Helpless Comprehension

“Grigory Perelman happens to think I’m a genius.”

Olia Mishchenko, untitled, from The Expanded Gardens of Locus Solus (detail). 2013, pen and ink on paper. 30 × 88". Courtesy of the artist.

As long as the Verrazano remained in sight, Darya was forthcoming, telling her dad all about the ID-card policy announced at school and the air-monitor men walking the halls in hazmat suits, but once their Mitsubishi Diamante veered off the highway, an exit short of a bridge that symbolized freedom yet led to Staten Island, she cut off abruptly. What did she expect? He’d never say, How about we forget this new form of torture Mama’s devised for you and go get Di Fara’s instead? No, he diligently chauffeured to doom. If given orders to drive off a cliff, provided the GPS could locate one and he managed to follow instructions, would he refuse?

After getting off the Belt, it was a matter of several quick turns and one long stoplight (staring with pained intensity at the red glow) before they came to a halt in front of a building the shade of post-borscht poop. How badly Darya wanted to hold on to her stoicism. What dignity it offered. But a violent spasm sent her thrashing—how unfair this was! This was her one free night of the week! Mama hadn’t even asked her! Her dad might sympathize. Neither was his life working out ideally—instead of unwinding after work with his favorite TV show, Extreme Engineering, he was saddled with dropping her off in Bensonhurst, going to Costco for a tub of cottage cheese, and picking her up two hours later.

“Two hours!” she wailed.

He reached over her and opened the door. The cargo had to unload herself. “Davai,” he said, “Costco close soon.”

In the vestibule, unable to locate the scrap with the apartment number, Darya panicked, looked back—the Mitsubishi was still there. A directory hung on the wall. She ran her finger down the list of names—Ostrovsky, Pasternak, Pavlov, and then Perelman, Grigory, 2E.

The door was ajar, wanting to bite. Inside, it was dark. A large bed could be made out in the first room she passed, and on it a burdensome, slow-breathing mass: Grigory Perelman’s wife. This was all because of her. A scan revealed a travesty, doctors threw up their hands, and Grigory called on Darya’s mother, who after decades of working the front desk at Memorial Sloan Kettering had acquired a reputation as South Brooklyn’s cancer connection. Could there really be no options? Darya’s mother got Grigory’s wife into a closed-for-accrual experimental study for a targeted chemotherapy, but the interaction didn’t end there, because Darya’s mother always made it a point to ask for something in return, no easy task considering the services her landsmen had on offer, yet necessary to preempt bouquets of gold-flaked roses with inverted petals and discount cardigans from Loehmann’s. Of Grigory she asked not what he could do for her but for her daughter, a sophomore who’d been sailing smoothly Harvardward until, well, until. The attacks were hard on everybody, but they were particularly hard on Darya’s math. Grigory Perelman was an eminent mathematician who’d made landmark contributions to probability theory, whose proof-of-the-soul conjecture was a masterpiece, whose work in geometric topology was unprecedented. Perhaps he could spend some time with her daughter. “Five dollars an hour?” he muttered. Pretending to mishear this miserable sum, Darya’s mother cried, “We’re not millionaires, you know! Thirty-five is too much—how’s thirty?”

He was struggling to install a dry-erase board into a wall as perforated as a cheese grater. Somebody needed to take away that drill. Nuts and bolts, wall dandruff, a torn cardboard box, lay at his feet. He wore slippers with socks, sweatpants, and a tweed jacket—moth leftovers. “Hold end,” he ordered, and, still in her North Face, she pinned the board to the wall. It was heavier than it looked. The screwdriver had its whirl. “Let go.” The board toppled. He kicked aside the tool kit, propped the board on chairs, and leaned it against the wall. It began to slide. He plopped two Yellow Pages on the chairs. “Voilà!”

Before she knew it she was copying equations into her notebook, cursing as she did so. The equations were odd, like nothing she’d ever seen, not even close to what was being covered in class. It must’ve been a different species: Russianmath. An alternate mathematical system invented by the Soviets, it was intended to rival and eventually replace the standard. But as it was inelegant, complicated, and served no practical function, it never took. Still, Grigory Perelman got terribly excited about it. A spell came over him. His face became red and sweaty, saliva frothed from his lips and hardened in the corners of his mouth. The magic marker banged and squeaked and the eraser went flying, so he used his blackening palm instead. Darya nodded along, until he swung around and asked for her input.

Just then, a groan issued from the bedroom. The groan led to huge, horrible wails that grew louder and more agonized. There was a pause, then shrieks. The shrieks were piercing, like the mating call of some monstrous bird. “Have a go at that,” Grigory Perelman said and ran off. The faucet turned on in the kitchen. From the bedroom, gurgling, the spastic throttle of pills.

Why had she let her mother put her up to this? The worst part actually wasn’t the math. The gloomy lights and medicinal smells and furniture imparted a desperation that forced its way inside her. It was unbearable. She, too, felt she was about to scream.

“Let’s see what you’ve done here,” Grigory Perelman said, rushing in. He grabbed the notebook out from under her. Her head retracted, ears pressed to skull. Standing over her, he cried, “Molodetsmolodets!” Evidently he’d taken his own solution, which she’d copied down, as hers. “Brilliant, Darya! Just brilliant! What ingenuity! I’d never have thought of that myself!” She couldn’t say for sure, but there seemed to be tears in his eyes.

As they drew near to Ocean Parkway, nearer to Val, Darya’s heart began to thump. The lesson had gone on and on. Her dad had to call three times before Grigory Perelman set her free. And Val, who threw major fits over a lateness of five minutes, had been waiting for almost an hour on a cold, dark corner. Most of their already meager hangout time would inevitably be squandered on a talking-to, an art at which Val excelled. But Darya had forgotten that situated on that cold, dark corner was ½ Price Clothing, a store that sold clothes buffet-style, by the pound. Once she extracted herself from her father, promising to be back by eleven, she found Val in fine spirits, holding a bloated garbage bag (“All this stuff for five bucks!”) and devouring a tuna sub from Blimpie.

Best to skip the story behind Darya’s crush and just give its purpose: to satisfy Val.


“Get this,” Darya said. “I was just at this weirdo math guy’s house and—”

Val put her on pause. “I think I saw the blond glow.”

It was late autumn of the inescapable chill. Tree shadows shivered. Darya’s father knew them to be going to the boardwalk, where electricity supervised, but they ran around a corner, crouched to the pavement, crawled between skeletal bushes, and climbed through a slit in the fence into the park.

The first priority was locating the blond glow—if Val hadn’t been obsessively, nauseatingly, can-talk-of-nothing-else, might-have-a-brain-parasite in love with Bino, the phenomenon’s scrawny emitter, nothing could’ve persuaded her to trespass into that park and chill with the thugs. Bino was a diamond in the rough, and Val’s mission was to clean it up (rehab, a GED, Kingsborough Community College), introduce it to her parents, and live happily ever after. But she had been mistaken—the blond glow was nowhere to be found. Though Val said nothing, Darya knew what she was thinking. Bino hadn’t visited the park in weeks, and his last appearance was still a topic of discussion—he’d lost weight and coughed so bad no one partook of his fattie. The guys were quick to issue a pessimistic verdict, but by the dictates of love Val held out hope.

Val couldn’t bear a minute in lowlife company without a project. That’s where Quantum came in. Best to skip the story behind Darya’s crush and just give its purpose: to satisfy Val, though Val wasn’t satisfied. In fact, she was stumped, something she didn’t go out of her way to hide the countless times she exclaimed, “But Quantum’s so gross! I’m going to puke!”

That was precisely the point. The concept of liking someone likable was as absurd as handing leftover change to a Wall Street dude. Where was the triumph, if not in having a crush on someone totally bizarre? Quantum went above and beyond in that capacity, but he’d been chosen for another reason: his ubiquity. The park was the true object of Darya’s desire, but that would’ve been too difficult to explain to Val. Quantum was in the park at all hours of the day and night. Essentially, he was homeless, but somehow no one spoke about this. Though Val’s gag reflex didn’t relent, she had no choice but to grant that love was in the eyes of the beholder, since neither was Bino everyone’s dream. Rather, he was a gawky crackhead with some virulent strain of undiagnosed autism.

It was hard to say what effect Darya and Val’s company had on the guys, or whether it had any effect at all. Though they made space on the benches, shared provisions, and allotted charity passes during the occasional basketball game, they didn’t seem to jump out of their skin as when the girls came by. The girls were, in order of decreasing thigh size and increasing willingness to part them (a correlation to be studied), Alona, Shelly, Jackie, and Vicky. While Val was convinced otherwise, it was clear to Darya that the two of them didn’t qualify for the category of “girls,” which made them something in-between, other, freakish, and they sometimes went out of their way to act accordingly, burping ecstatically and falling into mysterious fits of hysterics.

A grave air hung over the park tonight. The crowd was sparse and slovenly and particularly unkempt. Though Darya championed dishevelment, she couldn’t help wanting to go over them with a comb. The conversation was of the kind that seems about to die at any minute but endures and even turns corners, as if the participants were in a trance. Many conclusions were arrived at: money attracts money, it’s useless to go against the mainstream in this country, musicians will take the first opportunity to sell out, girls who don’t seem like gold-digging whores usually aren’t what they seem, Vicky’s blowjobs aren’t what they used to be, born a loser die a loser. Blah blah blah! Where was the raw energy? Where the explosive laughter? Were they really just going to sit there and sulk? It was pathetic!

“Hey!” Darya said. Heads turned toward her. She swallowed. She seemed to have something to say. Maybe they’d find it interesting. Some scientists did an experiment with dogs. “They put the dogs in a space with low walls and sent an electric shock through the floor. The dogs jumped and got out. Then they put in high walls and did the same thing—the dogs got shocked and jumped but this time they couldn’t get out.” Darya took a breath. She liked being listened to. Perhaps she should join the debate team or become an orator, leading crowds to salvation. “So now they put back the small walls and the shock came but the dogs didn’t jump. They just lay on the ground and whimpered even though they could’ve got out if they tried!”

And what, Dexa wanted to know, was the point?

“You retard! The dogs are us.”

“Speak for yourself, faggot.”

“It was an analogy,” Darya said. “You’re just acting so defeated, like it’s too late, but it’s not. You’re young. Nobody’s stopping you. There’s a world. There are opportunities.”

What was happening was something like vomiting—she knew she was spewing but was powerless to stop it. In fact it felt good, purging these platitudes. The reactions were no surprise. “Cue the violins,” indeed.

“Isn’t there a bowl of borscht waiting for you girls somewhere?” Big Arthur said.

“You know what?” Val said. “Screw those guys. I am going to ride by in a Mercedes-Benz.”


But Dexa wanted to hear more. He’d drawn his knees in to his chest and pulled his T-shirt over them, so that only his shoes stuck out, creating a Mr. Potato Head effect. “Go on,” he said. “Opportunities?”

“Not for you,” Big Arthur said. “You’re hopeless.”

“You’re a grown man on Rollerblades. Shut up.”

“I meant generally,” Darya said.

“But what about not generally?”

“Oh, I don’t know—anything, really. Math.”

Here was that explosive laughter. She’d forgotten that it came only at somebody’s expense. She thought she’d wait for them to get it out of their system, but it kept building. Math? Is that what she just said? Math!

“That was just off the top of my head,” she said. “You can sign up for a class, learn a skill, find an internship.” She checked with Val, whose gaze wasn’t reassuring. “OK, fuck an internship. You keep mentioning society, how it’s unfair. Why not do something about it? I’m not saying a revolution, though why not, it’s been done before, by guys worse off than you. You can take matters into your own hands.”

“I take it into my own hands all the time,” Dexa said, demonstrating.

Quantum mumbled something. It was inaudible. What did he say?

“He said we’re nobody’s charity.”

Darya protested, no charity, not at all, pure fun, a blast.

“That’s right,” Big Arthur said. “A blast at our expense.”

“I’ll show these girls a blast,” said the twin with the scar hemisphering his head. The twins were scary, but she’d seen their grandma.

“You’re hurting their feelings. They just want to be our friends!”

Everybody erupted in laughter.

“Friends? Yeah right. In ten years, they’ll walk right past us.”

“Ride by in their Mercedes-Benz.”

“Are we bothering you?” Darya said. “Because last I heard this was a free country. Or do you own these benches?”

“I do,” the twin said and pulled out a small, curved, glistening knife. “And there’s a fee for sitting on them.” The blade nudged the zipper of his jeans.

Val shot up, but didn’t dash. Though Val decided which flavor Frappuccino to share and which R movie to sneak into, in times of distress control was turned over to Darya. “Waive your fee,” she said, “and let me see that knife.”

The twin considered it for a second. His eyes twinkled as he laid it in her palm, instructing her to pay close attention to the carved handle and the very special Tanto blade, but before she could do so Dexa shoved his knife into her other hand. “So you know what a real one looks like.” She turned one, then the other, inspecting the handles, or pretending to inspect them; her eyelashes stretched the streetlights in the distance like melted cheese. She blinked vigorously, trying to get the lights to unstick. By now, Dexa and the twin were hurling insults. Darya handed back their weapons, didn’t wait to see whether they’d use them.

On the boardwalk, elderly couples paraded, men in tracksuits, women in furs, their arms interlocked and chests puffed. Darya and Val locked arms and puffed their chests. “Care to tell me what the fuck you were thinking?” Val said. Darya’s head was high and pointed stiffly forward. She felt too dignified to speak. “You know what?” Val said. “Screw those guys. I am going to ride by in a Mercedes-Benz.”

This would’ve usually pissed Darya off, but she felt a jolt of delight. “Yeah, and what about Bino?” How she yearned to hear: Screw Bino, too.

“Oh, he’ll have one, too,” Val said, rummaging in her handbag and getting out a pack of cigarettes. She broke the lock of their arms to light up.

Darya stopped. “Val. Since when do you—”

Val cracked up, coughing smoke into Darya’s appalled face.

The student body wasn’t happy about being ID’d. Police state was on the tips of tongues. Rights were there for the defending. Several days of sit-in protests—held in the library, so there’d be no shortage of reading material—were followed by a walk-out, effectuated fifteen minutes prior to the end of tenth period, during which most students didn’t even have a class, meaning they had to stay late in order to walk out. It was fucking brilliant. No longer were students concerned about the smoldering void they ran past on their way to school; no longer were they curious what made the air so gunky; no longer were they unsettled by the lack of other humans in the vicinity; no longer were they complaining about how stuffy it got now that the windows couldn’t be opened; no longer were they wondering what stumped the men in hazmat suits when they checked the air monitors in classrooms; no longer were they demanding water coolers now that they shouldn’t drink from the fountains. Because they were defending their freedom! That ID cards wouldn’t have prevented planes from being flown into large metal towers was beside the point. What was important was that everybody got a chance to express her point of view. Finally, an unprecedented schoolwide assignment was issued: all the students, ages 13 to 17, were to write an essay presenting their opinions on the policy. Now, of course, there was griping over the assignment, which wouldn’t be graded and was therefore pointless.

“Spoiled little debili,” Darya’s father said as they drove toward a misty Verrazano. “In Soviet Union, we wear uniform to school. My suit jacket cut into armpit, my necktie make rash—I scratch, it bleed. Imagine you made to wear uniform.”

But it was all basically a uniform anyway, like how stores carried the same styles and when one store changed to a new style, the others followed suit. “It seems like we’re dressed different,” Darya said, “but we’re delusional if we think there’s real choice involved. At least if it were a uniform, there’d be no pretending.”

Her father’s lips tightened. “Kakoy bret, what bullshit,” he spat. “My dear, you talk nonsense. Better say nothing at all.”

“Haven’t you heard of freedom of speech? Isn’t that why we left the Soviet Union?”

Her father grew irritated. “Don’t know why. Mama never say.”

“She was such a controlling bitch even then?”

“Mama not bitch.”

“But you didn’t even discuss it?”

“All she say is, Pack bags, Vova, time to go.”

“And you packed?”

“We here, no?”

“Yes—and here we’re taught to express ourselves.”

Her father laughed. “Express for what purpose? There’s only one express and that’s B train—and you know where it go? To work. Guess what happen if you express at work. They kick you to street, where is everybody who wants express. You know what means fired? Dead! And here I think we raise smart child.”

“Grigory Perelman happens to think I’m a genius.”

She’d almost convinced herself as much when her mother said offhandedly, “Your math tutor’s getting on my nerves—he keeps bugging me at work.” Assuming he was calling to boast of her talents, Darya inquired modestly, “Is he unhappy with my progress?”

“Nothing about you,” her mother said, flipping a cutlet onto its stomach and pressing sizzle. “He thinks I’m keeping his wife alive. I said to him, Grigory Perelman, how do you propose I’m doing this? and he said, You just are—I know it—you’re the reason she’s still here. Can you believe that? This is supposed to be a rational man, a scholar!”

“He does love his math,” said Darya.

“Well, he’s certainly taught me a lesson—never to help anyone again.”

“What’s the big deal? So he thinks you’ve got powers.”

“If I’m responsible for keeping her alive, guess whose fault when she croaks.”

“Maybe she’ll recover?”

“Maybe you’ll stop asking ridiculous questions?”

Darya’s fist slammed down on the countertop (ouch). “Do you even realize that you oppress the household?” she yelled. “It’s no mystery why Dad’s so passive! Who wouldn’t lie around in defeat with a wife like you? He told me he doesn’t even know why we immigrated. He didn’t want to! You made him! He hates his life but he’s just too scared of you to say anything!”

“He didn’t want to? I made him? That’s what he told you?” Spatula in hand, she raced to the living room. Darya trailed. At the sight, her father convulsed off the couch and jumped to attention. Her parents were at each other’s throats, her mother screaming that if she’s so overbearing he should be a man and tell her to her face instead of going through their daughter, because if he wanted out there was nothing stopping him, certainly not her, she was tired of seeing his fat ass on the couch when everything was broken and the floors were crooked and the computers didn’t work and the faucet sputtered and the ceiling was moldy, and he was shouting that that’s exactly what he wanted, freedom from her tyranny once and for all, to which she congratulated him and said that now that Darya was grown they could finally get a divorce, and Darya was whimpering and pleading sorry, she didn’t mean to, could they please stop, just stop fighting, when suddenly they straightened up and started to snigger. “Got you!” cried her mother. “Next time,” her dad said, dropping back onto the sofa, “don’t try play Mama and me against one another—we the team.”

As she tiptoed down the narrow corridor, Darya held her breath on the approach to the bedroom, eyes darting to make sure the body was still there—its presence noted, she marched to her desk and found her tutor in a particularly excited state. His enthusiasm for deduction and calculation was contagious, but instead of trying to work out the mind-boggling equations, she focused on more fundamental quantifications, and arrived at the conclusion that his wife wouldn’t live through the winter. She’d probably make it to the New Year, but not March. She’d seen the last of leaves. By next bloom, she’d be soil.

That, however, wasn’t the answer he was waiting for, and he was clearly waiting for something. He’d quit his incessant ranting and was pointing the end of a wooden stick at a jumble of numbers and symbols on the board. Evidently he expected her to solve it. How preposterous!

“I’m listening,” he said. “We don’t have all week.”

She shrugged.

He covered a part of the jumble with his hand as if it were being indiscreet. “Forget that for now. Doesn’t exist. Focus here.” He drew a circle around another part of the jumble. “What is first thing we do?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“Yes you do! We went over this.”

“But I don’t remember.”

He exhaled. “What is always, always number one step?”

She pressed her stare into the board. The equation snarled. “Multiply?”

Grigory Perelman turned to her. “What in hell will that do?”

“I meant open parentheses.”

“Nonsense!” he screamed. “It’s like we never did this before!” He tried to calm himself. “Please, Darya,” he said. “You have something between ears. Try to use it. OK?”

She nodded.

“So. First we . . .” His marker stabbed the board repeatedly in one godforsaken spot.

She opened her mouth. No words came out. Instead, hysterical laughter bubbled up. It was never interpreted correctly. The laughter should’ve warmed people to her, made them love and pity her. Instead, at the sound of it, Grigory Perelman crumpled. He sat down on the floor and gripped his head by two baking-soda clouds of hair. His big toes peeked out of holes in his socks. The toenails were gnarled, mustardy. The laughter dried up. Her throat constricted. What should she do? She didn’t know—should she say something? What to say?

After a minute, he spoke. “I’m sorry, but I can’t do this,” he said. “I can’t, I can’t. I’m wasting your time and mine.”

“You’re not wasting my time,” she said, without conviction.

Looking very ancient all of a sudden, he got to his knees and, eventually, to his feet. He hobbled away to the bathroom, turned the lock. A tremendous sob ripped through walls. Then it was quiet, eerily so. How should she act? Pretend nothing had happened or comfort him and comfort how? She could be busy! She grabbed the Xeroxed packet that was his treasure trove of equations, picked one at random and went at it so hard the tip of her pencil snapped. The equation stumped her, but not before she’d made some headway. Perhaps she was wrong, but it seemed she was getting somewhere. Still no Grigory Perelman. Was this some sort of mystical test, another installment of Russianmath? Teacher disappears to bathroom. Student left to ponder existence and listen for toilet flush.

With inexplicable certainty it struck her that the bathroom was empty, Grigory Perelman was gone. She ventured into the corridor and approached—the bathroom door was shut. His breathing was audible. There was a wheeze to it. She raised her fist but didn’t knock. Returned to the living room, she sat scribbling in her notebook until it was time to get picked up. She bundled up and took out two bills (a twenty and a ten) and placed them on the desk, then came back and stuffed them in her pocket, then came back and placed them on the desk and smacked the pencil holder atop and slid out only the ten. In the corridor, she stood at a loss. The bathroom door seemed responsive, but she didn’t want to test it with a question. “Same time next week,” she told the crack, and slipped out.

Her dad took the Ocean Parkway exit and dropped her off on the corner where Val was waiting, sans tuna sub, all nerves and excitement.

“How do I look?” said Val.

“Like yourself.”

“Is that a good thing?”

Darya said she was going home.

“No, you’re not,” Val said. “You-know-who just walked past. Guess what he said.”

“Will you marry me?”

“Shut up!” Val shrieked. “He stopped, not like a full stop but like turned toward me, coming so close I could feel his breath, and was like, Hey, you and your friend, you coming to the park?”

“He said you and your friend?” Darya asked, surprised that he’d registered her existence.

“Yeah—so what?”

Despite the cold, the park was packed. It was one of those nights when something could be said to be in the air, electricity, a charge, a weather-encoded reminder of the infinite blackness through which the ball they clung to was hurtling. A full moon was no wonder. The ordinary was strange, the strange baffled, and everything thrilled (example: chipped bench paint). All the characters were out, all the “major players.” Big Arthur overturned trash cans, gathered sticks of assorted sizes, and got to drumming. What he lacked in rhythm he made up in sheer banging. His girlfriend had emerged from the mythic realm and was doing triple toe loops on Rollerblades around the jungle gym. Fat Fred entertained the crowd the only way he knew how, by flinging around his three hundred pounds. He flopped atop anybody he set his eyes on, squashing them until their cries for mercy grew sufficiently desperate. By the time he reached Darya he was so sweaty that when he peeled himself off she was soaked.

Her impending curfew filled her with such dread that she turned off her phone, resigned to the fact that her mother would be waiting for her on the corner, crumpled pajamas, Papa’s slipper in hand (an ancient Russian beating tool, co-opted by Mama because Papa couldn’t kill a cockroach). But it was worth it. She got so swept up that she didn’t realize she was holding a tiny, squashed joint—how did it end up in her fingers? And why was she coughing? She had a firm anti-drug policy. It was lame, but that was the idea. The policy was a yardstick of her resistance to peer pressure, lest she become like those people in the experiment who administered fatal shocks just because they were told to do so. She passed the thing to Dexa, who should’ve thought twice about taking another hit. The eye of a needle was wider than his.

Bino was delivering a sermon from the swings. Where was Val? He usually preached to a choir composed solely of her. It was dark, of course, and there was no shortage of people, but Val’s wild curls were missing—as was her laugh, which would surely be ringing out if she were within earshot. Darya asked around, no one had seen her, until Dexa, totally fried, pointed to the slide. Two pairs of feet stuck out from behind—Val’s purple Doc Martens tangled with Quantum’s tattered clogs. It couldn’t be. She drew closer. The shoes writhed, as if they belonged to one convulsing beast. Darya was already out of breath. She ran.

She was on the street when somebody shouted, “Hey, hold up!”

She turned. It was the blond glow. “Running off already?”

“What’s it to you,” she muttered and began to walk away.

“Wait,” he said. “Want to see something crazy?”

“I’ve seen it all.”

“Not this,” he said. “This is different.”

She hopped onto a tree stump laminated in concrete. “How different?”

“So different I don’t even know what to call it.”

“Why show it to me?”

“You’re smart. Maybe you’ll make sense of it.”

Led up the ramp to the boardwalk, Darya kept her head down, afraid of being identified by relatives or parents’ friends. Bino somersaulted over the railing and ducked under the boardwalk, the blond glow extinguished. Darya groped over the railing and jumped. The boardwalk used to be really high, but the space underneath had been filled in with sand, perhaps to deter the homeless shanties that had been causing endless fires. Now it was necessary to crawl to get under. Then the space opened out again.

Bino was sitting on the ground, covered in stripes of light from the cracks between the boards. Darya kneeled alongside. Her mouth was dry and warm. “Look at this,” he said and scooped up a handful of sand, letting the grains slip through his fingers.

“This is what you wanted to show me?”

“Yeah.” He picked some up with a fist and directed its flow over her knee. “Isn’t it strange?”

His face was beautiful like an ax. He burped. She too scooped a handful and let it slip through her fingers. “It’s sand,” she said. “I think there’s some quartz crystal in it.” She released a stream over his shoe. Silence stretched long. It became all too obvious that they were pouring sand on each other. She had some cupped and he pried her hands apart, grabbed, his fingers moist like cold slugs. “Is this a good idea?” she said, all breath. Was it ever! He lay back, pulling. A roar deafened—the sea? She plunged into a blond wave. A whiff of alcohol, vomit, love. On top of him, she turned monstrously heavy, a lump. Embarrassed that she wasn’t doing anything—she didn’t know what she was supposed to be doing. He rolled her over, went to work. Her layers would’ve been the envy of any onion. There were toggles, buttons, zippers, Velcro, and, finally, hands—rubbing, stroking, squeezing, too many to be just two.

Somebody was at her neck. Rolling back her eyes, she saw, crouched over her, her dad. She gasped. It was interpreted as delight, invigorating Bino’s groping. Her dad didn’t pay much attention, preoccupied with the task of cradling her head and staring sort of diagonal, toward her left thigh. A hand was also rubbing there. Following her dad’s eyes, she saw Grigory Perelman, sweating as he kneaded her muscle, beatific gaze lifted to his direct right, at Darya’s mother, who used a pointer finger to prod Darya’s calf flesh. Her mother shook her head and looked down sternly, right into Darya’s eyes, which grew blurry from a distant quake of pleasure.

Darya shut her eyes and tried to succumb to sensations, but she only felt additional hands. Grandparents, cousins, uncles. Distant relatives welcome! Was that slutty Aunt Lena sneaking a long, manicured hand in between Darya’s thighs? She, at least, was enjoying this. Their hands expanded and fused into one fabric. Her skin, Darya realized, wasn’t her skin, but a monstrous quilt of hands. Underneath, she was raw muscle, tissue, and blood. But she couldn’t breathe. It was hot, itchy. She was suffocating.

Summoning all her force, she beat the hands away.

She sat up, convulsive, catching breath, tugging shirt down, pants up.

Bino lay on the ground, bony, pale, frightened. He looked so paltry. This was the source of her attraction? She must’ve seen him through Val’s warped vision—even her eyes weren’t hers. He stared at her in shock. “Are you crazy?” he said. “If you weren’t into it, why didn’t you say so? You didn’t have to attack me!” He grabbed his forearms, inspecting for bruises, cuts. “Ouch,” he said, “ouch.”

On the boardwalk, Val hurried toward Darya. Darya’s first thought was run. Instead she walked away quickly, pretending to be so lost in thought that she hadn’t recognized her friend, who screamed, “Dar—wait up!” The screams grew louder, Darya’s legs scissored faster. Not fast enough—Val swooped in, out of breath (she didn’t usually run). Darya looked down, at Val’s moccasins. How could Darya have forgotten—the purple Doc Martens were last season. Blood scalded her cheeks. Her eyes welled up. Val knew everything; she had to. But Val, finally catching her breath, howled, “You can’t leave me hanging! Did you tell him I like him? What did he say?”

No one understood what had gotten into Darya, not that they were complaining. Her nose was buried in a marble notebook, pencil scratching away. She hardly left her room, and if she did it was to fetch the vacuum. The cleaning was a bit obsessive for her parents’ taste, but there were worse pastimes, and hadn’t they always drilled into her the value of uncluttered space? In their proud eyes, this was it, studying and cleaning, maturation at last. Everything in their power would be done to nurture it. When she failed to devour her fried potatoes with mushrooms and egg, her dad voiced concern, but her mom wouldn’t let him disturb Darya’s concentration. Then her mom wondered whether she wasn’t being too harsh—she did preach moderation—so the next time Val called the landline, frustrated at not being able to get a hold of Darya, her mom peeked in, holding out the receiver. Darya’s hands flailed wildly, Tell her I’m not here!

Her body was still full of sand, hoarding it greedily, stealthily, a load stored in every nook, secret stashes in locked places. Rinsing didn’t do much. Sleep shook it out of her. She dozed off in bed, awoke in a dune. But there was only so much square footage to scrub. Even homework, once started, had an end. Time didn’t and had to be filled. She could go out, but when she did, she ran right back to her room to be alone again, not that being alone was any better, or even quenched her thirst for being alone. Solitude was unreachable. She needed to be more alone, truly alone, but how?

She found Grigory Perelman’s Xeroxed packet and started playing around with the equations. In the process they became, gradually, one chunk at a time, transparent. Slowly, she began to see. Not that she knew what she comprehended—or if she really comprehended it. There were no answers at the back. Whatever it was didn’t belong in a classroom, wasn’t something that a group of students could learn together, wasn’t even a skill that could be tested. Each equation was a maze in which she was lost for hours, getting more lost until suddenly, and it was always suddenly, finding herself on clear open ground. The solutions were so glaring it was like they arrived at her.

But it was all for naught. Her change of heart to studiousness came too late, the damage done. Told to report to the principal’s office, Darya thought, Kaput! Mr. Krueger didn’t call people into his chamber just for a chat. As she approached, trembling, the ninth-floor corridor behind the biology lab, she encountered a huddle of students. They packed the office, leaking into the secretary’s potpourri den and out to the hallway. Darya tried to push through—“Excuse me,” she nudged, “can I get by? I’m here to see Mr. Krueger,” and they were like, Hello, why do you think we’re here?

ID-card assignments had been due last week and unless he was mistaken, because he was a human being capable of making mistakes too, none of them had handed in theirs. He wasn’t mistaken. A little dumpling murmured that he’d had mono. “What was that?” Mr. Krueger asked, but the dumpling said no more. After expressing his disappointment, Mr. Krueger began struggling through the roster, and a pattern emerged. “Arkadyavich, Arkady; Barskaya, Polina; Bender, Valentina; Davidzon, Igor”—none of the usual deadbeats. Gathered instead were the progeny of the former Soviet Union. Good students, solid class filler, confused by the mixed signals. Though they didn’t love the idea of ID cards, of being monitored and tracked, they knew it was dangerous to criticize authority—even, or especially, if the authority bade them to do so. Yet neither did they feel sufficient fear to pen a disingenuous account marveling at the new policy. Silence, they’d decided, was the safe option. But it was the only one that wasn’t.

Bangs glued to his forehead from the strain of pronouncing the names, Mr. Krueger said that anybody who didn’t hand in their assignment by homeroom tomorrow would face immediate suspension. The word induced a shtetl-worthy groan, an audible chatter of rotten immigrant teeth. Mr. Krueger returned to his desk. As they filed out, the fear was thick. That’s when Darya decided—she wouldn’t do it! She didn’t give a flying fuck! So she’d be suspended—big deal. Or that’s exactly what it would be, a very big deal. It would cause an uproar. The whole school would know. The whole neighborhood would know. She’d be famous and alone.

But Mr. Kreuger had been bluffing, because here she was, tired, splotchy, disheveled, waiting to get her picture taken, standing in a giant line at the front of which nobody gave a damn whether she combed her hair or smiled.

More from Issue 20

Issue 20 Survival

If this was not yet a movement, it was definitely a mood—antifree—and it was fighting a more difficult battle.

Issue 20 Survival

Privilege discourse offers a way for members of the same class to discuss differences in the same room.

Issue 20 Survival
Dire Straits
Issue 20 Survival

We kissed, but my whatever had not healed. It was hot and dry. (I mean my brain.)

Issue 20 Survival

Every cheap shot, each subtle disrespect, any advantage unfairly taken—these have to be balanced out.

Issue 20 Survival

Caren winces. “You have another six weeks to come up with a summer jam.”

Issue 20 Survival
Color Theory
Issue 20 Survival

That was the moment I should have realized that the narco business is no joke.

Issue 20 Survival
Nobody's Protest Novel
Issue 20 Survival

At the same time, there has been an obvious change of mood.

Issue 20 Survival

Women’s bathrooms need to be bigger, or something.

More by this Author

Issue 14 Awkward Age
Issue 11 Dual Power
July 31, 2014

So, Liza thought, she’s not about to kill the babies, leave the husband, or let her dental practice dreams go up in smoke.

June 28, 2013

My mother called me to supper. I wouldn’t have gone, but while speedwalking that morning she had taken a tumble.

November 26, 2010

If I’d known you liked jeans, he said casually, I would’ve brought some as presents.

December 3, 2010

Rita spoke feverishly. I realized today that I don’t know anything about my father, she said, absolutely nothing.