‘Vasilisa the Beautiful’ By Irina Reyn
Each month, in coordination with our reading series in New York, the Forward publishes an excerpt from the work of that month’s series guest or guests. This month, we will feature readings by writers from the former Communist bloc, Ewa Zadrzynska-Glowacki and Irina Reyn (for full details, please see sidebar), and the excerpt we have chosen to highlight is “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” by Irina Reyn.
This is Lev’s fifth wedding this month and still not his own. It is held at one of the usual places on Queens Boulevard, just a stroll from the homes of most of the guests. An American driving by might consider the restaurant’s brown-paneled facade closed off and shady, not realizing that to enter the place is to discover a red-carpeted staircase, fake crystal chandeliers, cascading velvet curtains, mirrored walls. And a band celebrating the marriage of yet another Bukharan couple.
By now the dancing is well underway; the slightly intoxicated Orthodox rabbi flees the room when the female singer takes over the microphone. Once a famous opera singer in Tashkent in the 1960s and ’70s, she is here crooning sentimental Soviet ballads, Bukharan folk songs and hits by the Bee Gees. Lev is sick of it, and worst of all, the quality of the girls being seated next to him at weddings these days is quickly deteriorating — this one has eyes spaced too close together and the underside of her jaw is dotted with acne.
“So what do you do for a living?” she asks. Lev barely brings himself to look at her — a flat, banana-shaped body camouflaged in sheets of silver taffeta.
“I’m a pharmacist. I do not repair shoes. Is that what you want to hear?” he said, regretting his tone because really she was just a kid. But on the other hand, maybe it would teach her a lesson, force her to be less predictable in the future if she wanted to stand out in a swarm of plain, marriageable women.
On dates, Buchi women always asked the same questions — How much do you make? Do you own a house in Forest Hills? What kind of car do you drive? It was unsubtle, unromantic. Lev could see them mentally calculating right there at the restaurant after he gave them his answer. Gripping their martini glasses by the stem, thinking, Will I have to shop discount? Will I have a cleaning lady? Will I have to work if I don’t want to? In the French films he loved, women never divulged those kinds of thoughts, they were soft and yielding in their high heels, in their clinging blouses.
Oleg waves to him from the dance floor and Lev rises to join the hora link, breaking up a chain of cousins, his hands slick with sweat. The music gets more frenzied, the circle spins faster, the groom’s father gestures for him to help lift the chair. He disconnects himself from the circle and hoists one side of the chair against his chest. The guests start to clap, and as they bob along with the chair, Lev notices Nina, the one he silently branded Vasilisa the Beautiful years ago, alone at a front table, clapping mechanically, a single beat behind everyone else. Her hair is pinned in ringlets on top of her head, thin but shapely arms half-covered by lavender silk sleeves. When they first entered the restaurant and saw her standing by the bar, Lev’s mother said that after what happened, it is amazing that she dared show her face here at all.
“Opa!” Oleg’s father says, as the bride grasps the other side of the handkerchief. “Now there is no escape! They are tied to one another!” The men cheer.
The following day, when Lev gets home from the pharmacy, he finds the svakha in their living room sipping tea with his parents. The woman wears the same outfit every time he sees her, a floral handkerchief on top of her head, a roomy housecoat with buttons down the front. Spread out on the table are snapshots of girls. From where he stands, Lev can see that some are cradling cats, others wearing graduation caps, posing in front of fake fireplaces. Lev takes off his coat and hangs it up in the hall closet. The svakha’s wool coat seems to fill the entire closet and emanate a scent of raw fish.
“Well the situation is not good of course,” the svakha says, raising her voice now that the object of her disdain is within earshot. Lev walks into the kitchen and removes pan lids to taste the carrot pilaf with raisins. “He has waited so long that all the parents are asking questions. How long can I keep them at bay?”
The svakha is one of the best, her success rate reported at 90 percent. She would have retired long ago if it wasn’t for the intricacies of Lev’s case, she says, but now she’s personally invested, it has become a matter of pride. A nice pharmacist like Lev must not be abandoned to sleep cold and alone, without the warmth of a wife, for another winter. The svakha drinks her tea strong, thick, almost black. One of her bottom teeth is missing.
“Levchik,” his mother pleads. “Why don’t you make us all happy and choose one? There are still so many lovely Bukharan girls left.”
“Yes,” the svakha says, a trembling finger in the air for emphasis. “There is no reason to think Ashkenazi yet. It has not reached that point. Lev is still only thirty years old.”
His father is silent. Lev knows he sympathizes, but does not approve of standing out in the community — to be different is to bring on the evil eye — and in a few weeks or a couple of months, he too will lose his patience. The svakha reaches for another slice of cake, store-bought on 108th Street. “One is as good as any other,” his father says finally, his voice raspy as though used for the first time that day. “Lev is just stubborn. It’s all those French films he watches, thinks life is like that. A romance, right, son?”
In the kitchen, Lev scoops out a bowl of pilaf, slathers a cube of butter across the top and eats it just like that, standing up in the living room, leaning against the wall, ignoring the stray, tumbling grains of rice his mother would have to sweep up later.
Of course Vasilisa’s name was not really Vasilisa. This was a private name Lev had wrapped around the more ordinary Nina Zavurov. From all the Russian fairy tales he read in childhood, he only recalled the figure of the soft-hearted Vasilisa the Beautiful who managed to outwit her evil stepmother and Baba Yaga with the help of a magic doll. When her stepmother envied the girl her transcendent, golden beauty or Baba Yaga tried to enslave her, Vasilisa would feed her doll and ask her advice. Lev’s favorite part of the story had been when poor, generous Vasilisa would offer the doll all the scraps of food she squirreled away, while she herself remained starving.
There used to be something of Vasilisa in Nina Zavurov. Her complexion was not olive like that of many Bukharan girls, but creamy white, like sour cream. Her brown hair was tinged with lemon, curls reaching the lower vertebrae of her tiny back, her almond-colored eyes fanned by feathery eyelashes. She spoke little but it seemed to Lev that beneath her silence lay smoldering nuances. He would glimpse her every day in high school — her fresh, un-madeup face, her careful steps, her neat book bag weighing down one side of her body — before she disappeared into the student throng.
Like Lev, his Buchi friends could not wait for the final bell to ring, to get the hell out of that depressing building where teachers could not pronounce their names, where the Hispanic gangs insisted they prove themselves. They would wait for their pack to gather in front of the flagpole to which a quivering American flag was affixed. Then, at Oleg’s command, they would all head toward Queens Boulevard and Austin Street and scatter into the blinking lights of the Continental movie theater, tease their brothers and uncles at the barber and shoe repair shops, buy their Mamas some flowers or sneak a swig of beer at one of the bars.
But while they ran into other Buchi kids from Forest Hills or from the religious schools, Vasilisa was rarely among them. She was at home studying, her friends complained, pouting their red-lipsticked mouths, spraying their bangs in the lobby of the movie theater. Predictably, the girls were all drawn to Oleg’s animal swagger, his erratic charm. On several occasions, one of Vasilisa’s friends had gone with Oleg into the theater bathroom, emerging with her jean jacket unzipped, her lips bare, grotesquely outlined in magenta.
The girls disgusted Lev, especially the ones who knew they had something to bring to a marriage: a beautiful face, a father who held power in the community, an interest in earning money but also in keeping the house in pristine condition. Lev had felt that Vasilisa was the only girl he could admire, unsullied in her homework, intelligent and elusive like Anna Karina or Anouk Aimée.
As he prowled Austin Street with Oleg and the rest of his friends, Lev secretly calculated that he would only have to wait two years before he could enter her father’s barber shop for a haircut. Then, when the man handed him the mirror to check his length in the back, Lev would rise, take out a bottle of fine cognac hidden in his backpack, sit the man down in his own chair and tell him that he would never have to struggle again. He would take care of his daughter, his Vasilisa.
But then, one June afternoon, they all met at an Italian café to celebrate their upcoming Forest Hills high school graduation. There were five of them there from their gang, including Lev and Oleg and Ruben, sitting around harassing the young Russian waitress. She was cute in that light-eyed, pale northern Russian way but hapless, mixing up drink orders and apologizing and then making it worse by hovering over the table and wringing her hands — an easy target in other words. It was then, while staring at her receding ass, that Oleg said, “So, guess what I did last night?” his eyes fiery and round, and blurted out the story. Lev’s chest collapsed.
And Vasilisa the Beautiful transformed back into Nina Zavurov, a fleshy, defiled human, no longer his future wife. Afterwards, there were hushed rumors that it was rape, but Oleg’s story was the only vocal one and Lev couldn’t get the image out of his mind — the supine Vasilisa the Beautiful, her magic doll pressed to her side, beneath a stabbing Oleg.
Lev no longer thinks about Samarkand. His memories are impressionistic at best: the gentle tug of his mother’s hand dragging him through the fragrant marketplace, the sticky air of late summer, the hallucinatory feel of veering along narrow cobblestone roads, claustrophobic car rides past miles of prickly wheat fields. Later he would see pictures of turquoise mosques, their cupolas majestic and swollen, and he might as well have been gaping at them as an American tourist. The Jews did not live in those pictures in guidebooks.
Now, other than food and the occasional Bukharan expression, he no longer knows what made them so Bukharan. But each Bukharan wedding is celebrated more ferociously, more chaotically than the one before — the interlocking arms, the hoarse voices, the empty bottles of Georgian wine. At each wedding, Lev imagines himself as the groom, but does not want to wake up the following day with a hangover, squinting at an anonymous, non-Vasilisa wife beside him. A wife who would have demands, who would cover her breasts protectively when he tries to slide her nightgown over her head, who would nag him when he comes to bed at two in the morning, neck sore from his Eric Rohmer double feature. If he were Oleg, it would look very different — his wife would be shedding her clothes in impatient desire, engulfing him with supple arms — but he wasn’t Oleg. Instinctively, Lev knows this is not the every day allotted to him.