Biographies & Memoirs

12. A Lesson in Russian Classics

THE MORAL CONFLICT OF Turgenev’s A Nest of Nobles is between personal happiness and duty,” says our teacher, Nina Sergeevna, peering above her glasses to make sure we are listening. We are pretending to listen.

Nina Sergeevna, her graying hair pinned up around a squirrel face, is teaching us about lishnie lyudi, or useless people. There is a whole gallery of such people in our literature. Galereya lishnih lyudei, says Nina Sergeevna, and a roll of fat quivers under her chinless jaw. In the sixth grade, it was Pushkin’s Onegin and Lermontov’s Pechorin from The Hero of Our Time. Corrupted by their noble birth and family wealth, they galloped across Russia and Europe, doing nothing but dueling, gambling, and breaking the hearts of innocent women, not giving a bit of thought to the fate of the serfs or the oppressed masses in general. Then it was Goncharov’s Oblomov, who spent his life sleeping on a divan, refusing to get up even when a woman he fancied knocked on the door of his estate. Now it is Turgenev’s Lavretsky, who failed to challenge the serf-owning nobility because he couldn’t find enough willpower to tear himself away from the spoiled society that produced him.

I imagine myself as Lisa and Andrei, the only boy in my class who can distinguish a participle from a gerund, as Lavretsky. It’s nighttime, and we are in the orchard—all our classical novels have an orchard as vast and dense as a forest—and Andrei is kneeling at my feet. My shoulders begin to twitch and the fingers of my pale hands press even closer to my face. Andrei, of course, understands what these twitching shoulders and these tears mean. Is it possible that you love me, he whispers. I am frightened, I keep saying, looking at him with moist eyes. I love you, he says, I’m ready to give my whole life to you. I tremble and lower my eyes; he quietly pulls me toward him, and my head falls on his shoulder. He moves his head away a little and touches my pale lips.

Of course, I know that Andrei is my age and way too young to be Lavretsky, who is married and has a child, but this isn’t important as long as he is in love with me, Lisa. At the end of A Nest of Nobles, Lavretsky’s wife, who had been unfaithful and conveniently out of the picture for the first hundred pages, shows up unexpectedly, repentant, at the most unfortunate time, wreaking havoc and driving Lisa to a nunnery. The last scene is tragic. In the eight years between the end of the novel and the epilogue (there is always an epilogue), Lavretsky has turned into an old man with gray hair and a cane. I see Andrei visiting me at the monastery, and I pass close to him, without looking up, with the docile gait of a nun, and only my eyelashes tremble, only the fingers of my clasped hands laced with rosary beads press even harder together.

Despite all these scenes unfolding in my head, I know I would never retreat to a monastery if Andrei, for instance, turned out to be married to my classmate Katya. I can think of a number of things I would do: I could snatch the book he is reading out of his lap and thwack it over his head. I could scramble out of my desk and flee the classroom in despair, leaving behind an unfinished composition on the struggle of common people against the yoke of serfdom in tsarist Russia, ignoring Nina Sergeevna, who would thrash down the aisle in her felt boots, shouting for me to come back. I could even go as far as announcing to Katya that we are no longer on speaking terms. But I can’t see burying myself in a monastery so that Andrei, at the end of his life, stooped and defeated, could see my eyelashes tremble and my hands clasp around rosary beads. I am obviously not as strong and pure as Turgenev’s heroines, unable to resolve the moral conflict of personal happiness vs. duty in the correct, classic way, and this may be the reason why the leggy, green-eyed Andrei, the boy who makes my insides melt, does not turn to look in my direction.

At home, I don’t talk about Andrei. My practical mother thinks that romantic infatuation is improper and wasteful unless it ends in marriage. From her occasional raised eyebrow and slant-eyed look toward my sister, who is twenty-seven and still single, I know she wouldn’t approve. Twenty-seven is a dangerous age for a woman not to be married, only two years shy of Natalia from Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, who, as everyone knows, is described as middle-aged.

My sister doesn’t have time to get married. In the morning she goes to rehearsals, and at night she goes onstage, activities far more enviable and meaningful than standing in lines for bologna or stooping over a pot of borsch. My mother, however, doesn’t see it the same way. She blames the theater, with its late hours and irregular workday, for Marina’s lack of proper suitors, her single status, and, possibly, her future lonely and childless life.

At home, my mother talks about canned tuna fish that has all but disappeared from stores and about our neighbor Olga from the fifth floor who bleaches her hair with peroxide, making it look like straw. But instead of disappearing tuna and our neighbor’s yellow hair, I would like to talk about personal happiness and duty. Are they always mutually exclusive so that you are only able to achieve one or the other? Turgenev, who stares at us from the wall of our literature classroom with melancholy eyes, seems to think so. With a white beard and mustache, his hair sadly curling on his forehead, he looks like Lavretsky in the epilogue of A Nest of Nobles, disillusioned and old.

MY SISTER IS AT the kitchen table, slurping soup before an evening performance. Her hair is in a ponytail, bangs reaching down to perfectly arched eyebrows. I wish I had my sister’s features, her big eyes and high cheeks, instead of my own face, dotted with freckles and beginning to erupt with pimples. Maybe then Andrei would look at me the same way he looks at my friend Katya.

“Eat your soup with bread,” says my mother, who never misses a chance to fill us with more food.

“I don’t want any bread,” snaps Marina, and she glances at her watch because she has to be backstage forty-five minutes before the curtain. I see my mother fold her mouth for a harangue on the nutritional value of grain, and I make a preemptive strike.

“We have a composition contest at school,” I say. At the end of today’s class, after Nina Sergeevna declared the lives of Turgenev’s nobility to be without direction and meaning, she announced the seventh-grade essay competition.

“What’s the topic?” asks Marina, tilting the bowl and spooning out the last drops of soup.

“Anything we want. Describe and analyze a novel, a story, or a play.” I pause after “play,” letting the weight of the word sink in.

Marina gets up and rinses her plate under the kitchen faucet. “I have to go.”

I know that there is a new play at her theater, with the intriguing, foreign title We Bombed in New Haven. An American play in a Leningrad theater, a phenomenon as next to impossible as dinner without soup. I saw a poster on Nevsky Prospekt of a man in a black flight suit with a skull in his hand, despondent and Hamlet-like. This is what I’m going to write about, I’ve decided: this play, this foreign, undoubtedly sold-out wonder, which I’ll somehow manage to see whether Marina agrees to take me or not. She doesn’t yet know of my scheme. She doesn’t know many things about me, things I keep inside because they are too brittle to be exposed. She doesn’t know, for instance, that a dark envy curdles my heart every time she walks through the stage door where the baked-apple-faced babushka sits on guard, every time she stares into a three-way mirror and makes up her face until someone new and intriguing emerges from under her fingers. She doesn’t know and she doesn’t care because theater for her is just a job, just as dispensing milk is for a paunchy saleswoman with a ladle, just as shoveling fish skeletons and bones and apple cores was for the garbageman from the cellar of our apartment building. If I could sing like she can, I would stay in the theater and never bother to come home, where wet laundry hangs on ropes stretched across the room and where the air is permeated with the smell of mothballs and yesterday’s soup. I wouldn’t waste my stage voice, if I had one, on arguing with my mother about a figure skating score that a Bulgarian judge gave some dancer from Finland, or about whom we should not invite to Marina’s upcoming birthday—Irina the stage hairdresser because she is only a hairdresser, or Slava the actor because he has an affection for zelyoniy zmei.

The discussion of zelyonyi zmei makes my mother drive her fists into her hips. Marina, always ready for a fight, takes her position in front of the stove, sharpens her voice, and stabs the words at my mother’s face.

“Slava is the best actor we have,” she yells. “He can play any role in any performance, even if the head of our local party cell directs it himself.”

“He’s in love with the bottle,” says my mother, “and he has let zelyonyi zmei, the green serpent, wring its coils around his neck.” She bangs the lid over the pot of soup to punctuate her statement because this is just what she’s predicted would happen to anyone who has come under the corrosive influence of theater.

I know it’s not Slava my mother is so worried about. He is chuzhoi, not part of the family, and that means he doesn’t deserve any sympathy or compassion. The opposite of chuzhoi is svoi, and we can count svoi on the palm of our hand—my grandparents, my uncle Vova, who lives in the small town of Ryazan, and my aunt and three cousins, who live in the provinces.

The person my mother really worries about is my sister. She worries about her proximity to all this theatrical chaos; she worries that the green serpent will finally overpower Marina. “There are so many normal jobs,” says my mother, making sure I’m within earshot. “Look at Valya from the fourth floor—she’s just been assigned to the district library around the corner. Look at Irina Petrovna’s daughter. Your former classmate and already a chief engineer.” These are the jobs my mother understands; they are practical and safe, unlike acting or speaking English.

I wonder if my mother would be considered intelligentsiya by the previous century’s standards. She is educated, and she’s read Turgenev and other classics. She’s heard Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Kirov and dragged me to see its multiple productions of Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. Yet it is difficult to imagine a Pushkin or Turgenev heroine grumbling about an uneaten slice of bread or a tuna shortage. Those corseted women, both young and old, with pale fingers and chestnut curls, seemed to have other things weighing upon their consciences, things that provoked multi-page discussions and often conflicted with one another, things like love and honor, or happiness and duty. They sighed a lot, pressed their children to their bosoms, and peered from their aging cabriolets as wooden church steeples and small villages sailed by amidst the fields of wheat. They didn’t seem to think about salads and pies ending up in chuzhoi stomachs any more than they worried about zelyonyi zmei.

FROM OUR SEATS IN the seventh row I see the open stage perfectly, and the fact that there is no curtain immediately signals to everyone but my mother that the play is modern, not at all like Gorky’s dusty Lower Depths, which we saw here two months earlier. My mother glances at the stage and utters one word, besporyadok, disorder, which is what she says when I leave my uniform dress hanging on a chair, or when radiators in our apartment turn off on New Year’s Eve without warning, or when there is no janitor in sight to break apart a slope of ice in front of the entrance to our building. My mother doesn’t like the gray cubes piled on top of one another on the stage or the silhouettes of landmarks from foreign cities in the back. She doesn’t like the fact that Slava’s name is in the program next to that of the main character, Sergeant Henderson.

While she sits there, disliking everything, the music starts, so now she can hate the music, too. After the first ten minutes it’s clear that it is a play within a play, and the actors onstage are pretending to be American actors pretending to be airmen in the American army. They strut around in black flight suits that aren’t like any uniform of any Russian soldier, the suits so slick that even our House of Fashion on Nevsky Prospekt, with its single window of clothes outside the Five-Year Plan, would have trouble conjuring them up.

Slava-Henderson carries the script around with him so the cast—the American actors played by Marina’s theater actors—know the plot. According to the script, he is about to be killed in the second act, but he isn’t worried. It’s Theater, after all, and the script is fiction, having nothing to do with what happens for real. It’s Theater, a place of thrilling, magic make-believe, so unlike the numbing make-believe of our day-to-day life.

But then a corporal gets killed on a mission, and the actor who played him disappears. Maybe it’s not all make-believe, thinks Slava-Henderson. Maybe the actor really did get killed; it was, after all, in the script. Slava holds the actor’s helmet, smeared with blood, and my palms sweat in admiration at how his whisper floats to the highest box where a lighting man wields metal handles behind two huge projector lights. I skew my eyes at my mother, but her face is the usual mask of seriousness, and I can’t tell if she is also, on some hidden level, appreciating Slava’s acting gift.

Slava-Henderson’s monologue makes me think about the essay I’m going to write for my literature class. Since Nina Sergeevna warned us that the moral of the work we select must transcend time and reverberate in our present, everyday life, I couldn’t have chosen better material. As far as I can see, this play is about the dangers of make-believe and thus about us and our vranyo game. We all know we have to pretend, just as the characters in this play. In school, Andrei and I pretend to be obedient Pioneers worthy of a young Lenin, whose profile is pinned to our uniformed chests. My mother pretends that her uncle Volya was arrested in 1937 because he was vrag naroda, an enemy of the people, and not because he was simply out of luck when he told a joke in a crowded restaurant. My friend and classmate Katya, whose father, a colonel, has access to an exclusive library full of rare books on literary criticism, pretends her father’s rank has nothing to do with her exemplary essays that score perfect fives.

The least pretender of us all is my sister, the actress. Maybe she is simply tired of pretending onstage, so she says what she thinks, at least when she is home. “Those cretins in the Ministry of Culture are closing another play,” she says every year, at least once. “It’s too controversial. Too many jabs at our bright future.”

During the intermission, I don’t stampede to the buffet, like everyone else. I silently pace around the lobby, thinking. My mother paces next to me, like a guard. She looks worn out, as though she’s just sat through an execution, and as much as I wish for her to go home, I know that according to the rules of correct behavior, one never leaves the theater before the end of a performance. I think about We Bombed in New Haven and about Slava. I think it’s curious that this play has found its way into Marina’s theater, that an American playwright was able to pinpoint such an indigenous Russian quandary. My mother sighs as we pass Slava’s portrait in the lobby: a sharp nose and intense eyes, a little like the portrait of Pushkin on the cover of our literature textbook. Slava, I repeat in my mind, Slava, Slava, what a perfect name for you, because slava means “glory.” He stares from the wall with the concentration of Sergeant Henderson, his eyes like guided missiles aimed directly at my heart.

THE ESSAY I WRITE is perfect. I even quote Lenin: “One cannot live in a society and be free from that society.” In America or anywhere else. It is dangerous to live a life of make-believe, I write. Just as Henderson and his actor-pilots, you may check the script one day and discover you’ve been written off. Just like my mother, you can look at your young portrait and not recognize yourself.

I marvel at my own sentences that shimmer on the page, so philosophical and compelling, imagining the squirrel face of Nina Sergeevna melting in awe as she reads them.

MY SISTER IS IN the kitchen pointing a ladle at my mother, who has planted herself by the garbage bucket. They’re arguing about how many bottles of liquor to buy for Marina’s birthday party. The standard calculation is a half-liter bottle of vodka for two guests, so Marina is insisting on six bottles since she has invited ten people. No, my mother protests, we have two bottles of Hungarian wine called Bull’s Blood, so four bottles will do. Five at the most.

“It’s my birthday and I am the one to decide,” shouts Marina in her stage voice.

My mother grabs at the chipped enamel lip of the sink, staking her territory. “Is this what these alcoholic actors need?” she shouts back. “Is this why they come to a birthday party?”

I know this argument is not only about the number of bottles. My mother is upset that among the expected guests is Slava with his drinking affliction, which she thinks is so toxic that my sister will instantly begin to slur her words and fall down simply by breathing the same air.

The prospect of seeing Slava in person, in our own apartment, gives me a tingle as if my blood had suddenly frothed into champagne.

“What actors need is a little understanding,” my sister yells. “A touch of empathy. It’s a damned profession, and we are damned.”

“Why?” I ask, perplexed by how “damned” could be paired with acting.

“We twist our souls to live other people’s lives,” says Marina. She lowers the ladle and turns in my direction. “Did you know actors couldn’t even be buried in Christian cemeteries before the Revolution?”

“Where were they buried?” I ask stupidly.

“Behind the cemetery walls,” my sister enunciates as if she were talking to an audience. “Away from the good, sinless souls.”

I know nothing about Christian habits, and it’s a mystery to me where my sister could have learned this bit of information. Maybe this is what they teach in drama school. Maybe Marina doesn’t, after all, perceive her job to be as uncomplicated as a saleswoman’s or garbageman’s. It’s a job that requires imagination and audacity, something I could never muster. When she was in secondary school, she used to alter her grades in the journal that teachers require our parents to sign at the end of every week. With a pen and a razor blade, she changed satisfactory 3’s to perfect 5’s on Saturday afternoon and then, after my mother signed the journal, she would turn 5’s back to 3’s on Sunday night so that the teachers wouldn’t notice the difference.

Maybe my sister understands more than I give her credit for. I can even concede that she is as infected by Theater as I am, or almost. But why does she ignore me so completely, why does she keep me away from that little side door that leads backstage, to the heart of all conceivable happiness? Is it possible that she is trying to protect me because she can see something in me, or rather the absence of something, that I cannot yet see myself?

ON SUNDAY, WE COOK for Marina’s birthday. The guests are invited for Monday, the theater’s day off. We make a huge platter of herring-in-a-fur-coat—grated potatoes, carrots, and beets swathing the chunks of herring on the bottom in colorful, fluffy layers. My mother bakes pans of pirozhki and, when they’re out of the oven, glistening and tanned, glazes them with three rubber-banded bird feathers dipped in egg. Marina goes on a hunt to meat stores and returns with chunks of pork she puts in the oven to roast. Everything is ready, transferred from pots into the crystal bowls.

On Monday morning, Nina Sergeevna waddles into the classroom with a string bag full of our essays on her arm. She dumps the string bag on her desk as if it were full of turnips, demonstrating her disdain for our pitiful efforts to enter our voices into the sanctuary of literature and the arts.

I glance sideways at Andrei, who is staring across the classroom at Katya. In the streak of morning sun his hair has a copper glint and, if he weren’t turned in Katya’s direction, I’d see the fuzz on his cheeks and that glow that only the ten-o’clock light can give to his face. As Nina Sergeevna pulls our essays out of the net of her bag, I scribble on the wooden surface of my desk with a pen. Andrei, I doodle and then, underneath, I write Slava, in careful, big, calligraphic letters, as though this deliberate effort could reveal some meaning behind the names, something deeper beneath the surface, where all those un-Pioneer yearnings burrow in their shameful caves.

Before she turns to the results of the competition, Nina Sergeevna, who never lets a moment be unproductive, has to teach us something. This distraction makes me squirm because I’ve been waiting for this since I finished my essay, anxious to hear about its outstanding qualities. As I count the minutes, she compares Turgenev’s A Nest of Nobles and his story “Mu-mu,” which in the fifth grade gave me a night of weeping for the dog of the title, drowned by its owner at the order of his heartless landlady. I wish Nina Sergeevna could stay quiet and simply stand there and listen, or stare at something in amazement, as Andrei is staring at Katya, as I am staring at Andrei.

When she is done with the aristocracy’s lack of will and purpose, she finally shuffles through our skinny notebooks, pulls out one, and looks at Katya. “Excellent criticism of the noble classes,” she says. “You state correctly that Turgenev was optimistic about the future by expressing his faith in the new generation that will be able to solve the tragic contradictions of his time.” I know that this idea comes from a shelf in the Military Library, where Katya’s father found it. She has written about Turgenev’s On the Eve, a later novella in which Elena, the heroine, chooses personal happiness over family duty by marrying a destitute foreign revolutionary. Yet somehow, in the end, after Elena’s beloved husband dies and she is stranded alone in Turkey, she is completely drained of happiness and instead saddled with duty. Although it doesn’t seem to be a fair resolution of the conflict, I know Katya had no trouble, as our teacher instructed, making it reverberate in our present-day lives.

I watch Nina Sergeevna’s hand hover over my notebook, and I shift at my desk, ready for praise.

“Some of you, however,” begins Nina Sergeevna ominously, “have chosen to write about foreign literature.” She picks up my essay and holds it with two fingers as if it were a worm. “We must not have enough Russian classics.” She stares at me with her beady rodent eyes, and I look down at the desk surface ruined by my indelible purple pen. “Our writers,” she lifts her gaze to the portraits on the wall, “have not created enough volumes of poetry and prose for one of you not to feel an urge to turn to a foreign piece.” She returns her gaze to me so that everyone in the class can know who exactly felt the urge. “An American play. Amerikanskii spectacle.” The word Americanskii rasps out of her mouth like an indictment.

With the whole class gawking at me, I wish I could fall through the floor. No, first murder Nina Sergeevna and then fall through the floor. I wish I’d thought this project through, remembered who was going to judge it, and if I had to write about a play, written about Gorky’s Lower Depths, which I saw in September. I wish the American air force, instant and lethal, would descend from the sky and sweep everyone out of the room so I could stay alone with Andrei and explain to him all about We Bombed in New Haven and my new love Slava, its dazzling star.

Now Nina Sergeevna is pointing at me like Lenin in the statue at the Finland Railroad Station. “What you wrote is chaotic and convoluted. More than that, it advertises your ignorance and your arrogance. Look how smug I am!” Nina Sergeevna flaps her arms as though trying to take off, a huge bat with jagged front teeth. “First read our own classics and then and only then look to the West. Our own, svoi,” hisses Nina Sergeevna, spit flying across her desk. Svoi, the opposite of all that foreign chuzhoi undeserving of our attention and our ink.

I feel hollow and sick. I feel as if someone has ripped me open and turned everything inside out, so that instead of my brown uniform, shiny at the elbows, what everyone sees is a bloody porridge of vessels and nerves crushed around a dark, bruised heart.

I stagger home from school in the gauzy twilight of the end of November. I unbutton my coat, I lean into the wind—anything to expurgate the words of Nina Sergeevna.

If I were a Turgenev heroine, would I, after this embarrassment, have to lock myself up in a nunnery, or marry a destitute foreign revolutionary? I don’t know the answer. It is November, the time of floods, when wind heaves water from the Baltic Sea, swelling the canals and closing schools. The water underneath is still at least a meter below the street level, but to make this day even more dramatic I wish for the canal to spill into the streets so that I would have to flail my way through churning water, succumbing, in the end, to its cold raging might, like Evgeniy in Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman. Then, learning about my untimely death, Nina Sergeevna would lament her failure to recognize the brilliance of my essay, all too late.

Even if it’s true that I am deficient in my knowledge of Russian classics, I don’t want to think about them any more. Instead, I decide to think about tonight, and the happy prospect of my sister’s birthday party rises up inside me and mercifully nudges other thoughts aside.

I AM ON THE stair landing, one flight above our apartment—where the guests are still raising toasts to Marina—gagging on a cigarette stolen from my sister’s purse. I fumbled through her bag in the toilet, under the rusty tank with a chain, after realizing that the probability of Slava looking in my direction is even less than that of Andrei, after deciding that if I cannot get the attention of the men I like and if I am accused of a lack of humility toward the Russian classics and life in general, I may as well start smoking.

I hear our apartment door groan open, and I stand very quietly in the dark, squeezing my back into the wall, waiting for whoever it is to go back in. But when the door shuts, I sense that the person is on the wrong side of it, my side. There is a crinkle of cellophane and the sound of a lighted match. I breathe noiselessly, strangling a cough. Footsteps start up the stairs, up toward where I stand. By the sound I know, at least, that it isn’t my mother; they’re fast, less calculated, breathless steps.

It is Slava, with a cigarette between his teeth and an opened bottle of Bull’s Blood.

He doesn’t seem at all surprised to see me pressing into the wall, trying to stub out a cigarette against a sewer pipe. “Come,” he says and makes an upward movement with his arm, as if inviting me to fly. In the light of a match is another flight of stairs, a short one, leading up to a squatty door to the attic, upholstered in black vinyl. “Here,” says Slava, who in the dark has the sharp, weighted movements of my father, and he gives me his hand. “Come.” He smells of cigarettes and of our apartment, the smell of too many people and burned sunflower oil.

I obediently follow him, step after step, to the black door. What’s happening is so surreal that I feel nothing but a hollow in my chest and the sting of tobacco on my tongue. He gives the door a shake and it scrapes open, releasing a little cloud of dust and an odor of mildew and mice. He lights another match, which plucks out of the darkness a beam and a wall of pocked cement and something as gritty as gravel on the floor. It’s an eerie place, a place I didn’t know existed all this time right above my head, a place no one knew existed but Slava, who is privy to all the mysteries and secrets and the answers to questions we don’t want to ask.

We creep slowly, match after match, until we get to a wooden ladder. Slava climbs up, jiggles a metal latch, and above us opens a night sky, paled by the city lights, wide and still. He crawls out, takes my hand, and pulls me onto the roof. I crouch and sit on the cold metal, awed by the sudden vast openness, by the smallness of the life beneath.

Below, in the tar of a November night, a trolleybus, like an awkward insect, crawls past a shuttered newspaper kiosk where the news has all grown old since this morning. Two amber squares of windows glow on the black façade of the building across the street, revealing a toy-size figure waiting for a streetcar; an open truck packed with shaved-headed soldiers bumps across the tracks and rattles through the red light.

“Are you cold, kid?” says Slava, and I realize I’m so cold that I can’t even answer right away because my teeth are chattering. He pulls off his sweater, tugs it down over my head, and hands me the bottle of Bull’s Blood. “Take a swig,” he says, “it’ll warm you up.”

I upturn the bottle over my mouth, but in the dark I underestimate how much is left, so the wine spills out and pours down my face. Now I’ve ruined Slava’s sweater, making him think that I am a fool who has never tasted alcohol before, proving that he should’ve left me standing where he found me, by the sewer pipe, hacking after my first cigarette. I hold the bottle at arm’s length and try to wipe the wine off my face and neck with the back of my other hand while Slava, laughing a tipsy laugh, tries to scramble to his feet to get a better view of a canal glistening in the distance. He is oblivious to my streaked face and his ruined sweater. He doesn’t care that according to my mother, we are chuzhoi to each other and he shouldn’t be sharing with me this climb through the attic, this diminished life below, these waves of roofs that rise before us like a tide churned by the undertow of the sleeping city.

I feel like laughing, too, because this view from the night roof, which I haven’t even known existed, is so real and so exclusively mine. This view, it suddenly becomes clear, trumps everything else: today’s public humiliation in literature class, the impeccable Katya and her nauseating perfection, even my sister and the Theater she keeps all to herself. The thought makes me dizzy and elated. It fills me, like the wine, making me progressively drunker. It is I, not Katya, standing here next to god-like Slava, I, who would selfishly choose personal happiness over duty and a foreign play over a Russian classic, who would have to think twice about retreating to a nunnery like the virtuous heroine at the end of A Nest of Nobles.

“Look at this,” says Slava, who has just finished off what was left of the Bull’s Blood, and he pulls me closer so I can see the gray dome of the city’s silent synagogue poking in the distance from behind the roofs. I’m not sure if he wants me to see the building or he badly needs support to stand straight, but it doesn’t matter. I lick the last drops of wine off my lips and fit myself into his arms, pretending we’re in the novel’s love scene I’ve so often imagined, the scene with pale fingers, moist eyes, and twitching shoulders. Again, I am Lisa; only now I am not so brittle and somber. Now I’m giggling. There is no orchard and no bench, but Slava, even in his green-serpent state, is a highly superior Lavretsky, worthy of the classic Turgenev with his sad eyes and a noble wave of white hair. In a few hours, all this tar above us will start to dissolve into streaks of gray and then pink, but we aren’t looking up. Trying to keep our balance, we are holding on to each other in an awkward embrace, just like the two characters in A Nest of Nobles, both of us so unclassically drained of duty, so dizzyingly high over the treetops and rows of dark windows, so drunk on Bull’s Blood and personal happiness.

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