At its beginning, every life goes through a phase in which a mild two-person illusion defines the world.
You don’t see watermelons with seeds so much anymore. But of course, once upon a time, we thought that was how watermelons were reproduced. We even thought, the more seeds the sweeter the juice. My sister and I, we’d sit on the back steps spitting seeds and telling wild stories. We’d drip juice all over our shirts, running around barefoot on hot August nights, pretty much like this one. Sweet indeed.
‘I think I’m having what’s called a Proustian experience,’ I said to my kids, Chalmers and Searle. ‘Sitting here. We’d have story telling contests.’ The look they gave me suggested the empty sky. ‘After the French author, Marcel Proust. He wrote a very long book called The Search for Lost Time, I haven’t read the whole thing, six thousand pages, but it’s about stories and finding the truth in memories. Maybe I’ll read some to you.’
Two looks, four worried eyes. ‘Softball tonight, Pop,’ Chalmers and Searle said. ‘Last game of the season‘.
‘Only if you lose,’ I said.
‘We will.’ They were both of the same opinion. The game was against the Russian all-stars. The best players in the whole country. Russia is a big place. Eleven time zones.
‘Have faith,’ I said. ‘The Russians can hit, but they can’t play defense. Get past that star pitcher and you’ll be okay. She’s supposed to be a wizard.’
‘She?’ Chalmers and Searle looked genuinely surprised. ‘There’s a girl on the team?’
‘Of course. Got something against girls? Wait till you see her pitch.’
I gave Chalmers and Searle the book, the first volume of Proust, Swan’s Way. Marcel Proust wrote in French (but of course you know that). I have a translation by Lydia Davis, who writes very short short stories. To be fair, Chalmers and Searle were still recovering from my reading Walden to them. Every word of Walden. Page by page. It took us a whole year. Chalmers and Searle are 13 and 14. They really can’t be expected to get into Thoreau. That day, all they could get into was their uniforms. They wanted to be carrying their cleats, not Proust. ‘Beware all enterprises that require a new set of clothes,’ I said for perhaps the um-teenth time. Big game tonight.
‘Whoa…’ I tried to slam on the brakes. We rode past what seemed to be a body too fast to stop. Was that a dead girl back there tossed in the meridian? Chalmers and Searle had a good view, sitting in the back. It was a girl, all right. It was a woman. We had to turn around.
But the game, the Russians…
No, we had to go back. ‘I’ll tell you later about Kitty Genovese,’ I said. I pulled out on the access road and turned around. The cars were whizzing by. No one was going to stop. I eased the car up on the grass. It was a girl, and she was not dead, thank God, only dazed. She had fallen out of the bus, she said. She spoke English well, but with a Russian accent.
Turns out, she was the pitcher for the Russian softball team that I was taking Chalmers and Searle to play against. She said she was fourteen—but, well, how to put this?—she was a very mature fourteen. Remember that tennis player, Anna Kournikova, I think her name was. That’s what she looked like. Blond and athletic. A goddess in a baseball uniform. Chalmers and Searle stood gaping. If she was fourteen I was Mahatma Gandhi. How do you fall out of a bus going seventy miles an hour?
You do it by drinking vodka out of a bottle in a paper bag and then try to climb out the bus window. There was a traffic jam, she told us. ‘I take my chances,’ she said. ‘I want asylum. I’m the best softball pitcher in all Russia. I want to get rich in America.’
‘Don’t we all,’ I said under my breath. I had to make a decision. ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘I grant you asylum. You can stay with us. This is Chalmers and Searle. They are your new brothers.’
We lost to the Russians that night, 1 to 0, in eleven innings. What a game. The Russians not surprisingly used the second best pitcher in all of Russia, a kid named Dimitri. Anna slept it off in the trunk of our car. The next day in the back yard we watched Anna pitch. Watched her pitch, because there was no hitting her. What a fastball, what movement, what big blue eyes you have.
It was Chalmers and Searle who raised the ugly, obvious question. ‘You can’t actually grant asylum, Pop… Can you?’
‘She must have a family in Russia. A mother, a father, brothers, sisters. Mom will kill you when she gets back.’
My wife, Tony, is a lawyer. She travels a lot. She was in Russia right now. I’m a house husband. It’s the deal we made when we adopted C&S. And they were right, she would kill me. Still, I wasn’t too worried until the evening news came on that night. The Russians were claiming one Ludmila Petrova had been kidnapped, taken off the bus at gunpoint. They even claimed they had a ransom note.
‘Anna,’ I said. ‘Do you know this Ludmila person?’ She was curled up in front of the TV set, like she been here forever.
‘Da. She is my cousin. The second greatest softball pitcher in all Russia.’
‘Do you think she’ll be all right?’
‘Sure. Ludy, always lands on her feet. She is also the second prettiest girl in all Russia.’
Chalmers and Searle came in after the news. It was our reading hour. This sort of activity was new to Anna. Not what you think Americans do on a hot summer’s night. We were going to start Proust. Volume one. Get comfortable kids.
‘For a long time, I went to bed early,’ I started. It is a famous first sentence. ‘Sometimes, my candle scarcely out, my eyes would close so quickly that I did not have time to, say to myself, “I’m falling asleep”…’
‘No, is wrong.’
‘Anna, I’m sorry, what?
‘Is wrong. On all levels. One, two adverbs already, that is not great writing. Two, you don’t say “I’m falling asleep.” Ridiculous. It would wake you up. And three: I didn’t come to America to fall asleep. I’m not going to bed early.’
C&S: ‘You know, Pop, it is a funny way to start a book, by falling asleep.’
I can be a stubborn guy: ‘You need the adverbs. ‘Scarcely’ and ‘quickly’. This book is about time. The candle is scarcely out. A short amount of time has passed. It passed quickly.’
‘A book about time?’ Anna was intrigued. I told you she’d be a good addition to the family. ‘Time just goes tick, tick, tick. Is boring.’
‘Ah, Anna, this is why you need stories. To fill in the ticks.’
C&S were at the window: ‘Say, Pop…’
Me: ‘It’s like why you need seeds in watermelon.’
Anna: ‘Yes. For new watermelons. You need seeds to make new watermelons. Russia has the best watermelons. The sweetest. The most seeds.’
C&S: ‘Pop. There’s like 20 black cars outside.’
C&S were right. When I peeked out the curtain it looked like the siege at Masada. But they were setting up in front of the Dorito’s place across the street. Bull horns, a swat team, men in black suits. Guns pulled on a hot summer’s day. Actually, we used to live in the Dorito’s house. We traded up when Tony made senior council. The Dorito’s were a retired couple. Nice enough. Ed Dorito’d have a heart attack when he opened the door.
‘Guys,’ I said. ‘’I think we should vamoose. Chalmers and Searle, put on the Cheng and Eng suit.’ They groaned. Neither one likes the Chang and Eng suit. Last Halloween I made them go to the school party dressed as Chang and Eng, the famous Siamese twins. You remember Chang and Eng: two brothers joined at the hip. I had a special corset made.
‘Anna’ I said. ‘Tell you what. Go upstairs and find a nice flowery dress of my wife’s. You’re pretty much the same build. Something bright and splashy. The best place to hide is in plain sight. And can you lose that accent? You’ll have to sound like my wife. Okay?’
‘Your wife. You want me to be your wife?’
‘Da. I mean, yes. I mean pretend to be my wife. Call me honey like my wife used to do. It’s like we’re in a little play. We’re acting out a little fantasy for the police outside. We’ll stay in a motel for a few days, let this blow over. You don’t want to go back to Russia, do you?’
Anna’s face aged as I spoke. Then she smiled. Smart girl. ‘Da, I can lose Russian accent. Is boring.’ A pause. ‘Yes, honey, I can speak English as well as any other American wife. In fact, I was getting quite tired of that silly clipped sentence structure. I’m a lawyer after all. I’ll just change into something suitable.’
Amazing. When she came down the steps, Anna was a changed woman. She looked pretty much the way my wife looked, maybe a younger version. Like a real American wife. Out for a walk in the sun. Entitled. Chalmers and Searle, however, were not into it. Not even slightly.
‘Mom is going to kill you.’
I peeked out the window. They had Ed Dorito in handcuffs. Everybody was in his garage. I myself had more than once wondered what Ed did in that garage. The bomb squad was there.
‘Look, C&S, either you put that on, right now, or we will leave without you.’ This was Anna speaking. Wow. Chalmers and Searle sulked, but obeyed. Wow. ‘Here, babies, just slip this corset on. You’ll move as one. Your father and mother gives you this as a gift. So you’ll never be alone.’
Anna snapped the lock into place. Yes, there was a lock. Cheng and Eng stumbled a little as they went out the front door, but Anna was radiant, the best actress in all Russia.
‘Come on, honey.’ Her smile spreads out for miles.
‘For so work the honey-bees,/ Creatures that by a rule in nature teach / The act of order to a peopled kingdom.’
‘Da’ I say. ‘Henry V. So many bees. Is funny.’
We did not continue reading Proust when we moved into our new ‘home’, The Sedgwick, just outside of town. ‘Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to find himself transformed into an enormous bug,’ I started. Three hungry faces stared up at me, even though we’d just been to Rancho’s for dinner. You’ve seen their commercials, Rancho’s, it ain’t Poncho’s. And it wasn’t. But it was better than Pop’s cooking. Anna looked good in her new suit. She looked comfortable. C&S however were having trouble in the corset. It’s not easy being joined at the hip. Going to the bathroom can be something of a chore.
‘Well’, I said. ‘You guys okay with this story? First sentence test.’
Anna: ‘This is Franz Kafka, right? Another famous first line. Mother died today. Call me Ishmael. In Russia we have Count Leo Tolstoy: every happy family is the same; all unhappy families are different. In the beginning, god created the word.’
‘And said it was good,’ I said.
‘Yes, honey. But it is not good. It is a miracle, the world, but it is not good. Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.’
C&S: ‘Or corsets.’
‘Your skin is the ultimate prison,’ I said.
Anna: ‘We are in prison right now. Honey.’
Now, this had to be the first time The Sedgwick has been called a prison. We were in a three room suite. We had a complimentary breakfast every morning. The maids came in each day to make the beds. We got room service. We had 127 channels on the TV. But of course, Anna was right. There are prisons and there are prisons, and this was a prison. A nice one, sure, but…
Anna: ‘If you let prison be a metaphor, you will never escape. Is why I left Russia. No more metaphors.”
‘Besides,’ Anna added. ‘Your wife will be home soon. She is going to kill you.’
Let’s address the wife issue. I was not having sexual relations with Anna. I wasn’t. It’s that simple. This is not ‘Lolita’ you’re reading here. I viewed Anna as one of my three children, nothing more, nothing less. Period. We had a strange connection, it is true, but that connection was intellectual and parental. Anna had her own room at the Sedgwick. I bunked up with the boys.
Now, Tony was going to kill me, it was true. She didn’t need headlines of me fleeing across the desert in the paper greeting her as she stepped off the plane. But I knew she’d support me with the whole Anna asylum thing. Once she’d heard my side of the story. Once she’d met Anna. How was I to know it was she who’d sent Anna here in the first place?
Wait, did I say the paper had me fleeing across the desert? We got USA Today every morning delivered to our door. Terrorists take Ludmila deep into desert. The Russians were tracking her by satellite. You can’t make this stuff up. The FBI, the local police—even the fire department—were all out in the desert.
‘Guys,’ I say. ‘Hustle up. We can go home now. They’ve got the real kidnappers trapped in some place called Coleman’s Mine. They’re afraid the whole thing might collapse.’
It didn’t collapse. It exploded. The whole cave. We got home in time to watch the coverage on TV. Chechnyan rebels. They had kidnapped Ludmila and fled into the desert. Rather than be caught, they blew the whole side of the mountain apart. Seven Americans killed. They never found the bodies of the rebels or of Ludmila. End of story.
When my wife finally got home, she and Anna embraced. They cried. They spoke Russian together. Chalmers and Searle sat out on the back steps, still in the Chang and Eng costume, a big watermelon between them. It was like they had finally grown together. A marriage in a watermelon patch. Make a great story, right C&S?
We stood outside in the driveway, Anna and my wife, Antonia, crying, arms still around each other. Did you guess they were sisters? What a story. Chalmers and Searle, joined at the hip. Me, still talking, even though there was nothing left to say. Just a ‘happily ever after’ and all that.
‘Wait,’ I said. ‘Wait. First sentence test.’ It was a good thing I’d brought my copy of Jane Austen. You know, the one about a universal truth. ‘Listen to this one.’