We pull into the garage. My wife admires the pile of shiny, mismatched objects scattered about the street corner across from our apartment.
She asks if it’s a yard sale or trash.
I shrug. I suggest a sale.
It’s raining today in L.A.
“Why would someone choose such a terrible corner to have a sale?” she wants to know. “There’s never any foot traffic over here. Who does it belong to?”
A short, older woman dressed in slippers, jacket, and a wool hat paces the corner, hands in pockets. A small dog follows her path, loyal, huddling close to her ankles whenever she stops.
It’s raining the only way it ever rains in L.A. Like a leaky faucet. The faucet’s not really on, but it won’t shut off either.
My wife crosses the street.
“Of course you’re going to check it out.” I trail behind.
The woman smiles at us. She points out picture frames, oil paintings, dancing santas, and a brand new pair of rip-off Doc Martens made by Sketchers.
“Shoe. Brand new.” She smiles. “Thirty.”
My wife holds up two necklaces. “How much?”
“I don’t speak English well,” the woman informs us. She digs into her purse and pulls out a yellow pad of paper. She writes in crooked numbers: 10$
I hand her a twenty. I ask her name.
“Flora,” she says.
“Flora. My name is Max. This is my wife, Lauren. It’s good to meet you. Where are you from?”
“How long have you been in America?”
She doesn’t understand. I hold my arms out wide as if I am going to give her a hug. I put my foot down and point to it. “America. How long?” I default, as one tends to do, to speaking slow and loud as if it will help her understand me better.
“Oh! Four years.”
“Four years. What brought you here?” I’m shouting now. Lauren tells me to lower my voice.
“My son. John.”
“Do you live around here?”
“Yes, yes! Over there.” She points to the building across the street from ours. I tell her I live right here, pointing to the building behind us.
“Neighbors!” she says.
“Yes,” I say. “Neighbors.”
Flora lives in Romania with her two sons. Her youngest, John, moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting and modeling. A lucky gig as a background actor in a commercial leads to other commercials and magazine ads. In two days, John is going to sign a contract with a major talent agency. He is also about to become a citizen of the United States. Then a car runs a red light at an intersection in Hollywood, and slams into the driver’s side of John’s new BMW. His car spins three times before hitting a building, and like a wicked game of human pinball, hits a tree, a telephone pole, and finally lands in a ditch on the side of the road.
Flora shows us pictures of the car. It’s an unrecognizable twisted hunk of metal. I look at John who has now joined us outside, his upper and lower extremities marvelously intact. Only God knows why he wasn’t removed from this car in pieces. John slides up the sleeves of his windbreaker, showing Lauren and I the deep vertical scars crawling up the entire length of his forearm as if a mad scientist from a horror film had crudely cut him open then carelessly stapled him back together for kicks. He has matching scars on his legs and around his neck.
“And down my back,” he says.
John spends thirty days in a coma. When he finally opens his eyes, the doctors repeatedly tell him he shouldn’t be alive. In fact, they try to talk his mother out of coming to America. “He’s not going to make it,” they say.
But as mothers tend to do when it comes to someone else suggesting what is best for their children, be it medical professionals, the law, or (God help them) another parent, Flora ignores their advice and miraculously has a visa within forty-eight hours after the accident.
“This is first miracle,” she says. Flora had been trying to find her way to America for years, but both U.S. and Romanian politics kept her abroad. “God needed me here.”
When John wakes up, two things are different: he cannot cry, nor can he remember anything after the accident.
John doesn’t know the exact reason why he no longer can cry. Perhaps he cannot remember to stay sad. Or it’s possible the extensive damage to his brain altered specific nerve endings, the ones enabling us to shed tears. What John does know is that he has anterograde amnesia. This means he cannot make new memories. Every two minutes his brain relapses to a life before the accident. He knows enough to eat each day, knows when he is full, or when he is tired. He knows to take the dog out, and recognizes his craving for nicotine. He remembers how to drive, but will forget where he is going. He won’t remember if he took a shower this morning. He can retain faces if he sees them enough, but two minutes into any conversation John will kindly ask, “Please remind me what we were talking about.” He chuckles with embarrassment while repeatedly apologizing for the inconvenience. He knows it slows everything down.
“Will you remember us if we see you tomorrow?” I ask.
John looks at Lauren and smiles. “I might remember her.” Then to me, “You, not so much.”
Flora is selling everything. After the medical bills, visas, travel, and life expenses, they are broke. John hasn’t been able to work since the accident for obvious reasons. He laughs, smiles, and speaks English very well; he’s charming and full of energy, but at any job he will remain in a perpetual state of training. The accident and his condition restarted his application process to become a citizen of the United States. This is both an exhausting and expensive process. One his family cannot afford. The government allocates them only $187 a month. They have already been evicted once, and are about to be evicted again. Their current landlord, aware of John’s unique situation, has been gracious enough to give John and Flora an extension on rent. They still owe $800 for December. On February 1st they will owe $1000 for January and so on. This is why John and Flora are sitting on the side of the road on a rainy winter day in LA in a neighborhood with little traffic, trying to sell whatever they have to keep a roof over their heads and dinner on the table.
“Where will you go if you cannot pay rent?” I ask.
“To the park,” says John.
“The park? You’re going to sleep in the park?”
He laughs. “Yes. Nowhere else to go.”
I look at Flora. She’s old. She can barely walk. She won’t last a night outside. But John, Lauren, and myself all know she will never leave her son’s side. Even if it means sleeping next to him on a park bench.
Lauren and I discuss giving them the $800 to hold off their landlord, but we both know this is only a temporary solution. They still need to come up with January’s rent. They still need to come up with a plan.
It starts with a phone call to a friend. “You’re never going to believe who we just met. A man who cannot make new memories…Yes…Exactly… Just like that guy from Memento…He was outside on our street with his mother…Selling everything to make rent…Yes…We want to help them…I don’t know…You can help too?”
Once we’ve contacted our immediate friends in Los Angeles, we tell Twitter. Then Facebook. Within a few hours we have the $800 John and Flora have spent the last two months trying to earn.
Two days later we knock on their door. John and Flora’s apartment is uncomfortable. It’s small, but that could be from the amount of boxes and belongings scattered about, piled high. The random objects from their weekly yard sales overtaking the countertops, the sofa, and bordering the perimeter.
“Our landlord is on his way over today. With the lawyer,” John says.
Flora says something in Romanian. John laughs. “With the ‘liar,’” he translates.
We show Flora and John the list of friends and strangers from around the world that want to help them out. “These people here, we told them about your situation. We know less than half of them. Some are from Romania. Some from Australia. Everywhere.”
She smiles and nods. She thinks we have come to give her groceries, a couple extra dollars. I show her the envelope filled with hundred dollar bills. “There is twenty-three hundred dollars in here.”
Flora begins to cry.
“This isn’t just from us. We didn’t do this,” I tell her. “God did. These people did.”
Flora continues to speak in Romanian. John keeps telling us how amazing we are.
Flora uses her son to translate for us. “You are angels,” she says, John says.
“We aren’t angels,” Lauren says. “It’s all the people on this list who are the angels.”
John’s upper lip quivers. His eyes look wet. “I can’t cry,” he thinks he’s telling me for the first time. “Because of my accident. I can’t cry. But I have tears in my eyes. I have tears in my eyes. Can you believe it? I have tears. We are so happy. The landlord is coming over soon to kick us out.”
Flora hasn’t stopped talking. John wipes at his eyes. “She says she is going to pray for every person on this list. Day and night. Every single say. And her priest in Romania. He is going to pray too. She wants everyone on this list to know that God is going to give them one hundred times more in return for what they did here today.”
Flora hugs the list of names like they are her own children. She clutches the tiny piece of paper close to her chest, her eyes shut tight, shaking her head, a smile on her face. She says, “God through us works.” She kisses each of us on the cheek. She’s on the tips of her toes and I still have to bend down so she can reach my face.
She points to her ears, her fingers, her neck. “I had to sell everything. All my gold from Russia.”
Flora loves Romania. Her husband is back home where he owns a farm. “Things are easier there,” she says. But Flora refuses to leave America until she knows her son is okay.
“The treasure is not here on earth,” she says. “it is in heaven.
With one tweet we collected John and Flora’s rent money through donations from friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers. Today I learned not only are John and Flora my neighbors, but every single individual who gave without question, donated groceries, and prayed relentlessly. You are my neighbor. And I am yours.