Time for Some Awkward Photos
I thanked Lyonya and handed him an envelope with the money Papa had asked me to pass along. In the midst of this exchange, Volodya and Inna appeared. A round of handshakes, and a struggle to arrive at a common topic of conversation, ensued. Time, we decided, for some awkward photos together. Then Lyonya told us to come back to Kharkhov again soon, promising to cook us dinner next time. A quick hug and a kiss and he was gone— the Cousin Who No Longer Drinks Water.
Volodya had apparently also gotten a copy of Papa’s dismal list of things to do, because as soon as the niceties were over, he turned to me and said, “Okay then, off to the zoo?”
We set off across the square, passing beneath the lengthening shadow of Lenin before cutting through the grounds of the university where Volodya and Inna had studied together with Papa.
“I remember once,” Volodya began, “your father and I lucked into finding some money just lying on the sidewalk. A small fortune, something like twenty dollars. So we decided to realize a long-held dream of ours…”
Volodya laughed, a bit overcome by the memory, and I imagined a debauched binge of black-market purchases, Papa sitting, pasha-like, atop an illicit blue-jean-and-caviar mountain.
“We set for ourselves,” Volodya continued, “the goal of visiting every shashlik stand in Kharkov!”
To me this sounded suspiciously like a quest to visit every Dunkin’ Donuts in Worcester, but I did my best to radiate enthusiasm.
“Ambitious!” I chirped.
Volodya was still deep into enumerating the shashlik stands of Kharkov when we reached the iron gates of the Kharkov State Zoo. The zoo’s paths were lined with colorful, campy signs that could have been lifted straight from the set of a John Waters movie, but did nothing to hide the state of the animals themselves, who had gone from sad to miserable in Papa’s absence. I took off down the darkening, overgrown lane alone, past some dull-eyed bears and a collapsed ostrich, stopping to take a picture of a baboon who looked up at me like he hoped I had some Lexapro.
“I used to talk to them,” Papa had told me. “Not the lions, though. They never seemed interested. Also, all of the expensive animals were locked up in a different part of the zoo, so I didn’t talk to them either.”
I was sorry Papa had to talk to cheap animals.
“That’s what you did? All night?”
“No. Just until the other guards came around to see if I had a ruble.”
“Did you give it to them?”
“I’d better. One of them was just a drunk, but the other was a man with a past— a former chauffeur in the KGB. He used to drive agents to make their arrests. Sometimes big shots. These kinds of visits… well, a lot of people were never heard from again. Anyway, they’d come by on their rounds and we’d pool our money, go drinking.”
“What would you say to them?” I’d asked. “I mean the animals.”
“I don’t know. I just… commiserated.”
By the time Papa began working at the zoo, he’d been on the blacklist for years. The Ministry of Higher Education had long ago eliminated the graduate position he’d received in physics, a signal that he’d never be allowed to pursue his PhD. He had also quit the Komsomol, a dangerous move for anyone save those who had already given up all hope of a career in the Soviet Union. As the last light faded, I imagined my father there, a young man in a uniform with a gun, staring through the bars, seeking out dark, wet eyes for a few quiet moments of communion. Before the KGB chauffeur came to take him away.
We went back to Volodya’s place for dinner— a three-bedroom apartment extravagant by Soviet standards, but which could now merely be considered cozy— to drink vodka and enjoy a lavish feast of mayonnaise-based salads. By the time Volodya and Inna led us back to the hotel it was well past midnight and the windows of the concrete boxes surrounding Freedom Square were lit up like giant grids in an epic game of Battleship.
“I have a present for your father that I’ve been waiting to give to you,” Volodya said. Then he reached into his bag and handed me a book. One Hundred Famous Kharkovchiani, it read. Now here was something approximately zero people in my family would have any interest in reading.
“Thanks,” I said, but Volodya stopped me before I could put it away.
“First turn to page eighty-four.”
I opened the book, and Josh came to look over my shoulder. There, to my amazement, was a grainy black-and-white photo- graph of Papa and an entry that began:
VILENKIN ALEKSANDR V LADIMIROVICH
(Born 1900–Died 1900)
I looked up at Volodya, whose smile only grew wider as he noted my wonder and confusion.
“The text, of course, is not without some errors.”
In late September, I received another note from Kiril: “Hello, Alina it is a journalist of Kiril from Kharkov. Thank you very much for an interview. I wrote about Your desire to come forward in Ukraine and, hope, my words will notice. Here that turned out from our correspondence. In my person in Ukraine another admirer appeared for you.” At the bottom of the message, there was a link leading to the Komsomolskaya Pravda website. When I clicked on it I found an old photograph of myself in our backyard in North Carolina hovering above Kiril’s byline. The article began: Our country woman, daughter of the famous physicist Alexander Vilenkin, tells “Komsomol” about how she became a rock star in the United States.
It was an absurd exaggeration. I had released two albums on obscure indie labels and would have been surprised to learn that sales of either had reached into the high three digits. But it only got worse. Whereas Kiril hadn’t known who my father was when he’d first contacted me, it was clear he’d done some research since then. Now the article was mostly about Papa. And he sounded like a dissident freedom fighter.
I read on, with growing horror, as weird conjectures flew around like zoons. Despite the famous father, the article continued, Alina has always opened all the doors of life herself. She has never positioned herself as the daughter of the famous scientist, and even appears on stage under the pseudonym Simone. What was stranger, I wondered, the idea that I would create a pseudonym to outrun undeserved glory should anyone discover my association with the creator of the Theory of Eternal Inflation, or the fact that Kiril, during the course of his extensive research, hadn’t managed to discern that Simone was my real last name? But the final straw came when I learned that adopting my alleged pseudonym was also part of a clever ploy to exploit the popularity of Paul Simon.
Kiril, I thought to myself. I hate you. I stopped reading and called Papa.
“This is totally embarrassing!” I said. “What if anyone I actually know ever sees this?”
“Well…” Papa sighed. “That’s what they’re supposed to do, isn’t it? Make things interesting.”
“I would never go around calling myself a rock star.”
“And I am a dissident freedom fighter? It doesn’t mean anything.”
I hung up the phone. Papa was right, it didn’t mean anything. Maybe in some parallel universe the Kharkov-shaped hole in my heart could be filled, puzzlelike, by Kharkov itself. Here on planet Earth, I would have to settle for filling it with heat and proper water pressure.
Still, I figured Mama would want to know how the story ended, to see the final result of my “collaboration” with Kiril, so I forwarded the link along. A few hours later, I had my response. I thought she was writing to tell me how pleased she’d been to discover the article included her account of my early childhood, unedited and in its entirety. But all I got was this:
Alina, Just to let you know, I want an electric tea kettle for Christmas. Mine is leaking.