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Literature : first proof



Image courtesy of Wojtek Mszyca.

The aftermath of the snowstorm is like a mother’s caress following punishment, the earth still and white and untainted. When she told her husband she was trapped in this city, he had said, “Of course,” and “Be careful.” Now she and her Russian lover roam the streets as if they are the final survivors, up to their ankles with snow. They should never have left the hotel, but even if it makes no sense, the further they walk, the more emboldened they are to keep going. They see a sign for a park, trails. It is as if they think at the same time, “Why not?”

They walk deeper into the woods, the trail snaking before them down into a snowy chasm; she can feel him breathing beside her like a poised, panting dog. He is a bulky man, overwhelming in girth. The hat on his head is boxy, furry, the felt blending with his thin sandy hair. At the precipice of a small hill, he takes her by the arm, slides down one careful step at a time. There is no one else on the trail, but they can hear high floating voices pinging between the torsos of trees.

“But what if I did?” he asks, not looking at her. They are both staring straight ahead. They can see that as soon as they hit bottom, the trail will even out, lead to stairs out of the park. “It would be just like an accident.”

“This is absurd,” she says, weakly. “We’re not having this conversation.”

“You didn’t say no,” he says.

“Because this is too ridiculous to take seriously.” She tries to keep her tone light, but his intensity makes her nervous. He is capable of this too. Wasn’t it he who told her once, If you and I forget what they did to us, we forget who we are.

Before them loom stairs, a cascading carpet of snow. Some steps have imprinted footsteps, and others, inexplicably, do not. When she cranes her neck, she sees the domes of office buildings. A relief: such a simple man-made escape and then back in civilization.

She feels him at the only exposed part of her neck, his hot breath. His kisses are her least favorite feature of what they have done, they are fast and gulping like a baby bird’s. In the past, her usual stance had been passive resistance, but now she gently dislocates him. The blue button eyes beneath that hat are enormous, jaded.

“You didn’t say no,” he reminds her, untangles, and he begins to climb.

She calls her husband when the Russian is in the shower, the steam turning the room obscure and mysterious. In the middle of the bed, naked and gripping the phone, she tells Ron she wishes she would just get home already. This storm has brought the entire region to a stop, all of them powerless in the face of its rage.

“The important thing is to be safe,” says her husband. “If it’s a day or two later, so be it.” From the cracked open door, the Russian is toweling off his waist, a few vigorous strokes and he’s dry.

Her parents flew out from Los Angeles for the wedding two years ago, but Annie sensed the invisible sheen of disappointment glowing against their skin. From a distance, they had tried to set her up with New York-area Armenians, but at the time Annie found the men too angry, Ararat always in their hearts, their insistence on reparations as the only solution to the impasse. They were shocked at her own indifference: hadn’t her parents sat her down at eleven or twelve and described what happened to her own family in 1915, showed her pictures of their grandparents? And did she really go by Annie and not Anait? These men, they would practically froth at the mouth, their cheeks puffing and expanding with effort. She would try to concentrate on her roasted duck, on the astringent fan of pickled beets on her plate, but their faces, pursed and hardened, shattered the easy glow of the décor, the lighthearted conversations fox trotting at the other tables.

The minute she met Ron at her local coffee shop, she knew she could relax. She even liked that when she told him she was Armenian, he first thought she said Iranian. Her heritage, while exotic and interesting, could have been exchanged for another one in his mind, no less exotic and interesting. It was such a respite from the unique misery foisted upon her.

Toward his own life, he carried the same equanimity. No resentment seemed lodged in him. His parents and brother in North Jersey were cohesive and loving, his job—he used to be a personal chef but now worked for a park conservancy—was stress-free, satisfying. In the evenings, he would cook simple Italian dishes and watch her consume them, wiping the sauce-splattered plate with a handful of bread. His joy was so present tense. Unlike her family, he appeared to carry around little weight; he never lingered on the past.

Watch me, she seemed to say to her parents during their wedding. In her champagne dress, she twirled and twirled. I refuse to take on all that suffering. I can make the choice to say no.

When she walks into the house, her husband is asleep in the club chair, a single lamp illuminating her shrouded plate. He wakes when her suitcase crashes to the ground. “You got out,” he says, pleased. He kisses her on the cheek and busies himself with her dinner.

“Managed to climb onto the last flight,” she says and her voice sounds like it is careening down some distant tunnel, she can barely hear her own cadences. Now that she sees him in person, she is afraid. He looks so thin, so fragile and she too exhausted to contribute.

As usual, he asks her nothing more about the trip. She has always waved them off as boring business, and in Ron’s mind what’s done is done. He sets out cutlery, a glass of wine. “What a storm that was. And they say another’s not far behind.” In the past, he sounded distinctly like her husband but now he reminds her of a meteorologist. One of those happy anchors who filter the world’s calamities through identical chipper deliveries.

She wraps her arms around his back, ear pressed to his skin, taking in his even, structured breaths.

“You must not call me for at least a month or two,” her Russian lover says when he picks up his cell phone. “Just in case there are suspicions, keep your communications clean. The car repair shop, parents, restaurant reservations, that kind of thing.”

“Wait a minute,” she says, panic rising to the tip of her throat. “I never said you should do anything. This is crazy. We go on as before. I have that conference in Denver, in that fancy hotel downtown. We can meet there.”

The Russian’s sighs are exaggerated and broad, the yawns of a tiger. “You know that can’t happen. Our connection is too strong. Blood is the only path to freedom.”

“We’re in America,” she cajoles. “Do we really have to be so melodramatic?” Is that how you talk to your wife, she wanted to add, but stopped herself. He had no problem mentioning his wife; it was she who did not want to know.

“At least a month, I won’t pick up. You will put us both at risk. Just know I think of us every day. We are together.” he says. Then her phone blinks, “Disconnected.”

Could she pinpoint the exact day when her indifference turned? When a white hot anger began to glisten in her bones? When Hrant Dink was assassinated, and no one around her knew who he was? Last September when Ron forgot to congratulate her on Armenian Independence Day and she felt she had no right to remind him? When Ron first suggested they begin trying to conceive a child? All she knew was that a stone began to harden in her chest, an incurable anguish. How could she have children when she herself was not yet clear on who she was? Annie or Anait, far from Los Angeles, from Anatolia, from the majestic mountains of Ararat.

Darling Ron, on top of her, palming her face. “You will be a wonderful mother. I can’t wait to see you as a mother.” For some reason this makes her feel diminished.

His semen, dispersing like pomegranate seeds, wild and homeless inside her.

Before the curtain for the musical goes down, and she and Ron are wedged in their seats, he hands her a box. The gold necklace snakes around her fingers, its delicate pendant almost blinding against the dimming chandelier. At night, he had been reading up on trying to conceive, and she imagined that the book advised that jewelry would be appropriate for the occasion. Then, just as quickly, she extinguishes the thought. Ungenerous.

She feels claustrophobic; the elderly patrons next to her are colonizing a part of her seat, a coat nosing into her side. Why does she merely reach over and give her husband a kiss? Why, as the auditorium extinguishes, can she not rise and leave or scream, at the very least, scream? The fear of what she set in motion grips her by the throat.

The third payphone she tries on 48th and 8th works. “I told you not to call me,” the Russian explains patiently.

“Not even from a pay phone?”

“Not even by ESP. Trust me, I know what I’m doing.”

The next snowstorm hits on Monday. Their house loses power for half the day. They decide to make the best of it and scatter the room with candles. Her husband is so pale, she notices in the fading light. His hand as he moves chess pieces around is the color of disemboweled American bread. His penis, when it emerges, is the color of the crust.

When she was twelve years old, her parents said that it was time for the conversation, the one all Armenian children had to have with their parents. She was on her way to a girlfriend’s Bat Mitzvah, and she was late. As her parents spoke, she stared down at her socks, one white, one imprinted with strawberries, mismatched in her rush. They described the first roundup of intellectuals, and then as vividly as possible, the bludgeoning of women, their babies. At first we too wanted to be happy Americans, her parents told her, but then we realized that the genocide is why we are here, it lends our lives their meaning. Until they acknowledge what they did to us, apologize, until we get our land back, until we settle on a fair sum that will begin to make up for what they did, our job is to be angry and to never forget. Do you understand what we’re telling you? Do you?

Yes, but what about her present to her girlfriend, this wallet from the Limited? It had been hell finally settling on it, her friend intimidating and fashionable. She would probably find the pink interior childish, the nylon card sleeves cheap. Too late to exchange it now. Would her mother have time to wrap it on the way to the Jewish synagogue?

It was an L.A. morning like the others, the sun pounding and vivid, the palm trees neat and obedient, sitting in the backseat, chin on forearm, staring at spools of snarled traffic before them, and beside them: convertibles, girls’ smooth, bare legs on their dashboards.

Outside the doctor’s building, she and Ron lean against the wall, a plastic bag of Prefera OB dangling between her index finger and thumb. For a change she is not a pharmaceutical representative but a patient, a demotion in power. The doctor pressed on her uterus and later emerged with a pile of various vitamins. She plucked it out by instinct. “It’s the smallest,” she said. “The easiest to swallow.”

The snow is thick and unbudging, forcing them to park at an odd angle, the car’s ass creating a tiny opening for incoming cars to slide past.

“I guess I thought you’d be more thrilled, but maybe there are cultural superstitions? Should we not talk about it until the end of the first trimester?” Still, he cannot squeeze the joy out of his voice, his arm warm around her waist. His touch as questioning and gentle as the Russian’s was rough and insistent.

She met the Russian at a pharmaceutical representative’s conference. During a silly dance where her colleagues were bopping drunkenly across the dance floor, he stood watching them through limp eyelids. She was safely intoxicated with three vodka tonics, edging closer to his stoic solitude at a round, empty table. Turning toward her, he never entirely met her gaze. He was an IT consultant. From outside a Ural city named Ekaterinberg. Arrived in 1993. To Rockville, Maryland. What else did she want to know?

But when she admitted she was not only Annie but Anait, her grandparents from Anatolia, he looked at her with new interest. “Thank God,” he said. “I thought you were another ditsy American rep. But you are Armenian. So you too know how to suffer.”

“Ha ha,” she said, lightly shaking free of it like fresh snow off a coat. I also know how to have a good time. It was amusing to watch this oaf of a man stamp around to music, his feet heavy like elephant paws, a gloomy semi-smile stamped below his potato of a nose.

“Suffering is my middle name!” she yelled over Beyoncé. They laughed together, and for the first time since the wedding, she felt truly herself. Up in the room, she had watched one news report after another of Hrant’s assassination, pictures of the smug kid being led away by smiling Turkish police. It was like lighting and relighting an extinguished wick.

“What the fuck, Annie?” her boss Linda said behind her. Linda’s own satin blouse was wrinkled and untucked, one pearl earring missing. She whispered, “We’re all trashed here, but just try to keep it together as best you can.”

“My fucking brother back from Afghanistan in a body bag,” the Russian said in his room afterwards, and then with a single motion, like a toreador, slid her sheath dress up from knee to over her head, released her from her bra and granny panties. He lingered on the soft mound of belly. “Your skin is like the plums I used to love in childhood, because they were so rare and cost a fortune. On my birthday— and who knew what she sold to acquire it?— one would appear, as if by magic, from my grandmother’s pocket. Soft and sticky, the pit bittersweet. Until you, I think I will never taste such plum again.” This was the longest sentence he uttered before or since, but she did not know that then.

“You can’t fool me—you probably use that plum line with all the ladies.” She is straddling him, surprised at the strength of her thighs, holding this big body in a mountain vise. Ron was long and lean and she had liked that too.

“No,” he said seriously. “I can see that I’m in trouble with you.” He said something else but her hair muffled his mouth; her eyes shut with feverish concentration and she never did hear the rest.

She drives to a neighboring town, tries the Russian from a pay phone outside of a convenience store. Men are carrying packs of water bottles in their arms, dropping them into the coffins of cars. They brace against the wind with rooted feet, hands thrust deep in pockets. For the first time, her call goes straight to the Russian’s voice mail. “Don’t you dare do it,” she says. “No, I said no.”

On the way home, the streetlights are busted and she is forced to crawl cautiously across slick ice, nervously looking around her.

The creature looks chalky, like a vampire out of a black and white German film. Amazing, she thinks, staring at the ultrasound image. A baby this early already leaping around. First on its stomach, then its side, doing ghostly aerobics on the screen. She had not felt a thing and yet, there it is moving. Ron gazes lovelorn at the monitor. But then a new fear grips her: what stories would she tell this child? Would she keep him or her innocent or fulfill her duty? Would she keep death far away or confront it?

“Why can’t we be happy? So far everything’s going perfectly” Ron replies, smiling, when she articulates her thoughts. “Maybe we celebrate the first birthday before we tell the kid about death.”

Outside, the snow, three weeks thawed now, still leaves the streets raw and wet. “Very sensible solution,” she says, “I think that’s why I married you,” and gets into the car.

Recklessly, she calls the Russian from work. Into his voicemail, she says, “It’s over. You can pick up your phone again. Please call me back to confirm you got this. I’m freaking out over here.” On the other line, a doctor’s office cancels their lunch, and she tells the receptionist, “Fine! I don’t give a shit.”

Linda eyes her behind glass doors. Hormones, Annie will explain to her.

The Prefera OBs are small; even when the queasiness grips your entire upper body, you can swallow them with a single gulp.

And then, just as suddenly it is spring. Hydrangeas sprout green leaves, blueberry bushes blink their white-budded lashes. Ron packs for a Yosemite retreat, neatly stacking khakis, short-sleeve button downs and flashlights into a carry-on suitcase. She is hovering about him. Plane crashes, a lone assassin, just like the one on the Queens playground she read about, a rifle shot to the head as if he is a deer. So many potential scenarios. But he refuses to cancel.

“You worry way too much,” he says, and leaves her a week’s worth of meals in the refrigerator. She envies him this access to normalcy, the firm belief that nothing terrible could happen that day. At the airport, she kisses him and watches his gangly form disappear behind tinted doors. It is all going to be a-okay, she thinks. Even if he never acknowledged them, the Russian has received her many messages. They are a string of confessions saved digitally for eternity.

Yes, that is what she liked, the force of the Russian’s brutish anger. In her placid world, it was a seismic force that awakened in her the same deep desire. He could pin both of her hands in his, trap her, breathless, under his body. After a while, she convinced herself it was no affair if she had no say in it. Whatever it was happened to without her agency. She was tiny and helpless beside him, the hotel rooms all beige with striped curtains and blank skylines and watercolors of eagles or peacocks.

Afterwards, he ordered huge, tasteless meals, meat with bones still in them, cheesy potatoes. Their conversations mimicked his terse style of engagement, even as she tried prying more biographical details from his life. As an example, she tried telling him about her own fairly tense childhood, what little she knew of her family history, the few times her parents regaled her with what they called Turkish atrocities and she had been patient enough to listen. Usually, he stopped her with his mouth on her breast. If he said anything it was, “I think we already understand each other.”

After a while he did reveal something of himself. He has three children. His wife is a good woman but he has not touched her for years. There have been other lovers, but what drew him to Annie was primal, necessary. His favorite dessert is baklava.

She calls Ron twice a day. He regrets not insisting she come along. The plunging valleys, the sequoias, dogwood and poppies, and waterfalls. Still cold in early May, but just standing there and staring at the primordial landscape twists our confined world back into perspective. It is like Eden, he rhapsodizes, a pure foundation. When you are in it, you forget wars exist, not to mention pollution and illness and the Internet.

“I get it,” she laughs, just relieved he has not been shot like a deer.

“I just wish you could see this,” he says. “I think it would really make a big impact on you. Infuse a little joy.”

But then he has to dress for dinner, and her mother is on the other line anyway telling her that she better not Americanize the baby’s name. You have responsibility, she says. If it’s a boy, what’s wrong with Armen? A beautiful, proud name, her great-grandfather’s. To pay tribute to him, after what he’d undergone, would be no small thing.

As her nausea subsides, she takes renewed enthusiasm in her work. Now that she has a personal interest in the vitamins, the doctors appreciate her vivacious presentation. Despite budget cuts and industry-wide changes—they are no longer allowed to dispense pads and pens with their logo—she still prides herself on bringing the tastiest lunches, sushi or mezes from a nearby Turkish restaurant. She and the doctors tuck in together with their plastic forks, downing eggplant salad with Diet Coke.

At the end of the lunch, when she senses the irritation of the patients in the waiting room, she discretely pulls out the row of vitamins. “Believe me I know. Doctors can forget that pregnancy is hard enough without choking on horse pills.” Linda is pleased with the uptick in prescriptions; a bonus is promised.

When Ron returns from his trip, she takes him to St. Thomas, a church she has attended no more than twice since moving East. When the Akh’tamar Dance Ensemble performs, a row of seven-year-old girls in their white robes and hip-length braids, Ron’s hand instinctively shoots to her belly. “After rehearsal,” he whispers, “we’ll drop our Jewish-Armenian-Italian princess off at my grandmother’s for her killer whitefish and then over to my mom’s for spumoni.”

“Good plan,” she says, finding now that her fear is subsiding, she is starving again. They opt for Italian for dinner; privately, she wants to immerse in the most burden-free of the three cultures in store for her child.

The doctor is in his mid-sixties, Turkish, and when he sees her (they always know. Is it her nose? What if her child inherits the nose?), his face changes. “I’m sorry but we have less time than I thought.” He pushes the food away, crosses his legs. When the phone rings, he takes the call.

“Yes, but isn’t the co-pay with this vitamin very high,” he says when he hangs up, directing his attention solely on the pills.

She admits that on some insurance plans, it can be as much as fifty dollars.

“Well that’s ridiculous,” the doctor says. “I just tell them that children’s Flintstones are good enough. Are we done here?” The tray of sushi she brought remains on his table untouched, the plastic sheathing not even raised. She takes her box of samples and overturns them onto his lap. Just like that: like a purple water fall.

They are both standing now on either side of his desk. She notices that his surface is filled with toys and paperweights—the orange cone of a lava lamp, a row of silver balls dangling from a string, a rubber giraffe. She shoves the pills back into their boxes, aware that she will have to rearrange them neatly later. Her face is red, her blouse damp with perspiration.

“Get the hell out,” he says.

Trembling, she circles his cul-de-sac, and drives the unfamiliar streets of this town until she pulls onto its main street. The sidewalks are full of people in the midst of errands but none of them appear to be together. Solitary people darting from storefront to park to café. A few sleeping babies in strollers that seem to be disconnected from the hands that impel them forward. The instinct to destroy them all threatens to overwhelm her. She double parks in front of the pay phone, turns on her hazards. On the clipped recording, the Russian is just saying his name.

The flare is already settling into a dull rattle in her chest. She feels poised for combat. For twenty-eight years she had elided it, but you could not shirk responsibility forever. She owed.

The police are waiting at the house, and when she sees the men leap out of the car, she feels everything round and healthy in her wither and collapse. She finds she cannot walk to them, her driver door still open, car running. The rush hour is at its peak and cars continue to speed by her. The officers drag her off the street, and she hears something like, “An accident” and “Don’t worry, we’ll find the prick who ran.”

She tries to speak, to confess. She pulls her wrists together and hopes that the officer will cuff her with a single hand until she is rendered harmless. “Go,” she says, angry now. “Go ahead and do it.”

They look at her with pity, one of them, she is pretty sure, is Irish. “Donnelly,” it says on his tag.

This Donnelly is so tall, he is blocking the fading sun. She cannot make out any features besides two slits for eyes, a triangle of growth beneath his lip. His shadow says to her, “If it wasn’t for identification. Especially in your condition. But I just want to warn you about the blood.”

On the way to the morgue, the smudged blur of the highway in the window, she does not think of Ron’s body mangled in the street or the Russian cool and deliberate behind the wheel. She can, however, make out the face of her mother, her flawless olive skin, framed by those unruly graying curls, the nose identical to her own. Now you see, Anait, her mother tells her kindly. There is no accusation in her voice, no menace, just enveloping love. Now you have learned who you are.

Irina Reyn is the author of the novel What Happened to Anna K. Visit her website here.

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