Borschtsch

Laura and Alexander met at the billiards bar where Laura is a waitress. Laura spots Alexander the minute he walks in, she still believes in love at first sight. Alexander doesn't say a word to anyone, takes a seat at the bar, orders a beer and stares into his glass. A moody one, sniggers the girl who washes the glasses, but Laura snaps that she should keep her mouth shut. Later, when not much else is happening, she goes over and stands next to Alexander and rubs the tip of her finger around the rims of the empty schnapps glasses on the tray. The green cloth of the billiards tables has stains, but no tears yet. Alexander raises his head, their eyes meet for the first time and Laura thinks to herself that they look tired, that they're small and gray. So when do you finish here, he asks. She jumps, and one of the glasses tips over and rolls to the rim of the white plastic tray. In a few minutes, she answers, at ten.

When she comes back, wearing her coat, he takes the leather backpack out of her hand. I'll carry it, he says, let's go. Where, she asks, but he doesn't answer, holds the door open for her, the backpack swinging back and forth. Outside, the frosty air cuts like a knife. To break the silence Laura says: It's freezing. Yes, says Alexander. They walk along next to each other. The sidewalk is deep in snow, there are only faint signs of other tracks and the snow squeaks under their boots. Laura doesn't like the sound, and tries to keep in step with Alexander.

I don't believe in love at first sight, he says, finally, I'm Alexander, what's your name? Laura, she answers, and tries to blow her breath up at her nose, to warm it. Interesting name, he says. She looks at him from the side, because she doesn't know if he's serious, he's looking straight ahead, she can see his profile in the light of the streetlamp. He has blond hair, the curls look frozen, spiral icicles that stand straight out from his head. Don't you have a cap, she asks, and then bites her tongue. What a dumb question, he isn't going to kiss her if she asks questions like that. He says he's not cold, she's shivering under her coat and scarf and says, You're lucky. At this he moves closer and takes her hand, something she's been thinking about the whole time, but he holds it too tightly and suddenly she hopes no one can see his bare hands, red from the cold, pressing into her wool gloves.

They come to the main road. I'm taking the Number 60 bus in two minutes, he says scowling, and a line appears between his eyebrows. Laura lifts her wrist to look at her watch, then realizes she must have left it in the employees' bathroom. It's probably lying on the edge of the sink, softly ticking next to the crates of beer stacked up to the ceiling. Laura had hoped that Alexander had a car, so he could drive her home. She takes her backpack from his outstretched hand and says, So, see you. Wait a minute, he says, grabbing her arm so tightly that she stumbles. Will I see you tomorrow, he asks, and she asks him back, Do you want to? It's too cold to flirt, nor does he try. Yes, he says intently.

I'm working until ten again, she says and hurries to tell him everything they haven't said to each other in the last half-hour. Address and phone number, her mother manages a lingerie shop, she doesn't know her father, yes, she likes flowers, narcissus, but also lilies of the valley, no, she doesn't have a boyfriend. They find out that Alexander celebrated his twentieth birthday two months ago, on the same day that Laura moved into her one-and-a-half-room apartment at the edge of a suburb in the south of the city. Thirty-seven square meters, she says. Alexander kisses her on the forehead as the Number 60 arrives, he has dry, chapped lips. She touches the spot and keeps her eyes on the tail lights of the bus until they disappear in the traffic.

When he calls the next day she doesn't recognize his voice and answers his It's me by asking who it is. Alexander tells her a story from his childhood, he and his brother at a quarry pond, something about a tree stump that looks like a crocodile. Laura doesn't get the point but she laughs when he laughs, her face flushes and she feels her skin tighten over her cheekbones because she's happy that he's making such an effort. She thinks of the color of his hair, the walls and ceilings of her apartment are covered in white wallboard, the furnace is on the blink again. She tells Alexander that when she sits on the bench against the tile stove she has to press her back into the glazed tiles to feel any warmth at all. She tells him that she wishes he were there with her. Yes, he answers after a pause, I thought so. Then he says that she should put on makeup for the evening, but won't tell her where they're going.

She figures he'll come to the bar, drink a beer and challenge himself to a game of billiards while he waits, but he doesn't come. She starts freezing the minute she steps out onto the street at ten, due to the thin pantyhose she usually doesn't wear because she's afraid they'll run as she's putting them on. A silver-blue car stops in front of her, Alexander leans over and pushes open the passenger door. You do have a car, Laura says, she says it twice, until he's forced to shake his head. The car belongs to his father. After Laura unbuttons her coat, Alexander pays her a compliment. Pretty dress, he says. She asks herself how much of it he can see in the dim light. He kisses her on the cheek, so she doesn't say anything. We're going to my parents', he says. Laura doesn't know what she expected-a movie, dinner at a restaurant. She had no idea he was going to introduce her to his mother. They drive along in silence.

In Alexander's neighborhood the buildings all look alike, they're all prefab high-rises, tall slabs lining both sides of the street. It's Laura's first time here. The apartment is on the fifth floor. Alexander first buzzes downstairs, then again when they're at the door upstairs. Laura asks herself why he doesn't have a key. The man who opens the door is short and so thin that she can see his bones. He's wearing shorts and a shirt with narrow stripes. My father, Alexander says by way of introduction.

His father looks at Laura's wrists, then says, dinner's been ready for a long time. Right away, Alexander says, I want to show Laura my room. It's a tiny room. Alexander points out a low table, the light brown rug, shelves piled high with papers, the computer and the bunk bed. Bunk bed? Laura asks. My little brother, Alexander says. Now that he's in the army, there's more room. The ladder is hanging down and on the white bed frame of the lower bunk she can see traces of stickers that have been ripped off.

Alexander, his father yells from the living room, and Alexander glares at the door. We're coming, he yells back, and slams his fist against the table. He walks past Laura without even looking at her. She hurries behind him in her high heels.

The living room is overheated, but Laura hasn't adjusted to the change, she's still cold and hopes no one will notice that she's shivering. The night before, the temperature had dropped to five above. Alexander's mother is tall and generously proportioned, something that becomes more apparent when she sits down next to her husband. She's wearing a bathrobe with appliquéd butterflies, speaks with an accent and tells them she's tired. On the table is a large pot of soup in which float pieces of cabbage and beets. That's borschtsch, Alexander's mother says, and gets up to fetch bread from the kitchen. She brings back four white slices on a plate. After the first spoonful of soup, Laura wants to ask for salt and pepper, but she doesn't want Alexander's mother to have to get up again. They're drinking green tea and Grapefruit Fanta, two huge bottles of Grapefruit Fanta are on the table, one in front of Alexander, the other in front of his father. Laura has never drunk Grapefruit Fanta before.

No one speaks during the meal, Laura looks around the room in order not to look at Alexander's father as he dunks his bread in his soup. The walls are lined with cheap cabinets, papers and files spill from partly open drawers, two glass cabinets display crystal vases and painted wooden dolls. Laura guesses that the dolls are from Russia. The TV is a large one, the room so narrow that she can't move her legs without bumping her knees against Alexander's father's.

I want to show her the pictures, Alexander says. His mother stacks the plates, his father nods and points to a high shelf to one side of Laura. Alexander stands on his chair, Laura looks at his bare feet on the upholstery and would like to touch them, but not here, in front of his parents. There are fine blond hairs on one of his big toes. Don't make such a big deal of it, Alexander's father says. The albums are numbered and under the numbers are years. Laura reads: 1976-79, 1988-90. Start on the left, Alexander's father calls. I know, Alexander says loudly and tosses several of the albums onto the table. He jumps down from the chair, quickly picks up the first one and leafs through its pages. Laura leans against his shoulder in order to see better. Alexander's parents remain in their chairs, they're looking at the pictures upside down.

That's my grandmother, Alexander says, on the Crimea, that's where my mother's from. Really? Laura asks. It's not important, he says. I was born in Germany! though she hadn't asked. His grandmother is fat and has very white skin. She's in a garden, dyeing the hair of a young woman who's leaning over a bowl. That's my mother, Alexander says. Look at the hands on my head, his mother says, so softly that Laura isn't sure she's understood her correctly.

Alexander points to a boy wearing a school uniform and says, first day of school and that's me. She can barely make out the school building. Laura asks how long Alexander lived in Russia. After a while he answers, four years, until third grade. Not in Russia, he says, in the Soviet Union.

Most of the photographs show Alexander with his brother. I was a whole head taller than he was then, my brother always cried, Alexander says. All you had to do was speak to him and he cried! You too, his father says, and Alexander falls silent. It's getting late, the pictures are swimming before Laura's eyes. Alexander doesn't follow the order of the albums, Laura looks at landscapes that are sweeping, unvarying, Alexander's grandfather smoking his pipe, Moscow University, where Alexander's parents met, the grandmother again, Alexander as a little boy getting a bath in an enamel bowl, Alexander at the Czech border on a class trip, Alexander with his family in front of the new high-rise and on summer vacation in Italy. In that one, his brother is taller.

Alexander's mother has fallen asleep at the table with her head on her arms, she snores softly and makes whistling sounds. Alexander's father shakes the last drops from the Fanta bottle. Alexander takes down more photographs. Laura wants to go home, but she doesn't know if the bus is still running, it's almost one. Alexander shows her pictures of his mother when she was young, his Ukrainian relatives, the woman all look alike, dark-eyed, the corners of their mouths turned down in an elegant expression. Suddenly Alexander has a wedding picture in his hand. That's me, his father says, and points to the groom, that's what I looked like once. In the picture he has his arm around Alexander's mother, with his hand covering her stomach. Oh, he says now, Irina lost a heel of her shoe while we were dancing. He laughs, goes to get a bottle of vodka from the refrigerator and, without asking, fills three glasses. Shot glasses, with one red line at twenty-five milliliters and a second one at fifty, and bearing the word superstrong. To my wedding, he says. They clink glasses. Alexander stands up. Laura, he says, you'll make a beautiful bride too.