A Very Convenient Affair
by Maria Kontak
Ellie King, a professor of Russian, overcomes her allergy to Moscow to attend a very special celebration. After an absence of 25 years, Ellie is edgy and nostalgic. Who besides Mariya’s daughter Katya will she meet at the celebration? Perhaps Katya’s alluring husband Grisha? Or the spectral absent daughter Sonya? The birthday party and a child’s unexpected appearance dispel Ellie’s illusions about Russia, her reunion and mostly about herself.
Further speculation about the very convenient affair, as I had begun to call it myself, was pushed back until wheels-up for Moscow’s new Sheremetevo airport. There I was surrounded by sky, not merely looking up into it but facing it straight-on for thirteen solid hours, facing it and rehearsing.
Poor preparation makes for piss-poor performance.
Rehearsing the confused lines of a girl’s memory in a woman’s brain.
The most tangible memory started with smell: the smells of Leninsky 17B number 43. Fried mushrooms and kasha and onions, and strong tea and honey cakes. The household that I had joined in October 1975 was vegetarian. The standard had been set long ago by Mariya Petrovna when she was Masha, or maybe still Mashenka, aged twelve. Masha’s dramatic change of diet had come on the heels of a hike through Pyatigorsk hills and a chance meeting with a shepherd-cum-medicine man.
“I told my parents how he had looked inside my ear and told me to give up meat,” Mariya Petrovna had told me one evening, in a voice that blended childish excitement and adult restraint as she might have used with her parents on her standard-setting night. “Then I pushed away my plate with the meat.”
“And they said nothing?” I had asked.
“Not much.” Mariya Petrovna spoke dismissively. “At least not to me.”
“Mama would bring it up now and then. Papa was different, though,” Mariya Petrovna told me, and her dancing eyes looked like sockets, stark and dark. “Mama would bring up my stubbornness — not just about meat — usually when Papa read the paper, which he was always reading. Then Papa would take off his pince-nez” — and Mariya Petrovna would mimic him with extraordinary deftness, another of her talents — “and announce gravely, as though he might be proclaiming a verdict in court: ‘Leave her be, it will stand her in good stead when tough times come. As they’re bound to.’ That’s what Papa said.”
Both parents, as it turned out, had spoken presciently when revolution turned to civil war and Masha’s resolve carried over to a choice of husband, a cartographer, who was more than a professor but less than an academician.
“I could prepare potatoes in a hundred and one ways when they replaced beef stroganoff on Moscow tables,” she would say.
“When was that? 1924?” I said, citing the date of Lenin’s death, which Mariya Petrovna ignored.
“But my parents never liked Yegor Yosipovich,” she said thoughtfully.
One Sunday, while I lived under her roof at Leninsky 17B, Mariya Petrovna had made a luscious dessert out of potatoes and carrots and some mysterious sweetish root vegetable finely ground, perhaps to remind herself of where she had been, or to tell us where we had not.
But I was wrong in my surmise.
Mariya Petrovna said, “Yegor liked it.”
It was the only time I heard Mariya Petrovna name her husband informally. He had fled to the Crimea where he served shortly before his newborn second daughter’s birth, as unexpected as the first after three decades of childless marriage, and Yegor was never heard from afterwards. Sonechka, perhaps in an odd sort of homage to her unseen parent, also bolted from Russia as soon as she could.
“Sonechka,” Mariya Petrovna would sigh when she passed the closed door of the spare room in number 43, the door that always remained shut. Sonya’s legally-sanctioned space of nine square meters under Soviet law and then some, or as Mariya Petrovna put it, ‘Sonya’s home.’
Sonya’s was the second signature on the court order, brushing mine below and buoying up Mariya Petrovna’s just above and neatly proxied by Mariya Petrovna’s lawyer, a quirky, thin neighbor one floor below number 43. Sonechka, the absent daughter, was the odorless glue that sealed the door on number 43 to Katya and Grisha, my friends.
Perhaps it was that odorless glue that stripped the court order — a piece of yellowed Russian paper — of smell for me. It had color but no scent, unlike the fusty newspapers, the stacks of Pravda and Izvestia that neighbors would leave outside the door to number 43. On laundry day Katya, Mariya Petrovna and I would shred the paper and carry it upstairs into the attic, and the smell of newsprint, harsh laundry detergent on wet linen and seasoned unpolished wooden planks would welcome another smell.
“Meow, meow,” the stowaways would squawk. They had been rescued by a kindly yardman. They would nip our ankles with tiny teeth, dig in needle-sharp claws, and navigate haphazardly in the dusk, perhaps unaware of what they had lost, whiskers that had been burned off before the kittens were weaned by the soccer-playing thugs-in-training for Lubyanka’s interrogation cells from our courtyard. Only after the kittens got their play could we hang the pillowcases and sheets and refill the bowls with milk and refresh the cardboard box with shredded mounds of pungent newsprint.
Bolting the door on the attic, sometimes we would pick up a nastier smell. ‘Tochka’ — Dot — named after the single black spot at the tip of a tail that flagged more than wagged now, blind and deaf to his mistress’s warning and apologies, happy to be making the trek.
“Vot vidite, izvinite, Katerina Yegorovna. Takie dela,” Tochka’s mistress, Aleksandra Ivanovna, might say, never quite taking me in, never more than a curt nod all that year 1975, even the day I knocked on her door to say goodbye.
There was no need to forgive.
Katya would shrug her shoulders, but when Mariya Petrovna took her turn to hang up the laundry in the attic with me, there would be a mocking chuckle. ‘The corridors have ears. Aleksandra Ivanovna is very politically correct.”
“Red guard in mufti, on guard against imperialism wherever it rears its head. Even in the corridor,” I whispered, but only to myself.
Unlike Tochka, more like the kittens, there was another nasty smell with a deceptively charming top note. Pungent and sweet, the smell came from the studio next door to number 43 where Katya and Grisha lived. Twenty square feet could not absorb all the smell, letting it roam the corridor and unintentionally graze Mariya Petrovna’s nose.
Mariya Petrovna would voice disapproval of her son-in-law’s ways, with a wide-eyed mocking glance at the studio. “Grisha must be entertaining important visitors. Maybe foreign visitors. Da, if only he could have number 43... How he could entertain them then!”
“And Katya?” I would ask. “How does she feel about it?”
“Katya, well, Katya of course.” Mariya Petrovna would shrug her shoulders like a child whose hand had been caught in the cookie jar. And then she would break off, but the light that lit up her face in the gloomy corridor was the same as when she mentioned Yegor’s favorite dessert.
It was understood by us both.
Katya loves Grisha.
How I wanted to race into that tiny studio and wallow in that smell, chattering in that cozy kitchen until I was chased out. The little TV set was always on. Katya was always fussing at the stove. And Grisha splendidly held forth on everything from ‘my boys’ — meaning the wandering verse-writing monks whose treks I had come to follow in Moscow’s archives, whose acrostics flaunted monastic transgressions — to his own trip to state-of-the-art laboratories in Naples, Warsaw, or Riga, to the pork cutlets that Katya over-fried, to just about anything, and in just about any language.
In English. En français. Italiano certo.
With such ease.
Languages were not our only battlefield, nor were they our only bond.
“Here’s what you’ve been waiting for,” Katya would say, setting down what she had baked or had acquired either from our accumulated ration cards or by standing and freezing in a long queue for a very long time. Now she could doze peacefully at last. Grisha’s cherubic face would grow hot with the kill. Sometimes he would split it. Sometimes not. But in any case, whether victory or defeat, this came as a signal for me to slink out and hit my own sheets next door.
The ritual began as Grisha nudged Katya’s clenched little fists that had propped up her carrot-colored head against the kitchen wall. Next, he would give the copper mop a tousle, a light touch followed by a pinch of the cheek, all in slow motion, Katya with similar slow motion would squint her eyes and smack her lips as if to brush away the crumbs of her kitchen snooze, and then Grisha would lead her to bed.
‘Grisha — in Israel.’
My name among the unholy three who chased him there.
Chased him away from putting Katya to bed?
Chased him away from putting Katya to bed.
That is how the hours in the sky went. One by one. On and off. In and out. Round and round. Thirteen hours of rehearsing. Familiar paths, well-researched territory, mastered as far as the gaseous skies allowed, leaving me worn out and ready for a well-earned time out.
It felt soothing to close my eyes. On the whole I had a sense of where I was and where I was not. I didn’t have to talk, shut down my brain and my tongue. I left it all up to the sky like Mariya Petrovna. I wrapped myself in the delicious sensation that one could repeat a borrowed moment if one burrowed deep enough.
I must have burrowed very deep because when I woke up, it was with a jolt. The flight attendant’s hand on my shoulder felt like an anvil.
“Oh, no!” I cried out.
“We’re about to land.” She spoke soothingly, as if she too had just stepped out of my dream, whatever it may have been, if it had been one. “I’m sorry, but your seat belt has to be fastened for the landing.”
“I was asleep,” I said, feeling foolish yet still fishing for what I might have just left behind. “I’m sorry.”
I looked through the window. There was no more sky, only yards and yards of tree tops and ragged fields. The landscape that had been Mariya Petrovna’s family home for centuries hurled itself menacingly at me.
All the rehearsing had been in vain.
* * *
To be continued...
Copyright © 2012 by Maria Kontak