Perestroika meant twenty-three, with two Masters degrees, and still unemployed in Odessa, so she started selling magazines in the supermarket kiosk, and she kept selling magazines until the day he walked in.
Half Russian, half Hungarian, descended from exiled aristocrats. Sure. The truth was he was confident – energetic, young, and handsome, too – with a plan to smuggle caviar from Russia to Ukraine. It was risky, but everyone was doing it, he said, so why couldn’t they?
Black caviar, first-rate stuff, impossible to produce artificially. She liked it when he talked about the sturgeon laying their eggs, about needing to go to the source, Astrakhan, north of the Caspian Sea. They bought it in tins from poachers and hid them in the engine, in the gas tank, underneath the bucket seats. Police were everywhere, all along the border. If they’d been caught it would’ve been prison for a long, long time.
But they never got caught; it was thrilling. It was new clothes and drugs and anything they wanted. She couldn’t want any more, so why, then, did she lie? Why, then, did she skim a little extra for herself? When he found out, it was all over like that.
He disappeared with the car. She went back to magazines. She got married and had two blonde kids who looked just like the father she’d later divorce.
Years go by. The kids grow up. She moves to Baltimore U.S.A. and gets a job managing inventory for a discount supermarket chain. She has her own desk and a phone, and a cloth-covered corkboard where she tacks up photos. One day she hears from a friend that her old partner is still in business, and for a moment she forgets the years, forgets the distance, forgets her two teenagers and her salaried office job. For a moment she thinks about trying to get in touch. But no, she doesn’t do that. That’s not her anymore. She looks at her corkboard with all her photos and remembers the new life she’s made.
When they were little, the kids would beg, Mama, tell us about when you were our age. But she didn’t know how to tell them that she’d never really been their age. So she made things up, wild accounts of horses and travelling carnivals and holidays by the sea. She never mentioned caviar, but once in a while, for a birthday – or just because – she’d buy a jar and serve it to them on good buttered bread.
Now, fickle and moody, the kids barely talk to her at all. The boy only wants to play soccer and smoke, and the girl hardly ever leaves her room. She guesses this is justice, or the next closest thing.