The Unbearable Light of a Saturday Afternoon

Adriana Gradea


Walking through the downtown of an American small town, her parents beside her on their first visit to the New World, she enjoyed the sunny day. She wanted to show them the American way of life, or as much as she understood of it. She'd been there a short time. At the street level, there wasn't much to do or show her parents in that town, especially on foot, but because during the week they stayed in while she was at work, the weekend was a good time to wander around. So that Saturday, she picked the nicer part of downtown for exploration.

The warm sunlight was pouring down in waves. They came around a tall church. In the quiet street's golden light, few people were passing by. At that particular moment, they were probably talking about her new job, or maybe her father was arguing about the difficulty of the English language for the hundredth time. "It makes no sense, don't you see? Why would people write something and read something else? To make it difficult? What did you say? "Zeh"? "Teh"?" He liked to crook his mouth and stick his tongue out in an effort to show her how irrational it was for hard words containing the "th" sound to even exist in any language. She remembered how, years before, when she was an undergraduate student in English, he'd often made fun of the word "Macbeth," purposefully pronouncing it with a raspberry at the end just to annoy her. Or maybe they were simply walking, saying nothing at that particular moment, trying to ignore how deserted the streets were, so unlike European streets while still similar in the way the old houses were guarded by lined-up mature trees. They took in the calm spring day with yearning, as if sunbathing, mainly looking for things that were alike rather than different from their hometown across the globe. Spring was warm and pure, and they enjoyed it finding it sort of familiar.

"Excuse me, young lady," a man’s voice said out of the blue. The voice came from nowhere, right after they crossed a small street and entered a residential neighborhood. He almost fell out of the sky, she thought. Turning her head to the right, she saw him standing at the street corner.

She was surprised to see him standing there. Later, she wondered how long he'd been waiting for someone to pass by. Her parents' presence beside gave her a sense of security. Growing up, they were good at shielding her, their only child, from life’s imperfections. They'd always given her wise advice and the understanding she needed, guiding her through life with sane judgment and unconditional love, rarely truly deserved but necessary for artists to be. And they had all the answers. "Be yourself," was her mother's best advice. "Be smart. The world is full of stupid people," was her dad's. She always had trouble reconciling these. Suddenly, she remembered that, though she was their only child, they'd let her, indeed encouraged her to go half the way across the world, trustingly. Living up to their expectations and love had always made her want to become a better person. How would she ever be grateful enough?

"Excuse me, again, young lady. I'd like to ask a favor of you, if possible," said the same voice.

But her gaze went right through the man, as she wasn't ready to acknowledge him yet. Still thinking about the unexpected revelation growing in her lately, about filial feelings—and about life in general and what was to come—it dawned on her that the roles were starting to reverse. She constantly had to interpret and translate for her parents, explaining the New World; they depended on her for everything. They couldn't be her support anymore, but she was becoming theirs, and a day was approaching when they would count on her entirely. She was almost thirty, yet none of them was ready for the reality that she wasn't their little girl anymore. They were proud she'd followed her dream, even though she knew it hadn't found her yet. Had she given up everything for nothing? If it was for material things, she didn't have them yet. Where was it all leading? Will she have the life she'd hoped for? What was she supposed to do with her life? How would she make a difference?

After the moments it took her to think of all these things she found so important and rather life-changing, her eyes finally focused on the man in front of her. He was determined to bring her down to the dust level of the quiet street.

"Could you please come into my house and just turn on the light?" asked the man in a timid, calm voice, somewhat embarrassed. Before she could notice his attire or open her mouth to answer, she thought he had some nerve! Maybe he was joking . . . To turn on his light!? Why couldn’t a healthy, grown man turn on his own light? How was she even going to translate and explain this to her parents? Crazy man.

Attempting a smile, almost scared with the absurdity of it all, she asked slowly: "Why can't you do it yourself?" She looked at him closer, in suspicion, and saw a tall, thin, dark, bearded man, dressed in black. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw he had a small hat-like thing on his head, but before she could think, he spoke again.

"It's my religion. It's the Sabbath today. Really, if you could just come in and turn the light on, that's all. It would mean a lot to my family. It would only take a minute."

She stood still and fixed him with her stare. Time expanded for that long moment while it took her to realize what was happening. A step away from her, to the left, her parents were patiently waiting to find out what was going on.

"Sure," she said abruptly. "Sure. I’ll do it."

She told her parents to come and wait for her outside the house.

The tall, calm man pointed to his house, which was right there, on the corner lot of the alley, by the intersection where they stood. A mere few steps away, the house looked tall and heavy, with a black wrought-iron fence in front. She climbed the few stairs and entered a spacious foyer through enormous doors. The foyer was bigger than her bedroom of her first apartment in Queens, she thought. On the floor, a classic rug lay in tones of blue, on which a miniature dog was acting important, amusingly running around and making noises. The house smelled like honey mixed with cinnamon. The entrance door remained open as she stepped into the kitchen, some more steps to the left. There, a beautiful family in the rather dark room was sitting quietly at the large, set table. There was no window in the large kitchen. Light was coming in faintly from the living room yards away, traveling through enormous space, and barely reaching them in their seats. The living-room windows were shaded by tall trees, which made the house seem even darker than otherwise. The man's wife was sitting there, together with three children, the smallest of which still in a high-chair. The wife---a young woman with light-brown hair, no makeup, and a genuine look---turned her face from the baby to see the woman entering the kitchen space. All these people were waiting in silence and hoped for the light to be turned on by someone so they could have their dinner. As if in a trance, she felt a spotlight on herself as everyone waited patiently for her to play her part. She felt like in a French film, with no music, but she couldn't take her eyes away from the scene. The calm displayed by those people, their naturalness, as well as the stillness of the house overwhelmed her, forcing her to open her eyes in search for every detail of that special moment. A second later, by the turn of the switch, she allowed the light into that family’s kitchen and house. Once on, the light made things seem slightly different, but it revealed a simple family in a simple house about to have their Saturday dinner. She smiled politely, and after exchanging a couple of polite phrases, she left.

She was back in the street, into the afternoon, where warm sunrays were coming down like rain, in straight yet oblique lines, through the leaves of the old trees lining up along the alley. Her parents were quietly waiting for her, steps away. She told them what she had to do, as they unhurriedly resumed their walk.

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