Marya called him my imaginary friend.  It became a joke between us that she’d never met Frederick, in all these years.  His work as General Counsel for Coca-Cola took him to far-flung places like Shanghai and Copenhagen, but somehow never to New York; and then as a State Senator, and after his Aunt Bette got sick and his wife Singleton began traveling more, he rarely left Georgia.

“You are returning immediately, then?”  Every once in a while, Marya’s Russian intonations came out, in a kind of overly formal speech.  Usually she would speak this way when she was nervous about something.

“Or I could stay overnight.  I’d like to see Gus at The Journal.”

“Which one is Gus?”

“News editor.  He’s Managing now.  God knows why.”

“The business side.”

“Such as it is.  It’s all Internet now.”

“But he is still there?”

“Still there.  He’s a lifer.  Or as long as they’ll have him.  I worry that he’s too old-fashioned.  He’ll date himself out of the news business, or they’ll stick him at the copy desk.  He likes ink on his fingers.  Big fat dictionaries, paper clips, that kind of thing.”

“He is old?”

“A few years older than me.”

“My age.  Old.”

“Yeah.”  She narrowed her eyes at me.  “My dear, you read too many fashion magazines.”

“I read no fashion magazines.”

“I know.  That’s the joke.”

“You’re funny?”

“Ruben thinks I’m funny.”

“Ruben needs funny.”

“Mm.”  Ruben’s wife had recently left him, for no apparent reason.  None that he cared to discuss anyway.  Lauren was 11 years younger, and a dancer; we—Marya and I—assumed that these two things had something to do with it.  We gave the moment its due. 

“You’ll miss my concert, then.”

“Shit.  That’s right.”

“S’okay.” She was folding laundry and waved her bumble-bee striped underwear at me.  Gifts from Russia, which she always made good use of, no matter the style, or quality for that matter.  “It won’t be good.”

“Why?”

“Maribel.”

“Her again?”

“Her again.”

“Damn her.”  This time she threw a hand towel at me, which landed on top of my head.  I let it sit there.

“Don’t damn people.  Who do you think you are?”

“You sound like my sister.”

“You look like a sheikh.”  I took the towel off and rubbed my bald head.  The stubble had started to grow back, faster on the sides than the back.  The top was of course smooth as a bowling ball.

“I’m just saying.  That Maribel and her squeaky C-notes.”

“What do you know about C-notes.  You know things, but not C-notes.” There was no arguing there.  Hannah got the piano lessons.  For my obstinate refusals, I got dish-washing.  “Your sister called.  Reminds me.  Last night.  You were sleeping already.” 

“Why does she always call so late?”

“Prayer meetings and Bible studies, almost every night.  She keeps inviting me.”

“Really?  Uh-oh.”

“What’s uh-oh.”

“I may have told her about your Orthodox days, in Russia.”  Again, waving things, this time socks.

“It’s not any secret.  But did you tell her about my renunciation days, too? Apostates are the worst kind…for conversion.  And Orthodox apostates.  ForGET aboudit.”  These were the moments—when she imitated New York-isms—when Marya’s foreign-ness was most on display.  I smiled, enjoying for an instant one of those pure, private pleasures.  It was all so incongruous—her Russian accent, her round Korean face and blunt page-boy’s hair cut, her Marty Marskowitz impression. She had no idea the joy it gave me, her unknowing surrender to the bizarre-comic moment while at the same time maintaining utter, almost passionate, devotion to the task at hand: folding the last pillow case.  Marya tended to laundry like little baby chicks; each item was precious, and needed to be cultivated for longevity.

“Well, not Hannah.  She’ll see it as a challenge.  Her own personal mission.  You’re in trouble, comrade.”

“Don’t call me comrade.  And don’t damn people.”

“So many rules.”

“Yes.”  She piled the laundry into a tower which she lifted and carried, like a circus performer with a stack of plates, into the bedroom closet—our one closet in the whole apartment, almost as big as the room itself.  When she came back, I was lying on the bed, propped up on pillows, paging through The Economist but not really taking anything in.  I was thinking about Frederick.  “Sebastian.”  I looked up.  She was kneeling on the bed and inching toward me on all fours.  When she reached me, she plopped her head in my lap and collapsed into a pile, something like one of her yoga poses but all twisted up.  The exuberant militancy of moments before had dissipated, and I knew what was coming.  The subject matter, anyway.  I felt my body tense up, all the blood rushing to a hole in my chest, a vise tightening at the nape of my neck.

“I am going to see the doctor,” she said.

“Okay,” I said.

“I have an appointment.”

“Okay.”

“For tests.  A few different tests.”

“Okay.”

“I am forty-three years old.”

“Almost.”

“I told Hannah.  I asked Hannah to pray for us.”

“You did what?”  I wanted to sit up, but I couldn’t; neither of us moved.

“I’m sorry.  I did.  That’s how bad…”  Her voice was beginning to shake.

“Okay,” I said.  “It’s okay.  She’s going to pray anyway, might as well pray for something worthwhile.”  She lay there breathing deeply, to calm herself, trembling on the inhale like a struggling car battery about to give out.  She continued to breathe out the shakes for what felt like many many minutes.  I stared at the ceiling until I felt all her weight settle on me, a boulder in my lap, and waited a few more minutes until she twitched into sleep.  Only then did my neck and chest release me, and I breathed again.   

 

Marya and I met in, of all places, an airport lounge.  I’d finally racked up the miles I needed for lounge access, and it was about time.  I spent so many hours in airports in those days, my third year doing international reporting for The Times; a little comfort went a long way.  My flight to Moscow had been delayed, so I settled in to a cushy leather recliner and thumbed through my advanced Russian language textbook—an ancient paperback edition from senior year at Cherrywood, well-worn with markings and dog-ears all throughout, not to mention coffee and spaghetti sauce stains.  That thing was my Bible back then—me and Frederick both.        

I noticed her right away.  We were the only Asians in the room; and you always notice, even if peripherally, below the conscious level.  She was standing by the wall of picture windows, the light of dusk in high summer casting thin, angled shadows across her face.  She dipped her chin into her chest, index finger pressed into an ear, talking on the phone.  From where I sat, which was not very far from her, she seemed tiny, doll-like—as if the perspective in the room had shifted, the floors tilted and the walls flared into trapezoidal madness, like a fun house or a science center exhibit. She didn’t speak loudly, but her voice was low and husky, so it carried, even over the wall-to-wall carpet.  I found myself staring, and listening.  Everything about her clashed, in a way that struck me as so wonderfully intentional on the part of whatever or whomever had made her—her petite stature, mannish voice, shiny black pageboy, snug pencil skirt and cheap spike-heel leather boots. No makeup or jewelry. Frilly sheer blouse cut high around the neck but cropped at the sleeves just over the shoulder bones, revealing her thick, shapely arms.  She seemed to me neither boy nor woman, child nor adult, Eastern nor Western—and I couldn’t take my eyes off her.  Neither could I make out what she was saying, but I could see that she spoke with intent and insistence, and I knew, I was almost certain, of the language; she spoke Russian.

When she finished her conversation, pressed END on her phone, she held it out in front of her for a moment, boring into it like a live thing, like an opponent.  I thought I saw her shake her head at it, at whomever she’d just ENDed. She flipped the phone shut, looked at her watch, scanned the room.  Waking from my trance, knowing somehow that this was my moment—for what, I clearly hadn’t thought through—I did something I couldn’t myself believe I was doing, even as I was doing it.  I smiled a goofy smile, wide to the gums, and held up my textbook, pointing to it.  She squinted to make out the cover, looked at my grinning face, then back to the cover, then widened and rolled her eyes (weirdo) as she pivoted to walk in the other direction.  

And then it happened.  Her spike-heel caught on a carpet thread, and down she went, knees first, then palms on wrists.   It all happened quickly and silently, she being so small and close to the ground; but then I heard an “Ow!” from across the room.  Her phone must have flown out of her hand and hit someone.

The flight—our flight—was delayed an additional hour, at least. I bought her a drink, we had time.  

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