Since she'd arrived in America and gotten divorced, Ilona Siegal had been set up three times. The first man was not an ordinary man but a Ph.D. from Moscow, the friend who'd arranged the date said. When Ilona opened her door, she'd found the Ph.D. standing on her front steps in a pair of paper-sheer yellow jogging shorts. He was thin, in the famished way of grazing animals and endurance athletes, with folds of skin around his kneecaps and wiry rabbit muscles braiding into his inner thighs. Under his arm he held what, in a moment of brief confusion, Ilona took for a wine bottle. But when he stepped inside she saw that it was only a liter of water he'd brought along for himself. Their plan had been to take a walk around a nearby park and then go out to lunch. But the Ph.D. had already been to the park. It wasn't anything special, he said. He'd just gone jogging there. He didn't like to miss his jogs, and since he'd driven an hour and a half out of his way to meet her he'd gotten in a run first. Ilona poured him a glass of grapefruit juice and listened to him talk about his work at Bell Labs. He reclined in his chair, his knees apart, unaware that one of his testicles was inching out of the inner lining of his shorts. Ilona stared at his face, trying not to look down.
The second man was American, somebody's co-worker, brought along to a party to meet her. He had graying red hair and his light lashes were coated with dandruff-like flakes. He took Ilona to an outdoor concert at the local community college. Afterward, she waited while he searched the cabinets of his kitchen, finally producing a tray of crackers and a dry triangle of Brie. All she remembered now of the man's small apartment was the blinding light of his empty refrigerator.
The last man was too young for her and obviously gay. He'd agreed to meet Ilona because he had the impression that she was an illegal who needed to marry to stay in the country. As soon as they sat down at an outdoor table at a cafe, the man told her that he wouldn't normally consider such an offer but his mother had fallen ill and he needed to pay for her treatment. Ilona nodded in sympathy and asked the young man to repeat himself more slowly. She understood that her case had been shoved so far into the recesses of her acquaintanceships that the people who now gave out her phone number no longer knew who she was or what she wanted.
It had not always been this way. There had been happier times, when she'd had both a husband and a lover; when she and her husband had thrown parties in their Tbilisi apartment that went late into the night, with longer and longer rounds of toasts and the smell of sweat and sharp cologne overpowering even the odor of cigarettes. Nothing fed Ilona's spirits more than the company of men. She loved the sound of their hoarse voices, the amateur authority with which they spoke about world affairs and other matters they had absolutely no effect on. But most of all she loved the flattering light of their attention. After the last female guest had said good night, and she had found herself in the thrilling half-susceptible state of being the only woman at the party, was when modesty came most easily to her. It lent coherence to her whole character, so that she could finally be her most humorous and disarming self. But all that had been a world ago and she tried to think about it as little as possible, now that she came home to an apartment that was not hers, and to a man who was neither a spouse nor a lover but who seemed to demand more of her than either possibly could.
"Have you met Thomaz?" Taia said. "He's outside."
"The Georgian?" Ilona went to the sink to rinse off her hands. "I hope you didn't invite him here for me." Her fingers were grainy with the watermelon she'd been slicing. She ran them under the tap and felt around on the counter for her rings.
"I didn't invite him at all. He came with the Gureviches."
"He's a bit young, no?" Ilona slipped on the bigger of the three rings first, a teardrop diamond in a five-prong setting.
"If you're comparing him with your roommate," said Taia, who almost never referred to Earl by name. "Don't lose those." She glanced down at the rings. "One day you'll take one off and it'll fall down a drain. Some women don't even wear the jewelry they own. They have copies made."
"So maybe I should tear off a piece of tinfoil and wrap that around my finger instead?"
"Do what you want," Taia said.
There was no point, Ilona decided, in reminding Taia that before Felix started making money, Taia had been so cheap she'd gutted empty tubes of Crest, scraping the toothpaste from the creases. No matter how tough her life got, Ilona thought, she'd never lower herself to something so miserly. At least she made use of the nice things she owned. Unlike Taia, whose kitchen had floor-to-ceiling pantries, brushed stainless-steel everything, and polished granite counters that she touched only when she was throwing a party.
"Did you put new low lights in the ceiling?" Ilona asked.
"It was Felix's idea." Taia tipped her head back. "He thought we'd get more for the house if the kitchen was brighter."
"You're selling it?"
"Not right away. It usually takes a year."
"You didn't tell me."
"We haven't really told anyone. Except the Kogans, and the Weinbergs, in case anyone knew of anyone who was looking. It isn't a secret."
There were plenty of things that Taia forgot to tell her--but selling a house? Was that just another bit of information exchanged between people with money, like a stock tip?
"Oh, don't be upset. A year's a long time. You can still come here whenever you need to get away from that man. Come this weekend. We're going to Providence for Parents' Day. You could drop in and water the plants, feed the cat." Taia laid down her paring knife and stood up. "Let me find you a key."
"I still have the key from last time," Ilona said. She couldn't tell if Taia was offering her a favor or asking for one, just as she couldn't judge if her friends kept things to themselves to protect her feelings or because they found her irrelevant. She knew they gossiped. A year ago she used to bring up Earl in conversation all the time--told her friends stories about his two favorite activities, researching his genealogy and organizing his video collection, and mimicked him mercilessly even if he was in the next room, or precisely because he was in the next room and didn't understand a word of Russian. She was staying with him so she could save up for her own apartment. But lately she'd started to realize that unless she wanted to move north into Putnam County or south into the Bronx, and either way end up an hour's drive from her job, her sojourn would have to drag on for at least another year.
She stepped outside and into the sun. The clouds were coasting slowly in the sky, forming metallic reflections in the second-story windows. The air was smoky from the grill. On the patio two men were lamenting the loss of jobs to Bangalore. Ilona walked past the Kogans and the Ulitskys, past the women reclining in white lounge chairs. It was mid-September, but already she felt a kick of cold in the air. She wore a silk blouse, while the others had come in cotton sweaters. She set her cup on the refreshments table and bent down to refill it with seltzer. A few dead leaves had fallen on the grass. They were the weakest leaves, the lemon-lime color of early fall.
When she turned around, she found Felix standing behind her. "Where is your friend today?" he said, and surveyed the people scattered around the lawn.
"When I left, he was still sleeping in front of his sixty-inch television."
"So Earl fell asleep and you snuck out?"
"Do I need Earl's permission to see my friends?"
"No. But I thought you'd extend the invitation to him."
"And what makes you think I didn't?"
"I don't think he would have missed an opportunity to be seen with you."
She was too tired to play this game today. Every time Felix tried to make her feel better he only made her feel worse. It was his diplomacy that was the worst of it, his awareness that every comment could be taken as a potential insult. The old contrite song, not for their affair of eleven years ago--which, thankfully, no one had learned about--but for all the other disappointments in her life.
"Earl couldn't come because he isn't feeling well. He's still weak from his bypass." It was a lie, an obvious one, because five months had passed since Earl's surgery. But who was going to argue? She picked up a plate. "I'm going to get something to eat."
"Please do." Felix stepped back a pace and returned her evasiveness with a delicate smile.
It was her fault for allowing Earl to meet her friends in the first place. She'd brought him along to the Fourth of July party a year ago and introduced him to everyone as her "roommate." As though this would explain anything. He was seventy, she was forty-five. She may as well have called him her chef or her architect--it would have sounded more plausible. The minute she left him alone, he'd drifted off into an empty hallway. She'd discovered him an hour later in the foyer, talking to Felix about Hiroshima. Laughter from the party floated in from the yard while Earl went on about the Japanese who had jumped into the Motoyasu River only to be scalded alive by boiling water.
She felt her heels sinking into the lawn as she walked. Most of the other guests were wearing loafers or sneakers. A few had gathered around the grill to listen to the Georgian, the man Taia had mentioned. It was hard to tell if he was handsome or not; Ilona had seen him on the way into the party and had noted the light-gray eyes and crooked lower teeth, a combination that stirred an almost queasy sympathy in her. He looked younger than the men around him, possibly as young as thirty-five, yet he appeared to be on the brink of a decline that might be rapid, so that, when he finally did age, he would do so overnight.
"They told me they were guarding a base," the Georgian said, as the men parted to make room for Ilona. "They said that their friend had been shot in the hand and needed drugs to relieve the pain. I offered antibiotics, but they wanted morphine." She had no idea which war he was speaking of. It could have been Abkhazia or South Ossetia. She'd left Georgia three years before the republic had split from Russia, and its new problems--which autonomous province wanted independence next--had little impact on her. She'd heard of addicts in Tbilisi raiding hospitals even in peacetime. Perhaps it was the snobbery of distance: nothing would ever change there.
"I wanted to get out," he went on. "But when I stood up, one of them was pointing a rifle in my face."
"But you had a gun!" one of the men interrupted. "You should have shot him in the mouth!"
"Which mouth?" another said. "There were two of them!"
"I did something more dangerous than that," the Georgian continued. "I began to curse. I called them every name I could think of, hoping to alert someone who might overhear me. But I was running out of profanities."
He paused, glancing at Ilona. He looked surprised by the silent attention he had drawn.
"Aren't you going to tell us if you survived?" Ilona asked.
"Thank you," he said, nodding. "I did survive." He had a long jaw with a dimpled chin; it was the only feature that lent any merriment to his face. "I heard a vehicle drive into the hospital yard. The addicts thought it was a carload of soldiers. But it was only a man with an attack of pancreatitis."
"Pancreatitis? He must have been an alcoholic," Ilona said.
The Georgian acknowledged her mutely with his brows. He waited for the people around him to disperse into smaller groups. "He was. You work in an alcohol clinic?"
"No, a urologist's office. But I was a nurse in Tbilisi," she said.
"And what do you do now?"
"Catheters, rectal exams. Technically I am only a receptionist, so I also pick up the phone. But that's the only legal thing I do."
"Then your work is closer to medicine than mine," he said. "During the day I lay carpet."
"And at night?"
"At night I clean supermarkets."
"Then I wish you luck finding something more suited to your skills."
The man's eyes flitted across her face, as if they couldn't decide which part to examine first. "That may be hard for me to do without a work permit. My visa expires in a month."
"And after that?"
He shrugged. "We'll see. I am Thomaz," he said, offering his hand. She squeezed it lightly. "Ilona."
He held on to her fingers. "In my life I have met only two Ilonas, and both of you are very beautiful."
She felt heat rising in her face. So he is this kind of man, she thought. He was standing close, and she had to look up to speak to him. "You live in the city?" she said. Thomaz aimed his dimpled chin at a heavyset man with a short, square beard.
"Yosif is a cousin of my friend in Chiatura. He and his wife are letting me stay in their apartment in Brooklyn. Their son is at college and I'm taking his bed. It is awkward sometimes. I help buy food. If I have to use the bathroom at night, I tiptoe. But I'm not complaining." He touched his hand to his heart. "I am grateful. I feel as though I need to lose three limbs and an eye before I can be sorry for myself."
An illegal who cleaned supermarkets . . . She smiled to herself. This was all they could find for her? And yet she suspected he knew his appeal to women, and that in the worst of times he could still rely on it.
"It is a nice place here," he continued, looking around the property. Ilona followed his gaze down to the small rectangular pond. A dog was barking in a distant yard. "All this space," he said, shaking his head. "I am inside all the time now. It has been too long since I've seen woods, nature. The spirit starts to forget."
"This is hardly nature," she said. "But if you want to see nature, you should come back and walk the trails. I could pick you up at the station. The trains run every hour."