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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Mother Country

A Novel

Irina Reyn

Thomas Dunne Books



First-World Problems

Brooklyn, April 2014

In this Brooklyn neighborhood, Nadia was sure she was the only nanny from Ukraine. She preferred to think of herself as an observer, a temporary traveler, someone waiting for a new life to begin, rather than who she really was: a worker executing an invisible task within the neighborhood’s complex ecosystem.

She generally liked the cheerful chaos of the park playground. Children were tooling about on sea legs, clutching green pouches of pureed nonsense. Older kids swished about on those dangerous scooters, babies giggled their way down slides. The sudden eruption of tears, the squeaky hum of the swings, the sound of women droning into their cell phones. By this point, Nadia was capable of pulling out a few phrases in English—Come here, No, Don’t touch—but the rest congealed into a soupy blur behind her eyelids.

One eye trained on Sasha, Nadia was listening to a song her daughter emailed her by some blondinka pop singer with preternaturally tanned skin. On first glance, this Vera Brezhneva was yet another Ukrainian starlet who had magically transformed herself into one of “Russia’s sexiest women.” On the other hand, the song had a melancholy strain Nadia couldn’t resist and the music video, three generations of blond girls, mothers, and grandmothers in white shifts embracing one another on breezy seashores, made her cry. The song was a mother addressing a beloved daughter, advising her to uphold inner strength during the most difficult times and promising that, no matter what, she would always be by her side—two ways she was currently failing her own daughter. “Don’t fall apart, my dearest girl,” Brezhneva breathed into Nadia’s earbuds.

She was tugged into the song’s plaintive chorus, the tide of hopelessness for her own family’s situation, when she noticed Sasha scissor across the wooden slats of the jungle gym to yank a stuffed rabbit out of the hands of some crouching toddler.

“Sasha,” she called out, shutting the music off.

Sasha had an identical rabbit at home. The same pewter-white, exorbitantly overpriced bunny with cloth of pink flowers sewn into the insides of his flapping ears. The other child had a look of shock on her face. Her encounter with Sasha was clearly a first in a series of life’s arbitrary cruelties.

“Mine, mine!” Sasha cried, clawing at the little girl’s enclosed fist.

Vera Brezhneva was rendered mute. “Enjoy, Mama,” wrote Larisska when she sent her the link to the song. Nadia hoped this was the beginning of a thaw in their relationship, a sign that Larissa was softening to her. But this message was the last Nadia received from her, the final one from home before the fighting moved there. According to the news and friends who’d escaped to Kiev or Odessa, Rubizhne was devastated—no electricity, no water—just the sound of shrapnel and random shooting. Every time she heard fire truck sirens on Court Street or the metallic thrash of a shutting grate, she felt her heart burst free from her chest. That her daughter might be dead—shot by a sniper on her walk to work, say—is a thought she refused to form, but its outline, the inconceivable blackness of it, gripped her several times a day, sometimes several times an hour.

She caught up to Sasha—“Shto ty delaesh?” What are you doing?—and pried the rabbit out of Sasha’s hands. The little girl and her nanny looked satisfied with the rabbit’s homecoming—“Say thank you, Gwendolyn”—but Sasha burst open a livid wail that turned all eyes toward them. The girl scrunched up her face, zigzagged her mouth, and exploded.

This kind of thing happened often now. Nadia struggled to employ American methods that Sasha’s mother clearly preferred while ignoring her own certainties on how to curb this behavior.

“Maybe, Nadia, if you just try to explain to her why you need her to act a certain way, if you … how to say … ‘empower’ … her with choices. I think positive parenting works better than our old Soviet methods, don’t you?” Regina had shyly pointed to a row of parenting books on her shelf. There were way too many of them, on every basic facet of raising a child—pooping, sleeping, walking, discipline. Of course, Nadia knew “positive parenting” was laughably worthless, basically handing children keys to the house and begging them to discipline you.

She decided to try the American method first. She plucked Sasha gently by the elbow, crouched at face level like Regina demonstrated for her, and tried to make eye contact with the girl. Most of those books recommended offering children two acceptable choices.

“Would you like to go home right now or in five minutes?” she tried. Everyone in the neighborhood was using this technique, and even if she didn’t understand the words, she felt the tormented seesaw of those choices in the voices of adults all around her: Would you like an apple or a carrot? Juice or milk? Your pink jacket or green sweatshirt? Your kale pouch or your cheese bunnies? Often what she really wanted to cry was, Look at the choices facing the greater world! Would you prefer life or death?

Sasha was avoiding her, the hollering growing operatic and accusatory now, the nannies and mothers pretending they weren’t stealing glances in their direction. If this were Larisska, she would have swatted her a few times on her behind, told her in no uncertain terms that this was unacceptable behavior. She would have marched her home and shoved her directly in the corner. Not that a public tantrum of this sort would have even occurred to Larisska, whose sense of rules and boundaries were inscribed into her from birth.

A terrible thought now assailed her: had Larisska sent her the song out of an outpouring of love or bitter irony? As in, “Look how you abandoned me here. Some mother you turned out to be.” Or, “I’ve realized they gave you no choice but to leave me behind” and “I know you are doing what’s best for me”? It wasn’t clear, but Nadia chose to interpret the sharing of this song in the most positive light. Enjoy, Mama. It was the first unsolicited email she had received from Larisska in six years and she could not afford to doubt its sincerity. Not when they were so close to finally getting her here. Or at least she prayed they were close. For the past six years, since arriving in America, Nadia labored for a single goal: to bring her daughter here. Her sick daughter, her diabetic daughter, a daughter that, despite being in her twenties, still desperately needed her mother. For God’s sake! She had been on a waiting list for seventeen years!

The letter to the state senator was in her purse right now, scrawled in careful Russian for Regina to translate. “Dear Mrs. Senator. I am writing you urgently with the hope that you will help speed up the immigration process of my daughter who lives in war-torn Ukraine. Her application to join me in America has been stalled for five and a half years now and the current situation has become very dangerous for her. I worry that with the escalation of the war, my diabetic daughter will no longer have access to insulin.… Is there any way to please speed up her application, to grant her asylum…”

Sasha had pulled free and was running away from her, ducking under the swinging tire.

“Sashenka, Sashenka, idem ot syuda.”

“No, no no!”

There was a reason no sane Ukrainian mother presented children with silly choices. Sasha had was digging in her heels, turning her body floppy and heavy, immovable. It was as if the very sound of Russian was irritating to her.

“You must stop speaking Russian,” Sasha had commanded her the other day. Her chin was thrust out, a three-year-old landowner overseeing a stable of serfs. “I want you to speak only English.”

“Your mama wants I speak Russian,” Nadia tried to explain then, as if the girl could understand why her Russian-born mother wanted her to speak Russian while speaking it so badly herself. But who listened? As she headed toward her fourth year, Sasha’s personality changed. As a two-year-old, she was charmed by the Russian language, by the simple messages behind classic Soviet cartoons, the books they read together about birds who withheld porridge from lazy animals, and songs about raffish bandits saving princesses from dull, bourgeois lives. Sasha was only too happy to immerse herself in Nadia’s lap and count in Russian, her dimples deepening with each pronunciation—odin, dva, tri. But once she started part-time preschool, she wanted nothing more to do with the language. Insisting in her own way that everyone that mattered now spoke English.

Sasha moved away from the tire, wiped her nose with her sleeve. It seemed like she’d concluded with her protests, had made peace with the bunny’s surrender. She returned to the jungle gym, her long eyelashes matted with tears. But then the little girl toddled by again, pushing the bunny in her pink baby stroller.

“Give. Back. Bunny!” Sasha launched into a renewed scream at the top of the slide, blocking any other child’s access to its mouth. Nadia started to climb, tiptoeing her way past babies who, frankly, did not belong in this section of the playground.

“Sasha, Sashenka,” she pleaded.

She was about to resort to good, old-fashioned Russian tactics when a mother holding a tall, straw-colored drink rose from her bench and slowly approached the slide. She was the type of woman Nadia saw more and more in Sasha’s neighborhood, a gaunt chicness in monochromatic shirts. Her hair was slicked behind her diamond-studded ears. She wore leg-hugging pants that ended before the ankle and a pair of gold ballet flats with no arch support. The kind of clothes her Larisska used to fantasize about as a teenager, clipping pictures of them from Moscow magazines. These women didn’t walk; they glided like porpoises.

With one fluid crook of the finger, the woman gestured for Sasha to go ahead and slide down, and to Nadia’s amazement, the girl instantly obeyed. Then the lady whispered something in Sasha’s ear, a speech so calm, and so directed, Nadia could barely see the mouth moving. How she envied this power language could wield. With each whisper, Nadia was being diminished, pushed out of sight. It was clear from the way Sasha looked back at her with newly wise eyes. Nadia was being swept aside by some higher sphere of native authority.

As if by magic, Sasha transformed back into a calm, self-possessed little girl. The other kids began circling down the slide, the parents and nannies became immersed in their former conversations. The girl with the bunny offered no more provocation. Sasha dutifully placed her hand in Nadia’s palm.

“Tank you,” Nadia said, but the woman barely acknowledged her. Her lips were pursed. To her, Nadia embodied nothing more than hundreds of ineffectual nannies at New York City playgrounds. What would be the point of telling her that Nadia had once served as head bookkeeper at an important gas pipe manufacturer? That she had her own family on the opposite side of the world? That her life was far rounder than the reflection in the woman’s eyes?

“I want water,” Sasha commanded. Nadia dove into a bag filled with Sasha necessities—a hat, sunscreen, bug spray, snacks, change of clothing, princess wand, safari stickers, “organic” fruit chews. She handed over the water bottle. The morning was turning toward noon, the babies bundled back in their strollers, toddlers chasing after dogs. Nadia noticed that the water spray was turned on—way too early in the season if you asked her—and she watched in horror as kids in clinging bathing suits and wet faces ran around in twenty-degree Celsius weather. Sasha drank her water with an imperious lilt to her throat, and when she handed it back and their eyes met, it was clear she too knew that Nadia could easily be erased. That even though the girl once wept inconsolably when Nadia left for the day, and had clung to Nadia’s thighs in countless baby music classes and ran to her in the morning with joy-suffused cheeks, a wispy thread connected them that Sasha alone had the power to snap.

“Let’s go,” she said, sighing, and Sasha complied.

A quick backward glance told her the woman and her son had disappeared beyond the trees, the expensive shops, the clutch of chatting nannies from exotic, warm climates Nadia would never know.

* * *

Sasha’s mother came home at six fifteen. Every day, Regina interpreted “six o’clock” in a novel way. She returned wearing the same gym clothes from the morning and dropped a heavy canvas bag to the floor. On days like these, it was easy to forget Regina was anything but American; what Russian woman would dare dress like this in public? What Russian woman would fail to notice that her often absent husband was probably sleeping around on her and maybe she should try a little harder with her appearance if she wanted to hold on to him? That Regina was born in Moscow and emigrated with her parents when she was seven seemed only to lend her an air of general melancholy, an uninformed grasp on Russian politics, and a smattering of grammar-school Russian words she often wrested out of their proper contexts. Immigration in childhood had been Regina’s biggest trauma and Nadia sensed that this narrative shielded the woman from life’s more pressing tragedies. But she was like family now, and family was to be scrutinized under a microscope with affectionate exasperation.

“Mommy, Mommy, you came back,” Sasha cried, leaping into her mother’s arms. Her happiness was so acute and genuinely surprised, you’d think the girl was abandoned during wartime, her mother returned from the front to fetch her at an orphanage.

“Of course Mama came back, Mama always comes back,” Nadia said gaily, rising from their puppet show of animals. She gave Regina an affectionate kiss of greeting. Sasha ignored her, her usefulness concluded. She immediately started engaging her mother in English, presumably about the details of her day. She hoped the girl was leaving out the tantrum, the bunny, the haughty mother that had so swiftly altered the tenor of their relationship.

“Oh, wonderful.” Regina nodded, clearly half listening, slipping out of her sneakers. “Sounds great, honey.” She was always, in Nadia’s view, distracted. She was a woman who never seemed to live in the present; she was like Chekhov’s “Lady with a Lapdog” without the tormented lover or decrepit husband. Her American husband, Jake, had a youthful, athletic physique, and was suspiciously good-looking and rarely at home.

When Nadia once asked Regina what she did for a living, Regina replied that she was a “writer.” Nadia assumed this meant journalist or secretary or even a professor of literature. But Regina insisted that she wrote romany, that she was in fact a novelist for a living despite having never published any actual novels. This “occupation” baffled Nadia. As far as she was concerned, a true novelist was Tolstoy or Pasternak or Bulgakov or even, if you had to grope around for one in the present, Valery Shevchuk. Tormented geniuses huddled over their desks, pens scratching across yellowing reams of paper, or great orators performing to rapt crowds, hosts of salons where big ideas circulated along with Georgian wine. Dignified graying women with sober cropped haircuts or, at least, alcoholics. Not this anxious woman in workout clothes and hot pink sneakers, whose haircut was way too long for someone her age. Not this woman, who at forty-two was about fifteen years too old to have small children, who whiled away the day at some rented cubicle just down the street staring into a computer screen, presumably waiting for divine inspiration to strike.

Regina sat down heavily on one of the kitchen stools, Sasha on her lap. Her stalk-green eyes settled a bit fearfully on Nadia’s. She switched over to her usual schoolgirl-level Russian. “So what happened today?”

Nadia launched into the details of the girl’s rigorous education, feeding, sleeping, and pooping schedule, highlighting Sasha’s triumphs of good behavior while glossing over the incident at the playground. She had eaten pureed vegetable soup, almost half a head of broccoli, and one of Nadia’s famous farmer cheesecakes studded with fresh blueberries. They had accomplished some simple addition with the help of cherry tomatoes, read two Russian books, memorized half a poem, and practiced writing “Sasha” in Russian and English.

“Nice job!” Regina said to Sasha, a bit of hollow American praise she overused. “Great, spasibo, Nadia. Sounds like a…” She searched for an appropriate Russian word. “Good day.”

Nadia had been looking forward to an entry, a natural pause in the conversation where she could take out the letter to the senator, but Regina was already being pulled toward a game on the rug and she was left standing by the door. The letter she had drafted lay at the top of her purse’s opening, folded carefully between the pages of a book to avoid creasing.

She considered whether to interrupt the game, to insist on Regina’s help. But Sasha had already enveloped her mother’s attention, and the tantrum was still fresh in Nadia’s mind. She slowly rose to leave, giving Regina every opportunity to encourage the little girl to bid her a proper good-bye at the door.

“See you later,” she called out, lingering. “Don’t forget tomorrow I work at Grisha’s.”

But mother and daughter were firmly ensconced in the living room/bedroom, the mother taking on the ludicrous persona of Peppa Pig (or Svinka Peppa, as she would only allow Sasha to watch the Russian-dubbed version of the British cartoon). Regina was emitting unfeminine snorting noises.

“See you next week, girls,” Nadia tried again.

“Oh, bye, Nadia,” Regina called out from the play rug, giving no indication of rising herself. Well, what did Nadia expect? Like mother, like daughter. Such a different understanding of manners here. If Regina were not so vulnerable, so easily bruised and defensive, she would have reminded her of the importance of modeling good manners.

She had never allowed Larisska to skip the ritual of the greeting or farewell. “Say good-bye to Tyotya Olya” or “Say hello to Dyadya Yasha.” By the time Larisska was five, she no longer needed to be dragged to the door; she knew the proper way to bid someone farewell.

But that was then, of course. When the world was right side up.

Nadia locked the door behind her and trudged down all those stairs to let herself out of the brownstone and into a Brooklyn so different from her own slice of the borough it might as well be a different nation. In this Brooklyn, the stores were not warehouses for cheap plastic junk, but elegantly and neatly presented to pedestrians. They were museums, spare and gutted of any actual wares. She loved walking into them with Sasha, inspecting wispy and decadent items. Useless frippery like soaps wrapped in twine, delicate swan-shaped moisturizer bottles, silky spaghetti straps dangling from velvet hangers. Some stores bartered only in nuts, while others churned out “artisanal” mayonnaise. She marveled at the civilized exchanges between owners and customers. No one was groping at vegetables, suspiciously sniffing them for freshness. No one was hobbling about with grim expressions, hauling cheap flowers in yellow disposable bags. No babushki sitting outside their high-rises in plastic chairs, volubly commenting on passersby—“Maybe you should put a sweater on that child before she freezes to death” or “A real man never lets a lady carry heavy bags.” On her stretch of Kings Highway, it was dubious produce and “Italian” fashion, trinkets with which to entertain children, pharmacies with their Polish creams and matryoshki and other sentimental ornaments from the former Soviet Union, nothing more than tourist bait.

Here, no one was haggling over pennies or chastising her for asking stupid questions. No one raised their voices the way they did at her local pharmacy this morning. (The pharmacist had yelled “Get out of here, narcoman!” to a customer trying to push a prescription of Vicodin across the counter. Couldn’t she have simply said “I’m afraid we cannot fill this particular prescription”?) It was a country of too much and not nearly enough.

And there were so many restaurants in this fake Brooklyn, people always tending to the business of eating in public. Back home, no one went out to dinner. Any Russian or Ukrainian woman worth her salt could cook a better meal than the expensive ones in restaurants. But here she saw the same people out night after night for no good reason, licking their fingers after fried potatoes, fishing into bowls of black shells with tiny forks, actually waiting on sidewalks in order to get in and be divested of their money! Passing these idlers on her way to the subway, she couldn’t help remembering that awful January in 1988, Larissa just born and refusing her breast milk, waiting two hours in line at the cooperative in case there was a single can of baby formula. No one here could grasp that kind of desperation.

The train was predictably crowded but she could mark the exact places where it would start easing up. Carroll Street, Fourth Avenue, and the biggest exodus of all: Seventh Avenue. Women in workout clothes and comfortable shoes. Dark-skinned men with tattoos who seemed to be the only segment of the population who rose for pregnant women. Orthodox Jews. Five years before, she had never seen people like this—all these shades and religions. Back home, she had only read about Orthodox Jews and Muslims and black people and gay people, saw them on television in ominous broadcasts on life in America.

Her first few months here, she was afraid of them all, clutching her purse tightly to her chest. Her heart raced with every stop until the scary people got off the train and she could breathe again. When someone broke out drums or begged for cash, she would find her blood pressure rising, newly alert, pepper spray clutched tightly in her fist. But after a year or two, she started relaxing, seeing a new beauty, a new collegiality with all that color. Now she rode with them backward and forward, from deep Brooklyn to la-la Brooklyn and she thought of them as private comrades in life and war.

* * *

The following Monday, Sasha was being obstinate by refusing to roll her Russian rs. “Tree” she kept attributing to the number three, the t way too soft, the r carpeting out of her mouth. And then, “I did it, okay? Can I have my lollipop now?”

Nadia tapped on the blackboard with a wedge of chalk. “Try another time, yes? Odin, dva, tri. Trrrrrri.”

The girl said something in English that may have been the word “tired” or even “buzz off,” an unfortunate addition to both of their English vocabularies thanks to an unfortunate new gift of a book. Sasha’s attention kept returning to the fire escape, where a squirrel was nibbling an acorn to shreds.

“Tired,” she said again.

“No tired. Try one more time.”

“Stop? Sew dog.”

Nadia sighed. Back home, kids younger than Sasha were counting and repeating and memorizing. (Praying for their lives and countries in underground bunkers! But she refused to think about that.) By Sasha’s age, Larissa could recite Pushkin’s “On Seashore Far a Green Oak Towers” or a smattering of Shevchenko. Here, on the other hand, children were passively entertained at all times; no wonder they were ill-equipped for boredom. Even the adults were untrained for the basic hardships of life.

How often had she watched Regina lugging poor baby Sasha, her stroller, and a bag of groceries? The effort took on a comical cast, with Regina struggling with Sasha on one hip, the stroller pressed against the other, and the groceries dragging pitifully behind her. When Nadia hoisted three bags, she was able to lift the stroller under one arm, the groceries firmly in hand, and Sasha around the waist. By contrast, Regina was often overwhelmed by the smallest of domestic tasks: how to wash urine from a sheet in the sink, sew the split crotch of a pair of pajamas, scrub mold from a tub corner. It was as though her own mother had failed to teach her tools of basic survival.

She pitied Regina for raising children in a culture that promoted her helplessness, a culture that made her doubt her own instincts, forcing her to research how to be a parent rather than boldly and unquestioningly raise her own daughter. Even Sasha’s name made no sense to her! On one hand it was a nod to Regina’s Russian heritage, but no girl in Russia would be named Sasha. It was a nickname, an affectionate truncation of Alexandra, just like Nadia was short for Nadezhda. Imagine her name being Nadia on a birth certificate! To name a child Sasha was to strip the word of any coherent connection with the past.

When she first interviewed for the job, Nadia handed to Regina a list that summarized the correct approach to child-rearing.

1. The child will always be strapped into the stroller on city streets.

2. The child will not be given any cold beverages or ice cream.

3. The child must spend at least a half hour outdoors breathing fresh air.

4. An exception to the above rule—if the child is sick. Then all her activities must be canceled so she can recover.

5. Naps will be orchestrated at precise times each day so the child has a strict understanding of her daily schedule.

6. Nadia will puree as many foods as possible to avoid choking, and each meal will include a vegetable, a grain, dairy, and a fruit.

7. There will be two educational activities each day, including time for the child to play independently.

8. Toilet training will begin at nine months.

The list continued in this vein, and as she read on, Regina appeared both thrilled and intimidated by Nadia’s rules. It was clear that this was precisely what she was looking for, a person to bring order to a wishy-washy household, to erect strict boundaries to a formless world of self-doubt brought on by a sea of parenting manuals.

“When can you start?” Regina had said, putting down the list. And now, three years later, they were enmeshed together in a tight cocoon of love and fear and language confusion.

Sasha was shoving at her a red dog split at the belly because her coddled mother had no idea how to thread a needle.

“Okay, okay, I do.” She took the disemboweled dog and reached for the sewing kit.

Her phone rang; she put down the wounded dog and Sasha took advantage of the interruption by moving away from the chalkboard with the Russian letters and toward the dollhouse in her tiny alcove.


“Nadia, hello.” It was Regina’s apologetic voice. Regina was always apologetic, deferring to Nadia’s competence or to Sasha’s impetuous outbursts. She acted as though she had a hard time being seen. “I’m so sorry. I forgot to mention this morning that Sasha has a playdate with this girl from her preschool, Mila. Would you mind meeting up with Mila’s nanny today? She speaks Russian too, so I thought it would be a great … plan.”

“Of course, no problem.” She wrote down the address in clear block letters. “We go to them, yes?”

“Oh yes, of course. There’s no room for both girls at our place.”

“No problem. I will put on her jacket now.” She hung up, and called, “Sasha, Sashen’ka! Come here.”

Not that she had far to walk to find Sasha, which was the reason friends were never invited here. Another thing Nadia would never understand about Regina’s life was the size of this apartment. Who ever heard of an American family choosing to be squashed like this? A little girl in a room with no door while the parents slept in a pull-out couch in the living room? Her own parents had lived better than this under communism! Her mother and Larisska lived in a much bigger apartment in Rubizhne. (If it was still intact. If they were still alive. Not now, she refused to dwell on that.)

“It’s worth it for us to … how do you say, sacrifice? To live in this neighborhood,” Regina explained to her on more than one occasion.

“Why this neighborhood? Because of mayonnaise store? You cannot live without fresh … what is it? Rhubarb mayonnaise?” she asked in disbelief.

But Regina just smiled and shook her head. “Nadia, you don’t understand.”

Regina and Jake’s apartment consisted of two rooms and a kitchen on the fifth floor of a brownstone in desperate need of renovation. The bathroom was tiled in mustard yellows and browns with a leaking claw-foot tub and a shower curtain not long enough to contain pools of spraying water. The kitchen cabinets were almost all off their hinges, the rusted hardware loose, the oven lit only when you jiggered the knob and helped it along with a match. The ceiling in the “living room” was stamped with an amoeba-shaped water stain.

Was any neighborhood worth this discomfort? It was clear to Nadia that Regina and Jake had no time alone together, their marriage frayed by the sardined living conditions. And poor Sasha was always losing friends when Regina never reciprocated the invitations of other families. The pattern was always the same—Sasha would be invited one or two times to some classmate’s house, then Regina would volunteer they meet in a public place like the park. When the weather deteriorated she was forced to invent excuses for why Sasha was unavailable for any more playdates. Eventually, the friend drifted away, Sasha heartbroken, repeating, “When I go to Isabella’s?”

All this to stay in a neighborhood that sold yarn and expensive handbags and eyeglasses, ice-cream shops with six-dollar scoops that had lines around a velvet rope. More than once, she wanted to shake Regina and tell her that her entire life would improve if her family moved to a neighborhood they could actually afford.

She peeked around the corner into Sasha’s “bedroom.” The girl was crouched on the floor, squeezed in between bed and white dresser. “Okay, Sashen’ka. We go Mila’s house.”

“Too busy.” The dolls were seated in high chairs, eating in a restaurant, of all things. (Nadia’s dolls had once explored nature or cooked elaborate meals. They sewed and danced and studied their multiplication and marched in parades. It came as no surprise to Nadia that American dolls whiled away their own pampered days in restaurants.)

“Yes, I see you very busy. But Mama said…”

“Ramen, please,” one inappropriately busty doll commanded from a solicitous waiter.

The phone rang again. “Nadia, sorry, it just occurred to me.” Regina’s meek voice was being drowned by the screech of ambulance sirens. “… you mind putting a new outfit on Sasha?”

“New outfit? But she is dressed already.”

Nadia quickly scanned Sasha. The little girl looked fine to her in her jeans and pink tunic, a pink sequined headband sweeping back her long chestnut hair.

“Actually, I’m thinking that Tea dress with flowers and Hanna Andersson leggings, and the Primigi Mary Janes?”

“She is warmly dressed for the weather. Do not worry, she will not catch chill.”

There was a pause. “Oh, I know. I have no doubt you dressed her … good. But I’d like her to look especially nice for this playdate. Mila’s mother is on the … how do you say … committee … of this school, and…”

“Oh, I understand. No problem, Reginochka.”

“Sorry to bother you. Thank you, Nadia.” Regina sounded relieved, as if she had expected Nadia’s stern objections and was happy, if only in that moment, not to be judged.

* * *

This Mila’s brownstone was one of the gleaming, renovated ones on Strong Place, an idyllic, tucked-away block that Nadia enjoyed strolling. Unlike Sasha’s loud corner just off earsplitting Smith Street, this was a hideaway of leafy perfection, of brownstone after elegant brownstone illuminated by perfect sunshine by day and gauzy lanterns in the evenings. At night, when the interiors exploded with light, Nadia enjoyed staring into the cavernous, curated lives within, owners gliding between windows with books or trays, glasses of wine. Contorted, modern chandeliers reflecting light on enormous works of modern art. It was even better than television, gaping at these foreign worlds.

They lingered at the steps, the windows large and open, the brick exterior clean, the door painted an inviting, unchipped cherry red. It was clear by the single buzzer that Mila’s family owned the entire house. At her side, Sasha lingered. She was gripping Nadia’s hand, her thumb making an indentation in her palm. Nadia let her press the buzzer with a single uncertain finger.

The door swung open and a voluptuous, dark-haired woman in coral lipstick waved them inside. “Come in, come in,” she said in Russian, and just the sound of those familiar words filled Nadia with hope. It occurred to her how rarely in her long days with Sasha she heard the mellifluous flow of the Russian language.

“I hope we’re not late.”

“No, no, we were just finishing a late lunch.”

The woman’s bosoms receded to another room, and the two of them were abandoned in the foyer with this Mila. By glancing the little girl over, Nadia understood why she was asked to change Sasha’s outfit. Mila was wearing an expensive-looking printed herringbone dress, sunflower sandals, and a satin headband with a floppy bow. She also looked to be older than Sasha, at least five years old.

“Follow me, Sasha. Let’s go.” She was leading Sasha onto a different floor, one that was presumably all hers. Her dictates held an even more officious ring than Sasha’s.

“Tea?” the nanny called from the other room.

“Thank you, that would be most welcome.”

“Come join me.”

Usually, she dreaded the necessary socializing during these so-called playdates. (“Can you explain ‘playdates’?” she asked Regina in the beginning. “I know, the very word is ridiculous, isn’t it?” Regina had laughed, empathizing with her confusion.) Not that she was able to properly socialize with the other nannies or mothers. The nannies were usually from lands incomprehensible to Nadia—Dominican Republic or Trinidad or Saint Lucia. After the initial tortured chitchat with the few English words Nadia had at her disposal, they silently agreed to type on their own phones for the remainder of the “playdate.”

But now, she followed this Russian woman into a gleaming kitchen straight out of a magazine. A kitchen embellished with steel and marble, with a refrigerator the size of a car and an industrial-sized oven with charming burgundy knobs.

“It is so beautiful here, pravda?” the nanny said. She was pulling down marked glass jars decorated with a soothing array of Indian prints. “There are many tea options. Lemongrass, verbena, something called Golden Monkey, chocolate mint truffle, rooibos, South African red bush, green, green lavender, green mango, green peppermint.”

“How about just plain tea? Normal tea.”

The nanny smiled. “I know exactly what you mean.” Her smile was as generous as the rest of her, framing mostly straight white teeth. She selected the jar with loose black leaves, and sifted some of its contents into a strainer. Nadia tried to gaze away from those breasts but they were tightly encased, conical orbs peeking out of striped cotton like the smooth curve of a baby’s bottom.

Running footsteps overhead sounded like a pair of galloping horses. The nanny turned her head to the ceiling. “Mila, you know pine floors are sensitive. Walk, please.”

The footsteps halted.

“Okay, nanny, I won’t do it anymore,” came the perfectly fluent Russian response.

“Amazing,” Nadia marveled. “I can’t get Sasha to speak to me in Russian for the life of me.”

The nanny gave her a sidelong glance, a quick flicker that Nadia couldn’t entirely interpret. “So what’s your story? There’s an accent. From where?”

For some reason, Nadia was starting to feel uncomfortable. She wished the tea would steep faster. “Ukraina. Lugansk area.”

The nanny whistled. “That’s tough now, eh?”

“It’s horrible.” It was all she could do not to confide in this stranger. Her daughter, her mother, her friends. The one word she received was from a cousin who’d made it to Kiev. He told her over Skype, “It’s impossible to explain to you, Nadenka. The bridges are gone, the hospital. Bodies just left to rot in the streets.” Last time she saw Larissa over Skype it was at night, and outside the window, she could see the arc of flares shooting across the sky. Her mother said they took turns sleeping in the tub.

The galloping resumed upstairs, but this time the nanny didn’t correct it. “I can’t imagine. A nightmare over there. You must have relatives.” The nanny served the tea and they sat silently among the gleaming stainless steel surfaces. Nadia became aware of a street leached of sound, so unlike what she had become used to in Brooklyn.

“I do. We’re all terrified. Of course all we want is to be left alone.” The last thing she meant to do was wade into politics. That most immigrants from the Soviet Union were Jewish in this country was a fact that took some getting used to—in Ukraine she had met one Jew, maybe two. But here weren’t they all simply immigrants? “What about you? Where are you from?”

She heard giggling upstairs, the slamming of doors. The turquoise tiles above the stove gave the wall a look of a picturesque cobblestone street.

The nanny was no longer smiling. “Moscow. But my parents were from a small town in central Ukraine called Dzhurin.”

“Oh really? I know where that is.” With immigrants it was better to talk about anything but Ukraine, a touchy subject for Russian-speakers, western Ukrainians, and Jews. “This is such delicious tea. What flavor is this?”

“Of course eventually they had to leave with the other Jews.”

Nadia set down her tea. “Well, I dream about one day getting to Moscow. It’s a beautiful city, isn’t it? When I save up some money, I might meet my daughter in Moscow. It seems like the only way I’ll ever get to see her again. I couldn’t take her, you see.”

“You left your daughter behind?”

In the woman’s voice, she perceived a snap of hatred. It was too bad. She had been looking forward to the possibility of a nanny friend. Child-caring hours were so long and monotonous and she envied the nannies she saw passing their work time in pairs, their braids swinging in unison as they pushed strollers down Smith Street.

“I think you misunderstand me. I didn’t leave her. I came so she could join me here.”

“You left your own daughter?” the woman repeated. “You left your own child in the middle of war?”

“There was no war then. She aged out of the application and I had to fill out a new application for her when I landed here. This was the only way she could leave. I send her money every month.” Nadia was shocked. Did civilized people speak so rudely to strangers?

But this nanny kept talking. “You know, my parents were forced out of Dzhurin. Once my father grew beets instead of corn, and he was arrested. Can you imagine being arrested for growing beets? Of course, there was a famine, the region needed beets, but who cared about that?”

“I’m sorry.”

“At the collective farm, they would report my father for any infraction. Turned him in and everything, slapped his many war medals down on the table and said he had a ‘Jewish mug,’ a zhidovnia morda. And that was after he survived the ghetto and the Soviet army. He died today, my brother’s dealing with all the arrangements. Mila’s parents couldn’t find a substitute babysitter, so here I am.”

“That’s terrible. Do you want me to stay and watch Mila for a few hours?”

The woman slid a row of cookies from a tray as if they were engaging in pleasantries. “They would freak out. No, I will wait for them to get home. I don’t know why all this came out. Look, try this one. It’s dipped in chocolate with a raspberry filling. You’ll lick your lips. These cookies cost more than my purse.”

“No, thank you.”

The nanny bit into a cookie. “They said he was not a bad guy for a ‘zhid.’ Believe me, I have no cozy feelings toward either Russians or Ukrainians, and you should feel exactly the same way.”

Nadia rose suddenly, a loud scrape of the stool against shellacked bamboo floor. She felt her breathing speed, one breath bumping up against the next. The familiar feeling of being impotent. Or worse, being vaguely, impersonally hated. So often, the most incisive, externally imperceptible abuses in this country came to her from the mouths of other immigrants.

“Maybe it’s best that I check in on Sasha.” Before the nanny could protest, Nadia was halfway up the stairs. “Sashen’ka,” she called out. “It’s time for us to go.”

Finding the kids was not easy. There was a long hallway flanked by three closed doors and she tried them all. One was a master bedroom with French doors that opened out to a balcony. The other two were children’s bedrooms connected by a walk-in closet exploding with voluminous clothes. One wall was devoted to children’s shoes, strappy and buckled, toes neatly pointing outward. An entire section of the closet consisted of costumes: witches and princesses, tutus and ladybugs. She stood there for a minute, a burning sensation in her throat, a pulsating twitch in her right eye.

She heard voices overhead so she climbed another set of stairs into an enormous loft drenched with toys. Her first reaction was to marvel at the hardwood floors, at the broad windows framing the first pussy willow buds of the season. The room was splashed with luxuriant light, the dappled color of which, it seemed to her, only rich people could afford. When she turned her attention to the kids, the sight that greeted her did not entirely make sense. The girl Mila was holding real scissors, long and silver, with inlaid pearl handles. And Sasha was sitting underneath them, among a constellation of hair lying in feathery layers on a shaggy white carpet.

“Dear God, what did you do?” She ran to Sasha and inspected her head. Half of it remained intact, beautiful waves curling down her shoulder. The other side was hacked into wisps and spikes snarling around her ear.

“We’re playing salon,” Mila explained. “I am the hairdresser from Salon de Quartier, Sasha’s my client.”

Sasha was blinking up at her, suppressed fear beneath a need for … what? Collusion? Sympathy? Guilt?

The nanny was behind them now in a cloud of sugar and lavender perfume, wringing her hands. “Oh no, Mila. What did you do? We’re going to have to tell your parents. Sashenka, please forgive Mila. Mila, say you’re sorry.”

“You should have been watching us better, nanny.” Mila sweetly put down the scissors.

Nadia picked Sasha up in her arms. It had been many months since Sasha allowed herself to be carried in this way, crumpled and small, pressed against Nadia’s chest. She was visibly scared, the way she was when the consequences of her own naughtiness solidified and were presented to her. It reminded Nadia somehow of walking on the edges of the Kremina Forest with her own Larisska where the air smelled of pine. They called the vast wooded area “Green Pearl” because of its fecund lushness, and at one point, not long after the diagnosis, she imagined a deep inhale of pine would cure her daughter of diabetes. How simple their relationship was then.

She descended with Sasha down the stairs, picked up her purse and stroller. “Thank you for having us.”

She could hear the nanny behind her apologizing for the disaster of a morning. She was emotional, she hoped Nadia could forgive them all.

“Of course,” Nadia said. “I wish I could help, but we really should go. I’m sorry for your loss.”

She cradled Sasha and the stroller and Sasha’s bag filled with nonchemical sunscreens, organic dried fruits, filtered water, and sun hat, and her own bag, heavy with her lunch and letter to the New York senator and change of shoes and a paperback. She hoisted all of them at once and suddenly felt immensely strong again. As if she could carry much more, half the world, in her steely, female grip.

* * *

On their way home, they walked past the new ice cream shop. A line was already formed at its front doors, children emerging with their cups of fancy treats, parents with their own cones. This time, she took note of Sasha’s crumpled face. Instead of veering Sasha right past them as she normally did, they joined the back of the queue. Once inside, she watched the people in front of them as if through a clouded window, adults tasting from tiny plastic spoons and contemplating which flavor to choose as if the fate of entire nations rested on it. When they inched closer, she lifted Sasha up to peer inside the display cases. No tubs of plain vanilla, mind you, but chunks of caramel or chunky peanuts covered in chocolate or entire candy bars shoveled into barrels of what appeared to be frozen hazelnut. Sasha pointed at a spotted vat, which turned out to taste of peppermint and a haze of chocolate flecks. Sasha seemed to be cheering up. As she reached over to take a cone from a young man, she didn’t appear to notice that the waiting hordes were staring at her asymmetrical hairstyle.

“Very punk rock,” the cashier said, whatever that meant.

“Let’s go.” She paid the ridiculous six dollars and winced as Sasha submerged her entire mouth in the freezing dessert. Larisska’s ice cream, like her own when she was a child, had been heated in a pot until lumps succumbed to soupy broth. How she would chase those orbs of ice around with her tongue! But Russians would never give children ice cream or drinks laced with ice cubes, and in her bones Nadia believed this to be right. It couldn’t be good for throats or stomachs to be exposed to cold like that. But here was an entire culture that felt differently, and she was part of it now.

Ice cream consumed, they let themselves into an apartment that looked even shabbier than the one they left, the floors more sloped and stained than before, the caulking more visible in the corners. She became aware of how wide the wet splotch on the ceiling had spread, how it made the expensive furniture look cheaper. On top of the air conditioner, pigeons were putting the finishing touches on their nest, earsplitting cooing competing with the honking of snarled traffic. Regina would be horrified, would blow the entire thing out of proportion. Preschool pictures were looming and she would treat the matter as if it were a national tragedy. It would be up to Nadia to situate the haircut as a child’s prank, to calm the hysteria.

Sasha, her mouth still sticky with peppermint, slipped off her shoes without being asked. She even placed them in the cubby designated for this very purpose. She looked puny with half a head of hair, her shoulders and rib cage slight, belly protruding.

“What do you want do? Shall we play restaurant with your dolls? Did they ever get that soupchik they ordered from that no-good waiter?” Nadia asked quietly.

Sasha walked directly to the chalkboard and contemplated the numbers scrawled there in Nadia’s careful, florid penmanship.

“Odin, dva, tri, chetyri,” she began to recite. They were a team again, the solidarity of the wounded with a secret. Nadia nodded vigorously at “tree” and at “cheteerie.” She praised Sasha’s pronunciation. She volunteered hot dogs for dinner, but framed them with pureed carrots, and when Sasha ate every bite, she held the girl close, listening to the stubborn consistency of her beating heart.

When Regina came home at almost seven o’clock, Nadia put on a brave, cheerful face. Even before Regina set her canvas bag down and slipped off her sneakers, Nadia was working on easing the severity of her reaction.

“Don’t worry, Reginochka. Her hair was so beautiful, but it will return to its length in no time. It’ll probably be even thicker and healthier.”

Regina looked confused, then her eyes fell on her daughter. She screamed, “What happened?”

Nadia explained what she had mentally prepared, making sure to level her tone. The girls were left alone. It was the way of children. It would grow back. This should only be the worst thing that happens to you, she thought privately.

“I don’t understand this at all.” Regina was winding her fingers around the cropped stalks and phantom hair that used to curl behind the ear and onto the girl’s shoulder. “You were there, weren’t you? You were watching her? How could this even have happened?”

“I’m sorry. Forgive me.”

“But her hair was perfect. We just got it cut at the salon on Atlantic. It took so long to find a style she liked.”

Sasha, overwhelmed by her mother’s emotion, broke into a fresh round of tears. The two rocked in the tight wedge between living room and “bedroom.” Nadia watched them, a struggle waging inside her. Once, her Larisska returned from a day with her friends with her hair completely caked in mud; they’d all taken turns “shampooing” one another out of roadside puddles. But so what? She’d slapped Larisska halfheartedly across her backside, and sent her with a towel to the bathroom.

This was not the best time to emerge with the letter to the senator, but was there ever a good time?

“What’s this?” Regina looked up at the envelope, uncomprehending.

“Would you please translate into English and type up for me? I wrote it just as I want it to say. My daughter is trapped in Lugansk region. Right where fighting is.”

Regina unpeeled herself. “I didn’t know you had a daughter.”

She guessed it was true. She had never mentioned Larisska to Regina. At first, it was out of caution with a new employer who might use a sentimental connection like this one against her. Then it seemed easier to immerse herself in Regina’s life, to mother her and Sasha instead.

“Look, as you can see this isn’t a great time.” Regina sighed, visibly irritated. “And I’m not very good at reading Russian. What is it you want me to do?”

This was a Regina she did not understand. The only way to make sense of it was to love her even more, for all her frail, childlike extremity of feeling. After all, she was living her life with no idea that there was a war going on where innocent people were dying, where the threat of death occupied their every thought, where they had no idea if they could find enough food to feed their children. How could this lucky American woman possibly comprehend that a bad haircut was not the end of the world?

Nadia spoke succinctly, like a history teacher. “I don’t know if you have been reading the papers. But it is a complete emergency. A civil war and all the fighting is in my region. There is a referendum on the future of our region and my mother cannot vote in our town. She will have to be driven outside of Donetsk to find open polling booths. Even then she is not safe and her vote is probably useless. Every day, there is heavy artillery, bombing. Tanks around the perimeter of the forest, blockades, snipers shooting. I need to do something. I need to save them, and my best and only chance is to start with Larisska. She is like you, you know? Young but not young. She can’t take care of herself.”

The speech did seem to land with Regina. Her face took on a fresh compassion, perhaps even lending her more perspective on the haircut debacle. She kept stealing looks back at a Sasha still entwined around her leg, thinking. “I had no idea. Well, Nadia, I guess I don’t really understand the situation in Ukraine…”

“You are writer. If you could write me that one letter in English in a nice florid way, in the way of a native English speaker. Maybe then the senator will pay attention to me.”

There was no room for all of them and this fresh sadness inside this minuscule kitchen. “Okay. Why don’t you leave it with me and I’ll take a look later.”

Nadia slid the letter onto the table and gathered her things. She was surprised to hear Regina’s laughter.

“You want to hear something funny? The more I look at it, I actually like it,” Regina said. She was holding up Sasha’s other side, evening the two parts into a projected whole. “It’s kind of … how do you say … In English, we say ‘funky.’ It will be easier to brush for sure. Wait until I tell Jake. We may be able to rescue it after all.”

“Very punk rock,” Nadia said, which made Regina laugh even more. They embraced good-bye after the envelope of cash was exchanged.

At the door, Nadia turned. She put her heavy purse down and gestured for Regina to come closer. “Before I go, I need to tell you something. Something very important. What just happened with Sasha, you should not make such a big deal of it. There are worse things that could happen.”

Regina had this faraway smile on her face, as if she really had recovered. But Nadia saw her soul clearly. It was no different from that of their beloved little girl in the playground, outwardly composed but silently devastated over the loss of a ridiculous, expensive white rabbit. And how could Regina possibly know her daily, pressing, constant palpitating fear? This was one thing she owned, an emotion native to her, the one that gave her strength and resources that Regina was lucky enough to lack.

She bent down and repeated the main Vera Brezhneva lyric into Regina’s ear—“Don’t fall apart, my dearest girl”—in the calm, confident manner of that American mother at the playground who knew exactly what to say in a crisis, who somehow possessed the ability to make whole what was recently broken.

Copyright © 2019 by Irina Reyn