contemporary short story
A RUSSIAN STRING QUARTET
is a prizewinner in the New York Stories Magazine competition
and is scheduled for publication in summer 2003.
gaze traveled upward from the first row where I was sitting,
and, inevitably, the first thing I saw were his shoes. They
were worn and dirty, not at all the shoes you expect on a concert
musician. They ought to have been black patent leather, winking
like twin mirrors, and here they were with the dust of miles
on them and the scuff marks of history. Even the laces were
exhausted, with lighter-colored extensions knotted on. I looked
further. The socks were acceptable, black and tight fitting,
almost elegance itself as socks go, and the black suit could
pass muster, lustered by use but not indecently shiny. The white
shirt looked as if it had frequented the proper washing powders.
The bow tie was just a wee bit rakishly askew, but that lent
a boyish charm to his otherwise grave, worried expression. He
wasn't used to these Western audiences, these grinning, Colgate-toothed
Americans. He didn't know it was all right to smile.
The four shared a glance that could have been complicity or
just a convention among them: "now we begin". Sasha
(I learned later that he was called Sasha) dug his bow into
the first bars of Koechel number 156 in G and a minuscule cloud
of white rosin dust rose from the frog of his bow. The notes
ran after one another like kittens at play, and, each time it
was up to Sasha to take the initiative, his dark eyebrows came
together, making a little furrowed place between them, while
his black eyes sought the stocky cellist's opposite. His shoulders
lurched forward, and the violin in his hands coughed, or sang,
or wept so sweetly, that its voice, disembodied from the small
wooden box, hung in the air above the chords and rhythms of
the three other instruments with the grace and insistence of
a siren's. One forgot the shoes. They were a mistake; everything
about Sasha was aerial and translucent. There
was no room for dust in his Mozart.
it was over, the four of them stood shyly, their instruments
against their chests, and endured the applause. Their faces
were closed and passive, not proud or even determined like the
bronze proletarian heroes in the Moscow subway. When will these
musicians from behind the fallen iron curtain learn to lighten
up, I wondered. I wished I had a rose with me to toss onto the
stage, as they do over there. Then, perhaps he would have smiled
I had my notepad with me at the ready. If I was a failed violinist,
I wasn't so bad as a music critic, and tonight's assignment
was the Vaslav Quartet: Mozart, Dvorak and Borodin. The Mozart
was studious and then jocular, the Dvorak a Bohemian's wink
at the new world, but the Borodin was sheer luminosity. He and
we are of one piece, they seemed to tell us, and our souls wear
the same landscape of steppe and snow and rolling Volga. I slipped
backstage for my interview. I could speak Russian; that was
how I got to do all the Russian recitals and concerts that came
to our area. And come they did, now that the wall was down,
and exit visas could be had, and profiteering impresarios hovered
over the feast, forgetting, alas, to feed the musicians more
often than not.
Sasha's long, brown hair was tied at the back in a tail Wolfgang
Amadeus would have frowned on as unnecessarily long. His companions
were more seriously classical: Vladimir, viola, balding, Nicolaï,
second violin, with a shock of gray frizz over his forehead,
Lev, cello, as spherical and blond as the wheat bushels of the
Ukraine. They all had first prizes from the Tchaikovsky Conservatory,
they said. It had been a long time since they had earned a decent
living with their instruments, and even this metropolitan tour
would probably not bring enough to keep them in vodka. I offered
a drink at my place. Vladimir crushed his cigarette underfoot
and said he had to get back to the hotel. Nicolaï and Lev
needed time to write home. Sasha looked at me sideways and said
why not. I hadn't counted on just one, but if this one had as
winning a way with a woman as he did with a violin, the part
might be worth the sight-reading. I figured I was a big girl
and could look out for myself.
the definition of a Russian string quartet?" Sasha asked,
as we walked from the backstage entrance to my car in the parking
lot. I said I gave up.
"A Russian symphony orchestra on tour abroad."
I laughed, thinking he meant that four musicians were all the
State could afford to send. Later, I wondered if it meant the
others had all defected. I'm still not sure. We drove from the
school auditorium where the quartet had played that evening
to my square, three-story brick apartment building. It stands
on the corner of an otherwise ordinary, lower-middle class suburban
street not far from the train station. The street is complete
with lawns and trees and clapboard houses of pastel colors or
"Have you seen other American homes?" I asked Sasha.
He said no, they had just come over a week ago, and, indeed,
his eyes drank in everything like an eager child's at the zoo.
Outdoors, spring in New Jersey streets smells poignantly of
freshly-mown grass. The fragrance lingers even in the evening.
Inside, the floorboards of my 1950's apartment, warmed by sunlight
during the day, exhale their own woody sweetness and promise
of summer heat to come. There is no elevator at 56 Schoolhouse
Street; the three flights are easy to negotiate and the landings
scrupulously clean. Not planning on company, I hadn't tidied
anything, but my place is basically presentable, and I am quite
proud of it. Sasha took in the love seat with its jumble of
patchwork cushions, the glass coffee table where my mug still
sat, my desk with the computer screen lit up, the bookshelves
draped with trailing ivy plants, and my favorite prints, posters
and foreign calendars on the wall.
place is all for you alone?" he asked.
"Yes," I said, pointing out that I also had a bedroom,
kitchen and full bathroom. He said no more, and I supposed he
was thinking a family of four would be happy to have that much
space where he came from. He noticed my antique wooden music
stand in the corner with the Meditation from Thaïs on it
for show. It was the only piece I had ever successfully memorized.
" You play...?"
"Seven years of violin lessons," I said. "And
I can hardly say so. But I do wish I could. You...uh, you give
He shrugged. "I could. You'd have to practice."
He looked at me curiously. "Show me what you know!"
"What about the vodka?"
"The vodka too. With pleasure."
He took the little glass reverently in his hands and looked
at me. He wanted to see my violin. I lifted it from the plush
and unwound the old flower-print scarf that swathed its warm,
cherry-colored body. Sasha pressed his nose against the "
f " holes and breathed deeply. Then he held its satiny
curves at a distance and admired the handiwork.
"Very fine. This is an American violin?"
"Italian. Contemporary. It's a Rosadoni. A man from Como.
It was a present from my parents, who hoped for more. I call
it ' Rosi.' I guess that's silly, but it's like a person to
"And the tone?"
"Try it for yourself!"
He attached the shoulder pad, tightened the bow and tuned the
four strings. Then he shut his eyes and began with Thaïs.
My poor orphaned instrument had finally found a home.
neighbors maybe are trying to sleep?"
"They might be," I admitted. "Or, if they're
awake, they'll be marveling at the progress I've made."
"Let me just see if your position is correct," Sasha
said, and I obediently set the violin under my chin and lifted
my left arm. From behind me, he gently adjusted the curve of
my left hand over the fingerboard.
"With your permission, " he said, amused, touching
my fingers with his own slender ones. "And you mustn't
hang onto your bow for dear life that way. Relax! Supple the
He held my right hand gently and shook it. His black eyes were
laughing at me.
"I thought Russians were mostly blond," I said. "Where
did you get those almond eyes?"
"I'm part Tatar," he said. "And Jewish and Gypsy.
The last two ingredients make the best violinists."
He was so close to me, I could smell the freshly-laundered cotton
of his dress shirt. "I think you'll be a good student,"
I said I would try. He wouldn't let me drive him to his little
hotel in the town center but said he had to walk, to take in
as much of suburban New Jersey as he could. They would be leaving
for New York City and a series of gigs in a couple of days.
The City was only half an hour's train ride away. He would be
back, and I had better start by reviewing Sevcik.
Sasha used "Rosi" now in concert. His Soviet-period
fiddle was a cigar-box, he said, but the violin that vibrated
the best to his touch was my own body. He gave me lessons in
more than music during his American April. Scales before the
music stand, others in my small summery-smelling bedroom, and
the compliance of my bowing muscles seemed directly proportionate
to the degree of pleasure that preceded. He wouldn't call me
Kathy with that impossible " th " in the middle but
every manner of Russian diminutive from Katia to Katinka to
Katiusha. I felt I belonged in the meanders of Dostoyevsky or
Tolstoy, where the characters appear to change names every few
pages. His was Alexander Petrovich Ivanov, but the third syllable,
the "sand" of his first name, made "Sasha."
He wouldn't tell me much about what he had done at home other
than describe the fight for your life that a conservatory prize
means in Moscow. The ash-blond woman with the broad, Slavic
cheek-bones, on the slightly beaten photograph in his wallet,
was, he said, his sister Irina. The two children were his niece
and nephew, Tania and Kostia.
"There's no resemblance between you and Irina," I
"She's not a natural blond," was all he said.
" But the children look a little like you. Those oblique
"Why don't we see Irina's husband?"
"He was behind the camera."
I believed him because I wanted to, but the picture haunted
Midsummer in lower Manhattan. The little park where the concert
was to be held was already filled with sound; bugs hidden in
the foliage, indefatigably scraping the tiny bows of their outer
wings, children running after a half-deflated beach ball in
a far corner, the hum and occasional honking of traffic passing
on the street beyond the heavy curtain of trees. Ears shut,
you could believe you were in a world apart, but open them again,
and the city filtered back to you, playing its own chaotic,
buzzing song. The black, sun-soaked asphalt underfoot warmed
the soles of your sandals, and the sun took forever to lower
its hot, weary body beneath the line of the trees. Nicolaï,
Vladimir, Lev and Sasha, instruments in hand, passed by the
slatted wooden chair where I sat at the edge of the front row,
bowed crisply and took their places on the four waiting seats.
New York temperatures had made them drop ties and jackets, and
the collars of their white shirts were informally open. Their
shoes were new. That meaningful glance again, and Borodin soared
towards the treetops, meeting the final sun rays and a pigeon
as it took off, wings beating black against the backdrop of
gray, humid sky.
know a French place, a bistro in the East Village," I said.
They nodded; they had funds now, and, after the exhilaration
of applause, an anonymous hotel room would be a let-down. Night
stuck to our skins like damp, black velvet. Over a sweating,
balloon-shaped glass of cool, dry white wine, Lev extracted
from his pocket one of those funny, Soviet-style envelopes with
kuda (where to) and komu (to whom) printed near the top, right
under the stamp, with more lines directly underneath for the
name and address of the sender. He drew two shiny identity photos
from it, two fair, moon-faced children, a boy and a girl.
"God, how I miss them," he said, mopping his forehead.
"Nastia's taken first prize for her level in harp this
year at the Academy, and Grigory begins the bass viol in the
The little girl wore a huge, blue bow cocked on one side of
her blond bowl-cut. I thought Grigory looked a bit young and
defenseless to be confronting a bass viol.
"What pictures have you to show us?" I asked Sasha
a bit coyly, I must admit, but his look was unfathomable, unconcerned.
"No one writes me," he said. "I haven't the luck
of my cohorts."
Nicolaï and Vladimir exchanged glances. At any rate, I
thought they exchanged glances. That they were meaningful ones
is more than I could vouch for.
Sasha returned to New Jersey with me on the last train. The
air-conditioning was turned up too high, and I shivered next
to him. He didn't put his arm around me, and that was when I
started to nag him. About his life in Russia. Past girl-friends.
His niece and nephew. I tried to avoid the name of Irina, but
it wormed its way in like a wiggling belly-dancer between the
lines the New Jersey Transit posted obsessively in front of
us in bright green, electronic lettering: Be considerate of
other riders. Speak softly.
I whispered, "how many women have you had?"
"Katia, my heart, why do Americans always think in terms
keep feet off seats.
Someone's cell phone tootled its four-note jingle across the
"Hey, Edie, would you believe it, I got three answers to
my ad," a man's voice answered. "I met the first one
Edie must have said something; there was a pause.
"...She owns her house, has an Alfa Romeo. But listen,
this is just between you and I..."
His voice filled the entire, sleepy train car. The "you
and I" made me wince.
"Physically, she's not my type." Two passengers opposite
money, buy monthly tickets.
Irina work?" I couldn't help myself.
The conductor reached us and snapped with a swift, rabid hand
at our strip-like tickets with his puncher, making holes in
an enigmatic myriad of places. His wrist movements were as deft
as Sasha's. Occupational hazard: tendinitis, I couldn't help
thinking. I hoped he wasn't an amateur musician.
"My sister?," Sasha replied. "Yes, she's a salesgirl."
"And your brother-in-law?"
He frowned slightly. "You're from the CIA, milaia, maybe?"
not ride in the vestibule.
Sasha, I just want to know about you, about your life..."
Suddenly he noticed the goose bumps on my bare arms and put
his new jacket over the front of my light summer dress.
"No sense of nuance in this place." He shook his head.
"Where are the dynamics? Hot as hell or cold as the North
Pole. Same for everything else."
I felt cowed. I huddled behind the dark worsted.
get on or off a moving train.
glanced up at the panel. "and they take people for bumbling
idiots. Unless it's that they're afraid of lawsuits. For not
warning you or something." I held my tongue. I simply noticed
how his complexion had gone from eastern European pasty to healthy
American tan on a good diet of fresh fruit and vegetables, red
meat and fish, how handsome he looked in his new clothes, remembered
how miraculous he sounded when he played my Rosadoni. He must
love it here. He had to.
In the middle of the night the telephone rang. Is there anything
more frightening than a telephone that startles you out of quiet
sleep? Only urgent, bad news comes at night. Or, with luck,
"Hello?" I forced out a small, scratchy voice, my
heart pounding, and a flood of apologetic Russian came from
the other end. The connection was clear. I would have thought
one of the other quartet members was calling, except that I
was hearing a woman's voice.
" Minutochka," I said. I handed the receiver to Sasha.
I heard him say " Slushaï, Ira! " several times,
and a chill raised the light down on my forearms despite the
hot summer night. He was speaking to Irina. The whirring of
the little electric fan blotted out most of it from me. Sasha
hated air conditioning: "phony, canned atmosphere,"
he said. "Fake settings here, fake sophistication, even
When he had placed the phone back in its wall cradle, he immediately
started pulling on trousers, shirt, socks and shoes.
He kissed me. " My sister needs me. It's urgent, Katiusha.
I'm sorry. I want to get the first plane."
"But what about your concert dates?"
"The others will figure something out."
"Is she ill? Hurt?"
"No, no, nothing like that. Too long to explain. Can I
use your phone to call a taxi?"
"Sasha, you can use anything of mine." I heard him
ask to be driven to Kennedy. A hundred dollars' worth of taxi.
Did he realize that? He must have been in a hurry indeed.
In his haste, Sasha had grabbed a violin, his own. "Rosi,"
in its black, professional-looking rectangular case, sulked
in a corner of the room, not far from the ashtray that held
Sasha's cigarette butts. Everyone smoked in Russia, Sasha had
"And the life expectancy is only about sixty for men,"
I'd added, a tad self-righteous.
"Life expectancy also means you expect something from life,"
"When you haven't got that, you live for the present moment.
You smoke, you drink, and, if you're lucky, you forget."
With all my heart I hoped he had found something to expect here.
Although I hated the smell of cold tobacco, I took a butt and
put it between my lips. It was all that was left to me now of
Five days passed and still Sasha did not call. His companions
billed themselves the N... Chamber Ensemble, and their repertoire
changed. Ex-Soviet quartet down now to ex-Soviet trio, I thought
ruefully. They'd found a pianist through some underground channel
that secretes Russian musicians on demand, and tonight there
would be Beethoven's Archduke. Vladimir, the violist, would
sit that one out. I was next to him, my question burning in
my mind, keeping me from listening. The exquisite yearnings
of the poco piu adagio wafted past me, background music to some
other world. After the concert, they smiled at me, comprehending
my dismay but saying nothing.
"He called you?" I finally asked. Lev nodded yes.
"He had to go back for Irina?"
"Yes, for Irina's sake. She needed him." I thought
he looked chagrined.
"His wife, Irina, is that it? And no one wants to tell
me?" I felt wretched and abandoned and imagined they were
feeling sorry for me. Nicolaï's gray eyebrows lifted.
"Sasha hasn't got a wife," he said. "Is that
what you thought? That Irina was his wife? That he was lying
to you about her?"
"Yes." Tears rose to my eyes in spite of myself. I
felt ashamed and foolish.
"Tell her. It won't hurt," Lev said.
"Irina's husband is something of a petty Mafia member,"
Nicolaï said, his voice quiet. I felt inundated with relief.
The problem was elsewhere. It wasn't with Sasha, with another
woman. Irina's husband could have been king of the dons for
all I cared.
"He got himself into a nasty lot of trouble these past
few days. Stole the car of a high functionary, then had an accident
with it. He smashed it up all by himself, no other casualties."
"Was he killed?" I ventured.
" No, but he was badly messed up. Got away from the scene
of the accident all right, but he collapsed later. Irina thought
there was internal bleeding when she called Sasha that night."
"Why didn't she just call a doctor? An ambulance?"
"Because they'd have figured it out, that he was the one.
Prison terms are long and harsh in our country, Kathy. "
He pronounced it Kat-sea." And if they'd realized he was
the culprit, then they probably wouldn't have gone too far out
of their way to get him medical aid anyway."
"Good Lord, but he has children."
"No mortal good to them in prison, Kat-sea."
"Do you know if he's still alive? If Sasha will be back?"
"No." They looked embarrassed, as if somehow it was
their fault I'd lost Sasha.
"He'll probably call you soon, or write you. When this
"Yes, soon. I'm sure," I said. My voice quavered,
and I was sure of nothing at all.
I would take "Rosi" out of its case and stroke its
varnish. I sought some vibration left over from Sasha's fingertips
on the ebony fingerboard, but for me, the bow would only elicit
wails. I pressed my left cheek into the hollow of the chin rest
and tried to imagine it was his shoulder I felt, horizontal
and slightly bony. Then I would put the instrument back to bed
in the sturdy, coffin-like box, rubbing the excess rosin from
the strings below the bridge with a little square of ancient
cotton, soft as silk from wear. Time passed, but none of us
heard anything from Sasha. The ringing of the phone rebounded
against the walls of his empty flat, and no one knew where Irina
lived. I covered a series of piano recitals and found them despicable.
Pounders, they were, those pianists, hammering, vengeful beings.
Chopin and Liszt gave me headaches.
Then one day the kitschy Russian envelope was for me. The flimsy
paper was decorated on the left with the naïve print of
a tabby cat, complete with pink ribbon around its neck. "The
European short-hair": I deciphered the capital Cyrillic
letters. On the right were the names and addresses: mine, then
his beneath. I willed myself not to open it before I was upstairs,
before I had shut the door behind me. I made myself wait, because
as long as I waited, I could continue to hope, hope to find
inside the date of his return. I scanned the Cyrillic, but no
dates caught my eye. I sat down. I would read it syllable by
foreign syllable, in order.
"My Katiusha" it began. That was my favorite nickname,
the same one as in the folk song about the girl who waits for
her beloved soldier beneath the flowering pear and apple trees.
First he explained about Irina, about how dreadful it had been
for her to lose her husband, to see him wither and die before
her own, helpless eyes, like a plant under a curse. The doctor
had written "heart failure" on the death certificate.
She had paid him not to probe too deeply. The children had been
devastated, and they clung to Sasha. I was filled with horror,
reading this. He would come back to me, I was sure now. His
country was full of inhumanity and corruption. He knew that,
didn't he? I read on:
"And now, Katiusha, as summer draws to an end, the woods
are filled with the sweetest smelling loam ever, and we go early
in the morning with large wicker baskets on our arms. When we
come home, the sun is hot and our baskets are filled. Irina
cooks the mushrooms and fills enough jars with them for the
entire winter. She is putting up purple plums, now, too, and
the other day the whole simmering copper pot of them boiled
over. The violet carpet in front of the stove was fine enough
for a bishop, but rather a sticky mess to clean up. Never fear,
the plums are plentiful, and we will have compote galore.
I saw the most beautiful fur chapka for you at the marketplace
this morning. They sell them for about eighty of your dollars,
but if you bargain astutely, you can do better than that. My
Katiusha, when will you come to me? I miss you, I miss holding
you in my arms. I have thought about nothing else since I had
to leave you so suddenly. I have classes now at the local music
school and private lessons for a few who can afford them. Believe
it or not, I even give private English lessons. My pupils are
so impressed with my 'American' accent! When you come, I feel
sure we can get you a teaching position at the normal school
here. They do so need to train teachers of English."
Tears welled in my eyes. Not once did he mention returning to
America. Only loam and mushrooms and purple plums. And for me,
that would be...what, exactly? Fragrant, freshly-cut grass,
autumn leaves crisp underfoot or burning in small, pungent pyres,
cinnamon-spiced cider and doughnuts? I could make a long list.
I even thought to reach for a piece of paper. As I did, my gaze
rested on "Rosi", docile and mute in its corner.
I lugged my violin in its elaborate wrapping to the post-office.
I asked about insurance, filled in all the forms. In our little
town, packages to Russia are rare; I caused quite a stir among
the personnel. Once everything was worked out, and "Rosi
" was on its cosmopolitan way, from Italy to America to
Russia, I walked the few blocks to catch the Manhattan train.
A wind quintet from Tbilisi was playing that evening, and I
was to do the review. I lifted my eyes to the unavoidable electronic
panel at the end of the car, to its crystalline, green announcement
: Last station - New York Penn, I read.
Louise Domaratius, 2002.
is an American writer and teacher living in France. A summa
cum laude graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts,
she first studied in France on a Fulbright Scholarship. She
holds a Maîtrise de Lettres Modernes from the Université
d'Aix-en-Provence, and an Agrégation d'Anglais.
She is an award-winning short story author. Her debut novel,
Gadji, was published in June 2002 by Quality Words in