Every Monday, Ms. Notaro liked to kick off our American History class by reading the most depressing parts of the local papers. When she was done paraphrasing the articles in her faux-husky voice, she'd position herself on a desk in the front of the class, fold the paper over her lap and say, "So, guys, what can we learn from this?" Then she would squint up at the ceiling like there were stars on it instead of fluorescent lamps, like she was going to have a nervous breakdown any second unless somebody told her exactly what lesson this specific local tragedy was supposed to teach us, the good citizens of the United States of America. That fall, Ms. Notaro always looked ready to cry; her bottom lip never stopped quivering.
On the first day of eighth grade, while the other teachers passed out new textbooks and played name-games, she told us that her four-year-old son had gone missing in July, snatched from the playground where she watched him. There were substantiated rumors that her husband left her the following week. Though they were only separated, she immediately reclaimed her maiden name; the year before, everybody called her Mrs. Cavendish. Still, I couldn't bring myself to like her. I had turned thirteen that summer, and my powers of sympathy for anyone older than me barely extended to the immediate cast of Dawson's Creek, and very occasionally, my own father. Though she was probably almost thirty, she sported a Kate Spade bag with a suspiciously crooked label and a Tiffany necklace that wasn't as shiny as the one my best friend Natasha always wore. The boys were crazy for Ms. Notaro and high-fived each other on the days when she wore a skirt to class, though I never saw what the big fuss was about.
"Last Friday, in Woodbridge, a woman left her baby daughter in her car while she ran into her office to grab some papers," she began. "It was nearly one hundred degrees outside, and she forgot to leave the air on," she said, pausing dramatically. "When she came back—less than ten minutes later, or so she says, the little girl was dead. She suffocated from the heat, and her blood got so hot—" She shook her head to emphasize how unfathomable this particular local tragedy was. Then she zoned in on me, probably because I was resting my head on my desk.
"Care to enlighten us, Anna?" she said. She folded the paper over her lap and added, "What does this teach us?"
"I don't know," I said. "A watched tot never boils?"
A few people snickered but nobody dared to laugh. Natasha turned around and shot me a look that said, this is crazy, even for you. It got so quiet you could hear Mr. DeMatta, the janitor, at the other end of the hallway, probably cleaning up somebody's vomit. Ms. Notaro stood up from her friend-desk and gave me a look that made me feel like I was the vomit, like she was going to call in the janitor and have him dump me out onto the back lawn along with a pile of sawdust.
"You think this is funny," she said. Before I had a chance to retaliate, she added, "See me after class."
As the bell rang and released my fellow classmates, I trudged over to her desk. There she was, looking like she was going to cry again. The only things she had on her desk were one of those ceramic apples that said #1 Teacher and a picture of her son, gap-toothed and grinning on a dirty Jersey beach, probably Wildwood, what Papa called "the heaven of the proletariat."
"You have a hard time gathering sympathy for other people," she told me, almost singing the words. "Don't you? Some day, but probably not today, it'll get you in big trouble. That is not my concern. My concern is that you try to have some respect for the dead. Can you do that for me?" she asked, her lip trembling.
"I do. Generally speaking, I mean," I said. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right," she said, sighing into her hair. "But I'm still calling home, mmmkay? I'm a little worried about you. Parent-teacher conferences are next week, and I want to have a word with your mother."
"That might be a problem," I said.
"Oh," she said. "Oh, dear."
"Well, see ya," I said.
You should've seen the look on her face, like I just said that her son was the dead one. I waved goodbye and backed out of the room as quickly as I could.
My mother died back in Moscow when I was five, in a car accident on the way to the opening night of her new play. A few months later, right after the Soviet Union collapsed, Papa got a job heading a research lab at Columbia and he jumped at the opportunity to get out of Russia. If my mother hadn't died, I never would have met Natasha. That was what I told myself in the first few months, to keep from being sad. Natasha was everything. I knew her longer than I had known English. She was my translator when I moved to Jersey in the second grade. She had already been in America a solid year before me. Her red hair was plaited into neat braids, and none of her clothes betrayed her status as an immigrant. As soon as she saw me, she advised me to get rid of my post-Soviet mullet.
After I left the classroom, I was relieved to see Natasha leaning against my locker, her notebooks cradled in her arms.
"Well?" she said.
"I think she's crying now," I reported.
"Solid work," she said, linking her arm through mine. "A-plus."
The next morning, I sat in front of my dresser, trying to teach myself to raise my right eyebrow. It took me months to master this skill, but in the meantime, I was able to study my face without interruption. Papa didn't let me wear makeup yet, so there wasn't much to do but look. I wasn't used to the new version of myself, certainly not to all the attention I was getting. That summer I had grown nearly five inches and stopped being chubby. And nobody called me two-teeth anymore; Dr. Rothstein took off my braces and my two front teeth finally aligned with the rest. Just when I was beginning to feel good about myself, Papa walked into my bedroom and said, "Up, up, up!" with his thick arms in the air.
"And away," I grumbled.
He paced around and inspected my outfit: a cute pair of blue overall shorts over a green tank top from Limited Too.
"Could those shorts be any shorter?" he said.
"Anything's possible," I said. "If you can believe it, you can achieve it."
He gave me a confused grunt. He said, "Your mother wore an outfit like that once. I think it was when she played the farmer's daughter in Uncle Vanya. "
"That's great, Papa. Can we go now?"
"Just one more thing. You need a haircut."
"I happen to be growing it out."
"You happen to look like a horse," he said, yanking a fistful of my hair.
"See? Hair like that can cause problems."
"Your teacher called last night."
"Whatever," I said again, more carefully this time.
"It better be good, Nastenka," he said, shaking his head. "I didn't bring you to this country—"
"Papa, she doesn't know anything, okay? She's practically a kid."
"Oh?" "You'll hate her, I promise. She vacations at Wildwood. She wears an American flag pin."
"Mmm," he said, nodding. He yanked my hair again.
"We're going to be late," he said. "Giddy-up."
Natasha came over after school a few days later, while Papa was conferencing with Ms. Notaro. She had gone on a date to Chili's with Tony DeMatta—who was not only a high school delinquent and a guitarist in a sub-par local band, but who also happened to be the progeny of our janitor—and I knew she wanted to give me all the details. We were spending the afternoon on Papa's bed, looking at the photo album he kept in the drawer of the nightstand. My father's room made me uncomfortable. Everything was a shade of brown, the only window faced out onto the parking lot, and it was always about twenty degrees colder than the rest of the house.
I watched Natasha as she leafed through the photos of my mother—Mama and Papa standing over the Neva, bundled up in their winter coats; Mama grinning as she held two apples in front of her breasts at the summer government camp; Mama squatting in the sand at the beach with me scowling between her knees. I didn't need to look at the photos; I had already memorized them all. I barely remembered anything about my mother, and when I thought of her, the photos were the first things that came to mind; they were more real than she was. I liked watching the moments of my mother's life hit my best friend's face. The way Natasha's lips parted open and her lashes lit up made it seem like the pictures were snapped the weekend before, that they hadn't been collecting dust in my father's room since we moved to America.
"I wish my mom did something exciting with her life," she said, making a face. "All she does is screw my dad and program computers."
"It could always be worse," I said. "Like, dead-worse."
"I guess," she said, sighing hard. "Anastasia, do you ever get bored here? I mean, do you ever feel like—I don't know, you were meant for greater things?"
"Sometimes I wish I didn't get Bs in math," I said.
"Right," she said, and then she didn't say anything for a while. She leaned back on the bed and tucked her arms behind her head and closed her eyes, probably thinking about her latest musical production. When she opened them again, she said, "That's why I like being with Tony. I mean, have you heard him play? He's really good, Anna, like, really really good. He's going places."
"Like the county jail," I said.
"Don't be jealous," she said, and I rolled my eyes.
She turned toward the mirror on Papa's dresser and adjusted the butterfly clips in her hair. A few minutes later, she forgot what I said and flipped to her favorite part of the photo album, Mama's stage photos: Mama as Ophelia, Mama as Kitty, Mama as a swan. Natasha loved imagining my mother on stage because she spent many of her nights onstage, too. Natasha had the most beautiful singing voice I had ever heard, though her acting skills needed work. "Christ, Anastasia," she said, pointing to the picture of Mama as Kitty. "She looks like you here. Exactly like you. It's the hair." She continued to stab the page with her index finger for emphasis.
"I don't look like my mother," I insisted. "I look just like Papa. Everybody says so."
"Everybody," she snorted, slamming the album shut.
After Mr. Turov picked up Natasha, I put the album away, feeling uneasy. If what Natasha said was true, I could only imagine what effect this had on Papa. I don't think I ever looked through it from cover-to-cover again until last year, over a decade later, after I drove up to Brighton and packed away the last of Papa's things.
That day, I was almost relieved to hear the Honda puttering up the driveway, even if it meant Papa would probably want me dead after talking to Ms. Notaro. Though I was sure he'd probably think she was as stupid as I did, he'd still be livid. In his eyes, me standing up to a dumb teacher equaled me not getting into Harvard, though I really didn't see that one happening, either. I was examining a pimple on my chin when I heard his footsteps on the stairs.
"Your teacher is… very kind. A very warm person," said Papa, leaning against my door. I was so confused by the expression on his face that it took me a minute to understand that he was smiling.
"Why are you speaking English?"
"I do not know," he said, still in English. "But she is very nice. You did not tell me she was so nice."
"Right. Well, um, what did she say?"
"Many things," he said mysteriously. "But she is worrying about you. You are sleeping in the class?"
"That's it?" I said, and swallowed.
"Well, no," he said. "Your teacher and I—we are having plans for the weekend. I am taking her to Manhattan. To Russian Samovar. She will like it, I think."
"Very funny," I said, waiting for him to tell me he was joking.
But he just stood there like an idiot. He walked over and gave me a rough kiss on the top of my forehead. I tried to raise my right eyebrow at him, but he didn't notice the attempt. Eventually he staggered into his bedroom, like a dog following a scent.
We were stuck playing pickle ball that marking period. It was endemic to gym classes all over New Jersey, a hybrid of tennis and ping-pong, with a tiny court, plastic paddles, and a wiffle ball. Natasha was my partner. She wore white shorts that rode halfway up her ass and her black D.A.R.E. T-shirt with the sleeves cut off, her hair held back by a sweatband she didn't need. We had to play against Pooja and Reema, the Parikh twins, who kept whispering to each other in between points and lost track of the score. "Eddie Hayes won't stop staring at you," Natasha informed me, sailing the ball into the net. "Don't look," she hissed.
"You sure he's looking at me?"
"Well, your legs, more like."
"Gross," I said. "Eddie Hayes picks his nose in Pre-Algebra."
"That is gross."
"Is he still doing it?"
"Picking his nose or checking you out?"
I told her to shut up.
The truth was, I didn't think Eddie Hayes was that disgusting. Back in fifth grade, his older brother died after he got wasted and drove himself and his date off Jenkinson's Pavilion straight into the ocean on prom weekend. Eddie Hayes was still a shrimp; his brother had been a football hero and a National Merit Scholar. When I watched him inspecting his tiny balled-up boogers, I imagined that they were grains of sand from the beach—if the rumors were true, his brother's eyes had been sealed shut by the sand when they found him.
The bell rang and we were herded back to the locker room. Katie and Nora, our other best friends, shared the locker next to ours. Natasha pulled her D.A.R.E. shirt over her head, revealing a lacy pink bra, which emphasized that she was as flat as a pickle ball paddle. She swatted me over the head with her shirt when she saw me staring.
"So guess who my dad is taking out to New York this weekend," I said.
"You're kidding," she said. "Papa Orlov has a date? With who?"
"You won't believe it," I said. "Okay, here's a hint." I positioned myself on one of the bleachers and folded a flyer for Navratri Night with the Multicultural Club over my lap and said, in my best husky voice, "Well guys, what can we learn from this?"
"Holy fuck," Natasha said, giggling like crazy. "Not Ms. Notaro!"
"What are they doing in New York?" said Katie.
"Search me," I said.
"They'll have something to drink," Nora assured me.
"Papa Orlov's gonna hook up with Ms. Notaro!" Natasha said.
"Your dad's so weird," Katie pointed out.
"I know. "
"But Ms. Notaro? What are they going to talk about?" Nora asked pragmatically. It was a good question. I tried to think of the interests that would bind them. I thought of the things we learned in American History.
"The Cold War?" I guessed.
"Come on, guys," said Natasha, suddenly sounding like an adult. "You should be happy for your father, Anastasia. God knows he deserves to go on a date."
"My father doesn't believe in God," I told her.
After her third date with my father, Ms. Notaro stopped reading from the headlines all together. She also mellowed out in class and let us have our first test open-book; I suspect she also gave me slightly higher grades in spite of herself. As far as I knew, she never came to our house, and she and Papa began spending their time at one of the three decent restaurants downtown, or at the movies, or at Roosevelt Park, when the weather was nice enough.
One day after school, I had come home late. I spent the afternoon at Natasha's and forgot to call home; I didn't forget, exactly, but I just knew that Papa was so busy being lovesick that he wouldn't have noticed if I called him from a strip club where I was the opening act. When I let myself in, I saw Papa sitting at the kitchen table, which was set for two. He wasn't eating, either, just staring at the books on the shelves, as if he were silently trying to count how many of them he had read, and how many times. Papa liked saving money, but it was strange that all of the lights in the house were off when it was pitch black outside. A candle flickered on the table.
I nearly fell to the ground when I realized what was happening. It was the anniversary of my mother's death, and I had spent it watching Judge Judy in my best friend's basement.
I said, "Shit."
"I'm sorry, Papa. I completely forgot."
"I can see that. There's macaroni in the fridge."
"I already ate."
"Well. Have a seat," he said, and I did.
"Your mother was a good woman," he said. "I don't know what she would have made of this," he said, sweeping his arm over the living room, meaning America, or me, his terrible daughter.
"I'm really sorry, Papa," I said.
"That's okay. What were you doodling?" he said in English, nodding toward the notebook in my hands.
"Drawing, Papa. I was drawing. I have a project for art class."
"Let me see."
"It's not finished," I said, opening the pages to show him the sketch of Natasha's face I had worked on. I thought I did a pretty good job, but I couldn't capture the look in her eyes. That was impossible.
"How long did this take you?"
"Tell me," he said. "What do you think would have happened if you spent those three hours on your math homework?"
"I would have broken a record?"
"Well," he said. "You'll never be Chagall. You should know that now, before you get your hopes up."
"I would never get my hopes up," I said.
"Good," he said, pleased with himself. Then, as if it were the next logical alley of conversation, he added, "Your clothes are getting too tight. And your hair—"
"Enough about the hair," I said. "I look okay."
He finished his noodles and said, "Listen, dochka." I bit down on the insides of my cheeks: I thought I was in for a big lecture. "Tomorrow I'm going to spend the night at Sandy's, so maybe you'd like to stay at Natasha's house?"
"Um, your teacher," he said. "I thought—"
"Oh," I said.
Then I faked a coughing fit. I coughed so hard the candle went out.
That year, Halloween came on a Friday. We dressed up as four of the Spice Girls. I got to be Posh, Natasha was Ginger, Katie was Baby, and Nora, though she couldn't pass the twenty-minute-mile test in gym, was stuck being Sporty. After three hours of collecting candy, we were exhausted. On our way back to Natasha's house, we passed the high school. It was lit up blue, the lights behind it falling on a football stadium we couldn't see from the front. An American flag flew high in the air, but the wind had it wrapped around the pole twice. On one side, the message board outside read Rest in Peace, Grace Mahoney. Grace's younger sister, Becky, was in my art class; Grace had hung herself from her bedroom closet the week before. The other side of the board read Happy Halloween, Hawks! The black windows of the building reflected the light from the streets, and for the first time that night, I was cold.
"This is probably it," said Katie. "I mean, this is the last time we can dress up, isn't it?"
"I think so," Nora said slowly. "Next year will be different."
"Yeah," said Natasha, squinting out as if she could already picture herself on the stage of the big auditorium. "What do you guys think it'll be like, out there?"
"For fuck's sake, it's not another country," I said. "You act like it's freakin' Canada or something. It's less than a mile away from the middle school. What's wrong with you people?"
They ignored me and stood there, transfixed. A truck drove by with some teenagers in it, probably drunk ones. I didn't drink yet, but Natasha did, a little. The truck honked three times, and I felt ridiculous, standing there with my heavy bag of candy. From the back, I could have been mistaken for their mother, a chaperone. I was a solid six inches taller than the three of them.
"Next year will be different," Katie said again. "Next year there'll be boys."
"Goody," I said.
"Some of them will drive cars or play varsity sports. Some of them will have hair on their backs. Some of them will be men," Natasha said.
"Men," Katie echoed, nodding grimly.
They stared at the school like the hypothetical men were already in there, suspended in jelly, ready to be animated by us on the first day of school.
"Let's go," I said, making a face. "It's getting cold out here."
"Holy shit," said Natasha, pointing at the field behind the high school. "Look."
We saw the smoke rising from the Old Walenski's woods and then, moving closer, we watched the flames eating up the trees. Old Walenski was a Holocaust survivor who lived on the edge of the premises in a little cottage. He came to our middle school once a year to give a speech about his experiences, until last year, when somebody threw a spitball onto the stage and was promptly suspended. Everybody in our town knew those woods. That was where the high school kids went to smoke pot or have sex. The middle school kids went there to burn their notebooks on the last day of class. We heard the fire engines wailing in the distance, and by the time we ran there, a good half-mile away, they were already starting to put the fire out.
"Hooligans," said Katie, shaking her head.
"Probably drunk," Nora agreed.
We didn't say anything for a while. We just stood behind the fence, watching as the fire slowly diminished. I liked the way the flames danced on Natasha's face, the way her eyes glowed with the slick glaze they got from watching too much television. Her pale face danced with licks of red and orange, matching the color of her hair. After a while, we picked up our candy and left.
Natasha's basement was our sanctuary.
I return to it in my best dreams and wake up feeling like I could die happy. Even today I could paint a perfect picture of it, right up to the last piece of neglected pizza crust festering under the ping-pong table. It was nothing like the house that Papa kept, with everything placed at right angles, dusted bi-daily. The spilled root beer and duck sauce shining over the nappy brown carpet indicated nights of giggles and prank calls, times when we were far too occupied to consider the absurd possibility of cleaning up. Nothing ever got erased, either. It was like memory. With enough time and will power, you could find almost anything down there. Katie had once recovered her third grade Tamagotchi from the storage closet. Another time, Nora had unearthed a disposable camera with undeveloped pictures I had taken during our fourth grade trip to Ellis Island. In the picture, Natasha had her sweater pulled over her head, huddling under a lamp post, posing as a hungry immigrant.
The silver Christmas garland around the banisters was pretty much a permanent fixture; the same birthday steamers celebrated three shoe-sizes of birthdays, eventually lost their color, and seemed to peel off the walls on their own accord. The power button on the TV had been jammed in when Nora got too excited about the season finale of Step by Step, and it could only be turned on with the remote, which was constantly missing or in need of fresh batteries. My favorite part was the NO MESS ALLOWED! sign that Katie had constructed from colored paper in the fifth grade. She had taped it up above the TV and it only took about two months for it to be picked at until only the words O MESS remained along with the exclamation point. As it was, with a netless ping-pong table and a set of bare mattresses facing the TV, the basement looked more like the Fiona Apple "Criminal" video than a place to raise your children, and that was exactly why three extra toothbrushes made their way to the downstairs bathroom.
That night, we didn't do much but dump our bags out onto the floor of the basement, exchange our candy, and make sure that Natasha's parents were asleep so we could watch an hour of Tales from the Crypt before passing out. The television's blue glow canceled out the neon colors on the painting of the Church of Spilled Blood, blending them into a milky white that faded into the cloudless sky in the background. Soon enough, Katie and Nora had fallen asleep. It was just me and Natasha, as usual, the last ones up. Normally, we would play tricks on them for going to bed so early. We would soak Katie's hand in water to make her pee or we would put Nora's bra in the freezer. We were too tired that time, or too something, too dizzy from the sugar. Natasha scooped her traded candy back into her plastic pumpkin, saying nothing. She wrapped herself in the TV Poncho and stared off at the screen, which was showing an infomercial for a juicer. It occurred to me that she had said almost nothing to me since the fire.
"What's the matter?" I said.
"Nothing," she said.
"What's the matter, Natasha?"
"It's one thing when you stare at me in class," she said. "You think I can't feel your eyes on the back of my head? Well, I can, Anna, I can. Or in the locker room. Or even when we're looking at pictures of your mom. Fine, whatever, do what you want. But when there's a freakin fire—come on, you were watching my face the whole time!"
"What are you saying?" I said.
"This has to stop," she said. "Okay?"
"I haven't done anything."
"You like being on stage," I said slowly. "You like being looked at."
"This is different."
Thinking back, I realize that it was only about her face, though—nothing else. The way things would bounce off Natasha's face and seem ten times more real. Sometimes, when I search the faces of my art students, I think I see it for a second; but then they toss their hair, or blink, or the bell rings, and the look is gone.
"Anyway," she said. "Tony asked me to be his girlfriend. I thought you should know."
"Tasha," I said. "He's the janitor's son."
"You've always been such a snob," she said. "Not everybody's a Nobel Peace Prize-winning mathlete like your fucking dad, okay?"
"What does my dad have to do with anything?" I said, restraining myself from pointing out that the Nobel Peace Prize was not awarded for mathematics.
"Good night, Anastasia," she said, huffing into her faded Little Mermaid sleeping bag. By the time I realized nothing had been resolved, she was already asleep. Even today I go back to that night in her basement, unzip her sleeping bag and shake her awake, whispering that I didn't want anything from her that a man could give me, though I didn't know that, back then. I just wished she would let me into her sleeping bag for the night, was all.
I watched her sleeping for a while. Though the basement always felt too cold when you were down there, it was impossible to sleep without getting sweaty, waking up with a moistness in between your breasts, your hair sticking to your forehead, your lips heavy and itchy like you had spent the night kissing a bearded man. During one of my last arguments with my ex, when I finally admitted that I never had an orgasm in my life, he said, "I don't get you, Anna. You've always been so cold. And you know what? Half the time, it even feels cold inside of you." I wasn't immediately offended, no: I thought of Natasha's basement, how it was impossible for any part of you to be cold after a night there. How you woke up with even your toenails squishing.
I couldn't sleep that night, thinking about what Natasha said, wondering if there really was something wrong with me. It was hard to be awake in the basement by yourself for very long, so I sat in her living room, staring at pictures of her parents and kid sister on the walls, their faces filled with wonder. I didn't know her parents very well because they were always working. On the rare occasions when I did see them, Natasha's mom was always sporting very smart outfits, and her father, under his gold-rimmed glasses, looked almost dreamy. Natasha had once reported that when her parents made love, it sounded like her father was slowly killing her mother. I didn't think it was so weird. It sounded about right to me.
Before anyone else got up, I left a note on the kitchen table that said my dad was picking me up early, and thanked the Turovs for having me over. I grabbed my things, including my Posh Spice costume, and stepped out into the cold. It felt strange walking around town at eight in the morning on a Saturday. Everything was gray except the red and orange leaves that stuck to the ground. It didn't take long to get to my house. All I had to do was cross through the back of Sacred Heart and go around the Dunkin' Donuts, then follow Inman up for about half a mile. Even then, it was weird to walk past my old elementary school without the crossing guard, Mr. Reed. He was a World War II vet and a little bit senile; the year before, when Katie and I happened to be crossing when elementary school was out, Mr. Reed called me by my name and asked how fifth grade was. I told him it was treating me just fine.
At the end of my block, I saw a Reese's peanut butter cup, untouched, lying near the gutter. I ate it.
I saw a maroon Chevy sitting in my driveway. My powers of deduction led me to believe that Ms. Notaro was somewhere inside my house, hopefully sleeping and fully dressed. I pictured her in my father's bed, wearing one of her tacky suits, her American flag pin still on. When I stepped inside the house, I smelled cigarette smoke, thinking that Papa had to be up, reading the Russian newspaper. I clenched my fists and marched toward the kitchen and pedaled right back when I saw Ms. Notaro leaning against the sink, staring out of the little oval window over the dish rack while a cigarette withered in her left hand. I wanted to tell her that there was nothing to see out that window. There was only Mr. Trevor's backyard, with its patchy yellow grass and the dog that had a throat operation and couldn't bark anymore. That was it.
She wore a white nightgown that barely covered her ass, and it made me think of all those times Papa made me plant my hands at my sides before I left the house, to make sure my shorts passed his personal dress code. You're going to the nurse, young lady! I wanted to tell her, because that was what they made you do, back in school. Well, never me, but always Natasha. Change into your gym clothes, the nurse would tell her, or wait for your mother to bring you a respectable pair of pants! That was when I realized it: Ms. Notaro had nice legs. The boys in my class were right.
I heard a toilet flushing upstairs and hurried to my room. After Papa came out, I snuck to the top of the stairs and looked down into the kitchen.
"You sleep forever," she mumbled to him, her voice at the soft whisper I thought she had reserved for the headlines.
"Only when I dream of nice things," he said, kissing her nose. Papa wrapped his thick arms around my American History teacher and rested his chin on her forehead.
"I was thinking about getting a dog," she said, still staring out the window. Papa hated Mr. Trevor's dog for eating the Russian newspaper during his younger days and for barking all night. He had been calling the cops about it for years and was thrilled when the dog had the throat operation, though upset that it didn't kill him completely. I waited for him to tell Ms. Notaro this particular history.
"I will get you a dog," he told her.
I saw then what it was about my father that appealed to women. When he told her he'd get her a dog, I could practically already see it in front of the refrigerator, panting up at them.
"Fyodor," she said, turning around and smiling in a way I had never seen her smile before. "What would I do without you?"
"What would I do without you?" he echoed.
He burrowed his head into her neck and said something that made her laugh a high pretty laugh. It reminded me of the aluminum foil crinkling over the vent in Natasha's basement. I had been in Ms. Notaro's history class for over two months, and I had never heard her laugh that way before. Nothing anybody did in history class—the booming voice Jerry Mintz put on whenever she asked him to read from The American Pageant, how Billy Hsu drooled all over his desk whenever he slept—had ever genuinely made Ms. Notaro laugh; the other laugh, the neat laugh, was just another part of her job.
A week later, Natasha showed up at school wearing Tony DeMatta's leather jacket. When she wasn't rehearsing for the winter musical, she was spending her time with Tony and the other losers in his band, which then was called The Nothings. All of them had either dropped out of school or constantly talked about dropping out, as if they had any better ways of spending their time. Natasha would stand slightly apart from them, her hand already extended as if awaiting a cigarette, though she refused to smoke. She didn't want to ruin her voice. It wasn't that she had ditched us completely, no; she had tried to let us hang out with them a few times, to see for ourselves. It would never work, we all knew. As soon as they offered us a pack of stolen Trident, Nora began lecturing them against shoplifting.
The week after Thanksgiving, I went back to her house to clean out my things. I brought my backpack. I thought she would be there but she was at her voice lessons. Her father let me in. I spent almost an hour down there, crying and stuffing my backpack, even items arguably hers, like the watercolors we had drawn together. My sole act of defiance was tearing the O off the O MESS sign, folding it in half and tucking it into the front part of my bag.
Once Natasha stopped hanging out with us, the group fell apart. It didn't take me, Katie, and Nora very long to realize that just about the only thing we had in common was her. Sometimes I saw the two of them together, coming out of the locker room, but pretty soon Nora fell in with a crowd of quiet Jewish girls, and Katie started going to the mall with a few people she met in detention. When Eddie Hayes asked me to see a movie with him, I didn't say no. At that point, I spent my days having a running dialogue with Natasha in my head, even in my dreams; by then, I would have gone to the movies with Stalin. When Eddie put his hand up my shirt in the middle of the movie, I didn't say no, either. It didn't feel good or bad, really. It didn't feel like anything. Though I do remember his hands: they were cold. To be honest, the only time I actually felt anything with Eddie was a year later, in high school, when we got stoned for the first time and he put his hand down my pants while we rolled around on his dead brother's bed.
Sometimes I would see Natasha around town, riding in the passenger seat of Tony's Firebird, her hot pink nails drumming on its side. I would see her outside the CVS, passing the football field, at the food court at the mall, making a U-turn in the public library parking lot. That was the worst part of the whole thing, having to see her everywhere though we were no longer together. It made me wish people would just drop off the face of the earth once you were done with them. And watching Natasha sing at the Gong Show, her mouth set in a careful O that reminded me of the letter I had ripped off the wall of her basement, was the worst thing of all; sitting in the audience then, knowing I would not be running up on stage to give her flowers or celebrating her first-place victory with a fifty-dollar gift certificate to the Cheesecake Factory after the show, had prepared me for a world of pain. Secretly I wished that Tony DeMatta would crash his car. I didn't want either of them to die, not really, but I wanted them to be shaken up a little. I wanted Tony to be paralyzed from the waist down so Natasha would have to find someone else to fuck. As for Natasha, I just wanted her to break a finger or a hand, to remember all the fun we had together, to call me up and beg for my forgiveness. We both knew it: I would have forgiven her in a second.
When my ex left me a year ago, I saw him going into the bank not too long afterwards. As I ducked behind a tree and watched him scratching his head in a way I used to hate, I remembered how I felt when I first saw Natasha with Tony, giggling in a world that did not include me. It didn't make any sense. How was it that I was allowed to see him like that—walking quickly past the parked cars, his check in his hands, wearing a sweater we had picked out together? As for Natasha Turova, at least I knew I wouldn't be running into her, anymore. Right after we graduated from high school, Los Angeles ate her up. I saw her on a commercial for pore clarifier once, during college. Though the second time I saw it, and then the third, I became less and less sure that it was her.
They found Ms. Notaro's son right before Christmas. He was alive and healthy and living in Cherry Hill. A woman whose son had died months before had snatched him up on the playground. It wasn't even all the flyers or the private investigators my father had helped pay for that found him, either. The lady had turned herself in, saying something about feeling guilty keeping a boy from his mother on Christmas. I didn't believe in Christmas and the whole thing made me sick, but I was glad my teacher had her son back. This was hardly good news for Papa, though. Not even a week later, Ms. Notaro had moved back in with her husband and told us to call her Mrs. Cavendish again, which made her sound like a whole new person, one that I hadn't seen half-naked in my kitchen. I don't know what happened to Boris, the Pomeranian my father had given her.
Papa did a decent job of keeping it together when I was around. He just shook his head and said, "Anyway, she has not read nearly enough good books," as if she really missed out by not reading the classics, though he was the one who had to go back to sleeping alone in his king-sized bed. And so, over a decade later, when Papa nearly stopped talking to me after I moved to DC for an American I had met at Amherst, I knew what I did was more complicated than a simple betrayal of my country and my culture. In my then-boyfriend, he saw Ms. Notaro, a reminder of the one time he attempted to connect with an American. And maybe that was why I never told him about my breakup. I suspect it was the same reason he didn't tell me he was dying until he was practically dead. He was too proud to ask for help.
By the time the New Year came, Natasha and I had stopped talking completely. I wish I could say she stopped coming to school and her grades slipped, but nothing like that happened. Natasha was a chameleon. She succeeded in hanging out with the guidos in Tony's band—which had changed its name to Revenge of the Superzeroes by then—and still starred in the spring production of Annie! It was all just a game for her, like trying out for a new part.
One night, after Eddie and I had come out of the movies, I heard a whistle, looked up at the food court and saw Natasha standing with Tony and his posse. "Where you Russian to?" said one of them, a girl. "A commie convention?" They all thought this was tremendously funny, even though Natasha was Russian too.
"Take your greasy hair back to Little Italy," I snapped.
This really pissed them off. One of them spit her gum out from the balcony. As soon as it landed on my head, I slammed my hand down on it reflexively; this was what got it stuck firmly to the top of my head. Natasha put her hand over her mouth; her new friends laughed, but she kept quiet. Eddie gave them the finger and wrapped his arm around me, led me into Pacsun, the first store we saw, and bought me a corduroy hat for twenty-five dollars. We waited outside the movies for his mom to pick us up, saying almost nothing. Just when I was sure the day couldn't possibly get any worse, I realized that Papa and I needed to make an emergency trip to the Stop & Shop. It couldn't be put off until the next morning; in as few words as possible, I had to explain that I had run out of Maxi pads.
I heard a familiar voice at the checkout counter. It was Ms. Notaro and her little boy. She had packed away the last of her bags and was playing with his hair as she signed her receipt. I didn't like children then, but I remember that he was beautiful, the boy. Papa tried to back away from her, the way I had done months before when I saw her smoking in our kitchen, but she spotted him.
"Fyodor," she said. "Anna. What a surprise. This is Dylan," she said, resting her hand on her son's shoulder. I didn't say a word. I had mastered the right-eyebrow trick, and I let her have it.
"Ms. Notaro," Papa said, which sounded ridiculous to me, especially because it wasn't her name anymore. What was even more ridiculous was that Papa reached over and shook the five-year-old boy's hand, like they were making a business agreement. When she wheeled him away, she laughed over something the little boy said, but it was only her class laugh, not the laugh I had heard in our kitchen.
That night, as soon as I thought Papa was in bed, I snuck downstairs to see if we had any peanut butter, so I could try to rub out the gum. I heard a strange sound coming from the living room, like a dog whimpering. I saw my father sitting in the dark, in his rocking chair.
"Allergies," he snapped when he saw me, quickly wiping his face. And then: "Why are you wearing that foolish hat inside?" I flicked on the light and slid the hat off, revealing the pink gum at the top of my head. "My God," he said. "What have you done? Bring me some scissors and a comb."
I got the comb and scissors and positioned myself between his knees. My father chopped off a chunk of my hair in one triumphant gesture and held the hairy pink wad up in the air, admiring his work.
I touched the top of my head, feeling the empty space where my hair used to be. I said, "What now?"
"Now go to sleep," my father said to me. "We'll fix the rest in the morning."
Title graphic: "Basement Life" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2010.