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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Imperial Wife

A Novel

Irina Reyn






The Burliuk is a fake. To make sure, I flash the ultraviolet light closer to the surface. No doubt about it—the form’s flat, the red way off. The image has no depth, and the tentative, choppy signature floats. These are not at all the artist’s confident, swirling lines. The painting’s canvas is made of Masonite, a material Burliuk would never have used in 1911. And most damning of all is the bucolic subject matter in keeping with his later, American period. Oh, well. Disappointing, but at least I made the catch before slotting the piece into the catalogue.

“It’s a stunner, isn’t it?” The consignor’s voice slices through the dim light of the viewing room. “I fell in love as soon as I saw it.”

“I can see why you were drawn to it.” This was supposed to be my showstopper, my top star. A Russian-period Burliuk is rare, much less one from 1911. But I manage to maintain a cheerful demeanor.

I’ve got to hand it to the forger; apart from slapping the wrong date on the thing, he did a decent job. The reproduction has its own energy. The farm is vivid, the horse and ducks rendered in the playful vein of the master’s later work as an immigrant living on Long Island. Of course by that point, Burliuk’s most important Futurist work was long behind him, these lucrative if mediocre farm scenes probably aimed toward the tastes of American art collectors.

I imagine a struggling immigrant in Leipzig or Queens copying, line by line, the style of some blown-up original. The love and patience that requires, to apply one’s hand over another’s intention, to reach back hundreds of years in search of connection.

I’d prefer to stay in the dark forever. But the catalogue deadline is looming and I’ve still got nothing pressworthy. I flip the light switch.

“If you haven’t guessed, the Russian market’s sort of new to me. You know how it is. Never sure what you’re getting half the time.” The consignor, Mr. Brooks, is an unassuming-looking man with mild blue eyes, razor-thin eyebrows, and flushed cheeks. A gallery owner from Greenwich, another innocent American wading into the dangerous waters of Russian art, trusting the expertise of others, discounting all the danger signs. I’m tempted to shake him, to offer him the following advice: just stay away from the Russians!

But because he’s considering consigning other, presumably authentic, pieces to Worthington’s, specialists are never to sound the alarm right away. Instead, the matter must be handled with subtlety and delicacy, infusing a fruitless situation with a spark of hope so the relationship continues. One of the worst parts of my job is collusion in this limbo, like a doctor cheerfully recommending further testing when she knows the prognosis is no good.

“You’re right to be wary,” I say gently, warmly. “The market is flooded with fakes. In this case, it might be best to leave the painting in our care.”

“Really? Why?” There it is again, a reed of distress in his voice. A part of him must know. The bony knobs of his knees are pressed together in tan plaid slacks.

I place the flashlight down on the coffee table where our past auction catalogues are fanned out. I’m reminded of the deadline again, the front page that would now have to feature the Goncharova Spanish dancer. That one was a coup, but it’s no neoclassical-style, turn-of-the-century Fabergé hardstone inkwell like what Nadia Kudrina’s got over at Christie’s. And in this climate, in this depressed market, clients want rarity above all. The kind of property they can’t get anywhere else. To guarantee the highest bids, it should be a work that’s fresh to the market, rediscovered, that no one even knows exists.

“We may have a bit of a historical contradiction here. As a courtesy, we would be happy to bring in our restorer to look it over in greater detail.”

“What do you mean by a contradiction?”

“It’s the subject matter, that’s all. Just raises a small question in my mind.”

“Oh, no. Really?”

“It should take just a week or two. We’ll get it back to you.” I say this in a conclusive way. But always positive. This is just an obstacle to be surmounted.

Mr. Brooks rises off the couch, his hand resting protectively on the frame of the fake. I reach over to reassure him in some way, a pat on his shoulder, a handshake, some human interaction he may remember later in the depths of his distress. I know he’s paid over two hundred thousand for it and he’s not getting that money back. Just as my fingers settle on the wool shoulder of his jacket, I notice my assistant Regan in the door waving frantically to me.

“Excuse me, I’ll be right back.” The door claps shut and the light brightens. I breathe in, exhale.

Regan is waiting down the hall, in the corner of the floor carved out for the Russian art department. Because our specialty is still relatively new, our area’s an afterthought. We’re an island surrounded by East Asian and Middle Eastern, a row of desks squeezed between mahogany bookshelves and a cemetery of broken ergonomic chairs. My friends always expect the Worthington’s offices to look like coolly curated galleries or at least the blankness of a modernist museum. How lucky you are to work there, they tell me. If they only knew! The space is a disheveled jumble of extension cords and books and articles and spreadsheets. On top of one of the bookshelves sits a ransacked box of chocolates next to a wilting bouquet of yellow roses. Most of the specialists’ desks are littered with electrolyte water bottles, teacups, or clear nail polish. Like everything else at an auction house, beauty here tends to be for public consumption only.

“Good timing. What’s up?”

“Someone’s in the paper,” Regan sings, holding up the Financial Times “Diary of a Somebody” column. In red ink, she has circled the pull quote:

Between a looming Russian art auction, a fund-raiser at Sergei Brin’s, and her husband’s best-selling novel, Worthington’s Russian Art specialist Tanya Kagan Vandermotter hobnobs with the most important businesspeople of the world. But despite all the fabulous parties, she is “just a simple girl from Moscow” whose dream is to see more Russian masterworks returned to their place of origin.

“Booya. Read it and weep, Nadia Kudrina. This is coming in at the perfect time.”

I wave it away, but I’m secretly pleased. “Let me see that.”

Most of it is embarrassing me as I read it in print but I’m tempted to walk it straight up to Dean. See, you can’t cut the Russian department now! I turn on the computer to find an in-box flooded with congratulations and e-mails with subject lines like “Hey, Simple Girl from Moscow!”

I call my parents to celebrate. They’re thrilled.

“‘Diary of a Somebody’ must mean you are a Somebody,” my mother says. My father promises to find a copy of the paper in New Jersey. If he has to cancel a client for a trip to Barnes & Noble, so be it.

I think about calling Carl, then I picture his pained face, the one he’s been wearing lately. The flutter of his eyelashes as he levels his gaze on me, trying to puzzle out my motivations. The way he asks “Is that you?” when I step through the door in the evening, as if connecting the possibility of a stranger with the person invading his space. The oblique angle of him through mirrors. But I dial his number anyway. The phone goes to his voice mail and I leave a message seeping with exclamation points.

“Let’s all have dinner tonight!” Then I hang up.

When the Financial Times first called about doing the column, I’d wanted no part of it. Those columns made me squeamish for their subjects. They portrayed art experts as jet-setting glamour-pusses that engineer million-dollar deals at Art Basel by day but fly back to their London town houses just in time to bake their children perfect biscotti from scratch. Who say things like, “Heli-skiing really helps me unwind.” Beautiful specialists in modernist homes with handsome, curly-haired Mediterranean husbands or WASPy blondes in organic caftans and chunky jewelry. Always photographed in black against a somber background or their noses dipped into the rim of a wineglass. The idea of being in those pages among that company was laughable. A Russian immigrant whose parents live in a two-bedroom house in New Jersey? Who has no idea what heli-skiing is or how rugby is even played, a million miles away from penthouses in the Time Warner Center and weekend jaunts to places like Mustique? Who was promoted only because her former assistant, Nadia Kudrina, decamped to Christie’s? Who was nobody when she first met Carl Vandermotter?

But the company insisted I do the feature. The Financial Times was an opportunity for Worthington’s to stand out among our competitors, my boss Marjorie informed me. This was our PR opportunity, a chance to finally conquer a Sotheby’s whose board was being challenged. But I could read between the lines—the future of the Russian department is on the line. Why pump money into Russian art at a time like this? Why not look toward China or the safest place of all: contemporary? Most galleries in the world support the contemporary market—Warhol, Koons, and Hirst are always a safer bet than Burliuk and Goncharova.

“Why don’t you want to do it? Isn’t your husband’s last name on that wing in Beth Israel? I’m sure your in-laws would expect it,” Marjorie said, catching me between meetings. She probably assumed she was being tactful the way she was laying it on about Carl’s family. “And didn’t he write a best-selling book? Think of it as extra publicity for him.”

“It was at the bottom of the list for two weeks,” I protested, wary of both topics. I was not about to explain to my boss that the Vandermotters are cheap. That their money is tied up in trusts and real estate, doled out to us in tiny increments, that my husband did nothing to help the publisher earn out his advance and makes less money at his new job than Regan, that for most of his twenties and early thirties, he’d been a graduate student. That we live in a one-bedroom railroad apartment that hasn’t been renovated since 1977. But the idea of them reading the piece and sharing it with their friends was a good point. With the Vandermotters, what you projected to the world was everything.

There I stood before that slumping, bearded reporter, a young man wearing a T-shirt that superimposed the phrase RAW BROOKLYN over a picture of a bleeding steak. He seemed shocked by his modest surroundings, as if he had trekked all the way uptown for a subject more identifiably ethnic, someone glitzier, out of a New Russian reality show. He was clearly expecting gold fountains, jeweled tubs, bedsteads lined with Swarovski crystal, a balcony onto Central Park.

“Is this your primary residence then?” He looked confused as he scanned our galley kitchen with its pans dangling on hooks above the stove, our bathroom with its chipped black-and-white tile, our walls cluttered with photographs, posters, and the odd expensive gift from clients, our mid-century reproductions and flea market finds. He kept checking his phone as if to make sure he had the right address. Why am I interviewing this lady again? I saw it in his eyes.

“I’m just a simple girl from Moscow,” I explained, but then it occurred to me that I could be misquoted into a version of all the other insufferable “somebodies” in these pages (“I am so used to having a trainer that the machines daunt me. It’s as though my whole morning is devoted to trying to work out how to program the StairMaster”). I started again.

The real secret to being the best specialist in an auction house is understanding the psychology of your clients, I told him. You have to know how to entice reluctant bidders to get into the game, intuit who says he wants privacy but doesn’t mean it, whose privacy is so crucial that his very life depends on it. It’s a skill divorced from art expertise. Your job as a specialist is to know without being told, to penetrate the brains of busy people and extract their deepest desires.

I watched him take notes between sips of black coffee, enjoying the texture of the words on my tongue. When my husband came home, the reporter practically fell on him, insisted on watching him type some sentences on a computer. From the fascinated way the guy skimmed Carl’s books and notebooks, it seemed like he was a frustrated writer who would have preferred to do the feature on Carl, not me. And who could blame him? Who cared about a Russian art specialist when there was a best-selling writer in the house? The reporter asked many questions about Carl’s “process,” then moved on to America’s strained relationship with Russia, grilled him on whether the next Cold War was brewing.

“Why don’t you talk a bit more with my wife? Isn’t she the subject of your profile?” Carl asked him, pulling apart a nectarine.

The reporter was so pushy about wanting to peruse a marked-up draft of my husband’s manuscript of Young Catherine, that it was Carl who finally had to kick him out. We were both relieved when he was gone.

“Asshole,” Carl said, disappearing into the alcove that we had turned into his office.

“Just give me some good news, please,” I say to Regan now. “I need it.”

A coven of assistants and interns gaggle, a whole group of recent college graduates I can’t tell apart. Working at Worthington’s is like being at a place like Smith College in the 1950s, all that hair and cashmere and hyacinth scent and girls fantasizing for their true lives to begin. Regan was such a relief because she didn’t fit this profile. I liked her aggressive resilience, her Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures, the tattoos she didn’t bother to hide, her unconventional style: a blazer over a 1950s-style dress, oversized costume clips in her ears, her hair swept into a French twist. Why did I need another competitive oligarch’s daughter or fragile flower working for me? At a place like Worthington’s, with the kind of clients we work with, you need someone on your side.

Regan can’t hide her grin. “Natasha at the Hermitage called. Guess what they’re busy authenticating? The Order … wait for it … that belonged to Catherine the Great. The consignor says it’s ours if we want it.”

I can’t help myself: “Holy shit.”

“Can you believe it? I can’t believe it,” Regan says.

“Can we get it into the catalogue?”

Regan squints, a grimace of disapproval. “She says authenticity would be contingent on this one Catherine historian. He’s famously slow with his written evaluations. But he’s cautiously optimistic.”

“I think we have enough for now. Let’s move forward.” I lower my voice. “We might not have another opportunity. You know the situation.”

“Yeah, but won’t it take some time? What kind of assurances can we make?”

I talk it over with Regan, calculating what we’d need to do—photograph, draw up copy, get it shipped here in time for the preview. “But it looks pretty much okay to Natasha, doesn’t it?”

“She counted the stones with the old weight and cut and compared it to the court records.”

“And the box?”

“They think it’s original. Their gut impression is it’s right. But this guy is the final word on Catherine relics.” Regan eyes me skeptically.

“Great. Let’s do it. It’s our top star. It’s huge.”

“Really? Are you sure? We’ve got the Goncharova.”

“Are you kidding? This is much better. This is also a good news story.” I ignore Regan’s caution. It’s a moment every specialist dreams of, a moment that occurs only once or twice in a career. We’re all archive rats who dream of uniting a work of art with its provenance and this is one hell of a provenance because it belonged to Her. I felt it when I first laid eyes on a digital image of the medal, this radiating milky heat, as if Catherine herself were sending me a private message across the ocean. So her Order exists after all, not buried with the royal dead as the research implied. I perform a little dance on my toes.

One of the girls unearths a lukewarm bottle of prosecco from her desk, another offers to fetch Marjorie, but the panicked face of Mr. Reed William Brooks peers out from the square window of the viewing room.

“Uh-oh,” I say. “Better get back in there.”

There’s a round of protests from the girls. It’s practically the weekend! Even Regan says, “Come on, how often does this happen?”

“You know what? We should celebrate with real champagne. Where’s the one Medovsky sent over?” I’ll bring Mr. Brooks a glass too, it’s the least I can do. I give him a signal to wait just one tiny moment.

While the foil is unpeeled, while one of the ladies struggles with dislodging the cork, pointing it toward the books and away from the canvases and sculptures, I call Carl again.

His phone rings and rings, his voice mail once more assuring me that he will return my call. I leave him a message to meet me and my parents at a restaurant in the neighborhood.

A few of the girls are arranged around desks like rose petals, heels hooked around the legs of chairs. The last of the chocolates are consumed. A knock, now loud and insistent, is coming from the direction of the viewing room. The champagne is poured into plastic cups, warm and overflowing with foam.

Before returning to one of the many clients who always seems to need me, before leaving the girls with their cardigans, their pearl earrings, their diamond engagement rings, among whom I will never, ever belong, I quickly drain my glass and grab the cell phone. In case Carl calls me back sooner than I expect him to.

*   *   *

“It looks like it’s Catherine the Great’s. Ekaterina Velikaia.” As the sparkling water is being poured, I’m wondering if I hadn’t been hasty arranging the foursome in a spontaneous spurt of pride. My parents are not restaurant people, have never grown comfortable with fussy service and the constricted nature of a meal among music and noise. My mother is wiping a perfectly clean knife on her napkin while my father pushes away the bread basket and asks for raw vegetables to dip in olive oil.

The lighting is too dark, so they’re squinting at the picture of the Order, passing it from one to the other. As usual, I fixate on their approval, their excitement. I’ve never understood why I still need them to be impressed with me, as though in order to repay them the immigration freight of passage, I had to prove my successes justified their decision to uproot us to America. For as long as I can remember, from grade school to my marriage to my job, I’ve been repeating ever-escalating versions of “Look, Ma, look, Pa, look what I’ve done!”

“And what is this I’m looking at?” my mother asks.

“An order. You know, like a medal she’d wear.”

“Catherine the Great wore this?”

“Peter the Great established this honor for women marrying into the royal family or as gratitude for some great accomplishment. I think his wife got the first one. Catherine got hers when she committed to marrying Peter’s grandson. There aren’t many of them around, much less one that has been proven to be Catherine the Great’s.”

“It looks like an ordinary necklace.”

“How can you say that? Look at that sash of scarlet moiré, the silver star encrusted with diamonds.”

“And people actually believe this trinket was really Catherine the Great’s? Americans are so gullible,” my mother persists, fully enjoying herself.

“Are you ready to order?” the server says.

“We’re waiting for someone.” I turn back to my parents.

My father is the mediator as usual. He has finished reading my profile in the paper. “Your mother is joking. We are very happy. This means your auction will be good, yes? You were worried.”

My father is spreading butter on a roll. He hands it to my mother. For himself, he dunks a carrot in oil and bites off a chunk. Olive oil and protein and a regimented eating schedule are his secrets of eternal youth. I like seeing them together, the way my father takes care of my mother, the tiny acts of making sure she is lacking for nothing.

“Well, of course we’re happy for you,” she says, taking the bread as if challenging the idea that eternal youth, if it means forgoing rolls and cookies, is not worth it. Her fingers are a pianist’s, an eagle’s. “I just don’t know why anyone in their right mind would pay millions for this thing. Are you sure it’s not a fake? Did they say it was definitely hers or did someone just make it in their basement? But either way, it is very nice that you can finally show that Kudrina a thing or two. She is very annoying on television, always showing off how she is the only Russian expert in this country. As if my boopchik doesn’t even exist.”

Why must my mother also bring up Nadia Kudrina? But I work very hard to flash an insouciant smile, then fold away the digital scan in my tote. Carl walks in. He is wearing an eye-popping coral button-down that rarely makes it out of his closet, his blond hair still wet from a shower. His breath is unhurried.

“You’re always late,” is on the tip of my tongue, but I swallow it. Better to be encouraging, praise the victories, not the shortcomings. Four years of marriage have taught me this. “Nice shirt,” I say instead.

“Thanks.” He kisses my parents hello, then me. He smells of the shampoo he favors, a barklike lemongrass. I still can’t believe a Jewish girl like me married someone this light-haired, this at ease with the world’s accommodation of him. The servers flap about him like butterflies.

“Kak dela?” he asks, unfurling his napkin. The question, in his charming secondhand Russian, seems to be directed at all of us at once. My mother beams. In the end I wonder if this isn’t my greatest success in their eyes. Not my job, my education, my apartment. But to have married someone this American, this effortlessly charming.

“You heard about Tanya’s great coup?” my father asks.

“Papa, let’s order first, okay?” I flag down the server. My mother and I decide what healthy dish my father will order, and settle on the poached trout.

“Coup?” Carl turns his calm, almost hazel eyes to me.

“The Financial Times came out. Hey, it’s not as horrible as we thought it would be. Isn’t that great?”

“Oh, well, that’s good, isn’t it?”

I pass him the newspaper. I’m not ready to tell him about the Order after all. This is Catherine the Great we’re talking about and there’s still this tension around us after the book. When something awkward and unsayable enters a marriage, it plants its feet right in the middle, folds its arms and refuses to budge. Our voices are still unnatural in each other’s presence. Too high, too friendly, too easygoing.

I imagined the restaurant would eventually turn bustling and jammed with people’s voices, but other than a single couple tucked into the back near the kitchen, we occupy the only other table in the dining room. There are all these hopeful pale blue candles flickering on empty tables, illuminating decapitated heads of hydrangeas. My every word is magnified.

“But what is really exciting is the auction,” my father says. “Why aren’t you telling him?”

Carl finishes chewing. Unlike us, he observes strict protocols of mealtime decorum. “That’s great! Did the Burliuk come in?”

“The Burliuk was a fake.” I make way for my salad. The plate drops before me with a ceramic thud, a gnarled mess of arugula. “But we did get validation of something else from the Hermitage’s curator of eighteenth-century Russian decorative arts.”

“Ekaterina Velikaia! Just like your book!” my father proudly interrupts. “Wasn’t she wearing it on your cover, Carl? This is romantic coincidence, yes, Vera? They are both … how we say it? Catherine-heads?”

“Romantic,” my mother repeats, her eyes more observant. I can tell she is worried. She knows I don’t summon them from New Jersey to eat at restaurants on random Friday nights. But I’m continuing to smile, to ride the swell of celebration.

A mother and son walk in, and are seated near us. A family of four is right behind them. Now the door is revolving, voices pervading the empty air. The weight of my choices lightens.

“Oh, yeah? What’d you get in?” Carl asks. His interest is so sincere, so well-meaning.

“It’s her Order,” I say. I keep my voice high and bubbly, an extreme version of the recent me. “Isn’t it exciting? We’d be looking at seven million at least, and that’s just the guarantee.”

A slight smile crosses my husband’s lips. I want to read it as genuinely pleased for me—for us—laced with nothing more ominous. My entire body swells with hope that the worst is over, the last of the new marriage wrinkles are ironed out. I do something uncharacteristic in front of my parents. I reach over his grilled squid and kiss him on the lips. I linger there for what feels like hours longer than necessary. In case he can focus solely on me.

*   *   *

At home, we are incredibly kind to each other. I brew him a cup of decaf without his asking, and settle next to him on the couch with my glass of wine. We watch his choice of show, then rinse our glasses in the sink. He gets to wash up first, tolerates my checking my e-mail in bed without complaint. I keep smiling; studies show pessimists give up more easily than optimists. Optimists see minor hiccups for what they are, temporary and surmountable.

“You should wear bright colors more often, you know,” I say, watching him peel off the pink shirt. “They suit you.”

“You think so?” His finger brushes my cheek slowly. I close my laptop. That’s how he usually initiates sex, a light touch somewhere on my face or neck. But he has found on my chin an eyelash. It’s one of the smaller ones, black and curling. It rests in the middle of his index finger.

“Make a wish.”

I do. Then I watch it blow away. But instead of disappearing into some mythical eyelash paradise of fulfilled wishes, I can see exactly where it comes to rest, on top of the sheet. The eyelash’s reappearance unnerves me. Does he still want sex? That was one of the victims in that blip early on in our marriage. For Carl, sex is the direct expression of his feelings. For me, sex is an escape from them. It’s where I allow myself to get obliterated, to neither think, nor, for once, to lead.

“Hey,” I joke. “Can you make a second wish on the same eyelash? How does that work anyway?”

“I don’t think so. You get only one chance at a wish.” Carl leans back against the pillow, his Grecian profile dipping into his book. Then, just as abruptly, he shuts it. His lips outline the rim of my ear and I allow him to diffuse my entire day, a day more stressful than I can admit even to myself. I try to sink into feeling only, but the mental collage is of a frowning Marjorie, Mr. Reed Brooks seeking rescue from the submarine of the viewing room.

“You’re so beautiful,” I breathe as if my words will transport me where it matters.

“And you,” he says. “And you.” But in it I detect a mournful spiral.

*   *   *

The next day, the Museum of Modern Art is less crowded than usual because of a dripping March rain. Carl and I run in soaked and dump our jackets in the coat check. Since I’m a corporate member, we enter the museum for free, two tickets handed to me once I flash my Worthington’s ID. I hand one to Carl.

I love museums the way my husband loves libraries, for their civilized silence, the generosity of their gifts, that they can make you see familiar work in a new way depending on the curatorial point of view, the angle of the historical context. I love being surrounded by thousands of strangers yet encased in our own cocoon, the sound of our wet shoes tapping the floor in rhythm, the murmur of self-confident opinions around us. I pay partial attention to the show, but mostly it’s about the pleasure of ambling, of peaceful interaction with Carl. No demands from clients, no pressures from Dean’s office. A rare Saturday with my husband.

“Okay, so I’ve got the new novel all mapped out,” Carl says, veering me around dutiful scrutinizers of section labels. The exhibition brings together many of the most influential works in abstraction’s early history and covers a wide range of artistic production.

“Really? Tell me.”

“Okay, so picture this. It’s set in St. Petersburg in 1911 at the Stray Dog Café. You know, the one where Mandelstam and Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva argued and read poetry and drank red wine. It was a famous hangout for the greatest poets of the era. Before the Revolution. It’ll be like a Russian Cabaret.


“What do you think? Does it sound viable to you?”

I have no idea what he’s talking about, but pretend I do. It’s always sobering how much more Carl knows about my own history. He pulls back each finger, chapter by chapter. “It’ll open in the 1960s with Robert Frost visiting the elderly Akhmatova in Leningrad and move back in time.”

“That sounds amazing,” I say, probably too loudly because a few people without headphones look up at me, irritated. We are all standing in front of a map that links people and countries, slashes of red connecting Picasso to Liubov Popova and Vanessa Bell.

“It’s just in the research stages right now,” he insists. “But doesn’t it sound fascinating?”

“I can’t wait to read it. Whenever you’re ready.”

“I might show it to someone else first. If that’s okay.”

I pretend that the suggestion of this arrangement is perfectly acceptable, even as it stings.

Carl is letting his hair grow longer, the preppy 1980s way it looked when I first met him. That impossible golden flax, pin-straight, straining over his ears and collar. I note that he’s made the style decision without sharing it with me. When we first got together, he would ask for my feedback on the most minute things: loafers or the Top-Siders? The paisley or polka-dotted umbrella? Even matters of diet: should I eat this late if we’re having an early dinner? Should I skip the fries? Will the salad fill me up, do you think?

I suppose after four years of marriage, it’s natural that our minds will take turns back to an independent consciousness, occasionally skipping over the needs of the other. But it’s striking. I flap out some of his hair between my fingers, air-drying it. I imagine his students—that Victoria, in particular—focusing on the way that my husband’s hair moves during a long lecture on fiction craft or one of his digressions on the Acmeist poets. He’s the kind of good-looking that takes itself for granted, that even at thirty-four doesn’t fully understand the extent of its power. Even now, women linger on his face as they move past him to get to the corner with all the watercolors.

We move deeper into the show.

“Seriously. Tell me more. Where’s the love story?” I pull him out of the way of a guided tour bent on its systematic survey of the art. But he’s already thinking of something else, I can tell by the distracted way his mouth slacks open.

“Hey, I think I really need to see it for myself.” He leans down, hand around my shoulder. He pushes a fistful of hair behind my ear. “Can I come in to the office?”

I pause, genuinely confused. “See what?”

“The Order. It’s incredible, right?”

My heart stumbles, trips. “Yeah, it kind of is.”

“So it exists. God, to touch the thing. That she wore it. Ekaterina Velikaia.”

“But what do you need to touch it for? I’ll show you a digital.”

On the wall behind Carl, I read out loud a Kandinsky quote: “‘Must we not then renounce the object, throw it to the winds and instead lay bare the purely abstract?’”

“Seriously, Tan. A digital is hardly the same thing. I just feel like I have to touch it with my own hands.”

“Of course. But the consignor was very adamant that no one but a serious buyer should even breathe on the thing.”

“Are you serious?”

“I also have an incredible Goncharova, just stunning. A very rare Spanish Dancer?”

“Jesus. Why am I even surprised?” He brushes by the art with barely a glance and for a moment submerges into the sea of the tour group. I feel a numb devastation, then perform my cognitive tricks to recover. Everything’s fine, everything’s fine. A bad situation is a momentary setback, nothing more.

I look for him on the other side of the crowd. “Look, you should come to the preview. You can see it then. It’ll be behind glass and there’s going to be so much great art. You’ll love the Archipenko too.”

“You don’t want me to touch it. You don’t even want me to be anywhere near it. You want to keep me apart from it. It’s yours. It’s all yours.” Before I know it, he’s an entire room ahead, staring neither at the Kupka nor the Picabia. He stuffs his hands into the pockets of his pressed khakis, then takes them out. His hair is still wet, stubbornly wet.

My friends warned me about the beginnings of marriages, like clumsy fumblings of any new skill. “Those first years are the worst, believe me,” my best friend Alla warned me. “You think you made the biggest mistake and will want to run from it every single day.” But her statement seemed so counterintuitive that I dismissed it right away. What about its opposite, the wearing off of bliss, the slow understanding of the person you married?

“That’ll never happen with us,” I assured Alla. Carl was perfection. Exotic, voluminous, firebird perfection. I had somehow managed to trap it, convinced it to fall in love with me.

As I’m deciding on how best to approach my husband’s mood, I glimpse a client’s shock of gray hair. My first thought is to try and avoid him, but he’s already seen me and is steering his wife over. A specialist is a salesperson first; she can’t be seen ignoring her clients. This man happens to be one of my favorites too, a grandfatherly bon vivant who reminds me of my own grandfather, who once wore suits and bow ties and effusively greeted random ladies on the streets of Rego Park (“Ciao, beauties”) as if he were Marcello Mastroianni or a flaneur in Malta. He had not lasted long in America.

I’m forced to summon Carl over for introductions. Come, honey! Meet Jeremiah Gruber. The man’s wife is a petite, fragile-looking woman with a fit physique and two gold knots dotting her ears. Carl hesitates, but then obeys.

“You wrote a novel, didn’t you?” the wife asks Carl. She is looking at him with an admiration I’m used to by now. My husband belongs to that species of handsome, tall male writers. “I’m almost positive I read about it in People. Catherine the Great, wasn’t it?”

“We just got the news that it’ll be translated into Italian.” I pull my husband closer, offer his hand a brief, conspiratorial squeeze. There’s no response. I feel only bones surrounded by a film of flesh.

“I can speak for myself, thanks, Tanya,” he says in my general direction.

“Maybe we can entice you to come and meet with our book club,” the woman says to him. She is rooting around in her snakeskin handbag for a pen or card. “We often have writers drop in and answer questions about their inspiration.”

“She’s in three book clubs,” my client says.

“That’s wonderful,” I effuse, filling in the space. “I wish I had time for reading.”

My husband folds his museum guide, signaling an end to the conversation. He’s gotten more polite at deflecting requests like this, but people are always unpleasantly surprised when he refuses to take part in self-promotion. He’s a classic pessimist like my mother, convinced everything good that happens to him is a mistake and everything bad is part of an unshakable narrative. “I don’t think so. Thanks for asking though.”

“Oh.” The card is frozen in midair. “I guess you must be busy on the next book.”

Carl is examining the vivid Sonia Delaunay painting before him, the slashes of swirling color meant to imitate the electric lamps new to the streets of Paris. “That’s right. I’m busy on the next book.”

My client comes to the rescue. “They’re a handsome couple, Tanya and Carl, don’t you think?”

“He’s thrilled at all the attention that book’s gotten, we all are,” I say. I take the wife’s card since someone has to. “I’ll write you both for the auction preview. You’ll go crazy for the early Komar and Melamid, Jeremiah. It dates right before they dissolved their partnership. Lovely to see you both.”

When they’re out of sight, I turn to Carl. His jaw is tight, his eyes flashing steel. You want to run from it every single day.

“Oh, honey, they meant well.”

“Yeah, I know. You meant well too, didn’t you, Tan?”

“Of course I did. I do.”

“Okay, keep telling yourself that.”

He strides out of the gallery, those long deerlike steps, his shoes inaudible on the parquet floors. My eyes are filling and I blink frantically to keep them dry. It’s just the typical bumps of a beginning, two individuals learning to be a couple, wedging themselves into their proper places.

I make an effort to take in a bit of the show but falter in my usual concentration. He’s gone a long time. I dash off a few e-mails on my phone. But fifteen minutes go by, then a half hour, then forty-five minutes. I take a seat on the bench in front of the restrooms. Man after man is expelled, none of them him. The rainstorm must have ended because the galleries are clogging with visitors.

I text—where are you?—then another one right after that in capital letters: ARE YOU STILL AT MUSEUM? I take the escalators and check the benches in front of each restroom. Tourists filter in and out, shaking out umbrellas from a flash rainstorm. When the flood subsides, I exit into the outdoor sculpture garden with its Calders and Picassos speckled with water. Families are circling around black mesh chairs, scooping gelato with flat plastic spoons.

Throngs are descending the staircase through mirrored glass but he is none of the men. I think I catch the flash of his trench, the wheat of his hair, but it’s always someone else, a mirage. My calls, frantic and multiplying, go to voice mail. After what seem like minutes but must be at least two hours later, guards announce the museum is closing, and the chatter around us begins to subside. When I turn in my number at the coat check, his trench is missing.

“How can that be when it’s my husband’s,” I say. “My number is for both our coats.”

“Sorry.” The lanky young girl has wide, apologetic eyes, overwhelmed by the long line behind me. “The guy said he lost his number so I gave it to him.”

My phone vibrates inside the purse. Carl has written: I’m at TJ’s empty place. In Queens.

“All right, sure,” I say into the phone, as if he can hear me, as if he had only informed me of a late night’s work. A coat I recognize as mine is handed to me.

I step out onto Fifty-third Street in a daze. The city ebbs and contorts, a discordant jumble of zigzagging bodies in yoga pants and floral blouses, baseball hats and suits. A row of vendors in fingerless gloves hawk reproductions of van Goghs and tribal masks to the last of the day’s customers. The sky is a hazy, noncommittal blue. Down in the subway, the faces are heavyset, too bundled for the weather, feet encased in tall rubber boots, entranced by screens of their phones and tablets and oblivious to their neighbors. An angry swell rises like heat through the car, a series of jabbing purses and elbows, when the lurch of a long-awaited train heaps bodies against one another.

When I emerge at my stop, even my own block doesn’t look familiar, and it takes me several minutes to realize I was heading in the wrong direction, on Amsterdam and not Broadway. I pass stands piled with bananas, mangoes, plums, and other impossible fruit yanked too early from the warmth of its homeland. When my building rises before me it may as well have been summoned there by magic.

I want to walk in on indulgent laughter at the punch lines of Russian anecdotes, Carl and my father gorging on pickled tomatoes, spreading out a newspaper with the peeled skin of dried fish. I can almost hear Carl’s voice, his impressive idiomatic Russian.

“Where’d you go?” I’d chide, but in a nonjudgmental, loving way.

Carl might laugh, enfolding me in his arms. “Did you really think I went to Queens? Did you really think I’d leave you?” Husband. In Russian: muzh. Short for muzhik, a man, a wise, noble man.

*   *   *

The next morning, I’m woken by a repetitive thumping sound in our alcove. Oh, good, I think. He’s home. He’s had a night away but now he’s home. I throw on a robe and pad barefoot to the alcove.

“Hey, that you?”

I peek around the corner to see Carl’s tossing his Russian history books and a smattering of mismatched clothes into duffel bags. It’s a useless array of items he is carting—staplers and belts and shoe polish—like a college kid moving to a dorm room. His face is slick and shiny, his shirt wrinkled.

“What are you doing?” It is a numbed shock that spreads through me, the kind that separates mind from body. I’m dimly aware that outside it continues to rain. “Honey?”

Carl looks older. His haggard exhaustion is centered about his eyes. He doesn’t pause his packing, the entire bit emerging from him as if he’s been preparing for this confrontation and has memorized his lines. “You know what? I realized in Queens that I need more time to think about us. That’s all this is. Okay?”

I find myself standing between him and the bags, pulling closed the sash on my robe. “Wait a minute. We should see someone, right? I’ll get a referral to a therapist. All we need to do is approach this with the right attitude.”

Our eyes meet in the long static of silence. “The way he looks at you,” my best friend Alla used to say, enviously. “I wish someone looked at me like that.”

And it was true. He used to look at me as though the world turned gauzy around me, placing me in relief. We would be in a room full of people, but I’d feel the force of his attention. He might introduce me to someone at a party—“This is my wife, Tanya”—and it came out sounding as if he were the trusted caretaker of some magical force he didn’t fully understand. At night, we read his favorite poetry out loud—Brodsky or Blok—until one of us grew too sleepy to continue and neither of us remembered the gist of what we read in the morning. In public, Carl called me kotenok, his Russian kitten. We held hands past the time our friends had dissolved their own intimacies in favor of their newborn children. Children. We had originally planned them for a year ago, when I was thirty-one, and he thirty-three. It seemed like the ideal age, not too early or late. Sometimes, I worried that he loved me too much to see my true self, that he saw my character through rose-colored glasses. But I liked his interpretation better and who even knew what my true self was anymore?

The Look is not entirely gone in his eyes, but it’s flagging, tired, focusing on the tasks before it. “It’s temporary, a place for me to work.”

“You can work here. I’m gone all day.” From his face, I see I have to approach it from a different angle, so I take his hand, feeling my way around the inner pouch of his palms. There is a small bump on his thumb, a callus or wart he never got around to checking out. “If we communicate, we can easily pull through. But you have to talk to me.”

“I know. I hope so.” He leans over to kiss me. A real Russian woman would have taken advantage of this kiss. She would have opened herself like a flower, kept him tethered under the guise of vulnerability. She would have stopped at nothing to keep him—phantom pregnancy, guilt, threats. A real Jewish woman would have decided this was the end of the world. A husband taking time to think would be nothing less than disaster because life makes the most sense through a lens of fear, caution. But in being both of these women, I am neither.

“Babe, I’ll make us an appointment with someone who uses positive psychology approaches in marital conflict.”

He flings the duffel back over one shoulder, a tote bag filled with books over another. “Tan, think about it. How can you love someone you don’t respect?”

“Oh my God. Is that what this is about? I totally respect you.”

He shakes his head.

It is filling my mouth, getting ready to erupt. Why? But I can’t utter the word. If he tells me right then, something irreversible will be made real. Isn’t it better to take him at his word, to treat whatever this is as time to regroup while I come up with a solution?

In the kitchen, I surreptitiously blow my nose. Live like you expect miracles, I think. One foot in front of the other. “You want some tea?”

He’s leaning against the lintel, the Look flashing and receding. He displays the hesitation of changing his mind, like he might collapse me into his chest at any moment. But then he gives up. “All right. Tea. That would be great.”

We drink it side by side at the round kitchen table, two steaming mugs of Earl Grey all the way to the bottom. He is staring into the watery depths of his cup while I keep chattering away, drinking liquid that tastes of wood. I tell him about what Regan wore the other day—a purple wig, frilly apron, fishnet tights, and combat boots. How Marjorie looked her up and down but said nothing. I refill our cups. I tell him about a client of my father’s, a ninety-one-year-old man who gets a regular massage. When my father tries to slot him in for the following month, he always says the same thing, “But how do I know I’ll still be alive a month from now?” “You can’t die because if you miss an appointment with me, you’ll get charged for the visit,” is my father’s response.

The kitchen clock ticks on, merciless, while the preschooler twins who live above us are loudly evading their mother’s efforts to dress them. I set out a plate of leftovers from last night. What Russians call “bird’s milk” but is actually a version of yellow marshmallow covered in a crisp chocolate veneer. It’s usually his favorite treat.

Finally, he gets up. “The car’s by the hydrant. It’s packed with stuff. I should probably go.”

Why? I want to say again, and again, I swallow the word. The toddlers are gone and the quiet is more terrifying than the noise had been.

After he leaves, the apartment has never been so deeply vacant. It’s as if all the items I once took such pride in—the swan-necked lamp I found at Housing Works, the Lucite coffee table I bought cheap on eBay, the Art Deco–style bar I unearthed at a flea market—have been stripped of their essential essence. Fingers trailing the surfaces of things, items I thought we had amassed together when, in retrospect, it had been I who’d picked up tapestries and vases in bazaars. Furnishing our lives. But it’s what he wanted, wasn’t it—me making the decisions?

Eventually, I make my way to the bookshelves, an entire array of left-behind Russians on what I call Carl’s shelf: the Bunins, the Brodskys, the Babels. And an entire untouched row of Young Catherines. I take one out, run my thumb along the decorative edges, the portrait Carl insisted should be its cover. The grand duchess in the yellow dress trimmed with white lace, ears draped with heavy chandelier pearls, the Order of Saint Catherine proudly slung across her slim torso. By Carl E. Vandermotter. I turn to the first page: Sophie glimpses the comet’s head, a blaze of fire rippling across the vastness of the sky, and implores them to stop the carriage. The entire procession comes to a halt.


Copyright © 2016 by Irina Reyn