"Is he accurately representing your views?" Zinaida demanded.
"Yes," I said. "It seems to me that in this dead country, where nothing can be reborn, the ménage à trois is the ideal citadel."
"Did you ever see any of his conquests as a threat to you?" Zinaida persisted.
I exchanged looks with my husband. "When our paths first crossed, in a cabaret in Kiev, we appeared to be ships passing in the night until, as he later put it, I blew him out of the water. Soon after we met, Mandelstam and I were separated by the Civil War. I was your age at the time and missed him terribly. He wound up in Petersburg, where he had a three-month fling with Olga Arbenina. What I resented most was not Arbenina -- I can understand any female of the species being attracted to Mandelstam. No, what I resented most was Mandelstam. When he took up with that woman, he and I were on intimate terms. He called me sister and addressed me using the familiar ty. But when he got around to writing me after meeting Arbenina, he switched into the formal vy and I understood we would have to begin from zero in our relationship."
"What did you do?" Zinaida asked, looking eagerly from one to the other.
"The answer is as plain as the beauty mark on your chin," Mandelstam said. "We started again from scratch." And he added, more for my ears than Zinaida's, "Loving a third person is not without risks."
Zinaida wanted to know if we had ever come close to splitting up.
"There was a bearded writer in the mid-twenties," I admitted.
"Oh, do tell me who it was," she demanded.
I could only smile at the memory. "His last name began with the initial T. More I will not tell you. It was a time when I was mutinying against my husband's definition of a couple -- he expected me to abandon my life to him, renounce my own self, become a part of him. This mutiny took the form of falling head over heels in love with T. But I fortunately came to my senses."
Zinaida turned to Mandelstam. "Do you still expect Nadezhda to abandon her life and become part of you?"
"We have since met on a middle ground," he replied.
"Recount your first experience as a ménage à trois? Were you nervous? Were you...inhibited?"
"For me," Mandelstam said, "the baptism of fire was with two sisters who acted in motion pictures -- "
That was simply too much for me, even if we were both of us in full seductive flight, so to speak. "He is lying through his teeth," I exploded. "Before we met he knew nothing of such things. He would undress in the dark, for God's sake. I was the one who initiated him."
"But you don't respond to the question, Nadezhda Yakovlevna. Were you inhibited the first time?"
"The first time one is always timid, darling girl. You are fortunate in that you have us to light the way."
Zinaida crushed a fold of my long skirt in her fingers and pulled me closer. "I confess that I am embarrassed," she said softly, her cheeks burning, her eyes aglow.
"I am able to fix that," Mandelstam said impatiently (the foreplay was taking longer than he had anticipated). "Take off your clothing and the three of us shall repair to the bedroom for a conversation that doesn't require a knowledge of dialectical materialism."
I reached to undo the top buttons of her blouse and, placing the tips of my fingers on the swell of a breast, kissed her lightly on the lips. Mandelstam removed his jacket and his collar and, offering a hand, led her toward the small bedroom. "There were English poets," he told her, "who believed that for each ejaculation, a man loses a day of his life."
"Does that suggest the woman gains a day?" Zinaida inquired with feigned innocence.
"Not," Mandelstam said mischievously, "unless she swallows."
Zinaida's little shoulders shook with soundless laughter. "I should not feel comfortable lengthening my life at the expense of shortening yours."
Copyright © 2009 by Robert Littell
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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