Impossible Lessons from My First Year in American High School
"New Life" by Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry, recommended by Electric Literature
Introduction by Erin Bartnett
In the first paragraph of “New Life” by Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry, we’re offered three different iterations of what a “new life” can be. Mrs. Jones, the biology teacher, is suddenly single. Her husband of twenty-two years has left her for another teacher in the high school. Meanwhile, there are her students, the teenagers learning about “the division of chromosomes and how much energy and labor it took to grow a life.” And finally, there is Pavel, one of her students and the story’s narrator, who is “new to the area, new to the country, new to the people.” New life for Mrs. Jones is wet eyes and private grief exposed; new life for the biology students is all “energy and labor”; new life for Pavel is a whole place and people. Read that paragraph carefully and you’ll find a blueprint for the whole story expertly mapped out in little more than eight lines.
Pavel and his mother have moved to Salem, Virginia from Russia to live with a man named Bill, a fifty-six-year-old mechanic who never married or had children. (Pavel’s own father left him and his mother years ago.) Now settled in Bill’s home, their plan is to stay until their visas run out or Pavel’s mother decides to marry Bill. Pavel, meanwhile, will finish high school and work to get into an American college. Pavel is a careful and considerate observer of Bill and his mother, of Mrs. Jones and the rest of their neighbors. In particular, he cannot help but see elements of his mother’s past in Mrs. Jones’s present. But then, something irrevocable happens, and the parallels Pavel has been drawing between the past and present get tangled up.
What Gorcheva-Newberry captures in the careful articulation and evolution of each character’s “new life” in this story is that to live a new life is a haunted experience; the old life never really fades. It just lives elsewhere, returning when we least expect it, to change our relationship to the present. Pavel explains the experience to Mrs. Jones as a form of “time-travel.” In his head, he says, “I’m still there, in Russia. But really, I’m here—in America.” He lives in two places, in two lives, at once. In Mrs. Jones’s kitchen, and in his grandparents yard back in Russia. In the woods of Salem, and in the Moscow airport. It’s a testament to Gorcheva-Newberry’s deft characterization, elegant storytelling, and beautiful description that the reader can experience what it means to be alive to the experiences of two places, of two lives, in one body at the same time. How familiar that experience feels. How new.
– Erin Bartnett
Senior Editor, Recommended Reading
Impossible Lessons from My First Year in American High School
“New Life” by Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry
Mrs. Jones was my twelfth-grade biology teacher, whose husband had left her for the ninth-grade English teacher after twenty-two years of marriage. It happened early in the fall, and Mrs. Jones often came to work tired and distressed, often plucking a tissue out of a box and pressing it to her eyes during class. Some students grinned or snickered, but most pretended not to notice as they studied the division of chromosomes and how much energy and labor it took to grow a life. Mrs. Jones didn’t have children, but she nodded and occasionally corrected us, drawing intricate beehive charts on the board. It was my senior year at F. W. High; I lacked friends and had just begun to get acquainted with the surroundings. I was new to the area, new to the country, new to the people.
My mother and I had moved to Virginia from Moscow, after fifteen months of her correspondence with Bill, whom she’d met online, through one of the international dating services. I’d translated their emails word for word because I’d been studying English from the age of seven, unlike my mother, who’d taken one year in college. The emails, though not passionate, were full of detailed descriptions, as well as questions, some more personal than others. Hers: How big was Bill’s house and the town of Salem, where he lived? How many women did he date in the past? Why did he never marry? Did he like children? What was his favorite book? His: Could my mother cook? How often did she use beets in her cooking (because he wasn’t “a big fan” of the vegetable and he heard it “turned one’s bowels pink”)? Did she like to have a garden and grow her own tomatoes in the summer? Did she make preserves? Did she drink alcohol? From the emails, I’d also found out that both Bill’s parents died from cancer and that he never married because he didn’t think he wanted children, and most women he knew did. Later, of course, he had changed his mind, but good single females were hard to come by at his age—fifty-six. One of the employees in his garage suggested that Bill seek a Russian bride because he’d heard that Russian women were pretty and earnest workers, and because they took care of their men.
Also, from the emails, I understood that my mother hadn’t had an intimate relationship with a man for years, which of course I suspected but hadn’t given much thought to. She wasn’t that old—forty-four—but in Moscow she spent most of her time working (she was an accountant at a small trading firm), or taking care of me and our flat. She did everything herself—replaced bulbs, fixed commodes, painted windows, glued wallpaper, hung curtains and mirrors. She also sewed and did laundry by hand because we couldn’t afford a washing machine, and we had no place to put it unless we got rid of the bathroom sink or the tub or the kitchen table. On weekends, my mother and I tidied my grandparents’ place. We bought their groceries, cooked, washed and ironed clothes because my grandmother had arthritis and her fingers looked as though they’d been broken in many places and had grown back together in strange, impossible ways.
Every September, my mother took a one-week vacation, which she usually spent baking pies from tart Antonovka apples and reading books she didn’t have the opportunity to read the rest of the year. She was a healthy-looking woman with a trusting smile and full hips. Her hair was short, flaring at her ears and colored magenta red, so from a distance her head resembled a flower, one of those large shiny asters I always gave to my teachers on the first day of a school year. After my father had left us, my mother tried to grow out her hair and went on a few dates with local men, only to discover that both pursuits were equally frustrating. Neither my mother nor I had ever travelled abroad (even though after the collapse of the Soviet empire, Russian people could finally see the world), so when the international dating agency had arranged our visas, we packed our suitcases and got the tickets in less than a month. Bill had agreed to pay all the expenses, and my mother had agreed to stay for a year, until the visas ran out. She hoped that by that time she’d know enough to either marry or leave him, and I hoped that I’d have a chance to apply to American colleges and continue my education.
Fall blossomed with colors. The grass was still thick and green, but the mountains looked ablaze—mulberry-red, blood orange, crimson. I made a few acquaintances at school but still didn’t talk to anyone much, self-conscious of my accent and the fact that I usually had to repeat whatever I said. Despite my mother’s rudimentary English, Bill had no problem understanding her, and after just a month, they no longer needed me to interpret. Bill seemed hardworking and trustworthy, and she seemed content, if not happy. On weekends, they took off driving to nearby towns, browsing through antique stores and flea markets, eating out or going to late movies, perhaps trying to make up for all the dates they never had. I, on the other hand, devoted myself to my studies since I had to work twice as hard to be able to keep up with my classes, relearning things in English.
Mrs. Jones stopped crying during class, but she looked exhausted and resembled a hollow, stripped-of-bark tree. Sometimes, I saw her walking to school ahead of me, along the Roanoke River and across the railroad tracks, taking a shortcut through the tall brush and a deserted playground, where she would sit on a swing and smoke a cigarette, holding it far away from her face as though afraid it would harm her skin.
One late October morning on my way to school, I spotted Mrs. Jones on her knees, bent over a dog lying on its side across the tracks. It was a red-and-brown mongrel, not too big, not too small. As I approached her, I could see that the dog was intact and perfectly still, as if stretched out for a nap; its eyes half-closed, the black pupils glistening between the hairy lids. One paw was oddly flat and folded under like a rubber flapper. There was no blood or torn fur anywhere, but the piece of the dog’s ear was missing, chewed off.
Mrs. Jones drew her finger along its ragged edge. “Some animal took a bite,” she said.
“What animal?” I asked.
“Could be anything. Could be another dog.”
I sighed, squatting next to her and dropping my gargantuan schoolbag on the ground. “What happened to him?”
“Got hit by a train, probably. Let’s throw him in the river.”
“Is it legal?” I asked. Since we arrived in America, my mother had underscored more than once that the country we now lived in was so unlike the one we’d come from; the laws were different, so were the people, who actually obeyed them.
Mrs. Jones gave me a long stare; she raised one of her eyebrows, and the skin on her forehead puckered, resembling a wrung cloth.
“We can’t bury him—we have no shovel. So, I think, under the circumstances, we can let the water take care of it.” She threaded her hands under the dog’s body, and I did the same, from the other side. Together we lifted the animal (stiff and much heavier than I anticipated) and hauled it toward the river. It was still early, the air cool and misty, enveloping us like a shroud. Everything smelled of mud and rotten leaves, and my foot slipped a few times as we trudged along the bank.
“This is good.” Mrs. Jones stopped. The portion of the bank was significantly elevated, and the river seemed deep enough, its surface black and glassy. We swung the dog lightly from side to side and let it fall. It plopped in the water and disappeared from view, leaving a mesh of circles until they, too, faded away, and the river became unruffled once again.
“You’re probably late for classes,” Mrs. Jones said as she wiped her hands on her pants and then pulled on the sleeves of her dark-brown turtleneck. Her clothes often looked as though she’d outgrown them—her pants too short, her shirt sleeves too narrow. Her shoes, however, were large and square, with thick flat soles.
“The math teacher asks us to write notes if we’re late,” I said, adding the words together before actually pronouncing them. “Do I tell about the dog?”
“That’s fine. Or you can just say that I needed your help.”
We picked up our bags and walked in the direction of the school. A gust of wind combed through the trees; a few raindrops pocked the river.
“How are you getting along, Pa—” She paused. “I’m always afraid I’ll mispronounce your name.”
“Pavel,” I said. “Sometimes Pasha.”
“I’ll try to remember. It must be hard for you. So much change.”
“It’s O.K. Sort of like time-travelling. Like in here,” I said and tapped on my head. “I’m still there, in Russia. But really, I’m here—in America.”
“I think I understand what you mean. Makes perfect sense. This new life, it has been forced upon you, and you’re trying your best to adjust. Seems impossible, doesn’t it? When everything you know and love is back there, in that other life.”
“Except my mother.”
“Yes. Of course.”
Two people, a man and woman, stepped out of the tall brush on the other side of the tracks, their faces tight with worry. The man held a plastic bag in his hand, and as he walked, he’d stop and take out a sock and lay it under a tree or drape it on a bush. He was a bear of man, with gray hair and a moustache. The woman was short and thin and seemed much younger, wearing blue jeans and a red-and-black plaid shirt, her hair twisted in a choppy bun. She was calling out to someone.
When the couple was directly across from us, the man said, “Our dog is lost. Have you seen him? A brown mutt?”
“No. We haven’t,” Mrs. Jones answered without the slightest pause, and I turned to look at her, puzzled. I remembered my mother telling me before we left Moscow that in America people didn’t lie—they didn’t have to—which was why they’d been able to build such a powerful country.
“He’s really sweet,” the woman said, her voice filled with tears. “Got loose last night. We’ve been looking all over. If you see him, please call our number.” She handed me a flier. I glanced at it, embarrassed to have been made an accomplice (if only in disposing of the body). There, on a large floor pillow, the dog reposed, alive and content, a pink rubber bone at his side.
“Sorry about your dog,” Mrs. Jones said. “He might still come back.”
“You think so?” the woman asked, wiping tears.
Mrs. Jones nodded and resumed walking, her shoulders low, a weary shuffle in her step.
I folded the flier and put it in my pocket, scurrying after her. They were long gone when I dared to ask, “Why did we tell not the truth?” I couldn’t bring myself to say “lie.” The word seemed too short and too definite, permanent even, like a cutoff finger.
We arrived at the old playground, and she took out a cigarette, inspected it and then lit it, again holding it awkwardly far from her face. She was like a teenage girl or a novice smoker, not inhaling but taking sporadic nervous drags and exhaling with an exaggerated force.
“It wouldn’t have solved anything,” she said, narrowing her dark, joyless eyes. “As far as they know, their dog is just lost. After a while, they’ll get used to being without him.”
“But they’ll worry and look for it.”
“And hope.” She smiled, but only with her stretched lips. The rest of her face didn’t move. She dropped the cigarette in the grass, behind the swing, put it out with her foot, then picked it up and hid it inside her small pale fist.
By Thanksgiving, the ninth-grade English teacher, whom everyone now called Mrs. Jones Two, was growing new life under her loose soft shirts. Her breasts sat on top of her distended belly like fruit on a platter, like those juicy cantaloupes I used to buy with my mother at one of Moscow’s bazaars at the end of summer. Surprisingly enough, no one gossiped about the situation but rather accepted it, as though this new baby had somehow legitimized the mother’s involvement with another woman’s husband. Mrs. Jones didn’t show any signs of distress either, except that she stopped walking to school. She colored her graying hair golden-brown and bought new oversized clothes. She began wearing long skirts and bright silky blouses hanging around her body like curtains, all that excessive, bunched-up fabric. But her shoes remained the same, brown and sturdy and too wide. She made no references to the dog and treated me no differently than any other student in her class.
My grades improved, but I still struggled with writing. Bill offered to help and read my essays with care, concentrating hard, elbows on the table. He corrected articles and prepositions, a few idiomatic expressions, but very little beyond that, scratching his forehead—deep in thought—and occasionally leaving his greasy fingerprints on the margins (for which he always apologized). My mother couldn’t help me at all. To hide her frustration, she concentrated on turning Bill’s house into a home, dusting and rearranging furniture and obtaining new pieces—an oak rocker and a love seat, where she sometimes curled up in the afternoon, reading. She framed a picture of my grandparents and displayed it proudly on her dresser. Before leaving Russia, she’d rented our apartment and hired a neighbor to clean and cook for my grandparents twice a week. She called them regularly and looked out the window when she talked to them, squinting and squinting, as though she might discern their faces amidst the clouds or the mountains.
As I continued to battle school, my mother and Bill continued to build a family, disclosing each other’s talents as well as secrets. Bill was kind and patient and never raised his voice. A car mechanic, he could fix anything in the world, which was how my mother had described him to my grandparents. Also, Bill had finally agreed to taste borsch and even took a pot to his garage, where he shared the soup with his coworkers, demanding they add a spoonful of sour cream before eating. He never drank hard liquor, but he bought a bottle of vodka one day, on the way back from work, and offered a shot to my mother. She agreed to have a drink if he had one too, but he refused. Later that evening, as we were finishing dinner, he admitted to my mother that his parents hadn’t died from cancer—both had been alcoholics, had drunk and smoked themselves to death. He didn’t want to tell it to my mother before she got here so as not to scare her off. My mother took his hand in hers and stroked it as she did mine when I was little and didn’t understand any pain other than the physical. I waited for my mother to divulge her secret, too—that my father had multiple affairs before finally dumping her for a younger woman, who also had a son by him, that he’d often forgotten our monthly visits, my birthdays, and child support payments while my mother and I had struggled to piece our life together. But my mother never said a word. Or perhaps she’d already opened up to Bill when they’d been alone, while driving to other towns or browsing through antique malls, surrounded by other people’s possessions, rugs and lamps, musty furniture, old clocks. When I finally went to bed that night, I could hear my mother and Bill whispering in their bedroom and then laughing and shuffling and laughing some more.
In early December, we had a tall fat tree decorated with old ornaments Bill had dug out of the basement. The ornaments were his parents’, most of them made from soft faded cloth or weathered cardboard. There were a few glass balls and tin stars, an airplane with bent wings and a snowman, whose loose carrot nose my mother glued back in place. At the bottom of the box, we found three knitted socks with the names Bob, Mary, and Bill crocheted in dusk-blue. Mary’s sock had an angel cross-stitched on the front, Bob’s a sleigh, and Bill’s a gingerbread house. Before Bill could fetch his toolbox, my mother had already hung the socks on the back of the entrance door instead of the Christmas wreath. “Memories,” she said. “They are us until we become them.”
On Christmas Eve, my mother stuffed a turkey with herbed breadcrumbs, nuts, and baby onions using a local recipe. She also made gravy for the first time and decided to bake an apple pie, complaining that American flour was too soft and the apples were not green or tart enough. Bill called his neighbor and asked her advice on using a different brand of flour or another apple variety. My mother smiled and said in Russian, “Sometimes it isn’t such a good thing to have so many choices. One can become frustrated.” I started translating my mother’s words to Bill, so he didn’t feel left out or think that we were talking about him, but he told me not to worry and that he was going to Grant’s to search for greener apples. I asked to tag along, and he seemed grateful for the company.
Snow drifted across the paved driveway, filling in the cracks. Flurries spun in the air, thousands of tiny fuzzy creatures. I opened my mouth and caught a breath full. I felt like a big fish gulping a school of minnows as they swam by, ignorant of their fate. I thought how my mother always told me that we made our own fate and that it made us, too. Perhaps that was the main difference between humans and other species, what made a man a man—being responsible for what happened to himself and what he did to others. But I still had no clue as to when a man should start making such fate-determining decisions.
It was snowing heavily when we pulled up to Grant’s and got out. There were only two cars in the parking lot. The store was deserted, the shelves mostly empty—everyone had come and gone, stocked up for the holidays and bad weather. They had plenty of green apples, though, which Bill picked one by one and smelled (imitating my mother). We proceeded to the checkout when I spotted Mrs. Jones loitering by the register. It seemed that she’d lost even more weight and resembled a long willowy shadow on the wall. She wore a heavy black coat, a gray scarf and a hat. In her pale, almost transparent hands, she held a head of lettuce, hugging it close to her chest. She must have felt my stare because she turned and looked directly at me, blinking and blinking, as though she had snow in her eyes. I waved, but she didn’t wave back. Instead, she dropped the lettuce in her buggy and scurried toward Bill.
“Hi, I’m Pavel’s biology teacher. Could you, please, give me a lift home? I didn’t expect it to start snowing so soon. I’m a poor driver. But I need to get back. I’m having company,” she said in quick, forced sentences.
Bill nodded, and I waited while she paid, then helped load her bags in the truck. She climbed in the back seat and turned to face the window.
The ride was mostly silent, except when Bill switched to the weather channel on the radio, where they announced twelve inches of snow by midnight.
“How much is twelve inches?” I asked.
“A foot,” Bill answered.
“Foot? Whose foot?”
Mrs. Jones didn’t say anything at first, but then breathed out a heavy sigh, adding, “Unbearable. All that snow.”
Neither Bill nor I replied but watched the wipers beating wet powder off the windshield. It piled on the bottom of the glass in soggy lumps before sliding off and falling on the road, a thick gray mush. Ahead, the mountains had fused with the horizon, and I could barely discern their hunched shoulders draped in soft fuzzy pelts.
When we arrived at Mrs. Jones’s house, all was a spool of snow inside of which we moved slowly as though in a dream. She trudged up the steps, a square imprint of her shoes along the path, and I trailed after her, bloated grocery bags in each hand. They were more bulky than heavy, and I tripped a few times, slid sideways, but managed to balance. She didn’t offer to help or acknowledge my clumsiness in any way. Or maybe she just forgot that I was there, loaded with her produce. Without shaking snow off her feet, she pushed the door open and walked inside, and the door swung shut. I had to place the bags on the porch to be able to turn the knob and let myself in.
Hers was a one-story brick house, wide and weathered; it smelled of burned wood and something else, something acrid, like paint or varnish. The odor reminded me of canning season at my grandparents’ place, when everything stunk of vinegar, walls and rugs and even our hair. Yet, unlike in their flat, disorder reigned in Mrs. Jones’s home. It had the feel of an abandoned den men had fled in the dark. Pieces of clothing—sweaters, shirts, jeans, a robe—scattered on the floor. I crossed the hallway, where a chair lay on its side and an empty frame hung on the wall, a torn corner of an old picture remaining. The absence of Christmas decorations made me think of the times in Russia when we weren’t allowed to celebrate the holiday.
In the kitchen I found Mrs. Jones still in her coat but without the hat, heating water in a tea kettle. “You want coffee?” she asked, lighting a cigarette. “I think I have one of those to-go cups.”
“No. Thanks,” I said.
With her dry, chafed hand, she swept a disarray of envelopes and books against the wall, and I was able to set the grocery bags on the table, next to a pile of pencils, finely sharpened.
“Sorry,” she said. “It looks awful, but I’ve been rearranging.”
“It’s O.K.,” I said. “I understand.”
The kettle was steaming up the window, and she reached for a cup, then paused—hand mid-air—and wiped the glass with her coat sleeve.
I suddenly recalled the days, weeks, after my father had left, how my mother would become disoriented in our flat, as minuscule a space as it was. How she’d pick up one thing from a kitchen shelf and hold it in her hands for a long minute, as though forgetting its intended purpose or why she’d needed it. Or how she’d begin things—sewing a button onto my shirt or peeling beets for borsch—and never finish; the shirt would remain on the kitchen table for weeks, the beets wither and mold in the pot. I wasn’t quite seven and didn’t know loneliness as a state of mind, but somehow her sadness had affected everything she touched, be it food, or water, or my face. Back then, I still had no idea my father’s absence in our flat was permanent or that another child had already replaced me. I thought that my father was gone on a trip overseas, and there was no way for him to contact me. At night, as I lay beside my mother, where my father used to sleep, I would imagine growing taller and heavier by the hour so I could fill in all the emptiness his disappearance had created. I dreamed about him too, coming back home with flowers and ice cream, scooping us against his wide muscular chest, those mountains of bone and flesh. I dreamed about riding his shoulders and touching the ceiling, the tiny teardrop crystals of our chandelier. And then I would wake up and find my mother hovering on the balcony, smoking and drinking coffee, peering into the trees, their stark silhouettes almost human, beckoning and waving their arms.
“Your guests, when will they be here?” I asked and took the kettle off the stove.
Mrs. Jones turned and leaned against the sill, her gaze distraught, heavy with doubt and all the snow that kept falling over the yard, burying our tracks.
“Oh, I don’t know. Impossible to tell in such weather.” She blew out a stream of smoke, then dispersed it with her free hand.
“You want to come to dinner?” I asked. “We live close by. My mom is baking a turkey. She’ll make an apple pie too.”
“Men love pies, don’t they?”
“Maybe your mother can teach me how to bake a good pie.”
“Yes. She’d be glad.” And then I heard Bill blowing the horn, so I scurried out.
Mrs. Jones didn’t come for dinner that night. Yet, we did make room for her at the table. Each time I heard floorboards moan on the porch or the wind knock at the window panes, I glanced at the door, imagining her spindly shadow, the sway of her shoulders haloed in brittle winter air. After dinner, we sat in front of the TV and drank tea and ate my mother’s apple pie, which sagged in the middle, but which Bill claimed to be the best pie he’d ever tasted, American or Russian. On our Christmas tree, a few new ornaments my mother and I had bought at Walmart dangled strangely among the old ones.
In the spring, Mrs. Jones Two had her baby boy. The official announcement was posted on the school’s webpage, next to a tiny red-faced infant with a tuft of black hair and sparse brows. I, meanwhile, had caught up with my studies and was accepted into a few community colleges, where Bill and my mother had encouraged me to apply. If I managed well the first year, I could transfer to a university of my choice. Bill had offered to pay my tuition if I helped him at the garage on weekends, and my mother had offered to bake apple pies for as long as he’d eat them. They both laughed when she said that, and I did too, a wave of gratitude sweeping over me like sunshine over the mountains.
One day I organized books at the school library and came home later than usual. I found my mother and Bill sitting at the kitchen table in mournful silence—hands folded, lips pinched—staring at the muted TV.
“Who died?” I asked, attempting to joke.
“Nobody,” my mother said.
“Someone is sick?” I prompted.
“No one is sick. Somebody stole Mrs. Jones’s baby,” Bill said.
“The English teacher’s baby?” I asked, imagining the helpless little person placed inside a duffel bag and smuggled away in a stranger’s car.
“It’s very sad,” my mother said, and Bill reached for the remote and turned off the TV.
“Whoever did it probably wants to sell it to some childless people and make lots of money,” I said.
My mother and Bill scrutinized my face in disbelief, as though such things never happened and I was making them up.
“What are you saying, Pasha?” my mother asked. “Like you have no soul.”
“I have a soul,” I protested. My mother compared souls to soft places on babies’ heads. As we grew older, our souls hardened and closed up. She said only special people got to keep their souls forever. “Why did she leave the baby alone?” I asked.
“She didn’t. Someone came into her home while she was taking a shower. The door wasn’t locked. We never lock doors here. They think the ex-wife did it,” Bill said.
“The biology teacher?”
“The one we drove home from the store. The police went to her house, but no one is there.”
I didn’t know how to respond, so I just sat at the table and stared at the black TV screen. After a while, my mother got up with a heavy sigh and started cooking. Bill went to the basement, and I focused on homework. But all I could think about was Mrs. Jones Two and her missing baby. I imagined him staring at a strange face and blinking in frustration, unable to recognize the one he’d known all his short happy life. The baby’s lips protruded, his face shriveled as someone’s finger drew along his small ear and chin. I paused, replaying the scene over and over.
“I’m going out,” I finally said, standing up and zipping my sweatshirt.
“Now?” my mother asked. “It’s dark, and supper ready soon.” She still called lunches dinners, and dinners suppers (that would never change).
“I’ll be right back.”
She didn’t answer and continued to flip the fish in the skillet with a fork.
It was dusk outside, the moon’s full face cut out of the sky. Mountains stood jagged against the horizon. They made me think of life and how it could be like that—a broken line—one year giving way to another, happiness yielding to sorrow and vice versa. And how you could only see that from a great distance.
I took a mouthful of cold sharp air and sprinted up the path, crossing the railroad tracks and running toward the playground. It was empty. On the swing, I found a man’s sock. I picked it up and held it between my fingers, then placed it back. There was no wind, and it seemed as though the entire world had paused for breath. I stood still, peering into the tangle of tree limbs entwined like arms and legs. There was a rustle and another, a cooing sound, and then everything became quiet. Not too far away, the river glinted, black like oil, and I followed a crooked, barely visible path along the bank.
The earth was so soft, it swallowed all sounds. I imagined Mrs. Jones sitting on the ground, leaning against a tree, the head of a sleeping infant nestled in the crook of her arm. I imagined her looking fragile and disheveled, but also proud, like a new mother as she rocked the baby to sleep, her body folded over his, the weight of another life against her own.
Somewhere, next to my shoulder, a twig snapped, and a bird flapped into the trees. I thought I smelled cigarette smoke and halted; my jaw trembled, the pulse of my heart behind my eyes.
“Mrs. Jones?” I called out into the darkness. “Mrs. Jones? It’s me, Pavel.”
There was no answer, and I continued to stand, surrounded by shadows, rubbing my arms up and down, a taste of salt in my mouth and also disappointment.
I remembered how the day we’d left for American, I sat on top of my suitcase, reluctant to leave the flat, hoping for my father to call or show up at the door, all the excuses he would invent, all the valiant reasons. How he would pick me up and drive me away and make room for me in his home and his heart. At the airport, we’d almost missed our plane because I kept straying off and wandering around the terminal, kept pushing through the crowds, searching for my father’s face, his ogre chest and long thick arms that would shield me from heartache and loneliness. My mother had once said that children weren’t to blame for their parents’ faults, yet they felt punished just the same.
I didn’t find Mrs. Jones that evening, even though I’d searched for hours. But the next day, as I sat on the living room couch, eating my mother’s potato salad and watching local news on TV, I learned that Mrs. Jones had been arrested leaving town late at night. The baby had been recovered from the back seat of her car and returned to his parents, unharmed. Next, there was footage of a young woman, Mrs. Jones Two, holding the baby to her chest, smiling and cooing into his soft, dreamy face. The baby waved his arms and legs, then opened his mouth, but no sounds came out, just a drool of saliva. People crowded around her, school teachers, friends and neighbors; yet she didn’t seem to notice anyone but the sweet helpless creature pressed against her heart.
For a moment, I shut my eyes, the way my mother used to do while hugging me so tight each time my father had cancelled or forgotten our monthly visit. She never cried but disappeared into the bathroom, turning on the water, or scooped snow from the balcony and rubbed her face until it hurt. I was afraid to talk to her then or wrap my arms around her, afraid to upset her even more. Years would pass, slip and fold between us like rain between the mountains. I would grow up, move away, and forget the pain my father had caused us, but I would always remember her embrace—the tenderness in it, the longing.