Arts & Culture


Yelena Akhtiorskaya was born in 1985 in Odessa, Ukraine, a city of prodigious talent, and the chauvinisms that follow: To those who left it following the fall of the Soviets, Odessa was "the best city in the world," its men … Read More

By / June 17, 2008

Yelena Akhtiorskaya was born in 1985 in Odessa, Ukraine, a city of prodigious talent, and the chauvinisms that follow: To those who left it following the fall of the Soviets, Odessa was "the best city in the world," its men were the funniest (but also criminals), its Opera House and young women the most beautiful. As the Jews left Odessa, so, too, did the intelligentsia: they were the same. Many settled in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, which is where Akhtiorskaya grew up.

I am writing this, as an introduction to Akhtiorskaya's "Albatross," trying not to mention Isaac Babel, another storywriter from Odessa concerned with the lapidary, or le mot juste – with putting the perfect word in the perfect place.

"Albatross" is a sand grain of a story: A man is abandoned by his wife who shares her name with that long-billed, overgrown gull whose literary presence, thanks to Coleridge, has grown synonymous with "burden."

This is Akhtiorskaya's first publication. Unlike her avian inspiration, it portends only great things to come. – Joshua Cohen, Fiction Editor Borya had a heavy way of swallowing: it was as if he were gulping down a large grape. It sounded painful, but was not. It was just his regular way of swallowing. The morning air was thick, and he sipped it. Although it was still early, he'd been buzzing about for hours. He finished the grocery shopping (food list: a bucket of tangerines, packaged raisin cake), cleaned the kitchen after breakfast, watched the washing machine chew, and was on his way to the post office, crumpling the little pink slip in his sweaty fist. The glistening concrete brushed against his muddy downcast eyes, while the sharp sounds of the street forced him to walk faster and faster and – too fast – he was gasping for breath. Borya was short and carried a drum for a belly. His legs were skinny and hard, adorned with small elegant knees. Each time a car honked, his legs skipped. The honks seemed to cry – Albatross. The sidewalk was tripping Borya, hurting his toes. Thin clouds mimicked his movements, speeding up, moving smoothly, and then halting, bunching up like the dark lumpy traffic. The post office popped from the corner. Its glass door cradled Borya's reflection. He brought his face close, licked his fingertips, and used them to slick down his eyebrows. They were his best feature. Thick and dark, they compartmentalized his round face.

The inside of the post office was one long snake with an endless irritable tail. People stood in succession, weathered statues with deteriorating posture. Old people had been reduced to stumps. One might believe that for every year over a certain age a knife was swung above a person's head at a certain distance from the ground, with each passing year the knife swinging lower and lower. Only the tiny survived. The waiting people tried not to move, a form of hibernation, but when it became necessary their arms made all the sounds of paper.

Dust rose from the floorboards in the shape of ghosts, and they tickled sensitive, oversized nostrils. Borya was affected by oversized nostrils: he sneezed, sneezed, sneezed. Three heads spun around in irritation. Dust hung from each chin like a beard. The sun threw an arm into the post office, it landed next to Borya's feet. He teased it with his toes.

Borya waited in the line. It grew shorter and shorter, then longer again. He seemed to be just a few people away from retrieving the package, and then he was once again stranded at the end of the line. Hours passed – days, weeks, months. The young man in front of him grew an itch on his head. He scratched violently and a red crab jumped out. He looked around with flushed cheeks, scanning for witnesses, burning with embarrassment. He would be young for many more years: embarrassment preserves youth. Borya stood and did not consider leaving.

Finally, he retrieved the package. It wasn't for him, it was for Albatross. If it had been for him, he wouldn't have waited.

He looked at his watch, which was suffocating his hairy wrist. It was the motion of looking at the watch that was important. Not the checking of the time. Often, his eyes just scanned the circular shape. It didn't matter what the watch told him, it was never anything new. He always felt that he was running late because there was never a time when he had to be home. Albatross was a master at anger – she never even allowed her pinky to twitch, almost as if she wasn't angry at all.

The package was labeled from Panama, shipped with special fast speed. Special fast speed cost a lot of money and relayed the message: you are important. Borya held the package with both hands. His fingers tried to be gentle to the brown wrapping. Albatross was built like a mountain. She dyed her short hair burgundy red and her face was carved from stone, hammer and rasp marks on her forehead. Cheekbones protruded. Her chin was a knot, growing tighter with time. Below a long neck, her body trembled and pounded the ground.

By the time Borya got home, the package was covered in greasy finger marks. His palms stung from sticking and un-sticking to the paper. He made soft footsteps, shhh-footsteps, up the serpentine stairs. He climbed upward, sucking in his stomach so as not to lose it, and he thought about the morning – he hadn't had a moment to sit down or relax. He felt as if he were always running; as if a hand were pinching the thick skin at the nape of his neck; as if he had to keep wheeling forward; as if behind him the concrete was caving in; as if a whirling Albatross was whispering into his ear, Go, Go, Go!

Albatross was sitting in the kitchen sucking on a kiwi and whistling. She did not notice Borya, or maybe she did, but either way she continued whistling while the juice ran down her neck and dripped down her breasts because she had a certain relationship with gravity that made spilling things part of her overall being and not an accident, as if her skin could swallow the spilled juice, or more so, as if the juice was already part of her, whether within or without.

Although he had worried about the grease marks, she was entirely blind to the packaging, tearing it within seconds so urgently and wildly that pieces of brown paper crawled all across the kitchen floor. From her large family back home in Panama. Photographs, letters, kisses, hugs. They sent her things all the time. Borya watched intently as she looked through the contents, noticing her every chin twitch and nostril flare. He meticulously devoured her facial expressions. Once she'd put something down, he'd snatch it up to study what it was and imagine what it might have tasted like to her.

Borya also had family very far away (how strange the way names change: very far away used to be called only one round word, which he had already forgotten – it was just at the tip of his tongue), but it was a place without post offices or telephones, so Borya couldn't keep in touch with them. He had even forgotten their language. Now he spoke only English, which he'd learned not that long ago, but had turned out to be such a demanding presence in his mind that it erased his native language. He wanted to go back to visit his family but he wouldn't know with what tongue to speak to them and would starve to death because their food was in a different language and wouldn't be digestible by his stomach because stomachs have languages, too. There were many photographs in the package and Albatross wept in a silent and determined way as she held them and ran her fingers over them because she saw her long-toothed relatives, all shiny and fat, even the tiny ones with hints of fatness (if only in their forearms), and they were standing close to places she had once stood close to herself. Borya watched her with admiration but his lips grew rigid.

Within minutes, the photographs were covered in kiwi juice and tears and sweaty fingerprints and it looked as if her one sister had a large mole covering half her face (luckily the bad half) and her other sister lacked a nose (not a big loss, or rather, a very big loss) and her tiny niece had entirely disappeared behind a puddle of grease. Albatross put down the photographs and letters, shut them away in drawers, wiped the winding salt roads from her burning cheeks and forgot about her nostalgia almost instantly. Borya sighed with relief – Albatross wouldn't look at the photographs again or remember them until the next package arrived.
The windows were all open like screaming mouths. Albatross was perpetually in the process of overheating, even at night, in the winter. Borya snuck up to her and covered her neck in kisses, a woodpecker at his tree. She laughed with her stomach, but was rock at the base. One morning, Borya woke at dawn, but Albatross wasn't beside him. Five minutes passed, and still she hadn't come back to bed. He knocked on the bathroom door. No one answered. He swung it open – empty. So was the kitchen.

In the closet by the door, he noticed a pair of his shoes in an unusual place. They were shoes he almost never wore, very black and polished, only for the most formal occasions, such as weddings. But no one had gotten married in ages; it was too late for that. In one of the shoes he spotted something white. A note. Nothing more. He put on the formal shiny shoes, tying the laces slowly and carefully into neat bows. She would return to Panama. The word Return made Borya swallow a grape. It sat in his stomach like a brick. One can return after a return, he said. One can make a visit. And so he walked outside, painfully, with toes cinching the loss in his feet, but aware that it was an impermanent loss, because she had left her country once, and so she would leave it again – one does not stay in places that have already been abandoned. The splintered door of his apartment shut behind him, but he did not know which way to go. All directions looked the same, like dark tunnels, and the blinding sun provided no illumination. He decided that the frightening thing about city streets was their symmetry. Every time he walked a block, the trace was erased, as if he'd come from nowhere. He spun with disorientation like a dervish. Poor Borya. He walked for half an hour, an hour, two, and no matter where he happened to stop seemed to be his starting point. In the middle of the street there was a build-up of taxis, a mustard yellow honking river. People howled, clapping onto the coins in their pants. He had emerged from the east and west, from the north and south. He howled. Borya realized that he didn't know any way back to his apartment, and that he could've been standing right next to it without knowing, and his feet were full of blisters from the uncomfortable shoes, and he didn't know why formal shoes were always so painful, whether it was just the pain that made them formal. On the street, he received only looks of respect because even though he was lost and disheveled (his hair was a nest), he had nice shoes, which made passersby understand that he was to be regarded seriously.

After walking for half an hour or days, Borya came upon a familiar building. It was the post office. It was the same post office from which he'd always retrieved Albatross's packages. Or maybe it wasn't. He examined it closely but could find no specific detail that made this post office have to be that post office. In fact, it could've been any other. Exhausted and pained, he sat down on the sidewalk and began counting the feet that flew before his eyes. He counted for a long time, and considered asking one pair where he currently was, the name of the neighborhood, or maybe even city (how long had he really walked for? where had he been?), but each foot flew by with such incredible speed and consistency that he thought maybe there was only one person above him, with thousands of feet that just went around in a circle. If he lifted his eyes he would see this being looking down on him, a gigantic wonder-wheel of legs.

Borya swallowed each word he tried to push out of his throat. Only saliva was at the tip of his tongue. Around his neck, he felt a carcass rotting, and his shoulders were stooped from the weight. A lamppost grew in front of him, strong at the base, but drooping up top like a swan's neck. Suddenly the light switched on: the day was bleeding into night. He recognized the lamppost. It was Albatross's finger. Borya stood up and walked to the lamppost. It was real. The cold metal was more real than his hand. The fire hydrant beside it popped into view: it was Albatross's nipple. The grass blades were the small hairs on her thighs. Borya could not remember what her face looked like. He spit on the ground and knew exactly where it landed. This was an ugly city. The wild red of sunset burned quickly like her hair.