TUBE, DRAFT 1, CHAPTER 35 (EXCERPT)
Olesya was standing in a narrow vestibule of a Russian express train, in one of the sleeper cars. So painfully memorable. That glossy plastic-looking fake wood paneling. Those chintzy half-curtains bunched up on metal rods that ran across the windows like useless skirts. Folding seats in the shape of petals, upholstered in ruddy fake leather, one across each coupe door. The long shaggy carpet on the floor that served more as a dirt collector than a decoration. They were all the same, those sleepers, a line of windows on the right, a row of four-berth compartments on the left. She and her mother took this exact type of train to see her paternal grandmother who lived in Saint Petersburg—she called it Leningrad out of habit—to see her one last time, her hands folded one over another, her face wrinkled and unnaturally pale, framed by the grey hair arranged into a sort of a halo by the funeral home cosmetician.
“Is this your memory? Or, one of them?”
Olesya waited for an answer.
The carriage rang empty. There was an unexplainable void in the air, the one that permeated uninhabited spaces. Every compartment door was closed.
Olesya paused by the sixth room, the last one. Her hand hovered in the air. Her disconsolation left her, and there came a dread of what might lie beyond this last door. She leaned on the wall, catching her breath.
Her gaze rested on the blurry landscape. Greyish sky, greyish snow, black striations of the tracks running parallel to the woods, a solid entity of pines covered with hoarfrost. Dreary, melancholy, miserable. But somehow dear at the same time.
Olesya sucked in a lungful or air and whammed the door into the slot.
For a second they stared at each other, her father sitting by the window, a glass of tea in a metal holder standing in front of him on the table, his veiny hands around it as if he was warming his fingers. Three sugar cubes on a saucer. A hunk of rye bread wrapped in a napkin. A salt and a pepper shakers, faceted plastic with perforated aluminum caps. He was dressed in his usual work suit, dark navy, his checkered shirt unbuttoned at the collar, the tie hanging on the metal bar on the wall, an open suitcase next to him.
All of this Olesya absorbed in less than a second.
And then his eyes. His kind hazel eyes with pleats of laughter around them, shadowy bags underneath. The eyes she loved staring into so much after having asked him a question and patiently waiting for an answer while he bunched up his brows, thinking. “Well,” he’d always begin, “here is what I think.” And she’d catch his every word, always hungry for more, and ask another question, and another, until he’d burst into an amused laughter, tousle her hair and call her a budding erudite.
She caught herself sinking into his eyes. His expression had that inquisitive look of someone disturbed without a warning and yet pleased by the unexpected interruption.
“What?” he said, the way he always did when she’d approach him and tear him away from tracing something in ink on his crinkly sheets of paper, a spare technical pen behind his ear.
“Hi,” she said, treading in.
“Hi,” he answered and looked at her.
A fear of him, of his presence, so real, so close she could reach out and touch him, twisted Olesya’s insides. A surge of sickness rose in her stomach and spilled a metallic taste in her mouth. She swallowed, forcing herself to move, her feet doing steps as if slow motion. The right foot striding out, pressing down on the carpet, toes stretched to a point by habit. Her left doing the same. Her right again.
She not so much sat down as she lost feeling in her legs. They turned rubbery, and she sunk into the softness of the bed, facing him across the table.
“Well, this is unexpected.” He squinted, the laughing lines running in rays from the corners of his eyes to his temples. His greying hair combed and smoothed, always clean, always neat looking.
Olesya faltered under his gaze. “I’m sorry. Am I disturbing you? If I am, I will—”
“No, no, stay,” he made a motion to put his hand on hers and she flinched. He must have seen it because he retracted it, picked up a cube of sugar, dropped it in his tea, and swirled the spoon around, clinking it against the glass.
“Would you like some?” He offered.
“Sure.” She tucked her hands under her thighs to stop them from shaking.
He rose, hitched up his pants that sagged from sitting for so long, and stuck his head out the door. “Natasha! Another cup of tea, please.”
“Just a minute, Nikolay Vasilievich.” Came the conductor’s raspy voice. There was a sound of paddling of slippers. They slapped against naked feet with every heavy step. Someone sallied out into the corridor and stomped away. Olesya heard a distant hiss of compressed air. Her eyes widened.
“But there isn’t—” she began.
“Such a great conductor, Natasha.” Her father smacked his lips amiably. “She is spoiling me, you know? Always brings sugar even when I don’t ask. Changes my sheets daily although they are not required to.” He winked at Olesya.
She smiled weakly. The constant clatter of the wheels on rails was comforting and disturbing. She couldn’t be here, couldn’t be in Russia with her father on the train to his last job, and yet here she was, sitting right across him, talking to him. Her teeth chattered. She pulled up her legs and hugged them, her chin on her knees.
“Are you cold?” Her father asked, genuine concern in his voice.
“A little,” admitted Olesya.
“Here,” he handed her his wool blanket, and she covered herself with it, snuggling up under its coarse wool.
“Tea?” Natasha’s pasty face looked into the room. She grinned, the garish nacreous lipstick making her teeth look sallow by contrast.
“Thank you, Natasha.” He father took the tray out of her hands.
“No problem. Anything else?”
“No, that will do.”
Natasha’s oily eyes shifted to Olesya. There was something deadening in them. “Who is that? Your daughter?”
Goosebumps surged up Olesya’s skin.
“That’s her all right,” nodded her father. “My Olesya. She has grown so much. I haven’t seen for eleven years, imagine that.” He gazed at her lovingly.
“Looks just like you, if you don’t mind my saying so. What a pretty girl you are.” The conductor tilted her head, and it bent at a nasty unnatural angle. Olesya involuntarily backed off, sliding on the seat toward the wall as far as she could.
“Are you married?” Asked Natasha, staring at her.
Olesya crimsoned and shook her head.
“You need to get married soon, then,” she declared. “Don’t want to turn into a spinster, do you? How old are you?”
“Twenty one,” said Olesya timidly.
“That’s the right age to get married. Why are you skinny? What man would look at you, huh? What’s there to look at? Skin and bones! Let me bring you some food,” she lowered her voice and glanced about conspiratorially, “I have some caviar, smocked sturgeon, a jar of moonshine. Homemade.”
“No, thank you,” Olesya shook her head. “I’m not hungry.”
Natasha pursed her lips, offended by this rebuttal of her very special offer. “Suit yourself, then.” And she spun on her heels, ready to depart.
“Thank you, Natasha.” Said her father to smooth the awkwardness. “Olesya is on a special diet. She is a ballerina. Dances at Bolshoi.” Tears stood in his eyes. He said it with such pride, blood rushed to Olesya’s cheeks.
She let the blanket slip, to show her ballet attire as proof to her father’s words.
“Humph,” puffed Natasha, not impressed. “That’s why she’s so skinny. A stomach ulcer, that’s what you’ll get from not eating. Mind my words. Diet.” She shook her head in disapproval, shut the door, and departed.