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Snow in May: Stories
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Snow in May: Stories

by Kseniya Melnik
 

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A Minneapolis Star Tribune Best Book of 2014 • Recommended by The New Yorker, The New York Public Library, Alan Cheuse of NPR, Grantland • Shortlisted for the 2014 International Dylan Thomas Prize • Longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award

A "ruminative…lovely…accomplished

Overview

A Minneapolis Star Tribune Best Book of 2014 • Recommended by The New Yorker, The New York Public Library, Alan Cheuse of NPR, Grantland • Shortlisted for the 2014 International Dylan Thomas Prize • Longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award

A "ruminative…lovely…accomplished" (The New York Times Book Review) and "touching" (The Seattle Times) debut collection of stories that "sparkles with the brilliance and charm of Chekhov." (Simon Van Booy, award-winning author of Love Begins in Winter and The Illusion of Separateness)

Kseniya Melnik's Snow in May introduces a cast of characters bound by their relationship to the port town of Magadan in Russia's Far East, a former gateway for prisoners assigned to Stalin's forced-labor camps. Comprised of a surprising mix of newly minted professionals, ex-prisoners, intellectuals, musicians, and faithful Party workers, the community is vibrant and resilient and life in Magadan thrives even under the cover of near-perpetual snow. By blending history and fable, each of Melnik's stories transports us somewhere completely new: a married Magadan woman considers a proposition from an Italian footballer in '70s Moscow; an ailing young girl visits a witch doctor's house where nothing is as it seems; a middle-aged dance teacher is entranced by a new student's raw talent; a former Soviet boss tells his granddaughter the story of a thorny friendship; and a woman in 1958 jumps into a marriage with an army officer far too soon.

Weaving in and out of the last half of the twentieth century, Snow in May is an inventive, gorgeously rendered, and touching portrait of lives lived on the periphery where, despite their isolation—and perhaps because of it—the most seemingly insignificant moments can be beautiful, haunting, and effervescent.a

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Molly Antopol
These are ruminative stories in which the past constantly informs the present. They unfold with a traditional, almost old-fashioned sensibility, and are told in direct, unshowy prose. Melnik is particularly adept at navigating the lives of young women, caught between inherited political baggage…and their desire to escape Magadan for something more promising.
Publishers Weekly
03/17/2014
Melnik models her debut on J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories by creating nine slice-of-life portraits that introduce us to a series of interrelated characters living in Magdan, Russia. The protagonists live in different decades, vary in age, and each experience different trials—yet they all carry the soul of Magdan. The stories involve the KGB, Russian dance, witch doctors, unhealthy love, neglected children, and inescapable poverty. The thematic explorations of the collection are similarly far-ranging: the inner battle between desire and responsibility (“Love, Italian Style, or in Line for Bananas”); the tendency to over-idealize the past (“Closed Fracture”); the demons of addiction (“Strawberry Lipstick”); and the sacrifices required to love freely (“Our Upstairs Neighbor”) . Although each of the nine stories can stand on its own, they have a cumulative effect when read together. Melnik tackles tragic subject matter while dramatizing daily struggles, giving equal weight to both. With dry humor and detailed description, Melnik creates a historically enlightening time capsule of an unfamiliar world. (May)
From the Publisher

“Ruminative...Lovely...Accomplished...'Snow in May' takes us deep into the complex fabric of Magadan, an isolated fishing and mining town in the northern reaches of Russia that once served as a transit center for prisoners dispatched to Stalin's labor camps. With this rich setting as backdrop, Melnik's characters--young and old, male and female--live quiet lives burdened by the constant weight of conflict.” —New York Times Book Review

“Fabulous…In beautifully narrated story after story, we get an art boutique version of something we might call "Real Housewives of Siberia" before Glasnost and after. Along with keenly composed stories, Melnik gives us beautiful images… [like] when a woman named Tonya recalls how as a young girl she sat on the bank of the Volga River and lifted up her eyes in time to see the last sunray strike a little fire on the golden cupola of a country church on the opposite bank. Although her future seemed vague, it's every mysterious facet glimmered with light and possibility. As does the literary career of wonderful new story writer, Kseniya Melnik.” —Alan Cheuse, NPR "All Things Considered"

“Touching...These stories might be inspired by a place most of us have never heard of, but they come from straight the heart.” —Seattle Times

“Melnik beautifully captures this stark, forbidding world.” —New York Public Library, Book Notes

“A powerful achievement... [Melnik] writes evocatively of the textures, smells and bone-chilling temperatures of this exotic land in prose that is burnished and precise.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Exceptional...magical...By recollecting the past, [Melnik] has discovered a deep mine of beauty and sadness.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

“It may be a collection of nine stories, but Kseniya Melnik's debut, Snow in May, has the thematic breadth and cohesion of a novel…. It's an impressive thing, the way Melnik is able to evoke so much from a landscape of frozen tundra.” —Grantland

“These stories sparkle with the brilliance and charm of Chekhov--while possessing a modern grace and rare intimacy that are unique to the literary talent of Kseniya Melnik.” —Simon Van Booy, award-winning author of Love Begins in Winter and The Illusion of Separateness

“Kseniya Melnik's beautiful Snow in May is an education in how history is routed, refracted, and reconciled inside the human heart. In sonorous, evocative prose, the triumphs and tragedies of Magadan are vividly brought to life. In 1890, Chekhov traveled to the Russian Far East--had he made the journey a century later, and gone a little farther north, these stories may well have been the result.” —Anthony Marra, author of the bestselling and award-winning A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

“In her first book, Melnik's nine tender, linked stories comprise a stark mural painted against the backdrop of political change in late-twentieth-century Russia and the Soviet Union, images only a Russian could craft…It's difficult to pick a favorite among Melnik's striking tales.” —Booklist, starred review

“Achingly beautiful, this collection signals a writer to watch.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Melnik tackles tragic subject matter while dramatizing daily struggles, giving equal weight to both. With dry humor and detailed description, Melnik creates a historically enlightening time capsule of an unfamiliar world.” —Publishers Weekly

“Kseniya Melnik's assured debut Snow in May is a book about extremes. In the Russian Far East, her characters cope with extreme weather, extreme punishment and deprivation, and extreme change as the USSR falls apart. These stories are a wonderful introduction to late-twentieth-century Russia and to Kseniya Melnik, a talent for the twenty-first century.” —Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them

“Like some improbable magician of the mundane, Kseniya Melnik waves her literary wand over drab Soviet cities and their unsmiling denizens and the world cracks into color. A moldering Khrushchyovka, an endless line for an ill-fitting dress, a dance studio in disrepair all form a key to mysterious interior landscapes teeming with hope, heartbreak, and the ever-tantalizing prospect of salvation. Snow in May is like that fabled snow globe of your dreams-- to open it is to be transfixed.” —Alina Simone, author of You Must Go and Win and Note to Self

“Kseniya Melnik's stories are full and expansive in the way of Alice Munro's; the reader is pulled under, willingly, into seedy and sensual worlds, like 70s Moscow and a Russian military base. Melnik's characters long for happiness and stability and face morally complex lives, the threat of menace and failure just around the corner. To read her striking, original work is to be enchanted and utterly transported.” —Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise

Snow in May does more than herald a new writer of talent; it coheres, it radiates heat, and it's the best story collection you'll read this year. If Kseniya Melnik writes prose the way it should be written, that is ecstatically (to borrow Updike's phrase), maybe it's because she shares some of Nabokov's pedigree. But her talent is her own.” —Darin Strauss, bestselling author of Half a Life and Chang and Eng

“Kseniya Melnik's breathtaking debut, Snow in May, is extraordinarily perceptive about how landscape shapes us--and continues to shape us long after we have left it. Though the stories revolve around haunted, wintry Magadan, they are anything but cold. Alight with wry humor and compassion and complex truths about the conditions of the soul, Melnik's tales burn with life.” —Laura van den Berg, author of The Isle of Youth

“Spanning the second half of the 20th century, these haunting stories depict the struggles of disparate characters working to escape the dark history of a Siberian outpost. Here are lives filled with palpable yearning. A beautiful and assured debut.” —Jennifer Vanderbes, author of Easter Island and The Secret of Raven Point

“Funny and sad, tender and tough, Melnik's stories reveal a writer who is wise and insightful beyond her years. Melnik's grasp of the realities of the twentieth century Russian Far East is startlingly accurate, but these stories are not anthropological studies - the characters transcend the setting, and they will break your heart.” —Anya Ulinich, author of Petropolis

“Melnik is very talented, and this is an unerringly assured and dextrous first book. It's a big compliment when I say it merits comparison to Jennifer Egan's wonderful A Visit from the Goon Squad – the way perspectives prismatically glide from character to character and era to era, showing the simultaneously redemptive and remorseless work of Time in lucid and elaborate cross-section. Needless to say, though each story works on its own, they build beautifully together. The writing itself is achieved, finished, and gleams with unexpected imagery, gorgeous idiomatic reconfigurations of clichés and memorable aphorisms.” —Colin Barrett, author of Young Skins

Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-03-20
Despite long winters and a haunting past, a remote town thrums with life. The Russian port town of Magadan, a former threshold into the Stalin-era gulags, links the characters in Melnik's gorgeous debut collection of short stories. Balanced on the eastern edge of Russia, Magadan is home to an eclectic population, including engineers and artists who first worked in the forced-labor camps and then stayed, working side by side with their former guards. Everyone endures deprivation, isolation, resignation. Worse, the past seems to linger in the blood, contaminating relationships and tainting dreams. In the best of her tales, Melnik's characters—many of whom pop up in more than one story, as Melnik traces the fortunes of friends, relatives and descendants—long for at least a reprieve, if not a transcendent moment. A young wife and mother travels to Moscow for the annual shopping trip, waiting in endless lines for items unavailable back home, such as fresh fruits, school supplies and boots. Can she resist an Italian soccer player who tempts her with a night without drudgery? Craving the freedom she believes marriage offers, a young woman weds a military school graduate posted even further east. Can she make her marriage successful through the sheer force of her will? A mother takes her daughter, beset by mysterious migraines, to visit a witch with curious healing methods. A young boy performing Tchaikovsky finds his thoughts invaded by memories—memories he could not possibly possess himself but which must inhabit the music. Curious about the famous tenor who missed his own celebratory concert, a young woman asks her grandfather to tell her the story of the man's life. Yet the tale leaves her unsettled about her country's past and her own future. Achingly beautiful, this collection signals a writer to watch.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781627790079
Publisher:
Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
05/13/2014
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
288
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Love, Italian Style, 


or in Line for Bananas

1975

“Grazhdanka, it’s forbidden to sit here. Follow me.”

Tanya looked up from her shopping list. The stewardess’s curt demeanor was so incongruous with her childlike face, Tanya felt a swell of pity. Here was someone already kicked around by life, her defenses permanently raised.

Moments earlier, Tanya had sat in one of the open seats directly behind a group of men in identical blue T-shirts and track pants. On an otherwise full airplane, they were buffered both in front and behind by an empty row. Preoccupied with planning the most efficient shopping itinerary for Moscow, Tanya hadn’t given this much thought.

Now she wrestled her frayed carry-on from the overhead compartment and followed the stewardess. The empty rows were puzzling indeed. When she looked back, the blue-T-shirted men grinned at her over the tops of their seats. There was something glossy in their appearance, something one didn’t see in everyday people. With their smooth faces, shiny hair, and lime-white teeth, they looked freshly washed and wrung free of life’s problems.

Tanya’s assigned seat was in the last row, beside a middle-aged couple.

The husband turned to Tanya. “The Italian soccer team,” he said with enthusiasm. “They’re trying to keep us away from them. International security measures, you see. But if seriously, what secrets do they think we could give them? That the country’s short on soap and rope?” He snickered. “Soap and rope, yes.”

“Who thinks? The Italians?” Tanya said. She’d never seen a foreigner before, not even someone from the Eastern bloc—the so-called Soviet camp—although she’d heard they were easily spotted in the bigger cities. But these were real foreigners, real Westerners. There were separate hotels for them, and shops and restaurants. Separate seats at the Bolshoi Theatre. She felt embarrassed for having sat down behind them now.

Them. The—”

“Sasha, quiet,” his wife said, glaring at him as though the plane was bugged by the KGB. And who knew? Maybe it was.

The plane taxied for takeoff from Leningrad, where Tanya had spent five days slumped in a seminar room at the Hermitage. She curated the arts wing of the Regional Museum in her hometown in the northeast and every five years attended these educational programs, required and paid for by the countrywide arts board. During the day, she half listened to lectures on “the portrayal of socialist reality through painting and sculpture.” In the evenings, she strolled down the Neva embankment, its austere neoclassical buildings the color of cucumber flesh, omelet batter, sour-creamed borsch. What a shame it was that she had to travel so far to see real beauty.

She closed her eyes and thought of all the things she needed to get in Moscow to take back home to Magadan, where the grocery stores weren’t empty but also had no variety. Leningrad, with its theaters and museums, was Russia’s starving artist; the capital was the rich merchant, the pride of the country—a requisite stop for everyone on the way back to the provinces. She and Anton had saved all year for this shopping trip. Baby Pavlik needed a winter coat, and Borya needed a backpack, notebooks, and all the bright school accessories to get him excited about first grade.

Fruits and good vegetables. Avitominosis was common during spring in Magadan. Tanya loved cabbage for its excellent transportability. She’d have to get three or four heads. Juicy southern tomatoes, too, if she could find a sturdy box. Apples, oranges, pears. And maybe something exotic and a little magical to jolt their life, if only for a moment, out of its bread-and-potatoes doldrums. Pineapples or bananas if she was lucky, though even in Moscow they were a rarity. Anton had asked for color film and photo paper, preferably East German. He loved taking pictures on his geological expeditions. She wished she had time for the shopping bus tour that went to all the foreign import stores: Warsaw, Dresden, Budapest, and, of course, Belgrade.

Tanya pulled out Eugene Onegin and opened at the bookmark.

“Ehhhhh. Ciao, bellissima.

She looked up. It was one of the Italian soccer men. His right arm was propped on his hip; the other inched toward her with a piece of paper. He was mockingly handsome—his features oversized, his full lips shiny as though dabbed with olive oil. He stared at her with intensity, the way the blue-cloaked Zephyr looks at Venus in her favorite Botticelli.

A pang of sweet fear seared her stomach.

“Ehhhhh. Would like rendezvous,” the Italian said.

His arms were tan and muscular, and not at all hairy, as she had expected of Italians. People were turning back to watch. Some even stood up to get a better view.

“Bellissima. Sono Luciano. Per favore, Hotel Rossiya. Eight.” The Italian thrust his note at her. She took it, if only to divert the spotlight from herself. He held on to her hand and kissed it wetly. “Luciano.”

He kissed her hand again and sauntered back to his seat. It wasn’t only his arms that were muscular, she noticed.

Tanya’s neighbors looked at her as though she were a chicken who had suddenly learned to fly. She turned back to Onegin, her face flushed. Not once in her thirty-three years had she been paid such a compliment by a stranger. And from Italy—the birthplace of art and beauty. It was a miracle.

“What did he want?” asked Tanya’s neighbor, the wife. She hadn’t dared look up from her knitting.

“He invited me to meet him at his hotel, I think.”

“You will go? It’s not illegal, but—”

Tanya caught the accusation in the woman’s tone. “You must be joking,” Tanya said.

“It is discouraged. Yes, it is strongly discouraged,” the husband whispered. “You will be put on a list for observation, if they even let you into that hotel.”

“I have two children, seven years old and one and a half,” Tanya said. “A good husband. Nondrinker.”

Anton was much more than a nondrinker, of course. Had he been a bachelor, he would have made a perfect personal ad: thirty-five, ethnic Russian, tall, nonsmoker, employed. And he’d never raised a hand to her. Tanya loved him for his decency, for being a good father to her sons. Yet, he’d never looked at her as she thought the Italian had, as if she were a newly discovered Michelangelo painting. Anton told her that she was getting a bit plump and to please bring him his coffee and a piece of cheese, for which she had to stand in line for an hour.

Italians, on the other hand . . . Don’t make me laugh, please, Tanya thought not without pleasure. She knew all about them from films: Marriage, Italian Style and Divorce, Italian Style. They didn’t have divorce in Italy, and the only way out of marriage was to catch your spouse cheating and then kill him or her to protect your honor. And the lover, too, while you’re at it. The sentence was more lenient for a crime of passion. She tried to remember whether Luciano wore a wedding band.

“Luciano Moretti, Hotel Rossiya, 8,” the note said in loopy, Rubenesque letters. She peeped out. Luciano was looking at her over his headrest. But thinking rationally: What did a sportsman of international caliber, rich and free, see in a tired, ground-down Soviet woman? She went back to her reading.

An hour later the plane landed in Moscow. The Italians were let off first, followed by the running-of-the-bulls-style disembarkation of everyone else. Tanya got punched in the ribs and her feet were stepped on several times. To her surprise and mortification, the entire soccer team greeted her with cheers and whistles at the arrivals terminal. Luciano, blocked by the large bosom of a peroxide-blond interpreter, sent her a battery of air kisses. Must be weariness from the all-male company, she thought. It won’t be long now, given the women in the Intourist welcoming delegation.

Studying herself in the mirror of the airport bathroom, she felt dismayed by her own credulousness. Her face was red, her mascara had flaked under her boring pale-blue eyes. Her blondish hair, badly in need of a root touch-up, was frizzy in the back, while in the front her bangs were glued to her forehead with sweat. The neckline of her old traveling blouse was hopelessly stretched. Luciano must be blind.

Outside, the spring morning was in full bloom, and Tanya found herself wishing she’d worn a short-sleeved dress to let her skin breathe. To her right stretched an endless taxi line. To her left, a bus was about to depart for central Moscow. Just off the curb, the Italian soccer team was boarding the Intourist van. Luciano waved and cried out, “Otto! Otto, per favore!”

What a peculiar man, Tanya thought. Italians . . . This was a real cliché. She tried to keep from smiling. She stole one last look at Luciano and ran for the bus, her heavy carry-on banging against her legs. It was almost nine hours until otto, plenty of time to forget about the way he’d looked at her.

Exhausted by the multitransport trip from the airport, Tanya rang the doorbell of Auntie Roza’s fifth-floor kommunalka. They kissed hello. Auntie Roza smelled like Tanya’s late mother, of sugary sweat and fresh-baked bread, scents that calmed Tanya no matter how stressed she was. She noticed that while she’d been in Leningrad, her aunt had given herself a makeover: she’d tweezed her eyebrows down to threads and dyed her graying hair the color of peeled carrot.

“Look at you, Auntie. Ten years younger! For the May Day party at work?”

“Trying to keep up with you.”

“Me?” Flattery was in the air today.

Tanya changed into a pair of house slippers and followed Auntie Roza through the darkened hallway, which branched off into rooms where different families lived. All the doors were closed. Every few steps Tanya bumped into something—boxes, metal-edged trunks, wood boards, a bicycle, a baby stroller, and God knows what else.

Halfway down the hallway they almost collided with Sergeich, who was carrying a bowl of eggs and a packet of sausages to the kitchen.

“Good afternoon, Roza Vasilievna. You look wonderful as always. Ah, I see Tanechka is back.”

“Good afternoon, Mikhal Sergeich. Thank you for the compliment.”

He pressed his barrel-shaped body against the wall to let them pass.

“Are you hungry?” Auntie Roza said when they reached her room.

“I want to take a shower, wash off that airplane grime.”

“Why shower? You’ll be running around dirty Moscow all day. Besides, Ivanova has the bathroom for the next two hours.”

“When’s your turn?”

“In the evening, Tanya, in the evening. Weekends are busy, you see, everyone’s home. You rest now while I warm up borsch and cutlets.” Auntie Roza opened her fridge and pulled out two pots.

“I’ll help. Want to tell you something, you won’t believe.”

On their way to the kitchen they ran into a tall, heavyset woman with a column of sooty hair piled on top of her head. Letting her pass, Tanya tripped over the bicycle, and it crashed to the floor with a ring. Fierce yapping started up at the other end of the hallway.

“I’m sorry,” Tanya said.

“To the devil!” the woman yelled, gesticulating with a pot of pea soup in front of her heaving bust. “That bicycle was new. If it’s broken, you’ll be standing in line for a new one yourself, Roza Vasilievna.”

“Broken!” Auntie Roza came to an instant boil. “You should see your sons ride it down the stairs. First bicycle, then their necks, I’ll say. Broken—tfoo.”

“That’s none of your business. You better tell your niece here that she turned on our lightbulb when she splashed in the washroom for a whole hour last week, and we now have to pay for that electricity,” Pea Soup said. “Do I look like a millionaire to you? She’s the one from Magadan here.”

“And who’s going to pay when your boys steal my—”

“Sergeich!” Pea Soup hollered. “How many times do I have to tell you that pets are not allowed in the common areas?”

The communal kitchen contained five ovens, five tables, several standing and hanging cupboards, most of them with locks on their doors, and a sea of kitchenware occupying every available surface and wall. The entire space was segmented by bedsheets, towels, and various other laundry articles hanging to dry from a network of ropes. An invisible radio babbled the news. The smells of fried onions, pea soup, and fish fought for airspace. A beautiful young woman with curlers in her bleached hair flew into the kitchen, chirped hello to Auntie Roza, and carried away a whistling kettle.

Auntie Roza turned on the gas and struck a match. “Now tell me what happened, Tanechka.”

In a half whisper Tanya told her about Luciano.

“I’d go,” Auntie Roza said.

“But you . . .” Her aunt’s husband had left her many years ago, when their children were still in grade school, and she’d never remarried. “How will I look Anton in the eye? It’d be so stupid for me to run there like some prostitute. They already have their own, from Intourist, KGB-trained.”

“Not like a prostitute, Tanya. Like a woman. When will you have a chance to enjoy such an exotic man again? Italians, they’ve got a temper. Anton is a good man, I’m not arguing. But . . . he’s Anton. He’ll be there on that couch for all eternity. Go, enjoy. Could be your last chance. I met, once, in Bulgaria, a certain engineer . . . Bulgarians love Russians, you know.” Auntie Roza pressed her ringed hand to her chest, which was rosy and laced with delicate spiderwebs of wrinkles. It struck Tanya as incredibly beautiful—and this, too, reminded her of her mother. She was overcome by a desire to rest her head on Auntie Roza’s soft shoulder—to forget about Luciano and her obligations to her family.

“He was tall, very good-looking. Such beautiful black eyebrows,” Auntie Roza continued. “I didn’t go, I was a good wife. To this day I bite my elbows in regret.”

The bedsheets next to them moved.

“What, Sergeich? Spying on us?” Auntie Roza said.

Sergeich emerged from behind his cover. Balding, with a stained undershirt stretched over his paunch and a grouchy expression, he seemed to have stepped out of the dictionary entry for “kommunalka neighbor, male.”

“Err . . . Roza Vasilievna, would you be so kind as to spare a pinch of salt. I’m all out.” His bite-sized white poodle twirled around his feet.

“Oh, you should have listened,” Auntie Roza said, holding out her salt dish.

Sergeich blushed. “You”—he addressed both of them, his tone philosophical—“you womenfolk are odd. I want to say . . .” He dove under the sheets to his oven, then reappeared and returned the salt. “First you complain . . .” He looked at the floor and said through his teeth, “One simply cannot understand women, and it’s your own fault.” He pouted his thin, lilac lips.

“My dear Mikhal Sergeich. Don’t get so upset. Like all normal people, women just want a little corner of happiness.” Auntie Roza smiled coquettishly and threw the poodle a piece of her cutlet.

“If it were me, I’d be careful with the foreigners.” Sergeich looked in Tanya’s direction. “There’s a reason why the State wants to keep us regular citizens away. It’s for our own protection. I’ve never met any real foreigners myself, but I’ve heard such stories—ogogo!”

“What stories?” Tanya asked.

“Well, I heard from a friend of a friend who knows someone who’s friends with one of the Party kids. You know, they all travel to the West like it’s Crimea. So, that particular comrade lived in America for a year and he said that they have special pornography schools there.” Sergeich made a sour face at Auntie Roza. “They teach . . . technique and some kind of philosophy of love there, as if it could be taught.” He hit his chest. “It’s amoral and it’s expensive. They don’t have free education there, so not everyone can attend. Those who do, you know, they have to bring a partner. They don’t have to be married, and—can you imagine?—it doesn’t even have to be a woman for a man. You know what I mean? They study special books and have homework assignments, also class demonstrations. As if it was some woodworking class!”

Pea Soup barged into the kitchen, tore through the bedsheets, and yelled out of the window: “Kolya! Grisha! Lunch is ready. March home on the double!” The poodle began to yap again. Pea Soup squatted down and clapped her big hands right by the dog’s flappy ears.

“Don’t you dare do that again, grazhdanka!” Sergeich yelled after Pea Soup. “Tak, where was I? These so-called students learn to hold—well, you know what I’m talking about—for a whole hour and sometimes more. And during the, the . . . during this, they see God. Yes, God. It is insulting to me even as a nonbeliever. But this is in America, I don’t know about Italy. Or Bulgaria.” Tanya thought she saw Sergeich wink at Auntie Roza.

“Are you sure it’s not the yogis in India?” Tanya said.

“An orgasm for an hour? That would finish Comrade Brezhnev right off.” Auntie Roza laughed, a beautiful, throaty trill. Sergeich’s face was completely purple now. “Those Americans must have a lot of free time. Italians, on the other hand, they don’t need any special schools. They have passion in their blood.”

“Now is not Yezhovshchina, of course, but it never hurts to be careful,” Sergeich whispered, then in full voice: “Remember that the State disapproves of intermingling with foreigners. It’s for our own protection, Tanya.”

“But what could happen?”

Sergeich stared at her with incredulity.

Tanya envisioned Luciano’s shapely olive arms. Her skin prickled.

“Every room in the hotel is bugged by the KGB. You may get accused of spying, that’s what. Arrested,” Sergeich said. “Or you could get recruited to spy on the Italians.”

“Mikhal Sergeich, my darling, what are you talking about? First of all, this is a onetime thing. Second, she’s not going there to talk.” Auntie Roza finally gave him the smile he’d been waiting for.

“Spying . . . I don’t have time for a second career,” Tanya said, a little exhilarated just thinking of the idea.

The women picked up their pans of food and went to eat in Auntie Roza’s room.

“Don’t listen to him, Tanechka. Listen to me,” Auntie Roza said, meeting Tanya’s eyes over the perfect nostalgic borsch.

The giant Children’s World department store stood across the square from Lubyanka, the KGB headquarters. Entering the first floor, with its marble columns, a sparkling double-decker carousel, and endless rows of toys still gave Tanya the same thrills she’d felt here as a child on her family’s transits through Moscow. Practical things first, Tanya said to herself, and marched up to a line that started at the base of the stairs. She took her spot at the tail and tapped the woman in front of her on the shoulder.

“What are we standing for?” Tanya asked.

“Finnish snowsuits.”

“God help us. What number?”

The woman showed Tanya her palm with “238” written on it in pen. Tanya pulled a pen out of her purse and wrote on her own palm: “239.”

The woman’s cheekbones were beautifully pronounced, convex like the bowls of soupspoons. “And where are you from?” she asked Tanya in a soft, friendly voice.

Too nice for a Muscovite.

“From Vladivostok,” Tanya lied.

Magadan was famous for having been the entry point to the cruelest of Stalin’s network of camps. People might think her parents had sat there; and if they were arrested, then there must’ve been a reason. Now people were paid good money to live in the northeast. It wasn’t a good idea to advertise either.

“And you?”

“Odessa. I’m buying the snowsuit for my relatives in Arkhangelsk.”

While they chatted about children and tricks for procuring this or that defitsit item, the line crawled up the stairs. The woman’s name was Zina. Tanya also made friends with a man behind her, Denis from Sverdlovsk, and asked him to hold her place. In the shoe department on the third floor, she was lucky to happen upon some Yugoslavian winter boots. She got two pairs, two sizes too big for the boys to grow into. For now, she’d sew a little pouch of wool inside the toe.

The line for Finnish snowsuits climbed to the second landing. Denis gave Tanya a nod of cooperation, and she dashed to the fourth floor, where she stood in two lines for a pencil box, a stack of notebooks, and a yellow backpack with cars printed on the flap. Others held Tanya’s place in the toy line on the ground level, while she held places for Zina and Denis in the snowsuits. The store was stuffy; in the thick of the lines it reeked of sweat and cologne. She ran downstairs and prized out a microscope for Borya, lettered blocks for Pavlik, and a box of toy soldiers for her friend’s son.

Tanya returned to the snowsuits line, which had finally scaled the second floor, and waited for another hour. She could already see the big brown box out of which fluttered the puffy aquamarine snowsuits. After a few more minutes of waiting she heard screams at the front of the line. A wave of people threw her back, and immediately she knew: They’d run out. They’d run out of Finnish snowsuits!

At first Tanya bobbed in the whirlpool of other anguished shoppers—elbows out, bags in—all hoping for a miracle. Her throat prickled with tears, and eventually she gave up. She knew that the clerks had stashed away extra pairs, but they would distribute them through their network of relatives and friends. There was no use begging.

She staggered out to the street. She didn’t have time to waste, yet she couldn’t bear leaving the store. She still had so much to find. When she returned home, Anton wouldn’t go out of his way to praise her exertions. There was nothing heroic or special about these shopping expeditions, a common burden shared by hundreds of millions of her fellow grazhdanki. It seemed unbelievable that just a few hours before, Luciano had invited her to a hotel. What was he doing now? Training on a soccer field or sightseeing the best, cleanest, approved-for-foreigners parts of Moscow with the voluptuous Intourist spies?

Tfoo, princessa. Her mother and Auntie Roza had lived through the famine and war, and here she was—too good for lines. She looked at the Lubyanka building, where so many of Magadan’s prisoners had started their journeys.

A babushka, her face yellow and wrinkled like a spoiled apple, pulled Tanya down the street and around the corner. From prior shopping adventures, Tanya knew that the pensioners who lived close to the big stores often got up early to stockpile the most coveted items and resell them at a profit. As the babushka unzipped the suitcase with her knobby hands, Tanya prayed for the snowsuit.

“Bought something for my granddaughter, dearie, and it turned out the wrong size,” the babushka said, twisting her head, on the lookout for the police.

She held up a pink rabbit coat with fur balls on the ends of the zippers.

“I have a son,” Tanya said. Disappointment settled acridly in her stomach.

The toothless babushka proved to be a real shark when it came to persuasion, and in the end Tanya bought the coat. She could try to exchange it for something else in Magadan, although in all likelihood Pavlik would end up wearing it. Luckily, he was still too young to be teased.

At the National Department Store on Red Square, Tanya secured a lacy East German bra, which was so much more delicate than the gray, industrial Soviet make, built for sturdy kolkhoz girls. Also: a box of Polish toothpaste and lotion, stockings, and three Czechoslovakian shirts and a quality photo album for Anton. He would be so happy. A tube of French lipstick was passed to her over the heads of others in exchange for money. Its color was a mystery.

In a shopping frenzy, Tanya snapped up the last Yugoslavian silk dress without trying it on. Although its limited availability was its most important quality, she later discovered that it was also beautiful: the color of a lily pad with contours of large-petaled flowers embroidered in white thread at the shoulders and side seams. The neckline plunged bravely deep. She didn’t know where she’d wear it: the dress was too light for Magadan, even in the summer. To a house party, maybe, with a shawl.

Tanya set out for her last shopping destination, the House of the Book on Arbat, stopping every twenty steps to rub her reddened palms and switch around the heavy bags. She imagined the headline in tomorrow’s newspapers: “Woman Found Drowned in Moskva River, Still Clutching Bags.”

She walked and thought. Despite the official State philosophy that the USSR was the best country in the world, Russians were always on the hunt for importny things. The best you could get was from the Warsaw Pact countries—especially Yugoslavia, which was almost half capitalist and bordered with Italy. Polish cosmetics were good but not comparable to French. Those you could get only in Moscow, only at the National Department Store. The appearance of Italian shoes was an event. People from the Eastern bloc looked better, too, and people from the capitalist West seemed to be made from higher-quality material altogether: whiter teeth, broader shoulders, happier faces.

Luciano had grown up surrounded by beauty. Tanya knew from studying art and from the travel programs on television that Italy was full of well-preserved palazzos and facades decorated with paintings and stone cupids. Hundreds of nude sculptures sunbathed in the piazzas and cooled off in street fountains. Maybe Luciano’s eyes were simply better trained to see a woman’s beauty?

Why couldn’t Anton see it? After all, he could appreciate a pair of three-hour-line shoes for their ordinary, magnificent shoeness. Had she succumbed to him too easily? They had dated during their last year of university, and Tanya didn’t want to be the last unmarried girl at the graduation.

Auntie Roza opened the door and took some of the bags off Tanya’s numb hands. One naked lightbulb in a row of five burned furiously in the hallway. Pea Soup’s slouchy husband was smoking by the communal telephone. His hair was a violent red—a comical contrast to his straw-yellow eyebrows and eyelashes—as though his fiery crown had drawn out all the pigment from below. His sons (their hair the same Red Banner hue) rattled back and forth down the hallway, the elder on his indestructible bicycle and the younger, about Borya’s age, with a saucepan helmet and a soccer ball. The Ivanovs’ baby wailed. The poodle barked behind Sergeich’s door. The hallway smelled of old cigarettes, fried meat, stewed cabbage, more pea soup, and something putrid—perhaps the dog’s revenge on its neighbors.

“I’m just waiting for an intercity call. Do you need the phone? It should come any moment now,” Pea Soup’s husband muttered.

“Relax, Lyosha. I’m not your wife,” Auntie Roza said. “Please tell your boys not to ride over the shoes.”

When they reached the haven of Auntie Roza’s room, Auntie Roza said, “Shto, got lucky?”

“Oh, yes. Now the shower.”

“Not the best time, Tanechka. Everyone’s cooking dinner, you see. We only have one heater between the kitchen and the washroom.”

“You said it would be your turn in the evening.”

“It is my turn, but—”

“You let them bully you?”

“What can I do? They’ve lived here longer than I. You could try tying a dishrag around the kitchen faucet—that’s our sign for hot water needed in the bathroom—but I doubt it’ll work.”

“Oh, Auntie.”

The kitchen was in midbattle. The laundry had been taken down from the ropes. The three female household heads and Sergeich, the lonesome penguin, were cutting, shredding, frying, boiling, meat grinding, and dough rolling at their stations. The oil hissed, the pans banged, the radio yowled like a frantic mother calling for her child in a crowd of strangers. Sergeich winked at Tanya. She tied the dishrag around the faucet and escaped to the bathroom. As she showered, the water went hot and cold every few minutes, then just as she was washing off, it shut off completely.

“For your rendezvous?” Auntie Roza said when Tanya returned to her room. She was holding up the new dress to herself in front of the wall mirror.

“What rendezvous?” Tanya tried to keep her voice dispassionate. “I’m dog tired. I’d rather spend the evening with you.” This, too, was true. “Tell me stories about when you and Mama were girls.”

“You’ve heard all of our stories a million times, Tanechka,” Auntie Roza said. “Straighten out your shoulders and try to make yourself a little happier. If you don’t, no one will.”

“I’m not sure this would make me happier. Honestly.”

On the one hand, she didn’t want to disturb the precarious balance of her life. On the other hand, there was the beautiful dress—a defitsit to everyone else and readily wearable to her. “I’ll just try it on. If it’s too big, I’ll leave it for you.”

Tanya slipped on the dress and looked at herself in the mirror. It fit as though tailor-made, accentuating her waist—not as small as in her youth but still workable—her narrow, sloping shoulders, her diminutive but adequately perky breasts.

“Look at you,” Auntie Roza exclaimed, but Tanya had already grabbed her makeup bag and dashed out of the room.

The washroom was occupied. She couldn’t go back to her aunt’s room, not yet; she knew what Auntie Roza would say. She ran to the bathroom. Free! She switched on what she hoped was Auntie Roza’s lightbulb, sat down on the toilet, and put her makeup bag in her lap. Squinting into a hand mirror, Tanya put on some blue eye shadow and mascara. The new French lipstick turned out to be a clownish shade of orange, so she wrapped the tip of a match in a piece of cotton ball, something she always kept handy, and scraped out leftover coral paste from her old lipstick tube.

Someone hammered on the door. The bleary-eyed young father of the restless baby, clutching a roll of toilet paper to his chest. Tanya got out of his way.

Back in her aunt’s room, she sat down at the table, from which she could see herself in the mirror. She put her hair up in a bun. The hairstyle showed off her small ears, the only part of her body she’d consistently liked.

Neither the makeup nor the hairstyle had altered her features, yet she hardly recognized herself. The exhaustion in her eyes lit up her face with a kind of wistful nobility. She wanted Luciano to see that he was right to pick her from a plane of other dusty people. Tipsy off this sudden metamorphosis, some romantic essence of her separated and floated above her tired body like those happy lovers in Chagall’s paintings. She wouldn’t get in trouble with the KGB for one time, would she?

“Go, Tanya. Go,” Auntie Roza said. Before Tanya could duck, Auntie Roza spritzed her with the unfashionable Red Moscow perfume and made the sign of the cross.

It was seven o’clock. As Tanya skipped down the five flights of stairs, even the clicking of her heels seemed brighter.

“Ah, Tanechka, I forgot to feed you!” she heard her aunt yell from the top of the stairs, but her hunger had already evaporated, along with her shame and fatigue.

Tanya’s skin tingled pleasantly in the evening cool that had descended on panting Moscow. The tram came right away, and she sailed the two stops humming quietly to herself. She was walking to the metro entrance when she saw that at the fruit stand by the station they were selling bananas.

Bananas! Golden crescents, honeyed smiles, the fruit of sun-soaked dreams. They were even more rare in Moscow than Italian shoes. Seven-year-old Borya had eaten bananas only twice in his life. Chomping off the thinnest disks one by one to prolong the pleasure, he ran around the apartment pretending to be a monkey on a whirlwind adventure. The bananas were right out of the cartoons about Africa, right out of Mowgli—evidence of a world beyond Magadan’s snowy winters and cold summers. Pavlik had never tasted them.

The line curved around the block.

Tanya lingered, then took a few steps toward the metro, which made her feel like a criminal. She took her place at the end of the line. Maybe there would still be enough time, maybe Luciano would wait. She stood, pelting the backs of fellow line standers with all the anger and frustration accumulated in her line-standing life.

Thirty minutes passed. Her whole being itched with indecision. Flecks of her new beautiful skin, the ones blessed with Auntie Roza’s pungent Red Moscow, fluttered across the vast, indifferent city toward Hotel Rossiya, to Luciano, with his shiny hair and olive oil–rubbed lips. She understood that bananas would have a relatively small impact on the bright future she hoped for her sons. Yet, their future would begin when she returned home, and she had the power to make it a little sweeter. Gradually, the romantic kite of her soul descended back to her body. She felt tired and overdressed. Like herself.

When at last it was her turn, Tanya saw that the sales clerk was drawing bananas from two different boxes. One contained taut yellow bunches, while bananas from the other box were covered with brown spots.

“Excuse me, are you selling rotten bananas?” Tanya cried out.

“And what else am I supposed to do with them, grazhdanka? Throw them out? I have to move the product. If you don’t want them, I have plenty of other customers who will take them with joy and be grateful.”

Tanya bought three bunches—the allotment per person. Only one was in the early stages of rot. She looked at her watch: seven fifty. It would take her at least forty minutes to get to the hotel by metro. She could try catching a taxi, though she doubted there’d be any in this area. Surely someone would pick up a hitchhiker.

Twenty minutes later not a single car had stopped. Was her dress scaring people off? Clutching bananas to her chest, she turned the corner to a poplar-lined street and sat down on a bench. The pollen swirled around her like snow. There had been a time when the distinctions between right and wrong seemed indisputable, and doing right felt good. When all the decisions had been premade and in her best interest. Back when she didn’t need so much to be happy.

She remembered sitting once as a girl on the bank of the Volga River. She had just finished a shift of volunteering at the kolkhoz with her Young Pioneers brigade. Soon it would be dark, and the Pioneers would build bonfires and sing songs about loyalty, valor, and honor. Tanya remembered how her hands hurt from pulling carrots all day. She knelt and dipped them into the river. The water was so cold, a shudder ran up her arms and jolted her heart. She tried in vain to scrub the black soil from under her nails. She lifted up her eyes in time to see the last sunray strike a little fire on the golden cupola of a country church on the opposite bank. She felt at the center of her life then, separate from the world only in a way that could allow her to improve it. Although her future seemed vague, its every mysterious facet glimmered with light and possibility.

Early the next morning Tanya loaded up on several kinds of sausages and cheese, ham, smoked meat, good Hungarian wine and canned fruit, good vodka for Anton, and fresh produce at the grocery store near Auntie Roza’s. She found two sturdy boxes sitting by the garbage dump in the courtyard. One of them, Tanya was shocked to discover, was from a color TV, a defitsit unavailable in stores even in Moscow. Luckily, the foam forms were still intact—perfect for fruits and vegetables. She hurriedly repacked everything again for optimal transportability.

At the airport, the loudspeaker announced that the eight-hour nonstop flight to Magadan was delayed because of adverse weather. The terminal swarmed with passengers, stir-crazy from the foul-smelling bathrooms and insufficiency of places to sit. Various personages of questionable intent, particularly gypsies and persons of Caucasian nationality, trolled the waiting halls, panhandling, selling trinkets, and soliciting fortune readings.

Tanya had too many things to carry all at once. She dragged her suitcases up to the end of the check-in line and asked the woman in front of her to keep an eye on them. When she returned for the boxes mere seconds later, the one for the color TV was gone.

She lost her breath, as if punched in the stomach. The bananas. She spun around and around: thousands of people, thousands of boxes of every stripe in continuous movement like atoms. How could she have not foreseen this?

Tanya shuffled back to her place in line. Now she knew with absolute certainty that she’d been happy just a moment ago, steadily on her way home, with presents for everyone. She began to cry. And she couldn’t stop, not when the woman in front of her asked her what was wrong, and not when, pushing her remaining luggage centimeter by centimeter, she reached the counter and handed her passport and ticket to the check-in clerk.

Everything felt wrong, like she was living in a parallel universe, separated by one crucial degree from the one containing the life she was meant to have. This other, true life was visible to her, even palpable at certain instances—like during the births of her sons—but impossible to occupy. She cried from pity for herself, and because of the stupidity of such pity. She cried for Luciano and for Anton. She cried because she’d only loved one boy with the follow-you-over-the-edge-of-the-earth kind of love—at fifteen. She cried for her mother, who had died two years ago, and whom she still missed every day.

For the rest of her wait Tanya haunted the airport, looking in every corner for the missing box, in the weak hope that, upon opening it, the thieves had discovered no color TV and abandoned it. It was eight in the evening when the plane finally took off.

She landed the following afternoon. Wet snow fell in clumps from the chalky sky. After an hour on the washboard Kolyma Route—the infamous road built on the bones of Gulag prisoners—Tanya began to recognize familiar streets, decorated with red flags along the May Day parade route. Banners with noble yet unrealistic proclamations hung from the most important buildings. The snow kept falling and falling, covering muddy slush from the recent thaw, last year’s yellow grass, and the garbage on the sidewalks—masking, for a short while, the old sins.

The taxi driver parked by Tanya’s building and helped her carry the luggage up to the fourth floor. Their apartment was small, but all their own. Anton was supposed to be at work and the boys in kindergarten, but as she opened the door and right away stumbled over a vacuum cleaner in the hallway, she knew that everyone was home, waiting for her. It smelled deliciously of fried potatoes.

A soccer match played on TV in the living room. Various articles of clothing hung over the backs of chairs, and socks were piled in little nests on the floor. Anton and Pavlik were napping on the couch, Anton’s face raw from a recent shave. She bent down to Pavlik’s bottom: his pants appeared to be clean. She looked at them again. They were a perfect subject for Mary Cassatt, had she painted in Russia. Tanya felt a twinge of pleasure and shame.

She went into the boys’ room. Borya sat on the floor, tinkering with his metal construction set. He wore his favorite orange flannel shirt and briefs. His feet were bare. He looked up at her, first startled, then astonished. His imagination winged back from the distant magical city he was building, and he smiled, baring a gap in his milk teeth. He jumped up and hung on Tanya’s waist. She could feel the angularity of his knees through her coarse traveling pants. As she kissed his head, she noticed a cluster of new freckles on his nose.

“Borechka, put on some socks. The floor is cold.”

“I’m hungry.”

“Papa hasn’t fed you?”

“Papa said to wait for you. We cooked together. I cut a potato myself.”

Tanya pressed Borya to herself so tight that he cried out, but he didn’t try to wiggle free.

“Wait here, kitten.”

Before waking up Anton and Pavlik, she tiptoed into the hallway. The bananas were gone, as she’d suspected, along with the tomatoes, oranges, cheese, Anton’s favorite smoked meat and sausages, and the wine. She rummaged in the suitcase and pulled out the green Yugoslavian dress. Made of high-quality silk, it had hardly gathered any wrinkles on its long journey east.

Copyright © 2014 by Kseniya Melnik

Meet the Author

Kseniya Melnik was born in Magadan, in the northeast of Russia, and immigrated to Alaska at age fifteen. She earned an MFA from New York University and her work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Epoch, Prospect (UK), Virginia Quarterly Review, and was selected for Granta Magazine's New Voices series. She lives in El Paso, Texas.

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