An excerpt from the novel A Petty Revenge, an intergenerational saga set in twentieth century Russia. The chapter featured is the final chapter, taking a backward looking view at the events of the book through the eyes of the descendants. Zachary is the son of Russian immigrants to Vienna, Austria. He meets and falls in love with a girl, Ari, and their young relationship blossoms effortlessly.
“Motto am Fluss” can be found on a little boat that was permanently docked along the Danube canal. It was - and still is - very popular, frequented both by tourists and locals alike, and in summers, too. When Ari started working there, it was not just a cafe, but frequently a site for DJ sets, from morning to night.
Because of its central location and high visibility, it was pertinent that the cafe be kept spotless at all times. The air inside was set to a cool 18 degrees by a system of discreet but powerful air conditioners. The wait staff washed the windows at least twice a day. Vacuuming happened both before opening and after closing, though a staff member could be expected to hoover up at any point in the day. There were tables with white tablecloths for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which were expected to at least be cleaned with an elongated silver cleaning device resembling a knife, but all tablecloths were changed anyway before the dinner service. That meant that deep inside the boat, underneath the restaurant and below the chequered dance floor, there was a dedicated laundry room with four industrial machines spinning white tablecloths and napkins all day. The curtains had to be steamed once a week and washed every month. It was a lot of work for general wait staff, and that is before even coming to the actual job description expected of a waitress.
Ari was in her first year of anthropology studies (Alte Geschichte und Altertumskunde) at the University of Vienna. She finally settled on her early childhood passion after a foray into psychology and a sudden and very short-lived jump to finance spurred on by her father, a local expert in the field, always fuelled by tales of his own success. She rationalized her choice because she loved people, though she preferred to love them from a distance. She was a bit quirky. She liked to watch. She had an asymmetrical haircut that made it easy for her to disguise herself in a sea of young women bent on showcasing their beauty. Ari knew she was beautiful, but she knew there was more to her than that.
She took the job in the boat cafe to ease her transition into adulthood and to make the summer pass by in a more meaningful way, though she got more than she bargained for - and she was very grateful for what it showed her about humanity. Moms brunching with their babies on their laps as the DJ played beach tracks, calling the forty-year olds back to their twenty year old selves over coffees and Bloody Marys: a lethal combination, but Ari wasn’t sent there to judge. She delivered every request with a smile and never cleaned up a mess with a frown. When cocktails were delivered throughout the day to the couples and friends taking a break from work or their touristic programmes on the deck, Ari always asked if they would like more shade and would proceed to patiently unroll the awning if they did. In the late afternoon, the apero would start, and people would line up to talk, laugh, smoke, unwind and kiss as a different DJ played sunset beats inside the old imperial capital. Dinner would be served until 11:30, making it one of the latest places in Vienna where people could reasonably expect to get a bite. The boat cafe was crowded even on weeknights, but on the weekends, it was packed. Staff were expected to work at least one late shift a week, although Ari often worked doubles.
She didn’t mind as it meant more pay. It was more interesting than sitting in a dorm with socially awkward boys drinking toxic-smelling alcohol. It was just like being at a party, except she was sober. She quickly learned that she didn’t mind that so much because people would come to her and say the most random, funny and profound things.
“Do you think Freud was right? Do women envy penises?” a tourist wanted to know. Ari smiled politely and offered to fetch that one some water. The Freud museum was further down the canal, so the origin of that question was perhaps understandable.
“What are the artistic influences passing through Vienna at this moment?” an older woman from England asked. Ari shook her head. She didn’t know. Maybe she could try to visit the new modern art museum that just opened in the Museumsquartier.
“Is it better to spend or save?”
“What can I do to get her back? Even though we never had sex I want her still."
“What time do you finish work?”
“You would look so pretty without the nose ring.”
Ari took all of these comments with a smile, masterfully avoiding any type of conflict with customers. She was just on the boat to make money and hasten her transition into adulthood. She still lived with her parents and she knew it was only a matter of time before she was cut off. Her father had always told her that he didn’t want her mooching off of him. A frequent monologue he directed to Ari and her mother was that he had made his money himself. Yes, yes, they always nodded, but finally Ari was in university and she understood why it was so important to be able to stand on her own two feet. After her initially unsatisfactory academic start, she had finally found something that she wanted to do. She knew she had to pay in a way because it was something her parents wouldn’t ever explicitly approve of. They were holding out for her to change her mind again, she knew, but if she studied long enough to meet her milestones and qualify for graduation, she would. The laziness of her fellow students drove her crazy. She was from Vienna and she loved her life here, but she couldn’t understand why the young people were so content to move so slowly into adulthood, as if there weren’t crises happening all over the world that they, the educated and all in all privileged Europeans, could do something to resolve. She couldn’t wait for her real life to start. Everyone else around her felt like they were moving through water.
Ari’s work ethic and professionalism shone out amongst her colleagues. Her bosses loved her. There was maybe some jealousy amongst the other staff, but Ari didn’t gossip with anyone. She didn’t drink on the job, she didn’t make friends and she didn’t make enemies, either. When she had a moment of downtime or was eating lunch, she would pull out one of the anthropological studies she was expected to read and would well, read it. She was baffling, and anyone who was jealous of her soon learned simply not to see her. She quickly taught those around her that she wasn’t the type to play games.
She was working the late shift the second day in a row she noticed the sky was starting to change from black to a slightly red hue. Ari was tired. She was carrying a tray with some beer glasses and an ash tray from the deck back into the cafe. When she looked up, she made eye contact with a tall young man with curly black hair falling into his eyes. He looked straight at her. Her eyes slid down barely perceptibly over the hump of his aquiline nose. Aesthetically, this was the most pleasing type of man to her. Maybe it was the influence of the Greeks. With her sense of awareness suddenly blunted, Ari broke into a smile. Something flickered across the young man’s face. It wasn’t in her character at all, and certainly not what she should be doing at work, but Ari felt herself growing flirtatious. Her cheeks bumped up higher with a genuine smile. Then she went smashing face first into the glass door that she had neglected to slide open.
A glass broke, crashing into the floor at her feet. Another tumbled, but somehow landed intact after cascading the length of the door. Remnants of drinks flew back on her shirt. She grunted, taking the tray into her chest in a fool-hardy act of self-preservation, thereby throwing ash across the front of her shirt. She was a mess. It served her right. Red-faced, she crouched down and began picking up everything scattered on the deck. The door slid open.
“Are you okay? Can I help you?”
“It’s all okay,” she answered without looking up. She could feel herself blushing like an idiot. The young man crouched down in front of her. She caught a glimpse of his plump thighs positioned to the side of a set of bony knees. She loved the contrast. She loved it a little too much. Now she was starting to feel nervous.
“Please go,” she said, “I’ll do this.”
“There’s glass,” his voice was round, “let me do this for you.”
“It’s my job,” she said quietly. He extended his palm to her. In it were multiple shards of glass. She knew it was clear, but in his lined palm the pieces looked like shattered blue and white marbles. His fingers were long with protruding and perfectly rounded bones.
“Here. It’s not safe for you. Let me take it.”
Obediently, she placed the glass she had collected into his palm. He stood up and disappeared inside the cafe. The sound of the music and people’s voices was still going strong. Finally, when the deck floor was clean, Ari looked up. No one had noticed her faux pas, apparently. She picked up the ashtray and the preserved glass and brought it back to the bar. With a rag she went back to clean the bottom of the glass door. The young man was at her side again.
“Let me do that for you.”
“Why?” she couldn’t bring herself to look at him, “it’s my job.”
“I want to help you.”
She smiled, still not meeting his eye. “I don’t need your help. I like this job. Go, party some more. It’s going to be over soon.”
He stepped out onto the deck, graciously shutting door behind him. The sounds coming from the cafe were muffled now.
“I don’t know if this is the moment to say this, but I was the only person in there that just saw you walk into a glass door.”
Ari couldn’t stop the twisted wry smile from forming on her face.
“Yeah, I guess that’s true. I’m glad only one person saw it.”
“I’m glad it was only me, too,” he stopped, “otherwise all the other boys would be here, trying to talk to you.”
Ari couldn’t even fathom why anyone would say that. Then suddenly, and not without disappointment, she remembered that there was always drinking in the cafe and she was still sober. Her shoulders dropped.
“Well, you know, I’m glad there’s only one boy bothering me, too,” she said, sadly. He might not even remember this later.
“Really? You’re glad? Can I take your number? My name is Zachary, by the way.”
Ari smiled at the unusual name until she remembered her own tangled roots.
“And I’m Ari.”
“Are you Jewish, by chance?”
“You mean because of my name? It might well be. It’s complicated. My parents came from Russia before I was born. Obviously there was a lot of suppression of Jewish faith there. Those that survived pogroms learned to hide their faith there. Many Jews converted to Christianity and continue practicing in secret...I think my family were mostly atheists, though. Successful spread of communism,” he laughed, then covered his mouth with his hand. Ari smiled at this unnecessary and adorable gesture. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what I’m talking about. I must be drunk. I’m sorry, that’s not interesting at all.”
“Actually, it is. I only work as a waitress in the summer. The rest of the time I’m an anthropology student.”
“Oh, down the road?”
“Yeah. Are you at university?”
“I am. Working on human resources.”
Ari tilted her head. She had never met a man studying that before. He made her feel bold.
“Maybe we can meet up at the university cafe sometime.”
“Yes! I would love that.”
She gave him his number. After that, he disappeared inside abruptly. She felt cold as she thought about him while she cleaned the deck, repeating the moment she walked into the glass door. It had been such a terrible move.
She folded the chairs and put the covers over the tables to ward off damage from any potential rain. The party was winding down. By 3 AM, there were only a few people left on the dance floor, and shortly afterwards the lights came on too suddenly. People winced as they gathered their coats, not yet daring to really peer into the face of their dance partner. People were funneling out. The visibility of the cafe demanded that they follow the city’s noise ordinances to the tee, and it would be very un-Viennese to do otherwise.
Ari loaded the dishwashers. The DJ wrapped up his own cables and equipment. “If you help him carry this out, I think you can go,” her boss said, clapping her on the shoulder. Tomorrow she would sleep in. Maybe she would do something nice with her parents, like cycling in the woods. She could sleep. Ari decided not to make plans while she was exhausted.
She took the little suitcase of equipment under her arm and followed the DJ to his van. A shadowy figure stepped out from behind a post. Ari jumped, but smiled when she saw it was just her new friend.
“Still here?” she raised an eyebrow.
“You’re even more beautiful by daylight,” he said, taking a drag. Ari laughed and put the equipment in the back of the trunk. The DJ turned to her.
“Let me give you a ride.”
“I think I’ll stay and talk a bit.” She was aware of her cheeks stretching out into a smile and tried hopelessly to relax her face.
The DJ rolled his eyes.
“You’ve worked twelve hours today and yesterday. Go home. Your parents will be worried. After you sleep, you can decide if you still want to meet this joker or not. No offense,” he said, raising his hand up. Zachary nodded.
“To be honest, that sounds like a good idea. You don’t even know me,” he laughed, and turned around to walk away. Ari’s jaw dropped. She wanted to protest. He was leaving her just like that? But then he turned around, spread his arms and shouted up to the sky: “I love you, Ari the waitress!”
Warmth spread through her body. She laughed out loud, unaware of how she looked because all of a sudden, she felt deliriously happy. The DJ opened the door for her.
“Get in before I kick his ass. For all the girls that this kind of shit happens to.”
Ari didn’t argue. As the van pulled away, she blew Zachary a kiss. The DJ pretended not to see. Zachary stumbled over his drunk legs in shock, but caught himself and slapped his own cheek.
“You’re a nice girl and a man should approach you differently,” the DJ muttered. Ari hummed acquiescence and shut her eyes, feigning tiredness, but scenes of Zachary filled her busy mind.
She went to sleep in her bed, safe in her parent’s house and woke up with a text message from him. That was the start of it.
There were no games with Zachary. He saw what he wanted and he went for it. The first summer passed like a beautiful dream. Ari worked hard and read her papers and dated Zachary, who was doing an internship in human resources in a recruitment company. There was so much they had to talk about. Her study of anthropology took a more historic view whereas his study of human resources took on a current and practical dimension. They brought different sides of the same experience to one another. It was a fascinating debate.
They were both beautiful. In this they were very compatible, too. Love making was full of sizzling friction to the point where they lost their breaths until they found one another’s mouths again. They fed each other physically, intellectually and with humour.
Little by little, they met one another’s friends. Ari’s people tended to meet Zachary by accident - a run in at an art gallery or on a casual stroll through the city, whereas Zachary seemed very intent to introduce Ari to his friends and make her part of his world immediately. After she realized that it was no coincidence that he kept turning up at her cafe on weekend nights with different pals of his, who miraculously never behaved too belligerently, she knew that this was another degree of him expressing his attraction for her. This made her like him more.
They were invited to a barbecue at a lake out of town. Zachary drove there with his friends. They picked up Ari on the way. Leo popped his seat forward and leaned into the glovebox, showing Ari that he was freeing up space for her to get in.
Zachary slapped his shoulder.
“What the hell are you doing? That’s my girlfriend. You get in the back.”
Leo mumbled something, unfolded himself from the car, gave Ari a strained smile and reluctantly smushed himself into the back. Ari could have easily gotten in the back and the thought did cross her mind to tell him not to bother, but it was Zachary’s car, Zachary’s friends, and Zachary’s life. If he had announced to everyone that she was his girlfriend, then so it was. She beamed at him as she got in and buckled her seatbelt, and they were off, whipping through golden wheat fields while old school hip hop played through the speakers, an incongruous but very pleasant vibe.
There were mostly guys at the lake, but some of them had brought girlfriends. Ari could feel the men staring at her with undisguised interest. “Let’s get some meat,” Zachary said, taking her hand and guiding her to the grill.
“Oh, look, Zachary’s brought a girl!”
“Yes, can you believe it? And she’s so delicious, too,” he announced, leaning down and kissing her loudly in the cheek. The jibes continued, but Zachary wasn’t rising to them at all. He was so proud of her, he didn’t leave her side. They ate and after a while he suggested they go down to the lake. When they got there, there was no one on deck.
“Do you like to swim?” he asked, pulling off his shirt, “because it’s a deal breaker for me if you don’t.”
“You know I do,” Ari smiled, but he was already in the water before she could finish the phrase. The water splash backed at her, freezing parts of her skin that were already exposed to the pleasant midday sun, but she got over the discomfort quick by jumping into the water.
“Let’s swim to the other side of the lake,” he suggested.
“Okay,” she shook her head, freeing strands loaded with water as she pushed her body to move quicker and catch up with Zachary.
“What do you think of my friends?”
Ari was silent as she treaded the water.
“You don’t like them?”
“Sorry, no, I do,” she swallowed some water, “I just don’t like to talk when I’m swimming.”
“Ah, sorry,” his whole face changed, “do you want me to slow down? Am I swimming too fast?”
Ari pursed her lips and shook her head no. Zachary laughed, but then was silent. They swam along like two little ducks. The male in front, the female following, but all the while he would turn around to check on her to make sure she was still there and that he wasn’t swimming alone.
They emerged on the other side and Ari found there was a surprising amount of grass between their toes. “Do you want to swim back now?”
“Sit with me,” he said. She nestled up next to him and he snaked his arm around her waist. The view from the other side was beautiful. They could hear the revelry, could even see some of his friends splashing by the water. They could smell the barbecue. But they were here alone together, just the two of them drying out, and everything was so beautiful and still. They were safe, There was nothing to be worried about. They were young, they were beautiful, they respected one another. They had so much to look forward to. They were enjoying a wonderful life and they had enough money that nothing that they truly wanted was out of reach. Ari turned to kiss him.
“I think I love you,” he said just before her lips met his.
“You think or you know?”
He kissed her. Slowly, they cascaded backwards onto the grass. He took off his shorts. She took off her top, winked, then slid off her bottoms, too.
The sun was high overhead. Their bodies were slick and cool from the water. It was really the best beginning.
They met up for daily coffees at their university and had dinner together almost every night. They met one another’s parent’s. Zachary thought Ari’s parents were fantastic. Her father was a bit intimidating and a bit stricter than he would have liked, but he was open about his trepidation. He appeased his future father in law by saying that with such a beautiful daughter, her father had to be strict, which bought him favour with both parents despite the fact that the father was initially suspicious of his rather feminine seeming profession. Without blinking, Zachary explained that human resources in corporations is another application of analytical economics and, by the way, there was no difference in that sense between what a man and woman could do: just look at Ari. Zachary passed the family test with flying colours.
The relationship with Zachary’s parents were more tense. It wasn’t really because they were foreign. The family itself was very strange. Zachary was the last of five children and the only one born in Europe. His parents had come from Russia three years before Zachary was born. He was a late and unexpected child. His parents were already deep into their sixties by the time Ari met them. She couldn’t really connect with their Soviet ways, their food and their mash of German and Russian humour. They spoke her native language well and had lived in Vienna for close to twenty years, but she still felt a void of distance between them.
The most obvious issue in his family was the state of his father’s health. He had had a series of strokes and hospitalizations starting in his late fifties, which had affected his speech and mobility. It wasn’t a problem as he had worked as a handyman in the hospital where his mother had been an orderly until her early retirement. When Ari came over for dinner, she saw a man who looked older than his years sitting alone in a chair that was facing away from the general table. Three of Zachary’s siblings were in attendance that night: two sisters and one brother. The other sister was hiking Kilamanjaro. They were all very enthusiastic to speak to Ari and upheld the conversation in nearly perfect German until Zachary asked when the rest of them were going to bring someone home, at which point the swearing and hand-waving began in Russian. Ari maintained an uneasy smile during this scene. Zachary’s mother shook her head. She made eye contact with Ari and quickly turned her head away. Ari looked at the father. He was looking over his shoulder at them with a smile on his face, holding up a glass of wine. It was a rather disjointed scene.
Zachary maintained a very clear distance with Ari. His mother sported a look of sadness that was lifted whenever she saw her youngest son, but never transferred to his girlfriend. They spoke in a mix of broken Russian and broken German together, which Zachary privately explained was very difficult for him.
“I feel like my Russian is stuck around the age of 10. I can’t really have deep conversations with my mother.”
“You could take courses for that,” Ari suggested. Zachary shrugged.
“Russians are so intense. The courses aren’t fun, they’re not encouraging. It’s not like if you study Italian or something. Ciao! Wow, you speak such good Italian.”
Ari giggled at his over the top imitation, but the language question seemed to depress him. She didn’t know what to say to cheer him up, so she grabbed onto the first thing that surfaced in her head and suggested they go to Italy. That was another summer that went by in a blur. They took his car and with no map or plans headed south. It was another beautiful season of tanning, eating, swimming and love making. They couldn’t get over one another.
When they got home, Zachary suggested they start living together. Ari squealed with delight.
“You do love me!”
"No, like a true Jew I love saving money,” he laughed, but then planted a wet one on her with such intensity there was no doubt that really he wanted her. They found a little place in the trendy seventh district, a studio with a garden and the possibility to convert a spacious closet space into a bedroom. That was the room they offered to guests when they came in from out of town- friends that had left Vienna, mostly. Their first visitor one of Zachary’s cousins from Russia lived with them. He was very quiet and respectful of their space. When she got home after work, Ari couldn’t tell if he was home or not. Since she couldn’t really communicate with Karl, she made him coffee, left out unpackaged biscuits and generally left him alone. When he moved on, Ari didn’t think to ask when he would be back. She didn’t hear about him again for a long time.
Her boyfriend’s family didn’t really matter. They had everything. Then they decided to get a dog. Frikadel was their little baby, a boxer pup that quickly grew and grew through the power of food stolen off plates and long walks in the mountains. That was their reward for the hard work they undertook during the week in terms of studying and working their student jobs. Zachary admitted that he was getting closer to finishing his degree because of Ari’s drive. “It’s so not Austrian,” he remarked with an air of bemusement, “right, Frikadel?”
They became a little trio that went everywhere together, except for Zachary’s parent’s house, where dogs weren’t allowed. But everything suited them just fine.
When Ari finished her degree, Zachary proposed that they take a trip to the Alps to celebrate. They packed up their camping gear and shoved Frikadel in the back seat and were off in the direction of Voralberg, one of the westernmost parts of Austria where the roads would take you in and out of Switzerland were it not for the bordering nations’ extreme respect of sovereignty.
They left their things in a cabin and went for a preliminary hike. The vistas were breathtaking. Eternal landscapes of mountains and water, and though it was summer, they wore windbreakers at the top of the mountain. Their ears stopped popping eventually, or maybe they had popped all the way through.
“Come this way,” Zachary took Ari’s hand and led her off the path in the direction of a mountain edge. She didn’t want to appear nervous, but she took very light steps, looking down and up and down and up to make sure that she wasn’t about to take a tumble. She knew logically she would only hit the ground but the visual effect of the mountains was dizzying. Soon they were standing close to an edge, beyond which was only blue and pixels of green. She felt like she would fall if she got too close, that they could splinter in two.
Suddenly Zachary was falling in front of this mythical landscape. It was all happening so quickly that she bent her knee to try to help him up, her mouth open wide out of fear. Meanwhile, his curl-framed narrow face with its protruding nose beamed up at her with a gigantic smile.
“Ari, will you make me the happiest man and spend the rest of your life with me?”
A velvet Dorotheum box opened up. Inside was a sapphire set up against a diamond. Ari’s head was spinning. She looked from Zachary to the ring and back again, then burst into laughter.
“You can’t be serious,” she said.
“I am serious.”
“None of our friends are doing this.”
“Why do we have to be like anyone else?”
“I mean- I’m so- we’re so...” she brought her hands to her face. Her brain ordered her to take a deep breath. She did so, and inhaled eternity.
In fact, why not? She was tremendously happy, not unlike she’d been as a child. They had been together for a few years already, were living together and were the parents of a fur baby. There was no reason for them to break up and if they ever did, she knew she would be devastated to the point of self-harm. That was a dark thought, but it was true. She didn’t have to be like anyone else. She had finished her degree early. They were both working. She glanced at Frikadel, who was wagging her tail, waiting for the humans to finish their posturing so they could all continue on their walk. She looked to Zachary and, biting her lip, nodded.
Zachary slid the ring onto her finger with the confidence of a man who knew that she would say yes.
There was no rush to do anything at all, really. They needn’t had rushed their degrees, or their living arrangements, or their engagement, but they wanted to do everything right before one another, their families “and God”, as Zachary occasionally added. Ari couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. He laughed after he said it, and she laughed with him, too. His laughter was contagious. It didn’t matter. She could be an atheist and he could be secretly religious. Who knew what dwelt within that deep Russian soul, after all.
They were married at the end of the year in the seventh district’s Amt. They invited their families, their friends, their colleagues from university and their childhood friends. All in all, sixty people made it, which was just the right amount for the first wedding among friends. Ari would have hated to be gawked at by any more. She wore a classic white sleeveless dress that showed off her shoulder tattoos. She sensed the unabashed glances of Zachary’s mother on her bare skin, and was happy when the occasion came for her to put her white fur coat over the dress to head to the restaurant. It was in a typical Austrian keller. They had requested white tablecloths, a private room and some opportunities for dance. All of which was granted to them. The waiters were even chatty, which was more than what the wedding party had come to expect. Ari was almost taken aback by all the good wishes and smiles.
She enjoyed being a bride, but after the official party wound down and the older generation took their leave, she dashed home to change. Zachary bounded into the apartment after her.
“Am I going to get to unwrap my bride now?”
“How about later? I’m just getting ready to go out.”
Ari appeared in a tight pin up style black dress with a vibrant red cherry print. Zachary’s eyes popped. “You’ve really come a long way since those Converse shoes I saw you waitressing in.”
She smiled and took his hand. “Come on, let’s party.”
Their friends were surprised to see them that night, thinking they had gone off to consummate their marriage, but Ari and Zachary stayed out later than everyone, coming home at 8 AM and making sure to walk Frikadel before crashing through the afternoon. It was a unique start to their married life. Like all couples, they had their ups and downs, moments when he was between jobs, moments when he had to clean the floors because she was laid up sick with the flu and the cleaner had been the one to bring the bug home. They fought about too much time spent with the wrong people, friends they outgrew but hadn’t let go of. He was jealous and so was she. Their anger manifested itself in different ways. They grew apart and then they grew back together. They were the primary witnesses to each other’s triumphs and disasters.
Somewhere along the way, they started talking about children. Then they stopped talking and had one. They named her Rose. They struggled for a couple of years, like all young parents do, and despite their communal lack of sleep, they agreed they overwhelmingly wanted a sibling for their daughter. Two years later, they had another child. Benjamin. Ben. They struggled some more, but overall they were stable. They had had a beautiful start and continued to be a source of strength for one another, despite the challenges of work, the economy and their parents’ unsolicited advice. Especially his mother’s. Ari’s favourite had been the comment that she should bathe the baby in dill.
His parents was the only thing they ever constantly fought about. Money came and went, but it was never a problem the same way his family was. Ari couldn’t understand what their problem was. They acted like they were happy for him and her, but it was very clear that it was a superficial type of happiness meant to be pleasing to other people. If it could even be called happiness and not superficial words. She couldn’t understand how her intelligent husband could suddenly become so stupid when it came to his parents.
“It’s clear they don’t like me,” she was cradling little Ben in the middle of the night after an incident when the parents refused to turn on the TV while she breastfed. She had sucked it up while at their house, but it had left her bruised.
“They do,” he insisted.
“They think I’m doing everything wrong. How do you know?”
“My mom told me.”
“Your mom told you,” she scoffed, “then why did she make a point of rearranging the whole kitchen while she was arguably here to take care of the children... a month ago!? Why don’t they come and help out more? Why doesn’t she call to check in on how I’m doing since? That I don’t have postpartum depression?”
Zachary tilted his head. “I think it’s a cultural thing. She was just trying to help.”
“It’s disrespectful,” Ari clicked her tongue, “I’m your wife and the woman of this house. Your mother should really apologize to me for taking such liberties in my home.”
“I’m sorry, but who do you think you are? She may not be perfect, but she’s my mother.”
Then they were off. Screaming and fighting, hurling insults to the point that Benjamin started to fuss then wail. Rose woke up and slid the door of her room open with a bang. Suddenly the lights were on again and it was still the middle of the night. In order to curb the chaos, Ari would put the feelings away in a box, focusing on her own parents for a while, choose to ignore her husband’s family. Eventually, though, it would all boil over. It couldn’t be helped. They lived in one city and his mother needed help with his father, too. Rides to medical appointments. Help with the chair lift operator. Occasional baths when the caretaker hadn’t come. She would also call Zachary for trivial things: come install my new printer. What colour should I paint my table? Zachary would bend his knee and go running to his mother’s aid, leaving Ari alone. It wasn’t the fact that she was alone with two kids, even, or that she still had a job and other desires. It was that he was suddenly gone when another woman called.
When they did all get together, they spoke Russian to her children. Ari couldn’t understand more than a few words. Then her mother in law would turn and ask her a random question like why she wasn’t feeding them bone broth or washing them in dill.
“Did you just say washing them in dill?” Ari repeated. Her mother in law turned away from her.
“Zachary,” she would gesture to her daughter-in-law over her shoulder. “Explain” was the meaning of this gesture. Zachary would look from one woman to another, shake his head in exasperation and shut his mouth for the rest of the visit. His mother would sigh and turn away as if the whole exercise was hopeless. Meanwhile Ari was left stewing in her negativity of being disrespected.
The family was big, something that had seemed attractive to Ari when she first got to know Zachary, but they were spread out. Not geographically, as they all lived in Vienna. They could certainly meet up monthly if that was what was desired. Yet Zachary barely spoke to any of his siblings. The older ones that did have children made no special effort to connect with Ari and her children. She felt shunned.
“What the hell is this? Do you realize none of your sisters even sent me a message while I was pregnant?”
“I though Jasna spoke to you about childbirth?”
“That was in person, during Yom Kippur in my parent’s house. She didn’t have a choice! My parents invited your whole family over for that. Don’t any of your siblings care about me?”
Zachary sighed. “I don’t think anyone cares about me. Why would they care about you?”
Ari fumed. “You’re saying I’m not one to be cared for?”
“You know I care about you!”
She couldn’t make her peace with the rejection and blamed him for it. He was a Russian man, whatever that meant. Over the years her children got older and she had less contact with his family, but still she wanted them to be there for her, to love her - or at least her children - the way her parents did.
One evening, shortly after Ben had turned three, Zachary turned to her in bed and told her about a conversation he had had with his mother.
“You know, my father had a big family back in Russia.”
“I remember, you said. Your cousin that came to visit- he’s from that side, right?”
“I can’t remember his name. He stayed here when we first moved here.”
“Oh, right. Oleg.”
“Oleg, that was his name. He stayed in the kid’s room.”
“Yeah, well, Oleg’s mother...”
“By the way, we really need to think about putting a door over their room. Not like a sliding one, but a proper one. It’s not safe, and it’s a question of privacy. They’re getting older, too.”
“Yeah, okay. So my mom told me something crazy today.”
“Let me guess... she really likes me and hopes we will be happy today and always.”
“Are you going to listen?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t help it if I’m angry at them.”
Zachary blew air through his nostrils. “I’m trying to get to something that might explain why they are that way. I know you anthropologists can never stop working.”
Ari closed her book at last. “You know I haven’t worked as an anthropologist in years.”
“I want to tell you this, listen up. Okay, so Oleg’s mother...”
“That’s where you say, ‘you will achieve your dreams, my love’”, Ari chided him. Zachary grabbed her hand.
“Just listen. Back in Russia, I have this aunt. She’s much older. And she had twins...that were retarded.”
“You’re not supposed to say that word now.”
“Oh, my God, Ari. Just listen.”
“Boys or girls?”
“Do you think it’s genetic?”
“Well. It seems that this aunt...her father...my grandfather, Arthur...he would have raped her when she was small.”
Ari shot up in bed. “What?” She felt the insides of her stomach churn violently.
“They lived in a communal apartment. Basically each room in an apartment was given to each family...”
“They were hippies?”
“No, it was how they attempted to build communism in Russia. In Soviet Russia. At some point. Anyway, everyone lived in close quarters together. So my grandfather raped her.”
Ari’s head was spinning.
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Yes, but. My mother told me something very disturbing.”
“I’m going to be sick. What could be more disturbing than that?”
“She told me this aunt came up recently. Her son got in touch with my parents and asked for them to send some medicine for one of the twins.”
“One twin got in touch on the other twin’s behalf?”
“No, she got re-married. I mean, married later, to another man - not her dad, of course - and they had two more children.”
“That’s lucky. I’m happy to hear it. Poor woman.” Her stomach churned.
“Yeah. So they asked to send some medicine for the twins...”
“How retarded are they exactly?”
Zachary waved his hand. “It doesn’t matter right now.”
“Well, yeah it does, because if it’s genetic...”
“Think about what you’re saying, Ari. It’s not genetic. It’s because of...inbreeding.”
“Oh,” she hugged her pillow.
“Anyway. The aunt came up. The twins came up. You know my dad can’t really speak properly. My mom handled the call. Then she told him who it was. She said they were asking about his father’s children. And he said, ‘those aren’t my father’s children’. And something about the way he looked at her...”
A chill went through her.
“You’re kidding me.”
He continued to talk through it, to find awareness to work around it, and she watched his mouth move and his beautiful curls bounce up and down on the side of his face. She tried to stay calm, but when he finished speaking, she turned the light off and lay down in the bed with her back to him.
“Ari,” he touched her shoulder. “Are you going to bed?” She shrugged him off.
“Let’s sleep. I’m tired,” she announced. He sighed.
“It’s hard for me to hear this, too. But it was a different time. They were a different generation. They lived in hard conditions.”
In a steely voice, she questioned: “so that makes it okay for a man to rape his daughter? His sister?”
Zachary sighed and placed his hands over his face.
“I’m never going over there again. Neither are the kids.”
“Ari, come on, be reasonable. It was a long time ago...”
“What’s there to be reasonable about? I want to go to sleep.”
Zachary was taken aback. “You just want me to shut away my family? How can you be so cold?”
She couldn’t believe she had had children with someone whose family was guilty of rape and incest.
“You can’t cut my family out,” he argued weakly.
“Stop talking.” She could see she was winning because he spoke as if he was in pain. It was as if by suggesting to cut them out he understood that she was doing the right thing by them all. Unlike Zachary’s grandmother and great aunt, Ari had never felt the pain and humiliation of anyone throwing themselves at her. She suddenly felt trust slipping away from her, like sand being whisked away in the desert wind, as her husband, best friend and father of her children lay next to her, wondering what had gotten into her.
It was his family secret, after all.
by Anna Solovieva
Anna Solovieva was born in Moscow at the end of the USSR. Her family emigrated to
America when she was an infant. Since 2010, she has lived in Brussels, where she works in