by Veronica Gorodetskaya
Graf and my father met on the streets. They were both hustling jobs as hands on moving and delivery trucks. A fellow native of St. Petersburg, Graf became my father's best friend in New York. It was hard to distinguish the two. They both wore neatly tailored acid-dyed jeans with cargo pockets and zippers on each leg, and striped, pale colored button-down shirts or T-shirts that they had bought in bulk in Chinatown that said, "Zip Your Fly," "Leave Me Alone," and "I Heart New York." All this above a pair of bright white sneakers and brown dress socks that inevitably showed when they sat down.
They both loved taking photos inside supermarkets in the middle of the aisles. They stood with parted legs and crossed arms backed by an endless tunnel of food. My father would have my mother stand in front of Top Tomato, a cavernous fruit and vegetable shop in Brooklyn, smiling, her head tilted and her hand gesturing to the pyramids of peaches, plums, apples, and oranges. My father would send these photos and letters he had recorded on cassette tapes back to Russia, to his mother. He'd sit in the kitchen, wrapped in the blue smoke of his cigarettes, pen and paper in hand, reciting from his notes, pausing, rewinding, listening. In the background, past his voice, there were the muted sounds of our open kitchen window: a car turning, a door closing, the sound of plates and running water, heels on pavement, voices, the sound of my father turning the pages of his notebook as he read. My sister and I would stand in the doorway of the kitchen looking at him and he'd wave us away, sending ashes from his cigarette flying, and then he'd stop the tape, rewind, look at his notes and pick where he had left off.
Every Friday Graf and my father would go to the bathhouse on Coney Island Avenue. There they'd photograph with their burly friends; bare-chested, tattooed and wrapped in white towels, at white plastic tables littered with plates, overturned glasses, bottles and thermoses with tea, and on wooded benches in steam rooms; red, sweaty, laughing huge laughs, revealing teeth gilded in silver and gold.
Before long both Graf and my father landed jobs as school bus drivers in Boro Park for a Yeshiva. The first six months in the States, they both drank heavily and missed work. Homesickness and anger at my mother for forcing him to leave Russia ended in fights and Graf having to carry my father to bed.
My father slept with a bucket on the floor next to the bed. Graf, still drunk, remained with my mother in the kitchen, as she smoked, mumbling into her cigarette.
"Forced him to leave...Ha! A real victim...what did we forget over there?"
Before leaving, Graf would come into our bedroom. Red-faced, handsome, grappling with our faces with his huge hands and breath redolent of liquor, he kissed us as we lay awake in bed. Lena, who was older, had the top bunk. She pretended to sleep. And when he whispered her name she replied lazily, stretching.
"Don't be upset. You have to always love your father."
He then bent down to me. Searching in the dark he found my face and kissed me, but I was angry and wiped his kiss away, which stuck to my cheek with a sour sweetness. When he left we were both silent. Lena pulled the covers up and my mother turned off the water in the kitchen sink.
The Yeshiva could not afford to keep both my father and Graf. Seeing that my father had a family and dragged himself to work more days than not, they fired Graf.
"He lives for himself," my mother said to my father, "and you...you have a family."
My father called Volodya "Graf," which in the English means Count, because
his last name, Lanskoi, was that of a prominent St. Petersburg family. One of its members, Piotr Lanskoi, a colonel, married Pushkin's widow, Natalia Goncharova--a woman famous for a tiny waist.
And it turned out that Graf had a wife.
Graf told his wife Julie that he wanted to make money, to prepare a home for her, and that's why he had waited four years to bring her over. My mother said he was waiting for her to turn a riper age. My sister Lena was twelve and I was eleven at the time. Julie was no more than twenty-one and Graf was forty-five.
Graf didn't have his own apartment; he lived with two roommates in Sheepshead Bay. And although my mother did not want a boarder, my father declared that he would do anything to assist Graf in starting a family. Julie was to live with us until Graf found a suitable apartment for them.
Julie only learned of this when she arrived at our two-bedroom apartment with a medium-sized suitcase bound tightly with rope, and a bouquet of red lifeless airport roses.
Julie had barely walked through the door when my mother turned to Graf and asked in front of his bride, "Lanskoi, you could not find yourself a woman?" Graf, donning a light blue dress shirt, jeans and polished pointy black shoes, hair slicked back, led Julie by the arm into the kitchen, sat her at the table already set for her arrival and poured her vodka. He held her frail hands, stroking them, and spoke of an apartment under renovation, a car, furniture, clothing and anything else she might want. Julie looked around, at my mother wrapped in her synthetic brown robe that clung to her figure, my father smoking by the open kitchen window and then at us standing in the kitchen doorway. Julie was petite, pale, and her skin transparent; and when she tucked her hair behind her ears you could see the delicate blue veins along her temples.
She smiled and turned back to Graf. She seemed to agree to everything.
My father raised his glass to the couple. Julie lifted her glass, smiling a narrow smile, and drank. Her face contorted, the whole of it collapsing into her tiny mouth. The glass came crashing down with the one hand while the other groped for a pickle and a slice of salami. My mother laughed, my father cried out Gor'ko! and Graf grabbed Julie and kissed her on the mouth.
The scent of vodka, the tiny drops I'd smell in glasses left behind on the kitchen table when my father was already in bed, was enough to raise the hair on my arms. It was an awful smell, full of heat and sharpness that pricked the nostrils and the back of my throat. Lena tried a bit of the leftovers once and gagged into her palm. We never thought about why they drank the stuff. It was like asking why does one eat.
Instead of making a bed for her in the living room, as she usually did for houseguest, my mother put Julie in our room. To Lena and me, Julie was more of an older sister than a wife. She never quite unpacked her suitcase; she told us she did not want to take too long to gather her things when it was time to join Graf in their new apartment. Her suitcase was a treasure chest. From in between neatly folded pale-colored stacks of clothing she produced a round white bottle decorated in pink flowers.
"Anais Anais, it's Cacharel, French." Julie pushed back Lena's hair,
"First, you dab behind the ears, then the back of the wrists, but don't rub them together because it changes the scent. And, finally, the creases of the arm. Sometimes, I dab behind my knees."
Anais Anais smelled like the thin petals of fragile flowers. I imagined they were lilies, lilacs, tulips and jasmine--pink and white and violet. On Lena and I the scent was different--it never quite settled on me and I could always sense the alcohol. But on Julie it was wonderful; fresh, light, springy and full of color. She spoke to us about the difference between Eau de Cologne and Eau de Parfum.
"It is all about the percentage of essential oil versus the alcohol. The more essential oil the longer the scent remains. Real perfume is just slightly diluted with alcohol. And so it lasts longer."
Julie helped us put together new outfits, teaching us color coordination. But really she taught us to see more possibilities with the little that we had. "Just add an accessory," she'd say. She'd hang on us heavy amber earrings that weighed down and stretched our earlobes. And she'd slide hand-painted enamel bracelets on our wrists and wrap our necks in silk scarves.
My mother in her slinky brown robe, kitchen towel in hand, laughed, but during these revamping sessions, she'd stand in the doorway of our room, watching us dress and undress into different outfits.
Some evenings we'd all have dinner together. Lena and I would get sent away once we had eaten. My parents, Graf and Julie would sit in the kitchen. These nights Julie smoked. She seemed a different person then; stiffer, pale, her cheeks an unnatural pink and lips red with lipstick, her eyebrows sharper, darker. Graf and my father talked in loud voices. Julie would try to catch my mother's eye. But my mother kept herself busy with the table, clearing it, setting up tea or staring past my father's head, out the kitchen window. When she offered to help clean up my mother smiled, shaking her head and told Julie to sit. Lena and I would stand in the kitchen doorway, sticking our heads in, whining, pouting and making faces, begging Julie to come back to us.
We knew nothing about Julie except that she was from Electrostal, a town about an hour outside of Moscow and that she was an only daughter. She enjoyed telling us the story of her and Graf.
"We met because a classmate of mine knew a friend who had said that a man was visiting from America. He was in Moscow and we took the train to meet him. When we reached the Arabat I knew this man would change my life. There, in front of Café Cappuccino, stood my destiny."
She remembered being impressed when at the end of the night he got up and paid the bill.
"There were ten of us, maybe more, and everyone was ordering vodka, shish-kabobs and salads. And we had appetizers."
They fell in love, and married within a month. Julie was 17 and her mother said she could not believe how lucky they were.
Graf bought Julie a calling card and every week for the two months Julie lived with us she called her mother in Electrostal. Lena and I would sit at her feet listening to her tell her mother that she'd be moving soon. She'd ask about her friends.
"Mama, did Sveta ask about me? ...What did she say...I told her he would send for me. Volodya said we are going furniture shopping soon. That? ... No, that's not expensive here."
My parents slept on a futon, their clothes neatly folded in a dresser with water stains and missing hardware. Our apartment was deceptive. It was furnished in part by our neighbors from Naples and Sicily. Our parents and Graf would bring back furniture they'd find on the streets during their evening walks. Our couch's carved wooden frame--painted gold--was upholstered in red velvet; the worn plush of its sunken cushions covered by new pillows. "Very Italian," my mother said when she saw it on the curb two avenues down. The Italians threw out the finest furniture because the wives of the house covered everything in dense plastic to safeguard the fabric. But even plastic ages, its transparency dimming so the Italians knew it was time to discard what they had been protecting. The kitchen chairs and glass-top table were also from the street. The only real purchases were our bunk beds, plastic storage bins where we kept books and toys and a foam fold out chair that Graf bought for Julie to sleep on. Our small China collection became a part of a large mismatched harlequin set. On the wall across from the couch, in the space between our room and my parent's hung a carpet that was part of a shipment that followed us from Russia by sea. A revamped coffee table covered in my grandmother's crochet; framed photos of our parents in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and a vase with a miniature American flag stood in the middle of the living room.
For the period that Julie lived with us Graf came to our house everyday. He'd wrap his arms around her tiny frame and pressed bills into her palm. After he'd leave, Julie, my sister and I would walk to 86th street, to the Telco store and buy towels, bed sheets, oven mitts, and pans. We'd carry large blue plastic bags home and stack them in the corner of our room. She'd show everything to Graf and he would sit on the bottom bunk and nod approvingly.
"But why don't you buy something for yourself?" he'd ask. Julie would say she was a wife now and she had to think about her family and the new apartment and not herself.
On a occasion we would walk past Bay Parkway, still down 86th Street, towards 25th Avenue, to the open air markets where the Chinese vendors sold book bags, toys, slippers, scarves and makeup, and Julie would buy long boxes of lipstick. She'd keep a few for herself and send the rest back to Electrostal, to her mother and girlfriends. She was really happy and Lena and I too wanted to be wives. There was so much planning, anticipation, and shopping. And Julie took her new role of a wife with a sense of great responsibility that we admired.
Early one morning, before school, there was a series of loud thuds downstairs. It sounded like someone was ramming the front door. Lena and I were getting dressed. Julie was folding her bed. We listened and when we heard an even louder thud we knew something huge had fallen down. We turned to Julie.
"What's that?" she asked.
We did not answer. We knew. Lena and I went to the hallway and stood by the front door. We listened. We heard the turning of a lock and a door swing open. It was Jennifer our first floor neighbor. She crossed the hallway but did not need to come close to the main front door before seeing the body of a large man passed out on the threshold. She hurried back to her apartment, slapping the tiles with her bare feet. The door slammed and we heard her screaming at Ralph, her husband. He yelled back, slammed the door and climbed the stairs to our apartment. Below Jennifer was still screaming, threatening to tell the landlord everything this time.
"This has got to stop. I need sleep. Every fucking time with the Russians. I am calling her, Ralph, I am calling her."
He knocked on our door, lightly, and it was then we realized my mother was standing behind us. We could smell her. Her synthetic robe turned her sweat into a toasted, nutty sourness that wafted out when she uncrossed her arms to open the door. Neither Ralph nor our mother said anything. She went down with Ralph, to raise my father off the floor and to bring him up to our apartment.
Lena and I knew, but Julie didn't that our father did not come home that night and that he had been drinking and that he had either forgotten his keys at Graf's or had lost them all together. And that he has broken the front door before and that our mother did not talk to him for weeks after that and that then he would not drink or miss work for a while and that our mother did not always wear that robe. There was nothing to say to Julie now. Lena filled the teakettle and I began to run a bath. We thought that everything would be clear to her and that she'd know what to do.
My father's arms on each of their shoulders Ralph and my mother dragged my father in, his head hanging on his chest. They brought him to the bathroom. Ralph propped my father on the toilet seat and headed for the door.
"Zank you Ralph. Very sorry. My husband is. I am sorry. No problem with Jennifer, OK?"
Ralph closed his eyes, nodded and left.
Julie stood in the bathroom doorway.
"Where's Volodya?" she asked.
My mother turned to Julie, "Help me undress him."
We watched Julie's trembling slender fingers struggle with the shoes laces, but she managed unlace them and to pull off his sneakers. Lena held up my father while our mother removed his T-shirt. My father mumbled something about a new chair, a new apartment and Julie.
The teakettle whistled and I ran to turn it off. When I returned to the bathroom my mother was backed into the corner, crying. My father, naked, was swinging his arms, trying to grab my mother at the waist.
"Get into the tub, damn it!"
"Ludochka... forgive me," my father said, "My darling. Volodya's with the
Lena and I grabbed his hands and lead him to the tub. He could not quite lift his legs to get in and he smashed his toes on the ceramic tiles. My mother raised his legs and we finally slid him in.
I put a cold washcloth on my father's head and pressed down. He was burning up. He lay still for a few minutes. My mother tightened the belt on her robe and turned her head to the bathroom door.
"Where's Volodya?" Julie was in the living room screaming into the receiver at Volodya's roommates.
My father grabbed the washcloth and threw it against the wall.
"I am done!" he said.
We pulled him out of the tub. Lena and I were no longer unaccustomed to seeing him naked. We wrapped him in his blue terry bathrobe. We walked him to the kitchen, sitting him down at the kitchen table, and poured him coffee. He pushed the cup away, spilling it.
"Julie," he yelled.
She came in and stood in the kitchen doorway. Her face large, red, swollen. She swayed a bit, like a poppy flower in the wind.
"Leave her alone Borya! Leave her alone. For God's sake you should be at work!"
"Luda, shut up."
"Julie, Graf found an apartment and we got a chair. Your husband... You hear me Julie. He is your fucking husband... you see her?" my father pointed to my mother, "she is no wife."
Every time my father got this drunk and missed work my mother cried and walked away indignant, leaving him slouched on the kitchen table, "to rot," she'd say. But then some instinct drove her back and she'd say our names and plead with him to think of us. What would happen if he lost his job?
The phone rang. Julie grabbed the receiver in the kitchen.
"Where is Borya?" We heard the voice on the other line.
It was Moishe from the Yeshiva. Julie handed my mother the receiver. My mother breathed in. She closed her eyes and smoothed her hair. Taking the receiver, she explained,
"Moishe, Borya sick. He go to work tomorrow."
Julie turned around and went to our bedroom. I followed her. It was too late for school. I sat on the floor and Julie was lying on the bottom bunk. She was crying.
Glass shattered in the kitchen and I ran back in. My father had dropped the coffee cup. I was crying by then because I was terrified. Lena and I knelt at my father's feet, sharp shards of the coffee cup pressing into our knees. He reached for us, resting his heavy hands on our heads. He was crying, of course.
At that moment, something moved him, some heroic notion. He tried to get up. We knew he couldn't drive a school bus full of Hassidic children. We pushed him back down in the chair. It was too late. He had remembered who he was and who we were. He slammed his fist on the table and demanded we get out of the way.
"To hell with it all! Move," he struck Lena with his bare foot, "I am going!"
Our heads hurt and we shook. We no longer had tears to cry, we were delirious. We begged him to stay. We pulled at his robe, but he slapped our wet faces and they burned.
Our father was ready. Still in his robe he swung at our mother as she tried to block him and walked out the front door.
Within minutes the doorbell rang. It was Graf with my father, dragging a chair behind them. Hearing Graf's voice, Julie came out of our room. His robe swinging open, my father leaned on the back of the chair, its cushion covered in a cloudy yellow plastic, the last line of defense of any wife against spills, dirt and cigarette burns.
Graf, drunk, unshaven, hair falling into his face, with eyes barely open looked at Julie. She gathered herself, pulling at the collar of her top, straightened up and went to him.
Veronica Gorodetskaya is from St. Petersburg, Russia. She holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from The City College of New York. She divides her time between New York and Rome.