Notre Dame Review, Summer/Fall 2014
The psychiatrist, with his gray, manicured beard and smart eyeglass frames, is saying something about agency, that responsibility for who we are and whatever we want to become is in our own hands. He’s about to posit that it’s not too late to choose a different life path. “Look at me,” he’s going to say, like he has at least eighteen times in the six sessions I’ve had with him, “I used to be a backup singer for Andy Gibb.” It’s true. He was. If you listen closely, you can hear his unique brand of falsetto behind Andy’s on “Shadow Dancing.”
“And now Andy’s dead, and I’m a psychiatrist with a whole bunch of student loans I’m never going to pay off. Do you understand?” he says.
“I think so,” I say.
“You can do whatever you want to do.”
“Right,” I say.
“Good. Your time is up.”
The drive home, through Ross Township, is pleasant enough. It’s a postage stamp painting of small-town Middle America. There’s a bronze statue of the Potawatomi Indians in the city square, a whole family of them. My guess is civic leaders erected the sculpture to commemorate the swindling of the tribe’s land by Jeremiah Ross, the town founder. You’d think by 1834 the Potawatomi elders would’ve seen it coming. Then again, maybe they heard that Ruby Tuesdays, Best Buy and Target were looking to build and thought it best to leave before the whole tribe got trapped in minimum wage positions with no room for advancement. If so, I applaud them.
My mother-in-law isn’t very happy to see me as I open the screen door and step into the small, aqua blue tiled kitchen. I don’t know if she’s ever liked me, but things have been especially tense since her daughter, my wife, left five and a half months ago.
“Hello, Dolores,” I say. “Any messages?”
Dolores takes a sip of clear liquid, likely vodka since it’s early, and taps ash off her Winston into the sink, all without looking up from the rosolnyk boiling on the stove. It’s a wretched smelling soup with pickles.
“Get out,” she says, her Ukrainian accent having lost its charm a mere five minutes after I met her.
“Soon,” I say. “I just need a little more time. I have a plan.”
The plan, as I’ve conceived it, is to head upstairs to the room that Katya, my wife, and I never shared and get as high as the remaining shake will allow, bide my time. Dolores doesn’t think I know which city Katya is in, but she’s underestimated my ability to sneak into her room and go through her mail. Stealth is one of my talents. I read a lot of ninja comics growing up, and I’ve taken two free Krav Maga classes. Also, Dolores is a pretty sound sleeper as a result of her alcoholism.
Katya is on the strip club circuit with her asshole, special-forces boyfriend, Brick Drolar. Or as I like to call him, though never out loud, Dick Drooler. The guy is an ex-Navy SEAL and thinks he’s a badass, which, if I’m being honest, he is. I have two poorly healed pinkies to prove it. He’s always saying dumb shit, like on the day the president announced the killing of Osama Bin Laden. We were sitting on the couch in the living room, watching the press conference.
“I knew that raid was going to happen two days ago,” he said and took a drink of his beer.
“That’s the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard in my life,” I said.
Then he broke my pinkies. I didn’t even know it had happened until he sat back down and took another sip of his drink.
“Look at your little fingers, dickhead.”
They were both twisted outward and bent in the almost perfect shape of question marks. To my credit, I didn’t scream, but I did get a nasty forehead bruise after fainting and clipping the edge of the coffee table.
According to her last letter, dated four days ago, Katya and Brick are in Detroit. Her run at The Flight Club got extended due to popularity. I’m not surprised. She’s a gorgeous young woman with very full, seductive red lips and dark, intelligent eyes. I knew she’d be something special the first time she set foot on stage at Bottom’s Up. For weeks I tipped her and only her, until my money ran out. Then I just watched her, and that’s what led to our eventual marriage.
Kandy Apple Russia is the name that Brick, who’s managing her career and booking this tour, gave her, which is ridiculous. She’s Ukrainian, not Russian, but that point is entirely missed by Dick Drooler. I offered up several alternatives, like the Cossack Queen or Lady Kiev, and my personal favorite, Anna Karenina. I’ll admit that the latter isn’t as geographically sound. I just love Tolstoy, and at least there’s some tragic symbolism in the name.
“Katya,” I said, “don’t you want to represent your homeland? In fact, Ukraine translated means homeland, or borderland, depending on which scholars you choose to believe.”
“Brick is business. You’re just husband,” Katya said.
She’s direct like that, which is one of the things I respect about her. I just wish she hadn’t allowed Brick so much input regarding her appearance. When I first came across Katya, she had jet-black hair with bangs cut straight across her forehead. Her breasts weren’t too large or too small. They were firm and real, two fleshy teardrop shaped treasures floating in perfect animation. Now her hair is fire engine red and her breasts, if you can still call them that, are taut balloons which cause static electricity when she wears sweaters. Get close enough to her while she’s in a cashmere V-neck and your hair stands on end. Thankfully, her smooth, flawless skin, bereft of any unsightly moles, odd birthmarks, or strange sores that you see on so many dancers now, remains intact. She drew the line at tanning.
“Is bad for skin,” she said to Brick.
“Not to mention cancer causing,” I said, and then stepped behind her before he could grasp any of my appendages.
The bitch about this last correspondence from Katya is the money order, made out to her mother, Dolores Kuzmenko. In her previous three letters, Katya, being of Slavic ancestry, sent cash. It’s a cultural fact that Eastern Europeans on the whole prefer cash over any other type of currency. It’s easier for the men to keep in their elaborate Adidas tracksuits. The bonus for me, it made pilfering a few hundred at a time from the envelope a simple endeavor.
No cash means that Dolores, even in her continual state of hazy inebriation, is on to me borrowing from the envelopes and told Katya. I say borrowing, but it’s my opinion that I have as much right to my wife’s money as her mother does. After all, it’s our marriage that’s keeping them both in the country, and Katya, for the time being, legally working.
The money-order situation is downright ungrateful. Why has our country fought so many wars if foreigners can come over, marry into citizenship, and then be stingy with the American dream?
I’m mystified and super high. I scraped the resin out of the pipe and smoked it on top of the shake earlier. What I want now, even more than my fair share of that money order, is a drink of water. This cottonmouth is unbearable.
Downstairs, Dolores is sitting at the kitchen table and has moved on to a late afternoon mug of black coffee, laced with brandy, if I had to guess. Every cup in this house has a faint liquor aftertaste, no matter what you’re drinking out of it, which is why I keep a Big Gulp cup upstairs and bring it down when I’m thirsty. She’s smoking a cigarette and looking at photographs of celebrities in an issue of US Weekly I filched from the psychiatrist’s waiting room. Periodicals that make people feel worse about themselves deserve to be stolen, and then properly devoured in privacy.
“Enjoying the magazine, Dolores?” I say, and sit opposite her. “I thought you might like it.”
“Is two years old,” she says, flips a page backward and holds it up. “This actress is dead. She hung herself.”
“The stars that burn brightest,” I say.
Dolores and Katya came to the U.S. ten years ago on tourist visas and have been on holiday ever since. It’s not a bad life, if you ask me, cash-only jobs and no state or federal taxes. There doesn’t appear to be a big picture plan, but they often speak Ukrainian when I’m around and could be plotting to kidnap and ransom the pope, as far as I know. For whatever reason, they really hate that guy.
It occurs to me, as I watch her take a long pull from the Winston, that she’s not an unattractive woman, even in her formless housedress and ratty terrycloth slippers. On the few occasions I’ve seen Dolores cleaned up and put together, she’s had a kind of thin, hard-edged sexy set off by a dense mixture of cosmetics and bad habits. You get the feeling this woman could fuck you into a coma, which is both terrifying and tempting.
Before I know what’s happening, we’re locked in a stare. She blows smoke in my face while under the table I stroke the inside of her calf with my bare foot. She hasn’t shaved in a while, but I’m stoned and the prickly texture is giving me a hard-on. Dolores stubs her Winston out in the ashtray, rises and downs the rest of her coffee at the sink.
“What are you doing?” she says, and leans forward, peering in my lap. The comfy at-home sweat pants I’m wearing do nothing to mask my condition.
“What are you doing?” I say.
Dolores takes another cigarette from the box, lights it and walks out of the kitchen. After a moment, I follow because she didn’t say no, which, coming from her, might mean yes. The first clue is the housedress, it’s lying in a heap on the hardwood floor in the hallway. The second is Dolores, lying in a heap on her bed.
“What about Katya?” I say.
“She hates you, and she sleeps with Dick Drooler.”
“How did you know I call him Dick Drooler?”
“I’ve been reading your diary,” she says.
When Brick first approached me at Bottom’s Up and said he’d been watching me, the whole thing felt dubious. I’d been staring at Katya’s lean, muscular legs, trying to mentally calculate her body mass index so I could ask her about it when she got off stage. My lack of funds meant I’d have to rely on wit to keep her attention. I had her at nine percent body fat which is almost too slender for my taste, but for whatever reason, it works for her.
“You seem to really like Katya,” he said too loud in my ear and sat in the chair next to me.
“You seem to really feel invited,” I said.
“I’m a regular. Name’s Brick.”
“Me too,” I said. “Name’s Brack.”
Gauging by the absurd force with which he slapped my back and guffawed, Brick enjoyed my play on words, but didn’t intuit my sarcasm. Then he twisted himself in his seat and held the peace sign up toward the bar. I massaged my shoulder.
A waitress wearing a baby blue half-shirt, short jean cut-offs and white vans with knee high gym-socks padded over to us. She set two beers on the table. Brick squeezed her bottom, tipped her and winked at me as she giggled. Too cute. I don’t go for the little girl look, though I can see its appeal, all that presumed innocence waiting to be tarnished. I prefer elegance, nice dinners and compelling conversation. Try getting that from pigtails.
Brick pushed one of the bottles across the table to me.
“Thanks,” I said. “I don’t drink. I’m an eighth Navajo and my people have an allergy.”
“No shit?” he said, and laid the largest stack of crisp twenty-dollar bills I’ve ever seen on the table. “That’s a shame because I’m carrying big today and I need a drinking partner.”
Realizing the possibilities, I changed my position.
“Okay, but I prefer liquor, something top shelf and brown,” I said, and took a drink of the cold beer. It tasted delicious.
Brick proved to be generous. While he got dances from almost every woman at Bottom’s Up, including waitresses, I spent his money on Katya. She and I wiled the afternoon away in the VIP lounge. Apparently, what makes the room so important is all the velvet covered in fleur-de-lis. We drank bourbons, neat, and opened up to each other as she straddled my lap and smothered my face with her perfumed breasts.
“I resigned from my position at Copy Depot,” I said.
“My tourist visa expired.”
“They promoted a community college simpleton.”
“I have to get green card.”
“I’m a Photoshop expert and he’s got Asperger’s.”
“I must get husband to become citizen.”
Fifteen or twenty songs in, Katya excused herself to the restroom, and I saw Brick reclining on a faux fur sofa across from me. He held his beer between two fingers and kept up a menacing clink by tapping the bottle with his wedding band. The grimace on his face made me self-conscious, like maybe our earlier drinking partnership had evolved into something unexpected and unpleasant. I adjusted my pants and crossed my legs.
“How long have you been sitting there?” I said.
“How about you marry Katya?” he said.
“That seems rushed.”
“I’m not fucking around.”
Brick is an A-type personality, the kind of character who convinces you that if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. We negotiated the terms and shook on it. Then he mentioned the various dumpsters along I-65 that he’d leave my body parts in if I backed out. An arranged marriage isn’t something I’d ever considered, but under the circumstances, I thought it prudent to see if love might blossom. Two days later, Katya and I were married by a Lake County justice of the peace.
“And will you take Katya Kuzemnko as your lawful wedded wife?”
“I will,” Brick and I said.
“I now pronounce you man and wife?” the justice of the peace said.
The new couple strolled out of the courtroom hand in hand, dashing any hopes I had for a romantic honeymoon getaway. I turned to the justice of the peace.
“Thank you. I’m sure we’ll all be very happy together,” I said, and ran after them.
My mother-in-law is smoking a cigarette next to me in bed. The poisonous cloud is making it difficult to catch my breath after forty-five minutes of hard sexual labor. I’m out of shape and practice. This is the first sex I’ve had since the graphics specialist at Copy Depot, Dena Murphy, yanked me into the handicap restroom at the company Christmas party more than two years ago. She’d been drinking and mistook me for Leo Campbell, the general manager.
“Oh, Leo, honey,” Dena said. “Your wife will never know, I promise.”
“I don’t care if the whole world knows,” I said. “I hate my wife.”
Dena quit her job the next day, and Leo Campbell wrote me up on a vague charge of misconduct in the workplace a day after that. I tried to appeal.
“I thought she and I were role playing,” I said.
“You’re a letch,” Leo said.
A wave of fatigue washes over me as I fan cigarette smoke away from my face. Being jobless and trapped in a loveless marriage of convenience isn’t as fulfilling as I thought it would be. Also, sex with Dolores has zapped my high. I watch the skin on the back of her arm swing from side to side as she puts her Winston out in the ashtray and realize I need a new plan. Then Dolores gathers the sheets around her, lays on her back and sighs.
“When I was little girl, I used to ride horses on beach in Yalta,” she says.
“How long have you been reading my diary?” I say.
“My sister still has nice little cottage there.”
“Because there’s some very personal stuff in it.”
Dolores rolls to her side, facing me and rests her head on the pillow. Her dark hair spills over her shoulders and frames a solemn expression in her eyes.
“Yalta sounds nice,” I say.
“Would you like to go to Ukraine?” she says.
The psychiatrist is right, you can do anything you want, choose a different life path, sing backup for Andy Gibb or runaway with your mother-in-law to the homeland.