x

Excerpt

Oksana, Behave!

Maria Kuznetsova

March 18, 2019 
The following is from Maria Kuznetsova's novel Oksana, Behave! An antsy misbehaving young Ukrainian-American immigrant, longing for a Russia she doesn't know, visits her grandmother in Yalta and learns about living. Maria Kuznetsova is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in the The Southern Review, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Kenyon Review Online, The Threepenny Review, and others. She lives in Iowa City with her family.

Papa had been the USSR Math Olympics champion when he was sixteen, but all he’d managed to achieve was working for Goldman Sachs. He had competed all over the Soviet Union, from Tallinn to Vladivostok, and had even gotten to shake Brezhnev’s hand in a big ceremony when he won. But nobody cared about the Math Olympics in America. Mama loved to remind me of all of Papa’s sacrifices for our family and told me to go easy on him, especially when he did things that were “good for his soul,” like blasting classical music in his car as loud as humanly possible without caring about his passengers—namely, me. That morning, I massaged my temples, hoping Papa would get the picture, amazed that even classical music could be offensive at a high volume.

I ran out of patience once we hit the Parkway. I said, “Can you turn it down a notch?”

“Turn it down, rabbit? But this is the only way I like to hear it,” he said with an exaggerated frown that made him look as dumb as the boys in eighth grade. Lately he had replaced all the songs with English in them with classical music whenever he drove, and I hoped the phase would pass. But I felt guilty when he grunted and turned the music off completely.

“I’m just not awake yet,” I said.

“Here,” he said, thrusting his coffee mug at me. “This will do it.”

I was almost fourteen and had never had coffee before. I took a sip and struggled not to spit it out.

“Disgusting,” I said.

“You get used to it, like everything else,” he said. “You’ll see.”

I was skipping school for Take Your Daughter to Work Day. It had taken some wrangling to convince Mama to let me go, but Papa was excited to show me the Wall Street office where he had been working for the past few months—the reason my family had left Ohio for New Jersey. I cared more about ditching class than seeing the place that kept Papa from making it home in time for dinner or playing computer games with me. Only after I accepted did I realize I’d have to leave home at six instead of seven in the morning. I took another sip of the disgusting slush as we pulled into the garage, which was just past the twin towers. It tasted like mud. Papa put his hand on my back as we walked to his office.

We passed Battery Park, which was where Papa had taken me and Mama on our first trip to New York, when I was eight. Papa saw me slowing down and said, “We can walk around here at the end of the day. Perhaps even get some ice cream,” and I said that sounded like a good idea, though I was pretty sure you were too old for ice cream with your dad once you got full boobs. A garbage truck stopped in front of us, blocking our path. My friend Lily had told me garbage men made a ton of money, way more than Papa, but I wasn’t sure I believed her.

The Goldman Sachs building loomed in the distance like a brown cheese grater. Papa lit a cigarette as the truck roared away and finished it by the time we reached the building. He nodded hello to two of the security guards and we stepped inside. The ceilings were infinitely tall, the lobby made of shiny marble. I got a name tag at the front desk and we waited for an elevator to take us all the way up to Papa’s floor. We were let out into a room at least five times the size of my school gym. There was a table with bagels, orange juice, pastries, and coffee on it, and a few daughters picked at the food. All of the suited-up dads stood in clumps, looking considerably older and more tired than my father. The daughters giggled in a circle, and I wondered how they spoke so freely together.

Papa and I looked at the people and back at each other. “Would you like to see my desk?” he said.

I grabbed a bagel with no cream cheese and followed him. The floor had no offices at all, just row after row of desks crowded with more computer screens than I had ever seen in my life. Enormous TVs hung from the walls, and clocks showed the time in London and Tokyo. As Papa led me toward one of these rows, it occurred to me that this meant he didn’t have his own office.

“Here,” he said, gesturing toward a desk with only two computer screens on it. “I sit here all day long. Except when I smoke.” It looked so pathetic—hardly twice the size of my desk at school. I noticed a photo of me holding my brother just after he was born a year ago, and it made me cringe. I almost never thought of Papa when I was at school, going about my life, while he looked at this picture of my little brother, Misha, and me every single day. We idled back to the chattering daughters and dads, and I picked at my bagel until a gray-haired lady mercifully rang a bell and announced the order of events. The only thing I gathered was that some famous basketball-player lady was giving a speech after lunch. Other than that, we’d spend most of the day in “workshops.” This definitely sounded worse than school.

Only when a different gray-haired lady came over to separate me from Papa did I realize he would not be joining me—he would have to work. This didn’t seem fair. The other dads were already rushing to their desks, answering their phones. Papa lifted a hand as he backed away from me and said, “See you at lunch.”

*

“I was, like, obsessed with Mallory Hazzard when I was little,” a big Italian-looking girl from a place called “Shah-lin” was saying to anyone who would listen; it took me a moment to realize she was talking about the basketball player. The girl had curly black hair, Tiffany’s jewelry, and a perfect French manicure she’d probably gotten just for the dumb occasion. The other girls wore dresses, billowy flowery things. I wore a Spice Girls T-shirt and cargo pants that were too short, showing too much of my Skechers, which looked ridiculous in the plush conference room. I hadn’t dressed up, specifically because Mama kept telling me I should, which I figured was only because she was a real accountant now and had to dress up for work so she thought I should be fancy too. The girl rambled on about this basketball legend I had never heard of—I didn’t even know women’s basketball was a thing.

Our “Grrrrrl Leaders!” workshop was completely useless; each girl had to share some kind of “entrepreneur” idea. I didn’t know what “entrepreneur” meant and said I just liked to read, not lead, thank you, and the instructor quickly moved on. After it wrapped up, I was stuck listening to the girls comparing *NSYNC to the Backstreet Boys. It was pretty obvious they were nothing like me; they were from places like Basking Ridge and Short Hills, places where all the friends my parents knew back in Kiev lived now, while we lived in average Edison, where Mama claimed we would “get on our feet” before we could move somewhere more stuck-up. Once we were dismissed, I followed the girls into an elevator for the next workshop. Three men hovered over us, smiling smugly.

One looked at “Shah-lin” girl’s name tag and said, “You’re not Kenny Rizzo’s girl, are you?”

“Guilty as charged,” she said, and the men got excited, introducing themselves and shaking her hand, like they had never met somebody’s daughter before. Then, because they sensed they were ignoring the rest of us, they figured out who all the other dads were, declaring, “Great guy,” “Love that guy,” “Sharpest man I know”—how many floors did this building have?—until the first man put a hand on my shoulder and said, “And who’s your father, honey?”

I swallowed. “Ivan Konnikov,” I said, standing taller. The man frowned and said, “No, I don’t know that one,” and the others chimed in to agree. The jovial atmosphere disappeared completely, as if I had said my father was Joseph Stalin.

I said, “He only started working here a few months ago,” and then they nodded a bit more enthusiastically, grateful for this excuse. I could have told them more. I could have said he would still be a hotshot scientist if we had stayed in Ukraine, but Mama was Jewish and decided we were all Jewish refugees and made Papa schlep our family to America, where he’d hardly made a dime as a physicist, and then my brother was born and he realized he had to make yet another sacrifice for his family, so here we were. And here, I was finding out pretty fast, kind of sucked.

*

Mallory Hazzard was not what I expected. For one thing, she was white. For another, she was gorgeous and insanely tall, a specimen from an entirely different breed of woman. Her blond hair fell to her waist—I assumed she’d have it pulled back because she was an athlete. She had a big nose that was somehow perfect and an adorable gap between her front teeth. She began by saying, “I never had it easy, growing up. I lived in a dirt-poor town in West Virginia with nine brothers and sisters. My dad died in the mines when I was a kid, but he gave me my first basketball for Christmas. Shooting hoops was the only way I could get out of the sticks and help out my poor mom. . . .”

The fathers were seated away from their daughters, on the other side of the room. It reminded me of the dances at school, girls on one side and boys on the other. Papa, who could rarely hide his emotions, had a constipated look on his face, though he stuck his tongue out when he caught me staring. If I hadn’t known there was a women’s basketball team that people cared about, then Papa probably didn’t know what basketball was. I was pretty sure the only thing he’d ever done for sport back in Kiev was shooting beer bottles in the woods—though even that pastime had been cut short after he shot his cousin in the foot. As Mallory Hazzard talked about how proud she was that her American team took the bronze in the 1992 Olympics, Papa was probably thinking this woman’s life hadn’t turned out so bad, that at least all her hard work had gotten her something she wanted.

“I’m so glad to give back to the community today and so honored to have the opportunity to speak to so many young, talented women. Maybe a few of you will be a part of the WNBA someday,” she said, and this even got a laugh. I laughed too, but not because I thought she was being cute. Though I didn’t know everything about America, I was pretty sure there weren’t too many basketball players with dads who worked at Goldman Sachs. We applauded, and then a swarm of girls got in line to get their picture taken with the celebrity and to get an autograph on the big posters of her face they had stacked up. I saw the “Shah-lin” girl up there, posing for a photo with the star, which was the first time I saw her smile, revealing big blue braces that made me almost feel sorry for her.

When the girl returned to my group, she said, “Oh my God. She was, like, so freaking nice. I can’t believe it . . . I’m never going to wash my hand again.” She clutched her rolled-up signed poster like it was a magic wand, but it didn’t impress me. I had stopped being scared of her once I realized “Shah-lin” was only Staten Island. While her minions cooed around her, the girl zeroed in on me, like she was wondering why I wasn’t tripping over myself to suck up to her too. But I turned away from her, toward the dads, and wondered how they didn’t suffocate after staring at screens all day in their thick, itchy suits. Garbage men were far better off, I decided; they wore comfy, loose-fitting clothes and were constantly on the move.

“Garbage men,” I said to the girl. “I hear they make a lot of money. How much do you think they make?”

Her eyes got huge. “Garbage men?” she said. “I mean, they probably make, like, minimum wage.”

“Sounds pretty good to me,” I said, backing away.

She narrowed her eyes, trying to figure out whether or not I was insulting her; I guess I wasn’t sure either. The other girls glared at me, like they had some personal biases against garbage men.

Just to cover her bases, the girl managed to say, “You know you, like, totally clash, right? Did you get dressed in the dark or what?”

“Brace face,” I managed, before fleeing the scene.

*

I wandered up and down the building for a while until I found the best view from the top floor. I looked down on the city, which was kind of gross but kind of beautiful too, with a few boats drifting into the harbor, not a cloud in the sky. Spring was all around us; the trees below had sprouted pink and white flowers. I peeked into the windows of the surrounding buildings, but all I saw were offices and more offices, and who knows what people did in any of them. One woman whose desk faced the window sat with her head in her hands. I promised myself I would never work in an office, especially not in a big room with endless desks and no barriers between them. I didn’t want to have any more awkward conversations in the elevator, so I took the stairs. After I went down about a dozen floors, I heard a strange noise below, and I followed it down to the next landing. It sounded like . . . crying? Choking? At first I didn’t think it was her—for a number of reasons, like her red eyes, but mostly because her gorgeous blond hair was up. She sat hugging her legs like a child, and her big leather purse was wide open, revealing scattered makeup, some crumpled paper, and a half-empty water bottle. It was Mallory Hazzard.

What do you say to somebody famous? I scratched the back of my knee and heard myself say, “I like your hair up.”

“Thanks,” she said, giving me a small smile. She didn’t seem all that surprised to see me. I guessed that when you were famous, people were always sneaking up on you.

“Do you usually wear it like that?”

“I do. Except when I have to do this . . . promotional bullshit. Sorry,” she said, patting the ground. I sat down without hesitating. It was the first interesting thing that had happened all day.

“Why do you have to do that stuff?” I said.

“Do you always ask so many questions?”

“You sound like my dad.”

“What’s your name, kid?”

“Oksana.”

She smiled. “Like Oksana Baiul. Nice. I’m Mal,” she said, reaching out to shake my hand. It was quiet in the stairwell but not in a bad way. Did no one take the stairs anymore? “Any particular reason you’re not doing the whole father–daughter thing?”

“It turns out it’s not really a father–daughter thing. They separate you from your dad all day. And all the girls are snobs. I don’t have anything to say to them.”

“Don’t let them get to you, kid,” she said, taking a sip of her water. I tied and untied my sneaker, waiting for her to say more. She sighed and said, “I do this nonsense for the money. To tell you the truth, I don’t have much going on. I make ends meet by dealing with assholes at places like—Goldman Sachs. No offense to your old man. I’m sure he’s a nice guy.”

“He is,” I said. I searched for a way to show her my dad was special, nothing like the fools in the elevator. “Back in Ukraine, he was kind of a big deal,” I began, and her eyes widened. Telling her he was the Math Olympics champion would mean nothing; I had to think outside the box. “He was in the Olympics,” I said.

“The Olympics?” she said. “For what?”

This gave me pause. I pictured Papa, who was broad-shouldered and somewhat tall but not exactly athletic-looking, and considered the options available to the members of my track team.

“He threw the javelin,” I told her. “He was a gold medalist in javelin.”

“Seriously?” she said. “Man, what I would have given for the gold. That’s beyond amazing. You should be incredibly proud of him.”

“Oh,” I said, “I am.”

She took a sip from her water bottle and I asked if I could have some too. She said, “That’s not water, honey.” I grabbed the bottle and took a swig anyway. It was sharp and bitter and left my stomach feeling queasy and warm. It must have been vodka. What my parents drank.

“Gross,” I said. “That’s even worse than coffee.”

“You don’t need that stuff yet,” she said.

Before I could answer, I heard a voice say, “Oksanachka? Is that you?”

“Oh shit,” Mallory Hazzard said. She snuck out of the stairwell, leaving me all alone. Papa was about ten floors down and he was coming up fast. I got up and pointlessly adjusted my shirt.

“Where did you go? I was worried you ran out to Battery Park. What’s the matter with you?”

“I got lost, Papa. I was just looking for the bathroom.”

“Does your father look like a complete fool to you?”

I shook my head and scuffed the stairs with my shoe.

We stood there looking at each other. I was deciding whether to tell him about the weird men who didn’t know who he was.

“It’s my fault.”

We jumped at the sound of Mallory Hazzard’s voice. She’d returned to the stairwell, looking radiant, like she hadn’t been crying or drinking at all. Her hair was down and her lips shone with freshly applied gloss. Papa was starstruck, stumbling backward, awed by her beauty—and her celebrity. It surrounded her like a force field. I didn’t know what she wanted to say, but I knew my heart would break if she incriminated herself to Papa.

I stepped in front of her and said, “It’s not her fault. I left because . . . the girls were being mean to me, and Mal made me feel better.”

But Papa barely heard me. He put a hand on the railing. “I am sorry that my daughter troubled you,” he said. “She likes to follow her own path. . . .”

“It’s no trouble,” she said, sounding completely not drunk. “She’s a good kid.”

Then Papa smiled shyly. He pulled out the notepad he kept in his back pocket. “For my daughter—would you mind?”

“Of course not,” she said, smiling as she signed her name. Then she grabbed a scrap of paper from her bag and handed it to my father. “Would you mind? I hear you were in the Olympics.”

Papa laughed. “Well, yes, but—”

“Your daughter told me all about it.”

He looked at me like I had just won the National Spelling Bee.

“Oh, nonsense,” he said, blushing, but he signed the paper anyway. “What a day! I thank you for giving me the greatest pleasure. My daughter will not forget this,” he said, shaking her hand.

“The pleasure is all mine,” she said, tucking the page into her bag.

I stepped back, into the corner. Those two had lost something that was very precious to them a long time ago, and I couldn’t help them get it back. There was an understanding between them, and I had no business being there. Why was this day taking so long to end? The three of us regarded the stairs winding above us. The building must have had fifty floors, at least. For a moment, as Papa cleared his throat, I had the terrifying fear that he would burst into song, though he hardly ever sang, he only listened. But they just stared at each other. Papa was not unhandsome—at least he was better-looking than the dead-eyed men he worked with. His sandy hair was thick and his blue eyes burned bright.

I couldn’t stand there any longer, so I mumbled something about needing the bathroom and left them alone. I found an empty hallway and I walked on my hands from one side to the other until I got dizzy and had to stop, watching the spots flickering and flickering before my eyes until the world returned to normal.

I found Papa at his desk a little while later, admiring his family photo; thankfully, it was time to go. When we left the office, I saw the elevator jerks standing outside with the other “Grrrrrl Leaders!” and their dads, who were not just older than my father but fatter and uglier too. Staten Island girl was beside her dad, a big dark-haired guy holding a paper cup of coffee, and just the sight of the bitter drink made me almost gag. Papa lit up with the security guards, and while they were making small talk, I wandered away, toward the elevator-jerk group. I marched toward the head creep as the girls raised their brows at me.

I said, “My dad is Ivan Konnikov, remember? You may not know who he is, but he was the Soviet Math Olympics champion once.” I stopped and took a breath and prepared to exaggerate a bit. “He had dinner with Brezhnev to celebrate his victory. People all over the Soviet Union knew my father’s name—he was famous!” I took a step back, catching my breath, embarrassed I had said so much.

The man said, “That’s wonderful, honey. We’ll look out for him.”

They gave me these amused smiles, like I was just some dumb kid they were humoring.

“Dinner with Brezhnev, huh?” one said, nodding. “Is that him?” We turned toward my father, standing with the guards. He smiled and lifted a hand, cigarette smoke rising above him.

“Who the heck is Brezhnev anyway?” Staten Island girl said.

“That’s him, all right,” I said, ignoring her. “Ivan Konnikov. Don’t you forget it.”

I made sure I was out of Papa’s line of sight, and then I lurched slightly toward the Staten Island coffee dad and made him cry out as he spilled some of the brown slush on his sleeve, though he had done nothing to me.

Papa put a hand on my shoulder when I returned to him. “My daughter,” he said to the guards, and they smiled at us as we walked away.

In the parking garage, we waited for someone to pull our new Passat around. Most of the other cars in there were not like ours—shiny BMWs, Lexuses, and Mercedeses—because Papa hadn’t had time to make real money yet. But that day, Papa could have been going home on a parade float. When we drove off, he had this dopey grin on his face and didn’t say anything for a while. He was so happy he didn’t even complain that we spent a good ten minutes behind a garbage truck, unable to see a thing. Squares of yellow light flicked on all over the city as the sun went down.

Papa said, “Today was nice, wasn’t it, Oksanka Banka? It’s not every day that you meet a star! This job has some advantages!”

“She was such a great role model,” I said, knowing this would add some pointless comfort to his day. I was getting pretty good at lying by then and wondered if it should alarm me. But why should I care if he couldn’t see who she really was—or if she really knew about his past?

“I found the woman to be quite inspiring,” Papa said.

He smiled again, as if all his pounding away at the computer and the hours he spent on the road that made him come home like a zombie Mama had to bring back to life were worth it after all. He turned on the classical music at a reasonable volume and drummed the wheel, staring off into a newly bright world. But after we pulled into the Holland Tunnel, I realized that we hadn’t gone back to Battery Park. I hadn’t wanted to go back there when he’d suggested it, but I suddenly felt I had missed out. I remembered the long-ago day when Papa and Mama and I had gone there for ice cream and asked a stranger to take pictures of us with the Statue of Liberty in the background. That was what we thought we did, anyway. After the photos were developed, we cracked up when we saw that we were blocking the statue in every shot. You could just barely make out her torch shining over our heads, hovering below the dirty clouds.

__________________________________

From Oksana, Behave! Used with permission of Spiegel & Grau. Copyright © 2019 by Maria Kuznetsova.




More Story
Lit Hub Weekly: March 11 - 15, 2019 “Each in her own way set out to adapt the Question of Love to her own bold and anarchic use”: Vivian Gornick on the romantic...