A text by the 2011 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow by Molly Antopol
No one wants to listen to a man lament his solitary nights – myself included. Which is why, on an early fall morning four months after Gail left, when a woman breezed into my shop with a pinstriped skirt in her arms and said, "On what day this can be ready?" I didn't write a receipt, tell her Tuesday, and move on to the next customer. Instead I said, "Your accent. Russian?"
"Ah. Then perhaps you enjoy Baryshnikov?"
"He is from Latvia," she said slowly, "but yes, doesn't everyone?" She had a wide pale face, full lips, and short blond hair dyed the color of curry.
"Unbelievable!" I said. "I rarely meet a person who enjoys the ballet." That was true: I, for example, did not enjoy the ballet.
"Svetlana Gumbar," she said, leaning over the counter and extending her hand. "But call me Sveta."
"I'm Howard Siegel." Then I blanked and blurted, "You can call me any time you like." She smiled, sort of. The lines sketching the corners of her eyes hinted she was closer to my age than to my daughter's, for which I was thankful: it was too pathetic a jump from the twentysomething girlfriend to the earring and squirrelly ponytail. I laid out her skirt, examining it for stains, and when I finally worked up the nerve, I asked her to dinner.
"What are you doing picking up women on the job?" my daughter said that evening over chicken at her place.
"What’s wrong with that?"
"There are better places to look for them. I know two women from Beit Adar who would love to meet you."
Beth was still lovely – small and freckled with eyebrows too thick for her face – but the silk kerchief covering her hair would take some getting used to. So would the mezuzahs hanging in every doorway of her new Brooklyn apartment, the shelf of Hebrew prayer books I doubted she could even read. This was, to say the least, a recent development. And what timing. Right when I was trying to learn how to live alone after twenty-six years of marriage, Beth had left for Jerusalem. And, worse, came back born again – and with a fiancé, Ya’akov, who happened to be a fool.
"Listen," I said, "I've got a feeling about Sveta. You trust my taste in women, don't you, Beth?"
"But why rule out other prospects?" the fool said. He did that, answered for her. "I'm the one who has to spend an evening with these women, making small talk." "Still," he said, "give them a chance." Ya'akov was tall and wiry, with agitated little hands and a kippah that slid around his slick brown hair, like even it didn't know what it was doing on his head. He was from Long Island. He had once been Jake "The Snake," pledgemaster of his fraternity. At the wedding his brothers from Sigma Phi had looked as flummoxed as his parents, as if everyone were waiting for Jake to confess that his religious awakening was just an elaborate prank. "All my wife's trying to say," Ya'akov continued, "is that we know plenty of nice women."
"Maybe you could let my daughter speak for herself, Jake."
"But I agree with him," Beth said. "Why not let us fix you up?"
"I just want to meet someone the normal way," I said. "Shopping for romance after services just doesn't sound like love."
"What do you think love should be, then?" Beth asked.
Outside the coffee shop windows, the swell of late-nighters sauntered past, their gazes concentrated and steady. Sveta looked so much more serene than the rest of the city, tiny and smiling in the big green booth, holding her tea mug with both hands. I sipped my coffee and enjoyed the silly beat of my heart.
"You ask every woman you meet in cleaners on dates?" Sveta asked, swallowing a bite of cheesecake. Glittering from her neck was a Star of David, and riding up her wrist were gold bracelets that clinked when she set down her fork.
"Absolutely not! I've worked there my entire life and you're the first."
"You work at cleaners your whole life?"
"Not just one cleaners – I own five. The original store on Houston, one in Murray Hill," I said, counting them off on my fingers, "two on the Upper West Side and the one on 33rd Street, where you met me. It's been in the family since my grandfather. He was a tailor in Kiev, came here and started the business. If my grandfather had been a brain surgeon, I'd be a brain surgeon now, too."
"You are from Kiev?"
"Not me, my grandfather Yitzhak. I've never stepped foot there."
But Sveta didn't seem to be listening. "I am from Kiev!" She reached across the table and squeezed my hand. "Our people are coming from the same place."
Our people? My people were from Ditmas Avenue. My people had left Ukraine before the Cossacks could impregnate their wives. As a boy, I'd been dragged to visit my grandfather in White Plains, where our family kept him in assisted living. (Tell me this: is there any other kind?) I'd been forced to sit on the tip of his bed, the smell of green beans and condensed milk heavy in the air, and listen to his stories of bread heels for dinner, of the village beauty's jaw shattered by the hoof of a Cossack's horse. I'd heard stories of windows smashed, of my great-grandparents' tombstones knocked on their sides. I'd imagined faces like potatoes wrapped tight in babushkas, soldiers charging through the village with burning torches, headed toward the central synagogue. I'd heard those stories so many times that they became only that to me: stories.
But I didn't say that to Sveta. I said, "What an amazing coincidence!" because I could understand how happy she was to meet a man who shared her roots on this side of the globe – and mostly because she was still squeezing my hand, and I would have done anything to stop her from letting go. "What brought you here, then, from the marvellous land of Ivan the Terrible?"
"My husband found work here."
"And your husband doesn't mind your going out with every dry cleaner you meet?"
"How would he know? He's dead." She spooned sugar into her tea and – was this really her deft way of changing the subject? – read the quote on the tea bag aloud like it was something to ponder. "If you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth," she read. "What you think it means?"
I had no clue. And anyhow, I wanted to hear about the dead man. "You know where they come up with these quotes? At some warehouse out in San Francisco. Same place they make the Chinese fortunes for the cookies. The person who wrote this knows jack about truth."
"This person," said Sveta, "is Gandhi."
Of course I'd opened my mouth just when our hands were touching. It was during these moments in life that I feared I'd become one of those old men I always saw here in the coffee shop, alone at a table, slurping soup.
The bill came and we both reached for it. "Let me," we said in unison.
"I had good time,” Sveta said, slapping down a bill before I'd even opened my wallet.
I assumed she said it out of politeness after my Gandhi comment, but when we walked outside, she grabbed my face with both hands and kissed me, hard. "Where you are living?" she whispered. I pointed west, toward the Hudson. "Good," she said, taking my hand.
Inside my apartment, I led her to the kitchen. Not the sexiest room, but I really wanted to show off the view above the sink: I rarely had the opportunity anymore for guests to see it. While Sveta gazed out at the boats dotting the river, the bright white lights of Jersey in the distance, I looked at her full cheeks and jagged teeth, remnants of lipstick escaping the corners of her mouth. In one long slow moment the room grew quiet with the promise of another kiss. I pulled her close. We were quick with each other, untucking, unbuckling, unzipping, until we were pressed naked against the dishwasher except for socks and watches and my glasses, which Sveta, at the last moment, set on the counter.
We stayed up so late that gauzy yellow light filtered in through the blinds and I could hear the garbage trucks outside, making their runs. Sveta was curvy and round, with a scatter of moles across her hips. And here I was, almost fifty-five, paunchy and balding, wondering how I had gotten a woman like Sveta into my bed, wondering even more how to make certain she stayed, and still completely clueless about how to keep things casual. "How long," I said finally, "has your husband been gone?"
"And am I too nosy if I ask how he went?"
"No, not nosy," she said, propping a pillow behind her head. And then she told me his story. Though Nikolai had been exposed to Chernobyl's deadly radiation every day for six years while he researched the disaster, it wasn't until he accepted a fellowship here and moved with Sveta to a safe, quiet street on Staten Island that he walked outside to rake the leaves one morning, clutched his chest, and collapsed right there in the driveway. "Nobody had idea about his heart," Sveta said. "We were knowing nothing. Murmur condition is affecting something like one in every million men, and it has to be my Nikolai." Sveta was left alone in a new house in a new country with only Galina, a distant cousin in Chicago, to talk to.
I ran a finger along the inside of her wrist. My own problems, the ones I had wallowed in for months, were nothing compared to hers. It flickered through my mind that she was stronger than I was. "Why not go home to your family?"
"I have no child, and my parents die long time ago. My grandmother raise me, but when Nikolai and I marry, she do aliyah to Israel. Move back home?" She shook her head. "At least here I can learn English and get job in accounting. It's more easy being in US."
"I'm so sorry, Sveta." A throwaway comment, but the only thing I could think to say.
"How you say here? Shit it happens." She laughed, but it sounded startled and strained, the voice that erupts over everyone else's at a crowded party.
I, in turn, told Sveta stories that hinted, I hoped, at what an unbelievable catch I was. I told her about growing up next door to Gail in Brooklyn, how she went from being my playmate at school to my best friend to my steady girlfriend. I told her we married at twenty-two and scrimped for years, finally landing our dream apartment on Riverside Drive. I told her Beth's birth was undoubtedly the most important day of my life. I told her how even as a little girl, Beth seemed more like a friend than a daughter. And I told her what a terrific time we had over the summer, when Beth finished college and moved home to save money. What bliss: we ordered in most nights, matineed on Sundays, sat up late talking in the kitchen – it was as if she had never been gone. I didn't tell Sveta how painful it was to hear my daughter announce, at the end of the summer, that she had no idea what she was doing with her life ("Neither do I!" I'd said. "And I'm fifty-four!") only to run off to Jerusalem and return with Ya'akov. I didn't tell her how even walking from the subway to Beth's new apartment made me jittery and cold. I felt like I was walking back in time, back to when I was still a religious kid living in Brooklyn. Back when my family had enough money for a silver kiddush cup but not for new winter coats, back when we were just another poor immigrant family with too much faith in God.
Everything felt so new and fragile with Sveta and I didn't want to make the mistake of oversharing too soon. So I didn't tell her I had always felt Beth understood me better than anyone in the world, including her mother. Gail would snap about some mess I left in the kitchen and Beth would catch my gaze and roll her eyes: she had a way of making me feel she was on my side without actually saying so. I didn't tell Sveta that when Beth wasn't around and we were left without a buffer, Gail and I could barely share a meal without a blowup. Everything I did ignited a fight: the way I chewed my food, the way I folded laundry, the way I made love. I told Gail it was impossible to live with someone so critical; Gail said it was impossible to live with a man who dealt with emotion by avoiding it altogether. But I had wanted to work things out – if not for us, then for Beth. I suggested counselling; Gail flew to Burlington and fucked a retired architect she had met online.
Molly Antopol was a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University, where she currently teaches as a Jones Lecturer. Her writing has appeared in such publications as One Story, American Short Fiction, The Mississippi Review Prize Stories, Nimrod's Prize Stories, and on New York Public Radio and NPR's This American Life. She is finishing up a story collection and beginning work on a novel.