The whole four seasons thing is basically a myth. We want to believe in it, and are disappointed year after year. Our expectations set us up, our memories deceive us. In New York, there’s no such thing as spring. Because the city doesn’t need it, residing as it does in perpetual, merciless rebirth. Whereas Odessa has no fall, out of the same consideration of redundancy. Odessa is always dying out, mourning what it has lost, living in the wake of its heyday, letting go the last leaves of a more fertile time. Autumn is diffused into its spirit. But Odessa has a glorious spring that takes its sweet time, unfolding gracefully and precisely, allowing no shortcuts. The land, sea, and sky are in agreement about the importance of sticking to tradition, even if they don’t remember why the procession of events must occur just so. Maybe it is simply out of neglect that the spring has been maintained in such fine condition. Maybe the thing you forget to fuss over is what gets preserved.
Since anything that ever happened in Odessa happened a long time ago, and the present has been created solely for remembering, we must train our gaze way back if we are going to see anything. Even so, some things might appear a bit blurry or faded, with some of the dialogue distorted by time.
Many people took the spring for granted, but Valya wasn’t one of them. Odessa was still new to her, a revelation. Clamoring and grumbling in the distance was the thunder of her past. In a little village on the Dnieper River were her parents and siblings, that miserable, dull folk who she hoped to never see again. Was her heart encased in a block of ice? This was a different time and people, especially young women scraping to get by, didn’t ask pointless questions of themselves. Everything Valya loved, inasmuch as she was capable of love, was in Odessa. Her real family wasn’t the one she left behind, but Firachka and the Semyonovs, who took her in.
It was hard not to doubt her capacity for love, or any other emotion really, when everyone in the vicinity so flagrantly touted theirs. Valya didn’t get carried away. When others described her—if they ever did, I’m not sure there was much reason to—they mentioned her reserve, a quality that was notable in Odessa, where even the cats were opera singers. The emotional tenor of the city had no roof—everyone’s dramas were crescendoing all over the place. People were laughing, screaming, crying, doing everything imaginable to maintain the hysterical pitch of humanity, so they wouldn’t have to stop and hear a single thought. Sometimes this pitch comforted Valya, other times it terrified her, but it always made her feel deficient. She wished she could tear down the walls within and join in the madness, the mayhem, the muck.
Of course, she’d never be as alive as Firachka, but maybe that was for the best. All that aliveness didn’t do Firachka much good, she was constantly struggling.
One of Firachka’s recent struggles had turned in Valya’s favor. Fira had gotten a job at the Odessa National Research Library—family connections. At first, she was terribly excited. How romantic, to spend your days among books! But within a few days she grew disenchanted, as the reality was all bureaucracy and tedium. Fira handed off the job to Valya, saying, “It will be perfect for you.” And it was! Cataloging was in Valya’s nature. The smell of books was intoxicating. She transformed that ineffable scent into her fine penmanship, capturing the books like butterflies and housing them in systems of logic and order.
Valya was a voracious reader, dousing herself in accounts of passion and despair. Books were a way to get your dose of living, without any of the risk. Reading was an activity that self-selected cowards. Cowardice was just another word for an intense imagination. An imagination grew the more you read, and the more the imagination grew, the harder it was to take a single step.
Valya was 24, an age by which a woman should already have a family. But men weren’t drawn to Valya. She was pretty enough, but she lacked something. Men needed a dash of madness in their woman. Men wanted their lives to be made hellish. They had to look at a woman, and see murkiness. Only if there was murkiness could they go fishing for their future. If the water was transparent, without the magical sprinkling that turned it opaque, the deal made no sense. It was too obvious they were being gypped.
There were no chemical reactions to Valya’s personality. Everything added to it stayed separate, like oil in water. There was no spontaneous frothing, no strange mixing, never an unpredictable moment. Which was why she belonged in a library and why, by the looks of things, in a library she would remain. But only as long as she was allowed to reside with the Semyonovs. And it was only a matter of time before Firachka found a husband and he took Valya’s place in the Semyonov home. Then Valya would have to return to her dreary village, and at that point she may as well kill herself.
Which may sound melodramatic, but Valya saw it as a practical, albeit last-ditch solution to the dilemma of where to place her body. Would it be so terrible to stop existing? To mix with nature and forget her worries? The only difficulty would be overcoming the aliveness within. Though she had far fewer emotional outbursts than others, the writhing animal in her chest was strong. She had a stubborn vitality. So many women made a huge fuss, but you knew that extinguishing them would be no problem. For Valya, dying wouldn’t be easy. Her animal would want to fight.
She was walking home from work, drinking in the fresh spring air after a day in the dark stuffy atmosphere, when a car stopped beside her. It was as if the city suddenly noticed her and asked to see her identification. Driving the car was an ugly man with beady red eyes. “What’s your name?” he asked.
Valya gaped at him. “Are you the police?”
His lips curled, revealing jagged, yellow teeth. “Are you a criminal?”
“Then I’m not the police. I’m Fedya.”
She kept walking. He kept following.
Valya wasn’t used to being courted. As already mentioned, she wasn’t magical or insane, vivacious or sensual, but sensible and self-aware. She hunched a little out of timidity. If God could grant her one wish, it would be to disappear, although of course that was her greatest fear as well.
The scene was extremely unsavory—walking with a man on her trail, furthermore a man in a car. He called to her, trying to get her attention, as if she were a cat. Finally, just out of a sense of decency, for the sake of the street, she got into the car.
It smelled of leather and cigarettes and gasoline and potato latkes and death—her death. She didn’t really care, now that she was inside the car. Her thought was that he would drive off quickly, do terrible things to her, and dispose of her body outside city limits. Hopefully he would hide her body well, so no one would have the misfortune of finding the mess. Maybe she could even ask him to do a good job, as a last wish.
“What’s your name?” Fedya asked again.
“I don’t give my name to strange men.”
“Are you married?”
Valya shook her head.
“Marry me,” Fedya said, “and I won’t be a strange man.”
Valya got annoyed. This guy really had no plan. He just wanted to talk, and keep talking. He thought she would be interested in him just because he had a car, but she was repulsed. He had a large, greedy mouth, slimy lips, a hooked nose that went down to his chin, close-set eyes, gaping pores, a receding hairline, no neck to speak of, a barrel chest, hair sprouting everywhere. His hand was on the steering wheel. Two of the fingers were missing, middle finger and thumb. “Blown off,” he said.
“In the war?”
“No, in the gastronome.”
He laughed. Her stomach turned.
“You’re not from around here,” he said, “are you?”
She shook her head.
“I know this town better than anybody. Let me show you around.”
“Thank you for the offer, but I live with someone who was born here, and we do everything together.”
Fedya exhaled in irritation. “So, you are married?”
“Married to Firachka?” Valya laughed.
Suddenly he honked the horn and stuck his head out the window and yelled, “Dodik, you don’t even say hello?”
A beautiful man in tight white pants ran over. Valya was stunned by Dodik’s beauty, and his obsequious manner. It was hard to believe that such a handsome man would be friends with someone as vile as Fedya.
While the two men talked, Valya looked around the car, which seemed to grow more spacious. Then she noticed something strange: The floor was moving, and her feet were moving with it. Though she was only 5-foot-5, she wore a size 10 shoe. She was so modestly made in every regard, except those flippers, which were changing shape before her eyes, shrinking, arches accentuating, toes slimming and straightening. Fright made her grip ease and her bag fell to the floor. It, too, melted, transforming into the bag she had admired, against the backdrop of Fira’s disapproval—Fira believed material possessions were shallow and beside the point—in the shop window on Deribasovskaya. Such fine leather, such an elegant clasp!
“Care to introduce me to the young lady?” Dodik said.
“She won’t tell me her name.”
When Dodik looked at Valya, she found it hard to breathe. His watery blue eyes would’ve made a flagpole feel immodest. “Don’t be scared,” Dodik said. “Fedya doesn’t bite. He only nibbles.”
“Valya,” she said.
“Looks like my work here is done,” Dodik said. He reached inside the car to honk the horn before he went off.
“What the hell does that guy have that I don’t?” Fedya asked.
Valya looked at him slumped at the wheel—he truly didn’t seem to know the answer. She felt bad for him, and this feeling of pity was like a door; it frightened her. Grabbing her bag, she ran out of the car. When she heard the engine roar, she ducked into an alleyway and stood pressed to the wall, catching her breath. The smell of roasted zucchini and garlic reached her, and then the voices of two women arguing about butter that had gone missing. Valya peeked out, finding the street empty. How silly. Fedya had probably stopped a dozen women that day. There was probably another woman in his car already. Valya reached into her bag for a sucking candy to calm her nerves and found that the bag had transformed back into her tattered old thing.
Olga Borisovna was making cutlets in the kitchen. No one else was home. Fira was spending all her time with the latest boyfriend.
Valya was a little bit terrified of Olga Borisovna. In the world Valya came from, women were meek, dominated by men. But Olga Borisovna was in charge. She was stronger than her husband, Efim, in every way. Her verdict allowed Valya to stay in the house. Very few mothers would have allowed this situation. The apartment was communal, so Valya and Fira slept in a little nook separated off by a curtain. Olga Borisovna and Efim slept on the other side of the room. Olga Borisovna originally agreed to let Valya stay for a few weeks, but those weeks had turned into months, and now almost two years had passed. This arrangement went unspoken. Every day Valya feared that her stay would be terminated, although that would largely depend on Firachka finding a husband, and considering the scarcity of men after the war, and Firachka’s ability to go through them, the chances of that happening were slim.
Olga Borisovna’s dinner-making technique was haphazard at best. She threw everything she could get her hands on into a pot, including the newspaper. The mystery ingredient in the garnish was the hair the family shed—recycling was alive and well in the Soviet Union, without all the hullabaloo. Valya tried to offer her services, as she was a good cook, but her flavorful creations made the family’s stomachs ache. Stomachs were used to what they were used to.
Valya sat down at the kitchen table and picked up the scraps of the newspaper Olga Borisovna deemed too unsavory to use in the stew. Her eyes glazed over the words industrial mechanization in the era of hegemonic grain elevation per molecule of release valve technology in infants of the breed citrus do not exceed quota.
“How did you and Efim meet?” she asked.
“What a silly question. We’ve always known each other.”
“But did you ever know each other less than now?”
Olga Borisovna paused, dangling a carrot over the pot. “Maybe a little.”
“What was it like then, between you two?”
The carrot resisted the pot. It kept jumping out. Olga Borisovna had to strangle it into the water. “The same, but he snored less, and had bigger eyebrows.”
“Did you prefer him that way?”
“I have never preferred Efim one way or the other.”
“And now—are you in love?”
Olga Borisovna sighed. “Oh, sure!”
This surprised Valya. She’d seen the movies. Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn were in love. Olga Borisovna and Efim didn’t give the same impression. “How do you know?”
“I love Efim because it’s easier that way,” Olga Borisovna said. “I could decide not to love him, just as I could decide to commit murder, but I choose to keep things as they are, because they aren’t so bad after all.”
“I don’t think you could murder anyone!” Valya exclaimed.
Olga Borisovna looked offended. Or maybe she was just getting wafts off the stew. “Why not?”
“Because you’re a very good person, Olga Borisovna. You’re kind. Even to your cat.”
A look of horror crossed Olga Borisovna’s face. “I would never hurt Murza! How could you even suggest such a thing?”
Olga Borisovna ran off to show Murza some affection. Valya picked up an apricot and turned it around in her fingers. She hesitated over sinking her teeth into it, not because it looked unappetizing, in fact by my standards it was a tremendous apricot, but sometimes it was nice to look at an apricot and not do anything about it. “I always thought love was an event,” Valya said when Olga Borisovna returned. “But you’re saying it’s a choice.”
“Can’t an event be a choice? And vice versa?”
Valya kept turning the apricot. It was nice to be sitting in that kitchen, maybe because she was choosing it to be so. Was she choosing how it felt, or was it just feeling that way all on its own, and was it just inside of her, this feeling, or outside of her as well?
The next day, Fedya’s car was parked outside the library. Something within Valya smiled. She walked right past the car with a quick, strong gait. He called to her. She kept going. The car pulled up beside her, purring compliantly, but with a hint of malice. “Let me take you for some ice cream,” Fedya said. “Come on, why are you running off?”
She was flying, the wind in her sails. The attentions of this strange man lifted her off the ground. Finally, she turned to him and was deflated. His face was oily and pimply. His large nose pulled the skin until it was red and thick like scar tissue. His mouth was large and wide. The spring left her step. She felt so heavy she could hardly keep walking. She got into his car and the engine roared, taking them down the open, lazy street lined in oaks.
Valya became disoriented. The car changed time. It rendered the city unrecognizable. People looked so much smaller and more fragile, like puppet versions of themselves. When she walked among the Odessans, they loomed large, like gods, ferocious and powerful, whereas she was small and contained. But now, as the car drove along the streets, these people looked pathetic. They were reduced, insignificant, their dramas laughable. They were crying and shouting over things that were already in the rearview mirror.
The car came to a halt. Fedya jumped out and disappeared into an alleyway, emerging a few minutes later with two ice cream cones. The deliciousness was tempered by having to watch him eat. He had one hand on the steering wheel while the other held the ice cream rather too high, so he had to jump out of his seat in order to lick it. It was as if he were an animal and the ice cream was being held by his trainer.
Valya looked ahead, into the view in front of her, and became happy. It was as if each lick, and each block, were being converted into currency that was being fed into a piggy bank. After enough had been collected, she decided to inspect the piggy bank, to see how much was stored up. But the piggy bank had a big hole at the bottom and whatever was fed into it disappeared just as quickly. “Where are you taking me?” she asked.
“It’s a surprise.”
“I don’t like surprises.”
“How do you know until you find out what it is?”
“Please stop the car.”
But the car kept going.
“Don’t you hear what I’m saying? I want you to stop the car!”
Fedya grinned. He raised his hands and feet to show they weren’t touching the car, which kept shooting forward. “I’m not driving it,” he said, “you are. And if you wanted it to turn around, it would. Believe me, I have no intention of holding you hostage.”
Valya shifted in her seat. The car came to a halt in the middle of the road. She shifted again and it moved ahead grudgingly. It must be true, she thought, I’m in control, I must want this. She looked at him in despair, but then a wall inside of her opened and the despair fell into it, and it almost felt pleasurable.
They found themselves at the beach. The beaches in Odessa were organized by fountains. The regular people, like the Semyonovs, bathed on Twelfth Fountain. The fabulous people bathed on Tenth Fountain. There were all the other fountains as well, but they didn’t matter. Fedya took her to the fabulous people fountain, at which Valya had only ever gaped from outside (it was fenced off, although there were holes in the fence and regular people managed to get through if they wanted to, but many regular people turned up their nose at the fabulous people fountain and wouldn’t want to go there even if they could, or at least they said as much).
The swimming season hadn’t yet opened. It was May, and early evening. The only people at the beach were hooligans and drunk older couples, the scum of society, who were allowed to enjoy themselves even at the wrong time.
It was hard enough to sit next to Fedya in a car, but at least in the sitting position they were on the same level. Now his head came up to her chin. Valya felt embarrassed to look at him, and he, too, seemed self-conscious. To combat this feeling, he walked really fast and spastically, as if trying to wriggle out from under scrutiny, as if by moving fast enough no one would be able to pin him down and get a good look at what was there.
“You work at the library,” he said. “How do you like that?”
“I love it. It’s a pleasure to be around books all day, to smell them.”
“That is because you have a lovely nose.”
People often commented on Valya’s nose, because it was practically nonexistent. She was being complimented not on something she had, but something she lacked. In a way, that’s all she was, a collection of lacks, strung together holes. The irony was that Valya’s sense of smell was very powerful. It was through scents that she processed the world. She was cautious only because so many things smelled so suspicious.
The sea rolled over onto its other side and let out a sigh. Fedya ran away from it, thinking he was in danger. Once he realized everything was fine, he assumed a pose of confidence. “I run the vodka plant,” he said. “The only person above me is the director, but he is drunk all day, so I’m the one who makes all the decisions.”
Valya scrunched her nose. “So, you’re the one responsible for spreading that evil into the world.” How prudish she sounded. She looked down at her big, ugly feet.
“I hate the stuff myself,” Fedya said. “No one who likes to drink would’ve made it as far as I have—they would’ve drunk themselves into a stupor. I have to be in control all the time, especially since everyone else is wasted.”
“Then you never have a drink?”
“At meetings, I keep two bottles under the table, an empty one into which I pour out the vodka from my ryumka, and another one with water to replace the vodka.”
Before long, Valya found herself telling Fedya of her situation, how she lived with her best friend from university, Firachka, and her family. They were very kind to take her in, and they did their best to make her feel like family, but the situation was tenuous at best. It was nice to let this off her shoulders. As she told the story, she was surprised how negative it came out. This whole time she thought she was very happy to be where she was, but in fact from the words it would seem she was rather dissatisfied. “The Semyonovs are cultured and loving, but they are slobs. I try to clean up after them, but the mess proliferates instantly.”
“Do you think it’s because they are Jews?” Fedya asked.
“Not at all!” Valya said. Then she paused. “Or if so, then it doesn’t matter. Jews are wonderful people, I’m convinced of it.”
“I’m glad you think so well of us,” Fedya said.
Valya blushed. Then a wave of anger pulsed through her. “You might be changing that.”
They looked at each other. Then they laughed.
Having laughed once, it wasn’t long before Valya laughed a second time, and a third. Fedya had a restless energy that captivated her attention, it took work to keep up. And his own story was comfortingly familiar. He considered himself an orphan even though his family was still alive. They were so self-involved, so crazy, that he never felt them to be a source of support. He’d had to do everything for himself, they never helped him at all. The only thing he felt toward them was hatred.
This was so refreshing to hear! Everyone in Odessa was so close to their families. There could be shouts, tears, even fistfights, but nothing perturbed the clannish sense of love and togetherness. Valya pretended that she had it with the Semyonovs, but underneath she still felt essentially alone. It seemed Fedya felt that way as well.
“Let me take you for a nice meal,” he said. She protested. But the offer was hard to resist. The Semyonov stew, with its newspaper clippings, frizzy hair, neurosis crumbs, and guilt bulk wasn’t exactly calling to her. She’d been subsisting on it for so long and her stomach longed for something new and nourishing.
He packed her back into his car and drove to a restaurant where they were greeted like royalty. Led to the best table. Served the best dishware. Valya was both in awe of the grandiosity and put off by it. Fedya’s crass manner pained her. But everyone else responded to it with great respect. Did she ever think that she would be eating black caviar by the spoonful? Could she ever have anticipated this kind of treatment?
Wine was poured into goblets. “I thought you didn’t drink,” Valya said.
“This isn’t alcohol, it’s wine. Very good young wine from Georgia. Try it, you’ll see.”
Valya took a sip and screwed up her face. “Not for me,” she said.
Fedya shrugged. “If you won’t drink it, I will.” He reached for her glass but she got to it first. “Maybe the taste will grow on me,” she said.
And would you believe it, she finished the glass almost with pleasure, although perhaps that arose more from a sense of accomplishment. The waiter came to pour more but she declined, under no circumstances could she have any more, despite which a drop or two managed to make it into her glass and she wasn’t about to let it go to waste. It did, however, when it shot out of her nose. Fedya’s mind was a library in and of itself, containing a seemingly endless trove of jokes and anecdotes, which he delivered with masterful precision. The laughs kept coming, as did the courses, and she had the thought, not necessarily crystallized into words, but saturated into the cloud of her being, that this was actually a good thing.
But that cloud dispersed once they were back in the car. He got serious, and said, “I have to tell you something. The night before I met you, I had a dream that I was going to find my future wife in the library. Now, I’ve seen many horrors in my life, but none shook me like that. I’ve avoided the library for as long as I can remember. Why would anyone want to spend their life hidden away in a dark, dusty dungeon? And what kind of wife could I find for myself there—every librarian I’ve seen is a sexless goblin. Point is, the dream left me extremely startled. But I tend to follow my gut—it hasn’t failed me yet. So that day, I went to the library, held my breath, and walked into the mothball blast. I watched you for a long time. I saw the way you calmly and lovingly handle the books, the care and order with which you do everything, your inner peace, a peace I don’t have.
Usually, I don’t need to think twice, I know what needs to be done and I do it. But after watching you, I was left with a hole in my stomach, paralysis in my limbs, and total confusion in my mental apparatus. I have to admit you intimidated me. I got weak and ran out to my car and waited for five hours until the library closed. Those hours passed in a moment, a sweet moment. What were a few more hours when I’ve been waiting my entire life? We are meant to be together, Valya. You must be my wife.”
“That’s nice, but do I get a say in the matter?” Valya laughed, but she was trembling. All she had access to were her physical sensations, but how to interpret them was anybody’s guess. In one light her trembling had the characteristics of nausea, as if she had been poisoned and was feeling increasingly ill. On the other hand, it could just as easily be seen as excitement. She had long noticed that when something she was looking forward to approached, she felt unwell. Sometimes she balked in the face of the things she wanted most, whereas things she didn’t care about, one way or the other, were easy to get through. All she knew, from her trembling, was that something important was happening.
“You don’t have to trust me on my word,” Fedya said. “You said that you like to smell books, right?”
“Close your eyes.”
Valya looked at him skeptically but did as told.
She inhaled. What she smelled was not Fedya, not the ugly little red-faced man who had just been sitting beside her, but a sweet smell. She inhaled several more times just to experience the depth and complexity of the scent and each time she inhaled there were more notes, more depth, she could keep inhaling and never get to the bottom. She opened her eyes and stared into Fedya’s bald pate. She had been breathing in his dandruff.
He looked up at her with lost, pleading eyes that quickly transformed to a proud, aggressive gaze that refused to allow any space for self-doubt. “Well?”
That despair opened up within her again. “Yes,” she said, “it’s a nice smell.”
But what did that mean? What did that conscript her to? Did she owe him her love and support, a man who she found repellent once her eyes were open and she was no longer sniffing his dandruff? Though she was afraid of living fully, of living passionately, of throwing caution to the wind the way, for example, Fira did, she still believed in true love, perhaps even more than people who did all that caution-throwing. She would rather have no love than a compromised one.
“I’d love to be friends. But I can’t be more than that.”
Fedya sighed in irritation. “I have enough friends. Everyone wants to be my friend, to come and go as they please. I need someone who will love me, and commit to me, with her entire heart and soul.”
Valya found his words touching. She could empathize with his desires, and found it admirable how frankly he put them on the table. At the first sign of hesitation, he thrust himself on her, sticking his tongue so deep into her mouth that she felt the throb of its thick stem. A kiss existed not in the moving mouths, the action of the tongues and teeth and lips, but in the shadows that the two mouths cast on a wall that was visible only to the active participants. If you looked at Fedya and Valya kissing, it would not look out of the ordinary, but if you looked at the shadows on the wall, you would see a man with his hands around a woman’s neck. It was sheer aggression, as if the only way to touch a woman was to overpower her, impose upon her, possess her through physical dominion. This was the way a dog might kiss, if a dog hated itself, if a dog had been beaten its entire life and had to fight for every grain of survival.
Valya went limp. A wave of nausea swelled through her and she pushed him off, or tried; he refused to be moved. Though he was smaller than she was, there was a storm of force in his barrel chest, with which he pinned her to the seat. With a snapping sound, she broke away from her body, disengaged from the nausea, and floated off, looking down from a great height at the little green car in which their petty drama was taking place. How strange that a car offered itself as the symbol of freedom when it was just a little cage. When it was over, she said, “Thank you for everything, but please do not contact me again.”
He looked sheepish, imploring. “But we had such a good time.”
Yelena Akhtiorskaya was born in Odessa and raised in Brighton Beach. She holds an MFA from Columbia University. She is the recipient of a Posen Fellowship in Fiction, and her writing has appeared in n+1, The New Republic, Triple Canopy, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City.