"There Are Jews in My House"
Galina carried in an aluminum pot of boiled potatoes, holding it by the handles with a kitchen towel. She put it on a wooden holder in the middle of a round table covered with a beige oilcloth. She opened the lid and, turning her face away from the steam, ladled coarse, unpeeled potatoes onto each of the four plates. The plates were beautiful: delicate, white, with a golden rim and little forget-me-nots in the center.
For the past six weeks, they'd been eating in the living room, where the heavy dark brown curtains covered the only window. For the past two weeks, they'd been eating in silence. From time to time, somebody coughed or sneezed, the girls might whisper something to each other, or even giggle, after which they glanced guiltily at their mothers, but mostly they heard only themselves blowing on their food and the clatter of heavy silver forks. Galina didn't mind the silence. It was better than having to talk, to keep up a forced conversation, as she did a few weeks before. Even the room itself was best suited for silence. It was large and square, empty and spotless. The sparse furniture was drawn close to the walls, and there was only a massive dinner table in the middle, rising like an island on the dark brown floorboards.
Since they dined on potatoes everyday, Galina was used to everybody's eating habits. Her seven-year-old daughter, Tanya, cut the potato in half and bit the insides out of the skin hurriedly, then ate the skins too. Raya, sitting across from Galina, peeled potatoes for herself and her eight-year-old daughter, Leeza. "Two princesses," Galina thought. Raya peeled potatoes with her hands, using her delicate fingernails to hook the skins. She bent her head so low that her dingy hair almost touched her plate. Raya and Leeza broke their peeled potatoes into small pieces and ate, picking them up with a fork. Raya's hands were often shaking, and then the fork clutched in her fingers was shaking too, knocking on the plate with an unnerving tinkling sound. Galina had the urge to catch that trembling fork and hold it tight, not to let it shake. "Chew, chew!" Galina kept saying to Tanya, who tended to swallow big chunks in a hungry rush. "You're wasting your food when you're not chewing." Galina herself ate slowly. She picked up a whole potato on a fork and ate it with the skin, biting off pieces with her strong, wide teeth. She chewed zealously, careful not to waste food and also trying to prolong dinner as much as possible, because the hours between dinner and going to bed were the most unbearable.
Six weeks ago, when Raya and Leeza first came to live at Galina's place, it had been different. Galina and Raya spent the evenings talking, mostly about the prewar life that seemed now unreal and perfect. They retold some minor episodes in meticulous detail, as if the precision of their memories could turn that prewar life into something real, and failure to remember something could unlock the door of Galina's apartment and let the war in. If one of them was unsure of a detail, she relied on the memory of the other. "I used to buy Moscow rolls every Saturday. Remember, Moscow rolls, the small ones with the striped crust? They were six kopecks each. Were they six kopecks?" "I think they were seven--the ones with poppy seeds cost six." Often, their conversations went on well into the night, after the girls had fallen asleep. Then they moved closer to each other and talked in whispers.
Now, right after dinner, Raya went into the back room, where she and Leeza slept, and sat there on the bed with her back to Galina. Sometimes, Raya bent over the nightstand and started a letter--to her husband no doubt--but after a few lines she always stopped and crumpled the paper. At other times, Raya had a book in her hands, but she didn't turn the pages. Through the opened door--Raya never shut the door--Galina saw Raya's pale, unclean neck, so thin that you could count every vertebra. Galina couldn't concentrate on a book either. She would follow the lines to the bottom of the page and only then realize that the letters didn't form words and sentences, but simply passed in front of her eyes like endless rows of black beads.
Excerpted from There Are Jews in My House by Lara Vapnyar Copyright© 2003 by Lara Vapnyar. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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