Sana Krasikov, in the New Yorker:
The last days of Grisha and Lera Arsenyev’s marriage might have been a story fashioned out of commonplace warnings. Retold, it was no longer about the Arsenyevs at all but about the ambushes that befall the most gleefully naïve of us, still laboring under illusions of security. The Arsenyevs were a different sort of immigrant from those who’d washed up with the tides of asylum-seekers in the seventies and eighties. In 1994, Grisha Arsenyev’s visa had been processed not by the staffs of refugee committees but by a covey of lawyers working for Hewlett-Packard, assigned to skim the cream of Eastern brainpower. After his indentured servitude at HP—which lasted the five years it took the company to come through with the promised green card—Grisha quit and promptly got himself hired for twice as much, as a quant at Morgan Stanley, building market models for mortgage traders.
Whatever envy his fast climb had stirred in the hearts of others, to hear Grisha Arsenyev talk one might guess that immigrating had turned out to be the great anticlimax of his life. At the get-togethers that Lera and Grisha attended, Lera would often see her husband off in a corner, rattling his drink and talking with someone about the moribund state of American culture, the absence of any real spirituality here. It had been known to happen to such late arrivers—the ones who’d risked nothing, forsaken little, and had not even been required by the Russian government to annul their red passports. Once, in somebody’s kitchen, Lera had heard a man refer to her husband as “Lenin in exile” and had recognized the allusion to Grisha’s beard and his huge forehead heightened by baldness, and to the provokable mind that liked to assign every problem its proper place in a political chain of events. The enthusiasm with which Grisha spoke of the “opportunities” in Russia would begin to remind his listener of the sort of miscalculation made by those who marry for money and then invariably realize they didn’t marry for enough. In the economic upheavals he had avoided, his old colleagues who’d stayed in Moscow had started making serious money, while he was still shackled to a salary on Wall Street, of all places. So it surprised only a few when Grisha started travelling back, seeing old friends and making new ones, looking for his own golden formula. And when one of his weeklong trips stretched out to two months Lera found her husband’s absence something to be endured.
On the phone, he told her he had no plans to return to Morgan Stanley, where he had been disregarded, he said, passed over for men whose only qualifications beyond his were that they could quote from “Star Wars” and recall Yankees scores from the Nixon era. He no longer wished to be tyrannized by bogus performance evaluations in which he was called “judgmental” and told that he “imposed his opinion on others,” before being asked to sign that filth like a forced confession. Fate, he said, had chosen a better path for him in his homeland. He was staying in Moscow to look for financiers for a business idea that would do for the Russian market what mortgage traders had done on Wall Street since the eighties: pool and repackage loans for investors in one massive turbine of debt and capital. He would build not only wealth for himself but a better life for the doctors and schoolteachers in distant provinces, still living in run-down, vermin-infested apartments and dreaming of raising their kids in solid houses, if only Russia could grow a robust mortgage industry.
Within three months, Lera had sold the Dobbs Ferry house with its view of the Hudson. Dekabristka, her daughter called her, joking that her devotion was like that of the Decembrist wives who’d followed their men to Siberia after their uprising against the monarchy. She wasn’t sure if Masha meant this kindly, but when the first clouds appeared through the airplane’s windows Lera pretended they were vales of snow she was crossing by sleigh and carriage. She’d be too far away now to send Masha packages at college—scented soaps and soup mixes, magazine clippings and dried flowers from her garden. The garden itself would probably be neglected by the house’s new owners, a busy professional couple with infant twins who wouldn’t necessarily appreciate that Lera had spent several seasons selecting plants for full and partial shade, dragging limestone from a quarry, digging a hole for the dogwood tree to replace the diseased elm that the town had cut down. Then again none of that mattered much now. It was Grisha who needed her, not a garden.
There was effete, uneven applause in the cabin when the plane touched down on the runway in Sheremetyevo. At the gate, Lera looked for Grisha among the people holding bouquets and spied his head. His hair had turned the color of a battleship a while ago, but his skin was still as ruddy as a country boy’s.
“Couldn’t leave anything behind?” he said, smiling at her suitcases. He slid an arm around her shoulder and gave her a quick kiss before leading her out into Moscow’s pale November evening.
Through the vibrating raindrops on the car window, she could see the jagged monument marking the limit of the German advance in ’41 and, just beyond it, the cobalt blue of an Ikea superstore.
“I wish you would convince Masha to fly here for New Year’s,” Lera said. “She says she’s going to stay in the dorms all winter.”
“If she wants to stay, it’s her business. She needs a ticket, I’ll send her money.”
Her husband and her daughter were exactly alike. Both liked to take a misanthropic posture, but against what, Lera could never guess. “I just want to make plans, Grisha. So everything isn’t done at the last minute. If we’re going to start renovating, Masha won’t have a place to sleep. You said it took Olya and Kirill eight months to redo their apartment.”
“Kirill wanted all his closets wired. So when he opens the doors they light up like refrigerators,” Grisha said. “I’m a simple man.”
When they’d left, Grisha’s cousin had been eking out a living fixing furniture. That he had since made a fortune buying and selling upholstery hadn’t changed Grisha’s view that Kirill was fundamentally an idiot.
“You didn’t forget the suit?” Grisha asked. “I’m going to Tver next week.”
“It’s still in its plastic. I don’t know why you need an Armani jacket to talk to a bunch of bureaucrats.” She had gone into the city to buy it for him before she left, because he insisted it was twice as expensive on Tverskaya.
“They aren’t bureaucrats. There are going to be people from SberBank, AIGK. And Stanislav Mitin, too.”
On the phone, Grisha had told her about Mitin, the real-estate developer who’d offered to guarantee the first issue of loans, to put up his own money if a housing market in some province collapsed. She didn’t like the sound of Mitin; his interest in Grisha’s proposed company seemed predicated not on its profit potential but on his sharing Grisha’s somewhat sanctimonious vision of a glorious and holy Russia. Mitin had had an Orthodox priest bless each of his businesses, Grisha had told her, which made her think the man had more than enough to atone for.
“Should I tell you about my flight?” she asked. “They sat me next to one of those Russian candy bars in pink sweatpants. She tapped my shoulder whenever she had to get up and pee. No ‘excuse me.’ No ‘thank you.’ Tap tap. The stewardess told her to put away her giant white leather bag, and she pointed to my purse and said, ‘What about her? Why don’t you tell her to put hers away?’ ”
“What blue bloods we have these days.”
“And her husband had a spade tattooed on one of his fingers.”
A silver chain glinted from under Grisha’s collar. Lera reached over and fished it out with her nail. “What’s this?” She rubbed her thumb over the small cross. Grisha gave her a dark look, like that of a teen-ager whose privacy has been intruded on. “It was my mother’s.”
She let the cross drop and reclined in her seat. In what drawer, she wondered, between what set of ironed sheets, would Grisha’s dead mother, with her Komsomol and Party allegiances, have kept this silver cross?
Along the main drag of Bolshaya Cherkizovskaya, the trees had lost their leaves, revealing sparse playgrounds with wooden seesaws and painted steel climbing bars between the buildings. Soon they were turning onto their old block of Khrushchev-era low-rises just past the Preobrazhenskoye metro, a neighborhood of durable, identical blocks where they’d spent the first years of their marriage.
Little had changed inside. The living room had the same massive lacquered wall unit and textured wallpaper, damaged now by the pencil scrawlings of tenants’ children, the same double curtains of polyester lace and cretonne. Year after year, they had intended to sell the place, waiting first for the market to pick up, then worrying about dishonest agents. Finally, Grisha had simply left it empty for his visits. She could see he hadn’t done anything to the place, that he had probably been waiting for her to arrive and start renovating.
The next morning, Lera made phone calls. She called her aunt in Krasnodar, promising to visit before New Year’s, and her old friend Lidochka, who cried from joy that Lera was only three metro stops away. She called Olya, Grisha’s cousin’s wife, who was rushing off to Mamontovka, where she and Kirill were building a kottedzh. Olya apologized that she couldn’t stay on the phone longer, but she needed to get to the suburbs before her work crew took their eighty-proof eyeopener.
A few days later, Lera called in her own crew to replace the windows in the apartment. The two men who showed up asked if they could change into their work clothes in the living room. They were still in their underwear when she returned ten minutes later with a plate of cheese and glasses of juice. “We’ll forgive you this time,” one of them said, smiling crudely when she looked at his work boots and bare chest. The other one sniffed the juice and said, “Anything a little stronger, Madam?”
“My husband wants the windowsills replaced as well,” she said, leading them through the rooms. “And please take away the old glass when you’re done. I don’t want to give my husband more work to do.” The words “my husband” were like an incantation, filling the rooms with Grisha’s spirit, a Grisha who defended his wife’s honor and did not tolerate grown men stripping in his home. The husband she invoked was master of his domain, a more solid presence than the one who actually lived here. The one who lived here left early and came home late, just as he’d done in Dobbs Ferry. In the mornings now he took the metro to Kitai-Gorod, where he rented the corner space from a computer company. A real office would come later, he told Lera, when he found more investors for his securities firm. He was going to Tver, a regional center two hours north, in a few days to pitch his idea to some forward-thinking mini-garchs. At night he worked at the computer desk in the bedroom, before getting into bed and reading a few pages of the book on his nightstand.
“Who is that?” Lera asked one night, looking at the bulldoglike face on the jacket.
“Pavel Ryabushinsky.” He had his chin tucked into his chest as he read.
She wedged her pelvis against the side of his hip. “A writer?”
“He was an industrialist at the turn of the century.”
“Like Rockefeller?” she said. Her fingers played with the hair on his stomach. The warm world below the blanket had its own rules.
Grisha didn’t answer. He turned another page. Traffic sounds floated in through their casement window. “Rockefeller was like him,” he said, nearly a minute later. “Russia was more industrialized than America back then. The ruble was more stable than the dollar.” She felt Grisha’s soft belly tighten under her stroking hand. She didn’t remember when they had developed this pattern of him not responding to her until the last possible moment. Seductively, she traced her finger along the elastic band of his shorts. He hadn’t made love to her since she’d arrived. Now he removed her hand, patted it, and placed it beside him on the sheet. “I have to get up early,” he said, shutting the book and curling up toward the wall.
She tried not to feel insulted. He was exhausted by his work. She was here now, to take care of him. She would make Grisha a special dinner before he went on his overnight trip to Tver on Thursday. The next morning, she walked to the Preobrazhensky market to get groceries and fresh fish, following the crowds rolling their handcarts down a footpath lined with pensioners holding up hand-knitted shawls and strings of dried mushrooms. A battery of grandmothers stood along the chain-link fence peddling old shoes they’d set out on newspapers. Books, dull knives, outmoded cameras—useless things. How conspicuous the elderly were here, she thought, how openly old.
She made her way through the acre of stone counters piled with carrots and potatoes, tubs of sour cabbage. Sharp gusts of wind burned her cheeks. At a table covered with egg cartons, a frizzy-haired blonde in fingerless gloves rubbed her hands together and lit a cigarette.
“Right out of the henhouse,” Lera said, and grinned. She pointed to the largest of the eggs, which had a downy feather stuck to it. “How much?”
The woman exhaled smoke through the side of her mouth. “You can’t read?” She glanced down just enough for Lera to notice the prices taped to the edge of the table.
Lera picked up a carton and started to fill it with eggs.
“Take a look at her,” the woman said. “Self-service.”
“You didn’t want to be bothered.”
The blonde shook her head. “Give me that,” she said, grabbing the egg carton. “At this speed, you’ll take all day. Can’t you see you’re driving away my customers?”
“Excuse me. Excuse me,” the woman said, loading eggs.
“Don’t be a dandelion,” Grisha told her when she complained to him in the evening. “You like to let everything raise your blood pressure.” He’d finished the mushroom soup she had made for him and was cutting into the trout she’d served. “You know how these people live,” he said, washing down the fish with white wine. “This egg lady probably has to get up before the roosters, use an outhouse, drive here from some huyevo-tutuyevo. O.K., so she has light bulbs, thanks to Lenin’s faith in electricity. You want her to tell you to have a nice day?”
“And she’s just waiting for you to make her life better,” she said, finishing her wine.
He let her remark pass, apparently deeming it too foolish to acknowledge. “Someone looks at you wrong, Lera, and you need a sedative. What do you think I have to put up with? The last time I gave this talk that I’m giving tomorrow, some V.I.P. picked his nose through my entire presentation. And not just digging—I mean doing an investigation.”
“I don’t want to argue,” she said. “I only wanted to tell you about my day.”
She got up and set her dishes in the small sink. She would need to look for a job here, to channel her mind toward something more useful than complaining. For the past two years, since the drug laboratory where she’d worked had closed its Westchester branch, she had manned the reception desk at her gym three days a week. She’d taken an exit package from the lab, learned to garden, started reading novels again. She missed the gym now, missed the women telling her about the nannies they’d hired or the ones they’d fired because they’d caught them stealing money or seen photographs of nephews in Hungary playing with toys that had disappeared from the house. She missed being told in confidence about the cycling instructor who’d remarried his first wife right after divorcing his third. At the gym, people involved her in the theatre of their daily lives as though she were a bartender, handing them not towels but glasses of gin. In the evening, when she’d tried to interest Grisha in these stories, he’d listened with a face of painful submission. When she was with him, the life that gave her pleasure seemed frivolous; it was like describing a sitcom—the plots unravelled, the jokes were no longer funny. Grisha would listen until he had finished eating and then go upstairs to start his graveyard shift, working late into the night on articles about “social mortgages” and “securitization” that he submitted to Russian economic journals.
She watched him consume his dinner now, get through the trout bite by bite, gulp down his wine. His pale-blue eyes looked watery from exhaustion, the skin of his nose polished as if by a sunburn. His sideburns had been trimmed in preparation for the presentation of his idea for a private loan-backing firm, a Russian Fannie Mae, as he called it. She knew she would have been too frightened to start all over the way he was doing, at forty-six.
“You’ll do fine,” she said. “You’ll see.”
He smirked, though not meanly this time. Lera sat down and slid her hand across the table, touching his arm. She wanted to be a supportive wife, to do whatever fate required, though at times it seemed that the best she could do was not interfere.
She went to meet her friend Lidochka on Thursday afternoon, after Grisha had boarded his train. Her friend had been going by Lidochka, not Lida, all her life—a little girl’s name that had followed her into her forties because of her gentleness and her reputation for being short on common sense. She covered her mouth when she saw Lera on the platform of the Ohotny Ryad metro. “Oh, my soul!” she said, embracing her. Lidochka had once looked like a fairy, but now her small features puckered out of a face that had become as puffy as a flaky pastry.
They went to a café on the ground floor of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, unadorned and nearly empty, which was what Lidochka must have liked about it, Lera thought, living as she did with almost no privacy. When Lera carried éclairs and coffee to their table, she saw tears in Lidochka’s eyes. “How I’ve waited for you,” Lidochka said, touching Lera’s thin jacket lovingly. “Don’t spend your money. I’ll have Natasha pick you up a good coat on her next trip.” Lidochka looked out the window at the dry, tiny snowflakes and added, “It’s going to be a bad winter for orphans.” Natasha, her daughter, travelled to China every few months, buying merchandise that she and her new lover, whom she’d moved in with, sold to the kiosks in the markets. Meanwhile, Natasha’s husband and her five-year-old son still lived with Lidochka in a two-room apartment, a domestic situation now in its second year.
“He’s like a son to me,” she said of Natasha’s husband. “It breaks my heart to watch him on the couch in the evenings, changing the channels without saying a word. Sometimes he goes days without speaking. Every morning, I wake up and think I’m going crazy. Then I fold my cot in the kitchen, get a grip on myself, and tell my son-in-law to eat breakfast.”
“How do you stay afloat?” Lera said.
“Oh, my dear, I still have my students. At a time like this, though, I wish I tutored English instead of French.”
“I forgot! Tell me about your trip to Paris this summer.” She wanted to switch to a less desperate topic. It was clear that Lidochka, after eleven years, did not want to bother with small talk. To her, friendship still meant coming face to face with another’s unmediated existence. It was exhilarating, Lera thought, but also exhausting.
“What is there to say? They put us up in some dirty hotel outside the city. We rode into Paris in the mornings and had to stand in line on the bus for hot water. And we weren’t fed—I had to carry around tins of sardines in my purse.” She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye with a napkin. “I didn’t want to tell you before, but now I will: I answered a classified ad in the paper for a receptionist job at a travel agency. You don’t know how hard it is to find work after forty. These ads are all the same—they ask for twenty-year-olds ‘without complexes.’ But this one seemed reasonable. I told them I’d been a French teacher, and they hired me right away. They said the bus tour was a requirement for the job, so I’d be able to tell the clients about the trips the agency sold. I’d be reimbursed as soon as I started working. But when I got back from Paris it turned out they’d already filled my job with a girl Natasha’s age. I’m so ashamed. To be such a fool.”
“That’s awful.” Lera didn’t know what else to say. If it weren’t for the weakness of Lidochka’s voice and her smudged makeup, it might have been a joke someone told at a party. “You need to go and ask for your money back,” Lera added firmly.
“I did go back, and you can only guess what kinds of names they called me. There’s no decency anymore, Lera.” Her eyes were dry with conviction now. “No decency and no fair play.”
She was glad to be alone in the metro again, in the splendor of its vaulted ceilings and mosaics, away from the sickly touch of misfortune. She took the red line to the Library of Lenin and transferred through its maze of halls and escalators to the Arbat line, emerging out of the templelike station and crossing the Boulevard Ring until she was on the bright, populated strip of the Noviy Arbat. She was looking for the Citibank office, to pick up more cash, since the window job had cost more than she’d expected. The quick pace of pedestrians on the street carried her along. Being part of the purposeful, business-day life of the city was lifting her spirits. You needed a certain kind of desperation, she thought, to wander into the type of trap Lidochka had entered. It wasn’t enough simply to be foolish. It came from living too long in a fantasyland of your own hopefulness. She felt grateful for Grisha, whom she’d trusted to make sensible choices for both of them.
She found the glassed-in office of the Citibank on the corner of the main plaza, across from a café whose greasy shish-kebab smells now clogged her nose. It was a nice feeling to open those heavy glass doors, to slide your bank card into an A.T.M. and watch the crisply ironed bills come out. She stuck the bills in her purse and then, to restore her spirits a little more, touched the glass monitor to bring up her and Grisha’s current savings. She saw now that the various accounts added up to less than two hundred thousand dollars, not even half of what she remembered depositing after the house was sold. In the past week alone, there had been three large transfers.
Grisha must have decided to keep some of their money at a local bank, she thought, on her way home. Inside the shuddering, speeding subway car, she made a mental note to ask him. She watched two adolescents engaged in heavy kissing on the seat across from hers, pressing themselves up against the large circle of the Moscow metro map. The girl looked like a rag doll, with her striped stockings and limp bangs. She was gnawing on her dense-looking boyfriend’s lip, and every few minutes her eyes flickered around the subway car with calculated satisfaction. They’d probably met only a day before, these teen-agers, but already they knew it wasn’t love unless it could be shown off to the whole world. The lovers in this city made such an elaborate production of their affections, especially considering that the natural expression of everyone else was either dour or resentful. But then again making elaborate productions was a specialty here. Lera thought of Lidochka again. To put an ad in the paper and to interview a desperate, hopeful woman for a job that didn’t exist, in order to fill some third-rate bus tour—they went to such lengths here to fool you.
The kissing was still going on when the doors opened at Lera’s stop. At the turnstiles, she glimpsed a young man with a cardboard sign on his chest that read “Money for Prosthesis.” His sleeves were tucked in on themselves, flaccid flaps over which he wore a long hunting vest, probably to keep his real arms well hidden.
It seemed that fraud was everywhere, once you paid attention. It was like the stray dogs Lera had suddenly noticed all over the city, trotting around the market, lying curled up beside the heating vents in the metro underpasses. Fraud took up a good deal of the local-news coverage, she realized in her kitchen that evening, watching the TV atop the refrigerator as she ate the mushroom soup she’d reheated. On the news, a woman was being led away from a hospital in handcuffs. She had checked herself into eight clinics with phantom illnesses and persuaded the other female patients to lend her money for a child (also phantom) who was going hungry at home. For a con, it certainly seemed like a full-time job, Lera thought. On the small screen, the woman was raving that she hadn’t stuck her hand in anyone’s pocket.
Lera turned off the television, unable to watch anymore. They justified their deceit by convincing themselves that the truth—if you took a close enough look at it—was no different from the lie, that even the principles of morality and lawfulness were themselves only lies by which the clever outsmarted the dumb. She walked into the bedroom and undressed. She missed Grisha; he hadn’t called to tell her about his presentation, and his cell phone seemed to have been turned off. Outside the window an arrow-shaped sign pointing to a jeweller’s shop flickered erratically. Snow had started falling again, in tiny flakes at first and then in thicker chunks slanting down from a dark, milky sky. She crawled into bed and reached for the book on Grisha’s nightstand. It was part of a series on the lives of “The Great and the Famous,” the sort of book he liked to read. When he’d quit Hewlett-Packard, he’d brought home books about moguls, biographies of C.E.O.s, and read them in the basement, then he’d repackaged his applied-math background as a boon for Wall Street, where the winds had started blowing in the direction of quantitative analysis.
She thumbed through the first pages, about Pavel Ryabushinsky’s ancestors, merchants descended from the peasants of the Ryabushinsky community, old believers who’d launched a sackcloth business that had survived Moscow’s fire of 1812 and left them well positioned to buy up looms and weaving mills. Later, the Ryabushinskys would import machinery from Manchester, send their sons to study abroad, enter the mortgage-banking business. All was well until the October Revolution, when Pavel Ryabushinsky and the rest of the clan fled to France. Lera turned the page. Like some of his Western counterparts, Ryabushinsky considered charity his sacred responsibility, held progressive views, and wanted to improve the lot of his countrymen. Until his last days, living in France, he’d hoped to be useful and come back to his beloved Russia after the Revolution was toppled. But, alas, he was not destined to return. This line was underscored faintly in pencil. Next to it was a handwritten note in the margin: “He wasn’t fated, my rabbit, but you are.” Lera looked at the message curiously. It was unmistakably a woman’s hand. Its author had signed it simply “T.”
Lera touched the cavity of her neck. Her heart was galloping. She tried to steady her pulse with a deep breath, but the walls of her throat were closing up. “T.” Her mind was drawing a blank. “My rabbit” sounded like the endearment of some sentimental tart. Had the book been a gift? A souvenir of a casual dalliance that might be over by now? Was it possible that Grisha had skipped that page and not seen the inscription? Or had he left the book here in order to savor the inscription, certain that Lera would never open it? She remembered the saying (was it her mother’s?) that on such occasions there were only two options: to leave or not to know. Nothing in between. Well, where was she to leave to? The house in Dobbs Ferry had been sold, the bank check deposited, the furniture taken to consignment shops. And not to know—wasn’t that always the intelligent option? It seemed that so much of marriage—hers, at least—was made up of these negative spaces, the words she’d kept herself from saying, all in the service of not polluting daily conversations with unnecessary poison. And what good had it done her? She threw the bedcover off, her feet, her underarms clammy with sweat. She opened the window and breathed in the frost-laden air. The cold was like a remorseless living presence descending on her and gripping her under her nightgown. She stared at the snow until she felt herself floating up, out of her numb skin.
It sickened Lera to have to call Olya in the morning. She could think of no one else who could tell her what was going on with Grisha.
“He hasn’t called us in a month,” Olya said. It was hard to tell if she really felt snubbed or was only feigning insult. “Must be a busy season for him.”
“Let’s not be so delicate. If he had someone else, you would tell me, I hope.”
“You know me, Lera. I don’t stand over anyone’s business holding a candle.” The hesitation in her voice suggested that she didn’t want to say more on the phone. “I need to drive to Mamontovka today,” Olya said. “Why don’t you come along?”
Olya steered her Acura with one hand resting atop the wheel. The gold tooth Lera remembered in the corner of her smile was gone. She’d cropped her hair, which played up her Tatar features, the wide cheeks and profile that looked as if it had been pounded flat by a small hammer. The Mamontovka that Lera remembered had changed as well. Some of the wooden dachas had been rebuilt as year-round residences. A cottage town was what Olya called it now, though the “cottages” had nothing in common with the cozy, quaint ones of Westchester. These were more like fortresses you’d have to take by tank—three-story ski lodges rising from behind two-story fences.
“I think a woman lives alone in that one,” Olya said. It had gables and turrets like a little medieval castle. “They shot off the husband last year.”
“Shot off?” Lera said. “What is that, like too many elks? Population control?”
Olya turned onto a residential street with high fences on either side.
“It’s tacky to put up a fence if you live on less than four acres of land,” Lera said, more to the window than to Olya, and then felt a kind of shame at her own snobbery. She wasn’t in Westchester anymore.
Olya drove down to the point at which the road forked. An austere brick church stood in the middle of what might have been a small athletic field, the earth around it overturned by excavation. She parked the car and walked around to the side of the building. Boot prints had frozen in the hardened sludge. In the stillness, Lera could hear the guttural cawing of a crow. She craned her neck to look up at the vaulted roof, which was helmeted by two blue cupolas. There was space for one more. The sign on the brick wall read “Church of the Icon of the Holy Mother of Unexpected Joy.”
“They started restoring it two years ago,” Olya said. “And by restore I mean tore it down and built it up again. You can imagine the cost.”
Olya hunted in her pocket for a handkerchief to wipe her nose, damp like a puppy’s from the cold. “When Grisha was visiting us in June, he said he wanted to meet some people who could help him. People with money. So we brought him here. First we introduced him to Father Alexander, who introduced him to that developer Mitin and his wife, the ballerina. Too old to stick her leg up in the air now, so she gives away her husband’s money. Well, didn’t they love Grisha! Blessing his soul, saying it was God who’d brought him back. We thought Grisha was playing along at first. You won’t get far in business nowadays being an atheist. First everyone attended Party meetings—now it’s church.”
The modest attack of sympathy on Olya’s face couldn’t disguise the pleasure of finally delivering this information. “But you have to show you’re serious. You have to . . . make a gesture.”
“And how much does a gesture cost these days?” Lera asked.
“Thirty thousand dollars won’t get you canonized, but it’ll get your name whispered.”
“Hah!” Lera’s laugh entered the air with a cloud of breath. “What other good news do you have for me?”
“I suspect he doesn’t call us because he knows the talk has reached us. She works at a gallery, one of those avant-garde places that sell things you can find in a dumpster. She used to talk about energetics and U.F.O.s. Now she crosses herself whenever a bus passes.”
Olya walked up the steps of the church and tested the brass handle. The door was so low that to go through it one had to bend to a posture of humility. Lera tightened her coat and followed Olya inside. Two old women nodded kindly as they entered. The church smelled of candle wax and wet plaster, and most of the space had been sectioned off with scaffolds, leaving a high-ceilinged room the size of a small cellar. A makeshift altar and brass gate had been set up, with wooden icons to the left and right. Unlike everything else inside, the icons looked old, their wood battered and gouged. Lera approached one, an image of the Holy Mother, silent pain in her flat painted eyes. The icon was behind a protective sheet of Plexiglas, already covered with waxy pink marks, left behind by some passionate believer who hadn’t bothered to wipe off her lipstick. Lera touched her hand to the Virgin’s and brought two fingers to her lips. Her grandmother had taught her this: the proper way to kiss the Lord or the Holy Mother was on the hand, never on the face, the way you’d kiss your drinking buddies. Lera closed her eyes and tried to pray. Even here, under the domes into which a good portion of their savings had gone, she wanted to ask God for justice. She prayed that Grisha would remember himself.
On Saturday, Grisha returned. She heard the squeal of the hinge and smelled his damp jacket in the corridor. He walked into the bathroom first, and locked the door. From the kitchen she could hear him washing his hands and taking a long powerful piss, then washing his hands again.
“They know how to do everything here,” he said, coming in to where she sat in the kitchen. “Win gold medals, send rockets into space. Only thing they don’t know how to do is wipe their own asses.”
Lera stared out at the activity on Bolshaya Cherkizovskaya, where the traffic never ended. She turned to look at him. His hair was matted down on his high, bald forehead. He reeked of smoke and sour sweat from the train. “Champions in everything,” he said, finding a bottle of cognac in one of the cabinets. He poured three fingers of it into a narrow juice glass and drained it in one gulp. Then he poured another.
“I offer them a guaranteed revenue. The problem is they can’t hide the profit. If they can’t see a way to steal, they’re not interested. Try to show them how to build an industry from the bottom up—it’s like explaining bronze to cavemen.”
He finished off the second glass and sat down.
“It isn’t an earthquake, Grisha,” she said. “We can always go back. You had a good job. You can find something similar.”
She tried not to think about how she looked right now, about the loose skin under her eyes from a night of no sleep. She hated herself for the way she was speaking to him, the voice of a lifetime of appeasement.
He squinted at her. “Have you been listening? Are you saying you want me to return to where some imbecile who’s attended two management seminars can tell me, ‘You can do better’?”
“A lot of people would wish for a start like yours, Grisha.”
“Start?” He laughed. “Eleven years later and that start was nothing but my finish line.”
She got up and went to the windowsill, where she’d left his book. She opened it on the table and laid her finger on the margin. “After you told me to sell our house, told me to join you—I find this!”
He studied the inscription with a contorted, inscrutable expression on his face.
“Now I learn I don’t know you. And what’s more I don’t want to know you.”
He flinched a little when the book hit his chest, then edged his chair back to pick it up off the floor.
“The house,” he corrected, “was mine. I paid for it while you slept till noon.”
He got up, the book tucked under his arm, and walked out. It took her a moment to understand what he was saying, as though her mind were awakening out of a spell. She gazed around wearily, her eyes alighting on the wilted plants on the windowsill. She followed after him into the corridor, where he was putting on his shoes.
“Where are you going? To this bliad?” The words didn’t sound as if they were coming out of her mouth. The shrillness in them seemed forced.
“Don’t talk about what you don’t know. Whatever obscene ideas you have are only in your own godless head. She’s been celibate for two years,” he said. “She’s a zatvornitsa.”
Now, here was a word she hadn’t heard in thirty years—a sexual hermit! And he didn’t seem to care that she knew. He couldn’t possibly be making this up. Celibacy! Well, these sluts had really gotten sophisticated.
Grisha plucked his jacket off the line of hooks by the door. She reached for his arm. “Whatever happened before I arrived, I’ve forgiven already.” Her voice had gone needy, as soft as a rotting fruit. “We don’t have to talk about it. Just stay.”
His face was a soundless picture of loathing. “Let’s not humiliate ourselves tonight,” he said.
She placed herself between him and the door handle. “If you leave now, I promise you I will have the locks changed.”
“This apartment doesn’t belong to you,” he said. He walked back to the bedroom. Lera followed him in.
“It’s ours,” she said, her voice breaking.
“I inherited it. I know the law.” He found a squashed duffelbag at the bottom of the closet. In another few minutes, she sensed, she would be on her own. She felt it in the way she knew people felt their mortality, very suddenly, a knowledge deeper than shame or anticipation.
“Is it one of those midlife things?” she said. “You want to grow your hair long? You want to buy a motorcycle? I’m not stopping you. But to give our money away like that, to a church!”
“You expect me to give it all to you? I’m done slaving away. You didn’t even like to drive me to the station in the mornings. I had to run to catch the train and then sit there sweating.”
“Don’t you dare throw that at me. I didn’t make your meals or clean your house? Or raise your child?”
“I forgot, you bought a guest book for the bathroom. So everyone could sign their names when they shat, as if they were at Buckingham Palace. You even hired someone to clean. The chemicals gave you headaches! I would have been here years ago,” he said.
He didn’t answer. He was dumping the folders and books on his desk into the duffel.
“Did you plan this?” She pictured herself making phone calls, tonight or tomorrow morning, to freeze their accounts. How much of their money was already gone? “Did you bring me here for a quick and cheap divorce? To cheat me out of everything?”
“What, exactly, I’d like to know, would I cheat you out of? Explain to me where you got that stupid entitled idea? At the divorcée colony you call a gym?”
“I’ve always taken care of her. She’ll understand me.”
“You think I won’t hire a lawyer?”
“Do what you wish,” he said. “You’re not among your americaners. Here they don’t eviscerate a man for the crime of having a job.”
“I don’t know what that woman made you drink, Grisha.” It was difficult to keep the tremor out of her voice.
He avoided brushing against her in the doorway on his way out with the duffel.
“Where do you expect me to go?”
“You’ll get along,” he said.
When she returned to New York, her friends met her with open arms. They competed to help her, appropriately outraged by what Grisha had done. They praised her for having enough sense to freeze whatever money was left in the joint accounts. They were compassionate and practical and let her stay in their houses until she found an apartment. They drove her everywhere until she bought a car. But their eyes did not fool her. Their gratitude for the normalcy of their own marriages was almost like an awkward lust. At first, they told her that she shouldn’t blame herself for what had happened. Then, in their living rooms, as she voiced her suffering they listened closely to the parts of her story that confirmed that her common sense had gone slack: that she hadn’t looked at her accounts for months, that she’d let Grisha go alone to a city where someone would steal your husband if you so much as got up to take a piss. After a while, they seemed to have no reaction at all to her story, which was what made her stop telling it.
When she was working again, in a lab at a medical-research park in Eastview, surrounded by test tubes and electrophoresis trays, she had a lot of time to think about Grisha. She imagined failures and disappointments for him in proportion to his smug magnanimous “principles,” in proportion to his pietistic love of his soil, his secret belief that he deserved to be a national hero. She imagined him bankrupt, drinking at eleven in the morning. She imagined him in a coffin surrounded by strangers and none of his old friends. But sometimes this hatred broke like a wave, collapsing under its own weight, and before it would begin to well up again she suddenly felt nothing but pure compassion for him, a kindness and forgiveness that almost broke her heart.