Authors: Kseniya Melnik
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In loving memory of my grandmothers, Olga and Irina, and my friend Allison Powell
Love, Italian Style, or in Line for Bananas
it’s forbidden to sit here. Follow me.”
Tanya looked up from her shopping list. The stewardess’s curt demeanor was so incongruous with her childlike face, Tanya felt a swell of pity. Here was someone already kicked around by life, her defenses permanently raised.
Moments earlier, Tanya had sat in one of the open seats directly behind a group of men in identical blue T-shirts and track pants. On an otherwise full airplane, they were buffered both in front and behind by an empty row. Preoccupied with planning the most efficient shopping itinerary for Moscow, Tanya hadn’t given this much thought.
Now she wrestled her frayed carry-on from the overhead compartment and followed the stewardess. The empty rows were puzzling indeed. When she looked back, the blue-T-shirted men grinned at her over the tops of their seats. There was something glossy in their appearance, something one didn’t see in everyday people. With their smooth faces, shiny hair, and lime-white teeth, they looked freshly washed and wrung free of life’s problems.
Tanya’s assigned seat was in the last row, beside a middle-aged couple.
The husband turned to Tanya. “The Italian soccer team,” he said with enthusiasm. “They’re trying to keep us away from them. International security measures, you see. But if seriously, what secrets do they think we could give them? That the country’s short on soap and rope?” He snickered. “Soap and rope, yes.”
“Who thinks? The Italians?” Tanya said. She’d never seen a foreigner before, not even someone from the Eastern bloc—the so-called Soviet camp—although she’d heard they were easily spotted in the bigger cities. But these were real foreigners, real Westerners. There were separate hotels for them, and shops and restaurants. Separate seats at the Bolshoi Theatre. She felt embarrassed for having sat down behind them now.
“Sasha, quiet,” his wife said, glaring at him as though the plane was bugged by the KGB. And who knew? Maybe it was.
The plane taxied for takeoff from Leningrad, where Tanya had spent five days slumped in a seminar room at the Hermitage. She curated the arts wing of the Regional Museum in her hometown in the northeast and every five years attended these educational programs, required and paid for by the countrywide arts board. During the day, she half listened to lectures on “the portrayal of socialist reality through painting and sculpture.” In the evenings, she strolled down the Neva embankment, its austere neoclassical buildings the color of cucumber flesh, omelet batter, sour-creamed borsch. What a shame it was that she had to travel so far to see real beauty.
She closed her eyes and thought of all the things she needed to get in Moscow to take back home to Magadan, where the grocery stores weren’t empty but also had no variety. Leningrad, with its theaters and museums, was Russia’s starving artist; the capital was the rich merchant, the pride of the country—a requisite stop for everyone on the way back to the provinces. She and Anton had saved all year for this shopping trip. Baby Pavlik needed a winter coat, and Borya needed a backpack, notebooks, and all the bright school accessories to get him excited about first grade.
Fruits and good vegetables. Avitominosis was common during spring in Magadan. Tanya loved cabbage for its excellent transportability. She’d have to get three or four heads. Juicy southern tomatoes, too, if she could find a sturdy box. Apples, oranges, pears. And maybe something exotic and a little magical to jolt their life, if only for a moment, out of its bread-and-potatoes doldrums. Pineapples or bananas if she was lucky, though even in Moscow they were a rarity. Anton had asked for color film and photo paper, preferably East German. He loved taking pictures on his geological expeditions. She wished she had time for the shopping bus tour that went to all the foreign import stores: Warsaw, Dresden, Budapest, and, of course, Belgrade.
Tanya pulled out
and opened at the bookmark.
She looked up. It was one of the Italian soccer men. His right arm was propped on his hip; the other inched toward her with a piece of paper. He was mockingly handsome—his features oversized, his full lips shiny as though dabbed with olive oil. He stared at her with intensity, the way the blue-cloaked Zephyr looks at Venus in her favorite Botticelli.
A pang of sweet fear seared her stomach.
“Ehhhhh. Would like rendezvous,” the Italian said.
His arms were tan and muscular, and not at all hairy, as she had expected of Italians. People were turning back to watch. Some even stood up to get a better view.
Bellissima. Sono Luciano. Per favore,
Hotel Rossiya. Eight.” The Italian thrust his note at her. She took it, if only to divert the spotlight from herself. He held on to her hand and kissed it wetly. “Luciano.”
He kissed her hand again and sauntered back to his seat. It wasn’t only his arms that were muscular, she noticed.
Tanya’s neighbors looked at her as though she were a chicken who had suddenly learned to fly. She turned back to
her face flushed. Not once in her thirty-three years had she been paid such a compliment by a stranger. And from Italy—the birthplace of art and beauty. It was a miracle.
“What did he want?” asked Tanya’s neighbor, the wife. She hadn’t dared look up from her knitting.
“He invited me to meet him at his hotel, I think.”
“You will go? It’s not illegal, but—”
Tanya caught the accusation in the woman’s tone. “You must be joking,” Tanya said.
“It is discouraged. Yes, it is strongly discouraged,” the husband whispered. “You will be put on a list for observation, if they even let you into that hotel.”
“I have two children, seven years old and one and a half,” Tanya said. “A good husband. Nondrinker.”
Anton was much more than a nondrinker, of course. Had he been a bachelor, he would have made a perfect personal ad: thirty-five, ethnic Russian, tall, nonsmoker, employed. And he’d never raised a hand to her. Tanya loved him for his decency, for being a good father to her sons. Yet, he’d never looked at her as she thought the Italian had, as if she were a newly discovered Michelangelo painting. Anton told her that she was getting a bit plump and to please bring him his coffee and a piece of cheese, for which she had to stand in line for an hour.
Italians, on the other hand … Don’t make me laugh, please, Tanya thought not without pleasure. She knew all about them from films:
Marriage, Italian Style
Divorce, Italian Style
. They didn’t have divorce in Italy, and the only way out of marriage was to catch your spouse cheating and then kill him or her to protect your honor. And the lover, too, while you’re at it. The sentence was more lenient for a crime of passion. She tried to remember whether Luciano wore a wedding band.
“Luciano Moretti, Hotel Rossiya, 8,” the note said in loopy, Rubenesque letters. She peeped out. Luciano was looking at her over his headrest. But thinking rationally: What did a sportsman of international caliber, rich and free, see in a tired, ground-down Soviet woman? She went back to her reading.
* * *
An hour later the plane landed in Moscow. The Italians were let off first, followed by the running-of-the-bulls-style disembarkation of everyone else. Tanya got punched in the ribs and her feet were stepped on several times. To her surprise and mortification, the entire soccer team greeted her with cheers and whistles at the arrivals terminal. Luciano, blocked by the large bosom of a peroxide-blond interpreter, sent her a battery of air kisses. Must be weariness from the all-male company, she thought. It won’t be long now, given the women in the Intourist welcoming delegation.
Studying herself in the mirror of the airport bathroom, she felt dismayed by her own credulousness. Her face was red, her mascara had flaked under her boring pale-blue eyes. Her blondish hair, badly in need of a root touch-up, was frizzy in the back, while in the front her bangs were glued to her forehead with sweat. The neckline of her old traveling blouse was hopelessly stretched. Luciano must be blind.
Outside, the spring morning was in full bloom, and Tanya found herself wishing she’d worn a short-sleeved dress to let her skin breathe. To her right stretched an endless taxi line. To her left, a bus was about to depart for central Moscow. Just off the curb, the Italian soccer team was boarding the Intourist van. Luciano waved and cried out, “
Otto! Otto, per favore
What a peculiar man, Tanya thought. Italians … This was a real cliché. She tried to keep from smiling. She stole one last look at Luciano and ran for the bus, her heavy carry-on banging against her legs. It was almost nine hours until
plenty of time to forget about the way he’d looked at her.
* * *
Exhausted by the multitransport trip from the airport, Tanya rang the doorbell of Auntie Roza’s fifth-floor
. They kissed hello. Auntie Roza smelled like Tanya’s late mother, of sugary sweat and fresh-baked bread, scents that calmed Tanya no matter how stressed she was. She noticed that while she’d been in Leningrad, her aunt had given herself a makeover: she’d tweezed her eyebrows down to threads and dyed her graying hair the color of peeled carrot.
“Look at you, Auntie. Ten years younger! For the May Day party at work?”
“Trying to keep up with you.”
“Me?” Flattery was in the air today.
Tanya changed into a pair of house slippers and followed Auntie Roza through the darkened hallway, which branched off into rooms where different families lived. All the doors were closed. Every few steps Tanya bumped into something—boxes, metal-edged trunks, wood boards, a bicycle, a baby stroller, and God knows what else.
Halfway down the hallway they almost collided with Sergeich, who was carrying a bowl of eggs and a packet of sausages to the kitchen.
“Good afternoon, Roza Vasilievna. You look wonderful as always. Ah, I see Tanechka is back.”
“Good afternoon, Mikhal Sergeich. Thank you for the compliment.”
He pressed his barrel-shaped body against the wall to let them pass.
“Are you hungry?” Auntie Roza said when they reached her room.
“I want to take a shower, wash off that airplane grime.”
“Why shower? You’ll be running around dirty Moscow all day. Besides, Ivanova has the bathroom for the next two hours.”
“When’s your turn?”
“In the evening, Tanya, in the evening. Weekends are busy, you see, everyone’s home. You rest now while I warm up borsch and cutlets.” Auntie Roza opened her fridge and pulled out two pots.
“I’ll help. Want to tell you something, you won’t believe.”
On their way to the kitchen they ran into a tall, heavyset woman with a column of sooty hair piled on top of her head. Letting her pass, Tanya tripped over the bicycle, and it crashed to the floor with a ring. Fierce yapping started up at the other end of the hallway.
“I’m sorry,” Tanya said.
“To the devil!” the woman yelled, gesticulating with a pot of pea soup in front of her heaving bust. “That bicycle was new. If it’s broken, you’ll be standing in line for a new one yourself, Roza Vasilievna.”
“Broken!” Auntie Roza came to an instant boil. “You should see your sons ride it down the stairs. First bicycle, then their necks, I’ll say. Broken—
“That’s none of your business. You better tell your niece here that she turned on our lightbulb when she splashed in the washroom for a whole hour last week, and we now have to pay for that electricity,” Pea Soup said. “Do I look like a millionaire to you? She’s the one from Magadan here.”
“And who’s going to pay when your boys steal my—”