Each month, in coordination with “Novel Jews,” our reading series in New York, the Forward publishes an excerpt from the work of that month’s series guest or guests. In deference to Yom Kippur, the reading series will not be held in October, but we decided everyone could still meet on the page. Here we offer readers a selection from “The Alternate,” a short story by Forward contributor Sana Krasikov.
Some of the wedding guests had started dribbling out the doors. Victor looked around for Vera and saw her in the lobby, pointing to her watch. She didn’t want to stay late, she had told him. She needed to be fresh for her doctor’s appointment in the morning.
“I’ll tell Alina your boy will call,” Anna Davidovna said when she kissed him goodbye and Victor patted his wallet to reassure her. Victor had asked for the girl’s number on behalf of his older son, though he had no intention of passing it on to Stas. That would be wasteful, possibly even reckless. He’d written down her number on the back of a dollar bill, having picked up the idea weeks earlier from a man at work, one of the young traders who liked to brag about keeping his girlfriends’ telephones recorded on pieces of cash in his wallet to avert the suspicions of his wife. Victor always felt nauseated by such vain disclosures, but the idea had appealed to him: with a dollar bill, a man could easily feign ignorance. And when the affair was over, he could go and buy himself a cup of coffee.
The maroon carpet in the lobby was matted down with footprints. Women dashed around energetically, making their husbands hold their purses while they hunted for coats. A small crowd had gathered around a billboard montage of the bride and groom’s childhood photos. Alec, the father of the bride, stood in the middle explaining to his friends that the wedding had been carried out in Orthodox tradition only on account of the groom’s family. Victor and Alec had met 16 years earlier in Vienna, when their two families had lived in the same hosting facility. The groom himself was Modern Orthodox, Alec explained. It was an important distinction.
“Modern, not Modern, what’s the difference?” asked a man wearing a shearling.
“If it’s forbidden, but you really want to, then it’s okay!” said Alec.
“Back when we lived in Queens,” Vera interrupted, “we knew one Modern Orthodox couple.” She glanced over at Victor, then carried on. “They had a little girl and two boys. Sometimes the boys wore their kipas and sometimes they didn’t. Maybe they thought God performed spot inspections.”
All were silent for a moment, then Alec and the man in the shearling broke out laughing. “Spot inspections, that’s good,” Alec said, clapping Victor on the shoulder as if Victor had made the nab. Except Victor didn’t find it so funny.
“Wait until it’s our turn for a spot inspection,” he said morbidly.
Vera stared back at him in bewilderment, a small crease of spite forming between her thin brows. He knew what that look meant: when exactly had he become such a Big Jew?
And all he’d done was start reading those Telushkin books before bed.
If he wanted to find spirituality, she’d told him one night, why not spend an afternoon at the Met? That was different, Victor had tried to explain to her. But she never really listened. She said she found all religion a little depressing and primitive, even after he’d explained to her how it was all wrong when people said “an eye for an eye” was savage. Wasn’t it better than having your whole head chopped off for an eye? That’s what the Jews had given the world! Tolerance. Only an eye for an eye! That was Civilization. It was all there in the Telushkin books, if she was interested. It was good stuff.
Vera walked ahead to the glass doors. Victor followed her into the parking lot. She didn’t want to talk about it. “I’m tired of you embarrassing me in front of people, Vitya!”
They drove home in silence. Oh, she liked to say it was all religion she didn’t care for, but of course she meant only his. And all these years she’d kept her tiny silver cross — a gift from her beloved grandmother — stored in that little zip-up pocket in her handbag. And when he had brought that fact to her attention, she’d howled that in thirty years of marriage she’d worn it only once, when Dr. Nathan had discovered a mystery lump in her right breast. And when subsequent tests revealed only an innocuous cyst, the cross had gone quietly back into the purse. Because it wasn’t like she’d been raised by a band of pagans either. But that was what you did for the person you loved. You became a practical secularist. You became a political centrist of the soul.
A stream of headlights rushed past them, cars merging into the traffic from JFK Airport. Vera stretched her arm for the radio dial and scrolled through the channels. She chose one and leaned back. They were catching the end of a traffic report, followed by a piano interlude, a melody elaborating into a longer improvisation. “I wrote them a check for three hundred dollars,” Vera said, turning down the volume. “I think that was enough.” She always thought it was enough. It was her policy never to write the amount until after she’d arrived at a celebration and taken a look around.
“You could have made it four hundred. The food alone was two hundred dollars a person.”
“Who told you that, Alec?”
Victor didn’t bother to reply.
“That’s what he spent the evening doing, giving everyone the itemized breakdown, just in case we were getting jealous by the wrong amount.”
“It wasn’t enough,” Victor said.
“It was. Now let me sleep. ” She tilted back her chair and shut her eyes.
It was no secret that Alec was “dirty wealthy” now. That was how Vera liked to say it: it was her special variation on “filthy rich,” the idiom she’d originally aimed for and missed. At the start of the tech boom Victor’s friend had started a company that specialized in tax software, an idea that turned out to be miraculously recession-proof in the ever-changing weather patterns of the American economy.
It had been Alec’s success with the tax software that had boldened Victor to leave his own job at Systech and team up with Rick, a hardware guy who’d started custom-designing home security systems. Rick had taken the orders and Victor had done most of the design and installation. Within two years their clientele had grown to include even the most glittering addresses of Bedford Village – that last holdout for large parcels of land, the new anti-Hamptons. But the company had been filed only in Rick’s name, and two years into their venture, Rick had dropped Victor for two Czechs with overstayed visas — each one willing to do the work for half of what Victor took.
It was during those two years, after he and Vera had moved to Westchester, while Victor was installing security systems for the cognoscenti, that he’d seen how the other half really lived on their vast estates hidden at the bottoms of gravely driveways and concealed behind acres of overfertilized grass. So deeply secreted were those palaces, one would think their inhabitants were Italian nobles taking refuge from The Plague. The owners were never home when Victor installed wires in their kitchens, but he’d seen their spacious counter tops and their fancy bottles of olive oil and knew he hated them.
And yet on those empty Saturday mornings when Vera was off at one of her garage sales, he would take the boys in the car and drive slowly by the more easily visible of these residences, just to give Stas and Garick a glimpse of what could be theirs if they had strategy and weren’t afraid of the world.
When those promising security system days had ended, Victor had had no choice but to retrain as a computer network specialist. Now he spent his mornings and his afternoons monitoring firewalls, dragging himself from office to office to identify malfunctions caused by people fat-fingering their passwords. It was well compensated but tedious work. The networking specialist, he’d resolved, was the sanitation ant of the computer world, suffering the endless connection and reconnection of cables, keeping the forest clean.
But who knew, when the economy picked up he might start doing the work on a contracting basis, turn himself into the great frontiersman known as The Independent Consultant, a businessman of sorts. It was not that he hadn’t done well for himself, but the truth of it was others had done better.
He turned up the volume on the radio. It was Rachmaninoff’s 2nd concerto again, classic FM favorite, long melodies and rhapsodic flights. That was why Mila had liked playing him so much. She had tried to teach him to hear with her ear. “It’s sound, it’s supposed to shift. It’s supposed to slip away,” she liked to say. In Zhitomir, where they’d attended the same music school, Mila had become fanatical about Rachmaninoff and played him at every recital. Sitting through all those trilling harmonies had made Victor want to shoot himself. But the teachers loved it. He’d even overheard one of them telling the school’s director, “That girl knows what she’s doing, while the rest of them are still making estimated guesses.” The rest of them? Didn’t that include him? But it was only after that comment that he started to notice the swanlike rise of Mila’s shoulders, her foot’s cautious tilt on the pedal, the way the piano used all the parts of her and required her like nothing else did. Loving Mila had been, at least at first, so much easier than hating her. And sometimes he still wondered if love could really start that way, as nothing more than temporarily relief from envy.
Victor felt around for his wallet. Still in his pocket. He’d call the girl up in the morning. Tomorrow was Martin Luther King Day; she probably had no classes. He would introduce himself as an old friend of her mother and ask her out to lunch. Simple. And if she didn’t say yes right away, he could say he was calling to give her back some old photographs. Maybe he’d even bring them along. For years his pictures of Mila had been wrapped up in plastic baggies under the photo albums, excluded from the official parade of memories that gave every family its happy past. No use keeping them forever. It wouldn’t be such a bad trade to exchange the stills for an hour with the living image.
He could guess, just from what the grandmother had said, that a girl like Alina didn’t faze out at the computer screen and bang her fist down on the keyboard like his sons, until the Shift key flew off and got lost behind the furniture. Girls like Alina probably got up and poured themselves a glass of water. If things weren’t going well, they went for a jog. They edited all the errors out of their resumes, instead of staring stupidly at the “Skills” paragraph wondering if they really had meant “Excellent Good Oral and Communication Skills,” after they’d already sent the thing off.
How much had her grandmother told her? Certainly in all these years Anna Davidovna might have mentioned something to her about his and Mila’s once-upon-a-plan to marry. They’d talked about it his first summer home from college; he’d done poorly in his math classes and grown dispirited by St. Petersburg’s wet hostility. But when he’d returned from Zhitomir to school in the fall, his eyes had rapidly adjusted back to the tranquil northern paleness, that endless array of canals and marble buildings. At the end of his second year, it seemed impossible that he would have to go back again to the Ukraine after graduation, get assigned to an apartment with a low ceiling in a district thrown up from reinforced cement. Everything was better in Peter: the streets, the jobs, the gentiles.
In October of his third year he met Vera. They were married in March. She’d grown up right on Vasilievsky Island; marrying a native of the city was all it took to get the coveted propiska, a stamp in his passport that let him stay in St.Petersburg forever. That was what marrying up had meant in a classless society. And what would he have gotten if he’d stayed with Mila? At best, Viborg for his first vocational posting. More likely some remote industrial hole, a rundown concrete suburb. He stopped going home for the summers after that. He did not want to run the risk of seeing her. What would he say to her with the warm glow of possibilities no longer ahead of them? And now running into her grandmother here, at a wedding! But then so many of them ended up on this side eventually. An entire world transposed, like an ink blot on a folded map, from one continent onto another. The old woman had been so happy to see him! She’d squeezed his hand and kissed his face. Death, it seemed, was the great forgiver. He had been twenty-eight when his mother had called him from Zhitomir to tell him Mila had died in a car crash, on a ride back from a concert. From his living room window, he had looked across the water to the south bank of the Neva, where a line of stone palaces floated in the long twilight. Then he had gone into the bathroom and with his knees pressed into his eyes, he’d wept. It seemed to last forever, an endless supply of salt and grief and water. But there was some other substance in that mixture too. Some lighter element, a trace amount that altered the pH of sorrow. And what could it be if not, just possibly, relief?