Sentimental Driftwood

Tasya confessed that being a dentist, though the consummation of a lifelong dream, was a type of drudgery, that motherhood was a type of drudgery, that she would probably have more babies but not because she wanted them, that they would move to the suburbs but not because that’s where the fun was, that her husband (a mensch who worked on Wall Street and poured his leftover creative energy into a side business of custom radiator covers) wasn’t Ryan Gosling’s face superimposed onto Vin Diesel’s torso, and that getting through married life was no walk in the park but involved complicated techniques and constant reminders of meant-to-be-ness, as if every relationship were its own religion with a foundation myth. Liza relished each of these confessions, then felt a jab to the windpipe when Tasya nevertheless confirmed that this was exactly the life she wanted and if only she lost five pounds it would be an idyll. So, Liza thought, she’s not about to kill the babies, leave the husband, or let her dental practice dreams go up in smoke, and stopped listening. How could she write a story about this?

“Life, Liza! How the hell is it?”

Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s first novel, Panic in a Suitcase, is out today from Riverhead Books. Read an early excerpt of the book in n+1 Issue 14. Her new story, “Helpless Incomprehension,” appears in n+1 Issue 20. –Eds.

The permanent retainer behind Liza’s uninsured upper front teeth had endured some irremediable catastrophe, leaving her bowl of cereal unchomped for the first time in decades. Bent over the sink in the bathroom of the Tenement Museum gift shop, where the poor meydl slaved away Wednesdays through Sundays, head back and mouth agape, she was making hopeless attempts to inspect the damage in the mirror. Her tongue was sore from prodding the frayed ends of metal wires, trying to tuck the metal bundle under teeth. Her inner cheek had attained the texture of applesauce. Though mentioning a dental dilemma to her mother was a major mistake, she called and did just that. Her mother had that most abominable of things: a solution. “Lizochka,” she said, “if you’re in such horrible pain, if you can’t get through your day, you can’t eat, you obviously didn’t sleep a wink, just pick up the phone and call Tasya. She’ll happily drop whatever she’s doing to snip a few wires in your mouth and it’ll cost you nothing. I’d call her for you but it would look a little strange. She’s your friend!”

In fact Liza and Tasya were not friends. They had been once, when Liza was 10 and Tasya a fount of wisdom three years her senior, but so much time had passed since their last meaningful encounter that, nostalgic mists dispersed and sentimental driftwood cleared, it became obvious that they were now two totally changed people who just happened to go by the same names and even that only among their families; to the outside world, Liza was known as Beth, whereas Tasya had pulled off a switch to Wendy. Liza’s mother on the other hand really was friends with Tasya’s mother, Gala, or had been from the time they were infants in tall baby carriages in linden-lined Park Shevchenko until a month ago, when Liza’s mother did something so horrendous, so vile, so indecent, that Gala hadn’t answered any of her calls since and even boycotted her and Slava’s thirty-fifth wedding anniversary for which they weren’t going to do anything but ended up doing something. Gala had also unfriended her on Stranitsa Lits, a move of which Liza’s technologically obtuse mother remained ignorant; Liza, firmly against setting up her own account and addicted to using her mother’s for spying purposes, was tremendously proud of herself for not revealing this virtual diss and thereby adding fuel, even a last drippy-drop, to the fire. What was the unpardonable offense committed by Liza’s mother, whose name, by the way, was Marina? That remained a mystery.

Liza tried to help her mother get to the bottom of it. “Maybe you made a comment about Boris?” she offered, referring to Gala’s latest amour. Her mother shook her head. “That can’t be it,” she said. “I said he could stand to drink a little less but Gala knows that’s the case, and I couldn’t have been the only one to mention it after Wasserman’s pool party.” “Did you compliment her on her haircut?” asked Liza. “Of course I complimented her!” After a pause, “How did you know she got a haircut?” Liza bit her lip—she didn’t want to confess to seeing pics of Gala’s bob in the style of Amélie on Stranitsa Lits. “You told me! Early onset dementia? Eat your berries.”

Evenings were precious; it wasn’t out of a bounty of spirit that Liza devoted hers to this activity. Her wish to offer her mother support in a difficult time usually remained just that, a wish, which she harbored while prone on her futon, simultaneously watching HBO, running her forefinger on the treadmill that kept in motion the bottomless life-reel of Stranitsa Lits, leafing through a mite-infested story anthology that had called her name from the bookshelves, and shoveling dry cereal into her mouth. Neither was it “quality time.” Nerves were as short as circuits. Yet here she was, forgoing the pleasures of decompressing after a long day at the gift shop to sit with her mother and engage in “brainswims,” because it was in Liza’s interest they reconcile. The stories and updates she relied on for sustenance and inspiration had, in the past month, grown as scarce as bananas in the Soviet Union (where an enterprising family was able to acquire, on average, one banana per year, and forced to share this brown-spotted, half-squashed miracle among the members, which was the real reason that in Soviet families one child sufficed). Now Liza was gorged on bananas but ravenous for updates. In the Old Country, updates, not fluoride, came in the tap—teeth rotted, fell out, but the soul was fortified. Here teeth were strong, but who knew what was going on with Lana who’d dropped out of Hospitality School to move to Mexico with a man twice her age, or what progress was being made in Tasya’s epic search for the perfect house in Long Island?

Such information was procured through Gala, who kept in touch with everybody under the sun, whether they were sunning themselves by the Atlantic or the Pacific, the Black Sea or the Dead. She asked pertinent questions about them, their children, their children’s children, then related this information to Marina, who delivered the choicest morsels to Liza. Without a steady supply of raw information, Marina’s powers of discernment were useless. Instead of showering her daughter in shocking or hilarious or outrageous or heartbreaking or all of the above (though that was rare) stories about people whose faces Liza readily conjured (on Stranitsa Lits) and then thinly fictionalized into stories no one read but her mother (not a bit pleased), Marina was forced to give up her subway naps and read the newspaper, calling her daughter first thing from work to offer highlights: “A sinkhole swallowed a man in Florida, top scientists concluded global warming doesn’t exist, your President wants to take even more of our hard-earned money, the gays are raising a stink again.” It was as if a higher power had been alerted to the dire situation and, seeing that only one hope was left, executed a master plan of dental destruction: it exacerbated Liza’s insomnia until she supplemented her regular dose of Clonazepam with a half-pill of Lunesta and induced an attack of sinusitis, clogging her nostrils with stone; optimal conditions attained, it mangled her retainer.

Summoning chutzpah, Liza got out her phone and highlighted Tasya Childhood. The last time she’d called was probably to say that Aaliyah was on VH1 with a brand-new hit and it was awesome. Her thumb pressed SEND, but the moment the timer started, she flipped the phone shut. Tasya belonged in the mythic realm, not the open-wide-and-let-me-scrape-your-molars realm. Keeping her jaw ajar and a bit unaligned, like a gnarled clam, she returned to “the floor,” as her elderly boss Elaine referred to the ten-by-ten-foot space cluttered with every tchotchke in existence. It was where tickets to the tenement tours were sold, where the tours originated, and where they ended, an ouroboros of consumerism masterminded by Elaine, whose motivation took the form of a dizzying concatenation of mixed and unsettling metaphors, pleas, and invocations (sales were slightly down from last year). “When you step out on the floor, forget your worries, your insecurities, your daydreams—forget yourself!” This part wasn’t too difficult—Liza’s shift began at eight in the morning, four hours before she recalled who she was. But the spiel didn’t end there. “On the floor, you’re part of the team. You’re a bloodthirsty hound. You’re a coyote in a flock of sheep. So make the winning goal! Land that trophy! Go out there and sell, sell, sell!” This part didn’t come as naturally. Writhing with a sales mania Liza was not.

Two pm on a leaky day was tourist desperation hour. Lunch had been eaten, conversation topics exhausted, socks soaked through. Amid a scene of mayhem, Liza was trying to organize visitors into a single line that wound around the center island of registers, answer the phone, address concerns about tote discounts and mood-ring function, announce the next tours into a microphone, restock items flying off shelves, and tidy up merchandise. “The eye,” screamed rapturous Elaine, “shopping is all about the eye.” Liza had read somewhere that the human species was biologically incapable of multitasking, but somehow everybody else had missed the memo. When the click-clack of Elaine’s cane was inaudible, Liza snuck peeks at the all-purpose Yiddish trivia set ($9.95). After all, she’d been hired for her fluency. During an interview conducted in an airless, overly lit basement that could’ve served as an interrogation room if not for dozens of empty construct-your-own-salad containers, Elaine had mentioned that she found it peculiar that Liza had studied journalism but never applied her skills to the real world, and Liza had replied that in fact she’d interned for The Forward, which Elaine, who’d last picked up a newspaper before the Reagan administration, assumed to be not the English-language offshoot but Ferverts, the Yiddish original, gathering from this that Liza spoke the endangered tongue. This touched Elaine, a tough lady with a two-pack-a-day voice (not the habit), and she found herself asking if Liza could come in the following morning for training, though the moment before she’d had no intention of seeing the girl again. It turned out that Elaine structured her world like a Dickens novel, everybody in it assigned a characteristic trait that was called upon whenever he or she came into view, and Liza’s nonexistent language skills became her sole excuse for existence. Whenever possible, Liza dropped in phrases like “Well, I’m off to my Bubele’s house,” or “I’m a bissel hungry—time for a nosh,” or “I’ll just schlep these Heroes of the Torah mugs to the storage closet,” hoping that, quota fulfilled, the universe might not ask for more.

She bent to pick up a pair of giant plastic lips. How had she ended up here? What had happened to her plan of shaking off her immigrant family the moment she graduated from Brooklyn College and embarking on heroic adventures to the heart of the country, hopping freight trains from one city to the next, reporting on the sorry state of affairs for pocket money, engaging in risky escapades with a motley cast of characters, about whom many a tale would one day be told? Tickets, it turned out, were expensive, hopping freight trains dangerous. The summer after graduation came and went, the leaves yellowed, but not only hadn’t Liza gotten out of town, she hadn’t gotten out of bed. Her mother, tipped off by a coworker in a similar predicament (Gregor Samsian progeny) to an online list maintained by a well-intentioned if undiscerning Craig, came upon a post about employment possibilities at the Tenement Museum and promptly sent it off to her predicament, who now tapped the bony shoulder of an old lady browsing children’s books in the corner, currently clutching If Your Name was Changed at Ellis Island and Five Little Gefiltes, and said, “Ma’am, please form a line.”

“Oh, dear.” A look of fright came over the woman’s Florida-bright face. She pointed a knotted finger at Liza. “Blood! Blood from your mouth!”

“Gevalt!” cried Liza.

 

 

Tasya was wearing a rumpled lab coat and eating a Yoplait. She was six feet tall with a broad back and hands custom-made to yank molars. Giving birth to twins had softened her none. She was kidding around with the receptionist, filling the gray first-floor office with rusted bars over the windows, an office that had never permitted entry to a single ray of sunlight, with thunderous laughter. When she saw Liza, she tossed the Yoplait into the trashcan (“Three-pointer!”) and in one fell swoop hugged her and delivered her into a free chamber. Liza’s body was deposited into a chair. Within minutes the retainer lay in dozens of tiny metal parts on the mobile tray. Liza was given an antiseptic rinse for the wounds and an ibuprofen for the swelling. The tip of her tongue no longer fell on the metal wire, but for the first time in fourteen years rested on the smooth curve connecting gums to enamel. Oh, heavenly freedom!

Her two front teeth could now do as they pleased. What they pleased to do, of course, was grow wobbly and drift toward opposite sides of her face. It wasn’t unlike what would happen to the office if the shutters and metal bars were taken off the windows—a cascade of sunlight would reveal stains, dust balls, mold. Relief turned to fear. The retainer had been there for a reason. It was necessary to the structural integrity of her face. And that wire had been a source of reassurance. In any iffy situation—and which wasn’t?—all she had to do was thrust her tongue against it to feel secure. Now there was no support, there was nothing.

“How can I ever thank you.”

“Psha!” exclaimed radiant Tasya, sterilizing her equipment. “Easy-breezy.”

Liza had promised to find out why Gala wasn’t speaking to her mother, and to report back the moment she stepped out of the office. The longer she delayed, the more cinnamon buns her prediabetic mother would consume. Failure wasn’t an option. The deal she had with her mother, whereby her mother gave her bed and board, made the bed, ironed nightshirts on the board, provided hot food and, most important, fodder for the stories Liza wrote, wasn’t free of charge. But an inner voice said—as her inner voice always did when action was required—Abort! Get out ASAP! She clapped her knees and gave a sigh: Well, that’s that. On her face was the same expression as when she tried to cut in line; paralyzed by an awareness of her own intentions, blushing with anticipatory shame, pleading for mercy with the very people she was attempting to yentz.

“Where do you think you’re going?” said Tasya. “I want the scoop!”

Liza’s heart dropped (onto a cushion of egg salad). She would’ve far rather handed over a few bills than negotiate in the soft currency of the soul. Tasya’s giant brown eyes, cloudless orbs of pure voraciousness, glittered. Entertain me, they said. My shift ends in a million hours. The waiting room’s empty.

“The scoop?”

“Life, Liza! How the hell is it?”

“Great! I’m getting married.”

Only in the initial split-second after hearing someone else’s joyous news was a person truly exposed. That’s why sharing good news, and even having it, was a cruelty to humanity, which made a monumental effort to cover up and actually had a far superior talent for commiseration. But Tasya had nothing to hide. Underneath the lab coat, the stringy hair, the toughness, she was made of pure bliss, not a neurosis in sight. She beamed astonishment and splendor. “Get the hell out!” she cried happily.

“Actually I’m not, not even close. I don’t know why I said that.”

Tasya was a bit baffled, but bounced back in no time. The no time was hurtful. It should’ve taken at least some. Now that some violence had been done, they were able to speak frankly about where they found themselves on the journey of their lives. Tasya confessed that being a dentist, though the consummation of a lifelong dream, was a type of drudgery, that motherhood was a type of drudgery, that she would probably have more babies but not because she wanted them, that they would move to the suburbs but not because that’s where the fun was, that her husband (a mensch who worked on Wall Street and poured his leftover creative energy into a side business of custom radiator covers) wasn’t Ryan Gosling’s face superimposed onto Vin Diesel’s torso, and that getting through married life was no walk in the park but involved complicated techniques and constant reminders of meant-to-be-ness, as if every relationship were its own religion with a foundation myth. Liza relished each of these confessions, then felt a jab to the windpipe when Tasya nevertheless confirmed that this was exactly the life she wanted and if only she lost five pounds it would be an idyll. So, Liza thought, she’s not about to kill the babies, leave the husband, or let her dental practice dreams go up in smoke, and stopped listening. How could she write a story about this? An update she retrieved on her own, it seemed, had none of the zing of one that passed through her mother. It was like a meal she’d cooked herself—inedible, inert, unmagical.

Now it was Liza’s turn. But giving an update on her own life was paradoxical. The purpose of her existence was to keep track of everyone else’s—to chronicle, record. If she didn’t, who would? With nothing to offer by way of her own life meat, she sacrificed some of her mother’s, explaining how disappointed her mother was not to have produced a daughter just like Tasya, with a husband and twins and suburb aspirations and dental practice dreams. Suddenly Tasya screamed, “Our fucking mothers!”

Liza paused. By now she’d switched over to survival mode and completely forgotten about her secret agenda. “Right,” she said. “Our fucking mothers.”

“What do we do about this horseshit?”

“By horseshit you mean—”

“They’re being goddamn babies.”

“But my mom wants to make up. She has no clue what she did.”

It turned out to be the one possible offense that hadn’t made it onto their list of possible offenses. About six weeks ago, Marina had purchased a new phone, upgrading from her old flip-phone to the kind that does backflips, under the impression that the outrageous price tag included the transfer of proficiency. “No new tricks for an old mongrel.” These days, Marina theorized, everything was like a matryoshka, except the inner doll was exponentially larger than the outer one, making it impossible to put back together again. The impossible was now daily reality, Liza explained. If the banality of evil summarized the 20th century, the 21st was all about the banality of the impossible. Anyway, one day after a long discussion with Gala on this new device, during which Marina said one word to Gala’s billion, Marina disregarded the five-second grace period between saying goodbye and beginning to dole out the delectable morsels to her daughter, who lay nearby in a catatonic stupor like Sleeping Beauty who’d only awaken not through the gentle kiss of a sweet prince but the manic gossipy gabble of her mother. So intent was Marina on reviving her daughter, she forgot to END the call.

We can only imagine how Gala’s tales of woe and grandeur (Tasya was considering purchasing a house in a different zip code of Long Island; a coworker had pegged Gala, who was constantly forcing people to guess her age, as mid-thirties) were distorted by Marina for purposes of entertainment. After pouring her heart out to a dear friend, Gala became privy to how that dear friend made of it a mockery. Hearing this from Tasya, blood scalded Liza’s cheeks. A feverish fog descended. She imagined the various things Gala could’ve overheard without actually imagining them. It was like staring at the dark surface of the ocean with the knowledge that a school of sharks circled beneath.

“How long did she listen for?”

“A while.”

“That’s horrible. Too horrible.”

“But I’ve been urging her to get over it. This crap happens to everybody. I get ass-dialed all the time. My receptionist sent a text not to her boyfriend but to me calling me a premenstrual lard-brain cunt. Do I give a fuck? Neither should they. They love each other. You can’t just throw that away. You’ll make fun but I look at old photos. Your mom’s a toothpick with these ridiculous Princess Leia buns over her ears and my mom’s a giant with a gap in her teeth. They’re just running around City Garden, not a care in the world.”

“Park Shevchenko,” Liza corrected. But what was this? Tasya forged ahead, stuck to the straight and narrow. That didn’t leave room for abstract yearnings that translated into hours spent digging through cardboard boxes of black and white photos and weeping silently.

“No,” said Tasya, “City Garden.”

“We must be thinking of different photos.”

“I doubt it,” Tasya said with usual bluntness. “Park Shevchenko’s further out and kind of dangerous. They marched around the eternal flame but didn’t hang out in the park. Last year, when I went back—”

“Went back where?”

“Odessa.”

“I didn’t know you went.”

Tasya laughed. “Yeah, for two weeks.”

“But you don’t even have family there!” (Liza had family there.)

“Your cousins showed me around. Borya’s cool as shit. Fira’s kind of full of herself. She’s hot but not that hot.”

How had Liza overlooked that Tasya had gone to Odessa and hung out with her cousins? Unless, of course, she hadn’t been told. A part of her brain defrosted. Her mother didn’t just screen for interest! Along with picking the fantastic bits, she left out anything that might backfire in unreasonable demands or a full-blown rebellion. If Liza were to find out that Tasya went to Odessa, wouldn’t she want to go as well? And how fantastic were the fantastic bits really? They boiled down to two kinds of tales: exemplary and cautionary. Exemplary: Lana met a man within two months of joining JDate and now doesn’t have to finish her law degree but wants to anyway and is already going off birth control. Cautionary: Miriam, who wanted to be an artist but didn’t succeed in time because the art world is so miserable and it’s impossible to have success as any kind of artist nowadays, is now a drug addict and weighs eighty pounds and disappears for several-week stretches during which her poor mother who has developed cancer from the stress has to call every hospital and then the morgue to see if they found her body.

“The point is,” Tasya continued, “I had no idea I’d be so upset. I don’t remember being this fucked up when I found out Mama and Leon were getting a divorce.”

“Yeah,” said Liza, poking her finger pillow with the sharp end of a tool, “my mom’s aged a decade.”

“It’s a tragedy.”

“Oh, come on, they’ll make up. They have no choice.”

Tasya flinched. Liza meant that it was too late for their mothers to break the mold. From now until the end of time they would continue to live in the way they had always lived, whether they liked it or not. Tasya, who barely knew her real father (a sailor from Sevastopol), who’d cooked her own meals since kindergarten, didn’t have the privilege of believing that everything would turn out fine. But because she’d always felt that Liza was in need of a bit of lying to, a little babying, some soothing and placating, she agreed that a reconciliation was bound to occur and everything would return to its right order. She stood and rattled some equipment. She was at work, after all. “I should probably poke my head out there,” she said.

“How much do I—”

Tasya waved her away. “Not a word.”

The receptionist was so giddy at her companion’s return she knocked over a can of coke—empty. Tasya stopped in her tracks. “What about fitting into the sashimi dress?”

“It’s diet, Wendy!”

An inaudible retort from Tasya induced a roar in the receptionist. The two of them had a light and easy rapport, and could spend days on end shooting the breeze.

Liza stepped out into the heady breeze of Lexington Avenue, looked both ways down car-clogged 49th Street. Though Midtown was shorthand for everything contemptible, gray, repugnant, and evil, God it was exhilarating to be there. Tasya had misunderstood her: she had taken Liza’s pronouncement as naïve when in fact it had been flippant. Liza had no clue whether the crisis between their mothers, a crisis that clearly went deeper than the faux pas with the phone, would be resolved. Neither did she care. Their parents were like a giant planetary body whose gravitational pull kept them in its orbit whether they realized it or not. Liza had thought she was the only one who felt it, or at least the only one aware enough to study the astronomy, when actually she was the only one who could get away—that was her luxury. She’d been studying it, obsessing over it, in order to shirk it. Park Shevchenko or City Garden, who gave a damn!

She’d live without the tidbits; in fact, if she wanted a chance at living, she’d have to give up caring about her mother, Tasya, Gala and all the others, even Miriam, the artist-turned-heroin-addict, in and out of rehab, accruing botched plastic surgeries, pretending her autistic son didn’t exist. Back in Odessa, Miriam, an adult at age 8, had come over to their apartment on Frunze boasting the ability to read palms. Staring into Liza’s open hand, Miriam traced her lifeline and informed her that she was on her seventh and last life and would live only until the age of 33, at which point she’d be “universe dead.” Miriam further clarified that though she was technically older than Liza, she was only on her second life, meaning she was actually much younger in “universe age.” A quarter century later, Liza had yet to shake the feeling that others had lives ahead of them, whereas she was on her last, speeding toward universe death. Though she remembered little to nothing of her previous six lives, it seemed only right to devote the last one to reminiscing, evaluating, coming to terms.

But Miriam was the one who wouldn’t live past 33, and it was time for Liza to grasp that she, like everybody else, had one life and it couldn’t be lived through others. Tasya, Gala, Lana the ballerina, Arik the architect, Miriam. All the names mingled together into a fuzzy welter, a soggy mass, which Liza sent sailing down the choppy stream of the avenue—it had begun to pour—as she turned and ran, ran hard, for the nearest train.

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