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Authors: Adrienne Celt

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BOOK: Invitation to a Bonfire
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I've never been able to forget this passage, for instance, about Felice and her husband, Peter, who drove her both to her death and her rebirth:

This was their love: his hands on her face, smudging it into some semblance of a smile. Fingers pushing between her teeth, scraping the roof of her mouth and pressing her tongue back until she gagged on it. He shook her until her head came undone, brain rattling around like eggs in a basket. Cracking, leaking all over itself. She remembered one day in particular, crawling across the floor while Peter stomped on the hem of her dress. “You're so pretty when I look at you from above,” he told her. That night he took her out to dinner, after brushing her hair and helping her apply lipstick. And she did look pretty, just as he said. Pink in the cheeks, with her hair arranged just so. He tied her belt for her, fitted tight around her waist, and kissed her so hard it brought tears to her eyes.

She had tried to leave him before, and when she came home, he was the one who always cried
.

I thought:
yes, he would cry
. Not because he was sorry, but because each return would prove that Felice hadn't understood him yet, that he hadn't gone far enough. For Lev, I thought, the pain of her returns must have been equally acute. Making a monster being, after all, not so different from becoming one. Perhaps he embraced his monstrousness just so Felice could be a hero. Maybe all those Donne girls froze their fingers so I could be proud of protecting the greenhouse glass from balls of ice.

When I had fifteen minutes to spare, I'd go find Lev, or he would find me. We were careful not to be spotted together anymore, but the logistics of that care sometimes meant dropping everything and running as fast as I could through the snow. I ruined more than one pair of shoes that way, and my fingers kept getting cold, losing feeling at the very tips, beneath the nails. Once, late morning, I came back to the greenhouse and found several flower bushes depleted of their blooms; for the next few days, girls all over campus wore corsages pinned to their shirts, smirking when they caught my eye. I'd thought I was safe because we were nearing midterm exams, but I miscalculated, or one of them just got bored and saw her chance. After that I always locked the door when I left, even to
use the restroom. John got stuck outside a few times this way, since he always forgot to carry his keys.

“What's with the extra security?” he asked me, when I returned to find him shivering there, hands stuck under his arms for warmth. It was February then.

“I'm just taking precautions,” I said. “Protecting our work.”

“Well, that's fine, honey.” John breathed into his palms as I turned the key and let us inside, heat hitting our cheeks all muggy and strong, like the warm sigh of a horse. “Just try not to outsmart yourself, ok?”

And I did try. I did.

38.

It took me months to admit to Lev what I knew about his wife. Namely, her maiden name, her patronymic, the way she wore her hair as a girl. I didn't want to risk losing his attention by bringing anyone else inside our stolen moments together, when I could keep his focus secure. Mouth to thigh, wrist bound to bed. Then I was just afraid he wouldn't believe me, as indeed Vera later didn't—“You're mistaken,” she said. “I was never a Pioneer.” And when I insisted she got stern and asked, “Do I really look like a cultist?”

But with Lev, there was no need for concern. It was spring by the time I got up the nerve, and we were both somewhat giddy with the turn in the weather. He laughed at my description of her twisted mouth and scout uniform, the way she dropped the yarn and fled. We were sprawled in my bedroom, limbs akimbo, with afternoon sun filtering in through the curtains. He reached across the mattress and pulled me on top of him. Murmured sweetly into my neck.

“Of course,” he said. “I always sensed a connection between you.”

You may be surprised to learn I took this as a compliment. Most women—or let me be clearer: most mistresses—want to distinguish themselves from their lover's wives. Dye their hair the opposite hue, go vamp where she's virtue or vice versa. Say the things she never says, agree to
whatever she's withholding. But I knew better than to play that game with Lev. For one thing, he adored me for just who I was, and said so. When he slipped into the greenhouse and walked up behind me, pressing himself onto the small of my back, he would say, “Hello, working girl.” He took me on dates out of town, driving a recently acquired Mercedes-Benz with enough aplomb to make up for his lack of expertise, and took special pleasure in buying me things I couldn't otherwise afford. We had many fine wines under these auspices. Cassoulet and filet mignon. And there was something more—his genuine shiver of pleasure when he touched my skin. Which I felt too. The kind of awe you can't fake, or fully articulate. Our only fit vocabulary being touch, taste, smell.

But he didn't hate Vera. God no, he loved her. Couldn't get enough, and was terrified of her. Quick wit, pale skin, infinity as expressed through human flesh. There was some electric current that went between them, replenishing itself only when it was passed back and forth. The sex was good. He spoke of his work and I could tell he was picturing her face, the tics that let him know what was affecting and what was weak. Tics he had internalized, so he had an inner Vera, driving him by the sticky shift. When I climbed on top of him and rolled my hips, he was there, and he was gone. He was with her, too. A parallelism I know pained him, more and more as time went on. But, at least in the beginning, I was more flattered than distressed to be the grand exception to their perfect union.

“What do you mean,” I asked, “by a connection?”

He turned away, moving me gently off of him and then lying on his back, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands. Lev, who fate had brought to me. “How else could I possibly love you both?” he asked.

“The human heart—?” It was a weak suggestion, but still. Surely he knew he wasn't the first man to find a second bed, a second comforting womanly form. Though I winced to think of myself that way. Always wondering:
what about those girls?
Leo Orlov chasing fawns across the grass.

“Don't be ridiculous. It's not a matter of being fickle. Maybe when I was young.” He sighed, and I knew: he had been fickle then. A spritz of envious fireworks went up in my head and in that moment I stopped being able
to contain my curiosity. Not ten minutes earlier, he'd bitten my inner thighs so hard there were marks.

“But what about your students?”

“My—?” He laughed. “Well, I suppose I love them in a certain way.”

“Which way.” I reached over and grabbed him. Caressing with just enough force to make him open his mouth but not enough to elicit a gasp. “Tell me. Be honest.”

“Oh—my dear. I always am.”

“Are you?”

“You draw the truth out of me like a venom. The girls. What are you asking me?”

I kept moving my hand, and I said, “You know.” His face flexed painfully, and I wanted to kiss him hard and shut him up. Keep him mine. But I wanted him to answer my question even more.

“Oh no. No. They—I never. Never touched them.”

“That's not what they say.”

He licked his lips. “Children.”

“Yes.”

“They lie.”

I stopped. My eyes filled up with tears. The same eyes with which I'd seen him running after Daphne, stalking her amidst the laurels.

“It doesn't look like a lie.”

Lev sat up and regarded me. His face touchingly flushed. He didn't reach out for my shoulder, didn't take my hand and nibble my fingers, as he often did for a distraction. In fact he looked as serious as I'd ever seen him, no less so for his obvious arousal, his body alert for action.

“You noticed. Of course. You were supposed to—or anyway, people were.” I turned away to wipe a tear, and now he did touch me, taking my chin in his hand and swiveling me back to face him. “I thought maybe in time you'd guess it.”

“Well, I haven't.”

“Try.”

“You love me.” He nodded his encouragement. “But it started before we even met.” Another nod, raised brow. I crumpled. “I don't know.”

“Think, darling. You know how Vera is—a part of my professional life.” Now it was my turn to nod. “You know, then, that she is in charge of every move. I don't mean to say I didn't let it happen,” he gestured to nothing, an irritated flick of the wrist. The memory of a party, or two or three, that he tried to escape to, only to find her already there. His manuscripts, all covered with her writing. A blessing first, and then more of a trap. “But now it seems unstoppable. When we came here—well, I didn't want to be here at all. No, don't protest, of course that's all different now. But I mean, she has always been able to change things for me.” A haunted look. “Out from under me, even. And I started to wonder, once we settled in, what it would be like if she couldn't anymore.”

39.

He told me about his plan, which had been cooking underneath his hood for who knows how long. Less a plan than a feeling. If lowly, loving Lev gave in to his baser impulses, who could blame his wife for being upset? He might let it slip over drinks with a fellow prof, or over scotch with George Round: things not exactly rosy at the homestead. And yes, he'd say with a little
mea culpa
wink, perhaps he had been seeking succor, though a gentleman would never tell.

They wouldn't ask. The provost? He wouldn't want, exactly, to know if his new star faculty member was dipping into the company ink. They would just assume, and over time it would become the face Lev wore in public. Rapscallion. Dashing bastard. Brilliant enough that no one would protest, least of all the conquered coquettes, picking up a bit of color before going co-ed. No need to actually touch a single hand when the story was so likely, and had so much of its own steam.

Over time things would heat up—he'd mention lipstick on a collar, you know, theoretically, and how wives—plural, imprecise, unnamed—might not like it. Might throw a fit, or even a lamp, straight for the head. Though a well-timed duck meant the object smashed against a wall instead. And at home he'd elbow one over, so if any breezy questions were put to Vera
she'd be forced to corroborate, in a manner that made her look complicit in the lie. “Oh yes, he's terribly clumsy, isn't he? I can't let him near any of our finer china.” Meanwhile she would still be signing off on every move, shifting the chess pieces in whatever order she pleased, and he'd make sure she sent every letter, attended every important meeting, made most of the phone calls. Her grip visible on every part of his life except one.

He was a writer. He could come up with the right set of circumstances to forestall any serious suspicion. A woman pushed over the edge, maybe to a sanatorium, maybe something more, when she found out her control was less than total. She would do the work for him, anyway. He just needed to set the stage.

“You really want her gone?” I asked. I'll admit I was surprised.

“I want to be free of her,” he told me. “I thought it would just be for a while.”

But now, he said, there was me to consider, and I'd changed everything. (A thrill I can still feel, remembering how he said it. Everything?) I'd reminded him that his work was his own, as I'd reminded him that his body was. A stint away, having her mental health called into permanent question, no longer seemed enough. We were too alike, she and I, he said. We were the same soul, a twin soul, in two different women—because of course how else could he fall for us both, how else could he need us both so completely, when his heart was so terribly true?—and the laws of nature would not let us abide for too long side by side.

“We have to get rid of her once and for all,” he said. For his books, for my safety, for our happiness. So all of them could flourish unchecked. I would help him push her to it, he said. Learn her habits. Find a time.

And like a fool, I let him convince me.

 

Lev

5 July 1931

Airmail via Berlin

My god, Vera. A short note to let you know I've survived. Recuperating in Berlin, under false name, natch. Will be home within the week. Alert the school to resume my courses in the fall. Prepare yourself to hear the story of my failure.

As a side note, I hope you've had a lovely time on the coast. I was glad to know you decided to take the trip, after all. Your letter reached me just before Vlad and I were set to depart, and it cheered me infinitely to learn you'd be traveling with Zoya and taking the waters side by side. She strikes me as a virtuous girl. Entirely your cup of tea.

 

Zoya

40.

That first night, after he told me about his plan for Vera, I cried into Lev's lap. Face scratching against the thick hair on his legs, tears soaking the skin and then, later, staining his pant leg while he petted my head and told me it would be alright.

I asked: “But don't you love her?” and he said, “Of course.” And that was all. Terse. Determined. He had lived for too many years under her ingenious thumb, and had finally decided to break free. He looked like a man making a terrible choice, which I suppose he was, and it made me wonder what my face revealed to him. Did I look like a weapon? A
femme fatale
with a knife held casually between her fingers? I told him I didn't have it in me to kill someone, and he said, “No, darling, we need her to more or less do it herself anyway.” Which I had to admit, with Vera, seemed like the only plausible way. I imagined her stopping a bullet with her hand, just lifting a palm and batting it to the ground. Smelling poison in a glass, or wrestling her way free from a strangling. She was, Lev told me, surprisingly fit. That's why I was only to watch her for now, and figure out the right time to act.

He didn't let me dress when he did. Said he was going to tuck me in bed like a good little girl, so I could sleep away my sorrow and wake up the next morning to examine our options with a critical eye. He kissed me, all across my face and down my neck, paying special attention to the flat expanse where my breastbone gave way to my breasts. We had been
meeting for months, and he knew what I liked. How I loved him. Most of all when he broke my skin with his teeth, or pinched my thighs so hard they bruised. When he marked me, changed me, made me his. That night he slipped out the door and whispered, “Sweet dreams.” And I lay in bed, blanket up to my chin, shining with the tender lesions he left all up and down my arms and legs. The darkest spot a bruise on my heart, a thought in my head I could not escape.

I loved Lev, but still, my first instinct was to shield Vera. Perhaps out of fidelity to our shared past, the things we had both survived so far. I imagined her shivering alone at home, maybe lighting a cigarette on the front porch with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders, waiting for her husband to come up the walk. Our town in spring was a haven for bats, who came screeching through the sky to decimate the insect population. We all found them rather heroic, but the total saturation was unnerving, as was the way they'd swoop and turn, bending their arcs of flight erratically in the darkness. In my mind's eye, one came close to the imagined Vera and she gave a cry, dropping her still-lit cigarette on the wood slats and stamping it out madly before running inside. I wanted to knock the bat away and comfort her. Run the back of my hand gently across her cheek until she'd cried herself to sleep.

But that was a peasant's response: protect the ruling class, protect the status quo. Well, and I was a perfect peasant. During my last years in Moscow suspicion was general throughout the city—everyone informing on everyone else, everyone condemning the informants behind closed doors. I used to have tea with our next-door neighbor Albina, a pleasantly stout
babushka
who had the unfortunate habit of smacking her gums—the result of bad teeth, which predated state medical care. I'd been visiting her for several months when she pulled out a scrapbook one afternoon and began paging through it with me. Not family photographs or pieces of baby hair cut from her children's balmy heads, but a bunch of newspaper clippings. They were, I realized, from underground papers, of the sort people passed from hand to hand in dark alleys or printed on T-shirts so they could be couriered without suspicion. But these didn't contain any vital information from a resistance party, they were just—jokes. Bad
jokes, mostly, at the state's expense. “Where has Comrade Stalin's mustache been lately?” and “Who disappears faster: a man whose wife has found him cheating or a loyal Party member?” Half of them didn't even make sense, but there was a hysterical earnestness that made it hard to look away. Albina must've thought I'd find them funny. Instead they chilled me to the bone.

I'd like to say I didn't tell on her, but it was a dark time. At that point all I knew was that the Party was in charge, and that I was meant to respect authority the way I loved my own father and mother. More than, actually, since by then my father was gone, taken away for the protection of our household values. With a young person's paranoia, I became convinced that the NKVD would somehow know what I'd seen at Albina's, and track me by the counter-revolutionary phrases burned into my retinas. True, I didn't denounce her to the police—I was a child, not a monster. But I did let slip to another neighbor who shared our courtyard that Albina had something she should not. There were rewards for denunciation, and we were all so hungry. Within a week Albina was gone, and I never saw her again.

I wanted to believe I'd grown since then, but was that true? Once again I found myself choosing between happiness and good, as my father had insisted I must, and choosing wrong. Vera had always had everything—me, nothing. I knew this. But it was one thing to borrow, and another to steal. One thing to run my fingers over her throat, and another to pinch them closed and squeeze. I would have preferred to absorb her instead, drinking her essence up through a straw. But I didn't have that option. I had Lev, and he had his opinions.

41.

And so I became a spy. Every morning I set my alarm for a half hour earlier than I was used to, and instead of turning left at the end of my street I turned right. My new path to the Donne School campus was roundabout, but it took me past Lev and Vera's house in a neighborhood two
ticks more upscale than my own. Their street was beautifully leafy, green in the summer, then golden, then bare; now it was springtime, and the ground was pocked with the pale, bent figures of emerging crocuses. There was a particular mother who, in that period, sometimes walked the street with her infant girl at six
A.M
., hushing the child on her shoulder or else pointing out bluebirds in the trees; it reminded me of the walks I used to take through Maple Hill during my first winter, when everything was limned with ice. An innocence, I suppose, shared between both.

Over time, I got good at pretending to be casual, checking my lipstick in a pocket mirror or stooping down to tie my shoe. Buying myself a minute or two to dawdle without calling attention to myself. I watched Vera carry a coffee cup—or was it tea?—through a doorway (I presumed from the kitchen) and up to the bay window in the front of the house. She rarely lingered long, but I enjoyed seeing how her hair changed from day to day. Loose waves, low chignon; visible static or perfectly smooth. In the mornings she always wore a kimono-style dressing gown of purple and white, which made her look a bit like a magician.

After she disappeared from my view I'd walk on and arrive at the greenhouse by six forty-five, unlocking it with my black metal key and breathing deep the sweet wet mix of mineral and vegetable, oxygen pulsing from the space's veins. Sometimes I'd stop and gag for a moment, trying to force out the sickness that settled, more and more often, in the pit of my stomach. Work was the only place I could feel normal.

And work I did. I checked for insect infestations with a level of attention normally reserved (or so I assume) for technicians monitoring dials at the making of a bomb. I coddled my favorites. The small saguaro cactus I'd acquired at the beginning of my tenure had gone gangrenous—it was too hard to keep it dry, especially since I'd made the mistake of potting it first with a mixture of peat soil, which “absolutely invited mites” as John so helpfully put it. The bottom shriveled up like a raisin, and the top looked pale all the time, with weak spots. But instead of giving up I checked on it every day, repotting it with a great deal of sand and moving it around the greenhouse to make sure it never got sunburned or spent too long languishing in the shade. I helped Donne girls sprout pea
pods, and grew a new variety of tomato for the cafeteria on Hilda's request: a fussy plant we started from seeds her mother sent over from their home garden in Nebraska. John and I added goldfish to the lily pond, and occasionally they splashed startlingly in the quiet.

What I wanted to know was whatever marinated in Vera's core. The small and secret preferences. Did she like tea biscuits brought over from England? Did she sneeze when she cracked too much pepper on her food? When she saw the color yellow, did she hear bells, and when she hummed to herself were the notes blue and green and melancholic? Was there pity in her marrow? I often returned to the house at lunchtime and saw her sweeping away on foot to who knows where; Lev always took the car, although he readily admitted that she was the better driver, and wherever she went she had no interest in taxis or buses or limousines. Her purses always matched her shoes, and both were sensible but stylish: a low heel that still somehow managed to make her legs look longer, her ankles slim. She had perfected that purposeful stride which generates gyrational speed from a sexual wobble at the hips. In May she stepped on a robin's eggshell, crushing it beneath her toe. I don't know why I thought any of this would help me.

I tried to follow her once when she left the house, but without turning around or even—to my knowledge—realizing I was there, she took evasive maneuvers involving a flower garden and a row of parked mail trucks, each identical. She always did have a habit of disappearing at the trickier moments. Nonetheless, there is no level, I found, of cruelty or savvy in a victim that makes you feel better about contemplating her murder. Not better, no, but perhaps more accustomed. I wondered if maybe she was unhappy in her marriage, if anyone had ever felt sorry for her, in all her life. I wondered if she was doing wicked things to Lev's manuscripts, remembering that word she'd scrawled:
askew
. The longer I spent around Vera and my plants, the more the tenor and tone of the projects bled into one another. If Lev was right, and she and I were like two roses from one bush, then we were just dead-heading old flowers to allow for new growth. In this case: her head, my growth. A fairly painless and ordinary process for most gardeners that grew more and more difficult for me, until I found
myself sobbing down the front of my shirt, staring at the pruning shears in my hand like an absolute imbecile.

42.

Point of interest: when you prune a plant, a certain number of them actually bleed. Take the rubber plant, or ficus, common to office desks and dusty shelves. If you cut a bit away with a knife—making sure to cut towards your thumb, to maintain control and avoid slicing open your hand; there are tendons in there that can roll back all the way to the elbow—a thick white syrup will pour out down the stem. Eventually the wound will callus and the plant will heal, not only growing in a more attractive or convenient direction but often sprouting two to four new stems, getting bushier and bushier for all you cut away. Which sounds, from a certain angle, like a threat: it hemorrhages as you plunge in the knife, but after that gets stronger and fitter, shedding limbs like so many shirts and stockings, lingerie dangled off the end of a finger before dropping, drifting to the ground.

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