This short story is from The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol. In this collection, an absentee father, a former dissident from communist-era Prague, needles his adult daughter for details about her newly commissioned play when he fears it will cast him in an unflattering light. An actor, imprisoned during the Red Scare for playing up his communist leanings to get a part with a leftist film director, is shamed by his act when he reunites with his precocious young son. An Israeli soldier, forced to defend a settlement filled with American religious families, still pines for a chance to discover the United States for himself. In the book’s final story, a tour de force spanning three continents and three generations of women, a young American and her Israeli husband are forced to reconsider their marriage after the death of her dissident art-collecting grandmother. Again and again, Molly Antopol’s deeply sympathetic characters struggle for footing in an uncertain world, hounded by forces beyond their control.
Molly Antopol is a finalist for the 2015 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for a debut work of fiction.
Friends quoted in the obituaries talked about Eva Kaplan in her heyday, back in the sixties and seventies. They talked about the parties she and her husband used to throw in their Jerusalem home, inspired by the secret apartment exhibits Eva had attended in Moscow. A few Russian artists were often in attendance, and friends recalled them standing in front of their paintings, surrounded by philanthropists and U.N. officials and Knesset members, while Eva swept through the crowd in a silky pantsuit, a cocktail in hand, wearing what appeared to be all of her gold at once. The exhibits went on in the living room, but displayed throughout her home was the permanent collection amassed over a lifetime: the Picassos and Légers bought for a pittance back in the thirties, when she was still a young and ambitious art student in Paris; the Kotins and Gottliebs she’d begun collecting in the fifties during her years in New York; and, of course, the works that had made her as famous in her circle as the painters themselves: the hundreds of pieces she’d smuggled out of Russia, right up to the fall of the Curtain.
The art, her friends admitted, wasn’t always that great. Of course the whole point, one friend said, was that it was supposed to be edgy and political, but there was no getting around how unappetizing it was to stare at a canvas of Nikita Khrushchev in a compromising position each morning over breakfast. Other pieces had been virtually destroyed by the time Eva exhibited them. It was hard to know if the poor quality had to do with the fact that the artists often worked with anything they could scavenge off the streets, mud and trash and auto paint, or if it was the shoddy way Eva had packed them, so that by the time the smuggled art made it through customs at Ben Gurion and was unveiled on her wall, the canvases, which sometimes weren’t canvases at all but paper bags or burlap sacks, were so faded and torn it was hard to see what the artist’s original intent had been. Still, friends insisted it wasn’t simply the work one bought but the stories that went along with it. Eva had sneaked out several of Litnikov’s now-famous labor camp paintings and, more than anyone, had promoted Mikhail Borovsky’s work throughout the U.S. and Israel. Borovsky had been one of Russia’s best-known painters under communism and internationally prized even after his death a few years ago, possibly the only member of the Artists Union the unofficial artists had respected back then, the only one, they’d said, able to think craftily within the constraining box of Socialist Realism—the only one, as Eva had said, who didn’t think membership meant he had to paint “another bridge, or smiling worker, or ridiculous cow.”
All over the world, obituaries puzzled over how Eva had managed to perform one of the largest and most dangerous art-smuggling operations of the twentieth century. The only person with a bigger collection was an American economist in Maryland, a friend of Eva’s, whose quest to bring as many unofficial Russian works to the western world had inspired her, she’d said in numerous interviews, to do the same for Soviet Jewish art. A curator in Stockholm, quoted in her Ha’aretz obituary, believed Eva may have surreptitiously rolled the thinnest sketches into rugs she’d purchased before going through airport inspection in Moscow, while the director of the National Gallery in London thought she may have hidden beneath the canvases of state-sanctioned art—those bridges, those workers, those cows—the unofficial works. But as Eva’s will traveled across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic to her family in Boston, the biggest question for her daughter Wendy was what her mother had bequeathed to her. Wendy had spent the past two weeks in Israel, dealing with the funeral and the shiva and sitting through one too many luncheons honoring her mother at the Israel Museum, where Eva had been a board member for nearly fifty years. And while the trip had only confirmed for Wendy what she’d feared most of her life—that these art people knew her mother better than she did herself—Wendy’s father had already been dead two years, she was the only family Eva had left and she felt, in her heart, that the woman would have wanted to make her daughter’s life as financially easy as possible. The paintings in Eva’s house alone, Wendy told her own family as she tossed aside the rest of her mail and opened the executor’s letter, had to be worth almost twenty million. But there, typed out clearly and succinctly, Eva’s last wishes were stated: she was selling her private collection at discount to the Israel Museum and donating the proceeds, every last shekel, to charity.
Wendy sank into a chair and put her face in her hands. It was so like her mother, she whispered, to map things out to the minutiae. All the money, Eva had decided, would go toward creating the Eva Kaplan Family Foundation, which her daughter Wendy, son-in-law Larry and two grandchildren, Mira and Hannah, would administer. The foundation would fund art education programs at youth villages and immigrant absorption centers from Kiryat Shmoneh to Eilat, places Eva had been supporting for years. She’d use the rest of the money—of which there was millions—to build a new wing at the Israel Museum that would house the Eva Kaplan Mentorship Program, dedicated to granting fellowships to promising young curators from around the world, who would come to Jerusalem to work in the same space, and follow in the footsteps, of Eva herself.
And what could the Kaplans of Boston say?
“It’s really . . . amazing,” Wendy’s husband Larry said slowly, as though rummaging through his head for the appropriate word.
“And sort of tragic,” their son-in-law Peter offered. “That she’ll never see any of this.”
“But is it maybe,” their daughter Hannah said, “just a little bit tacky, putting her name on everything?”
“What it is,” Wendy said, finally looking up, “is so unbelievably her.” They were all at the dining table now, which no one had sat at in years—everyone always ate in the kitchen, even with company—but which had felt so fitting to spread the legal documents across, as if they were in a boardroom in some glittery high-rise and not a Victorian fixer-upper on Cedar Street.
“Always flying out to Europe, or lunching with some refugee scholar,” Wendy said. “Always—always—letting everyone know just how generous she was,” she said, walking into the kitchen to answer the phone. Standing in the doorway, twisting the cord around her elbow, Wendy resembled her late father, with her short, disheveled hair and sleepy green eyes, as if perpetually startled from a nap. Then she hung up, walked back into the dining room and said, “That was the Israel Museum. They’re planning another event next month in her honor.”
Her eyes filled up, that fast. “We’re all invited,” she whispered. “The entire foundation.”
Larry came behind her and rested his hands on her shoulders, keeping them there as the first cry, and then the second, escaped her throat. “It’s halfway across the world,” he said. “And you just got back. The museum would understand if you said you were busy.”
“Right,” Wendy said, swallowing. “I am busy,” and everyone nodded, though just a few weeks before she’d been talking about how unnerving it was to have both her children grown and married, and to only be working halftime now—that it felt strange and decadent, at fifty-six, to begin cultivating hobbies. But as soon as she said it, it turned out everyone was busy. Mira, of course, was out of the question—no one had heard from her in days. Larry couldn’t leave his grad students last-minute, and Hannah couldn’t pull the kids out of school so early in the year—it was only October. There would be other events, they reasoned, in which to honor Eva—many other events, they were certain—and since construction on the museum wing and the absorption centers wouldn’t be completed until summer at the earliest, it made sense, they decided, to wait until then. They could fly out for the ribbon-cutting ceremonies and turn it into a big family trip, maybe rent that apartment in Baka they’d liked so much for Larry’s sixtieth, and enroll Hannah and Peter’s girls, now that they were old enough, in kibbutz camp in the north. So they’d miss this one event, they said. What was the harm, and really, who at this point was keeping tabs?
Unless—and that was when Wendy turned to her son-in-law Boaz, who had been silent the entire night, sitting at the end of the dining table. Unless he wanted to go. He could treat it as a free vacation, Wendy said, make a quick appearance at the museum, then relax in Jerusalem for a couple weeks. Or get some free research out of it, spend time with that Ladino poet he loved whose name they were always forgetting. And when Boaz, surrounded by all of his in-laws except his wife Mira herself, who, only six weeks along, had up and left him for another man last Monday, calling him and saying she was sorry, but she needed some time away—when Boaz, who had been wondering if there was something seriously wrong with him for obsessing over the life and death of a woman he barely knew, poring over every obituary he could find, then driving here tonight, as if he too had a stake in the matter—when Boaz said he felt a little funny being the only one to attend given, you know, the circumstances, all four present members of the Eva Kaplan Foundation turned to him and said that he was family, always and forever, and that they all just had to be patient while Mira got this last tantrum out of her system before the baby came and she finally had to start acting like an adult.
That night the calls and emails from Israel kept coming. It seemed Eva had given every organization she’d donated to a sneak preview of her will and they all wanted to be the first to extend their gratitude. The director of the Israel Museum, one of Eva’s closest friends, offered to pick Boaz up from the airport; the absorption center’s development officer wanted to take him to lunch; the youth village coordinator invited him to Afula to tour the grounds. And on and on. By the time he said good night to his in-laws and began the long and silent drive up I-89 back home to Vermont, he’d agreed to eight site visits for the foundation, as well as meetings with the lawyer and the real estate broker and a full morning at Eden Storage, where Eva had an extra unit no one had known about, filled with castoff belongings Boaz had somehow agreed to sort through. He’d also agreed to stay at Eva’s house, however creepy that might be, to keep an eye on the contractors’ work before the place went on the market. Most of her furniture had already been sold, but he told Wendy he was happy to sleep on the mattress they’d left for him, that he was happy to do it all. He’d suggested he fly out as soon as possible, and while Wendy kept thanking him for taking the brunt, Boaz knew it was tacitly understood why he was so eager to get on that plane: anything to flee his present situation.
But when he pulled into the driveway, when he saw the darkened windows of his and Mira’s little white house, when he opened the door and yelled “Hello?” and nothing came back, he wondered if he wasn’t traveling to the one place that might make him feel worse. Not because he’d grown up in Israel—he’d been back half a dozen times since moving to the States—but because Mira had accompanied him on every one of those trips. That was where they’d met, a decade ago, on a graduate translation fellowship in Jerusalem. He was twenty-five, Mira twenty-two. He’d met Eva that year as well—he remembered Mira dragging him along on what she called “the obligatory visit to her royal highness.” Boaz had been excited by the invitation—they’d only been together a couple months and this was the first of Mira’s relatives he was meeting—but as they walked through the hills of Talbieh and onto Hovevei Tzion Street, every home more coiffed than the last, he’d felt a stab of panic. He was from Kiryat Gat, a tiny city in southern Israel that Mira, who considered herself an expert on Middle East geography, had never heard of and had, only half-jokingly, accused him of making up—and until that day, Boaz hadn’t known streets like Eva’s existed: not even the prime minister lived like that. Jerusalem had seemed to him a city where people didn’t simply live on top of each other, they lived right on you, sitting on your stomach, pinning you down by the arms so you had no choice but to smell the soup on their breath and hear their opinions on the bus strikes, the housing crisis, your career choice. And yet here were old stone homes with rosebushes and sculpted citrus trees and gleaming cars visible only through electric gates—not apartments but actual houses, perched so high above the city that even the garbage fumes no longer existed, as if the mayor had allotted these people better air.
Mira must have sensed his discomfort, because right outside her grandmother’s house, beige stucco and relatively modest from the street, she turned to him and said, “Fine. They’re rich. But that doesn’t mean I am.” And then she did a strange thing: she patted her jeans, as if her entire life’s worth could fit within those frayed, faded pockets, and Boaz wondered if only people comfortable around money felt the need to prove to the world that they had gone without it.
Then Eva opened the door and Boaz stood there staring: it was Mira exactly, if he were to fast-forward fifty years. The same wide brown eyes and tall, muscular frame and cheeks that would never, it appeared, thin with age. The same face (not pretty, exactly, but stately) and the same proud, purposeful stance—shoulders back, head up—even as she kissed both their cheeks, took their coats and flung them across the mail table.
“Sy!” she yelled down the hall. “The kids are here.”
Inside, the house had more of an aged than intimidating glamour, the sofas and armchairs faded by the sun, all the heavy mahogany furniture that had probably looked just right in their previous apartment on Central Park West a little stuffy and out of place in the Mediterranean climate, like seeing someone show up at a barbecue in a suit. The really outstanding thing was the art. It covered the walls from the ceiling all the way to the floor, with pieces he recognized—Picasso’s pencil sketches, Magritte’s bulky nudes—hanging right next to paintings that didn’t so much look like paintings but squiggles on playing cards and tablecloths and sugar sacks.
“That’s a Rubashkin,” Eva said, putting an arm around him. “They threw him in a psychiatric prison to ‘shape up ideologically,’” she said, making air quotes. “So he did a portrait of a guard he met there.” Eva pointed at what clearly depicted a man being birthed from an anus. She smelled of powder and peroxide, as if she’d just that second returned from the beauty parlor. While Boaz had never been a fan of assumed intimacy, he suddenly wanted to stay there a very long time, listening to stories about artists he’d never heard of, whose fates he’d never considered, as Eva led him from painting to painting, leaning in close as if sharing a secret.
“Eva!” her husband yelled, coming out of the study, the sounds of a soccer game drifting into the hall. He was heavy and balding and wearing a dress shirt and slacks so rumpled he reminded Boaz of an overstuffed drawer. “You’re gossiping,” he said, and Eva said, “It’s not gossip if it’s true,” and he smiled at Boaz, as if they’d had that exchange a million times and he knew when to concede, and then all four of them walked out to the terrace, where cups and saucers and a tower of little frosted cakes were laid out. Eva poured Boaz a cup of tea and said, in English, “Hebrew or English?” and when he said, “Either,” she said, in impeccable, unaccented Hebrew, “You’re the only boy this one’s ever brought by, so I know you’re better than the others. Tell me about yourself.”
“I’m a translator,” Boaz said. Sy’s arm was draped over Eva’s shoulder, her hand on his leg. They held each other with such effortlessness that Boaz was touched: there was clearly so much love between them, even after fifty-plus years of marriage. He felt as if he were getting a privileged view into the future, seeing how the girl he loved would look as an old woman, her own lined and papery hand clutching his knee. “Well,” Boaz corrected, believing he should only call himself a translator once his work was out in the world, “I’m studying to be one.”
“Oh please,” Eva said. “Say you’re one and act like one! I’m sure you’re brilliant. What are you working on?”
“A couple stories, from Hebrew to English. And Mira and I are taking a class on Ben Yehuda.”
“Ah,” Eva said. “You know he built a house forever ago near our old place on Ein Gedi Street, a big stone monstrosity, then died before he moved in.”
“Right,” Boaz said, shocked that Eva could be so blasé about the inventor of the modern Hebrew language—that to her, Ben Yehuda wasn’t a brilliant, revered linguist but some show-off who’d raised the property taxes in her neighborhood. Boaz was trying to take it all in without gawking: the house, the art, the view, which everyone at the table seemed immune to, as if it were perfectly natural to gaze out at the classic postcard shot of the Old City’s stone walls, the glittery gold dome and the hills beyond, the cars snaking up the Mount of Olives looking, from that vantage, as tiny and insignificant as toys. This was the first time Boaz had lived in Jerusalem, the first time he had lived outside the Negev, and he’d felt, when he first arrived at Hebrew University that fall, that all his years of working hard had paid off, that he’d gotten the translation scholarship he’d dreamed of, that it could lead so easily to a book, a career, a life—that, in his own private way, he had made it. He’d found that everything, even walking outside his dorm on Mount Scopus and buying a coffee and a roll in the morning, felt thrilling and significant, as if something inside him had caught fire.
But then he’d met Mira, who saw her year there as nothing but another planned rest stop on the map of her life, which had already included a junior year in Cairo and nearly every summer since childhood in Israel, the distance of traveling halfway around the world as trivial to her as the field trips Boaz had taken, as a boy, to the kibbutz water park. It was both exciting and unnerving being with someone like Mira, who talked about Jerusalem with the ease of a native he himself couldn’t fake, loving the architecture, the history, the bookshops and cafés near her apartment and the sweet old couple who ran the produce market on her block, but so sick of the traffic, the noise, the religious lady on the bus who yelled at her for wearing a tank top, wishing Tel Aviv University had as strong a translation program, wondering why Jerusalem couldn’t have one decent restaurant open on Shabbat—no, scratch that, one decent restaurant, period. Sitting out on the terrace, Boaz was aware his excitement at being there made him seem as eager and unsophisticated as a little boy, and so he sipped his tea and tried to act as though none of this were a big deal, though all of it was, in fact, a very big deal.
Then Eva shifted her attention to Mira, as if she were hosting a talk show and Boaz’s segment had ended. Mira set down her cup and began, to Boaz’s amazement, performing for her grandmother. Sy was between them, his arm still on Eva’s shoulder, piping in now and then, but the spotlight never moved, not even for a second, from Eva. There was Mira, perched on her chair, suddenly talking with her hands, her eyes, her feet jiggling nervously, all that confidence Boaz had assumed was as intrinsic as her breath and hair and freckles, magically evaporated around her grandmother: the one person, he realized, Mira felt she still needed to court. This was so different from the way he’d later learn she operated with her immediate family back in Boston, where she’d walk right through the front door and skulk into the kitchen, finally yelling hello to everyone only after she’d scrutinized the contents of the refrigerator and begun picking at a plate of leftover chicken with her bare hands.
But there, on Eva’s terrace, Boaz fell a little more in love with her, seeing, for the first time, that vulnerability. There she was, trying to charm Eva with stories, making their year out to be a little brighter, a little more exciting, than it had been so far, describing her apartment in Rehavia as louder and smaller than it actually was, her project with the Arab poet more dramatic than the reality, as if their meetings entailed some dangerous, illicit journey over the Green Line, rather than just across campus in the literature department, where the poet had been teaching for nearly fifteen years.
Then Eva stood up. She took Boaz’s arm and whispered that he was a keeper, and he was so warmed by those words, and by Eva herself, that as she led him through the living room and into the hall, he hadn’t even realized she was kicking them out until he and Mira were back on the street, clutching their coats, on the other side of the door.
It was still dark outside when the red-eye descended into Israel and taxied along the runway. Boaz hadn’t slept a minute on the flight, had spent the entire ten hours with the foundation’s site visit materials unopened on his lap, watching terrible movie after terrible movie without even plugging in his headphones, and now, shoving his tiny, useless airplane pillow against the window, he tried to rest for the remaining minutes before the seat-belt sign went off. Only nobody would be quiet. The teenager beside him seemed to be calling everyone on her speed-dial to let them know she’d arrived, though Boaz couldn’t imagine who would welcome that call at five-thirty. Across the aisle, a religious man was having a conversation on his own cell while his children piled onto his wife’s lap, a toddler on one leg and a baby in her arms, the wife nodding yes, yes to a third child tugging her hand, though everything in her face seemed to be screaming no, no, no. That all used to comfort Boaz, being thrust back home before even walking through customs. But now it felt claustrophobic and overwhelming, and Boaz wondered if he was simply in a terrible mood or if he was beginning to crave space like a New Englander.
Outside baggage claim, the director of the Israel Museum was waiting by the fountain. She was sixtyish and attractive in a stern, no-nonsense way, with cropped gray hair, red plastic glasses and chunky geometric jewelry that could only have come from the museum gift shop. “Roni Ben Ami,” she said, extending her hand and grabbing his suitcase with the other.
“It’s okay,” Boaz said, trying to take his suitcase back, but she was already pushing her way outside, where her driver was waiting. Boaz slid in beside Roni, and as her car pulled away from the curb, she turned to him and said, “I’ve never picked up a donor at the airport. But I couldn’t let an intern do it—not for Eva.” The sky was lightening, and the familiar cluster of billboards advertising cell phone plans and yogurt sprang into view. It didn’t seem possible that he was halfway around the world now, just four days after Wendy had first opened the will. He still hadn’t heard from Mira—and if Wendy and Larry had, they weren’t letting on. And though Mira had promised the last time they’d spoken that she was staying at her colleague Sharon’s house in Hardwick, Boaz couldn’t stop picturing her at his house, Eric’s house, in Albany. Boaz had no idea what Eric looked like, but he kept seeing someone brawny and suntanned, the type of guy who woke at dawn to do yard work, then came into the bedroom scratched and sweaty with a mug of coffee for Mira, slow and groggy in the morning, her dark hair fanned out against the pillow.
“You should see the collection,” Roni was saying. “You know how she displayed everything, in that Eva-haphazard way. So yesterday at work I start lining them up chronologically, and that’s when I realized she hadn’t just been collecting art from that period—her collection is that period. It’s a complete retrospective,” she said, a little breathlessly, and checked her BlackBerry. It kept going off, and Boaz suddenly sensed how important this woman was: so many people working for her, presumably from all over the globe given how early it was, and there she was, carting him around before breakfast.
“Of course some of it’s terrible,” Roni continued. “Those Rubashkins? But you know your grandmother—all she cared was that it was dissident, outrageous. People might not get that now.” She squinted at Boaz, as if to see whether he got it, and he wondered what she saw: a thirty-five-year-old with bedhead and tired eyes, looking a bit like a delivery boy in jeans and a hoodie, having forgotten, as he’d dressed for the flight back in Vermont, that he’d be meeting people like Roni before getting a chance to shower. “Boaz, forgive me,” she said, “but which one are you again?”
“Mira’s husband.” He coughed, wondering if those words were even true anymore.
“The family has no anthropologists.”
“Oh,” Roni said slowly, as if flipping through a mental Rolodex. “The architect.”
“That’s Hannah. Mira’s the translator.” There was an ugly part of him that wished Mira were there to hear how little her grandmother’s friends knew of her, just so he could see the pain shoot past her eyes. But Mira had always suspected it anyway. It’s like she’s so obsessed with charming the world that there’s nothing left for her own family, Mira had told him once—and Boaz remembered just where they were when she’d said it, that first year together in Jerusalem, during those early months of dating when they’d lie in bed talking through the morning.
That was the night she’d told him Eva’s story: leaving her native Prague to study art in Paris in the thirties and falling in love with Mikhail Borovsky, the famous Russian painter who wasn’t yet famous. They lived together for many years. Then his father died and he had to go back to Moscow to sort things out for his mother. He said he’d return in a month. But that summer, Germany captured Paris. Eva escaped on a cargo ship to New York. Her entire family in Prague—never heard from again. Mikhail—still in Russia, impossible to reach. In New York she had nothing, knew no one, but she was like you with languages, Mira told Boaz—they came easily to her and she collected them like badges. So with her English, she finagled her way into the secretarial pool at the Frick, and from there, Eva being Eva, began curating shows at small galleries around the city, until the bigger places started taking notice. Then in the early fifties she met Sy, who at that time was enjoying a bit of fame for that book he’d written, the first to so openly criticize Senator McCarthy’s policies, maybe Boaz had heard of it? (He hadn’t.) Together they started organizing some of the early American conferences on Soviet Jewry, trying to garner worldwide support for Russian Jews denied exit visas, and then they began traveling to Moscow. By that time, the government had made Mikhail an official artist, known for his portraits of Party officials, so he was easy for Eva to find. He’d married by then as well, so he and Eva left their relationship in the past. She and Sy and Mikhail and his wife all began working together, Mikhail sneaking government-issued paints and brushes to the unofficial artists and shepherding Eva into clandestine apartment exhibits around Moscow, introducing her to virtually every painter whose work she ended up smuggling out and making known abroad.
It’s amazing, Mira had said, that my grandmother risked her life for these artists, knowing if caught she’d be interrogated, jailed, probably worse. But then my mom was born, and it was Grandpa Sy who stopped making those trips, it was Grandpa Sy who decided it wasn’t worth putting himself in danger when he had a child, and I don’t think my grandmother canceled one flight. Imagine how that made my mother feel, Mira said—and while Boaz knew that was his cue to take Mira’s hand and whisper yes, he could imagine how hard that must have been, he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. The whole story confused him. It didn’t seem possible that Mira had lived twenty-two years and experienced no real sadness of her own—that the stories she shared late at night in bed, supposedly the most painful and private of her life, were about other people.
Then Mira had faced him. It was the part he dreaded most about dating, the assumption that he was supposed to turn to the girl he’d just slept with and reveal his own dark stories. So, as always, he gave the shorthand: he’d never known his father, he had no siblings, his mother had passed away when he was twenty-one. All the other girls would whisper condolences, then go uncomfortably silent; and Boaz, afraid he’d ruined their evening, would always say he was fine, couldn’t they see he was fine, then fumble for a way to maneuver the conversation back to them. But Mira didn’t go quiet—she got angry. She said it was unfair he’d suffered so much. It was a sentiment he’d never considered—that everyone was entitled to a happy life—but Mira felt it vehemently on his behalf. She sat up in bed, and Boaz remembered just how she’d looked that night, a decade ago, headlights flashing through the window and illuminating her broad, pale shoulders. “The whole thing breaks my heart,” she said. “That you had to bury your mother when you were barely an adult yourself.”
And Boaz wondered how he could find himself loving and resenting a person at the same dangerous, accelerating speed, because while her attention thrilled him, he sensed it had as much to do with Mira’s ego as with him—that more than anything, she wanted to crack him open and be the first girl to peer inside.
She’d gotten upset over the wrong thing anyway. He’d spent years preparing for the day he’d bury his mother—she’d battled kidney disease her entire life and was practical about her condition, talked about it openly, wanted him to understand its inevitability. What was hard were the months that followed, after shiva was over, after the phone calls and condolence cards and prepared food stopped, after he’d paid off his mother’s medical bills and cleared out the closets and donated all her clothes to Karmey Chesed and Boaz was left with no final tasks to distract his thoughts. He’d been discharged that year and while all his army friends were backpacking through Thailand and India, Boaz was back in his childhood apartment, supposedly studying for university entrance exams but really just wandering the four rooms, bumping into his own furniture. The only real solace he found was in books. When he was younger Boaz had read to escape, but during those months back home, reading consoled him in a way no person at the funeral had been able to—writers who had found language not only to describe the pain he felt but to control it, their books containing the infinite possibilities of a sadness he feared could otherwise consume him. There was one entire week he stayed in bed reading, and when, on the eighth day, he finally walked around the corner for groceries, he was struck by this: no one had noticed he’d been inside. That was when he truly understood he was on his own. And the thing about being alone is knowing that if you want to enter the world again, you have to be a guest in it—people are doing you a favor by inviting you into their homes for family gatherings and national holidays, and the only way to act is cheerful and easy, even when you’re so depressed you can barely muster the energy to brush your teeth, and to arrive with wine and flowers and always offer to help with the dishes.
That was when Mira had stood up, and Boaz feared he’d unloaded so much that she wanted him to leave. But she just opened the window, and he listened to cars whistle past as sirens drifted down Azza Street. “No one wants you to fake it,” she said. “You know the other day, when it finally stopped raining and I called you from Independence Park and you were working so hard you didn’t even know the sun had come out? I loved that,” she said. “It was so weird of you to miss the first real day of spring and not care at all.” And he could see that the weirdness thrilled her, as if she were catching a glimpse of his real, uncut self, even all the messy footage he’d worked so scrupulously to edit out. He’d never met a person who accepted him so fully, but he’d later learn all the Kaplan women were like that: they laughed and cried and yelled whenever they felt like it, and expected the people around them to do the same. Yet even that night, Boaz understood that while he respected Eva’s utter ease with herself—the woman had lost her entire family at an even younger age than Boaz but refused to act like anyone’s guest—he had a hard time admiring the same trait in Mira, when she’d simply inherited it.
He knew that was unfair: it wasn’t Mira’s fault her parents supported her at every turn, sending her to softball leagues and theater classes when she displayed a modicum of interest, doing everything possible to ensure their daughter’s life was a series of smooth, paved roads with endless green lights. It wasn’t Mira’s fault she’d been taught to be unafraid of failure: taking enormous risks even on her earliest translations, reworking full paragraphs, changing nouns to verbs simply because she believed it “sounded better” her way—so different from Boaz, who found himself growing more timid with each project. Even the good things that kept happening to him that first year—the fellowship; the internship at Hebrew University’s academic press that quickly turned into a job—felt precarious, as if he could make one mistake and all the success could be rescinded so easily that he’d be back where he started.
When their fellowship in Jerusalem was over, Mira asked him to come back with her to Boston. She pieced together adjunct teaching, Boaz convinced the press to let him work remotely, they found an apartment not far from her sister. But they kept searching for cheap, quiet places to spend weekends, vacations, summers together, just the two of them, distraction-free with their work, and finally during one excruciatingly humid June day, Mira put down the bowl she was drying, wiped her sticky hair from her forehead and said, “This is disgusting.” It was a hundred degrees outside and at least a hundred-twenty in their kitchen, and when Boaz peered out the window down the street, he could see an elderly couple moving so slowly it was like they were wading through tar. “Let’s get out of here,” he said—and that was the moment, if he boiled it right down, that he suddenly began to feel he too was entitled to better air than the rest of the city.
A month later they were living in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, hours from anyone they knew, in a house at the end of a dirt road, a house with a porch and a yard and garden with beds already built by the previous renters. He loved the landscape, so different from anything he’d seen in America: the blue rivers and green fields and red barns, as if children had used the most basic set of crayons to scribble it into being. He loved the fact that he could roll out of bed and into his study to work all day, the days bleeding together so fluidly the distinction between weekdays and weekends no longer mattered. He loved the language he and Mira created up there: a hodgepodge of Hebrew and English half-sentences no one else would have understood, but which made more sense to him than anything else. He loved seeing Mira walking around in old jeans and rubber gardening clogs, her entire closet of dresses and tailored coats instantly superfluous. He loved sitting on the porch with her and imagining a child, their child, brown-armed and goofy, sprinting past them on the grass. Probably he got the whole image from a commercial for coffee filters or fabric softener, but he didn’t care. It worked for him—for them.
For many years Mira had said she wanted children in theory but not quite yet—that she needed to sort her life out first: a stable teaching job, a secure paycheck. But a couple months before Eva’s will arrived, Mira walked into the kitchen one morning, poured herself a cup of coffee and said, “I’m ready.” Just like that. And Boaz felt his chest swell and said, “Really?” She smiled and nodded, and soon after was pregnant. Though she wasn’t supposed to tell anyone so early on, Mira called her family immediately, saying if she miscarried she’d want them to know so what was the point of keeping secrets, and they all drove up to Vermont, Wendy and Larry and Hannah and Peter and their girls, and piled into the ob-gyn office. As the doctor moved the monitor over Mira’s still-flat stomach, Wendy swore she saw a penis on the screen and Larry got misty-eyed that he’d finally have a grandson and Hannah snapped that it was impossible to know so early—and Boaz had felt so blessed, surrounded by family. All that resentment he’d once felt for Mira suddenly seemed so self-indulgent when he imagined his child being born into the Kaplans, this child who didn’t even have bones or teeth or skin yet but was already so deeply adored by everyone in that room.
There was a night not long after that visit, a completely simple and uneventful night, when they had a fire going and were eating dinner on the couch with a movie on, and he’d had a feeling of being utterly sated, as if everything he needed in life existed right there. He’d pulled Mira close and kissed the soft spot between her eyes and whispered that he loved her, and she’d whispered that she loved him too. “No,” she’d said. “It seems like such a bullshit thing to say! How can I when I also love this pasta, this movie, this fire? We need a different word,” she said. “We need to exhume Ben Yehuda from his grave and ask for an approximation of what this is—this love.” And then she took his hand and squeezed so hard his knuckles popped.
Looking back, he wished he could zero in on the moment things started to falter, the moment he should have suspected Eric was lurking on the sidelines. But it was impossible. Even her recent bad moods were the ones she’d cycled through the entire time he’d known her, always coming at the end of a project when she was stressed about what to do next, saying she was so far removed from being swept up in a translation that she couldn’t even remember how it felt. Boaz would wander into her office upstairs and find her impatiently watching the view from her window; the sun couldn’t set fast enough.
Even a couple weeks ago, when Mira announced that she couldn’t take the silence anymore, that they must have been insane for isolating themselves up there, away from the world, there in the Home of the Lonely—even that hadn’t felt alarming. She always made some similar proclamation when her work wasn’t going well, as if the very quiet she’d once craved became a taunting little monster when the open hours of a day loomed. And so Boaz did what he always did when she got anxious: he packed up the car and they drove down to her parents’ house in Boston. He loved pulling onto their wide street, with its Craftsmans and Victorians and enormous leafy trees, he loved walking inside with his own key and dropping his bags on the floor, his coat on the banister, as comfortable as one of Wendy and Larry’s own. He loved the house, creaky and bright and always messy, as if Wendy were still rebelling against her upbringing of white carpets and polished silverware, her walls not covered with famous paintings but childhood craft projects, every single thing her daughters and granddaughters had papier-mâchéd and glitter-glued in the art shed of Camp Haverim over the years. The art was terrible, but Boaz loved it. He loved it all. He loved the pencil markings on the pantry door, measuring Mira and Hannah’s growth as girls, loved the hodgepodge of family photos cluttering the mantel, the endless parade of sweet and dopey dogs. He loved arriving in the middle of the day, when Wendy and Larry were still at work, and napping on the beanbag chair in the basement, surrounded by relics of the Kaplan home, the unused exercise equipment and water-warped Beta tapes and boxes of toys Hannah’s girls had tired of but which were waiting for their kid, his and Mira’s, even labeled that way, for M+B. He slept so peacefully those afternoons, the sound of Mira upstairs on the phone with her sister, a neighbor’s lawn mower in the distance, the front door opening and Wendy and Larry greeting their daughter, then asking, “Where’s Boaz?”—two words as beautiful to him as a song.
“Mira,” Roni was saying now, as they snaked up the highway toward Jerusalem. “Okay, I remember her, maybe from the Bronfman dinner? Tall with black hair, looked a lot like Eva?”
Boaz nodded miserably and Roni said, “It’s a shame she’s not here. She couldn’t get off work?”
“She left me,” Boaz mumbled. “The question is why I’m here. Eva’s her grandmother.”
Roni stared. She opened her mouth, then closed it. And Boaz, who had never overshared in his life, who had no idea where that outburst came from and didn’t trust what was coming next, cracked the window and looked out toward Mevasseret, at the skinny trees and sun-beaten hills and distant houses blurring past.
She let go of her BlackBerry and slipped it in her purse. It was the first time he’d seen it out of her hand; and gadgetless, Roni looked different, gentler: not just a museum bigwig but a wife, a mother, maybe still someone’s daughter. She touched his arm and said, “Tell me what’s happening.” And maybe because he was back in a country where strangers found it perfectly acceptable to inquire into other people’s personal lives, maybe because he sensed all the doors that had been swinging open the past decade could close in on him at any minute, and maybe most of all because he understood that, while in a normal situation Roni wouldn’t even nod to him on the street, the fact that he represented the foundation obligated her to care about his problems, Boaz did something he never would have imagined he was capable of: he turned to this woman he didn’t know at all and started to talk. He told her things he hadn’t told anyone, not even Wendy and Larry. He said he hadn’t even known Mira was unhappy. That when she didn’t come home from work the Monday before last, it never occurred to him she was leaving; all he could think to do was obsessively refresh the local news online for traffic accidents. He hadn’t even been aware of Eric. Of course he’d known she’d gone to Albany for a campus visit that fall, a trip on which he’d declined to accompany her, not wanting to waste days in a sterile motel room while she gave craft talks, particularly because she wasn’t even interested in the position; she simply thought being offered the job would give her more leverage at the college where she already worked. And when it turned out to be an inside hire, the entire thing had seemed to Boaz a nothing story, a trip that didn’t even merit an anecdote.
Then that Monday evening, Mira finally called him, supposedly from her colleague Sharon’s house in Hardwick. She was crying when she told Boaz about Eric, a guy who ran a restaurant in Albany where she’d stopped for a drink during that long and exhausting campus visit, a guy she’d been emailing ever since. Nothing romantic at first, not even flirtatious. But then they were writing every week, then every day, these long and detailed emails that felt more like letters, all about their families and work and even their childhoods, getting to know each other with such a focused intimacy she’d forgotten was possible. They’d never done anything, Mira promised, not even kissed, and the whole thing had felt so Victorian in its prudishness, though she couldn’t deny she’d fantasized about sleeping with him—how could she not, having been with Boaz for so long that she could predict every one of his moves, their sex life more like a race to see who came first. But the whole thing with Eric had seemed so manageable, so predictable, the kind of situation many married people invariably found themselves in, because after a decade together it was hard to feel as thrilled as you did in the very beginning, and she’d told herself she had nothing to feel guilty about because all the situation had amounted to was a pile of emails.
But then she started to call him once Boaz had gone to bed, crossing the yard and climbing onto the rock where they got cell service. She started to feel as though Eric was on her mind all the time and everything she did, even the runs she took in the woods behind their house up to Fox Ridge—suddenly she found herself narrating all of it to Eric, as if these things could only be meaningful if she imagined him experiencing them with her. So they started to meet in Brattleboro, halfway between their houses, just for the day. Eric would plan these elaborate outings. He had two young children from his previous marriage, and she wasn’t sure if he’d been this way before fatherhood, but he saw every afternoon as a potential adventure. He was the kind of person, she said, who’d hear about a good diner thirty miles away and make a whole day of it, the kind of person who loved thinking about new things Mira might want to do and see that she hadn’t even considered. But those afternoons hadn’t seemed worth mentioning, because when she’d told Boaz she was meeting up with some of her colleagues and he’d nodded from his desk and told her to have fun, it really had felt as though she wasn’t doing anything technically wrong. The whole thing had felt so textbook, looking for one more exciting distraction before she began the steady gray march into adulthood, and if she was really going to be honest, this entire crush was a big part of the reason she had finally decided to get pregnant—she’d convinced herself that maybe a baby could instantly bring her closer to Boaz and farther from Eric, cutting off these terrifying new feelings before they even had legs to stand on.
And so, that past week when Eric picked her up from the train station in Brattleboro, she opened her mouth to tell him she was pregnant, and that whatever it was they were doing, however harmless, had to stop. But instead she had blurted, it had honestly just rolled off her tongue, that she loved him. And Eric had pulled to the side of the road, cut the ignition and said he’d loved her from that first night she walked into his restaurant and that he wanted to make a go of things, that nothing in his life had ever made more sense, and that was when the entire room went blurry for Boaz and he hung up the phone, ran to the bathroom and threw up.
“So they didn’t sleep together,” Roni said.
Boaz stared at her. “So?”
“So you know the baby’s yours.”
“I don’t understand what the problem is,” Roni said. “You’re having a child together. She’ll get this man out of her system and come back to you.”
“I’d rather she slept with him than fell in love.”
An image was coming into Boaz’s mind, a photo of Mira from that campus visit to Albany he’d found her looking at one night on her laptop. It was a simple picture, her on a bench somewhere in town. But she looked happier than he’d seen her in years, shielding her eyes from the sun and smiling wide, so he’d asked to make it his screensaver, and it was only now occurring to him who had been holding the camera.
“What did you say?” Roni said.
“After you vomited and she called you back. I’ve known you forty minutes and already I’d bet one of Eva’s Litnikovs that you picked up on the first ring.”
“Fine,” Boaz said. “I told her I felt betrayed. I told her one of the things I loved most about being married was that I felt safe with her, and I didn’t think I ever could anymore.”
Roni shook her head, sadly.
“Boaz,” she said. “You tell her you felt safe, and all she hears is that her husband sees the world as dangerous.”
Boaz didn’t know what to say. He stared out the window and wondered when Jerusalem had gotten so dirty. Garbage everywhere, crumbling houses, cats darting out of trash bins—so many they must have outnumbered humans on the street. The few people outside this early all seemed so gloomy, propped against the bus depot or walking past in a hurried sleepwalk, a group of Filipino women looking as if they’d been up for hours, pushing the very young and the very old down the sidewalk. Even the sky seemed depleted, as if it wished the day would just end already. But then the driver turned off Keren HaYesod onto a side street, and Boaz caught sight of two boys kicking a soccer ball. They were young, six or seven, in t-shirts and shorts but moving too fast to feel the wind that had picked up. They were running and laughing and when one of their mothers yelled something from a window, they laughed some more. Those kids could have been anywhere—Vermont, Boston, Kiryat Gat, probably a million places Boaz had never been—and what struck him was how touchingly naïve they seemed, as if they couldn’t imagine anything that could make them happier than what they were doing right then, in that glorious moment. Suddenly Boaz was overcome by it too, a complete and spontaneous happiness. All at once it felt so simple to let go of his problems for just a minute and feel grateful to be a part of something as big and basic as that morning, that city, that street. He felt a lightness inside him, opening wider and wider as they drove through the hills up to Eva’s house, and then he climbed the steps, unlocked the door and found Mira inside, waiting on the floor of her grandmother’s empty living room.
She’d gotten in last night, she said. Her parents had told her he was coming and she couldn’t stand the idea of him doing this alone. “I can’t stand any of it,” she said. “All I’ve been doing is feeling miserable, then feeling worse for even allowing myself to be sad.”
She stood up and reached for his arm. But she caught the sleeve of his shirt instead. Boaz hadn’t realized he was backing away until he was up against the front door. He heard the bleats of traffic outside, saw the scratches on the wall where Eva’s mail table had once been. Most of her furniture had already been sold, and the room was filled with ghostly outlines where the walls had darkened and aged around those wood tables and heavy tweed sofas. He had an eerie, immediate feeling of remembering just where things had been, the stacks of magazines covering the shiny white mail table and the large vase that always, always held fresh-cut flowers, and beside that, the ceramic umbrella stand Eva had brought back from Marrakesh—
He blinked, and everything came horribly into focus. It was almost unbearable to look at her. Her sweater was rumpled, her hair a tangled nest, and he thought about her thinking about him all night, too nervous and keyed-up to check her reflection. He knew he should feel sorry for her, this mess of a Mira. But everything, even the very fact that her matted hair suggested she’d just woken up, made him angry—he’d barely slept at all the past ten days, too afraid of what he’d dream. It didn’t even make sense that he was seeing her. Her absence had felt bolder and more intrusive than she’d ever been in person, as if it had taken on the heft of a dozen women, and now there she was, just standing there, so casually alive.
“What,” he said, finding his voice at the last possible moment, “are you doing here?”
“I’m physically sick about this.”
“What does your boyfriend say about you using up our savings to fly here?”
“He’s not my boyfriend.”
“You promise you weren’t with him this week?”
“I told you, I was with Sharon. You have to believe me.”
“But you told me you loved him.”
“I do.” She looked so tiny in that enormous room. She still wasn’t showing; if anything, she seemed as gawky and nervous as a teenager, biting her lip and stretching her sweater sleeves over her hands. “I can’t tell you how much I wish this wasn’t happening,” she said. “But it’s the truth. I love you in one way, him in another. I’m sorry. I can’t stand here and lie to you of all people, and say that Eric means nothing to me.”
“Do you understand how ridiculous you sound? Like someone we’d hate.”
She winced, as if she’d been slapped. “You know what? I want you to hate me.”
He was still backed against the door, as if it were the only way to protect himself, seeing her from this singular angle, like a sniper. All around him, the bare walls were dirty and gray and riddled with nail holes, and it struck him how depressing it was that Eva and Sy had transformed this empty space into such an interesting and beautiful life, and now a realtor was going to lead a new couple inside and apologize for those holes and then some workman would come and in twenty minutes all of it, the entire history of that room, would be spackled over.
“You don’t understand,” Mira said, “what it’s like to be with someone who exists so fully in his head. Who has no desire to leave our weird little cocoon. And then Eric would put all this effort into thinking about what would make me happy. He’d have plans for us. We’d go to lunch. We’d go on hikes.”
“We go on hikes.”
“No, Boaz, we’d go on walks outside our house. We’d walk to think, then go back to our offices to think some more. Sometimes I’d feel like we weren’t even really living together. It was like we were swimming in the same pool, but I was never allowed in your lane.”
“I thought that was part of the deal,” he said quietly. “You said it was. That with you I was allowed to disappear.”
“Right outside your office window,” she said, “you can see all our patio furniture knocked on its side, and there’s bird shit all over it. Like, it’s really covered in shit. And I’d look out your window and wonder what kind of person could see that every day and not just go hose it off.”
The entire time they’d been speaking Hebrew, but then something inside her seemed to rupture and Mira blurted, in English, “But I could never be upset about that—about anything—because you’ve convinced yourself I have no real reasons to be sad. That your pain will always trump mine. It’s this fucked-up game you’ve been playing since we met.”
“But I love you,” he said, a little helplessly.
She took a long breath and let it out slowly, as if thinking hard about what she was going to say next. “Being in love with my family isn’t the same as loving me.”
“That’s bullshit,” he said. But he knew he was lying. Of course he couldn’t separate that love. All at once he saw so clearly what would follow. Not just that night, or the long flight back to the States, but beyond. Winter, spring, the baby. Her family would call incessantly to check in on him, they’d probably even take his side, but after a while they’d learn to embrace Eric because there was no other choice: Mira loved him and she was blood. And Eric would be so infuriatingly gracious about the whole thing, he’d probably invite Boaz down to Albany for dinner, and Boaz would have to sit across the table from the two of them, over some elaborate meal Eric had prepared with herbs and vegetables from his own fucking garden, and beer he’d brewed himself. More images started popping up that Boaz couldn’t block. Holidays, when he’d have to make that drive he knew by heart, down to Wendy and Larry’s to pick up his kid. He’d have to park on the street and walk up their steps, and rather than going right inside he’d have to stand there, wiping his feet on the mat, listening to all their voices through the door until someone heard the bell and let him in.
“You understand this Eric thing is your fault, too,” Mira said. “Of course I fell for someone who knows how to be close to me. That’s what you do in relationships, Boaz—you try to see the world through the other person’s eyes. I mean, look at my parents, my grandparents—they’re like these model couples. Maybe what’s difficult . . .”
She didn’t finish. But the sentiment existed now, there in the room: Boaz didn’t have a model, and maybe that was the problem. He’d always believed one of the most terrifying things about intimacy was another person knowing your darkest insecurities and being able to use them against you in your weakest moments, an emotional sucker punch. He realized now how wrong that was—it was much more excruciating for someone to know these things and choose not to say them, as if that person was the only one who understood just how crushing the truth could be.
He walked across the room, right past her, out to the terrace. Even that perfect view of the Old City he’d once admired suddenly looked crass and artificial, and he turned away. Mira came up behind him. “But despite all of this, I really do love you,” she said. “And I know we’re supposed to be together. That’s why I flew out here—it’s all I want. To have a family and grow old with you and to one day look back on this whole time as nothing but a selfish blip in my thirties.”
“I’m willing to never talk to him again if you promise me things will be different. That I’ll get all of you this time. That you’ll stop keeping some big part of yourself stashed away.”
She wrapped her arms around his chest. He smelled her sweat and lotion and hair, this apple shampoo that had always seemed sickeningly sweet to him, but which now made him so nostalgic he wanted to cry. The truth was, Boaz couldn’t visualize what exactly it was she needed from him, he couldn’t even describe it, but maybe all that mattered was that he’d never wanted anything more in his life than to give it to her. “Just say you’ll try,” she whispered, and then she stepped forward and touched his face and pulled the “yes” right out of him.
It was impossible to forget Mira’s comment about sex with him being a race, so Boaz tried to ignore all the shortcuts—but he honestly didn’t need to. Naked, Mira was starting to show and her entire body felt different, not just her stomach but her hips and arms, and afterward they lay in the guest room and talked. Mira said she’d been reading up on what was happening with the baby, that it was still the size of a blueberry but that hands and feet were starting to form, though in the book illustrations they looked more like weird little paddles. She said she was lucky that so far she’d been spared morning sickness but that she couldn’t stop peeing, it was this annoying, ever-constant thing, and then she looked around the empty room and reminisced about staying there as a girl. And maybe because Eva was gone, or maybe because she felt as giddy as Boaz, this time Mira’s stories were happy: the Russian political cartoonist who did sketches of her and Hannah, the pancakes Grandpa Sy made when she was homesick, the nights her grandmother let her try on her perfume and beaded handbags as she dressed for a function.
It was 10 a.m. and Boaz could hear people moving around down below on Hovevei Tzion Street, but he had no desire to join them. He wanted to stay in this room the rest of the trip, just him and Mira. But he also wanted to do things right this time, wanted to be the kind of guy who’d listened to everything she’d said and would make her happy now, a guy who’d made plans in between all the foundation meetings, who would take her tonight to that restaurant inside the shuk she’d loved their last trip here, the one he’d complained was cramped and kitschy and pretentious, but he’d enjoy his meal this time and not make a dig about the prices, and then they’d walk through the city and stop somewhere for a seltzer for her and a beer for him, they’d sit up at the bar together and he’d hold her hand, her leg, never, never giving her a reason to swivel away from him again.
Only his cell phone wouldn’t stop ringing. The director of the absorption center wanted to know how his flight was, the broker asked if she could stop by in the afternoon, the man at Eden Storage said they were closing early today so the sooner Boaz came, the better.
The day was still gray, but even the exact sidewalks and buildings he’d seen hours before seemed brighter with Mira by his side, as if the entire city had been sandblasted while they’d been indoors. Even the fact that he had to spend the morning sorting through Eva’s castoffs, the task he’d dreaded most—it reminded him too much of doing the same for his mother—seemed less depressing with Mira’s hand in his pocket, her head on his shoulder as she led him down Jabotinsky Street and across Emek Refaim to Eden Storage, introducing herself to the owner in that Hebrew so technically perfect she always gave herself away as a foreigner.
“I’m so sorry,” the man said. He had a kind face, with a wide smile and a head round as a basketball. “Your grandmother really was one of the good ones.”
“You knew her that well?” Mira said.
“She was here all the time.” The man sorted through his enormous chunk of keys and led them outside to the row of sheds. “Once, twice a week.”
“For how long?”
“My wife and I have been here forty years. So that at least.”
“To visit her storage facility?” Mira rolled her eyes, as if this guy were just another crazy in the capital of crazies.
Then she pushed up the door of the shed and gasped. The sound was so dramatic, so unlike anything he’d ever heard from Mira, that when Boaz walked inside, he expected to find a dead animal, decaying under the boxes.
But there were no animals, no furniture, not even any boxes. Just paintings. Covering all four walls up to the ceiling, at least fifty in total. All of them, every single portrait, of Eva. And all, Boaz saw as he looked closer, bearing the signature of Mikhail Borovsky in the right-hand corner.
There was Eva when she was young, pink-cheeked and grinning with a green scarf knotted at her neck, titled, simply, Paris. There was Eva more than twenty years later, in a series of almost forty paintings, all titled Moscow. Those led up to the Jerusalem series as Eva progressively aged, the last one looking so recent Boaz guessed it was the final portrait Borovsky had done before he’d died. And in almost every one, Eva was staring straight at the artist with the widest, most radiant smile.
Mira took a deep breath. “She came here all the time?”
The man nodded, and Mira continued, “Always by herself?”
“She never brought—her husband?”
The man glanced at Boaz, then at the floor. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I . . . I didn’t know.”
Mira looked up at the ceiling and started to cry. The man awkwardly tapped her shoulder, as if all of this were his fault. He stepped out of the shed, kicked gravel around.
Boaz knew his only job right then was to comfort Mira. It was the husbandly thing to do, the right thing, the only thing. To kiss her cheek and whisper that painful as this was, none of it mattered anymore. They were all dead now, Eva and Sy and Mikhail and his wife—all of it was moot. And if she really thought about it, maybe Eva and Mikhail had been smart to keep this a secret. There was no denying she’d loved Sy, there was no denying they’d had a beautiful marriage, and who knew, if things had worked out differently, Mira may never have been born.
But every one of those words felt like a lie. How, Boaz wondered, could Stalin ever have believed realism was the safer solution? He would have done anything to be surrounded by surrealist pieces he didn’t understand, paintings he could stare at for hours, puzzling over myriad meanings, because looking at those portraits, there was only one possible message.
Eva’s adoration was clear as a photograph, and the Paris painting made him think of one photo in particular: Mira on her campus visit to Albany. That younger Eva was a mirror image of Mira—the same full face and straight eyebrows and thick black hair. But what got him was their shared expression, a joy so genuine the smiles were coming more from their eyes and their mouths had no choice but to follow.
Mira was standing beside him, but he suddenly felt as if they were separated by a vast, impossible distance, and he knew it didn’t matter how many promises she made—there was a man she loved more than Boaz, a man who knew how to make her happier than he did. It was something he’d probably known for weeks, but the simple truth of what it actually meant—that this would no longer be his life—was just too painful to look at, it was like staring directly into the sun. He closed his eyes and leaned against the wall. The painting behind him barely rattled, but Mira rushed forward. She grabbed his arm and asked what was wrong. But for the first time, Boaz couldn’t think of a single word to describe this kind of loneliness, so scary and real it required an entirely different language, new and strange and yet to be invented.
Excerpted from The UnAmericans: Stories by Molly Antopol. Copyright © 2014 by Molly Antopol. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.