Raisa

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.

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