?” Her voice rose an octave. Lucy was like a hunting dog, riveted, attentive, trained on the kill no matter how superfluous it may be.
Charlotte leaned back in repulsion. “No, jeez, I haven't seen Airhead in a week. He didn't even answer my last text, the cretin. This is much bigger. Listen for a second.” She paused and took a sip of beer. “I'm going to Italy.”
Lucy froze for a moment. Charlotte could almost see her ears prick up. But then her whole body rebooted and she squinted at Charlotte, “No way, you're doing it? That's not fair...can I come with you?” And she chuckled, both of them knowing she'd never go.
This is what Charlotte loved about Lucy though. She accepted and encouraged Charlotte’s kooky ideas. “I'm serious. I got my tax return, so I'm buying a ticket tomorrow. That's it,” and as she said it, she felt a door opening.
“That's so cool!” Lucy knew about Charlotte's dream of finding roots in romantic Italy where all would be perfect. She signaled Mabel, who brought a glass of bourbon. “You have a place to stay? And did your Mom remember the name of the village where your grandma was born?”
“Yep. Aldeno. It's miniscule. Mom says all her relatives are probably dead, doesn't think I'll find anything. She says I’ll be back in a week. But she's just bitter because she never got it together to actually go over there.”
“This isn't like our little jaunt across the Mexican border, you might need to learn some Italian, you know?” Lucy had to offer some resistance to make it real, though she knew a little thing like a language barrier wouldn't stop Charlotte.
Charlotte shrugged, “I'll figure it out. All the books I got from the library just make it look so beautiful! It's the home of the Renaissance, for crying out loud!” She was ready to get on the next airplane to Rome, but would have to give her boss two weeks' notice. He was nearly seventy and nice enough, but she knew he'd never promote her. She'd been passed over for male colleagues twice and still her boss rambled on about “appreciating the true value of a good hourly wage.”
She couldn't stay here waiting, pickling people for the rest of her life. Lucy would graduate and start her fellowship in cardiology next year. Charlotte would be alone, no one to boost her confidence enough to approach men, no one to commiserate when those men turned out to be free-loving transcendentalists with several other undisclosed women they called at night, and no one to help her dream up harebrained plans.
“I'm happy for you! You have to write me every day. Let me live vicariously.” Lucy raised her wine glass, “To adventures in Italy!”
Charlotte grinned and drank; Lucy was now an accomplice. It was a lot of money, and she would be totally alone. Maybe she would have to come crawling back in a week with her tail between her legs, defeated. “I told you so,” her mother would say. She brushed the red flags out of her mind and thought of the photos of the Colosseum in Rome, and gondolas in Venice and Michelangelo in Florence. There was the tiniest seed of doubt, she felt it, planted deep in the gyri of her brain.