Oleg and friends

          Meet my friend Oleg. He’s just inside the gate on Pine and Tulip and he wears an uncertain smile. And a suit. And a tie with a big knot. He has bushy sideburns that may have been in vogue back then. It’s uncertain with Oleg. He was a big man, but he was uncertain. Nice guy, they said about him, uncertainly. The picture may have been taken at a wedding or other social event and Oleg might be sitting in the middle of the group photo that they all took together. He looks very upright, perhaps the biggest man in the group, but with his hands on the table before him, while the others wrap their arms around him. The women like Oleg because he’s big and gentle and listens. But they don’t like his wife, who is hard and blonde and keeps an eye on him. She wears too much jewelry and has nervous hands that fidget with the cigarette she’s either putting out or lighting up. She carries her own lighter. Oleg doesn’t smoke. What did she say to you? his wife always wants to know about any of the women he was talking to. She’s jealous, but also likes gossip. He has a cold glass of milk before he goes to bed, while she has a last cigarette. She puts away her jewelry carefully in the black lacquered box on their bureau in the bedroom, while he drinks his milk at the kitchen table and reads the last of the newspaper. They got married late in life and they went on their honeymoon to Europe. She shopped de rigueur at the Paris shops, while he fed the pigeons at the park near their hotel. On their return to Moscow, she decided they had to move to America. What are we going to do here, anyway? she told Oleg, while she undressed in front of the TV that was showing a program on penguins that he was watching. They came to America and he worked in real estate with some friends he had served with in Afghanistan. They would go for drinks after hours. But he always went home early enough to cook for his wife when she was taking her night courses at Brooklyn College. They ate at the table and she told him all about her day, and then she went to their bedroom and put on her pajamas and she underlined her textbooks with a yellow marker for the next day’s classes, while he tried to read his Lermontov on the sofa from a boyhood habit, but usually fell asleep in front of the History Channel. Sometimes in his dreams he saw visions of his life back in the Ural Mountains where he grew up and where the cold wind whistled through the pines.

          Next to him is Fira, elegant and pleasantly smiling. She always wore nice jewelry and had a wardrobe that the other women envied. How much money did he leave her? they said of her husband, who was only a college professor, but had written a few textbooks that a Russian publishing company had reissued in the United States. Fira had several children, mostly boys, and several grandchildren spread all over Vermont and New Jersey and Connecticut, and even South Carolina. But they always came to visit for the holidays and she always greeted them at the door with an impeccable white apron over her silk dress and her hair freshly done at the beauty parlor on Eighteenth Avenue that she always talked about to amuse them. I don’t like them and they don’t like me—‘Where do you get your money? Why do you live alone? Who pays your mortgage? Who do you see now?’ What’s it to them? she would tell her children with a shrug and her charming smile, and then hug her grandchildren individually, and they would smell her perfumed hair, and wait for her to produce a treat for each of them from her apron: a brooch for the girls, a twenty-dollar bill in a plastic Easter egg for the boys, or from her bedroom closet an endless supply of children’s textbooks in Russian with florid illustrations (she was a former primary school teacher herself), or one of the many cookies she had just baked for their visit and had arranged on the table. There were jam cookies, and sugar cookies, and cookies that looked like little balls of dough, and even cookies wrapped in boxes with pictures of St. Petersburg winter scenes. And after dinner she might collect all the children at the table and tell them stories as she peeled the cellophane off the cookies again. I was a singer once, she would tell them solemnly, while they would listen solemnly, and watch her peel the cellophane. I was even going to run away with the gypsies and sing, but my mother and father said no. One night, though, the gypsies climbed a ladder and came into my room. She takes a jam cookie and munches it. And what are you doing here? I say to the gypsies. You don’t belong in my room! But the leader of the gypsies, who was very young and very handsome, he said to me: ‘Come with us, Fira, you don’t belong in here. You belong out there under the moon and the stars.’  And she points to the window and the children look at the window. And there was a moon outside my window that night and there were so many stars. It was so beautiful. I was tempted. She munches the last of her cookie and wipes the table with the back of her hand. But I didn’t go; I was afraid. And then I used to hear the song of the gypsies in the night and I was very jealous. But I know I did the right thing. Because I had my children, and now I have my grandchildren, and maybe I will sing for you? And she would sing to her grandchildren softly, almost a whisper, and look at them with her smiling eyes, and they would look at her, too, and maybe glance at their father sitting in the recliner by the television set, who always pretended to blow his nose, but always wiped his eyes when his mother sang.

          Oleg lived nearby and sometimes came over. She served him kvass and her cookies and they talked about the old country and about the mountains where he grew up. Fira’s father had once been a government official and she sometimes accompanied him on his rounds. They stayed once at a mountain hunting lodge and she remembers looking out the window and seeing eagles soaring in the clouds below them. Oleg usually left Fira to go home before his wife arrived. But his wife knew he had been over. Why do you go there and listen to that old woman? she would say.

          Near Oleg and Fira on Pine is Gregory. And Moshe and Kkayka. And Itshok, who is smiling. And Aleksandr, who is only thirty and wears his Nehru jacket proudly in the photograph. And there is Zemfira with her ponytail. You’d think that she and Aleksandr had once met, and maybe they had. It’s a small community of Russian Jews in Brooklyn and they all know each other.

          There is Mikhail, of course, who has a loosened tie and slack, sideways look. And there is Dr. Irna, who is just the opposite: all symmetrical glasses and with a friendly, but professional, stare.

          There is Tatyana, who is skinny and pretty and everyone says has very nice hair. There is Mikhail and Machai and Yuriy and Nisson and Semyon and Lidiya. And then there is Marla, who was plump and sensual and a real beauty. There was reason for Tatyana to hate her, but they were very good friends.

          There is poor Alex, who was less than thirty, and wore a jacket for his photograph, but with a black tee-shirt, and who liked to have fun and cruise the streets of Brooklyn with his car, a renovated Audi 5000 Turbo Quattro with heated leather seats he was very proud of and with a stereo system he had installed himself.

          There is that fun couple: Igor and Rita. There is Alexei, who loved everyone, and everyone loved him. He and Oleg would sometimes have coffee together (because they both couldn’t drink much, anymore) and they would spend time walking the Coney Island boardwalk on the weekends, right after their bathing session at the spa in Brighton Beach. That’s when Oleg’s wife was taking her weekend classes at Baruch. And Peter joined them, too. He was a joiner.

          And sometimes they would wind up at the home of Lorina, who lived with her parents, Olga and Khamza, and could have married many times. She had many proposals, but never did marry. She said she had to take care of her parents, and they said they had to take care of her. Who needs anybody else? her father would say with a shrug. But her mother knew better.  Her mother often said–Lorina could have had anyone–anyone! And she said that for many years, until she finally stopped. Lorina had a good job as an office manager for a lawyer, and she traveled back home and to Europe often, both alone, and with friends, and they said she had so many men still interested in her. She often liked to drink with the men, Oleg and company, and she sometimes brought them home to her parents’ and they all drank together and sang Russian songs and she danced with the men right there in the living room, because she couldn’t help herself. It was a very sentimental evening, and great fun, and Lorina would then see the men to the door. They hated to leave, but she shooed them away brusquely, like a man, and then closed the door on them without ceremony. Alexei had once proposed to her, though he was a lifelong bachelor, and she had refused him. So what are you waiting for? he said to her in his frustration, which he later repented, because he hoped to try again.

          She never did say what she was waiting for. Perhaps she was waiting for Andri, the bad boy with the earring, who sometimes met her at the airport and boarded the same flight with her. He often rode with her at night in the cab from the airport back to her house, and then sat in the car waiting for her to walk in the door, before he tapped on the glass for the driver. She never once looked back at him. She walked into the house and it smelled of the cabbage her parents had cooked that day. Of course they were awake when she arrived. But they never asked her about the man waiting in the car outside and she never once mentioned him.

          There are plastic flowers everywhere on Pine and Tulip and Ash. And black plastic bags from convenience stores tumbling around in the wind and rustling and getting stuck on all the headstones with the many photographs at the Jewish cemetery on Twentieth Avenue. The kids from the local high school march past the gates like a vast migratory herd, the mothers from Borough Park resolutely shove their strollers and snap their black skirts as they walk, the rabbis with their ancient beards pause to check their voice mail on the modern wonder of their cell phones.

          It’s winter and cold and my own cell phone rings. I have work to do and I turn and walk back down Ash and Pine and Tulip, while I glance around at all the faces I’ve met and the company I’ve kept. And I pause by Fira near the gate, who always smiles hospitably, and by my friend, Oleg, with the bushy sideburns, who always looks a little startled to see me, and smiles uncertainly to see me go.