On that particular day in August 1988, Styopa Agarun and Simon Reznikov were sitting on the balcony of the Reznikovs’ rental apartment overlooking a fire station, and Simon was telling his childhood friend how it was summer, he had no vacation plans of his own, and this would have never happened back in Moscow. Styopa listened silently as a fire engine backed into the garage, moaning like an old gigolo.
“I got it,” Styopa suddenly said, slapping himself on the thigh. “You should go to Bluebell Inn.”
“Where’s that?” Simon asked.
“In the Catskills.”
“The Castiles?” Simon compulsively punned. “All the way in Spain?”
“Hilarious. Not the Cas-teels but the Cat-skills,” Styopa replied, unperturbed. “They used to call it ‘Borscht Belt.’”
“Why the hell ‘Borscht Belt?’” asked Simon.
“There used to be a lot of Jewish resorts there,” Styopa explained.
“‘Borscht Belt’ doesn’t sound Jewish at all,” Simon said. “Russian, Ukrainian, but not Jewish.”
“Well, perhaps to you it doesn’t,” Styopa conceded. “But here it used to sound Jewish. Like Jewish deli food. So the name stuck.”
The story Styopa told him began with a senior colleague of his father, a radiologist at Brigham and Women’s. He had grown up in Queens and every summer used to go with his family to Bluebell Inn, a Jewish resort in the Catskills. He was the one who convinced Styopa’s parents that Bluebell Inn would be a good place to ship off Styopa’s grandmother with 14-year-old Styopa.
“We first went to the Catskills in the summer of 1980. When you had the Olympics.”
“Well, you had the Olympics. We had the boycott.”
“Why not Cape Cod then?” Simon asked. “Isn’t it where you Bostonians summer?”
“We were new to the area,” Styopa clarified. “Renting a house for a month was expensive. The Catskills just made sense at the time. And then we got used to it. “
“So why did you stop going?”
“It got a little complicated,” Styopa said and lowered his gaze.
“Complicated?” Simon pushed on, still a champion of clarity.
“I was in college already. By then the place had become like a little Odessa in the mountains. And then something happened …,” Styopa’s eyes became misty, his long eyelashes fluttering like dragonflies.
“So Castiles, I mean, Catskills,” Simon said. “So be it. Can you come with?”
“During the week I can’t.”
“What do you expect, me to go alone?”
“No, not alone. Take the grandmothers. And I’ll come for the weekend.”
“I’m not sharing a room with any grandmother.”
“You don’t have to,” Styopa sanguinely replied. “You will have what’s called a split. Two connected rooms, and a shower with doors on either side.”
The following day Styopa, who possessed a talent for combinatorics, had the whole plan figured out, and both sets of parents had signed off on it. He telephoned Bluebell Inn and made reservations. Simon’s maternal grandmother, who had left Ukraine as a young woman and spoke Russian like a true Muscovite, and Styopa’s Mountain Jewish grandmother who swallowed whole Russian consonants like apricots, pits and all, weren’t exactly close friends. But they had known each other for decades and agreed go on the Catskills sojourn together.
This was going to be Simon’s first American vacation. On the eve of the departure, he lay awake, trying to visualize Styopa’s resort. Back in the Soviet days, he heard stories from Jewish emissaries who came from America to visit refuseniks. A vague something about New York Jews creating a vacationland for themselves at a time when hotels had signs like “near churches” and Jews weren’t welcome in many places. To a Moscow kid, Jewish colonies of summer cottages and hotels full of Yiddish speakers seemed like a fiction from a bygone era …
On the morning of their journey to the Catskills, armed with a set of AAA-issued maps, the route highlighted in poisonous orange, Simon picked up his grandmother from her apartment building across the street from Bread & Circus. She had turned 74 that summer and was fanatically learning English.
“I hope we meet some interesting people there,” she said as they left behind the outskirts of Providence.
“Interesting how?” Simon asked, just to pique her a little bit.
“Interesting, educated people. Not like some of the double-dyed provincials in my building.”
“Maybe you’ll meet a nice old gentleman,” said Simon.
“Not interested,” his grandmother sliced. “Men my age are unreliable. I’d rather go to Paris.”
In Boston they collected Styopa’s grandmother from her apartment, also located, by some stroke of immigrant symmetry, across the street from an organic foods supermarket. The two grandmothers soon busied themselves with family talk while Simon drove, maps spread out on the passenger seat, through central Massachusetts, then Connecticut, finally picking up Interstate 95 at New Haven.
“Are we near George Washington Bridge?” Simon’s grandmother asked as they approached the Tappan Zee Bridge.
“No, this is a different bridge,” Styopa’s grandmother said with authority in her voice. “Tap-on-Thee.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” sighed Simon’s grandmother. “I really wanted to see George Washington Bridge.”
Styopa’s grandmother only said “nu i nu” (which means “unbelievable” or “wow” in Russian) and clasped and unclasped her purse.
They were already on the bridge; below, the Hudson coursed like the trunk of a biblical water animal. Despite the grandmothers’ urgings to drive on, Simon stopped several times on the way to the resort. The towns they passed had such marvelous names: Goshen, Scotchtown, Bloomingburg. Styopa had told him to start paying attention after they passed the town of Liberty. “When you enter Roscoe,” Styopa said in Russian on the phone, “look for a big sign for Bluebell Inn on your left.”
They left Liberty behinpid and soon after that entered the town whose name Simon wasn’t sure how to pronounce properly in English, all because of the “oe” cluster. Ros-coy? Rose-cow?
He would have missed the turn had it not been for Styopa’s grandmother. “Slow down, we’re here,” she yelled from the back seat. And there it was, the sign for Bluebell Inn Resort Hotel, and below, printed in two horizontal lines, were the words “restaurant • outdoor pool • ping pong • bar • entertainment • sports.” And beneath those words there was a smaller sign for a place where hunting dogs were trained and pheasant hunting could be enjoyed. Simon thought of Levin and his tender dog Laska, and his heart soared.
An uphill road with ruts and patches of grass in the middle brought their car to a sloping meadow, from which the resort’s main building came into view. It was a three-story white chalet with a red roof and a row of garrets in the attic. Its porticoed front porch made Simon think of Bologna, where he and his parents had spent an evening during their Italian summer of transit. To the left of the main building, at the end of an overgrown path, a lake showed its unpolished silver through veiny malachite. Simon parked, then hauled their luggage to the main entrance.
“Where’s the bellhop?” Simon’s grandmother asked.
“What do you expect?” Styopa’s grandmother replied with the disdain of a Mountain Jewish lioness. “Russian owners don’t bother with such things.”
They passed an older couple in matching bright-yellow shorts playing ball with a little girl. “Throw it up, Mishellochka,” the Russian grandparents were both screaming in English. “Throw up.”
A woman in her mid-40s, a baby-blue kerchief tied, bandana style, across her perspiring forehead, stood at the reception counter like a captain on the bridge.
“Well, hello, dear guests,” she said in Russian. “Welcome to Bluebell Inn,” she added, in English. “A hot day,” she switched back to Russian, blowing air at her face from under her tucked-in upper lip.
“Are you the Boston sisters? The Millershteyns?” the receptionist said to Simon’s grandmother and Styopa’s. “You don’t look alike.”
“Different fathers,” Simon added, unable to resist making the kind of joke they used to make in his old Moscow circle of friends, always looking for a way to inject an innuendo.
As they waited—both grandmothers pacing back and forth in the lobby, Simon tapping on the counter’s wood that remembered the palms and fists of the hotel’s thousands of clients—it became clear to him that staying in a connecting room with his grandmother would be a grave error.
“What’s your name?” Simon asked the receptionist in a warm-hearted Soviet whisper.
“Where are you from, esteemed Basya?” he asked again, bringing his face an inch closer to hers.
“Minsk?” Simon said with glee. “We had an aunt in Minsk. Aunt Bronya. The only one who survived.”
“My papa’s whole family was in the ghetto,” Basya said, her chest heaving. “He returned home from the front an orphan. Oy, the pain, the pain,” Basya sighed, dropping metal keys with wooden chain holders on the counter. She paused, then asked Simon: “You must be from Leningrad?”
“Moscow. But my dad’s from Leningrad.”
“Intelligentsia,” Basya said, smiling broadly. “Probably demanding, too. Don’t expect too much of this place.”
“Basya,” Simon said under his breath, leaning over the reception counter. “Any chance I could have a room of my own?”
“Don’t want to be next to grandma, naughty boy,” Basya shook her head.
“It’s not that, I just—”
“I get it,” Basya cut him off. “For the same price I can give your grandmother a regular room with a private bath. But you’ll have to stay in the attic.”
“That’s where our single service staff live. Small rooms, no frills. Bathroom in the hallway. But the view is spectacular.”
“I’ll take it, Basya.”
Simon told his grandmother a half-lie about the connected rooms being all taken, and she accepted it. He delivered the grandmothers’ luggage, then ran up two flights of stairs to the attic. His low-ceilinged garret had a squeaky bed, a side table, a painted blue chair and a wardrobe with a broken door. From the dormer window he could see the front lawn embroidered with vacationers, an undulating wall of the woods, and a tall glass of mountain sky cut with wispy clouds. This was, he reminded himself, his first American vacation, and things could only get better.
By the end of their first day in the Catskills, two things became apparent. The resort was living out its past grandeur, and there were no adult American-born Jews left among the clientele. All the adults and also some of the older kids staying at Bluebell Inn had been born in the Soviet Union. In some ways, the resort itself—like the country they had come from—was drowning in the myths of its past.
Most of the vacationers came from the boroughs of New York and from New Jersey, and some from Philadelphia and Baltimore. These were folks who had gotten out in the 1970s. Immigrants with 10, sometimes 15 years of American life under their canvas belts and elastic bands, many of them had raised children here. Some had grandchildren with names like “Benichka” (from Benjamin) or “Binochka” (from Sabina). They hadn’t tasted of refusenik despair back in Russia but had to fight their own immigrant battles in America. Most of the adult men and many of the women were conservative in a primordial fashion, the way steak is bloody and snake is slithery. The ex-Soviet Jews professed fist-brandishing Zionism without ever wanting to live in Israel. Most of the older men and some older women had fought against Germany and carried signs of battlefield injuries.
Dinner was served in the main dining room with plaintive ceiling fans and a chintzy view of the porticoed porch and the meadow. The menu coalesced typical Russian appetizers like “herring under a fur coat” with typical American entrees like “veal Parmesan.”
Their server, introducing herself, said with pride: “My name’s Regina. My mom’s the chef here for the summer.”
“And for the winter?” Simon tried to make a joke.
“She cooks at a restaurant in Queens.”
“And you, what do you do during the year?” Simon asked, squinting.
“I go to high school during the year. In Forest Hills,” answered the young woman, straightening her black apron. “For the main course?” she asked the grandmothers, switching to Russian.
Simon wolfed down his entree, followed by a serving of cherry compote and a slice of poppy seed roulette. Abandoning the grandmothers as he would again and again during that Catskills vacation, he went out for a stroll. Almost everywhere he turned there was a feeling of decline—not a serene decay of an impoverished gentryfolk’s estate but a loveless, breakneck ownership. Simon wandered the grounds, picturing in his head the way the place looked in its heyday. In his exalted imagination, émigrés of yore walked the paths and sat on the benches of an idyllic mountain enclave—lovers of art and philosophy, existentialists and post-Kantians, starlets of Shanghai cabarets and forgotten Yiddish actresses.
He returned to the hotel just in time to observe his compatriots’ evening rituals. The front lawn buzzed with Russian American children and their parents or grandparents in colorful outfits and baseball hats. They were convinced that their offspring were better off frolicking on these unkempt lawns in the Russianized Catskills than by the shores of the Baltic or Black Sea.
Almost all of the rocking chairs lining the front porch were occupied by coteries of elderly Russian Jews. Simon thought of his childhood friend Styopa Agarun as he crossed the meadow and approached the main entrance with its white fronton and peeling wooden columns.
“Young man, a very good evening to you,” said a big female voice from behind one of the columns.
Simon stopped and turned sideways. Staring at him, slightly askance, was the owner of the big voice. It was a lady in her 70s, tall, judging by the length of her tan bare arms. Her unclouded, cornflower-blue eyes were life-thirsty. The lady had permed copper hair, rouged cheeks, and long mascaraed eye lashes; a silk shawl covered her bare shoulders but revealed the décolletage of her dark floral dress. Inexplicably, Simon’s eyes rolled down the lady’s chin and neck into her cleavage, feeling the evening moisture on curlicues of her drab skin.
“I believe you know my good friend Styopa,” said the lady.
“He used to come here,” Simon replied. “How do you—”
“My name is Madame Yankelson,” the lady introduced herself with authority. Simon was instantly surprised by her use of the word “Madame” when speaking in Russian. “Violetta Arkadyevna Yankelson, but I want you to call me simply Violetta.”
Leaning on the column with his right shoulder, Simon stood on the porch, both wanting and not wanting to leave, his eyes traveling back and forth between the meadow and Madame Yankelson, whom he had instantly nicknamed “Pique Dame.”
“You and I will have a roman,” said Madame Yankelson. “Platonic, of course,” she added, noting his bewilderment.
Sitting in a rocking chair next to Madame Yankelson’s was another lady, beige and mothlike, clad in a brown dress with a beet-red belt. Madame Yankelson didn’t introduce her to Simon. He would soon discover that this lady always sat with Madame Yankelson in the manner of a demoiselle de compagnie. She hardly ever spoke, a silent witness whose name, Simon learned eventually, was Lydia Shmukler. When she smiled, the lake’s greenish patina quivered on the red gold of her upper teeth.
To breakfast, Simon wore a baby-blue cotton robe with gray and yellow stripes. After consuming a generous helping of challah French toast and drinking two cups of sweet black tea with lemon, Simon came out to the porch for a gulp of fresh air.
“Do you sleep in this?” a voice from behind his back asked in doubly accented Russian, interrupting Simon’s reverie. He turned around to discover a stocky kid of about 17 or 18 with a head of sandy curls and daredevilish, hazel eyes.
“No, I just eat in it,” Simon answered, a bit belligerently.
“How long have you been here?” the kid asked, switching to English.
“Second day,” Simon replied.
“Not here here. In this country.”
“I see,” the kid said and offered a hand in a handshake. “My name’s Petya. I’m from Brooklyn. Kharkov, originally. We left when I was 9.”
Simon introduced himself.
“What brings you here?” Petya asked.
Simon explained about driving up with two grandmothers, and Petya just shook his head and cracked his knuckles.
“We started coming here eight, nine years ago with our families. Now the place is all Russian. Owners, too.”
“Are you here with your folks?” Simon asked.
“My grandmother died earlier this year. And my younger brother is at sleepaway camp. So I’m solo this summer. Working as a pool attendant. Free room and board. Not too bad, ha?”
Petya was younger than Simon but seemed more at home in this world.
“Where do you go to college?” Petya asked.
“Brown. I transferred after we came here.”
“Wow, I’d love to go to Brown. But I’ll probably end up at Albany, maybe Stony Brook.”
Simon didn’t know what to say and just looked at his feet.
“I tell you what,” Petya said, jerking his upper body like a stallion. “We’d love to pick your brain about college.”
“There’s a group of Russian kids here. Most of us are going to be seniors in high school. Some work in the dining room, others run little kids’ activities. Why don’t you meet us later?”
“Sure,” Simon said, and went back to his garret to throw on swimming trunks and a polo shirt.
By the time Simon, notebook in hand, came back from the pool, the Russian kids had already dispersed, leaving a circle of chairs at the far corner of the front porch.
After supper Simon found Regina, Petya, and other Russian boys and girls congregating at the far end of the long front porch.
“Hey, pull up a chair and join us,” said Petya, who acted like the leader of this brotherhood and sisterhood of young ex-Soviet Jews. “Here, meet my friends. This is Pasha, our tennis guru. This is Anya—works with little kiddies. Now, this guy,” Petya pointed to a swarthy fellow with piggish eyes. “This is Sam from Kishinev. And this is our Marinochka. Beauty and brains. All the boys are in love with her.”
The girl whom Petya introduced last was standing in the shadow of a corner column, her right leg bent at the knee. She was wearing a sleeveless white shirt with see-through holes on the sides and black Capri pants with ties at the bottom. One of the ties hung loose, and Marina’s tennis shoes were also untied, their laces tucked in. Marina had small hands and feet, and when she looked at Simon and smiled just slightly, her full lips and her tongue formed a perfect trifolium. A night violet, Simon thought, remembering a turn-of-the-century Russian poem his father admired and read to him. Marina’s titian eyes, wide-set, almost Oriental as is the case with some East European Jews, gave the illusion that she was looking at you and also at her own temples and beyond. As the evening wore on, they hung out on the porch and Simon told the group about Brown—life on campus, courses and professors, and also some of the celebrities’ children he had run across, among them Ringo Starr’s stepdaughter and Candace Bergen and Louis Malle’s daughter.
“Do you only meet celebrity chicks?” Petya asked.
Marina moistened her lips and smiled, looking toward the front lawn.
All the while Simon was scanning the émigré sunset theater out of the corner of his right eye. An old gentleman with a carved cane, the collar of his white shirt worn over a cream-colored jacket with three rows of Soviet military ribbons, approached the two grandmothers who were strolling on the sunlit section of the meadow, arms folded behind their backs, like convicts in a prison courtyard.
“That’s my grandfather,” Marina said about the old gentleman with regalia.
“And that’s my grandmother and my friend’s,” Simon added.
“He’s casting a wide net,” Petya commented.
“I feel like going for a stroll,” Simon said, getting up. “Who wants to join me?”
“I’ll go,” Marina said, and their whole gang turned in her direction.
“Nice, preppy boy,” Petya said without malice. “Your lucky night.”
Marina and Simon walked across the to footlights, stage and backstage of the émigré theater, heading for the lake.
The last time Simon had interacted with a Russian girl had been a summer ago in Italy. Later, at Brown, he didn’t know other Russian students, male or female. A Soviet immigrant on an Ivy League campus, he had trouble speaking the language of American love. His Russian romantic ardor and his chivalry were being mistaken for cultivated machismo. And it took a half-Irish, half-Jewish psychology graduate student from Chicago to figure him out, which is why they dated, clandestinely, for much of the spring as Simon also tried to write his first English-language poems.
Walking next to Simon on a willowy path wasn’t just one Marina Ayzenbaum, a recent high school graduate staying at Bluebell Inn with her family and going off to Binghamton in the fall. Walking next to him was an RGA, Russian Girl in America—Russian roots, Brooklyn breeding, and American ambitions throbbing in her tenderly provincial speech.
Simon took hold of Marina’s small manicured fingers. Over her left shoulder she glanced at the front lawn.
“My mom spies on me,” she said, trustingly. “She’s over there, playing Frisbee with my little sister.”
“Is your father also here?” Simon asked.
“Only for the weekend. He likes to sit on the porch and smoke cigars after supper,” Marina explained.
“That’s pretty darn American of him,” Simon said, but not facetiously.
As they stepped onto a mossy trail that girded the lake, he pulled Marina closer and put his right arm across her shoulders, fingers touching the embroidered top of her blouse.
“Tell me about yourself,” he asked her.
“There’s not a whole lot to tell,” Marina switched to English. “I was 6 when we came. We used to live in Zaporozhye. I don’t remember very much.”
Zaporozhye (or Zaporizhia) was a city in the southeast of Ukraine. Simon had never been to it in his 20 Soviet years, and he knew two principal things about the place of Marina’s birth: It’s on the Dnieper River and it’s near the historic stronghold of Ukrainian Cossacks. The rest he had to imagine.
“My dad used to be an engineer,” Marina told him as she fingered a blue cornflower. “Before college he used to drive a truck in the Soviet army, and he went back to driving a cab after we came to Brooklyn. He did that for five years, then he started a jewelry business with two friends from home.”
“Successful?” Simon asked, picturing heavy necklaces and bejeweled hands.
“T’fu-t’fu,” Marina replied in Russian. “I sometimes help him at the store. But he usually doesn’t want me to.”
“It’s not that. He wants me to become a lawyer. And he wants to sell his share of the business when he’s 60 and retire in Florida.”
“I also want to retire in Florida and live in Miami,” Simon said, half-joking.
“You do?” Marina looked at him in bafflement.
“What’s Canarsie?” he asked, referring to Marina’s home in Brooklyn. In Brooklyn he only knew three areas: Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights and, naturally, Brighton Beach.
“Just another neighborhood,” Marina replied. Under the old weeping willow by a derelict boathouse they stood for a while, kissing, and Simon told her about the world he left in Moscow.
“What would you want with a simple girl who doesn’t even come from Moscow?” Marina said in English, screwing up her eyes and sliding out of his arms.
As they strolled back under the darkening skies of the Catskills, Marina told Simon that she used to work at Bluebell Inn, but that summer her parents wanted her to rest before college.
“I’m bored out of my mind. Imagine, it’s either my family or the other Russian kids. There’s nothing to do here.”
“Do you have older siblings?” Simon asked.
“My brother Tolik. He and I are very close,” Marina said, voice growing serious.
“What’s his story?” Simon asked.
“He studies design at FIT. Very talented, very chic. My dad’s barely speaking to him. He doesn’t get such things.”
At breakfast the following morning Madame Yankelson, red roses climbing the twin trellises of her chiffon top, came up to their table, said a perfunctory hello to the grandmothers, and turned her gaze onto Simon.
“Young man, I would like it very much if you could spend some time with me,” she said like an ageless actress in a radio play. “Please finish your breakfast, and my friend Lydia and I will look forward to seeing you at our usual post near the column by the main entrance.”
A Moscow tomcat Simon may have been, but he was also a polite Jewish boy, and he couldn’t very well say “no” or “I’m busy.” Half an hour later he stood in front of Madame Yankelson like a cadet at graduation exercises. She raised herself from her chair, threaded her soft arm through the eye of his elbow, and he thought of hot dogs and buns, of Rabelais’ oversize lovers, and also of Marina who would see him walking the same path but in Madame Yankelson’s company.
“Take me to the lake, darling,” Madame Yankelson said and led Simon across the meadow. “I’m leaving the parasol with you,” she said to Lydia Shmukler, who silently nodded. From her white rocking chair Madame Yankelson picked up a sequined purse the shape of a Maltese dog.
As they walked across the front lawn in the direction of the lake, Madame Yankelson put more weight on his right arm, as though trying to shift the direction.
“I know a secluded spot. There’s a little bench there, and a marvelous view of the mountains,” she said to Simon.
Instead of following the main alley, they veered off to the left, walking on a narrower path, which first dropped, then corrected its course. They finally came to a clearing with the promised bench and ensnared shrubs behind its back. Through an opening between tree trunks, one could see three bands of color—milky-blue sky, pea-green woods, and inky-gray road. Like a child’s innocent painting, uncluttered by people.
“I would like you to read some of your poems to me,” said Madame Yankelson, half-turning to Simon and resting her bare arm on the back of the bench.
“My poems,” Simon muttered. “How do you know I write poems?”
“I read, my young friend, I read émigré magazines,” she replied.
“Well, perhaps another time, Madame Yankelson,” he said, somehow unable to put things right.
“I will be your best audience,” Madame Yankelson insisted.
She took a thin brown cigarette out of her purse. “I don’t suppose you smoke, no? Well, you should know that I’ve been inspiring poets since I was a young lady.”
Holding the cigarette between her thumb and index finger, Madame Yankelson inhaled with affect. “You don’t believe me?” she uttered with a labored laugh.
“Mayakovsky himself was very fond of me, you know.”
“Mayakovsky?” now Simon couldn’t hide his curiosity. It wasn’t very often that one ran into people who knew the great poet.
“To explain I would have to tell you my age. And a true lady never reveals her age,” said Madame Yankelson, making the kind of upward motion of her neck and cheekbones that was meant to pull back the furrows and wrinkles.
“Madame Yankelson, you’re as young as you look,” Simon said, horrified by the platitudes he was prepared to spout.
“Thank you, you’re becoming a very dear friend,” she said, removing a perfumed handkerchief from her purse. She waved the handkerchief, letting its skein brush against her lips.
“We moved from Riga to Moscow in 1925. I was 13,” Madame Yankelson began her story. “My father was a renowned gemologist. He started working as an expert at the Central Jewelry Trust.”
“So you’re originally from Riga,” Simon interrupted.
“Oh yes,” she picked up the dangling story. “Moscow was terribly overcrowded. At first we lived in an awful hole in the wall—that even though my father was getting a very good salary and had connections. Finally, this was already 1926, my father managed to secure two connected rooms in a very decent apartment. Communal, of course, but that’s the way it was back in those days. We moved to Gendrikov Lane, a very nice central location—you’re from Moscow, you should know where it is.”
“Vaguely,” Simon said. “Isn’t it somewhere near the Taganka Theater?”
Madame Yankelson sighed and dabbed off tiny beads of dew on her forehead.
“I was a girl, but already a young woman,” she continued. “Now imagine: We’re moving in. It’s a hot sunny day in June. My father is at his office, my mother is running around and supervising the movers, and I’m just standing in everybody’s way, wearing a lovely little sailor dress with ribbons and frills, taking everything in. And suddenly I see a big handsome man with a shaved head, descending the stairs. At first I thought he was mean-spirited, but then he smiled at me, not even a full smile but a half-smile and a flicker in his eyes, and I could tell he was a gentle soul. ‘Hello, young lady,’ he said. ‘Let’s get acquainted. I’m Mayakovsky.’ ‘I’m Violetta Yankelson,’ I said. He spoke to me in such a way that I felt I could trust him completely. And may the Lord punish me if I’m lying to you, I felt that I would have done anything for this beautiful sad man. Anything.”
“So you lived in the same building as Mayakovsky did?” Simon asked, just to make sure he understood her correctly. The whole story was so fabulous.
“Yes, after 1926. And still after he shot himself. That was in 1930, I remember the day I found out like it was yesterday. They lived one floor above us. Mayakovsky and the Briks. Lilya was legally Brik’s wife, and Mayakovsky loved her madly. She ruined his life, you know that, don’t you.”
“What was he like?” Simon asked.
“Mayakovsky? A genius. And such a gallant man. He was always so kind to us. My parents worshipped him.”
Madame Yankelson wiped the corners of her eyes with a thumb wrapped in the handkerchief. They sat for about a minute without speaking. All around them on the clearing, grasshoppers stammered away, dragonflies juddered in midflight, bees pulverized the mountain air. The life of insects went about its hourly tasks, replete with small sounds and vibrations and yet indifferent to the fluctuations of human spirit.
“Madame Yankelson, should we head back?”
“Back?” she repeated, confusedly, but then, regaining clarity of mind, she lifted her body from the bench. Clutching her white purse with one hand, she leaned on Simon’s elbow with the other. They walked on the path, and quite innocently and thoughtlessly, just trying to find his way out of the encroaching silence, he said to Madame Yankelson:
“I’m ashamed to admit but I’ve never been to Riga. We used to go to Estonia every summer.”
Suddenly, as if picking up a forgotten thread in the labyrinth of her past, she stopped, looked at Simon with stern passion, and cried out:
“I love Riga and I hate it. It’s the place of my birth; it’s a city of death. My parents had the foolishness to go to Riga in 1940 to visit my grandparents. My older brother was a young air force pilot stationed in the North. I was a recent university graduate. We didn’t stop them, and we were never to see them again. Killed at Rumbala …”
Madame Yankelson and Simon parted in front of the main entrance, and he could see that her companion Lydia Shmukler, a silent sentinel, was waiting in her chair. Simon waved to her, said a formal goodbye to Madame Yankelson, and ran up four flights of stairs to his garret. He collapsed and slept until lunch.
The Sunday night dance was one of the high points of the vacationers’ week at Bluebell Inn. Simon was already a little anxious that Madame Yankelson would again decide to unburden herself and nominate him as her dance partner, but, luckily for him, she complained of a migraine and said she wasn’t going to be at the “evening ball.” Simon was standing on the front porch, flanked by both grandmothers. For some inexplicable reason, Styopa’s grandmother, who was usually pretty tight-lipped when it came to other people’s lives, looked crookedly at Madame Yankelson and hissed,
“You’re a vile woman, Violetta.”
“You should go back to the mountains,” Madame Yankelson said.
“I am in the mountains,” Styopa’s grandmother threw back.
“I mean the Caucasus, where you’re from. In civilized society people are broad-minded. And you think it’s the Middle Ages and they still practice honor killings,” Madame Yankelson had the last word.
From where Simon was standing, he could see Marina playing rainbow ball with her little sister at the far end of the front lawn. The two sisters, both wearing skorts that were in fashion that summer, and both clad in green tops, formed a wondrous praying mantis in the freshly mowed grass.
The main dining room had been converted into the dance floor. Basya from Minsk tended the bar. There was a DJ and a disco silver ball multiplying magenta and indigo lights. Marina’s grandfather and father sported identical, groomed barrel mustaches of the sort that they used to call “Cossack mustache” in the old country. Marina’s father was dressed in a light seersucker suit; a shiny cummerbund kept his gut in place. The grandfather, a retired artillery lieutenant colonel, clicked his heels, bowed slightly with his head only, and asked Simon’s grandmother to dance. He brought her back, flushed up and smiling, and asked Styopa’s grandmother for the next dance, which happened to be “Lady in Red.” Simon stood there in a group with Marina, her parents and sister, wanting to steal Marina from her family.
“So you’re from the capital,” Marina’s father barked into Simon’s ear.
“Who are you studying to be?” the father asked, phrasing the question precisely the way most of their compatriots did—not what are you studying or majoring in but who, who you’re studying to be.
“I’m studying literature,” Simon answered, irritated by the question’s bare-knuckled truth.
“Literature?” Marina’s father repeated, as though the word tasted rancid on his lips.
“Yes, literature, and I also write,” Simon answered, thinking of his short story, which had just come out in a New York émigré magazine.
“Well, young people,” the older of the Brooklyn Cossacks said to Simon and Mira. “Why are you standing? Dance and enjoy.”
Simon led Marina to the floor, feeling her father’s stare on his back and shoulders …
Marina shared a room with her second cousin Regina, whose name suggested different nicknames to the Russian and the English ear.
“Can you sneak out tonight?” Simon had asked Marina on the eve of his departure.
“My room’s next to my parents’.”
“Won’t your mom be sleeping?”
“Yes. But Regina reads late at night. She will babble.”
“So let her babble.”
“The whole place will soon know.”
“Don’t they know already?” he asked.
“What they know is not that,” Marina said, and he had to take for face value the promise trapped inside her words.
Simon had trouble falling asleep in the hot garret. A mad orchestra of chirping and flickering noises wafted into his room, but he didn’t want to shut the window because the humid air suffocated. He was thinking about Marina and when they would see each other again … He must have finally drifted off because he did not remember the old ungreased hinges squeaking and the door opening …
She stood at the threshold of his world like an old undine brought back from retirement. Roused by the air current, her translucent white gown was beating, like a sail, at the heavy masts of her body. An unyielding thirst of life moistened her cinnamon lips. Desire burned in her eyes, and this light nearly paralyzed Simon in his bed. He labored to lift himself up on the elbows.
“Madame Yankelson, what are you doing here?”
“Not another word,” she stepped closer, pressing her right index finger to her lips.
Struggling to find the right expression, the kind of language that would tactfully ward off the old lady who may have been sundowning, Simon finally uttered,
“Madame Yankelson, you cannot be here.”
She stood so close to his bed that in the light of the moon coming in through the slanted roof he could see the palimpsest of her makeup, smell the wilted lily-of-the-valley scent of her body.
“I beg you, don’t send me away,” Madame Yankelson, pleading with her voice and arms.
“Madame Yankelson, please. I have nothing but respect for—”
“Just let me have one kiss. To seal our hallowed friendship. And I will be your muse for eternity,” she said desperately.
And it was then that Marina Ayzenbaum appeared. She slipped in and froze in the doorway. On Marina’s face Simon read horror—horror and incomprehension. Hands pressed to her face, she dashed out of the room.
“Get out, old bat. Now see what you’ve done,” Simon threw these words at Madame Yankelson and ran out after Marina, but it was too late.
In the morning, after breakfast, Marina’s mother accosted Simon in the hotel lobby.
“Marinochka told me everything,” she said, revulsion in her voice. “You are a pervert. My husband would have ripped your throat out. Be grateful he left early this morning.”
She turned and walked away, carrying a bagel in one hand and a banana in the other. The bagel and banana were probably for Marina, whom Simon never saw again.
Simon’s first American summer ended ingloriously.
Excerpted from Maxim D. Shrayer, A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas. Copyright © 2019 by Maxim D. Shrayer. Reprinted with permission.