First Edition features original works by Northern California Jewish writers. Appearing the first issue of each month, it includes a poem and an excerpt from a novel or short story.
by molly antopol
This excerpt is from “The Old World,” a short story in the collection.
No one wants to listen to a man lament his solitary nights — myself included. Which is why, on an early fall morning four months after Gail left, when a woman breezed into my shop with a pinstriped skirt in her arms and said, “On what day this can be ready?” I didn’t write a receipt, tell her Tuesday and move on to the next customer. Instead I said, “Your accent. Russian?”
“The Jewel of the Baltic! I’ve read a lot about it,” I said. “The art, the food, those ancient fishing villages!” On and on I went — though I had not, in fact, read about it. I had, however, caught a television special once, but I remembered little more than twisted spires, dreary accordions, plates of pink fish, pocked and shiny.
“Ukraine,” she said slowly, “is not on the Baltic.” She had a wide pale face, full lips and short blond hair dyed the color of curry.
“Ah,” I said, and swallowed.
But she didn’t walk away. She squinted, as if trying to see me better. Then she leaned across the counter and extended her hand. “Svetlana Gumbar, But call me Sveta.”
“I’m Howard Siegel.” Then I blanked and blurted, “You can call me anytime you like.” She smiled, sort of. The lines sketching the corners of her eyes hinted she was closer to my age than to my daughter’s, for which I was thankful: it was too pathetic a jump from the twentysomething girlfriend to the earring and squirrelly ponytail. I laid out her skirt, examining it for stains, and when I finally worked up the nerve, I asked her to dinner.
“What are you doing picking up women on the job?” my daughter said that evening over chicken at her place.
“What’s wrong with that?”
“There are better places to look for them. I know two women from Beit Adar who would love to meet you.”
Beth was still lovely — dark and freckled with eyebrows too thick for her face — but the silk kerchief covering her hair would take some getting used to. So would the mezuzahs hanging in every doorway of her new Brooklyn apartment, the shelf of Hebrew prayer books I doubted she could even read. This was, to say the least, a recent development. And what timing. Right when I was trying to learn how to live alone after forty years of marriage, Beth had left for Jerusalem. And, worse, she came back born again — and with a fiancé, Ya’akov, who happened to be a fool.
“Listen,” I said, “I’ve got a feeling about Sveta. You trust my taste in women, don’t you, Beth?”
“But why rule out other prospects?” the fool said.
“I’m the one who has to spend an evening with these women, making small talk!”
“Still,” he said, “give them a chance.” Ya’akov was small and wiry, with agitated little hands and a kippah that slid around his slick brown hair, like even it didn’t know what it was doing on his head. He was from Long Island. He had once been Jake “The Snake,” pledgemaster of his fraternity. At the wedding his brothers from Sigma Phi had looked as flummoxed as his parents, as if everyone were waiting for Jake to confess that his religious awakening was just an elaborate prank.
“All my wife’s trying to say,” Ya’akov continued, “is that we all know plenty of nice women.”
“Maybe you could let Beth speak for herself, Jake.”
“But I agree with him,” she said. “Why not let us fix you up?”
“I just want to meet someone the normal way,” I said. “Shopping for romance after services just doesn’t sound like love.”
“What do you think love should be, then?” Beth asked.
Outside the coffee shop windows, the swell of late-nighters sauntered past, their gazes concentrated and steady. Sveta looked so much more serene than the rest of the city, tiny and smiling in the big green booth, holding her tea mug with both hands. I sipped my coffee and listened to the goofy beat of my heart.
“You ask every woman you meet in cleaners on dates?” Sveta said, swallowing a bite of cheesecake. Her blouse was the same salmon shade as her lipstick, and riding up her wrist were gold bracelets that clinked when she set down her fork.
“Absolutely not! I’ve worked there my entire life and you’re the first.”
“You work at cleaners your whole life?”
“Not just one cleaners — I own five. The original store on Houston, one in Murray Hill,” I said, counting them off on my fingers, “two on the Upper West Side and the one on 33rd where you met me. It’s been in the family since my grandfather. He was a tailor in Kiev, came here and started the business. If my grandfather had been a brain surgeon, I’d be a brain surgeon now, too.”
“You are from Kiev?”
“Not me, my grandfather. I’ve never stepped foot there.” But Sveta didn’t seem to be listening. “ I am from Kiev!” She reached across the table and squeezed my hand. “Our people are coming from same place.”’
Our people? My people were from Ditmas Avenue. My people had left Ukraine before the Cossacks could impregnate their wives. As a boy, I’d been dragged to visit my grandfather in White Plains, where our family kept him in assisted living. I’d been forced to sit on the tip of his bed, the smell of green beans and condensed milk heavy in the air, and listen to his stories of moldy potatoes for dinner, of the village beauty’s jaw shattered by the hoof of an angry horse. I’d heard stories of windows smashed, of my great-grandparents tombs knocked on their sides, the stones broken up and used to build roads. I’d imagined pasty faces wrapped tight in babushkas, soldiers charging through the streets with burning torches. I’d heard those stories so many times that they became only that to me: stories.
But I didn’t say that to Sveta. I didn’t say that, until I met her, I’d studiously avoided so much as looking for Ukraine on a map. I said, “What an amazing coincidence!” because I could understand how happy she was to meet a man who shared her roots on this side of the globe-and mostly because she was still squeezing my hand, and I would have done anything to stop her from letting go. “What brought you here, then, from the marvelous land of Ivan the Terrible?”
“My husband found work here.”
“And your husband doesn’t mind your going out with every dry cleaner you meet?”
“How would he know? He’s dead.” She spooned sugar into her tea and – was this really her deft way of changing the subject? — read the quote on the tea bag aloud like it was something to ponder.
“If you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth,” she read. “What you think it means?”
I had no clue. And anyhow, I wanted to hear about the dead man. “You know where they come up with these quotes? At some warehouse out in San Francisco. Same place they make the Chinese fortunes for the cookies. The person who wrote this knows jack about truth.”
This person,” said Sveta, “is Gandhi.”
Of course 1’d opened my mouth just when our hands were touching. It was during these moments in life that I feared 1’d become one of those old men I always saw here in the coffee shop, alone at a table, slurping soup.
The check came and we both reached for it. “Let me,” we said in unison.
“I had good time,” Sveta said, slapping down a bill before 1’d even opened my wallet.
I assumed she said it out of politeness after my Gandhi comment, but when we walked outside, she grabbed my face with both hands and kissed me, hard. “Where you are living?” she whispered. I pointed west, toward the Hudson. “Good,” she said, taking my hand.
Inside my apartment, I led her to the kitchen. Not the sexiest room, but I really wanted to show off the view above the sink: I rarely had the opportunity anymore for guests to see it. While Sveta stared out at the boats dotting the river, the bright white lights ofJersey in the distance, I looked at her full cheeks and jagged teeth, remnants of lipstick escaping the corners of her mouth. In one long slow moment the room went quiet. I pulled her close. We were quick with each other, untucking, unbuckling, unzipping, until we were pressed naked against the dishwasher except for socks and watches and my glasses, which Sveta, at the last moment, set on the counter.
We stayed up so late that gauzy yellow light filtered in through the blinds and I could hear the garbage trucks outside, making their runs. Sveta was curvy and round, with a scatter of moles across her hips. And here I was, sixty-three, paunchy and balding, wondering how I had gotten a woman like Sveta into my bed, wondering even more how to make certain she stayed, and still completely clueless about how to keep things casual. “How long,” 1 said finally, “has your husband been gone?”
“And am I too nosy if I ask how he went?”
“No, not nosy,” she said, propping a pillow behind her head. And then she told me their story. She’d met him fifteen years ago, in her late twenties, just as they were finishing graduate school. They’d both been deep into their research – Sveta’s dissertation was on Kiev’s Golden Age, and Nikolai, a chemistry Ph.D., was researching Chernobyl’s long-term impact on the nearby city of Pripyat-and there was something so comforting, Sveta told me, about those early years together. “It was the first time,” she said, “I really knew what happiness means.” Whenever they were together, even just reading side by side or walking down the block for groceries, the sky seemed a little brighter, the sun a little warmer, the world turned up a notch. They were both obsessed with their work, introverts at heart, and it had felt, once they were married, that she no longer had to try with other people, that what everyone else thought of her was of little importance. Of course they still went out with friends, but there was always a moment toward the end of the evening when they’d share a look across the bar, a silent understanding it was time to leave, to be alone again. That was a look I knew well, one Gail and I would notice between other couples, at dinners or parties, a look that always made us feel defensive and exposed. After those evenings, we’d find ourselves dissecting the relationships of our friends, picking apart their dynamic until we felt better about our own, standing beside one another at our twin sinks, brushing our teeth.
Nikolai had been exposed to Chernobyl’s radiation every day for six years while he researched the disaster, Sveta continued, but it wasn’t until he accepted a fellowship here and they moved to a safe, quiet street on Staten Island that he walked outside to rake the leaves one morning, clutched his chest and collapsed right there in the driveway. “Nobody had idea about his heart.” Sveta said. “We were knowing nothing. Murmur condition is affecting something like one in every million men, and it has to be my Nikolai.” Sveta was left alone in a new house in a new country with only Galina, a cousin she’d grown up with in Kiev who now lived in Chicago, to talk to.
I ran a finger along the inside of her wrist, creamy and warm and marbled with delicate veins. My own problems, the ones I had wallowed in for months, were nothing compared to hers. It occurred to me that she was stronger than I was. “Why not go home to your family?”
“I have no child, and my parents die long time ago. My grandmother raise me, but when Nikolai and I marry, she do aliyah to Israel. Move back home?” She shook her head. “At least here I can learn English and get job in accounting. It’s more easy being in U.S.”
“Oh, Sveta.” A throwaway comment, but the only thing I could think to say.
“How you say here? Shit it happens.” She laughed, but it sounded startled and strained – the laugh that carries over everyone else’s in a crowded restaurant.
Molly Antopol teaches creative writing at Stanford University, where she was a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow. A recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award, she holds an MFA from Columbia University and lives in San Francisco. Her debut story collection, “The UnAmericans,” was published in February by W.W. Norton & Co.
The author will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 13 at the Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. www.jewishlearningworks.org/library