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Authors: Lara Vapnyar

The Scent of Pine

BOOK: The Scent of Pine
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NE

I
t was never quiet in the woods at night. There would be a creepy rustle in the grass, or a branch would snap here or there, and that unceasing choir of cicadas. The smell was creepy too. It ought to have been some kind of romantic smell, something like pine sap heated by the sun during the day. There were plenty of pines, and it was a summer with a lot of warm, bright days, so couldn’t it have smelled nice at night? But it didn’t. The smell was moldy and damp and a little putrid. In daytime they could detect distinct undertones of rotten cabbage that came from the so-called Cabbage Creek, a small stream leading from the kitchen to the woods, where the kitchen guys sometimes dumped leftover cabbage soup. But at night it just smelled of decay.

Lena kept looking at their hands, bluish-white in the moonlight. Her fingers looked so thin and transparent in his. His were sturdy and warm. Yet, it was he who disappeared. Danya.

Or sometimes the story would come to her like this:

“Masturbation is very bad for boys,” Yanina Ivanovna had instructed the counselors, “bad and dangerous.” The head counselor went on listing the dangers: Memory loss. Impotence. Early death. Bad grades. She was a short beefy woman.

“Just tell them: ‘Hands over the blankets!’ ”

Lena couldn’t possibly tell the kids that. She would enter the boys’ bedroom, sit down on the edge of the windowsill, and begin a scary bedtime story in the most boring voice she could muster, developed specially for putting the kids to sleep. The room smelled like starched linen, toothpaste, and pee—some of the boys would hide their wet underpants under the mattresses. The boys in her unit were nine to eleven years old. They looked strangely alike in the soft light coming from the moon in the window and the yellow hall lamps. Shorn hair, large ears, dark skinny necks against the heavy white pillows. Eyes closed. Eyes wide open. Eyes squinted in a giggle. Eyes clouded by tears. Hands moving under the blankets seeking out comfort and peace.

As most of the eyes closed to the sound of Lena’s voice, she would walk from bed to bed moving their sticky little hands to a decent position above the blanket.

Or at other times the story would start with her friend Inka:

Inka had light brown hair streaked with pink and blue, and the longest fingernails Lena had ever seen. They shared a tiny counselors’ bedroom that always smelled of Inka’s face cream, her nail polish, and her hairspray. Sometimes Inka composed poems in her sleep. She would wake up in the middle of the night and yank on Lena’s arm, “Lenka, listen! Listen, listen.”

“What?” she would groan.

“Listen to my poem:

“ ‘Take your bread and take your spoon.
You’ll be really healthy then.’ ”

“That’s your poem?” Lena would ask.

“Yeah, I guess it sounded much better in my sleep. I might have lost some lines.”

“Inka, that’s just the camp’s call for dinner:”

‘Take your bread and take your spoon
They will serve the dinner soon.’ ”

“Oh, shit . . .” Inka would say, and, giggling, they would go back to sleep.

Lena’s train to the conference was scheduled to depart from Penn Station at 5:40
P.M.
on Wednesday. At 5:41 it started to move softly, gliding farther and farther through the tunnel. Lena stored her suitcase in the rack by the toilet and went to look for a good window seat, which wasn’t that difficult since the car was mostly empty. She picked one in the middle, sat down, and unbuttoned her coat. She needed to calm down, but it was impossible. Less than an hour ago, she had run into Inka, whom she hadn’t seen in almost ten years, ever since Lena and Vadim left Russia for the United States. People from the camp kept popping up here and there in the most unexpected places. Lena rarely traveled alone, but the last two times she had, she had bumped into one or another person from the camp. She wondered if anything similar ever happened to Vadim. He had never mentioned it. Sometimes Lena thought that it was she who made all these people materialize, because every time she found herself alone, she would think about the camp intensely and try to piece the story together, as if hoping that solving the mystery of what happened twenty years ago would help her solve the mystery of her present unhappiness. A ridiculous idea! It was nobody’s fault that she was unhappy.

“Ticket, ma’am!” Lena opened her eyes and handed her ticket to the conductor. The looming brownstones of Washington Heights were rushing past. How she hated to be called ma’am!

Lena put the ticket stub in her breast pocket, folded her arms behind her head, and closed her eyes.

Ten years ago, she had run into the head counselor, Yanina Ivanovna, in New York, exiting a Century 21 store with her Russian tour group. She clearly didn’t remember Lena, but she pretended to. And about five years ago in London, she saw one of the girls from her unit, Sveta Kozlova, at the Royal Albert Hall of all places. Lena remembered Sveta as a tall, pudgy nine-year-old; she would never have recognized her in this six-foot-two-inch beauty. But Sveta had run up to Lena and lifted her off the ground with her hug. Sveta said that she was married to one of the richest men in Russia, who was now exiled to London. She kept insisting they all have a drink after the concert, and that she had something amazing to show Lena, but Lena developed a bad headache and had to leave before the concert was over. She didn’t think she would enjoy the company of glamorous “new Russians” anyway, so she didn’t regret leaving.

And now Inka. Lena had lost touch with Inka after Lena and Vadim left Russia for the U.S. years ago, but in the last few years, news of Inka had been popping up here and there. Apparently, she had become a prominent human rights activist. Her name appeared in the
New Yorker,
her opinion in the
New York Times,
a glimpse of her on CNN, her deep, lulling voice on NPR. Who would have ever believed that Inka would become famous? And as a
human rights
activist? Lena was both jealous and proud. She had the urge to boast that Inka and she used to be friends, best friends, but there was nobody besides Vadim to boast to, and Vadim hated when she talked about her experiences at the camp.

And now she had seen Inka in New York. By pure chance. Friends gave Lena a lift to the city, where she was supposed to take a train to Saratoga Springs, and since she had an hour before her train, she decided to go to Macy’s. She was on the first floor smelling all those perfume sticks, getting nauseous from the stench, when she noticed a plump woman, with a long nose and messy blond hair standing at a counter nearby. The woman was wearing glasses, so it was hard to see her face, but something familiar about her carriage, about the way she moved her whole body rather than craning her neck when she tried to see something behind the counter, reminded Lena of Inka. “Inka!” she yelled, impulsively, and Inka turned, removed her glasses and squealed in delight. It turned out that Inka had come to the United States to give a series of lectures about Chechnya. When they hugged, it comforted Lena that Inka felt just as soft and pliable as she used to. They didn’t have very much time to catch up, though. Lena’s train was leaving in half an hour, and this was Inka’s last weekend in the U.S., so they just exchanged quick essential information. Lena was surprised to learn that Inka was about to end her third marriage and Inka was even more surprised that Lena was still married to Vadim. Awkwardly, as if to make up for it, Lena began to gush about her two sons, Misha and Borya, but Inka didn’t have much to add to that part of the conversation. She seemed happy to see Lena, but there was no real warmth. Inka kept fiddling with her phone, checking her messages, texting. Her long nails tapped against the keys with annoying speed. Lena asked if Inka stayed in touch with anybody else from the camp. Inka shook her head. She was too busy to keep in touch, but Sveta Kozlova had visited her recently in Moscow. “Remember Brunhilde, that fat monster? She is married to some tycoon and lives in London. We talked about how you had a secret admirer at the camp,” Inka said, winking at Lena wickedly, but insisted the story was too long to tell then. She promised to tell Lena more in an email. They exchanged email addresses and phone numbers, and swore that this time they would stay in touch for sure, though Lena didn’t think either of them really believed it.

Lena raised her arms above her head and stretched against the train seat. It was much more fun to think about Inka than about this stupid conference, which was making her nervous. She used to love train travel. The slight tremor in her knees, the vibration of the train, used to give her that bubbly feeling that something exciting was in store for her. These days though, premonitions like that only brought on panic. This morning, as she was boarding the bus to New York, she felt only a momentary sensation of escape, followed by exhaustion and disappointment.

She was annoyed with Inka. Her condescending “Oh!” when Lena said that she worked at a community college, her tapping fingers, but most of all her surprise that Lena was still married to Vadim. Lena used to be proud of their longevity, but recently the thought that she might stay with him forever filled her with dread. The feeling was especially intense on vacations and weekends, when they were thrown together for long stretches of time, with few distractions except their two boys, until everything—every single little thing that one of them said or did—annoyed the other to the point of violence. “Those are piling up, aren’t they?” Vadim said to her last weekend, gesturing to the rather tall pile of magazines on her nightstand. He asked her to put them away. She didn’t. He walked up to her nightstand and pulled a magazine from the bottom of the pile so that all the other magazines fell to the floor. She grabbed one of them and threw it at him. She hit him on the shoulder. It wasn’t that bad, but the fact that she could even think of physically hurting him was sickening. Still, Inka couldn’t have possibly guessed that she’d gotten to that point. So what right did Inka have to be so surprised? But then Lena was pretty sure Inka had never liked her husband.

Lena checked her watch: Vadim and the kids must be still at the airport waiting for their flight to San Diego. She dialed the number. Misha and Borya sounded very excited, as did Vadim—apparently he let them try all those crazy massage chairs at Brookstone. Did she catch a little bit of glee in his description of how much fun they were having without her or was she just being paranoid? She felt a pang of guilt for not going with them. But they were happy, they were fine, and she was just going to a conference, which was supposed to advance her career. Why then did it feel as if she was running away?

The conductor announced the Tarrytown stop and the train came to a halt. An old woman with a gleaming leather suitcase climbed in, waddled to her seat, asked a young man to hoist the suitcase up, sat down, thanked the young man, and immediately started a lively conversation with him. Lena felt pathetic for sitting there talking to herself. She looked in her bag. It held a book, an apple, and her paper for the conference. She took out the paper, but the thought of reading it made her nervous. The conference was a big multidisciplinary event, “The Aesthetics of Oppression.” A lot of big names. Historians. Writers. Architects. Even a composer who had written an opera based on the Kinsey Reports. Lena’s talk, titled “Sex Education in the Former Soviet Union,” had been added at the last moment, apparently after somebody else had canceled. Secretly, Lena was worried that neither she—a mere adjunct at a community college—nor her work was important enough. Vadim’s reaction when she got the invitation only fed her doubts. He suggested that she had to have been a replacement. “You don’t seriously believe that they’d want you?” he said. He claimed he was only providing perspective, protecting her from disappointment. And he did believe that he was acting in her best interest, she knew that. It was just that in this uncertain period in her life, when she felt like such a failure, the last thing she needed was sober perspective. The format of the talk seemed especially frightening. She would have to sit onstage with a moderator and answer her questions. Lena would have preferred a panel, so that other panelists could share the burden. Nervously, she reached into her bag for the apple but realized that she didn’t want it.

BOOK: The Scent of Pine
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