This story is the third-place winner of the 2011 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Founded in 2000, the contest was created to recognize authors of Jewish short fiction. The 2011 stories were judged by Walter Mosley, bestselling author of Devil in a Blue Dress and the Easy Rawlins mysteries. Moment Magazine and the Karma Foundation are grateful to Mosley and to all of the writers who took the time to submit their stories. Visit momentmag.com/fiction to learn how to submit a story to the contest.
Had the room been the usual mess of papers and books, he would have thought she had just gone to the supermarket. But it is clean, immaculately clean. As Leon Gregorovich walks through the small two-bedroom apartment, he notices how shiny the floor is, how empty the shelves are of stacks of folders. Their bed is made, covered with a floral quilt. And the kitchen —glistening tiles, dishes in cabinets. No salad bowl from last night’s dinner left to be washed, no tea bag waiting for a second use.
Her jacket, her purse, gone. The Forsyte Saga is also gone, but that’s the usual. She always has a book with her. It is strange how much larger the flat looks in the late afternoon light without her, without her scribbled notes.
He eats dinner alone that night, warming up some chicken from the fridge. The seat across from him is empty and quiet; the air conditioner hums and he tries making conversation with it. “Politic” is on Channel Two. He tries concentrating on the discussion—Livni, new elections, West Bank, rockets fall in the south and one person is injured lightly.
Where has she gone? Leon turns off the TV and sips his tea in the remaining silence. The only place she goes to for long hours is the library, working at the reference desk, and then another few hours in the classics department, poring over her doctorate on Tolstoy. But this late? He looks at his watch. Nine forty-seven. The library is definitely closed by now.
He walks over to the living room window, watching Jerusalem twinkle in the distance. And beyond, in the hills, his son. Maybe she had decided to surprise Ron with a visit to the base. He dials his son’s cell number.
“Papa?” His son is surprised to hear him calling. “What’s up?”
“Nu, nothing really.”
“Nothing?” Ron echoes. They discuss the day’s events, Leon’s research, Ron’s night drill that left him exhausted. Leon asks his son if he has spoken to Anya today.
“Mama? No. Why?”
“Ah, nu, nichevo.”
“Is she there?”
“No. Ah, she went to bed early.” The lie is as thin as paper. She never goes to bed early.
At ten to 11, she is still not back. Leon lies down in his day clothes on the bed. His timid wife, always buried in a book. Could there be another man? He almost laughs at the image of her short figure, her tied-up brown hair bouncing as she runs away with a faceless lover.
She’ll come back, he tells himself as he rolls over and picks up Camus’ The Stranger by the book flap. And then her unmistakable scrawl, across the inside cover.
“Remember that first afternoon? ‘No, wait—I didn’t finish yet.’ That was when I fell in love with you.”
Leon awakens to his alarm. Looking at himself in the white Jerusalem morning light, he sees that he is still in his work clothing from yesterday; his shirt is crumpled and his pants rolled up. He had slept strewn across the width of the bed.
She had not bothered to come home during the night. She had forgotten. She had forgotten to come home just like she forgets to turn the bathroom light off. Leon forces himself out of bed, strips off his clothing and takes his usual militarily cold shower. He shaves, then drinks a cup of coffee, Reshet Gimmel radio announcing the morning news. A bus full of Russian tour operators had fallen into a ravine somewhere in the south, on its way to Eilat, 25 killed. The driver survived.
When he gets to the office he passes by the coffee maker in the hallway and gets himself his second cup of the day. Once he settles down by his simple black desk and turns on the computer, the phone rings.
His mother’s worried voice streams through the phone lines. “Lyonya! How are you, dear? We haven’t spoken for days. How goes life? How is Anya? When will she be done with that paper of hers already? And what about Ronya—have you spoken to him? I bet not. Ay, only Anya talks to that poor boy. He’s fatherless, that boy, the amount of time you spend talking to him! No wonder he’s become religious. But what am I saying—he’s a good-looking boy with good grades; let’s hope he is smart enough to see through that nonsense.”
Ron is an adult. He’ll decide for himself if he needs it or not.
“One minute, Lyonya—what? Chto ti govorish, Grisha? Ah, your father sends his regards. Just like you, your father. So neglectful, doesn’t care for his own children at all. Has conversations with his children only through his wife. So here I am calling you, wanting to know how things are going.”
Things are wonderful. Prekrasno. Absolutely lovely, Mama.
“Is Anya feeding you well? Not to say she’s a bad cook, no, no, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that she’s always working on that thesis. How many years has it been? Vey iz mir, I’ve stopped counting.”
She’s very close to finishing. She must have over 100 pages typed already.
“Well, how about you two come over for some tea? I’ve forgotten how you look like, I haven’t seen you for so long. You haven’t gained weight, have you? Ah, speaking of gaining weight, listen, I just heard a great joke.”
Only when he hangs up and is in the lab, waiting for the centrifuge to start up, does he realize that he had agreed with his mother that she should set a table for both him and Anya. There is always a possibility she might come back today, anyway. It’s been less than 24 hours. Twenty-one, to be exact, if one approximates her departure around noon.
It is already 29 hours by the time Leon comes home that day. At first he thinks he hears a sink running, but realizes it is the neighbor showering, singing in full voice some Yiddish song. “I’m going to take off my shoes and my sorrow, and make my way back to you.”
After taking a drink of water and throwing on a sweater, he sits down and waits for a few minutes across from the living room window overlooking the Jerusalem suburbs. He glances at the photograph of the two of them holding a bundled up Ronya, shielding him from the fierce Moscow winter. She was another person there, he notices. Her smile here was a shadow of her smile back in the Soyuz. He thinks of her, transplanted into this land which he and his son had grown to love, while she stood here faintly, swaying, her mind back in Moscow.
After a few minutes he grows frustrated with himself, at the suddenly idle person he has become in the course of 29 hours, and resolves to jump in the car and drive to Neve Yakov as energetically as he can.
The trip is shorter than usual. The Jerusalem highways are quiet that night, and soon he finds himself driving through apartment complexes bursting with gossiping ladies in floral housecoats and little Mashas and Dimas on bicycles, and then in front of his parents’ building.
When his mother opens the door, she gasps as she always does when she sees him, as if surprised that he actually came to visit. “Lyonya!” And then, “Did you forget Anya?” She peers behind him toward the peeling hallway, running a hand through her cropped hennaed hair.
He laughs as smoothly as he can. “Anya’s at an academic conference. I didn’t tell you? In Moskva.”
“What are you saying?” She puts her hand on her bosom, her mouth dropping. “Are you telling me you two have been arguing?”
“No, she’s at a conference, I told you already.”
Founded in 2000, the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction contest was created to provide recognition to writers of Jewish short fiction. Moment thanks contest judge Walter Mosley, the Karma Foundation and all of the writers who took the time to submit their stories. The deadline for this year’s contest is December 31, 2013. Please visit momentmag.com for official rules and guidelines.
“Grisha? You hear this? Our daughter-in-law has left for Moskva. Tfu. And our own son didn’t even mention it to us.” Leon follows his mother inside, she muttering about her son who has abandoned his parents, never talking to them, never phoning. The apartment is the same as always: covered in doilies, flowery china, bright aprons and wooden figures in the fierce colors of his native language, memories of far-off woods, witches who lived in cottages on chicken legs, girls with long golden braids. An old framed photograph hangs above the sofa, of Leon’s older brother, taken at the birth of his daughter and a few months before his death. He knows that his mother often spends days clutching a cooled cup of tea gazing at the photograph, and that his father never dares to look in its vicinity, his eyes always carefully averted.
“So, a conference for librarians?” his father looks across the table, his thick ugly brow raised. His mother holds her cup in midair, watching husband and son on either side.
Leon opens a second button in his shirt, fixes his collar. “Nu, you know.” Pushes his chair up closer to the table. “Her degree. Some last-minute research she needed.”
“Ah. The thesis.” His father returns to his black tea.
“And then will she be done?” His mother eyes him.
He throws up his hands and leans back. “Supposedly.”
Maybe she really had gone to Moscow. As he drives home on the dark Route 404, he thinks of her walking down Red Square. Only in his thoughts she is lovely and 19 again, her student’s double-breasted coat hugging her small figure, a pile of books under her arm.
She had worn that dark grey coat when he had first seen her. It was the morning break between classes, and the girl on the park bench was reading Anna Karenina. He had walked over behind the bench and peered over her shoulder. Among the servants of the household there was intense excitement all this time. All had heard that their mistress had come, and that Kapitonitch had let her in, and that she was even now in the nursery, and that their master always went in person to the nursery at nine o’clock, and every one fully comprehended that it was impossible for the husband and wife to meet, and that they must prevent it.