And somehow she turned me into this viperish, disapproving old maid when I’m barely twenty-nine. I don’t know how that happened!”
Pyotr said, “Not all scientists.”
“Not all scientists prefer blondes,” he said, and he flicked a glance at her suddenly from under those half-mast lids. Clearly he hadn’t registered a thing she’d said. It made her feel as if she’d gotten away with something.
“Hey,” she said. “Would you like the other half of my sandwich?”
“Thank you,” Pyotr said. He picked it up unhesitatingly and took a bite. A kind of knot stood out at the angle of his jaw when he chewed. “I think I will call you ‘Katya,’” he said with his mouth full.
Kate didn’t want to be called “Katya,” but since she never had to see him again she didn’t bother telling him so. “Oh, well, whatever,” she said carelessly.
He asked her, “Why Americans always begin inch by inch with what they say?”
“They must begin every sentence with ‘Oh . . .’ or ‘Well . . .’ or ‘Um . . .’ or ‘Anyhow . . .’ They start off with ‘So . . .’ when there has been no cause mentioned before it that would lead to any conclusion, and ‘I mean . . .’ when they have said nothing previous whose significance must be clarified. Right off from a silence they say that! ‘I mean . . .’ they begin. Why they do this?”
Kate said, “Oh, well, um . . . ,” drawing it out long and slow. For a second he didn’t get it, but then he gave a short bark of laughter. She had never heard him laugh before. It made her smile in spite of herself.
“For that matter,” she said, “why do you begin so abruptly? You just barge into your sentences straight out! ‘This and such,’ you begin. ‘That and such,’ blunt as a sledgehammer. So definite, so declarative. Everything you say sounds like a . . . governmental edict.”
“I see,” Pyotr said. Then, as if correcting himself, he said, “Oh, I see.”
Now she laughed too, a little. She took another bite of her sandwich, and he took a bite of his. After a minute she said, “Sometimes I think foreigners like sounding different. You know? Listen to a foreigner sing an American pop song, for instance, or tell a story where they have to put on a Southern drawl or a cowboy twang. They can do it perfectly, without a trace of an accent! They can mimic us exactly. That’s when you see that they don’t really want to talk like us at all. They’re proud they have an accent.”
“I am not proud,” Pyotr said. “I would like to not have accent.”
He was looking down at his sandwich as he said this— just holding it in both hands and gazing downward, with those lids of his veiling his eyes so she couldn’t tell what he was thinking. It occurred to her suddenly that he was thinking—that only his exterior self was flubbing his th sounds and not taking long enough between consonants, while inwardly he was formulating thoughts every bit as complicated and layered as her own.
Well, okay, a glaringly obvious fact. But still, somehow, a surprise. She felt a kind of rearrangement taking place in her mind—a little adjustment of vision.
She set the crust of her sandwich on her plate and wiped her hands on her jeans. “What will you do now?” she asked him.
He looked up. “Do?” he said. “About your visa.”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“I’m sorry I can’t help.”
“It is no problem,” he told her. “I say this sincerely. Is kind of you to offer consolation, but I am feeling that things will work out.”
She didn’t see how they could, but she decided to practice restraint and refrain from telling him so.
He finished his own sandwich, crust and all, and dusted off his palms. He made no move to leave, though. “You have very pretty yard,” he said, looking around.
“You like to garden?”
“Me too,” he said.
She said, “I was even thinking I’d be, oh, a botanist or something, before I dropped out of college.”
“Why you dropped out of college?”
But she had had enough by now. She saw he must sense she might be softening toward him; he was pressing his advantage. Abruptly, she stood up and said, “I’ll just see you to your car.”
He stood up too, looking surprised. “There is no need,” he told her.
But she started toward the front yard as if she hadn’t heard him, and after a moment he followed.
As they rounded the side of the house, the Mintzes’ minivan pulled into their driveway and Bunny fluttered a hand out the passenger-side window. She didn’t seem the least bit abashed that Kate had caught her riding with Edward. “Hey again, Pyoder,” she called.
Pyotr lifted an arm in her direction without responding, and Kate turned and headed back to her gardening. It really was a beautiful day, she realized. She was still mad as hell at her father, but she took some faint comfort in telling herself that at least the man he’d tried to palm off on her was not a complete heel.