The other woman came to Gulia’s apartment late in the morning, after Rashid had left for Munich. He’d flown out of Tashkent while the sun was rising, to transact business with a resort developer who wanted to buy his rugs. At four, Gulia and Rashid had woken up to sip coffee, waiting for the driver to arrive. She had fallen asleep again for a few hours, on his side of the bed, until it was time to get Layli ready for school.
Around eleven the doorbell rang, two short chirps followed by a looping canary twitter of someone holding down the buzzer. When Gulia opened the door, she knew who it was—the nun, clasping the cuff of her long sleeve and staring up at Gulia the way a child would stare at an elephant. The woman’s face glistened in the October heat, the top of her forehead covered by a hijab of gray chiffon draped tightly under her chin. She glimpsed past Gulia into the darkness of the apartment.
“Who are you looking for?”
The woman ignored her.
“You forgot your manners?”
“And you?” the woman said. “You plan to keep me standing here all day?” She stepped inside and led herself into the living room, eyeing the wool rugs (from Rashid’s factory) on the floor, before fixing her eyes on the twin bouquets of roses on the table, which Rashid had brought home a day earlier for Gulia’s thirty-first birthday.
“I’m Nasrin,” she said, inspecting the collection of bohemian glass on display in Gulia’s wall unit.
“I know who you are.”
“You bought all this yourself?”
“What do you need to know that for?”
“He doesn’t buy me such things.”
Her face was long, heavy in the jaw, Gulia noted, her eyebrows virtually triangles, untouched by tweezers. Only once, at a large wedding in town, had she seen Nasrin up close. Gulia had come with Rashid, while Nasrin had arrived on the arm of Rashid’s mother. In the carnival atmosphere of a wedding it had been easy for the two of them to keep a measured distance from each other’s tables.
Nasrin was relaxing into one of the dining room chairs when Gulia returned with tea from the kitchen. She had unwrapped her hijab and was fanning herself now with her hand, as though she were next to a kiln. Her hair was black, like Gulia’s before she started dying it copper. But coarse strands of gray already appeared in the thick part, and above her temple, a coin-sized patch was almost completely bald, like the skin of an animal that had clawed out its own fur.
“Mother-in-law told me you were ugly, but I see you are not bad-looking,” Nasrin said.
Gulia reached over to pour herself tea. Whatever village they’d plucked her from, she thought, Rashid’s family had obviously forgotten to teach Nasrin how not to fart out the first thought that came into her head.
“I won’t lie, you are pretty,” she added. “You are five years older than me, but you look young.”
She had the same little-girl voice Gulia knew from the phone—a voice that had once called her a divorced prostitute and declared her womb a barren pit. It wasn’t unusual for Nasrin to force both of her howling children to wail into the phone before hanging up. Gulia had come to expect these calls whenever Rashid left town on business.
Gulia set the teapot down between them. “What do you want here?”
“I came to say I cannot live like this anymore. You think I don’t see how my husband treats me? Like I’m a puddle he has to step over every day.”
“What does this have to do with me? I was here before you came around.”
“No one told me about you. Is it my fault everyone deceives me?”
You could tell from the woman’s face, Gulia decided, that it cost her nothing to open her mouth and lie. Just as it cost her nothing to shriek into the phone and leave clumps of cat fur and needles on Gulia’s doorstep. Nasrin would never admit to such witchcraft now, passing herself off as a good Muslim, taking up the hijab to please Rashid’s mother, who with her own deranged ideas had all but turned the family into a clan of Wahhabi fanatics. The doorstep gifts had seemed like a joke at first, the hexes of a backward villager. But the fact that in their nine years together Rashid had succeeded in making Gulia pregnant only once, and that even this had ended with miscarriage, made her worry that the cat hair and broken eggs, the oaths and curses, had thrown something off balance in her.
“No one told you about me?” Gulia said. “Half of Fergana knew, and you didn’t?”
“I thought we could get along. My uncle has two wives in one house, and they live like close girlfriends.”
“I’m not interested in your family or how you were raised.”
“And how were you raised?” The woman started up off her chair. “To become a divorced prostitute and keep a man away from his children!”
Again, the children. Nasrin had announced her first pregnancy just weeks after Rashid and Gulia’s own wedding party, when they’d gone to a mullah and then invited their friends to a restaurant—everyone from Gulia’s job at the bank and their circle from the university attending to support Gulia, the real wife. Afterward Rashid had begged Gulia’s forgiveness, explaining that Nasrin’s pregnancy was the result of the wedding night, when proof of a soiled sheet had been unavoidable. He swore he had not slept with Nasrin since then and didn’t plan to again. And for almost a year he had kept his promise, spending his nights at Gulia’s apartment, their life together interrupted occasionally by the five o’clock morning phone calls from Rashid’s mother, reminding him to be home for his first namaz prayer. But after a year of neglect, Nasrin had started to complain to the relatives. “People will talk about me,” Rashid told Gulia. “It’s a sin not to sleep with your own wife.” Could she not wait a little longer until he divorced Nasrin? Hadn’t he, after all, waited for her the same way?
When Nasrin’s second child was born, there were no more apologies. “What are you so sad about?” Rashid had asked indifferently. “You already have a child. If it’s not enough, have another!” There was nothing to say back. Was she going to deny him the right to have his own children?
But now she wanted the woman out of her apartment.
“In all this time if he had left me,” Gulia said, “I would have made peace with it. It’s not my fault he loves me. But you have known all along that he stays with you because of his mother.”
“And is it because of his mother that he sleeps in my bed when he’s not here?”
Gulia smiled. “Leave these stories for your friends.”
“You don’t have to believe me now. You will soon enough.”
Nasrin placed her hand on the arch of her back as she stood up, stomach first. She was ready to go, now that she had delivered her news, and began to wrap the chiffon around her face again, taking final stock of the room as she tucked in the last strands of hair. It was almost noon. The megaphone-aided voice of the muezzin was booming though the window, enduring for blocks, while Gulia, from her chair, her palms attached with sweat to the warm porcelain of her cup, watched Nasrin walk herself to the door, wobbling slightly as though carrying a precious weight.
Gulia pushed the swing every time the chains rocked her way. The breeze was lifting flyaway ends of Yoni’s hair. His legs dangled from the black rubber harness. In a sandbox a few meters away, a small boy was picking up his toy cars and talking to each one in inflections that were unmistakably an adult’s lecturing to a child. It seemed the rule at the playground beside Sloan-Kettering on York Avenue that the smaller children—offspring of doctors from the hospital housing—were all white or Indian, while the older kids filling the basketball court after school were either Latino or black. A boy in shorts down to his ankles jogged the ball sloppily to the free-throw line, the cement absorbing every slap and echoing it back across the warm stupor of the late afternoon. Gulia watched a skinny old woman in a sari approach the child who had been talking to his cars and pull his arm, making him holler. In her five months in New York, Gulia had never spoken with any of the other nannies or grandmothers who sat around the playground benches. All of them seemed to be living out private, mysterious patterns of their own. Only the big, lacquer-nailed women from the Islands chirped among themselves in West Indian accents while their kids sat dumbly in their strollers. The few Russian nannies she’d encountered didn’t suspect that she could comprehend them. On the streets of their own cities, they might guess correctly that she was a Tajik, but here on East Sixty-eighth Street, where she was camouflaged among so many unknown races, she was one more undifferentiated face of the East. The Russians were fat and blond, wearing eye shadow the colors of street chalk, as though they’d only just discovered that they could still wear makeup after fifty, and their lives as women did not yet have to be over.
Now that she had become invisible, her past had also started to slip away to another orbit, almost beyond her reach. When Rashid had returned home from his business trip, she’d told him that she didn’t intend to wait for another child of his to be born. Even in his tortured state, he’d laughed at her and gone on pretending she wasn’t going anywhere. Even when she’d found the Jew lawyer in Queens, who agreed to send over the bridegroom, Rashid had refused to believe she would pursue her plan to the end. But there was no public record of their marriage, she reminded him. They had been married by a mullah, without ever going to the civil registry—something it had been too late to do by the time her divorce cleared. By then, Rashid’s mother had already found Nasrin.
Gulia had arranged to meet the American bridegroom at the Club Hotel 777 on Pushkin Street. Besides paying for the hotel she hired an interpreter, who helped her show the American around and, more importantly, ensured that she wouldn’t be seen with him alone. Sitting under the awning by the swimming pool, Gulia had looked into the stranger’s gaunt face and seen, for the first time, her own pain reflected in the huge pity of someone’s eyes. She understood enough English to figure out that the man was a loser, a drinker and a gambler. But he was human and ashamed of taking so much money from a woman for his meager services. In a gesture possessing whatever impoverished honor he had left, he’d handed the interpreter a hundred-dollar bill and asked him to buy Gulia a gift from the hotel shop. “The lady isn’t in need,” the interpreter had said, and told the man to put away his money. Before the American flew back to New York, they’d gone to one of the wedding registries and signed all the papers.
One of Yoni’s sandals had dropped to the ground again. Gulia bent down and dusted it off while he wiggled in his harness, red-faced and grunting. She hoisted him out and sniffed at his diaper, getting a whiff of the sweet lacteal reek, then kneeled to strap him into his stroller and pried his moist fingers out of her hair. He was, on the whole, an easy child, smiling at her with his duck lip. A feeling of attachment had grown between the two of them in the very first week, when she’d wheeled him around the East Side, still worried that people were looking at her and seeing a servant, noticing the incongruity between her dark-eyed, high-cheeked face and the ginger-haired boy who was clearly not hers. But no one noticed them. Nobody in this city cared about her at all.
On the sidewalk, chips of mica sparkled where the sun hit them. It was the beginning of June, and the freshness of spring still hadn’t become tarnished by the heat. Gulia pushed the stroller along toward the apartment blocks of First Avenue. At the bottom of her purse, her phone was chiming through its fragment of the Carmen overture. No need to guess who it was.
“Allo . . .”
“Asal . . . ?” He didn’t ask for Gulia anymore, only for his Asal—his honey, his darling thing. “I called you this morning. You didn’t want to talk to me?”
“I was bathing the boy, Rashid.”
“And yesterday night?”
“I went out for groceries.”
“Asal, don’t lie to me. Who goes out at ten at night to buy vegetables? I know people in New York.”
Was it possible, she wondered, for him to carry on a conversation without hinting that she was being watched by spies?
“I picked Layli up from school yesterday,” he said in a hopeful voice.
“She can walk home. It’s only ten minutes to Auntie’s house.”
Her mother’s sister was now looking after Layli, the way she’d taken fifteen-year-old Gulia in, when her mother had died and her father remarried.
“Your aunt should keep a better eye on her,” Rashid said. “I drove past the school, and she was hanging around in front with those greaseballs. All boys, some of them already have whiskers. I told her, if any of my friends or workers saw you right now, they would laugh at your father.”
“Always thinking of yourself, Rashid.”
He didn’t answer her, and she could tell by the long, hurt silence that she’d been uncharitable. Rashid had always treated Layli like his own, even better.
“You think I don’t worry about you?” Rashid said. “They make you go out at night, by yourself!”
“Ten o’clock at night is no different from four o’clock in the afternoon, in Manhattan.”
“Right,” he said. “Manhattan of the rich. Tell me, are there Negroes in Manhattan?”
She sighed. “Yes, there are, Rashid.”
“If a rich Negro starts chatting with you, will you go out with him?”
“Why are you asking me these silly questions?”
“Would you marry a Negro, a very rich one?”
How about a Jew, she wanted to ask him? How would he feel about indiscreet, soft-waisted, slightly cheap Vlad, who’d asked her to lunch twice before she’d relented? Would Rashid give her one of his unconvinced, patronizing smiles, or would he see that even the attentions of someone as unlikely as Vlad could restore something to her, not hopefulness exactly, but at least an awareness of herself as someone who could be loved?
“Stop teasing me,” she said. “You know I can’t marry anyone while I have my ‘husband’ in Queens.”
“Ah. The card shark. Has he gambled away your money yet?”
She paused the stroller in front of the Cigar Inn and let Yoni gape at the polished wooden Indian outside. “It’s his money now,” she said.
Yoni jacked his neck back, fastening his eyes on the Indian’s angry painted face. It was his favorite part of the afternoon walk, this unmerciful colossus that had the power to captivate some primal part of his toddler brain.
“Asal, how long do you plan on torturing me with this nonsense?” Rashid said.
“Until you decide we can live like normal people, the way you promised me.”
“You want to know how I live now? I work all day. Then I go and sit in some shitty restaurant until they shut the doors, so I don’t have to go home to her.”
“We’ve been through this old song . . .” She pivoted the stroller in the direction of the Sotheby’s building. “I need to change the baby.”
“All right, I’ll let you go, governess. Tell me, Gulia, do you still love me?”
“It’s the middle of the night for you,” she said. “Go sleep.”
The Governess. He always made up new names for her when he called. Fräulein, Mary Poppins. She’d managed to avoid telling him about all her other chores: the cooking and laundry, the swishing of chlorine in the garbage pail, the donning of grim rubber gloves, as she was doing now, to scrub the toilet. In the big room Polina’s breast pump hummed with its motorized drone. Gulia skinned the last paper towel off the cardboard roll and wiped the porcelain rim of the toilet, then peeled off the gloves again to fetch another roll from the kitchen.
Polina was on the couch, her blouse undone. Two clear suction cups milked her breasts with a hungry mechanical force while she read the newspaper on the coffee table and scooped lentils out of a bowl in her lap. Gulia had expected her to be out of the apartment by ten, but Polina had decided at the last minute to send her husband out for diapers before their drive to her mother’s. “Vlad called for you,” she said without looking up. “You were in the laundry room. He wanted to make sure you’re still meeting at one.”
Gulia’s stomach stiffened. “He asked me a long time ago. I didn’t want to be rude to him.” It embarrassed her that she and Polina had to speak of it.
Polina lifted her underslept, anemic face and examined Gulia with a grin so subtle it eluded explanation. “By all means. If you aren’t interested, it’s your business.”
When Vlad came a month ago for Shabbat dinner, Polina’s aim had been to set him up with a woman from her hospital, a fellow resident. There had been a lot of exaggerated smiling over red wine, talk about travel and tv shows Gulia didn’t watch—and even while Vlad listened to the woman’s stories about her dog, without much tact he aimed amused surreal glances in Gulia’s direction.
“If I’d known he wasn’t your type,” Polina said, going back to her paper. This was the kind of statement she was adroit at making: one that could mean nothing or everything. Possibly she was reminding Gulia of their conversation two weeks before, when Gulia had talked about her Bukharian Jewish friends from school and then had gone on to say she could never marry one—and it would be the same if she married a Shiite—that her lineage would be cursed for seven generations. But all she had really meant was that she was so cursed already, she didn’t want to call down more trouble on herself. It seemed impossible to clarify this now, especially with Polina’s pager suddenly beeping from somewhere deep in the creases of the couch.
“What’s with these people!” Polina moaned, switching to English. She stuck her fingers between the cushions, her milk dripping down the vacuum tubes that had stretched her nipples to the size of tiny fingers. A minute later Gulia could hear her from the bathroom, ordering one of the nurses to pull a patient’s chart.
Gulia squeezed a few hard sprays of Windex on the mirror and streaked off the foam. As abrupt and hard to read as Polina could be, the fact that she had neither the time nor the inclination to monitor every move Gulia made had turned out to be the saving grace of Gulia’s job, the one thing that didn’t make her feel like a servant. In her first husband’s house, she’d spent entire afternoons scrubbing and sweeping like Cinderella, with Morad’s mother shadowing her from room to room, finding fault with everything. It ached her now to remember how her student years had flown past, with her never going out to a café with her friends, every evening keeping her mother-in-law company while the old woman sat up watching television late into the night. And then having Morad lunge at her in the mornings with his schizoid suspicions, tugging off whatever pretty shirt she’d picked out for class and forcing her into some dowdy grandmother blouse. It was just as well, to cover the brown bruises on her arms. All of this Gulia had kept from her aunt, feeling the crushing blame of her own decision. She’d married Morad in spite of her aunt’s reassurance that there was always enough room in her home for Gulia, that there was no rush to be married off. Her aunt had demurred to the women who started paying visits when Gulia turned seventeen, telling them that the girl was still too young—not that this discouraged the mothers, all looking for a daughter-in-law from a good family, a good girl. The pressure to leave her aunt’s house, Gulia realized now, had been mostly in her head, though there had also been the rush of being desired, if not by the boys directly, then by their mothers. Picking a husband the year she’d turned eighteen had been like picking pastries in a shop. The one she had liked was a light-eyed, worshipful medical student who was an Arab, but on this matter her aunt had firmly set down her foot. As a consolation, she’d consented to Morad, the best looking of the others, in spite of the heroin rumors already floating around. They’d had their wedding the summer before Gulia entered university.
Two years later Rashid was the only one who noticed how many times a week she missed lectures. After class she’d find him on the student-swarmed steps between the lobby and first floor, holding his neat notes for her to copy. His face was still rounded out by a moon of fat in those days. It would be another year before he’d tell her to leave Morad. “My family is all I have,” she’d informed him. “I can’t make an orphan of my daughter.”
“Then do it while she’s still young,” he’d reassured her. “She’ll know me as her father.” He was gifted like that, when it came to making promises.
Looking into the pond, Gulia could see the reflections of the terraced buildings along the park’s eastern border. Their shapes were distorted in the surface of the water, where a duck was pushing itself along, cutting through the crisscrossing eddies made by the wind. Gulia touched her hair to make sure it hadn’t fallen out of place.
“You put it up, didn’t you?” Vlad said, casting a sly off-center look at her from under his cap, which had a little umbrella and the word citigroup embroidered on it. “I like it. You should wear it up more often.”
She smiled faintly, unsure of what to say to such a compliment. Rashid would never remark on how she had assembled herself. He’d leave the tricks of technique alone and regard her only as a radiant whole.
“So you want to know why Polina hired you?” Vlad fished out a box of mints and shook a couple into his palm. He beckoned Gulia to take one. “She said she showed all the other potentials the kosher kitchen, and you were the only one who got nervous about mixing up the dishes. She said anyone that stressed out by it was probably honest.”
He chuckled and looked at her admiringly. He seemed to relish this naïve idea of her as an obedient domestic.
“Why should I cheat?” she said.
He put his arm around her back and squeezed her shoulder. “I’m just teasing. You think Polina believes all this nonsense? Putting lights on timers, twisting out the bulb in the refrigerator? I’ve called her Saturdays and her phone has been busy. She dials her mother as soon as Ben goes to shul. Polina does what’s best for Polina.”
“I don’t know,” Gulia said. She’d noticed recently that Vlad’s talk could take a sudden cynical turn, which later he’d claim was just a joke. Maybe, she wagered, he had been in love with Polina when they were teenagers back in Vilnius, before they’d come to this country. It seemed unlikely, but whatever fellowship they’d once kept was evidently not the same now that Polina had chosen a skinny, yeshiva-boy lawyer over Vlad and his wit.
“Does she give you every Sunday off?” he asked, taking Gulia’s hand familiarly and slipping their interlocked fingers into the pocket of his khakis. Of course her complicity had encouraged this. In the final minutes of their last date, Vlad had flagged her a taxi and, in the moment it took for the cab to pull up, had caught her unaware in what she remembered now less as a kiss than as a lunge. A lunge-kiss that had actually caused her to tip her head back to avoid the force. She’d pulled away abruptly as soon as she’d felt his tongue in her mouth. But why had she allowed him to relieve his tense expectation? She understood that her motive was selfish: to have recoiled from him so early would have meant no more phone calls; she would not be strolling down this walkway today, lined with elms and oaks, with the sunlight filtering through the leaves, walking not by herself or with the baby but with an actual man. This fact was enough to make her feel as though the park had been cleaned for her, its hedges clipped and its grass manicured for her benefit alone. To have your own adult moment like this, you practically needed to have a man beside you.
“Sunday or Saturday, whichever I need off, Polina is very understanding.” She slipped her fingers carefully out of Vlad’s pocket.
“She told me about your situation. I don’t know how you stood it for so long.”
Gulia shrugged. “My husband was good to me. Sometimes he was the one I felt sorry for.”
“But it’s disgusting really. I’m shocked it’s not illegal to have two wives.”
“It is illegal,” she said. She didn’t know why she felt defensive suddenly. “Everyone turns a blind eye,” she added, more calmly. “It was not so open when I was growing up. People frowned on it. The Soviets would have punished it. But now it is like time is moving backward. This is how it used to be—there is the wife you marry for yourself, and the one you marry for your parents.”
He shook his head with a patronizing compassion.
“Why were you never married?” she asked. It didn’t feel like a mean question with the warmth of the sun on their backs.
Vlad shrugged. “No luck. I lived with a woman off and on for ten years. She’d had a tough life. Her mother was schizophrenic. I felt sorry for her.” He waited for a sad nod of agreement from Gulia before continuing. “It’s common for first-degree relatives to get symptoms, later in life. I realized it wasn’t something I wanted to look forward to.”
A huffing female jogger ran an arc around them, her T-shirt pasted to her rounded back. “Look at this,” he pointed. “Training for war, right?”
He had been worried his girlfriend would go crazy, like her mother, or that the illness might pass along to his children. Couldn’t real love withstand these abstract mitigations? She wondered if he felt any remorse about stealing ten years from a woman’s life.
The runner had disappeared into a cross path where two face painters sat at a collapsible card table, the woman dabbing a brush on a child’s cheek while her partner reclined in a director’s chair, surveying the passersby. From the look of faint contempt on the man’s face, Gulia could tell the two were Russian. On one of the benches, a fashionable woman in her seventies sat grooming her giant setter, pushing a brush through its sleek russet coat as lovingly as if it were the hair of a little girl. It seemed that people in the park were always tending to their animals as if they were children. She had yet to see a stray dog sleeping in the dust as she’d seen in Fergana, gazing up at you with yellowed, vinegary eyes. Vlad was leaning in close enough for her to smell his sharp, aquatic cologne. “I thought you’d like it,” he whispered, as if this whole tucked-away stage life of the park were his doing.
Now that the face painters’ table was free of children, the couple had lit up Winstons. A trace of warm dough drifted in between the odor of their tobacco. “Hungry?” Vlad said. He lifted his chin in the direction of a pretzel cart just off the path. Gulia shook her head.
He started off toward the cart with his slouched gait. She was hungry, she realized, though not for anything from a pretzel stand. On the way to the park, she and Vlad had passed two or three restaurants. She’d waited on the sidewalk while he studied the menus in the windows, concluding each time that the place wasn’t for them. He’d taken her, in the end, to the empty second floor of a Korean salad bar, where she’d grazed at her salad of sliced cucumbers, olives, and shredded carrots and eaten only the canned peaches. It wasn’t that he was trying to take a shortcut on her, she thought; it was probably just part of Vlad’s personality, the way extravagance was part of Rashid’s. Even before Rashid had made his money on rugs, while they’d still lived modestly, he’d brought home the best fruit by the crateload. If she asked him to pick up a tube of toothpaste, he’d come back with three. Buying just one of anything was an embarrassment for him. His mistake had been to think this would keep her with him. The day he’d met her the airport, after her interview at the embassy in Tashkent, Layli sat up front in his Mercedes, the two of them in oddly good spirits. On the ride back Rashid detoured through one of Tashkent’s posh new neighborhoods, where laborers squatted, laying bricks around the driveways of unfinished mansions. A few of them lifted their sunbaked heads when Rashid parked the car and clicked the automatic locks. At the end of the driveway stood a two-story idyll in white stucco, a steel balustrade around its marble terrace. Inside, they were greeted by a double staircase and marble floors and, in the back, a walled-off rose garden with a fountain. “Do you see all this?” Rashid said to Layli. “Do you like it, my daughter? You tell your mother to say no to America, I’ll buy you this house tomorrow and sign it over in your name.” Layli had giggled, not saying anything for Gulia’s sake.
How could Rashid have thought a house would make her change her mind? She’d rather have had him shake her and slap her, make threats. But he was not so strong-willed. He loved her, but it was a resigned love, something he believed he could negotiate around.
Vlad returned, carrying a pretzel for himself and a Fanta for Gulia. With a hand on her lower back, he guided her down the walkway to the big grass field swarming with people. There was a spicy, hay-scented smell of mowed grass cooking in the sun, a game involving teams of young men, some shirtless, chasing a Frisbee. People sat on blankets or in the shadows of trees, beside their overturned bicycles, oblivious to the city around them. She and Vlad walked on the outside of some shallow net fencing until they were on a shadier walkway heading uphill between boulders on which mangier shirtless men dozed. Vlad removed his cap and with his arm dabbed the sweat from his forehead; he looked at Gulia with amorous, heavy-lidded eyes and smiled exhaustedly. His expression reminded her of a house dog’s, waiting for what its loyalty and affection entitled it to.
“I’m going to Fire Island next weekend,” he said.
He studied her face to determine if she knew what he was talking about. “It’s off of Long Island. It’s the one where everybody leaves their cars on the dock and takes the ferry.” He watched her face, realizing this was of little help.
“It sounds nice,” she said. She thought of guests removing their shoes before entering a house.
“Yeah. My friends rent a cottage there. I thought you’d like to get out of the city next weekend.”
Did a cottage mean he expected her to stay overnight, share his room? Please, please ask someone else, she wanted to say. I know nothing about these sorts of things.
“I wanted to buy clothes for my daughter next weekend,” she said.
Vlad picked a little salt off his pretzel. “I guess that’s important.” His eyes scanned around, ostensibly for one of the exit gates. “Do what you need to do,” he said, all business now.
Half an hour ago she had recoiled from taking his hand. Now his attention seemed too precious, too unfamiliar to risk losing as quickly as she’d won it. “I’ll find time to buy her something earlier in the week,” Gulia said. She hoped her face looked cheerful.
Gulia’s phone launched into its refrain of Carmen while she applied a second coat of color to her nails. She’d laid Yoni down for his nap twenty minutes earlier and retrieved the polish from under the kitchen sink. She’d chosen this dragon-lady color for dotting the handles of the meat pots and meat utensils, in order to tell them apart from the dairy, a brazen red she’d never consider wearing. But now such reservations seemed prudish and silly. In a city where no one cared anyway, why hide oneself away like some invalid? The Carmen overture was still playing, going on its third loop now. She waved her fingers and picked up the phone.
“Rashid, how nice of you to call,” she said. “Five days. I was about to give up on you.”
He didn’t bother answering. “Tell your lady doctor to find a new maid,” he said. “I’m divorcing Nasrin.”
Her elbow knocked the nail polish over and spilled a pool on the newsprint. A heated prickle was spreading down her arms.
“Don’t fool me anymore, Rashid.”
“Are you listening to me? God has looked favorably on us. I found her an apartment in town so she can visit the children.”
“She’s not taking them?”
“They’re staying where they belong, Gulia. In the house with the family. My mother and sister will look after them.”
“She agreed?” An idiotic question.
“That’s how it’s been decided.”
As though she could forget that she wouldn’t have kept Layli were it not for Morad’s drug problem.
“Better I return Nasrin to her parents, right? In disgrace. Take your daughter back. We don’t need her anymore. At least I’ll save her that scandal, pardon me!” He sounded stunned at what he had done, at what she had made him do. “Do you have any idea what people are saying, Gulia?”
She listened silently.
“Say something!” he demanded.
“I don’t know what to say.”
He was offering her an enormous gift, and all he wanted in return was a mindless giddiness, anything to make him forget how much the gift had cost.
“Then kiss me,” he said.
“How am I going to kiss you over the phone?”
And this time she did as he told her, pressing her lips to the raised keypad on the phone.
They were seated at an outdoor table that gave Gulia a clear view of the inside of the restaurant. The walls of the dining room were covered with sepia posters of old American films, distantly familiar images of Casablanca and Gone with the Wind, the face of a young Omar Sharif in Doctor Zhivago.
“You know who that one is,” Vlad said, pointing with his fork.
“I don’t know.”
He had named all the actors he recognized so far, presumably for her benefit.
“Yes, you do. The Christ-father.” He appeared both shocked and pleased with her ignorance. “Marlon Brando!”
Gulia poked her fork around the slippery tangerine slice at the lip of her plate. She wanted to measure her words carefully, but her face was probably broadcasting everything.
They’d been talking about Fire Island again, about the gays who summered there, who’d made themselves the gatekeepers of real estate, according to Vlad, and were the reason the rentals were getting so expensive every year.
“Vlad, I can’t go,” she said, looking up at him. “Thank you for asking me, but it wouldn’t be fair. I am returning to Fergana.”
Vlad swallowed and wiped his lip with the corner of the napkin.
“My husband is leaving the woman who . . .” She did not know what to call Nasrin now. “The woman,” she said, simply.
All day it had been her secret. She had told no one. “He’s been very troubled since I left,” she said.
“I’m sure he has,” Vlad wiped his mouth again. “Wow. It’s some story. I didn’t know you still spoke to him.”
“We are not enemies.”
“Uhhm.” He gazed at the boat of sugar packets between them. “You aren’t enemies. Ha-ha. I like that. Amiable arbitration.” He gave her a rueful smile. “Isn’t that the key to negotiation?”
“What?” she said.
“Showing you can walk away.”
She regarded him for a moment but couldn’t think of what he was talking about.
“I’m just curious,” he said. “Why come here, why not go to New Zealand or Tahiti, somewhere exotic, to wait it out and indulge in stories of your old life?”
He was cynical, she thought, cynical and self-pitying. It was horrible to think how close she had come to being with him.
“I heard once,” she said, “that it is in how people part ways that we learn the most about them.”
Vlad grinned at some private thought and picked something out of his teeth, as if she weren’t there. “I wish you luck,” he said, with no affect.
“You, as well.”
They seemed to run out of words then and fell into a sober silence, during which a honking taxi stalled and finally rolled past. She watched the people strolling on the other side of the canvas partition. A few looked like tourists; those she thought were New Yorkers looked well groomed, certain of themselves, but also preoccupied and worn-down. Within a few moments, their waiter was at the table, offering tea and dessert that they both declined.
She’d knocked herself out with the aid of two valerian capsules and in her subterranean sleep had glimpsed the old alley where she’d walked a hundred times, where men squatted over backgammon boards. It was a familiar, anxious tune that woke her up, fracturing the fragile trance of her dream, the cursed theme from Carmen, and when she opened her eyes, a blinking red light reflected in the empty water glass on her nightstand.
“Gulnara, are you up?” It was her aunt’s voice, deep like a man’s.
“Yes, what’s wrong?” She squinted in the dark at the night-shining sky in the window. “Is it Layli?”
“No. Our girl is fine. It’s Nasrin.”
Gulia got out of bed and felt around for her slippers.
“Rashid’s Nasrin,” her aunt said in response to Gulia’s silence. “She carried a kerosene lamp into their courtyard last night and poured it all over herself. Then she struck a match. The neighbor just came and told us.”
“Kerosene?” The words were arranging themselves into a strange constellation in her head.
“Yes, the ambulance came. Everybody could hear her screaming on the street. They say it’s because Rashid was tossing her out.”
“Who said that?” Gulia felt feverish. She took a step toward Yoni’s crib. His cheek was pressed to the sheet, his blanket tossed aside.
“Now people are calling me, asking if Rashid was throwing her out because you are coming back,” her aunt said.
“He was not throwing her out, Auntie. He bought her an apartment.”
“Then you knew? This is all true, what I hear about you from strangers?”
Gulia stared out at the transparent night. A few lights were already on in the apartment buildings. The Queensboro Bridge was still suspended over the dark river, and somewhere in the world tongues were already flapping.
She took the elevator down to the lobby so she wouldn’t wake anyone when she called Rashid. It was six in the morning, and in the corridor behind the reception desk, a few doctors were picking up their mail, straggling in from a sleepless night.
She lowered herself onto the leather couch and listened to Rashid tell her that Nasrin was still alive.
“Now you will never leave her,” she said.
“It is in God’s hands.”
Her arms and the top of her chest had been burned badly, he said, almost down to the muscle. He’d been asleep, in another room of the house, he added. Screams from the outside had woken everyone, and by the time he ran into the fenced-in courtyard, flames were leaping from her nightgown. He’d put them out by wrapping her in a carpet hanging on the porch railing. She was still delirious when the ambulance arrived, he said, begging him to kill her.
Gulia listened silently. There was still sand in her eyes from her valerian-induced sleep. The doctors were gone, and she was alone again in the lobby where the only other living creatures were two potted palms by the doors. She tried not to imagine Nasrin walking into the courtyard, guided by the lamp that would soon bathe her in fire. It wasn’t despair that had made Nasrin do it, she thought, it was simple vengeance. How did one compete with insanity, she wondered. Whatever pain and hopelessness she’d felt herself, she could never raise them to a level of such violence.
“What do you want me to do now,” she said finally. “Come back to you while you sit at her bedside?”
“We need to wait, Gulia. Can’t you wait?”
“Oh yes, and how the years go by.”
She felt sorry for making this more difficult for him now. Surely his pain was something she couldn’t understand. He was living a nightmare, had been living it for years by splitting himself in two. She wondered if a part of him loved Nasrin. She had no idea anymore. Rashid was like the moon: the side of him that faced Nasrin was eternally in shadow.
“Gulia, we can’t lose our hope.”
“Hoping is hard work,” she said. She thought back on her life, living in that house with Morad and his parents, her only salvation the rotary phone in the hallway. It would ring for her after midnight, when everybody had gone upstairs to sleep and she was still awake, rinsing Layli’s linens and hand-washing the entire house’s laundry. She would shake the water off her hands and run to pick up before the second ring. At twenty she might have tried killing herself too, if it had not been for Rashid’s late-night phone calls.
But what hope could they speak of now, she wondered. That Nasrin would not survive what she had done to herself? Even if they moved to Tashkent, where no one knew them, could they still look into each other’s eyes after this?
“Gulia, I don’t know what to do. I have no one else on my side besides you.” His voice had risen steadily until it sounded like a sob. She felt her own chest swell, her throat stiffen. Eleven years ago she’d held her breath until he spoke the code word they’d agreed on, “Taxi?” in case someone else in the house picked up. A whole affair carried on in secret, even though they hadn’t so much as kissed.
“Asal, are you still there?”
She watched two young doctors walk in through the doors, pausing their conversation to glance at her. Their expressions changed into grimaces—professional instincts that registered pain and disturbance. What was written on her face, she wondered, that would make them look at her like this?
“I’m still here.”
“We must ask God to help us.”
She looked up and caught the eye of one of the doctors glancing back at her as he stepped into the elevator. She swallowed the mucus in the back of her throat. They were so worried here about appearing intrusive, she thought. Everything was the opposite of Fergana, but she could get used to it.
“We must ask God for help, together,” he repeated in a low tone.
“It might be time,” she said. “It might be time that you and I started asking God for different things.”
Gulia waited for him to speak, but he didn’t. She laid the phone down on the red leather, letting Rashid end their call. The lobby was extremely air-conditioned, and her arms shivered. She folded them tightly across her chest and looked through the doors, at the sky holding its first yellow. She could see the corner of a fenced-off construction area, the view of a crane obstructed by the lobby’s ceiling. It was morning, and the neighborhood was becoming familiar again.
Copyright ©2008 by Sana Krasikov, from One More Year by Sana Krasikov, to be published by Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.