a short story by Marilyn Oser
BREZHNEV’S DAUGHTER IS soggy with grief and cheap wine. She sits in a heavy wooden kitchen chair, folded arms and stolid breasts resting their weight against the cracked, yellowing surface of a Formica table. Smeared with drink, bleared with pain, her face crumples into a beggarly smile. The maudlin tears she squeezed out moments ago are still wet on her cheeks.
Once, she says, she was beautiful and much sought after, always at the center of a circle of handsome men. Now, she has lost her teeth, and no one comes. I think it is a metaphor until, simpering, she opens her lips upon wasted gums.
Anastasia, bright princess, fun-loving darling girl in your white muslin sailor dress, would you have ended the same?
Brezhnev’s daughter fell in love with a circus performer, a gypsy in spangled tights who flirted each afternoon with death and disfigurement, dancing his swarthy, glittering way across the high wire, native son of an ad hoc country thrown together overnight with canvas and rope and a little cheap magic. The marriage lasted a week. The wanting is there in her eyes still, after forty years.
He hailed from the south, this dubious charmer—like my grandmother, though she had left Odessa probably years before the gypsy lover was ever born.
A young beauty in that seaside city, my grandmother barely notices the fuss they’re making over the ship, the Potemkin. It is 1905 and she has a suitor, a young man with a large nose in an ill-fitting suit of greasy black gabardine, twirling a silver watch on a silver chain. He shows her his silver cigarette case with its views of St. Petersburg engraved into the top, outside and in, snapping it open, snapping it shut in his nervousness. This, and the watch, are all his treasure, but in Odessa, in that fateful year, they are enough.
This strutting gawk of a fellow who was to become my grandfather, if by some stroke of luck or magic he were still alive to witness the fall of the Soviet Union, he’d wink his good eye and say, “Told you they wouldn’t last, those Bolsheviks.” Or so I imagine, though more than likely he’d have sat in his aging, overstuffed chair in the corner of the living room, silently reading his paper, my grandmother, vain and foolish and still beautiful, still trying to vamp him while he went on reading his paper, paying no attention.
They had prospered in Russia, in the village near Kiev where my mother, their daughter, was born. I asked him once if he ever mourned their old life. “We are better off in America,” he said tightly, turning away.
But I, a child at mid-century, believed otherwise. I believed that they had been Russian aristocrats. They told me they had been wealthy, the wealthiest in the village; that they had had to flee in the middle of the night, of a sudden, hugger-mugger, a hay wagon to Poland, the family silver buried “under darkness” in the yard. Identical stories were told by émigrés in Paris, and for a long time I missed the key point that Jews were never of the Russian nobility.
Still, eighty officers had slept on the floor of my grandmother’s dining room. Of which army, and whether they were occupying her house or had been invited there, I never knew. It was a big dining room to sleep eighty officers, that was the point. Officers were fat, not skinny like enlisted men. There had been a movie theater too, which I had somehow pictured in the basement, assuming the house had a basement and that the dining room floor wasn’t a dirt floor—but who knows whether the theater was for commercial purposes or for private use, whether they sold tickets or invited the neighbors in for a viewing? What, I wonder now, would they have been showing in the Ukraine in 1917?
The Russian Revolution was made for TV the year I turned sixteen. I watched it unfold, sitting with my grandmother in our den in Great Neck. Just me and this container of history in a place and time that makes the other seem impossible. She remembers it, yes. She nods, oh yes. What was it like, being there? She points to the TV. “Just like they say there.”
“Not in St. Petersburg. In your village. Did you know what was happening?”
She nods. “I was heavy.” She rounds her arms in front of her abdomen. “With Chava.”
“But what did you want to happen?”
“I only wanted my children should be safe.”
We watch the commercials together. When the show comes back, announced with the dark outline of a horseman against the lurid background of flame, she tells me, “They were shelling us.”
“The Cossacks were shelling your village?”
“I thought the Cossacks rode horses and burned and pillaged and raped. I didn’t know they had cannon.”
“I guess you know better,” she says. I try to find a trace of irony in her voice.
“No—please, go on. Tell me about the shelling.”
“It was when Chava came. The shells were falling, we had to run away. There was barely time to cut the cord.”
“Wait a minute,” I say. “Didn’t I see that in Gone With the Wind?”
“I suppose so,” she says.
In Miami Beach one winter, my grandmother was taken ill, and who should turn up to nurse her but the selfsame nurse who tended my grandfather in Russia when he put out his eye to avoid the army. Of all those Jewish men, practical pacifists, who gave up small pieces of themselves to save the rest of themselves from certain death, my grandfather seemed the strangest. I could manage to get my mind around the loss of a finger or a toe, but giving up an eye, even if only semi-voluntarily, placed this man in an area of existence too terrible to contemplate. Even when he teased me, smiling kindly, a spasm of dread constricted the pleasure of my heart, and I could never be sure where his teasing began or left off.
It was shortly before he died that Krushchev created a ruckus at the UN by pounding a table with his shoe. “Can you imagine such a clown being your leader?” I say. “I feel sorry for the Russians.”
“People get what they deserve,” he replies.
“The man looks like a warthog.”
“A warthog is better than they deserve. Even Kerensky says so.”
“Who’s Kerensky?” Among all the vast profusion of uncles and cousins whose foreign names have American nicknames, I’m certain I’ve never met any Kerensky.
“Who’s Kerensky?” he mocks, and it comes to me.
“THE Kerensky? You know the Kerensky?”
“Sure. He lives over on West End Avenue.”
“You know Kerensky and you never told me?”
“Go over there and ring his doorbell. You’ll know him, too.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Why should I kid you? A junior four he lives in. A couple of blocks from the IRT. I don’t remember the floor, but you could ask the doorman.”
“This is Alexander Kerensky we’re talking about, right? The guy in the history books? The same one I did a report on in sixth grade?”
He shrugs and rattles his newspaper. The interview is over.
“Wait a minute!” I yell. “How could he be living in a junior four on West End Avenue?”
My grandfather smiles. “Everybody has to live somewhere, maidele,” he says.
That same winter that the nurse came, my mother caught him on Lincoln Road walking hand in hand with a blonde. “Pop, what are you doing?” she said.
“I’m in love with this woman,” he said.
“While Mom is sick in bed this is what you do?”
“It was an arranged marriage. We didn’t know any better then.”
“You can’t go back on it now, Pop. You have a wife, children, another grandchild on the way.”
She won the argument, of course, and he never saw the woman again. But years later, shortly before her own death, when she told me this story, she wept tears of remorse. “What would it have hurt for him to have a little happiness? I should never have let on that I saw him.”
“Why did you?”
“It was the times,” she explained. “We didn’t know any better then.”
Brezhnev’s daughter sits at her ugly kitchen table, mourning her pearls and circuses. Once her admirers would have filled these rooms, overflowed into the hallway and down the stairs. Now, no one will talk to her except the cameramen who have come to document the spent vodka bottles in her trashcan. She is not too proud to make eyes at them, while all over Mother Russia the daughters of Gorbachev and Yeltsin sit at their kitchen tables in St. Petersburg, in Kazan, in Vladivostok: their mouths are young, their teeth are pearls, their suitors are legion.