Fiction and Drama
Panic in a Suitcase
It wasn’t another mirage to which Esther enthusiastically waved but Pasha and Frida in the flesh. The family was barricaded on one side by water and on the other by cherry pits like tiny bullets that had perforated a flock of seagulls. They’re organic, said Levik, implying that they weren’t litter, though he would never say that as the family had a complicated relationship to litter. But the trouble with cherry pits was their clotted bloodiness and that they carried the ugly secret of mouths.
What took so long? You had to wait until the sun was strongest! Put on a hat. Take a dip. Come here. Don’t get sand on that. Want a sandwich, a drink, oh I know, an apricot? The pinprick sun reigned triumphantly, but the corners of the sky were thick, curdled, darkening—a threat that preoccupied Frida. She sat between Flora’s slack legs, staring up. Flora was sprawled across the blanket, her palms shielding her nipples.
Soon there’ll be no more sun, said Frida.
It’s out now, isn’t it?
But the black clouds—
Go swim with Grandpa.
Frida ran until the water lopped off her knees. Grandpa, she yelled. Twenty men turned around, but Robert kept floating half the ocean away, facing the darkening sky and being gently tossed by crests.
Flies attacked Flora’s legs. She decided to ignore them. Not a minute later, bewildered by how painfully they bit, she began to swat. A plastic bag was blown into her hair, sand into her eyelashes. A neighboring family’s feral kids were shrieking, Esther chewed a never-ending apple. Helicopters, fading sirens, lifeguard whistles. Flora wiped the perspiration from her hairline, pulled up her straps, raised her head into the breeze. All around, tan muscular specimens were running, digging, stretching, throwing balls, and then there was Pasha, folded crookedly into a low chair, his face contorted against the sunshine. No, her brother didn’t look good—though to be fair, they’d expected worse. Since they were no longer around, who fed Pasha, who ironed his pants? Who reminded him to shower, to tuck in that shirt? Certainly not his wife. His visit, they had decided, would be a chance for rehabilitation. They would feed and pamper him, cram in a year’s worth of nutrition, hygiene, care. But then he emerged (last, of course) from the baggage claim—if anything his belly looked fostered, cheeks buoyant. His clothes were wrinkled, but twenty hours in transit might do that. Esther reassessed the situation with lightning speed. Look at you, she cried, a haircut first thing tomorrow!
Flora peeled her brother off the canvas chair and they began to tread at his excruciating pace. It was Pasha’s only mode of moving and to walk alongside him you had to adjust yours. Pasha’s pace wasn’t a deliberate saunter—he had bad lungs and motor difficulties (such was the official statement, believe it if you will), an unmanageable thought chorus, and no need to be anywhere, at least not in a timely manner. Flora herself had once been queen of the promenade, most qualified in a city of inveterate lingerers and loiterers to demonstrate how to stretch a quarter-mile for hours, how to ping-pong gracefully between the Opera House and the Steps in four-inch heels. She still had trouble disassociating punctuality from the height of desperation.
With her silence Flora was giving Pasha the opportunity to say what he intended to say, which was that he’d given the matter due consideration and the answer was yes. Then the real work could begin—compiling a list of people to call, speculating about elements bound to remain uncertain for a while, and the paperwork, my God, the paperwork. Flora had actually been expecting the announcement last night, imagining that it might accompany the first toast. A nice thought. But last night Pasha stepped through the door at 10 PM (5 AM in Odessa) and protested, no food, not tonight, then after being forced into the kitchen began to fade at the table while Esther microwaved maniacally, suffusing the air with Chinese smells and plastic. Pasha hated to fly but more than that he hated interruptions. Packing, relocating, resisting the pull of his daily rituals, all this amounted to a profound psychological stress. So yesterday they’d kept to superficial topics. Today the big issues would be resolved.
She looks good, said Pasha.
She’s gotten fat.
A bit fat. But she was never a ballerina.
The surgery is scheduled for the week after you leave, by the way.
That’s ridiculous. I specifically asked her to schedule it for while I’m here.
And you thought she’d listen? God forbid anything interfere with Pasha’s visit!
Flora felt the heat double, the sun’s warmth amplified by rising temperatures within. Throttled by her own steps, as if she weren’t on her feet but riding in the dim backseat of a Soviet automobile.
I was pleasantly surprised by how healthy she looks, said Pasha.
It’s not the flu.
But if she’s strong and in good shape—
Mama, our Mama, in good shape?
If she’s strong, her body will take the chemo well.
No chemo. They gave her the option but said it’s not necessary. They said surgery and a bit of radiation would be enough.
Even better. Her body can definitely take the radiation.
And I’ll have to take care of everything myself, said Flora. A whimper escaped as a wave rolled over her sturdy ankles.
That’s not true. Papa will help, Levik . . .
But Pasha, what changed?
Nothing’s changed. I just haven’t made up my mind, one way or the other. It’s not like deciding what to have for breakfast.
Though you’ve never had an easy time of that, either. Flora wasn’t sure for how long she’d been looking straight ahead with painful intensity. Now she turned and let herself look at her brother. Don’t you think we should get the bureaucratic wheels in motion? By the time you’re actually called in for an interview—
Better we wait, he said, until I’ve decided.
And why haven’t you?
Pasha was losing morale. The wind flung crowds into their path, crying toddlers with bent shovels and tipped buckets, mothers in a tizzy, stately African women with what appeared to be pillowcases on their heads, sand-flinging adolescents, joggers, overdressed ethnic clans. They swarmed in and just as abruptly dispersed, leaving Pasha and Flora gasping for breath. While they were engulfed in one such burst, a hand materialized, a long, wiry hand that clawed the air twice before hooking Pasha’s bent shoulder. The hand’s owner and Pasha stepped aside to examine one another by the water. The man had the look of a tiny, desiccated tree that had withstood brutal winters. Clumps of coppery hair, a tight, aggravated mouth. Now the other hand stretched for the other shoulder. They embraced. Flora looked away, wary. Was this someone she also knew? Would his wife appear?
That’s Bronfman, Pasha whispered in disbelief as they slipped away. Flora, relieved, only half listened. But Pasha was shaken up. He thought Bronfman was dead. Yes, according to Pasha’s mental records, Bronfman had been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia during his last year at the Refrigeration Institute and died at the tragic age of 21. But here was Bronfman, very much alive, working for the city’s transit bureau. Health insurance! Decent pay! Job stability! Pasha, he said, you must work for the city. It’s the only way to exist. Only it’s impossible to find a job—at least it’s very, very difficult. No, impossible. The glitch must have been this: unable to deal with a dearth of information, Pasha’s exhaustive memory had filled in Bronfman succumbing to the disease, though in actuality his family had found a way to take him for treatment to America (they absconded urgently and covertly, leaving their apartment as if stepping out for bread). In this miraculous land he was cured and here he remained.
That’s what he told you? asked Flora.
He told me he was living in the yellowish bungalow on Corbin Place behind the poodle groomers and I should drop by on Thursday. You can’t tell a man that you were sure he died fifteen years back.
Discovering Bronfman among the ranks of the living put Pasha in a frisky mood. He shook his beard into Flora’s face like a lavish, impulsively assembled bouquet, drew her close, pulled her hair a bit too roughly, splashed her shins and laughed in his deflating way, like the sound made by turning the exhaust valve on a blood pressure monitor (the family’s evening pastime). When they returned, everybody had entered the stern phase of beachtime. Esther sat under a giant hat that seemed to have been punched in on one side and chomped sunflower seeds. The gnawed shells lodged in the crevices around her crotch. Robert stubbornly collected seashells. There were no beautiful shells on Brighton but this was the beach activity he was known for and he would do it regardless. He would do his part to keep seashell-collecting alive. Flora quickly fell back onto the blanket and resumed her solar torpor. Levik picked his toes as he read. Pasha tried rousing them with over-the-shoulder taps, affectionate pinches, quizzical conversation starters, but they grew progressively grumpier until he gave up and ventured into the warm turbid ocean for the prescribed dunk.
While Flora was away, Frida had made a friend. The girls had dug a pit, fortified it, and adorned the fortress with turrets, parapets, some ornamental drip-work. They added a ditch at the base for water to collect and sat proudly in the pit presiding over their domain. The friend was a fine-boned tyrant, making it apparent to Flora that what had been uncovered in her daughter was a tendency. Your side needs more shells, the friend said. Frida, who would never notice such a deficit herself, ran over to Robert and asked for some of his. Overjoyed by the request, he distributed the shells one by one, holding them up to the light and rotating and telling a story about each. But the friend didn’t approve of this strategy. Those aren’t shells but scraps, she said. Frida scoured the shoreline until she finally produced an adequate batch. The friend had a high forehead, taciturn chin, collapsed blond ringlets crusted with sand. She pointed to where Frida must put each shell and once they were perfectly spaced granted Frida entry. With erect spines they sat in their puddle, laughing into the faces of those who made pleas to join them in housekeeping. After being turned away countless times, one persistent boy returned with a pancake. The friend admitted she was ready for a snack. Attempts to divide it into three pieces were unsuccessful—it was one slippery, tough pancake. They would have to go in a circle, taking bites off the edge.
Flora watched in horror as they passed the jellyfish around. She couldn’t decide: to intervene or not to intervene? Instinct told her to go, but her body remained grounded. As Frida’s turn neared, Flora looked away, aware of an unreachable dread.
Robert was fixated on the man from Cambridge, about whom Pasha himself had probably forgotten. Despite attempts to remain utterly tightlipped when pressed for news regarding his recently released poetry collection, Pasha had revealed the existence of an admiring letter postmarked from that special Massachusetts city. This man accompanied Robert throughout the day, but became central at night. He started to say things, such as: Get Pasha to contact me, this is very important.
Who are you? Robert asked, but the man would say no more. Robert’s questioning persisted, and a few hours later the man introduced himself formally as professor emeritus at Harvard and foremost translator of Russian poetry into English. I’ve worked with Brodsky and, briefly, Nabokov. I’ll translate Pasha’s tome and once it’s published secure him a position as lecturer. He’ll be in Massachusetts, more convenient than Russia. It’s quite close, just consult a map—anyway it wouldn’t hurt to brush up on your American geography. There are trains, expensive but the height of luxury. And when the time comes, Frida has an easy in.
Here Robert felt obliged to kindly object. Don’t you think you’re getting ahead of yourself? How old is Frida? Ten at most. And at what age do they finish school in this country, 20? So you see it’s still a while before she applies to University, and besides, an easy in will not be necessary. But I do think you’re onto something with translating the book, hardly a tome, and getting Pasha a position. He’d be very good with the students. He’s always exhibited a pedantic sensibility.
Then he must respond, said the man from Cambridge. I’ve read his book and sent him a long letter introducing myself and extolling the virtues of his poetry, going through a few of the poems in significant detail. It’s not every day that a collection by an unknown Russian poet moves me to propose a translation. There’s no money in it for me, you understand that, I hope. And I already have plenty on my plate. The milk in my mini-fridge doesn’t come with an expiration date but a deadline. The point being I’ve done all that I can.
Robert thought long and hard. Being forthright would be foolish. Pasha wouldn’t respond positively to news that his father had been conspiring with the man from Cambridge. But if Pasha complied he was essentially a step away from fame in America and a respectable position that would leave him time to write. This was a matter of objective significance. Much was at stake, and Robert couldn’t afford a careless approach. He needed to be strategic. But Robert had no sense of strategy. Shameful as it may be to admit, he avoided chess. And he put too much trust in a higher system, underestimating contingency. He believed that if you put everything down at once, the veracity magnets of the universe would sort through the mess, put it in its right order, and see to the correct outcome—hence Robert’s characteristic sloppiness. Suddenly Robert heard the lock turn, and footsteps. Esther let out a groan, turned onto her side, and began to snore.
Robert sat up, electrified. An epiphany: Pasha had the letter. He may have been obstinate but he was also a Nasmertov, which meant that he came equipped with a reserve of relentless doubt. If he didn’t leave a bit of space for a change of opinion, he’d get claustrophobic. Robert imagined Pasha opening the mystery letter from Cambridge and devouring it in a gulp, then deciding for whatever insane reason that it must be ignored. Pasha would put it away and spend the following days trying to forget its existence, until he realized that he was only driving himself to the point of having to reply. He needed space to rethink his decision in order to not have to rethink it. So he retrieved the letter and took it to New York, figuring that if he did decide to call or write, he’d want to reread the thing. Robert clutched the blanket, breathing hard. He looked over at Esther to see if she was hearing his thoughts, but she was asleep, head cocked back and mouth agape, screaming breath. He looked at the clock—quarter to three. He lay back, now convinced that Pasha had the man’s full contact information with him. But only a week remained until Pasha’s departure, and if he hadn’t contacted the man yet, he wasn’t about to. Robert had the sensation of flight. He was weightless, the wind under him pumped in powerful rhythmic bursts. He was exhilarated—these were real developments, though confined to his throbbing brain. But no more new developments were coming. A small rock rolled onto Robert’s chest, and its weight pinned him back to the mattress. So Pasha had the letter with him. What exactly was Robert supposed to do with this knowledge? He remembered the semi-lucid dream that had led to the breakthrough: he was in a canoe with no oars. He began to search for something to paddle with, up to this point a recurring dream, but this time he found under his seat a suitcase that crumbled to dust the moment he touched it.
The following morning Robert overslept. The concept, however, was irrelevant. There were no longer any consequences to snoozing past his alarm, which made him all the more disgruntled for doing so. Being ten minutes late to work was something a person could grasp. It focused and sublimated the intangible unhappy feeling and even made it fun—occasional tardiness was a transgression, a small harmless one. Now there was only the intangible unhappy feeling. Robert dragged himself into the kitchen.
You didn’t wake me, he said.
You were sleeping so sweetly, said Esther.
She gets a boost from seeing me at my worst, thought Robert—perhaps the third mean-spirited thought he’d had since the Second World War. He fell into a dejected slump by the window. A cup of coffee appeared under his nose.
You know I’ve been trying to cut down, he said.
Oh stop it. Pasha went off somewhere.
That’s fine. I wasn’t looking for him.
I thought maybe you knew where.
You mean did I get a dream communication from him? No, I did not. He didn’t say a word. But you could’ve asked.
I didn’t want to intrude, said Esther.
Robert shot her a who-are-you-kidding look.
For a walk was what he said. Refused to specify. But Pasha doesn’t walk. Now I’m worried.
Has he been gone long?
Half an hour.
Relax for now, I’ll tell you when to worry. Is there any cottage cheese left?
Not only was there cottage cheese left, there was a fresh supply Esther had just finished creating. This news lifted the gloom—what a difference between the stiff brittle pellets of a week-old batch and the airy clumps of a new one. Along with a teaspoon of raspberry jam—a heavenly marriage. That they’d been having it for breakfast for the past thirty-five years never diminished the gustatory surprise. Robert had been walking around with white crud in the corners of his mouth for decades.
Satisfied, he was ejected from the kitchen.
And now? Esther called to him. Should I worry now?
How long has it been?
Not yet, Robert yelled as he lathered the unkempt shaving brush and began distributing soap in circular motions onto his cheeks. But he didn’t finish because before he knew it he was standing over Pasha’s suitcase. Though it wasn’t really Pasha’s suitcase. It was Robert’s—a patient had once given it to him as a present. The patient was a luggage merchandiser with arteriovenous malformation and early onset Parkinson’s. His name was Volodya Laramshtik and genetic misfortune had tailored his life so that the Nasmertovs never suffered from a dearth of luggage. Robert’s slipper nudged the flap. What an unhappy sight: clothes and papers swirled together in a panic. Robert got to his knees and set to work. Give Robert a chisel, curettes, even scissors and the procedure was sure to go smoothly. But digging with bare hands wasn’t his forte. After an arduous spurt he noticed that he wasn’t breathing. And he was sifting blindly, not registering what he was putting aside. He began again, this time trying to integrate three operations: breathing, digging, and discerning. It was a while before he asked himself, Why am I diligently inspecting every article of clothing when right here is a massive pile of papers? The weight of the papers shocked him. Just lifting them out of the suitcase drained his strength. He divided the papers into several stacks and picked up the first: disconnected stanzas, notes, illegible scribbles. At the very moment the word Papa jumped out at him, a creak resounded. Robert turned. The door swung open and in the doorway appeared Esther’s rear end, which hadn’t just grown large, but deft. It was often of assistance around the house. She about-faced and gasped. She stood frozen, wide-eyed—she was bringing in Pasha’s laundry.
You scared me, she said, and proceeded to waddle into the room, setting down the neatly folded stack on the edge of the couch. Then her legs buckled under her like felled trees. Robert thought she was collapsing but she was just sitting onto the floor beside him. What are we searching for? she asked.
I’m not sure, said Robert. To avoid eye contact he looked down, instantly spotting a letter on top of the second stack, written on Harvard University letterhead. He began to read it and laughed aloud, so stilted and stuffy was the Russian in which it had been composed. The man was John Lamborg, chair of the Slavic Languages and Literatures Department at Harvard University, specializing in the linguistics and semiotics of medieval Rus. He also taught a class that reflected a more heartfelt interest: stylistics of 20th-century Russian poetry. Robert copied out the address and returned the letter.
I’m done here, an exultant Robert said and stood.
Well I’m just getting started, replied Esther.
It was hot. The Nasmertovs hadn’t yet warmed to the concept of air-conditioning. If it was summer you had to sweat. And the sweat had to smell. But something about the location of their building, the positioning of the windows, the roof materials—they hadn’t suffered through a sufficient number of summers to develop a dependable theory—made for especially stifling conditions. The windows were gasping yet the curtains didn’t stir for days. Even the furniture seemed to languish. They ate heat, they drank heat, mouths made sounds without trying to. This was an unfortunate distraction, which had the potential to obscure what was important. People who focused on their physical discomfort seldom got to the point.
I’m glad you brought this up, said Pasha. A bead of sweat originating in his hair split in two over his lumpy forehead and the beads diverged, rolling down opposite sides of his long face. I’ve been thinking about this a fair amount, as maybe you can imagine, maybe not. My tendency, with poems at least, is not to show them to anybody until they’re done. I’ve never found it worthwhile to hand somebody a mess and ask them to clean it up for me. Mama, don’t give me that look, that’s an analogy. And I think this tendency has influenced other aspects of my life. If I’m not speaking about something, it’s probably because I’m thinking about it all the time. I admit that I’ve kept you in the dark, but actually I have come to a decision.
He looked around the room. He inhaled. He picked a crumb off his stomach. I want to come, he said. Let’s begin the process.
And so it was that Pasha informed them of his intention to immigrate. He seemed on the whole sincere and alert. Pasha was never alert. Except here he was—alert and speaking to matters of true consequence. They were swept up by the momentousness. Of course, Pasha was susceptible to the pressure of endings. They were sad, but they needed to be successful. That Sunday afternoon, as Pasha sat in a room with sweating wallpaper, surrounded by his family (a tough audience), his last line was so sonorous it made the future palpable in their throats.
Robert and Esther said their goodbyes, staying behind while Levik and Flora chauffeured Pasha to JFK Airport. The torture of the drive—the perfectly stagnant traffic on the BQE, then the Van Wyck, the mysterious sounds and smells given off by their automobile—made them feel sick to their stomachs. They unlocked the doors should they need to open fast and vomit. Pasha regularly vomited in bearable conditions, so it was a surprise that he managed to swallow at all in this hellish toaster of a car. No one spoke as there was nothing to say. Pasha had the last word. Who was Levik or Flora to meddle with such an ending? Flora rested her head on her hand and looked out of the window. In this city you had to become a professional at looking out of the window, straight into your own thoughts. What was actually outside of the window was of no concern; it may as well have been a mirage. Those weren’t cars or people, who knows what they were. It didn’t much matter—the chance that she’d see them again was practically nonexistent. My God, Flora suddenly thought. Do we even want him here? Despite the heat she was imperceptibly trembling.
It wasn’t long before Pasha was back. A year later he was flying into JFK’s third terminal, once again thinned, disheveled, pale. Flora was now in nursing school, Levik was still staring into the void. Robert and Esther were decorating lampshades with beads, claiming they did it for the miniscule fee, though it was obvious that stringing tiny colorful beads was soothing to their nerves. Levik drove the decorated lampshades over to the American Lady, Kathleen, who lived on Madison Avenue with two blue cockatoos and in her ample spare time was starting a lamp business. She didn’t need the money, but got it regardless. Her business was skyrocketing. People just adored those simple but lovely lamps.
Esther had been opposed to Pasha’s visit as it rendered void his application for an exit visa, a stipulation being that during the months, years, occasionally decades that it took for such an application to be processed, the Russian citizen was not allowed to leave the country. Pasha had finally applied for the visa and why should news of Esther’s recurring cancer make him throw that out the window? She preferred to delay seeing him until he could come for good, instead of once again flying in for a fraught month at the end of which they’d be back to square one. Pasha tried to reassure her that he would reapply for the visa the moment he got back, words that had been put into his mouth by Flora.
In such instances Pasha got confused.
He knew he was confused when he stopped being able to predict what would be wanted of him. For example, he had expected Flora’s demands to coincide with Esther’s and was astonished to learn that they did not. It was amazing when one afternoon Flora called Pasha and hissed that if he didn’t go and buy a ticket right then it would prove once and for all that he was as selfish and indecent as everybody claimed. Pasha explained that it was a misunderstanding—he very much wanted to come, but had been putting off buying a ticket because he had gotten the impression that nobody wanted him.
And nobody sent you the money yet, said Flora.
A misunderstanding was the natural state of affairs. Pasha made no effort to clear up his end, simply unaware, or choosing to ignore, that motives were being assigned, intentions misconstrued, until the inexorable moment of eruption—shouts, name calling, frequent calls and hang-ups, the stupefied dial tone. The accusations shocked Pasha. It was one thing when they came from one-time acquaintances and critics, another from the mouths of the dear. Unless instructed otherwise, they assumed the worst, having very little faith in humanity, or perhaps just in him.
You all expect me to die, said Esther when she heard that Pasha was coming. If you think you’re visiting a woman on her deathbed you’re quite mistaken.
But at his arrival she was overjoyed. Flora had been right—Esther’s wishes shouldn’t have been heeded, as they were not what Esther wished. The anti-Esther had been using Esther’s voice. Pasha had failed to be on the lookout for such a possibility.
The chemo was underway by then, Esther’s wan curls detaching by the fistful. Daylight infiltrated through to her scalp. She’d bought one of those nightgown frocks that came in countless dizzying print variations and hung on the outdoor racks of discount shops along Brighton Beach Avenue, a purchase that infuriated Flora. Esther was throwing up her hands. First it’s a nightgown frock, then days in bed, no desire to live. Flora bought a wig for Esther, and a geometric summer dress from Bloomingdale’s.
They expected to have to keep Esther from her housework. They’d let her do a little dusting or watering here and there, so as not to feel useless, but deter her from the more physically straining activities. When Esther went for the pail and mop, Flora’s bold voice resounded, We can do that, you must save your energy. Esther didn’t have to be told twice. She left the mop and pail out for Flora, as the floors weren’t about to wash themselves, and eagerly returned to bed with a book.
It proved not true that a nightgown frock—which Esther proceeded to wear both around the house and outside despite the presence of the Bloomingdale’s dress, which even Flora had to admit looked a lot like the nightgown frock once Esther put it on—led to a diminished will to live. Esther’s sole focus became survival. She was so determined that the actual process of living became a distraction from the goal. At mealtimes she reverted to Soviet-style nutrient density assessment (anything creamy, sugary, buttery being of highest value), but instead of giving the choice foods to Flora or Frida kept them for herself. The combination of eating nutritiously and saving up her energy made stoic Doctor Gutenborg advise that Esther adopt a weight-loss regimen. Esther incorporated grapefruit into her diet.
Pasha was enlisted to help around the house, though it was hard to imagine anybody more domestically challenged. It was as if he’d reached this ripe age without ever having peeled a carrot, folded a pair of pants, or seen a vacuum cleaner. He was most useful in distracting Esther. He lay beside her on the bed and they engaged in a conspiratorial whisper. Occasionally she laughed. A large ship passed over the open waters that were Esther, leaving the surface unsettled long after the ship had gone. And her face, thought Pasha, had the bloated, grayish quality of something that had spent untraceable years at sea bottom.
Thanks to Robert’s scheming, John Lamborg had translated half the poems in Pasha’s collection. No publisher had taken it on, no lectureship been offered. Robert had kept up the correspondence in Pasha’s name until foolishly mentioning that he would be visiting his family in New York. Lamborg read this as an invitation. He’d assumed that they both assumed that it was important and inevitable that they meet. Perhaps not entirely unintentionally, Robert had gotten himself into a bind and saw no choice but to disclose the entire deception.
Robert wasn’t sure what to expect—an outburst of rage at the intrinsic breach of privacy or gratitude at the sight of the translated poems, or perhaps one followed by the other. But Pasha took the news as tepidly as he’d initially taken the letter. He’d never had any intention of responding to Professor Lamborg, having skimmed his letter with a bit of amusement but a lack of any other sensation. The amusement was partly in response to the letter and partly to the attached photograph of the entire Slavic Department assembled in two rows on a concrete staircase. John Lamborg had forgotten to point himself out, which didn’t make much of a difference, as the four men were identical. Their rosiness was half fresh air, half rosacea. They had scrawny men’s confined bellies and wore quality sweaters made of wool, the necklines of which were tight and pronounced; perhaps it was this constriction that caused the bloom in their cheeks. If Pasha had been surprised by anything it was his own boredom.
Fine, yelled Robert. I’ll cancel the goddamn meeting.
There’s no need, said Pasha. Calm down, Papa. I’ll go meet the man.
But the calm was precisely the problem.
The department photograph must have been at least a decade old. Or a decade’s worth of living. Lamborg was gaunt, not rosy but aged in the haphazard way rosy people age. His button-down shirt still had the size sticker on the back (Small) and his hair looked like freshly mowed grass. It was for this occasion that the man had cleaned up. Having little to present to Pasha, Lamborg wanted to be presentable himself. He must have thought that this entire year Pasha had been awaiting news of an English-language publisher.
They met in Brighton, a neighborhood whose pulse Lamborg made a point to check at least annually, preferably seasonally. Pasha professed ignorance, and it was Lamborg who ended up showing Pasha around, leading them to a restaurant-café that served the most delicate blintzes. A rheumatic finger pointed out that over there was the most sinus-excavating plov and here the airiest meringue while two blocks up stood white vats of the crunchiest pickles. The only men Pasha knew with such an investment in the matter were grotesquely obese—they ate all day long, did little else—yet even they were less expert in the field. And here was Lamborg, a chopstick of a man, warning Pasha to never buy Korean carrot salad from Golden Label but only from Russia’s Best Choice, which, on the other hand, used the worst dough for its frozen pelmeni. All in utter earnestness, not a hint of sarcasm, not a sheepish grin. Lamborg was disappointed when he realized that Pasha wouldn’t be providing new tips or filling in lacunae such as Brighton breakfast foods. The only gastronomic wisdom Pasha mustered was that it was truly uncanny how much the food here was like that in Odessa, the only divergence being in abundance. Pasha kept at it until he’d talked himself into admitting how disturbing and pathetic he found Brighton; before he hadn’t been sure he felt one way or another.
Pasha kept Lamborg from ordering Chak Chak, his favorite dessert, and invited him back to the apartment. These were the instructions he’d received. Lamborg didn’t protest—he was a collector of Russian household experiences. He entered the building lobby and began systematically to take note, inspecting the floor tiles, plants, odd ceramic bowls, and how they were all used in equal measure as ashtrays.
Pasha was caught off-guard by what he discovered at home. The apartment was clean. The dining table had been transplanted to the living room (Pasha’s foldout cot had disappeared, as had his suitcase) and covered with a celebratory cloth, on top of which stood a city of saucers filled with jams and tiny treats. This was Esther’s fancy china set, until now only admired from behind the glass door of a cabinet. His family members were scrubbed to a shine and dressed in their finest. Lamborg himself was surprised by the magnitude of the reception. Sweat stains deepened the blue of his shirt and his lips receded, exposing large teeth that didn’t suit his face at all.
Hardly more than our usual Sunday lunch, said Esther, waving away the concern.
Pasha took Flora aside. Number one, what is all this? Number two, I told you we were going out to eat. Number three, whose idea was this?
Not an ounce of gratitude! You’d think we were doing something horrible. If you really want to know, Papa ordered this up. And it’s for Frida as much as for you.
Frida was by then a big girl three months shy of 12. She had to be impressive when the man from Cambridge came to lunch. Expectations were low—impressive applied to Frida meant that she wear a dress and sit at the table. No one expected smiles, precocious conversation, grace. She would not have to use a knife. Even a fork was optional. The man from Cambridge didn’t need to leave with a distinct impression of Frida. Better he did not. When a few years later she would be applying to Harvard, he should be able to remember, upon gentle prodding, that sunny Sunday afternoon, that immaculate lunch, that delightful, generous, expansive family of the poet Pavel Nasmertov, and his niece, who just blended into the background, did nothing jarring or off-putting, was in no way insane, misbehaved, or emotionally corrosive, neither capricious nor foul, and so must have been quiet, reserved, and mature, traits meriting acceptance to America’s most prestigious institution of higher learning. It would be the least John Lamborg could do after a block of black caviar.
But along with a dress, a proper young lady must wear stockings. No two ways about that. Frida’s lumpy, bruised legs, her knees of picked scabs never allowed to heal, couldn’t just stick out of her dress. But it was a hot day and just looking at the shiny airless material created a frantic itch. Frida whimpered and clawed at her flesh. There was a lot of meat to pack into those sausage casings, and Frida didn’t deal well with constriction. She wore shoes two sizes too large for her feet, bewildering the salesladies with their measuring devices. For months she hadn’t allowed a comb within a foot of her hair, which grew increasingly lopsided, tangled, lackluster, and shaggy, until a bloated white bug stepped out onto the balcony of her forehead. All of it had to be chopped off. It was growing back frizzy and brownish and currently fell just past her ears, her large ears that also seemed to have fought their way out of confinement, to freedom.
After ten too-good-to-be-true minutes at the table Frida began to fidget. This during the routine immigration narrative they were replaying for their guest, who’d certainly heard a thousand such narratives with a peppering of charming details like how Flora had thought that in America she would work as a professional clairvoyant because around that time Barbra Streisand gave an interview in which she said she never goes anywhere without her personal fortune teller, Tatiana, and the hearsay was that after that all the wealthy women in Manhattan wanted their own Eastern European fortune tellers, so instead of learning English in the months leading up to their departure, Flora learned to read palms and Turkish coffee grinds and was embarking on tarot cards and astrological charts. She usually told the story better—Frida’s writhing and squirming distracted.
Lamborg abruptly turned to Frida. What about you, he said, do you like it here?
It was difficult to fathom a more catastrophically off-the-mark question. Here—as opposed to where? If there had been a somewhere else, Frida was currently engaged in an immense struggle to extract every last trace of it from her DNA. The writhing stopped. She looked at the man dead-on from under hooded eyelids. Without uttering a word, without needing to, she made it all too plain just what she thought of him.
She’s timid, said Esther. Needs time to warm to strangers.
Answer the man’s question, said Flora.
It’s OK, said the man, she doesn’t have to.
Actually, she does have to.
Just a very sensitive girl, said Esther. Will become a pediatrician one day just like grandma.
Frida rose partially off her chair as if about to charge. But she didn’t—she stayed in what appeared to be a very uncomfortable half-squatting position and lifted her hand in which something beige was balled up. She flung this ball, which unraveled mid-flight, at Flora’s face. The stockings didn’t quite reach the face, landing weightlessly across Flora’s plate. Frida glanced nervously at Pasha, as if expecting him to appreciate the act—to laugh perhaps, or also toss some nearby object. When he did neither, his face remaining impassive, his gaze motionless, she ran out of the living room on lumpy, bruised legs.
Anecdotes are good, was Robert’s take. His temperament was conducive to seeing the big picture. Seven years would be sufficient for any residual unpleasantness to wear off. Bitter aftertastes had relatively short half-lives. In seven years’ time when John Lamborg would be reminded of Frida’s stocking fling, you know what he would do? Laugh! Everything falls into perspective. What appears to be a tragedy now will be repackaged as a light anecdote, a bit of color—crumpled stockings in Flora’s plate of glistening black caviar. Answer me this, if the encounter had gone smoothly, what reason would there be to remember it?
Of course in seven years John Lamborg may no longer be alive. The man drank a good deal.
Levik had been ordered to pull out the vintage merlot they’d gotten as a welcome-to-the-new-world gift from their distant new world relatives (scattered in the mansioned pine forests of New Jersey) and which served, it seemed, as a sort of bribe—we will give you an outrageous bottle of wine the likes of which you’ve never tasted, even though the odds you’re able to discern the notes of vanilla oak and black truffle and hints of plum cassis on the finish are slim, and in exchange you’ll never ask us for anything or expect any sort of relationship or call on the holidays. Levik’s hands shook violently as he uncorked. He was going through the actions as told, but it was taking profound control to tune out the internal hiccup—Don’t, don’t, don’t.
Such a deep nuanced red came out of the tender opening as Levik poured.
A coy look came over the guest’s face. What’s this, he said, a Russian household with no vodka?
God forbid. Levik rummaged around behind the radiator that, if anything, gave off frost, and introduced a family-size bottle of the clear stuff.
And they’d been under the impression that Americans didn’t drink. Lamborg’s shotglass existed in a perpetually drained, expectant state. Just refilling it (without drawing too much attention to the refilling) was a full-time job. Lamborg had taken to heart the custom that it was rude to drink when a toast wasn’t being offered. The Nasmertovs had proposed one or two at the meal’s commencement—concise, practical, for health and wealth. But then Lamborg made a few increasingly far-fetched toasts himself, to enviable households, to new countries and new friends, white nights and black seas, and they realized with horror that they were supposed to keep cranking out the toasts so their guest could keep imbibing. Three-quarters of the bottle (which was the size of a child’s leg) disappeared with practically no help from them.
Frida had expected the stranger to leave in an hour, two at most. During her brief stint at the table, she had been too uncomfortable and indignant to eat. Once the adrenaline from the tantrum subsided, she found that she was starving. But you don’t throw stockings at your mother’s face in front of an important visitor you’re supposed to be impressing only to return an hour later for some pelmeni. She remembered all the delicacies on the table. Esther’s homemade cherry vareniki in thick crimson sauce had virtually disappeared from their culinary repertoire as of late. They were labor-intensive and the cherries here were not like the cherries they’d grown on their dacha. But the vareniki were currently in a bowl on that table in the living room, to which Frida could possibly very quietly return once the visitor was gone. She had pride. She would starve to death before facing that man again. And starve she would because the hours kept passing with no sign of his departure. If the visitor were making an exit, the entire family would escort him to the end of the corridor, where they’d orchestrate a loud, festive, dramatic, prolonged farewell—to seal in the specialness of the occasion and properly launch it up the memory chute. So Frida was prepared to overhear the finale, which, like any proper climax, would be audible through a closed door, a door to which she pressed her ear every quarter hour. What the hell was going on out there? The silence stretched for so long and the vividness of the cherry sauce grew so bright, Frida suddenly thought, maybe I fell asleep without realizing and in the meantime the visitor left? So she cracked her door a smidgen and peeked out—to find the visitor’s shoes waiting under the mirror. Murmurings leaked out, there was the scrape of porcelain, a muffled cough. She almost succumbed to the urge to rush into the living room and grab as many vareniki as she could with her hands—but they were slippery, they’d slide out. She shut the door and sank into despair.
The knob turned. Esther stuck in her head.
Are you hungry?
No, said Frida. I hate you.
Not even for some cherry vareniki?
Esther was unexpected in the role of savior. Usually she was the one advocating for harsher measures and stricter policies, being of the opinion that naughty girls who show no respect for their elders must be taught a lesson, and that once you set out to teach a lesson, Flora, you have to go through with it. Flora had a tendency to cave the instant her initial rage subsided. Then it was all kisses, togetherness, laughs—to absolutely no disciplinary result. The mixed messages only made a more stubborn monster out of Frida. When the door opened and it wasn’t Flora, Frida felt bolts of reinvigorated anger, as if her mother had broken a promise to relent. But here was Esther with her gray face and ratty wig, her half-dried sweat and palpable not-wellness, offering Frida not just sustenance but assistance in taking the first step toward a return to public life. A shame—Frida preferred to regard Esther as the enemy.
Where’d he go? asked Frida.
He’s an idiot, said Frida, intending to anger.
And a drunk, said Esther.
Pasha saw the émigré poets—Renata Ostraya, Nurzhan Bozhko, Andrei Fishman, Efim and Sofya Milturn—and found them, to his surprise, every bit as lively as he had the summer before. This time they came to Brighton, as Pasha didn’t want to leave Esther for an entire evening. He thought his refusal to venture into Manhattan would mean that he wouldn’t see them, but they scrapped their plans and boarded the train, emerging boisterous and rowdy. Pasha was apparently providing them with an opportunity for adventure. They approached Brighton with the attitude that it was hilarious and exotic. They were strictly explorers, anthropologists. Of course a good anthropologist must participate fully in the local customs, no matter how bizarre. Once they got off the train they piled into the nearest gastronome and loaded up on cheap liter bottles of Ukrainian beer and kvass, filled containers with pickled cabbage and tomatoes, grabbed packets of dried salted fish, then stopped off at the liquor store for that very thing a Russian household couldn’t do without. Provisions in hand, they made straight for the shore, for a nighttime picnic in the moonlight.
Pasha followed along, feeling vague stirrings of resentment. This was a real neighborhood where people lived, people with families and tight budgets, and furthermore, people who spoke and read in the language in which they wrote. No reason to feel so high and mighty, to act like the nobleman who’d put on a peasant’s frock to act the part for an evening. And his mother was sick—she lay in bed vomiting into a tub one block away. Pasha was not in disguise. Yet once they’d settled onto the cool sand he was able to relax. It was as if he’d been collecting evidence against them into a plastic bag that was punctured by one of the ubiquitous glass shards when he settled onto the sand. All the evidence leaked out into the ocean. It was a nice night. So much so that Pasha, after a long sigh, said, What a nice night. Who was it that said one must make a habit of saying aloud when something is nice?
My Uncle Dodya, for one, said Sofya Milturn. She’d turned appealing in the dark. What the moon did to the ocean’s surface it also did to her hair, illuminating a path through the smoothness and ripples. In the light she was gawky, boyish, angular, but now she was lithe—a clean, elegant silhouette. Ostraya was out of her element, breathing heavily and trying to get individual sand grains to unstick from her large white calves. The group honored a pensive period. But they drank steadily throughout and were returned to rowdiness.
The skinny-dipping was Sofya’s idea. It was turning out to be her night. Only her husband, Efim, hesitated. He was useful to the crowd in that he provided the brakes. Fishman, occasionally Ostraya and Sofya, comprised the engine, and everybody else gave color to the ride. If you just looked at Fishman, you’d never suspect the frenzy of sexual energy within him, the nonstop gurgling frenzy, the need that could never be satisfied for long. He looked extraordinarily plain and middle-aged; beady eyes, a nose like a nose, no lips. The face was very red, overheated, which was the only sign that beneath the surface, and not too far beneath, was a barely contained fire that had settled into the most unlikely candidate. Fishman was engaged in a never-ending battle with his own odd physical manifestation, but luckily he had it in him to fight fifty battles at once and simultaneously charm the ladies, because if he wasn’t doing that, what was the point of any of it? Along the way he charmed Pasha, who usually had a hard time tolerating the energetic types. But Fishman was less like an overgrown child, the way the majority of these types came off, more like a man in the thick of existence, encompassing all inlaid hypocrisies, chauvinisms, victories, fetishes, guilt.
After experiencing the ocean’s cool slimy touch on every part of their bodies, they returned to the blanket to find that two were missing. Efim was silent and shrunken, with a dull gaze of incomprehension, then alarm. She drowned? Wishful thinking. Two interlocked shadows disturbed the equanimity of the water, luckily out of the moonlight’s path. Occasionally Sofya’s hair caught it. Everybody on the sand felt insufficient somehow, so they had a conversation about literature, digging small holes with unconscious effort.
Pasha liked that none of it affected him too closely. He was the observer, the anthropologist, not them. They, in fact, had it all wrong. But as an anthropologist Pasha missed a few nuances. He left with the impression that the night had been a great success, whereas they might’ve been more reserved in their evaluations.
Regardless, the night had served its function, casually reminding Pasha of America’s positive attributes. Immigrating wouldn’t be so bad now, would it? He had friends. They were lively and witty. Meanwhile the situation in Odessa was only getting worse. A systematic deterioration defined every arena of life: Pasha’s beloved bookstore had overnight transformed into a casino whose metallic windows just reflected his absurd confounded face; the only other poet he tolerated in the entire city had frozen to death last March in a drunken stupor outside the doors of another casino; those coffee-flavored sucking candies had disappeared from markets—and in a way they had been his sole joy.
Back at the apartment, the stench of vomit clung to the air. Pasha found all the lights turned on, needlessly overlapping, imparting an aggressive sheen, while everyone had fallen asleep strewn about the rooms. Robert sat at the kitchen table with his hand clutching the handle of a cup of tepid tea, his large head cradled in the crook of his elbow. Flora was slumped on the toilet seat, a medical textbook in her lap. Levik had been tinkering with the TV’s wiring when he’d dozed off. Esther still clung to the plastic tub, which had recently been emptied and cleaned and still glistened wetly.
They had spent the earlier part of that day at the hospital, where other people’s conversations were marked by a subdued intensity. It’s good I made you that sandwich, said the small woman with a drinker’s nose, wrapped in a sweater in the air-conditioned cafeteria. The bread isn’t very appropriate, said the small man with a drinker’s nose before proceeding with a very businesslike chewing. Others were peeling hardboiled eggs and rattling sugar packets and stirring coffee all with great determination; others were reading brochures, becoming informed, asking a question. Esther sat in a snug-fitting armchair that in retrospect would look beige but probably had a specific color, some insane purple. She sat in these armchairs and at the same time refused to touch them. You’d never catch her elbows on the armrests or her fingertips near the fabric—they were either holding a book or a cup of water or most often resting on her knees. Other people touched these armchairs. The problem was, of course, all those others.
Flora touched everything, and everything she touched became hers. How afraid she’d been—but that fear was like a loose thread snipped by the hospital’s sliding doors. As it turned out, she was a valuable sickness companion. For the first time they were seeing her in her new milieu, and it was enlightening. They had been of the opinion that nursing school was all wrong for her. We just don’t see you as a nurse, they said. On the one hand they thought it would be too much for her—the high-intensity environment, the long work hours—and on the other they considered it below her—a nurse. They had better suggestions. If she was going this route, she may as well bite the bullet and go to medical school, but she should also take into account that hairdressers make a good living in the States—and she’d always been so creative with her up-dos. But after they became regulars on the hospital scene, the offering of alternatives subsided.
Flora never rested her legs or plucked a magazine from the pile. There was always some slippery personage to track down, some bit of information to obtain, a minor error to not overlook and calmly correct. Flora’s voice, unlike that of the others, was loud but never hysterical. When Flora had nothing to say, her assured silence was just as soothing as her assured speech. It was only natural that she assumed full responsibility for their interactions with doctors. Flora told them what Esther felt and where and what Esther wanted and how, then told Esther what the doctors never quite formulated themselves. The German doctor hardly spoke, the Chinese doctor rattled off warm but unintelligible volumes, and it would have been better not to understand the Danish doctor. Having long ago stopped seeing patients as humans and disease as something unfortunate occurring within a patient who was human, he was interested only in recruiting the diseases (in whichever package they were delivered to him—brown hair, blond hair, fleshy, thin) for his ongoing, alternating, and evolving experimental studies.
If it was being offered, Esther was willing, sign her up. Sickness from treatment was preferable to sickness from disease. There was almost an invigorating aspect to it. The fact that she wasn’t well meant that she was getting better—the treatment was working and she only wanted it to work more, fearing that she wasn’t suffering enough. She pressured Flora to pressure the doctors for more chemo, stronger radiation, additional sessions, newer drugs—she was strong, she could take it. Oddly enough, in many instances the doctors could be convinced. But when she suffered third-degree burns, they saw no reason to take the blame.
The frantic demand for additional treatment was still ongoing a year later, when Pasha returned to catch the last weeks of his mother’s life. By then the future, or the lack of one, was clear to everyone except her. As she saw it, the doctors were deliberately depriving her of the one treatment that would overcome her disease, and she was determined to get access to it. There is a conspiracy against me, claimed Esther, who had, up until then, been rational to a fault.
The funeral was held in a massive Soviet immigrant death establishment on Coney Island Avenue, where cars had many lanes but still bunched together, and tiny people on the tiny strips of sidewalk seemed to be crossing a desert.