In spring, the tiny scrap of dry land in front of the house, a square with rough edges, was covered in thin, scraggly grass. In winter, during snowstorms that had become more frequent in recent years, everything around became dirty and grayish, deserted, naked.
In front of the neighboring house number 47 there was planted a little garden, tiny, so lush and well-groomed: improbable, an oasis in the middle of the asphalt ocean.
The Russian family had almost nonstop company. These people were either Russian guests or fellow Russian émigrés. “They will not take away the luxury of friends and sociability!” the wife said hotly. “They took away our theaters, denied us our culture and arts, but the companionship I will not let them take away from me.” She waved her right hand in the air with passion, and then she clammed up, as if shy of her outburst. Who were these bad people who took away her culture? She didn’t clarify.
The next time around the family had some serious company: Dina’s father and sister. They came with a hidden agenda. They wanted to understand if the game was worth the trouble, if there was more to lose than gain. The relatives wished to find out if it was the time to move, to immigrate. Should they join the family or should they live their lives as before, unperturbed? The year was nineteen ninety-two.
Dina’s father, the big David, was inclined to skepticism which he openly showed in his squints and smirks. The sister was amazed and she was jealous. Of what? Victor made a little money delivering pizza in his old, rusty car, the bottom of which was corroded in many places forming holes; there was a piece of plywood under his feet so he would not fall through. Dina worked in a small beauty parlor doing nails, her one safeguard, and her little skill she was able to drum up as a survival kit for the future immigration in order to obtain her first job. As it turned out, she got stuck in this beauty business, gradually losing any hope of being a skilled professional again, her former university degree in art history, her aspirations, her tastes and sophisticated notions fading into thin air. Instead, she learned how to master the art of acrylic nails. She came home smelling of beeswax and nail polish, exhausted, pockets full of cash that Victor counted methodically. She relaxed on their brown faux leather coach, and her bare thighs became instantly sticky and clammy. Almost all their furniture in the house was either dragged from the streets or bought at the local yard sales.
Dina was nervous. She did not want her family to be here now. For the last few years she had been so lonely, wanted so much to have her people near, to share her life. Now they came to visit, but she was different; as it turned out, she had changed. And they, they had not changed at all. Also, she had to spend a good amount of time in the kitchen. It was summer, and the small garden next to her neighbor’s house—the only well-tended piece of land in the whole “village”—was lush with rhododendrons and other American plants. Her neighbor, a woman named Sharon, spent her weekends and nights in this small paradise. She toiled; she planted and weeded her garden. Sometimes she just relaxed with a book in a lounge chair. Tall, bronzed, big-boned Sharon would raise her face to the burning rays of the sun. From time to time she would wipe her brow, move her lovely head, throwing back her ashy, sun-bleached hair. From a frosty glass she sipped something cool, languidly smoked and sometimes showered her long tanned body with a garden hose, legs, torso, and hands—together with her precious plants. Dina glanced at her through the kitchen window, sighed and turned her Russian hamburgers, kotlety, over.
She liked Sharon. The woman was strong, uncomplicated, jolly and careless. The American seemed to her like a free, happy bird. Any minute she would rise, swing her wings and fly away.
At first, Victor was happy with the arrival of his father-in-law, and Dina was happy for him, but suspected what was coming next. After three weeks of shopping, of nonstop scrutiny of every item in every local department store and numerous expeditions to small consignment shops, several gifts—how could he say no to the old man who didn’t have any American money?—after hours of watching television in his company and acting as his personal interpreter, he became irritable. In the evenings, he usually went upstairs early. Dina became progressively more and more anxious. At night, she did not sleep so well. She tossed and turned and her husband’s grubbing hands weren’t welcome (he was of course asleep, but his automatic response was to touch, and stroke, and probe). She got up and walked quietly through the house, anticipating tomorrow, trying to enjoy her space; but her father slept in the living room, snoring and making some other strange noises. Her sister took over the nursery, David’s tiny room. They had to move his bed into the master bedroom, and he did not like it. Poor David, spoiled rotten by his grandpa and Auntie Vera—with rich Russian chocolates, and cuddles, and fuss, and baby talk—his schedule upset, his temper unbearable, turned into a hyper mini-monster. He was running around, almost naked, in his diapers and undershirt, up and down the stairs; he jumped out of the house, dashed back in; he slammed the flimsy doors and yelled, tormenting the tight inner space of the house. The visitors, it seemed, looked the other way, as if they didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. They perpetually asked questions and criticized everything: America, Russia, humidity, and stupid television shows. Walking through the house, thinking her little anxious thoughts, Dina craved some activity, her hands tight in the suffocating space of the sleeping house. What to do? What should be done? The dishes were washed, the laundry sorted; there was nothing, nothing at all. Her sleeping Vic, the fool, he was happier in his own silly way, he slipped into the world of his own making, building his castles in thin air, escaping. And what about her? What did she have besides this family, her son, her unquiet self? What did she have that separated her from everything else? Or rather, what did she have that allowed her to suffer through her separation?
Once, at sunset, when the dishes had been already washed, Dina came to the open front door for some cool evening air. Through the fine door screen she peered into the darkness. The late summer twilight had already fallen; the sun was setting into the river; and the drabness of the “village” wasn’t visible. The sweet scent of summer overwhelmed her with a smell of flowers and greenery. She heard voices from the far ends of the “village,” perhaps, teenagers were at the playground again; a dog’s woof came from someplace, another dog replied in a drawling barking retort. All these came from that sweet summer dusk …
Dina stood in the doorway, her hands wrapped in the edge of her apron. Delicious coolness and tranquility was flowing into the house; the darkness was spellbinding. It was strange for her to stand there like this. From the neighbor’s garden came Sharon’s voice; it sounded relaxed and slow—she made out her silhouette in the darkness and called out.