After twenty-five years, my mother is having the third dinner date of her life. The first was an Italian man with a motorcycle. Second, an American who gave her a great wedding, dual citizenship, two children, then left her for an American woman. This time it is a Russian man with only one eye.
At our grandmother’s дача country house, I always expect a blimp emblazoned with Stalin’s great mustached face to crest the horizon like in Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun. Crown the hills and float down over field and house garden, pine, strips of birch-tree. It won’t, of course—it’s just that the village, only a few hours from Moscow, does not exist in the same century.
In the kitchen Babushka has me slicing mushrooms. It’s been half a year since she convinced our mother to stay with her for a while, at least long enough to talk her into repatriation and an application for me before I turn out a паразит like my American father. “After he finishes high school.” It was a predetermination from Babushka and more like a plea when my mother said it. “Right, Mitya?”
“Yes,” I’d said. Yes, of course. Of course. I didn’t really know another option.
It’s been six or so months since then. It is spring break. Friends back in Pacific Standard Time are spending it planning senior pranks and graduation after-parties. I’ve time traveled to the Russian countryside to meet my mother’s new boyfriend, wondering if I’ve already spent my last day in the U.S. and didn’t even know it.
I struggle to keep up with Babushka’s questions, her proverbs, her chittering speed-Russian.
She refuses to speak to us in anything but, immersion learning skewed for conversion. I chop herb and vegetables, issue the occasional one-shouldered shrug, now and again a cautious да, yes, or понятно, I see, извините передавайте мне соль пожалуйста Babushka?
“Что?” She holds the salt I requested hostage until I correct my verb aspect.
Last summer, when Babushka had shown up at our apartment back home, she’d scoffed. Наташка, никогда с ними ты не говоришь по-русски? I took her bags to the bedroom. This was the most my mother had spoken in weeks. Saying No, Мама, we use English, we speak English. Babushka clicked her tongue. My mother leaned into her own hand, fingers so bird-bone thin under the wedding ring she wouldn’t take off.
He is not coming back, we were all telling her. Even her friends. Dad is not coming back. My older sister Mila reminded her he was never there to begin with. I said nothing, not to disagree, but because I’d had the distinct sense it wasn’t just my parents’ half-existent marriage that had died. There was something else deeply more defining. Just a visit, Babushka kept saying, or did we want her to be lonely? Just a visit for the rest of the summer.
Here in this same kitchen, only six months ago, I’d asked we are going home after this, right?
Yes, Dmitrii. Yes. But I don’t think my mother had actually heard my question.
She doesn’t have a habit of using my full name. A week before the school year started, Mila and I flew back home and I moved in with her and her boyfriend Andrew. My mother listed the apartment to sell.
Borya is the name of my mother’s third ever date.
Borya is a true hero of the people, having lost his eye in a factory accident.
Borya was born the year Stalin died. Other than missing an eye, he is altogether a healthy sixty-something.
“And when I went to visit the first time,” Mom says with the flicker of a smile, “he sat and talked to me all evening, and I didn’t even notice his eye!”
Auntie laughs, short, cluck-like. She pins up her hair at the hallway mirror, everything glowing and hardy my mother is not. “What you mean is, it is a man’s dream to talk at a woman and she does not talk back.”
What I think my mother means is that their defectiveness balances out.
“But how does he see?” Little Cousin wants to know. Babushka utters an appalled grandmother sound very much like a chicken dying. She swats Cousin away from the kitchen counter where Cousin has been on her tiptoes gazing at glistening boiled beets, pickle juice, cubed potatoes. Babushka takes offense because she is the one who chose the man with one eye to meet my mother, and дак онечно he sees just fine, still having his other eye, and if she hears Cousin speak like this again! Asking stupid questions! She will catch the neighbor’s hen and let her peck Cousin’s little eye out, and then won’t she see how it is to see with one eye? “Ах, ты не такая белая и пушистая, hmm!”
Cousin’s nose wrinkles. She casts Babushka a nasty only-child look with two blue eyes before ducking away and thudding off into the sitting room.
“Go braid her hair,” Babushka tells me with a shoo of the hand and an insulted huff of breath.
I stop at the window to see if anyone’s on the road. Old Soviet tunes by the Red Army Choir jaunt from the record player in the sitting room. Bella Ciao. Kalinka. The Cliff, which feels like a love child between church hymn and opera, and is perhaps, somehow, more comforting to me than a church hymn and more unintelligibly moving to me than an opera. Babushka would likely say it’s the Motherland in my blood.
I’ve gotten good at braiding hair after braiding my mother’s hair every night last summer, those weeks when she was not speaking and not sleeping and Mila complained nonstop about constantly doing laundry so our mother could wear the same dress every day. The one from the picnic at which our father proposed to her. I told her about Miss Havisham once. She laughed like she was not Miss Russian Havisham. Babushka showed up. That’s good work, she said about my braiding, my mother’s mother tongue so sudden and large in an apartment that had been quiet for months.
Babushka makes sure we know how upset she is that Mila’s hair is too short to braid. Also that Mila dyed it black. Also that Mila smokes, and how rusty her Russian is when she vehemently refuses to wear a folk dress to the Maslenitsa festival tomorrow. I don’t blame Mila. She just bought an expensive coat for this trip. It seems wrong to cover up traditional dress with a new, expensive, American coat (not that she would admit to such respect). Also, we haven’t celebrated Pancake Week in years; do we even remember how?
The scent of fresh dill greens the air in the kitchen. In the other room, Auntie tries to convince my mother the pearl necklace makes her look too much like an old lady, more than the new wrinkles and eye bags do.
“Is it just a hole, then?” Cousin asks as I try to weave her hair over the baldish spot where she rubs and scratches when she is nervous.
I tip her head back towards me. “Stop leaning. You’re making this difficult. It probably is not just a hole.”
I can’t help wondering too, though, what a man with one eye looks like. Is it just a hole? Will he wear an eyepatch? It seems common decency to hide from others something that’s missing. Will the eyepatch, if he has one, be decorated for Maslenitsa?
“I bet it’s just a button.” Mila is a bold stroke of black sweater black jeans black socks stretching across the floral-patterned couch.
Little Cousin is horrified. “A button!”
“Lean back, please.”
“A button, or an old копеек.” Mila’s brows arc up under her blunt bangs. “A копеек from Stalin’s pocket himself. Can you believe it! A coin in his eye like he’s dead, and he keeps it in place like this.” Mila tips her head, narrows one eye like a pirate, and mimes the squeeze of brow to cheek to keep the coin in place of an eye.
Cousin squeals and turns away, which makes me pull her hair, which makes her shout, and then cry that I hurt her—“Чёрт Софка не было ничего it’s OK!”—and Mila leaves the room. She did the same thing when Babushka came to the apartment saying Mom and I were going back to live with her, and Mila could either come with or move in with her boyfriend who called her Mimi which made me want to gag. Silently, stood, left.
Last summer: He’s not coming back, Auntie said, too, laying a red-knuckled but otherwise perfect Russian hand across my mother’s bird-bone fingers. He’s not coming back.
Auntie, Uncle, little Cousin, Babushka, no air conditioning and a fly buzzing from corner to corner as Mila stood there in the center of the room and finally said I wish he were just dead so you’d get over it.
Lyudmila! our mother had choked out and Mila’s face soured instantly: it’s the name she’s trying to erase from herself. Too antiquated. Too much a mouthful. Too much not her.
Fuckinsky! Uncle shouted, too, because our mother’s sharp reproof startled him into jabbing himself with the pocket knife while cleaning under his fingernails.
He’s not coming back, Mila said. You need therapy, Mama. Or Xanax. Or something.
Xanax? Auntie said it like a Russian: Ksanaks? Went over to her purse and started rummaging.
Mitya? My mother had beckoned, flapped for me. I went. She pulled me to sit half on her lap and run her hand through my hair. One of my friends’ mothers, she has a slip of paper registering her rag doll cat as an emotional support animal. I have a birth certificate. Through the summer-stick, Uncle had side-eyed us. He didn’t have to say it aloud, much in the Russian way: You are fifteen years, no? And you still are sitting on your mother’s lap? Funny, because Babushka still does his laundry for him.
The jut of my mother’s knee into the back of my thigh had made my leg numb. I was keenly aware that afternoon—and not sure why—that everyone was blond except me and Mila.
Our mother had stopped sleeping first, and then stopped talking about a week after our father left. Some nights I didn’t sleep, either, just laid awake listening to her cry before finally unraveling myself from bed and padding into the adjacent room where she rocked in the easy chair, to sit at her feet and rest my head on her knee so she could run her fingers through my hair. I love you, I’d say. She never replied (because she wasn’t speaking). But after eighteen years as her son, I’ve learned which of her sighs mean what and one night, she hadn’t even sigh-replied, because she’d fallen asleep with her fingers in my hair, and I had just sat there listening to her breathe. Listening to midnight city traffic outside. Listening to Andrew and Mila kissing down the hall at the front door when Andrew walked her inside from their date. Good night, Mimi, he said.
The nights in Babushka’s дача are jarringly quiet. No traffic, no upstairs neighbors, no midnight dates, no crying, just wood-animals and wind-chimes and stars and thoughts.
Less than an hour until Borya’s estimated time of arrival, my mother is half-dancing, half-swaying, a motion like a humming, examining the vinyl record she pulled from Babushka’s bookshelf. She turns it over delicately in her tiny fingers. “Borya got this for me.” The album cover shows a line of nesting dolls arranged in order of height like the cell phone reception bars that struggle this far out from the city. “You know, Borya still drives the first car he bought himself. He takes great care of it.”
Borya doesn’t drink. Borya is king of crossword puzzles. Borya tells the funniest jokes, Borya washes all his own dishes, Borya this, Borya that. My mother wears a red dress with white sleeves, like the type of jumper dresses all the women and girls will be in when everyone in town meets up tomorrow to share блины and burn the Lady Maslenitsa puppet. No pearls.
“Borya, Borya, Borya.” Auntie rolls her eyes. “And no one has met this man yet?”
“I have,” Babushka chirps. “I’m the one who introduced them.”
We know. She has told us, many times now. She introduced them, she pays for my mother’s tickets to St Petersburg to see him, thanks to her my mother is talking and sleeping and eating again.
“It’s him! It’s him!” Cousin hides at the knock on the дача door, but it’s just Dory, tapping March snow off his boots, trying to shoulder out of his coat and close the door and juggle a loaf of his mother’s famous rye, all at the same time.
“Can someone not help chop the beets?” Babushka calls from the kitchen.
“Hi.” I take the bread so Dory can free himself of his coat. To avoid tempting the домовой he doesn’t say Hi back until he’s kissed both cheeks in casual greeting. Maybe I will never shake the American shock at this. One of these days I think one of us will miss in just the right way but I don’t know yet which of us it will be.
“Man of the hour here yet?” Dory hooks his coat. He speaks English, clumsy as it is, because he knows it’s easier for me, and certainly comes more easily for him than for our parents.
“He only has one eye,” I say.
Dory raises his brows. “Interesting.”
“Yes, but my mother says she couldn’t even see which one is fake until he told her.”
“Is this why you invited me? To see a one-eyed man?”
“I need emotional support,” I joke, but only halfway.
“Ha! Your America is showing,” he jokes back, and touches the middle of my back.
The дача that’s been in Dory’s family for generations is a five-minute walk. His father worked for my grandfather for twenty years, so naturally his father became something like a second son to Babushka and Dedushka, and a son’s son is a grandson, and every summer we’ve spent here Dory has been the one part I look forward to most.
“Fyodor Volodyovich!” Auntie throws an apron at Dory, kisses his cheek, he kisses hers, she pinches the bridge of her nose and shoos Cousin away from her heels. “I am getting a migraine from all the noise, go help my mother with the food.”
Exiled, Cousin joins Dory in the kitchen, where he pretends to let her help with the last of the pancakes. “Like this,” he says, “чуть-чуть, butter then sugar, чуть-чуть, excellent, little girl, молодчина, девочка.”
“I’m not sure I like Borya.” Mila twists her engagement ring with pinched fingers and squints out the sitting room window, vigilant of the one-eyed man’s arrival.
“You haven’t even met him yet.”
I pick at a chip in the wood grain of an end table, the one with the bulbous lamp and its tasseled shade, the one which still has a little ikon of Brezhnev gathering some dust at the beveled corners.
“I just can’t stomach it here, Mitty,” Mila mumbles.
Here where people call her Lyudmila and where Andrew would not know the language and where she barely knows the language, where she does not have a preferred tattoo parlor, or a hipster café job, or cheap American beer, here with Babushka, here with Mom and me, here with Mom speaking again.
“It’s not so bad,” I say. It feels like an apology.
Mila leans, looking where I’m looking into the kitchen. “When did you realize?” she asks. Her freckles are more visible when she’s serious, because when she’s serious, her round Russian-American face goes pale. I, on the other hand, always look serious, everyone says. Even when the blood rushes to my Slavic-soft face.
“Mitty, you’re staring at him. You’re obsessed with him.”
Dory, in the kitchen with little Cousin. My face flares. “Mila—”
“Oh come on, Dmitrii.”
The first weekend we came last summer. That’s when. His mother’s rye under the arm. His knee-high rubber boots. The village was sinking in early autumn mud. The story of how he got his almost unnoticeable chipped tooth: he’d been chasing a chicken loose from the neighbor’s hut. How words he doesn’t know in English, I don’t know in Russian, so we fill each other’s mouths. Our incompleteness balances out. He lets me call him Dory because Fyodor Volodyovich is too much. He fists his hair behind the ear when he’s thinking. He works for Uncle now. We snuck some of his father’s vodka and sat on the roof and almost fell through a soft part over the porch.
And I didn’t realize so much as remember—each summer. Lake, rope swing, village kids. His mother’s дача garden. Annoying Mila when she just wanted the satellite TV to work. Eating berries we picked ourselves as we picked through the nearby ruins of a Young Pioneers camp Uncle and Dory’s father had attended together. How tall he could seem when he sang folk songs from the bottom of his chest and helped Babushka put up new curtains and climbed on the roof to fix the satellite for Mila and the summer the power went out from a storm, he looked like something from a gold leaf ikon in the light of the oil lamp Babushka pulled from the cupboard, my mother said wasn’t it definitely good Dory hadn’t walked home yet, or else he would have been caught in this rain, and my breath felt too big for my body.
I do not know how to explain this to Mila, that I didn’t realize so much as remember and didn’t remember so much as one day just suddenly saw what I was looking at. So I just point.
In the kitchen, Dory is dancing around with Cousin standing on the tops of his feet. Her little arms hold tight as he stomps and swings in circles, singing over her screeching laughter: Щуку я поймала! Девица красная, уху я варила!
Babushka swats at him with a rolled-up apron for the dirty folk song. He laughs and Cousin laughs and Babushka is red in the face. Уху я варила!
Mila fiddles with her engagement ring. “Does he know?” “I don’t know. But he watches Eurovision.”
“Oh good.” Mila laughs. “You have a chance, then!”
Borya arrives before the Olivier salad has had time enough to sit, when Large Maslenitsa is jumping off the record player hearty and operatic.
Borya is handsome like Lenin before the second stroke, with a lowered brow squaring an already square face, and a slightly tilted smile that is somehow jolly. And, of course, the one glazed false eye that does not move when the other does.
“Oh wow,” Dory says.
“Real shame.” Auntie wags her head. There on the periphery with us, Uncle tsks rough as birchwood bark, “Pity! Because he’s quite handsome. Eh, Mitya?”
“Ну, конечно,” I agree because he wants me to. He laughs; he means to mock Borya. I don’t. Borya was probably a very handsome young man and having a dead-bright glass eye or two ex-wives should not matter (they still talk, of course, because Borya is also a good man). Borya does not wear an eyepatch. He compliments all the dishes: the mushroom buckwheat, the винегрет, the блины, the fish. He compliments Babushka on her hair, he says to Uncle he’s heard Uncle’s shop is doing well and that Dory’s quite good with numbers, he kissed Auntie’s hand in greeting. To me and Mila, he bowed. Mila snorted.
Staring at him over the edge of the dining table with her two big eyes and a piece of rice stuck to her cheek, little Cousin asks, “Do you only see half of everything?”
Auntie nearly chokes on her drink.
Borya holds up a hand. “It’s all right.” He doesn’t seem to care that everyone’s suddenly staring at him with their full sets of eyes. When he speaks, voice deep, it is slow and precise. Someone must have told him Mila and I have the conversational capacity of third-graders.
“People really only see half of everything, anyway,” he says. “Don’t you think?”
Cousin considers this very deeply, dainty brow furrowed down. Uncle whispers through his teeth at Auntie. Mila scrapes peas out of her Olivier salad. Babushka laments her granddaughter’s audacity under her breath and under the table, Dory kicks me as if he thinks I am not paying attention to how funny this is.
My mother just smiles, proud of Borya’s goodness.
Borya leans to squint at Cousin. “Wave your right hand. Now your left.”
Tentatively, Cousin obeys.
Borya laughs. He winks. I’m slightly ashamed of how shocked I am to see he’s capable of doing this, that it’s nothing like a scleral blink, which is for some reason what I’d imagined.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “Borya sees all of you, девочка. Quite the big grownup girl, eating dinner here with the adults!”
Uncle laughs short and stiff. “You’d never hear the end of it if not—”
“I thought you’d have a coin.” Cousin points to the eye in her face that corresponds with the place in Borya’s where a real eye is not. There’s a pause, a very obvious ripple of discomfort as everyone makes the mental image of Borya with a coin for an eye.
Except Borya. He raises his brows in little Lenin arcs. “Do you want to see a trick?”
Cousin lights up.
“I love this one,” my mother says. No one looks at her.
Borya scoops thumb and forefinger into the corners of his shinier eye. Auntie makes a garbled sound of surprise. Uncle sits up rigid and Babushka bites a breath and I forget to swallow my mouthful of beets and cabbage, too distracted by the reveal of whether or not his missing eye will be a gaping hole, a pucker of skin, or just regular old closed eyelids like nothing is wrong.
Borya removes both hands. Up under his brow and against his squeezed-shut eye-socket, he has wedged a five-ruble coin, winking hard and prolonged like Popeye the sailor to keep it in place.
Mila and I look at one another, and choke into laughter.
Our mother smiles more—so wide, it’d be off putting if not for being the realest in a long time. I look to Dory, to make sure he’s not missing this. His eyes are already waiting to meet mine, his foot under the table. And when Borya turns his smile to my mother, it’s clear to me he is not just looking. He sees her.