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.
I searched the bookcases to get away from the saints, the confusion, the scene next door. I ran my hands along the spines of friends. Pushkin, Tyutchev, Karamzin. I paused at Blok and the words of Neznakomka floated to my tongue. She had found her peace in the night, “Bez sputnits, vsegda odna.”
I wrapped a blanket around my shoulders and declaimed the entire verse into the November gloom that knew no snow. I sat wrapped in that blanket on a stool among Katya’s shrubs and herbs, peering into the darkness below through the grate of the balcony. Not a sound, just a faint rattle, and footsteps.
He, not she, was behind me. Without turning, I could see his breath rising above my head.
“Finally,” Grisha, said leaning over my shoulders, taking me by the hand and leading me into the room. His face was calm, and bore a friendly look and a quiet almost sheepish grin. He was studying the icons, one by one, and spoke to me in a relaxed tone. He reminded me of Katya, so relaxed and peaceful. I was smiling again. “You remind me of my wife. She’s always hiding from me. ”
I smiled even deeper when he sat down beside me on the daybed and took my hand.
“Your wife, so you... you have a wife.”
“Of course I have a wife. I have a daughter. Why are you so surprised?”
“I know, but... well...”
“But what?” Grisha smiled and it was so natural, so right that it unnerved me once more. He let go of my hand and his eyes flashed in a dare. Just like in the old days when we fought over the last piece of cake. “Go ahead, tell me.”
“Should I?” I answered, feeling a surge of girlish cheek.
“You can,” he said, taking my hand once more and giving a tiny squeeze. “Not that it will make any difference.”
“I don’t understand, Grisha. So were you just play-acting? Toying with your... with people... with... everyone? That’s despicable.”
“Play-acting, you say. Toying with everyone? No, not everyone, just you, my dear, and it’s you who are despicable. You shouldn’t even be here.”
“I was invited. Katya invited me.”
“Well, she was always muddled. Not like you. Not then, not now. Despicable is your name, my dear.”
“Grisha, you’re crazy.”
“But not despicable. Look at you, with your mea culpa act. You come. You plug yourself in and, poof, the world is a wonderful place again, just because you said so. Never mind grimy signatures on papers you don’t even understand. You had to have your Russian experience so you could boast to all your little friends back home in Iowa.”
“I didn’t boast... And I... I made a mistake. A big mistake. But I didn’t leave, like you did. I apologized to Katya, and I’m not toying with her, falling out of the sky...”
“Don’t you ever use her name. Don’t talk about her. Don’t hang around here. That’s why I fell out of the blue, to protect my wife from the likes of you.” He leaped to his feet and leaned over me, his eyes were full of rage. I was shaking. “The only reason I’m here is to make sure you don’t mess with her a second time. So clear out of here by tomorrow and we’ll call it quits. Then you can live your filthy life where you choose, but not here.”
His face was contorted and I barely managed to withdraw my hand before he broke it.
“If you mess with Katya, I swear I’ll break your neck. I won’t let you do what you did ever again. You’ve ruined two happy lives. You took two lives. You murdered when you put your paw print on the paper. You didn’t understand anything, you little witch and murderer.”
“Are you crazy?”
“All you understood was that you wanted to live in your fine room. Did you really think that four should cram into the shithole next door?”
“Four?” His back was to me, and I thought I had misheard. “What four? What four are you talking about? You and Katya and Sonya and Mariya Petrovna?”
“Oh,” he said, spinning on his heel and facing me with a sarcastic smile. “Forgive me. Counting comes harder to literature professors than to mathematicians like me. Yes, four of us should have been living right here in this room, your room, as you call it. And we would have been if it hadn’t been for you.” He was looking at the floor. “They were twins. Katya was carrying my twins. Our twins. But you...”
That was the tone that I had waited for twenty-five years to hear, and it wasn’t hollow at all. I wished to God I had never found it, had never come here, not now, not before.
“Why didn’t anyone tell me?” I covered my mouth in horror. “I didn’t know, honestly, and I didn’t know about anything, nothing about the... ”
“Say it!” He brought me down to my knees onto the floor and twisted my hands. He looked like a black dog foaming at the mouth, not a man whom I had once idolized and loved like the brother I never had. “I want to hear you say it to me.”
“Don’t do this, Grisha, I didn’t know... Honestly. How could I know?”
“Right here. Right now. Say it, you witch, to the icons if you can’t say it to me, and if you need a prompt, it begins with an ‘a’.”
“Abortion,” I said weakly. Now there was no way out and all I craved was to get out. “My God. I had no idea, nothing. I swear. Nothing except what Mariya Petrovna told me about Sonya coming back and that she needed to have a home in Russia.”
“The old woman was protecting her child, stupid as it was,” he said.
Grisha walked up to the largest icon, a Madonna with child, whose flame was waning. He tilted the lamp and the flame flared up and grew steady once more. “That’s what mothers do. But you’re not a mother, thank God.” He turned his back on the icons and faced me. “You, dorogaya, are a witch. A traitor and a murderer. Now what do you think of your Russian experience? How does this room strike you now?”
Sometimes when there is no out, you dig in all the more.
“This room,” I said, “was mine legally. I paid for it. I was registered here. It was mine. I signed a document attesting only to that, as far as I knew. So what exactly are you judging me for? Trespassing?”
“I could break your neck right here, right now, and no one would care.”
“You’re a devil,” I said, running to the balcony door. I clasped the knob. It felt cold in my grip and I clung to it, partly to hold myself up, partly because I didn’t know what was what. “I may be a witch, but you’re a devil!”
“Better yet,” Grisha said, springing from the couch. He twisted the doorknob his hand twisting mine and shoved me outside. “It’s not far down, but it’ll do the job and my hands will stay clean of your putrid neck.”
“Devil,” I screamed. Or was it a screech. A child’s strident screech on demand.
“Daddy,” Sara burst into the room. “Daddy, daddy.”
Grisha spun on his heel and gathered the child into his arms. He rocked her in his embrace on my daybed, and I saw he was sobbing. “My sunshine,” he said smoothing her forehead, bringing his face close to hers, two innocents, untainted by life’s grime as if nothing but virtue had ever visited that room.
I wasn’t nearly as nimble, still clutching the doorknob of the balcony door even as I watched the bright yellow layers flouncing up and down on the sturdy lap.
“Daddy, when are we going home?” Sara asked.
“Hush, hush,” he said, stroking her forehead. “Soon. We’ll go soon. Solnyshko moyo.”
Grisha was giving me the go-ahead in a steel-edged glance that shot through the ruffles and lace and landed just where the dull ache lay. I saw myself as he saw me in that glance, splattered on the sidewalk three flights below.
Sara began to whimper and started to wriggle out of her father’s lap. Once she broke free, she began stamping her little feet, and not getting the attention that she wanted, she screamed, “I want Mommy. I want to go home. The old woman won’t call me by my name, and I hate this hair.” She struggled to free the strands from the tight braids with her chubby fingers, then frustrated, began to cry. “I hate this place.” She buried her face in her father’s lap.
“I know, Sarochka, I hate it too now,” Grisha said, taking the little hand in his. “Hate,” he called to me and left.
I flung the balcony door wide and ran out onto the balcony. I grabbed the rim of the railing and leaned over. It had grown dark, but a few street lamps shed their light through the bare trees into the yard three flights below. It seemed so peaceful and secure down there, not jumbled and twisted into a hellish knot that drove its sharp edges like a sledgehammer into my brain.
I followed the curve of the balcony railing to the other side of the building where it was all black, and gratefully pressed my head against the wall. It seemed quiet and still now. No more pounding, no more sharp edges. Soothing darkness below called out to me, beckoning and seductive, and Blok’s shadowy creation fluttered between the lamp posts below, calling out to me in the only phrases that she knew, “Po vecheram” — at night — “bez sputnits, vsegda odna.”
The streets had emptied with Blok’s last rhyme and the loneliness that carried Neznakomka off spread its shroud over my shoulders now. No sounds emerged from the other side of the wall where a momentous event had taken place. A hundred years was a number that I would not see. A hundred plus guests and one that I didn’t care to see.
Bez sputnits, vsegda odna, ‘Without companions, always alone,’ the phrase pounded in my brain.
I was at the railing, my legs stiff against the cold steel, a faint tickle running up one leg then the next. I laughed and touched the plant, filling my nostrils with its fragrance of life and purpose and leaving behind the repugnant air of late November three flights below.
Inside the room was warm and beckoning, with the flickering lamps and the icons that never slept, that waited for my next move. A final exchange of calling cards. I picked up a sheet of paper from the desk and I set the pen to its task and then folded it and pressed it between two pages of a book on Katya’s shelf. It was War and Peace, Volume Two, so it deserved something more. The leaf of rosemary rounded out the calling-card exchange.
It was in a grey dawn that I caught a shadow weaving through the frosted etched glass of the door to my room. A graceful bow to the icons before Katya left for early morning services in the tserkushka on the edge of the park. She lingered there, pressing her forehead to the glass as if she might turn the knob, then walked away, and when I heard the key turn in the lock, I rose and walked up to the door, the other side of which held Katya’s prayer. I pressed my forehead to the spot where Katya’s forehead had lingered on the other side of the pane, not exactly in prayer but in something of the kind. Then I kissed the warm glass.
Now I could leave.
The stairwell’s smells rose up in a final farewell, but I ignored them all, the scents of damp plaster and old paint and wet rags. I would make my way down the stairs not heatedly as I had done on the way up that first time twenty-five years before, but with a coolness that rounded out completion.
I paused at the first landing and smiled up at Katya’s tiers of indoor plants, some in blooms of pink and lavender and deep purple, even a few reds lightening the dull sky beyond the glass. Fragrant beings, uncomplicated and unaware of the grime that is the filler of human life. I plucked a bloom and parked my bags, then sprang up the flight of stairs. A gentle twist of the knob and a slight shove and I was inside the tiny studio.
Mariya Petrovna lay flat on her back on the narrow bed. The amber glow of the curtains had given her face a waxen sheen. I crept up, knelt beside the bed and took her right arm and brought it to my lips. It felt as light as my heart, which was beating as it had when I first saw her, excitement and reverence and awe all rolled up and fortified by seasons of doubt and will and self-forgetfulness, seasons whose taste I had first found here.
“You’ve come at last,” she said as in half-slumber. Then slowly opening her eyes, Mariya Petrovna’s evanescent smile faded. She looked startled but not fearful. “Ellie?”
I nodded, stroking the arm that I clung to shyly now.
“Da. Nyet.” It was time. “Pora mne. Ne vam.” Time for me to go, not you.
I slipped Mariya Petrovna’s arm under the blanket and watched her eyelids slide over her eyes. The bloom in my other palm was crushed and I slipped it inside my coat pocket instead.
“Aha,” she smiled and opened her eyes once more. A gentle humor smoothed out the folds in a face that I would never forget. “Tishe jedesh, dal’she budesh” — A quiet ride will take you farther.
A cherished, true saying, that holds meaning only when you’re no longer young.
* * *
Copyright © 2012 by Maria Kontak