By Alan Cheuse
Santa Fe Writers Project Copyright © 2007 Alan Cheuse
All rights reserved.
The worst news always comes at the worst possible moment. In Gina's case, this happened to be while she was squatting over the commode in the upstairs bathroom, attempting to catch a urine sample for Dr. Betsy Cohen. She felt so ridiculous, the weeks of hot and cold flashes, the upswings and downturns of mood, the deep and nearly debilitating sense of longing for Paul, and then long stretches of absolute indifference, even — oh, this may just have been the worst of it all before the telephone rang — even wishing, yes, that he might stay away a while longer.
This was, in fact, Gina's third try at catching a sample.
Steady, steady, she was saying to herself. I can fix a perfect Bloody Mary on demand, I know exactly when I begin to ovulate — or used to — and I can flip a pancake in a thirty-mile-an-hour wind — remembering that lovely camping trip they had taken in the Sierra just after a visit to Paul's mother in Sacramento — but I can't seem to collect pee in a vial.
Actually, on her first attempt, she had done it perfectly, scarcely splashing anything on her fingers and hand. But then it turned out that she had forgotten whether or not the collection had been of her first urination of the day or her second. She was supposed to save a sample of her second. And she was almost sure this had been it. Except that she had a vague recollection of waking in the early dawn light and staggering into the bathroom. Or could that have been the morning before? Or might it have been a dream? Paul had come to her in the night, pulling a red wagon, the kind that small boys use to deliver sand to their neighbors while pretending that it is gold. Nothing portentous in that, yes? Then the dream changed, a wall of darkness became a scrim of rain, and there was her father — years since she had dreamed of him — in deep conversation with her first husband, and try as she might, Gina could not make out anything they said. Funny, how she had strained to listen, immediately forgetting the sight of Paul.
The second try? She had gotten the timing right, she had peed in a jiffy into the container, and then, as she was putting the thing away in the freezer to store while she waited the appropriate time according to the instructions for collection of her saliva samples, she dropped the little collection vial, spilling some of her urine onto the kitchen counter.
And now wait, here she was, just about to finish this third time, her pants down around her ankles, her skirt rucked up into her lap, tangy liquid gushing out of her, her knuckles damp but her mind focused — when the telephone rang.
A few moments of comedy as she stood up, spraying her underwear, her skirt, the bathroom mat, the tile floor, and struggled to adjust her clothes even as she dropped the vial onto the mat and staggered out of the bathroom and sent herself stumbling toward the telephone on the bedside table. She was thinking this wouldn't happen to Paul, he takes the portable telephone into the bathroom with him. Which made her laugh out loud.
And then — more comedy — the doorbell rang — she would never know who it was at the door, because after a while they stopped ringing — just as she picked up the telephone.
"Hello?" she said, hoping, of course, that it was Paul. She would tell him immediately about her immediate circumstances, squatting, aiming herself at the vial. He would —
Thick accent, something out of Russia? Did she know a Russian? Did she know someone in Russia?
Satellite delay, the connection fading in and out. This feeling of telephone limbo, an awful by-product of modern life. Sometimes Gina told herself that she might have been better off born into an earlier age. Just when that might have been, she couldn't figure. Sometime when —?
"Missus Morgan, This is Mohammed Kirov. Your husband's —"
It wasn't that she cut him off, it was just the satellite delay made her overspeak his voice.
"I know who you are, yes," Gina said. "Paul has often —"
And then the same thing happened to her as happened to him.
"— assistant," Kirov said. "Here in Uzbekistan, the roads —"
"— spoken about you. But why —?"
"— [words faded out] traveling, you understand —?"
"Why are you calling? Where's —"
Silence at the other end, nothing there at all except the slight echoing in and out of the reflection of the silence in the space between here and some point above the Earth, or along the line where her voice bounced back down on his side of the globe.
"Missus Morgan?" Suddenly his voice returned, stronger than before, emphatic, almost as though he had something to sell her or a message of great importance and he stood just outside the door to the room demanding to be let in.
And then of course it came to her, and as if this Kirov, or some other man, an intruder bent on wounding her, pounding away at her, raping her, killing her, had smashed in the door and pushed her down beneath it, she felt all the air leave her lungs and she staggered back onto the bed, feeling the dampness between her legs, the legacy of comedy, but the comedy had ended.
On the flight east, she had plenty of time — many times the time — to reenact the incident in her mind. The medication that Dr. Betsy had prescribed for her a few weeks ago, just after Paul had left on the first leg of this trip, hadn't kicked in, or it wasn't strong enough a dose. Her departure from home was just too hurried for her to worry about such things. But when she settled back in the leather seat after takeoff — luckily, she had gotten a place in first class, a combination of her frenzied state when she appeared at the airport and a sympathetic clerk behind the ticket counter — and God help you that you need such things to happen to you in order to travel in this manner — she knew that the trip was going to be the most difficult of her life.
Turbulence over the Atlantic didn't bother her. Dishes rattled, other passengers spoke in harried whispers, unable to sleep through the frightening bounces and jamming in air. She was awake, alert, and in her mind going over and over again the incident as Kirov had described it to her.
First of all, Paul wouldn't have been drunk. It had been two years since he had stopped drinking and there was no reason in the world — none, at least, that she could at first imagine, and her imagination was certainly racing along at least as fast as the jet she was flying in — that would lead him to start again.
But then she tried to picture it, and suddenly, on the wings of this awful euphoria — the only way that she could describe it — of delusion in which you would think anything in the world no matter how illogical if it would bring him back to you — it didn't seem all that preposterous that he could have perhaps taken one, maybe two, drinks. He was alone, tired, why not?
The flight attendant came up the aisle, smiled, showing beautiful white teeth, the kind Paul always admired. (Gina had off-white teeth and always felt a little uneasy when Paul would point out the brilliant smile of even a particularly plain woman whom they might encounter.) What if he had met a woman with a smile like that? What if she had sat next to him? That might have led him to ask the flight attendant for a Bloody Mary, his old favorite. So what if he had one or two? He hadn't ever been an alcoholic, he just drank too much. And he had decided to stop. On a long flight, the same flight that she was on the first leg of, any man might have succumbed to the urge to make himself comfortable.
(But why wasn't she drinking? She always enjoyed a drink, fixing at least one of those perfect Bloody Marys for herself for every two he drank. Why wasn't she drinking? She couldn't say. Well, yes, she could. Why lie to herself? The alcohol would combine with the tranquilizer and knock her out. She didn't want oblivion. She wanted to stay awake, to think about him.)
Paul had arrived late on the flight from Moscow. A foolish thing, to go through Moscow, but he had not been there for several years and wanted to see all of the fabled changes he had heard about, the markets overflowing with fruit from the south, the new boutiques, the flashy dressers on the street, herds of big expensive new cars. And of course he had wanted to see their old apartment. That thing he had for history, personal, public. It was just a hobby, nothing at all to do really with how he earned his living. But it was all-consuming. Digging about in his family's past, pressing her for the details of her own past. Keeping a notebook. What if they had had children? (Well, a child who had lived ...) That might have turned his eye toward the future rather than the past. Maybe. But when you consider the way friends of theirs who did have children kept such methodical records, photographic and otherwise, of their childrens' lives, Paul would probably have done the same, making notes of everything from — where did it begin? — first breath and first bowel movement, on to first steps, first words, and beyond.
Gorky Street, across from one of the big tourist hotels. Seventh floor, with a wonderful view across the Kremlin and the river. The apartment had belonged to a mid-level Party official, who had somehow managed to sell it to Paul's company during that ephemeral time when Gorbachev's people were talking about deals they wanted to make with western companies but no one was putting anything on paper.
"The government's just like this apartment," Paul had said. "They want to air it out, but the windows are stuck."
"It certainly smells like every head of cabbage they boiled."
"Gina, these were privileged Party people," Paul said. "If they boiled anything in here, it would have been artichokes imported all the way from California." He laughed his hearty laugh and went out the door. Gina opened a window and leaned out over the street seven stories below and watched as he exited the building and followed his progress along the sidewalk until he was lost in the crowd.
With Paul at his meetings, she used the time to explore. That is what wives of American engineers did, wasn't it? Moscow was then still a safe city and with her British-bought rain slicker concealing her obviously American clothes, she could walk the streets and ride the metro without people paying her too much attention. So she floated silently through flea markets and half-filled shops, to small museums and even to the wretched Moscow zoo where most of the animals looked like refugees from happier zones.
In front of the compound where the ammoniac odor of the big cats was so overwhelming that she felt her knees begin to give, a man caught her by the shoulder.
He said something in Russian.
"I don't speak ..." Gina turned around. He was middle-aged, with a day's growth of white beard, and wore jeans and an oddly made denim jacket.
"Are you all right?" the man asked in French.
She nodded, thanked him, took a quick look at the two ragged tigers lying there on the filthy rocks, and walked away.
She couldn't wait until Paul came back that night, even if it was only to hustle her out the door to a business dinner at the city's most famous Central Asian restaurant. There was a British couple from the corporation and several Russian men, all of them absolutely polite even after they had run through the table's fourth bottle of Hungarian red. There was music from an accordion player and a guitarist, with a young girl who played the flute and a boy, who could have been her brother, tapping on small drums and clinking tiny tin cymbals.
"Our American partner," said one of the Russians, a young man with long hair curling over his ears and a suit that to Gina's eye appeared to have cost more than Paul's. He raised his glass.
The couple from London did the same.
By the time they finished toasting, they had emptied two more bottles of the red.
"And do you find our city interesting?" The other Russian spoke. He was older, and portly, clean-shaven and smelling of expensive western cologne.
"I went to the zoo," Gina said.
"There is zoo here?" the younger Russian said.
The older man looked at him with a piteous glance.
"It's a filthy place," the British woman said.
"We're rebuilding," the portly Russian said. "And thanks to people such as Paul Morgan, the good things will come faster."
"Who goes to this zoo?" the younger Russian asked.
"Families," the portly man said.
"Yes," Gina said, "there were families there."
"Do you and Paul have any children?" The British woman hovered closer to her.
"No," Gina said, looking at Paul. "Well ... no ..."
Paul might have been about to speak, but the young Russian businessman had a question.
"Perhaps there is money to be made in zoo?"
The older man laughed.
"Selling off the seals by the pound?"
Gina had a flickering thought about the unshaven but courteous man at the tiger pit, and then asked the British woman about her family. And with that wonderful manner of his, within a minute or two Paul got them all laughing again. She was very proud of him and pleased that she had decided to take two weeks away from her job at the museum in order to accompany him on this trip. But then she had for years wanted to see him in action on the road. It was a memory that no one could take away from her, ever.
When they returned to the apartment after the meal Gina imagined she caught a whiff of the rank scent of the big, bedraggled cats — this didn't blend well with the lingering traces of the artichokes or whatever they had cooked here. She was suddenly sorry that they had eaten such hot food. And then she took the taste of Paul's mouth in hers, and a wonderfully dreamy half hour of love-making followed, flavored with Central Asian spices.
Had Paul remembered some of it when he passed through the city this time? He might have been too busy. The firm had a large office in the city center and the same portly Russian, or so Paul had explained it to her over the telephone before he left on his flight to Tashkent, was now the chief executive officer of an entirely new configuration of oil and gas interests, something as close to a subsidiary of the American corporation as you could get under the current Russian laws. While she listened to Paul, she could hear the noises of a busy office in the background.
"How has it been for you?" he asked.
"I was up all night again," she said, trying, while she spoke, to figure the time difference between them.
"The same problems?"
"Yes," she said. "Terrible hot flashes."
"I'm sorry," he said. "Are you doing anything for it?"
"I've got an appointment with Betsy Cohen," she said. "She wants to run some tests on me. So she can see if it's actually happening."
"Good scientific approach," he said.
"Paul," she said.
"I can't even begin to talk calmly about this. It is driving me crazy."
"Sorry," he said.
"You keep saying that," she said.
"Sorry. Sorry! What else am I supposed to say?"
"I don't know," she said. "Maybe I better hang up."
"Not just yet," he said. "Tell me about your day."
"Not a bad day," she said. "I just feel sort of blah. It's the nights, Paul."
"The nights," he said.
"I'm sorry I'm not there to comfort you," he said.
"Don't feel sorry," she said. "If you were here, you would feel worse. Because you couldn't comfort me."
"It's that bad?"
"That's what I'm trying to tell you. Yes."
Pause at his end of the line.
"I haven't been getting a great deal of sleep myself."
"That. And passing through these time zones. I've already been out and back once since we last spoke, you know."
"Yes, a quick trip to Alma Ata and back again."
"'Out and back,'" she said. "That would give me a headache. On top of my headache."
"I don't have a headache. I'm just a bit tired. I hope to get some sleep on the plane to Tashkent, but you never can tell about those flights."
"About any flights," she said.
"Right," he said.
"So," she said.
"When are you going to see the doctor?"
"I told you, I'm having these tests."
"What exactly are they?"
"Urine samples, saliva samples."
A pause at his end of the line.
"I'd like to sample your saliva," he said.
"Oh, you would?"
"I would," he said. "As soon as I get back I'll conduct some tests on you myself." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Fires by Alan Cheuse. Copyright © 2007 Alan Cheuse. Excerpted by permission of Santa Fe Writers Project.
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