Madison had warned her.
Nonetheless Parker was now living with Alex, a recent Russian immigrant she’d met during the Q-and-A following an academic presentation of a Russian gangster movie. She was drawn to his old-world manners and his desire for success, as if he couldn’t wait for anything, not for the assimilation he’d accelerated by adopting an American name, not for money, clothes, cars, and it later seemed surprising that he’d been at the movie at all. He didn’t have time for movies once they’d started seeing one another, and despite those warnings from Madison, among others, Parker had moved in with him at the beginning of her senior year while continuing to pay for her half of Madison’s room in the Ivory Tower, a room to which she would return any time her parents came into town, as she had done while living with Adrian, another restless soul whom Madison had also not truly accepted until she’d realized the depth of Parker’s affection.
Alex didn’t have time for movies, because there were no opportunities for the personal connections that he could make at the Russian restaurants, whose New York ethnicity felt almost a part of The Sopranos or Goodfellas and where he would slip into the kitchen to talk to the cooks, the dishwashers, anyone who might have that spark, who might get him a deal on the meal he was about to order or know someone who knew someone who could get him a job better than the construction he was currently working or just slap him on the back and hug him like a brother who was raised in the same village outside of Moscow. Perhaps it was Alex’s nature or it may’ve come from his childhood in the disintegrating Soviet Union, where nothing was certain but these personal bonds, but he firmly believed in the power of the handshake and being able to look a man in the eye for the tiny advantages that would bring incrementally closer whatever was his vision for the future. Parker didn’t know what this future might be and whether it included herself in the house with the picket fence (if that’s what it was), because Alex never seemed to have the time to talk about what Parker suspected was inchoate in his own mind, developing as he saw the possibilities, the billboards on the subway, the pictures in the magazines Parker occasionally brought home from the grocery store when the impulse to cook would strike her and she’d spread out her cookbooks and work their few pots and the stove for an afternoon, making so much food that, perhaps, she believed Alex would be able to stop pushing, stop striving for a moment to enjoy what they so bountifully already had and which would slow him for a few hours but would never keep him around long enough for all of the food to be consumed without spoiling. He just couldn’t stop. He couldn’t stay when there were opportunities, people, money to be made from even a fresh immigrant’s throwaway shock for how much more expensive Mercedes-Benzes were in America.
As fall progressed and he gave up construction for delivery then abandoned that for a job waiting tables, Alex held onto the idea that a single Mercedes—an investment of thirty thousand dollars made in Germany—could bring an additional five as soon as the car was unloaded from the boat in New York. Parker was busy with several seminars and working on her senior thesis in English, a subject she’d taken up with almost no preparation after two years of desultory electives, thus kept a book nearby, ready to pick up whenever Alex’s phone rang and invited him into a nearly incomprehensible flow of Russian slang that was broken exclusively by his hearty laughter. Sometimes Parker would listen and try to separate the individual words, troubling over whether various consonants were prefixes or prepositions, then relax into a plucking of the occasional meaning from the stream, getting the gist of the conversation without any true understanding. Alex would smile and make funny faces, as if the single discussion about business or an odd job or a get-together over a bottle of vodka were never enough, but although her studious attention would eventually crumble into a smile and laughter, she still saw the slow solidification of his dream of importing a Mercedes. She often heard the words for car (mashina), Mercedes, Euro (yevrah), and the various declensions and synonyms for money (denig, dengee), and when they were settling down for dinner in Domashniy, the nearby Russian restaurant where Alex worked and they, exotically, called him Sasha, and which must’ve felt like home, with his choosing to eat there on his off days or inviting her to meet him there after his shifts so that she could eat with this new family, whose foreign, boisterous conversation slid from the mixture of Russian and English they used for work into the comfortable Russian she could sometimes understand but which made her so tired with the concentrating on the quick, lively speech of the pretty hostess Yelena, the monotonous delivery of the dishwasher Dima (whose heavy-lidded sullenness frightened Parker and made her think, despite herself, that he was in the Mafia), the friendly words that became slower and clearer when the cook Misha spoke to her directly, and the babble of the others that overlapped, repeated, yet occasionally gave up an image or concept before moving, churning, flowing onto another topic, he would draw her into his excitement by telling her that he had some ideas, some prospects, without ever going into any details, either through a desire to protect her from worry or because of his traditional beliefs in the separation between the male world and the female. Still, she knew what was happening, as she would’ve known even had she been unable to speak a word of Russian. She watched him when he greeted men—always men—at their tables, when he talked on his cell. She watched his expressive round face. She observed his small mouth, his flashing blue eyes. She could see the excitement of the adventure and, through it, the persistent worry. She knew that all of his conversations eventually touched on the scheme, as if there were nothing more to Alex’s desire than bringing that car—or had it become two? three in his grandiose plans?—to America and the buyers who would pay the profit directly into his pocket.
She was preparing her presentation on Pale Fire and had taken to sleeping in the Ivory Tower in order to be closer to her classes when the financing came together and the cars were finally loaded onto a ship in Germany. She missed the night he spent drinking vodka with his fellow investors, Misha and Dima and others she would’ve known from Domashniy, small time businessmen, waiters and busboys with an extra few dollars, all of them hoping to make a killing, caught up in Alex’s enthusiasm for America and its possibilities of infinite wealth but actually investing not because they believed in America but because they believed in him. When she returned to the apartment, flushed with the success of her own presentation, he told her of the progress, his spirits dimmed slightly by his hangover, and he insisted they open another bottle. He could already feel the money in his hand, he said, gesturing with the ends of his fingers, a shot glass gripped in his fist. In his excitement over five thousand or even ten thousand dollars, a sum that seemed so minuscule when she considered all of his work, all of his arranging, she could see how the idea had become bigger than it was through the excitement of its realization. The money—a pack or two of hundreds, no more than could be tucked into a jacket pocket and not even enough to buy one of the discounted cars he was bringing into the country—had come to feel infinite and yet it was also, for Alex, an end in itself. He still had no plans beyond this one, no dreams that he shared with Parker that involved them going on a trip, him quitting his job at Domashniy; he had no desires beyond buying a drink for everyone in the restaurant and having enough left over to finance the next deal. They drank a few rounds, despite the early afternoon hour, and she felt his joy in seeing the life in what had once been merely an idea.
Where the celebration and the implied success should’ve brought a certain level of relaxation, Alex only slowed for several days, a length that could’ve been taken as inconsequential in the vicissitudes of life, before his agitation at the process—the cars still somewhere in Germany, the delay with the boat, all problems that Parker picked up through the differences in Russian case endings, subtle changes in the words that were repeated so often even she could notice their transformation—sent him back to his friends, drinking this time, Parker presumed, because victory was so close. Fall was getting on, and although there hadn’t yet been the first snow, the temperature had been cold enough to support it. Mostly there’d been rain, varicolored leaves clogging the drains, causing large puddles that had ruined one of her good pairs of shoes, and she had taken a day to cook, hoping to provide a retardation of Alex’s progressing agitation and smooth the tightness that was too often restricting his expressive face. She’d told him he could invite Misha and Yelena, who he’d mentioned were now seeing one another, Misha talking incessantly about Yelena’s pretty feet and making any excuse to come out of the kitchen—to check on the customers, to satisfy a disgruntled diner, anything—in order to see his beloved and maybe say a few words, a story that lit Alex’s face with the romance of the telling and flooded Parker with affection for this lovely man. She thought fondly of having the enthralled Misha and chatty Yelena in their home and offered to get Madison and maybe someone else from school, but Alex thought they needed some time to themselves, and over the glass of vodka that was becoming more and more an extension of his hand, as they entered their third week since Alex’s unreliable friend in Bremerhaven had said that the cars—Parker now knew definitively there were more than one—were loaded onto the ship for the States, he confessed, drunkenly, late in the evening as this was, after they’d already consumed her meatballs and spaghetti, salad, a loaf of crunchy garlic bread, a bottle of red wine, and a half bottle of vodka, that should the cars not arrive, he would be finished—“Finishèd,” he repeated, pronouncing a third syllable, and didn’t say more, as if further reticence would make up for all the leaks and drips from his man’s world into hers, and Parker comforted him by saying that she could cover the rent, that he didn’t have to worry, this was an adventure and he had his waiter job, that they would come through, that it was all good.
Whether because the reassurances came from a woman or because they came from Parker with her limited knowledge of the situation or because Alex simply wasn’t predisposed to accept reassurances when his whole being was consumed in the realization of this idea, his agitation returned the next day with such roughness that his telephone voice first assumed a strange tone then nearly disappeared during an anxious, unpleasant weekend in which he tried not to answer his cell at all and which finally forced Parker into the Ivory Tower, where she hoped she would be alone for a few days, Madison off with her sorority sisters, but where, at the very least, she wouldn’t have to hear the frustrated sounds of a garrulous soul suddenly silenced and could read and write and get ahead on her studies. She told herself that she had to remember her schoolwork and that Alex would be fine, but she didn’t like the feeling of having abandoned him, which dogged her on the subway and which returned when Madison found her sprawled on her erstwhile bed, a pillow tucked behind her, a pencil in one hand, Disgrace spread open between thumb and pinky in the other, and said, “You don’t look so good. Trouble with Alex?” Parker put down her book long enough to say that he was driving her crazy and she needed a break, a response to which Madison smiled knowingly and said, “It never works out, does it?” Parker knew this was an invitation to ask what she meant, and she suspected this was an opportunity to ask about Madison’s own love life, an opportunity she knew she should refuse if she wanted to get any work done, so raised Disgrace and continued to read about David Lurie’s inquisition before the ethics committee while Madison changed out of her running clothes then went to take a shower.
While she was in class Parker got the message, which she should have long expected, that there was a problem with customs and Alex was going over to Jersey to see to the situation personally. Nonetheless, with the imminence of Alex’s victory cleansing her of any feelings of guilt for leaving him these last few days, she headed home for the celebration that was sure to begin with champagne at the port and be carried back to Domashniy then conclude in all of its drunken glory at their apartment. She thought she might cook something, remembered on the subway that they would eat at the restaurant, considered going there herself for the wait, then decided she could stop by a nearby bodega and put together a few appetizers from crackers and cheese and the pickled mushrooms she knew Alex and the other Russians so enjoyed. She picked up a few other things, and she sashayed, singing along with the stereo for their coming happiness as she rolled little hamburgers and fried the tiny patties in the skillet. The idea of a vacation took form in the back of her mind, behind the immediacy and occupation of her cooking, and would sometimes emerge in the image of a beach with an umbrella leaning over them and matching the smaller ones in their drinks, and she could imagine its warmth, so like the heat coming off the skillet, pleasantly baking their deliciously naked bodies and bringing some color to the pale, haggard Alex, whom she thought must still be entangled with the customs agents or surely he would’ve called—or perhaps he might’ve gotten swept up in the excitement of his friends and been carried to Domashniy in the first bubbly drunkenness of the evening.
She kicked the dirty clothes into the closet and arranged the zakusku on plates that she put on the coffee table along with a stack of little saucers she first had to wash then dry but which she thought would be better than cocktail napkins. She’d eaten a slider or two while working over the stove but kept herself from the mushrooms and the rest until she could have a sip of the vodka Alex was sure to bring whenever he came home—which should’ve been by now. At least he should’ve called to relieve the worry that had buzzed at the edge of her consciousness until the satisfaction at all she had prepared assuaged some of her agitation and let her anxiety recede before the slow approach of the sleep she first fought with a cup of coffee and a popular novel then allowed—but only after leaving a message on his phone and briefly waking with worry over the unacknowledged implication in his not answering—to take her right on the couch, right in front of the zakuska, because there she would wake at the sound of the key in the lock and be ready to hostess as soon as the door opened with Misha and Yelena, Dima and the others, priyatelee all, following Alex and his happiness.
Some internal change of consciousness, perhaps a sudden awareness that Alex was dangerously late, opened her eyes without waking her body, and her mind, clever in its desire to return to its dreams, explained that Alex was at Domashniy and had simply forgotten her, as he sometimes did when he started drinking with his friends. She relaxed and rubbed her neck, which had been awkwardly twisted by the arm of the couch, before stumbling under the weight of her somnolence, clipping the coffee table and jostling the plates of zakuskee, into the bathroom to relieve herself then into the bedroom, where she collapsed onto the bed fully clothed.
Her neck was still tight and uncomfortable in the morning, when, after calling Alex and getting only his voicemail, she untwisted her tights and smoothed out the dress that was wrinkled with sleep, put on her coat, and walked over to Domashniy, thinking not that she would find him asleep at one of the tables, bottles spread around him and his friends, but that one of the morning crew, one of his priyatelyev, would know where the party had gone once Domashniy had closed for the night and where Parker would certainly walk in on Alex, possibly still drinking with his friends, possibly passed out with his arm around a samiy verniy drook, and where she and her unwelcome sobriety would stay just long enough to have a drink and hear the story of their success. In the alley behind Domashniy, Parker was disquieted not to see, among the workers she recognized without knowing their names, the heavy, brooding Dima, whose absence she hoped didn’t mean he was with Alex, but she smiled when she saw the bleary-eyed Misha, overseeing the delivery of crates of root vegetables and greens. She spoke to him in Russian, naturally calling Alex, “Sasha”, and Misha said slowly and clearly that he hadn’t seen him, didn’t know where he was, and brought her inside, where the sound of his voice was enough to bring out the pretty Yelena who blushed when she saw Parker before offering an unusually quiet privyet and disappearing again into the back. Parker had always liked the romantic story of Yelena and Misha and was sorry to see the young woman go so quickly, but after pouring an unwanted drink at the bar, Misha sat Parker at a table where he placed the drinks before them and suggested that Sasha had returned to Russia for reasons that remained obfuscated in his Russian or in the trip itself. Unsure how to respond, Parker politely joined Misha for the one strong drink, smiled instinctively, and excused herself, thanking him for the tip that, she would realize on the chilly, heady walk home, was antithetical to everything she knew about Alex and the importance of the plans which should have been coming together at that very moment in some customs warehouse, a possibility that seemed ridiculous when she considered that any confusion of the paperwork would be sorted out by some bureaucrat sitting in some office at some nine-to-five job somewhere and wouldn’t require any overnight vigilance by her boyfriend.
As she waited for his call while sitting in front of the television, unconsciously consuming cold zakuskee until she reached out for another tiny burger and looked down to find the plate empty, the worry that had awoken her the night before and had been at the brink of her consciousness, always buzzing around his activities like the very bees of business, became more insistent that he hadn’t left the old-country ways of doing things, whereby a connection, a vzyatka would expedite the process and make the impossible possible. Alex’s eagerness for everything American was too great to allow Parker to believe that he had gone back to Russia without a clearly defined plan for his return, and with the television now off so she could think, she wondered if the implication of the expeditious departure in Misha’s explanation were calculated to provide a distraction from a more likely—a more American—reason for a man to be gone overnight without the confidence of his girlfriend. Parker could see how easily Alex could slip away from his job—where were he and Dima that morning? she began then remembered that they would come in later, closer to when the restaurant would open—and she knew that there was a constant stream of people through the restaurant. Any of the Russian daughters or sisters or ex-girlfriends would see immediately that Alex with his friendliness and English and drive would be successful in America. He would be a prize for their desperation. Had she not heard of the Russian brides, the women so desperate for American success that they would enter into a marriage bridegroom-unseen? And with the accumulation of possibilities, the Russian phone calls that could have been as easily about assignations as about the “delayed” cars, the expressions of worry that could’ve been over an unplanned pregnancy, a difficulty in that other relationship, a girlfriend’s threat to come see Parker, the odds of one of them being true increased until Parker was certain that Misha, in the loyalty that probably ran through Domashniy as if it really were a family, tying the workers together with an unquestionable bond whose severing would be tantamount to treason, was covering for his friend.
She retrieved from the tall jar a pickled mushroom whose flavor she could enjoy only in its contrast to vodka but which she now ate as a physical distraction from the thoughts about Alex, who, she could now see, desired adventure not only in his business dealings but in his romantic life as well, and she decided she was not going to allow one day to bleed into the next while she waited for him to finagle some excuse. Restraining her voice with a reminder that this was all speculation, she called him again, and when her call went directly to voicemail, she wanted to throw the phone in frustration at the certainty that he and his moll were in Atlantic City, that glistering attraction for all of New York’s provincial minds, then decided she would look further afield.
Adrian was out in California, probably in Silicon Valley, and it would still be a sunny afternoon, almost a summer day in the middle of a drizzly, chilly winter. They would catch up on old times, their relationship now seeming idyllic compared to this immediate waiting, and she thought she might invite herself out West for a Thanksgiving of whatever vegetarian things Adrian might be cooking without any products from factory farms, an industry against which, in his Elven days, he’d begun to protest, as he always protested, living his life for some meaning other than the immediate, selfish gratification of adventure. She no longer cared if—or when—Alex returned, but Adrian didn’t answer the phone that rang and rang without going to voicemail, which was extremely odd, even unsettling against the backdrop of Alex’s disappearance from all cellphone reception or contact. Parker could not understand how a phone could continue to ring without going to voicemail, because she was sure that Adrian had a cell, which, as part of the service-provider package, would include voicemail, configured or no, and this distraction prompted a further curiosity she hoped to contain with a quick search of the internet, for Adrian might not have even been in Silicon Valley, so long ago had they last talked and so restive did he become, twice having gone off (“hopped a train,” he’d later said enigmatically, covering for what was certainly a mission of ecotage) and twice returned, that she could as well believe him in Central America, following after some idealization of Che Guevara, or in Asia, protesting human rights abuses in China or commercial whaling in Japan, as in the contiguous 48. She tried the several search engines, varying Adrian’s name, adding details such as “Silicon Valley,” “ELF,” or “Earth Liberation Front,” while glancing periodically at her phone, which she would will Alex to call before returning to her search for Adrian, who seemed to have disappeared as completely as Alex had into the port of New Jersey, for she knew, with the certainty of a lover, of a beloved, of one who had seen the fear in his eyes when he’d mentioned the deal’s falling through, that he was, despite whatever Misha had said, involved in something out at the port.
Or was he? She had cooked and eaten and slept and distracted herself with Adrian, because she hadn’t wanted to face the truth of Alex’s disappearance, of the patently fabricated story Misha had told as his simple way of instructing her to forget Sasha and not to dig into the story Alex had been telling and which could be seen, now that she had opened herself to the possibility that everything was a deception, as a misdirection of its own. She knew at that moment that what Misha had told her was all the explanation she would get and that either Alex had gone back to Russia or he hadn’t, but it didn’t matter because she would never see him again. The murderous realization was almost too much, and, trying not to rush, but feeling the inevitable momentum of a barely contained fear, she collected the books and papers she would need for the rest of the semester into her bag. She looked into the closet and reminded herself that she could simply borrow some of Madison’s clothes then snatched two pairs of shoes, donned her coat, and left the apartment.
On the subway back to the Ivory Tower, staring into the window, seeing the reflection of her own red hair and the half-empty car behind her then the sudden, screeching light and depth of a station, she thought that she was being a coward, overreacting to the stereotypes she’d seen in the movies about the natives’ fear of whatever immigrant was most recently arrived then wondering sardonically if this was the America Alex and all those Russian brides so wanted to join. At several stations, she almost disembarked and caught the train back to their apartment, if only to prove that she wasn’t prejudiced, that she believed in Alex and his assimilation into the laws and mores of his adopted country. She could not do it, however, and she felt a weakness of principle when she thought, through Adrian’s lingering influence, how he would return, no matter the consequences, then how she wished she could talk to him, because he would know about this kind of thing, having been hunted by the ecoterrorists before his transformation—however he’d effected that—into whatever mysterious, secret, unknown-to-the-internet role he was playing out in California, if that was even where he was.
With Madison off with her sorority sisters, Parker had the room to herself, and although she knew her phone would wake her, back in the reasonable, mundane world of the Ivory Tower, she was aware that there was an ever-increasing possibility that there would be no call—by now Alex was gone to Russia, should Misha’s story, in yet another twist, actually be true. But he was more probably dead, and she doubted Dima or Misha would phone; any bad news she would have to find out on her own, and the protective, insular society of Domashniy would keep her even from that. She fell into a depressive’s restive sleep. She didn’t dream but struggled with a violent furling of her pajamas before sleepily removing them to the floor, where they were later joined by the blankets kicked off in her restlessness. With the chill of the night, her body reflexively tried to make do with fœtal shivering before she woke enough to retrieve the blankets, also pulling her pajama bottoms and an additional shirt into a mêlée which eventually settled into the relaxation of sleep and forgetfulness she desired. She would barely allow herself to wake to go to the bathroom before returning to the warmth and security and oblivion of the bed. Even asleep, she was vaguely aware that she was missing her classes and falling behind on her reading, but the sounds of the dorm’s circadian cycles reassured her subconscious and kept her apprised of the outside world’s continuation such that when the phone finally did ring, she knew it was afternoon.
“At port, my phone ran out of battery,” Alex said, his English dull and fragmented with fatigue. “Sorry. I had to call to people to try to get money, to get help for me at the port.”
“I’m sorry.” She yawned quietly into the silence of disappointment for, perhaps, her not being home to greet him, and she had to overcome her own reluctance in order to ask about the cars. She tried to be gentle. “Where are the cars?”
“Yesho v portay!” A future of discomfiture was in the exclamation that they were still at the port, and Parker felt the snap of something that had long been straining in their relationship. They talked briefly, incidentally, his conversation still lifeless and tired, and she surprised herself by saying that she was going to try living in the Ivory Tower for a while. He resisted feebly. She still cared for him too much to tell him that she’d waited for him in the apartment for two days or that Domashniy had closed her off. It had closed him in, and perhaps that was all that mattered.