Russian Lessons

 

by Catherine Texier [France]

Excerpts from the novel

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The unnamed narrator of Russian Lessons is a fifty-year old French novelist, recently divorced. With her daughter Lulu, 8, a budding gymnast, she lives in a big loft in downtown Manhattan. She is having an affair with Yuri, a sexy Russian illegal immigrant, twenty years her junior, who sells Russian souvenirs in arts and crafts fairs all over the American North-East. The narrator as been trying to keep Yuri away from her life with Lulu, because he is an unstable and even brutal character, but he keeps pushing her boundaries.


December. Yuri’s just moved to New Jersey, halfway between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. I like that distance between us, knowing that he is safely tucked away, two and a half hours from Manhattan, an ocean of land between us which I can cross, stereo cranked up, my mind a blur. I bang the car door and turn on the key. Press on the gas, ease on the clutch, first gear clicks into place, take off smooth as a dream. Houston Street. Holland Tunnel. The Turnpike. The Garden State. The old, trusty Saab negotiates the curves of the parkway in a supple, steady rhythm as if the white line marking each lane was a railway track to which it was hitched. I get off the parkway, follow his directions, and glimpse his tall silhouette standing by the side of the road, waving at me, so that I don’t miss his driveway, tucked behind a boulder.

 

Like the proud owner of a country house, he gives me the tour of the property. By the garage, his gray Dodge van sits by a white Lincoln sedan – also his. Beyond the driveway, all over the large backyard, carcasses of old cars litter the wild grass. They belong to his landlord. Sparrows hover about a wooden picnic table and a pair of folding metal chairs. One alights on the table, pecks the wood a couple of times, looks disoriented for a moment and takes off. The big, clapboard Victorian house is painted a garish hot pink. His apartment is on the ground floor.

 

He opens the door with a flourish. A narrow hallway cluttered with boxes. A living room dominated by a desk and a massive Naugahyde swivel-chair fit for a CEO, clashing with a baroque, fake Louis XVth sofa upholstered in gold and ivory brocade, and a pair of matching, dainty gilded armchairs, which I assume are left over from the set he bought when he was planning to keep house with his first Russian fiancée. On a bookcase filled with nesting dolls and a menagerie of tiny glass-blown and amber animals like the frog he had offered me in Brooklyn, a copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence people and a handful of Russian classics – The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Dead Souls. He points to the view of trees and grass from the living-room windows. “My little country house.” In fact, the whole place has a certain seedy charm, if you are the kind of person who finds charm in seediness, with the rusted electric coils on the stove, the cracked linoleum, the boom-box on the counter, the bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling, his sleeping-bag in lieu of bedspread – not unlike the motels where we have met.

 

I unpack the cheese, the loaf of French bread and the bottle of Pomerol I have brought with me. Yuri puts everything away, “for dinner, later,” takes a quart of vodka and a tin of black caviar out of the freezer and proceeds to saw the caviar with a serrated knife as if it was a slab of frozen ground beef.

 

“Keeps longer this way,” he mutters, feeding it to me with the tip of the knife before tossing me on the Louis XVth couch with casual possessiveness.

 

Later we lay down on the bed under the sleeping bag. The afternoon’s pale sun has long ago crept out. Through the half-open window, smells of wood burning and of wet soil waft in, not the countryside of elegantly renovated farmhouses, but the no man’s land of drifters, a mysterious world I know nothing about. Again, the excitement of being on the lam from my life. The silence of the night envelops us, an inky darkness darker than the night in Manhattan.

 

I wake up early the next morning and make my way between Yuri’s “merchandise” stacked in cardboard boxes in the hallway to look out the front door. It has rained during the night and puddles stretch lazily around. On the periphery of the yard the broken cars emerge from the wet grass like skeletons of prehistoric animals shaking off the morning dew. In front of the garage Yuri’s gray Dodge and his white Lincoln are parked cheek to jowls with my Saab, also glistening with raindrops, the windshield and windows misted. If I left my car there, would it turn, in time, into a prehistoric animal too?

 

I tiptoe back in and slip under the sleeping bag along Yuri’s warm body. He groans and throws his arm around me. His massive shoulders are covered with light freckles. The hair above his thick neck is buzzed high in a military cut. I gently run my fingers at the edge of the stubble.

 

When we get up later I notice a framed picture of Yuri as a little boy in his mother’s arms on the dresser, the same picture he had shown me in Brighton Beach. I pick it up. He looks like a boy to whom a mom would say: “my little angel,” “sweetie,” or any of the equivalent Russian terms of endearment.

 

“What are you doing?” Yuri asks, with a menacing tone.

 

I put the picture back. “Nothing.”

 

“That was taken before parents split up. I was four or five. We still in Tbilisi. When father left I stayed in Georgia with mother and grandmother before going to Moscow.

 

“I was raised by my mother and grandparents too,” I say, intrigued by the coincidence.

 

He swats the air with his hand, so what. He slept in grandmother’s room, on a foldable cot, he says. Sometimes he heard sounds from mother’s room. Once he heard banging, furniture being dragged, screams. When he went into the room later he thought he saw dark, brown spots on the wall, like blood, but he always made things up. He had too much imagination. Maybe the spots had always been there. He read all the time, a lonely, shy boy, until his mother sent him to swimming lessons, afraid he would turn into a girly boy.

 

“Ahah! No need to worry about that.”

 

“No, is true. I was really shy and lonely. At home all the time. Swimming saved my life.”

 

He was a natural. He had a swimmer’s body, long legs and wide shoulders. In no time he was winning competitions, local, then regional. He joined the Russian national team. He was headed for the Olympics when the country collapsed. I imagine him waking up at dawn on Saturday mornings to go to practice, like Lulu. He loved the team camaraderie. The coach was tough, he punished them if they didn’t push themselves beyond their limits, but Yuri craved male authority. “Tough love, that’s what boy needs.” It was the best time in his life. And then his mother died.

 

He leans over to light a cigarette and stays silent for a while, collecting the ashes in the palm of his hand. It’s as if there were two Yuris: a sweet, bookish, sensitive, imaginative boy and a carnal, brutal man and the two of them couldn’t fit properly together.

 

“How did she die?”

 

He smokes without answering. Finally, he says: “Accident.” He was in dacha with grandmother when it happened. It was wintertime. He had just turned eleven. Since then he goes every year on the anniversary of her death to put flowers on her grave. Her favorite flowers, lilies. But now he can’t. He’s stuck here. He twists his shoulders and punches the wood frame of the bed behind him, spilling a little of the ashes on his pillow.

 

“Is like being in fucking jail here.”

 

“Is that why you want to go to Moscow so bad?”

 

“I miss it. I don’t want to live there. I just want to go and come back. That’s all I want.” He remains silent for a moment. “For Jews, no problem immigrating.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Most of Russians here, they all Jews. They come here, they say they were persecuted in the ex-Soviet Union and they become legal right away. They have associations of Jews that help them. I went to see them. They told me to just pretend to be Jew.” He snorts with disgust. “I’d never do that. I’d rather die.”

 

A cold sweat runs down my back. The brutal Yuri has come back. With his pale hair, his gray eyes, he would make the perfect Nazi.

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

February. The rhythmic competition is in New Jersey, two exits away from Yuri’s place, as I realized when we drove down. On the Brahms sonata adagio, Lulu has done a near-perfect routine, her glittery-turquoise hoop victoriously suspended in her over-stretched hands for the final salute, and struts off the mat in the rigid regulation posture while the girls of the team, crowded at the auditorium entrance, give her a loud ovation. I stand up to applaud and scream “BRAVO!” Corina’s mother, Alba, who has come with us, stands up too and yells “Bravo, Bravo!” We clap our hands until Lulu disappears behind the curtain. When the applause dies down, I sneak out to the lobby, and, without pausing to think, dial Yuri’s number. He answers on the first ring.

 

“Guess what. I’m in Cherry Hill.”

 

“What?”

 

“I’m here the whole day. Lulu’s got a competition. Want to come over?”

 

I quickly give him directions. No sooner have I hung up that I regret my phone call. What a terrible idea to invite him to meet me at the school, I must have been looking for trouble. Beads of sweat drip down from my armpits. My cheeks burn. I walk to the back door and step out in the cold air. There is a pile of plastic chairs stacked up at one end of the deck and a soda machine. Stupid impulse. I have tried so hard to keep him away from Lulu. And now this. I am getting more and more confused about Yuri, given to twisted rationalizations like this: If I’m not willing to breakup with him, then I should admit that we have a “relationship.” Besides, compared with Bill’s evasive, almost loutish behavior the weekend before, isn’t Yuri shining with steadfastness and… hoooonesty? Isn’t the “wall” behind which I am protecting myself a sign of class snobbishness and paranoia?

 

After my phone call I keep walking out of the auditorium and checking the parking lot. At least if I could intercept him before he’d walk into the school, I would limit the risk of Lulu running into him, but after an hour or so I give up waiting and settle down on my bench and watch Lulu do her club routine. I figure he has gone back to sleep. But as she takes her salute, I glance toward the door of the auditorium and I see him hovering, hesitant to come in. My heart leaps into my throat. Huge, with his long black leather coat and his pale hair slicked back, he looks incongruous and slightly menacing among the delicate gymnasts, the solid middle-class parents and the coaches. A dark scenario unfolds in my mind, in which someone will notice he doesn’t belong and will try to throw him out; he will defend himself with a few well-placed jabs and then someone else will call the cops. I wave at him and with my index finger signal him to wait for me outside. He frowns and stays at the door. I lean towards Alba. Since the night we have tried to drink Yuri’s Moldavian wine I have mentioned him to her a couple of times. He sounds exotic and intriguing when I talk about him, but to be confronted with him marching on you with his big black leather coat and a surly look in his pale eyes as if he was ready to punch you in the jaw if you looked at him the wrong way, is another thing altogether. Alba is reading the New York Times Magazine. There are still three girls to go before Corina.

 

“I am stepping out for a little while,” I whisper. “I have to talk to a friend.” She turns her head toward the door. I hope she doesn’t see the “friend” I am talking about.

 

He is waiting for me on the back porch. I see him through the glass door, pacing and smoking a cigarette. His face cracks into a tight smile when he sees me, but he looks nervous and ill at ease. “What are you doing here?”

 

“Lulu has a competition. Rhythmic gymnastics? Remember?”

 

He flips his cigarette in the grass and looks over his shoulder with shifty eyes as if he’s expecting someone to come and get him. The INS? The FBI? The KGB? The FSB? The MVD?

 

“Can you leave?” His lips hardly move. His voice almost inaudible.

 

I nod.

 

We are like two co-conspirators planning a dirty trick.

 

“Let’s go. Meet me at van. I am parked up front. Do you have time to go to my place?”

 

I go back in to pick up my coat and my bag. Alba’s eyebrows go up but she doesn’t say anything.

 

“I have to step out for a bit. Would you mind… if Lulu does her ribbon routine before I come back… Can you tell her? I won’t be long.”

 

She gives me an ambiguous look, which I chose to believe is a look of complicity, but doesn’t ask any questions.

 

“Take your time,” she says. “I’m not going anywhere. If you miss her routine, I’ll tell her. No big deal.”

 

The van is parked in the front lot, in full view of the school, and he’s sitting behind the wheel, his door open. When I lean in, he pushes my head down into the crotch of his unzipped pants.

 

I pull back and push him away. “Not here! Are you crazy! Not in front of the school.”

 

He grins as if it was the wittiest joke. I walk around, shaking my head like a disapproving schoolmarm and climb in through the passenger door, which I make sure to bang to show my displeasure. He zips up his pants and puts his hand on mine and searches my eyes to see if I am still angry. I am not really. It’s another one of his schoolboy pranks.

 

How strange to find myself in his apartment in the middle of a day I am spending with Lulu, and alarming, too, as both my lives are dangerously converging. He drags me to his room and we fall on the bed.

 

“How much time you have?”

 

The ribbon routine! It has taken us more than half an hour to get to his place. I’ll never make it back on time. I close my eyes. He pulls my pants down without taking them off and enters me. I grab the wooden headboard of the bed with both my hands and surrender under the weight of this gesticulating giant. The teakettle whistles in the kitchen, forgotten. He lets out a curse and gets up to turn it off while I drift into a half-sleep. Even though it’s hardly past lunchtime, the contours of the bedroom, whose small window is obscured by a bush, are dissolving into shadows and I sink into the bed, my own boundaries melting. I hardly feel the texture of the sheet or the weight of the sleeping bag over me.

 

“You asleep?” Yuri sits near me and hands me a steaming cup of tea.

 

I jump up and look at my watch.

 

“Oh my God we have to go.”

 

“Ok ok. Drink first. Then I drive you back.”

 

At the school he gets out of the van with me. I would have preferred if he had just dropped me off, but I don’t have the heart to refuse him a cup of coffee. As soon as we walk in I know I’ve made a mistake. A swarm of girls in shimmering leotards is crowding the buffet set up in the lobby, devouring muffins and packs of chips. A few of them glance up and move to the side to make room for him. Alba is coming out of the auditorium and walks toward us. I’ve missed Lulu’s ribbon routine. My heart beating, I wonder if I’ve missed the next one – which was it? Hoops? Balls? Who knows? Everything has become a blur. I feel dizzy and lean against the buffet table to keep my balance. Next to me Yuri is paying for his coffee and flirting with the teenage girl who’s handing him his change.

 

Noticing my confusion, Alba puts her hand on my arm to reassure me. “Don’t worry. You missed Ribbon, but she’s fine. I told her you’d be back soon. Balls are starting in a little while.”

 

Yuri turns to her and watches her attentively, perhaps noticing her Brazilian accent. Or maybe she is to his taste. Alba is petite, pretty with a mass of tightly curled black hair.

 

“Yuri, Alba.” I introduce them.

 

She looks at him with curiosity and holds out her hand. It wouldn’t have been hard to connect him with the Moldavian wine and my weekend in Brighton Beach.

 

“Alba is from Brazil,” I say, as if we’re about to have a normal conversation.

 

Yuri’s face beams.

 

“Brazil? Is my dream. I hear Brazilian girls are goooorgeous. With long dark hair.” He makes a gesture with his hand to evoke a long mane cascading down his back, the same gesture he had done when he had talked about “Tasha” and about Catherine Zeta-Jones. “As soon as I get papers I go there.”

 

I am mortified, not so much humiliated as ashamed, like the mother of a badly behaved son. Alba glances at me with consternation. I try to change the subject, but he won’t let it go.

 

“What’s the best beach in Rio?”

 

“Ipanema,” Alba says, keeping her voice as neutral as possible.

 

Lulu and Corina bounce out of the auditorium at that moment, and jump up and down at the buffet table, repeating and copying each other: “Mom, can I have a muffin, mom can I have a muffin, mom can I have a muffin?” until one of us pays attention. I get them each a muffin and a banana to distract them, but while I am paying, I hear Yuri insist behind my back.

 

“Is that true, what they say, about Brazilian girls?”

 

I am dying. Will he just shut up already.

 

When I turn around, Alba’s face has remained impassible. Bless her.

 

“There are all kinds.” She takes a step back, pulls her fur coat over her shoulders, with the air of wanting to distance herself from the conversation as much as possible, and nods a goodbye.

 

I take Yuri by the arm and pull him away.

 

“My daughter is going to compete soon. I have to go in and watch her.”

 

“Ok ok. I go.” He puts his coffee cup down and lifts the collar of his leather coat. I walk him to the door. For a moment he struggles with the wind outside, the flaps of his coat beating against his calves, his tall body rigid as if he was bracing himself against a powerful storm but couldn’t quite manage it. When he gets to his van he turns around and waves in my direction. I move my fingers feebly against the pane of glass.

 

“Who was he? Lulu asks when I get back to the buffet table. “He was weird.” The girls giggle and make faces at each other.

 

I am appalled by Yuri’s embarrassing questions about the Brazilian girls, and even more appalled to have let Lulu see him. A scene with my mother comes back to me. I had gone back to France for the summer. She was cooking a barbecue in my grandparents’ garden, and she had received my cousins naked, with only an apron tied over her breasts and thighs, entirely exposing her backside, “because it was so hot.” Instead of being angry I had been filled with shame.

 

“He’s different,” I tell Lulu, using the politically correct American answer destined to smooth out potential prejudices against foreigners. “Do you girls want some chili?”

 

They burst into laughter. “Mom, we just had a muffin!” and run back in. I buy a regular coffee with milk and sip it alone in the lobby, then stroll back in and sit down next to Alba. She shoots me a look of complicity mixed with commiseration. I content myself with a vague smile and bury myself into the Sunday Times.

 

 

* * *

 

 

At first I didn’t pay attention when Yuri mentioned “the virgin.” It might be the same inattention that had made me overlook his mention of the goooorgeous woman who turned out to be “Tasha,” his future and now ex-wife. Yuri is quite a talker. For a couple of hours every other night from his cell phone on the highway, alone like a truck driver, his radio playing softly in the background, Lulu asleep in the next room, he talks and I half-listen, lulled by his stream of consciousness. I could never remember the girl’s name. Mostly he called her the “virgin,” for the obvious reasons. It’s been a long time since he’s stopped talking about his marriage plans. It’s a relief not to hear him rant and rave about this or that woman, and how they are all bitches out to get him, and how he needs to have his papers so that he can leave and go to Moscow, and not feel like a prisoner anymore, waiting for the hour of his liberation. So when the “virgin” starts coming up in his nightly talks I figure she is a friend. An American girl from Maryland, whose parents own a farm in the “boondocks.”

 

It’s only after a few weeks that I realize that, not only has he developed a relationship with the “virgin,” but he is considering marrying her. After being burned once by his first Russian fiancée – the one for whom he has bought the Louis XVth set of furniture – and a second time by “Tasha,” he figures that a simple American girl might be best. It won’t be a fake marriage, or a love marriage, this time, but rather an old-fashioned marriage of convenience. The “virgin” is twenty-three, she has a clerical job in Baltimore, a pleasant personality, a “good body” but an “ugly face.” He has met the family, has been invited to dinner, brought them presents, but – he tells me – can’t resolve to sleep with her. “I can’t fuck her,” he whines. “She doesn’t turn me on. She thinks I am gay!” According to him, he occasionally spends the night in her apartment and they just engage in tepid fooling around.

 

While every time he mentions “Tasha,” my stomach still tightens in an ugly knot while I imagine them in the steamiest poses, I feel no jealousy toward the “virgin” since Yuri doesn’t desire her. In fact, she relieves me from a weight, especially from those dark moods that he’s gotten in lately when the future seems blocked. She could provide the perfect foil if they got married: he would get his papers, a home with a wife, and we might even still have our sexual encounters. A secret affair. Excited by the idea, I encourage him to go ahead with the marriage and finally get his “status.”

 

It’s around that time that I tell Yuri the dates of my trip to Vietnam: the last week of March and the first two weeks of April, before the monsoon season starts. As usual when I am about to leave the States, his mood turns sour, as it reminds him that he cannot travel. Even though I suspect his sulkiness is meant to make me feel guilty, I sympathize with his frustration. So when he asks me if he could stay at my place for a couple of days before I leave, while he takes care of “business” in Brooklyn, I accept in order to soften the blow, but not without trepidation: it will be the first time he will come over while Lulu is at home.

 

“You need to arrive after 10 PM, ok? After Lulu goes to sleep. And there’s a rhythmic gymnastics meet that weekend, so we’ll have to leave early on Saturday.”

 

“I’m here.” Yuri’s voice on the phone startles me awake. It’s 2 AM. I’ve asked him to come after Lulu’s bedtime, but I didn’t expect he would arrive so late. I’ve fallen asleep all dressed on my bed. “Right in front of door. At fire hydrant. Come down and help me out.”

 

He’s standing by the open trunk of his white Lincoln, surrounded by a staggering pile of boxes and suitcases full of “merchandise,” which he can’t leave in his car for security reasons. Horrified, I can only imagine the noise he will make carrying everything up my five flights of stairs in the middle of the night while I keep guard near his car. Watching him pick up the first case, I think of Willy Loman, his idol, and of the Mongols carting their wares on camelback across the Central Asia steppes. When Lulu wakes up in the morning she will be confronted with that same pile of “merchandise” in the hallway, not to mention the fridge overflowing with plastic bags containing red caviar, kielbasa, black bread and cheese and the flask of Stoli he tucks away in the freezer. This is not quite the way I would have chosen to officially introduce him into our household – actually, I foolishly thought I could hide him from her – but it’s too late now. Yuri’s shoes are already lined by the front door and he’s padding around in his Adidas slip-ons, his yoga mat under his arm, looking for a place to levitate on his fist. I quickly usher him into the guestroom, where he will spend the night, and where I briefly join him later.

 

The next morning, when Lulu gets up, I explain to her that I’m helping out a “friend” by letting him stay for a couple of nights and she observes the heap of boxes without comment. I often have European friends staying over, but this is the first time I’ve brought a lover into my apartment while she is home, and it seems to me Yuri’s boxes are flashing red warning lights. I quickly whisk Lulu off to school and I ask Yuri, after we’ve made love in the guest bedroom, to come back after she’s gone to bed in the evening – but not as late as last night.

 

 

On Friday night, when Yuri returns at 10 PM on the dot, I remind him that Lulu and I will leave early the next morning for the rhythmic gymnastics meet. He can let himself out later when he wakes up, just pull the door behind him. In the dim light of the guest room I see him tighten his mouth like a sulky child. A surge of guilt fires up another round of twisted logic. Is it fair, just because I deem him socially inappropriate, to banish him from my life? Is it even fair to me? After all, we still have great moments together, and this weekend is our last chance to see each other for a few weeks. In a new fit of impulsiveness, I offer him to stay the whole weekend until Sunday night. We can all have dinner together when we come back. I hand him a set of keys with many repeated recommendations not to lose them, as if I was talking to an irresponsible twelve-year old.

 

At 5 AM, as Lulu and I leave for another ride up the deserted Henry Hudson Highway and the Palisades, the smell of freshly mowed grass wafts through my open window. At dawn on the highway, on an early Spring morning, it’s America at its best, America of the movies, cars flowing by, glittery bumpers, bright divider lines, bushy trees and lawns in crew-cuts, America smooth as a dream park where everything is fresh and clean and every bump manicured.

 

 

In the evening, I dial Yuri’s number from the hotel to see how he is doing in New York, but my call goes straight to voicemail. No answer in my apartment either. I figure he must have gone out. After all, why would he stay home alone on a Saturday night?

 

Sunday. 11 AM. I call Yuri again on his cell phone, then on my home phone. Still no answer. Panic. What if he has drunk “everything in sight” at my place? What if he has fallen asleep with a cigarette between his fingers, and the whole building is aflame? I call my home number again. If he hears my voice, he might answer the phone. I yell into the answering machine, willing him to answer. Pick up! Yuri! Pick up! I repeat it in Russian, hoping the sounds of his native tongue will rouse him from deep slumber. Still nothing.

 

The day drags on, the competitions follow one another in a predictable and brain-numbing order. I call Yuri at regular intervals. Something went wrong, I know it. How irresponsible of me to have let him stay in the apartment by himself and trusted him with my keys! On the drive back, while Ludivine listens to the Beatles (Love Me Yeah Yeah Yeah and Yesterday crackling from her headphones) cataclysmic images erupt in my mind: Yuri passed out on the couch, drunk, clumps of vomit on his chest, or drunk, a cigarette dangling from his fingers, the couch catching fire and going up in flames, or Yuri gone with my keys, concocting to come back one day when I am out to steal my new laptop and my grandmother’s sapphire ring. As we ascend the four stories, it’s the idea of Lulu finding Yuri naked, drunk on the couch that alarms me the most. I manage to squeeze in the door before her and I run to the living room – empty! to my bedroom – empty! to the guest room – empty! No trace of Yuri anywhere. Not even his Adidas slip-ons. Only the suitcases and trunks still stacked in the hallway signal that he will come back. I don’t know whether to feel relieved (no fire, no tragedy, no uncomfortable encounter between a drunk Yuri and Ludivine, sapphire ring still in its case) or even more alarmed: what happened to him?

 

At seven, just as Lulu is getting out of the bathtub and into her pajamas, the phone rings. It’s him.

 

“I’m coming. I’m round corner. I bring groceries for soup.”

 

A soup? Since when does he cook soups?

 

Ten minutes later he is at the door, carrying two brown supermarket bags filled to the brim and a six-pack of beer.

 

Lulu turns her head from the couch, where she has just settled to watch the preview of the Academy Awards and stares at this blond giant, whom she must remember from the Cherry Hill meet, who has just let himself in with a key and is dropping groceries on the counter as if he was at home. A feeling of nausea grips me, but I embark into a flurry of self-serving justifications. Isn’t it better to be upfront with one’s child? What’s wrong with having a man in my life? Granted, Yuri may not be the best candidate for the part, but is that a reason to be ashamed of him?

 

“Ludivine, this is Yuri.” I try to make my voice natural and confident. “Yuri, this is Ludivine. You met, remember, at Cherry Hill? Yuri’s going to have dinner with us… huh… cook dinner for us, actually.”

 

She gives him a tiny, half-wave of the hand from the far end of the living room.

 

“What are you watching?” Yuri asks, marching toward her.

 

“The Oscars.”

 

He squats next to her for a moment, watches the sweep of ball gowns on the red carpet, the precious stones glittering on the stars’ earlobes and necklines, listens to the gossip.

 

“That’s Julia Roberts? I hate her smile. Big mouth. Look at all those teeth.”

 

Lulu shoots him a venomous side look.

 

“Why are you watching this?” Yuri insists. “It’s American… Hollywood propaganda.”

 

“Yuri!” I call from the kitchen before he’s done more damage.

 

“I like it,” Ludivine answers coldly, stretching her legs under the blanket she likes to wrap herself in to watch tv, announcing the end of the conversation by staring hard and unblinkingly at the screen.

 

“I tried to call you all day, Yuri,” I tell him when he comes back to the kitchen. “Was anything wrong?”

 

“No, everything fine. I am going to make borscht. Have you ever had?”

 

With disbelief, I watch him busy himself at the counter, unpacking a pack of beets, a head of cabbage, onions, a bunch of parsley, another one of dill, asking for a large pot. This display of domesticity would warm my heart if I didn’t find it so suspicious. Something’s wrong, but I can’t figure out what yet. When all the vegetables are chopped and the soup’s underway, he sits down at the table across from me and pops open a beer.

 

“Want one?”

 

I shake my head. “What happened last night, Yuri?”

 

He takes his time, tastes his beer, pouts. It’s a Budweiser. As tasteless as a Rolling Rock no doubt. Perhaps there was no Guinness at the supermarket.

 

“I was out, ran into girl I know. I had met her way back, when I first came to America, and friend of hers. We went to Russian Vodka Room.”

 

“But I tried to call you all day!”

 

His eyes cloud over with that hooded and shifty look I instantly recognize from David.

 

“Oh no you didn’t!”

 

The jealousy that the “virgin” couldn’t inspire in me stabs me deep in the stomach.

 

He sucks on his beer, and shoots me a quick look.

 

“What?” His lips twitch.

 

Oh yes, I recognize that look, and the sheepish smile.

 

“Which one did you sleep with?” I keep my voice to a whisper. I don’t want Ludivine to have any inkling of what transpires in the kitchen – thank God for inane, blaring tv commercials!

 

He glances at me, apparently weighing the pros and cons of honesty or deceit, balances on the fence for a brief instant, then opts for full disclosure.

 

“She’s not even my type. I don’t like blonds. I liked her friend better, but I wasn’t getting anywhere with her. I could see Milla was into me. She was giving me looks.”

 

Milla!

 

“So you went to her place.”

 

The sheepish look again, followed by a sip of bud.

 

“She wanted to see how I balance on fist. So I brought up yoga mat. Then she gave me blow-job.”

 

“Shhhh…” But the leap from yoga mat to blowjob makes me laugh in spite of myself.

 

“Please. No details. I can imagine without your help.”

 

Now we both burst into laughter. I stop laughing when I realize what should have been obvious.

 

“Wait… You just came from there right now!”

 

For some reason, that stings more than knowing that he’s spent the night with “Milla”. Even though a few weeks ago, I was myself letting Bill kiss and grope me, I feel cheated on.

 

“I left you the keys to my apartment. I trusted you!”

 

“I didn’t have to tell you. I decided to be honest with you.” Hoooonest with the long “o”.

 

True. He didn’t have to tell me. I wonder what would have happened if David had been hoooonest. But how can a meaningless blunder like this be compared with what happened with my ex-husband? I bury the thought away. I hate the way it keeps festering, triggering in me the urge to hide it, instead of accepting how vulnerable I still feel.

 

“Mom, when’s dinner ready?” Ludivine whines from the couch. “I’m hungry!”

 

To my utter amazement, the borscht is quite tasty. Rich and deep red, unctuous, laced with narrow slices of beef, razor-thin slivers of dill floating on the surface and a big wallop of sour cream. Even Ludivine asks for seconds and cleans up her plate. In spite of Yuri’s judgmental frown, we are eating in front of the tv, the way we used to with David, at the end, when we were grateful for the sitcom dialogues to fill in the deadly silences. I have a real knack for creating dysfunctional families – no doubt for having been raised in one. They are reassuring in a way because so non-viable. It’s the legitimate families that scare me, with their high-mindedness, and the horrifying possibility of remaining stable till the end, a suffocating jail from which one risks being stuck for life. I have always looked at my friends’ “normal” families with a mix of envy and disdain. From the outside, they looked like impregnable fortresses.

 

Somehow, the Milla episode blows in the wind. After reading to Lulu and making sure she’s asleep, I join Yuri in the guest bedroom, where he tumbles me silently, his hand on my mouth to smother any noise. At breakfast the next day, while he’s still sleeping, Lulu complains about him in a low voice.

 

“He said American tv was stupid.”

 

“Oh, he comes from another culture,” I say, breezily. “You know what I think about the shows you watch. The same thing.”

 

Offended, she looks up from her book. “But mom, you like watching the Oscars.”

 

I feel uncomfortable, hypocritical, caught in double-talk, but I figure everything is an occasion to teach.

 

“I know. You’re right. I like the Oscars. Look, he is a little rough, but he didn’t mean anything. It was just his opinion.  He comes from another country, which used to be a communist country. America was their enemy.”

 

“I hate him.”

 

She looks at me with such fierce anger that I have to lean against the counter, seized with a new wave of vertigo.

 

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