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Authors: Lara Vapnyar

Still Here

BOOK: Still Here
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2016 by Lara Vapnyar

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Hogarth, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

HOGARTH is a trademark of the Random House Group Limited, and the H colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

Photo of Afghan hound used as Facebook icon on
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Vapnyar, Lara, author.

Title: Still here : a novel / Lara Vapnyar.

Description: First edition. | New York : Hogarth, [2016]

Identifiers: LCCN 2015040138

Subjects: LCSH: Russians—New York (State)—New York—Fiction. |

Immigrants—New York (State)—New York—Fiction.

Classification: LCC PS3622.A68 S75 2016 | DDC 813/.6—dc23 LC record

available at​2015040138

ISBN 9781101905524

ebook ISBN 9781101905531

Cover design: Michael Morris

Cover photographs: (
New York City
) Win-Initiative/Getty Images; (
floor molding
) Jon Boyes/Getty Images; (
) bgblue/Getty Images



Promise me you won't call it ‘virtual grave,' ” Vica said as they turned onto the West Side Highway.

“You were the one who hated ‘The Voice from the Grave'!” Sergey said.

“ ‘The Voice from the Grave' is even worse. We can't afford a name that's a downer.”

“Well, the entire idea is about death. And death happens to be a downer,” Sergey said.

They had been discussing it the entire time in the car, all the way from their home on Staten Island to Vadik's new apartment in Morningside Heights, and Vica was getting tired.

“You're not getting it, are you?” she asked. “Death is a downer. But your app is about fighting death. That's why you should be talking about immortality, not death. And don't mention your Fyodorov either. Nobody's ever heard of him.”

“He was the most original philosopher of the nineteenth century!”

“Nobody thinks so except for you!”

Sergey groaned and squeezed the steering wheel tighter.

He'd been steadily losing his looks for the last year or two. He used to be the handsomest guy in their circle. He had looked like a French movie star, like what's-his-name—the guy from the Truffaut films. Now his angular features had become unsteady and incomplete, as if worn down by constant discontent, and even his wiry frame had become kind of unwired and clouded with fat. Vica had been watching the demise of his former splendor with mixed feelings. There were times when she felt sorry for him. There were times when she gloated. But mostly she felt cheated.

“How about calling it ‘No to Death' or ‘No, Death, No'?” she asked.

“No, death, what?” Sergey started to laugh. His laugh was throaty and coarse and sounded a lot like a cough, a very bad cough. And it seemed to sputter resigned disapproval, as if he were trying to say that he found her disgusting and stupid, but that he was used to her and almost okay with it.

Vica hated his laugh so much that she wanted to kick him, but instead she turned away from him and fell silent.

She wished Vadik's place weren't so far away. But then everything was far from Staten Island. Regina lived in the most beautiful part of Tribeca. It would take her twenty minutes by taxi to get to Vadik's. Vica wondered if Regina was already there.

They had all been friends in Russia. All four of them: Sergey and Vadik, then Regina, then Vica. Sergey and Vadik had met when they were sixteen and had had a hotly competitive friendship ever since. Vica didn't quite understand their relationship but felt envious just the same, because she had never had anything like that with anybody. Regina had been Sergey's girlfriend all through graduate school. Then Sergey left her for Vica, but Regina didn't disappear from their group, because she had developed an intimate, completely unnatural friendship with Vadik. How can you have a platonic relationship with a man, Vica often wondered—especially a man like Vadik?

They'd all wanted to leave the country. Vadik, Sergey, and Regina had applied to several graduate schools in the United States. They were all smart—with Vadik the most flexible, Regina the most reflective, and Vica the most diligent, but Sergey was probably the smartest. He had gotten his Ph.D. in linguistics when he was twenty-four. And Sergey was the only one who had gotten accepted to an American graduate school, New York School of Business. This wasn't exactly what he wanted, because he had been hoping to continue to study linguistics. But it was the only graduate program that offered him a free ride, and everybody said that NYSB was a great school. He and Vica had just gotten married, and they were going to America! Such amazing luck!

“Doesn't it feel like we're entering the afterlife?” Sergey had asked Vica on the plane to New York. “We're leaving our lives behind and plunging into the unknown.”

Vica had had two years of her Moscow medical school left at the time, but they couldn't stay and wait until she graduated. The idea had been that Vica would support them while Sergey was in school, and then after he found a good job, she would go to an American medical school to finish her studies. It was an American education that mattered anyway. For a while it was working out as planned. Vica received her license as an ultrasound technician, found a job at Bing Ruskin Cancer Center, which was the number one cancer center in the United States, and whatever was number one in the United States was clearly number one in the entire world as well. Sergey studied hard, got high grades, graduated with honors. Even the surprise pregnancy didn't derail things. Vica had the baby, just as Sergey entered the job market. But who would have thought that he'd turn out to be such a loser at finding, and especially keeping, jobs? He had the mind of a scholar, not of a businessman. It was genetic. Both his parents and three of his grandparents were college professors. Five years ago, Sergey asked Vica if he could possibly go back to school to get his American Ph.D. so he could pursue an academic career. She'd been supporting him all those years, and now he wanted to spend more time studying? She wanted to smack him on the head, but all she said was “Excuse me?” And he said, “Forget it.” Now she kind of regretted it. He could have been more successful as an academic.

By the time Vadik made it to the United States (via an invitation to work as a computer programmer for a prestigious company in New Jersey), Sergey had been fired from yet another job at a bank and Vica had just realized that there was no chance that she would ever go back to school. Especially since they now had a child to support. Two children. “I have two children,” Vica loved to say, meaning both her son and her husband. And then two years ago Regina married the insanely rich Bob and moved to the United States as if to rub her newfound wealth in their faces. Bob had developed a supersuccessful start-up designing new mobile apps. It seemed like all around them people were developing Internet start-ups, building new applications, creating successful businesses out of thin air, getting rich overnight, just like that. Their Facebook pages were crowded with photos taken in the Alps, at Mexican all-inclusives, on African safaris, at their brand-new country houses. “Why not just post a pic of your bank account?” Vica complained to Sergey.

Bob's company was called DigiSly. He'd already made millions. He'd been clever enough to find a unique niche and create apps designed to serve middle-aged people's needs. One of the most popular DigiSly apps was called LoveDirect and it was designed to help grandmothers deal with their electronic picture frames. With LoveDirect, children and grandchildren sent photos from their phones directly to their grandmothers' frames, the new images popping up automatically. All of Bob's ideas were like that—unpretentious, practical, banal.

Regina had helped Vadik get a job at Bob's company, and now he too made some serious bucks. Other people were getting rich off apps too. People they knew. Ordinary people like them, immigrants like them. Angela, Vica's friend from medical school, had just launched a very successful app that allowed people to compare the side effects of various medications so that they could choose the least harmful one to take. Sergey's old classmate Marik had created an app that would randomly insert smiley faces into your e-mails and texts, making you appear to be a warmer, more upbeat person. Stupid, right? But guess what? The app became superpopular. All of Vadik's IT friends were bursting with different app ideas. So why couldn't it happen for her and Sergey? Well, they didn't work in the IT business, but they were surrounded by people who did. You didn't have to be a computer programmer to come up with a viable idea. You just had to be smart. And Sergey wasn't just smart, he had a spectacular mind. Wasn't he repeatedly called a genius by their friends—and not always with irony? Didn't they joke at the university that for Sergey brilliant ideas came as easily as farts?

The problem was that Sergey was incapable of coming up with a simple idea, and the most obvious apps were the ones that were really taking off. Sergey's mind was perpetually mired in existential shit.

“What about an online game that helps you find your soul mate?” he offered once. “Players are offered pairs to choose from: Godard or Truffaut, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, Chicken or Steak, Pro-Life or Pro-Choice. Hundreds of pairs. And after you're done, you get to know the person with the matching results. Could be location based. You're riding a bus and you can find out who else prefers Tolstoy to Dostoevsky on that same bus.” Or his other idea, also location based, called “Touch me!” It was an app that would provide immediate physical contact to people who needed it. You could press a button and find somebody in the vicinity who wouldn't mind holding your hand or patting you on the shoulder.

“No, Sergey, no! Nobody needs that shit!” Vica would tell him again and again.

She did like his Virtual Grave idea though. It was existential too, even kind of morbid, but it was also practical. She believed in it. If only they could persuade Bob to take on the idea along with Sergey, who would be essential to developing it. Bob's middle-aged clientele had to be interested in death. All they needed was a clever pitching strategy.

Vica turned to Sergey, who was still squeezing the steering wheel as if his life depended on it.

“Make sure it doesn't sound like a pitch, okay?” she said. “Because if Bob catches even a whiff of a pitch he will shut you down. You have to be subtle and stealthy. We're coming to see Vadik's apartment, and we'll talk about his apartment, and then when Bob is happy and drunk, you'll just mention it, okay? Not to Bob, but to everybody. And don't wait until Bob gets so drunk that he misses it. Okay?”

“Why don't I just shout ‘Nodeathno'! Would that be subtle enough?” Sergey asked and then burst out laughing.

This time Vica did hit him.

They parked too close to the curb. The right front tire was up on the pavement, but Sergey shot Vica such a look that she decided to keep silent. It was a shock to come out of the air-conditioned car into the fierce July heat. It was past seven, but it was still unbearably stuffy. Staten Island was just as hot, but at least there an occasional ocean breeze made it possible to breathe.

Vadik's street was a narrow one, with crooked five-story buildings clinging to one another, flimsy trees with listless branches looking parched, and piles of garbage bags exuding all kinds of rotting smells, fruit and fish and diapers all together. Unlike the other buildings on the street, Vadik's looked empty and new, seemingly out of place, as if it had been put there by mistake.

“It has a terrace! I love it!” Vadik had told them.

“I'll give him two months to start hating it,” Sergey whispered to Vica.

Vadik had moved to New York eight years ago, but this was his sixth housewarming party.

The problem wasn't that Vadik couldn't find a suitable place to live, but that he couldn't figure out what kind of place would be suitable for him. For most people, the choice of apartment was determined by their financial situation, social status, and personality. But for immigrants it was more challenging. They couldn't figure out what their social status was, their financial future was murky, and relying on one's personality seemed too frivolous. Most immigrants just picked a ready-made “house in the suburbs/ski trip every year” lifestyle. That was what Vica and Sergey had done by moving all the way out to Staten Island, where there was space for a family and a little more room in the budget.

Not Vadik though. He decided to let his personality guide him, which turned out to be problematic. “Vadik shed his old personality when he left Russia, and the new one hasn't grown in yet,” Sergey said after Vadik's fourth housewarming. “What he has now is a set of borrowed personalities that he changes on a whim.”

“You're just jealous,” she replied.

But that wasn't true. It was Vica who was jealous of Vadik. Jealous of Regina too. Jealous of their money, of their freedom, but most of all of the boundless opportunities the future still held for them.

BOOK: Still Here
6.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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