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.
The buzzer to number 43 was the same, and so were the three flights of stairs. And Katya standing in the doorway was unmistakable.
“Gospod’!” she exclaimed, invoking the God that her mother had given up, and deftly swept me inside to even more familiar smells.
Only then did I shed, along with my coat, the notion that I might be met by a bucket of slop at the door. It was the only passage from a dull story I had read some time ago that had revisited me of late, especially shortly after I boarded my Moscow flight.
Worse, I had been afraid that Katya, despite having written that an exam she was giving to her students that morning would prevent her from greeting me at Sheremetevo, might heave the bucket of muck in the presence of a jury-at-large gathered in the shiny halls of the new Sheremetevo under bright lights imported from the west.
Instead, she embraced me, in the entrance hall whose nooks and crannies were as comforting as old chums. Tears streamed from Katya’s eyes onto my cheek. “Gospod’, Gospod’.”
And I began crying too, not the way you do just because someone else does or because I was relieved that a bucket of slop had narrowly missed me, but because I could feel Katya’s heart pounding beneath sparrow’s ribs that I had crushed so many years ago. I was no longer confused or afraid, only ashamed, and my shame kept me entangled in her embrace, too cowardly to lift up my eyes.
“Pomiluy,” I whispered into Katya’s silver-streaked copper head. “Pomiluy.”
Gospod’ pomiluy. Once, twice, three times. And over again.
We might have stayed there through the evening, as one does at Easter Vigil through the long night to the ultimate light. The hall chandelier had wrapped its glow around the two of us and held us until Mariya Petrovna’s stooped, elfin frame cast its shadow with a commanding presence practiced over a hundred years, and Mariya Petrovna stepped into the beam of light that shone from above, and the silvery shadow dissolved beneath the gilt mirror at my back.
Mariya Petrovna had been playing a secondary role in our liturgy till then; or perhaps it was primary but had been obscured by the iconostasis that Katya and I had rigged up involuntarily. Katya’s slightness and my muscleboundness, the icon and the stasis.
The old woman, who looked exactly as I had left her, shuffled noiselessly in felt tapochki towards my bag, then perched on the rim. There, semi-seated, her broad grin vanished and scrunching her face as if she had had just tasted something foul, she said, putting out her hands in greeting, “What is all this praying and lamenting about? It will only make your red nose redder, Ellie. Otyskalas propazha nasha, da, but with such a red nose!”
‘Otyskalas propazha nasha’ meant me. I was the ‘lost treasure that was found.’ But in typical Mariya Petrovna fashion, flattery and approbation had to be tempered with insult. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Katya mellowed and wiped her tears. She had grown softer, if not rounder, but Mariya Petrovna remained as she had been, perhaps over the entire course of her hundred years. It was for a celebration that I had come, Mariya Petrovna bellowed silently from her perch on my suitcase, and both Katya and I yielded the way to the woman who had lived the sum of both our lives.
“I’m in your house less than five minutes and I get a slap,” I shot back, holding Mariya Petrovna’s translucent hands in mine as we had done many times before. Still now, still rarely. Busy hands that had clapped from the landing down to me on the ground floor as I set off to battle uncooperative Soviet authorities over this privilege or that right, these same hands as they had been. The sheer joy of holding them once more countered even my shame.
“Not your house. Our house is your house,” Mariya Petrovna said, giving my hands a firm squeeze. “Otyskalas propazha. Ellie has come back. Just in time.” She let go of my hand, rubbed her forehead and smiled up at me, and suddenly she looked exhausted and lost. The merry blue eyes looked blank, the smile turned into a question mark that stretched in all directions. “There’s something. Something for you,” she said, bringing down her hand and giving that tiny shrug of her shoulders that spoke more than a dictionary of words, “but I forgot.”
“Maminka, I already told Ellie. That’s why she came.” Katya had grown slighter, and her chirpy voice scratchier. “Ellie knows all about it.” She explained to her agitated mother in detail the purpose of my visit, pausing after each statement.
“Now, Maminka, let’s give Ellie a chance to unpack before lunch.” She handed me a pair of worn tapochki, and led me to my room. “I’ll sleep in the kitchen while you’re with us. You’ll have your old room back.”
“But don’t forget to tell her.” Mariya Petrovna knitted her brow and she looked as if she were afraid of me.
“What about Mariya Petrovna? Isn’t that where she sleeps?” I whispered to Katya.
“Of course not.” In a flash Mariya Petrovna had gone back to herself, the self that I had known, and her hearing wasn’t impaired. “I sleep next door in my own home. We will have tea there, if Katya brings the cake.” Mariya Petrovna chuckled, then rose from the suitcase and headed for the door. “Come.”
“Maminka, stay. We’re having lunch first, not tea time yet, in my kitchen as soon as Ellie unpacks,” Katya said steering the old woman to the left.
I whispered more discreetly this time into Katya’s ear and she whispered back, “Yes, that’s how it is.”
So that’s how it was. My room. The room I had so that Grisha and Katya could not have it. All the old furniture — the mahogany desk and wardrobe, and the old-fashioned daybed — was still there. The glazed tiles of the Dutch heating oven shone a scrumptious caramel just as they always had.
Bookcases lined the walls, overflowing with volumes identical to those in my office back home but a tad less tidy. None of the paintings had been reframed or rehung. The same watercolors from Yegor’s Far East collection. The family as it had been fifty, a hundred, two hundred years ago, sepia-toned framed photographs and enamel miniature portraits in delicate frames.
Only one wall needed an introduction. It was the wall that greeted you the minute you stepped inside, directly opposite the entrance door with its etched cloudy glass pane. I recalled a woven tapestry had once been suspended there on a rod attached to the ceiling. Now the space had been cleared for a row of icons, each with a tiny flickering lamp at the base.
Even in the afternoon sunlight streaming through the balcony door to the right of the icon wall, the lamps were lit. I could name the saints easily enough: proud Basil, the young boys Boris and Gleb, mild Nicholas, a stern Christ in Majesty, the graceful Trinity, and three distinctly tender Madonnas.
Only one icon, whose face bizarrely resembled Russia’s last Tsar, was a puzzle. Its wick had worn down lower than the others, perhaps because it was positioned closest to the balcony door.
I closed the door, which Katya had left open, but I first ran my fingertips along the rosemary plant that poked above the rows of shrubbery at the balcony’s edge. Beeswax and herbs scented the room, my room once again.
So that’s how it was and wasn’t.
“Is it safe for her to live alone?” I asked Katya after we had settled Mariya Petrovna next door for her nap after lunch. “How long has she been there?”
“Since Grisha left,” Katya said matter-of-factly. “I’ve tried to get her to move in here, but you know how she is. That hasn’t changed. No.” She nodded and her voice sounded sad. “She won’t move in again.”
Katya had cracked a door to a messy closet which she promptly shut with an expert snap.
“So you have number 43 to yourself?”
“Yes, I have number 43 to myself.”
“And otherwise, things are fine?”
“Yes, otherwise things are fine,” Katya said.
We were standing in the hallway. I had just used the bathroom and was on my way to take a nap, but I wasn’t sleepy.
“Can I join you on your errands?” I said. “Would you mind? We’ve... l never had a chance to spend time together. Maybe...”
“You wouldn’t like it. I’m just going to see my invalids.” She picked up once more in that matter-of-fact tone as if to remind me that the door was shut. “It’s going to be a long day tomorrow,” she said. “An exciting day of course, but busy. We’ll probably get about a hundred in the course of the day. Maybe more.”
“Really? Where are you going to put everyone?”
“There,” Katya nodded towards the double doors, frosted and etched like all the doors inside number 43, even the bathroom. This was the only double door and it led to the largest room of the three. Sonya’s room. Impossible to ignore, even without the memory of the court order that I had signed during that last month. The messy room that would open up tomorrow to celebration was off the entrance hall to the immediate right and I had never seen it used.
In fact, I had never seen it at all. And its doors remained shut today. “It’s mine now,” Katya said, slipping on her shoes, her back to the double doors.
It hadn’t been a reminder, it had been a warning.
“Yes,” I said looking at the toothbrush in my hand.
Katya had pulled herself up, straightening out her rounded spine, and looking taller. But even so, she seemed tired. Exhausted in fact. “All right, if you want to go, let’s go. Only we have to hurry. Aleksander gets fidgety when I’m late.”
As the dusk fell we trudged from one shabby apartment complex to the next on Moscow’s fringe, grabbing trams or trolleys or buses, whichever arrived first. Plodding through muddy courtyards, stumbling over debris, saddled down with bags of provisions for Katya’s “invalids.”
I met Yolanda in her wheelchair, legless and boasting about — no, not boasting, but pining over — what a great cook she had once been and how many neighbors she had supplied for years and who now turned their backs on her. All the while Katya whipped up dinner and stocked a tiny fridge.
I helped change Tatiana’s filthy sheets, listening to her complaints and shrugging off mites that swarmed around my neck and hair. I watched Katya touch her forehead to the stone floor in the tserkushka, more like a chapel than a church that had served as a hairdresser’s shop till Yeltsin’s day, as we entered and left.
But I never saw Aleksander.
“He’s too fidgety.” Katya repeated all that I would learn of the third invalid. I was left to my silent protest with battered tinny mailboxes in a dingy lobby which had the blessing of at least being closer to home. “It’s better that he doesn’t meet you.”
Our longest chat reminded me of Katie back home and our lengthy, ethereal chats. Books and syllabuses and how young people have changed or haven’t. A bit later about tomorrow’s menu and the guests who might need special accommodations.
Katya impressed me generally, more than she ever had, but it was the relaxed air about her that drew me in. Perhaps the seasons had brought that to her, the compensation of living that had somehow bypassed me, or maybe I hadn’t bothered to notice back then. Then, it had been Mariya Petrovna, and of course, Grisha.
Grisha whose name I couldn’t bring up now, not even with a woman as relaxed in herself as Katya. Then I remembered the warning, and as much as I wanted to say it, and much as I wanted to hear it said, for Katya to say it, I concentrated elsewhere. When Katya eventually did say it, it was in my room just before turning in for the night.
She spoke obliquely, but it was there. “I never could have done this, if he had stayed.” She crossed herself before the icons in my room before turning in. For some reason I was wondering at that very moment what Aleksander looked like.
“Aleksander?” I said.
“No,” Katya said somewhat hesitantly. “Not Aleksander. Grisha, of course.”
I had missed the moment as one does when too intent on meeting it.
“You’re tired, I can see. You should be in bed.” But she didn’t leave. Perhaps I would have a second chance.
“You never married?” she asked.
“Is it because... because you never met anyone like Grisha? ‘’
“Why do you say that?” I answered tartly, feeling a swelling in my veins, and then I remembered: only the vilest throw rocks at a sparrow. I added softly, and perhaps even sincerely, “I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t know.”
“Well...” Katya said, taking a step towards the icon wall. She turned around and, opening my fist, she thrust into it something that she must have picked up from the ledge beneath the icon. “This might help.”
What she handed me looked like a calling card, with a picture of a saint on the front and writing on the back. It wasn’t a poem. Or maybe it was.
“Prayer of St. Gregory of Nyssa? Is he a patron saint of unmarried women?” I smiled.
Katya gave me a puzzled look, a truly puzzled look, and said softly, “Spokoinoy nochi.” Then she made three tiny crosses, not towards the saints, but towards me.
“Good night,” I replied.
Now I was truly out at sea.
* * *
To be continued...
Copyright © 2012 by Maria Kontak