Fiction and Drama
Flung aside by a commuter changing trains, tripped over a pothole crossing Chambers, forgot her notebook on a bench by the Hudson during lunch, calculus teacher said, Darya, get your head out of the clouds, physics and poetry teachers absent, the notebook gone upon returning after school, a sick passenger delayed the Q, walking home it grew oppressively dark, each window she passed like a turned back that said don’t come near, ages before she reached the yellowish-beige brick comfort of her building, a relief lasting only as long as it took to unlock the lobby door — there’s something odd in the atmosphere, she thought, and to not disturb the oddness she tiptoed in, finding kitchen dark, living room empty. The only light was in her bedroom, where Gala sat at the edge of the unmade bed, Oleg hovered by the window.
Darya! Oleg exclaimed, but was cut off.
Gala breathlessly declared, your Great Aunt Raisa’s sick — she’s dying.
Oleg stared at his wife sternly. They’d been arguing about whether to tell their daughter. Oleg had said absolutely not, she’s too young.
But she’s 17 —
Doesn’t matter, she’s too sensitive, why involve her in this business?
Fine, Gala had said, and then ran her mouth the first chance she got.
Aunt Raisa? Darya echoed, clutching the gold-painted knob behind her. Neither Gala’s grief-slackened expression nor Oleg’s taut upper lip disclosed more information to her desperate, searching glances. Darya was drawing a blank. Was Raisa the one in Israel or Cincinnati? Her father’s aunt or her mother’s? Darya had never paid much attention, perhaps a mistake. If there were one known fact about the woman, a single detail to make her accessible. Darya summoned an alternate strategy. Promptly her bony chin clenched, lips quivered. Great Aunt Raisa remained without face or location, but she was on the verge of . . . how horrible.
The three were silent. It wasn’t just another Thursday. They witnessed the day assume a somber, momentous quality. Darya’s notebook was now lost for a reason, the day’s events were like transparent beads through which ran the thread of fate. Oleg soon tired of the stoicism — he changed into sweatpants, collapsed into Darya’s worn computer chair.
How long does she have? Darya asked.
They don’t know exactly. A matter of months.
Months. This had the desired effect. Darya’s throat constricted, an ache welled up, asking to be released as a giant sob. Instead an image formed: fried potatoes with mushrooms. The ache diminished. Darya willed the grave news to mute her hunger, but the image was unyielding. Had her parents eaten? Would such grief allow them to chew?
Looks like we’ll be going to Odessa, Gala said.
Oleg jumped as if bitten.
Why Odessa? Darya asked, being easily steered off subject.
To see her! Gala yelled, as if she’d already encountered great opposition.
Great Aunt Raisa in Odessa, then. Yes, it sounded familiar — not exactly familiar, but right. Though the truth was that Darya hadn’t known they still had relatives back there. What was Raisa doing in that evacuated city? Why hadn’t she left? And since she hadn’t, she couldn’t complain now. This was happening to Raisa because she lived in Odessa. The universality of her situation had been revoked.
Nothing’s been decided, Oleg said, tugging back his receding hairline. Gala’s potent stare landed him back in the chair.
Is she in the hospital? Darya asked, imagining the squalor: dank, mold, claustrophobia, rats.
No, they found the tumor during a routine checkup — you know how she is with the checkups. She doesn’t feel anything yet, but they say it must be very aggressive because it’s so big and . . . Oh, Gala choked, her small, disheveled head shaking in disbelief. We’ll have to go there, she whispered to herself. A thorny radiance settled into her cheeks, the stubborn luster of determination. Her eyes were replaced by tiny mirrors, in which you could examine yourself from every angle but see nothing of her.
Do you have any idea how much tickets cost? Oleg shouted.
No, Gala replied calmly, do you?
Ukraine wasn’t on their list of vacation spots. There was Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean to consider for their week away every year or so — not like they were flying off somewhere at every turn. The memories, fondness, nostalgia were best left in their corner, their large dark corner, their fetid closet with its door various degrees of ajar. Oleg would’ve bolted it shut if he could, but Gala refused. Each whiff tortured Oleg, made him drink Alka-Seltzer in the night and dig his heels into the mattress so that every few months the sheets had to be thrown out because of the holes.
So maybe they’d considered a return once or twice, privately. Oleg thought about it only in the animal fear that Gala was thinking about it. She’d never mentioned it — but now the idea came up as if they’d been telepathically discussing it for years, as if every day she’d asked him to go back for a visit and every day he’d refused, and now the dying of Raisa was merely the perfect excuse, exactly what was needed for Gala’s case, which hadn’t existed two hours ago yet had the weight of a decade. The moment it escaped her lips Oleg could sense his defeat; it was evident from Gala’s glazed eyes that she recognized the opportunity and wouldn’t let it slip.
Raisa had happily decided to ruin their lives. No other way to think of it but as a decision. Years since they last spoke, for all they knew she could’ve been dead already. Now she calls and delivers the news and Gala’s on the next flight out. Fifteen years collapse like a faulty bridge. But tickets cost a lot of money — who if not Oleg would take these trivialities into consideration?
I can’t take off work right now. There’s no way, he said.
There’s still time to think it over, came Gala’s tired peace offering. Oleg’s shoulders were at his ears. Any further arguing would be futile.
Later that evening Darya ransacked the fridge, standing beside it as she consumed stiffened leftovers. Each bland bite made her take a larger, blander bite and the monotonous chewing was a way of thinking about Raisa. It was arduous work. When sated, it was as if she’d ingested her aunt whole. Raisa sat inside of her unmoving. Rightfully, Darya suffered indigestion and was up in the night guzzling Alka-Seltzer with her father. They exchanged no words, just gulped to extinguish the fires in their chests, while Gala slept soundlessly. In the morning Gala would claim a dream: from the black sea rises one jagged black rock, on which Raisa is barely balancing, and the rock is emerging from the water, growing higher, making it harder for Raisa to stand. But Gala hadn’t truly remembered a dream in years. She invented them to prove that certain fears and worries ran as deep as the unconscious. She’s a liar, Oleg thought, to enrage himself and to have more evidence against Gala when it came time for the trial — quite useless, since in such imaginary trials the wife was also the judge.
Something was throbbing in the pit of Darya’s body. The most familiar objects appeared distorted, threatening, as if overnight she and her life had become estranged. She observed her own feet with baffled, bizarre expectation. When picking up a fork or dropping books into her backpack, her scalp tingled. Every mundane gesture was weighted by a solemn significance. There was no meaningful talk at breakfast, nor any other kind; Gala’s movements were sharpened, tea spilled, toast fell, her elbows interacted with the air in an especially forceful way. Darya kept her head down and left for school with the conviction that she’d upheld her end of a tacit pact.
Sitting across from Darya on the train was a thin middle-aged man with round, dark eyes half-hidden under the domed awning of his forehead. There was resilience in the fabric of his face. He looked at her in the brief pauses between reading his book, and each glance gave nourishment to the pulse inside Darya. She busied herself, waiting for the next time he’d seek her out. But with each stop the crowds poured in, obscuring the opposite side of the train. She leaned to the left and he was visible through an arm-on-hip loop, she slouched and he was squeezed between two backs. On Newkirk the wall of people became impenetrable, exaggerating his presence. The opposite side of the train was heavier, darker, more mysterious. How to get there? The train stopped and he was getting off; against her better impulses she jumped off with him. But he disappeared into the heaving wave of workers. A womanly face stared up at Darya. Shouldn’t you be on your way to school? it said. Darya realized two things: she still belonged to the public, and she had missed her stop.
Late to first period, she retreated to the back, letting the teacher’s words grow hushed and rhythmic like breath, as if she were in a room of sleepers. When he called on her she responded with a long, pitying stare meant to communicate the banality of it all. He detained her after class, asked if something was wrong, and, oops, it all spilled out. The throbbing died for a moment, but returned infinitely stronger when she witnessed the teacher’s reaction, his downcast eyes and stumbling, large-toothed mouth, not a professional but a human reaching out.
I might have to miss some class time because we’ll be going to the Ukraine to see her, Darya said.
Of course, that’s no problem. We’ll work something out.
Those were tears magnifying Darya’s eyes. Yes, tears for the sympathy of her teacher, for her misfortune seen through his bifocals. A powerful moment had been created. Raisa, an angel already.
Darya trudged anonymously through the low-lidded halls, past numbered lockers, rooms, floors. She wondered: Was it forbidden to become aware of a transformation? Did consciousness nullify it? She snuck a candy bar into the bathroom stall, devoured it guiltily. Eye contact was shameful. Every interaction was an opportunity to lose your integrity. Period after period she was in her seat, having outgrown this type of — Yes, present. Their last year of high school, everyone focused on the future, picking colleges as far from home as the continent allowed, as if distance were an acid wash that disintegrated family coating, unaware that there were obligations and places you couldn’t abandon.
Oleg made noise getting ready for work in the morning and Gala tended to wake with him at five. She lay like a log on her side of the bed, biting the slippery lining of her cheek whenever his heel boomed on the floor, his frantic closet rummaging resulted in a belt buckle slamming against the doorknob or hangers toppling, when he left the bedroom resolutely but returned because he’d forgotten something. He forgot everything. Only rarely did they speak.
Damn it, where the hell are my pants? he muttered, turning the dresser inside out.
On the chair in the living room, Gala replied mechanically.
As if instructed from above, Oleg went to retrieve his pants, continuing to regard Gala as his sleeping wife. Door clicked, a turn of the lock — only then did her teeth release, her breathing resume.
Gala left home the latest. She worked two blocks away at Stunned Look by Lyudmila. Her manicures went for fifteen, pedicures for twenty. Those two blocks were strictly a mental distance at the end of which she had to emerge a different person.
Sophia and Ada huddled in the doorway smoking menthol superslims. They halted their giggling when Gala approached. Sophia wore an espresso-brown Made in Italy over her two hundred womanly pounds. She was slick black hair crimson lipstick sophistication. Buckteeth were one of multiple undermining factors, triple chin not included. Ada was of roughly the same size, though boxier. She employed Marilyn blond hair green eyeshadow frivolity, set rolling by a laugh. She coughed out her remaining giggles.
How’s it going? Ada asked.
Not bad. Give me a drag, Gala said. She’d quit a year ago and it annoyed everyone. After a moment of illicit sweetness she hurried inside. On the first floor was the hair parlor, on the second a hodgepodge: eight manicurists/pedicurists with their respective stations, Georgette the makeup artist, a nameless Central Asian masseuse, and Rosa the wax lady, with a tiny torture chamber of her own. Lyudmila, the boss, had an office in the back of the salon, where she feasted all day long. She was a mound of blubber, hair, and oily lips. It was a known fact that she owned the most and the best Made in Italys, but no one had ever seen her in one. Every hour she sent a woman for more food — pirozhki, katleti, sendvichi, kex. The only one who never went was Bozhina, the favorite, who had no skills other than washing hair. But Bozhina had many responsibilities, one of which was to make a daily report on Gala’s appearance. Gala didn’t take care of herself properly, was skinny, had crow’s feet, seldom wore a Made in Italy, and the stringy hairs on her head were out of place. Lyudmila had admonished Gala: You are not a cleaning lady. There is a standard which you have not been meeting.
Gala jolted up the stairs, but not fast enough to avoid the scrutiny of Bozhina.
What’s the matter? asked Natasha as she filed a pimply girl’s nails.
You look — tired.
Everything’s fine, Gala said, concerned. She thought she’d done a good job of concealing the dark circles, and worn her only Made in Italy, which admittedly was shedding like a homeless sheep. I look terrible?
Not at all, Natasha said. Do you want some blush?
Gala had attained a level of disconnection from her appearance uncommon in the women she met. Those women wanted to look good because they were themselves. Not so with Gala. Her appearance wasn’t hers — it belonged to Lyudmila. When Gala looked bad, Lyudmila took it personally, and when Gala looked good, it was a compliment for Lyudmila. Lyudmila herself was without appearance — in the depths of the salon, she was the brains and viscera. Her women were her appearance, and it had to be first-rate.
Gala was too vigorous with the blush, and came away with a disconcerting splotch between her eyebrows. The smell of nail polish coated the insides of her nostrils. She sneezed.
You’re too skinny, you’ll catch cold, Irina voiced her opinion. But no one paid any attention to Irina.
There were no real stairs to the second floor. Instead there was a square hole in the floor, and a narrow staircase that wound around a pole, so the ascending person seemed to either disappear into the ceiling or emerge from the floor. It was rather difficult for these corpulent ladies to maneuver, but they had technique. The trembling floor, the thundering boom and clack and throaty breathing, let you know when a new customer was on her way up.
First the curly head appeared, as if the rings of smoke from her cigarette had hardened into a hairlike substance, and then the massive body. If it was slightly thinner than Lyudmila’s, it was also significantly taller and wrapped in a sequined pashmina, decorated like a Christmas tree with dangly jewelry, the entire production propped on six-inch heels. Those monstrous feet.
Hello girls, she announced once she caught her breath. Which of you is Gala?
Manicure or pedicure? Gala asked, holding out a last hope.
The whole treatment.
Sent by Lyudmila, it was a message in the form of a three-hundred-pound woman, intended to test Gala. To intimidate, frighten, warn. But it also had to be a joke, didn’t it? Not that Lyudmila was known for her sense of humor. Gala yawned. In the midst of this to yawn was bad news. Her exhaustion cut right through the nerves and disgust. And everybody knew and everybody pitied Gala. Though they didn’t really know, or really pity her.
The woman introduced herself as Snezhana, but Gala could only think of her as Bubba. Everything about her, down to her gummy earlobes, related Bubba. Bubba couldn’t decide on a nail polish shade. Ten agonized minutes passed in indecision. Then Gala randomly suggested Lilac Supernova, and to her surprise Bubba agreed instantly. Had Gala passed the first part of the test? With new confidence, she filled the finger bowl and dunked Bubba’s fattened fingers. It was going well. Bubba spoke, or rather confessed, with abandon — she had a daughter, unmarried, dental hygienist, a son, the lawyer, a house on Manhattan Beach, two grandkids, oh so many things to do today, just three more weeks on the honeydew diet, an obsession with chandeliers, a healing neck strain, a bias against platform shoes, two cats, a skin condition, an ex-husband and an ex-lover, a Botox addiction — and finally, a manicure.
The pause during which Bubba transported her heaping ass from the chair to the pedicure station was fatal for Gala. She sat a second too long, and the chair under her transformed into a bed. She jumped — too late. The darkness had caught up, and was tugging at her tattered Made in Italy.
She filled the plastic tub with hot water, two squirts of liquid soap.
Soak them, she said.
Hot, too hot, Bubba replied, toes flirting with the bubbles.
How it should be, Gala said, and ran downstairs, outside, the brisk salty air, to the corner for some coffee, coffee, coffee. She gulped the black, slapped her cheek. She had to stand on that corner, become a person again.
So you’ve decided to come back, Bubba said. The water’s cold already.
Gala took one slippery yellow-pink foot out of the tub. It was wild, flopping, the water spraying Gala’s face. Bubba was ticklish. Oh no, oy, no, oy, oy, no, please, not there! The thing slid out of Gala’s hands, landed with a big splash back in the tub.
Bubba looked at her coyly. Gala opened her hands. Bubba stubbornly shook her head no.
I’ll be gentle, Gala said.
Timidly, the foot was offered, jerked away, offered again. It was terribly misshapen — bunions, swelling at the arch, tumorlike calluses. Those shoes are killing your feet, Gala said.
Gala examined the callused sole. Then she began to scrape. On certain days this was the best part of her job, the violence that gained power cumulatively through a flick of the wrist. The repetition created a tunnel for thought. Was Raisa getting proper treatment? Gala somehow hadn’t thought to ask. The phone conversation had been brief. Everyone is alive and well, was Gala’s report. To Raisa’s news of impending death, Gala had replied, and what else is new? Then Raisa said, no, it’s different this time. And hadn’t her voice truly sounded altered? Hadn’t it trembled? The way Raisa spoke about her illness made it seem like something that could not and should not be treated. It had to be accepted, not understood. The illness had to be believed in. If Gala asked about treatment options or second opinions, Raisa might get angry and righteous, as it would mean that Gala had the nerve to doubt. There was no room for doubt in the realm of faith. Poor Raisa. But that’s the way in Ukraine: death just is. I have to go there, she thought. It wasn’t a choice, but a duty. Suddenly, another thought — it’s Oleg’s fault. He didn’t want her to see her aunt. She already had so little family left. And yet he doesn’t want me to see my own aunt, she repeated. So they hadn’t spoken in a long time. Why hold a grudge? It was that he didn’t consider an Odessa death to be a real death. The city had been wiped from his mind map. The contours of the city had blurred, and needed to be restored to their —
Ouch! Bubba shrieked. Ow ow ow ow! The foot flew from Gala’s hands. The tub had turned pink. Droplets of blood fell from Bubba’s heel. When she saw the shredded sole of her foot, she wailed louder. The others surrounded her, pushed Gala aside. In the bloody credo blade, Gala saw the glare of intention. Could it be that I’d meant to? But I didn’t know . . . She fell back into her chair.
She’s crazy, Bubba was shouting, she’s dangerous. Look what she did with my foot. What’s the mental patient doing working here? Just look.
Gala opened her eyes and searched the crowded room for Lyudmila. No sign of her. But in her absence Lyudmila knew better than anybody what had occurred. If she’d been there she would have known merely what she saw and heard, but by not being there she knew everything, even Gala’s suspicions as she looked at her blade. Locked in her office over a whole rotisserie chicken, she was not merely someone, but everything and everywhere. Her dull gaze emanated from every emery board, footbath, and finger bowl.
Suddenly, Gala’s eyes were drawn upward.
You should probably go home, said Bozhina.
An elaborate dinner waited on the table when Oleg got home. He examined the spread suspiciously, but took a seat. Let me serve you, Gala said, snatching his plate and returning it decorated with food. The fingers that picked up the fork were rough and stained, the surprise hadn’t given Oleg a chance to wash. He shoveled for a minute, then his eyebrows dropped, the wrinkles around his mouth deepened.
What’s this? he said.
What do you mean?
You think I’m so stupid?
No, she said without conviction.
You won’t guilt me into going.
That’s not what this is at all, she cried, trying to disguise the immense relief surging through her chest. They ate and ate, but when her stomach grew full, Gala thought, silly me, how could he have known? She had been so nervous and disoriented that she convinced herself that Oleg might somehow have found out, but it was impossible. The relief was sucked from her body. With a shudder, she stood.
You do the dishes, you bastard.
Slamming the door to their bedroom and turning the lock was the pinnacle of exhilaration — it was only downhill from there. The room was a regular cage. She paced back and forth, tracing the perimeter. The phone lay in its cradle, unassuming. She pounced on it, dialed. After a few long beeps Raisa chirped, Allo. The woman has picked up the phone in the same way for half a century, Gala thought.
How are you feeling? Gala asked.
Gala blurted out, we’re planning on coming to Odessa to see you.
How nice, Raisa droned. And when should I be expecting you? The question almost sounded like one Darya might ask to make sure that by her parents’ arrival everything would be in order and no trace of fun would be left.
Sometime soon, we haven’t bought the tickets yet.
There was a silence that both women took for an interrupted connection. Allo, they yelled at once.
And Odessa, Gala resumed, how is it? I’ve heard such good things — they’ve repaved Primorski Prospect, renovated the opera house.
It’s exactly the same, only more stray dogs and the price of tomatoes has doubled.
Not good, Gala told Oleg and Darya later that evening after she let herself out of the bedroom. She’s not feeling well. The first symptoms have appeared, the first pains.
It was the pains that shook Darya to the core, and her body shivered as if trying to rid itself of the word. The way her mother said it, in plural, made it seem utterly different from anything Darya had ever experienced herself. What she’d felt from a bruised knee or a toothache was pain, but pains . . . the first of many. The abstractness was unbearable. Darya wanted a photograph, wanted Gala to point out exactly where on Raisa’s body these pains were located. Only then could she rest.
But there was no rest. Something forbidden hung over their house, at which each of them snuck glimpses only when the others weren’t looking. They monitored each other’s eyes, convinced that the others shouldn’t become aware of the immense, looming thing.
We should go for at least a month, Gala bravely ventured.
Oleg uttered a sound that was pure beastly howl.
We’ll have a lot of things to take care of once we’re there.
The dacha, you do remember it’s technically our dacha. We’ll need to do something with it once she’s gone.
In a month’s time we can dismantle the thing board by board and then put it back together, twice.
It’s in a good location, it’s got to be worth something.
Odessa doesn’t have good locations — the whole thing’s in Ukraine, isn’t it?
Don’t joke. I don’t know if they’ll let me take that much time off at the salon, so I was thinking I might just quit, you know they’ve been giving me a hard time, and then when we get back I’ll look for a job elsewhere, my friend Inga was telling me that —
Oleg dropped his strained purple face into his hands, peered at her through coarse, twisted knuckles, dirt-packed nails, years of an unnatural existence. He lugged those things around. Occasionally she noticed the effort he made to hide them from others. The worst part was he’d always had small, fat-pouched, translucent hands, more delicate than Gala’s. They hadn’t been intended to become these hands. Those protruding veins weren’t his veins. But for how long could you lament a set of hands?
He left for work long before dawn. Oleg, who was meant for a sitting job, obvious from his build alone, the low hips, heavy thighs, narrow shoulders, flat feet. Meant to sit. His prominent forehead announced: This is where the action happens. But it wasn’t. That was where the wrinkles were, parallel, like lined paper that would remain blank.
He worked for a glazing contractor, Glassnost on Bay Parkway, not surprisingly run by a man named Sasha Gorbachenko — who’d known from the first that Oleg wasn’t meant for the work, but hired him anyway for two reasons: first, they realized within five minutes of meeting that their fathers had been Park Shevchenko chess partners, and second, Oleg was desperate while Sasha was deeply susceptible to pity. As in all such pathetic cases, it worked out for the worst. Oleg got the job he wasn’t meant for and the years began to pass. The money was neither terrible nor great — safety. Gorbachenko was the boss at work, but fear was the real boss. Fear because he couldn’t cut the glass properly or mount it into the frame, was clumsy when guiding it into place and sloppy with the putty. Fear that it wasn’t that this job wasn’t meant for him, but that he wasn’t meant for any job, and that no one else would ever take him on, and the money would disappear. At the end of every daydream, the money disappeared.
And it was trembling with fear that he told the guys at work of his current situation. They were replacing the windows in what they called a Park Avenue apartment, though it wasn’t on Park Avenue, not even close. It was a first-floor job — lucky, since Oleg was also afraid of heights. The place smelled of hair conditioner and clean dog, an oriental rug hung on the wall. Oleg had been responsible for cutting the glass, and as often happened the dimensions weren’t quite right, a bit of length still had to be shaved off, which Gomez would do. Oleg held the A-frame in place and told them all, though mainly Vadik and Grisha. For a month! he exclaimed, aghast, nose reddening. They laughed, funny how Oleg got worked up over nonsense. He had no say, a prisoner in his own home. It was with this thought that they looked at him, but he misinterpreted. I understand that it’s her aunt and that she’s sick, he said, but it’s just so inconvenient, now of all times. The men didn’t ask why now was so particularly inconvenient. They tried not to intrude. Maybe if they’d asked, Oleg would’ve realized that now was inconvenient solely because it was now.
Gomez dipped the cutter’s wheel in oil, spit out his cigarette butt and said, Man, you have to take control of your lady, she has to learn when no means no. He cut the glass as if it were pie.
Vadik offered interesting advice. Stop saying no. Don’t protest. The more you resist the more fired up she gets in her cause. Don’t you see you’re providing the fuel? When you stop objecting, the whole dynamic will change. It won’t be so interesting for her once you’re in agreement. And then all the planning will fall on her. You’ll do nothing to help. The idea will be dead in a week. But the way you’re going at it, she’ll get so righteous you’ll end up going for sure.
Oleg wasn’t the type to have a moment of enlightenment. He digested slowly. The advice was stored in a safe dry place where he could easily retrieve it when he had time, during lunch or on the subway ride home. There were no simple decisions. He patiently talked himself into or out of everything, and then the doubts still pestered. His deliberations were burdened with the weight of life and death, not just his, but his whole family’s. Not yet 50, he was beginning to stoop, and if you caught him unaware, you’d see the grinding motion of his jaw, the tensed muscles at work.
What began with Darya telling her teacher soon spiraled out of control. The number of people who knew grew daily. Darya tried everything within her power to prevent this from happening, save not telling more people. It was as if she’d been handed a one-of-a-kind object for safekeeping, and by telling her teacher she had given him half of the object, and the next person she told got half of the half that remained, and on and on she gave away the pieces. Occasionally in trying to ascertain whether someone was in possession she inadvertently gave a piece away, and then she had the idea that if everybody knew it would be the same as no one knowing, but that quickly faded. It wouldn’t have been so terrible if she didn’t suspect that at the end of all this, whatever this was, the object would have to be presented in its entirety to her parents, or some more ultimate authority. On the train to school she was filled with the hope that she could retrieve all the pieces she’d lost, and on the train back she was disheartened, realizing that it had never been pieces of an object, but parts of herself she’d been freely handing out, and what remained was nothing, a crumb of her previous self, and this was how she would have to go on living, with the lie that she was a whole person, when in reality she was a tiny crumb to be swept away. It’s difficult to say how it had happened, all she knew was that everyone was busy making plans for the future, while she was sure that the future was not something you had the right to choose. The sentiment could be summed up in a word — Raisa.
A change occurred. As Darya spoke of the situation (and it seemed to be the only thing of which she spoke) others didn’t respond with usual meekness. They asked, When? She was flabbergasted. Were they insensitive? Were they savage? The world had turned a suspicious eye to her. Though the question was, When will you go to Ukraine?, she felt what they really asked was, When will she go? Darya had just discovered Raisa’s existence, and already they wanted to take it from her. Her friends, acquaintances, teachers, they all demanded a corpse.
The object that she had given away, which was herself, which was called (both the whole, and each piece of it), We’ll have to go to Odessa because my aunt Raisa is dying, had become wholly detached from the reality that had lent the object its name. Because as Darya witnessed almost every evening, the reality was far more complicated — it was unsteady, continually fluctuating.
The first few days had been simple enough. After an hour or so in the bedroom, Gala would emerge with an announcement. Friday were the first pains, Saturday Raisa felt weakened, Sunday she didn’t leave the house once, Monday it was a miracle she felt great, Tuesday there was a trace of blood on her handkerchief. The essence of Oleg was No, the spirit of Gala, Yes, why not, we must, how could you be this selfish, I beg you, just think it over, you monster. A dance developed, an evolving repertoire. Oleg stood at the center while Gala spun circles around him. Then, without warning, Oleg traded in his essence. Fine, he said, we’ll go. A fleeting ecstasy followed. They would return to Odessa Mama, walk the old steps, say hello to Richelieu, visit the Palais-Royal. Then the floor dropped out from under Gala. She began to writhe, troubled by her own ambivalence and emotional fog, troubled by Raisa, who every night said allo, allo, allo, and fine, fine, fine. Such stability. Didn’t a disease have to progress? The goal, Gala admitted to herself, had been to arrive when Raisa was truly nearing the end, and then have a few weeks to just enjoy the city. That she was capable of such a thought alarmed her. She spent more time in the bedroom, but the nightly announcements ceased. A week passed untouched by mention of Raisa. Tranquility registered on Oleg’s face. The nightly Alka-Seltzer runs abated. Oleg gave Vadik a nice bottle of cognac. They toasted, using tulip-shaped wineglasses from the cabinet of a Park Avenue apartment.
On a Sunday afternoon Gala and Oleg strolled along the shore on pale, withered sand. The air was so still it was as if gray paint had been evenly applied to walls and a ceiling. Gala, opaque as the ocean, said, I’ve quit my job. They walked a few more paces before Oleg complained of a tingling in his arm.
The sirens, stretcher, Gala’s screams, Coney Island hospital, there’s no need for detail. Lucky were those dead on arrival. But it wasn’t a heart attack, not even a stroke. It was probably a compressed nerve in the spine, further exacerbated by eight hours in the waiting room. The horrors they witnessed. Then the doctors ran some tests and found blockage in his arteries, a cholesterol level that was off the charts, blood pressure like in a fire hydrant. A lucky warning, they said, the problem nipped in the bud — with a few pills a day and a lifestyle tuning, many active decades were ahead of Oleg.
Because the tingling continued he took time off work, which with Sasha Gorbachenko wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t like Oleg was such a big help on the job. Time had come for rest and rehabilitation. All of a sudden it was midmorning on a weekday, any weekday, Darya was in school, while Gala and Oleg had to look each other in the face. How long could a minute last? Oleg lay in bed worried that the slightest movement would make his health irreversibly worse. Gala delivered meals, propped pillows, kept mouth shut.
After a week in bed, Oleg acquired a beatific glow. General weakness was his excuse for not returning to work and postponing visits to a chiropractor. Sometimes he said to himself, if you wiggle your toes right now, you’ll have a heart attack, and for the next hour he concentrated on not wiggling his toes. As Gala was leaving the room, he’d say, do you see now why it was important to save our money?
After school, Darya replaced her mother at his side. Father and daughter had little to speak about. They took turns lecturing one another. Darya yearned to ask the question repeatedly posed to her. Instead she asked, Aunt Raisa, what’s she like?
Curiously, the question didn’t agitate Oleg. The smoothness of his cheek remained unblemished. Raisa? he said as if this were something randomly drawn from a black hat. Let’s see. She was always ailing — sluggish, gray, overweight, sturdily built but mentally feeble, and really always ailing. Since the youngest age she thought that something was terribly wrong with her health. At that time in Odessa no one had the luxury to concern themselves with their health, but she ran to the doctor every chance she got, which was the only reason she ever left the house. She was always taken care of, never had to do anything on her own. Always complaining, whining. The biggest surprise, even to herself probably, is that she’s lived this long.
But she stayed in Odessa, Darya protested, having rationalized this as an heroic act.
We tried to take her with us, especially your mother tried. Your grandfather, Raisa’s older brother, had died so suddenly, and he’d always taken care of her. But even though she was going to be alone, she refused, said she was too weak, that she wouldn’t survive the emigration. Can you bring me some tea and one of those almond cookies?
This portrait caused Darya tremendous distress. Her mind sprang a hiccup: But . . . but . . . but . . . It gathered force throughout the night. Each was a blow she both administered and took. But what? she thought. And why this torrential disappointment? It was without end, like the night. Toward morning Darya had a flash of insight. Her father hadn’t given a truthful account. He didn’t want them to visit Raisa so it was in his interest to portray her as a fat, nagging, useless woman. Darya was proud — she’d always been naïve and gullible, but for once she’d sniffed out the lie.
So she found her mother, who was loading the washing machine. Gala had rings around her dugout eyes, was gaunt and unkempt. Since leaving the salon her grooming had suffered greatly. She hardly washed, and her breath made Darya wonder if she brushed her teeth. Darya was stunned by her mother’s appearance, as if they hadn’t been passing each other in the apartment daily.
I don’t know what she’s like now, Gala said, I haven’t seen her in so long — but something tells me she’s the same as always.
Darya impatiently reminded Gala that she hadn’t been around for the always.
Right, Gala giggled. Wan and sickly, she said. Always under the weather, weak, lethargic, afraid. Papa was a physician but she didn’t trust him so he referred her to his friends. She needed specialists. Nothing’s wrong, nothing’s wrong, they said, but then things started to be wrong. Diabetes, hernia, cardiac arrhythmia — she was almost happy that one by one her suspicions were proven correct. If you ask me, Papa enabled it. She was his younger sister, he treated her like a baby. Every one of her complaints he took seriously, though he knew she was a hypochondriac, and somewhat stupid at that. When he passed so unexpectedly, it was perhaps hardest on her. She never married, never anything.
My daughter doesn’t look well, Gala thought, and later consulted Oleg, who had gradually grown sturdier, and was strutting confidently around the house. They came to a decision that would do everyone some good, a little vacation to the Bahamas. They excitedly shared the news.
Darya shook her head. But what about —
I’ve spoken to her, Gala said, and she seems to be doing just fine.
… And it was with her, in a cramped fourth-floor apartment (is there any other kind?) on Engels Street, renamed Greek Street, or rather unnamed Engels, that the only mystery remained. Why had she called? After so many years. After swearing she wouldn’t. After getting her days’ kicks from the mere fact that she hadn’t. To then have searched that cluttered apartment, rummaged through the junk it had taken a lifetime to accumulate, all for that old phone book finally found in a heap of yellowed, torn phone books, hoping that their number was the same though what were the chances? After all, people went over there just for the opportunity to move incessantly, to exchange worse for better, smaller for bigger . . . even Raisa knew that.
There was Raisa’s individual death, for which she’d been long preparing, and then, suddenly, there was something else, a minor role, a small performance. She’d tidied up a bit, powdered her nose for the first time in God knows, combed the white wisps over her pink scalp, maybe even put on the other robe, reserved for occasions. Drank some cold water, cleared her vocal cords, fingers dialed. Then: Gala’s preoccupied voice as if she were still around the corner on Potemkin Square, now Ekaterinskaya, even the monument replaced, but no — the voice couldn’t have come from there. Was it for reconciliation that Raisa called? Was it out of loneliness? Did pride abandon old age, or was it that while trying to fall asleep she’d felt a chill and, groggy with pills, gone to close a window that was already shut?