The Jivin' Ladybug

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Adrian Paulsen

Tanencal
 

                                          I.

The stars shone dimly in the sky on the nights when I lay in bed wondering what my father was doing out in the city. Down the hall I could hear my mother coughing in her bed and she would whisper from time to time, “Tanencal… Tanencal.” My thoughts wandered between my mother in her bed and my father in the city. My father used to tell me that the stars were a lot brighter in the old country, and on those nights when he stayed out late I used to imagine what it would be like for the stars to shine with the celestial clarity of my father’s memory. I could have surmised from the stars alone what month it was; I could have seen every node in Orion’s belt; and I could have known with the prescience of the three Magi what cosmic events were arising just beyond the horizon. But the night sky was dim and cloudy because of the lights and the smog, and I could not make out Orion’s belt most nights. Mother cried in her bed, and she whispered “Tanencal” to herself. I could see her tears very clearly from where I imagined them, and I always wanted to get up and say to her, “Mama, tolik na teka vets” (Mama, he’s only at work). But I didn’t want to lie to her. Something told me I would be lying if I said father was still at work.

It was late when he did come home. It never felt like he had been working. Every night that he came home late it seemed less likely that he would repent and beg for our forgiveness. I’m not sure if I could have forgiven him then, even if he had asked, but I like to think that I would have tried. He never asked though. The nights just got darker.

 

II.

Spring arrived late for me the year Mathias Rust landed in Moscow. He flew his civilian airplane from Eastern Germany all way to Russia, and landed on Vasilevsky Spusk street in the heart of Moscow, right next to the Red Square and directly across from St. Basil’s Cathedral. Immediately after the landing he was arrested, and after he was released from prison in 1988, he was arrested in his native Germany for stabbing a pretty woman who had refused to kiss him. Nothing good came of Rust’s efforts back then, but I remember the landing. Everything seemed to change for me after he landed.

I met Annka five months before Rust’s landing. I had taught plenty of students like her before - beautiful, slender, intelligent, a hint of prurience in their every glance, their every footstep. Young women like her seemed to rise naturally from the soil, as Aphrodite had from the waves of Cytherea. They appeared every spring full grown, ready for a college romance, ready to break some young man’s heart with their beautiful eyes and beckoning lips. Their pale shaven legs seemed the embodiment of innocence and yet also the revelation of a pellucid eroticism. No one else wore short skirts as early in the season as those girls did. All the other girls, bound by self-constraint, morals, or the fear of being called fat, wore thick sweaters and turtlenecks, baggy jeans or very long skirts that came down to their shoes, just barely revealing the white of their socks. That first day Annka wore a slim black skirt that came to her knees and clung to her thighs, showing off the curve of her hips and the distinct and attractive shape of her posterior. Her skin was bare and smooth below the skirt. I’m not sure how or why she tolerated the cold of that day all so she could show off the delicate complexion of her skin – but any reason sufficed for me. She wore a shirt as well, of course, a white button-down with a collar, but that wasn’t so important. It was what her shirt revealed - the mesmerizing outline of her bosom and the clean v of unbuttoned shirt allowing me a titillating glimpse of her erumpent and beautiful breasts: that was important.

That semester, among the four courses I taught, I was taught a class at Columbia on general Soviet history from the October Revolution to the present. Annka was in the class. At that point I had taught at Columbia for fifteen years and I had never been tempted, at least to the point of action, to betray my wife’s trust. But earlier that year Maggy had come to me on soft heels early one morning, just when I had woken up and was watching the coffee pot brew its dark solution, and told me she was pregnant. I was elated, and told her so. Then we both went to work.

That day I decided that I would like that first child, as well as any others that we might have together, to learn the one thing my father and mother had handed down to me from their homeland: Latvun. Latvun was a dialect of Komi, and as far as I knew, Latvun was only spoken in one village, though it used to be in much wider use before the arrival of the Russians and the institution of the Gulags. Both my father and mother had been raised together in Menst, which was situated on the Vychegda river in the Komi region just west of the Ural mountains. I wasn’t sure anyone spoke Latvun at all anymore, since I had never been to Menst, and no linguists had bothered to go there and determine if was still spoken. Perhaps the villagers had all died, and with them, all memory and knowledge of the language. I still do not know. Back then, for all I knew, Latvun as a spoken language had disappeared from the planet, residing only in my brain.

And so I had developed quite an emotional attachment to Latvun and my ability to speak it. The few times I bothered to talk to my father, before and after he moved to Switzerland, we only spoke in Latvun, with a few phrases or words in Russian sprinkled in. Latvun was the last chord of remembrance connecting me to my ancestors. It was the one tradition that truly defined me. My father and mother never practiced their parent’s Judaism once they left Menst and moved to Moscow in 1922, when he was nineteen and she was just sixteen. Their abandonment of Judaism was probably out of fear of the Bolsheviks, and by the time they came to America in 1938, the only trace of their Jewish heritage was in their attitude. Once they came to America, my father fully assimilated himself into American culture. My mother became increasingly silent and gave me very little input or guidance. So I did not have a traditional religion, or any traditional practices to bring with me into the world when I was growing up - except for Latvun. And I have grown up feeling emptier and more spiritually homeless because of it. I have not come to terms with God, or sex, or any of the important mysteries in life. My parents gave me no guidance; they gave me no real tools with which to form my own distinct humanity. I was alone, and was told to simply think critically about life in order to make decisions and form my beliefs. Latvun, while not a complete tradition or a complete way of life, was part of a society once, and is a certain way of looking at the world. Through Latvun, my children would be able to touch what their ancestors touched, and feel what their ancestors felt. And so I planned to give my knowledge of Latvun to my son or daughter when they were old enough to learn - to sustain that last chord of remembrance.

I came home that night excited and yet riddled with tension. I feared that Maggy might not want our child to learn Latvun. Maggy was very practical; so practical, in fact, that she was almost devoid of any sort of romantic urge. No champagne and chocolate for her on our wedding anniversary. She couldn’t stand Dr. Zhivago, either as a book or a movie, and she had no use for roses, hyacinths or lilies. She was, on the whole, a very unsentimental woman. Only once in a great while she would reveal her fragility to me and allow me to sit with her in my arms by the fireplace. This was a rare occurrence. Her general level of sympathy towards matters purely of the heart was remarkably low. She seemed to detest, let alone dislike, those rituals in life most thoroughly soaked in emotion or sentiment, such as News Years celebrations, Christmas trees and Christmas carols, our wedding anniversary, or dates to mawkishly sentimental movies. She was a very practical woman, not at all inclined towards deviating from the cold logic of her near-regimented lifestyle. Anything emotional, anything superfluous that could be done without was, to her mind, so much useless and rococo decoration. I was almost certain she would not want our child to learn a dead language of no real importance. To her, Latvun was only a sentimental token of the past. But I was determined to achieve my desire.

 I sat with her at the kitchen table and we slowly ate Chinese takeout. I did not say anything at first. All I could think of was how I wanted to teach our child Latvun. I leaned forward and said, “Maggy, I think I’d like to teach our child Latvun.”

She stopped eating, put down her chopsticks, and looked at me. “Why?”

“It means a lot to me. It’s part of my heritage. That’s why.”

“But honey, no one speaks Latvun. I mean, no one. You’re the only person I’ve ever heard of who speaks Latvun. What would our child do with that? It’s useless knowledge. It would be much better if you could teach him Russian. It could use that.”

“It’s going to be a boy, Maggy? You just said ‘him.’”

“Oh, I don’t know. It was just a figure of speech. It could be a girl.”

“Ah.”

I sat there wondering whether it would be better to just give it up, and chewed on a shoot of broccoli. That was how it always went. I always acquiesced; I always apologized. At least it seemed that way. She was quite stubborn – and quite logical, so she was always right. But this was important to me.

“Honey, it would really mean a lot to me if it could learn Latvun. It’s the only thing I could pass down to it from my parents. It would be a piece of heritage that it could value when it grows up.”

“Could you stop calling the baby “it,” Dmitri? It may not be a boy, but it’s better to call it something human than to say “it.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry. I’ll call the baby a she, just so there’s some balance.”

I smiled, but she did not smile back. She just looked at me like I was an idiot.

“Dmitri, look. Why can’t you teach him Russian? Why don’t you take him to synagogue? Your parents used to go, didn’t they? That’s part of your heritage. I mean, there are a hundred things you can do to pass on your heritage. But Latvun? I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, honey, but it’s pretty much a dead language. It would be useless knowledge just taking up space in our poor child’s brain. He’s going to be a sponge just soaking up information, and you want to teach him a dead and useless language like Latvun?”

“Maggy, I don’t go to synagogue. Why would I take our child to synagogue when I don’t go to synagogue? I’ve never gone to synagogue. I’ve never even spun the dradle, or celebrated Hanukkah, or Passover, or Yom Kippur. We didn’t even have latkes, or kosher pickled herring, or matzo balls. I’m not really Jewish, honey. I’ve got no other heritage other than Latvun. And just because it’s a dead language doesn’t mean it’s useless. They teach Latin all over the world, and that’s a ‘dead’ language.”

“Yes, but Latin is useful. You can translate books, and you can use it to understand English, as well as all the romance languages. Latvun – that isn’t even related to Russian, is it? What is that going to teach him, other than Latvun?”

“It’s a Ural-Altaic language. It’s a dialect of Komi. It could help him to speak Komi.”

“Yeah, like that’s helpful. How many people speak that, 40,000?”

She looked away and sighed. “Honey, I don’t want to fight about this. Why don’t you give me some time to think about this, and we can talk about it later.”

So we stopped talking about it. Two months passed and we still hadn’t talked about it. Then, a few weeks before the spring semester began, we talked about it again. We were at the kitchen table again in the evening, and this time we were eating Chicken Parmesan grinders I had bought at the Italian restaurant down the street. We had already discussed the usual, like how work was, how my history book was coming, what we wanted to name the baby, and the conversation had lapsed. She seemed to be in a good mood, and we weren’t really saying much, just chewing our food, so I decided to broach the subject with her again. “Maggy,” I said, “Have you changed your mind about Latvun?”

She put her grinder down on the plate, and wiped her hands with a napkin, and then she ran her hands through her long wavy brown hair. “Dmitri, I don’t think the baby should learn Latvun. I’ve thought about it, and thought about it, and it just doesn’t make sense. So if we could just stop talking about it…”

“Maggy, I haven’t brought it up in at least two months. So it’s not like we’ve been talking about it a whole lot… Why can’t I have my way, just this once? It’s not that big a deal to let a child learn a dead language. It’s not going to hurt anyone, and it’ll make me happy.”

“Yes, but it’s pointless. There’s no point teaching him Latvun when he could learn so many other things. That’s like teaching him how to speak Klingon, or the Elvish language from Lord of The Rings. There’s no point to that stuff.”

“But the baby might like it. It could have its own secret language that only me and the baby could speak.”

“Oh? And then I’d be out of the loop! Great.”

“I could teach you.”

“No! I don’t want to learn Latvun, and I don’t want my child to learn Latvun. It’s out of the question, Dmitri.”

“So he’s your child now, huh?”

I looked at her, not entirely surely why I had said that. I knew what she had meant. I breathed out slowly and tried to start over again.

“Look, honey, you can’t just ignore what I want for the child.”

“But you can’t just ignore what I want. I mean, why is it so important to you, anyway?”

“I already told you. And why is it so important to you that the child doesn’t learn Latvun? I mean, so what if it learns a dead and useless language? Worse things have happened in the world.”

“It’s important to me because it’s just stupid to teach somebody a language they’re never going to use. If he was a professor in Slavic studies or something, like you are, then it might be useful. But we can’t force that on him. I mean, it might give him speech defects in school. And then he’ll get made fun of, and -”

“- Honey, this is stupid. Nothing was forced on me, and I’ve felt empty ever since, like I’ve got nothing to give the world and no traditions to help me understand the world. The only thing I’ve got is Latvun. I want to at least give that to our children.”

“Why don’t you start going to synagogue, then? And then you could take him with you. I’ll even go to synagogue so we can be a family when we go. And you know I don’t believe in God.”

“You don’t need to believe in God to be Jewish. Technically, I’m already a Jew, honey. But it doesn’t do anything for me. I’ve gone before, and it just seemed dead when I went. The rabbi got up and read from the Torah and we listened. Everything seemed moribund. Only the old ladies in the front row seemed to believe. Everyone went because they had always gone, just like their parents had gone before them, and theirs before them. It wasn’t alive. I can’t go to synagogue, honey. It’s just not going to work.”

 “Honey, can we please just stop talking about this? Please? I don’t want to fight. We never fight. I hate fighting. It’s so stupid.”

“So why can’t you just let me teach our child Latvun?”

“Because it’s pointless.”

 “Fine. Whatever you say.”

We stopped talking for a few minutes, and then I said, “Look, you’re not going to be having the baby for another six months at least, and even then, we can still wait to decide what to do for another year or so after that. So why don’t we just talk about it later? But I want you to know that I haven’t changed my mind, and I won’t change my mind. Not this time. I just hope you change your mind. It would mean a lot to me.”

“Fine. I’ll think about it some more. But I’m probably not going to change my mind either.”

And so we stopped talking about it. But I didn’t stop thinking about it. As I said, I never thought of cheating on Maggy. Then I met Annka. At first I thought of her as no more than a garland of spring. On that first day in class she had stared at me with an intensity that belied her carefree mien, but I had ignored her. I had thought she was a young and delicate ingenue whose affections were superficial and whose attentions were as ephemeral as the first lavender crocus to rise from my garden. I soon discovered that my impressions were incorrect.

She came up to me on the second day after class was over, and asked me if I had time to talk with her. I said yes and we walked together to my office, where I cleared some books off the guest chair. I invited her to sit and I sat behind my desk. I placed my hands somewhat nervously in my lap where she could not see them twitch from the slight anxiety of a first meeting and I asked her, “So what would you like to talk about?”

“Well, Professor Zhdanov, I was just curious about something. Where are you from? You have a very slight accent, but it is not a purely Russian accent. It sounds almost like you might have come from the Ural Mountains.”

“You have very good ears. A vi govoritye po russkii?”

“Da.”

“Ah. Were you born in Russia?”

“No. Were you?”

“No. I was born in New Jersey, but grew up near Ithaca, where my father taught at Cornell. So you wanted to talk to me just to ask me that?”

“Well, sort of. It almost sounded from the way you talked like you might know Latvun or another Komi dialect.”

I stared at her in surprise. “Mm. You have excellent ears. I am actually fluent in Latvun. My parents taught it to me when I was a child. I am surprised you have even heard of it. I’m almost certain it is a dead language.”

“It probably is. You, me and my parents are the only people I’ve ever met or heard of who can speak Latvun.”

We immediately began to converse in Latvun. We talked together in my office for another hour, and then she got up. She awkwardly gave me a hug, as I discovered was her wont with everyone, and then left. I almost immediately perceived that a joy had entered into the quiet spaces of that room; the chair seemed a better thing for her having sat in it. Yet nothing of import had happened, nor did I suspect that anything would. I had only told her the bare outline of my life, giving none of the details that might settle like worrisome nettles on the flesh of her young and curious heart. It was inconceivable to me then that history would try to repeat itself.

For several weeks after that initial meeting, Annka and I met in my office every day after class, and we talked together in Latvun. There was for me a simple joy in the clarity and precision of Latvun, and hearing such a woman as Annka speak Latvun brought to my joy the heightened dimension of an exhilarating and erotic tension. She would sit there in her chair, oblivious to the passing feet in the hallway and the fading strength of the sun’s light, and speak with eloquence and candor. Sometimes her pale skinny hands would rest on her tight skirts and jeans, and sometimes they would rise up and indicate the vicissitudes of her whims. Always my eyes were on her hands or her precious lips, which had in their fullness and color the power to make somnambulists of all men, busy dreaming their lives away with hopes of touching the red of their lips to hers. I thought I could hide my attraction if I stared at her hands or face, instead of her breasts, and so I did. But women like her have a clairvoyant sense of how much power their beauty gives them, and Annka added to her beauty an intelligence that dazzled me. She must have known from the first day that I adored her. Of course, I did my utmost to keep up the façade of a gruff and bear-like professor whose only interest in her was in speaking Latvun and exchanging pleasantries. I went out of my way to create an environment of friendly but professional interest. I placed her seat several feet away from my desk and did not come near her until she gave me the parting hug. I made every effort to avoid treating her any differently in class or in her grades.

The semester came to an end, and so did spring. The day before exams, the day of our last class together, we met in my office once more. Before she left Annka asked if I wanted to go to lunch with her some day during the summer. She would be working at a delicatessen at Katz’s on East Houston Street, and she took an hour-long break at three on weekdays when the lunch rush was over. I said yes, and we agreed to meet at Sarge’s since she didn’t want to eat where she worked. We picked May 30th as the date.

Mathias Rust landed on Vasilevsky Spusk street on May 28th, 1987. Spring had just begun for me when I came to see Annka, yet the rest of New York was pretending it was already summer. Women were celebrating their beauty in sleeveless see-through white blouses and black bras, in short skirts and long sashaying dresses with slits revealing their tanned legs embrowned by the Long Island sun. Men hurried to work in ties and suits, sweating under their collars. Many of them secretly wore short-sleeved dress shirts underneath their somber and elegant Brooks Brothers and Armani suits, and they dreamed of coolers full of beer and barbecued chicken piled high on paper plates. But I did not daydream of beer or baseball. I remembered my youth, when I could hear the children yelling out in the streets, throwing water balloons at each other, spraying each other with water. Sometimes I used to hear from my room a little girl named Molly yell in her shrill voice that she was selling fresh lemonade for five cents a cup. I had been afraid of the other children, not because they would make fun of me, but because they knew what they were. They knew they were children hot and sweaty running in the sun, children selling lemonade, children sitting under the shade of a tree reading a book or talking to a friend. I did not know I was the boy staying indoors and reading books. I believed I was someone else, someone far away in a book I had not yet read. And now I knew I was the man staying indoors, reading books and talking to young men and women about the past – men and women who not long ago had been running around in the hot summer air, jumping into lakes, scraping their knees while climbing trees, playing baseball, hopscotch, go-fish, monopoly till midnight when their parents let them. They had busy childhood memories they were going to touch. When the beer cans cracked open and Wade Boggs hit a home run, they could taste something beautiful and true that had been with them a long time. I could remember books, and the cool house, my father in the study, my mother whispering in my ear stories she didn’t finish.

But the day I heard of Mathias Rust’s daring, of the sheer folly of his youth that had allowed him to break through the insuperable panoply of the USSR, I began to believe I might find a more joyous self. Already I was beginning to feel an unwonted rush of energy, a latent recklessness that had its origins in blind hope. Though the sun had long since begun to shine its hot rays on me, only in late May did I feel the urge to leave behind my moribund life of old and embrace a new and vibrant existence.

We met at 2:15 at Sarge’s. I ate joyfully, and talked with her about the book I was working on, which was about the White Sea Canal and how 150,000 people had died to ensure its construction. I told her how my father had been there, though he spoke little of it, and we talked of her parents. Her parents had come over illegally in 1969, and had somehow obtained green cards. They still weren’t citizens, but they owned a delicatessen not far from Sarge’s. They were devout Conservative Jews, and she went with them every Saturday morning to services. When I told her how my father and mother had stopped practicing when they came to America, she suddenly asked me if I wanted to go with her to synagogue that Saturday. “Maybe you can rediscover your faith,” she said.

I knew I wouldn’t rediscover my faith if I went with Annka. I knew the words would remind me of how alien the faith and the traditions were to me. I would become sad on seeing the Rabbi stand behind the scroll reading the divine words. The synagogue always reminded me of the few times my mother left the house to go to Shabbat and came back a few hours later, crying and wringing her wrists, whispering “Tanencal. Tanencal.” Over time, the mystery of her words and her despair had become a near-muted residue of angst – a sharp ache that swelled upon the touch of remembrance. When I went to synagogue, all was remembrance, the voices, the songs, the light, the people. But I wanted to be with Annka. So I decided I would go. 

“Are you going to go with your parents?” I asked.

“No. It will just be you and me. But you can’t say anything to me at the synagogue, and we should probably sit several feet away from each other. I don’t want anyone to think we’re dating. They’ll never stop asking questions if they think we’re dating.”

So I said I would go. I told Maggy that night that I would be going to Shabbat and she smiled. “Really? That’s great! Did you want me to come with you?”

“No. That’s okay.”

“Why not?”

“I just, this first time I want to go on my own. I don’t want to sound mean, but I think I’ll feel differently about the whole thing if you are there with me. I’ll feel like Shabbat is being judged, and I’ll get uncomfortable. If I go again, you can come with me, okay?”

“Okay. I hope you start going again, because…”

“Yes, I know why. Maybe I’ll do that. But I haven’t forgotten what I want, honey.”

“Neither have I. Honey.” She grinned at me, and I vaguely remembered that sometimes she could be fun.

“Well, we’ll just talk about it later, like we said we would.”

I looked down at the casserole I was eating, and then asked, “ Hey, did you want to go see a movie tonight?”

“No. I mean, I want to, but I’ve got a lot of research I have to do tonight. Maybe we could go tomorrow. Would that be okay?”

“Yeah, sure.”

So we didn’t go to see a movie. That night I dreamed that my father came to me and confessed his guilt. Of course, he spoke in Latvun, and he spoke with a particularly husky voice, more husky than it usually was. His mustache drooped down over his lips and went all the way past his chin on both sides. He asked, “Van ista vu?”  (Do you love me?) and I came to him and hugged him. “Vun ist va,” (I love you) I said. I began to cry, and he held me in his big thick arms, big the way he was when I was young, not how he was in the eighties when he had grown thin and emaciated with age, and I asked, my mouth full of salt tears, “Kapal, Papa, kapal?” (Why, Father, why?) He began to cry as well, and soon his long droopy mustache was soaked with tears and I could smell it in my dream. It smelled the way it should, fresh and salty, tinged with the smell of pipe tobacco. “Kesavan ba gdollan va. Kesavan …ba gdollan va” (Because I was afraid…because I was afraid.) That was the end of the dream.

 

                                      III.

My father wouldn’t talk about Karelia. I used to ask him about it once in a while, hoping he would tell me what it was like, but he would just frown at me and say, usually in English, “Dmitri, how many times have I told you I don’t want to talk about it? Ask me one more time and see what happens.” So I would shut up. But I wanted to know his past. My past. I couldn’t read about it, but I could feel it. I knew I wasn’t American, and that somehow I didn’t quite belong to America. I knew I wasn’t Jewish, and that somehow I didn’t belong in a synagogue - and I wanted to know what I was.

 I asked him often, “What was life like in the village, Papa?” and he would look at me, furrow his eyebrows and say, “I don’t want to talk about the old life, Dmitrak. We live in America now. Think about America. Ask your teacher what America used to be like. Don’t ask me what the old country was like. It won’t do you any good to know about the old country. It will just make it harder for you to get along with the other children in school if you run around thinking all day about the old country. I’m not going to tell you. Learn about America. Forget the old country.” I suppose, in retrospect, that I’m lucky he ever told me about the stars.

So I went to my mother, who was usually knitting in her rocking chair or making bread. “Mama,” I would say, “what was the old country like?” And Mama would look around to make sure Papa wasn’t there, and she would crouch down so she could whisper in my ear, and she would whisper to me about how the old country was. She told me about the Hebrew school down by the edge of the river where all the young boys learned how to read Hebrew; she told me about the pogroms and how everyone wore different clothes, with strange fur-covered hats, and everyone rode around in drozhka’s, not cars, if they were lucky enough to have horses or drozhkas. And everyone in the whole village was Jewish and spoke Latvun. She never got much further than that because she would become afraid that Papa was going to find her whispering to me about the old country.

She would suddenly stand up, usually right after she had begun to tell me about her oldest brother, Gleb, who was the biggest and strongest man in village. If she was making bread, she would wipe her forehead with the side of her arm, where there was no flour, and say, “Why don’t you go play now, Dmitrak?” That was before she began whispering “Tanencal,” and before Papa began to come home late.

 

                                  IV.

         I went to the morning Shabbat prayers with Annka, and I sat several feet away from her on the same bench. I tried to purify my mind as I sat there, trying to truly involve myself in the service. When we all stood up and sang, many of the people struck the bench tops with their hands to keep rhythm during the songs. I joined in with them, striking the bench with my hands, and joining my voice to theirs. I felt the joy, but I also felt the somber plangence of the age-old rituals, and I remembered that the Temple was destroyed. While the people sang and I sang with them, I began to cry. I wasn’t sure why I was crying, but the tears felt good. Then I became embarrassed. We eventually turned to face away from the scrolls, and then we turned back. Annka saw my tears then, but she pretended not to notice. I did not stay to talk with anyone like many of the others did, who were gathering to sit at the tables in the lobby area. I immediately walked out onto the street. I felt naked and exposed with my red eyes, even though I had wiped away the tears, and I did not want to remain in the synagogue any longer. Annka followed me outside and looked at me with bewilderment.

“Dmitri, what’s wrong? Why don’t you come back in? We usually have breakfast together after the service. It’s really nice, and I think you would like it.”

I couldn’t go back in. Not after I had stood there and cried while everyone was singing. And I hadn’t even known why I was crying. I had just stood there, feebly knocking on the bench with my outstretched hands, trying to sing while the tears rolled down my face.

“I can’t,” I told her.

“Why?”

“You saw me. I was crying. I can’t go back in there after I was crying like that. I – I don’t want to go back in. You go have breakfast with them. I’ll see you later.”

She cocked her head to the right, and seemed to deliberate for a few seconds. I hesitated, watching her think, and so I came up to her, gave her a hug, and said, “I’ll see you later, Annka. I’m sorry I cried, and I’m sorry that it wasn’t what I was hoping for.”

I turned around and started to walk away. She called out suddenly: “Dmitri!”

I turned around and looked at her. “Yes?”

“Why don’t we come back to my place, and we can have breakfast there. Would that be okay?”

So we went to her apartment. She had a tiny apartment, but it was very neat and clean. She fried eggs while I leaned against the counter in the kitchen and watched her. Then we ate breakfast and she asked why I had cried.

“I don’t know why I cried. I’ve never done that before. I think maybe I cried because the singing somehow reminded me of something broken - that some essential part of us is missing.”

“I thought you didn’t consider yourself Jewish.”

“I guess on some level I do. But that wasn’t why I was crying. Maybe it was the idea of a broken and destroyed Temple that made me cry. Usually whenever I’ve gone to service I’ve thought of my mother, and how my father cheated on her, and how he didn’t want to be Jewish anymore when he came to America. Maybe the two images, you know, the two ideas connected together. I don’t know. And I’ve never been so embarrassed about crying before. I can’t explain that.”

Annka cocked her head to the right again, and looked at me strangely.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” I asked.

“I think there’s something really disturbing in your life that you’re not telling me about.”

“Yes, some disturbing things have happened to me. But aren’t there some disturbing things in your life that you’ve never told me about?”

“No, not really. My life has been pretty boring for the most part. I’ve never had my heart broken, I’ve never been poor, and I’ve never been abused or depressed. My parents treat me well, and I know they love me, so it isn’t like I have any repressed memories or anything like that. I mean, my dog died, and I cried then. And my grandmother died when I was eight, but she was in Russia and I had never met her, so that didn’t really bother me.”

She paused. Then she looked directly into my eyes and said, “But you … it seems like something is really haunting you.”

I couldn’t imagine life without an intense grief that constantly threatened to rise up and overwhelm me. I had long wondered at and rejoiced in Annka’s serenity and charm, yet only as she ate breakfast and revealed the tranquility of her life did I perceive that her grace was not a miracle. I stared at her, and realized that her physical beauty was made rich and enduring by the compassion I saw in her eyes. I wished that I could reach into the depths beyond her eyes and embrace the whole of her; that I might know for a few fleeting moments an ecstasy so complete, so bound up with body and spirit, that I had no more life in me. Ashamed by these consuming thoughts, I did not speak for a while, eating my food slowly and wishing I was not married.

I spoke at last. “Well, my wife is pregnant, and when the baby learns how to talk, I want to teach it how to speak our language. And my wife -” my voice broke in my throat, and I could not speak for a second, and then I continued: “She doesn’t want our child to learn Latvun. She says it’s pointless to teach a child a dead language no one uses. And she’s right, logically speaking. That’s how it always is - she’s always right. And I want– sometimes I just want to leave-”

I stopped talking again and looked down at my empty plate. I wanted to leave. All along I had presented myself to Annka as an intellectual paladin, bedizened in the armaments of my intellect, in the trappings of my years of study. Yet, despite all my efforts, the facades of my life were falling away right there in her kitchen, revealing how pathetic I was. It was apparent now that all our months spent basking in the tepid warmth of palaver, persiflage masquerading as serious discussion, were laughable. Every word uttered had been superfluous, merely efforts on my part to draw close to her shimmering beauty. I had been Ponce De Leon reaching towards my fountain of youth. I was laughable, contemptible even, an old man seeking to love and be loved by one younger and more beautiful than I, and I expected her to laugh at me any minute.

But she did not laugh at me.

Her eyes widened as the silence between us broadened to encompass all meanings, all intentions. And at last, instead of laughing or denouncing my weakness, or merely ignoring my pain and moving on to more pleasant conversation, she reached her hand across the table and took my hand in hers. I felt her smallness, the tiny warmth of her fingers and the smooth texture of her pale skin.

I stood up, and she let go of my hand and looked up at me.

“I should go,” I said.

She got up out of her chair then, and came to me slowly, pressing herself against me, taking me with her arms, with her eyes - with nothing. “Kapal?”

I didn’t say anything. I looked away, trying to find enough courage in myself to make a decision, and while I searched in the air for an answer, she pressed her palms to my cheeks. “Van mesta vu?” (Do you want me?), she asked. It was a simple question, and she knew the answer. But still I said nothing, my feet unmoving, and as she pulled herself closer to me I felt my erection press lightly against her through the layers of our clothing. I still could not look at her, and I clenched my fists together. She began to kiss my cheeks with her full lips, and all at once I knew I had waited too long. I whispered into her ear, “Te, vun mest va” (Yes, I want you). I kissed the pink of her skin, smelled the scent of her hair and soon she led me into the bedroom.

When we were done and I lay calm and empty under her sheets, our feet jammed together at the end of the bed, she turned to me and asked, “Los takista vu?” (Do you feel better?). 

“Te.”

 

                                  V.

I returned home around one. I walked into the house and sat in my study. For a while I stared at my bookshelf, not thinking about anything in particular. Then I began to write another chapter to my book. All the while, I was not sure what I was feeling, or what I ought to feel. I was suspiciously calm, as if I had done nothing wrong. Maggy came home around five, but I did not get up to greet her in the hallway as I usually did. Instead, I remained in my chair and continued to write, hoping that she wouldn’t come to my study. 

She knocked on my door and asked in the most pleasant voice I’d ever heard her use, “Dmitrak, are you in there?”

I wanted to run into my closet and hide there until she was gone. But I remained in my chair, pretending to be engrossed in my writing. She knocked again, and then opened the door. She stared at me in astonishment.

“Dmitri, why didn’t you answer when I called?”

“I – I was engrossed in my writing, I guess. I didn’t even hear you.”

“Really? Wow. That must be some pretty riveting stuff you’re working on.” She looked at me and grinned playfully. “Listen, honey, did you want to catch that movie you were talking about yesterday? I’ve got some time today, so if you still wanted to see it, that would be fun. If it’s good, that is.”

She smiled at me, and I smiled back. I had no choice. We went to see the movie.

In the darkened theater Maggy seemed prettier than usual. She cuddled up to me and barely paid attention to the movie. She began kissing my face and my lips, and I felt an erection grow in my pants. Her warm pregnant body nuzzling against mine reminded me of our young lust, of our thoughtless and myopic eros. I remembered the joy and the sense of discovery when we had first ached to touch each other. I remembered feeling invincible, and I remembered the world collapsing around me when I first lay naked next to her. Yet I couldn’t remember the last time she had drawn me obsessed and mindless to the dizzying heat of her allure. It was a long time ago, not long after we had gotten married. Now she frightened me. In touching her, I feared that somehow I might intimate my betrayal; that in kissing my lips, Maggy would know Annka had shared my lips with her over the space of a few hours, that Annka had shared my eyes with her, my hands, my legs. But Annka had not shared everything. Some things Annka had kept to herself, leaving Maggy nothing. My body, in its transparency, might reveal those secret sharings, those corporeal exchanges.

Yet my body kept its secrets. It proved itself to be a dark and inscrutable thing. Halfway through the movie we stood up, walked out of the theater, and got onto the subway. I stared at the few denizens of the city who sat in the car with us. Their faces were different, but their eyes were the same, their hopes and attitudes the same as they always had been. Their eyes echoed the dullness of the night. They stared at nothing, unwilling to recognize the presence of the other bedimmed and tenebrous visions in the car. They were starless, distrusting, their minds thinking of slumber, their hearts keeping wonder and lust pressed far beyond the penetration of my gaze. Orion did not exist for them. But I did not hide my lust or my wonder from them. I had rediscovered the gleam of an old belt buckle and I wished to celebrate. I allowed Maggy to press herself against me in the car; we giggled and hugged each other in front of all those eyes so unaware of the season, and we kissed each other. At length we came to our street and we walked to our house and to our bedroom, and then, at last, we came to our bed.

After we were done, we lay quietly upon the sheets, and Maggy pressed her back against mine. My hand was on her swollen belly, and it seemed strange that life had come from our bodies. I turned to say something to her, but saw that her eyes were closed, so I did not say anything. We lay like that for a while, and then she turned to me and said, “Sometimes I forget.”

“Forget what?”

“Forget that I like sex. Forget…that…there are other things, besides the day-to-day stuff, you know?”

“Yeah. I forget too sometimes. Sometimes you just seem so implacable, like you have to have exactly what you want, and you’re just so logical, and so insistent, and so self-righteous that it angers me.”

“Yeah. I know. I’m not blind. I mean, I can see it happening, and I want to stop myself, and just say, “Well, we can do it your way this time, Dmitrak,” but I don’t stop myself. I just keep on doing what I’ve been doing. I like being rational, Dmitrak. It makes me feel good, like I’m Maggy because I’m rational. It gives me a way of being certain about things. But …”

“But what?”

“That’s why I need you. Not that you’re completely irrational, because you’re not, honey, but I can get so rigid, so … uptight that I need someone to  - you know. Be my opposite. Slow me down. Be right when I’m wrong, not because I’m being illogical, but because I’m being too logical.”

I pulled her to me and kissed her on the cheek. It was a good night.

I decided on that night to stop seeing Annka. I did not know if she loved me, or had merely felt bad for me that day, or simply wanted to have sex with me, but I knew that I had already moved beyond the stages of infatuation. I was, in fact, beginning to feel that I loved Annka. I would be having a baby soon. I had to stop seeing her altogether. So I decided not go to the synagogue any more and not to go to her deli. It would be that simple.

Two weeks and two days later, I went to my office in the morning and found Annka standing outside my door. She did not look happy.

“Where have you been?” she asked. Her bottom lip trembled and her chest heaved with what I took to be suppressed anger.

I looked around hurriedly and said, “Let’s talk about this in my office”.

I unlocked the door and motioned for her to come inside. I didn’t want anyone in the hallway to hear our conversation. Once she was inside I shut the door behind her and asked, “How did you know I would be here this morning?”

“I didn’t. I’ve just been coming to your office randomly, hoping to find you.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes. What, do you think I’m joking? Did you think what we did – did you think all that was a joke?”

I stared at her. I did not know what to say, but I tried to talk to her.

“It wasn’t a joke. But – Annka, it was a mistake. We shouldn’t have done that. I’m married, and I’m going to have a child in just two months. I can’t be having an affair right now.”

“Oh, so now is just a bad time, huh? Is that it? Dmitri, you said it yourself: you don’t like your wife. She doesn’t make you happy, and I can make you happy. So why can’t you just leave her, and be with me?”

“It’s not that simple, Annka. I’m a professor. How is it going to look if people find out I was having an affair with you? I could lose my job! And my wife…I don’t want to leave her. Sometimes she makes me happy. Maybe she’ll change her mind about Latvun.”

“So we’re nothing?”

“I don’t know, Annka. What are we? I mean, what can we be together? Can we truly make each other happy? Sex isn’t enough, you know. Our attraction’s not going to last, and we’ll both get tired of each other eventually. Why should I risk everything I have just to be with you?”

She stared at me, and tears slid down her face. Her face became red and crumpled and she said in a low, quiet voice, “My heart settles on someone – a person, a voice, a body, and… and I think for a time that I have found the answer to my longing. But then the emptiness and the restlessness settle in, and then I know it wasn’t enough - whatever, whoever it was. And that is life, Dmitri. I know that, and I’m okay with that. I know all about that. You don’t have to tell me. But when we have it – when we’re happy with each other, why take it away? Vun mest va, ke van mest vu, Dmitri. What more do you want?”

“It’s not that simple, Annka. I wish it was.”

I looked away. I wanted to ask her to leave, but I wasn’t going to do that. Annka stood up, and came around to the other side of my desk. She sat in my lap and put her long slender arms around my chest. I did not stop her. My arms wanted to return her embrace, but for the moment they hung lifeless by my sides.

“But it is that simple, Dmitri.” She smiled and wiped away her tears. “Kanas satva borovan. Vun kudra kanas, eleh bneh.” (Love is very simple. Love is with you, or it isn’t.)

She began to kiss my face and neck, her small hands pressed against me and I didn’t care what I did anymore. I brought my arms up to encircle her. Her touch eclipsed the blue sky and erased my pregnant wife, my guilty father and my work. Only the meeting of our bodies was real. I could not remember anything else except our flesh exchanging heat, our skin pressing together, our eyes meeting in the open air and then closing. In the self-inflicted darkness her body became something more perfect to the touch and the corporeal shades of pleasure took on the resonance of a sublime embrace. I did not have life then. I was trembling flesh. Every far-off memory and striation of desire, every anxious moment and every loss of hope was in our skin, in our lips, in the breaking waves of our desires and the fulfillment of that blood-filled, nerve-strewn, imperfectly conceived, nervously and hotly rendered screaming down of surrendered bodies. I had wondered about her reservations, her sincerity, but I forgot my worries then and came back to the rushing emptiness. I remembered our semester of conversations, and I remembered looking at her body and wanting to take her breasts in my hands, to touch the smoothness of her shaved legs, to have her naked back against my chest, her hair loose and intimate, wafting the scent of her showers into my nostrils.

Her clothes frustrated me, and I tried to pull her shirt off before I remembered that I had to unbutton it. I forced all my desire into my fingers, and they raced down the buttons till the shirt was off, thrown somewhere on the floor, and I was confronted once more with her bra and breasts, with her smooth stomach and her pale skin. Annka reached down and began to hurriedly unbuckle my belt. And when my pants were off and Annka had taken me into her mouth, her hands around me and her tongue moving against me, I thought for a few seconds of Maggy. She was working at the hospital with our child growing in her and she was ignorant of my pleasure. She was unaware that I had betrayed my vow of faithfulness, had taken Annka’s nipples into my mouth and heard her moan with pleasure, that I had felt her trimmed pubic hair against my own and worked with her moans and her sweat and her warm flesh till I shot my softly yellow sweet-smelling semen into her. I rejoiced in the triumph of my betrayal and secretly grinned. But somewhere else, not where my pleasure roiled with me inside Annka’s mouth, but far away, perhaps back home in my bedroom or perhaps in my closet where I had wanted to hide, perhaps in the language Maggy didn’t want our child to learn, I was unhappy and alone and bitter with the knowledge of my ugliness.

When we were done Annka looked at me and smiled. Her sordid knowledge gave her a semi-confidence that flickered as her lips curled upward, and she said, “Will you come to the service this Saturday, Dmitrak? I’d like to see you there.”

“I’ll be there, Annka. We’ll – I’ll come.” And then Annka picked up her shirt and put it on, made sure her hair wasn’t too tangled, and left my office.

I began to see Annka every week on Saturday. At first, the relationship was untroubled, and the sex was amazing. But as Maggy’s pregnancy progressed, I became afraid that somehow Maggy would know in her delicate state what I had done. Maggy’s pregnancy was becoming increasingly obvious, and as her belly got larger and larger, her beauty swelled out. She stopped working, and I helped her prepare the nursery room. We met with her doctor and devised her pregnancy plan. We agreed to name the baby Vladimir if it was a boy, and Maria Gabriella if it was a girl. I did not mention Latvun, but we both knew we would have to discuss it at some point.

One Saturday I was in Annka’s apartment, fondling her on the bed, and she began to unbuckle my belt. I felt a pang of fear and I put my hands over hers as she was struggling with my belt. I whispered, “No. Could we just watch a movie or something?”

“Kapal?”

“Kesavan gdollan va.”

“Kapal? What does that mean, you’re afraid? Are you afraid she will find out?”

“Te.”

“She’s not going to find out, Dmitri. She thinks you’re at the synagogue until one. She doesn’t even know I exist. Right?”

“Right. But…”

She looked at me and then sighed. She sat up. “Fine. We’ll watch a movie. What do you want to watch?”

“Blade Runner.”

She pointed to her bookshelf filled with movies and said, “It’s on the shelf.” Then she looked away. I put the movie into the VCR and we watched Blade Runner. She did not look at me once during the entire movie, and when it was over and I got up to leave, she didn’t say anything. She just turned the TV off and then stared at the blank TV screen, her face unmoving, her eyes unblinking.

I put my jacket on and said, “I’m leaving now. I’ll see you next week?”

She turned her head towards me and snapped, “Yeah, sure. Whatever.” I looked at her and thought of saying something, but I didn’t. I just left.

The next Saturday I went with Annka to her apartment again. We had breakfast, and she didn’t really say anything at first. She just looked at me once in a while between mouthfuls, and after we had finished eating she took my plate and brought it to the sink. She sat back down in her chair and said, “Did you want to come to the bed?”

“Okay.”

We went to her bed and I lay next to her. She suddenly sat up and said, “Hold on.” Then she got up and turned off the lights, and pulled the shades down so her apartment was very dark. I lay quietly on her bed and tried not to think about Maggy and her swollen belly. I tried to think of Annka’s beautiful small pink nipples, her round white breasts, and how her nipples hardened when I put them in my mouth. I could hear her taking her clothes off. I tried to remind myself that I was angry at Maggy, that she was not letting me have my way. Annka’s side of the bed creaked and I could feel the mattress shift with her weight as she climbed onto the bed and lay next me. I opened my eyes and looked at her in the dark room.

She said in a quiet voice, “Would it be better if you couldn’t see me? So … maybe you don’t have to think about how I’m not her?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. Do we have to have sex every time we get together, Annka? Can’t we just enjoy each other’s company sometimes?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. I…”

She didn’t finish what she was saying, but took my right hand and placed it between her legs.

“Touch me. Please,” she said. I felt my hand go numb, and I tried to enjoy myself as I caressed her with my fingers. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Maggy, and I was overcome with dread. My hand started to shake, but I kept on going. She began to moan, and I tried to enjoy her pleasure. But her pleasure was empty and remote to me.

“Could we…could we just… I can’t do this right now, Annka. I can’t.”

She turned her body towards me and said, “Kapal?”

“I…Maggy’s going to find out. And it feels … Annka, this feels wrong right now. Can’t we just try next week? I don’t want to do this right now.”

“What is wrong with you, Dmitri? What the fuck is wrong with you? Tell me, Dmitri! Or is it me? What’s wrong with me? Am I ugly? Did I do something wrong? Why don’t you want me? Am I boring now?”

“No. No, Annka. But I…”

“Then stop stuttering, and just touch me. Love me. Want me. Don’t talk about it, don’t think about it. Just…here. Watch.”

She grabbed my belt and undid it quickly. Her body moved with fury, and she pulled my belt off and threw it against the wall. She pulled my pants off and then my underwear, and threw them on the floor. She took my penis in her hands and began to lick it. I sat up. She leaned forward, began to kiss me and pulled me to her. I shook my head and got off the bed.

“Annka, stop. I don’t want to do this right now.”

“Kapal?”

“I told you why.”

Annka lay there on the bed. In the darkened room her naked body formed an angle of broken despair. She began to cry. I put my clothes back on, and sat on the edge of the bed.

“Do you even want to see me anymore?” she asked in a whisper.

“Te.”

“Are you sure? Because I won’t mind disappearing if it will make you happy. Just tell me to die, or go away, and I’ll do it softly, so you won’t even have to think about it.”

            “Kapal iman manista vu? (Why are you talking crazy?) Annka, can’t you just accept that I don’t want to have sex with you right now? It feels wrong, okay? I think it has something to do with Maggy being pregnant. Can’t you just wait? I mean, what happened to the Annka I had in my class?”

            She began to mimic me in a high-pitched voice,“ ‘What happened to the Annka in my class?’ ‘Kapal iman manista vu?’

Then she brought her voice back to normal.

“What did you think I was like, Dmitri? Did you think I was a nice, normal person, just a sexy young thing who smiled at you in class – and that was all I was? Who do you think people are when you’re not looking at them? Nonexistent? Do you think we just stop existing when you don’t think about us? Do you think I’m just a pretty face? Is that it? That I’m just some body to fuck and then discard? Who do you think I am?”

I stared at her in shock. “I don’t know any more.”

She climbed off the bed and stood in front of me. She faced me with the opprobrious truth of her beauty; her breasts were a strange color of gray in the dark room and the black pubic hair above her vagina was a reminder of our once and future intimacy. She continued to talk. 

“That’s right. You have no fucking idea who I am. But you see me now, all of me, don’t you? I’ve given myself to you, taken you into me, and now you don’t want me anymore?”

“No, that’s not it. It’s-”

She glared at me. “So what is it? We could be happy, you know – but you don’t want that, do you? You want to be unhappy, don’t you, Dmitri? I want to take away your sadness. Don’t you know that?”

“Kapal? Kapal, Annka? Do you really think you love me? I don’t think you do. I think you’re young, and you have no idea what love is, and you’re just caught up in the rush of emotions.”

She snapped her head to the side, her long hair swinging with it, and then she looked back at me and laughed harshly. “And you’re not? What is love, then, Dmitri? Tell me? Is it infatuation with beauty? Is it lust? Is it compassion? You don’t know what love is any better than I do, or you wouldn’t be here – trying to love me. Well…”

“Listen,” I said. I had to think a bit before I said it, but finally I came out with a phrasing of my idea of love that I was comfortable with. “I know what love is. And we are running away from it when we are together, not running to it. I have been confused, but now I see. Love is belonging to someone, and knowing you belong. It’s fitting together with someone in a place and a time, and being unable to tear yourself away from that place, even if you want to. You see it, don’t you? I belong to Maggy. I belong with her and for her, and so I must go back to her. I am afraid of belonging to her; but I do. I have tried to destroy it, but I cannot. Just like I am afraid of belonging to my father and my dead mother, but I have belonged to both of them, and so I have twisted around unable to be anything other than belonging. Belonging is also fear and betrayal, because I am weak. But it is love. You and I however, we don’t love. We just fuck and talk. We don’t belong to each other. We have borrowed each other from someone else. You are borrowing me from my wife, and I am borrowing you from some man you have not met yet. I’m just a lusty, weak-hearted old man, and I got mad at Maggy. So I came to you and -”

She laughed again. “So this whole thing is just a distraction for you? Like a walk in the park, where you can pick up a flower and smell, and then drop it? No vase? We don’t belong to each other? Is that it? Sex is not just sex for me, Dmitri. It is this belonging you’re talking about. The minutes and hours you fear – they are not here with us then. Can’t you see that? Why can’t I be where you belong?”

“Because you can’t. I don’t know why, but Love doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to know that. I mean, you’re beautiful, so beautiful that when I am with you I can’t think of anything else but touching you, entering into you, being near you.”

I looked away. She watched me and waited. She wanted to say something, and she leaned forward to say it, but instead she said nothing. At last I whispered, “I am so weak for your beauty. But it is just time for us. All I ever experience with you is time and lust. There is no escaping time with you.”

“But this lack of time you’re talking about – I feel that with you. Why can’t you feel that with me? Yes, I crave you. But if you are afraid that all I want is sex, you’re wrong. I want more. I want everything from you and not just your body or your time.”

“But I can’t give everything to you, Annka. Yes, I have wanted you. I have wanted to touch you and kiss you – but not to own you. I can’t. Your beauty, the absolute chaos of it, distracts me from my home, but I must always return. Maggy is my home. There is no time with her. I do not have to watch the clock or worry about discovery. She is my taste of eternity, if there is such a thing.” 

She turned away and went to the other side of the bed and picked up her clothes. “Perhaps there is no such thing. But…fuck it. If you’re going to leave me, do it. Like I said, if you want me to cease to exist, I’ll do it. But make up your mind. If you come back again, be ready to love me. If you are right, then do not come back. But if you are wrong and are willing to, you know, belong to me, then come back. Kesavan vun ist va.”

 

Maggy’s due date approached. It was early July, and her due date was July 19th.  I did not go to services for a few weeks after the argument with Annka, staying at home instead and doting on Maggy. Contrary to my expectations, Maggy had been nicer than usual during her pregnancy, and it had been very pleasant for me to remain home with her. For a couple weeks I didn’t think about Annka too much, and was able to focus on my writing and on Maggy. Then one night, as I lay next to Maggy on the bed, wondering what life was going to be like with a baby in the house, I thought of Annka, and I began to miss her. It was not a lust that came upon me, but rather, a fondness for the times we had spent together in my office before I began my affair with her. I looked at Maggy, who was reading Kierkegaard, and I tried to remember what things were like between us before we began our relationship. Though I could remember the general aura of those days when Maggy had been a senior taking my pre-Soviet Russia history class and I had begun to fall in love with her, I could not remember the first date we had gone on as an actual couple. I knew it had been just after she had graduated and was accepted to medical school, but I couldn’t remember what we did, or how I had felt, or what Maggy had even looked like. I lay there and tried to picture that day, and I could not. Annka was blocking my memory. Other memories, sharper ones that I needed to forget, took the place of that memory and I could not access it. Was that day the beginning of our love? I didn’t know. The mystery of it ate at me and I looked at Maggy to see if perhaps she sensed my anguish. But she was blissfully reading, unaware of my concerns. I said to her, “What did we do on our first date? You know, our first official date? When was it? I can’t remember, and it’s really bothering me.”

She raised an eyebrow and said, “I’m not sure. I think we went to Sparks.”

“Sparks? You mean the steakhouse?”

“Yeah, I think we went to Sparks. You had reserved seats for us, and we had steaks. Yes, that’s right. We went to Sparks, and we had a bottle of some 1966 bottle of red wine from … I don’t know where.  But that’s what we did. You don’t remember that? We were celebrating my graduation and my acceptance into Yale.”

I smiled. I decided to pretend I remembered, although I still didn’t. “Yeah, I remember now. That was a time ago, huh? You were 25 then. Ten years ago.”

“Yeah. That was a long time ago. But it was a good time, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, it was.”

And then Maggy turned off the lamp on her nightstand, and we went to sleep.

The next morning I called my father. In Geneva it was two in the afternoon, so he may have been working on a novel, but I didn’t care. I wanted to talk to him.

“Shamteh, Papa,” I said when he finally picked up the phone.

His voice had grown rougher over the years, and on the phone he sounded very much like his throat was made of sandpaper. “Shamteh, Dmitrak. Vu Takista?”

“Takist va. Ke vu?”

“Takist.”

“Kapal van -” (Why me-) he began to ask. I interrupted him and said, “Kesavan mest zanvo’ist va kapal…kapal…” (Because I want to know why…why…)

I struggled to think of how to ask my father the question. I didn’t know how to ask it. Finally I said, “Maman ba ista vu?” (Did you love Mama?)

“Te, Mamtan ba ist va. Dmitrak, draneh nani?” (Yes, I loved Mother. Dmitrak, what is this?)

I could see my father. He was skinny and hunched up by his computer, peering out the window onto the lake, and a sweater and maybe a blanket were wrapped around his body. He was clutching the phone to his ear with one hand while the other hand played with his mustache, trying to figure out why I had called him. But maybe he knew. I hoped he knew. I hoped he could tell me everything I wanted to know; maybe he could tell me how I was supposed to be feeling after I cheated on my wife. Maybe he could tell me how he had felt when he cheated on my mother for those many years. But he probably didn’t know why I had called.

“Nevermind, Papa. Forget that I called. Vun ist va, Papa.”

“Vun ist va, Dmitrak. Bilenta.”

And then he hung up. I listened to the silence on the other end for a while, and then I placed the phone on its hook. That was on a Tuesday. I decided to go to the synagogue that Saturday one last time, so I could say goodbye to Annka for good. I did not want to be thinking about her when the baby was born.

She was sitting in the very back row. I sat almost directly in front of her. When we turned around I stared at her hair, and remembered her apartment and what it looked like in the dark. I joined the rest of the people for breakfast in the lounge, and she sat across from me at a small table in a corner where no one could hear us talk. She put her hands together, like she was going to pray, and then looked me in the eyes. She was still very beautiful and so I had to look away. “Van ksinadist, Dmitri. Kapal ba litnista vu dran van bneh ksinadist vu?” (Look at me, Dmitri. Why did you come if you’re not going to look at me?)

“Oh, enough with the Latvun, Annka. Let’s just talk in English, okay? I came because -”

She grabbed my hand and blurted out, “Dmitri, I’m pregnant.”

I couldn’t bring myself to say anything, or even to look at her. I began to shovel food into my mouth, even though I wasn’t hungry. I drank the cup of water in front of me, and still refused to look her in the face. At length I spoke.

“How do I know you’re not just saying that so I’ll come back to you?”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m going away, and you won’t have to worry about me. I’m going to disappear. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”

I didn’t say anything, but she knew it was true. I wanted her to disappear. I was going to let Maggy win. I wasn’t going to teach the baby Latvun.

She spoke again. “I just wanted to let you know that you are going to have another child. And I’m going to teach it our language.” Then she stood up. “I’m going now. Good luck with your marriage, Dmitri. Vun ist va.”

And she walked out onto the street and was soon beyond my sight. I sat there eating my food for a while. Then I decided to go see her and try to get her back. I got on the subway and walked to her apartment building. I walked up the three flights of stairs to her floor and walked to her door. Then I knocked on the door and waited. She didn’t answer. I knocked again, louder this time, and no one came. Then finally I heard the sound of feet approaching, and the door opened. A middle-aged lady with many rolls of fat pushing against her frumpy purple dress stared at me with her beady eyes.

“What do you want?” she asked in a loud voice.

“Uh, did you recently move in here?”

“Yeah. Why, what’s it to you?”

Oh, nothing. I’m sorry. My friend must have moved away without telling me. I’m sorry.”

I hurried home, an implacable fear gnawing at me, and I told myself there was no way Annka had found my house and talked to Maggy. I got home and went straight to the bedroom. Maggy was lying on the bed sleeping, a smile on her face. I leaned over, kissed her on the cheek and then went to my study to work on my book.

 

                                       VI.

When I was fifteen, I came home from school and found Mama lying naked in the bathtub. She had sliced her throat with a paring knife. She used to cut apples with that knife. The bathtub was filled with pink water, and dark thick blood ran down from her throat over her breasts, over her stomach and down to her genitalia, where the water met her and mingled with her blood and her flesh. There was a piece of paper on the toilet seat next to the bathtub. Mama had written on it in uncharacteristically ornate Cyrillic: “Nani Tanencal, Dmitrak. Vuen Papan lanits kapal. Bneh van ba manist vets.” (This is betrayal, Dmitrak. Ask your father why. He wouldn’t tell me.)

I never showed my father the note.

 

 

 

Antediluvian Dreams

 

I

There

In the emptiest house,

In four-walled solitude, under a white sky bright with brittle oblachki[i],

 

By the shadowstretch tangle of roof and rock and

Sun

I watch the horas move towards obras[ii], omnes[iii], omega completas[iv].

 

And in the driest part of every day

:[Pure sere, brightest crystal of sandsmooth tongue]:

I breath in the hot Mojave, playing solitaire with sweatstained Bicycles

And dream of row upon row of empty rum bottles lined Euclidean

- an homage to Homer, sugar cane, and red-eyed impatience –

shems[v]beads gleaming through the glass,

slipping like slim threads of honey onto the retinas

of my thirsting eyes.

 

And I wait.

 

The day will come, a single day holding in first and final gleams

                                                                                                           bia[vi] extrema[vii]:

 

In vast eddies by seas long far

 

The radiance will roil

- Toil, toil, moil and boil coruscant-

                                             And sweat will dripcrash in

Irradiant curls outward: a god will grunt, he

Will rise from waves unCytherean

And work upon us.

 

And so invoked he will give us over, fleshed out

Earthydown

                 In his furious toil. I know

I must beware the crown of he

 

Who swore that nos amat[viii], nos amat, but

“kto drugomu pomoch’ mozhet? Kto yemu v dushu voidyot?[ix]

:his hands immense in servitio[x] are

to the churngrind hours bound,

chained to his whisper after the storm,

to our obrushivaniyeh[xi] sworn.

 

This is what he will say, our god,

When he comes.

 

And I pray every day for him to come, kull yom[xii], kull yom,

On yom kippur, on MLK day, on every Sundaymondaytuesday of

 

Ordinary despair,

 

Wrapped in shemsbeads remembering:

elwi, elwi, lama sabacqani[xiii]

 

Wrapped in shemsbeads remembering:

the uptorn reeds by the pond deracine,

the summer cukes and thorn-hid raspberries

[garnet-fleshed tart, across the crayfish-bottomed brook that idled cool beneath an

oak tree overcast],

the sweet-fleshed trout that came neat-packed, head and all,

from white beds of ice beside the oozing shrimp and shark:

in my mouth the flavor Lethe-wards turned,

away from h arch[xiv], tyechyeniyeh[xv],

away from waves softly slapping on dark rocks,

 

and towards the tongue turned.

II

Yea,

In my solitude I cry, a worn voice fathered never by child,

And I remember,

I pull up the unculled roots,

I remember everything that shames me, makes me glad,

makes me turn away.

                                 I seek out his coming

in the shadowsstark of memory’s adumbrations:

 

                   en arch hn ou logos[xvi],

for in the blind place before sight

there was no room for knowledge or

                           emptiness; everything crowded and touched,

and light did not shine on my fingersformed inchoate to display

awayness;

I did not need answers.                    

                                                                  

                                                                                                                   

III

                                                                     An Icharus I am now;

For too long I bore the pomegranateplumpears of labor lightly,

                                 And kept my eye upon the sun, thinking it was where I belonged.

 

But she is gone now;

Gone the pleasures too, gone the sure-rooted sense for where

My hopes could take me.

 

Gray-haired surely now she is, melipnoh[xvii]mellifluous still,

Her eyes the color always of chocolate most bitter and best,

 

                    And I must be to her the coldest flesh

- robbed of ardor, thoughtless, pure sere, darkest crystal

- to have loved and lost and then

To never have loved at all:

                                      an elpis[xviii]petal plucked I pressed upon her once - not because

she was shimmering saffron and firm breasts, a beautiful face and moonlight walking –

but because we had given our own thoughts away

                  -emptynaked beside the pots and pans-

to bind a nefs[xix]web ‘bout us,

and share the fresh-cast thought-felt world between us.

 

I have long since watched the wind that petal blow                                                                                                                 

                                                                                              Away

And long since said I didn’t give a shit

                                                              [and I don’t]

and long since seen that time is loneliness;

another woman’s moans and elpispetals blown are sounds errantes[xx]:

                                  

                 zvook, zvook! Zvoochnii, poostiinnii zvook![xxi]

                   

                                Sight became

[With tastesmell and hearingheld]

                        A golemhold present without presence,

                          The emptiest ergon[xxii]. The sun shone down but I drove on.

Orchestras played, the ocean surged with teeming waves, and quiet the night sky with clouds and rain,

Mica gleaming in the cliffs, the dewdrop-wet grass – all! - were not the singers, but a song.

                             

                              But aurum silentium est[xxiii].

I could not watch her sleeping for an hour

Anymore;

The hoe and garden gloves were things to put away or buy anew when broken

         And no longer the tools we held in sun in rain to

Tear the soil up and pull out weedroots, rough leather we

Removed

To see the sweat-bead blisters that grew into calluses. Her eyes I did not idle over;

Her coughs were loud, a nuisance,

         And I no longer thought to ask on hearing of a sore throat

Or loneliness,

anger or

Her parent’s death,

                            “How do you feel?” with eyes, a glance, a hand or

Words;

           I bought, I sold, I found and gave a thousand things

To see her suited

To give myself satisfaction,

                To see us rise above the plain by counting all the bills we paid,

all the interest made, every ounce of oxygen less

                                                  the closer I got to the sun.

 

                       our love grew ethereal

till gone,

till the winter rains planted an icy beauty I wouldn’t have bought her if I could,

till spring thaws shook down the snow and I could no longer share with her the thawing smell

                - and other beds entertained as much.

 

IV

                                    Those were days of wisdom, when I began to see

 

Every fragile thing had its place, so closely scattered round,

              and I had mine - but moiyoh myesto[xxiv] was not near.

 

V

At last the walls came about me

And brought me silence sought,

 

and here,

 

-here! –

 in the emptiest house in four-walled solitude,


I wait and remember, wait and watch:

                                                  

                                                  The god will come,

                     He will tear this world down,

This sarx[xxv]-and-bone stage where I

                                                 cannot love the dandelion

                         for its petal or its stem, but must see it for a yellow blindness

                                    Standing in my way.

                        He will come and when asunder torn

By his hands around my neck

                                  I am made rapturous as can no drugorGodknell ring,

Together then [or single but entire] we will at last

                                                              

                           gliding ride on seraphim wings into

                                                                                     the vaulting azured hollow.



[i] “Clouds” in Russian

[ii] “Works,” “Labors,” “Toils,” or “Volumes,” etc, in Spanish

[iii] “Everyone” in Latin

[iv] “Complete,” “Total,”  or “Completed” in Spanish

[v] “Sun”  in Arabic

[vi] “Violence” or “Force” in Attic Greek. Pronounced “Bee-ah.”

[vii] “Final,” “Utmost,” “Last” or “Death” in Latin

[viii] “he loves us” in Latin

[ix] “Who can help another? Who can enter into his soul?” – from “The Eternal Relic” by Ivan Turgenev. In the

original Russian.

[x] “in servitude” or “in bondage” in Latin

[xi] “Collapse” or, more loosely, “destruction” in Russian

[xii] “Every day” in Arabic

[xiii]  The Greek transliteration of the Aramaic “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”, which Jesus cries out from the cross in Mark 15:34; the words are the opening lines of Psalm 22. Pronounced “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.”

[xiv] “The beginning” in Koine and Attic Greek. Pronounced “Hey Arkhey”

[xv] “Flow” or “Flowing” in Russian

[xvi] “In the beginning there was no word/reason/logic/story” in Attic/Koine Greek. Pron. “En Arkhey eyn ooh logos”

[xvii] “Honey-scented” in Attic/Homeric Greek. Pron. “Melip-na-ey”

[xviii] “Hope,” “Expectation,” and/or  “Anxious thought about the future” in Attic Greek. Pron. “elpiis”

[xix] “Soul,” “Self” and/or  “same” in Arabic.

[xx] “Wandering” and/or “erring” in Latin. Pron. “eh-ron-tays”

[xxi] The entire line means, in Russian, “Sound! Sound! Sonorous, empty sound”

[xxii] “Act” and/or “deed” in Attic Greek. Pronounced “air-gone”

[xxiii] “Gold is silence” in Latin. Pronounced “ow-rum sih-lent-ii-um est”

[xxiv] “My place” in Russian

[xxv] “Flesh” in Attic Greek

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