Panic in a Suitcase

( 2 )


A dazzling debut novel about a Russian immigrant family living in Brooklyn and their struggle to learn the new rules of the American Dream.

In this account of two decades in the life of an immigrant household, the fall of communism and the rise of globalization are artfully reflected in the experience of a single family. Ironies, subtle and glaring, are revealed: the Nasmertovs left Odessa for Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, with a huge sense of finality, only to find that the divide ...

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Panic in a Suitcase

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A dazzling debut novel about a Russian immigrant family living in Brooklyn and their struggle to learn the new rules of the American Dream.

In this account of two decades in the life of an immigrant household, the fall of communism and the rise of globalization are artfully reflected in the experience of a single family. Ironies, subtle and glaring, are revealed: the Nasmertovs left Odessa for Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, with a huge sense of finality, only to find that the divide between the old world and the new is not nearly as clear-cut as they thought. The dissolution of the Soviet Union makes returning just a matter of a plane ticket, and the Russian-owned shops in their adopted neighborhood stock even the most obscure comforts of home. Pursuing the American Dream once meant giving up everything, but does the dream still work if the past is always within reach?

If the Nasmertov parents can afford only to look forward, learning the rules of aspiration, the family’s youngest, Frida, can only look back.

In striking, arresting prose loaded with fresh and inventive turns of phrase, Yelena Akhtiorskaya has written the first great novel of Brighton Beach: a searing portrait of hope and ambition, and a profound exploration of the power and limits of language itself, its ability to make connections across cultures and generations.

2015 Finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - John Williams
…brilliant and often funny…Though the book leans on autobiography…it has been transformed into the kind of fiction that is richer than real life. Whatever personal details she has marshaled have been charged with consistently imaginative language and great verve…Panic in a Suitcase is composed of leisurely episodes, but Ms. Akhtiorskaya's prose keeps the pace moving as quickly as any suspenseful plot could. On every page, she writes about people and things with close attention.
The New York Times Book Review - Karolina Waclawiak
Yelena Akhtiorskaya's impressive debut novel…[is a] beautifully drawn portrait of a splintered immigrant family…Akhtiorskaya layers the novel with equal parts humor and anxiety, and expertly highlights the unease of having one foot in and one foot out of the old country…The relationships Akhtiorskaya mines are fascinating and tender, her writing crisp and gorgeous in its ability to capture gnawing attempts to piece together an immigrant identity. Panic in a Suitcase is a rewarding biography of displacement, where those left behind are often as disconnected as those who flee for an elusive better life elsewhere.
Publishers Weekly
The Ukrainian Jewish family featured in this hilarious debut leaves Odessa for Brooklyn in 1991. They include renowned doctor Robert Nasmertov; his daughter, Marina; who finds work cleaning houses for wealthy American Jews; and her nine-year-old daughter, Frida. However, Robert’s son, Pasha, a brilliant poet but a totally incapable human being, never emigrates, visiting his family only occasionally. In 2008, the adult Frida goes to see him and discovers that he has become “more alienated and excluded in his native city than his family in their new land.” Akhtiorskaya’s take on how family members manipulate and fail each other is spot-on, with Pasha and Frida both disappointing their family in different ways: he converts to Christianity; she begins medical school but drops out. The prose is finely crafted, but this is not a tale of relatable people. Instead, Akhtiorskaya excels at humorous, slightly overstated character sketches, making each person uniquely absurd. Agent: Jim Rutman, Sterling Lord Literistic. (July)
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-06-05
Given current events, Akhtiorskaya’s debut—concerning an immigrant family’s ambivalent ties to America and those who choose to stay behind in Ukraine—could not be more timely.As the novel opens in 1993, Esther and Robert Nasmertov, once highly respected doctors in Odessa, have been settled for two years inthe Russian/Ukrainian Jewish enclave of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, wheretheir medical practices have dwindled and theystruggle with their own health problems. Living with them are their chunky, sullen 10-year-old granddaughter, Frida, her mother, Marina (the Nasmertovs' daughter), who cleans houses for wealthier Jews and eventually becomes a nurse, and her low-level computer-tech husband, Levik. Absent is Esther and Robert’s son, Pasha, an up-and-coming poet. A convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, he remains in Odessa with his wife and adolescent son. When Esther is diagnosed with cancer, Marina arranges for Pasha to visit. Akhtiorskaya’s set-piece descriptions of his monthlong stay—a family beach outing; a birthday weekend in a cramped lake cabin; a literary soiree—are drawn with sharp humor, telling character sketches and sensory flamboyance. Esther, Robert and Marina want Pasha, whom they all consider helpless and hapless, to stay in America where they can take care of him. Pasha is put off by what he sees as Brighton Beach’s second-rate version of Odessa, but he enjoys Manhattan's expat literary social life. Cut to 2008. Word comes to Brooklyn that Pasha’s son is engaged. Frida, thinner but still sullenly unhappy, decides to attend the wedding and receives a less-than-enthusiastic welcome to Odessa. Divorced and remarried to a woman he met in New York, Pasha has become a literary lion based on the work he published (and Frida never bothered to read) shortly after his visit to America 15 years ago. As Akhtiorskaya showed America through Pasha’s eyes, she now offers Frida’s vision of Crimea as chaotic, decrepit, yet enticingly surreal.Akhtiorskaya’s sideways humor allows rays of genuine emotion to filter through the social and domestic satire.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Yelena Akhtiorskaya's debut novel, Panic in a Suitcase, has numerous elements that might seem familiar to certain readers. At its center is the Nasmertov family, émigrés from Odessa to Brighton Beach. Pasha, the late-thirties son whose 1993 visit to New York opens the novel, is a poet; Esther and Robert, his parents, ponder life in their adopted country even as Esther struggles with cancer. What makes Panic in a Suitcase so memorable, then, is the way that it avoids the clichéd routes any of these elements could have prompted. Instead, this is a novel of family that remains true to its sometimes stubborn, sometimes endearing, and sometimes unknowable characters.

At the center of this is Pasha. Viewed from the perspective of his family, he seems an irresponsible figure, his refusal to join his family in the United States a source of constant frustration, his presence in writing circles out of sync with the rhythms of his parents and sister. There's also the matter of his conversion from Judaism to Christianity:

At twenty, he'd inflicted the injury. There has been the technicality of the process — an elaborate theater of spite, as Esther called it, convinced that every step of it was being done to undo her. The catechumen period had been auspiciously brief.
Pasha's fecklessness leads to the first of Akhtiorskaya's subtle yet powerful narrative shifts, as Robert encounters "the man from Cambridge," a translator with his eye on Pasha's work. This seems at first to be so disconnected from what's come before — Pasha himself has apparently forgotten the man's existence — that it seems likely that Robert has delusionally willed this man into being. (Shades, perhaps, of the patriarch in Franzen's The Corrections slowly losing his grip on reality.) Except that this turns out to be untrue: Pasha's work is, in fact, very highly regarded by a certain literary community. Suddenly, another dimension to him is revealed: while his frenetic traversals in the summer heat of New York City, from his family's home in Brighton Beach to cultural happenings in Manhattan and back again, seem like the travails of a clown, Pasha can't simply be reduced to the "comic hero" category. Self-effacing and nebulously poised between genius and fool, Pasha seems to reject the place of honor that being at the core of a novel with grand themes might confer.

And elude it he does, ultimately ceding his central role in the book to his niece, Frida, whose actions in the novel's second half echo Pasha's, without acting as an outright parallel or inverse. Akhtiorskaya accomplishes this transition out of the novel's first half and into the second via two seemingly disparate scenes; as the connection between the two is made, a sense of what has transpired is gradually revealed: exposition through inference.

In Panic's second half, Frida (and, to a lesser extent, her mother, Marina) take over, and what has befallen many of the characters is initially left implicit. Over a decade has passed. Frida is now in medical school; feeling a certain malaise, she embarks on a trip across the Atlantic to visit her uncle during her summer break. When Pasha re-enters the narrative, questions of his own artistic and personal trajectories over time are raised — notably, his place in his country's literary scene — and certain encounters that took place earlier in the novel are invested with new significance. Frida's trip to Odessa involves a number of culture- clash moments that are at once comic and deeply aware of the weight of history.
I know what Chernobyl was, said Frida with irritation, though when she said it, a fear shot through her that she'd be tested on the subject and fail horribly, like in a dream, mixing up Chernobyl with the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire or the Titanic.
Stock plot lines and canned situations are eluded here. This might have something to do with the novel's setting, both temporal and geographic. The Nasmertov family hails from Odessa; at the time that the novel opens, Pasha is considered a Russian poet. By its end, the question is raised as to whether he might better be described as a Ukrainian one, as Frida briefly considers becoming her uncle's biographer and runs down the often-contradictory facts of his life. Pasha's distance from his family's religion also prevents the narrative from occupying a familiar shape, as does his refusal to fill the role of expatriate writer that his family and peers seem determined to force him into.

Panic in a Suitcase ends with a long meditation on routine and apathy, on both the personal and cultural level. It ends with Pasha concluding that stagnation itself is futile: "With each passing year, his surroundings became less recognizable, he felt more and more uprooted. Constancy of habit didn't buffer against a city, a society, perhaps a whole culture in decay." It's clear by this point why Akhtiorskaya has chosen New York's mid-1990s and late 2000s as the particular moments in history for her novel. For all of the glorious eccentricities of her characters, the enduring message of this book is both deeply universal and faithful to the idiosyncrasies on display. "Several times in one's life, a good sobering was required," Akhtiorskaya writes towards the novel's end, and the story that's come before fills that purpose memorably, with humor and catharsis in abundance.

Reviewer: Tobias Carroll

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594632143
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/31/2014
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 82,246
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Yelena Akhtiorskaya was born in Odessa in 1985 and raised in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. She holds an MFA from Columbia University. She is the recipient of a Posen Fellowship in Fiction, and her writing has appeared in n+1, The New Republic, Triple Canopy, and elsewhere. She lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt




THE MORNING WAS IDEAL, a crime to waste it cooped up. They were off to the shore. That means you, too, Pasha—you need some color, a dunk would do you good, so would a stroll. Aren’t you curious to see Coney Island? Freud had been. Don’t deliberate till it’s too late. Strokes are known to make surprise appearances in the family. Who knows how long . . .? Now, get up off that couch!

Pasha had just flown in last night and didn’t feel well—achy joints, profuse sweating, a bout of tachycardia. It was as if his family could hear the roar of blood in his ears and tried to shout over it. A sum total of fourteen hours strapped into an aisle seat near the gurgling lavatory of a dented, gasoline-reeking airplane, two layovers, and a night spent in the stiff embrace of a plastic bench in the Kiev airport would’ve been tough on any constitution, and Pasha didn’t have just any constitution but that of a poet—sickly from the outset, the dysfunction lying in the vital organs (heart, lungs), nose and ears disproportionately large for the head, head abnormally large for the body, premature stains under the eyes, spooky immobility of gaze, vermicelli limbs, metabolic peculiarities. If he’d been smart, he would’ve been born at least half a century earlier into a noble family and spent his adult life hopping between tiny Swiss Alp towns and lakeside sanatoria, soaking in bathhouses and natural springs, rubbing thighs with steamy neurotics, taking aimless strolls with the assistance of a branch, corrupting tubercular maidens, composing spirited if long-winded letters to those with this-world cares, letters that would seem to emerge from a time vacuum, with epigrammatic morsels of wisdom and nature descriptions of the breathtaking but exasperating sort.

Instead Pasha was born in 1956 to a family whose nobility was strictly of spirit. A dusty courtyard was the extent of his interactions with nature, a branch of assistance only in fending off feral dogs. He rode trams, avoided doctors. Correspondences, if initiated, fell by the wayside before long. He grew to be unreasonably tall (a result of too many parsnips—that must’ve been it, since he never touched a carrot or a potato), though it would’ve been better were he small and compact, considering the quality of motor control he exercised. His figure moved precariously along the street. There were hovels, abandoned or rustling with elderly squatters, that proceeded to stand while promising to collapse with the next gust. They were plenty on the outskirts of Odessa, but even in the city center there was one on most blocks. They no longer struck the eye as a single entity—a house—but as a pile of boards, bent, twisted, leaning; a heap, rubble, cats. Pasha’s skeletal structure was a bit like that. Prophets are not meant to be healthy, wrote Brodsky, who suffered his first myocardial infarction at the age of thirty-six. At least he’d had broad shoulders. A poet must be feeble, ugly, somehow at a physical disadvantage; if not born that way, he’d promptly get to work on his disintegration by way of alcohol, cigarettes, insomnia, depression. Pasha didn’t have to put in the effort. His time could be spent on other endeavors.

Pasha’s physique resembled Odessa’s habitations but not its inhabitants, who were built well (no complaints there). They were tall but not beyond their means, spry and sinewy, with tans so deep they must’ve had extra layers of skin, crude jawlines, and coarse yellow hair. They ate fried dough, fried cabbage, dog meat, and exuded an obstinate vitality. Yet it seemed as if nature had taken less time with them, not more, as if the craft were in the defects. Their superior biological constitutions were perhaps correlated to the dilapidation of their dwelling spaces; there’s an inverse relationship to be found here.

Other relationships, however, required tending. Pasha was in Brooklyn, where both the buildings and the people were in need of fortifying, and he’d be honoring the borough with his presence for all of July—the entire month! There would be no shortage of first-rate mornings, he pointed out to his restless kin, who mistook the manipulations of neuroses for liveliness, enthusiasm. Look out the window! they shouted. Just look out the window!

Tomorrow will be even better, said Pasha. Not as humid.

How presumptuous. What did he know about Julys in New York? As a matter of fact, they were wet, dreary, unpredictable. All of this, however, was beside the point. Having just arrived, he should want to spend time with his family. They’d have plenty of opportunities to tire of one another.

If there was tension, it was partly attributable to the way Pasha had dealt with his impending visit, which was the way he dealt with all practical matters—avoid until they could be avoided no more, a point decided not by him but by external forces (however hard he tried to ignore these forces, they wouldn’t ignore him). His sister, Marina, had done everything within her power to simplify the process short of chartering a private jet. She’d decided on the dates and sent him the fare for his ticket. They had no money, but Pasha had even less. When he received the envelope with the cash and felt its weight in his palm, it was somehow even less tangible than when he’d been informed it was coming. He put the envelope in the center of the kitchen table and for the next month endured a dread of mealtimes, indulging the preference to eat at his desk. Nothing happened, yet the days passed. He grew pale and perplexed. There wasn’t a more horrifying, cold-sweat-inducing suspicion than that those external forces had finally decided to give up on him. He spoke regularly with his father, Robert, who wouldn’t dare strain relations by mentioning such banalities as a plane ticket. Marina juggled an increasing number of jobs and was always running in and out of the background, passing on hellos. But one day she grabbed the phone. Evidently she’d lost her sense for small talk and banter, the very traits her new land was known to cultivate. What time do we pick you up? she asked. A silence. I’ll tell you tomorrow, replied Pasha. The travel agency ridiculed him. Tickets now cost twice the amount he’d been sent, money he didn’t have. Marina flew into a howling rage that Pasha couldn’t comprehend—really, it was a simple mistake. Then, just as suddenly, the tempest turned off. The abruptness of the switch from stormy to calm only demonstrated how often such a switch had been practiced, how little faith she had in communicating a message to her brother, and how after all these years she’d come to the cynical conclusion, though she wasn’t cynical in the least, that to take offense was fruitless, that nothing could be worked out but only buried and masked.

Pasha gave a sigh and rolled to a sitting position. Agreement scattered everybody—they rushed into and out of rooms, to the bathroom, for a drink of water, to pack the cherries, gather the towels, where are Robert’s swimming trunks, and what about the beach blanket? Watching Pasha get ready was worse than watching a pot boil. It wasn’t that he had a leisurely disposition but that his brain and body had long ago, perhaps at birth, suffered a breach, leaving his body on autopilot. His mind was neglectful, self-involved, preoccupied; its moods didn’t reflect on the body, which applied a mechanical thoroughness to every undertaking, whether tying his shoelaces, blowing his nose, typing, or consuming Hunan shrimp, discovered last night to be more effective than corticosteroids for his sinusitis. By the time his shorts were buttoned—or rather his brother-in-law Levik’s shorts, since Pasha had brought with him for a monthlong visit only one pair (also Levik’s hand-me-downs), onto which he’d immediately tipped the welcoming glass of young Georgian wine—Esther, Pasha’s mother, had packed a suitcase of nourishment (apples, cherries, plums, apricots, or the hard balls of assorted sizes and shades that passed for them in this country), replenishment (bologna sandwiches), stimulant (black tea), reward (poppy-seed rolls), punishment (carrots), and something to pass the time with (sunflower seeds, clothes that needed mending). Habits shouldn’t be allowed to cement—they must be extracted early on, like wisdom teeth. In Odessa, Esther and Robert’s dacha had been a ten-minute walk from the sea, which for reasons that don’t translate was considered a long, arduous journey. If a crucial beach accoutrement was forgotten at home, no one would’ve thought to go back to get it. Decades of this kind of training had instilled a dogged discipline. Now that the ocean was in the front yard of their building, Esther still packed so that nothing would be lacking. The governing rule: There must be surplus, yet nothing should spoil.

At the last moment, Levik decided he’d rather not go—it was Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. Tape it, said Marina. But he was developing a migraine. Wear a cap and take two Advil. Where’s the sunscreen? There’s no sunscreen—what do you think this is, a pharmacy? Well, they wouldn’t be long, just an hour, hour and a half, before the sun got strong. But it’s already a quarter of eleven! Did they still have that umbrella with the green and beige stripes? Maybe it was in the hall closet with the other junk— Are you out of your mind? It ripped ages ago, not to mention flew off with a not-particularly-hearty gust into the Atlantic. Marina peeked into her daughter’s room. Two giant, grimy feet poked out from under a blanket. Frida! she screamed. We’re off to the beach without you!

Esther took this moment to corner her son. Her damp face gave off a postmenopausal odor, like overripe apricot flesh. The sweat never had time to dry. And like flypaper it caught everything it came into contact with—hairs, lint, fruit flies. Pasha, she said, can I ask a tiny favor, please don’t get angry, just try to hear me out, a bit of patience—

Out with it!

Take that thing off.

Oh, not this again.

Just while you’re here—for Frida’s sake.

She’s nine!

But she’s a curious girl. She’ll start asking questions, and next thing you know—

She’s running off to join a convent?

It’s not impossible. She still occasionally makes the sign of the cross over herself.

And that’s my fault?

Where else did she get it?

TV. Classmates. She goes to school by now, I hope.

Is it so much to ask, Pasha? Would it be so difficult?

He looked to the side, as if consulting the couch. He’d thought that the combination of circumstances—the separation, his mother’s condition, the palliative effect of time—would’ve finally rendered this a non-issue. Wishful thinking. His conversion was bound to remain an open wound on the family flesh, susceptible to infection. At twenty he’d inflicted the injury. There had been the technicality of the process—an elaborate theater of spite, as Esther called it, convinced that every step of it was being done to undo her. The catechumen period had been auspiciously brief. The priest practically apologized on God’s behalf, as if Pasha’s soul had ended up in the Yid pile by accident, in a forgetful or clumsy moment. He received the Eucharist like a crying toddler slipped a pacifier. At last spiritually content. He wore a conspicuous though not garish silver crucifix around his neck (later tucked into T-shirts), attended services, believed in creationism, had convincing arguments and logical proofs against Darwin’s theory, which had the quality of withering immediately in the convinced person’s brain and being impossible to paraphrase, and collected icons. The icons weren’t just any old icons, rather they were very old icons, obtained after hours of sifting through junk under the junk owner’s suspicious stare and briny breath, plucked from the heaps of vendors who had no clue they possessed anything of worth and wouldn’t have believed it if you told them. The Soviet Union’s skewed ratio of valuable objects to discerning collectors resulted in Pasha’s acquiring a reputation for clutter. Correction: domestic chaos. Someone was usually around to provide the reproaching. One evening he came home holding a tiny wooden panel with chipped, blackened paint in which he claimed to see the Virgin of Kazan. At least two hundred years old, he said, trembling. Ten kopecks! After months of painstaking restoration, the black lady materialized for everyone to see. Not all instances were so exemplary.

To be sure, Pasha was a far cry from a zealot. The conversion was an appropriation of aesthetic symbols and traditions essential to his craft. Did he not consider, however, that he could appropriate them without the theater, as, for example, Brodsky had? Was it really necessary to believe? A grand gesture had been in order. Pasha stood too apart, was too achingly himself. Self-consciousness in such extreme potency wouldn’t do for a Russian poet. By joining the Orthodox Church with its hundred million adherents (exact figure?), its seventy-five percent of the Russian population, the fledgling Pasha had been fastening a link that would allow him to roam freely without the danger of floating off into the attic of an ivory tower (reverse gravity being the poet’s hazard). And through this link he’d stave off tendencies inherited from a line of depressives. Father, grandfather, uncles, great-grandfathers—dysthymic men of Literature and Medicine, oblivious to the political and cultural climate, abiding only mental weather, then wondering how they got caught in this pogrom or that war. Pasha stifled his genetic tendencies before they could stifle him. Tied to a belief system and other souls, he had no choice but to care, to be affected, to be a part.

What an outburst his mother’s request would’ve provoked a few years ago, how indignant he would’ve gotten, how hot in the face. That he was even considering complying was a sign that he was getting old. But he knew regardless, with or without signs. If it’ll make you happy, he said, growing a double chin as he struggled with the clasp.

The beach! Unable to coordinate a mass exodus, they left in spurts, Esther and Robert hauling supplies in the lead, and five minutes later Marina tugged Levik’s weight off the couch, instructing Frida to get ready quickly and not leave without her uncle, they’d be waiting in the usual spot, to the left of lifeguard Hercules. The door slammed shut, a reverberating silence spread through the apartment. Frida dashed into the bathroom, tripping over her stocky legs as she slipped into a cobalt bikini, checking in, momentarily, with her recently activated nipples. Esther was convinced the American diet was to blame. What in the diet? No one would’ve let her administer the experiments she was devising to find out. Frida flew into the living room. Her uncle sat on a footstool, leaning forward to turn the glossy page of a book that lay on the floor. Let’s go! she said.

Pasha raised his husklike head. It seemed to breathe from the top.

Look at this, he said, directing her attention to the floor. She fidgeted, her jutting globular knees (like his jutting globular knees) punched the cotton sunflowers of her dress, which even Pasha could tell was all wrong for her. She wasn’t an airy little girl. There was something sumoesque in her stance. She was more substantial than many of the full-grown women in Pasha’s literary milieu. Her focus was like the seaweed-green vase, Esther’s favorite, once transported by way of a dozen anecdotes from Poland, that Pasha had elbowed off the piano when leaning in to hug his father on arrival. It had shattered into more pieces than it had been made of.

They’re waiting for us, said Frida.

Don’t be egocentric. Nobody’s thinking about us. They’re probably swimming by now.

I want to swim!

It’s good to hold off on pleasures.


Do you want to get into a lengthy discussion, or do you want to see something and go?

A groan propelled her. She stood over the lower of Pasha’s uneven shoulders but kept a distance—it was hard not to consider him a stranger.

Grandpa already showed me, she said triumphantly. It’s Japanese.

Grandpa doesn’t have this one.

Despair! Once more the exit obscured, Frida dragged to the floor, to a clean white mountain taking up most of the page. Caucasus, she said. But in the lower right corner were little blue squiggles. She knelt, and her head eclipsed the scene. Three little people in blue robes with white plates on their heads. They’d taste sour. But the mountain was of milk. A jagged edge as if the top had been bitten off. On the opposite page was something different—a man with a blue face, black wash of hair, deformed hands. Like Max’s father down the hall. His wide mouth filled with ink—or he had no mouth, no teeth or tongue, only spilled ink. I don’t like this, she said, and pushed it away. The book jacket snagged on a loose nail to the distinct rip of paper. Something welled up within Frida that made her repeat herself but more venomously and look at Pasha as if he were a monster, and the welling intensified, constricting her throat.

• • •

IT WASN’T ANOTHER MIRAGE to which Esther enthusiastically waved but Pasha and Frida in the flesh. The family was barricaded on one side by water and on the other by cherry pits like tiny bullets that had perforated a flock of seagulls. They’re organic, said Levik, implying that they weren’t litter, though he would never say that as the family had a complicated relationship to litter. But the trouble with cherry pits was their clotted bloodiness and that they carried the ugly secret of mouths.

What took so long? You had to wait until the sun was strongest! Put on a hat. Take a dip. Come here. Don’t get sand on that. Want a sandwich, a drink, oh, I know, an apricot? The pinprick sun reigned triumphantly, but the corners of the sky were thick, curdled, darkening. Frida sat between her mother’s slack legs, staring up.

Soon there’ll be no more sun, she said.

It’s out now, isn’t it?

But the black clouds—

Go swim with Grandpa.

Frida ran until the water lopped off her knees. Grandpa! she yelled. Twenty men turned around, but Robert kept floating half the ocean away.

Flies attacked Marina’s legs. She decided to ignore them. Not a minute later, bewildered by how painfully they bit, she began to swat. A plastic bag was blown into her hair, sand into her eyelashes. A neighboring family’s feral kids were shrieking, Esther chewed a never-ending apple. Helicopters, fading sirens, lifeguard whistles. Marina wiped the perspiration from her hairline, pulled up her straps, raised her head into the breeze. All around, tan, muscular specimens were running, digging, stretching, throwing balls, and then there was Pasha, folded crookedly into a low chair, his face contorted against the sunshine. Since they were no longer around, who fed him, who ironed his pants? Who reminded him to shower, to tuck in that shirt? Certainly not his wife. His visit, they’d decided, would be a chance for rehabilitation. They would pamper him, cram in a year’s worth of nutrition, hygiene, care. But then he emerged (last, of course) from the baggage claim, and his belly looked fostered, cheeks buoyant. His clothes were wrinkled, but twenty hours in transit might do that. Esther reassessed with lightning speed. Look at you! she cried. A haircut first thing tomorrow!

Marina peeled her brother off the canvas chair, and they began to tread. This excruciating pace was Pasha’s only mode of moving, and to walk alongside you had to adjust yours. Pasha’s pace wasn’t a deliberate saunter—he had bad lungs and motor difficulties (such was the official statement), an unmanageable thought chorus, and no need to be anywhere, at least not in a timely manner. Not very long ago, Marina herself had been queen of the promenade, most qualified in a city of inveterate lingerers and loiterers to demonstrate how to stretch a quarter mile for hours, how to ping-pong gracefully between the Opera House and the Steps in four-inch heels. She still had trouble disassociating punctuality from the height of desperation.

With her silence she was prompting her brother to say what he intended to say, which was that he’d given the matter due consideration and the answer was yes. Then the real work could begin—compiling a list of people to call, speculating about elements bound to remain uncertain for a while, and the paperwork, my God, the paperwork. She’d actually been expecting the announcement last night, imagining that it might accompany the first toast. A nice thought. Last night Pasha stumbled through the door at ten P.M. (five A.M. in Odessa) and protested, No food, not tonight, a preposterous request that only went to show how long they’d been parted. He began to fade at the dining table while Esther microwaved maniacally, suffusing the air with Chinese take-out smells and plastic. Pasha hated to fly, but more than that he hated interruptions. Packing, relocating, resisting the pull of his daily rituals, all this amounted to a profound psychological stress. So yesterday they’d kept to superficial topics. Today the big issues would be resolved.

She looks good, said Pasha.

She’s gotten fat.

She was never a ballerina.

They’re operating the day after you leave.

Pasha turned sharply. I specifically asked her to schedule the surgery for while I’m here.

God forbid anything interfere with Pashinka’s visit! Marina felt the heat double, the sun’s warmth amplified by rising temperatures within. Throttled by her own steps, as if she weren’t on her feet but riding in the dim backseat of a Soviet automobile.

I was truly surprised by how vital she looks, Pasha resumed.

It’s not the flu.

But if she’s strong and in good shape—

Mama, our mama, in good shape?

If she’s strong, her body will take the chemo well.

No chemo. They said surgery and a bit of radiation should be enough.

Her body can definitely take the radiation.

And I’ll have to take care of everything myself! A whimper escaped as a wave rolled over Marina’s sturdy ankles.

That’s not true. Papa will help, Levik— Oh, my God! cried Pasha.

What! yelled Marina, clutching her chest.

That seagull—it’s monstrous!

Pasha paused. He pointed.

Marina appraised the seagull. It’s a bit on the large side, she admitted.

A bit? That thing’s a dinosaur. Pasha took off, as if some amateur had picked up his marionette strings, in the seagull’s direction. In no hurry, it began to pump its white-trimmed wings, dragging its body across the sky.

Allowing her brother to catch his breath, Marina asked, What changed?

Nothing changed, he said. I just haven’t made up my mind, one way or the other. It’s not like deciding what to have for breakfast.

Though you’ve never had an easy time of that either. Marina wasn’t sure for how long she’d been looking straight ahead with painful intensity. She turned and let herself look at her brother. Don’t you think we should get the bureaucratic wheels in motion? By the time you’re actually called in for an interview—

Better we wait, he said, until I’ve decided.

And why haven’t you?

What could he say? He couldn’t admit that though he’d hardly seen a square inch of Brooklyn, it was enough to sour him on it. Anyway, that wasn’t the truth—that had nothing to do with his inability to make a decision, it was just what was currently on his mind. Last night, as the car turned onto Brighton Beach Avenue, Marina had exclaimed gleefully, We’re here! Eyes glued to the window, Pasha’s first impression had been horror. Filth, dreariness, and pigeon shit didn’t bother him, but five gastronoms in a row called Odessa did. His fellow countrymen hadn’t ventured bravely into a new land, they’d borrowed a tiny nook at the very rear of someone else’s crumbling estate to make a tidy replication of the messy, imperfect original they’d gone through so many hurdles to escape, imprisoning themselves in their own lack of imagination, forgetting that the original had come about organically and proceeded to evolve, already markedly different from their poor-quality photocopy. Such a bubble, no matter how enthusiastically blown, would begin to deflate in no time. Hold it, Pasha said to himself. Inner truth police! He had to admit that he’d come ready to discover just such a bubble. And the strong reaction had been at least partly the result of an overtaxed system.

He was losing morale. The wind flung crowds into their path, crying toddlers with bent shovels and tipped buckets, mothers in a tizzy, stately African women with what appeared to be pillowcases on their heads, sand-flinging adolescents, joggers, overdressed ethnic clans. They swarmed in and just as abruptly dispersed, leaving Pasha and Marina gasping for breath. While they were engulfed in one such burst, a hand materialized, a long, wiry hand that clawed the air twice before hooking Pasha’s bent shoulder. The hand’s owner and Pasha stepped aside to examine each other by the water. The man was the size of a tiny, desiccated tree that had withstood brutal winters. Clumps of coppery hair, a tight, aggravated mouth. Now the other hand stretched for the other shoulder. They embraced. Marina looked away, wary. Was this someone she also knew? Would his wife appear?

That’s Bronfman, Pasha whispered as they slipped away. Marina, relieved, only half listened. But Pasha was shaken up. According to Pasha’s mental records, Bronfman had been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia during his last year at the Refrigeration Institute and died at the tragic age of twenty-one. But here was Bronfman, very much alive, working for the city’s transit bureau. Health insurance! Decent pay! Job Stability! Pasha, he said, you must work for the city. Except it’s impossible to find a job—at least it’s very, very difficult. The glitch must have been this: Unable to deal with a dearth of information, Pasha’s memory had filled in Bronfman succumbing to the disease, though in actuality his family had found a way to take him for treatment to the States, absconding urgently and covertly. In this miraculous land, he was cured, and here he remained.

That’s what he told you? Marina asked.

He said he was living in the yellowish bungalow on Corbin Place behind the poodle groomers and I should drop by Thursday evening for his meditation group. You can’t tell a man that you were sure he died fifteen years back.

Discovering Bronfman among the ranks of the living put Pasha in a frisky mood. He shook his beard into Marina’s face like a lavish, impulsively assembled bouquet, splashed her shins, and laughed in his deflating way, like the sound made by turning the exhaust valve on a blood-pressure monitor (a favorite evening pastime). They got back to find everyone deep into the stern phase of beach time. Esther sat under a giant hat that seemed to have been punched in on one side and chomped sunflower seeds, the gnawed shells lodging in the crevices around her crotch. While she was discarding, Robert was in the process of acquiring. There were no beautiful seashells on Brighton, but Robert was determined to collect regardless, as this was the endangered activity he was known for. Marina dropped to the blanket and resumed her solar torpor. Levik picked his toes, using his free hand to flip the pages of a year-old National Geographic. Pasha tried rousing them with over-the-shoulder taps and affectionate pinches, but they grew progressively grumpier until he gave up and waded into the warm, turbid ocean for the prescribed dunk.

While Marina was away, Frida had made a friend. The girls had dug a pit, fortified it, and adorned the fortress with turrets, parapets, some ornamental dripwork. They added a ditch at the base for water to collect and sat in the pit presiding over their domain. The friend was a fine-boned tyrant, making it apparent to Marina that what had been uncovered in her daughter was a tendency. Your side needs more shells, the friend said. Frida, who’d never notice such a deficit herself, ran over to Robert and asked for some of his. Overjoyed by the request, he distributed the shells one by one, holding them up to the light and rotating and telling a story about each. But the friend didn’t approve of this strategy. Those aren’t shells but scraps, she said. Frida scoured the shoreline until finally producing an adequate batch. The friend had a high forehead, a taciturn chin, collapsed blond ringlets crusted with sand. She pointed to where Frida must put each shell and once they were perfectly spaced granted Frida entry. With erect spines they sat in their puddle, laughing into the faces of those who made pleas to join them in housekeeping. After being turned away countless times, one persistent boy returned with a pancake. The friend admitted she was ready for a snack. Attempts to divide it into three pieces were unsuccessful—it was one slippery, tough pancake. They would have to go in a circle, taking bites off the edge.

Marina watched as the jellyfish was passed around. She couldn’t decide: to intervene or not to intervene? Instinct told her to go, but her body remained grounded. As Frida’s turn neared, Marina looked away, aware of an unreachable dread.

• • •

LET’S HEAD BACK, said Levik.

Why must you spoil everything? said Marina, herself in the first stages of heatstroke. You think I don’t see you checking your watch every second? No one’s keeping you here. Only next time we’re with your family, see how long I last.

Just then, the wind turned up. Esther’s hat flew high off her head like a puck in a strength-tester game. The ocean started to bubble, as if a colossal motor had been turned on in the depths. The bottom of the sky overtook the top, plugging any remaining holes, and the celestial concoction began to stew. A lost balloon was like a soccer ball being kicked around by an invisible aerial team. The ground tipped, and a sheet of sand slid eastward, burying blankets, towels, bags, and knocking vertical tanners, proselytizing proponents of upright sunning, off their feet. A protracted moment of stillness was had as the atmosphere held its breath, turning greenish blue from lack of oxygen. A lash in the distance was followed by an audible inhale of determination, a generative buzzing, an interspecies murmur. Airlifted off her throne, Frida’s friend thrashed wormlike until a bald, barrel-chested man set her down and landed his ringed hand on the weedy nape of her neck. A minute ago the collective focus was directed outward, to others, to the horizon; now it was sharply rerouted in. The rest of the world disappeared. People gathered, grabbed, collected. The sky, done stewing, began to crumble on raw, sunburned shoulders. Hunks of ice the size of pinecones. The more it came down, the darker the sky turned, like those who grow angrier as they rage.

When the cosmos broke open, Esther was expected to take a miraculous split second to bundle belongings and snap fingers to safety. She was equipped with a top-of-the-line primal-mother tool kit, with which she could produce a week’s worth of meals from iron shavings, lint, and maybe a wilted head of cabbage, use a threadbare curtain to dress her family (distant cousins included if need be), cure the common cold and any other malady non-emetic in nature (puking elicited no sympathy), and get her family out of a disaster without a scratch. But they were witness to a terrible malfunction. Esther kept sitting, squinting and blocking the hail with her hand as if the sun were too direct in her eyes. As she finally got to packing, time halted emphatically. She attempted to shake out her towel and seemed to consider the usual ritual of changing from her swimsuit before heading home. They stood frozen, stunned. A green chair was hurled through the air. Boardwalk waiters hadn’t managed to collect dinette sets in time, and they flew off, doily tablecloths along with tables. The furniture, sand, even ocean were fleeing. Only buildings stood heedlessly. Awnings suffered most, as they tried desperately but failed to disengage.

The beach almost fully evacuated, the remaining few were the elderly, moving as fast as creaky joints allowed. Lifeguards ran back and forth, tooting whistles. They soon abandoned the task of retrieving every last human scrap from the water and scurried to their stations. The scraps were insane, homeless, or drunk—what happened to them was already technically in the hands of fate. A pillar of dust came into view, tall and swirling, distorting everything in its path.

Run! screamed Marina, and herself did just that. Blazing the trail, undoubtedly. But she didn’t turn around once, and unlike Esther she didn’t have a second pair of eyes installed in the back of her head. Crossing the boardwalk, they doubled over, struggling to secure each step, gripping their heads lest they, too, should blow away like the countless plastic bags. At a critical moment, Esther outran Marina, swerving into a nearby nursing home. The steamy lobby was packed with drenched, shaken beachgoers seeking refuge. A drowsy security guard made it known that she wasn’t pleased. Over her head a banner drooped—FABULOUS AT 90! HAPPY BIRTHDAY ALICE! A paper plate with a picked-at slice of triple-layer cake was being eyed by so many that she slid it into a drawer and turned the key.

Just in time, said Marina, taking a deep breath and checking to see what was clutched in her hands: a pair of giant denim shorts and an unfamiliar towel.

Have you seen Frida? asked Esther.

Marina gasped. People turned to look. My daughter, said Marina. She began inspecting small faces in the vicinity—they were strangers’ children, almost hers. They shrank away from her fierce stare, not wanting to be recognized. Marina ran through the lobby, taking a harder look at anything with the potential to transform into Frida.

Boo! cried Frida, crawling out from under a marble table. Catching sight of her mother’s face, she began crawling in reverse, seeking the shelter of the stone. But she couldn’t move fast enough. Grabbed by the ear, she was dragged to join the rest of the family.

Remember you have just one mother, said Marina. Better not rush her to the grave! Though Marina had grown up with such reminders from her own mother, she could never get the tone quite right herself.

They finally settled in to watch. The gods were redecorating.

Two years ago in Denver, Oregon, was a terrible hailstorm, said Levik. This storm caused almost seven hundred million dollars’ damage. People think storms aren’t dangerous, but even small storms are very dangerous. He swallowed. Did Pasha go to the restroom? I wouldn’t mind myself.

Pasha! They hadn’t seen him since . . . Esther bolted outside, immediately thrust flat against the door. A young man with quick reflexes managed to tug her back in. She couldn’t steady her breathing—not enough air in that tight space to fill her breast. The security guard unenthusiastically relinquished her swivel chair, and Robert lowered Esther into it. Here they were, sweaty, in T-shirts on top of drenched bathing suits, huddled in the lobby of a nursing home. The storm pressed right up to the building. Windows trembled in keeping out the weight. It became black as night, the atmosphere thick and interwoven like a muscle. Along the sinews, threads of electricity traveled.

Aside from everything else they were feeling—worry, guilt, clamminess, a spreading itch—they felt betrayed. There was no way to address this feeling, nobody to yell at. It was foolish, senseless. Having been born and raised by the sea, they hoped that an allegiance had been established. They hoped by asserting, by claiming to be a coastal breed. They were people of the margin, of the edge of the land. If destiny wasn’t mentioned, it was meant. Inland folk weren’t expected to understand the distinction, just respect it. The particular body of water didn’t matter—coastal peoples from across the globe knew when they were among their kind. They dealt in axioms. They were spoiled for any other type of existence. The power of the ocean wasn’t questioned. Aquatic mystery was steady stock, safe to invest in. Living by the ocean was like going to third grade with someone who went on to become world-famous. The relationship became an integral part of one’s identity. That the ocean never entered into the agreement was forgotten until a reminder was issued.

The storm had a Slavic temperament. It arrived with great force, bells and whistles, but burned itself out in less than half an hour—the vending machine didn’t run out of Coke, the security guard wasn’t used for meat (she had plenty). Upon return the sun shone brighter than before in compensation or apology or in an attempt to lure back the masses. Only degenerates and conspiratorial herds of pimply boys were enticed. Tousled neighbors poured out of building lobbies. What in the world, they said. Never before—a first! A tornado here? They hurried home, where, though it was very hot, they made gallons of steaming borscht as if to concoct the atmosphere in their beloved Soviet vats.

Emerging from the nursing home, they observed the river of people drifting away from the beach. Then they inhaled and pushed against the current, shoulders colliding and feet stomping. They managed to squeeze up one bottlenecked ramp, then helped one another climb over the railing to forgo another. They walked slowly, and even though they could see from a distance that no one was there, they didn’t stop until reaching the exact spot where they’d been sitting. Marina flagged down a lifeguard resuming his post, but her tongue tangled. Too frantic for sense. Robert went straight with an appeal to the ocean. Did it have his son’s body, and if so would it kindly return it in any shape or form?

Luck, usually so elusive, was in their favor. Levik in his search stumbled upon a gold Rolex, the clasp broken, camouflaged, sticking out of the sand, while Frida, sitting in a foul mood on a jagged rock near the jetty, pointed limply to a figure one bay away.

That he was actually there was a shock. What did they expect? Maybe what they were used to—Pasha in Odessa, keeping guard over their memories. Not all six feet, three inches of him staggering disoriented and pigeon-toed in the midst of their sand. They were still yards away when he began to relate that under the boardwalk was an entire city. Tents, upside-down garbage cans, a mattress and a stove, he said, evidently unaware that he’d been separated from his swimming trunks. His figure was as unobstructed as the horizon (though on the Steeplechase pier, the fishermen, as if glued to the railing, were back to sipping from their long straws). His nakedness wasn’t startling—Pasha hardly relied on the basic buffering that garments afforded, not at all on the various boosts. Clothes detracted from his quiddity. In the nude he was uncompromised. Esther approached from behind, wrapped a towel around his rubbery hips.

A homeless enclave, he said, intricate, set up just like—

Was there a flash? asked Esther.

A flash, said Pasha.

He was struck!

Don’t shout.

He doesn’t look struck. We did just get a good look.

Are you hurt, Pasha?

They were very nice, actually, he said.

But maybe, said Esther, pointing to her head.

Robert cleared his throat. Chin raised, eyelids lowered, he dropped his voice an octave to recite, The tempest spreads a mist across the sky / frosty whirlwinds spinning wild.

Like a beast it begins to howl / now it cries like a lost child, said Pasha.

Let’s drink, dear friend / to my poor, exhausted youth.


THEY HAD LANDED IN AMERICA in the middle of a heat wave, temperatures soaring into the hundreds, the streets streaked with fire trucks and ambulances, shabby businessmen, water-selling opportunists. A blackout was wreaking havoc on the outer boroughs to which they didn’t yet know they belonged. Greeted at the airport by friends and relatives whose faces were incorrect in the flesh. These people were all arms anyway, gripping, squeezing, strangling, gesturing, and yanking them out of the frenzied arrivals area. It was night. They were distributed into two cars and taken by way of roads so potholed and fractured it was hard to believe they’d gone in the right direction on the three-rung world ladder to a low-ceilinged apartment with vicious air-conditioning. Sweat beads frozen off, sinuses excavated. The food on the table was identical to the food on the table in the kitchen in the apartment in the building in the city in the oblast in the republic in the Union they were prepared to never see again. But the table looked the same, faded oilcloth from the shop off Pushkin Street (they had the same one in their suitcase), as did the buttery pelmeni, vareniki in cherry sauce, brick of black bread, dill potatoes, cream herring—identical if a bit more gray and deflated, as the spread had been left out ceremoniously while the greeters, Levik’s father and stepmother, waited for them to clear customs. Everyone was ravenous except them, who claimed to have eaten on the flight. They were pale, emaciated, dazed. Toasts were raised in a perfunctory spirit. Exhaustion and fright appeared to win out over the magnificence of a soul reunion. Marina put her daughter and her brand-new Barbie to bed. A cigarette disappeared in two puffs. She excused herself to use the bathroom. Half an hour later, Levik’s stepmother found her in the bathtub sobbing noiselessly. The friends left hours earlier than planned, looking out car windows on their drives back to Long Island, knowing that they’d also been like that not too long ago but finding it impossible to imagine.

That was seven hundred fifteen days ago—they were still counting, though it was getting less clear to what end. At first it made the change manageable, marked progress. It’d seemed that if not counted, the days might either not pass or sneak by in clusters, two or more at a time. One thing a Soviet upbringing taught you was to pay attention. Not like these lax Americans who didn’t even monitor their nickel-and-dime transactions at the grocery store. But what about the pennies—should you bother with those?

Since Levik’s father had issued the official invitation, Pasha wasn’t able to legally tag along. The understanding was that they’d collect twigs for a nest, then send for Pasha and his humble flock. But he put a freeze on the plan. Why? The many reasons he provided never quite added up to an explanation. But then the Soviet Union fell, Esther was diagnosed. . . . Visits hadn’t ever been part of the plan at all. It was strange. There had been all this tragedy and finality, and suddenly you just had to have the money for the flight. No matter—soon they’d get Pasha over here for good. Notions were flying about. Considering Pasha’s allergy to life-decision discussions, the plan was to trap him into one immediately, get it out of the way. They’d agreed not to relent when the hostage began to squirm. But after what Pasha had been through, the scheme couldn’t be put into action. They weren’t monsters. Pasha’s talent was to shift dynamics until all sympathy was directed toward him. A steady current flowed his way. He aroused feelings without necessarily returning them and was permanently enclosed in an aura of exemption. It was inadvertent, though Pasha himself claimed that nothing was inadvertent, that there were no such things as accidents or coincidences.

They believed in accidents and coincidences, but too many of them happened to Pasha. Whereas they were admirably bronzed, he looked like he’d barely escaped a house fire. Last night they’d bathed him in ice water cooled with rubbing alcohol as he slipped in and out of feverish delusions about an underground washing-machine city and a trash-can blues band; this morning he seemed better, certainly quieter, but the water blisters hadn’t improved and the thermometer, slipped out of a mossy armpit, read 38.6 degrees Celsius. And in such a state he was headed to Manhattan, no stopping him—as if anyone were trying, other than Esther with an appeal of, Wait one more day, and Robert’s hushed plea, Wait for me! But he was off. Damn him, Esther spit. Where’s he going? What does he know about this godforsaken city?

He knew that he couldn’t bear another minute in their little kingdom by the sea. Locating a chariot to take him out was no challenge. The entire neighborhood—cardboard castles, sand fortresses, Chinese take-out joints and all—went into Richter-worthy convulsions whenever a train pulled into the aboveground station. Stepping into the subway car, he took a seat with caution, as if someone might intercept and make him stand. His discomfort wasn’t physical—the air-conditioned car provided great bodily pleasure—but stemmed from the sense that a secret code was being intentionally withheld. He alternated between peering into faces and focusing on his knees. On Cortelyou Road a spark of panic flashed in his yolky eyes, and he said something incomprehensible to no one in particular. There was no response. He fell back into a glassy stupor. Another spark and he spoke again, louder. The car was packed with Russians who saw that he was in need of help, but some implacable force prevented them from becoming heroes. How bewilderingly Russian he was . . . it was simply indecent. His flailing let them possess their own proficiency, which was nevertheless too tenuous to be tested. And they knew the importance of being discreet. Someone was always watching. Luckily, there was Joe from Sheepshead Bay to come to the rescue. He screamed, he forced the Russki to repeat himself, making one wrong guess after another. But there would be no giving up. The destination, it was finally determined, was Manhattan Island. Did this trolley take him there? Manhattan’s big, said Joe, looking around. Where in Manhattan you wanna go? But Pasha had stopped listening. He was satisfied, requiring no more.

Deciphering maps wasn’t one of Pasha’s fortes. Languages were. He knew English, but strangers in an existential hurry did not. To be locked into the most desperate exchanges, from which both parties left aggravated, with a residue of elemental human failure, wouldn’t do. In the margins of his notebook were the phone numbers of old acquaintances and friends of friends whom he hadn’t the least intention of contacting. But there were pay phones on most corners, and a few even produced a dial tone. Hello, Arkadii Gulovich, this is Pavel Robertovich Nasmertov, currently in your monumental city, doing very well, positioned at the intersection of street number fifty-three and Avenue of the America, having just visited the Modern Museum of Art. Can you direct me to Guggenheim?

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    Posted October 29, 2014


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