Because as unhappy as she is here in the Emerald, you couldn’t get her to go back to Novosibirsk—not even by force. She does dream of one day returning there, but later, with a thin waist and fancy makeup, with a suitcase full of nice clothes, and preferably accompanied by a German husband with a perfectly groomed mustache. He should also be kind and rich and speak Russian—because German, Maria says, is tougher than Chinese. As if she knows.
When I do my homework, she sometimes sighs behind me, muttering, “Studying is important, studying is good. I never used to study, always worked. Even as a little kid. And look at me now. Where did all that drudgery get me?”
“Read something, dumpling,” I say. “It doesn’t have to be War and Peace right off the bat. Try a mystery.”
“I’m always so tired in the evening, sunshine,” she says. “I forget what I’ve just read and have to keep starting over. It just takes too much effort.”
So every day she reads the latest sheet of her page-a-day calendar— one for Russian Orthodox housewives—with a recipe on it, maybe a diet tip, and once in a while a joke, and that suffices. It makes me roll my eyes, but I make sure she doesn’t see me. After all, she can’t help the fact that she got too few synapses and that she lost two-thirds of the ones she did get working at the cafeteria.
I just worry a little about Alissa. At the moment Maria has a slight intellectual edge over my not quite four-year-old sister, but that won’t be the case for long. I have made reading books aloud a mandatory part of Maria’s schedule. After the first time she read a picture book to Alissa, she said, amazed, “I never knew such interesting books existed.”
She has nothing but love for Alissa. So much so that she was against sending her off to kindergarten at the age of three. She pictured nothing but illnesses and deep-frozen foods. I had to threaten to get the family services department involved to break down Maria’s resistance to the idea of kindergarten. She constantly cuddles and pats my sister and can barely keep herself from sputtering the pathetic phrase I’ve strictly banned from our household: “My poor little orphan.” When Alissa’s not sitting in her lap, she’s standing on a footstool in the kitchen watching meatballs sizzle. She already knows a lot of recipes by heart. Recently she explained to me what fresh coriander looks like and how it smells. “It makes you want to puke,” she said. Maria’s fear of being shipped back to Novosibirsk has a lot to do with Alissa, too. Separating the two of them would not only break my sister’s heart but Maria’s as well. “When little Ally is all grown up, only then will I feel comfortable leaving,” she says. “I want to raise her and make sure she’s happy and healthy (my poor little orphan).”
Other times Maria says she’ll feel comfortable leaving only once Alissa has found a decent man to marry.
“You’re not a servant,” I say. “And besides, it’s possible she won’t find a decent man to marry until she’s in her late thirties— if she’s lucky.”
“Okay, then when she gets her diploma,” she says. “That will be a happy day for me, too.”
For her “diploma” is a magic term—like “capital gains tax”or “paracetamol.”
She would die for Alissa. That’s not to say she has anything against Anton. She tries to cuddle him, too, but Anton won’t let anyone touch him. He just keeps retreating until his back is against the wall. And at that point Maria realizes she should let go of him. A few months ago I watched as he told Maria about his day at school. She sat at the kitchen table with her chin in her hand shaking her head in amazement.
Excerpted from Broken Glass Park by Alina Bronsky. Copyright © 2010 by Alina Bronsky. Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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