Excerpt from A Place In the Sun
Everybody loves Lewis, but he’s not been given his due. I’ve just reread A Place In the Sun. I enjoyed it before and I enjoyed it again reading clearly and admiring how he brings his disparate characters together in what at first seems a very loose work of gossip, a fast fun sexy surprising read with riveting relentless sentences that catch one’s breath moving on to the next, held together by his talents. I did tell Lewis that I loved the book, but I wish now that we had talked more particularly about it. Everybody has their favorite; A Place In the Sun is my masterpiece at the moment because it is perfect and I’m certain it will continue to be read by many more than me. –from Don Yorty’s piece originally published in the Brooklyn Rail
The novel A Place In the Sun was previously published by Spuyten Duyvil with full contents including six sections: The Russians; Secret; A Place in the Sun; Mysterioso; Endless Embrace; and Harry Cray. The below is excerpted from the section The Russians.
For Monty & Liz
Excerpt from the section The Russians
The two Russian women were in the kitchen of their apartment when Eddie Perez came in through the window with a gun. One of the women, her blue eyes shielded by tiny gold-rimmed glasses, was standing in front of an ironing board in her underwear. It was ninety degrees outside, hotter inside the apartment. The other woman was sitting at the kitchen table with her back to the window drinking coffee. The two women were in their early twenties. Marina, the woman in the nightgown at the table, had emigrated to the United States five years before. The other woman, in bra and panties at the ironing board, had arrived several months ago. They had been friends in Odessa; now they were roommates in New York City. It had been Marina’s job, since she had studied English at the university in Odessa and could speak English fluently, to come to the United States first and find an apartment. The plan was for Irene to follow, once she had settled in. The fact that five years passed before she arrived was another story.
The man named Eddie Perez had just killed a policeman in the stairwell of a building in the housing projects on Avenue D. There were at least a hundred policemen in the neighborhood looking for him. He had escaped to the tenement rooftops, even though there was a helicopter overhead, and had climbed down a fire escape along the side of the building where the Russian women shared an apartment on the top floor. The policemen in the street below assumed he was holding someone hostage in the apartment. The two women were slow to react when he came in the window. Irene simply put down her iron and stared at the man with her mouth open while Marina turned a slow half-circle in her chair, sandwich in hand.
“Don’t say anything, not a word,” the man said. He rotated the gun, pointing it first at Irene, then at Marina.
One of the policemen, possibly the police commissioner, was shouting up at him through a bullhorn, asking him to surrender. Pleading with him, really. Where before there had been the animated noise of people talking, the rise and fall of distant sirens, now there was silence, nothing but the voice of the cop. He was repeating the same phrase–“come out with your hands up”–like the refrain of a song echoing down the sides of a canyon.
“Eddie,” he was saying, “if you hear this, come out of the building with your hands in the air.”
Eddie Perez could hear the cop’s words. The whole scene made him want to laugh. He went to the kitchen sink, turned on the cold water, and splashed it over his face. The two women were numb with the heat. He waved his gun in their faces and muttered to himself, interspersing Spanish curse words with English. The two women believed him when he said he would kill them if they didn’t follow his instructions. They had learned to anticipate the unexpected in a new country and now it was happening. A baby-faced young man was pointing a gun at them at eleven o’clock on a morning in August. He had entered their apartment.
“You,” he said, pointing to Marina, “give me some tape. And some rope.”
He ordered the woman who was wearing only her underwear to lie face down on the floor. Cops with rifles were stationed on the roof across the street. They were special cops, trained at shooting people from a distance. The guns were aimed at the windows of the apartment where the two Russian women lived. While Irene was on the floor, Eddie Perez strapped Marina to the chair and pasted a strip of masking tape over her mouth.
“Get up,” he said to Irene, pulling at her arm with his free hand. “Where’s the bedroom?”
It was Marina who told the police what had happened. How the man with the gun had entered the apartment and tied her to the chair. How he led her half-naked friend into the bedroom.
There were people in the street who were shouting Eddie’s name. “Edd-ie, Edd-ie.” There were people leaning out their windows chanting the syllables of his name as if he were a war hero or an astronaut or some athlete who earned ten million dollars a year. There was no love lost between the cops and the residents of Avenue D. Eddie had been born in the projects facing the East River Drive. They considered him a kind of folk-hero for wounding a cop who had caught him robbing a grocery on the Upper East Side a few days before. Nothing wrong with robbing a store in a neighborhood where rich people lived. That’s why the cops were looking for him in the first place, and that’s why he had to kill one of them in a stairwell on Avenue D.
The cop in charge of the case, Harry Cray, decided to lead a team of men up the stairway and break down the door of the apartment, but first he had to try to coax the bastard into taking responsibility for what he had done. As he stood in the street doing nothing, he sensed that something horrible was happening inside the apartment. The sharpshooters across the street couldn’t detect any sign of life. Not even the curtains at the window were moving.
Find someone who can talk to the guy in Spanish. Find his mother.
Marina, tied to the chair, said she heard nothing from behind the bedroom door. She assumed that her friend was being raped. Or that he had killed her first. He had killed one cop, wounded another. What did he have to lose? Too bad for the two Russian women who were sitting innocently in their apartment.
A woman who looked as old as Harry Cray’s grandmother stepped forth from the crowd.
“I’m Eddie’s mother,” she said, in English. “Let me speak to him.”
Marina assumed that after he killed Irene he would come out and kill her, as well.
Harry Cray handed Eddie’s mother the bullhorn and she shouted into it as if she had been preparing for this moment all her life. Harry could see the air vibrate, as if the woman was breathing underwater. All the cops were crouching like stick figures near their cars. The sunlight was baking the roofs of the cars the color of lava and Harry Cray could see every drop of sweat on the face of Eddie Perez’s mother as she shouted to her son in Spanish.
Harry knew that the words she used wouldn’t be strong enough to convince her son to give himself up. Her voice was raspy and hoarse and she kept repeating the word “Dios, Dios” as if that was going to make any difference. Eddie had gone too far this time. And maybe this woman wasn’t even Eddie’s mother, but someone playing the part in a movie about cops he had rented from a video store years before, or a movie yet to be made, a pilot for a new TV series about detectives and their girlfriends and wives.
It was Marina, of course, after it was over, who filled in the blanks. How when his mother was shouting at him through the bullhorn Eddie Perez was in the back bedroom with Irene and Marina was in the kitchen, tied to her chair, listening to it all. Her friend crying in the other room and the old woman shouting in the street. It was her turn next. Marina was certain he would kill both of them.
Harry Cray decided that Eddie Perez’s mother was only making things worse. He decided that the best plan was to storm the apartment. The point was to take Eddie alive, if possible, but also to insure the safety of whoever he had taken hostage. No one knew if he was alone in the apartment. No one knew about the two women.
Marina, tied to her chair, knew that her friend was dead. There was a period of maybe thirty seconds where the silence was overwhelming. The silence in the bedroom and the silence outside. Even the helicopter circling the scene seemed to have stalled in midair. And then, Marina told Harry Cray, after it was over, I heard your footsteps on the stairs.
He had seen her face, when he entered the apartment, the strip of tape over her mouth. He had seen her eyes. They said in there. They pointed him towards the bedroom door. He had walked passed her, followed by five men in uniform, and they had stood on either side of the door. He could feel her watching him, her neck muscles bulging beneath her skin, her taut breasts swelling outwards, the sweat pouring down the sides of her face. Her hair was sculpted like braided ivy, the color of fire. There was the moment when he had to make a choice, signaling to one of the cops to knock down the door, while at the same time wanting to comfort the young woman in the chair, to kneel at her feet and untie her hands. Rub them between his own to get the blood flowing.
Irene was dead. Eddie was holding her upright in a corner of the room with a gun pressed to the side of her head. The woman was a half-head taller than Eddie and kept slipping from his grasp like a broken mannequin. Harry couldn’t believe that Eddie would use a dead body as a hostage.
“Put the gun down, Eddie” he said. “It’s over.”
The woman had a vague smile on her face, a streak of blood across her forehead.
“I want out of here,” Eddie said, tightening his grip on the dead woman. “Get me a car to the airport.”
“No chance,” Harry Cray said. “You’ve seen too many movies. It’s over.”
“It’s never over,” Eddie said.
And those were his last words.
It was Marina who warned me about Dimitri’s wife. “If Natasha ever finds out you’re sleeping with her husband, she’ll kill you.” I had met Dimitri at a party. Marina had introduced us and I guess she felt partially responsible for what might happen. For what did happen. The last thing she expected was that I’d end up with Dimitri. She had invited me to a million parties and introduced me to a million guys. I was often the only non-Russian woman at the party so I always drew a crowd of potential suitors. It was my bad luck that I should end up with the one guy who was married. Not only that: Natasha’s brother was a gangster. One of the new breed of hoodlums who collected protection money from the Russian store owners in Brighton Beach, the neighborhood of choice for the Russian immigrants. If Natasha’s brother found out about me and Dimitri, Marina went on, we’d both be dead.
Twice a week, Dimitri visited me in my apartment. The only time we spent a night together was the night we met. Natasha, and their three kids, were out of town, so it was possible for Dimitri to sleep over at my apartment without anyone finding out. After that night, any time we wanted to see one another, he had to lie to Natasha, who was suspicious by nature, and made him account for every moment he was out of the house. It was only a matter of time before she asked her brother, Boris, to ask one of his flunkies to follow Dimitri when he left work. He had told Natasha that he was taking an English course at one of the ESL schools near Penn Station. He even bought a textbook and did the homework assignments. It was a half-truth, at best, since he wanted to learn English, and was actually improving his English by spending time with me, though we hardly talked at all.
What did we do together? Dimitri wanted to know about all my ex-lovers. Why someone like me wasn’t married. I was almost thirty, after all, and by the time Natasha was thirty she already had three children. They had met in college in Odessa, where they were born, and where their grandparents still lived. They had been together ten years. I was the first woman Dimitri had slept with since he met Natasha, or so he said. His first affair.
“What’s he like?” Marina asked. We were eating lunch on a bench on the promenade in Brooklyn Heights. We went there every afternoon, weather permitting, on our break.
Marina’s boyfriend, Ivan, had just got out of jail, and as a consequence I saw less of her. We still went to parties together. All the Russian guys got drunk and took turns dancing with me. Eventually, one of them would get too drunk and start a fight with the others. Marina danced only with Ivan, who had a bad temper, apparently, and had a fit of jealousy if she even talked to another guy.
“Da,” Dimitri said, and I repeated it back to him, “da.” He was trying to teach me Russian. What we did together was teach each other things. He told me about Russian history. About the Romanovs. Peter the Great. All the tsars with names like Alexander and Nicholas. He told me about Trotsky and Lenin. And I tried to teach him English, though he knew more English than I knew Russian. Twice a week I took Russian lessons from a retired professor on the Upper West Side, a man in his early seventies whose wife had recently died, and whose daughter–“you remind me of my daughter,” he said, when we first met–lived in California. We would sit in the living room of his apartment, at a large table facing a window with a view of the Hudson River and the smokestacks on the Jersey shore. He would serve me coffee on a gold tray which he said had belonged to his parents in Odessa. That’s where he had grown up. His father, he said, had known Lenin.
“Kafye,” he said. “And chay.”
“What does chay mean?”
“Chay means tea. Repeat after me.”
“Kafye,” I said, “and chay.”
His name was Roshenko, but he told me to call him Karl. That’s what his wife used to call him. She had been a ballerina in Russia, before they came here, but she had broken her leg in a bicycle accident and could no longer dance. She had a dream of opening her own dance school but it had never happened. Before she died, she worked in a bridal shop on 5th Avenue, selling wedding gowns to people who never had to worry about money.
I was in the backseat of a car with two Russians and we were all drunk. Marina was in the front seat with her boyfriend Ivan. It was early summer and the windows on either side were wide open. Ivan, who was driving, shouted something to some black guys in a passing car. They were all talking Russian and the guys in the back were laughing, pointing their fingers at the black guys in the car which had stopped alongside us. Sometimes Marina translated for me but this time she didn’t and I wondered, as I often did, whether they were talking about me. We were riding down the Belt Parkway, on our way from a party in the West Village to another party in Brighton Beach, where most of the Russians lived, Marina included. I was taking turns kissing the two guys. One of them lifted my skirt and put his hand between my legs while the other began fumbling, like a young schoolboy, with the buttons of my blouse. Both of them were too drunk to wonder whether I wanted them to touch me or not and for the moment I lacked the energy to push them away. All I knew about them were that they were friends of Ivan’s. He had introduced me to them at the first party but I didn’t remember their names.
Marina said that her parents had named her after Marina Tsveteva, the great Russian poet who hung herself because she was too poor to feed her children. Because no one cared about her poetry. Because she didn’t care about it herself. Is that the story? Most of the Russians I met could recite poetry by heart. It would happen at every party; someone would get drunk and began reciting Pasternak, a poem that all Russians memorized when they were kids.
We met at school, Marina and I, the private school in Brooklyn Heights where we both taught, mostly white kids with a lot of money and black and Hispanic kids on scholarship. I taught English, The Great Gatsby, As I Lay Dying, The Grapes of Wrath, to high school students, and Marina, who was a painter and a collagist, taught art–art history, drawing, introduction to painting. Once a week she and Dimitri attended the same drawing class, that’s how they met and that’s how (eventually) I met Dimitri. That’s how all the trouble started. Marina spoke with an accent. I asked her where she came from and she said “Where do you think?” I had to admit that for a long time I had a crush on her myself and I think she knew this and was frightened of me (this was my theory) because she had no interest in sleeping with women, or she had an interest (wishful thinking) but refused to admit it.
She told me that she once shared an apartment with a Russian friend on 11th Street and Avenue C and that one morning an escaped convict named Eddie Perez climbed in through the window and held them both hostage and even raped and murdered her friend Irene while Marina, tied to a chair, listened to it all from the other room. She said: “I was having breakfast, Irene was ironing a blouse, when this guy came in the window with a gun in his hand.” She said that he threatened to kill them if they didn’t do what he said. The cops were downstairs, apparently he had killed a cop earlier in the week, or the same day, I can’t remember, and someone–the police commissioner, perhaps–was telling him to surrender, shouting the words through a bullhorn from the sidewalk. “He kept telling us that he had nothing to lose. That he was going to spend the rest of his life in jail. That he had already killed someone and that killing us wouldn’t make a difference.” I wanted him to choose me, not Irene, Marina said, but he tied me to a chair instead. He said he was twenty-five, but looked younger, really a kid, with a mop of black hair over his forehead. He pointed the gun at Irene and said, “You–get inside.” I sat in my chair listening to her crying and the guy telling her to keep quiet. “And then,” she said, “they were both quiet. And then the cops came and killed him.”
After that, she moved to Brighton Beach, where she lived when she first came to the states. It was the only neighborhood where she felt safe.
I want to concentrate on the Russians, what I know, what I learned. Everything you don’t learn in school I learned from my relationships with Dimitri and Marina. The only way to learn anything, possibly, is to experience it first hand, this goes without saying. I want to focus on the time I spent with the Russians. I was a California girl, so to speak, though I had been living in New York for five years, escaping a bad marriage back home, bad parents who had split up when I was ten. The phase of my life that involved the Russians only lasted a few years, but whenever someone mentions “Odessa” I feel like I’ve been there.
Something else happened during this time that only indirectly involves my life with the Russians. I still have his name in my address book: Harry Cray. Next to his address there are two numbers, his home phone and the precinct where he worked. Harry Cray was a cop. The woman in the apartment below me, a prostitute named Yvonne de Marco, had been murdered, and late one Sunday night Harry Cray and his partner Ricardo knocked on my door. I had just gotten out of the shower and was wearing the blue terry cloth robe which Dimitri had bought me for Christmas when I heard the footsteps on the staircase, followed by the knock. And in answer to my question: Who is it? one of them–it must have been Harry–said: the cops. It’s the cops.
One thing I know about are cops. My father was a cop. My first lover was a cop. There had even been talk, when I was growing up, that I was going to become a cop. I’m an only child–my mother nearly died giving birth to me and didn’t want to risk having more kids–and it was the tradition in my father’s family that the children follow in their father’s footsteps. Every male in my father’s line had been a cop since I don’t know when. The Civil War maybe. Every son went into the army. My father had been in Vietnam. He was in Vietnam when I was born and didn’t hear that my mother almost died giving birth to me until he returned home for a week’s leave. I didn’t see much of my father when I was growing up. I call him up on his birthday and he calls me on Christmas. He calls me when he knows he’s coming to New York, which is about once a year, and we eat dinner together. He says: “You choose a restaurant” and I say “What to do you like to eat?” I have almost no memory of sitting around a dinner table with my parents when I was a kid. My mother hated to cook. When my father was in Vietnam my mother took a job as a real estate agent. We were living in a small town along the coast about an hour north of San Francisco. My mother sold houses to rich hippies. She had sex with her boss. She hired a baby-sitter to take care of me. Every time the phone rang she assumed it was someone from the army informing her that her husband had died in the line of duty or was missing in action. She dreamed that a coffin containing his body parts had been left on the front porch. She told her lover, Joe Griffiths, the real state mogul who became my stepfather, that it was wishful thinking. “Even if he came back in a wheelchair I wouldn’t let him in the front door.”
The cops introduced themselves. The tall shifty-eyed one with the chalky complexion who did most of the talking–that was Harry. The smaller, younger guy with the bald spot was Ricardo. Harry, staring at a point a few inches above the top of my head, said that the woman who lived below me had been murdered that morning. A friend of hers who had keys to the apartment discovered the body at four in the afternoon. There was a pause as if they were waiting to see how I would react. The tall guy (“my name is Harry Cray, I’m a detective at the Ninth precinct”) asked me if I’d been home earlier that morning, or the night before, and if so whether I’d heard any suspicious noises, voices, an argument. Did I know the woman downstairs? This was Ricardo talking.
I shook my head.
“Does that mean ‘yes’?” Harry asked.
“It means ‘I can’t believe it’” I said.
I told the detectives that I’d been living in the building for two years and that Yvonne was living here when I moved in. They didn’t ask me for this information but I thought it was important to give some background before I got to the point. Ricardo nodded and wrote down the information on a pad, or pretended to. He unclipped a cheap ball-point and balanced a small notepad in the palm of his hand. They were both standing up, Harry leaning against the sink, Ricardo against the front door. I was sitting in a chair in my blue robe with my legs crossed, smoking a cigarette.
“Did you know that your neighbor was a prostitute?”
“We said hello on the staircase, that’s all. Once she asked if I wanted to come by for coffee but I had to go somewhere else and she said whenever I wanted to just knock on her door. It’s something people say who live in the same building without really meaning it and of course I never went. I should have, I guess, or invited her up here. We didn’t seem to be on the same schedule. Occasionally I heard music from down below. Jazz. Some uncomplicated sounding mood music that didn’t bother me at all.”
A few days later I was sitting with Marina on the promenade, eating lunch. I told her about the two cops, the murder of the prostitute/porn star in the apartment below. The way I found out she was a porn star was in the newspaper. The cops on the case–the newspaper didn’t use their names–said there were tapes in the apartment, porno movies, and magazines with her pictures in it. Marina, nibbling the edge of her sandwich, seemed distracted, like she was only half-listening. She didn’t pick up on the fact that I was interested in the detective, Harry Cray. I didn’t even know his name. What I was conveying in the story had nothing to do with Yvonne de Marco, my dead neighbor, or even the porn star angle, but my interest in the cop. Marina was thinking of something else.
“We want to see you again,” she said.
I had spent the night–the night Yvonne de Marco was murdered–over at Ivan and Marina’s. The three of us had slept together for the first time, Ivan in the middle. At some point he rolled on top of me while Marina leaned on her elbow and watched. When Harry Cray asked whether I’d heard anything in Yvonne’s apartment I stared at my feet and said that I wasn’t home, that I’d slept over at a friend’s house. Harry looked disappointed. I thought he might be jealous since maybe he thought I was saying (indirectly) that I’d slept at my boyfriend’s house. That I was unavailable. Was that what I was saying? Or maybe he was disappointed because I hadn’t heard anything, that I didn’t know anything, that I wasn’t going to be any help. Maybe I was just imagining that he was attracted to me but that he was pretending not to be because he was with his partner. Or maybe he was just simply disappointed about being alive, the dwindling possibilities now that he was forty. Was that how old he was? The disappointment in his eyes, along with the deep furrows that rippled across his forehead when he was thinking (what was he thinking about?) made him look older.
It was only in my mind, in a thought that lasted a microsecond, that I imagined I was falling in love. That Harry Cray and I were falling in love. That we’d live together forever. It was the illusion that everything happened by accident and that you had to be prepared for every encounter. That you had to be open to the possibility. Most people walk down the street with their eyes glued to the pavement. No contact, not even a faint possibility. And they complain about being alienated, how New York is such “a lonely place,” that you have to protect yourself, that there are too many different types of people, not racial types but people who are brain damaged, neurotic, schizophrenic, murderous. Angry. There are too many angry people here, that’s what everyone thinks. I was angry about something, the defendant explains to his permanently disabled victim, and I took it out on you. That’s what people do in the city, they vent their rage on innocent bystanders. They get caught in the crossfire.
I was tempted to tell Marina that I’d only sleep with her and Ivan if she let me have sex with her as well. I hoped that if I went along with her I’d be rewarded for my patience. I wasn’t sure what she was getting out of it all: watching me and Ivan from the side of the bed. Looking bored, as if she was just waiting for it to be over. As if she was doing it all (“he’s been in jail for six months”) for him, to please him. Because she liked the idea of people she loved getting together. Her boyfriend, Ivan, and me, her best friend.
“Didn’t you have fun the other night?”
Now we had something to talk about.
“And Dimitri. Are you still seeing him?”
She had no interest in hearing about the dead prostitute and the two cops who had come to my apartment.
It was February 1997. Twice a week Dimitri visited me. Once a week I went uptown to see Professor Roshenko. Every other week, I spent the night with Marina and Ivan. Dimitri, of course, didn’t know I was sleeping with someone else. The Russians are a jealous race, prone to extreme solutions to simple problems, especially when they’re drunk. Dimitri always asked me if I had other lovers, couldn’t believe that I didn’t. I was trying to convince him that it was possible for him to change his life. I was naive to think that Natasha couldn’t force him to stay. Dimitri shook his head. He’d do anything, he said, to get away from her. Even if it meant giving up the kids. She’d never let me have the kids. Then he shook his head again, as if the thought was inconceivable. Marina had once told me that she thought Dimitri was too passive. That was one theory. The other theory was that Natasha had too much power. Whenever there was a murder in Brighten Beach the cops went directly to Natasha’s brother. Maybe he had some information? Marina was certain that Natasha’s brother was paying off the cops as well.
“If Natasha ever finds out…” Marina shook her head and suggested I carry a gun. Ivan could get one for her, easily. Ivan, a part-time gangster himself, had been arrested for selling drugs out of a storefront on Brighton Avenue. He had been put in jail not so much for the severity of the crime but because he refused to name names, one of whom would be Natasha’s brother. When he got out of jail he promised Marina that he would never work for Boris again, but of course it was Boris who had found him his present job, at a print shop in Sheepshead Bay. Nothing illegal about that. The owner of the shop owed Boris a favor, that was all. All the shop owners in Little Odessa, as the Russian neighborhood was called, owed Boris something. The only person to whom Boris owed anything was his sister.
Professor Roshenko, my Russian teacher, had been with Trotsky in Mexico. There was a framed photograph on his mantelpiece: Trotsky, other members of his staff, a young version of the professor standing next to his hero. Trotsky’s hand on his shoulder. Another photograph of Trotsky and Frieda Kahlo, another of Trotsky and Diego Rivera, another of the three of them together. Another of Trotsky with his wife Natalia. It was like a little shrine. One of the brightest moments in my life, the professor said. Especially when the trials began. Stalin had indicted Trotsky and it was up to Trotsky to respond, long distance. Every newspaper in the world carried the story. It was Professor Roshenko’s job to talk to reporters. We worked for eighteen hours a day. We had one focus, one goal. Except for the early years with my wife, this was the most exciting time for me.
The next time Dimitri and I had sex I thought of Harry Cray. What we would do together if he came to my apartment alone to ask me more questions (this was his excuse for visiting me) about the dead porn star downstairs. Of course I never told Dimitri that when I was having sex with him I was thinking of someone else. Thinking about something is the same as doing it. According to St. Augustine, thoughts are as sinful as actions. The only way I can come when I’m making love is to imagine that I’m making love to someone else. There’s a knock on my apartment door and the voice says: It’s the police. I remember him, of course, from the other day, when he came by with his partner Ricardo. One might imagine making love to both Harry and his partner simultaneously–I’ve never had sex with two guys at the same time–as Yvonne de Marco did in all her movies. And then after they were done there were two more guys, it went on forever, until the cocks moving in and out of her body resembled the pistons in a car, close up of a car’s inner workings, a training film for fledgling auto mechanics: this is how it’s done.
One afternoon, on our lunch break, Marina told me she thought that Ivan was falling in love with me. She said that Ivan, who wanted to be a film director, was writing a film script and had told Marina that I would be perfect for the lead role. They invited me over for dinner and we watched movies together in the living room. Me and Marina on the living room rug, her head in my stomach, while Ivan sat in a chair close to the screen. Often we watched movies that Ivan had seen before. He was writing the script for a movie and was planning to send it to a movie producer named Dean Holmstrom who he had met through Boris. He was in Boris’s good graces ever since he went to jail without incriminating anyone. He had served his time, without complaining, and this was his reward.
He told us of a party he went to at Dean Holmstrom’s house. Elizabeth Taylor had been there. She had just come out of the hospital and spent most of the time sitting in a chair in the corner. Everyone at the party paid homage to her. Everyone at the party was aware that she was there. Ivan was amazed at her body, especially her breasts. He had expected her to be heavyset and somewhat grotesque. It was easy to see how she had often been described as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” When he went to shake her hand, or kiss her hand, she leaned forward so that he could see down the front of her dress. It was a very low cut evening gown, ankle-length, since her legs were the least attractive part of her body. It was like being in the room with some ancient deity. Something to tell your grandchildren.
Apparently, Dean Holmstrom’s wife had given him a tour of the house, a brownstone in the east sixties. She asked him about his script and he told her it was about two Russian women who came to New York and what happened. She promised him more than once that she would make sure Dean read it.
“Did you sleep with her?” Marina asked. It was hard to know from her tone whether she was serious or not and for a moment I wasn’t sure who she was referring to. Elizabeth Taylor? The director’s wife?
I was worried what would happen to our friendship if I continued to have sex with Ivan. The unspoken rule was that we would never get together when she wasn’t around. Sometimes he called me in the evenings and made me promise never to tell her that we had talked. What he wanted to tell me about was his script. It was based on the Eddie Perez story. The guy who had killed the two cops as well as Marina’s friend Irene. He wanted me to play Irene. Marina, of course, would play herself. He was thinking of us when he was writing even though I wasn’t Russian. He was waiting to hear from Dean Holmstrom. He had left a first draft of the script at his house the night of the party where he had met Elizabeth Taylor.
Marina and I no longer ate lunch together every day. She had too much work, she said, but I didn’t believe her. Instead, she ate her lunch in her small office at school. I didn’t know how long she could endure the idea that I was sleeping with her lover. She had thought that anything was possible, that she would do anything to make Ivan happy, but the way I saw it she was getting burned by her own fire. Ivan told me on the phone that he and Marina were no longer having sex. He asked me whether I was seeing someone else and I lied, I said “no,” even though it seemed possible that Marina had already told him I was sleeping with Dimitri. The only time Marina and I talked, these days, was when she called to make arrangements for me to come over. When I complained–“I never see you anymore”–she apologized and said that she was busy. I wanted to ask her whether she and Ivan were having problems. I wanted to tell her that I was in love with her, that it was her I wanted to sleep with, not Ivan, but I didn’t say anything. “Can you come over Friday?” And then silence, as if she wanted to get off the phone. As if someone was listening on the other end.
Sometimes Dimitri called to cancel our appointment.
“I can’t make it,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
I was getting sick of the deception that involved having an affair with him but it was too late. I’d had an affair with a married man once before, one of my professors in college (when I was in California) and it had ended badly. Dimitri was in love with me, or so he said. Whenever I acted distant he promised to leave Natasha. “I can’t live without you,” he would say. He didn’t have to tell me why he couldn’t come over. It was understood that it had something to do with Natasha. The Russians lived in a small community, everyone knew everyone else’s business, and I assumed it was just a matter of time before Natasha found out that I was sleeping with her husband, or that Dimitri found out that I was sleeping with Ivan.
I assumed that Ivan knew about Dimitri and that he didn’t care. He had no right to care. If he wanted to cause trouble, if his jealousy took the upper hand, he could make sure that Natasha found out that her husband was having an affair, and with whom. I could imagine a scenario in the future where Ivan felt possessive about me as well. “I want to leave Marina and be with you,” I could hear him say.
I guess you could say that a good part of my life involved my dealings with the Russians. I was sleeping with two Russian men, Dimitri and Ivan. My best friend was Russian. Twice a week I went uptown to Professor Roshenko’s apartment where I studied Russian, talked to him in Russian, converted my thoughts into a different language. In my spare time I read books in English by Russian writers. I watched Russian movies. My favorite Russian movie was Solaris, a science fiction movie about people on a spaceship whose memories are somehow encapsulated by the ocean, enabling people who are dead to return to life. It was a beautiful, languorous movie, that was also a love story. The person who returned by way of the ocean knew he or she was dead. The movie was filled with longing for something that was lost. When I told Ivan that I liked Solaris he asked me if I’d seen other movies by Tarkovsky and when I said that I hadn’t he said he would get a different one and that we could all watch it the next time I came over.
It was early April and I had begun thinking that when summer came I would change my life. I would stop seeing Dimitri. I would extricate myself from the relationship with Ivan. I would travel to California or to Mexico and when I returned to New York I would change jobs so that I wouldn’t have to see Marina everyday. I had studied enough Russian that if I ever decided to go there I could engage in simple conversations. When I was in Brighton Beach I always impressed myself by being able to read the odd looking lettering on the canopies and windows of the shops. I had wanted to recreate my own identity as a way of getting closer to Marina. But I didn’t want to be her sister, that wasn’t the point, and it was no longer possible to deny what I was really feeling. It occurred to me that I wouldn’t be unhappy if I never saw any of these people again.
Cover art from A Place in the Sun (Spuyten Duyvil) courtesy Pamela Lawton. Solaris, 9″ x 12″, ink on paper, circa 2008. www.pamelalawton.com.
Click here to read an Excerpt from the section A Place in the Sun from The novel of the same name.