No one wants to listen to a man lament his solitary nights – myself included. Which is why, on an early fall morning four months after Gail left, when a woman breezed into my shop with a pinstriped skirt in her arms and said, “On what day this can be ready?” I didn’t write a receipt, tell her Tuesday and move on to the next customer. Instead I said, “Your accent. Russian?”
“The Jewel of the Baltic! I’ve read a lot about it,” I said. “The art, the food, those ancient fishing villages!” On and on I went– though I had not, in fact, read about it. I had, however, caught a television special once, but I remembered little more than twisted spires, dreary accordions, plates of pink fish, pocked and shiny.
“Ukraine,” she said slowly, “is not on the Baltic.” She had a wide pale face, full lips and short blond hair dyed the color of curry.
“Ah,” I said, and swallowed.
But she didn’t walk away. She squinted, as if trying to see me better. Then she leaned across the counter and extended her hand. “Svetlana Gumbar. But call me Sveta.”
“I’m Howard Siegel.” Then I blanked and blurted, “You can call me anytime you like.” She smiled, sort of. The lines sketching the corners of her eyes hinted she was closer to my age than to my daughter’s, for which I was thankful: it was too pathetic a jump from the twentysomething girlfriend to the earring and squirrelly ponytail. I laid out her skirt, examining it for stains, and when I finally worked up the nerve, I asked her to dinner.
“What are you doing picking up women on the job?” my daughter said that evening over chicken at her place.
“What’s wrong with that?
“There are better places to look for them. I know two women from Beit Adar who would love to meet you.
Beth was still lovely – dark and freckled with eyebrows too thick for her face – but the silk kerchief covering her hair would take some getting used to. So would the mezuzahs hanging in every doorway of her new Brooklyn apartment, the shelf of Hebrew prayer books I doubted she could even read. This was, to say the least, a recent development. And what timing. Right when I was trying to learn how to live alone after forty years of marriage, Beth had left for Jerusalem. And, worse, she came back born again – and with a fiancé, Ya’akov, who happened to be a fool.
“Listen,” I said, “I’ve got a feeling about Sveta. You trust my taste in women, don’t you, Beth?”
“But why rule out other prospects?” the fool said.
“I’m the one who has to spend an evening with these women, making small talk!”
“Still,” he said, “give them a chance.” Ya’akov was small and wiry, with agitated little hands and a kippah that slid around his slick brown hair, like even it didn’t know what it was doing on his head. He was from Long Island. He had once been Jake ‘The Snake’, pledgemaster of his fraternity. At the wedding his brothers from Sigma Phi had looked as flummoxed as his parents, as if everyone were waiting for Jake to confess that his religious awakening was just an elaborate prank.
“All my wife’s trying to say,” Ya’akov continued, “is that we know plenty of nice women.”
“Maybe you could let Beth speak for herself, Jake.”
“But I agree with him,” she said. “Why not let us fix you up?”
“I just want to meet someone the normal way,” I said. “Shopping for romance after services just doesn’t sound like love.”
“What do you think love should be, then?” Beth asked.
Outside the coffee shop windows, the swell of late-nighters sauntered past, their gazes concentrated and steady. Sveta looked so much more serene than the rest of the city, tiny and smiling in the big green booth, holding her tea mug with both hands. I sipped my coffee and listened to the goofy beat of my heart.
“You ask every woman you meet in cleaners on dates?” Sveta said, swallowing a bite of cheesecake. Her blouse was the same salmon shade as her lipstick, and riding up her wrist were gold bracelets that clinked when she set down her fork.
“Absolutely not! I’ve worked there my entire life and you’re the first.”
“You work at cleaners your whole life?”
“Not just one cleaners – I own five. The original store on Houston, one in Murray Hill,” I said, counting them off on my fingers, “two on the Upper West Side and the one on 33rd where you met me. It’s been in the family since my grandfather. He was a tailor in Kiev, came here and started the business. If my grandfather had been a brain surgeon, I’d be a brain surgeon now, too.”
“You are from Kiev?”
“Not me, my grandfather. I’ve never stepped foot there.”
But Sveta didn’t seem to be listening. “I am from Kiev!” She reached across the table and squeezed my hand. “Our people are coming from same place.”
Our people? My people were from Ditmas Avenue. My people had left Ukraine before the Cossacks could impregnate their wives. As a boy, I’d been dragged to visit my grandfather in White Plains, where our family kept him in assisted living. I’d been forced to sit on the tip of his bed, the smell of green beans and condensed milk heavy in the air, and listen to his stories of moldy potatoes for dinner, of the village beauty’s jaw shattered by the hoof of an angry horse. I’d heard stories of windows smashed, of my great-grandparents’ tombs knocked on their sides, the stones broken up and used to build roads. I’d imagined pasty faces wrapped tight in babushkas, soldiers charging through the streets with burning torches. I’d heard those stories so many times that they became only that to me: stories.
But I didn’t say that to Sveta. I didn’t say that, until I met her, I’d studiously avoided so much as looking for Ukraine on a map. I said, “What an amazing coincidence!” because I could understand how happy she was to meet a man who shared her roots on this side of the globe – and mostly because she was still squeezing my hand, and I would have done anything to stop her from letting go. “What brought you here, then, from the marvelous land of Ivan the Terrible?”
“My husband found work here.”
“And your husband doesn’t mind your going out with every dry cleaner you meet?”
“How would he know? He’s dead.” She spooned sugar into her tea and – was this really her deft way of changing the subject? – read the quote on the tea bag aloud like it was something to ponder.
“If you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth,” she read. “What you think it means?”
I had no clue. And anyhow, I wanted to hear about the dead man. “You know where they come up with these quotes? At some warehouse out in San Francisco. Same place they make the Chinese fortunes for the cookies. The person who wrote this knows jack about truth.”
“This person,” said Sveta, “is Gandhi.”
Of course I’d opened my mouth just when our hands were touching. It was during these moments in life that I feared I’d become one of those old men I always saw here in the coffee shop, alone at a table, slurping soup.
The check came and we both reached for it. “Let me,” we said in unison.
“I had good time,” Sveta said, slapping down a bill before I’d even opened my wallet.
I assumed she said it out of politeness after my Gandhi comment, but when we walked outside, she grabbed my face with both hands and kissed me, hard. “Where you are living?” she whispered. I pointed west, toward the Hudson. “Good,” she said, taking my hand.
While Sveta stared out at the boats dotting the river, I looked at her full cheeks and jagged teeth, remnants of lipstick escaping the corners of her mouth. In one long slow moment the room went quiet.”
Inside my apartment, I led her to the kitchen. Not the sexiest room, but I really wanted to show off the view above the sink: I rarely had the opportunity anymore for guests to see it. While Sveta stared out at the boats dotting the river, the bright white lights of Jersey in the distance, I looked at her full cheeks and jagged teeth, remnants of lipstick escaping the corners of her mouth. In one long slow moment the room went quiet. I pulled her close. We were quick with each other, untucking, unbuckling, unzipping, until we were pressed naked against the dishwasher except for socks and watches and my glasses, which Sveta, at the last moment, set on the counter.
We stayed up so late that gauzy yellow light filtered in through the blinds and I could hear the garbage trucks outside, making their runs. Sveta was curvy and round, with a scatter of moles across her hips. And here I was, sixty-three, paunchy and balding, wondering how I had gotten a woman like Sveta into my bed, wondering even more how to make certain she stayed, and still completely clueless about how to keep things casual. “How long,” I said finally, “has your husband been gone?”
“And am I too nosy if I ask how he went?”
“No, not nosy,” she said, propping a pillow behind her head. And then she told me their story. She’d met him fifteen years ago, in her late twenties, just as they were finishing graduate school. They’d both been deep into their research – Sveta’s dissertation was on Kiev’s Golden Age, and Nikolai, a chemistry PhD, was researching Chernobyl’s long-term impact on the nearby city of Pripyat – and there was something so comforting, Sveta told me, about those early years together. “It was the first time,” she said, “I really knew what happiness means.” Whenever they were together, even just reading side by side or walking down the block for groceries, the sky seemed a little brighter, the sun a little warmer, the world turned up a notch. They were both obsessed with their work, introverts at heart, and it had felt, once they were married, that she no longer had to try with other people, that what everyone else thought of her was of little importance. Of course they still went out with friends, but there was always a moment toward the end of the evening when they’d share a look across the bar, a silent understanding it was time to leave, to be alone again. That was a look I knew well, one Gail and I would notice between other couples, at dinners or parties, a look that always made us feel defensive and exposed. After those evenings, we’d find ourselves dissecting the relationships of our friends, picking apart their dynamic until we felt better about our own, standing beside one another at our twin sinks, brushing our teeth.
Nikolai had been exposed to Chernobyl’s radiation every day for six years while he researched the disaster, Sveta continued, but it wasn’t until he accepted a fellowship here and they moved to a safe, quiet street on Staten Island that he walked outside to rake the leaves one morning, clutched his chest and collapsed right there in the driveway. “Nobody had idea about his heart,” Sveta said. “We were knowing nothing. Murmur condition is affecting something like one in every million men, and it has to be my Nikolai.” Sveta was left alone in a new house in a new country with only Galina, a cousin she’d grown up with in Kiev who now lived in Chicago, to talk to.
I ran a finger along the inside of her wrist, creamy and warm and marbled with delicate veins. My own problems, the ones I had wallowed in for months, were nothing compared to hers. It occurred to me that she was stronger than I was. “Why not go home to your family? ”
“I have no child, and my parents die long time ago. My grandmother raise me, but when Nikolai and I marry, she do aliyah to Israel. Move back home?” She shook her head. “At least here I can learn English and get job in accounting. It’s more easy being in US.”
“Oh, Sveta.” A throwaway comment, but the only thing I could think to say.
“How you say here? Shit it happens.” She laughed, but it sounded startled and strained – the laugh that carries over everyone else’s in a crowded restaurant.
I, in turn, tried my best to hint at what an unbelievable catch I was. I told Sveta about growing up next door to Gail in Brooklyn, how she went from being my playmate at school to my best friend to my steady girlfriend. I told her we married at twenty-three and scrimped for years, finally landing our dream apartment on Riverside Drive. I told her Beth’s birth was undoubtedly the most important day of my life. I told her how even as a little girl, Beth seemed more like a friend than a daughter. And I told her what a terrific time we had over the summer, after Beth finished law school and moved home to save money while she studied for the bar. What bliss: we ordered in most nights, matineed on Sundays, sat up late talking in the kitchen – it was as if she had never been gone.
I didn’t tell Sveta how painful it was to hear my daughter announce, at the end of the summer, that she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life (“Neither do I!” I’d said. “And I’m sixty-three!”), that she’d chosen this career simply because she was terrified of never discovering what she did want – only then to run off to Jerusalem and return with Ya’akov. I didn’t tell her how even walking from the subway to Beth’s new apartment made me jittery and cold. I felt like I was walking back in time, back to when I was still a religious kid living in Brooklyn. Back when my family had enough money for a silver kiddush cup but not for new winter coats, back when we were just another poor family with too much faith in God.
Everything felt so new and fragile with Sveta that I didn’t want to make the mistake of oversharing too soon. There was a huge part of me, hearing Sveta talk so openly about her marriage, that didn’t want her to know my own had failed. And I knew my closeness to Beth – whom I’d always felt understood me better than anyone else in the world, including her mother – might sound odd if I attempted to describe it to another person. So I didn’t tell her how Gail would snap about some mess I’d left in the kitchen and Beth would catch my gaze and roll her eyes: she had a way of making me feel she was on my side without ever explicitly saying so. I didn’t tell her that when Beth wasn’t around and we were left without a buffer, Gail and I could barely share a meal without a blowup.
Sveta touched my face. ‘I told Galina I wasn’t ready for new somebody, but she said there were many other people out there.’ I waited for her to finish the thought, but she didn’t.”
Everything I did ignited a fight: the way I chewed my food, the way I folded laundry, the way I made love. I told Gail it was impossible to live with someone so critical; Gail said it was impossible to live with a man who dealt with emotion by avoiding it altogether. But I had wanted to work things out – if not for us, then for Beth. I suggested counseling; Gail flew to Burlington and fucked a retired architect she had met online.
“The fantastic thing about Gail is that we’re still great friends,” I lied. “I couldn’t imagine not being in touch after sharing so much.”
Sveta touched my face. “I told Galina I wasn’t ready for new somebody, but she said there were many other people out there.”
I waited for her to finish the thought, but she didn’t. She tucked her body around mine and shut her eyes, as if there were nothing left to say.
For the next few weeks, I’d close up the shop near Herald Square and wait for Sveta to finish her English class. I’d had this same view of a bodega and a produce stand for years and never thought much of it – but now Sveta would come gliding around the corner and even the asphalt would shimmer.
“But be honest,” the fool said, “aren’t you the tiniest bit worried you’re just a rebound?”
I was, yet again, at Beth and Ya’akov’s for Friday night dinner. It was the only time I saw them: they wouldn’t ride the subway to visit me on Shabbat, they wouldn’t eat in my kitchen because it wasn’t kosher, they wouldn’t eat at kosher restaurants near my apartment because they weren’t kosher enough.
Who does the hashgacha at this place? Ya’akov always wanted to know.
“I mean, how long has it been since this guy died?” Ya’akov held up his hands, as if they were supported by logic. “Tell me you haven’t considered this.”
“What do you know about loss?” I said.
“Actually, a lot. When I was in Jerusalem I did home visits with my yeshiva to bring a little tikva” – already he and Beth had begun to pepper their sentences with Hebrew, their inside jokes with God – “back into the lives of people who had lost family in the bombings, and—”
“Ya’akov.” Beth shot the fool a look he deserved. “My father knows what he’s doing. He’s a grown man.”
“Thank you, Beth,” I said. “Listen, why don’t you come over tomorrow and spend the day with me and Sveta? Lightning won’t strike if you miss services just this once.”
“I like going.”
“I just do. Why do you care so much?” She suddenly sounded like the old Beth, and I had a glimpse of how she might have been as a lawyer, her delivery so sharp I felt my own voice wobble when I said, “No, really. I mean – what about it do you love?” I honestly wanted to know.
“Something about stepping into that sanctuary where people have been singing the same melodies for hundreds of years. It’s like I finally belong somewhere,” she said, her tone softening, and though I expected her blue eyes to be wild with fervor, they were bright and calm. “All these people in shul, they’re like my safety net,” she said, and I stood there blinking: wasn’t it enough to fall back on me?
“Now that you’re here,” she said, “I wanted to tell you that—”
“We’re pregnant,” Ya’akov said, coming behind her and stroking her flat belly.
He gathered me into a hug, his skinny arms tight and firm, while I stood there, my feet cemented to the floor. I swallowed a pain in my throat, but it came back up again.
“What news!” I said, sliding out of Ya’akov’s hug. “Does Mom know? ”
“I haven’t told her yet,” Beth said. “I wanted you to be the first to hear.”
“Well,” Ya’akov said, “after Reb Yandorf and the rebbetzen, you’re the first.”
I kissed her cheek. She even smelled like a mother, of sweat and cooking oil and a dozen oniony dinners. “I’m so happy for you,” I tried. “That’s wonderful.”
“Thanks.” Then she glanced at me with more concern than a daughter should. “You’re really sure Sveta’s making you happy, too? ”
That was the understatement of the century. I loved waking up beside Sveta, watching her rub sleep seeds from her large brown eyes. I loved how quickly we slept together, as if neither of us could muster a reason to hold back. And I loved the sex itself, which was undeniably, almost unbelievably, good. I loved watching her face scrunch up and then go slack, and I loved the moment right after, when she would huddle into the nook of my arm and run a hand over my hairy chest, calling me her big bear. I loved that she came to Friday night dinner at Ya’akov and Beth’s and never let her eyes glaze during the blessings, though I’m sure she was bored nearly to sleep. I loved that she was kind to them, and I loved the quiet dignity she maintained when refusing to join in on the prayers – letting them know that growing up, she hadn’t been allowed to learn them – rather than snapping at Ya’akov, as I often did, to hurry up already so we could eat. Those moments at the dinner table, I felt as if Sveta were teaching me something important: that I didn’t need to make every opinion known, didn’t need to be filterless, that sometimes the best thing was to sit quietly and smile and sip my wine. I loved the weekends, when we would take the paper to the park and spend all day lazing around the meadow, watching the neighborhood parade by with its strollers and dogs. I loved kissing her in that meadow, on the street, on the subway platform, just before the train roared into view – as if we were the only ones who existed, as if the entire city were being carried away in a tornado, and we were caught smack in the center of its glorious gray swirl.
Of course there were nights when I heard her slip out of bed after the lights had been off for hours. As my eyes settled into the darkness of the room, I’d see her standing by the window, lifting a book or a paperweight off my shelf. Not really looking at the object, just turning it over in her hands like she’d forgotten its function. Usually I rolled on my side and fell back asleep, knowing at some point she would return to bed – after all, when Gail first left, I’d found myself wandering the rooms of my apartment, opening cupboards or flicking on lights, then forgetting why I had entered the room in the first place.
I knelt beside her and stroked that soft ambiguous space between her back and her behind… and then I asked her, just like that, and she said yes.”
“But one night – it was October, a work night, two weeks after I’d learned Beth was pregnant – I put on my slippers and followed Sveta’s footsteps down the hall. I found her on her knees in the bathroom, face cupped in her hands, weeping. She was in one of my undershirts, so baggy it reached her knees, and the sight of her on my bathroom floor was – well, it just was. The room was dark, but there was enough moon coming in from the window that her skin lit up white. I had no idea what it meant to find her hunched on my tiled floor in tears, and to be honest, I didn’t want to know – who would interrupt a moment like that to ask if she was having, like the fool would suggest, a meltdown? – so I knelt beside her and stroked that soft ambiguous space between her back and her behind. I wiped her damp face with the heel of my hand, and then I asked her, just like that, and she said yes.
We’d both learned that the big things you plan in life never live up, so we kept it small at a nearby synagogue. I would have preferred to sidestep all the Orthodox malarkey and have the wedding at City Hall, but then Beth wouldn’t have come, and Sveta, maybe because of her secular background, said she couldn’t care less where the ceremony was held. Sveta’s cousin Galina flew in from Chicago and carried flowers down the aisle. She looked older than Sveta, late forties at least, with dark curly hair and delicate wrists that suggested she had once been slender. I hated thinking she had probably been at Sveta’s first wedding, too, wearing that same puffed pastry dress, so I concentrated on the clacking sound my Oxfords made as she scattered roses across the room.
Under the chuppah Sveta looked especially flush-faced and pretty, wearing a silky dress that stopped at her ankles. Saying the vows was much easier the second time around. While the rabbi droned on about the seven blessings and the history of the ketubah, Sveta started to cry: not enough to smear her makeup, but enough for me to notice. For a second, I wondered if she was scared to be going through this again. Or, worse, if she feared the whole thing was all wrong. But then Sveta gave me one of her smiles – just a flash of teeth, and then it was all about that lower lip – and I thought, My God, this woman has tears of joy for me. I raised my foot above the glass and the guests broke into applause.
The next afternoon, we were off on a honeymoon to Ukraine. Beth and Ya’akov drove us to the airport. The women were quiet in the backseat: Beth nauseated and pale, small hands stroking her stomach; Sveta dozing with her cheek against the window, still tired from the wedding. Sunlight caught her gold band and I twisted my own; when Sveta slipped it on the night before it was as if it had always been there, as if there was never an interim when my finger was bare. We veered onto the Triborough Bridge and the skyline rushed into focus, so miniature and grand. I nudged Sveta to look up, but she was groggy and slow, and by the time she opened her eyes it had disappeared from her view.
We pulled into Kennedy, and Ya’akov and I unloaded the trunk while Sveta went with Beth to the bathroom.
“I’ve got to hand it to you,” Ya’akov said, setting our luggage on the curb. “You move fast.”
“Would you let it go already?” I said.
“I’m sorry.” He clamped a hand on my shoulder. “Sveta’s great and I didn’t mean for it to come out that way.”
“How did you mean it, then?”
I stared hard at that bony hand, perched on my shoulder like a proud parrot, but Ya’akov didn’t remove it. He met my eyes. “We just want what’s best for you. Forget what I said and enjoy the honeymoon. We’ll look forward to the photos,” he said, and I wondered if I would ever be able to hear that we without feeling my throat clog.
Then it was time to go. Sveta and I said our goodbyes to them and slogged through security, and soon we were taking off. By her feet was a handbag full of magazines, but she just kept staring out the window. I followed her gaze but all I saw were clouds, the kind that look sturdy enough to nap on. The sun set. I thought about how if the plane flew in the other direction, the sun would set and set and set.
Sveta had come home with a Ukrainian guidebook. ‘You can imagine more perfect honeymoon?’ ‘Terrific!’ I had said, though I’d been hoping for Tahiti.”
At Charles de Gaulle we took a shuttle to a dinky terminal and boarded a little plane with orange vinyl seats and no leg room. As it taxied off the runway and bumped through the sky, I reached for Sveta’s hand. It felt lighter than usual, and warm with sweat.
“You’re afraid of flying?” How odd to think I didn’t know this about her.
“Not so much,” she said, but her cheeks had blanched. “It’s just these tiny planes, they frighten me.”
I thought to say, but you’re the one who wanted to fly halfway around the world. A month ago, just days after I’d asked her – I’d still been rolling the word fiancée on my tongue, tasting the sound of it – Sveta had come home with a Ukrainian guidebook. “You can imagine more perfect honeymoon?”
“Terrific!” I had said, though I’d been hoping for Tahiti.
I must have seemed underwhelmed because she’d looked at me, her round face more serious than usual, and said, “I haven’t been back to Ukraine since Nikolai. My whole life – it was there.” I think I understood only then how infuriating it must be for Sveta to translate feelings this complicated. “I know your life in US. I want my husband to know place that make me. Please,” she said. “Anyway, we have nice time in Kiev. You can see my flat from youth, my school. And what a treat for you to see where your people are coming from.”
There was no point in telling her I’d never had much desire to explore the city my relatives had fled. All my life I’d tried to look forward, not back. My grandfather worked for years in a factory until he had enough money saved to open a tailor shop. My father took over the shop and added a dry-cleaning business, and when it became mine, I hired more workers, bought a quality steam press – all in the name of moving forward. I kept the shop open on holidays to increase profits – all in the name of moving forward. But sometimes, when I was locking up the shop or drifting to sleep, I’d think about how everyone around me seemed to be regressing. Beth returning to the Brooklyn shtetl I had abandoned, Gail acting impulsive and smitten and happy – nothing like her age, nothing like I had known her to be. And now me, vacationing in Kiev. Still, what could I say but yes?
Six hours later the sun was coming up and we were in a taxi, swerving through Kiev. Everything was calling out to be photographed – the dark choppy water of the Dnieper; pine trees that lined the road, so green they were almost blue; even sights as commonplace as a mother and daughter on the corner, clutching plastic grocery bags and peering down the block as their bus came closer – until Sveta sighed and tucked my camera back in its case.
She’d seemed almost annoyed with me the moment the plane touched down and we had to split into separate lines at customs. And now she was acting as if there were an invisible person between us in the taxi whose space we needed to accommodate, her body pushed against the passenger door, the window down, her arm hanging out.
I figured she was tired, and didn’t want to bother her. So I opened my guidebook and leaned toward the driver. “Vy hovoryte—”
“Yes,” he sighed, “I speak English.”
“Maybe you can show us some sights? Some old KGB stuff?”
Sveta’s face cleared and she cringed. Through the rearview, she muttered something to the driver, and though I didn’t speak a word of Ukrainian, I recognized her expression – the international look of I’m sorry.
As we made our way down a thin, cobbled street, she said something else to the driver and we stopped. Outside the window was a department store, glass-walled and wide, with mannequins in dresses and heels.
“This used to be the shop where my grandmother work as stockwoman,” Sveta said, more to her lap than to me. “Now looks like Bloomingdale.”
“That’s a good thing, no?” I said.
The taxi started up again.
“Maybe,” she said, but she stiffened. Then she sat upright, silently watching her city blur past, and all I could concentrate on was the way her nostrils widened and closed as she breathed.
Our hotel room in Kiev was just a sunken bed, a mini fridge and a green floral armchair pushed against a window. This was what the travel agent had called four-star? I opened my mouth to complain, but stopped. With Gail I would have said something, but maybe that had been part of the problem. On the second go-around I knew to keep things breezy.
“Smile,” I said, pulling the camera from my fanny pack and aiming it at Sveta.
“Stop with photos,” Sveta said, flopping on the bed. “How are you not feeling jet lag? My ears haven’t even popping.”
I knelt beside her. The carpet was pale brown, the kind we had in my living room growing up. I kissed her. She let me. I read this as a go. I tucked my hand under her sweater.
“Howard, I’m smelling like airport.”
“What I’m needing is rest,” she said, blinking into sleep.
I looked around the room, at our unpacked suitcases and the old floral chair and the brown carpet, and told myself not to overanalyze – there was nothing wrong with Sveta wanting a nap. I lay down and wrapped my arms around her, and then the exhaustion hit me, too.
I wasn’t sure how long I’d been asleep when I felt her slip out of bed. She tiptoed into the bathroom, closing the door behind her. The clock on the nightstand read 12:18, but with the heavy drapes, was it a.m. or p.m.? I yanked open the curtains, cracked the window and the cold air jolted me awake. Afternoon; we still had most of the day.
When I turned the knob, Sveta stood at the sink, wiping her eye makeup off with a tissue. In the mirror her face looked weathered and puffy, older somehow – as if the flight had aged her. She stepped out of her sweater and jeans; I stared at a body still so amazingly new to me: her full white hips, the swelled curve of her upper arms. Her back was like some secret object being unveiled.
She began to take off her bra when she saw me in the mirror. Then she hooked it back on. “You’re needing the toilet?”
“I wanted to see if you’re okay.” I hoped my voice didn’t sound as pleading to her as it did to me.
“I’m fine, thanks.” She turned to face me and I was stunned by her expression: she seemed genuinely startled to see me standing there. “But you’re let all the cold come in.”
“I’ll go check out the shops downstairs,” I said, walking out, not knowing what else to do. Just before the room door slammed shut, I saw Sveta step out of the bathroom and pick up the phone.
“Galina,” she said after a moment.
I waited. I pressed my ear to the closed door, but all I heard were hiccups. Then the hiccups broke into sobs.
Downstairs looked like an American hotel lobby: potted ferns, gloomy nautical art, a pretty concierge tapping away with long pink nails on a computer. Men in glossy black loafers and dark mustaches – I had never seen so many mustaches – whispered into cell phones, conducting business I sensed was enormously important. I sat on a sofa and watched them, but after a while I gave up trying to understand their conversations and wandered into the gift shop. There I found all the presents I needed to buy without ever going outside: a matryoshka nesting doll for the baby, a set of bath towels with the hotel name stitched in Cyrillic for the fool, a scalloped wooden jewelry box for Beth.
I sat beside her on the bed and opened up the matryoshka doll. A smaller doll was tucked inside. I opened up the next one and the next one, until there were five little dolls lined up on the bedside table.”
Back in the room, Sveta was still on the phone, wrapped to her chin in blankets. She nodded at me and cradled the phone to her cheek, suddenly responding to the other end in only nyet’s and uhuh’s. Her voice was low and wavery; I knew not to mention the hotel’s long-distance rates. I sat beside her on the bed and opened up the matryoshka doll. A smaller doll was tucked inside. I opened up the next one and the next one, until there were five little dolls lined up on the bedside table.
Sveta placed her hand over the mouthpiece. The look she shot me made me swallow, hard. “Go enjoying the day,” she whispered. “I think I’m wanting to stay in.”
I sat there, staring at my wife, with her short rumpled hair, bare toes peeking out from the heap of blankets. I wanted to ask what that look was for. It was even worse than the one I’d gotten in the bathroom: it was the terrified look you’d give an intruder barging into your hotel room. But I had a feeling I knew the answer, and the last thing I wanted to hear Sveta say was that she had made a mistake. I knew it was ridiculous to be threatened by a dead man, but I couldn’t help it. Nikolai had been the kind of man, I decided, whom people in America had never referred to as Nick. The kind of man who would have seemed ten times more charming and intelligent than I did, simply because of his accent. A man who would have looked dashing in his white radioactive gear, wandering the Chernobyl countryside while women fell at his feet. A man who made love like a pro, a man who was probably – oh, God – the original big bear.
And yet I knew, deep down, that it wasn’t only him. It was the way Sveta had closed into herself this morning as we passed that department store. It was the bewildered way she’d looked out the taxi window, as if her city had gone into hiding. It was the fact that she’d called her cousin when she felt this bad, rather than turning to me. I hadn’t even had time to mess up in the ways I’d anticipated, ordering stupidly in a restaurant or bumbling in front of her friends. That moment in the taxi earlier, when apparently I’d said something embarrassing I still couldn’t pinpoint – those sorts of things I had worried about, of course, but had believed they’d all seem inconsequential once we returned home to New York. But this felt different. As if the moment the plane landed in Kiev, Sveta was no longer certain I belonged in her life.
All at once I felt crowded and dizzy and nauseous. I took in some air, what felt like all of it left between us, and said, “How about showing me your old school? ”
“Later, then. When you’re off the phone we can go.”
“Howard,” Sveta said, “I’m not wanting to give tours now. Why don’t you go seeing some sights yourself ?”
“It’s fine, I’m in no rush.” I sensed I was talking my way into a hole, but I couldn’t stop. I never fucking could. “Relax now and we’ll go out for an early—”
“Stop, please.” She muttered something to Galina, put down the phone and led me to the door.
“Listen,” I said, reaching for her arm – but as I said “listen” she said “have fun” and closed the door. I stood outside the room, noticing, for the first time, the view of a soccer stadium from the open hall window. Amid the bleats of horns below I could hear the faint cheers of the crowd in the distance. I leaned against the wall and said “No” out loud.
Then I knocked, twice, and Sveta opened the door.
“You’re my wife,” I said. “Just tell me. Did I do something, anything, to make you feel—”
“It’s nothing like this.”
Then I said it: “You thought you loved me, and it turns out you don’t.”
A maid wheeled her cart by. Down the hall, a vacuum hummed. “I’m so sorry,” Sveta said. She stared at the carpet, then thrust a guidebook at me.
The day was blue and crisp. Trees were still bare but the snow had melted, visible only in tiny patches along the sidewalk. I stuffed the guidebook into my fanny pack and roamed the streets, mapless and lost. I looked up at the blocky rows of concrete tenements, wondering if Sveta had lived in one of them, if she’d had a balcony crisscrossed with clotheslines and dotted gray sheets, like the ones billowing up now in the breeze. Two boys played tag, zigzagging through a row of parked cars, and I wondered if Sveta had been the kind of girl who would have hitched up her school dress to play with them, or if she would have stayed upstairs with her grandmother, avoiding cuts and bruises. I didn’t know, and I felt ridiculous standing there in the narrow alley. So I followed the walking tour in the book instead, moving onto cleaner, bush-lined roads. I visited Lenin’s statue and St Volodymyr’s Cathedral, the Taras Shevchenko Museum and Golda Meir’s childhood home, caring less about the significance of each place as the day dragged on.
Down a skinny brick road I wandered into a square, elegant stone buildings towering over me: this city really was much more glamorous than I had expected. Women in dark wool coats shouldered past, swinging department store bags, leaving behind whiffs of perfume I didn’t recognize. A grocer sifted through a bin of tomatoes, chucking the rotten ones into the gutter. Back home, it was morning. The storefront metal grates would just be coming up along Broadway.
Maybe I was the only lost one, wandering the streets of Kiev, competing with a dead man. I hated to think the fool had been right about Sveta and me all along.”
I needed something to show Beth and Ya’akov, some proof I was even here, so I walked through the square, snapping photos. Through the viewfinder I stared at the grocer’s green eyes and light skin, exactly like my own. Of course some of the people here looked like me: if my grandfather hadn’t had the foresight to sneak onto a cargo ship almost a century ago, I too might be out here while some silly tourist photographed me. And this was if I had been lucky. I knew this was the moment I was supposed to lock eyes with the grocer and think, Could he be a distant, forgotten relative? (Or, just as likely, the person who had beat the hell out of a distant, forgotten relative?) But the only thing on my mind was how I had gotten here, halfway across the world to the city my grandfather had escaped, with a woman I barely knew. I wondered where Beth was. Probably still in bed, in her dark, cramped apartment in the city I had fled, sleeping beside a man she barely knew: the things we do when we’re lost.
But maybe Beth was truly happier living a poor pious life with the fool. Maybe in religion, Beth really had discovered a way never to be alone. Maybe I was the only lost one, wandering the streets of Kiev, competing with a dead man. I hated to think the fool had been right about Sveta and me all along – that perhaps the fool wasn’t such a fool after all.
Across the square I found a restaurant, the entrance winking with fairy lights. I took a seat in the corner and flipped through the menu to see what I could stomach. Chernobyl was about an hour away so most vegetables were out, and the guidebook warned that restaurants didn’t refrigerate their meat. I settled on a chocolate babka.
A waiter appeared. “Something to drink?”
What I really wanted was a glass of Chianti, but when in Rome. “ Vodka? ”
All around me, people sat clustered together, clinking glasses and leaning close in conversation. I wondered how I looked to them: an aging man dressed so obviously like an American, wearing spanking white sneakers and a baseball cap. How had I let myself become just another sad old man at a table for one?
My drink came and I gulped it like water. Outside the window, the sun was going down, spreading over the city as evenly as butter. I ordered another and watched people stroll arm in arm through the streets. Watching them disappear around corners in the shadowy light – it was beautiful, and for a moment it comforted me to cradle my drink as the city faded and grayed.
But then the sky got dark and the streets went quiet and the group beside me paid and walked out. Soon, I knew, the restaurant would close and I would have to leave. But when I thought about returning to the hotel and listening to a crying Sveta apologize again and again as I wheeled my suitcase down to the lobby, when I thought about the long flight home and the freezing taxi line at Kennedy and the silent apartment that awaited me, the helplessness that rushed at me was so real I felt it move through my fingers and hair.
So I tried the only thing I could think of. I put down my head and prayed. It felt like the fakest thing in the world and at first I didn’t know what to say, or even who to say it to, but then I closed my eyes and tried. I prayed for calm in the world and for joy, I prayed for Beth and Ya’akov and the baby, for Sveta and even for Gail, but inside I knew I was praying mostly for myself. I was praying for a way out of this sadness. And when that didn’t work, when the waiter cleared my glass away and the restaurant emptied, I prayed for that safety net of people to appear. They would be just as Beth described, reverent and serene, and as they sang in unison about God’s grandeur and His pity, they would move closer together until their shoulders were touching and stretch their arms open wide, ready to take me in.
From The UnAmericans.
Molly Antopol is a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, where she was a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow. The UnAmericans is her debut story collection. She received her MFA from Columbia University, and her writing has appeared online at The New Yorker, and in One Story, Glimmer Train, The Oxford American, American Short Fiction, The Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, The Rumpus and elsewhere. She lives in San Francisco and is at work on a novel, The After Party.
The UnAmericans is published by Fourth Estate in hardback and eBook. Read more.