Read Invitation to a Bonfire Online

Authors: Adrienne Celt

Invitation to a Bonfire (5 page)

13.

Let me get back to Vera, though, dear reader. Just for a little while, to cool my mind, move away from Cindy and Adeline and Marion, who all got decent grades that year after all, though Marion ended up leaving anyway, for a Catholic school even farther upstate. Silly girls, with their simple lives and simpler troubles. I wish I could go with them and escape what came next for me, the dark deeds that stumbled across my path, from a kiss on the lips to a slap on the cheek. Not to mention the darker things, which are still coming, even now. But I can't go with those girls, and so I'll go to Vera instead: the one who'll have me, however reluctantly.

I doubt Vera had a dacha either, at least not the sort I dreamed about as a child. Too small, too peasant-inflected. And why would she need one, anyway, when her family lived on a country estate? As big as our whole apartment building, surrounded by forests, veined with creeks and rivers. The house bright yellow and white, like the palace at Peterhof. Probably the land was farmed, but Vera's hands would never have touched soil. She would've had smart calfskin riding gloves and a white Lipizzaner, its mane in braids. She would've learned to make the horse dance from side to side within a ring, but preferred to trot through the countryside and listen to birdsong, watch the secret life beneath the trees. Perhaps once or twice she came upon two peasants fornicating in the bushes, and this would have been the first time she saw the white of a thigh, the curve of a buttock, the hasty motion of stolen passion.

I doubt, too, that she told anyone about them. Not from pity or understanding, you see—she just wouldn't have known any peasants well enough to name names.

It soothes me to remember Vera as she must've been then, during the time that stretched out between our meeting as children and the moment when we were reunited as women and rivals; adults of sound body and mind. Thinking about her youth is restful for me in the same way as looking at a beautiful painting, where a few flicks of the brush come together to create a tableau so warm you want to crawl inside. She had so much that I did not. Silk stockings, piano lessons, an enormous harp in the family's sitting room, set up by a window that stretched ceiling-high. A peaceful image. I imagine her running her fingertips over the strings, not quite playing, but not without a certain sensitivity to their rhythms. At one point, I know, the family brought in a young scholar to guide her reading—a pleasant fellow, if somewhat foppish. Flopping hair. (Lev told me about him once: never met the man himself, but always thought Vera had a crush, from the way she said his name.) Not quite aristocratic, but attuned to the elegance of mathematics, and selected by her father with help from his connections at the university. Her father: an ordinary man, not overbearing, attached to his things. So attached that later, in Paris, he'd die clutching a golden cuckoo clock that had belonged to his grandfather.

Perhaps you'll wonder how I can be sure about any of this. And I can't be, of course: all I have are pieces, stitched together with wobbly thread. I know what little is in the public record, and what she told her husband, up to a point. Lyrical Lev, Lying Lev, Lev the Lothario, or so he liked to think. He used to give me bundles of their letters to riffle through, as a gesture of closeness, knowing that I liked his handwriting, and some of those contained traces of her past. Just jokes, recollections. The rest I have to make up. Not an act of intrusion, in my opinion, but just embellishment and embroidery: we talk about our own lives this way all the time, stretching the truth to fit our feelings. And Vera and I have become so tangled together that in order to tell you my whole story, I have to tell you hers, too. (A nerve-wracking thought: that I am not complete until she is. Well, then, let's continue.)

Vera and the scholar would've been given a schoolroom, I think, but Vera never did like being contained. They would've gone to the library for their lessons instead, to her father's study, to the sitting room, on a divan
beside the harp. Wherever her parents were not. The servants would bring in a samovar of hot tea, and dishes of honey and lemon and jam. Blue and white china cups. Vera's lip on the rim of one, puckered out as she sipped. Her eyes peering sideways between dark lashes, and the scholar watching so intently that he spilled all over a rare collection of eighteenth-century anatomical prints which the two had been innocently perusing. Biology hour. His hand running along the inner, upper quadrant of her thigh. Explaining it to her as a surgeon might see it, while her cheeks flushed but her gaze remained steady. Her neck flushed and she let her mouth open. The thighs themselves flushing as they parted just a little wider, as her hand reached out and found something to hold.

But wait.

Let's leave them alone for a moment, our young lovers. It's the decent thing to do, and more than that, I'd like to walk around the room while their attention is otherwise occupied, removing Vera as the focal point in favor of the space at large. You see, if her life is like a painting, then the details are important: sometimes it's only by studying the background that you understand a picture's true meaning, its actual subject. (Not the pink cheeks of the child sitting for the portrait, but the skull on the shelf behind, the fly on the rotting fruit in the bowl, that tell you what the painter thought about youth and mortality.)

I want to see, if only in my mind's eye, her oak poster bed and the cherrywood tables that line the walls of her chamber. Her hairbrush, bristles chock with black strands because the maid hasn't yet been in. Even the bedclothes, tossed. I want to smell her buttery sleep as I back out the door, so it becomes mine, just a little bit. Run my fingers along the Japanese vases lining the hallways, and see the automaton set behind glass that could, when wound, spin its cane and whistle a frightening tune. I want to sit deep in their sofas, all down-stuffed. Even if it makes me sneeze. To walk through the lemon and chicken-fat air of their kitchen, see the calf strung up for roasting. Take a bite out of a candle, leave tooth prints in the taper and flick wax onto the rug, knowing it'll be vigorously beaten away. I want to see the servants scurry behind secret doors, order the
gardeners to stand by height and by age and by favorite rose. Hellebore here, there gallica.

Oh, but they're finished now. She and he. So young, their love is instantaneous. It's over in a second, and it lasts forever. He'll go back to Leningrad, and she'll be given a lady instructor. An older lady, compared to the girl. Perhaps thirty, thirty-two. Hair of dun. Glasses perched. Only the memory of Vera's young scholar remaining, and the hope of meeting again.

14.

But they won't. Sorry, Vera.

 

Lev

19 June

Airmail via Paris

My Vera. My Verenka. You aren't cross with me, are you? I don't think I could bear it. After all, before I left you pestered me to tell you about the women from my past, because of those beastly rumors, I suppose. And I gave in only because I wanted to soothe you after that series of fits you threw—your version of a fit. A pout. This has been a long time to go without seeing your face or getting a letter, even if I am
en route
. A long stretch without at least the tender animals of your handwriting creeping out across the page in front of me. Do you know I used to hold every one of your letters up to my face, so the words could caress my skin? I'm imagining it now. How I'd breathe them in, the perfect soliloquies of your
q
s and
s
s, the hot hint of the
h
, the burning uproar of the
ж
. And did you know your handwriting is identical in every language? That's not true for everyone. It takes real strength of character.

The scent changes, though, as you hop between tongues. I'm not sure how you achieve the effect, but you can trust me. I am fluent in you. Your Russian is full of pepper and thyme, all the old world and the new—there's a bit of whisky in it, too, an undernote which I appreciate. It's the way you smell on a hot day. After a walk, picking a piece of hair off your forehead, leaning down to pull a bit of grass from your shoe.
Grasshoppers flicking by, pinging off the nearby stones and kicking up dust so it sticks to your skin. Intoxicating, of course. Breathy. Sun-bitter. You might think it would all be gun smoke and snow, but no. It's not the country. It's you, in the country.

Your French begins with mineral water and ends with a thin slice of apple. It's simpler: starvation diet. The middle is miles of unsmoked tobacco and piles of thin paper to roll it in, with sticky ends. But you'll be curious about the English. You've never liked the way you sounded in America, complained that people thought they knew you just by the way your voice hollowed out over certain vowels. You moaned that your vocabulary took on a martial edge, and now you'll want to know: on the page, is there any softening? And I say: of a sort. But I doubt it'll endear you to hear that your American letters are thick with the scent of asphalt melting in the sun. Just pliable, giving under the heel. Bitumen, hydrochloride, diesel drippings. The road one great roasting pan. I wish I knew how you did it. Perhaps you have different pens, but I've examined the ink, and would swear it's all identical.

Come, Vera, have you smiled at all to learn how carefully I categorize you? Even a little? That's my nightingale, my night-blooming flower.

I hope you aren't moping over poor doomed Dina. Such a minor creature to make such a great red stain over our lives. Don't let her. Dina's hair was dark, but not so dark as yours. Her skin was white, but yours is milk. Yours is clean teeth, and the tongue that licks them. You know this. The tongue my tongue, counting your incisors and bicuspids, counting your fingers and your toes. Poor Dina had a single candle in her hand, whereas you have ignited a thousand fatal fires with just the tip of your thumb. Judicious and useful.
Les petites morts de Vera
. I could recite them in front of bishops and have them declared holy, like the deaths of saints. This one in a moving car. This one leaning against the door frame. This one on a fainting couch, your father in the very next room, waiting to pour us glasses of gin. Whereas Dina had just one death, slow and dumb. Lying in her bed, as still as a virgin.

You know, I have at times considered shooting you in the gut just to see how differently you'd take the pain. The distinction, I think, would
be enormous. Not wan, but angry. Your face alive with terse revenge until the moment it was not. Every second a mortal danger to me, as your precious blood drained out into a puddle round my feet. I would not want to cross you, Vera; it would be safer to kill you. You're more formidable than I am. We both know that.

Please write and let me know about your plans for the rest of the summer. I sit in tense anticipation.

 

Zoya

15.

I was a student at the Donne School for a year and a half, spending my one interim summer mimeographing research notes for an anthropology professor before graduating without particular honors. Margaret, for reasons unknown, withstood me the whole time—perhaps it was the frequency with which she awoke to find me gone, staying out the entire day at Marie's caf
é
, or in class, or at the library. Perhaps it was my clothes, never any competition for her own. On the rare occasions when we left the dorm together I looked like some downtrodden child she'd picked up on the street so she could warm me up with a cup of soup, which only made me avoid her more earnestly—as did the fear that Cindy or Adeline might tell her about my shadowing campaign, despite their promises to the contrary. Anyway it was embarrassing to be seen together. I was used to a discount-bin wardrobe, but not to being surrounded by so many people who could afford to do better. In the spring my green coat became too warm, and so I lost even that small piece of armor.

It was a relief not to need a new roommate for my second year, though. Other girls pressed their foreheads together and giggled, plotting to get peak real estate in the towers, with garden views and proximity to the caf. Sometimes they exploded into spectacular arguments: one ing
é
nue slapped another in our history seminar upon finding out she'd been dropped in favor of a rival classmate. For the whole hour, the slapped girl sat stiff and tall, her face shining red but still triumphant. I didn't have
any friends I could ask—it was exhausting enough to speak to strangers in a language I struggled to understand, never mind confidantes—and I didn't want to learn any new behaviors around sharing toiletries and room temperature and ambient sound. In Moscow the heat was controlled by the state, turned on each fall to identical levels city-wide, give or take the functionality of your building's furnace, so the idea that you could adjust a room to suit your exact—even momentary—pleasure was new to me, and I saw how quickly this power went to people's heads. Temperature was at the heart of many domestic battles royale, with girls daily arriving to class covered in sweat, or shivering and wearing fingerless typing gloves. Girls came down with unnecessary head colds. Each room had a gas coil heater that clicked and hissed, burping out alarming sounds in the middle of the night if their settings had been recently changed, and I let Margaret keep ours a bit too high—“I have lizard blood,” she told me, “I need to sit on a hot rock”—because otherwise I couldn't sleep for all the clinking. The idea of adjusting to a new and unpredictable set of preferences alarmed me.

Still, Margaret had plenty of followers, and I figured she'd drop me as soon as she could. Social dynamics among the girls required constant maintenance, and choosing a roommate had the potential to elevate or destroy you, depending. Someone as popular as Margaret might choose a classmate with access to good contraband, or a pretty girl to decorate her room like a flower. Or a less pretty girl, to help herself shine in comparison. She was smart enough not to need a study buddy, or a patsy to do her homework, but everyone needs something. I figured she'd choose to room with her friend Sharon, whose father owned a plant that manufactured skin cream, or Lucy, who had a pert nose and a lisp. Or any of the other moon-faced things that scurried to vacate my bed when I came through the door every night. But no.

“Oh, you,” she said one afternoon near the end of our first year together, returning from class. Always the tone of surprise when we ran across one another in the middle of the day. I was tearing apart my side of the room, throwing thin-elbowed sweaters onto the floor and shaking out textbooks by the spine.

“Have you seen my form?” I asked, not bothering to stop in my search. “Room requests are due.”

Margaret clicked her tongue and sat down in her desk chair, twisting her neck so she could still face me. “I turned it in for you,” she said. “I thought you knew.”

“What?” I inspected the sock in my hand. Unmatched, and unmatchable. I balled it up and tossed it in the wastebasket. “Why would you do that?”

“Well, technically I threw it out.” She flipped her hair down over her face and then back up, catching it into a voluminous ponytail. “You only have to submit one if you're requesting together.”

“What?” I said again.

“Yeah, so because of your whole orphan thing, we got early pick. St. Paul's Tower, third floor.” She raised an eyebrow at me. “Not bad, right?”

I gaped, speechless, and Margaret took this for agreement. Fair enough, I suppose, given our relationship pattern of silence and distance. She turned her back to me and propped open her French textbook, proceeding to read aloud in an atrocious accent about going to the cinema, meeting at the cinema, having been at the cinema, having met.

When I arrived at the Donne School I thought I'd be embraced. Looking up at the tall stone halls after stepping out of the taxi that had been provided for me, I imagined hundreds of girls leaning out the windows waving handkerchiefs, streaming through the doors in white dresses, their hair in very American ponytails, all of their limbs long and healthy and tanned. They would throw their arms out, so many girls crowding around me at once that we'd move and shift like a flock on the wing, wavering back and forth in ferocious tandem. We'd lift up, our toes just barely scraping the ground. Instead, a single matron came out with a clipboard and showed me to my room, where I found Margaret, whose previous roommate had disappeared when her appendix burst without warning. Even after Cindy's threats I occasionally held Margaret's clothes up to my body, imagining what they'd look like on. She came back from the bathroom once rather quicker than I'd anticipated and found me trying on her lipstick—just a dab, as I wasn't brave enough to wear much color. “No,”
she told me. That was all she had to say. I gave in like a puppy, rolling over to expose the soft pink of my belly, hoping she might pick me up in her mouth and carry me with her wherever she went. Which is what I really wanted. Not the whole school in tennis whites, but Margaret at least.

What I got was Margaret. And I was glad not to lose her, not to have lost her, to keep her at least for a while, to have kept.