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ISSUE:  Spring 1993

He wonders why they are pestering him day after day. Anna, Marina, even Natalie, who usually knows she is meant to stop the girls. Is this some behavior he has allowed to creep up in them, slowly, slowly, because of a slackness in his response? He would almost attribute their boisterous nagging to a blooming of latent genes on foreign soil.

“With freedom’s seed the desert sowing. . . Oh, vain and sad disseminator,” he quotes from his dear Pushkin. He would like to love his family, God knows! But this harassment has no limits.

Right now Anna is practicing her violin, which would give solace to Lev, except that she is racing helter-skelter through the Schumann piece, and Lev has sworn to himself (after a spat with Anna over yesterday’s practicing, and a long quiet talk with Natalie at night as they lay in bed awaiting sleep) not to intervene. Suddenly Lev would like to turn on the radio, which is only four feet from his chair and another half dozen from the piano, where Anna now stands slumped over her violin in a posture so contorted that Lev finds it a miracle she can produce any music at all. If justice reigned, her violin would crash to the floor. In fact, Anna’s new delight is to stand her violin upright on her knee and play it against her chest in imitation of an American country fiddler. Although he has so far only nodded silently, the shine of pleasure on her face suggests she must know that this makes Lev long to be back in Leningrad, before such vulgar little burlesques began.

Lev notices that his fist has begun to thump against the arm of the chair just a fraction behind Anna’s rushed tempo. Of course he should stop—take himself upstairs into the safety of his bedroom, or, better yet, out onto the snowy street—but he cannot lift himself from the chair, and his hand is continuing to thump but more and more slowly as Anna’s pace decreases. This may then be the solution, he thinks with a certain spiteful relief: avoid all words and open confrontation. Anna may not even know why she has finally settled on allegro, which is how the Schumann should rightfully be played. Gracefully, Lev lifts his hand from the chair and, like a conductor who has achieved a fragile and precious moment, holds it alight.

When the sonata is over, Anna turns to him with a tense pout: “Papa, you know I wish you wouldn’t stay in the living room while I practice.”

“Where would you prefer that I read, if not in my own living room?” minces Lev, but his arm remains airborne and his copy of Scientific American is embarrassingly closed. Nevertheless, paying the mortgage should give him minimal rights. “You yourself must have heard that toward the end you finally got the feeling of Schumann’s tempo. Don’t you think the piece sounds much nicer that way?”

Anna lets her soft mouth droop. With her long sandy waves and large grey eyes, she is becoming quite a temptress, and Lev wonders idly at what age Anna will betray her still unknown husband for the pleasures of a lover. Of course, Lev would never share such thoughts with his daughter, even had Natalie not instructed him in the severe restraints necessary to raising an adolescent girl. (Natalie goes to the public library weekly to take out those optimistic yet puritanical American advice books he thinks she would be far better off without. ) Besides, whatever has happened to that tiny smooth body he once cradled with such happiness is being hidden by Anna in pastel sweaters so vast that he could easily wear them. Anna herself has noticed this, and on several occasions has pressed him to try one on. “Lavender?” he has said. “Yellow? You think these colors go well with my beard?”

Anna has sat down petulantly on the piano bench facing him—today the sweater is precisely the color of those gaudy pink phone messages that clutter Lev’s lab. As if awaiting his next move, she dangles her legs that are swathed in black dancing tights.

“How about the Prokofiev?” Lev says disinterestedly.

“That bore!” Anna looks down at her slim legs and turns her ankles; then she smiles, “I’ll play it if you agree to make dinner.”

Before he knows what is happening, Lev’s hand has come crashing down on the arm of the chair, and his suddenly feather-light body has sprung up. He is walking out of the living room and beginning to climb the stairs when he hears Natalie.

“What’s wrong with your father?”

“I asked him about cooking,” Anna whispers.

“Leave him alone for a few days,” says Natalie. (Lev imagines her resting her strong square hand on Anna’s shoulder. The sound of Marina’s skip means that she, too, has come in from somewhere to join their conspiracy. ) A few days! Lev rages, a prisoner in his foreign house, as he bangs up the stairs.

Because Lev is the one who wanted so steadfastly to come to America, and because (though Natalie never really mentions it), she has given up a law practice in Leningrad for the amorphous days of a housewife, there is a certain pressure on him whose righteousness he can’t ignore to unearth what is good in his new country. This, after all, though irritating in ways he couldn’t have imagined, is the land of opportunity. Lev’s combined research and teaching position at the Montefiore Hospital is enviable, he would have to concede. Science is practiced somewhat as he hoped it would be, though he finds his colleagues foolishly naive about the ideologies that bend their vision. Still, in scarcely three years, possibly because of his talents; more likely, as he suspects, because everyone is anxious to honor the Russian emigre in their midst, he has been placed in charge of virological research. Perhaps if he were less certain that his new life is the best the planet offers he would feel less glum.

“One who has lived and thought, grows scornful, Disdain sits silent in his eye;

One who has felt, is often mournful” thinks Lev, feeling comfort from Eugene Onegin.

At lunch, Lev carries his paperbag to the table where his colleagues sit hunched in their hospital coats over their red plastic trays. The slim spongy sandwiches which they slap together behind the counter of the cafeteria, and which fill his colleagues’ paper plates, do not, in Lev’s view, constitute a satisfactory noontime meal. Instead, he opens his sack to take out the salami on pumpernickle and the container of marinated cucumbers Natalie has prepared for him. In the laboratory, because the subject at hand is narrow and foreclosed, and the scientific language often international, Lev feels himself an expert in his new tongue. Even in the classroom, he has learned to avoid misunderstanding by lecturing nonstop throughout the hour and demanding that all questions be asked of him one-to-one, after class. But the lunchroom table is a Tower of Babel. Sometimes he is not even sure it is English they are speaking. Dr. Lawson has said he is from the South—from a small town in the state of Lou-i-si-an-na, a name Lev finds is made only by an acrobatics of the mouth. Then there is Lucy Gonzales, his assistant in the lab, whose words are lilting and nasel, though, mercifully, he has learned to understand most of what she says. And Dr. Chi, whose speech is to English as a cabbage seed is to borscht. Lev can barely pretend to listen when Dr. Chi begins to speak, although they are both newcomers, and it would not be unfitting if he showed interest in how the man was experiencing his exile. Besides, Dr. Chi is bright and thorough—more careful than the Americans, who laugh easily at their mistakes and expect the government to pay for a rerun of the experiment. In this, as he has told them, they are like the younger Russians in his St. Petersburg lab. Just now Dr. Greene, who is from Chi-ca-go, is speaking. Dr. Greene one can understand, which, unfortunately, exposes the infrequency with which he says anything interesting. Today Dr. Greene’s Volvo seems to have broken down on the way to the hospital. He needs a ride after work to pick up the car where he left it in a snow drift on the side of a road—this assistance is quickly offered by Mary Levinson—and the name of a trustworthy mechanic in New Rochelle who will fix a foreign car.

“What did you say is wrong, please?” Lev asks. He is carefully refolding the waxed paper to return to his brown bag.

“Transmission!” Dr. Greene laughs. “Let the women explain.”

Annoyed, Lucy Gonzales slaps Dr. Greene’s white sleeve with her paper napkin and rises haughtily with her tray.

“It carries something from one place to another,” Mary Levinson volunteers uncertainly. “Gas? Oil?” She shrugs and looks around, waiting for assistance.

“Ees geal to transmit powel from enchine to achsel,” says Dr. Chi.

Lev rolls his eyes at the hazards of the informal lesson.

“Geah, not geal. Powah, not powel,” says Dr. Lawson. “But Wu is raht.”

Although each attempt at help merely adds confusion, Lev suddenly knows what they are talking about. “Transmissiia,” he finally says, to a baffled response. “Well, it’s practically the same. Because you call it what, transmission?”

“Dr. Barobin’s going to be a real American before we know it,” says Mary Levinson.

But Lucy Gonzales, who still stands poised with her tray, flashes him her wide ironic gypsy smile. “An American? Ha! The man is a Slavic despot. Just ask him, for one small example, how often he even enters his kitchen.”

“Mama is the only mother in my class who doesn’t go to work,” says Anna. She leans against the bookcase in what she calls her “sweatpants” (Does sweat ever rise from her soft pink skin? Lev wonders) and a long-sleeve shirt that is probably his, one foot perched on the other shin. She is talking to Lev, but she gives her mother uneasy glances.

“Your mother is very lucky. She worked too many years in St. Petersburg,” says Lev, who avoids Natalie’s gaze. Instead, he makes himself imagine first the long line at the food store where on her way home from the courts Natalie would stand for more than an hour, so that she arrived home tense and indignant, and fearing the worst from the crowded stove where she would have to fight with Lev’s sister-in-law for a few minutes of space. From what he hears, the lines in St. Petersburg are no shorter now that the country is supposedly busy with reform. In any case, here with express lanes in every supermarket and four burners and an oven entirely at her disposal at home, how can Natalie spend the long day?

Natalie’s reflective face remains downturned as she closes a plastic-covered library book, What Color Is Your Parachute? “ You know there’s nothing I can do with a Soviet law degree,” she quietly reminds Anna, and from her tone Lev cannot discern her attitude toward this fact.

“Jasmine’s Mother works at Loehmann’s,” says Marina, who is on one knee before the coffee table, her glossy brown hair swaying like a curtain as she laconically fills out a short-answer test. Jasmine is a little black girl who stirs the house into a turmoil of shrieks and slamming doors on those afternoons when Marina brings her home from school.

“Your mother has no need to work in a cheap department store,” says Lev, too quickly for Natalie’s cautioning eye to stop him. In America, bigotry appears to include admitting that a black person has a job one would not oneself want.

“Well, she could work at Bloomingdale’s or Macy’s,” Marina says reasonably as she continues to write.

“If mother worked at a department store, we could all get a 20 percent discount on our clothes,” Anna informs him, and grimaces at her cropped nails that are already so much like her mother’s.

“So you could buy more sweaters?” He gives Anna a crooked smile.

“If Mama worked, you’d probably make supper sometimes. Oh, why can’t you make it, just once? All American men do,” she sighs.

“All American men do it once?” Lev pounces, remembering how, after lunch, working together in the lab, Lucy Gonzales had told him about her son, who is older than Anna, and whom she has raised all alone. Sometimes Lucy’s mother sends her notes from San Juan that the father has been seen back on the island, but always by the time that Lucy tells this to the authorities in family court he has moved on. “And how does the one meal that I shall maybe cook significantly help your mother, whether or not she decides to take a new job?”

Anna looks down at her foot, which is now airborne like a dancer’s; but Natalie says softly, “There are those lovely recipes in your mother’s old cookbook. I especially brought it all the way here.”

“You brought the cookbook along?” Suddenly the soft browned pages with their chocolate, sour cream, and egg smears that he hasn’t seen for years fill his vision. He can even feel how one heavy page sticks to another.

“Of course. Your mother gave it to us before she died. You think I was going to leave it to those wolves in the kitchen?”

“Oh, make something from it,” cries Marina, springing up from her homework.

“Cook something special like Grandma used to make,” sings out Anna, who is suddenly prancing before him as innocently as a child.

“I suppose your mother has already forgotten how to read Cyrilic,” Lev says sharply—and watches the merriment come to an abrupt halt.

“It’s true,” agrees Natalie, as Lev knew she would. “There’s no reason why I shouldn’t get out the book myself.”

The dial on their digital clock tells Lev that it is 3: 15. Beside him, Natalie is on her back, her silhouette regal and sad in the snowy night. She is staring at the ceiling.

“You’re awake?” he whispers.

“I had a dream.”

Lev knows he is supposed to ask about the dream, but to stall for time he edges out of bed and into his slippers. Perhaps it is his need to relieve himself that in any case has awakened him. In the bathroom, he is momentarily irritated by having to lift the lid—the bane of three women in the house—and then he feels the warm comforting flow that carries away all resentment, and flicks the plunger.

“The dream,” he says responsibly, climbing back into bed.

Natalie has not moved but a tear glistens on her cheek.

“I was dreaming about Joseph,” says Natalie. “He had come here, or we had gone to Israel. It wasn’t clear, but we were in the same place and we were all working together to build something, maybe even a kibbutz. You know, his family too—whomever he has by now married. You were very busy, carrying large planks of beautiful wood. Only in the dream, I could remember exactly how it had been with him. I felt so aroused, and I kept following him around, trying to find a moment where we could make love just once again. That’s all I really wanted.”

Lev watches as a new tear glides down Natalie’s cheek and along her neck into her flannel nightgown. He has never seen Joseph, who was her first love, and who left Leningrad shortly after she met Lev.

“Sometimes I feel so useless,” she whispers.

“What a funny word! And when everyone at your old office would envy your freedom.”

Deftly, he follows the tear with his finger, and his hand feels her breasts firm and youthful, and with his knees he raises the nightgown.

“You don’t want to be in Israel, with Joseph, do you?” he teases, licking the soft cheek he has loved, if not always exclusively, these many years.

And she is pulling him down on top of her as she says, “No, I want to be here with you.”

“You will be gratified to know that I am going to make a supper,” Lev tells Lucy Gonzales as they lean over a microscope, first one and then the other peering down at the green basilai on the slide. He would like to tell Lucy how, on the weekend, he had unwrapped his mother’s cookbook from its crumbling newspaper—”Artists inspire miners in the Urals,” read the silly ancient headline—and, sitting on the couch with Anna and Marina on one side and Natalie on the other, had studied its endless possibilities.

Lucy Gonzales raises a thinly pencilled brow, and the corner of her brilliantly-painted mouth lifts. She is apparently considering how to answer, and then she says, “Soon?” and returns her suspicious brown eye to the slide.

“First we must purchase the ingredients,” announces Lev, who refrains from explaining that there are complications concerning the menu still to be resolved. This is because the possibility of each dish raised memories of others, so that after awhile Natalie volunteered to take the express bus into Manhattan to buy fresh paprika, good caviar, cherry preserves, maybe even sausage from a recommended Hungarian butcher, just to have a variety of native foods in the house; which prompted an uncomfortable insight (Lucy had, in fact, been in his mind): that to agree to Natalie traveling to Manhattan for special ingredients might detract from the culinary effort he himself would be expending. Still, the prospect of such all around exertion—a real family project!— had been as attractive to Natalie and the girls as it had been to him. As they wrote down the necessary ingredients for one delicious possibility after another—Marina acting as scribe, except when she didn’t know how to spell either the English or the Russian word, and Anna grabbed the pen—the evening had taken on a celebratory air, and he had treated them all, even little Marina, to a round of Stolichnaya before insisting that they turn in for the night.

But now, with Lucy at his side, all this fragile happiness seems suspect, and, feeling the urge to lecture, he taps her shoulder. “I know your life has not been easy. But not everything is cut and dry as you women in America think. “If I do this for you, you do that for me. ” Always counting, always keeping track. The women won’t make the coffee if the men don’t make it too.” (Lucy and Mary Levinson had actually argued this soon after his arrival. ) “That’s not what life is like. You think if I put the laundry in the washing machine at home or make blini my wife will be happy? There has to be generosity and kindness.” He holds up his hand as he sees Lucy trying to speak. “I know, of course! It must come from both sides. No one wants all the sacrifice on one side. But does a flower look at the next flower to see if it basks in a little more sun? Women and men are different. Not everyone is equally gifted or ambitious. And you destroy everything natural if you want to make it all the same. Sex, love, mystery. Even friendship and patriotic feeling. All of it! Out the door with this adding and subtracting and endlessly counting.”

Lev sees the dark impatience in Lucy Gonzales’ sensual face, and knows he has not been fair to her. What about those late afternoons, when the day’s pot of lab coffee is gone, and Lucy brings Lev tea and a sweet from the cafeteria even before he realizes his mouth is dry?

“Don’t worry,” he says, trying to soften his tone without, however, retreating from his line of defense. “Don’t worry. I’ll make this supper sooner than you think. It won’t return to Natalie her law profession, or bring on the Messiah. But you’ll see, I’ll let you taste a sample. I bet you never ate coulibiac or Pojarskiya kotleti, did you?”

During the week, Natalie has stocked the kitchen so that it smells as if they were back in Leningrad, and she seems oddly light-hearted. But on Saturday morning Lev stays in bed late, worrying that he may have taken on too much. He has offered to begin the Sunday meal with a bowl of borscht for everyone, which means grating god knows how many cups of beets and cabbage; and the pastry for the coulibiac must be made today and stored in the refrigerator overnight. Yet has he ever resisted memorizing a beloved poem because it was too long? Or ignored an anomaly in a slide under the microscope because tracing the aberration would entail too much work? Once the logic was upon him, of course, he had to agree to a soup, fish course, main dish, even something sweet to finish—though a jar of imported Russian cherries will do well enough for the desert.

Lev knows that beyond his bedroom door Natalie is tiptoeing and the girls are whispering and being uncannily wellbehaved. Now that the climactic weekend is finally here, they must all fear that their slightest infraction will put an end to the longed-for dinner. Lev stretches lazily, sensing tyrannical pleasures at his finger tips. But he is too softhearted and fair for such cruel punishment. Besides he himself is now interested in the challenge—even lying in the warm bed, he can imagine the smells rising from the oven and taste the buttery dough of the coulibiac as everyone bites in, astonished. Still, he will give himself the edge of not telling them that their meal is safe. The question is: when to begin?

Lev is finishing his cold cuts at lunch, and Natalie is already at the sink, rinsing up, when he says casually, “Are you going to be using the kitchen?”

“I was just—no, of course,” Natalie says quickly, “it’s all yours.”

Anna, who is idly finishing an apple, gives Marina the slightest conspiratorial nod.

“I checked the recipes once more this morning.” Natalie turns to face him. “I think everything you need should be in the house.”

“Papa, can we watch?” asks Marina, looking at him soulfully through her dark overgrown bangs.

Lev is momentarily confused by the request. Having the girls around will be distracting—and all this is completely new. Even at the lab, where much is routine, he is often vexed when people talk. Yet if the girls are sitting nearby, he can easily appeal to them for clarifications or the whereabouts of certain needed implements. Anna is already quite a little expert in the kitchen.

Natalie has taken an apron off its peg and is smiling as she comes towards him with it. “Don’t worry, I have other things to do. I’m even going out for awhile,” she says.

“All right. You girls may stay—as long as you both understand that I need perfect silence.”

Within a short 24 hours, Lev has become master of his elaborate American kitchen. In fact, he has discovered that the cooking vessels are poorly situated (one shouldn’t have to bend down every time one needs a pot), and has suggested to Natalie an improved location. In a bowl in the refrigerator sits the brioche-like coulibiac dough, which was allowed to rise to double its bulk, as well as a pot filled with cooked beets that await grating. The idea of letting the beets cool over night before trying to work with them was actually Anna’s; she saw him burning his fingers on the steaming vegetables, and he accepted her suggestion, although he was worried about leaving too much for the second day.

It was when he was scalding the milk for the yeast dough that memories of cooking with Irina suddenly returned. They had gone to a medical conference, exaggerated its length to their respective families, and had sneaked away to the cottage of Irina’s father out on Aptekarsky Island. The window above the pine kitchen counter had faced some scraggly firs and beyond them the shore, so that one watched the waves lapping as one cooked. And the food they prepared was always simple, simple: there’d been bread, cabbage, fresh fish, a few tomatoes, vodka, that was all.

Now it is 3: 30 in the afternoon, and Lev is in the messy middle of his awesome production, at work peeling and shredding the interminable beets. Although Anna has quietly put away food and utensils he no longer needs, the counter seems endlessly refilled with onion skins, dill weed, sticky spoons, and less identifiable debris. How odd that with Irina he had so naturally entered the kitchen, tucked a dish cloth in his belt, and taken the knife or spoon in hand! Suddenly he hears her voice, low, husky, purposeful—”Lev, you must come watch the geese flying by!” She made him feel soft, sentimental, and he had even been a little hurt at her reluctance to pin down in words what they might mean to each other. As lean and muscular as a young boy, even the institute gossips had never guessed that she was having a passionate affair. How had she even given birth? they probably asked each other—this nimble-footed woman with whisps of hair too short to curl! There was a vulgar American expression that applied to women like Irina—Lucy Gonzales had explained it—that meat is sweetest close to the bone. As Lev sees Irina’s taut moonlit flesh, his stomach turns, and he would like to double over the counter in longing and anguish, except that at the kitchen table, a few feet away, Marina is placidly coloring while Anna reads a library book.

Oh, Irina, why did you leave me? Lev moans inside his head; but the question is false, for it was he who in his guilty, blundering way made it pointless for Irina to jeopardize her own marriage. And of course, Natalie had become gloomy with suspicion. So that the visas, when they finally came, seemed to offer a fissure exactly where it was needed. Yet had he really understood that the opening would widen until a continent and an ocean lay between himself and Irina?

“The beets are ready,” he announces with melancholy at the futility of endeavor, and studies his purple-stained hands.

From the side of his vision, he sees his daughters come briefly to attention, before sinking back like cats into their private worlds of pictures and print.

The chicken stock (Natalie’s contribution retrieved from the freezer) into which he has dropped shredded cabbage is boiling rapidly. Now with his violet hands he scoops the beets off the counter and adds them to the broth. Next come caraway seeds, sugar, lemon juice—he keeps returning to the cookbook for confirmation. Except for the white wine and sour cream, which he will stir in before serving, the first course is finally under control.

Lev looks at his watch: nearly four. Fleecy copper winter clouds are racing across the waning sky outside the window. At this time of year, it would long be dark in Leningrad. Still, he has yet to prepare the paprika sauce for the Pojarskiya kotleti as well as the salmon filling for the coulibiac. How long will each take? Which should be done first? It is all too much! Too much, really! Besides, this is the second day in a row of standing on the tile floor, and his legs ache!

“Want some help, Papa?” Anna says cheerfully.

“Where is your mother?” Lev asks.

“Shall I call her?”

“No, of course not!” He blinks at Anna, dizzy with exhaustion. “And let me tell you, just because I’m in the kitchen doesn’t mean that all rules are suspended. It occurs to me, for example, that neither yesterday nor today have I heard you practice.”

“Okay, Papa, I’ll do it right away.” Anna glides upwards and saunters obediently into the living room.

“Papa, you should rest a little,” Marina says sweetly.

Slowly, Lev comes to the table and lowers himself into a chair, taking Marina’s chubby hand. At the first sounds of the violin he finds himself drawn into new reverie. One afternoon on Aptekarsky Island—it was summer, so the day was nearly endless—they had taken out an old leaky boat, and while Irina rowed with long hard strokes he quoted her Lermontov and laughingly filled cans with salt water from the boat’s bottom to toss overboard. Stretches of sweet simplicity emptied of all but their tremulous passion: that’s what his stolen times with Irina had been like.

They are at the dining room table, which Anna and Marina have set with white linen as if for a state occasion. The borscht has been eaten with much fuss and appreciation, as has the coulibiac, whose salmon stuffing Natalie has insisted was never so tasty. But rather than being proud, his conscience easy at having worked like a kitchen serf his entire weekend, Lev feels oddly ashamed. Now, in his discomfort, he is fretting about the tasteless American commercial mushrooms he has had to add. “Besides,” he says, “I’m sure I recall cabbage in my mother’s coulibiac, but I was afraid to add it to the stuffing because the cookbook failed to mention it.”

“When you get used to working with cookbooks, you can extemporize,” Natalie says—tactlessly, Lev thinks, as he tenses at the ominous expectation of more meals prepared by him.

“I believe I committed myself to one dinner,” he responds, a little gruffly.

“I just mean, in general. People who work with cookbooks a lot make up new variations. That’s probably how your mother added cabbage in the first place.”

“I once went mushroom picking with Grandma,” Marina recalls.

“I was with you,” Anna reminds her.

“We could do that somewhere in the country here,” says Natalie, who is toying with the crumbs of the coulibiac on her plate, as if afraid to look Lev in the eye.

“You want to poison yourself with a deadly mushroom?” Lev exclaims.

“No, but there are excellent mushroom books.”

Excusing himself from the table, Lev goes to the stove to fry the breaded chicken cutlets, the third and final artistic endeavor of his weekend’s triptych. But as he touches the skillet handle, he again recalls the pine kitchen in Aptekarsky Island, though this time he shuts his eyes tightly to squeeze the image away. And as he stands thus, eyes closed to both past and present, he feels arms encircling him; they are Natalie’s.

“You’ve given us too much,” she says quietly.

“Never so much as you deserve.” His eyes are suddenly wet: this, surely, is what he means! It is for Natalie, his life partner, whom he has gone to these lengths!

“We agreed together to come here. I wanted to come too.”

“And now?” He turns to hold her, nuzzling his mouth in her waves.

“I’ll find work I want to do. I’m going to be okay.”

Lev is overcome by a mix of gratefulness and relief that is indistinguishable from the strongest force of love, and may even be that. “My one and only,” he wants to say, but cannot find his voice.

“I have the paprika sauce in that pot,” he whispers hoarsely after a moment, pointing at the stove.

“Shall I stay here with you while you fry the cutlets, or wait at the table with the girls?”

For an instant, Lev considers the comfort of Natalie’s presence. But he has gotten this far on his own; it would be silly to concede at this late date. “We will be together in the kitchen another time. This meal I will complete by myself,” he says, sounding a bit official.

He watches her familiar back as she returns to the dining room and their children, then looks out the kitchen window at the starry night. The same stars as in Leningrad, though shifted in the sky. There are lines from Aleksandr Blok he wants to recall. His mind searches for the words, and then he says softly to himself “At night you and I paused on the steppe

There is no misgiving, no going back,” and turns up the flame under the Pojarskiya Kotleti.


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