Authors: Olga Grushin
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
“Perhaps until the first snows. Maybe longer.”
His thoughts derailed abruptly. “But ... that’s at least two months! I know I just said I could live here, but frankly, I doubt I could stand it for
long, and even if I could, my presence in Moscow might be—”
Nina set down her half-finished wine. The glass made a small liquid chink against the floor. “Tolya, you misunderstand me,” she said. “I’m not suggesting that you stay here with me. I want to be by myself. Alone.”
The whistle of a train rose in the distance, piercing and solitary like the cry of a lost bird. She waited for it to die away before speaking again. Everything was moving in excruciatingly slow motion.
“I was hoping we could just have a nice day and talk about all this tomorrow, but, well ... You haven’t yet heard from Vasily, I take it?”
“No, is something the matter? Is your father ill? Is Vasily—”
The air, dense with disbelief and rasping with erratic heartbeats, was hard to inhale.
“They are both fine,” she said. “As a matter of fact, they are having such a grand time together that Papa has asked Vasily to move in with him when they return. Vasily called me last night.”
“And what did he ... What did you ...”
“He likes the idea,” she said expressionlessly. “The location is much more convenient for him. More central. And it would be nice for someone to keep Papa company. He gets lonely, I think, even though he’d never admit it. So, since they both appear to want it, I don’t see why—”
She bent to prod the wood in the fireplace, and he followed a flurry of tiny sparks spiraling through the darkness. Somehow he felt no surprise at the news, only bitterness and a certain vague revulsion—not unlike the unpleasant sensation he had experienced a few days before at his father-in-law’s apartment when he had watched dozens of effusive old men embrace dozens of respectful youths in the gilded mirrors of the hallway. And then, as a clear snapshot of the scene emerged from the dimness of the past, he finally guessed at the source of his distaste. Pyotr Alekseevich and Vasily looked so amazingly alike that it had been rather like seeing an aged man give a young version of himself an infinite pat on the back. How odd, he wondered, that he had never noticed the similarity before—and how ironic that Vasily and Ksenya would both choose the exact same time to desert—
Sensing Nina’s eyes on him, he realized with a start that he must have spoken aloud.
“Don’t worry, Tolya,” she said with a sigh. “I already know about Ksenya. I talked to her yesterday.”
He let her words traverse his being slowly, very slowly, until he felt them coming to rest somewhere amid the chaos of his tossing thoughts. And at that precise moment, the tossing stopped, his pained bewilderment yielded, and anger began to glow hollowly in his heart—fed perhaps by a deeper current of guilt.
“Oh,” he said coldly. “I see. You mean to punish me for the rift with our children, do you? Of course, I’m the only one to blame here. After all, I’m such a dismal failure as a father. Why, I should have been there for them, I should have guided, I should have prevented, I should have known—whereas you, you were always so perceptive, so loving, so—”
“Tolya, I’m not assigning blame to anyone,” she said. “And anyway, Vasily is probably better off with Papa, we both know that. And Ksenya, I think she’ll be all right. She’ll be living at her friend Lina‘s, a wonderful girl. I like Boris a great deal too. Of course, I’ll worry about her, but I feel it’s time to let her do her own thing. She has grown up so much faster than I thought possible. That’s not why I—”
“You’ve met that good-for-nothing boy of hers, and you think she has grown up?” he said with hasty incredulity. “Well, talk of a lapse in parenting skills! Or has our dear daughter neglected to mention that he is married, or that he writes deranged songs about angels and suicides, or that he has a following of mad hippies, or that he is the one who stole all my—”
“I said ‘grown up,’ not ‘grown old,’” she interrupted. “Of course she makes mistakes—she is young, she and Boris both! Young and talented and in love and ...”
Her outcry faltered, silenced by some invisible but powerful presence. When she spoke again, her voice was so low he had to strain his hearing to understand, and her words sounded oddly frail, and yet brave, as if balancing on a tightrope stretched across an abyss that only the two of them could see.
“My God, Tolya, don’t you remember what it feels like?” she said in a near-whisper. “To be in a hurry to live, to dream of overthrowing conventions, to hope to make the world a gift of something beautiful and everlasting? Don’t you remember, Tolya? Tolya?”
And for one hushed moment, as they sat facing each other across the night—she searching his face with a disconcerting, hopeful intensity, he struggling to find the only answer worthy of all their years together, of the past they had shared—for one brilliant, self-contained moment, everything seemed in flux, and everything was wonderfully possible, and he knew that if he could only discern the right words in the monstrous whirlwind of his mind, the universe would shift obligingly, the past and the present would merge with miraculous ease, and she would smile once more into his eyes, and their life would once again be surprising and full and precious, and ... and ...
“Of course, I should have known,” Nina said in a tired voice, turning away. “After all, you have such a way with undesirable memories.... Well, I just pray that as these children sort through things in the years to come, they will be different from us and won’t discard their dreams along with their messes.”
And he felt time resume its progress through the world, and the present imposed itself once more on his senses—the quiet darkness dispersed here and there by the yellow squares of neighbors’ lit windows, the stars dancing with chilly precision above the trees, the smells of plums and ashes in the air, the gentle scratching of aspen branches against the roof; except that now, it all began to seem strangely unreal, like a crudely painted stage decoration for some tragic and mildly ridiculous provincial play. Hopelessly he questioned the night for the expression of Nina’s eyes, but saw only the lines of her profile, pale and merciless like that of a pagan goddess of justice. Then he realized that her lips were moving, that she was speaking again.
“I’m sorry, that was unfair,” she was saying. “We both made our choices back then, and in all honesty, mine was probably much less admirable than yours.”
Her tone was one of defeat, and her words had no meaning. He made an effort to speak.
“Your choice?” he said. “What choice was that? Going along with whatever I decided? Forgive me, but that’s hardly a—”
She lowered her face, and the shadows closed over it greedily.
“It doesn’t matter now,” she said. “The time of decisions is past. And now, it seems, is our time to face the consequences. Our children leaving home may be one of them. I suppose my need to be alone is another.”
“So in essence,” he said after a pause filled with darkness, “you are leaving me because of something that happened almost twenty-five years ago?”
“I’m not leaving you, Tolya,” she said. “I just want to be by myself for a while. I’ve thought about it for so long—having a leisurely stretch of time, all my own—and now, with Vasily and Ksenya gone, I can finally do it. Don’t you understand? My whole life has been devoted to other people—first Papa, then you, then our children. But none of these things has worked out quite the way I hoped, and now—now it must be my turn. I like it here. It’s so silent, especially early in the morning and late at night, I can almost hear plants grow. I like making plants grow. It makes me feel alive, as if I’m part of something greater, something real....”
Her speech sounded rehearsed—she must have chosen her phrases carefully in anticipation of this conversation—yet he could barely follow it. The wine was making his temples throb dully.
“My God,” he said, “have you been so unhappy with me?”
She smiled a pale smile. “Happy, unhappy—these terms never really applied to us, did they? I didn’t marry you in search of happiness.”
And he did not dare ask the question he most wanted to ask, because now, for the first time ever, he suddenly doubted the answer—and he felt his soul dying yet another small, bleak death at the looming of the truth.
“No, I dreamt of a holy mission in life.” Her words were again well practiced, and cold. “Living in close proximity to art, religiously watching over its creation, assisting at its birth with a thousand details that were in themselves mundane and yet would add up to a great, sacred trust, a short footnote next to my name for all eternity: ‘Nina Sukhanova, born Malinina, the daughter of a hack, the wife of a genius.’ Pathetic, isn’t it—all those young Russian girls raised on nineteenth-century novels, searching for an idol at whose plaster feet they might sacrifice their own aspirations, only to wake up decades later, aged and bitter, to find their visions of vicarious greatness shattered, their husbands average, talentless nobodies ... Only that’s not exactly how it turned out with us, is it, Tolya—and to tell you the truth, I sometimes think I’d prefer such a trite, unambiguous ending to ... to ...”
“Please, Nina,” he said thickly, “please, let’s not ...”
She stopped, looked at him in silence. The long, motionless minute that followed felt icy, crisp, multifaceted, as if time itself had hardened into crystals. Anatoly Pavlovich saw the room with astonishing clarity, from the whole of its darkened, wood-paneled expanse to the faint reflection of the dying fire on the surface of his wineglass. He saw Nina’s face, the left side in dancing shadow, the right landscaped by bright light; he saw the flames gleam in her nearly transparent eyes. Irrelevantly, he thought about the colors he would use if he were to paint her portrait at this moment—the soft grays, the reserved reds, a poignant touch of liquid gold here and there—and wondered whether it would be possible to find a shade delicate enough to convey her fingernails, which glowed like so many translucent crescent moons every time she lifted her hands to the fire in that chilled gesture of hers. He also thought, disjointedly, how long it had been since she had allowed him to hold her in his arms—a dejected, months-long eternity of everyday preoccupations, distractions, headaches, which would now stretch on, stretch on indefinitely, in a glittering, echoing Moscow apartment where he was condemned to live from this day forward, exiled from his work, his family, his very existence, talking to no one for weeks at a time save his own reflection and the madman from the ninth floor ...
In the next instant, the absurdity of the image made him laugh aloud—a bitter little laugh that startled him out of his trancelike state. Then, feeling all at once afraid to linger in this seductively warm, deceptively cozy, subtly poisonous place that belonged to him no longer, he stood up unsteadily and headed out of the room.
The air was much colder in the drafty corridor that led past the gaping cavern of an unlit kitchen to the front door. Behind him, he heard Nina ask where he was going.
“Back to Moscow,” he said without stopping. The wine he had drunk—half a bottle, it must have been, or quite possibly even three-quarters—made his steps sluggish, and mechanically he chided himself for having briefly forgotten his age. As if from afar, Nina’s feet pattered across the floor as she dashed after him, exclaiming, “But that’s crazy! Let me make supper, we’ll go to bed early, and tomorrow we can talk this over calmly. Please, Tolya, nothing’s decided, we can still—”
Already on the veranda, he fished out his city shoes from a dim corner, then felt for his bag on the floor where he had dropped it just hours before. It was unnecessarily, mockingly heavy
Catching up with him, Nina grabbed his sleeve.
“Please,” she gasped, “you can’t leave like this, it’s already past nine, how are you going to get home, do you even know the train schedule, please ...”
He saw her standing there, green-eyed, flushed, and out of breath like a young girl, and his heart bled with the certainty that he had been too late with her as well. And then he understood how laughable it had been to imagine, only one day ago, that the loss of some romanticized image of a thin-blooded, composed Madonna who for years had graced his idea of a perfect home with a mysterious, elegant presence would be in any way comparable to the loss of this flesh-and-blood woman before him—this woman who had once been ready to follow him to whatever amazing new horizons he might take her, this woman who could still find the strength to listen to him when he was sad and make him tea when he was tired, this woman whose fingertips smelled of fruits and earth....
And for one moment, confronted with a bleak monotony of future despair, so unlike the dramatic vision of offended virtue that he had entertained over the purloined letter of a neighbor, he caught himself longing for the Nina of yesterday, furtive and unfaithful, perhaps, but still near him, instead of this new Nina, pure as always—but far away, so far away, with ninety-seven kilometers of solitude and indifference and disappointed hopes to separate them for God knew how long.... And simultaneously it occurred to him how surreal this parting was, how lifeless—how like a labored scene from some novel whose meaning faded amidst the flowery exchanges between unfeeling, cardboard characters—how unlike this bleeding wound that was tearing his living soul in two.
And in truth, why was he standing here, on the threshold of darkness, still and speechless? Shouldn’t he plead with her, shouldn’t he reproach her, shouldn’t he remind her how much he had done for her—how comfortable her life had been with him, how successful he had become for her sake, how many lovely things she had always had at her beck and call? Shouldn’t he throw her ingratitude back into her face, forcing her to remember the pitiful failure of Lev Belkin’s existence, perhaps grabbing her roughly by the shoulders and shouting, “Is that the kind of life you wish we had?” Or should he confess instead how much he needed her? Should he ... shouldn’t he ...
Still talking about train schedules, Nina was trying to wrestle away his bag. “Please understand, Tolya,” she was saying rapidly, “there’s no need to react like this, I only want a temporary—even brief—”