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Stalin Dreaming

In the foyer Kolya pulls off his shoes, balancing on first one leg, then the other. He’s late. The flat is gloomy after the rush-hour cheerfulness of the Arbat. Its emptiness seems to reach for him, and he hesitates in the archway. Papa isn’t home yet, though it’s almost the dinner hour. The whole fourth form was kept in after school because Kolya Rosanov called Gorbachev a dupe of capitalism; the year might be 1986, said Pavel Vasilievich, the headmaster, but respect had not been thrown out the window. Glasnost only went so far.

Silence fills the high-ceilinged main room that should have echoed with the sounds of the television and the samovar and the girlish telephone chatter of his stepmother. When Kolya shaved his head—that was when she moved out. He thought at first that that was why she moved out, and he couldn’t understand it, because didn’t she totally agree with him about the necessity for protest, about the responsibility of the individual? Unlike his father, whose motto was, Don’t draw attention. Then Larissa told him that she’d applied for an exit visa. She wasn’t only leaving them; she was leaving the country.

That was two months ago, time enough (his father says) to get used to the new state of things. The room in front of him, for example, dark except for the gray glow of streetlamps through the curtains. Fourteen is too old to miss one’s mother—even a stepmother. Kolya makes himself take a step forward, then another.


Tall beveled windows fill the vestibule of the Tretyakov Museum with gold October light. Rosanov holds his Burberry across the coat-check counter. The old woman takes it, turns away to hang it on one of the pegs behind her, then turns and thrusts it back at him.

He’s late—Golanpolsky is no doubt already in the Portrait Gallery, one foot tapping the parquet floor—but he waits, hands at his sides. Twenty years as a photographer have taught him patience. Is it because of the chocolate-colored silk lining, the fat shining leather buttons? But if she thinks he’s a Westerner, wouldn’t she want to take his coat? Westerners tip.

She shakes her head reproachfully, then folds back the collar of his coat to show him that the braided leather loop has come undone. Garderobchiki refuse all garments lacking loops; every schoolchild knows this. She smiles up at him—smirks, really—revealing a gold tooth flanked by yellowed stumps. Perestroika be damned; nothing in her world has changed.

“Chort!” he mutters. The hell with it. His head has suddenly filled with Larissa’s coats—hooded sweatshirt, winter shuba, precious lambskin jacket he brought back from his assignment in Bonn last spring—all loopless. He turns, flinging the Burberry over one shoulder, and strides away.

The Portrait Gallery is deserted at this hour, half-past noon on a Tuesday. Its dingy cream-colored walls are hung floor-to-ceiling with paintings of various sizes in heavy, ornate frames. How many pairs of painted eyes? Rosanov feels like the observed rather than the observer, even before Golanpolsky turns around.
“Sasha, my friend! You are late.”

“Sorry,” Rosanov says. He’s just remembered how Larissa enjoys a confrontation with any government employee, even the lowliest, even garderobchiki. It is—was—one of the bonds between her and Kolya.

Steam radiators clank in the corners; the room smells of varnish and mice. Golanpolsky’s small bright-brown eyes regard him with sympathy. He is deeply, almost gruesomely, tanned, from a month at a State spa on the Baltic. With his narrow face, all nose, and his pointed black beard, he looks like a compassionate chipmunk.
Rosanov says, “You wanted to see me?”

Golanpolsky stands with his back to the largest painting in the room, which has a wall all to itself. A boy about Kolya’s age sits cross-legged on a grassy promontory, chin resting on his palm in thought, while a cloud-streaked sky and some low mountains spread mistily behind him. Boys! Rosanov thinks. Will I never have one minute free of boys?

In English, Golanpolsky says, “The photographs from your vacation last month pleased our friends very much.” His eyes gleam in sardonic amusement at the cloak-and-dagger dialogue. Irony is not a Russian trait, Rosanov’s mother-in-law—the first one, Kolya’s grandmother—likes to say; but then Golanpolsky, like Larissa, is Jewish.
Rosanov shrugs. As the best medical photographer currently working in the Soviet Union, he is periodically involved in these assignments, yet at the same time above them. Rosanov allows himself to be made use of; the KGB allow Rosanov and his family to live their lives more or less unhampered. He’s only a consultant; Golanpolsky is the real thing.

Golanpolsky says, still in English, “They would like enlargements. And they wish you to return to the area for more detailed photographs. Shall we say, day after tomorrow?”

Rosanov is in the middle of a three-week course of lectures on Operating Room photography at the No. 6 Clinic on Shchukinskaya Street; another trip to Azerbaijan will take him away for three or four days. Still: Never hesitate, never refuse. The key to peaceful coexistence with the KGB. “Sure thing!” he says, and watches Golanpolsky’s nostrils flare in distaste at the colloquialism.

“Good.” Now that their business has been transacted, Golanpolsky switches to Russian. ” ‘Who does not obey, shall not eat’—as our friend up there said.” He gestures to the painting on the wall behind him. “Sasha, my friend, I’m delighted to say that I am authorized to buy you lunch. How about the Metropole?”

Rosanov moves closer to read the painting’s title. “Stalin Dreaming.” What a nimble imagination the artist must have had, to see Josef Stalin as this sweet, pensive boy. The boy Kolya was, before Larissa moved out. Rosanov sighs. His son, like his mother-in-law, blames him for Larissa’s leaving. (Doubly unfair, since they were both angry with him for marrying her in the first place; it took Larissa half their two-year marriage to win them over.) How can his mother-in-law be more angry with him for losing Larissa than for the death of her own daughter? But then, as his mother-in-law herself would say, it’s Rosanov who needs guilt. Guilt is a friend, a bulwark against helplessness: if I am guilty, then I could have prevented what happened.

“Sasha, my friend. Where are you? Are you already in Baku? I have mentioned lunch at the Metropole.”

“Peas, peas, and more peas? No, thanks. I’m due back at the hospital in half an hour, anyway.”

Golanpolsky looks at him, two vertical lines of concern appearing between his brows. “You’re too much alone, Sasha. Solitude makes bitter tea.”

“What a babushka you are!”

The sardonic gleam reappears. “As you wish.”

In the vestibule, Golanpolsky stops to retrieve his properly looped overcoat. Then they detour around an old woman kneeling on the Persian carpet. She’s crouched over something, her back curved protectively, her white hair glittering in a shaft of dusty sunlight. As they pass, Rosanov looks down. The woman’s thick fingers are pulling a needle and thread in and out through a tear in the carpet, drawing its torn edges together. The two men cross the expanse of shining parquet floor to the great carved double doors where, emerging into the sunshine, they part.


Kolya ducks away from his grandmother, from her wide palm running inquisitively over his head.

“Gospodi!” she says. “When will you stop this foolishness? Why do your teachers allow it?”

“I told you, Babushka. It’s a protest. We’re protesting disinformatsia.” He yanks his blue windbreaker open. The ripping sound always makes his grandmother flinch. It gets an even better reaction on the Metro. Ordinary citizens—people without blat, people who only wear Soviet-made clothes—have no experience of Velcro.

“Disinformatsia? Don’t set foot onto my carpet in those shoes. Look—you’ve left wet leaves all over.” She goes into the bathroom and reappears with a rag and a dustpan, which she thrusts into Kolya’s hands.

“Our textbooks—history, philosophy, biology, even—they’re full of lies.” On his knees, Kolya peels blood-colored maple leaves and bits of twigs off the wood floor and puts them in the dustpan. He waits for one of Babushka’s proverbs about Life—she has them (made up on the spot, he suspects) for every eventuality—but she is interested in something else.

“Your stepmother came by yesterday,” she says.

Kolya’s heart stops, restarts. He arranges his face in an expression of indifference and looks up.

“She left you this.” His grandmother pulls a buff-colored envelope out of the pocket of her cardigan.

Kolya wipes his wet hands on the back of his jeans and takes it from her. It’s the first communication of any kind in the two months since Larissa moved out. (Freeze-frame of Larissa in the foyer, surrounded by suitcases, looking sadly up at him, Kolya, as she explained. They mustn’t see her anymore, he and his father, non-Jews, it must be clear to the authorities that she’s broken with them—) Kolya, ostentatiously casual, tucks the envelope into the waistband of his jeans. Good thing today’s the day Papa gets home from his trip. Tonight he’ll be back in his own room, he’ll have some privacy. “That okay?” He nods in the direction of the floor.

“Life is a great teacher”—Babushka’s quoting voice—”but unfortunately it kills all of its students. Wipe it dry, Kolyechka, or it won’t shine.” She turns her back and thumps into the kitchen, her felt house slippers slapping the floor, but he knows by the nickname that she isn’t really angry. Maybe she steamed open the letter before she gave it to him—he’s seen her do this more than once—which means that, until he can get out of here and find a place to read it in private, she knows more than he does. He hates that.

Swiping the rag across the parquet, he goes over, for the thousandth time, the why of Larissa’s leaving. For decades—since before he, Kolya, was born—practically no one but Jews have been granted exit visas. And even they have to wait months and months, while the minute they apply, they and their families lose everything: jobs, apartments, their places at school. So first Larissa had to divorce him and Papa to show that she was completely Jewish. Now she has to wait for clearance. Kolya figures this will take even longer than usual because Papa (as Kolya supposedly does not know) works for the KGB. Right now, for instance, he’s in Azerbaijan, after (Kolya supposedly does not know this, either) the secret trial of some new kind of spacecraft killed a bunch of people. Because of these jobs—because of the knowledge of secrets that goes with them—his father has blat. So he, Kolya, goes to the special Gymnasium for Arts and Sciences and wears a blue nylon windbreaker made in Germany. But these same secrets are also why, whenever his father leaves the country, Kolya has to stay behind, as security. They’re why Papa and Kolya and Babushka can never get exit visas. Ever.

Except that he, Kolya, has a plan. Nikita Khrushchev had his Five-Year Plans; Nikolai Rosanov has a Five-Month Plan.

After he’s emptied the dustpan into the toilet and put it in its place underneath the clawfoot bathtub and hung the rag on the tub’s edge, Kolya goes into the kitchen. His grandmother has set out glasses of steaming China tea and a bowl of sugar lumps. A plate of sliced apples and cucumbers sits in the center of the table.

“I’m done,” he says.


They sit down at the scrubbed wooden table, as they do every afternoon when Papa is away and Kolya stays with Babushka. When she’s in the mood she tells stories. Sometimes she tells him about his mother, things she said or did as a child, a young girl; but she died before Kolya was two, and these always feel like stories about a stranger. If he has to listen he’d rather hear about Babushka’s childhood—she remembers seeing the young Tsarevich with his sisters, all in white, remembers long light summer evenings on the veranda of her father’s dacha on the Black Sea—or about the siege of Leningrad, and Babushka running the blockade at fourteen (the exact age Kolya is now), and how her older sister died of starvation. Lucky for him he takes after his grandmother and not after Papa. He, Kolya, isn’t afraid to draw attention. He, Kolya, acts. The future is not his who obeys—Babushka says it herself.

But this is one of her silent afternoons. The two of them sip the hot, fragrant tea through sugar lumps clenched between their teeth, and look out the window. In Kolya’s waistband the letter from Larissa crackles when he moves. He thinks of the Plan, a peculiar sensation in his chest, as if his heart had the hiccups. Tomorrow is also a day. The lowering sun gilds every window in the apartment house opposite, and now and then the shadows of migrating birds flow across its gray concrete wall.


In Azerbaijan—warm, beautiful, dotted with the ruins of the great prison camps—Rosanov dreamed as he hadn’t dreamed in years. He was made of ground meat, packed into the shape of a man, and crumbled away when touched. He was watching Galya, his first wife, as she nursed the baby who was never born, and the veins in her breasts became slender strings of sapphires. Awakened by the sound of thunder, he lay and listened to the rattle of rain on the window glass, waiting for the flashes of lightning that felt somehow celebratory in the mild darkness. Children dream more than adults, he read somewhere; the fetus dreams almost constantly. Maybe Sirvan, his Azerbaijani assistant, was right, and crossing time zones makes you momentarily younger? The dreams’ content Rosanov refuses to ponder. He’s never liked taking autopsy photographs, hates the salty smell of morgues, their bleak, premonitory lighting.

Now, back in Moscow, swaddled in jet lag, he shoves his way through the crowd at the Rynok, checking off items on his list. A chicken, cooked and jointed; potatoes; onions; beets. There’s nothing to eat in the flat. Kolya will return from his grandmother’s at six o’clock, his usual impassive, sullenly ravenous self. Ahead lies another long evening of morose male silence. Kolya will hunch over his homework, lips moving occasionally to caress the more difficult English consonants; Rosanov will go through the proofs his students turned in before he left for Azerbaijan. Eventually he’ll get up and put a record on the stereo, maybe (braving his son’s scorn) Bach.
Apples. Carrots. Kolya. Why can’t his son find what he needs, whatever the thing is that will make him invest himself, give him a future to plan? Rosanov was fifteen when his father gave him his first camera, a Brownie box camera procured God-knew-how. No film to be had then, in 1957. But even without being able to take a single picture, he knew. For three years, until he entered the University, Sasha Rosanov carried that camera everywhere, slouched all over Moscow with it buttoned inside his jacket.

Women walking toward him carrying string bags full of—yes, they really are—oranges. Some as small as tennis balls, some as large as grapefruit. Rosanov imagines Kolya’s eyes widening in surprise when he brings them home. But when he investigates, he sees that the line for such a rarity extends out the rear entrance of the Rynok and down the block to Leninsky Prospekt. He goes back inside to the stalls of ordinary fruits and root vegetables. An young woman with a Baltic accent and a mustache hands him half-a-dozen fat mushrooms in a brown paper cone, along with a look of mixed suspicion and pity—men do not shop for food, unless they’re pensioners—and takes his five-ruble note. Rosanov turns away without waiting for his change and stalks off toward the bakery. When will he stop wearing the stigma—invisible to him but apparently all too clear to others—of a man whose wife has left him? He has to fight the urge to seize perfect strangers by the lapels and spit the truth into their faces. I didn’t lose her—I freed her.

He goes about the rest of his errands in the cold October afternoon, a light, not-yet-serious snow swirling around him like smoke. At Sheremetyevo he does not find waiting for him the supplies he ordered from Helsinki. This is his second trip to the airport in less than twenty-four hours, if he counts his arrival from Azerbaijan at midnight. The E-6 chemicals and slide mounts (in Baku he had to develop his own film on site) can wait until Golanpolsky sends him on another field trip; but he urgently needs neutral-density filters for the too-bright light in the No. 6 Clinic’s operating room, not to mention three Norman strobes to replace the ones his assistant broke. As he stands in line at the post office, his last stop, he is still thinking about Larissa. She isn’t ungenerous, just one of those people who always get more than they give. And really isn’t he more to blame for the way things went, being older and what passes for wiser—being aware of the existence of a trade? He knew when they married that his connections, his influence, were a big part of what attracted her. Blat! It should have occurred to him that this very thing might one day become a liability. The source of a spring, his mother-in-law would say, is also its limits.

A wiry old woman, bent as a coathanger, scuttles up to him. In the whining baby talk of babushkas, she says, “Won’t you give me, dear little son, a tiny little glass of water?” Rosanov shakes his head and turns away. Then a strange thing happens. When he glances back the old woman’s face has become Larissa’s: straight brows, dark eyes, small, determined chin. A face he hasn’t seen since she moved out. (A good citizen donates blood; but not every day.) He flinches. When he opens his eyes, it’s just an old woman again. She has to twist her neck at what seems like a painful angle in order to look up at him. He finds himself saying, in the same antique baby talk, “Very well, little mother.” He follows her across the marble floor to the water tap, reaches up for the metal cup chained to the spigot, fills it and holds it out to her. She seizes the cup. Then, before he can withdraw his hand, she kisses his knuckles. Hastily letting go, he turns and walks quickly toward the door.

By the time Rosanov reaches the flat, a sludgy darkness has fallen. He’s so loaded down that he can’t reach his keys. At his knock, Kolya opens the door and stands back. Rosanov sees disappointment on his face. He thrusts the string bag full of brown paper–wrapped purchases into his arms. “Put these away.” The sum of the day’s irritations hardens his voice. “And put some water on to boil, for the potatoes,” he says to Kolya’s departing back.
Kolya turns around. For an instant, a half-heartbeat, his face is full of hate. He stretches out his arm. The string bag hangs from his hand, its weight shifting so that it sways slightly.

“Boil it yourself,” he says, in a terrifyingly calm voice.

Then he throws the bag. Not at Rosanov—not quite. It hits the row of coats on the wall next to him and falls with a loud thud onto the floor. Kolya stands looking at it for several seconds, transfixed. Then he turns and walks, slowly, deliberately, down the hall to his room. The door shuts behind him with a click.

Rosanov, who hasn’t moved or spoken, hangs his coat on its hook and exchanges his shoes for felt house slippers. In the living room he searches the shelves above the phonograph for the recording of the Saint Matthew Passion that he bought in Bonn last spring. Before Larissa announced that she was leaving; before his son turned into Kolya the Indifferent, Kolya of the Slouch. Rosanov lowers the needle carefully onto the spinning black disk, then sits down on the couch. A tenor voice sings, Make my heart as pure as Thine. He hears Kolya leave his room and go into the foyer, then the rustle of paper wrappings. There a precious grave I’ll make Thee. He should be angry; instead, he feels like one of the longitudinal split stills his students have just learned how to make. Half of him relieved (signs of life in Kolya!); the other half full of fear (Kolya out of control, winding up in an iron leg cuff, chained to a bench in the Gorky Street police station). After ten minutes or so, there are footsteps down the hall and into the kitchen, the sound of water running into the big iron kettle. Better, surely, not to make an issue of what happened just now? It’s been hard on the boy having Larissa leave so suddenly, so completely. Even if she was more like a mischievous older cousin than a stepmother.

Rosanov leans back and closes his eyes. The music covers him in warmth, in light. He thinks wistfully of the last few nights in Baku: late suppers in a smoke-filled café, with laughter (off-color jokes in the morgue staff’s blend of Russian, Armenian, and Georgian) in his ears and the heat of vodka in his stomach and watermelon juice running down his chin.


Larissa’s letter is their special kind, the kind they used to leave for each other in one of the kitchen cupboards, behind a loose board—the place that spies in movies call the “drop.” Larissa’s idea, intended (Kolya supposedly did not know) to win him over and make fun of Papa at the same time. (Freeze-frame of Larissa glancing at him over the shiny cover of her magazine, smiling her little tucked-in smile, Our secret, Kolya!) They used to cut words and phrases out of the old English-language magazines that Papa brought home and paste them onto notepaper.


He’s reading the words for the tenth time since dinner; yet it’s as if a hand has squeezed his heart. The Plan! he reminds himself, then looks up in alarm. But Papa just sits there looking at his stupid proofs, photographs of blood-soaked guts and hacked-off legs and deformed babies, and listening to his stupid Bach. Kolya folds the note into quarters. He tucks it back inside his English grammar.

The World’s Most Experience. He remembers the ad that the phrase comes from. “Fly Pan Am…The World’s Most Experienced Airline.” So Larissa does want him to come with her. That means he must be included on her exit visa—the one piece of the Plan he hasn’t firmed up yet. Because for two whole months he’s kept his promise. For two whole months he hasn’t gone to the flat on Vavilova Street where Larissa lives with her mother and brother. Near it, but not to it. Now, now he’ll see her.

He’ll have to act sooner than he planned, though. Tomorrow he’ll (1) Take the Metro to Leninsky Station, then the No. 33 bus to Vavilova; (2) Show Larissa how much English he’s learned since she left; (3) Demand—no, agree—to go with her to Tel Aviv.


Rosanov strides along Kutuzovsky Prospekt in the syrupy golden light. Indian summer, he remembers, is the American name for this sudden, brief, deceptive reprise. In Russian, Bab’e Leto. Summer of Women. The late afternoon air is fizzy and tickling. He turns north onto Tchaikovsky Street toward the American Embassy.
And here is Golanpolsky, alighting from the tram, coatless (he grew up, or so he says, in Novosibirsk) and smiling. Rosanov feels a minor rush of gladness. Could it be that Golanpolsky is the closest thing he has to a friend, these days? When his first wife died, the friends of his single years returned to him; when he remarried, they once again melted away. He loved Larissa’s tartness, her femaleness that was not soft but wiry and vigilant. It seemed like—it was—enough.

Now, though, Golanpolsky—who since the divorce seems to have adopted him—has decided it’s time for a change. Has procured for Rosanov an invitation to the American Ambassador’s Autumn Reception, which several members of the KGB hierarchy attend every year. (“Don’t be naïve, Sasha, my friend,” he said, when Rosanov expressed surprise at this. “Their spies, our spies. We are all in the same line of work.”)

They show their heavy cream-colored invitations to the Marine in the archway, wait for his nod, then pass between another pair of Marines through the door into the vestibule. Golanpolsky smoothes his little pointed beard in the mirror beside the coat-check while Rosanov waits behind him. “Life is divided into three periods,” Golanpolsky tells his reflection. “The premonition of love, the action of love, and the recollection of love.” He turns away with a satisfied air. “Now, Sasha, my friend. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

He lays an arm across Rosanov’s shoulders as they go up the stairs to the reception room. “Another day, two at the most—then we’ll see true winter. Six months of it,” he says, with relish.


Kolya can feel his heart beating. His knuckles graze the door—too soft. Chort! He pounds, then waits. Nothing. He knocks again. There’s a small sound—sharp, like buckshot—from the door of the flat across the hall. The wooden cover being pushed back from its peephole.

Maybe Larissa and her mother and her brother are all out? Kolya leans against the cold, dirty wall, prepared to wait.

The door across from him opens slightly. A face appears in the crack. A voice, a woman’s, says, “They’ve gone. Left on Monday.” The face withdraws; the door closes.

Kolya eases his backpack off and lets it drop. He shoves both hands into the pockets of his black leather jacket and slides down the wall until his butt hits the floor. The woman lied. Larissa wouldn’t leave without him. He gazes evilly at the door of the other flat through half-closed eyes. Life is not a spectacle or a feast—Babushka’s voice—it is a predicament. The hallway stinks: pee, ancient cooking, the smell of rats, like old tires. Minutes pass, punctuated by an occasional small scuffling sound. He thinks it’s about five, but he isn’t sure. He sold his watch, along with his CDs and the American jeans Papa gave him at New Year’s, in preparation for departure. He could have gotten twice as much for the jacket, brought back by Papa from Bonn; but it’s just right for the mild winter breeze off the Red Sea.

There’s the sound of the peephole cover again from the door opposite. Closed; open. Kolya imagines the eye behind it, pressed against the cold glass. Imagines peeling the eyeball like a boiled egg. Glistening veins exposed and writhing across its raw red surface, like one of Papa’s photos. Call the police—go ahead. But he knows they won’t. They’re afraid of him, of his noise, afraid he’ll draw attention, get them noticed, get them in trouble. He gazes up at the peephole, unblinking, beaming this knowledge toward it with steady malevolence.

More time passes. Kolya doesn’t know how long. Maybe he even nodded off, because he has a sudden sharp apprehension of emptiness. This is followed by a feeling more terrible than anything he’s ever known. For a second he thinks, I’m dying. He can’t stay still a moment longer.

He’s knocking—pounding—on Larissa’s door. The peephole in the door opposite snaps open.

And then he’s kicking it, Larissa’s door, the thud of his heavy boots resounding in the empty hallway. How could she leave without him? “Chort!” he shouts.

The door opposite opens. He keeps on kicking. Finds a rhythm. How could she? How could she? Glimpse of a figure in the corner of his eye. The wood of Larissa’s door splinters against his boots, his toes inside them burning with pain. A woman’s voice cries, “Oy! Gospodi!”

Let them look. Let them see the fucking future. He is kicking it. He’s kicking everything. Pavel Vasilievich and all the other teachers. Gorbachev. Papa. Larissa. He’s kicking life, kicking the shit out of it.


Pleasantly tipsy, as much from the low pink moon (a “worm moon,” Galya used to call it) and the softness of the night air as from the American Embassy’s abundant single-malt Scotch, Rosanov has to search for his key. His head is filled with the pleasures of the evening just passed. The water luminous in the blue night as he crossed the bridge over the Moskva, the tanker downstream with its flag of pure white smoke, the moon. The woman at the reception, the woman Golanpolsky introduced him to: American, tall, slender, with dark hair that curled around her face in petals, like a chrysanthemum, and clear eyes oddly light against her smooth, tanned skin. Rosanov turns his key in the lock. The flat is dark. Maybe Kolya’s decided to sleep at his grandmother’s? Rosanov feels a small, shameful twinge of relief: the evening to himself, his mood unmarred, a little Bach. A little time to think about the woman’s eyes.

But no, there he is—a dark, hunched form in a corner of the divan, outlined in dusty light from the windows overlooking the Arbat.


Silence; but the dark form shifts a little. Rosanov switches on a lamp. Kolya turns his face away. “Don’t!”

“What is it?” Rosanov asks, knowing he shouldn’t. “Kolyechka, what’s the matter?”

Moving slowly, carefully, he sits down on the other end of the divan. Kolya says nothing; but he doesn’t move away, either. He still has his jacket on, his prized leather jacket (something I’ve done right, Rosanov thinks), though his shoes and socks are lying on the rug in front of him. Rosanov looks down at his son’s bare feet. They’re puffy and red, beginning to bruise. The big toe on his left foot is bleeding.

“What happened?” Rosanov says again. His mother-in-law’s question: What has come to you—joy, or sorrow?


“Have you eaten?”

Kolya shrugs.

Rosanov regards the back of his head for a few seconds, then extends an arm along the top of the sofa, stealthily, until his fingers graze his son’s shoulder. Kolya turns to look at him. His face is terrifying in its grief. He turns away again—it’s over in an instant—but Rosanov feels as if a hand squeezed his heart.

This is not the boy he knows.

It takes all Rosanov’s strength, all his determination, to sit still. He wants to put both arms around his slumping son, to seize him, hold him. As if that would make this unknown boy familiar again. But somehow he understands that this boy would hate that. Hate to know that he’s been seen.

After a few minutes helplessness drives Rosanov to his feet. He goes into the kitchen and opens the refrigerator. He chips ice off the inside of the freezer compartment with a screwdriver, grateful for the simplicity of this, for the need to strike something. He finds a clean, frayed towel to put the ice in, and a soft cloth, and fills a bowl with warm water. He finds a roll of gauze and some tape and a blue glass bottle of antiseptic. But what he can offer his son? Too young for the consolation of vodka, too old to be comforted by hot milk and honey. In the cupboard above the sink he finds only some stale biscuits, some black currant jelly, a jar of Tang bought God-knows-how-long-ago at the Dollar Store. As a child Kolya loved to eat it straight out of the jar. Rosanov’s hand closes around it. He takes two spoons out of the drawer. He finds the lacquered tray with the picture of Saint George and the Dragon and piles onto it the things he has accumulated.

In the main room he sets the tray on the table next to Kolya. Then he turns on the stereo and lowers the needle carefully onto the record. Bach pours into the room. Kolya does not protest when Rosanov kneels in front of him and lifts his feet into his lap, or flinch at the touch of the towel dipped into water. A warm baritone voice sings, In the evening, when it was cool. Kolya’s bluejeaned knees are at eye level. They are shaking.

I know, Rosanov would like to say, I know. But it will come. You just have to wait, and be ready.

Instead, he keeps his eyes on his work. Between his palms he feels one foot, then the other—bony, long, smelling the way feet smell—pause and tense, like a small animal poised for flight. In the evening, the voice sings. Now the antiseptic. This will hurt, he almost says. But this new, unknown boy might resent a warning, might feel his courage impugned. In the evening . . . the evening. Without speaking, Rosanov swabs clear blue antiseptic lightly over Kolya’s toes. The foot he is holding jerks, nearly escapes. Looking up, he sees Kolya catch his lower lip between his teeth, the way Galya used to do. In the evening the dove returns, an olive leaf in its mouth. O beautiful time! O evening hour! For some reason, as he winds the gauze around the clean, still bleeding toe, he remembers his son’s first word—owl—remembers Galya’s face, round with the new pregnancy they’d decided they could not afford, light with laughter as he said it. Owl. Rosanov presses the tape into place. For a second he holds his son’s bandaged feet, one in each hand, as if weighing them. Then he sets them gently down.