They say that people who have been married for many years become similar not only externally, but also internally: they adopt each other’s words, habits, and even thoughts. I became convinced this was true. Benya and I have practically nothing to talk about. We finish every sentence without completing it, we have identical political beliefs, and even our movements are synchronous. If I ask MY husband to wake me up in the morning for work, I am not at all surprised by a note left on the table saying “Get up!”.
Sometimes, though, there are glitches that change these cozy stereotypes, and you begin to question the validity of the above statements.
My husband and I went to visit our daughter in another state. It was a long drive, so we decided to spend the night at a motel on the way. At dawn, I awoke to the loud and obtrusive cawing of crows. Benya looked up and good-naturedly asked: “Did you say something?”
I lay there, listening to the cawing of the birds and trying to come to terms with this new state of being…
* * *
MINNIE AND DOROTHY
After seeing my daughter off to school, I waited for the bus and lazily thought about finding a job. A young woman of immense proportions and with a small doll face stood at the bus stop. Smiling at the same time, we “hi”‘ ed each other (“Hi!” – “Hi! How are you?”) and got to talking…
Half an hour later, she was giving me a ride to the house of her grandmother, who needed constant a caretaker. We entered – and immediately I had the feeling that I had never left for another country: there was the familiar rug with swans hanging next to expensive paintings by famous artists, and between them were children’s drawings, and there were dusty little elephants, porcelain figurines, crystal vases on an old dresser… The house smelled musty and lonely.
A skinny old woman emerged from a room. She hugged me: “Dorothy, where have you been so long?”
“She has dementia,” her granddaughter explained, “she mistook you for a friend she had in her youth.”
From that day on, I began to live a double life. Every morning when I went to Minnie’s, I reincarnated as Dorothy, living a life that, at first, was someone else’s, but step by step, quickly became my own.
“Remember?” — Minnie asked in a language with which I was not familiar. “Remember the fire in our synagogue? That was also the day I met Sam…” Her memories were so vivid and colorful that I could smell the smoke and see people crowding around the burning synagogue, and among them were two frightened girls, young Minnie, and… myself. Or, “Remember, Dorothy, your older sister’s wedding — we were wearing those matching hats your mother made?” You wouldn’t believe it, but I remembered our hats, and the envious glances of my friends, and the sudden downpour — and us, young and carefree, running through the puddles…
Every night on my way home, I heard my husband’s concerned voice: Relax, Rita, you’re not Dorothy!
I lived with Minnie for a year and a half.
I vividly remember the day her daughter moved her into a nursing home. Her last words were, “Remember, Dorothy…?”
A week later I went to visit Minnie. She did not recognize me.
My husband was no longer worried: I was no longer Dorothy. Only I can’t remember where I put that hat — remember, Minnie?
Three-year-old Minya Berkovich was brought to America at the beginning of the century from a Jewish shtetl in Ukraine — not far from the town where I was born.
* * *
A BIG SWIM
I look at Benya, standing on a beach at the edge of the ocean, and I am filled with envy and irritation.
Everything annoys me: his enthusiastic face, his long arms stretched out either to charge or to fly, and his sense of personal communication with the ocean… Irritating and delightful.
By the time we are scheduled to leave the beach, Benya is finally ready for the big swim. He turns around and waves to me in a practiced Brezhnevian motion. There comes a moment when I, too, begin to stare out into the ocean: first I see my husband’s bald head glinting in the sun, and a little later, only a barely discernible dot. The familiar scene from my youth repeats itself. I close my eyes, and I am transported to Odessa’s Otrada Beach, crowded with vacationers. From the horn comes the voice: “You have crossed the line of the swim! Man*, return immediately!”
I do miss that phrase from the past. The dot continues to drift away toward the ships on the roadstead and soon disappears from view. On the lifeguard tower, two American teenagers are drinking beer.
After some forty minutes, I feel like a widow and begin to carefully choose soft words to tell my family and friends about what has happened. I think of my grief, my lonely old age, and covered mirrors…
I remember that in twenty-seven years of living in America, I only learned to use credit cards and sign papers, and that Benya was in charge of all my affairs, that he was always there, and how could I be without him… There were tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. Suddenly someone wraps their cold, wet arms around me. “How was my funeral?” – Benya asks good-naturedly. I am silent. He adds conciliatorily: “By the way, you look amazing in black!”
My irritability and envy return.
* * *
Benya spends most of his day in a lab with the mysterious Plasma. I try not to distract him from possible discoveries. For example, it’s been a year since the lights on the ceiling went out. My husband looked up and peacefully said that he would surely screw them in, but, he added, this is a “project”. Gradually, the ceiling lights project was joined by kitchen chairs with broken legs, a leaky refrigerator, and a washing machine, which was fed only boiling water.
I treat the word “Project” with respect and wait patiently. One such serious Project is replacing windows’ warped frames. About two years ago, a friend tried to open one of them. A second frame fell on his fingers like a guillotine and the glass cracked. A cold wind began to blow in.
The last time I heard the familiar word was in October, when Benya was about to go to a conference. A friend came over, looked at me with sympathy, and said thoughtfully, “Benoit is certainly a man of great intelligence, but something must be done about this…” In preparation for my husband’s return from California, I was hammering meat with a wooden mallet, when, at a certain moment, I felt a strong urge to contribute to the project. I turned to the window and banged on the glass with a said mallet. Instead of cracks, a big hole appeared, into which I could safely stick my hand and wave to passersby.
Benya came back from his conference, nonchalantly inspected the window, and called a window replacement company. After hanging up, he turned to me: “It’s okay. It’s a Project. The glass will be ready in a couple of months.”
It’s January. It’s cold. The Project lives in our apartment now, along with the mysterious Plasma.
Benoit looks after them all.
Translated from Russian by N. Kossman
* Literal translation: male (“мужчина”)
A librarian by training, Rita emigrated to the U.S. from the Soviet Union in 1988. She has been writing poetry since childhood. Nowadays, she also writes prose, which is a new stage in her life.
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