By Maria Kuznetsova
Featured art: Seated Female Nude in Profile, Bending Forward by Arthur Bowen Davies
I met a man in Russia, after my father’s funeral. It was only appropriate.
Papa always knew how to make things harder for me and I didn’t see why his death should be an exception. This is how it happened: after the service, I was taking a walk through the cemetery, hoping to get lost. The throng of admirers and chemistry colleagues had left long before, and it was just me there, staring at the grave of this little girl who died on her second birthday. I don’t know how long I must have been standing there, considering this, when I heard a voice say, “Excuse me, Miss. You dropped this. And this. And this.” A man came up from behind, holding my wallet, my passport, and the headphones from the airplane. He gestured toward my purse, which was hanging open.
“Shit,” I said, depositing the items into my purse. “I’m such an idiot. Thank you.”
When he didn’t say anything else, I said, “I’m Anastasia Orlova.”
“I know who you are,” he said. “I’d like to give you my deepest condolences.”
“Thank you,” I said, wondering how I could have missed him during the funeral. The man’s black jeans were too tight; he wore snakeskin flats and sported a goatee. He had the body of a gymnast, short and intensely muscular, only two inches taller than me. He was the kind of man I would have laughed at back in Manhattan, the kind of man my husband would have called Le Eurotrash in his mock-French accent. He explained, “I’m Roman Kushenko. I lived next door to your father for five years. He was a fascinating man. A real genius.”
“Many people thought so,” I said, not adding that I was not one of them, that I found it hard to hold somebody I hadn’t spoken to in seven years in such high regard. “What?” I said, noticing the way he stared at me, like I was much further away than I really was.
“Nothing, Amerikanka. I just like hearing you talk,” he said, his eyes flashing. When I said nothing, he added, “I’ve never heard an accent like yours before. Say something else.”
“I need a cigarette,” I said, and he fished one out of his pocket. “Thanks,” I said, lighting up. “I left mine on the plane.”
“Did you fly over by yourself?”
“Do you see anyone else here?”
We headed down the path toward the Orlov family plot, studying the procession of my deceased relatives: my grandmother, my grandfather whom I never met, my long-dead mother, and now my father. Papa had only invited me to join the plot once, when I was in the sixth grade, coming back from the unexpected funeral of a classmate. Do you want your body to rot in America? he had said, after he picked me up. I don’t want my body to rot anywhere, thank you. Just burn my ashes, I snapped, and that was that.
We studied the improbable couple: my mother the poet, my father the chemist. Papa’s expression was etched into his stone with only a few severe strokes, which was all that was necessary to capture his steel eyes and his puckered lips, ready to spring with disapproval any second. I half expected his mouth to open and spit in my face, saying, Your Papa’s not even cold in his grave, and you’re already slutting around. And how stupid do you have to be, dochka, to nearly lose your passport? My mother’s portrait was from her final days at the Institute of Literature, sketched with a cautious and delicate hand, her wide eyes set in the distance, as if she were a politician heavy with noble ideals, staring off into a faraway but attainable utopia.
“Jesus. It could be you,” said Roman. “Not yet, I hope.”
“You know,” he said, “I’m an orphan too.”
“Orphan!” I said. “I don’t look at it that way. I’ll be thirty in December.” “There’s an old anecdote about a hippopotamus,” he said to me then. “Do you know it?”
“Hippopotamus?” I echoed. “Anecdote?”
“A baby hippo gets really hungry in the middle of the rainforest, so he eats his papa,” said Roman, gesturing wildly. “But after a few hours, the little bastard’s hungry again. So he calls over his mama and swallows her too. Later, he’s crying alone under a tree, right? And this alligator swims over and says, Hey, who the hell are you? And the hippo goes, Who, me? I’m a poor little orphan.”
I laughed so hard that I needed a tissue. This was the closest I had come to crying since I got the call about Papa, and it felt good.
“Thank you,” I said, and he shrugged.
Then he asked, “How long are you staying?”
“I see. When was the last time you were in Petersburg?”
“We left when I was seven.”
“Well,” he said. “I know you’re not exactly thrilled to be here, but I can give you a tour of your rodina if you have the time. Back in school, I gave tours to rich businessmen to make some extra money. I know it inside and out.”
“I won’t pay.”
“Of course not,” he said, grinning. “Think about it. You’ll need a break, Anastasia.”
I nearly tripped over a tree branch, when he said it. It was then that I became aware of how it felt to have someone pronounce my name correctly, without effort. After my first few months in Brooklyn, I gave up and told my classmates to call me Anna. Itwas less painful than having them call me Anast- asia, like the continent, not the way this man said it, Anasta-see–ya, like so long until next time. As he pivoted on the graveled path, I thought of something Papa had said when I was a teenager, after some visiting cousins made fun of my pronunciation, of how I even managed to stress the wrong syllable on the word for water. He had put a thick hand on my waist, gripping hard, and said, Just think of what your instinct tells you to do, dochenka. Then do the opposite. So that’s what I did. I turned back to Roman and said, “In three hours, I’m going to be standing outside the Mariinsky Theatre, probably smoking. You should be there too.”
This was the letter that arrived in my mailbox a year before my father’s heart attack:
If you still having any questions about your Mother, Ivan Zamyatin might have answer. Last I have heard, he lives at 57-B Bolshaya Morskaya U., Ushanki, Russia, 38-05559. I hope you are finding what you looking for.
P.S. Please saying hello to Mr. Rat.
I had been keeping it in my glove compartment, not wanting to throw it out, but not wanting to bring it into the house, either. Papa made a point of writing it in the remnants of his English, with the exception of using the Russian word for daughter, dochka. At the bottom of the letter was a phone number, presumably Mr. Zamyatin’s. I knew who he was, or at least I recognized his name. He was the one who wrote the introduction to my mother’s book of poetry, the man who, when I persisted, my father once told me had been a childhood friend of my mother’s, and later her editor. “Mr. Rat” was my husband Chris, whose name happens to mean rat in Russian. Though Papa considered himself an intellectual of the highest order, he never stopped getting a kick out of that. Whenever Chris called me, Papa drummed his fingertips against the countertop, simulating the scampering of a rodent.
Ushanki. It sounded exotic. In Russian, it almost meant ears. The map I got at the front desk of my hotel told me it was two hundred and fifty miles to the south of Petersburg, right on the Yekaterinburg Railway. That was exactly Papa’s style: I had been asking about my mother since she died when I was six, but it had taken him over twenty years to even attempt to answer me. Before then, it was always a change of subject, a quiet smile, a shrug into a dead end. The thought of him setting up this mystery for me made me bite my nails to the quick. Why couldn’t he have told me about my mother when he was alive? Why did I have to hear it from a stranger?
I was so busy folding and unfolding the letter until a cross had formed in the center of the page that I didn’t even notice Roman until he covered me with his shadow. “Hello again,” he said, squeezing my hand. This time he had put on a leather jacket, had added some gel to his hair. He didn’t ask how I was because he already knew. Instead, all he did was nod in the direction of Nevsky Prospect and say, “Shall we?”
Though the wind was pretty fierce, the street was infested with tourists; just before we crossed under the archway to the Hermitage, we passed a club that was simply called Dacha, the techno music blasting with strobe lights in the empty room in the middle of the afternoon. We saw two legless men who claimed to be veterans, a little boy who played the cymbals like a wind-up monkey, his mother no doubt standing a block away, ready to eat up his profits, a herd of women in stilettos, cursing as often as they breathed, and a man who stood yelling at his wife while he tenderly adjusted the straps on her dress. After we walked past the Hermitage, Roman pointed to a canal and said that during the Revolution, the Russians poured all of their wine into the river before the city was looted, that the water ran purple for years.
“Nobody told me it was this beautiful,” I said.
“You should have come back sooner.”
“I thought about it. But I was too scared.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t feel like myself here. Especially whenever I open my mouth. It’s like . . . I’m half a person or something.”
“So this isn’t you I’m talking to? Just half of you?”
“Well,” he said, pinching my waist. “I’d love to get to know the other half.”
“Then learn some English,” I said.
He led me to the Summer Gardens, where the cracked Greek statues stood under the empty trees. As soon as we sat down, I grabbed a leaf from the ground and started picking it apart, until all that was left were the veins. I told him the story of how my parents met there: how my mother was writing poetry one morning before school, how my father had driven through a puddle on his bicycle, covering her dress with mud; how he brought her to his house and helped clean her up; how they had both known, as they watched his mother scrubbing the dirt off the pale cotton dress, that something was settled. This wasn’t a story he would ever tell me, of course, but something I had overheard him say to a friend of his from the university; I was thirteen years old at the time, just discovering boys myself, wondering what my parents had seen in that cramped kitchen that made them be so sure. This was how I retrieved most of my information from my father—hunching at the top of the stairs during his revelations over iced vodka for so long that I would wake up with my knees aching the next morning.
As we stood up, Roman mentioned that these gardens were the place where Eugene Onegin supposedly wandered as a child; this was only one of dozens of facts he had retained about the city. I said, “Well, Mr. Tour Guide, I’m impressed.”
“Tour guide,” he said, laughing. “I made that part up.”
“Sure,” he said. “I had to get you to come out with me somehow, didn’t I?”
“Maybe I would have gone anyway.”
“I know that now. But I wasn’t sure then.”
He was right, but how had he known? What was it that he saw—what was it that my father saw in my mother’s face when she hunched over her stained uniform, her hair shining on top of her head? Surely she hadn’t said anything, so it was just something that she did. But what? We watched a boat gliding over the water, the tourists waving up at us in their purple windbreakers, their cameras wrapped around their necks like nooses.
“So,” I said, after the boat was gone. “Is your wife wondering where you are?”
“Not that I know of. I’ve never been married.”
“I wanted to be certain,” he said. “I don’t make mistakes.”
We crossed the Tuchov Bridge onto Vasilevsky Island and walked along the bank of the Neva, past the statue of the sphinx, where a couple stood kissing against the pier. We stopped at the edge of the water to watch a fisherman standing knee-deep in the waves, catching nothing. I found it hard to imagine that this river, which could barely yield any fish, was potent enough to end my mother’s life. I wondered if Roman knew that this was how she died, if he had learned about her in school; to be honest, I was glad he didn’t mention her book, The King of Ice. I was sick of talking about it.
In the center of the island, a group of old ladies congregated to sell their leftovers in the middle of the street. They were peddling parsley, oranges, marionettes, scarves, and even a cardboard box full of kittens whose gray paws clawed over the edges. One of them said to him, “Young man, if you buy your girlfriend a kitten, I’ll give you a second one as a free gift!” He told her, “Lady, nothing that reproduces is free, or a gift.” I laughed, thinking of what my husband would do; he would probably pay for both the kittens and then set them free. A few blocks later, we found a park where a group of teenage boys sat smoking on the ground, surrounded by an orbit of beer, dried fish, and peanut shells. A statue of Pushkin stood just a few feet away, watching over the scene with approval.
“He missed you, you know,” he said to me then.
“Who? Pushkin?” I said.
“Stop it. Your father was always talking about you, showing me your pictures. He was so proud.”
“Of me? I’m only a reporter. Proud,” I repeated, shaking my head. “I find that hard to believe.”
He said, “Try harder.” In one swoop, he grabbed me by the hips and planted me on a bench beside him. I reached down and grabbed another leaf, picking it apart again.
“If my dad really did tell you all about me,” I said, “then you must know I’m married.”
“You’re here, though,” he said to me. “Aren’t you?”
“For two more days.”
“We can change that, can’t we?”
“It’s getting dark,” I said. “I should probably head back. I can’t see a thing.”
That was when he said it. “Look, Anastasia. I want you.”
Let me tell you: hearing those words in Russian made even my hair hurt. Even when my husband said them to me for the first time, I couldn’t help but crack up at how desperate it sounded; if not desperate, then faintly pornographic. To an outsider, it would sound like hachyu-tebya, two words, like a sneeze hitting a wall. But in my first language, hell—how could I have known? Why didn’t anybody tell me this was the way I was meant to hear those words all along, that nothing any man had ever said to me in English had meant a thing, compared to this?
Afterwards, while Roman slept, I wandered around his apartment, fingering the photographs on his desk—Roman as a boy grinning on the banks of the Neva in his underwear, giving the camera an exaggerated thumbs-up with a missing front tooth; teenaged Roman amid a pack of boys, submerged in a denim jacket three sizes too big, anticipating a stature that would never arrive; Roman receiving a photography award, his camera and a medal around his neck, collapsed between two women with exposed bra straps. His parents, posing in front of the Red Square, were nothing like I had imagined, so ordinary with their lopsided frowns, as shiny and full as squashes the day before harvest, oblivious about what their son and I had done just hours before.
Then I noticed an old Polaroid camera sitting on his shelf, the kind I hadn’t seen since I was a kid. I picked it up, surprised by how heavy it was. The next thing I knew, I was leaving Roman a note about how I would call him when I got back to the States in two days, maybe. How I would probably see him either very soon or never again. Until I wrote that note, I didn’t know I would be gone. Until I signed my name at the bottom, I didn’t know where I would be going.
The note told him this: I was going to Ushanki.
The taxi dropped me off behind the apartment building. As the driver said good luck, everything was temporarily sharp, glaring at me in the new darkness. The smell of kitty litter and rotting garbage in the corridor slapped me in the face, the orange paint peeling off the railings made a point of lodging itself under my bitten fingernails, the graffiti on the wall that said fuck your mother, fuck your god was speaking directly to me. Ivan Zamyatin, my mother’s old friend, lived on the fourth floor of the building. Over the phone, he had sounded nearly ecstatic to hear from me, as if my mother herself had called. I told him my train would get in the next evening and leave the following morning. He said he hoped that would be enough time for him to answer all of my questions.
I counted to ten before the door swung open. Mr. Zamyatin stood in the doorway in a gray shirt and slacks, his face shadowy in the amber light.
“Nastenka,” he said with his hands in the air, as if christening me. “Come in.”
He reached his hand out to shake mine, then reconsidered and gave me a hug instead. From the front, he looked tough, his turquoise eyes set deep in his square face; but from the side, his delicate nose and weak chin reminded me of my husband’s favorite bookmark, a sketch of Keats on his deathbed. His straw-colored hair was streaked with gray and his features blended into one another, like the etching of my mother’s portrait on her tombstone. He squinted at me, like I was blurry and he was waiting for me to come into focus.
“My God. You could be twins,” he said, stepping back.
“I’m only one person,” I said.
He took my suitcase and leaned it against the wall with the uncertainty of a man who is not used to having house guests.
“How was your ride?” he said.
“Could have been worse,” I said.
He led me to the living room, where two little girls watched Karlson on the Roof, one of my favorite cartoons, growing up. It was about this chubby kid who flew around with a propeller on his back and struck up an unlikely friendship with Malish, the boy who lived below him. Nobody could see Karlson but the boy, and he was constantly getting him in trouble with his parents through a series of predictable shenanigans.
“Girls, say hello to Anastasia Fyodorovna,” Mr. Zamyatin said. I took a step back. Nobody had called me by my patronymic for years. I had almost forgotten that, in his country, I was forever a part of my father, that I could not escape him, even in introduction.
“This is Dasha,” he said, “and this is Vera.” This one got me, too. Vera is my mother’s name. The girls mumbled hello. Their hair was white-blond, the kind that rarely lasts into adulthood. They wore matching blue dresses that were tight around the armpits. The younger one had on a single sock and the older one’s feet were bare. This was a quiet outrage: I had never met a Russian who let his children walk on the bare floor without slippers.
“How old are you?” I asked them.
“I’m eight and she’s three,” said the older one, pointing to her sister. “How old are you?”
“Old enough,” I said. “You’re lucky. I always wished I had a sister.”
Vera turned to her father and said, “The lady talks funny.”
“She talks that way because she lives in America,” he explained.
“America,” she said, her eyes wide. “What’s in America?”
“The supermarkets are bigger,” I told her. “But the food is worse.”
She shrugged and returned to the television.
“I used to love Karlson. Especially his books,” I said to them. I didn’t add that even when I came to America, I would struggle reading about Karlson with my dad, who corrected my pronunciation and grammar with such force that I never wrote or read in Russian again, with the exception of my mother’s book. The girls just blinked at me, like I was speaking English. I pulled the Polaroid out of my purse.
“This is for you,” I told them. I took a picture of the fish tank, and showed them the product, the paper still as viscous as an eggwhite. “You take a picture and it comes out of here, see? You just have to wait a little bit.”
“Cool,” the older one said, snatching the camera out of my hands. “Thank you,” said their father. I liked that he didn’t reprimand them for not thanking me. My own father would have smacked me over the head right there, telling me to please show some respect.
Despite what the corridor suggested, the house was in good shape. Dark maple bookshelves lined the walls, interrupted by the television and a tank with orange fish that were nearly electric. Two paintings hung on the walls, one of a striking blonde woman about my age, and another of poplar trees listing in a field. “My wife,” he said, when he saw me studying the first painting. “She’s sorry she couldn’t be here. She’s in Yalta with her sister.”
I followed him into the kitchen, noticing how broad his shoulders looked from the back, in contrast to his narrow hips. The kitchen, with its sloped ceiling and the wind smacking against its round windows, made me feel like I was inside a boat. He had already set out the tea, along with a tray of marmalade, chocolates, a handful of pistachios. Three half-empty bottles of vodka sat on top of the fridge, next to a painting of St. Basil’s in a place where a clock should be.
“How’s your father?” he said. “I haven’t heard from him in years.”
“My father,” I echoed, registering that news of his death didn’t make it to Ushanki. “He’s good,” I said. “He’s comfortable. He sends his regards.”
“Give him mine,” he said. “Unfortunately, I never got to know your father very well. I met your mother when I was very young, and by the time you were born, I had already moved out here, and we fell out of touch, for the most part.”
“That’s a shame.”
“It is,” he said, planting his palms on his thighs. “Anyway, tell me about yourself. I want to know everything.”
“There isn’t much to tell. I’m a reporter. I live in New York. I’m married to a lawyer.”
“And you like it?”
“Look, I don’t want to waste your time. My life really isn’t all that interesting. I just want to know about my mother.”
“What would you like to know?”
“I want to know what she was like,” I said.
“There was nobody like your mother. A room couldn’t contain her spirit. Even when she was very sick, at the end.” I took another sip of my tea, reaching over for a marmalade. It was like biting into a coaster. I let it sit in my mouth until it was chewable. This was seriously unacceptable: how long had this guy’s wife been gone?
“But what was she like?” I said again.
“When I met your mother, I was thirteen years old. Her dacha was next to mine in Krasnoyarsk. She was lecturing a chicken for shitting indoors, if I remember correctly. Remember all that long hair? Back in those days, she had it bunched on top of her head, like a crown.”
“I remember,” I said. “This was before she met my dad?”
“Before,” he said. “She would do crazy things, your mother,” he said, shaking his head. “She would play tricks on total strangers, she would get up and sing in the middle of a bar, even though she couldn’t sing worth a damn. I mean, you’d have to be crazy to do half of the things she did. You’d have to be crazy to jump in the Neva.”
“She jumped,” I said, more as a fact than a question, because as soon as he said it I knew it was true. “I thought she fell.”
“Oh, no,” he said. “She jumped, all right. She was trying to show off. That’s how she got the pneumonia. You didn’t—?”
“I know about the pneumonia. Why didn’t anyone tell me she jumped?”
“I’m sure your family has its reasons. Me, I believe in honesty.”
Before I could thank him, he started with the stories, one after the other, about my mother. The time she made a crown of daisies and then stood on his shoulders to wrap it around the head of the Lenin statue that stood in the courtyard of their high school; how she once stuck a feminine napkin onto the principal’s door to protest the coed bathrooms—this was the point where his eyes started to water and he grabbed the bottle of vodka off the fridge. It made me feel better, but I still couldn’t make sense of the stories. They were like her poems, private descriptions of a world I was locked out of. I couldn’t say when, but at some point in the night, I knew that none of this information could help me.
As he spoke, I could hear the camera flashing in the living room, the girls giggling as they inspected the results. Soon I was exhausted, though I knew he needed to talk. When he saw me trying to cover a yawn with my empty teacup, he changed the subject.
He said, “What was your favorite part about Petersburg?”
I said, “The man who showed me around.”
“I see,” he said, nodding as if I were detailing a problem I was having with my car. “I see. Well. What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to finish this vodka,” I said.
He nodded as I reached for the bottle, he didn’t seem up for giving me any advice. He said, “Would you like something to eat, or are you ready for bed?”
“Ready for bed,” I told him. “I haven’t had much of an appetite lately.” It was true, but I couldn’t believe it: a Russian was going to let his guest go to sleep on an empty stomach.
I spent most of the night sitting on the balcony, watching October shedding all over the town. There was a story Papa loved to tell, about how, as a little girl, I had once locked him out on the balcony in the middle of the winter, when he had gone outside to smoke in his bathrobe. How he pounded and pounded on the glass door though I had already forgotten about him because I was in the kitchen, working on a finger-painting that would consume the rest of my afternoon. It was a story he used to tell to show how serious his daughter was, how directed; how there was no distracting me once I had found a good thing. Like how, when I had first met my husband outside of the Strand, it took me an hour to realize that my left heel had been stuck in dog shit for the entirety of our conversation, even when we went inside, where he bought me a used copy of Pnin and scrawled his phone number on the back cover.
The last time Papa told the same story, just a month before my wedding, he used it to demonstrate something different: how, even at age three, I didn’t care about the repercussions of my actions. In this case, he meant the irrevocable harm I had done him by marrying not only an American, but a Southerner, a man who had even once considered voting Republican. I remember that night—it was at a birthday party for one of his colleagues—because at the end, he pulled me aside and said he was retiring from his research and moving back to Petersburg for good. He paused and then added that he had only moved to America to give me better opportunities, that he had done everything for me, and that this was what had come of all of his effort. I told him he was a liar: I knew he left to get away from anything that reminded him of Mama. It’s funny, but I don’t remember the last time we ever spoke, though this might have been our last semi-civil exchange. I tried to remember the last time but couldn’t. This was bothering me so much that I stepped off the balcony and reached for the phone, hoping to dial New York. But I ended up calling Roman instead.
“Can’t sleep?” he said, sounding groggy.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know why I called,” I said.
“You couldn’t have said goodbye? Are you coming back to me, Anastasia?”
“You got what you wanted,” I said.
“It wasn’t like that,” he said. “I want you to come back. Please? I’ll drive you to the airport.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said. I was starting to feel sorry for him. “How is Ushanki?”
“I’m not sure yet,” I said, before I hung up. “I’ll take some pictures for you.”
Around midnight, the stray dogs came out, barking until you could feel it, the desperate rawness in their throats. They didn’t let up. They were starving and everybody had to hear about it. You had to admire that kind of persistence.
After the noise of a train sprang me out of my half-sleep, I saw Mr. Zamyatin standing in the doorway, watching me. I was hardly surprised. For years, I would catch Papa watching me the same way. On the rare occasions when he would let a friend sleep over, when I was a little girl, he would come into the room if we were up too late, leaning against the door as he waited for us to fall asleep. More often than not, he would be the one to fall asleep first, and my friends and I would giggle over his snores. When I brought Chris home with me one Thanksgiving and convinced Papa that it was okay for us to sleep in the same room, I half-expected him to march in there when it got too late, leaning against the wall until he was positive nothing funny was going to happen. When I mentioned this to Chris, he turned to me and said, “I love you, Annie, but you do realize this is not normal.”
After Mr. Zamyatin’s shadow disappeared, I lay there with my eyes shut until the birds told me it was morning. Then I went to the kitchen to find Mr. Zamyatin already dressed, sitting with a cup of tea in his hands. “Good morning, Anastasia,” he said. “How did you sleep?”
“I did my best.”
“Was it the dogs? I should have warned you.”
“It wasn’t the dogs.”
He poured me a cup of tea and sat down, offering me a cigarette. He threw three eggs on the skillet without asking if I wanted them or not. I put out my cigarette just as he placed them on a plate along with a piece of black bread, gesturing toward the jar of pickles on the table. We ate in silence. The sun snuck in through the round window over the kitchen sink, and I had to move my chair to keep it out of my eyes. At some point, he rested his feet on top of mine. I wasn’t sure if it was an accident or not, but I let him keep them there. After I pushed my plate aside, I said, “You said you believed in honesty, Mr. Zamyatin.”
“I do,” he said slowly.
“To tell you the truth, I never did understand her poems. The only thing I ever got out of them was that she was unhappy. I even read the English version to see if it was a language thing, but it wasn’t. I never understood a single one. Maybe I’m just too stupid.”
“Maybe you’re too practical,” he said. “Try harder.” I was hoping he would give a little bit on this one, but his face remained firm. He moved his feet away from mine.
“I don’t know anything about my mother, but I do know my father,” I said, getting up so fast the tea cups rattled. “And I know he wouldn’t have sent me here for no reason. He wanted me to see something here. If Papa’s one thing, he’s precise. He’s never wasted a single gesture.”
“I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” he said, narrowing his eyes.
“You said you believed in honesty,” I said again.
“Sometimes it isn’t enough.”
“Why didn’t she leave my father? Why didn’t she stay with you?”
“It doesn’t matter much, in the scheme of things, does it?” he said. “If you really want to know—”
His words hung in the air as his daughters floated down the hall, rubbing their eyes, their pale pajamas dragging on the floor.
“I’m thirsty,” the younger one offered as a greeting.
“Me too. Juice, Papa. I want juice,” said the older one.
“Of course,” he said.
He kissed them on their foreheads and pulled a container of orange juice out of the refrigerator, pouring them two cups. For a second I thought he was finally going to scold these doomed girls for all of their insolence, but all he did was reach down and rub the crust out of the little one’s eyes, brushing it off on his pants.
“I better get going,” I said.
I phoned for a taxi, and threw my things in my suitcase and passed through the living room, where the girls were playing with the camera again. Vera held the stack of photos they had taken the day before and laid them down one by one with the concentration of a tarot card reader: one of the television, another of the park outside, a third of the bookshelf, and then one of each of them, standing grimly against the bookcases like soldiers, their hands planted at their sides. I heard the rumble of the taxi coming up the road. I pulled back the curtain and saw it, covering the maple tree trunks in a temporary layer of dust and exhaust fumes. That was when I remembered the last thing Papa ever said to me, as he hauled his last bag into a JFK-bound taxi. Without so much as a glance in my direction, he had said, Don’t forget yourself, in the way he said everything, more like a command than advice. As I tried to remember which language he said it in, Mr. Zamyatin escorted me down the hallway, but he didn’t reach for the door.
“She did it for you, Anastasia,” he told me. “She stayed with him for you. But you’ve probably figured that out already.”
“It was a mistake. I would have picked you instead,” I said.
I don’t know why I said it. Maybe because he looked like he was going to fall apart right in his own house, maybe because I could not allow his daughters to watch it happen. Of course I would have picked my father over this dithering, vague, lonely old man. Of course, Papa, I wanted to tell him then, I would have picked—
“Anastasia,” Mr. Zamyatin said, reaching his hand toward my face. He lifted his index finger in the air and said, “Wait.” He walked into the living room and produced the camera, his sleepy daughters trailing at his feet. “Would you mind?” he asked shyly. “I’d like to remember this.” I nodded, staring into the bulky apparatus, relieved when I remembered that Russians don’t smile in pictures. The camera flashed, blinding me for a second. We watched the photograph materialize in the dusty morning light, ignoring the honks of the taxi. That was when it happened: I took one, two steps back until I was pressed up against the door, watching as my mother slowly appeared in the photograph, her wet hair clinging to her long neck, the whites of her eyes stark against the dark hallway, looking like she’d been caught in a place where she wasn’t supposed to be. The little girl who shared her name snatched the photo out of her father’s hand, her eyes flickering from me to the picture and back to me again.
“Look,” she said, tugging on my arm. “It’s you.”
Maria Kuznetsova is the author of the novels Oksana, Behave! and the forthcoming Something Unbelievable, both published by Random House. She is an Assistant Professor at Auburn University and the fiction editor of the Southern Humanities Review and The Bare Life Review, a journal of immigrant and refugee literature. Her work appears in Slate, Guernica, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, and more.
Originally published in NOR 9 Spring 2011