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Stalin’s Wife

Moira and I wait for Stalin's wife in a downtown café. We arrived on time, but we didn't expect her to be punctual: it's the mistress who must wait for the wife, not the other way round. I take a window seat so I can pretend to look outside while listening to the table next to mine. There, Moira takes out a pack of cigarettes and lights one without looking at me. I told her not to smoke because all the mistresses do and she shouldn't fall into this stereotype, but she just gave me an annoyed look and snorted. She's nervous—only I can tell.

The waitress comes over and offers me coffee and I accept. When she approaches the next table, Moira shoos her away, saying she's waiting for someone. She has that defiant look that single women sometimes adopt, a look men often seem to find irresistible. I wouldn't be surprised if some Don Juan offered to keep her company at any moment—it happens to women like her all the time. But not to women like me; when I sit in a café by myself, I prefer to become invisible. I'll stare intensely at the steam rising from my coffee cup, or make a point of checking my watch from time to time, as if I were waiting for a date.

Almost half an hour later, Stalin's wife appears. She turns her head, searching among the costumers for someone who looks like a slut, I suppose. When they had talked on the phone and agreed to meet here, they didn't discuss how they would recognize one another—as if, having shared the same man's body for so long, they might know one another by scent alone. But maybe Moira has seen Stalin's wife before—perhaps she went through Stalin's wallet while he was taking a shower in their motel room and found a picture of her—because I see her stub out her cigarette and wave at Mrs. Stalin. Anyone would think she was experienced at this kind of thing.

Stalin's wife walks toward Moira with all the dignity afforded her by a piece of paper bearing the city's official seal. Like all wronged women, she walks with tight steps, her back erect. She's not horribly ugly, but she's far from beautiful: I can understand why her husband is seeing my friend, who, unlike his wife, doesn't look like a pug with slightly asymmetrical, bulging eyes. At least her hair flatters her: it's straight and shiny, and it cascades down to her waist, like a model's hair in a shampoo commercial. But the poor woman has a nose like a chile relleno, long and broad. You can't help but notice it. Aside from that, she looks normal enough, perhaps a bit of a hippie, one of those women who have spent many years on a never-ending dissertation. She takes a seat in front of Moira and stares at her. Maybe she wants to know what it is about this woman that makes her husband want to sleep with her. Moira meets her gaze and lights another cigarette. She puffs smoke above her head, places her lipstick-stained cigarette on the edge of the ashtray, and spreads her hands on the table as if they were a peacock tail. Her nails are recently done— perfect.

"So?" Moira's voice is strong and beautiful, like a singer from the 80s. It never trails off. Sometimes I listen to her sing as she puts on makeup after her shower, leaning forward before the mirror, a towel just barely covering her. I didn't want her to come here and make a scene with this poor woman.

"Put yourself in her shoes," I told her in the car. "Your life turns to dust when you find out your husband is cheating."

"Well, her shoes must be really ugly," she answered. "She's not a material girl like me." Moira laughed as she said this: she always laughs when she wants to avoid something.

"I want you to stop seeing him," says Stalin's wife, a hint of melodrama in her voice.

Moira finishes her coffee and wipes her lips with a napkin. I don't know what they were expecting from this meeting, to measure one another, perhaps; to etch on their minds the other woman's image, and later lie awake at night comparing and contrasting each other using every possible parameter.

"If you want something, it's my treat," says Moira.

Stalin's wife tightens her mouth and remains silent. She's in a difficult situation, facing her husband's mistress, and she needs some kind of shield against her enemy. I flag down the waitress. She approaches meekly, a coffee pot in her hand, and Stalin's wife asks for a cup.

"I don't need your pity. I have a man to support me."

Moira laughs at this, but I can sense the falseness of her laughter. Cruelty is the best way to hide your fear, and she knows how to be cruel. The last time we drank together in our apartment, Moira told me how she suffered because of Stalin. She came near me, shaking, but when I leaned in to kiss her, she covered her mouth with her hand, disgusted. "When was the last time you brushed your teeth?" It was early morning, we were drunk, and it was completely unfair. I went to my room, curled up in my bed, and pretended to be the nonchalant, sleeping roommate.

"A man to support you? It's funny that a liberal like you boasts of being a kept woman. I thought left-wingers were feminists. You know, 'marriage is a bourgeois invention'…"

"Who told you I'm a leftist?"

"Stalin, of course. Do we know anyone else in common? Anyway, from what I've heard, you're actually the one who supports him." Moira's tone is childish, mocking.

Stalin's wife must be recreating in her mind a conversation between her husband and his lover where she's the main subject. The mixture of pride and humiliation she's feeling is a sensation I know only too well. The dessert cart passes my table and I order a slice of apple pie. I wish Stalin would go back to his wife, breaking Moira's heart into pieces like the pie crust against my fork. Maybe then she would realize I'm not there just to pay half the rent.

"Stalin and I are reconsidering our relationship. We'll start anew. He promised me he'd never see you again."

I see that she drinks her coffee black, without sugar. A wet mustache appears on her upper lip when she puts down her cup.

"I'm happy for you." Moira uncrosses her legs and plants her shoes firmly on the wooden floor. I know that her world is crumbling under her feet. Only a few days ago she told me she didn't understand why Stalin wasn't answering her e-mails, messages or calls. She began to gnaw her nails to the quick, but I dragged her to the manicurist to keep up appearances.

"But what's that got to do with me?" she says, in the most malicious tone I've ever heard.

"I want you to know this so you'd leave him alone."

"Then you should be talking to Stalin. He's the one who wants me."

Lying is the last resort of the cornered. Stalin's wife swallows hard and stares at her rival. I'm sure she wants to leap over the table, seize Moira by the neck, and squeeze out every particle her husband has left inside her, killing her slowly. But she can't, so she uses words. At first, she sounds awkward, like someone telling a child the facts of life. But as she rattles on, her voice grows stronger, and Moira's face darkens. Her body hardens, and I imagine her back is tense. She has become vulnerable, as fragile as marzipan.

Only I know how much she hates it when people make assumptions about her, putting her in a group of people like you, and calling her a little bourgeois girl. She can't stand those pedants who consider themselves above her just because they grew up poor.

And from the stories Stalin has told Moira—stories she poured out to me during our long evening chats—it sounds like the Stalins are less fortunate than Moira. They met in the Arts Faculty, in a class taught by a communist professor. They grew closer as they attended secret political meetings in abandoned places; went to lectures on books that seemed subversive to them but could be found in any library; and shared the sin of eating a burger in a transnational franchise restaurant. His parents had been militant members of the Communist Party and that's why they named him Stalin. They thought the world was going to turn red, and nobody would raise an eyebrow when their son said his name. Her parents were middle-class people who had fallen on hard times, and that was a good enough reason for the young couple to unite against capitalism. The two had lived together for many years without getting married, but they finally tied the knot for practical reasons.

I'm sure the brand-name logos on her clothes weigh heavily on Moira. According to Stalin's wife, they represent the needle-pricked fingers of some third-world seamstress enslaved in a sweatshop. Moira's stomach begins to burn—it's her private education, the job in an air-conditioned office, the generous income that allows her to buy a whole new wardrobe every year and share an apartment in a good neighborhood with her best friend.

If this is a duel to the death, Moira is waving her sword weakly and losing a lot of blood. He could never really love her because her family has been more fortunate than his: resentment is the Berlin Wall between social classes.

"Stalin gave me all his passwords, access to his cell phone and everything I ask. We go everywhere together now. That's how I know he doesn't want you anymore—you, or any of the others."

A flat stone skids over the surface of a green, muddy lake. Stalin's wife smiles as she watches the pain forming ripples in Moira's eyes. "The loneliest place in the world is in Stalin's arms," she told me once during one of their many brief breakups. And now she must wonder whether she has been the only one to suffer inside those arms. There's no way to know if Stalin's wife is lying—and perhaps it doesn't matter. Why would Moira be the only woman to fall for this defenseless man, with his nervous breakdowns, his constant depressions, his poverty? For some women, pity is the strongest aphrodisiac. I signal the waitress for the check.

I don't know what Moira expected from all this, but what Stalin's wife wanted is clear: she wanted to get up triumphantly without paying her share, turning her husband's mistress into a pillar of salt on the chair. My friend would be left to look for some bourgeois man to marry so she could start making babies to drive around in a minivan—the embodiment of everything Stalin despises. Moira would try to stifle a sigh, thinking about what she had lost, but she didn't really lose anything. Even if I tell her this again and again, I know she will never understand it.

We walk together to the car in silence. It's already getting dark. I put my arm around Moira's shoulders and she, curling up against my body, lets me take her home.

Translation of "La esposa de Stalin." First published in Vidas de catálogo (Fondo Editorial Tierra Adentro, 2007). By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Toshiya Kamei. All rights reserved.