Emma Smith-Stevens

I was planning to cut Sergei loose as soon as he dropped me off at my apartment—not while the car was still in motion, not while he was still behind the wheel. He was hot-tempered and impulsive, but those weren't the things that were scaring me off.  No, it was the warmer, spongier qualities—his insistence that I sleep over, the fact that he modified his apartment for me with hooks in the ceiling and the floor, ropes bought at Home Depot, an attempt to meet my fetishes halfway.  He took the very thing that was meant to allow me both pleasure and distance, the mutual alienation of such play, and made it a gesture of self-sacrifice on his part.  His willingness to stretch himself for me, to break himself down like a mannequin in the process of being reshaped for some new pose—to make his inexperience available for my scrutiny (despite the fact that he was twenty years older than I)—these things made me taste the metallic tang of my own hardness in a way I could not bear. 

I watched Sergei drive, imagining him younger, in Odessa during his morphine days, before he knew what money meant, or fame (not his own, that was still pending I suppose, but his ex-fiancés—a chef with a television show who left him because his seed was no good).  I imagined him before he'd tasted olive tapenade, the stuff he'd discovered at gourmet food stores in Upstate New York, which he globbed into his scrambled eggs.  I pictured him ignorant of the stock market, table manners, and Alcoholics Anonymous—a native in his life, with a face unlined by the birthing process by which he'd been squeezed into his middle age.  He must have been more like me back then, as a boy in the Ukraine: lazy and honest. 

As he drove, he looked at me from time to time, smiling, liking that I was watching him.  We'd just been hiking in the Catskill Mountains.  We'd fucked in the snow on the grounds of a burned-down hotel, in the ice-crusted char-pit where the lobby used to be.  That is not exactly true—the char.  The hotel burned down in the 1920s, there's a plaque saying so, and the char is long gone.  But I still imagined it: the squeaky grease of recent flame coating the just-cooled fragments of furniture and floorboard and bone. 

"I love you, Nina," he'd said, pressing the flop of himself down on me.  "I want to take you to Odessa with me, and to a beach town called Yalta.  You will love it, baby."

"Yeah?" I said, grinding myself into him.

"There are palm trees there.  No one believes there are palm trees in the Ukraine, but there are.  I will take you, I will show you."

And I smiled and I closed my eyes, and I came for him, because I did have mercy.  Especially when he told me these stories and I saw how lost he was, that his novel would never be published, and his blue eyes were dimming, and his black hair was dimming, and there was no one for him to speak Ukrainian to. 

I never asked him to speak Ukrainian to me, the language his family spoke in addition to Russian, and so it was not until he'd taken me to Queens the previous weekend that I'd experienced it.  He'd asked me if I'd like to meet his family, and before I could respond, he'd kissed me and said, "They'll love you, baby."  He'd wanted to pick out my outfit, but I wouldn't let him into my apartment—no man I'd ever dated had been there—but I did try to pick something he would like.  It was a black halter dress that I'd never been fond of because, although the skirt was short, the fabric was starchy and made me feel heavy.  We drove down to the city, stopping along the way at a pharmacy off I-87 so I could pick up pantyhose—which he suggested—supposedly because it was cold, but I knew that wasn't why.  It infuriated me that he was too soft to tell me I had no class, but hard enough to think it.  Once we got there, I wriggled into the pantyhose in the passenger's seat in the parking lot of the banquet hall, which I could already tell was gaudy, letting him finger me while the hot air from the vents warmed the soles of my feet, my calves, my thighs. 

By "family" Sergei evidently meant every immigrant from Odessa, recent or established. When we entered, there were hundreds of people convened in the cream hued, low-ceilinged dance hall.  Ceremonial officials stood on a low stage at the top of the crescent-shaped room, wearing red sashes over their shoulders, and red and yellow carnations pinned to their lapels.  As Sergei pulled me by the hand towards a tiny elderly couple, presumably his parents, the bandura-player ceased and a hush fell over the room. 

I was hugged and examined by Sergei's parents.  I realized that I was being sized up for something, which was frightening, and that their response was that of instant, teary approval, which was far more frightening.  With watery eyes and pinched lips they whispered "precious" and called me "gorgeous," while the roundest of the official-types on stage began to sing.  His voice was like that of a warbler, or an endless parade of stones plunked gently into a pool.  The language was strange to me—"Ukrainian," Sergei whispered, grinning, eagerly wiping thin black strands of hair away from his forehead.  It sounded nonsensical and made-up, as though invented by identical twins. 

The song was followed by a series of long speeches about the splendor of Odessa.  The officials talked in turns about heritage, dignity and pride.  The youngest and most nervous of the three spoke about the University, urging people who had done so well here in the States to donate.  "Give," he said, hands clasped in front of his ribcage.  "Give to our future."

"You look beautiful," Sergei whispered into my ear. 

Dinner was a shockingly gray prime rib hugged by a sweaty ring of fat, some limp salad in a saccharine raspberry-vinaigrette, and gluey mashed potatoes. By the time plates were cleared and dancing had begun, I hated Sergei and wanted to rip his clothes off.  I wanted him to brutalize me in the back of his SUV, while tipsy spinsters got led out to cars, waiting and warming on the edges of the parking lot.  I wanted to grab him by the jaw and make him hurt me in the way that he never had the balls to—despite the modifications to his bedroom.  No hesitation, no apologies.  When he finally did, I would pretend to cry from pain instead of loneliness.  Some things you can't justify, except when your body is under assault. 

"Picture time!" shrieked a short, redheaded woman in a too-long, maroon polyester evening gown.  "Family photo!" 

She was the party photographer, holding an enormous Nikon with an oversized flashbulb. I stayed seated as everyone else stood up, but Sergei tugged at my hand, pulling me to stand. 

"No," I said.  "It's okay, really."

"Come on, then, gorgeous," said Sergei's mother, spitting on a napkin and lunging toward the corner of my mouth. 

I flinched and gave Sergei a look that I hoped would convey that I wasn't playing games, but he continued to grin. 

"You're family," he said.

"Yes," agreed Sergei's parents.  "Family, darling!"

Sergei's relatives were lined up in rows, all of them hearty and red-faced.  I tried to hide in the back row, but Sergei pulled me to the front, beside him.  The photographer smiled wildly, indicating that we should follow her example.  Fuck it, I thought.  I smiled like the Virgin Mary does in paintings—condescending and aloof—feeling sick that I could not be a regular person for once.  The flashbulb went off, the shutter clacked, and Sergei grabbed my shoulders hard, kissing my ear, saying: "You can't leave me, baby.  You're in the picture now."


Before that night, my life with Sergei had felt pleasantly oppressive, like a sauna.  Afterwards, it was unbearable.  A week later I was still gasping for air.  Out the window of his SUV, I watched the snowfall, wishing that falling snow made a sound.  If it did, it would be a creaking, like a massive old door that just opens, on and on.  We'd crossed the bridge over the river and were on the back road that led to the house where I rented an apartment.  The people who'd lived in the apartment before me, a mother and her infant son, had moved out because it was haunted.  The neighbors downstairs had told me that they could hear footsteps when I was out, anxious pacing that made them so antsy they could almost hear that high-pitched violin music that plays in horror films.  I hadn't experienced anything.  I always felt disappointed about that, but it didn't surprise me.  There was some door inside of myself that was perpetually closing.  It never quite closed all the way, but a lot of things got shut out.

What I would do was this: When we got to my apartment, I would get out of the car.  Sergei would wait, like always, for me to come and kiss him, maybe bite his lip, through his rolled-down window.  Instead I would just walk away.  He would call after me—"Nina!  Nina!"—and still I wouldn't turn.  Inside my apartment the phone would ring, and I wouldn't answer, and he would leave a message: "What the fuck, Nina?  What the fuck?"  Days would go by and I would receive an email titled "I Miss You," or "I Love You," or maybe "Little Girl"—the thing I've always loved to be called, which so many men have called me—and it would say, "Baby, I don't know what I've done to make you upset with me.  Whatever it is, I'm sorry.  I need you.  I can't sleep.  You don't have to live with me if you don't want to.  I won't have you meet my family again if that's the problem.  Just please come back."  The email would be rife with grammar and spelling errors, and I would be struck by those far more than the sentiment, and I would feel a little sick about that.  But I'd also feel relieved, because maybe by then he'd have gotten it all out, and that would be it.

You always remember the little thing that happens right before the big thing.  That is why I remember Sergei turning the volume dial down on the radio, spinning the knob with his right hand, left hand on the wheel, because we always lost reception on those back roads.  I remember the white of his turtleneck writhing up against his rose-splotched neck, and his wristwatch, a thick leather band with metal studs, its face turned to the white flesh of the inside of his wrist.  I remember thinking, How can one part of his body be so white and smooth, and another be so red and rough

We rounded a curve, and there was a deer in the middle of the road, head bowed, licking the snow with its thin black tongue.  It was already too close for us to avoid.  It bent its legs, then leapt across the road with the opposite of grace.  Just the front corner of the grill hit it, in the raised arc of its pelvis, sending it spinning long-ways like a wing-nut.  By the time the car stopped and I got out, it was stunned on its side.  I walked slowly over to where it lay, bloodying the pristine snow-bank.

"Get back, Nina. Get in the car. It's dangerous out there, the cars won't see you," yelled Sergei.  He was bent into the vehicle, fishing around under the seat for something. 

I wished I was the kind of person who could touch a wild animal, but I was afraid of ticks and the deer's haunch muscles, braiding and unbraiding underneath its fur. Finally Sergei appeared, standing next to me holding a hammer.  The deer's labored, wide-eyed breathing puffed white into the air, milky plumes. 

I'd first noticed the hammer under the seat of Sergei's car nine months earlier, soon after we'd met. We'd just fucked for the first time and I'd wanted to drive the SUV, to feel the high-up, forward grind over the muddy, springtime roads. There had been eye contact and sunlight, me on my back, and when it was over all I could think was: I want to drive that thing.  Adjusting the seat, I'd seen the hammer lying there on the floor. 

"Why do you keep that in your car?" I'd asked.

"Side of the road casualties," he'd said. 

"You kill them?"

He nodded, scuffing at a hardened ridge of mud with his boot. 

"Do you do it all the time?"  I could sense my body doing what it did sometimes, giving me the feeling that I am alternately seen and unseen—on, off, here, gone—like a neon window sign.

"Not all the time," he said.  "Just sometimes."

"What do you feel when you do it?"

"Nothing. I just feel like it's my job. My responsibility."

"To kill?"

"To release," he said.  "I just release them.  I can't see them on the side of the road half-dead and let them linger on.  It only takes a second.  The hammer comes down on their head and it's over."

The image of him doing that got tucked away somewhere, like a penny in a pocket.  Holding it with me over the following months, I found I could do all kinds of things I'd never been able to do before, things that took courage.  I finally told my parents that I'd dropped out of graduate school months ago, because I could read books on my own and didn't need someone tell me which ones.  I stopped smoking cigarettes cold-turkey and started eating meat again.  I bought a vibrator face-to-face from a store clerk, instead of over the Internet, and I used it alone and in front of Sergei.  I went to restaurants by myself, without a book—appetizer and entrée.

Call it killing, releasing, mercy—call it whatever you want.  I couldn't watch, couldn't breath, couldn't think anything but, Not this, not this.  I focused on a wet clot of snow sliding down my cheek, the grip of my toes inside my boot—and then I went somewhere else altogether.  I was in the sunlight on a warm day, wearing a dress of thin cotton, sitting on the lowest bow of a tree.  Sergei was young, selfish and high as shit, and we were in Odessa, running from the law.  I was in Yalta at the ocean on a balmy morning.  It was exactly like he'd said it would be, palm trees and everything. He didn't see me watching him as he nodded out against one of the trees, his eyelashes long and black, some stuck together.  He didn't love me then. 

"Nina," said Sergei.  "Open your eyes, it's over."

His face was suddenly unfamiliar, like a word repeated into strangeness. The deer looked fake. A particular fear ran through me, a fear that had always been special to me, which I'd hungered for. I thought, When we get to my apartment, I will let him inside.

We walked back to the car and got in.  He turned on the radio and the heat, and pulled back onto the road. There was an accident just down the road from the house, a little car stuck in a ditch.  Its wheels were spinning, churning grit into the snow. A woman leaned onto a shovel, trying to get traction beneath a tire halfway submerged in a snowdrift. "Hold on," said Sergei, slowing as we approached. "Let's give them a hand." I gripped my fingers around the inside of his thigh, dragging upwards toward the heat of his groin, with enough pressure to bruise. In the midst of their struggle—one woman throwing her weight into digging, the other pumping the accelerator—both stopped as we passed by, their eyes bright with disdain, and trained to the arc of our movement.