One week before my mother died, I went to a Russian food store on Staten Island to buy caviar. I was brought up in the Soviet Union, where caviar was considered a special food reserved for children and dying parents. I never thought of it as extravagant or a romantic delicacy. My mother would offer me some before important tests in school, because it was chock-full of phosphorus that supposedly stimulated brain cells. I remember eating caviar before school, at seven am, still in my pajamas, shivering from the morning cold, seated in the untidy kitchen of our Moscow apartment, yawning and dangling my legs, bumping my knees against the boards of our folding table, holding that piece of bread spread with a thin layer of butter and thinner layer of caviar.
I did eat caviar in a romantic setting once. With a very rich Russian man who I agreed to marry even though I was still married to Len and still in love with B.
“Caviar,” I said to the sullen Russian woman behind the fish counter, and pointed to the smallest plastic container. She had blonde bangs pushing from under her white cap, uneven skin, thin lips with the remains of the morning’s lipstick in the creases. Most probably she was a recent immigrant who had had to leave her family in Ukraine or Moldova and come work here so she could send them money. I imagined how much she must hate her well-to-do customers, wearing leather and gold, choosing their gleaming cuts of smoked salmon, pointing to the sushi rolls, ordering caviar.
She regarded me with wary puzzlement. I was dressed in sweatpants and a T-shirt I hadn’t changed in days, and didn’t look well-to-do or well.
She squinted at me, spooned the caviar into the container, and put it on the scale.
“It’s for my mother,” I said.
I don’t understand what compelled me to share this. I’m a private person. I don’t chat with strangers. I don’t share things. Except, of course, in my fiction.
But I said that to the woman behind the fish counter. I wasn’t sure if she heard me. There was loud music playing through the speakers, alternating with advertisements. “Buy your kitchen sink from Alex’s Stainless.”
The muscles around my mouth started to twitch, and I wanted them to stop, but I didn’t have any control over them.
The woman behind the counter did hear me. And she understood what I meant right away. She stood there as if frozen, holding that container with caviar in her hands.
I think she was the one who started to cry first. Then I started to cry. Or it could’ve been that I was crying the whole time.
The woman behind the counter seemed to be as shocked by her tears as I was. I was ashamed. I didn’t have the right to pull her into my grief. I used her. The silent anguish was getting impossible to take—I needed an explosive release, and I used that woman to help me explode. Or perhaps, I needed a tiny bit of kindness, of connection, right there, right at that moment, in front of the fish counter with those gleaming cuts of smoked salmon, and colorful sushi rolls, and caviar.
Then I saw she wasn’t crying for me, or for my mother, but that something about my experience momentarily clicked with hers. I became exposed to her, and she became exposed to me. And perhaps she needed it as much as I did.
I think about that woman often.
My mother didn’t want the caviar. I waited until she woke up, and then I made her a sandwich that looked exactly like the ones she had made for me before school. She studied it and raised her eyes to me. She still recognized me as a caretaker or as some sort of parental figure, but I don’t think she knew who I was anymore. She looked at me with that pleading expression she had had for the last week or two, as if she knew that I wanted something from her, and she would’ve been happy to oblige, but could I please, please, please leave her alone?
I fixed her pillow and stroked her on the side of her head above her right temple. She closed her eyes and turned away from me.
I went upstairs to look for my kids. I found both of them in their rooms. Nathalie, 13, was curled up on her bed, asleep, her tear-streaked face pressed into the open paperback of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep—the book that she kept rereading over that summer.
Dan, 16, greasy hair, unwashed clothes, was hunched over his laptop playing Minecraft, building a virtual castle with a virtual tower that led right into the virtual sky. I walked up to him and touched him on the shoulder.
“What? Grandma’s calling?” he asked, ready to rush downstairs.
I shook my head and walked out of his room. Both kids seemed to be a picture of neglect but also a picture of normalcy. Neither of them wanted me at the moment.
There was no excuse not to do the work that I urgently needed to do. I went into my bedroom and opened my laptop. A long queue of emails filled me with panic. Some were from my students, who wanted me to look at their stories, others from the college admins, urging me to order books or confirm my schedule. A few were from various editors offering me one or another freelance assignment. My book editor was politely inquiring when I was going to deliver the novel I hadn’t started. I had been earning my living as a writer for about 12 years now, a fact that made me immensely proud, especially since I had been earning my living as an American writer, working in my second language. But the thing about making your living as a writer is that you need to be writing in order to make a living. You need to be writing a lot, and writing well, and I wasn’t writing at all. Then there was an urgent email from my agent asking me to describe my future novel in a hundred words or less.
“I’d love to write the novel about Love and Death,” I typed. “How both of those words lost their majestic old meanings. People don’t really ‘love’ each other anymore, they either ‘worked on a relationship’ or ‘succumbed to sexual desire.’ People don’t ‘die’ either, they ‘lost their battles’ with various diseases or they simply ‘expired’ like old products on a shelf. Neither love nor death is considered the most important passage in the life of a person anymore. In my new novel, I would try to restore their proper meanings.”
My agent shot back an answer almost right away.
“Is it going to be a comedy?”
I was shocked and even a little insulted. Comedy? Why comedy?
But then I thought that comedy, a very dark comedy, a comedy so dark that it made you cry, was the only form that would allow me to write with all honesty. If I were to truly open up in this novel, and there wasn’t any point in writing it unless I did, I would need comedy, a lot of comedy, to create a protective layer shielding me from being too exposed, guarding me from sounding too bitter. And then wasn’t life itself a perfect dark comedy too, with its journey to an inevitable tragic ending interspersed with absurd events providing comic relief?
I was about to put that in writing when I heard a strange sound coming from my mother’s room. I shut my laptop and rushed to her.
It was all quiet. My mother was still asleep, in the same position, breathing hard. Perhaps I had simply invented the strange sound so I wouldn’t have to deal with my emails.
I sat down at my mother’s table, which also served as her desk, littered with pill bottles, grocery receipts, hospice papers, random medical equipment, various food items, and yellow flash cards with my mother’s notes for her new book.
In Russia, she had been a famous author of math textbooks for children. She had published her last right before we emigrated, so this was going to be her first book in 20 years, and her first book written in English. She said that she had this sudden and stunning insight on how to make a math textbook that would guide you through life.
My mother kept working on that book for as long as her mind was still functioning and for a time after it stopped.
There were about 20 of these cards dispersed around the room. Some perfectly coherent, even brilliant, others showing both the inevitable deterioration of my mother’s mind and her desperate attempts to stave it off.
One of the cards had fallen to the floor. I picked it up and put it back on the table.Note to a reader about to scream at her mother that her symptoms are not real. Don’t do it!
It said: “Divide me by zero.” Nothing else. No date. I wasn’t sure if my mother had written it in a state of confusion or if she had had some deeper meaning in mind. As a child I was fascinated by this concept. I kept asking my mother what would happen if you divided something by zero. She would say: “Nothing!” But I didn’t believe her. I thought of division as a physical action. You could take a piece of bread and divide it by two, and you would have two pieces. “Nothing” happened when you divided something by one, the piece would stay intact then. Dividing by zero must have a different outcome! I kept pushing buttons on my mother’s huge calculator, forcing it to divide something by zero again and again. It would beep and the screen would scream “error,” as if guarding the answer from me, refusing to let me into this mystery. What was that mystery? I’d pester my mother. “Not all mysteries can be solved,” she told me once. “Certain things are simply beyond our grasp or understanding.”
Could the “Divide me by zero” card mean that she had finally been let in on that mystery? As she was about to die?
It’s tempting to say that my mother started working on her last book right after she received her terminal diagnosis, but this wouldn’t be true. It was good news that inspired her to start writing. The first flash card for my mother’s book is dated December 10, the day her GE told her that she definitely didn’t have cancer. He had scheduled the colonoscopy because the symptoms pointed to colorectal cancer. Turned out that she did have metastatic cancer at the time. Just not colorectal. Her cancer was someplace else, so the colonoscopy didn’t show it. He couldn’t see it.
My mother had told me about her symptoms too, but I didn’t really believe her, because her symptoms appeared when I decided to leave Len. She was vehemently against the divorce, and I felt that she developed her symptoms to stop me or, if she failed to stop me, to punish me. We’ve had a history of doing that to each other—you’ll see.
I wouldn’t let her health worry me. I needed to focus on my divorce, which was a long time overdue. Sixteen years overdue to be precise.
On the day of my mother’s colonoscopy I was hiding out in Victor’s Manhattan apartment, fending off angry phone calls from Len. At one point Len called to tell me that he was going to take my kids away. I ran out on the roof terrace so I could listen to Len scream at me in private. The terrace was covered with snow. I was barefoot. The sun reflecting off the snow was blinding me, but my feet were freezing. I had to run across the terrace from one snowless spot to the next, hunched over as if it could shield me from the cold or Len’s hatred. I was a monster, Len said. I had ruined his life and the kids would be better off if I died. The kids were at my uncle’s place in the Poconos—I had sent them there so they could absorb and store as much normalcy as they could along with fresh mountain air. I had a quick scary thought that Len might drive there and kidnap them, but I managed to recognize this thought as crazy right away. As much as Len wanted to destroy me, he would’ve never done anything to hurt the kids. I imagined Len pacing across the living room of the New Jersey home of his skiing buddy. Pale, balding, scared, confused, holding on to the idea of me as a monster, because this was the only thing that dulled his pain. Fighting a devious monster must feel so much better than accepting the banal situation of his wife leaving him for another man. I hadn’t loved Len for a long, long time, and I feared and hated him at the moment, but I also couldn’t help but feel perverse affection for him. We’d been married for 17 years, we were used to taking care of each other. I felt like it was my duty to protect him from this pain, even though I was the one causing it. But then I knew that any gesture of kindness would only make his pain worse.
Len finally hung up, and I cleared snow off the edge of a lawn chair and sat down, savoring the moment of peace before I had to go down and face Victor. He was angry at me for not being more resolute about the divorce. He suspected that I wasn’t fully committed to him. He was right.
Even if I didn’t love Len anymore, I still had feelings for B., no matter how hard I tried to kill them. In fact, there was nothing I wanted more at that moment than to see B., right then and there, on that snowed-in, blinding roof. To see him walk up the stairs and to rush into his arms, to feel his warmth, his smell—he smelled like cigarettes and hay—to move a wisp of his graying hair off his forehead and look into his eyes.
I had to stop! I really had to stop thinking about B.!
This was precisely why I had started seeing Victor in the first place, in a crazy, or perhaps crooked attempt to get over B. I’ve discovered that Victor wasn’t perfect, far from it, but he was strong, extremely intelligent, and somewhat kind. A romantic self-made man, a Russian Great Gatsby. He was also very rich, have I mentioned that? I’m sure I have and I’m probably going to mention that again and again. Not because I’m proud of the fact of dating a rich man but because I still find it disturbing and even a little disgusting.
Victor promised to help me with the divorce, to come up with a fair solution for Len, to make sure that the kids stayed with me and that they were well provided for, that my mother had a decent home. All of that in exchange for a sincere assurance that I was going to be his loyal partner. I couldn’t possibly deceive Victor. I could accept his help only if I felt that I could be that for him. He knew that I didn’t love him yet—he didn’t love me either—but he believed that love would develop with time, from our mutual affection and respect. My problem was that I doubted that. But maybe love wasn’t necessary at all? I had married Len for love. I’d later experienced the most intense love for B. and look where it got me.
I was sitting on that roof, literally freezing my ass, while trying to persuade myself that I didn’t need love and will myself into wanting to be with Victor, so I could go back and face him.
This was when my mother called to tell me about her colonoscopy results. “It’s all good,” she said. “No cancer!”
I said: “Okay.”
“I thought you’d be relieved.” She sighed.
At that moment, I didn’t have any patience for hypochondria.
“I am not relieved, because I never thought you had cancer in the first place!” I said.
“But what about my symptoms?” she asked.
“Your symptoms are not real!” I screamed.
I said that. The words were out and gone, I immediately forgot about them, as if they had gone to some sort of memory landfill, but apparently that landfill wasn’t very far or very deep, because when my mother got the correct diagnosis just a few months later, my words came right back to stay with me forever.
On the card dated December 10th, my mother wrote that her new book would have so-called “notes or asides to readers” that would try to engage them directly with the text. There were no examples in the following cards, but I imagine the notes were supposed to look something like this.
Note to a reader about to scream at her mother that her symptoms are not real. Don’t do it! You will never be able to forgive yourself. You hear me? Never!
I ate the caviar at that desk, right out of the container, trying to justify eating it by telling myself that I couldn’t afford to waste money, or that I simply needed it for nourishment, with my mother and my kids all depending on my strength at a time like this. It didn’t work. I felt as if I were robbing a grave.
Writing this book often feels like that too.
From Divide Me By Zero by Lara Vapnyar. Used with the permission of the publisher, Tin House Books. Copyright © 2019 by Lara Vapnyar.