The two women met in an unfurnished apartment.
“I like it,” one said, “I think” (unusually sheepishly for her nature). “It’s got some,” she rotated her wrists up in the air, looking for the less poetic word, “‘good light’.” It took a talent to be so vague. Or it took years of mutual knowledge and histories of hurt.
The younger one averted her eyes quickly. She was getting better at busying herself in the kitchen. Throughout her childhood, she’d witnessed mother’s chaos when other people came over to visit their place. They had been lucky that way, due to her father’s reputable profession: Always finding better living quarters, so others came over quite a bit. Wanting to be the talk of the town, mother buzzed and chattered in the kitchen; and she would bang the drawers with aluminum dinnerware and slam the cupboards in an orchestra of her exhibitionist domesticity.
While mother whipped up meals and refilled drinks, her girlfriends wandered around nosily, every once in a while coming upon a tiny girl, with eyes so large they took up half of her face, playing her own game of house in the furthest corner of the bedroom. Alone.
“So cute!” the women hissed, turning on their heels unhappily for having to divert their poking.
Mother continued conducting the percussions in her kitchen:
“She’s so quiet, that child! She’s all — my husband!”
The women moved about the living-room; lurked by the family’s photographs; touched, shifted, sniffed, demanded to know the origin of things:
“You are one lucky bitch, I hope you know.”
“They meant it as a compliment,” after the women’s departure, mother would attempt to clarify things — the delicate things that her daughter could not understand yet (but perhaps with time, she would). The evil smirk of the local Algebra teacher branded itself into her memory: How could these women mean anything good? But mother didn’t want to hear it: “Stop asking stupid questions anyway! This is adults’ business.”
“So,” the older woman spoke from the bedroom doorway and eyed the open, empty space. “Are you going to ask Mike to ship you the bed?” (Pause.) “Or do you plan to house this draft in here forever?”
“What do you mean by that?” the young woman stopped, knife in her hand.
“I mean, haven’t you, guys, divided things up officially yet?”
The young woman looked back down at the gutted pickled fish under her fingers, on the cutting board. It was a task that every Russian woman performed from A to Z. From A to YA. From A — to I. Her mother would’ve drowned the detailed fish in a pool of sunflower oil; and it would stare out, with dehydrated eyeballs from underneath a layer of butchered onions meant to cover up a job so messily performed.
While peeling onions, mom would begin to cry demonstratively:
“Oy! I so pity the little bird!”
What did the bird have to do with the fish? The bird — to I. The I — to eye. Still, mother was a funny actress, so the child would spit with laughter. She couldn’t help it: She was still in love with her original prototype back then.
She now thought of that one time a thin fishbone lodged in her throat for a week; and how she gagged every night, while mother hooked her sharp nails into the back of her tongue. For months to follow, sometimes, loose scales would reveal themselves stuck on her clothes or skin; or swimming in buckets of water with floor-scrubbing rags. Mom was a disaster in the house.
In her own kitchen, however, the young woman never kept the head. She wished she had a cat to feed it to. A cat — to make-up for the missing child, to make the loneliness less oppressive. She stared at the oval crystal bowl, with even filets of pink meat, neatly arranged.
She herself was a better housekeeper, yet heading toward a divorce nonetheless. Most likely:
“Mike and I aren’t talking, mom. You know that.”
“Oh! Yes. I see,” the old woman eyed the empty bedroom yet again: Why so much space for someone with defeated ovaries then? “You, young people! You have no concept of marital endurance any more.”
She swore, he thought of the idea first. At least, that’s how she remembered it. In his defense (why was she so willing to defend him?): In his defense — she wasn’t “willing”. He was right.
“It’s just that… something isn’t working,” Mike told her over the phone, the week of one Thanksgiving which they’d agreed to spend apart. He “couldn’t do it anymore”. Her work. Her books. Why was he always taking second place after her life? Once she hung up, she cried, of course, but mostly out habit; and out of habit, she started losing weight and sleep. That’s what a wife in mourning was supposed to look like, she decided. She cropped her hair, and started wearing pants and laced up wingtip shoes. In their crammed-in basement apartment in the Bronx, she found room to pace and wonder, “Why? Why? Why?”
Her girlfriends were eventually allowed to visit the site of her disastrous marriage. They bitched; they called him names. They lurked, touched, shifted, sniffed. They studied family photographs, still on display, for signs of early check-outs. The women patted her boyish haircut and teared up a bit too willingly, some of them — being slightly grateful for feeling better about their own men.
And then, one balmy New York August afternoon, she called him from a pay phone in Harlem.
“Meet me for dinner.”
An hour later, he showed up with lilies. After a dry peck that tasted unfamiliarly, she lead the way to a Dominican joint whose wall-full of French doors was always taken down for the summer. It breathed the smell of oil — and of fried everything — onto the sweaty pedestrians on Broadway.
On their side of the missing wall, the night dragged on with a strained politeness. His eyes were glossy, wet. She stared out onto the street. From either the heat of New York’s August and the lack of ventilation, the giant buds sweated under the plastic wrap; and by the time they finished picking through a pile of fried plantains, the lilies open completely, and just like everything at that time of the year — from sweat glands to subway sewers to perfume shops — they began to smell aggressively, nearly nauseating.
“I’m going to California,” she announced after finishing her white fish.
She looked down: After their six-month separation, she had begun to wear dresses and curl her hair again. She’d gained a certain swagger in the hips from wearing flat shoes through every season in New York. The flesh of femininity was finally beginning to lose the aftertastes of her youth’s self-loathing.
Not having gotten an answer, “When?” — he examined her with wet eyes of a lab.
She looked down again. The suppleness of her brown chest surprised her. She looked up: “Soon.”
Vagueness as a revenge: She’d learned that from her mother, the best that ever was! She owed him nothing. He was the one who’d given up! He was the one who left! But now, it settled at the bottom of her stomach, along with the plantains, like something begging for its freedom. And she, in her defense, was no longer “willing”.