1. The subject introduced under three heads
Valeria pokes the sides of her baby’s fat stomach. She is amazed by his aliveness, by the hot breaths that drift down onto his rounded chest, the skin-creases where elbows and knees will eventually be. She loves him in a way she cannot name-nothing like what she feels for her family in Bratsk or for Ilya, who brought her to Pittsburgh but has probably never asked her a single question about herself. Are all families this way? Once, in Bratsk, Valeria’s father told her a story from when he was a boy. They were riding their bicycles in the outskirts and he said to her: Valeschka, I was in this spot before. My papa sold tools and he brought me along, but I was not enough to help him. I wanted so badly for someone to say yes, just so that we could go home. With a thumb in the downy hollow behind her baby’s ear, Valeria remembers the thrill of that new information, how the charge of her father’s faded youth had coursed through her, a feeling the same as when she first set foot in America.
2. The problem of wanting a wife, and also wanting what does not exist yet
Ilya sings his son to sleep:
Ori, he says, you have got to understand that the law is the law. You memorize it, you read the books and from the books you know how to behave. There are many rules, but when you know them, you are free.
Ori, you must not do your own taxes, or represent yourself in court if God forbid you are required to go there. You must do everything you can to limit the possibility that you are to blame. Ori-
But Baby Ori is asleep.
In bed Ilya is selfish, and why shouldn’t he be? Valeria owes him more than sex, doesn’t she, when he paid so much to bring her here, and before that spent hours searching the Internet for a suitable bride? And where would she be without him? In Bratsk, with her family, eleven people in four rooms.
3. A true description of what a man is doing
Ilya is rapidly ascending the ranks of Bloom and Gestalt, a top law firm. He is not well liked at work, but this is no problem since he realizes why: the other associates envy his success. Ilya has lost in court only twice, and he firmly believes legal tampering to be the culprit in both cases.
So Ilya’s colleagues do not care for him, but he completely understands. He has always had an enviable sense of style. He can put things together in ways no one else would even think of doing, and it gives him a certain edge.
The namesake partners at his firm know who he is, which is important. Ilya has assisted Mr. Bloom more than once in court, and each time Mr. Bloom has celebrated their win by taking him to a fancy lunch. Mr. Bloom is a magnificent man, though not as intelligent as his voice might suggest, and to Ilya he sounds best against a backdrop of clinking crystal. Ilya studies his mouth and his hands, systematizing the motions as they come. This is life’s great test, Ilya thinks: how to become who you are supposed to be.
4. In seeking the meaning of x, we must consider it in the context of y
Ilya watches television after Valeria is asleep because Valeria whispers in Russian under her breath whenever a show is scary or surprising. He asked for a respectable wife. Did the agency not take him seriously? It is one thing, he thinks, to speak the old language at high holidays. But this is America.
So Ilya prefers to wait until she sleeps. He enjoys the Women’s Television Network, where the movies are a window into a world he never knew about. The ladies are always wearing lacy nightgowns and weeping at the breakfast table and hiring men from New Jersey to kill their husbands. Although Valeria gives him no clues that she is capable of murder, Ilya decides safe is better than sorry. He finds a detective agency in the yellow pages.
I need to be sure about my wife, he tells the man who answers even though it is late.
I completely understand, the man says.
How long will it take?
A month, the man says. We’ll find everything you need.
5. If captivity is a thing, then so too must be freedom
When the dishes are done and the laundry folded, Valeria eases Ori into his rocker next to the couch and the phone rings. Valeria doesn’t answer. When the ringing stops she takes the phone card from her purse and dials a long string of numbers. The girl who answers at the agency in Bratsk sounds like a child. Valeria asks to speak to Lev. After a minute, his gravelly voice fills up the line. Lev tells her the plan once more: In Bratsk she will bring the papers to the agency, and she will stay with her family until Lev is certain the girls are smart enough to make the trip. She will bring the girls to Pittsburgh and she will explain that they are a troop of beauty queens and she is their pageant coach. Then she will take them to Lev’s cousin in Brighton Heights. For this, Lev’s cousin will give her a one-way ticket. She and Ori will return to the airport in the same van, on the same day, with the same suitcase. She will never see Ilya again.
6. A criterion for child endangerment
Valeria chooses clothes from her closet. Tonight Ilya is taking her to the theatre, and in two days she will leave with Ori for Bratsk. As she folds things into neat stacks, Ori nestles further into the bed pillows. Valeria tells him she does not hate America-in fact there are parts she enjoys very much. Pittsburgh, dotted with factories and puffs of smoke chugging along in the gray sky, is not so different from Bratsk. No, it is Ilya, with his chest pushed forward and his gelled hair and his square-toed shoes.
He does not care if I have pleasure in bed, she says. At restaurants, he does not ask if my dinner tastes good. The truth is, I have never been in love. But I know it is not this. I know it could never be Ilya.
Valeria feels her face heat up and for what seems like the thousandth time since she came to America, she cries. She lays next to Ori and he kicks his feet until her sobs subside. When she is calm she takes a box from under the bed. She sets Ori on the dresser and holds up photos one by one.
This is Bratsk, she tells him. Here is the dam, and here are the rooms where I lived. Here is my mother, who made my pants and shirts. Here is my father, just home from the pulp mill. Here are my brothers and sisters, all gone now except for this one, Yuri. The men fished at Usolye and the water made the fish bad, and everybody ate it. Seven of us, peeling hands and then dead in a year! But Yuri is allergic to fish, and so am I.
Ori has his foot in his mouth. He is sucking on his toes.
I cannot find any pictures where Bratsk is beautiful, but I remember. I have pictures in my head. And soon we will go there. You will see for yourself.
8. Preparatory measures
Ilya leaves work to go to the bank. Tonight he is taking Valeria to the theatre, and in two days she will go with Ori to visit her sick mother in Russia. They will be gone three weeks, and Ilya cannot wait to be alone. What more could a man want than a beautiful wife many thousands of miles away, showing off his strong child and saying wonderful things about the life he gave her? After the bank he returns to his office he notices two of his colleagues near the elevator doors. Everyone exits on the lower floors except for the three associates of Bloom and Gestalt, and Ilya’s colleagues begin to talk.
I fucking do not care, Stuart Diamond says to Jacob Klein. I hope she finds out so I can stop running around like a chicken with my fucking head cut off.
Be careful, Klein says. When Margot found out about my girl, she wouldn’t fuck me for a year, even after I ended it.
The elevator doors slide open on the twenty-eighth floor. Ilya’s colleagues exit and he pushes the button to close the doors again. He braces himself against the side rail. The elevator returns to the lobby and more people board. As the elevator climbs once more, Ilya allows the facts to wash over him again: his colleagues, less attractive and far less successful, have women who are not their wives. Ilya cannot believe he has worked near these men every day for five years without the slightest clue. Sliding his wedding band off of his finger and into his pocket, Ilya resolves to find a mistress by the close of business that same day.
Upstairs it is Secretary’s Day, and someone has hired a masseuse for the afternoon. The girls are lined up near the door of the conference room, giggling. As he walks past them, Ilya realizes he left his glasses there during a morning meeting and he raps on the door.
Hey, says Brenda from the back of the line. No boys allowed.
Ilya knocks again.
Not ready yet, comes a voice from the other side.
Excuse me, Ilya says and opens the door a crack and pokes his head into the room. The woman inside leans over a collapsed massage table, reading the directions on the bottom. Ilya can only see her legs, which are long and tanned. I left my glasses, he says. He slides into the room and shuts the door behind him.
Just a minute, she says.
New Jersey, he says and she whips around.
My glasses are just over there.
Help me, will you? You’ll be my knight in shining armor.
I’m filling in for my cousin.
Ilya bends over the table to read the directions and the woman organizes creams and oils on the edge of a beverage cart.
There, he says, popping the legs into place. She comes closer and gives him a smile.
Thanks a million, she says. She leans back and crosses her arms in front of her chest. He notices her nails, squared-off and adorned with tiny gems. The ladies outside the conference room door are making restless noises, and Ilya can hear Brenda squawking all the way at the back of the line. He opens his wallet and pulls out a business card.
Write your number here, he says.
For what? she asks and he hands her a pen.
So I can take you to dinner.
You’re funny, she says. She writes her number and scrawls her name in loopy script: Naomi.
Ilya tucks the card back into his wallet and he says, I’ll call you, Naomi.
He leaves the room and ignores the secretaries’ faces and their exasperated noises. He returns to his office, triumphant and glad. His glasses are still on the table where he left them.
9. Children cannot upset the balance of what is stable
That night at the theatre, Ilya squints through the entire show. Valeria has overdressed, and her pale beauty is offset by a strange combination of purples: a lavender shift, a plum colored shawl and pointed shoes the shade of squid ink. Ilya stares at her through most of the second act as she eats sugared nuts from a paper cone and wipes her fingers on the bottom of her seat. She does not take her eyes from the stage. Her mouth is ajar and when the lights sweep over the audience he can see the tip of her tongue glinting there between her teeth.
10. There is charm in consistency
At work, Ilya surfs the Internet and orders some lingerie from a store downtown. The lingerie arrives after lunch that same day and Brenda brings it to him in his office. The packaging is discrete, just as promised, and he peels open the edges of the box with a fiendish delight. Tangerine lace spills into his hands. He reaches for the phone. Naomi, he says to her answering machine. It is Ilya, from Bloom and Gestalt. Well, I’m wondering if you’d like to go to dinner sometime in the next three weeks. Yes, please call me at this number. I’ll be waiting to hear from you.
The hours go by and she does not call. Ilya is irritated. Each passing minute feels like someone else’s victory. On his desk he finds an invitation to a party in the lobby of his office building, something to raise money for a city councilman’s campaign. Under normal circumstances he would not consider attending. He is not friendly with his colleagues, and parties where everyone speaks English make Valeria nervous. But he is a man on his own, free to behave as he wishes. And Naomi has ignored his phone calls, four of them now.
After work, Ilya follows the sounds of a string quartet to the party in the lobby. His colleagues are already mingling with drinks in their hands. Ilya nods hello to a crowd in front of the bar.
Gin, please, he says to the tuxedoed bartender.
Nothing in it? comes a voice from behind him. Ilya turns to find Brenda sucking at a straw, her hair somehow flatter and yellower than before.
No, he says, just gin.
11. Bodies as sole agents of authority
Ilya has much more to drink. In the elevator back up to his office he kisses Brenda’s neck and she grabs at the crotch of his pants like she has done all night. Up close, she seems to water at the mouth.
In the office, on top of his desk, Ilya assumes a tight grip and gets a rhythm going. But then he is distracted by the passing wail of an ambulance and in that instant his body betrays him. With half a heart he persists, until Brenda flops off.
There’s no shame in being nervous, she says, her fingers tracing motherly circles on his thigh. She gathers her clothes and shuffles out of the room in reverse.
Ilya lays flat on his back, on the ground, with his penis in his hand. He is heavy-tongued and ready for sleep. He can hear her singing. He rolls his face to the side and closes his eyes.
Some time later, Ilya is awakened by his ringing telephone. His pants are around his ankles, and he is sleeping on the floor behind his desk. He has a terrible headache and he feels as though he might vomit. He reaches for the phone. Valeria. She is shrieking. Panicked. What time is it? Almost two in the morning. She is afraid she will miss her flight, though it doesn’t leave until eight. He tells her he will come home right away, that he was working. He finds aspirin, and after he takes a few he lowers his head to the leather blotter. He stays that way until he gets his bearings and when he lifts his head he sees a box at his elbow, empty except for tissue paper.
Pizda! Ilya shouts. The lingerie is gone.
12. One may fail to recognize oneself in spite of being acquainted
In the very early morning, Ilya spends a moment alone with his son. Then he drives to the airport, using the rearview mirror to watch Ori sleep. Will he will look the same when he returns? Yes, probably, except for a faint ruddiness of the cheeks induced by the thumbs and fingers of a hundred relatives.
Goodbye, he says to Valeria at the curb. Valeria frowns and pats the hair around her face. She turns away so he can tuck Baby Ori into the sling on her back. When everything is done Ilya kisses her forehead and she walks into the airport pulling a wheeled suitcase behind her. They are no more than fifteen feet apart when Ori starts to fuss, but Ilya is already in the car, looking for a good song on the radio.
When he walks into the office, Brenda’s desk is empty except for an envelope postmarked by Solomon Cauley. Of all days-how had he forgotten? This has cost Ilya many pretty pennies. But it is only a small price to pay for the truth.
He carries the package into his office and shuts the door behind him. He leans back in his chair and props his feet on the windowsill. He opens the envelope.
Wiretap screen of TEL: +14126920832 (PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA)
Screening period: 3/1/2008-3/31/2008
Call filter: NONSTANDARD/INTERNATIONAL
Filtered record for TEL(s): +73953441751 (BRATSK, IRKUTSK REGION, RUSSIA 6657)
Registered billpayer: LEVIN PETRENKO/RUSSIA INTERNET BRIDE, INC.
Bratsk? Valeria calls the agency in Bratsk? Ilya turns the page to see what his wife says about him when she does not think he can hear it. He reads a few lines. His stomach drops.
13. The purpose not achieved
Ilya dials Solomon Cauley.
My wife is running away! he yells. How could you keep this from me?
Now, listen, Solomon says. We aren’t in the business of instructing our clients what to do. We tell you the when, the what and the where. It’s up to you to figure out why.
Her flight leaves in an hour! There’s still time. Meet me at the airport.
Goldin, I’m afraid that’s impossible. Full schedule today. But I’ll send someone.
Ilya hangs up. He runs out of the office, shouting that there has been an emergency. It is the truth. He has never felt so afraid in his life. He sprints to the elevator and when he is on the ground floor he sprints to the parking garage.
In the car, the radio plays Elvis and Ilya cries. At a red light, a child in the next car turns his face inside out on the window. Ilya cries.
14. The concept blurs
In the airport security line, Valeria is seized by fear: what if they find the papers? She twists Ori around to her hip and with her free hand, she moves the papers from her purse to his sling. She looks down the line and sees a guard rifling through a man’s golf bag. To be safe, she pushes the packet into Ori’s onesie suit and smoothes it down, pretending to rub his sweet little back. When it is her turn, the guards give Valeria’s bags an expert inspection, and soon Valeria and Baby Ori are seated in the boarding area, near the window, looking at the long snout of a very large plane. Behind the counter, the ticket attendants point this way and that way, and a truck pulls up to begin fueling. Baby Ori shifts on Valeria’s lap and an awful smell winds up toward her nose. Valeria is mortified. She stands and pushes past the rows of passengers and holds Baby Ori in front of her as she would a dirty dish. And then she remembers: if Baby Ori has shit in his pants, then he has shit all over the girls’ papers.
15. On seeing the future for the first time
In the airport bathroom, Valeria sets her son in the sink. She undoes the snaps keeping him together and finds that he has really done a number. She holds her breath and fishes for the papers at the bottom of his onesie. He is laughing. She strips off his clothes and brings up the papers in her hand, their edges soaked with his mess.
Ori, she says, this is no good.
She tries to dampen the soiled edges with water and they begin to fray and separate. The water from the faucet turns hot and Ori screams. Valeria dumps him into the next sink and dabs a wad of paper towels at his reddening arm. He is wailing, and she is right up close to his chest when she sees it. A note, held to his undershirt with a safety pin. Ilya’s righteous penmanship, leaning to the left.
The Tefilat HaDerech. The traveler’s prayer. Love, Papa.
Valeria’s eyes cannot believe this moment between Ilya and his son, and all at once she is slammed by real thoughts of Bratsk. She thinks of her mother with the tired hands, her father bent by work and unkind to his family, the factories opening and closing and pouring their waste into the dam at Usolye. Spoiled milk and stale bread. No meat. A long winter inside, blocked from the city world by a snowdrift that no one could plow. The first-floor tenants accepted food from whoever would give it, plates pushed through a slot in the ice. The food trickled up to the rooms where Valeria lived, but by then, it wasn’t much. In the spring, when the ice thawed, the fishermen prayed and prayed and there were fish like never before. Then, empty streets and so many children getting sick. Valeria remembers jumping rope with her friends to a song made of names of the dead, until somebody’s mother made them stop. Her own family, shrinking, so small, all gone. Valeria’s mother held the children when the hospital sent them home, rocking them in her arms until they closed their eyes and died. But it was Valeria’s father who said the words first: What have I done to pay this price? Show me my sin! Valeria remembers wishing God would take her, too. Yuri was just a baby. And nobody talked anymore.
Valeria hugs Ori and he stops crying. He sucks on her shirt near her shoulder, and she stares at their reflection in the mirror. She tosses his stained onesie into the trash. She sets Ori back in the sink and washes him carefully and changes his diaper.
She resolves that her son will have a different life, here, in America, in Pittsburgh, with anything he wants and a mother who will keep him safe and a father who tells him he loves him.
Valeria weaves back through the airport crowds clutching her baby in his diaper and shirt, hoping there is still time to get her suitcase. This is not what she intended. But it is the right thing.
16. Fictional utterances
Ilya gets to the airport and leaves his car at the curb.
You can’t park here, a security guard says.
My wife is leaving me! Ilya shouts. She might have done it already!
The guard gives Ilya five minutes. At the first checkpoint inside the door, he is stopped again.
You can’t get through if you don’t have a ticket, the attendant says.
I need you to page my wife.
I’ll need to know why, sir.
Page Valeria Goldin, please. She’s on the plane but maybe it hasn’t left yet.
Sir, I can’t page a passenger already seated on a plane. She won’t hear it.
Page Valeria Goldin, please.
Sir, I’ve explained I can’t do that.
She robbed me, Ilya says.
Excuse me? Sir, I’m sorry-
She has a bomb.
17. Clarification of an act in earnest
The airport staff detains Ilya in a small room. The two officials in the room with him will not say anything about Valeria or his son. They talk close to his face and press their fists into the table. They are angry. What did he mean she robbed him? Was it a bomb she stole? When did he find out it was missing? What was he doing with a bomb, anyway? Finally, Ilya cracks. He tells them there was no bomb, that he made it up because his wife was leaving and taking his son away from him and he wanted to stop her. He had to stop her. They look sad for him, then. They tell him he is free to go.
18. Even the insignificant is extraordinary
The stairs leading to the apartment are unbearable. Ilya works the banister like a towrope. Approaching his front door he hallucinates smells, phantom vinegary supper smells, the kind that on any other day would be coming from the kitchen by this time. On his doorstep, he sighs. He opens the door.
Valeschka! he shouts.
There is some mistake. His wife is there, pale and lovely, with their son strapped to her back. She is cooking. She is home.
19. A decision to employ familiar kinetic dynamics
Valeria says she called her family from the airport. Mama is better now, not nearly as sick as before. And perhaps they should go together to Bratsk, when Ori is old enough to remember it.
Ilya says nothing about the detective, or the transcripts, or the airport interrogation. He is too happy.
Supper is soon, Valeria says.
I’ll just have a quick shower, Ilya says.
He turns the nozzle to full blast. Under the water, he slaps his hands on the wall tiles.
I have been saved! he sings out. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
After drying off and combing his hair, Ilya wraps a fresh towel around his waist and steps into the hall. Maybe Valeria can leave the kitchen for a moment and come into the bedroom with him. Maybe the baby can be in his crib for awhile and they can press against each other and-
A scream comes from the front door and Ilya rushes toward it.
20. Life as characterized by an episode
At the door Ilya finds Valeria, with Baby Ori strapped to her back, covering her mouth with her hands. There, too, is Brenda, who is frozen in shock with arms that say ta-da!, who has flung open a long fur coat to reveal a suit of tangerine lingerie underneath, who is standing with legs akimbo and high heels on her feet. The women look at each other and then they look at Ilya. A pot on the stove boils over. The telephone rings and rings and rings. When the answering machine clicks on, Ilya hears Solomon Cauley:
I have wonderful news for you, Goldin. Your wife never boarded the plane.
21. Not only words are vehicles for meaning
After Brenda is dispatched and the baby is asleep, Valeria and Ilya spend supper exploring how not to say what they are thinking. In the end they talk about nothing, just words to fill the time it takes to push around the cold food on their plates.
Lines at the airport.
Upcoming appointments in court.
Security measures imposed on travelers.
The burden of the law.
Perhaps they both know that their misdeeds are met in one another. What is certain is the feeling that moves through the air, from Ilya to Valeria and then under the table, over their laps, into their glasses and between the tines of their supper forks: they will work to be better together. They will grow into the layers of life their decisions have foisted upon them. And whatever crimes they committed or did not commit, there is Ori in the next room. He is the proof they were ever good at all.