I married Igor because he was from a good family, so the last thing I expected was that our union would summon the rage of a domovoi. As we get ready to move to a new apartment, I feel his scowling spirit hovering nearby, sitting between us on the plastic-wrapped sofa.
I had no idea that American houses could have their own domovois. His visitations seemed shockingly out of place, like finding chicken Kiev on the menu of an American bistro. I was certain I left that ancient pagan belief behind after my parents and I clawed our way onto that plane to JFK. But it seems he dwells in the land of the free as well. You see, each home has its own domovoi, a spirit that oversees the house, makes its balance possible. Some say he is a relative of the devil, others that he is the reincarnation of watchful ancestors. Generally benevolent and sometimes even affectionate (one domovoi was said to have lovingly brushed the hair of his mistress every single night), he can become violent if the household is not run in humble compliance. It is well documented that a soft, furry touch from the domovoi in the middle of the night is a good omen, but a cold, prickly touch is a harbinger of much pain. He has also been known to kill.
When I met Igor at a Brighton Beach singles bar, I was running out of options. Many American women may not understand my urgency to get married, but as my mother often pointed out, “It was time to start living a respectable life.” On our first date, I thought Igor was kind when he eagerly poured my glass of water before his own, when he handed me a linen napkin as soon as we sank into the velour chairs. He spoke about art, vaguely but confidently, about “people” he was working with to move it in and out of Russia. “There are so many Russian artists who are really good,” he said, his eyes blinking rapidly. “But they don’t get noticed in Russia at all. Nobody cares about art over there.”
Something propelled me to say, “I care about art,” in an uncharacteristically coy way. He paused, obviously charmed, and continued, “Of course, because you are cultured.” He leaned toward me, his stomach straining against the waistband of his khaki pants. He looked so vulnerable that I immediately visualized myself sternly shaking my head at him in our beige-wallpapered house in Flushing, “No, Igor, it’s time to get rid of those or lose some weight, dear.”
On our next date, we went to a Tom Cruise movie and Igor awkwardly put his arms around me in the theater. My heart was beating because I remembered that I would have to kiss him, even sleep with him if I were going to marry him. I closed my eyes and remembered the tongue twister that, in my childhood, had successfully allowed me to swallow my mother’s mamaliga, a pasty, salty pudding she force-fed me every other Tuesday — “Yekhal Greku Cherez Reku, Videl Greku v Reke Rak,” something about a Greek who saw a crab in the lake, repeated quickly, breathlessly. I was 30 — there wasn’t a lot of time left.
I met his parents for the first time at the Russian nightclub, Fabergé, in Brighton Beach. They looked me over slowly, his mother lingering on my damp forehead and dry, curly hair, his father on my breasts in my favorite silver lame dress. They seemed pleased yet cautious, as though they always feared Igor would never get married and if he did, she would be a woman to be wary of. “I’m not so bad,” I want to tell them. “There are worse out there who would get to him if I didn’t.” I gave the first shashlik to his mother, as is proper. I watched her cut the meat and stuff it in her mouth with the same pleasure Igor expressed when devouring his food. She resembled a coolly polite but voracious rhinoceros.
Even now, I find it difficult to maintain my rigid posture when she waddles into our apartment. “So this place not good enough for her Majesty,” I overheard her telling Igor in the kitchen the other day, and he stammered out, “She thinks there’s a domovoi, Ma. She’s really afraid.” “Oh please, a domovoi,” she said, rolling her eyes, and then, “You got yourself some wife, Dimochka.” I hoped the domovoi would swat the pierogi right out of her mouth — then she can try to question my inadequacies as wife. But the domovoi opted to stay silent that afternoon; perhaps he was tired, lying supine on our couch with his eyes closed, or he had taken on the anthropomorphic form of Igor’s mother and was testing us, silently judging.
As a good Russian-American wife, I have to tolerate my mother-in-law’s ample presence. Did I mention I was already 30? My mother reminded me of this every day with a raised eyebrow and sentences that trailed off into a question mark — she was married at 24, which was already “up there,” and all my friends back in Tombov had at least one child by now. She was only living to see me married, she said.
Igor proposed on our fifth date after an uninspiring meal at a Brazilian churrascaria around the corner from his place. A piece of meat was still stuck to his lower lip, and I was too ashamed to tell him about it, hoping he would get the hint when I vigorously rubbed my own mouth with a napkin. His lips were parted all night as though in preparation for an interminable sequence of meals.
“Would you like a drink?” he asked and I nodded. Scotch and soda that made my heart ache a little with longing and pity. He sat down next to me on the bed and gingerly placed his hand on my left breast, as though it were the fragile head of a newborn baby. I swiveled until my hair covered his hand — there was some shame in that movement, maybe.
That night, I felt like a slurped kvas, but it was over quickly. Igor was gentle, almost nonexistent. He called me “my heart” and “my little bird” and “my girl.”
The wedding, complete with my bewildered parents, was celebrated in a glitzy Long Island synagogue only six months later. We stood next to each other like two erect pickles, arms at our sides, eyes focused on the ancient rabbi’s mouth in scholarly concentration. Afterwards, my mother cried, the carnation on her silk blouse bobbing up and down, kissing Igor, who patted her on the shoulder sheepishly. My only friend, a classmate from dental school showed up, a shy, Korean ex-model, who got me a pale yellow teddy that I wear for myself sometimes. After slipping into its supple contours, I put on lipstick and lie down next to my pillow, caressing a corner, taking it in my mouth, feeling the soft down press against my body.
Now, a year and a half has passed and Igor still opens the door for me. His thick fingers rest on the back of my neck as I walk ahead of him. He signs checks with a flourish, which embarrasses me, because it’s not his money, really. He’s still doing something with art and business, but I’ve stopped asking and he’s stopped mentioning it. Instead, he eats my borscht happily, his face red from its steam. He still makes allusions to children, in his customarily indirect way. If my stomach hurts, his face mimics the concern of an E.R. resident. “Is it…something, more you think?”
I can’t imagine having kids now. I have my new practice — some dumpy, Russian patients shepherded to me by Igor’s relatives and word-of-mouth. Sometimes it breaks my heart to see these patients sit so passively in my weathered leather chair. I could slit their throats and they would lie there like resigned cows, calmly looking up my nostrils. I could tell them to undergo any major surgery, and they would sigh and agree, as though they always knew that some kind of price would have to be paid by Russian Jews who made it out.
Igor and I were married for a few months before the domovoi decided to make his presence known. By then, I was finding it difficult to hide my aversion to Igor’s pink, naked body, though I tried very hard, if only for my mother’s sake, whose shoulders shook with happiness that I was settled at last. Sometimes, after a long dinner at our place, she would cry over her tea. “I’m so happy, Lenachka, you are a wife at last.” Or, “You are respectable now, thank God,” or “We’re a long way from Tambov, yes?” She would gulp her tea Russian style, through the density of our sugar cubes, and my father would then navigate her gaunt frame toward the doorway.
After they left one night, Igor and I decided to go for a walk, as we do on most nights, to digest our meal. Igor was quiet, which was unusual for him — maybe he was thinking about my mother’s words. He had no idea what we had to go through to get here. It wasn’t the 80s anymore and we couldn’t plead political asylum after communism was discarded. Even my parents wondered where I got the money for the plane tickets, how two crumpled pieces of pink stationery allowed us to leave Sheremetyevo Airport with only a wink and a “Poka” from the burly immigration security guard. Igor, on the other hand, came here as a child; reliant on his parents’ toil, coddled by American luxury, baked to perfection on its ambitions.
He mentioned that he thought my mother was a little, well, “emotional,” and I screamed at him for the first time in our marriage. We were walking on Main Street as the sun finally capitulated to darkness. The street was brightly lit, but I wished we were in the suburbs, sheltered by darkness, our house the only beacon to strive for. Instead, our surroundings didn’t look so different than Tambov, with all those irrelevant stores and the awkwardly cloned apartment complexes. I watched Igor let air in and out of his cheeks, resembling a bird eating a worm that I once glimpsed on a beach in Riga, and wondered if I had really escaped. We walked back towards our stout building in silence.
“Strange, Lena,” he said, when we walked through the door. The light in our living room was on. “I know we didn’t turn it on,” he said and shrugged, giving up and unfolding the Wall Street Journal. I stayed quiet (partially to show him that I was still mad at him and that I was not about to let him forget I was in the right) but it was strange to me, too. We had left when it was still daytime, and I always try to save money by only turning on the light when it is absolutely necessary.
“Would you mind getting me some tea, dear?” He mumbled, his voice happily bouncing against the shield of the newspaper.
A few weeks later, we went out to dinner with some of Igor’s business “colleagues” — pseudo-mafiosi, all thick and oily. They spoke perfect Russian, but conjugated certain English words as though they were Russian, like exportat or businessmeny or dollary. They stared at my breasts, when Igor was snapping his fingers for the waiter, and the large nosed, convex one wrapped one of my curls around his finger, as though he knew more about me than he really did.
“You’re a real beauty,” he kept saying, grinning at me and then at Igor. “You got yourself a real beauty, Igor.”
When we returned to our apartment, I was thinking, This is what I tried to avoid, I am an idiot. I remember my heels clicking lightly against the hardwood floor as I made my way towards the bookcases, trying to find a book to take to bed. I saw the shelf first; the books randomly rearranged, some spines upside down, some missing their jackets all together. A few books were wedged out grotesquely as though in lewd invitation. “Igor!” I screamed. He waddled over and his eyes got fat. “My God,” he said.
That’s when I knew that we had a domovoi and he was angry at something. Igor thought my fears were ridiculous, but he left Russia at seven years of age and I left at 25, so I would know better, wouldn’t I? I thought we should take it easy for a while, sleep in separate bedrooms so we don’t disturb him, before he does something desperate, irreversible. Once the domovoi becomes angered, there are no limits to his wrath.
“He must not get upset, do you understand,” I told Igor in explanation of our new domestic arrangement. After pleading with me in that watery way of his, Igor agreed to sleep in the other bedroom, the one he had reserved for “our child.” Now, newly empowered, I agreed to sex once a week, but asked my girlfriend from dental school to tell me about the Pill, something I could never get my hands on in Russia. It was a secret between the domovoi and myself, and nothing too unusual happened for a long time except a pair of theater tickets that disappeared the night Igor forgot our anniversary, a broken vase that my mother-in-law gave me for my birthday from a gaudy boutique on Madison Avenue. Another time, I cut my underarms with a razor and found myself fascinated by the beautiful trickle of red creeping down the edge of our cool, ceramic sink. All little acts that could be ignored.
Still, I don’t want to take any chances; you see, the domovoi can always take the firstborn and trade it for a changeling. The baby would look normal for a few months, but perhaps one evening, when I stumble over to its crib in the middle of the night, I would discover a gurgle erupting from a foaming, cavernous mouth. My grandmother told me such stories when I was a little girl, when she would return weary from a long day of picking berries for rich Muscovites on vacation at a nearby dacha. She told me that women were often the spirit’s victims because it was their fault if the household was tainted. After the first visitation, all you can do is wait for the domovoi‘s final verdict — the inevitable moment when he forces you to face the unbending consequences of your choices.
Igor saw my firm mouth, heard the clanking of the pots and realized that we had to move, leave the domovoi to this barren, beige apartment. It was clear to him at last, that the domovoi would eventually unravel the intricate creation of our marriage — we had to start a life without him. After this decision had been made, Igor started to leave me dark chocolate truffles by my bedside, and when they remained there — solitary and stupidly bulbous — for several days, he ate them himself.
My parents came to help us with the packing, and now all our things are carefully arranged in bulging, duct-taped boxes. Later, I put on the yellow teddy when I close the door and pretend my pillow is the domovoi. But he is not the old man with the floor-sweeping, gray beard — the way we Russians have always imagined him — but like Tom Cruise, lean and mystical, shivering with desire for me. I fall asleep thinking of him, tasting him in my mouth, already missing him so much it hurts. Sometime in the middle of the night, I feel a cold hand tap me on the back and I jump up in bed, screaming. It is Igor in his baby blue pajamas. He is a silent, impoverished figure standing beside the blinking alarm clock and I realize that he is my future. He peels back the covers and slides in next to me. I wait, unmoving, for the domovoi to pronounce his final decree, but all I can hear is the blood pounding inside my head and the erratic sound of Igor’s raspy snores.