Vadik arrived in New York on a snowy Saturday morning in the middle of winter. He woke up as the plane started its descent into J.F.K. and quickly raised his window shade, hoping to catch a glimpse of that famous Manhattan skyline, but all he saw was a murky white mess. It was still thrilling. Although he couldn’t see the contours of the buildings, he could sense them right there, under the plane, hidden by the clouds. He felt a familiar surge of excitement, the excitement that had buoyed him for months, ever since he was granted the coveted H-1B visa that would allow him to work in the U.S. for three years. He had spent the past two years in Istanbul and had grown sick of the place. He had celebrated his thirtieth birthday there, but the new decade would begin in a new country for him. Every now and then, he would open his passport and stroke the thin paper visa as if it were alive.
He was starting work on Monday, as a computer programmer at the headquarters of Earthly Foods, in Avenel, New Jersey. He would live in Avenel, too, in an apartment provided by corporate housing. His old friend Sergey was meeting him at J.F.K. He had agreed to take Vadik to his house on Staten Island and then drive him to Avenel on Sunday. But Vadik was planning to ask Sergey to take him straight to the city, so that he could spend all of Saturday exploring. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. He wanted to walk the streets without direction, following his intuition wherever it might lead him. He wanted to walk like that for hours, then find a bohemian-looking bar, where he could spend the rest of the day with a glass of wine and a book, wearing a tweed jacket, like a true New York intellectual. Vadik had put the jacket on before boarding the plane, because he didn’t want to pack it in a suitcase, where it might get wrinkled. He had spent a lot of time trying to choose a book to read in that bar. Something French? Sartre’s “Nausea”? Gilles Deleuze’s “Cinema 1”? And, no, this wasn’t sickeningly pretentious. Vadik wasn’t doing this to make an impression on other people. He did want to be seen as a charismatic tweedy intellectual, but it was most important to him to be seen as such through his own eyes.
Vadik looked out the window again. It felt as though the plane were suspended in the clouds. He closed his eyes and willed it to land at J.F.K. He imagined the hard body of the plane pushing downward through the thick mass of clouds, emerging in a clean empty space between sky and ground, and then sliding down in one bold, determined movement until its wheels touched the runway. The cabin erupted in applause, and for a second Vadik thought that it was meant for him.
“Can you take me to the city?” Vadik asked Sergey as soon as they finished hugging.
“To the city? Now?” Sergey asked with a degree of puzzlement that suggested that either the city was very far away or there was some existential impossibility of getting there.
“Now. Yeah,” Vadik said.
“But Vica is waiting with all the food. She’ll be disappointed.”
The horror in Sergey’s eyes showed just how much trouble Vica’s disappointment would bring him.
So they went to Staten Island—drove down the J.F.K. Expressway, then the long stretch of the Belt Parkway, past the gray jellied mass of the ocean, across the foggy Verrazano Bridge, and, finally, down endless Hylan Boulevard, with its depressing storefronts. All the while Sergey sang along to his favorite Leonard Cohen CD.
Back in university, Sergey had been a star—the smartest and most talented of them all. Professors had quoted him in classes. Everyone had said that his sharp, taut features made him look like a French actor. He’d played guitar and sung—badly, but still. And he’d had any girl he wanted. Hell, he’d snatched Vica from right under Vadik’s nose.
Sergey was still handsome. It was just the singing that made him look ugly—the way he scrunched up his nose whenever he had to draw out a line and furrowed his brows whenever he had trouble pronouncing the words, his pained expression in the especially emotional moments. And the singing itself? It wasn’t just that Sergey sang out of tune or that he sang with a gooey Russian accent, although those things bothered Vadik, too. The main problem was that Sergey’s voice, which completely drowned out Cohen’s baritone, was plaintive and childlike:
Baby, I’ve been waiting,
I’ve been waiting night and day.
I didn’t see the time,
I waited half my life away.
He sounded pathetic! Vadik couldn’t help feeling a squeamish kind of pity for him. He felt anger, too, mostly because “Waiting for the Miracle” was his favorite song and Sergey’s singing was ruining it for him.
He hadn’t been looking forward to being at Sergey’s place, but now he couldn’t wait to arrive. Apparently, Vica couldn’t wait for their arrival, either. She rushed out of the house as soon as she heard the car, and ran down the driveway barefoot, leaving footprints on the thin layer of fresh snow. Her hug was sticky and tight and somewhat embarrassing. Vadik struggled to free himself. She looked great, though. In snug jeans and a snugger sweater, with her short curly hair cut in some new fancy way. “Vica, you look amazing,” Vadik said.
“It’s my teeth,” she said, scowling at him. “See, I finally fixed my teeth!” Vadik had no idea what she was talking about. “I used to have crooked teeth. Don’t you remember?” And then he remembered. She used to smile with her mouth closed, and cover it with her hand when she laughed. When Vadik had first met her, at a college party, he thought that she was covering her mouth because she was shy. He’d found this habit intensely endearing even after he discovered that Vica wasn’t shy at all.
Vica led him on a tour of the house. All Vadik noticed was that the furniture was brown and the walls were painted yellow. “We’re giving you this exercise bike,” Vica said, pointing to a bulky apparatus in the corner of the guest room. “It’s like new. I gave it to Sergey for his birthday, but he seems to hate it.” Then Vica took him to meet Eric, a small, sulky, chubby six-year-old version of Sergey. He was sitting on the floor of his tiny bedroom with a Game Boy in his hands. His fingers pressed the buttons with such intensity it was as if his life depended on it. “Hi,” Vadik said. It hadn’t occurred to him to bring Eric a gift—a toy or something—and now he felt awkward. He had no idea how to talk to a child. “So, Eric,” he said, “what do you like to do?”
“I like to kill,” Eric said, and went back to pressing buttons.
The rest of the morning and the entire afternoon were spent in the roomy kitchen, which had a distant view of a playground and a cemetery. “They told us that this house overlooked the park,” Sergey explained. “It was summer. We couldn’t see the graves behind all those leafy trees.”
Vica interrupted him. “But we can let Eric play across the street by himself, because, you know, you can see him from the window.”
Vadik pictured sad little Eric in a deserted playground, swinging above the graves. Then he remembered to admire the house.
“Yep, this was the right choice,” Sergey said without conviction.
Vica told him that Sergey’s grandmother had died, and that Sergey’s father had sold her apartment and sent the money to Sergey for the down payment. Now they were struggling to pay a huge mortgage every month, but it had still been the right move to buy a house. Because that was how it worked here, Sergey added. You rented in the cheaper parts of Brooklyn for a while, then you bought a house in the suburbs or on Staten Island, then you sold that house and bought a bigger, better house, then when you grew old you left that house to your kids and moved into a retirement community. Sergey’s tone was a dark mixture of hatred and resignation, which made Vadik uneasy and even frightened him a little. He tried to imagine a happier Eric, all grown up, driving his parents to the retirement community so that he could take possession of the house. Vadik made a few attempts to steer the conversation away from real estate. In his e-mails, Sergey always asked about their university friends, so Vadik now tried to tell him that Marik was still working on his genealogy dissertation, but Alina had quit hers and was busy making this animated Nabokov game, and Kuzmin—remember that shithead?—was involved in some business with Abramovich. Abramovich, you know, the man who owns half of Europe, including Chelsea Football Club? But then Vica kicked him under the table and shook her head. Apparently, she thought that this line of conversation would be upsetting to Sergey. “He misses our old life too much,” she had confided to Vadik during the tour of the house. She changed the subject to Vadik’s long-term plans, but that filled him with panic. He didn’t know if he wanted to go to graduate school. He didn’t know if he wanted to get married. He didn’t know if he wanted to stay in the U.S. for good. He had no idea. He just wanted to lead the life of an American for a while, whatever that meant. He failed to explain his view to Vica. Even Sergey didn’t seem to get it.
They drank vodka and ate cold cuts, pickles, and salads that Sergey had bought at the only Russian grocery store on Staten Island. Beet salad, carrot salad, eggplant salad, mushroom salad, cheese salad, herring salad, and a cabbage salad with the lovely name Isolda. There was some bickering about the Isolda. It seemed that Vica had specifically asked Sergey to check the expiration date before buying it, and he hadn’t. “Look! All the other salads expire on the nineteenth, and this one on the sixteenth. Which was yesterday!” she said. Vadik volunteered to eat the Isolda, because he had an iron stomach.
At some point, Eric emerged from his room and demanded to be fed, too.
“What do you want, chummy-chums?” Sergey asked. Eric declined the salads but took a few pieces of salami and squeezed them in his hand. Vica took the salami away from him, placed it on a slice of bread, took a cucumber and a lettuce leaf out of the fridge, put all that on a plate, gave the plate to Eric, and sent him into the living room to watch TV. Now the conversation was punctuated by the screams and squeaks of cartoon animals and the happy voices of children praising certain brands of cereal or juice. After a while, Eric came back, complaining of a stomach ache. Vica took him upstairs, promising to be right back.
Vadik grabbed Sergey by the sleeve and pleaded. “Serega, please, take me to the subway or something. I’m dying here. I need to get to the city!”
Sergey studied his watch, then listened to Vica’s and Eric’s muffled voices upstairs.
“There is no subway here. The ferry is far away. I’ll take you to the express bus. It goes straight into midtown.”
The MetroCards were upstairs, and Sergey didn’t want to chance it with Vica, so he took a jar full of quarters from the windowsill and counted out the exact change (forty quarters) for the ride to Manhattan and back. Vadik loved the weight of the coins in his pockets. It made him feel as if he were doing something illicit. Running off with stolen gold.
They were almost out the door when Vadik remembered his book. “Cinema 1” was in his suitcase upstairs. “Can I borrow a book?” he asked.
“All my good books are upstairs,” Sergey said. “Here we keep garage-sale books.”
Vadik went to the shelves anyway. There were DVDs of “Bambi” and “The Lion King,” and used copies of “A Complete Idiot’s Guide to Home Repair,” “A Complete Idiot’s Guide to Mortgages,” “Eat Healthy!,” and “Hell Is Other People: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century French Philosophy.” He grabbed “Hell Is Other People” and hurried to the door.
They got to the bus stop a second after the bus pulled away. They had to race to intercept it at the next stop. And then Vadik was in, dropping his coins into the slot one by one as the bus pulled off. Heading to the city.
The jetlag and the vodka put him to sleep, and by the time he woke up the bus was approaching its last stop: Central Park South and Sixth Avenue. It was dark now, and snowing lightly, but none of that mattered to Vadik. He had made it. The skyscrapers hovered above his head, as if suspended in a yellow fog. The Park looked deserted, so he decided to head down Sixth Avenue. He walked along the wet sidewalk, crossing whenever the light turned green, turning right or left whenever he felt like it, stepping through puddles of slush. Soon he had no idea which direction he was going in. He didn’t care. He was taking everything in—the buildings, the storefronts, the limos and yellow cabs, the people. There were so many people. Alive, energetic, determined, all in a rush to get somewhere. Women. Beautiful women. Some looked at him. Some even smiled. He felt very tall. He felt gigantic. He felt as if his head were on the same level as those breathtaking Times Square billboards. Everything seemed within reach. Hell, he felt as if he could just snap the enormous steaming Cup Noodles off the side of that building. He felt as if he were consuming the city, eating it up. It was his city. He had finally found it.
Vadik walked for hours. He stopped only when he noticed that his shoes were soaked through to his socks. He spotted a brightly lit diner and went in. The diner was nothing like the elegant Greenwich Village bar he’d imagined, but he decided that he liked it better. Plus, he didn’t feel like drinking wine or beer. He ordered a cup of tea with lemon and a slice of cheesecake, because he remembered Sergey mentioning cheesecake as the ultimate American food. The diner was nice, homey, with quiet American pop songs playing in the background. There were almost no customers there, just an elderly couple at the counter eating soup, an unkempt, possibly homeless guy fiddling with a jukebox in the corner, and a girl in a bulky checkered coat sitting across the aisle from Vadik. The girl had a runny nose. She kept wiping it with a napkin, making sniffling sounds like a rabbit. Her nose was swollen and red, and he could hardly see her eyes behind her dark bangs, but he liked the way her hair was pulled into two short braids. She had a clear mug filled with cloudy brown liquid in front of her. Vadik wondered what it was. She raised her eyes for a second, and he saw that they were amber and very pretty. Vadik wanted to smile at her, but she lowered her gaze before he had a chance. She was reading a book. Vadik decided that it was time to pull out his. He opened it in the middle, took a long sip of his tea, and plunged into reading.
He couldn’t understand a single word. Or, rather, all he understood was single words. He tried to concentrate, but his mind was still busy thinking about the runny-nosed girl. Vadik took a bite of his cheesecake and found it disgustingly sweet. He leafed through the rest of the book and discovered that about fifty pages were missing. When he finally raised his eyes, he saw that the girl was looking at him. He smiled and asked if he could join her. Normally, he would have been too shy to do that, but right then he felt as if he were fuelled by some strange, happy confidence and could do whatever he wanted.
“What is in your cup?” he asked after he had settled into her booth.
“Cider with rum,” she said.
Vadik asked the waiter to bring another cider with rum for him. He liked it very much.
The girl’s name was Rachel. She said that she was from Michigan but had moved to the city for graduate school a couple of months ago. He told her that he’d just arrived that morning.
She smiled and said, “Welcome.”
Days, weeks, months, even years later, whenever Vadik thought of their conversation (and he thought of it a lot) he would marvel at how easy it had been. His English was pretty good, but his conversations were never that effortless: he’d struggle to find the right word; he’d confuse tenses and articles; he’d pronounce the words wrong. But, in that diner with Rachel, he talked as if inspired. Not once did she ask him to repeat something because she didn’t understand.
Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” started playing, and Vadik laughed. Cohen seemed to be following him through the day. “I love this song!” he said.
“Really?” Rachel said. She seemed suddenly tense.
“What?” Vadik said.
“Oh, it’s nothing.”
“No,” Vadik insisted, “please tell me.”
“I actually hate this song,” Rachel said.
“Hate this song? Why?” Vadik asked. “The guy is offering himself to a girl. He’s pouring his heart out.”
“Oh, he’s pouring his heart out, is that right?” Rachel said. “Look, this is typical pre-coital manipulation. He’s offering her the world, but only until she gives herself to him. Do you understand?”
“I understand what you mean, but I disagree. The guy is expressing what he feels in the moment. He may not feel the same way afterward, but that doesn’t mean he’s not sincere in that precise moment.”
Rachel shook her head with such force that one of her braids came undone and fine wisps of brown hair flew up and down.
“Leonard Cohen is a misogynist.”
“Miso . . . gynist?” Vadik said. The word sounded vaguely familiar, but he wasn’t sure what it meant.
“Yes!” Rachel said. “That’s precisely my point. He idolizes women, but he doesn’t view them as equals. They’re these sacred sexual objects for him. Something to idolize and discard—or, better yet, discard first and idolize later.”
Rachel took another sip of her cider and asked, “Do you know the song ‘Waiting for the Miracle’?”
“Of course,” Vadik said. “It’s my favorite!”
“Well, let’s think about the lyrics. ‘I know it must have hurt you, / It must have hurt your pride / To have to stand beneath my window / With your bugle and your drum.’ ” Rachel paused, trying to think of the next line, and Vadik continued, “ ‘And me I’m up there waiting / Waiting for the miracle to come.’ ”
Rachel nodded and looked at Vadik intently. “See what’s going on here? We have a man up there, having these existential thoughts, talking to God, expecting to experience divine grace, and the woman is down below. Literally beneath him! Waiting stupidly. And for what? For him to marry her?”
Vadik shook his head.
Rachel was about to say something else, but she stopped herself. She looked embarrassed.
“So what are you studying in your graduate school?” Vadik asked. “North American Misogynists?”
“No, actually. English Romantics.”
What luck! Vadik thought. She had given him a perfect opportunity to veer the conversation away from Leonard Cohen and toward something that would allow him to shine. He said that he knew the entire “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by heart. In Russian. Rachel smiled and asked him to recite it. He did. Rachel loved it. She said that it sounded amazing in Russian, even though she couldn’t help laughing a couple of times.
The waiter came over to them just as Vadik belted out the last line. He asked if they wanted anything else. Vadik realized that this was the fourth or fifth time he’d asked them that. It was time to leave.
“I’ll walk you home,” Vadik said, and Rachel nodded and smiled.
The color of the sky had changed to a gloomy indigo, and it was really cold. The slush on the sidewalks was now cakey ice. Vadik offered Rachel his hand, and they walked like that: holding hands, but at a distance. Vadik noticed that he was much taller than Rachel. Her head was on a level with his shoulders.
She asked him where he was staying, and the answer seemed to horrify her. “Staten Island?” she said. “But it’s so late! How are you going to get there?” And then she cleared her throat and offered to let him stay at her place. Vadik squeezed her hand even tighter.
It’s New York, he thought. It’s New York that makes everything so easy.
They walked down a wide avenue, then turned onto a narrow street. Vadik loved this street. The dark trees. The cheerful details on the stone façades. The piles of hardened snow gleaming under the streetlamps. Rachel led him into one of the brownstones and up creaky stairs to her fifth-floor one-bedroom. The stairs were carpeted. The railings were carved. Vadik’s heart was beating like crazy.
Once they were inside the apartment, the easy feeling dissipated. Rachel took off her boots and her coat, but kept her scarf on. She moved nervously around the apartment, as if she were the one who was there for the first time. Vadik felt that he should do or say something to make her relax, but he had no idea what.
“Do you want some tea?” Rachel asked, and seemed grateful when he agreed. She disappeared into the kitchen, still wearing her scarf. The apartment was small and dark, with art posters on the walls. Vadik recognized only one of them: Memling’s “Portrait of a Young Woman.” He’d never liked it that much. Since this was the first real American home Vadik had seen, he couldn’t tell how much of the décor was typical and how much revealed Rachel’s personality.
He sat down on her couch and took off his shoes. His socks were soaking wet. These were the socks that he had put on yesterday morning in Moscow. He stared at his feet for a while, stunned by this realization, then he removed the socks and stuffed them in the pocket of his jacket. He heard the clatter of dishes in the kitchen, and occasional traffic sounds outside, but other than that it was stiflingly silent in the apartment. There was a small CD rack by the couch, but Vadik didn’t recognize any of the albums. It occurred to him that Sergey and Vica would worry if he didn’t come home. He asked Rachel if he could make a call. “Of course!” she said from the kitchen. Vadik dialled the number, praying that Sergey would answer. He did. Vadik said in Russian that he was spending the night in the city. With a girl. An American girl. He listened to Sergey’s stunned silence for what seemed an eternity. “O.K. See you tomorrow,” Sergey finally said.
Rachel emerged from the kitchen, carrying a tray with two mugs and a little plate of strange-looking, grayish cookies. She sat across from Vadik on a footstool and put a tea bag in a mug.
She glanced at Vadik’s bare feet and they seemed to embarrass her.
Vadik took her hand in his. Her fingers were thin and startlingly warm. “More English poetry in Russian?” he asked.
She smiled and nodded.
Vadik recited a strange medley of Shakespeare, Keats, and Pound, finishing with “The King’s Breakfast,” by A. A. Milne. Rachel was especially delighted with Milne.
He asked her to recite some of her favorites. She said that there were two things she simply couldn’t do in someone else’s presence: recite poetry and dance. Her confession touched Vadik so much that he wanted to hug her. He reached over and pulled on her braid instead.
She was shy in bed, shy and a little awkward. She squirmed when he attempted to go down on her. “It might take a while,” she warned him. “I’m difficult that way.”
But Rachel wasn’t difficult. She was the opposite of difficult. This was the simplest, purest, and happiest sexual encounter he had ever had. And most likely would ever have.
Memories of that night haunted him for months, for years, afterward. At first, they were purely sexual—he’d remember Rachel’s smell and feel a jolt of desire that made him lightheaded. She smelled like something fresh and green, a slice of cucumber or good lettuce. But, as the weeks passed, his memories turned more and more nostalgic. He would think of a certain thing that Rachel had said, her facial expressions, her tone of voice. The sight of her braids flying up and down as she delivered her ridiculous critique of “I’m Your Man.”
He tried to find her. He went to the city and tried to retrace his steps from Central Park to the diner. He searched online forums for scholars of English Romantic poetry. He browsed through dating profiles. When he discovered Missed Connections, on Craigslist, he started posting notices, looking for Rachel. In fact, it became a habit of his. Every time he met a new woman, he’d post another Missed Connection notice about Rachel.
“I think you simply invented your great love for Rachel to justify your failures with other women,” Sergey said.
“Forget about Rachel!” Vica insisted. “There is a good chance that she would have turned out to be anorexic, or bipolar, or just plain boring!”
They were probably right. And yet Vadik couldn’t stop longing for Rachel. He could barely remember what she looked like anymore, but in the compact reality of his memories Rachel remained perfect. There were times when Vadik tried to banish those memories, because they were painful. And there were times when he felt numb, and would desperately try to conjure up thoughts of Rachel, because pain was better than numbness. Once, in Avenel, as he sat perched on his exercise bike, in his empty white room, pushing and pushing on those dusty pedals, he said Rachel’s name out loud and felt nothing. Or, rather, he felt a palpable nothing, both weightless and glutinous. He felt as if he were about to simultaneously float away and drown. He had never felt worse.
That morning, in Rachel’s apartment, Vadik woke at dawn. Rachel was asleep, lying on her front, her face buried in the pillow, her mouth half open. Vadik felt rested—he was still on Moscow time. He got up, pulled on his underpants, his sweater and jeans, and went to the bathroom. Everything in the apartment (including the bathroom) seemed smaller and shabbier in the morning light. So much clutter. So many unnecessary things. Two hair dryers. Six different shampoo bottles. Pots and pans peeking out of the tops of kitchen cabinets. Three ceramic cats. A ceramic dog. A ceramic chicken! Vadik looked out the narrow kitchen window, but the view was blocked by the stained brown wall of an apartment building across the street. He considered putting the kettle on and making some tea. He thought he would just sit there with his tea and read one of Rachel’s books until she woke up. But he suddenly found himself dreading that moment. Eventually, he would have to leave. He would explain that he was going to live in Avenel. She would want to exchange numbers. He didn’t have a phone yet. Would he have to give her his e-mail address? He had such a stupid e-mail address. Biggguy@gmail.com (with that extra “g” between “big” and “guy”). Rachel would hate how misogynistic that sounded. She hated Leonard Cohen! How could anybody hate Leonard Cohen? Anyway, she would ask when they could see each other again. He would have to promise to see her when? Next Friday? And then what? They would have to see each other every weekend? Vadik found the idea oppressive. This was his first morning in the Land of the Free, and already he was bound to some weekly routine. His new life was about to begin. He needed to be unbound.
He walked back into the living room and surveyed the scene. There was a notebook and a pen on the mantel. He tore out a page and pondered what to write. A line of English poetry would have been great, but he didn’t know any poetry in English. And a Leonard Cohen lyric was clearly a bad idea. “You’re beautiful,” he finally wrote, and left the piece of paper in the middle of the table. He picked up his jacket and sat on the sofa to put on his socks. They were still wet. He squirmed at the feel of the damp wool against his skin. Then he put on his shoes.
It was so cold outside that his wet feet seemed to be turning into ice. Vadik knew (Sergey had explained this to him) that the X1 bus to Staten Island stopped every few blocks on Broadway. He had no idea how to get to Broadway, though, and he had no idea where he was. He waved down a taxi, and asked the driver to drop him off at the closest point on Broadway. It took five minutes or so. He got out of the cab, bought himself a cup of coffee in a deli, and walked down Broadway until he saw an X1 stop. He wasn’t sure if the buses even ran that early. But a bus came ten minutes later. Vadik was two quarters short of the exact fare, but the driver let him ride anyway. The bus was well heated and empty, and for a while Vadik just sat slumped in his seat, enjoying the warmth. It was only on some overpass in Brooklyn that he remembered that he had left “Hell Is Other People” at the diner. He had no idea where that diner was. He would never be able to find it again. He felt a surge of panic and regret that was so extreme it made his heart ache. ♦