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.
Commotion dominated the grand room from the harsh morning rays till the soft glow of the setting sun. Bodies shifted about. Chairs creaked. Feet padded, grazed the parquet, clickety-click of high heels now and then. Reaching a hundred meant no tapochki for residents and guests.
Noise and jubilation rang in the silverware and china when conversation ebbed. At least one plate and glass crashed to the floor, deftly replaced by another and another succession of fragrant fruits of the earth, baked, fried, poached, pickled and preserved.
The prevailing scent was, however, of old age, camouflaged in blasts of eau de cologne no longer on store shelves. Most of the guests were old women and the young women who had brought them, and men somewhere in between who came on their own.
Mariya Petrovna had always been a magnet for young men. There were a few teenagers too. These floated in and out, usually when new sweets were served, for a quick but intense chat at Mariya Petrovna’s knee, but for the most part they had encamped next door in Mariya Petrovna’s studio watching the tiny TV.
Amazingly, the TV set was still working. Grisha’s gift to the household still going long after its progenitor, the mighty, progressive GDR — German Democratic Republic — had disappeared off the map.
In the grand room, Sonya’s room, ‘Sonya’s home’ as Mariya Petrovna called it, I fielded questions as I set down fresh cutlery and replenished plates. A rhetorical exercise for both the asker and the askee.
“How do you find the changes in Moscow?”
“Do you think America is still a threat to us?”
“Do you think Yeltsin is good?”
“Do you like the new park in Red Square?”
Even as they took in my answers, I could tell that the askers were preoccupied, perhaps with the too few years ahead or maybe the lost years behind, and we were bound up in a kinetic silence that made me edgy, them calm, so that I felt almost as if at any minute the grand piano that had been shoved into a corner for the event might suddenly pound out some ugly vulgar rhythm that no one in the room could stop or want to stop. A piano that had sat silently all that long year of 1975, watching no one, just across the wall while I slept and dreamed. And lived.
“It belonged to Yegor Yosipovich,” said the old woman, seemingly coming out of her own daze. My stare at the ebony casing must have given her a turn. She spoke in agitated half-sentences. “Maybe it was.... Actually his mother.... Anyhow, his family.... Not hers.”
“Mariya Petrovna’s husband? The cartographer? I didn’t know he played.”
“He played like... Svyatoslav Richter... Impeccable touch... What a sound,” she lowered her glance and stared at her arthritic hands, gave a lyrical low hum, and said, waving in a parade of ghosts, “Sonya had it too. But not Katya.”
Ghosts from more than a hundred years, fifty years, twenty-five years had taken seatless seats in the crowded space, stepping soundlessly through glass and frame of pictures and photographs and portraits, they wafted in, features blurred, and mingled at full ease among their less fortunate counterparts encumbered by flesh and burdened by thought.
“Takie dela,” the old woman mused. “Da?”
“Da,” I replied. “Takie dela. So it goes.”
I was glad to be dispatched to the kitchen for tea, moving towards the magnificent assembly of guests and ghosts with a bright smile and two steaming teapots of sheer aroma when I heard giggling from the hallway followed by unmistakable scuffling of tiny feet, a child’s feet, on the parquet floor.
How the little girl, in her billowy, yellow dress, flounced her way through the maze of old women, young women, and men in between, was stupefying. But there she was, under the bright chandelier, sparkling like a diamond as she thrust a bouquet of wildflowers from her chubby hands into Mariya Petrovna’s lap. Her cheeks were rosy and round and she recited something that sounded like Russian verse.
When she finished, she rubbed her pink cheeks with clenched fists and giggled, then buried her head in Mariya Petrovna’s embrace, stamping her tiny feet with the delight that comes from being where every child wants to be — center stage.
The sunny nature of the event lifted the assembly a few feet off the ground, myself included. Even the wheel-chaired guests seemed to rise slightly in their confined space under the child’s spell. The clamor grew in pitch and force, but even so, I heard Mariya Petrovna’s voice distinct and clear above the rest.
“Solnyshko moyo,” she called out to the bouncy head of curls at her breast, “You’ve come back at last. Sonechka! You’ve come back. Solnyshko moyo.”
I had no clue who the child might be. But a dapper pepper-and-salt haired man appeared at the child’s side and my heart stopped.
“Dostatochno, dostatochno,” the woman shrieked. And I saw that her teacup was overflowing and the teapot was still in my hand pouring.
Grisha had grown leaner in Israel, and his pink face had grown angular and tan, but otherwise he was unchanged.
“Izvinite,” I said over the clamor, straining to hear only one voice, or even just the tone that would set me in the right direction, something that Katya’s calling-card prayer was meant to bring about but had not.
“Mama, this is my daughter, Sara,” he said brushing his lips to the old woman’s hand.
“Sarochka,” Mariya Petrovna cooed. “I know, I know. You don’t have to tell me,” she spoke sharply to her foreign-crazed former son-in-law as he kissed her hand. “She looks just like...” but I didn’t catch the next word, only the last two, “only nicer.”
I strained my hearing but there was nothing in the tone for me.
“She does look like him, doesn’t she?” a cousin whom I barely knew whispered in my ear. “Zhalko. Too bad.”
“Zhalko,” she repeated, disapproval clouding her gaze as she fastened on the scene around Mariya Petrovna. “Oh well. Takie dela. Such a pretty child.”
The pretty child was Grisha’s child and so like Grisha in every way: black curls, light eyes, cherubic face and pink cheeks. She tugged him onto the stage where till then she had reigned supreme.
Out of sight, behind the Dutch stove with its emerald glazing, I waited for that tone that might come or might not. I waited and I watched, and the play in which I had no part yet began to unfold.
The play was not hard to follow, more dance than play. A sort of dance of hands. Grisha stroked his child’s curls with one hand and held Mariya Petrovna’s with the other. Shortly Katya appeared and immediately was swept into the dance. Her hands went flying to the child’s shoulders, as Grisha’s arm wound around her waist.
A longish pause, as if the ballet were about to shift tempo, and Mariya Petrovna’s hands spun the child around so that the rosy cheeks and bouncy curls faced the room. Katya’s hands folded in front of her, and Grisha’s tightened around her even more.
Mariya Petrovna began to separate the dark curls into three strands, weaving the strands across and down, humming something that did not reach my ears. The child, too, was opening and closing her little mouth as if she were singing along, her chubby little hands flying up, then down, telling her own story to a room full of the deaf.
Now and then Katya’s hand flew to Grisha’s forehead, brushing aside a silver strand, all of it deliberate, well-paced, well-timed, in slow motion as in the old days in the cozy kitchen years ago.
Grisha’s arm was still around Katya’s waist as he made his rounds, greeting guests, pressing a new hand every few steps, shaking hands, kissing hands, spitting out words whose tone didn’t matter to me.
And Katya looking less like a sparrow, more like a toy at his side, a bright van’ka vstan’ka bobbing to one side then to the next, with a look of contentment as if someone had roused her from a tasty snooze against the kitchen wall.
Panic swept over me, hidden though I stayed from view. What if they came to me next? And what if they didn’t? They? Or he?
“How are you?” Less than a foot away, approaching. His mouth was hard and it offered no tone for me. Grisha didn’t take my hand but kissed me on the cheek, neither in the Russian style three times, nor in the American party-circuit style twice, but once. A brush of lips on a cheek. “How are the boys?”
The brush was as hollow as the tone, but I threw my arms around his neck as if it had been the old days. Grisha’s neck felt warm as if nothing cold had touched that part of him, and this soothing warmth and non-fragrance washed over me and I had found my cue at last.
“Skol’ko let, skol’ko zim.”
“Good to see you,” he said, his gaze just above my head. “So how are the boys?”
He may have been talking to the ghosts in the room, to the photographs and portraits behind my back, to anyone that is other than me.
“Fine... I’m actually... not...” I said trying to stay a train of thought. Grisha stood looking at me now, but there was nothing in his eyes that invited, that offered help, no smile of reassurance, nothing, just a blank stare. But we were not alone, there was a party, a celebration all around us, and a loud female voice and bulky frame slid between us, lacing one overheated arm into Grisha’s, the other into mine.
“So you have boys?” said the woman whom neither of us knew but received as a drowning man might a life preserver even from a foe. “How many?” she asked looking at me. “You’re teaching them Russian, of course?”
And without waiting for a reply she turned to Grisha. “Your wife must speak Russian, since your daughter does. Is she Israeli or one of us? Do you have more children at home?”
I left as soon as I could, anxious now to get away from the tone. It was a mock play that I had been drawn into. I headed for the bathroom, the only refuge in the three rooms bypassing two women who dozed on the daybed in my room, snoring contentedly. Only one woman was ahead of me at the bathroom door and thankfully I didn’t know her, nor she me.
“So how do you find number 43 these days?” she said.
I had been wrong after all. I tried to find a place for the face with no luck.
“You don’t seem to remember me. I suppose it’s because I’m so fat. You’ve fleshed out too.”
It was then I recognized who she was. The harsh tobacco odor that carried her words to my ears.
“You’re the downstairs neighbor,” I said. “The lawyer.”
“Yes, the losing lawyer in that bloody mess. Of course you remember that.”
“Well, water under the bridge now. I have no regrets. I did the best I could.” She spoke as if pained, a bit like that girl with the shiny hair who very much wanted peace, not war. “If only he hadn’t left, I could have done more. He didn’t want to leave. We didn’t want him to leave. But there was no holding him back...” The door opened up and the lawyer went in. “And now look at him, it’s like he never left at all.”
The door to the bathroom shut. I ran into my room and sat between the dozing women, envying their peaceful repose, the wrinkled skin that lay smooth and fine, and I did a strange thing: I took Katya’s calling-card saint and prayed, a prayer in verse, as beautiful as it was elusive, to a force I didn’t recognize. But it stilled all that was out there so that I returned to the assembly refreshed. I perched myself on the rickety piano stool, which was the only seat unoccupied now. No one was leaving, and guests were still streaming in.
“It’s as if he never left. Kak molodozhony,” said the woman beside me. “I should leave. I should have left an hour ago,”
Molodozhony. Newlyweds. Seated side by side. Grisha on the right, Katya at his left. When she stood up or walked away, Grisha’s eye escorted her until she was out of range. Then he would pick up the fork on her plate, or a spoon, smooth the prongs, feel the hollow, or run his palm around the rim of her glass depending on how long Katya stayed away from her groom.
They could have been so happy here.
The lawyer’s refrain echoed in the room, and the echo worked its way through me, but not in jubilation or admiration or acquiescence, and surely not in the sadness that comes from the realization that things are as they are, against which I tightened the grip of childish protest that such things don’t have to be.
The eternal war of youth and years raged outside of me and even more inside of me. The play of hands had shown me something that I had not expected, something that I didn’t quite understand, and it was all confusion again, and once more I fled to my room. My room.
Thankfully no one was resting in my room any longer. Only the icons of saints with vanquished demons lying in perpetual torment at their feet offered their company. Their eyes followed me as I paced the parquet floor trying to steady my brain, focusing on the smell of wood paste, unable to purge or even locate the dull ache somewhere inside me that nothing could contain. I had robbed the newlyweds of their wedding purse, and whatever happened now could not replace that theft.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2012 by Maria Kontak