April 29, 2015 - Ancuta (3rd person I approached)
The thing about meeting strangers is, you don’t get time to research their idiosyncrasies and mannerisms before you perhaps fall into labelling, categorizing and determining factors about them, based on what's presented. I’ve worked hard to keep an open mind towards strangers. I have for many years, but certainly more so as I’ve continued going out and meeting people for this project. Today I found myself sitting on the fence of judgement, and just when I was ready to jump into that which is comfortable because of familiarity, intrigue held me up by the collar.
I saw Ancuta crouched down outside of an abandoned building on East Hastings Street, in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). She reached into her purse and pulled out a package of cigarette rolling papers, and then reached into her purse again, pulling out a plastic bag. She was about to roll a joint.
I crouched down next to her and asked if she would chat with me. I explained that I’ve been talking with strangers for over a year, and sharing their stories. “Well, it depends,” she said with what sounded like an eastern European accent.
“What sort of stuff would you want to ask me?” I said I was interested in her life story, where she was born, what her childhood was like and anything else that she wanted to chat about.
“That could take while though,” she said, looking at me with some concern.
I told her I was hoping she would join me for a meal and we could chat while we had lunch together. She stopped rolling the joint, carefully placing the paper and marijuana back in the plastic bag, rolling it up neatly and then putting it back in her purse.
“Will be eating at the takeaway window?” she asked. When I said we could go in and sit down and order from the menu.
“Anything?” Yes, anything, except alcohol.
As we walked the four blocks to the diner, Ancuta talked the entire time. She speaks quickly, has a rather high-pitched voice, and the thick, heavy accent. Because of having no teeth, her diction is particularly unique as well. I probably understood about every tenth word. Even as we weaved in and out of the folks selling their belongings on the sidewalk, and with her four feet in front of me, I could still hear Ancuta's voice.
She occasionally looked back at me as if to check in that I was listening. I heard “the poet,” “Greg guy,” and “Beverly Hills. That was his mother’s name.” I tried as hard as I could to understand what she was saying, but resigned myself to the fact it would be easier once we were seated in the diner. Or so I thought.
Ancuta wasn’t sure that her name meant anything, but told me that it was a Romanian Italian name.
“I was born in Romania, in Timișoara. I have two older sisters, and one younger brother,” she said. When I asked if she was close with her siblings when they were kids, her face changed and became serious.
“No. Not close. I was the third daughter, and they wanted a son. I was an outsider. They didn’t want another girl,” she told me. There was no anger or self-pity in her voice, it was said all very matter-of-fact.
“We were in church, and I had to pee. I went to the washroom, and when I came out they were gone,” she said. Ancuta was five or six years old. She told me they gave her away. We ordered our food; pirogues with bacon for Ancuta, and a classic BLT with avocado for me. I asked Ancuta what she remembered during that time when her parents left her. I heard bits and pieces and sat quietly, listening to her.
She was speaking rather fast, and very animated. I wanted to see if I could make sense of what she was telling me if I just listened.
“I had one chromosome missing and had to give blood sample and that’s how they find out. My father’s eyes are brown but mine are this light colour,” she said pulling the skin below her left eye, and opening it wide. Her eyes are green.
“But they changed their mind.” It sounded like they had attempted to abandon her, but couldn’t go through with it. I couldn’t find out how long that process or decision took. Ancuta would smile and continue to chat, and after a little while, I realized she kept bringing the conversation to more recent times and memories.
“Well, the poet would hear these voices,” she told me.
“He lived in the house with Greg guy, and Beverly Hills. It was her house. But I liked the poet, because he would stay and keep me company. He would tell me the stories of the things he heard. The voices,” she said. Ancuta had continued to tell me stories about various people in her life. What astounded me was she used their full names each time she referenced them. There was, for her, a real distinction between people with two names, like Beverly Hills, and people with three names. She used one of her sister's names to explain.
“She has three names, ‘Nadia Anastasia Romania’ and not just two names.” (Yes, I made her sisters name up - because I couldn’t grasp what name Ancuta actually said, even after she repeated it three times). I wasn’t able to determine the significance or distinction that was important to Ancuta, about two names versus three names.
‘Greg guy’ was a one-time boyfriend who lived with his mother, Beverly Hills, in her house. Ancuta lived there, as did ‘poet guy’.
“Then Greg guy brings home this woman, China Doll, and he expects we will have a threesome. That never happened. We all lived in the same house. He gave me a ring. But I had to go for a blood sample to get it.” To punctuate her sentences, Ancuta would reach over and gently place her fingers on my hand, or on my arm. I couldn’t help but notice how warm and soft her skin was. As her stories became more animated, her taps became gentle little slaps. They seemed to almost indicate an expression of ‘Can you believe that?’ I wasn’t sure about the connection to, or existence of, the ring and blood samples.
The family had moved to Canada when Ancuta was ten years old. Her mother had given birth to a son, and the family had stayed together.
“My father came ahead of us. He came here because he had Lupus, and wanted to find a cure for that. He had left us in Romania from time to time, travelling to find a cure. We moved here and lived in North Surrey,” she said. Ancuta didn’t speak English when she got to Canada.
“I had to learn fast. I stayed in school ’til grade twelve,” she said.
School seemed like a non-event for Ancuta. Although she told me that she had to be careful because she couldn't feel pain. I understood her to mean physical pain.
“Yeah, it’s my minus zero chromosome. I don’t feel pain.” I asked if I was to pinch her, would she feel anything.
“Yes, because I would see you and then I know it should hurt. But if I don’t see it, I don’t feel it. I had wire put in this side here,” she said patting the lower left side of her jaw. After some back and forth, it became apparent she had damaged her jaw.
“I was kissing a boy and he gave me a hickey. And then I got punched!” she told me. Her laughter is very physical. She threw her head back, and then fell on her side, landing on the bench she was sitting on. Turns out the boy that kissed her and gave her the hickey, was not her boyfriend. Her boyfriend gave her the punch when he saw the hickey. One quarter of her jaw was wired in place.
“I didn’t feel anything,” she said, taking another bite of her pirogues.
Blood samples came up fairly often throughout the conversation.
“I have a rare blood type. So they want to test it all the time,” she said, repeatedly. We continued talking, with Ancuta reaching over and tapping my hand with every sentence.
“I was a white slave in that house. The house of Beverly Hills. Because my teeth were so bad,” she said, covering her mouth.
“I couldn’t go out, or get work. So I had to clean and do whatever Greg guy’s mother, Beverly Hills wanted.” Ancuta told me she was there for seven years. Then she had all of her teeth removed.
“I got this from a man at the shelter,” she said pulling a small, circular, yellow plastic container out of her purse. She carefully opened it up, and I could see some small pieces of folded paper inside. She lifted those out and pulled out a small ring.
“This is my ring. China Doll wanted it, but I got it for going to give blood samples. The poet told me stories when I went,” she said placing the ring back in the container. When I asked, Ancuta told me the shelter was a “facility” that she stayed at maybe three or four times a week, “just to help look after the people who have some problems.” Otherwise she stayed couple of nights a week at Greg guys place, with Beverly Hills. She had gotten a job working in a massage parlour in a nearby suburb.
“I got the job from a woman from Romania. It was in her apartment. I would talk on the phone and then the men would come over.” The job allowed her to be more independent.
All of her personal belongings are in a secure storage locker.
“I keep you know, my things. My burned CD movies and boxes, and a sword.” She put her arms up to her head, like the sky was falling and started to laugh. There was no inhibition that she has no teeth; it was a full-on, throaty laugh. And then she threw herself down on the bench again. I found myself laughing involuntarily all the while being aware that I didn’t have a clue what she was laughing about. There’s nothing wrong with a good infectious laugh session.
“I keep my movies there because I can’t see,” she said, again pulling the skin beneath her left eye and opening both eyes wide.
“My genetics and my light coloured eyes, I can’t wear contacts or anything, so I keep them in storage,” she said. I had been leaning in close to hear what she was saying and got a good close up of her left eye. It was the colour of her sweater.
Her mother died a few years ago, and her father has gone back to Romania, without finding a cure for his Lupus.
“Sometimes I speak to my sisters. They are still here. But one of them, she has three names, and her children will answer the phone and tell me she’s not there. If you only have two names, you can never go to three names,” she said, shaking her head back and forth.
“No, only two names, or three names.”
Our waiter had packed her leftovers in a brown takeout container. As Ancuta made sure it was closed properly, I asked why she comes to the Downtown Eastside.
“Because, I like it down here. Where else would I go? The people are nice, and they talk to me. I hope one day to meet someone for a relationship. He has to be bad, cause a good man just wouldn’t work out for me. I like them to be a bit bad,” she said, with a smile and a wink of her left eye.
“I hope I’ll see you again, and we can talk some more,” she said, putting earphones into her ears. I asked what she was listening to.
“Oh, just my iPod.”
As I watched Ancuta walk out of the diner, all I could think was how sweet she was, and how I was going to tell this story. It immediately felt like I had watched a foreign film. One that had me completely captivated, while skipping some scenes, rewinding and repeating others, and in a foreign language without subtitles. As I walked home afterwards, I thought about all the things I had heard. I felt like I hadn't quite gotten in there, that I was missing something, some piece that would make it more understandable. Ancuta had told me she didn’t drink or do drugs, other than “smoking weed.” She couldn’t drink because of her ‘minus zero’ as she called it.
When I got home, I did some research about chromosomes, and missing one, minus one and a few other variations of what Ancuta had told me. Then I combined it with no pain threshold. I came across an article from the National Geographic News, dated October 2010. It outlined a rare genetic disorder that renders people insensitive to pain. Across the world, a few hundred people suffer from one of a variety of diseases that make them completely unable to feel pain from the time they're born. Scientists have tracked down the mutated gene responsible for the condition. The article also noted that ‘These patients usually have a variety of physical ailments, including (developmental issues).’
This evening, I was reminded of the lesson of grace.