Star Star Narayan
A short story by John Biggs, taken from his new anthology, School Police. (Reading time: <5m)
Kevin pounded the snow off of his boots and opened the door to the apartment he shared with his fiancée, Marina. He wouldn't stay long so he left his shoes on, tracking gray mud on the carpet.
They lived in Vuosaari, outside of Helsinki, where he consulted for a state telecom and she sat glued to Finnish television or asleep. He watched her breathing change as he opened the door and went over to turn off the television. He touched her shoulder. She stirred, exposing a check reddened and mottled by the rough couch material, and then turned over.
Their apartment was tiny, assigned to them by the head office. It seemed, at first, to be perfect: it was close to shopping, to the trains, to a library that carried Russian and English books. But Marina, eight months into their stay, hated the people and the entire venture. He was working hard to find another position, somewhere closer to Moscow or further south, but as the stupefying darkness of the Finnish winter settled over them, she grew as distant and angry as the sea birds that roiled over the port.
Downstairs, Kevin's co-worker, Narayan Paul, waited in the company Volvo. Narayan wanted to learn how to ice skate. Kevin wanted Marina to come but he could not rouse her and she seemed to be in, or faking, a deep, enchanted sleep. Kevin dropped his briefcase near the kitchen table where half a sausage lay congealed in a dollop of mustard and fat. He went back to the bedroom to get his skates. He was tramping snow on the hardwood floor but he didn't care. He rummaged through the closet, ran his hand over the cool duvet on their primly made bed, and then walked back past his sleeping fiancée into the hall and locked the apartment door.
Marina had feigned sleep when Kevin came in but now dropped back into a dark place full of snow, ice, and the rapid strange language of the Finns. Her dream, up until Kevin came in, had had something to do with ships leaving. She stood on the dock and waved goodbye, and wished him good riddance. She would walk back to Moscow through the snow, she decided in this dream, and the cold bit at her bare legs and arms like her grandmother's yappy terrier. Now she dreamt of the snow Kevin had tramped through the house.
She saw a small cross of ice that had fallen out from the tread of his Salamander boot and saw it melt into a tiny pool of water even as Kevin was locking the door. She was upset with him for not cleaning up after himself, upset at his freedom and his work, how he came home smelling of after-hours beers and stew when she sat, alone and steaming, eating frozen piroski and sausage from the lewd man at the big grocery store down the road who eyed her breasts like the pigs back in Moscow. She had left Russia and agreed to marry Paul because she wanted something different. This was more of the same.
Now she was a roach and went under the locked door and followed Kevin down the hall. This is what she was reduced to: she could not drive, so she must scuttle. A runner of red lined the hall and rose above each door, framing half of each door in crimson. The doors themselves, doors she had walked past so many times, were made of pine and each had a peephole and an elegant door handle. As Kevin passed each door, his skates tapped against each door handle. She followed him down the brightly lit stairs.
Kevin looked out the window at Narayan in the car below. Marina could see him look back at their floor, wondering if she should return to wake her, but he continued on down the stairs. His coat billowed and cold air blew out at her as she went through the door with him and to the car. She was barefoot, and the snow burned as she and Kevin walked to the car. She caught a whiff of his cologne, something she had picked up for him at a duty free in Heathrow (for a moment she saw it in the medicine cabinet. It was in a gray metal bottle. It was called 212. Kevin had once told her that it was the area code in Manhattan.) It reminded her of his neck when he slept next to her, as long and pale as a girl's.
She went into the car with them and Narayan backed the Volvo up and out of the loop in front of their building. The tires spun for a second and then caught with a chirp. Narayan was not a good driver.
"Marina?" asked Narayan.
"She's asleep," said Kevin. He was running his hand along the blade of his right skate and Marina could feel the metal cutting into his thumb but stop short at breaking skin.
Snow bombarded the windshield as they drove to the small park that Kevin pointed out.
"I'm to go back to India very soon to meet my wife," said Narayan, smiling in the red lights of the dash. "During the holidays. We'll be married."
"She's beautiful, man," said Kevin. For a moment Marina saw Narayan's wife, as bright as cumin in the heat of Bangalore, preparing for a wedding that had been arranged by her parents with a boy who lived in Europe.
"Thank you. I'll bring her here when we've wed. You will be wed as well, and we'll go skating."
Narayan had a wonderful accent, crisp as tea and lilting. She enjoyed spending time with him when he came for supper. They talked about American football and work. She rarely said much because she hated her own halting accent, but she enjoyed hearing him talk.
Narayan pulled up to the lake and pulled the parking brake. He turned off the car and it chugged once and stopped. They were on the side of the road and the small path to the lake had been brushed clean of snow and ice, but more snow was gathering. Narayan had his own skates, borrowed from a Finn at work, and they walked to the edge of the lake where they pulled on their skates as quickly as they could. There was a bench on the other side of the small lake but they didn't want to walk around to sit so they risked dipping their stocking feet into the snow.
"Is this safe?" asked Narayan.
Kevin nodded. He pulled his hat over his ears. It was the hat that Marina's mother had knitted for him. It was red, white, and blue, a joke. "This is for American and for Russian," she said in her English and then she said it again in Russian. "Tell him it's the colors of both the Russian and American flags." They laughed and Marina had felt cold before but in Finland, far from her family and friends, the thought of her mother knitting chilled her. She missed everything: the frost mornings on Arbat Street, the snow on the Kamenny Bridge and eating caviar and drinking flavored vodka with Kevin on the train one summer morning as they left the city for her Uncle's dacha. She missed the cabbage and old book smell of her Blok, the smell of leather and wood polish of her own room, her grandmother's kiss, dry and quick on her cheek, a tiny, bejeweled hand pulling her into warmth. All of this rasped at her like a file.
"It's very safe. It's only how wide... fifty feet? It'll be fine. Look, someone else has been skating," said Kevin.
There were tracks on the ice and the snow only dusted the surface. Someone had just been there.
Kevin stepped onto the ice and he grabbed Narayan by the arm and they began to skate. Narayan's ankles buckled but he did not fall. Marina felt the cold on her feet and saw the moon high above them cast a blue glow on the ice where the streetlights could not reach. This was winter in Finland, she thought, and she watched Kevin and Narayan slip across the ice and watched as Narayan improved, slowly, and began to skate on his own.
From far away, their small block apartment and the frozen lake were specks on a white landscape. Their skates glinted like stars. Narayan was getting better. Kevin told him he was a natural. They skated for a half an hour and then they went back to the car and Narayan dropped Kevin off at the front door.
"We will have dinner, the four of us," said Narayan. Kevin nodded and smiled.
Marina knew what Kevin was planning to make them for dinner. Borsch from an envelope, piroski. A glass of her favorite drink, a kind of watery gelatin that Kevin couldn't stand. He walked up the stairs, trailing snow and cold and the urgent, familiar scent of his cologne, and unlocked the front door where she stood waiting.
Years later, she thought of this dream and considered sharing it with her newborn daughter, Masha. She composed the dream in her head, choosing the words she would use to describe the feeling she had when she scuttled under the door and sat with them in the darkened Volvo. But Masha was nearly asleep and she did not want to wake her, so she rocked her gently in her arms and sang a song about the dark and stars and the tired old moon.
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