The nursing home smells of bleach infused with something pungent, reminiscent of cooked peaches. The heating is on full blast always, no matter what the season. This could be the last time, I think each time I am here because Nana is 101. Her movements are frail. Her memory comes and goes in waves. Where’s Tommy, she asks. He died, we remind her, omitting that he died sixteen years ago.
Her hearing is going and our conversation sounds like a job interview that’s going badly. Each question has to be repeated three, sometimes four times. Unnecessary words are rapidly dispensed with. Sentences are reduced to their barest rudiments. My questions become brusque, succinct. It’s impossible to say anything poignant or remarkable under these constraints. And there is so much that could be said.
I only meant to live in the States for one year, which is why I asked Sleepy’s for the cheapest bed in store. Once it had been delivered to my apartment, once the non-refundable purchase had gone through on my card I noticed an inherent design flaw. The bed pivoted precariously on the surface area of four small wheels. I clicked each wheel into a locked position but regardless they slid—still, they slide—along my floor at the slightest pressure. It makes even lackluster attempts at sex seem athletic, distinctly amorous. We float away from the wall and into the center of the room.
Seven years have passed. It is, without question, time to upgrade except disposing of this bed seems disrespectful, somehow. Nana gave me the money to buy it. I write on this bed, on the soft, sinking mattress, and each time I move the mattress springs squeak like cute cartoon characters.
She was born in 1913 during the last years of Tsarist rule and the early rumblings of revolution. Her father was sent to a concentration camp in Siberia after the Communists assumed power. He was a spy, they reasoned, because he traveled abroad often. She married and had three children. She lost her daughter to meningitis. She lost her husband to the Second World War. He was reported missing in action, assumed dead. She remained in German-occupied Russia, widowed with two sons.
How do you survive and keep surviving? I want to ask when I visit. Instead we discuss her favorite topic: food. She tells me about lunch, about the chicken that was tender and the potatoes that were salty. When the conversation falters we stare at little old ladies who are watching television, or muttering to themselves, or falling asleep. Mainly they’re falling asleep.
My struggles are comically easy compared to Nana’s. She’s endured a world of loss. I will never struggle the way she did, I hope. I sit on my bed and stare at the screen. I study short story collections and novels I admire. These are the real writers, I think on bleak days when each sentence feels clunky and forced, on days when multiple rejections float into my inbox. I’m in the shallow end of an Olympic-sized pool. I’m the kid with the armbands on watching others perform long, neat arm strokes.
I imagine my death to jumpstart the writing process, an obituary, a sad, sorry notice in a local village hall bulletin that nobody reads, a brief recap of my life that contains no mention of my writing, no mention of my novel, because I procrastinated.
Don DeLillo wrote: “Imagining yourself dead is the cheapest, sleaziest, most satisfying form of childish self-pity.” He is, of course, correct. I begin typing.
While she was living in German-occupied Russia with her sons Nana was accused her of shooting a German soldier. She protested her innocence in German, exposing that she was bilingual. The officers ordered her to translate, and, just like that, she assumed her father’s denounced profession. She left her two sons behind and traveled west. She translated radio signals for the Germans. She became friends with some of them. Until one day the precariousness of her position was exposed to her. The Germans were losing the war, a Nazi officer warned her on a train. They were retreating, and once they reached Germany there would be no use for her anymore. She leapt from the train as it crossed Austria.
It’s a relief to leave the oppressive heat of the nursing home, to flee from the comatose atmosphere, from the residents who have one foot in the grave. But as I sprint to the car, as I hit the gas and hurtle towards freedom, I think about her sitting and waiting to be washed, waiting to be wheeled to her next meal, waiting for her next visitor. It inspires me to do something radically different with my life. Except I don’t. Today I might listen to Lorde on my way into work. After work I might go to hot yoga. And perhaps on Friday night I’ll get pleasantly drunk in a friend’s apartment. I’m not the only person doing these things. I’m predictable. I’m a clear female demographic that advertising executives in suits are probably targeting for the launch of a new deodorant. For women who like yoga and Lorde, they will write on a whiteboard with a red pen.
Except one day it will be my turn. One day it will be all of ours. We’ll pray that the young lady in the pea-green raincoat is one of our descendants. We’ll pray that she’s here to help us escape the creeping boredom, if only for thirty minutes. At what point does the daily occurrence of a nurse stripping you naked and bathing you pass from humiliating into commonplace? And at what point do we stop saying we want a long life?
When my sister was seventeen she received an email from Alain de Botton. It was the mid-nineties and she had an embryonic website my dad created on a dial-up connection. The point behind this site was she could reference it in submission essays to universities and she would seem progressive and tech-savvy (likewise I was given a site when my turn came). She listed her favorite book: Essays In Love. He emailed to say he was glad she enjoyed it. I like this anecdote. I like that Alain de Botton searched his name on Altavista, or whatever our Google equivalent was back then. I like that he valued endorsement from a teenager and took the time to email her. It makes the swimming pool less daunting.
Nana fell in love with a Russian army general who had switched allegiances because Russia losing the war would mean Communism had lost the war. The war was still raging. They married in Italy. I want to ask what it was like to be newly-weds during the war? I want to ask: did they stand in the streets and hug strangers? Did they drink until the early hours and dance their way back home? After the war the Allies decided to repatriate all soldiers and prisoners of war to their country of origin. Nana’s husband was sent back to Russia and hanged for treason. Fearful of the same fate, she fled to England. Her sons grew up in Russia without her. She married again and was widowed again sixteen years ago, for a third time, when my grandfather died of a heart attack.
I’m at the airport and the guy beside me is asking a question. He’s a boy, I realize as I glance up. Fresh-faced and bright-eyed. I stare at his enthusiasm from the safe distance of my early thirties, wondering when exactly I lost that.
Almost immediately I grow irritated. He’s ferociously chatty. I want to work on my novel but in that typically polite, reserved style of the Brits I let him prattle on. He’s telling me about growing up in Maine and—I glance longingly at my laptop—the time on the oil rig when machinery fell on his finger, slicing it off neatly. I gasp.
“Touch it,” he insists, wriggling his index finger.
I lean in. I examine it.
My novel is languishing because I’m prodding a stranger’s index finger.
The phone rings and my mother picks up. I am a bored teenager. My bedroom is a refuge for sulking, squeezing blackheads, and listening to Radiohead and Nirvana. A solitary Bart Simpson poster hangs on the wall. I don’t even watch the Simpsons.
I dedicate a great deal of time to eavesdropping on conversations in our house.
“No,” my mother says in clipped tones. “She doesn’t want to discuss it.”
This man has rung several times. He is Russian. His name is Tolstoy. He heard Nana attended the Yalta Conference as a translator (something she omitted to tell us). This man is related to one of the greatest writers of all time and he wants to talk to Nana, one of the few living people on this earth who witnessed the events at Yalta. It seems like a perfectly reasonable request, but Nana refuses to talk. Nana is cagey and suspicious.
Why won’t she explain what happened, I ask. Because she’s lived a difficult life, my mother explains. And she’s still afraid the KGB is going to hunt her down and kill her. This revelation temporarily lifts me from a cloud of self-indulgent adolescent apathy.
I’m sleeping with someone new. He doesn’t want to be in a relationship and I am just out of one so this agreement works well. We stay at his because he doesn’t have a roommate. Also, his bed is wheel-less.
We’re sitting on his rooftop. Below us tourists are walking the Highline and taking photos, so many photos. He asks about my writing and his fingers make small circular motions on my knee. He’s fascinated by it, by the process of writing and getting published. It’s a Sunday evening in June. There’s a warm reddish glow in the sky and a heat that’s usually dropped off by now. The world feels unusually perfect in this moment. Or my world, at least, feels unusually perfect in this moment.
Later, we lie in his bed and discuss how he should decorate the apartment he’s just moved into.
“I’m thinking a mirror over there,” he says.
I point to an empty wall. “And a bookcase there.”
I hear myself. I’m playing at being his girlfriend and, much worse, I’m enjoying it. This is pitiful, I tell myself. This isn’t part of the agreement.
When Nana turned 100 we threw her a birthday party. I contacted the local newspaper. His readers love a human-interest story, the editor told me. He sent a photographer to take photos of Nana clutching a congratulatory letter from the Queen. I imagined the article coming out and Nana being delighted with her local celebrity status, my parents hanging the framed article in the house. Their friends would remark on it when they visited. Except the reporter mixed up the few facts we told him. Instead of reporting she had been married three times, he wrote she escaped the Germans three times.
“She sounds like Jack Bauer,” I say incredulously.
“And they printed my age,” my mother complains. “I don’t want people knowing that.”
No-one, it seems, is happy with the article. It isn’t hanging anywhere. I guess my point is: don’t try and predict the outcome. Each time I try to the future laughs at me. It laughs and jogs flippantly in the opposite direction.
The journey is the reward, my dad always says. It took me a long time to understand that, to practice it.
It’s Friday night and I’m at a leaving party in Tribeca. Our friends are moving to San Francisco. It happens each year. Always, inevitably, friends move to warmer climes. Their departures throw an uncertain spotlight on the rest of us. Should we be moving too, somewhere where the winters aren’t arctic, where the rent isn’t extortionate? The conversations tonight are reflective of this. The atmosphere is mellow, contemplative, at least until everyone drinks more.
I’m in the corner talking to Stephen who’s one of those formidable Type A personalities. He’s an actor and a screenwriter and he’s always up to date with reading The New Yorker. He should be a life coach. In fact right now he’s being my life coach. He’s asking how my writing is going. It gets neglected because of my day job, I explain. Also I’m distracted by shorter pieces because I like getting published, because I like feeling like what I’m doing is gaining traction, that it has a point, that someone is reading it. But that doesn’t help me edge closer to finalizing The Novel.
“What do you say when people ask what you do?” Stephen asks.
“That I work in PR and Marketing.”
“Because it pays my bills. Because I spend more time in the office than I do writing.”
“Next time someone asks what you do, tell them you’re a writer. See how it feels.”
I am a beacon for advice giving, it seems.
“When you are in new country, first thing you do is go to church. Good people in church.”
Nana is Russian Orthodox. I am Catholic. She gives me advice about moving to a foreign country when I am comically young, eight or nine, I haven’t even conceived of living abroad yet.
When the time comes I do not take this advice. After dumping my bags in my new apartment I go to Sleepy’s on Houston Street to buy the cheapest bed they have. Sleepy’s is closed. It’s a Friday night in January and it’s freezing. I know I want to be a writer but I haven’t written anything in years. I know two people in this city, neither of whom is around. I sit in the Subway next door. I order a six-inch sub and wonder what on earth I am doing here.
I still ask myself that. But the answer these days is clearer. It’s within reach. There are days when it beams down at me with lucid clarity. The world seems to glimmer in those moments. And it’s so beautiful, almost too beautiful to contemplate.