On their first night in New Jersey, Eugene's mother told them she would be remarrying his father. She'd allowed Eugene and his wife to take them out to dinner in Ridgewood, something they both detestedthe portions were too small or the air conditioning too strong or the service slow and inattentive. Eugene's wife raised an eyebrow, another in a long series of nonverbal signals that he had dragged her to the one place she never wanted to live.
"Why?" Eugene asked his parents, more harshly than he wanted to, feeling the bony coolness of his wife's bare knee against his own. It's just that his parents had already been married for over thirty years. When the bread came to the table, Eugene unfolded the napkin that cocooned it and grabbed a thick wedge. It was cold, as though right out of the refrigerator.
"Nu, i pochemu net?" his mother said, speaking for both her and his father as usual. Why not? Beside her, Eugene's father looked as though he had entered his own world. Refusing to take off his favorite brown felt hat, he drank glass after glass of vodka, nodding only when Eugene's mother put the hard block of bread on his plate. "You know Rabbi Zalman at the temple. He said he would be marrying all the couples that never had a chupah in Russia. Just think of it, in a single day, all of us marrying again like youngsters. You know your father and I never had a chupah don't you? In the Soviet Union, this was not allowed."
"We'll all have the lamb," Eugene announced to the server, who was hovering over his mother's wispy head of hair. "Well done for them, medium rare for us." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his wife pick up the slice of bread and then put it back down on her plate, laying her butter-slathered knife on top.
"All on one day?" Eugene said. "It sounds obscene. Like some kind of cult." He thought of those photographs he had seen of Reverend Moon, marrying hundreds of couples. Onto one of them, he grafted his mother's face.
"Cult?" his mother said. "Now that you're back, we thought you and Yelena would walk us down the aisle." As usual, she called his wife something out of a Chekhov play; from the minute she resigned herself to the marriage, his mother had been trying to excavate Helen's Russian Jewish heritage.
"We'd love to," Helen said, but she might as well have said, I hate you. To Eugene's ears it sounded exactly the same.
Helen and Eugene met on their junior year abroad in Reading, England. They were the only two Americans in the dormitory; the English were suspicious of them, while the other Europeans excluded them from their conversations. Eugene didn't mindfor him Reading was exotic enough and yet exactly like New Jersey, a benign suburban shopping enclave of London. But Helen, miserable and gray outside of California, was often depressed. In the evenings, she came by Eugene's room, sitting on the narrow bed as he offered her treats from his mother's packagestins of sardines, chocolate covered prunes, a poppy seed cake. They would make tea in the common kitchen, sip it from his cracked Rutgers mugs, and he would watch Helen's face as she tried the unfamiliar delicacies.
She wore her hair short, a style he did not like, but her sweaters were tight and made of cashmere. Her cheeks and lips were a healthy, peasant red. They rode the bus together to town, sitting on the top tier with their soggy egg salad sandwiches, then Eugene would follow her around to shops, where she scoured the sales racks. At night, they closed down the pubs, high on being allowed to drink for the first time, exchanging deep Boddington's kisses. On trains for weekend trips to Eton and Brighton and the Lake District, past verdant, cow-dotted landscapes, Helen wanted to hear Eugene's immigration stories again and again. She was fascinated that his childhood rustic dessert had been buttered and sugared bread, wanted to know the cut and style of his black and white school uniform and how it felt to live with many families in a single apartment. She told him little about her home lifeEugene sensed silence and alienationso he continued to recite his tales of mushroom expeditions and Lenin-oriented poetry to Helen's rapt audience, his hand traveling up her thigh. In his letters home, Eugene told his mother about bland food, old castles, soggy, muddy days and clotted cream. He said nothing about Helen. After all, she wasn't even Jewish.
They would have to live with Eugene's parents for several weeks while their Hackensack apartment was being renovated. Next door, they could hear his parents preparing for bed, the sound of the television masking the shuffling of their feet, the creaking of the bed as they adjusted themselves. His parents could not get to sleep without the television and Eugene learned to do the same. Helen put a stop to this after they got married with one abrupt click of the remote, calling the practice "diabolical." Now, irrationally, he willed her to disappear, while he went to sleep in his parents' house just like when he was a kid. His mother used to bring him a glass of milk, feel his forehead out of habit and tuck him into bed. How he looked forward to those nocturnal rituals! Naturally, she stopped doing that as soon as Helen began sleeping over, only knocking on the door softly, asking, "Are you guys, okay?"
"You know, you were right, Gene," Helen said, lathering her elbows with yellow, greasy lotion. "Your parents getting married with all those other people. It's a crazy idea." She put on her glasses and took out a magazine. On the cover, editors were advising their female readers to organize their lives with Blackberries, plastic storage bins and stackable shoe racks.
"I'm starting to get used to the idea," he said, wondering when she would begin to read the classified section instead. In Reading, she had said she wanted to become a book editor.
"But it's absolutely mad," she said, putting down her magazine, affecting the Britishisms that would plague her language even now, seven years after we returned to the United States. "What are they trying to prove?"
"That they're Jews? That they love each other?" he said. A drizzle began tapping its way across the window to the strains of "Everybody Loves Raymond" in the next room.
Eugene's parents lived in western New Jersey because they said it was the only part of the New York/New Jersey area that resembled the rural village where they spent their childhoods. Leaving the area was out of the questionfor his parents the United States consisted of New York, New Jersey and a ripped-off crust of Connecticut, and they liked being within a short driving distance of their relatives. Their house in western New Jersey bordered on a forest, not a large one, but with carefully marked trails and a map tacked onto a wooden post at the mouth of its opening.
When they moved here and Eugene was still a child of six or seven, his mother warned him never to play in the forest alone. There were spirits who roamed the forest, she explained, named "leshi." They preyed on kids who got lost among the meandering paths, and the snarled, entangled branches. Sometimes they would appear to a child in the shape of a person, a grandfatherly type offering assistance with directions, or a devil creature complete with hooves and a thrashing tail. On other occasions, they might just call out from behind the tree trunks, beckoning with mellifluous voices, promising a house stuffed with brand-new toysgleaming trucks and toy soldiers spilling out of windows.
More than anything else, as a child, Eugene wanted to know what they did once they kidnapped you. It was a question that got stuck in his throat again and again. Would the kid even get a crack at the electrical train or the plastic dinosaur before the door was closed on him forever? What punishment would he have to suffer for wandering far from his home? Because his mother always stopped her warning tale before the leshi made his move, as if what came next was so horrible, so inhuman and cruel, that the knowledge would scar a young boy who barely even spoke the English language.
Despite Eugene's reluctance to introduce her to his mother, the months after Reading were thick with the absence of Helen. When she called, he forgot about study groups and parties, just cradled the phone to his ear and basked in her sympathy, her uncanny ability to untangle his thoughts. If she was in the mood, she would whisper her plans for his body, the things she said made him blush, made every part of him awaken. On the phone for the next two years, they murmured plans to one another, and laughed together, so hard that his chest shook with its force and his roommate was forced to throw a pillow at his head, reminding Eugene that it was, in fact, the middle of the night.
He proposed to Helen right after graduation. By then, there was no life outside of Helenher voice, her caresses, her protective shield. "She's the only one who knows me," he told himself during their wedding, watching his darling circulate in tiers of ivory, pitying her cold exchanges of affection with her own family, just as he was smothered with kisses, with vodka toasts, the screams of "Bitter" that had to be wiped away with their kiss. Chatting with a cluster of cousins, Helen kept her eyes fixed on Eugene and his family. He gestured for her to come over and join their cabal of immigrants already on their fourth shot. When she finally did, linking an arm around his waist, Eugene's mother left to check on the cake. His only regret was the priest Helen insisted on, who stood next to Rabbi Zalman, holding the Ketubah upside down.
It fell upon Helen to help his mother find her wedding dress. Together, they went to the malls, returning in the late afternoon cranky and hungry, interrupting the flow of Eugene's lesson plans. This year he would be teaching American history of all things, a subject he knew nothing about, and his preparations were slow, labored. Before he could outline events leading up to the Civil War, he would glimpse the two of them exchanging words on the front porch. Helen would go straight to their room and close the door, while his mother brightened up, bustling in the kitchen while singing an old Pugacheva song under her breath. Eugene didn't know where to go first.
"Your wife is very frustrated with me, I'm sorry to tell you," his mother said, patting the ground meat into the shape of a compressed pancake, when he put his work down and joined her. "The dresses they sell these days are so ugly, so cold, somehow, how could I buy any of them? To me they say bland American country club, not a Jewish ceremony redeeming a Soviet marriage."
"Yes, I imagine there are few dresses like that at the mall."
"Don't be sarcastic, Zhenya," she said in the baby voice she used only for him, pinching his stubbly cheeks. She whistled as she poured sunflower oil into the frying pan, specks of yellow beginning to sizzle and brown. Eugene opened the refrigerator door and scoured its contents, dipping into a jar of marinated mushrooms, then spreading a thin layer of caviar on a slice of pumpernickel. His mother watched him affectionately, apron tied around her slightly thickening middle, eyes encouraging him to eat more, to sustain himself. How long did it take him to knock on our door, to look in on Helen? Minutes or months, depending on whom you asked.
Helen hated the idea of New Jersey, for her it represented more than soulless malls and smelly highways; it was the reason Eugene was not a real man. What Helen did not understand, Eugene thought, was that a child must take care of his aging parents. That is the way Russians live their livesfamily is everything. She spoke to her own parents in Fort Lauderdale once a month at the most, something that stunned and confounded him. Before he moved to San Francisco to be with her, he made it clear that he eventually intended to be near his parents.
In San Francisco, Eugene and Helen lived in the best location, within walking distance of the Italian markets, the coffee shops, City Lights Bookstore, their favorite Chinese place where they made your food without asking you what you wanted. Helen was a manager at a small, feminist bookstore nearby, while he took BART to a school out in Daly City. Helen dragged him to black-and-white films at the Castro Theater, to small galleries showing psychedelic video installations. She coordinated lavish picnics that required visits to a handful of specialty gourmet shops. They led a quiet life, neither of them particularly social apart from a few colleagues, a couple of Helen's college buddies. Sometimes they would meet a friend of Helen's for an after-work margarita, a casual dinner. Helen attested that Eugene charmed all her friends with his old-world chivalry, his accent, charming if barely noticeable. During those evenings, she hung on his husband's arm, flushed and loquacious.
But once he got a job at a North Jersey high school, New Jersey loomed like some kind of fairy tale monster for Helen. Mostly, it was the place where his mother's grip was its strongest and most suffocating. It was where she ruled over his consciousness, Helen said, blotting out loyalties to their marriage and his own sense of independence.
"Why did you come, then?" he asked. They were both startled at the directness of the question. Somewhere in the house, a faucet was leaking, a brisk, metallic sound. Finally, Helen turned and with a voice devoid of nuance or inflection told him she had thought she was pregnant and did not know what else to do. By the time she realized it was a false alarm, all the bags had already been packed, their jobs notified. How could she reverse an event already in motion?
The reason the leshi preferred children, apart from their helplessness, was their malleability; Eugene discovered this in independent research at the public library. Rather than kill their victims, the leshi usually adopted them. After spending day after day with the leshi, a person would no longer remember where he came from and could imagine no other life.
What did he do there with the leshi? The books were unclear on this topic. The leshi were famously dissolute, drinking and partying heavily. Maybe the kid was responsible for refilling their wine glasses, applying compresses for headaches? Or alternatively, the kidnapped victim seduced others to his fate, scouring the forest for a child just like himself. Or he worked for the leshi as a domestic servant: cooking hearty meals, then clearing the table and washing the dishes, sweeping the floors of the hut, stoking the fires so the leshi did not freeze in the nighttime woodland chill.
One weekend, he returned home triumphantly from college with his Myths and Folktales textbook, a yellow post-it note peeking out of the chapter on the Russian spirits. His mother did not look surprised.
"Did you really believe this stuff in Russia?" he asked, having dropped off his laundry bag in the basement.
"Believe it, not believe it, does it make a difference what we believed over there? It was all lies, right?" But her finger caressed the page tenderly, the picture below showed a forest with evil, cartoon demon sprites dancing from leaf to leaf. "Ach, religion, communism, superstition. For us, it was one big truth," she said. "But I did not want you wandering alone in the forest here, so what should I have told you? About American pedophiles, perverts or whatever they are called here?"
Eugene glanced back at the pictures. Once, after a fight with his mother, he remembered meeting a leshi. But he was not furry or limber with skinny, knobby legs and a distended hairy belly. He did not grin or rub his hands together or offer candy. He did not carry a brown sack on his shoulders weighed down with the bodies of little children. Looking up from the book, Eugene tried to interpret his mother's expression, to see if she would give anything away, but her face was inscrutable.
His mother found out that the town's temple would be renting wedding dresses for the occasion from a friend who also planned to remarry on the same day. Gathered by donation from Jewish brides within the 20-mile radius, the dresses were dry-cleaned and hung on racks according to size. If the dress had a flawa torn shoulder, a charred hole from an ill-placed candle, a shredded piece of lacea list of the damages would be attached to the plastic wrapping in the front.
The secretary at Rabbi Zalman's temple, a 78-year-old former physics professor in the Soviet Union, whispered to the ladies that there were only a few truly stunning samples to be had, with complicated needlework, luxurious, delicate lace and high-quality stitching. No doubt, because she worked at the synagogue, the best dress was already squirreled away in the woman's closet, a fact that aroused envy and helpless malice among his mother's acquaintances. There would be no dressing rooms and no alteration allowed, so the women would have to measure the gowns with their eyes, approximate the fit on their bodies.
The rabbi announced that on the coming Sunday, the doors would open at 9 a.m. on a first-come, first-serve basis, to all the brides who wanted to rent a dress for the following weekend's ceremony. His mother knew her competition. These were women who had waited for half days at a time for a fresh loaf of bread, sweet cream, imported chocolate or winter boots back in the Soviet Union. They certainly knew the drill for getting at the best gowns. Preparing a bag stuffed with a flashlight, her glasses, a magnifying glass and measuring tape, Eugene's mother ordered him to drive her to the synagogue at four o'clock that Sunday morning.
Eugene's earliest fights with Helen concerned his mother's daily phone calls, her need to reassure herself that he was safe. They never spoke for long, but he was used to speaking with his mother every day his entire life, her soothing voice asking, "Nu, kak dela? Are you alright?" At first, Helen had found this concern charming, and then increasingly annoying, infantilizing. When his parents' number appeared on the caller ID, they fought bitterly about letting it go directly to voice mail.
When the phone rang, they would inevitably be spread out on the couch with glasses of wine after long days at their respective jobs. He would be holding her sock-swaddled feet in his lap, lightly rubbing the muscles on her ankle with his thumb. She would readjust herself on the couch in trusting, animal relaxation, her head leaning on one arm, looking up at him through slit eyelids. She would murmur about her day, sometimes encouraging his hand to roam higher. They would begin to think of dinner, but lazily, theoretically. Then the phone would peal on the table next to the couch and he would reach directly over her head, as if guided by supernatural forces.
Helen would regain ownership of her feet, put her glass of wine down, and without a word, shuffle off to the bedroom and close the door. The next day, heading to the bookstore, her face would be discolored, her knuckles chalky as she gripped her thermos of hot coffee. He tried to understand why Helen dampened their pleasant evenings, why she resented a son's natural duties, but had no language with which to ask her. He was not used to fightsin the world he knew, he had every right to happiness.
The alarm clock in the room was broken, so it was already 5:15 by the time his mother overcame her shyness and came barreling in. She was dressed in pants and a light jacket and her hair was pulled back with a clip.
"We're late," she hissed. "The best dresses are already spoken for." He jumped out of bed, threw on a T-shirt and an old pair of sweatpants and ran out to the car. Before he carefully shut the door to their bedroom, he could have sworn he heard Helen softly crying into her pillow. He wanted to turn back then, to embrace her, tell her something comforting, but his mother was already waiting for him outside, wringing her hands next to his Jetta.
They wove around the town in the dim light of morning. He had a hard time imagining mature ladies rising out of the comfort of their beds at dawn to shiver in a long queue. Surely, he told his mother, those instincts are long dead now. His mother said nothing, grimly staring ahead.
As they approached the small brick building that served as the Russian-Jewish temple, he saw to his surprise that a line had already formed, snaking around the block. Some of his mother's friends sat on cots and fold-out chairs, floral shawls and blankets wrapped around themselves, waving to their car. One or two had their husbands beside them, but mostly they were accompanied by their sons, impatient and bleary-eyed, monitoring the passage of time on their wrist watches.
"We're too late," his mother repeated, and he wondered if this was the first sign of the reversal of roles, when a child's heart ached for the disappointments of his parents. He reached out to take his mother's hand; it was airy and fragile, like a newly-hatched bird.
Their last night in San Francisco, they ate take-out from their favorite Chinese restaurant on top of a rickety, black Ikea table they planned to leave out with the garbage. The place looked unnaturally white and scooped out, like a devoured soft-boiled egg. Before the Chinese food arrived, he could see that Helen had been trying to avert her gaze from the walls, keeping herself busy with small tasks: marking boxes with permanent black marker, wiping the dusty areas they never noticed with a damp towel. When the food came, she opened the containers, ladling their contents onto plastic plates. So, it was over beef and broccoli that he told Helen yet another tale from his childhood, a story he never told anyone, of his encounter with the leshi.
He didn't know what made him go out to that forest just as the sun was dipping below the hats of the elms, he told Helen. He remembered welling with tearssomething primal had been denied him by his mother. A new puppy, perhaps, a subject she had been stubbornly evading for years, convinced that the dog walking would fall to her (she was right, of course). Or a shaggy, wide-eyed Cabbage Patch Kid, which played into all his mother's deathly fears of Eugene metamorphosing into a homosexual. Living with leshi seemed like a pleasant alternative; he would do housecleaning in exchange for the things he deeply desired, while his mother would be forced to blame herself for his disappearance.
He packed some basics with him: two candy bars, a half-full canister of Planters peanuts, his pillow and a sentimental favorite, GI Joe, green and springing to battle with his extended gun with bayonet. Outside it was muggy, and he considered changing to shorts, but according to his mother, it was bad luck to return to the house once you have crossed its lintel. If he kept walking ahead of him, he would be heading toward a street that emptied out onto the town's major roadway. But he swiveled around, and knees shaking despite the steamy summer temperatures, marched into the belly of the forest.
As he told her the story, Helen's eyes widened and for a minute she was the same old Helen, the one he believed would comfort him, console him and care for him throughout their lives. In her eyes, his childhood had the epic qualities of a fairy talethe leaving home motif, the obstacles overturned, the triumph of the prize, the expectation of a happy ending. The deep, enviable, unconditional love.
"Don't you see?" she said, excited when he was finished. "The leshi was your test. You had to pass the test to move on to the next stage in your life." She was a psychology major in college and had also read The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim's psychoanalytic dissection of fairy tales. "Your encounter with the leshi was preparing you to leave your mother and pursue an adult life."
He laughed at the simplicity of the reasoning, wiping her brown-sauced mouth with a napkin. Her head was so small; her hair, which she refused to grow long, accentuated that fact. She reminded him of that restless, indifferent girl in "Breathless."
"So did I pass?"
Helen's right hand rested on her belly. "I don't know."
The boxes were neatly stacked against the window, giving the apartment the claustrophobic feel of a closet.
Inside the brown-paneled coat room where all the dresses were stored, women ran frantically from rack to rack, ripping open plastic covering, putting material against their silhouettes in front of the mirror. He was impressed with his mother's calm resolve, it was clear she had resigned herself to an imperfect dress. At the doorway, while he cowered, intimidated at the sight of women with sweaty faces engaged in the heat of competition, she quickly assessed the scene.
His mother never shied away from forming definitive opinions. "I don't like her," she said when he first brought Helen home to meet them. Helen tried to encourage his mother to reminisce about Russia, offered to help her clear the table, praised the hand-painted wooden spoons. Still, after putting away the last dish in the cupboard, his mother twisted and released a dishwashing towel between her fingers. "I wish I could say something else, but it is the truth. She is cold. I don't see her taking care of you. We should find you someone here, someone closer, at least someone Jewish." Nothing he said would change her mind. That night, she directed all the conversation in his direction, and after a while Helen rose from the table and wandered away, plucking a book from his childhood shelf and settling down on his bed to read it. By the time he went upstairs, aching with regret, to kiss his girlfriend, she was already asleep, or at least that was the way it seemed, her back undulating with even breaths.
Now his mother walked over to the rack that had ‘size 10' scrawled above it on a gray enameled piece of construction paper, and grabbed a cream two-piece suit. "It's not perfect, but it will be fine," she said, paying the secretary the $50 rental fee. "Sometimes, we have to know when fine is good enough."
Later that day, she modeled it for him and Helen. The shoulders were too wide, with thick pads, one side slipping down her thin upper arm. The short-sleeve jacket had buttons running down the front and the last two buttons wouldn't close around her stomach. Once the skirt was discretely pinned in the back, though, it created a pleasant billowing flare. He tried to picture the bride who bought this suit. He imagined her older, observant and relieved to have found a husband in mid-life.
His mother reached her arms out and he stepped into them, holding her gently around her waist so as not to prick her with the needles, inhaling her "White Diamonds" perfume. He spun, twirled and dipped her, and even if Helen was watching, he did not want to stop.
In late sixties' Soviet Union, his parents could have probably arranged a private ceremony with a chupah. But that would have forced them to find a rabbi in a nearby town willing to take a risk and they had no place to have the ceremony. They lived in a small rural village three and a half hours outside of Moscow and they were quiet people, loath to draw attention to themselves. His mother said she felt a lot of guilt on her wedding nighther grandfather had been a deeply religious manand her wedding had felt camouflaged, in a long utilitarian hall with not a single spiritual word uttered.
Their marriage was not for Eugene to comment. It was as if they were thrown together by chance or a higher mandate; there was nothing inevitable about their two shoulders connected in front of the TV. They internalized their domestic roles and did them well. His mother knew not to probe into his father's routine at the car dealership, just as he never set foot in the kitchen without voicing the early pangs of his hunger first. He admired the covenant of their marriage, their lack of dramatic outbursts, their quiet understanding. There were times when he'd wanted more for himself, the daily frisson of minor heartbreak, but eventually realized it was as foolish as his fantasies of an existence in the woods with the volatile leshi.
Out of the box marked ‘Nice clothes' he unearthed a dark blue suit. He had planned to find it earlier, to get it dry cleaned or pressed, but he had been distracted. His mother was busy with last-minute adjustments to her outfit and Helen had closed the door to their room, a forbidding sign. He groped his way to the basement and peered at the ironing board, standing in the middle of the laundry room like a doctor's examining table. Hearing the patter of feet above him, he pulled the iron's lever all the way to the other side, to its reddest position. He plunked down the suit on the board and waited for something to happen.
But when he put on the ironed suit, Eugene saw that he had made it worse. Deeper creases were etched into the lining, the shoulder pad had collapsed into the fabric of the arm. His mother laughed. Slipping his jacket off, she descended the stairs to the basement where she would iron his jacket the proper way.
"What's the matter with you, Gene?" he heard. Helen stood at the door to their room, slinky in her favorite blue dress, form-fitting and short-sleeved, skimming her slim frame. "Can't you see your mother is preparing for her own wedding? Even now you need her attention?" Her arms were crossed, her manicured fingers gripping her biceps. "Russian men…," she started.
His mother came back from the basement, holding the suit jacket before her, her own flared skirt neatly pressed. "Here it is!" she said.
"Thank you," he said, but his mother was already busy in their bedroom, putting on makeup, humming under her breath a tune without lyrics. Helen had also retreated, into their room, and he was left alone in the corridor, grasping a jacket emanating heat.
It did not take much wandering to figure out he was lost in that forest. The sun was no longer overhead, but between the legs of the trees. Mosquitoes were screeching in his ear, surrounding him with their blood-engorged bodies. He started to run back where he came from, all thoughts of revenge on his mother flying out of his head, leaves and crunching branches underfoot. The pillow in his backpack seemed to be inflating with mass and weight, bulging out of his back like another limb.
Tears streaking down his face, he thought of his mother, who lived only for him. He imagined her discovering his disappearance, her eyes darting with helplessness, her voice on the phone with the police, in faltering English, overcoming her paralyzing shyness to plead for the safe return of her son. Or would she march right into the forest and confront the American leshis in their own domain?
So consumed was he with anguished logistics, that he barely noticed where he was going or if he was still tramping down the gravel path. The sun was still illuminating some pockets of earth, fat green leaves forming tepees next to tree trunks. In the distance, he thought he could make out the flat shingles of a house and he tore his way to that vision with urgency, scraped knees pumping. Mama, he thought, again and again. I promise never to leave you again.
It was then he saw shapes shimmering around him, a leg here, a whimsical pointed hat here. "Go away," he warned, his voice shaking. Now he felt creatures all around him, sitting in bark crevices, following his footsteps, opening a portal to another world. You should have never left home, little boy, he heard, and whipped his head around as he ran, trying to cover all the space around him with my eyes.
As he headed toward the break in the woods, one of the straps to his backpack broke and he was dragging the rest of the carcass behind. It felt like he had been in the forest for hours, but there was no way to find out, only count his successive heartbeats and watch the recessing light. He was no longer certain how many spirits were trailing him, the impression of feet on leaves seemed to multiply every minute. "Young man," he heard, and his legs stalled, the voice so unexpectedly real that his hands went up to his face, uncertain of whether he should turn around or keep moving.
"Young man, are you lost?" he turned around, but walking backwards, his hands stretched out. In front of him stood a short adult creature holding a long stick. Its face was entirely masked by dark glasses, wisps of hair peeking out of a man's brown felt hat.
"No," Eugene said hoarsely, straightening out his spine, trying to look tough. English words began coursing through his veins.
The leshi nodded, but then walked closer to him with a surprisingly graceful gait. Its feet seemed extraordinarily small, and he wondered if they were hooves, stuffed craftily into shoes. "Don't be afraid," it said, moving nearer. He realized to his horror that the leshi was speaking in Russian. "I just want to help."
Words were stuck in his throat and he tried to swallow. "Go away!" he incanted, not recognizing his own voice. "Go away!"
"I just want to help," the leshi repeated, continuing to step forward. Then softly, "You should really be getting home to your mother." If it reached out, it could have touched his nose. He dropped the strap to his backpack, letting it fall to the ground and ran. In his ears, he heard the leshi's voice, speaking to him the language of my family, the one his school was already allowing him to forget.
Stumbling past fallen pieces of bark and circling trees to get to the part in the woods, the waning clump of daylight, he found that he had emerged from the forest and was standing next to a neighbor's house. He looked down on himselfa pant leg was hiked up to his knee, one shoe untied, snot had frozen on his upper lip. He glanced behind him, but it was only the darkening forest, the trees already more gray than green.
In his house, he ran into the bathroom and shut the door. After several minutes of deep breathing, after his eyes could focus again on familiar surroundings, he wondered if he had only been wandering in a small, tight circle behind his house. His mother was not yet back from the supermarket. She probably never even noticed he was gone.
He turned on the shower. Sitting on the toilet, leaning his head against the porcelain sink as the water streamed down into the bathtub, he thought of the leshi. In his mind, it was already larger and meaner, its stick a tool to bend children to his will. How many others would have let it guide them into the depths of the forests, never to see his family again? Yet there was something familiar and soothing about the leshi, despite the frightening ensemble, the booming Russian words. He took off his clothes, crumpling the shirt and pants into a ball and stuffing them into a plastic bag. He let the water envelop his body, sitting in the bath until his skin puckered. After a while, he heard the screen door slide open; his mother came in.
That night, everything would return to normal, he would get his glass of milk before bed, maybe a story. He outwitted a leshi, he would think that night, clutching his milk, watching his mother feel the temperature of his forehead, eyes glistening with his unspoken adventures. When she said goodnight, her voice rang with the depths of the forests, but he told her nothing, not even when his backpack turned up on one of their walks, so close to the entrance that he blushed with shame. And from then on, he listened to his mother and never went anywhere without checking with her first, until, it seemed, he married Helen.
The synagogue was stuffed with people, so many that Rabbi Zalman decided to split the weddings into three sessions, his parents falling into the third. To kill time, they went to a diner on Route 208 and drank coffee, overdressed in pink faux leather and chrome surroundings. He thought of the photos from his parents' wedding, simple but merry, dozens of relatives dancing in the background. His mother wore a short white dress and his father was young and sandy-haired in a suit, a handkerchief sticking out, askew, from his chest pocket.
In one photo, his mother waved something that looked like a doily and, for a moment, he believed it was the Jewish ritual of separating herself from her father by a piece of fabric, like at his wedding with Helen. But she said she was just waving, to whom, she did not remember, perhaps her elderly grand-aunt or her best friend or her country, but that last one she threw in for a joke, as something symbolic to think about afterwards. Once she replied she was waving at him, knowing that soon the most important person in her life would make his appearance, and that was the story he believed.
They arrived at the synagogue early, and watched from the curb as couples they knew fanned out of the entrance. The women stopped to chat with his mother, all wearing ill-fitting white dresses, some too large in the bosom, others too tight around the waist. From this perspective, his mother had the classiest wedding dress of them all; she had managed to reconcile the size problems with hidden pins, appearing chic and assembled compared with the women in girlish styles and colors. But they were all pleased, their husbands huddled together in a circle, smoking cigarettes.
Helen took Eugene aside and wrapped her arms around him, reminding him that their apartment was almost ready. They would finally be able to make love again, she said, and then, afterward, they would put whatever was in the fridge into a stockpot and open up a bottle of wine just like they used to do in San Francisco. He took her little face in his hands and kissed every part of her that protruded: her nose, her dimpled chin, her ears, jutting out like an elf's.
"It's time," he whispered to her.
When the third session was called, he and Helen flanked his parents and walked into the temple. Rabbi Zalman and his staff had decorated the drab building with fresh flowers, the chupah draping delicately around its wooden foundation. He lined up all the families to walk down the aisle and take their places according to orderfor the infirm, there were chairs lining the walls of the former school auditorium. Rabbi Zalman's face was red with exertion, but beneath his beard, he was smiling.
"This is a special occasion for Russian Jewry," he began. "To finally have the chance to correct the past, to reclaim the ancient Jewish tradition of the chupah. God understands that we had no choice in the Soviet Union, God forgives us for not having done things differently."
Eugene tried to look over conspiratorially at Helen, but her gaze rested on Rabbi Zalman's face.
"We will now unite a husband and a wife under the canopy which represents the home these people have shared and will continue to share. It is a home that is unbroken, that shelters, protects, that offers a refuge from the dangers of the outside world."
He felt his mother squeeze his father's hand and his own at the same time, and a seeping warmth coursed through his body.
When it was their turn, they walked toward the chupah, klezmer music playing softly in the background. Rabbi Zalman had his parents' information already in hand by the time the white mesh fell directly over their heads. Quickly, too quickly, the rabbi began muttering words in Hebrew, words he had spoken just moments before with another couple. Eugene turned to the right and could not help noticing that they were positioned so that his mother, father and himself were directly beneath the chupah, while Helen, who flanked his father, stood outside the wooden beam, her head unprotected.
It was his mother who had controlled the pacing of their steps, who had placed them in this alignment. As the rabbi spoke, Eugene wondered when he began to suspect that his mother had been that leshi. At first, the idea seemed ridiculous, not worthy of serious contemplation (his mother rolling around in the dirt? Disguising herself in his father's hat?) but a faint feeling of anger had attached itself to him, the childish desire to strike back at his mother somehow. It was then he had decided to go to Reading, he realized, to unclasp her fingers, if only for a little while. How silly that seemed now, how childish and petulant, to try and run away from his own mother, the only woman who loved him more than herself. Staring at the rabbi's pale, veined hands, he was suddenly filled with relief at Helen's false alarm, her imaginary pregnancy. Had it been real, it would have made it impossible for him to do what he needed to do.
He watched as his mother orbited his father, who looked exhausted, rigid with the anticipation of the ceremony's conclusion. They performed quickly, clumsily exchanging their old rings, aware of the couples waiting behind them. From where he was standing, he could barely see Helen; her body had faded into a shadowy, grainy outline. When it came time to grip the silver chalice of red wine, his mother raised the glass to her lips with her right hand. As she sipped, his mother turned to wink at him over the rim, her left arm pulling him closer, into the shelter of the chupah. The sanctuary of home.
Irina Reyn immigrated to the United States from Moscow (Russia, not Idaho or Ohio…) in 1981, at the age of seven. About her experience writing in English, she writes that it is “a constant groping for words, [as] few sentences flow easily on the first try. I need to revise and revise. What makes sense to me doesn’t always make sense to a native English speaker.” This doesn’t present her from writing and having her work published. The book she edited, titled Living on the Edge of the World: New Jersey Writers Take on the Garden State, will come out in 2007, and she writes book reviews for the Moscow Times. When asked who her favorite writers are, she mentions Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Bronte sisters, Milan Kundera, Philip Roth, and Yehuda Amichai. Irina now lives in Brooklyn, NY.
In Posse: Potentially, might be . . .