The Nurse and the Novelist
1. The Butterfly
The entire book is set in two columns. The narrower one is in italics. It tells a story of a village woman who falls in love with a boy hiding in her cellar. The wider column is about a depressed young man. In his Manhattan apartment, the depressed young man keeps a jar of toenail clippings that he has been collecting since he was a boy. He doesn’t know why he collects the clippings, and he hides the jar from his advertising executive girlfriend. One day, the young man is summoned to his grandfather’s deathbed. The grandfather hands him a gold charm shaped like a wing of a butterfly. The charm bears the initials E. S. “Find Evgeniya,” the grandfather whispers. “Who is Evgeniya?” the young man demands of his parents. Your grandfather is confused, his parents insist, the necklace most likely belonged to your granny Elaine, she adored asymmetric jewelry. But the S? The depressed young man loses sleep over the S. He takes the charm to a jeweler, who discovers miniature, unintelligible foreign writing along the wing’s edge. The young man pesters his parents for grandfather’s birthplace. Ah, but the village no longer exists. It is now a suburb of Minsk. The young man decides to travel there. He has never seen such devastation: crumbling apartment blocks, leaning adobe shacks, rusted debris among ten-foot-tall weeds. The young man rents an apartment in one of the buildings, and enlists a bright local boy as an interpreter. At first, no one remembers the Jews, or their village. Finally, the young man hears rumors of a shut-in, an old woman whom local children call the Witch. The Witch peers at the wing necklace through her keyhole, and opens the door. She is a tiny, emaciated woman. She leans heavily on a crutch, but her eyes shine with luminous resolve. She had rescued fourteen children of the Jews. She could have saved more if only their parents had trusted her, she explains. Why didn’t they trust you, the young man asks. Think about it, the old woman says—people didn’t know what was going to happen to them. They considered it safer to keep their children by their side rather than give them to a stranger. The young man starts to cry. Magical realism kicks in, a man in the yard unlocks a dovecot, and the allegorical souls of the Jews soar above the Belarusian wasteland. “How is Mischa, my darling?” the old woman asks. The young man can’t bear to speak the truth, to tell her that his grandfather is dead. Did his parents let you save him? “He was an orphan, and he was older, sixteen,” the old woman answers. “I hope you don’t mind me telling you, but we loved each other. He lived in my cellar by day and came out by night. We were lovers.” The young man urges her to go on. “Then my husband came from the war. Mischa had to leave. The Germans were gone by then.” The Witch gives the young man another charm, the left wing of the butterfly. “Now that you have come to me, I may die in peace,” she adds. Back in his own apartment, the young man hears screaming and cries through the wall. Soon, he realizes that a human smuggling operation is happening next door. Three young girls are held captive and beaten. The young man rescues the most beautiful one and takes her to a women’s shelter, where he falls in love with a scrappy social worker. Together, they return to the States. A year later, they have a baby girl. They name her Evgeniya. As the young man hangs the butterfly necklace, now complete, on little Evgeniya’s chest, it becomes clear to him why he has been collecting nail clippings in a jar all along, and he is able to stop.
2. What Happened to Felix
Officially, my grandmother’s apartment building is called Greenway Views, but everyone calls it the Cliff, for the way its massive towers jut out over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. These days, my grandmother is mostly confined to her sixth floor apartment in the Cliff, but ages ago she had been a young woman in the Russian city of Leningrad.
Grandma Rita was beautiful, with thin arched eyebrows and soft wavy hair. My grandfather Dima, on the other hand, had always been homely. He had protuberant watery eyes, saucer ears, and an overbite. However, he was brilliant, witty, and successful. Now, their friend Felix was so handsome that I caught my twelve-year-old daughter, Nina, sleeping with his photo under her pillow. I don’t blame her: I did the same at her age. Rita, Dima, and Felix met during their third year at Leningrad University, and became inseparable. There is a photograph of the three of them, leaning on the parapet above the Neva. Felix is holding a bicycle.
Dima was in the physics department, Rita studied biology, and Felix was a violinist. The family legend is that my grandfather, who died when I was twenty, had been in love with my grandmother since the moment he first laid eyes on her. Grandma Rita doesn’t dispute the legend, though she never talks about her own early feelings for my grandfather. Here is the story she does tell, sipping Snapple in her apartment in the Cliff.
They just finished the university when the war started. Dima, with his excellent grades and his science background, was designated a “worker valuable for the Motherland,” and shipped off to Siberia to head the production floor in a weapons plant. Felix was drafted to the front. My grandmother remained in Leningrad.
All three survived the war. In the summer of 1945, Felix returned from the front. By then, Dima had come back, too. There was a party at Felix’s parents’ apartment. It was a small party: just Rita, Dima, Felix, and two other friends. According to my grandmother, Felix’s parents had a very nice apartment. They had a beaded chandelier and a seven-string guitar that hung on the wall with a silk bow tied around its neck. No one had touched the guitar in four years, but during the party Felix picked it up, tuned it, and played romansy. (“I used to enjoy music,” grandma Rita says. My father disagrees. He had never heard music in his parents’ house. They didn’t own a record player. “Before your time,” grandmother objects.) Everyone drank spirt. When they were quite drunk, Felix showed them a souvenir he’d brought from the front: a German leaflet he’d found in the battlefield—the kind that the enemy threw down from airplanes. “Comrade Fighters,” it said, in Russian. “Following Stalin’s orders will lead to your annihilation! Choose while you still have the choice. Cross over to freedom!” They laughed at the leaflet’s arrogance—Berlin lay in ruins, and they were drinking and singing in Leningrad.
“Afterwards, Dima left, and Felix and I went for a walk,” grandmother says.
Expressway traffic sounds like the surf below the Cliff. A fly lands on the edge of the Snapple bottle. My grandmother picks up a sugar cube and gingerly places it between her four remaining teeth. Lately, all she seems to be eating is Snapple and sugar cubes, trying to consume energy in its purest, most efficient form. Nina says that old age is evolution backwards. She also says that shopping should be illegal, and that she wishes she were never born. As much as I love my daughter, her utterances couldn’t contain less meaning if they were randomly generated by a computer.
“We spent the night by the river,” grandma Rita tells me. The next morning, Felix disappeared. His hysterical mother told Rita that he was arrested for disseminating enemy propaganda. Three months later, my grandmother married my grandfather.
“Dima was persistent. He treated me like his treasure. All his life. He went to Iran in the ’60s. Everyone in his delegation was bringing back rugs, things for the home. Not him—he brought this.” Grandma points to a gold ring with an emerald that she always wears. The ring is approximately the size, and, I imagine, the weight, of a human eyeball. “When my mother got sick, Dima took care of her. He came from work, fed and washed her—every night, while I couldn’t bear. He was an extraordinary person.”
“What about Felix?” I ask.
Grandma shrugs, and her stare turns glassy. A fire truck screeches below the Cliff. “Those were difficult times,” she says.
3. Sunset Bleu
Last year, a new condominium building grew in the weeded lot next to the Cliff. On summer nights, residents of the Cliff set up folding tables and play dominos on the sliver of brown grass between the buildings, shouting over the traffic din. Small boys, trusted with buying chips and beer for the grownups, dash between the cars at the mouth of the BQE onramp on their way to a bodega. The residents of Sunset Bleu condominiums are outdoorsy people—Bianchis and Specializeds hang like colorful vines over the railings of their undersized balconies. But they never seem to appear on the ground. On hot spring nights, they stew in their loft-like apartments, watching their toddlers bounce around angular mid-century furniture.
The novelist lives there too. He is about my age. He has the body of a man who spends too much time at Daddy-and-Me classes, but his face still looks like his jacket photo. I was out with my grandmother when I spotted him at ShopRite buying a mop, and introduced myself.
He inquired where my grandmother was from. His twins were screaming in the jogger. I said I had a story for him, if he wanted to get coffee. That Saturday, we met at Hubcap—a coffee house that, when I was a kid, used to be an auto repair place that blasted Spanish music all the way down the block and infused sidewalk puddles with happy rainbows of gasoline. This time, the block’s soundtrack was a loop of Edith Piaf and Radiohead. I told the novelist about my grandparents and Felix, and asked if he’d like to come to my place to look at old photographs. At home, I poured us both scotch, and then another, and we lay side by side on my bed, not touching, but knowing that it would only be a matter of time before we did, simply because his toddlers were not there, Nina was away, and the fan was blowing in the window. Instead, we just fell asleep.
We woke up sweaty and middle-aged.
My ex was a serious man, I told the novelist. We got married and had Nina right after college. He went on to get his Ph.D. in English, while I always worked as a nurse. It made me happy to be a family provider. For years, as part of his course work, my husband read novels about dictators, real and imaginary. I read a couple, on his recommendation. In both of them, a chump from the dictator’s inner circle contemplated a minute, private act of courage (squeaking against the rape of his daughter in one; loving the wrong girl in another), and was immediately crushed, the daughter raped, the girl kidnapped, the chump left for dead in a public toilet pit before he even knew what hit him. These stories reminded me of jogging on a track, or of life itself—you ended up exactly where you began. Frankly, I had no patience for them. Coming home from the night shift, my swollen ankles spilling over the straps of my Mary-Jane clogs, I needed stories of journeys from point A to point B, so I read your books.
The novelist grinned.
Right before my husband left, he started reading your books too. But he was a snob. I think he felt your novels were beneath him, because he sneaked them. He took them to the bathroom hidden inside Harper’s. After a while, he became addicted, though he was still ashamed. I caught him wrapping The Butterfly in a newspaper before he left for the subway. And then he left me for one of his grad students.
The novelist’s smile stiffened. You know, there is one thing I vowed never to write about: divorce. It’s so fucking boring.
Let me tell you a few things, I said.
Jewelry gets lost very easily. I mean, these are tiny things.
Where no one remembers the Jews, no one remembers the Jews.
But here is the main reason why my husband was ashamed of carrying your books, I think. In your novels, past calamities are nothing but milestones of self-discovery. The central question is: “Why am I collecting toenails in a jar?” It only takes a village of dead Jews to figure it out. Your characters are monsters who fashion heaps of bones into tiny missing pieces of themselves. My husband was not a selfish man, who was preparing to commit what he saw as a selfish act. He must have found The Butterfly a real celebration of narcissism, a tutorial of sorts.
The novelist sat up and coughed into his fist. I’ve got to go, he sighed. Did you want to show me some photos?
But listen, there is more to the story, I said. During the blockade of Leningrad, my grandmother worked at Vavilov’s seedbank. Have you ever heard of it? No doubt a novel or two has been written about the heroes who worked there—several starved to death among the seeds but didn’t eat a single one, preserving the genetic wealth of the world’s largest collection. Well, my grandma Rita snacked on Vavilov’s seeds. She boiled Vavilov’s roots for lunch, and made soup with Vavilov’s bulbs for dinner. She was hungry and didn’t care about biodiversity. Then she married a man who sent his rival to near-certain death. In your books, people like her normally kill themselves, don’t they? Because if they didn’t, how would your characters discover what’s really important in life and solve the riddle of their neuroses?
You need therapy, the novelist said. Seriously, have you ever tried . . .
Just listen to me for a second, I said. I lived in Russia until I was eleven. Then, it was still the Soviet Union. In school, we read stories and watched films about young heroes, our would-be role models. Fourteen-year-old Zina Portnova, for instance, poisoned German officers’ food at her cafeteria job. To avoid blowing her cover, she ate the poisoned soup and miraculously survived. Later, she was arrested. At an interrogation, she grabbed a gun from the desk, shot two Gestapo men dead, fled, was captured, savagely tortured, and killed. Or take the friggin Eaglet. At the end of the movie, he’s hiding out in a field, saving the last hand grenade to blow himself up. We had to write essays about these children. In conclusion we had to state that, should our country be in peril again, we would act in a similar manner. Anything different would earn a lower grade. These writing lessons terrified me. I felt completely alone. I was convinced that all of my classmates were calmly planning to withstand torture, while I knew that I would become a collaborator the minute some Nazi yelled at me.
No one knows for sure, the novelist said.
I asked him if he can ever stop lying.
In my daughter’s room, I found the picture of Felix tucked into Nina’s diary. The photo smells of incense, just like all of Nina’s possessions lately. The contours of Felix’s face come together like the novelist’s storylines. It’s no wonder he didn’t survive. I handed the picture to the novelist.
He could still be alive, he suggested. And what if it wasn’t your grandfather who betrayed him?
Uh-huh. You can write that, I told him.
I haven’t seen the novelist since. Then I read that he got mugged in the lobby of Sunset Bleu (someone followed him into the building), put the condo on the market, and moved to Woodstock. His latest book was a moving tale of love and forgiveness written from the point of view of a dog lost in the aftermath of Katrina.
4. The Novelist
Things have been so much better for Jen and me since we moved upstate. To be honest, I grew up in the Midwest, and always had a real ambivalent relationship with the city. On one hand, it’s beautiful. On the other hand, it can be a kind of hell. There are things I’ve done that I’m not particularly proud of, and, well, I have never told Jen about. Like the time I almost slept with this creepy, geeky nurse I met at a supermarket.