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An exclusive excerpt from My Russian

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Not so far from this sad room, I have a husband and a handsome house. My silk robe hangs from a hook in the house. My gardening clogs rest by the door. My furious son goes in and out, his demi-wife in tow. In a drawer in the house, an itinerary tells them I fly back a week from today. The date is underlined in magenta.

The couple next door in 202--pastel knits, new running shoes--left this morning. They were here for a visit with a flailing daughter whose house is too small for overnight guests. They liked the motel better anyway because they could talk about her when they returned to the room each night. And the father could cough at alarming and luxurious length and no one would glance sideways, no one would prescribe. His wife stopped doing that decades ago.

They are the kind of old ones who seem to be melting -- all the corners growing rounded, the heads sagging forward, the body folding into itself in a whispery version of the way the lit-up monks folded themselves in on their brilliant oblivion. Such a thing to think! But they keep coming to me, these images, running across or behind the ordinary people I call to mind. At this moment, for instance, those old people sit on the edge of their bed, worrying over the restaurant receipt, their white hair beginning to smoke.

I drive a rented car through my town, wearing a big wig and one of three cheap pantsuits I bought in Athens the day before I left. Just like that, I’ve become a person who no longer fits the shape and color of my absent self, as it exists in the minds of my husband and son. They would look straight at this version of me--look closely--and not see me. I’m quite sure of that.

I am here to assess the situation. I am here, let’s say, to spy on my waiting life.

Yesterday, on the elevator, the couple from 202 introduced themselves as Mary-Doris and Ed and told me the outlines of the situation with the daughter. Mary-Doris also confided that she wouldn’t mind walking around town a bit--maybe look at the campus--but Ed wouldn’t do it. He has to drive everywhere. The rare times she gets him out walking, all he does is complain about the kinds of pets people keep, and the kinds of yards, and all the foreign cars. He worked for GM in Detroit for forty-five years and still wears his GM baseball cap. As she told me about him, he watched her mildly, hands in his pockets.

I knew, looking at him, that he was one of those people who have no intermediary zone between their social selves and their stark 4 a.m. selves. No place in their minds to keep company with themselves. You see them on planes. They try small-talk with the person next to them; it doesn’t work; they eventually pick up the airline magazine and flip through it like it’s something that fell off the back of a truck.

Mary-Doris said she had been a housekeeper for a family in Grosse Pointe for almost twenty years; that she had retired last year and what did I think they’d given her as a going-away present? Some stocks, I said. A gift certificate. A toaster oven. No, none of it. They had given her a papered bloodhound--worth a lot supposedly. But this dog ate so ravenously and was so nervy and big, that she’d sold it for seventy-five dollars when they moved to their retirement house in Arizona. Her husband rolled his eyes at this story. "They named her Madame Bliss," he scoffed. "We called her the Disposer."

This morning, I put on my taupe pantsuit and my new running shoes and my black wig, and I knocked at 202. I’d heard them moving around since six. I asked Mary-Doris if she wanted to go for a walk. She’d be good cover. She’d make me fully invisible.

We walked slowly south, away from the Calypso Motel and the interstate, and made our way into the university area with its big maples and handsome old colonials, Tudors, viney bungalows. There stood my big house on its corner, windows flashing in the morning sun, the sprinklers sending up neat watery fans. It looked serene and polished in that early light, as if it had never known trouble or had locked it away. The lawn was freshly mowed, and the clematis bloomed on the trellis. Behind the trellis stretched my landscaped yard, so carefully wild. My landscaper gone.

He’d done his work and he’d departed. And now it was up to us.

"There’s a pretty place," said Mary-Doris, squinting for a longer look at my house. "That trellis looks a little raggedy, but nothing a few minutes with the snippers couldn’t fix. Of course, these people hire the work done. Someone to design it all; someone to keep the weeds pulled." Then she told me about the rock garden where they lived now. And I told her I, too, hoped to have a garden someday, when I got my life back on track. She studied me. "I’m in the middle of a nightmare divorce back in Wichita," I improvised. "My cousin’s a lawyer and he’s going to make sure I don’t lose everything. Going to try, anyway. He lives here, my cousin. The Star of the family. I’ll meet with him this week, and he’ll see what he can do."

Mary-Doris sighed. "My daughter’s husband is a certified maniac," she said. "Tore the screen door off this time. She’s got an order. But a piece of paper doesn’t stop a man like Toby Hennepin."

"No," I agreed.

I steered her across the street from my big house to the park. We sat on a bench near the pigeon-speckled soldier. Mary-Doris wore new shoes, too. We rested, our blazing white feet stretched out before us.

I uncrossed my ankles, and it seemed a signal for my husband to emerge slowly from the side door of our house, the one to the deck. He wore his maroon jogging outfit. His silver walker seemed to pull him toward the patio chair. They got there, and he let himself down. He lifted the walker off to the side, then sat still, a hand on each knee. He could have been a parent, waiting for a naughty child. He could have been a criminal, waiting for the sentence.

"The man of the house," Mary-Doris said.

I felt utterly sheepish and wrong at that moment, like someone in a clown suit holding up a Seven-Eleven.

My husband’s name is Ren. Renton William Woodbridge. He’s a good man. Nothing about the worst of this story is anything he deserved.

"A car wreck would be my guess," said Mary-Doris. "He’s not that old," She sighed. "Sometimes the fatal mistake is to wear that belt. You try to be safe and buckle the thing--then the car takes the wrong kind of flip and there you are, hanging upside down with the blood supply cut off. For as long as it takes them to get to you, which is anybody’s guess depending on where you are." She rummaged in her purse for breath mints and extracted one for each of us. She sighed again. She wanted to go home to the desert.

The door swung open, and Elise Prentice, our next door neighbor, came out of my house. She carried a coffee pot and something on a plate. Her dog Roberta, a dilapidated schnauzer, pattered arthritically behind her.

"It’s eight o’clock in the morning," I said, shocked.

"Those people don’t go off to work like you or me," Mary-Doris explained. "They have no place they have to be at any given moment in time." She squinted over the tops of her glasses. "She’ll give him a nice breakfast and they’ll read the paper, and it could be ten, maybe noon, before they so much as lift a finger."

Elise wore her short-skirted navy suit, a checked scarf knotted buoyantly at the neck. Her wine-colored bob glowed in the sun. She set the plate down and handed my husband a cup of coffee, and brushed something off the shoulder of his sweatshirt. She is a pretty woman, with bright efficient movements. On the shuttle from the airport, I saw a woman who reminded me of Elise, as she would look in fifteen years. Even in repose, the woman on the bus kept a smile on her face, as if she had decided somewhere along the line that the purpose of smiling is to coax happiness, not respond to it.

Elise handed Ren a cup of coffee, then bent over and gave him a long, searching look. She said something. He nodded. Her schnauzer sat down hard and hoisted a leg to scratch an ear.

"What if she isn’t his wife?" I said.

Mary-Doris squinted at them. "Why wouldn’t she be his wife?"

Across the street, Elise rummaged in her purse and handed my husband a slip of paper. He nodded again. She touched his shoulder and walked smartly down he steps, her dog at her heels. Then, oddly, she stopped. And Roberta trotted over to the curve as if I’d called her. I slumped and looked away. The dog planted her legs and barked happily at us--a wigged, middle-aged woman and her stooped mother. My face grew hot. I was furious that I hadn’t thought of this possibility, and scrambled to think what I would do if the dog trotted over to say hi.

But dog and owner just stood there for a moment on the curb, and Elise waved apologetically.

"She appears to know us," Mary-Doris said dryly, waving back. We watched Elise guide the dog by her collar to the Saab parked in the driveway of the house next to ours. They both got in. Mary-Doris leaned forward in surprise.

"Why is she taking the neighbor’s car?" she demanded.

Ren watched the Saab hum down the street, then he put his hands back on his knees and leaned back into his chair. His graying curly hair made a halo around his head.

"You know," said Mary-Doris, lowering her voice. "These people are bored. I know. I’ve lived with them. They spend a lot of time looking for chances to feel dangerous. Right there? That’s an A-1 example. Something is not on the up-and-up over there at Mr. Car Wreck’s house."

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