Rita grows old before she ever gets a chance to be young, growing up in the shadow of the past and the struggle of the present. She’s the daughter of a mother who suffered the same fate, and her mother’s eyes are lined with the fatigue wrought by a lifetime of hardship, though she doesn’t seem to be terribly old either.
She holds her little son, cradling him against her chest in the hospital, and looks down into his trusting little face. Despite everything, maybe he can break through the circle they’re all trapped in.
Gabriel is her hope for the future.
Her mother’s cousin lives in a far-off place called Los Angeles, and when two men approach her one day offering her a modeling job in the United States, her mother gets very excited. “You’re going to be in the same country as Zamir,” she exclaims, “and the country has been quite good to him, so it shall be to you too. Maybe you can meet him, no?”
She has hope: maybe she can be a successful model, bring her mother and Gabriel to the United States one day with her, and they can live in a little house and not have to worry about anything anymore.
The hope lasts until she lands in New York and the men confiscate her passport and all her papers.
“You do what we tell you to do, or you will never see your son again,” one of them says, his eyes glinting pure black and sinister in the low light of the room.
She’s never been a waitress before, but they roughly hand her an apron and tell her to get to work. So she does.
In school, before she had to grow up too fast, she always loved math class and numbers and how they added up the same no matter where you were. She hates that her English is basically non-existent and many of her customers don’t speak Albanian, because she’s a lot smarter in Albanian than she could ever hope to be in English. Letters and words don’t translate, but numbers always do.
It’s not long after she starts at the diner that she meets the man she refers to as Monte Cristo, though she knows his name is Eddie Wagner, who seems different than all the other men she’s ever met. All the others had expectations, none of them very pleasant.
All Eddie wants, at least at first, is a sandwich. A Monte Cristo, whatever that is, though she learns soon enough.
And he has kind eyes, eyes the color of the Adriatic Sea, but there’s so much sadness. Like he’s lost someone, or is afraid he has, much like she’s afraid she’s lost her Gabriel forever.
She isn’t sure what to make of this man, Monte Cristo, who likes a strange sandwich with an unusual name. He doesn’t want sex, not from her, anyway, and she honestly thinks that he would be perfectly happy with eating his sandwich and making small talk with her about books she’s never read.
She gratefully takes the copy of the book he offers her, The Count of Monte Cristo, despite the fact that it's likely worth more than all the tip money she never gets to keep, and she spends the few moments she can steal away each day immersing herself in the story. It’s quite good, she thinks, and by reading it, and asking some of the other girls what a word means every now and then, her English gradually improves.
She tucks the one picture she’s been allowed to keep of her Gabriel inside the book, for safe-keeping, because she knows if they realize she has it, she’ll get in trouble, more likely than not. And she has seen what happens to the other girls when they misbehave, and she doesn’t want that to be her.
Despite everything, she still has that shred of hope, because she can see it in her boy’s face.
She tries to find out the time difference between this New York and back home outside Tirana, but no one can give her a straight answer, it seems. She wants to know, if she’s looking up at the moon as she leaves her diner shifts, could Gabriel be seeing the same one at the same time?
She finally asks Monte Cristo one day, when his friend, who can truly be quite rude at times, has gone to use the restroom. “What time it is in Albania now?”
He pulls out his phone and taps a few buttons. “Well, it’s 2:30 right now, and Albania’s six hours ahead, so it’s 8:30 there. You want to call someone?”
She doesn’t know if he’s offering or asking, so she shakes her head. “No, no, I wondered. Thank you.” Six hours. I’m six hours, and however many thousands of kilometers, away from everything I’ve ever known.
She sees the softness in his eyes. He looks at her like she imagines a father would look at a daughter, not that she knows what that’s like, since she never met her father. He died when she was too young to remember, or that’s what her mother always said.
Maybe Monte Cristo has daughters of his own, daughters that woke up feeling safe and loved, daughters who would have no idea of the struggles she’s endured and continues to. Maybe he sees her like one of them.
She can’t let herself get attached, because attachment has never worked out well for her in the past.
But she holds a fondness for him, and she wonders what his story is. What’s his sadness, the one she can see when his eyes slip from their focus, the one that she doesn’t think he realizes anyone else sees? She’s used to taking away men’s sadness, but she doesn’t think he wants that. Not from her.
Instead, she learns the value of their small talk, and the conversations with him become the highlights of her shifts. She wishes he spoke Albanian, then they could have the kind of conversations she wants to have – the ones where she knows all the words and the right order to put them in, the ones where she’s eloquent and witty, and not caught behind the language barrier. But if he knew Albanian, then he wouldn’t be her Monte Cristo. He’d be one of the faceless others, the ones that see her as nothing more than a commodity.
They’re both outsiders here; this isn’t her country, while it is his, but this is neither of their homes. Where they belong, where their hearts still reside, is somewhere else altogether. She knows where her heart is, back in her small village in Albania, and she only hopes that his heart isn’t so far away.
Maybe his home, his heart, isn’t a home or a heart at all, but a person he holds dear, much like Gabriel is for her.
Such a person should consider themselves lucky, to have such a man’s heart as his.
Her time at the diner is cut short, and she can’t even tell Monte Cristo goodbye.
She doesn’t know where she’s going, or what’s happening, but she hopes that he knows she’s not worth worrying about. That she’ll be okay, eventually; she’s made it through all her years on this Earth without him, so far, and she can continue to do so. But she’ll always remember the funny man with the eyes that take her back to idyllic summer days back home, the one who spoke to her of books and of a world outside of her own and made her believe, if even for a moment, that she’s more than who she’s always believed herself to be.
She doesn’t expect to ever see him again, but there he is, at the party, where she’s wearing a dress and jewelry that likely cost more than all the money she’s ever seen in her life.
He wants to save her. He seems to think he can.
Don’t you realize I can’t be saved? She wants to scream it out loud, but she can’t say the words, and everything is misinterpreted and going at a speed beyond her understanding. I can’t be saved and I’m not taking you down with me, Monte Cristo. Your heart needs you, like mine needs me.
It’s very, very bad.
Her heart stops when the car comes to a sudden stop, and she bolts, because this is so not good, this is so far from good that it doesn’t even resemble good anymore. She knows what happens when unexpected obstacles come up, and it’s never pleasant for her. She just wants this to be over.
Except, she sees Eddie – Monte Cristo – and he’s holding her and reassuring her that she’s going to be okay, she’s going to be safe, that Gabriel is going to be safe. Hearing her son’s name from this man’s lips is the most reassuring thing she thinks she’s heard in weeks.
He’s a police officer, and he’s telling her to trust the police, that they’re going to help her get to London and be reunited with Gabriel and everything is going to be okay; they’re going to be safe. And while she remembers her grandparents talking about how the police were during the time of Communism in her country, maybe in this country, there’s more like Officer Monte Cristo.
The officer that takes her into the squad car smiles at her. “My name’s Robbins,” the officer says, and Rita looks at her; they’re not terribly different in age, but here, this Robbins has a completely different life than she could ever dream of having for herself. “Like the bird, you know?”
“Robbins, like the bird,” she says, with a grin. She likes birds, and she feels like this could be a good omen.
“C’mon, they have you on the first flight out in the morning,” Robbins says, “but we’re going to get you a few things before you leave.”
Robbins and her partner, whose name Rita never quite catches but believes to be Montgomery, drive her to a large store – the sign calls it a Walmart – that seems to be bustling with activity even at the late hour. “Get whatever you want, it’s on us,” the two say.
“No, I can’t,” she says, before realizing that what paltry savings she has is lost somewhere between the diner, her makeshift home, and the party tonight.
“We insist,” they reply, their tone gentle, yet firm, much like Officer Monte Cristo’s had always been.
So, she picks out a few shirts, pants – clothing items that she wants to wear, not that someone else has chosen for her. A warm jacket, because it’s October and it’s only going to get colder, and she makes sure to get a good one for Gabriel too.
She doesn’t know what, if anything, these Interpol people have of his, but she hopes he has the blanket her mother knitted for him before he was born, the one in shades of green like the forests around her village. She makes sure to include some clothes for him as well, and grabs a stuffed bear for him from the toy section, before also impulsively throwing a toy car and a set of small foam sports balls in there as well.
They’ve never needed for much, but she wants to show Gabriel that there’s a great big world to discover, and she’s going to be right beside him to do it.
The small book section captivates her, and she rifles through the picture books, selecting a few with nice pictures that Gabriel might like, before looking for herself. None of the books he’d ever mentioned are on the shelves – no Dickens, or Tolstoy, no Count of Monte Cristo – but she sees a couple that seem interesting, and puts them in.
She’s looking at pots and pans when she hears a noise behind her.
“The relocation agency in London is going to provide you with a furnished flat there,” Robbins says, coming up behind her. It’s going to take time to get used to not flinching every time someone walks behind her, but she’s ready for that. “They’ll provide everything you and Gabriel need to have a happy home. All you need to worry right now about is what makes you happy.”
She’ll be happy once she’s reunited with her son.
The last finishing touches come in the form of a suitcase with wheels and a matching tote bag. Everything she’s bought tonight, even the coloring book with the silly drawings of puppies and the big box of crayons too, fit inside.
She changes into some of her new clothes in the Walmart restroom, and she takes a look at herself in the mirror, wiping some of the smudged mascara from around her eyes. She’s never been big on makeup before, and especially now that she associates it with this time in her life.
Look how far you’ve come, Rita. And you’re not done yet.
She feels impossibly chic, even in her new black leggings and long-sleeved t-shirt, as she wheels her new suitcase out of the store.
She hugs Montgomery and Robbins goodbye at the airport, and she whispers to them, “tell Officer Monte Cristo, uh, Eddie Wagner, thank you.”
“We will,” Robbins says. “Now, go be with your son.”
As she walks onto the jetway, she thinks about what awaits her on the other side of the ocean. Her heart awaits, and she hopes that her friend finds his heart soon too. If anyone deserves happiness, it’s someone who puts himself on the line for someone he barely knows, such as herself.
To do what he did, he could have been killed, but instead, he might have saved them both.
She’s fast asleep as soon as she sits down, exhausted from everything that has happened, and she doesn’t wake up until she hears the overhead announcement welcoming the passengers to London Heathrow.
It’s all a blur as she disembarks, getting some sort of priority status that she doesn’t quite understand – why am I anyone special? I’m just me. I’m just Rita.
A man greets her at the gate. “I’m Marcus Addison,” he says, “and Gabriel is waiting for you.”
She squints, looks at him. He’s tall, like her friend back in New York, but that’s about where the resemblance ends. But she sees the kindness reflected in his deep brown eyes, and there’s a gentle smirk that crosses his face, and she knows that she’s as safe with this man as she would have ever been with her Officer Monte Cristo.
They take a taxi, and she marvels out the window at everything they pass along the way. “I don’t know how much they’ve told you,” he says.
“People are going to help us. Give us a place to live.” She purses her lips. Is there supposed to be more? I’ll have to get a job, find Gabriel a school. Buy food. Go to the doctor.
“That’s right,” he says. “A lady named Debora is going to be your caseworker, and she’s going to help you find every resource available to you, and then some.”
“Debora,” she says, rolling the name over her tongue. She suspects Debora will become quite an important part of her life. “Did Debora meet Gabriel?”
He nods. “She speaks both Albanian and English. She’s told me your son’s quite the little chatterbox.”
“Chatterbox?” She tilts her head, another unfamiliar word.
“Yeah,” and Mark lifts his hand and makes a motion like a talking mouth with his fingers moving back and forth, “like that. He talks a lot.”
That’s my boy. “So, he’s good,” she says.
“Let’s have him tell you himself,” Mark says, as the taxi pulls into a small courtyard. Rita can see a plump young woman with long brown hair standing by a tree, holding a very familiar little boy’s hand. The woman leans over, whispers something in the boy’s ear, and he dances around a little.
“Gabriel!” she calls out, practically bolting from the taxi, but this time, it’s to run toward something, not away. “My son! My love! I’ve missed you!”
His eyes light up, and he runs across the parking lot to run into her arms. “Mama! I missed you so much, but you’re here now.” He smells the same as he always has, but it’s such a relief to feel his little arms looped around her neck and she never wants to let go. She squeezes him against her, and tilts her face to look at his own, peppering small kisses all over every inch of him. She can't believe he's real, and this isn't a dream, but she knows it's all too real.
A part of her heart has been walking around outside her body, and she’s been separated from it, but now it’s part of her again, and the hopes and dreams she’s always had for her boy can finally be realized.
Thank you, Eddie Wagner. My Officer Monte Cristo. May you have all your happiness. I know I’ll never see you again in this lifetime, but thank you for everything you’ve done. Gabriel and I will never forget you.
As she spins her son around in the crisp autumn air, their shared laughter echoing along the breeze like a bird’s song, she’s reminded of a quote from the book that touched her enough to underline and put a post-it note by. “Live, for a day will come when you will be happy and bless life.”
For her, and her son, she thinks that day may have finally come.