By Rachel Cohen
Polina’s hair flares to my left. Who wears hair like that to a funeral? A comet of a foxtail amid the mourners – dark like tree trunks. Sophia tugs on my sleeve. She grew a lot over the summer, her still-childish face – with my ex-husband’s eyes, sombre and near-sighted – is almost level with mine.
“When is it over, mom? It’s raining. Are they going to talk for a long time?”
I am about to answer, say something soothing, but my own mother is quicker.
“Behave yourself,” she whispers in Russian. “So impatient. Your great-grandma is gone. Aren’t you sorry at all?”
I see the lines around her mouth, etched in by the rapid weight loss. Sophia sucks in a lungful of air for a response.
“First off,” she begins. She is about to explain to her grandma, my mother, that – a) “she was just asking,” b) “nothing wrong with what she was asking,” c) “if grandma does not want Sophia asking about time, she should not have broken Sophia’s watch.” To which my mother would reply, a) “Speak Russian to me. You know perfectly well how to speak it, and you are sticking with English out of spite. Nothing wrong with speaking more than one language, even if your mother is too lazy to bother,” b) “Why are you so rude?” and c) “I did not break your watch. Your watch ended up broken because you don’t mind where you put your things, and so it fell on the floor where I stepped on it.”
Or my mother could say something else. I can only be so good at predicting which turn the conversation would take. If you can call it conversation. Most people would call it shouting. I squeeze Sophia’s shoulder, she looks at me and clenches her teeth, to prevent herself from speaking. The barbed wire of braces fills her mouth. My fault that she has to wear braces. I should have prevented her from sucking her thumb, when she was little.
The old man who comes up to speak over the grave is supported by a wisp of a woman, probably his granddaughter. His mottled head emerges from folded wrinkles all around, like a turtle’s. But his voice, when it comes, is a shocking succulent baritone, tinged with the rasp of a smoking habit. If I close my eyes – no, his words are still falling as heavy as clods of earth. I can’t imagine him at the piano, a rakish cigarette in the corner of his mouth, even when I try.
“Ruth had been a dear friend … an unflagging spirit …”
Suddenly, he begins to laugh.
“So she used to go to the opera,” he says. “Four, five times a season. And I ask her, Ruthie, how can you afford the opera? And she says,” the old man brushes off a tear of mirth, “she says, that there are free tickets that the city gives to seniors. And I tell her, but it’s one ticket per season, no? And she tells me, ‘Well, I go to everyone in my residence. And they are too lazy to apply for the tickets themselves, but they don’t want to pass up the freebie, right? So I say, ok, I’ll fill in the form for you, and you get to go when the ticket comes. You don’t even have to do anything. Only one condition …’ ”
The old man pauses, chuckles, perfect timing of the born story-teller. He raises his voice for the triumphant finale. “The condition, Ruthie tells me, is that if she applies and you kick the bucket, she gets your ticket and goes. Four or five times a season, she says to me. Works every time.”
Sophia giggles by my side. Polina’s bushy red hair flies from one shoulder of her slim black suit to the other. Polina leans to the tall man she came with, whispers something in his ear. Have I ever seen Polina without a man on her arm? I don’t think so. Polina goes to the opera too. My grandmother used to tell me of bumping into her. And of the stunning men Polina showed up with.
“A Dane, I think. She said something about Denmark. Have you ever had a Dane? I’ve had a Finn, personally. But no Danes. Pity.”
“What’s a Dane?” Sophia had looked up from her soup plate at this. We were eating in my mother’s kitchen, the four of us. Sophia had laboriously removed all cabbage shreds from her soup and festooned the sides of her plate with them. I was going to hear about that too. That I never taught my daughter to eat a proper soup. Because I did not make soups. And soups are very important for good digestion. “Like a dog? Grandma, you had a Great Dane? Where did you keep him? I thought you used to have this small apartment, before the war. In Estonia?”
“Not a Dane, dear,” grandma Ruth corrected her absent-mindedly. “A Finn. A great, blond, hulking Finn. Right after my first divorce.”
“First off,” Sophia took her usual pre-argument breath, “there is no Finn dog breed. A Finnish spitz, yes. And you don’t refer to dogs’ coats as ‘blond.'”
“It’s not dogs grandma Ruth is talking about.” My mother pushed a box of napkins towards Sophia. “Although, the way she treated them, you might think otherwise. Wipe your nose, please.”
Sophia sucked in the snot instead of blowing her nose. “Treated who?”
My daughter never lets go of anything that isn’t clear. Exactly the way her father always did in an argument. He would just take any inaccuracy I stumbled into and picked and picked at it, until the whole thing unravelled and burst all over the place.
“Doesn’t matter. I think you are done with the soup.” I reached out for the plate. “It’s ‘blinchiki’ for dessert. With cherry filling. How many do you want?” I turned to the stove. The “blinchiki” were served because Grandma was visiting, for the day. Sophia and I were also visiting, for a week. It was Sophia’s school break. I had no idea where to go with her, that year. We used to go to Hawaii, back when we were a family, but that was the first year we weren’t.
“Are you sure you should be giving her all that starch?” My mother watched the filling bleed out from the rolled-up crepe. She really did not have to say anything else. I could fill it in for her, just as well. “You always ate starchy foods, since you were little. No matter how much I remonstrated. You might have been thin back then, but look at you now. If you didn’t have all that extra weight, if you looked good, you would not have divorced.” But it didn’t matter that I knew. My mother still said it. So Sophia threw down her spoon, so hard the shreds of cabbage flew out everywhere – my mother’s housedress, the floor.
“If you don’t want us to eat your blinchiki, why are you making them? It’s nobody’s fault. Sometimes things just don’t work out between adults.” Sophia was parroting that one. I had repeated it so many times, my mouth ached with the untruth of it.
“We are leaving, mom.” Sophia stood up and glared. It’s funny, when an eleven-year old glares. My grandmother sniggered into her soup. My mother just sat there, shoulders oddly tilted, as if she had put on her housedress with the hanger still in it.
Their eyes were like spotlights on me. My mother’s incredulous, her eyebrows plucked into shocked arches. Sophia’s dark, demanding that I live up to everything I told her. “If somebody is being unjust, don’t be afraid to stand up to them. Just tell them that it is wrong to hit people.” I meant, at her school. I meant kids. The funny thing is that when Sophia says it, it actually works.
She has her father’s force of belief, I think. What allows him to march into an investor’s office and secure millions of funding for his start-up that might or might not get off the ground. Sophia also has ten nails she is not afraid to use. I’ve seen the kid whose cheek she gouged when he made fun of her braces.
“Sophia,” I said, “sit down, sweetheart. Grandma did not mean anything bad.”
“You are not going to make her apologise?” My mother’s voice rose. Her hand might have risen as well. At least, I pulled in my head, instinctively.
“We are going.” Sophia repeated. “Now.”
So I stood up from the table and followed her. We slept in the same room, on that visit. My mother lived in a one-bedroom, and she took the couch in the living room to give the bedroom to us. I heard the voices, from the kitchen. Then grandma saying, loudly and levelly.
“You are appallingly shrill, my dear. I have no idea how my son used to stand your carping, but you are giving me quite a headache.”
By the time I heard my mother’s sobs, Sophia had already thrown all our clothes into two suitcases. She did not even pause at the door. I would have paused. I would have definitely paused long enough for my mother to come out of the kitchen. To tell me that I was being ungrateful. That she had my best interest at heart. That she was only trying to make things better for me. That there was no place like home, and nobody ever was going to love me as much.
Sophia is fourteen now. The funeral is the first time we visited again.
The speeches are finally over. The casket is lowered into the grave. I think that it was fitting, that my grandmother died in spring. In winter, would we have to stand in the blowing snow? In April, with the light rain and the lacy greenery, the cemetery is a pretty spot. Nobody can fault grandma for being a burden.
“Your mother,” she said to me over the phone, after Sophia and I returned home, three years ago, “is tiresome in the extreme. On the flip side, as reluctant as I am to encumber anyone in my dotage, I am certain that she, of all people, does not mind me. She’s a born martyr, you know. Beats me why any man – especially my son – would marry a woman so ready to ruin her own fun and everybody else’s, but you can’t ask your father, since he’s dead, and I don’t know anybody else quite as stupid as him, in that respect.”
Polina makes her way to me, through the crowd. A diamond pendant rolls its large dewdrop in the cleft of her breasts. The man I noticed before is trailing behind her. For a second, my mouth tastes of sour metal. I imagine that it’s my husband Polina has with her. That he had somehow moved up here, and is now sleeping with Polina, running his fingers through her long hair, yanking her head back when he slams into her.
“I don’t think she looks good.” Sophia squints in Polina’s direction pensively. “She is freakishly skinny. It’s not healthy to diet. It promotes a negative body image.”
“I wonder what she does to herself.” My mother has already arranged her mouth into a welcoming smile. “This girl does not seem to age at all. Gorgeous. Did I tell you that she is a CEO now?”
“Your skirt is stained,” Sophia points.
“Where?” My mother tries to see the back of her black dress, and can’t.
“Big stain.” Sophia’s mouth does not even quiver. When she learns to play poker, she’ll be unbeatable. “We have wipes in the car, I think.”
Under my daughter’s implied direction, I pull out the keys to the rental and hand them over to my mom.
By the time Polina reaches us, my mother is already gone.
“Hi, you guys.” Polina kisses me on the cheek, but merely nods at Sophia. She remembers that Sophia does not like overly affectionate relatives. Sophia sticks the end of her braid in her mouth and begins to suck on it. Polina looks away – Sophia’s mouth is crusted in the left corner and infected, from the hair sucking, but not much I can do about it. My mother cut my hair off, when I had been doing the same thing, at fourteen. One snip of the scissors, and the fat blond braid lay on the floor. Just like that.
“How’s school?” Polina asks Sophia. That’s her way of being tactful, I think. She can’t ask me about work, since all I do is tutor chemistry, while she is a CEO; she can’t ask me about my marriage, since that’s over; and she can’t ask me about my dating life since it’s non-existent. I suppose she could ask me about the latest book I read. But she prefers to deal with Sophia.
“Good,” Sophia shrugs a shoulder. She wore a dark-blue dress to the funeral. I was dreading another fight about Sophia’s ragged jeans and a faded t-shirt. But Sophia turned out to have brought a dress, by herself.
“What’s your favourite subject?” Polina asks gamely. I am glad my mother is away. Or it would have been my mother’s cue to say, “Sophia is not doing all that well in math. I keep saying that she should have a tutor, because it’s so important – mathematics – but with some people, there’s no making them see reason.”
“I like Spanish,” Sophia looks at the man who came with Polina and smiles. It’s her father’s smile. It beams out. It tells the person she chooses to greet with this smile that she is delighted to see them. That they are special. Sophia’s smile is a privilege. Those who get to see it, understand.
“Spanish is a lovely language,” the man nods a little. The smile had not been lost on him. “You probably have your great-grandmother’s gift for languages.”
“Yeah, she spoke quite a few.” Sophia moves to the right. Now I am directly in the man’s line of vision, if he wants to go on speaking to Sophia.
“Let me see,” the man laughs. “Estonian, Russian, German, English and French? Did I miss anything?” The inflection in his voice includes me in the conversation. His hard jawline shows a shadow of a stubble. I know why I thought about my husband when I saw this man. It’s the hair. This guy’s hair is black too. But his eyes are grey. No resemblance, up close.
I should say something. About how my grandmother learned French and German from her governesses. And Russian when she had been arrested by the Soviets, after the war. A cataclysmic youth could surprisingly broaden one’s horizons.
“What do you do?” Sophia fills in the conversation gap for me. Before the man answers, she says, “No, wait. Allow me to deduce.”
“A fellow Sherlock Holmes fan, then?”
Polina is not participating in the conversation. She had turned on her phone and forgot all about us.
“Yes.” Sophia looks the man up and down, unabashed, takes in his charcoal suit. “I think that you are either a lawyer or some kind of manager at a large company.”
“Very right.” The man’s laughter is loud, his eyes crinckle at the corners. “Actually, I’m both. I head a corporate legal department.”
This time he turns to me fully, so there’s no mistake about him addressing me.
“I came to express my condolences. Your grandmother was a remarkable woman. Clearly, a quality she passed down the line.” It’s almost as if he sketches a bow in my direction. He is my age – early forties – and there’s nothing old-fashioned about him, but him, I can definitely see him at the piano. With or without a cigarette.
“How do you know Ruth?” I ask. “How did you know her, I mean.”
“She was teaching me Russian.”
“Why?” I blurt out. I am still shocked, when people want to learn Russian. Those who do, usually name Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as the reason, and I want to tell them that there’s so much more to Russian literature than those two old crotchety misogynists, but it seems like a rude thing to say.
“Polina,” Sophia pipes up. “I need to go pee. Can you take me?”
“I’ll take you,” I start to say. But Sophia has already latched on to Polina’s sleeve. Polina puts her phone away.
“Sure, I’ll take you,” she says. “I know where it is.”
“I was going to Russia on business.” The man goes on talking to me even when Polina and Sophia are gone. “It was several years back. That part of my life is over.” I see him clench his right hand, unaware that he’s doing it. That’s where he might have worn his wedding ring, had he married a Russian girl. He has no rings now. “But the interest in the language remained. And Ruth had certainly fueled it.”
“Yes. She’s very inspiring.” I feel sorry for him. He is stuck talking to me until Polina returns.
“Apparently, you’ve taken after her in that respect as well. Ruth tells me that you are a teacher too?”
“I just tutor.”
“Yes, chemistry.” The man sticks his hand out. “I’m David, by the way.”
I am forced to feel his long dry fingers, touch the calluses on his palm. He must work out like crazy, to look the way he does. I am searching for a way to steer the conversation away from where it’s headed. To why a PhD in chemistry is tutoring pre-meds.
“You must be exceptional,” the man says. “I imagine your students love you.”
“My students would love anyone who’d make chemistry bearable for them. It’s not a popular subject.”
“It’s your own choice.” My mother’s voice lashes out at me, before I can duck. “If you hadn’t left that big pharmaceutical company, you could have been a division head by now.”
I also would have been spending all of fifteen minutes a day with Sophia, but I remind myself that that conversation with my mother had already happened. And hadn’t gone particularly well either.
“It’s the pharmaceutical’s loss, I’m certain.” From his wallet, David extracts a creamy rectangle of a business card. “If you are in town, the next couple of days, please give me a call.”
I take the card and he goes off, broad shoulders and a charcoal suit.
“Who was that?” My mother reaches her hand towards the business card.
“Some friend of Polina’s.” I stick the card into the pocket of my black pants. I shouldn’t have worn pants to the cemetery. The bottoms are mud.
“Who was that?” My mother repeats, this time to Polina who is coming towards us. I can see that Sophia is stalling, dragging her running shoes on the grass. My mother said nothing, when we were leaving for the funeral, about sneakers worn with a dress. In case Sophia marched out and did not speak to her for another three years.
“He’s from legal, at work.” Polina answers. “David. Nice guy. He was looking for a Russian tutor, and I told him that I had a great-aunt who taught Russian. I thought she might enjoy meeting him. Memories of third husband and all that.”
“Third husband” was my grandfather. My father never spoke about him. My mom opens her mouth and closes it. She flushes.
“Oh, come on,” Polina nudges her. “It’s ancient history. Ruth got over it, a long time ago. Said your father-in-law was the handsomest dude she’s ever slept with. Why do you still care?”
“That’s not funny.” My mother draws up her chest, drastically reduced since she completely gave up bread, sweets and dairy. “It’s terrible, how he had treated his family.”
“He cheated on Ruth, fifty years ago.” Polina rolls her eyes. “Big whoop. Easy come, easy go. Everyone could have buried the hatchet a thousand times over.”
“It broke my husband’s heart,” my mother gasps. “My husband never forgave his father for this betrayal. Ever. How can you be so callous?”
“I forgave my husband.” Polina winds her red curls into a bun, then shakes them out again. The locks scatter, unrestrained. “My boys certainly don’t hold a grudge. It’s our business, who cheated on whom, not the kids.’”
My mother purses her lips and does not answer.
“So when did she have the Finn?” Sophia sticks the braid in her mouth, then spits it out.
“Sophia!” I’m not sure what outrages my mother more. The spitting of the braid or the subject that my daughter raised.
“What? Grandma said herself that she had a Finn. After her first husband. You didn’t really believe I thought she was talking about dogs? I was just messing with you.” Sophia is a born poker player. I think I’ve said that before.
“The Finn was right after the war.” Polina waves at someone in the crowd, adjusts her crocodile purse on her shoulder. “I think the affair with a foreigner was what got Ruth arrested. And he was sent out of the country, since Estonia belonged to the Soviets by then.”
“Did she ever tell you how she packed for the labour camps?” Polina asks Sophia. “Took with her a bottle of Chanel and Parisian underwear. Turned out to be very smart packing. Much smarter than the warm clothes everyone urged on her and she refused as ugly. Bought her the right to live in the village.”
“What do you mean, right to live in the village?” Sophia asks.
“She was supposed to work in the camp and live right there, in the barracks. But instead of cutting trees, or whatever else hideous thing they did, Ruth got herself a job in accounting. And then, for the lacy undies, lived off-site – bribed the woman in charge of the labour camp.”
“That’s not what happened.” My mother comes up with a paper napkin from her purse and puts it over Sophia’s nose. “Blow!”
Sophia jerks her head back, but my mother is inescapable. “Ruth made that up, about the bribe. Doesn’t even make sense. She got to stay in the village because she was teaching some important man’s son how to play the piano.” My mother folds the dirtied napkin away.
“Does it matter how she swung it?” Polina shows two pretty dimples. “She lived light. Made lemonade from all her lemons. Let the ground be soft as feathers for her.”
Sophia does not understand the traditional Russian phrase. Before she can ask, I take her hand.
“It was nice seeing you, Polina.”
“You too.” Polina hugs me briefly. “You are my only cousin. We should really keep in touch.”
“Let’s go,” my mother takes Sophia’s other hand, and Sophia, to my surprise, lets her. The way my mother nods at Polina, I am certain I will never hear about Polina’s progress again. Polina’s been too flippant. She’s disqualified from being a role model, now and forever. Polina does not care at all. Waves at us cheerily, and goes off, to where David is waiting for her.
“Is she seeing this David guy?” My mother asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“No,” Sophia says. “He is single.”
“How do you know?” My mother reaches for another napkin, but this time Sophia is quicker.
She wipes her nose on her sleeve and grins. “Elementary, dear Watson. I deduce. Through the use of my grey cells.”
Sophia pulls us towards the car. My mother trips a little, clutches my arm. “I think you should really talk to Sophia about the way she speaks to adults.”
I don’t answer. I like the way Sophia speaks to adults, if I were frank about it.
“No wonder they all stick to her like flies to honey.” My mother follows the torch of Polina’s head to the cemetery gates. “Did you see how slim she is? After two kids.”
Clear enough who is not slim around here. After just one child.
The child responsible for my lack of slimness is past the gates. My mother shouts “Sophia” after her and hurries ahead. I pull the business card out of my pocket. The company’s logo in the corner is a bird in flight.
The garbage can is conveniently located at the gates. I crumple the card and drop it in.
In the airport lounge, three days after the funeral, Sophia pulls the rustling paper away from the cherry danish. She takes a huge bite. Mixed with the drip from her nose, the cherry filling looks like she has a nosebleed. Sophia sticks out her tongue and licks it. I start digging in my purse for napkins.
“You haven’t got any.” Sophia chomps on the danish again and sucks the sugar streaks off her fingers. “No napkins. Clearly, that makes you a complete failure as a mother.” She laughs and snuggles up to me.
“Want?” My daughter holds the golden half-moon of the danish out to me.
“I’m not hungry, sweetie.”
“So? You don’t eat danishes because you are hungry. You eat them because they taste good.”
She leans against me so comfortably, and her dark tangled hair smells of vanilla.
“We should look into getting you a math tutor, when we get back,” I say. “Your grandmother is right.”
“My grandmother is wrong.” Sophia stuffs the rest of the danish into her mouth. “She is always wrong. That’s the kind of person she is. But you can get me a tutor, sure. Or I can ask dad. He’s good for it.”
I pull out my phone. I’m not expecting any messages, but I could check the weather at home.
“Did David call you?” Sophia rummages in her backpack and comes up with a book.
“No, of course he didn’t call me. Why would he?” I’m not a poker player. Sophia stares at me and I fidget.
“Mom? Did he ask for your number and you refused?” She is almost threatening.
“He didn’t.” I yank on her book. It is Bel Ami, by Maupassant. An English translation, from her school library.
“Are you sure you should be reading this?” I ask. “At fourteen?”
“Yes.” Sophia nods vigorously. “I am all set to learn about human depravity. Don’t change the subject. Did David ask for your number?”
“No,” I repeat. I know that she’ll get me in the end.
“All right, what did he do then? Did he ask you out?”
“No. Is this any of your business?” Sophia just goes on staring at me. When she draws her eyebrows together, my breath catches. I could never lie to my husband either. My ex-husband.
“David gave me his card,” I say. “Said to call him.”
Sophia stretches out her hand silently.
“I haven’t got the card,” I admit. “I threw it away. After the funeral.”
Sophia opens her book. She does not say anything; she is not talking to me. That’s how she does it, since she was little. Just retreats and then emerges with a verdict. I must really tell her that she should not treat adults that way. At least she should not treat me that way.
I fiddle with the phone, turn on the weather app.
“It’s a crap app, mom.” Sophia leans over. “It always says ‘sunshine’ and half the time it ends up raining. I mean, we live in Vancouver. What’s the point?”
“I can’t do anything about the rain.” I turn the phone off and put it away. No messages. “Might as well think it will be nice when we get there.”
“Yes, you could do something about the rain. Watch this, mom.” Sophia reaches for her backpack one more time. “Magic.” She pulls out an umbrella and holds it out to me. I start to laugh.
“I’ll phone Polina,” Sophia says. “Actually, I don’t even have to phone Polina. I’ll look up David’s number on their website. Head of Legal – he’s got to be there. And then you’ll call him.”
“I won’t.” If I had a braid, I’d stick it in my mouth and gnaw on its end. But I wear my hair short.
“We live on different ends of the country. There’s absolutely no point.”
Sophia stands up, places her book on the seat.
“I’m getting you a danish,” she says. “They have very good danishes here.”
“But I’m not hungry,” I protest.
“Doesn’t matter,” Sophia says. “I’m still getting you one.”
She lopes off, down the corridor, spindly, in spite of liking starch. Outside the lounge windows, airplanes are taking off, one by one, huge white birds, powerful and obedient. Sometimes long distance works, I think. I’d fly in, not tell my mother that I’m in Toronto. I’d only have a carry-on, not even have to collect my luggage. Come out, ahead of everyone, and he’d be there, waiting for me.
I see my vague reflection in the glass.
By the time Sophia returns, I have already pulled out my notes for the college course I teach, and I am reviewing them. Sophia sighs.
“I’ve brought the danish,” she says. “So if you want it, here it is.” She shakes the paper bag at me.
“Thank you,” I rise slightly to kiss her cheek, but she turns, and the kiss lands on her ear. “I will.”
Sophia just shrugs.
Opens her book, sticks the end of her braid in her mouth and leans against me, to read.
I keep at my notes until they call our flight.
I really hope it’s sunny, when we return home.
Not much I can do about the rain.
About the Author:
Rachel Cohen is a lawyer. Since she has to stick to the truth in her day job, when she writes fiction, she lies.