Tuesday
Dec142010

The Cosmopolitans

By Nadia Kalman



Livingston Press
December 2010, Paperback
240 pages
978-1604890679

 



Lev

They are none of them fans of tradition. Tradition is for great-grandparents, and not even for theirs, who traded their shtetls for the Universal Struggle.

In the seventies and eighties, was it traditional to leave Mother Russia, to leave it truly, not just to sit on the floor listening to an imitation folk bard sing about it? They flew to the land of the free, and they worked towards diplomas in computing, and after a few years, they could afford boom boxes on which to play the old wistful songs, they could afford to be tearful when they listened.

They would categorically disagree with all of the above. They would tell me I am generalizing like a Marx. They would ask me why I don’t write about Samuel: he never attended a single computer class and look at him now, a home health aide and a cocaine addict, have you ever heard of a vocation and an addiction so mismatched? Why don’t I write about Pasha, who owned a wig store and was always offering us free front pieces, because "Pochemu i net?" why not? Who died butting her car into a highway divider, who may have died on purpose?

I say, it’s no exception to think you have an exemption. Then, bowing my head, I admit that when I say all, I mean most, and when I say most, I mean my youngest brother Osip’s family, the Molochniks of Stamford, Connecticut. Nothing to do with you, Valera Stas Sasha Abram Yosha Genady Zoonia Manya Margarita Natalya Kiril Foma Galina Rachel. How could I write about you? How could I remember you, or you me? 

Stamford has its North, nearer to New Canaan, home to formerly famous pro wrestlers and Gene Wilder; and its South, where we Molochniks live. However, Connecticut gives even its undistinguished residents ways to distinguish among ourselves. My brother’s family lives across from a gas station, but his wife can say they live in a Tudor. I live in a low-income housing project, but I can say I live in Augustine Manor, for that is what our developer, who installed a bidet in every toilet and a coat of arms below the "No Solicitation" sign, chose to call it.  

I’ve climbed to the roof, free from my neighbors’ footfalls, their warring cooking smells, ignoring my knees and the No Trespassing sign, for one reason only: to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune.

 

Milla

"That’s not how it starts, you know," one of the uncles said. There were three uncles at the table: a doctor, an editor-Quaker, a novelty tee shirt maker; all tall, all dark, all maybe-handsome if they weren’t so old, in their forties, maybe. Milla was twenty-one, at a Seder with her boyfriend Malcolm Strauss’s family, in a Manhattan apartment on the park, with unwashed hair (it had been a last-minute invitation), her lip balm under one leg, her leg under Malcolm’s hand, pecking with her spoon at a matzo ball and guessing at etiquettes, a large and poorly concealed pimple on her chin.

"No one in America knows how Anna Karenina really starts," the uncle went on.

"What?" Malcolm’s mother Jean said, her hands at her throat. She’d wanted to be a musical-theater actress, but was a divorce lawyer instead.

"Everyone in the English-speaking world just quotes it like that. The original translation was incorrect, but it was a tremendous hit, so they just kept it." Milla was now fairly sure it was the doctor uncle. He was the most confident one, according to Malcolm. Everyone had always thought he would win the Nobel Prize, and even though he hadn’t, even though the tee shirt maker was wealthier, and the editor-Quaker more cultured, the doctor remained the grandmother’s favorite.

"So how does it really start, then?" Jean said. "Milla, you must know."

Eight? Twelve? Sixty? beautifully groomed heads turned towards her. Malcolm squeezed her leg. "Actually, I think it does start: ‘Happy families are all alike,’ just like in the translation," she said.

"But Richard just said it doesn’t," Jean said.

"Yes, but Russian people are very educated," said one of the aunts. She was now Milla’s favorite. Milla would remember her by her, well, her fatness, which just made her all the more beautiful and maternal. "Pasha, for instance," the aunt continued. "Our ‘housekeeper’?" She made scare quotes with her fingers around the word and a few Strausses smiled. "In Russia, she was a dentist." 

 "Huh." Jean said. "Malcolm, do you know?"

"About what?"

"The first line of the book, aren’t you listening?"

Malcolm smiled, leaned back in his chair. "I’m just a music major."

"What do you do with a music major?" Jean asked the group. She pointed at Malcolm like a cop about to shoot and he pointed back at her and Jean smiled, letting him off for now.

Looking around the table, Uncle Doctor said, "Anna Karenina starts with the couple arguing, and then Tolstoy puts that line, as an explanation. I read about it in the New Yorker, I’m pretty sure, so…" He gave a modest shrug.

"When I last reread Anna Karenina –" Milla made sure to pronounce the title with a Russian accent – "it started with ‘Happy families.’"  

"And you read the book in the Russian? The whole thing?" Jean said.

"Of course," Milla said, trying to imitate the tone of Jean’s voice when, earlier in the evening, she’d told the family about a peerless eye cream. "I’m positive I’m right." She waved her spoon like a sickle.

"Hmm," Malcolm’s mother said. "Bobby? Do you agree?"

Bobby was Malcolm’s father. Chubby as a seal, he wore a black suit with lavender stripes, which Jean had bought for him, and had said nothing for the entire meal, except to agree with Jean that the suit was, indeed, incredible. "Never read it," he said now.

"But you went to Harvard!" Jean said. "And he’s never seen The Philadelphia Story."

The aunt who, throughout the dinner, and apparently, throughout the past three months, had been exhorting them to party as if it were 1999, said, "Send him to the lions."

Malcolm smiled and said, "I never saw it either. I don’t like that actress."

"You don’t like Katharine Hepburn?" Jean’s face now carried an expression of stupefaction so extreme her eyes had crossed.

"She’s too hard, and I don’t like her voice, and she’s not sexy." He was so easy here, everywhere. He slurped a spoon of soup.

"I know your problem," Jean said.

"What’s that?’ As he slung his arm around Milla’s shoulders, she thought of how well she slept, with his arm just like that, and let her chest relax into the thought of him.

Jean said, "You just don’t like strong women," and wiggled her shoulders.

"Yeah, I do. Milla’s strong." He paused. "Still waters run deep."

Attempting to prove she was loud, boisterous, even, Milla ventured, "You know, in Russia, there’s this saying, v teehom omute cherti vodyatsah, devils live in quiet waters. So, you never know." Silence. Deep-set Straussian eyes stared from all directions.

"Great broth," the uncle who made tee shirts finally said.