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The Third Component: Part II, Chapter 24

Alison Christy 5 April 2009

www.lablit.com/article/486

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

Later she imagines taking her little girl to the lab, showing her how to hold a pipette, explaining how Mommy performs a genetic screen of yeast cells

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of The Third Component, a novel by Alison Christy: a scientist at loose ends after earning her PhD sets off to Russia in search of a missing piece of her family's past.

Chapter 24

Molting Affects Metabolic Rate in Northward-Migrating Animals

Anna calls her mother from the phone in the hotel room – she sounds relieved. Pushkin Square was on the news in America, she says, and she was worried that Anna was hurt or scared or couldn’t get out of Moscow because of increased security. She asks if Anna is having a good time, if she needs more money, and if she’s worn the windbreaker.

“Everything’s fine,” Anna says. “Don’t worry.”

And then her mother says, “Honey? John called me.” She pauses. “He said… he didn’t know how to reach you. He said he sent you an e-mail, but I told him you weren’t checking your e-mail.” She tells her that he left his number, in case Anna had forgotten it, and asked her to have Anna call him.

Anna tells her mother she loves her, and hangs up, and then she lifts the receiver again; she could do it right now, just dial his number and talk to him. It must have been urgent, if he called her mother. She imagines him dialing, overwhelmed by his need for her, realizing suddenly that he can’t live without her, willing to marry her, to do anything she wants, if that’s what it takes to keep her with him.

But she shouldn’t think about that. It might not even be about their relationship, it might be something simpler, like a confusion about some protocol in the lab, or the location of some reagent in the cold room. Something she could answer quickly and then move on.

She puts the receiver back on its cradle. She can’t imagine telling him everything that has happened, all the stupid choices she has made, all her irrational conclusions. She doesn’t want to hear the contempt in his voice, his assumption that he would have been safer and more sensible than she had been. Although probably, he wouldn’t even ask about her trip; he would be so caught up in whatever seemed so urgent that it wouldn’t even occur to him that other things might be important to her right now. That’s the way he was; it was part of what made him so brilliant.

And if he did want to talk about them, if that was his message, she didn’t know what she would say. Now that she is miles away, phone in hand, she isn’t sure she wants the things she said she wanted: marriage, a tenured faculty position, bright-eyed children and a picket fence. Maybe she knew, even back then, that John was temporary; maybe she had been looking for an excuse to end it. Maybe marry-me-or-I’m-leaving was just the most successful tantrum she could throw at the time.

The thought makes her cringe: she couldn’t be so passive-aggressive, so manipulative. She thought she wanted those things, she really did; but how could she know whether she really wanted them or not? Her eyes flit to the books stacked on the bedside table. Maybe she has just realized that there is something better out there.

She picks up the phone again, but instead of calling John she calls Milda, who picks up almost as soon as the phone rings and shrieks “Anna!” into the receiver.

But she doesn’t ask why Anna called, or even how her trip is going, because she has news of her own: she just found out her baby is a girl – finally, a girl! – and she wants to name her Laima, in honor of Anna’s quest and in honor of their grandmother. Milda is so excited that Anna doesn’t know what to say. Of course you can’t reserve a name for your imaginary future child, especially when you have no prospects for generating that child, and even if she did tell Milda, years and years ago, that she had always wanted to name her daughter Laima, she can’t blame Milda for forgetting, or for thinking that her real, live children take precedence over Anna’s potential offspring.

But she has spent so much time with her little Laima, in her mind. Even in high school she used to imagine bringing her daughter to the folksong festivals and teaching her the words to all the songs. Later she saw herself taking the little girl to the lab, showing her how to hold a pipette, explaining to her how Mommy performs a genetic screen of yeast cells, chiding her for touching some expensive piece of equipment. On the Trans-Siberian train, when she imagined herself traveling with Michael Perch, the baby she imagined in her belly was always her daughter Laima. Of course it’s crazy; she’s single, with no prospects for procreation, and even if she had a baby it could be a boy. But she is nonetheless irrationally angry, as though Milda has maliciously tried to ruin her relationship with her future daughter.

Years ago, when Anna reminded her sister of that evening when their mother left the dinner table, Milda barely remembered the dinner, and what she did remember was completely different – even the color of the placemats was wrong.

Sometimes it feels like she and her sister are strangers who lived completely different childhoods in the same house.

“Everything’s great here,” Anna says, trying to sound cheerful, trying to keep the bitterness from her voice. “You’re really missing out.”

And again she is left looking at the silent phone, wondering if she should call John.

**********

In her Rigan summer, when she was freshly out of college and living with Milda on Valdemara Street, she spent her days wandering through the Old Town or sunning on Milda’s balcony while Milda worked, nine-to-five, for a European consulting firm. Milda had been assigned to a project alongside a Latvian who had lived in Riga all his life: a real Latvian, they told her. They needed, her bosses said, a combination of her experience and knowledge and his understanding of the needs of the country.

“The needs of the country?” she said to Anna. “Like I don’t understand what Latvia needs?”

The man she was working with liked to goad Milda, speaking to her in English even though she spoke Latvian well, explaining to her that his country didn’t need their diaspora community to move back in and patch everything up, singing “American woman, stay away from me” under his breath while they worked, asking her what made her Latvian anyway. When she got home from work Milda kicked her shoes off, banging them loudly against the wall, and opened a bottle of wine, preparing to rage all evening about this irritating unwashed coworker who would never leave her alone.

At the time, Anna told Milda to be understanding, that the coworker was just worried that he would lose his job to a foreigner – but really she was just being argumentative, and she could have just as easily taken Milda’s side. She wonders now which of them should be considered the real Latvian: Milda, who grew up surrounded by Latvian folksongs and costumes and culture, or the coworker, who grew up in a corrupted, Soviet Latvia. Was the real Latvia a preserved, remembered Latvia, or an occupied Latvia? And by extrapolation, if Anna is a different person now than she was five years ago (and she feels that she is), and if she feels that John is part of that change (and she does), then the unoccupied Anna of five years ago must be the realer Anna: has she become less herself? Or have the last five years of occupation brought her closer to the real Anna – the Anna she was meant to be?

When Milda decided to marry Janis, her coworker, Anna was shocked. She reminded her sister that she had spent an entire summer violently hating him. “I know,” Milda said with a laugh. “He drove me crazy. I just couldn’t get him out of my head.”

**********

Anna is supposed to meet Frank at noon, at a kiosk by the river where they sell meat grilled on skewers. As she walks to the kiosk, she passes a little old woman rocking on her knees on the sidewalk, so wrinkled and hunched as to seem almost inhuman. Her head is covered with a dark scarf, and the little saucer in front of her holds about twenty cents worth of dull rubles. Beside the saucer is an ikon: Mary and child.

Anna didn’t know that old people could look so old, like ancient crumpled paper about to disintegrate and blow away in the wind. The kneeling, the rocking – it must be a religious thing, she thinks at first, an exercise in humility. And then she blushes, shocked by her own naivety: this was probably someone’s grandmother, someone who had worked all her life with the expectation that the communist state would take care of her in her old age, and who had been left to beg for rubles on the street.

She finds the change in her pocket and drops it all into the saucer without stopping, walking on quickly without looking back. Her starving grandmother ate pine needles, like the pine nuts and cedar oil she bought in the gift shop at the Hotel Sibir to tuck into the crevices of her suitcase.

She keeps walking, pulling her suitcase behind her, trying to ignore the shameful feeling in her stomach, because as she was packing her damp socks away in her duffel bag and checking under the bed for any stray things she might have left behind she suddenly pulled the windbreaker out of her bag and threw it back onto the bed in the hotel. Maybe the cleaning staff would take it, she thought, and they’d give it to someone who wanted it, someone who could use it.

And then, as she was compressing her suitcase to pull the zipper closed, she opened it back up and took out the other things she knew she wouldn’t need: the heavy sweater, the red dress, the pants she wore at her talk, the impractical high heels. She dumped them on the bed beside the windbreaker. They were some of her favorite clothes, and she’d probably regret losing them once she was back in America, but right then she didn’t care: she wanted to slough it all off and take only the things that were necessary for survival. Like she was girding her loins for the journey ahead.

Now she feels extravagant and spoiled, to have brought such expensive things and to have thrown them off just as easily.

But she is still glad they are gone. The rolling suitcase bounces lightly along the sidewalk behind her.

{Continued next week}