From the hospital where she worked Zina stole band-aids, gauze pads, latex gloves, adhesive cloth, scissors, iodine and alcohol wipes, and from the cafeteria she stole packets of honey, not knowing they were free to take. She changed out of her oversized once-white uniform, took a last sip of old coffee, said goodbye to no one, and revolved through glass doors into an empty twilit parking lot. October. How mild and peaceful the autumn was in Odessa—oops, she meant New York. Eleven years and all it took was a little exhaustion to make the slip. And lately . . . Zina was still tan from an uneventful summer that had flown by quicker than any she remembered (this was, by now, a superstitious statement), as if summer had boarded the B train while she stood on the platform as it whisked past. Those damned trains. No she’d gotten on the B train, second door last car as usual, and the seasons were left to loiter at the leaky station. Years ago she’d dealt with the suspicion that this life was squandered in transit, half above ground, half below. It didn’t matter. People slept in gray rows, toppled over, heads drooped, shoulders disgusted—Zina concluded that she didn’t look like the others. Her jaw didn’t fall open like that, did it? Sure it did, but that too was okay because she had something to look forward to: Sharfrawnt.
Two hours and half a hazy Tolstoy-on-tape later she disembarked amidst hustling, elbowing crowds, subway staircase huddled masses, your tired and poorly dressed for this unforecasted downpour. There wasn’t time to wait out the rain—she ran, stomping puddles. Entering the apartment she tried to make as little noise as possible. Peril in conspicuous return. Tiptoeing—laughable. Her daughter, Rita, was slouched by the kitchen window, plucking at a bowl of browned grapes. Rita lurked, and Rita sprung.
I’ve been waiting for you, she said. Why are you so late?
Rita had gone to Downstate Medical School because since the youngest age she’d wanted to be a pediatrician just like Baba Anya, but she had a breakdown at the end of the first year and was now living at home, regaining strength, trying to make a decision. Baba Anya would’ve taken it the hardest but luckily she’d died six years back.
They had tea together as Zina silently watched the clock.
Rita spoke feverishly. I realized today that I don’t know anything about my father, she said, absolutely nothing, he’s a mystery to me and it’s your fault—you’ve kept him a mystery, you’ve turned him into an unknowable person.
Zina wasn’t shocked by the accusation. Little shocked her. She worked with terminally ill cancer patients on the Upper East Side, not that that had anything to do with it. She told her daughter calmly, It’s not my fault your father has remained a stranger, he isn’t unknowable, you haven’t really tried—he’s in the living room, go ask him some questions, maybe he’ll answer. Zina suspected that Rita wouldn’t recover. She was gaining weight, asking pointless questions. Questions led to more questions and soon enough a decision would be out of reach, Rita would forget she was trying to make one and drift into a vague, dark sea of introspection. Zina tried putting herself in Rita’s shoes. Impossible. How she wished to be young again.
Oh I almost forgot, Zina said, get my bag—I have presents.
Rita fetched. She tapped her finger on the table while Zina rummaged around in her purse.
Band-aids and iodine—in case you’ve run out. And give Papa some.
Rita puffed out her cheeks and turned purple. Her face had a spectacular ability to change color, but wasn’t too flexible with expressions, tending to stay astonished-seeming.
Zina eyed the clock.
Here, have this piece of chocolate cake, she said to her daughter.
Rita was on the verge of screaming, but her fingers attacked the cake and delivered it in crumbling chunks to her squirrelly mouth. Always worked. Zina didn’t have time to feel guilty, she was running late. The Sharfrawnt! The Sharfrawnt! Her heart fluttered achingly in her poor, tired breast.
It took up the two blocks between Coney Island Ave and Brighton 6th. Not just a community center, it was a place you’d consider going on the coldest day of the coldest winter. Ashok, the security guard, was someone you said an enthusiastic hello to, and then, strangely, he popped up in a dream. The next morning you thought of him differently, and for a time your hello became even more spirited, perhaps adding, how are you? The corridor was long and bright . . . the Sharfrawnt retreated into itself, into its own heart of safety, love, warmth. When walking from the entrance to the women’s locker room you felt you were walking not farther but deeper, into that luminous heart.
In short, the three hundred bucks a year membership was the best money Zina could’ve spent (or so she had to keep telling herself).
In the sauna she lay down on a faded beach towel, tore open the packet of honey, and began rubbing the brown goo into face, neck, chest. Her dark curly hair was tucked into a wool hat. Zina’s left eye was almost twice the size of the right, and it seemed as if an invisible barometer contraption held together the inharmonious features, which strove to assume a quite different, looser arrangement. The honey was hot, watery, mixing with sweat. Some got on her lips, she licked them, licked around, as far as tongue stretched. Mmm . . . Her eyes shut to signal enjoyment throughout her body. Inhale, exhale—and she made a show of it. I deserve this, she thought, working early to late, supporting the family, sciatica, swollen ankles, almost fifty years old. Someone threw water on the hot stones, which was against the rules, and they hissed like the quenching of a desert-scale thirst. She massaged the honey into her thighs. No denying it, they’d tripled in size in the past five years. Was it the collective pepperoni-pizza gorging at work, or just an inheritance from her mother? Who knew! Unlike Rita, she wasn’t about to begin an investigation. Water was flung on the hot stones again. The perpetrator was surely Maxim, a restless old man who watered the stones too often, and was just as often scolded by Yuri, Athletic Director of Sharfrawnt. Yuri was a significant man with a wily, out-of-the-corner-of-the-eye feel about him, lips curled as if in saying, you don’t know what I just did, but of course he hadn’t done anything other than throw back fifty grams in his office, maybe not even, and on first impression he was intimidating, then an annoyance, now helplessly endearing. Toward some people your soul just opened.
The stones hissed yet again.
Eh, Maxim, are you trying to drown those poor rocks? Zina said.
It’s Elza—I thought this was what you’re supposed to do. It’s not hot enough in here.
Zina propped herself onto her elbows and glanced through glued lashes over at Elza, who was her age but tinier, less flesh to have aged, and meek, burning slower, in for the long haul. She was new to Sharfrawnt. Ah, Zina said, collapsing her elbows.
How’s everything? Elza asked.
Oh the same, you know, here and there.
And Rita, any progress?
No—if anything it’s getting worse. Everyday there’s another question, something new to dig up—now it’s that she doesn’t know her father, and of course, like everything else, it’s my fault.
That’s nothing. My Flora declared the other day that she wants to go live in Cherkassy for a while—imagine that! She wants to return to that shithole.
Too much time on their hands, Zina mumbled. Or something in the water.
The door opened. A draft of cold, bright air poured in, followed by a voice.
Zina, you there?
Right here, Zina called, not opening her eyes or sitting up because relaxation required effort, process, dedication.
Cowboy is here, thought you might like to know. Marina, the twiggy lifeguard, delivered the message, and quickly shut the door. Zina’s eyelids receded. Elza peered at her. Who’s Cowboy? she asked, rather pathetically.
Zina had been hearing about Cowboy for months, ever since befriending Marina, who gave herself manicures in the lifeguard chair. Unconvincing not only as a lifeguard but as someone who’d consider dipping a toe in the water. Probably hadn’t swum a day in her life. Undoubtedly Yuri’s mistress. The utter disregard for disguise impressed Zina wildly. Friendship sprung from there. Marina had told her about Cowboy, who first made his entrance at the Sharfrawnt three years ago. Of course, nothing had been the same since. Even when absent, the promise of his return (who’d let a membership go to waste?), the odd chance of his next-minute arrival, the residue from the last time, colored the atmosphere over the pool area. Yes he was young, yes attractive, but not in the extreme. The swimming did it. There were stories, legends, myths. Apparently, the purity of longing made women experience instantaneous transformation. The force of his butterfly cracked lifelong illusions. After watching him do thirty laps, Fira moved to the West Coast, Lina took up dancing lessons, Sonya’s sex life revived, Mara turned Democrat. Zina did not believe. But she was afraid. An encounter hadn’t yet occurred. Cowboy didn’t come regularly and several times had just left by the time she got there. The possibility of a convergence had been lingering in the back of her mind. An awareness of the possibility, not the hope. And what now? She just entered the zone, clamped neck-muscles releasing, knotted spine unraveling. Let Cowboy swim. Let others watch, women with time for transformations, sexual awakenings, rekindled pursuits. I wake at five in the morning. Get home after eight. There’s no money for ballroom dancing.
A slight draft reminded her that there was a tiny window in the sauna overlooking the pool. Zina sat up, lightheaded, sweaty. Alone. She pressed her face to the window. On the metal bleachers six women reclined in bathing suits, their mommy asses towel-enwrapped. Elza sat among them, transfixed. Zina scanned the four-lane pool and saw nothing, sighing with relief too soon. Two arms shot out at once, foaming water slipped off the tremendous shoulders like a sheer robe being discarded. He rose above, hovered split-second, and dove back under with such speed and power it was as if the engine of a horse were underneath. But there was no horse. No hat, gun, cattle. Not the West, but south Brooklyn. A black mane—no, just a swimming cap. A brief glimpse of his face, dark goggles, contortion, told her he might be Turkish.
For a moment the entire pool seemed to be inching forward with each thrust of his body. Perched on the top shelf of the sauna, Zina, too, was being dragged forward by his heels. Her hands held onto the wall. But if anything, she felt her large eye getting larger, her small eye smaller, and her lips drifting to irreversible separation. Not a transformation, it’s everything she already knew would happen. The Cowboy does nothing but affirm the spin of the earth. Exhaustion caught up with her. She turned away. Perhaps the experience didn’t translate through glass . . .
Rita was waiting in the bedroom when Zina got home.
Have a nice swim at the Shorefront? she asked.
She’d learned her father’s life story, and, while Zina unpacked her bag, began to read aloud from a sheet of paper: Vova Andreievich Veterinsky was born in the Moldovanka district of Odessa in 1953, three days after Stalin died.
Zina protested. Please, no. Tomorrow. She was tired, had the right. That small harmless-looking thing by her side of the bed was an alarm clock set for five in the morning. Unlike Rita, or Vova, who was unemployed, she labored. Too bad. Rita’s cheeks were bramble fruit. Eyes rounded. No stopping her. The bed in disarray, wet bathing suit, towels, Zina collapsed. Rita jumped onto the mattress, grabbed Zina’s ankle. I can’t believe it, she said. Papa—a Soviet air force pilot.
Zina held her laughter until barging into the living room, where Vova lay prostrate on the couch, belly upward, half-dozing in front of the blasting TV. She tapped him on the shoulder and laughed in his face, laughed harder and harder so he’d be certain of what she meant. He shrank away from her, fell back asleep.