A concrete bench stood at the rear of the backyard, mottled and pitted and greenish. Nobody ever sat on it, but today, instead of eating in the kitchen, Kate decided to take her sandwich out there. She settled at one end of the bench with her sandwich plate beside her, and she tipped her head back to stare up into the tree above her. A robin was going crazy on one of the lower branches, hopping about and showering her with agitated chink-chink sounds. Maybe it had a nest up there, although she couldn’t see one. And in the giant oak across the alley, two other birds, invisible, seemed to be having a conversation. “Dewey? Dewey? Dewey?” one was saying, and the other said, “Hugh! Hugh! Hugh!” Kate couldn’t tell whether the second bird was greeting the first one or setting him straight.
After she’d finished gardening she would assemble her mash ingredients in the Crock-Pot, and then she would change all the beds and start a sheet wash.
And after that, what?
She didn’t have any friends anymore. They had all moved on in their lives—graduated from college, found jobs in distant cities and even married, some of them. At Christmas they might come back to Baltimore for a visit, but they had stopped phoning her, for the most part. What would they find to talk about? The only time she got a text nowadays was when Bunny was being kept after school and needed a ride home.
Dewey and Hugh had gone quiet now, and the robin had flown away. Kate pretended to herself that the robin had decided she could be trusted. She took a bite of her sandwich and gazed studiously at a nearby cluster of hyacinths to demonstrate that she had no interest in robbing his stupid nest. The tiers of curly white blooms reminded her of the white paper frills on lamb chops.
She stopped chewing.
Pyotr was coming out the back door; he was descending the back steps. He wore his lab coat today, and it flapped open over his T-shirt as he walked toward her across the grass.
She couldn’t believe it. She could not believe that he would have the nerve.
“How’d you get into the house?” she demanded as soon as he was close enough.
“Front door was standing wide,” he said.
Damn Bunny to hell.
He stopped when he reached her and stood looking down at her. At least he had the good grace not to attempt any chitchat.
She couldn’t invent a reason for his being there. Surely he must see that she wanted nothing to do with him, even if for some reason her father hadn’t yet told him so. And her father had told him, she sensed. The other times she’d seen Pyotr, he had arrived in front of her with (it struck her in retrospect) a little bounce, a “Here-I-am!” air, but today he was solemn, chastened, and he held himself with an almost military erectness.
“What do you want?” she asked him.
“I came to offer apology.”
“I fear Dr. Battista and I have offended you.”
She felt both gratified and humiliated to know that he comprehended this.
“Was inconsiderate of us to ask you to deceive your government,” he said. “I think Americans feel guilt about such things.”
“It wasn’t just inconsiderate,” she said. “It was piggish and self-centered and insulting and . . . despicable.”
“Aha! A shrew.”
“Where?” she asked, and she spun around to look toward the shrubbery behind her.
He laughed. “Very comical,” he told her.
She turned back to find him smiling down at her, rocking from heel to toe with his hands in his pockets. Apparently he imagined that they were on good terms now. She picked up her sandwich and took a large, defiant bite and started chewing. He just went on smiling at her. He seemed to have all the time in the world.
“You realize you could be arrested,” she told him once she’d swallowed. “It’s a criminal offense to marry somebody for a green card.”
He didn’t look very concerned.
“But I accept your apology,” she said. “So. See you around.”
Not that she had any intention of seeing him ever again.
He let out a long breath and took his hands from his pockets and stepped over to sit beside her on the bench. This was unexpected. Her plate sat between them and she feared for its safety, but if she picked it up he might feel encouraged to move closer. She let it be.
“Was a foolish notion anyhow,” he said, speaking to the lawn in general. “It is evident you could choose any husband you want. You are very independent girl.”
“You are very independent woman and you have the hair that avoids beauty parlors and you resemble dancer.”
“Let’s not go overboard,” Kate said.
“Resemble flamingo dancer,” he said.
“Oh,” she said. “Flamenco.”
Stomping the floorboards. Made sense.
“Okay, Pyotr,” she said. “Thanks for stopping by.”
“You are only person I know who pronounces my name right,” he said sadly.
She took another bite from her sandwich and chewed it, staring straight out across the lawn now the same way he was doing. But she couldn’t help feeling a little stab of sympathy.
“And Dr. Battista!” he said, turning to her suddenly. “Why your name for Dr. Battista is ‘Father’ but your sister calls him ‘Papa’?”
“‘Father’ is what he told us to call him,” she said. “But you know our Bunnikins.”
“Ah,” he said.
“While we’re on the subject,” she said, “why do you call him ‘Dr. Battista’ when he calls you ‘Pyotr’?”
“I could never call him ‘Louis,’” Pyotr said in a shocked tone. (“Loov-wiss,” he made it sound like.) “He is too illustrious.”
“In my country he is. I had for many years been hearing about him. When I announced that I am leaving to assist him, there became a great outcry in my institute.”
“Is that a fact,” Kate said.
“You did not know his reputation? Ha! Is like a proverb we have: ‘Man who is respected in rest of the world is not—’ ”
“Right; I get your gist,” Kate said hastily.
“Is true he is sometimes oligarch, but I have observed other men so important act much worse. He does not ever shout! And see how he tolerates your sister.”
“She is empty-head, yes? You know this.”
“Airhead,” Kate said. “No kidding.”
She felt filled with a certain airiness herself, all at once. She started smiling.
“She is puffing her hair and blinking her eyes and abandoning animal proteins. And he does not point it out to her. This is very nice of him.”
“I don’t think he’s being nice,” Kate said. “I think he’s being predictable. You see it all the time: those mad-genius scientists who go gaga over dumb blondes, the ditzier the better. It’s practically a cliché. And naturally the blondes are crazy about them; a lot of women are. You should get a load of my father at my aunt Thelma’s Christmas parties! All these women flocking around him because they think he’s so unreadable and unreachable and mysterious. They think that they’re the ones who might finally crack his code.”
There was a certain liberation in talking to a man who didn’t have a full grasp of English. She could tell him anything and half of it would fly right past him, especially if the words came tumbling out fast enough. “I don’t know how Bunny got this way,” she told him. “When she was born I more or less thought she was my own; I was at that age when kids like tending babies. And she looked up to me so when she was a little girl; she tried to act like me and talk like me, and I was the only one who could comfort her when she was crying. But after she reached her teens she kind of, I don’t know, left me behind. She changed into this whole other person, this social person, I don’t know; this social, outgoing person.
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.
From VINEGAR GIRL. Used with permission of Hogarth Shakespeare. Copyright © 2016 by Anne Tyler.