The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 12, No. 2

The Alternate

by Sana Krasikov

Some of the wedding guests had started filtering out the doors. Victor looked around for Vera and saw her in the lobby, pointing to her watch. She didn't want to stay late, she had told him. She needed to be fresh for her doctor's appointment in the morning.
     "I'll tell Alina your boy will call," Anna Davidovna said when she kissed Victor good-bye, and he patted his wallet to reassure her. Victor had asked for her granddaughter's number on behalf of his older son, though he had no intention of passing it on to Stas. That would be wasteful, possibly even reckless. He'd written the girl's number on the back of a dollar bill, having picked up the idea from a man at work, a young trader who liked to brag about keeping his girlfriends' telephone numbers recorded on pieces of cash in his wallet to avert the suspicions of his wife. Victor usually felt nauseated by such vain disclosures, but the idea had appealed to him, though he'd never before had use for it: With a dollar bill, a man could easily feign ignorance. And when the affair was over, he could go and buy himself a cup of coffee.
     The maroon carpet in the lobby was matted down with footprints. Women dashed around, handing their purses to their husbands to hold while they hunted for coats. A small crowd had gathered around a bulletin board montage of the bride and groom's childhood photos. Alec, the father of the bride, whom Victor had met sixteen years earlier in Vienna, when their two families had lived in the same hosting facility, stood in the middle explaining to his friends that the wedding had been carried out in Orthodox tradition on account of the groom's family. The groom himself was only Modern Orthodox, Alec explained. It was an important distinction.
     "Modern, not Modern, what's the difference?" asked a man wearing a shearling.
     "If it's forbidden but you really want to, then it's OK!" said Alec.
     "Back when we lived in Queens," Vera interrupted, "we knew one Modern Orthodox couple." She glanced over at Victor, then carried on. "They had a little girl and two boys. Sometimes the boys wore their kipas and sometimes they didn't. Maybe they thought God performed spot inspections."
     All were silent for a moment, then Alec and the man in the shearling broke out laughing. "Spot inspections, that's good," Alec said, clapping Victor on the shoulder as if he had made the jab. Except Victor hadn't found it so funny.
     "Wait until it's our turn for a spot inspection," he said morbidly.
     His wife stared at him in bewilderment, a small crease of spite forming between her thin brows. He knew what that look meant: when exactly had he become such a big Jew?
     And all he'd done was start reading those Telushkin books before bed.
     If he wanted to find spirituality, she'd told him one night, why not spend an evening at the Met? That was different, Victor had tried to explain to her. But Vera never really listened. She found all religion a little depressing and primitive.
     She walked ahead to the glass doors. Victor followed her into the parking lot. She didn't want to talk about it until they were in the car. "I'm tired of you embarrassing me in front of people, Vitya!" she said, slamming the door shut.
     They drove home in silence. Oh, she liked to say it was all religions she didn't care for, but of course she meant only his; all these years she'd kept a tiny silver cross—a gift from her beloved grandmother—stored in that little zip-up pocket in her handbag. And when he'd brought that fact to her attention, she'd howled that in thirty years of marriage she'd worn it only once, after Dr. Nathan discovered a mysterious lump in her right breast. And when subsequent tests revealed only an innocuous cyst, the cross had gone quietly back into the purse—because it wasn't like she'd been raised by a band of pagans either. But that was what you did for the person you loved: you became a practical secularist, you became a political centrist of the soul.
     A stream of headlights rushed past them, cars from JFK Airport merging into the traffic. Vera stretched her arm for the radio dial and scrolled through the channels. She chose one and leaned back. They were catching the end of a traffic report, followed by a piano interlude, a melody elaborating into a longer improvisation. In the ghostly green lights of the dashboard, Victor could see the line of stitching on Vera's sleeve. A year before, the fabric had been singed by a wayward ash from one of his cigarettes. Unable to return the dress to Neiman Marcus as planned, she'd worn it twice since, and on both occasions reminded Victor that his carelessness had cost them four hundred dollars. He'd told her he preferred to consider it a gift: she finally had one decent thing hanging in her closet.
     "I wrote them a check for three hundred dollars," Vera said, turning down the volume. She was talking about the newlyweds. "I think that was enough." It was her policy never to write the amount until after she'd arrived at the celebration and taken a look around. "You could have made it four hundred. The food alone was two hundred dollars a person."
     "Who told you that? Alec?"
     Victor didn't bother to reply.
     "That's what he spent the evening doing? Giving everyone the itemized breakdown, just in case we were getting jealous by the wrong amount?"
     "It wasn't enough," Victor said.
     "It was. Let me sleep." She tilted back her seat and shut her eyes.
     Alec was "dirty wealthy" now; that was how Vera liked to say it—her special variation on the idiom for which she'd originally aimed and missed. At the beginning of the tech boom he'd started a company that specialized in tax software, an idea that turned out to be miraculously recession-proof in the ever-changing weather patterns of the American economy.
     Victor turned up the volume on the radio. It was Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto again, a classical-FM favorite, long melodies and rhapsodic flights. That was why Mila had liked playing it so much. She'd tried to teach him to hear with her own ear. "It's sound," she'd said once, "it's supposed to shift. It's supposed to slip away." Back in Zhitomir, where they'd attended the same music school, Mila had become fanatical about Rachmaninoff and played him at every recital. Sitting through all those trilling harmonies had made Victor want to shoot himself. But the teachers loved it. He'd overheard one of them telling the school's director, "That girl knows what she's doing. The rest of them are still guessing." The rest of them? Didn't that include him? Yet it was only after that comment that he'd started to notice the swanlike rise of Mila's shoulders, her foot's cautious tilt on the pedal, the way the piano used all the parts of her and required her like nothing else did. Loving Mila had been, at least at first, so much easier than hating her. And sometimes he still wondered if love could really start that way, as nothing more than temporary relief from envy.
     Victor felt around for his wallet. Still in his pocket. He'd call the girl in the morning. That would be Martin Luther King Day; she'd probably have no classes. He would introduce himself as an old friend of her mother and ask her out to lunch. Simple as that. And if she didn't say yes right away, he could say he was calling to return some old photographs. Maybe he'd even bring them along. For years his pictures of Mila had lain wrapped in plastic baggies and buried under the photo albums, excluded from the official parade of memories that gives every family its happy past.
     How much had her grandmother told her? Certainly in all these years Anna Davidovna might have mentioned something to her about his and Mila's once-upon-a-time plan to marry. They'd talked about it his first summer home from college; he'd done poorly in his math classes and grown dispirited by St. Petersburg's perpetual wetness. But when he'd returned to school from Zhitomir in September, his eyes rapidly readjusted to the tranquil paleness, the endless array of canals and marble buildings. By the end of his second year, it seemed impossible that he'd have to go back to the Ukraine after graduation, get assigned to an apartment with a low ceiling, in a district thrown up from reinforced concrete. Everything was better in Peter: the streets, the jobs, the gentiles.
     In October of his third year he met Vera. They were married in March. She'd grown up right on Vasilievsky Island; marrying a native of the city was all it took to get the coveted propiska, a stamp in his passport that let him stay in St. Petersburg forever. That was what marrying up had meant in a classless society. And what would he have gotten if he'd stayed with Mila? At best, Vyborg for his first vocational posting. More likely some remote industrial hole, a run-down, dead-end exurb. He stopped going home after that; he wouldn't risk seeing her. What would he say, with the glow of possibilities no longer ahead of them?
     And now running into her mother here, at a wedding! But then so many of them ended up on this side of the Atlantic eventually—an entire world transposed, like an ink blot on a folded map, from one continent to another. The old woman had been so happy to see him. She'd squeezed his hand and kissed his face. Death, it seemed, was the great forgiver. He'd been twenty-eight when his mother called from Zhitomir to tell him that Mila had died in a car crash, returning from a concert. From his living room window he'd looked across the water to the south bank of the Neva, where a line of stone palaces appeared to float. Then he'd gone into the bathroom, and with his knees pressed into his eyes, he'd wept. His tears seemed to last forever, an endless supply of salt and grief and water. But there was some other substance in that mixture, too. A lighter element that altered the pH of sorrow. And what could it be if not, just possibly, relief?
     Their exit was a smooth turn off the ramp from Route 684. Vera lay asleep, her arm stretched limply across her breasts. Victor drove past the steepled village library, with its glass addition, down a row of wooden porches and raked gravel paths. It was only after he and Vera had moved here, to Westchester, that he'd seen how the other half really lived, on their vast estates hidden at the bottoms of gravelly driveways and concealed behind acres of overfertilized grass. He'd left his job at Systech to work with Rick, a hardware guy who had started custom-designing home security systems for the rich. So deeply secreted were those palaces, you'd think their inhabitants were Italian nobles taking refuge from the plague. The owners were never home when Victor installed wires in their kitchens, but he saw their spacious countertops and their fancy bottles of olive oil and knew he hated them.
     He pulled slowly into his driveway. Except for the porch light, the house was dark. Victor turned the radio off and found the bill in his wallet. He opened it and folded it again, then again, until almost nothing of it remained but four soft corners.

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