While in his teens he’d dreamed about four things: marrying his dance partner, performing at the Bolshoi Theatre, seeing the Statue of Liberty, and playing soccer. All but the last came true. His parents had always thought that his feet should not touch the filthy, black-and-white checkered ball his peers tossed and kicked around the yard all summer long, right under his bedroom window or across a grassy field behind the schoolhouse. He might sprain his ankle, crush his toes, bruise his knees or—God forbid—break his legs together with his future. He hadn’t argued, folding his soccer shorts and returning them to a closet shelf and casting a sad glance at a pair of new tennis shoes that reminded him of long and lonely boats docked by his bed without a chance to sail. His teens ended, and his twenties began, and he grew too tall and too famous to be running around the field amidst a bunch of dirty men with seedy beards and nervous moustaches.
John John peeled the grocery list off the kitchen counter and scooped the car keys in his hand, walking out the door. Before getting into his car though, he strolled around the house and probed the soil in clay pots and flower baskets, determining whether the gardenias and ferns needed watering. As he reached his backyard, where he’d planted a vegetable garden just a week ago, he bent down, dropping the keys on the ground, and pulled out a few stubborn weeds from the tilled and still soft dirt. He squatted and fingered a cucumber seedling, raising small, soft leaves and checking them for bugs. Last year he’d had an impressive harvest of the vegetable that turned out sweet, juicy and virtually seedless. He canned forty-eight quarts, and they had been feasting on them all winter long. Iren took a few jars to work and shared them with her colleagues, who, as she’d put it, now ‘worshipped’ her husband’s ‘farming and pickling skills.’ He thought of his wife, squinting at the sky. A cloud passed. And then the sky was clear again, blue and hopeless. It would not rain. He would have to water the garden and the pots and the baskets.
They had met at the Kirov Ballet’s Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg and became what everyone thought they would become—partners, friends, lovers, spouses. Only then it was Leningrad, and his name was Ivan Ivanovich Zharkov and hers Irina Olegovna Rostova, and neither thought of emigrating to America, changing their citizenship, or having two children who would speak English instead of Russian and demand to read Goosebumps and Magic Tree House books instead of stories by Bianki, Polyakov, Kassil,’ or Mamin-Seberyak. But back then they’d lived, eaten, and slept on stage, their days and nights a carousel of rehearsals and performances, pirouettes and allegro: grand jetes, double saut de basque, jete en tournant, double tour en l’air, tour pique. Squalls of applause. Sheaves of flowers hoisted onto the stage and left heaping at their feet. Fame. Happiness. Jealousy that shone in the eyes of their peers. Adoration in the eyes of their parents and each other. He thought of his wife then. A sapling of a girl. Lissome, weightless, with fingers like new leaves, soft and supple. And her feet. Those pale, stubborn feet he used to rub with creams and ointments or dress in satin pointe shoes, lacing the ribbons around her slim ankles, crisscrossing in front, tying in back, and hiding the ends under. Another cloud formed above and shielded the sun, projecting a hint of a shade onto the garden and the set of wicker furniture arranged under a lilac bush.
Letting go of the cucumber seedling, John John picked up the keys and rose to his feet. He brushed away a few crumbs of dirt clinging to his knees and eyed the bush. It didn’t bloom this year. The spring had started off with temperatures reaching the 80’s during the day and dropping to the 20’s at night. The buds froze and fell to the ground, robbing the limbs of the purple, flowery clusters that always reminded Iren and him of the country they’d left nearly fifteen years ago and hadn’t been back to but twice—once for his mother’s funeral and once for Iren’s father’s. He remembered the time when Iren and he had tried to bring their remaining parents together, hoping for what? A fortuitous spark? A comfortable arrangement? A pleasant and mutually-beneficial outcome? Their hopes were belied. His father had already found a new queen of hearts, the neighbor with two dogs—Basya and Masya—whom he helped to feed and walk and groom. And after three years of grieving and dating all the ‘neighborhood scum,’ Iren’s mother had arrived in America and become what John John had always dreaded she would become—a spiteful middle-aged woman with a single opinion of him, their house, their town, as well as the entire country. ‘Awful doesn’t begin to describe it,’ she’d said and continued to say to all of her friends in St. Petersburg over the phone, loud as she was and intended to be. Now she lived in NYC, sharing a rental apartment with a long-lost relative, who had been kind or batty enough to rescue her from this ‘bore of a town,’ where her daughter taught Dance Appreciation at Roanoke College and had recently become the director of their ballet program. When Iren’s mother had lived with them, she always sighed at the end of every phone conversation, which served as a signal for John John to vacate the premises or hide in the basement, pretending to fold laundry or watch TV. After each overheard conversation, he’d been tempted to remind his mother-in-law that it wasn’t he but she who’d pushed her daughter to seek a job abroad, that after their tragic fall on the stage of the Bolshoi, when Irina danced as Clara and he as the Nutcracker, they would never be what they once were—the rising stars of the Russian Ballet—but the unfortunate twosome, the ones who could’ve, should’ve, would’ve and to whom ugly fate had dealt the ace of spades. More times than not he wished to underscore that he’d always worried that by moving to America or any other country, they would never find there what they had here—the culture that had birthed, raised, and united them, but that eventually would turn them into fictional characters out of some archaic foreign book neither of their children had the language skills or desire to read. He longed to say now what he’d told Irina then, when she’d gotten a job offer from the New York City Ballet, and while she still regarded his opinion as valuable and sound: the very essence of being an artist is to belong and to dare and not to feel like a puppet willed into existence by the vigorous hand of a master. And in order to belong in a foreign land, one had to stop belonging someplace else, one had to abandon his home, his roots, and transplant into a strange, if not hostile, soil, to integrate his identity into a baffling mosaic of variegated tastes and habits, holidays and customs, accents and dialects, language idioms. It would not be the same. The roots might not take.
John John got into his car and backed out of the driveway onto Broad Street, which wound almost all the way the local Kroger. His grocery list was crammed inside his shorts, and he added items to it in his head as he drove. Marshmallows for Anton’s pyramid project and snacks for a soccer practice for Pavel. Miracle Grow and Bugs-Be-Gone for his flower baskets and the garden. Woolite for Iren’s blouses that she wore for dress rehearsals and performances, taking the stage at the end and bowing to the cheering audience. He sighed, glancing out the window, passing the complex of rental apartments they used to live in when they’d first moved here, when he’d changed Pavel’s diapers and heated his wife’s breast milk, pumped into plastic bags and stored in the refrigerator.
Her hair, once a titian wave, was now streaked anywhere from rusty-brown to ruby-red and curled in tight coffers and pinned up at the back of her head with a formidable silk flower, black and sparkly. Her neck was long and smooth, with a constellation of teeny moles that she hid under make-up. While on stage, basking in applause, she held her head a bit high, trying to disguise the soft fold of skin forming under her chin that he often teased with his finger. He desired her, then and now. Not in the same way, but with the same intensity. Her name had changed. So had she. There was something foreign about her yet familiar. The years had erased the sapling of a girl she had been and brought out the woman she became. Confident, sophisticated, calm, although just as slim and graceful. She was no longer a territory to conquer, but a property to maintain. He remembered the first time they’d made love in the ballet-school closet amidst shimmering tutus, scarves, and the beaded torsos of male costumes. Their parents waiting for them downstairs, pacing the square in front of the Pushkinskiy Theatre, unaware of their children’s furtive attempts at forbidden caresses. He had been worried about not fitting, about her having lots of pain at first and bleeding afterward. He was both disappointed and relieved when none of it proved true. He fitted, and without a grunt or a push, slipping into her as if into an oil well. There’d been no pain or bleeding. He wasn’t her first but would be her last, she had assured him, nibbling on his shoulder and tugging at the brocade folds of a tutu hanging above them like an ominous cloud. Yes, the conquering had been easy, the maintaining became hard, nearly impossible after she had gotten the job of ballet director and her body developed some kind of sex-allergy when their second son was born. Now, every time they made love, her abdomen caught on fire, burned with a nasty rash. They had been to a specialist. Twice. The same insouciant shrug, the same perplexed look, the same inept answer: As we get older, our bodies change, it takes awhile to get used to that change. Bizarre. Or not, but it turned their love-making into a short, careful experience, during which he tried not to touch her body any more than he had to. Somehow it reminded him of their fall, how it crippled their movements afterward, when they were no longer partners yet colleagues, breathing makeup powder off other dancers’ faces. He hadn’t been assigned any leading parts, but she was still a star, appearing as Nikiya, the bayadere, or Giselle, or Princess Aurora, or Romeo’s Juliet, or Egina in Spartacus.
The Kroger was just a few minutes away, right after he turned right on West Main Street, and John John peeped in the front mirror, rustling his gray hair, stretching it to one side and letting go. He wasn’t as old as he appeared. And if it wasn’t for the gray hair that his father passed on to him, he wouldn’t even appear old. His eyes were of the deepest brown that, according to Iren, ‘singed’ girls with desire even now. His cheeks were smooth and pink, with two dimples appearing at the sides of his pulpy mouth as he smiled and endowing his face with a look of an almost boyish innocence. Define ‘innocence.’ He shrugged. When they had first arrived in this country, they lived in NYC, sharing a match-box apartment with a Jewish couple from Russia, who had been cast by the ballet a year earlier, and who had just extended their contract for three more years. Since it was Iren who’d come to America on a work visa, and he’d just followed her as her husband, allowed to live with his wife but not to work, John John took care of the apartment while the Goldmans and Iren made money dancing. He cleaned, did laundry, and even learned to cook, steaming the dusty windows and calling his mother once a week for a borsht recipe or solyanka or venegriet. It was a tight world, but they shared it with grace and laughter, vodka and black tea, wagging their tongues until dawn. After they’d lived in the States for nearly a year, they finally took a trip to see the Statue of Liberty, and on the way back, as the ferry reached the pier, wobbling on waves, Iren became sick and vomited on his new Adidas shoes. He pulled them off and slipped them inside a plastic grocery bag that the Goldmans had used for carrying their cheese sandwiches and water. He remembered walking to a bus station in his socks, once again thinking of the fall, of how he’d tried to catch her, of that grave sound of something snapping, cracking, tearing through his flesh, skin. He couldn’t put a shoe on for four months. And he’d never danced with her again.
John John pulled into the Kroger parking lot and turned off the engine. He loitered before getting out, fumbling the keys in the ignition. He loved growing and canning cucumbers, frying fish or grilling hamburgers. He hated holding a long grocery-list and shopping in the middle of the work day amidst elderly people or women with small children. He enjoyed taking care of the house and the kids and washing Iren’s blouses, but he loathed being a housewife. He sniffed. Someone should’ve invented a ‘househusband’ term besides ‘soccer dad,’ which he wasn’t because he never went to any games. That was Iren’s ‘quality time’ with her children, as she’d put it.
They had always been careful about sex. So when they’d found out that she was pregnant for the first time, a few weeks after the ferry accident, they thought that this time vile fate had dealt them a stupid joker. They’d called her parents. Her father couldn’t talk, still frail after the surgery, after they had chopped his one lung off and half of the other. Her mother wouldn’t talk, reiterating ‘abortion, abortion, abortion’ like a dumb parrot. Iren had said ‘no.’ He had said ‘yes’ to her ‘no,’ after which they’d laid in bed, touching and clinging to one another, like they did after the fall, when he couldn’t move because of the cast on his leg, and she didn’t want to leave him because of her fear of entering the stage and slipping and not having him to catch her. The Goldmans had embraced the news with cheer and sorrow. Cheer for a ‘new life coming into life,’ sorrow for having to part with their best friends as well as for Irina, who would have to stop dancing in a few months and start taking night education classes, using up all their savings, plus some of the Goldmans’, and applying for a teaching position somewhere, anywhere, Florida or Alaska. Her work visa was still valid, and they could still stay in the country and try to fit in. They did. And they didn’t. Not right away. Not him. Not at all. They used to talk to the Goldmans every Sunday and complain about having no Russians around, or the local grocery store that didn’t even stock beets, except canned, or their casket-sized apartment that cost half of Iren’s monthly salary to rent, as well as the sweet, gingery smell that saturated the air each time their Chinese neighbors cooked something on their balcony and the smoke seeped through the windows, coating the walls, the furniture, the crib, and even Pavel’s diapers. The Goldmans had laughed, and Josef repeated his favorite words: Buy a goat. Why goat? John John had wondered so many times but never asked.
Reaching for the cell phone on the passenger’s seat, he dialed Iren’s office. It rang. It rang. Each ring sinking into his chest like a wrecked ship down at the silt bottom of the ocean. He ended the call. A murky suspicion surged, spreading to his lungs, and dropped to his gut. It was Friday, and she’d told him she had no more classes to teach, but they’d started staging Don Quixote. They?! The department, she’d clarified, hoping, perhaps, to assuage his jealousy but only firing it up. He’d pretended not to hear, asked: How many? How many were involved in the production? And then reverting to the times in Leningrad when they’d argued whether Minkus had plagiarized from Tchaikovsky. She had said ‘yes,’ and he had said ‘no’ to her ‘yes.’ She had danced as Kitri and he as Basil. Now, all he could imagine was being Don Quixote, fighting the windmills of his marriage and chasing the ghost of his long-lost love, his nonpareil Dulcinea.
John John turned on the engine. The car snorted, and AC blew a stream of warm air into his face. He pulled out of the Kroger parking lot and back onto Broad Street, which eventually ran into College Lane, where he turned right, waiting in traffic for the light to change. He drummed his fingers on the wheel. They had quarreled. A lot. And not just because of her mother, but the kids, sex, his lack of income, and her job that ousted everything and everyone from their lives. Then one evening, a year ago, she had come home and said that she wished to be called Iren, that Irina was too hard for her students to pronounce, that someone—who? a male? a female? a colleague? a new student? a parent?—had told her that it suited her better, that it endowed her with a certain dignity her professional status and much-respected womanhood deserved. He had gotten his answer even before she uttered the last word: a male, not a student, hardly a parent, a colleague. A new one, relatively young but well-educated, the Department of Arts had just hired, she informed him later in the bedroom and not without a blush on her washed and creamed face. Something smelled peculiar, her face wash or her night cream. He asked why she hadn’t mentioned it to him that they’d had a position open—he could’ve applied. She coiled from his words, retreated into the bathroom, pumping more lotion on her hands, rubbing circles over her small wrists and running her petal-like fingers up and down her elbows. She had finally emerged from the bathroom, wearing nothing but a polka-dot thong. Her small breasts cupped inside her hands. Why? The question at once asked and answered by her raised and then flattened brow. Because he couldn’t teach, didn’t have the experience, had never entered a classroom except as a student, and hadn’t been on stage in fifteen years. He lay on the bed and stared at the motley of polka dots on her bikini, counting first the pink ones, then the red ones, then the browns. ‘Besides,’ she had said, and in such a casual, offhand manner, ‘someone needs to stay home with the kids, now that my mother has moved to NYC.’ The next day, after he had dropped off the kids at school, he stopped at Belk, where he wrote John John on his name tag after getting a part-time job selling shoes in the women’s department.
The college parking lot was half-empty. Students had gone home for the summer. He drove around, looking for Iren’s car until he spotted the gray Mazda nestling side by side with a blue Taurus. He had seen that Taurus before, three-four months ago, when Iren’s car broke down and the blue Taurus had stopped to pick her up and drop her off. The two cars were parked with an immaculate precision, perfectly fitting into the allotted spaces. John John chose a space a few rows behind and parked and turned off the engine, still not sure what he was doing there to begin with. Define ‘begin with.’ If there was something to begin with, no one would admit to it or even remember it. Their first fight. His first bout of jealousy, when she had another dance partner after the fall, and he watched her leap onto his chest with the lightness of a butterfly, although not with the same grace—the fall had made her more cautious, aware of her fragile body and the fact that she wouldn’t dance forever. Neither would he. He viewed her wrapping her long, lean legs around her partner’s waist as he caught her in his arms and set her fluttering across the stage. He had tried not to show it at first, the jealously that devoured him night after night while waiting for her to come home from a tour or seeing her hug and kiss her new partner after a successful performance. He had even let her hang their picture on n the wall, in which they stood on a stage, embraced in a tight, provocative pose—her leg up, his enormous crotch bulging against her inner thigh. His crotch. Her thigh. Later, after she and her partner had been dancing together for awhile and she was coming home around midnight, alluding to long rehearsals; new, complicated parts; whatever, he finally ventured to make a joke at some party about men with big balls usually having tiny penises. The partner smiled a sly, odious smile and reciprocated with an anecdote about tall men: When God gave away penises, he hung them from a high tree limb, so all the short men grabbed the first they could reach—the longest, obviously— leaving the tall men with the rest. Everyone laughed. He too, even though he wanted to pull down his pants and contradict the bastard. But it had been there and then, not here and now. He’d never met her new American colleague and knew nothing about him. Was he tall? Short? Big balls? Little balls? No balls? And what difference did it make? All and none. Not really. Not now. Not after everything they had been through. Everything their immigrant souls had already endured.
John John waited for twenty minutes and still had no clue what exactly he was waiting for. He hadn’t bought any groceries, and the kids would be back from school in less than three hours. He’d have to feed them and drive to work. Starting the engine, he cast one last, valedictory glance at the silver Mazda and blue Taurus. He fetched his cell phone and punched the recently-dialed-numbers button. He called her office again, giving up the hope of reaching her on the fourth ring. He paused, pinching his shaved chin, and dialed the Goldmans.
--Hey, Vanya? What’s up?
--Nothing is up. Everything is down.
--Oh, it can’t be that bad. And there’s always Viagra, he said, laughing, then asked: You okay?
--Fine. Fine. You?
--As good as it gets. Did you see that movie?
--Yes. We saw it together, remember?
--No. My mind suffers from a PSS—Post-Socialist Syndrome.
--My past is my future that hasn’t happened yet.
In the background, John John discerned a muffled laughter and another cell phone ringing.
--Where are you? he asked.
--On my way to a wedding, stuck in traffic. And now there’s a funeral dragging by. I have to wait. Ugh. At least I know it’s good luck—to be interrupted by a funeral procession on your way to a wedding.
--Good luck? Are you kidding?
--No. It’s true.
--Didn’t you tell me your father was in a concentration camp?
--Yes. Born there. Why?
--And you still believe in good luck?
--What else is there to believe in?
John John shrugged and ruffled his gray hair, not knowing what to reply or whether there should be a reply. With Josef, most questions where rhetorical and urged John John to become silent and to ponder, contemplating the possibility of an answer or some kind of remark before sucking up the wisdom and changing topics.
--My nephew, the one who came from St. Petersburg as an exchange student a few years back. I told you, remember?
--Yes. He already graduated? Working?
--Next year. Not working but writing a book.
--Yeah. It’s called I Am Not the Jew You Love.
--Of course he is. But he refuses to be treated like one. Says he doesn’t want to be viewed as a perfect victim. He wouldn’t read Ann Frank’s diary and is marrying a Latina girl. It’s complicated. You’re lucky you aren’t Jewish.
--I’m almost Jewish.
--Well, you’re my best friend, and my father was in love with a Jewish girl once, but she wanted him to get circumcised. So he ran off and married my mother. But a Latina girl? Is she Jewish?
--No. She’s one hundred percent Latina. Hair, skin. Catholic. He says she’s a virgin and has the most beautiful pudenda.
--You heard me. And she also cooks heavenly frijoles and gives the best oral presentations.
--Yes, that’s what he says. Okay, I need to be paying attention here. We’re almost at their place. Ella says hi.
--She asks how’s Irina and the boys.
--Fine, fine. She’s teaching. The boys have lots of projects, play soccer and sing in a local choir. I grow vegetables and sell shoes. All is fine. We’re a bit busy, trying to plan our vacation and remodel the house. Her mother is coming to visit. I don’t know how we’ll all fit.
--Buy a goat! Josef laughed, and John John could hear Ella echo in the background.
He was about to ask Josef why, why a goat when he saw her. Scurrying toward the Mazda, fidgeting with a red curl around her finger, tugging at it and hooking it behind her ear and shaking it loose again. A man, likely the colleague, who wasn’t young or handsome, but lanky and bald, with small, rectangular glasses pushed low on his bulbous nose, trudged next to her, explaining something while prying into her baffled face. His one hand carried her work bag, the other gesticulated up and down, left, right, as if speaking in sign language.
John John dropped the phone on the floor and ducked behind the dashboard, his heart jerking inside his chest as if on a tight leash. He drew a breath. The air singed his lungs, and he pressed his mouth to the AC gird on the dashboard, gulping cool air and swallowing mouthfuls. Slowly as he might, he dragged his head away from the dash board and rose above it. His eyes stared through the windshield, assessing the picture behind it, scrutinizing the farewell hug between the two. The colleague held Iren’s work bag against his crotch. Her bag. His crotch. John John watched her cup his face in her hands and place a soft, fluttery kiss on his cheek. Then the colleague swathed his long, long arms around her shoulders and buried his hands in the cocoon of her curls that seemed to grow and plait with his fingers like baby snakes. For a moment John John thought that she was crying, wiping her face on the man’s shirt, that his hug was no more than a compassionate gesture of an old friend in whom she had confided, revealed her trembling, vulnerable self. The colleague tried to assuage her by patting her hair with an almost fatherly touch. He murmured something in her ear, or rather in her bent head of red curls that weren’t pinned up but stormed in luscious waves down her shoulders. She raised her face and endowed him with a look that could’ve been full of what?—pity? plea? gratitude? condescension?—John John failed to interpret. The colleague opened his arms. Like a bird, she flew out, pulling her bag from his hands, and began to walk away, leaving him with the scent of her perfume and tears—John John could see them now—staining the man’s pale-blue shirt. The colleague spoke again, and she turned and skimmed his face one last time before shaking a no, and no, and no.
John John stopped breathing. The air gathered in his mouth but wouldn’t travel any further, supply his lungs. He imagined being an impostor or an intruder, a thief breaking and entering someone’s life, desecrating the privacy of their home, an accidental witness to someone else’s drama unfolding behind the windshield of his car. A hurricane of feelings rushed through him—from fury to self-pity to helplessness to a feeling of defeat and emptiness. He grew tired and limp, like a hot-air balloon with all the air let out, dispersed into the blue sky. He wished he had the strength to get out of the car and walk toward her and incriminate her in all sins mortal and immortal: in his having to grow and pickle cucumbers as well as sell shoes at Belk, in raising two children who speak English to their parents, in the ridiculous stage picture that still hung in their living room for everyone to view and gossip about, in her infidelity, in their fall, in how he, having noticed that one of her blue satin laces had become undone as she’d launched spread-eagle in the air for a grand jete pas de chat, leaped forward, tripping on the Mouse King’s tail and landing on his knees, with the weight of her body crushing in is arms. He sat and watched her get into the Mazda and drive off.
On his way home, he stopped at the Kroger and bought the marshmallows and Ritz crackers and everything else on the list. Before paying for the groceries and leaving the store, he spotted a heaping basket of cheap soccer balls next to a magazine stand. Distracted, but only for a moment, by Salma Hayek’s voluptuous beauty on one of the tabloids, he picked out a ball—red and black—and set it on the floor in front of him, his hand reaching for the phone ringing in his pocket. He answered the call by punching the button but without saying hello or anything else. He pressed it to his ear, rolling the ball from side to side. It felt strange to let his foot touch the ball’s slick, bright surface, toss it about the floor, back and forth between his legs. John John set his foot atop the ball and switched the phone to his other ear.
--Hello? Vanya? It’s Josef. Hello?
--Why? Why a goat? he asked and rammed the ball between the sliding entrance
doors, already retrieving another ball out of the basket and placing it on the floor.
--What? Goat? What goat? Vanya? Are you okay? Where are you?
--Why a goat?! Why?! Why?! Why?!
He dropped the phone into the basket as he kept fetching out the balls and hurtling them between the aisles, knocking a register and crashing the salad bar, kicking and hitting, until the moment began to feel still against the rising heat of the day.