The Lady With the Lapdog: Finding the subtext at the bottom of a bottle of vodka

It is the winter of 2010 and my friends, Yury Urnov and Tania Karpekina, are amused by all this fuss over the snow blanketing D.C., Maryland, Virginia. That’s not how they roll in Russia.

Yury, who speaks English beautifully, waves his hand dismissively at the blizzard that has hit us here in Baltimore. “Certainly, yes, there is a lot of snow,” he concedes, “but why must everything come to a stop?” Yury is frustrated because he is a director, rehearsing a play at a nearby theater—but rehearsals keep getting canceled. The show is slated to open in a week. “Certainly it will not be ready if the actors cannot rehearse.”

My husband, also a director, explains to him this American expression: “The show must go on.”

“Humph!” Yury says and stands up from our dinner table. He cannot open a show if the actors are not ready. What is the point? There is a Russian custom, he explains to us: “If a show is not ready—” Shrug. “—it does not open.” He reaches into his breast pocket for one of the half-dozen hand-rolled cigarettes he carries there. Then he steps out onto the back deck of our rowhouse, sweeping the mounds of snow off a lawn chair, patting his bare hands around in the heap of powder that has accumulated on the table until he locates the buried ashtray where he left it half an hour ago. He turns up the collar of his shirt, hunkering his bulk against the wind, and lights up. From the kitchen window, he is visible from behind, his long ponytail tugged horizontal by the gale, his form silhouetted by the alley’s yellow streetlight shuddering to illuminate the blizzard. He exhales and the smoke is snatched away on a gust.

Inside, at the kitchen table, we eat a liver-and-buckwheat dish that Yury and Tania have brought over—along with white wine and vodka. We have been having dinner with them once every week or two since they moved here and have learned that Yury spaces his vodka shots with a glass of water or Coke, easily tosses back two shots for every one of ours, eats well while he drinks. Tonight, we have toasted the meal. We have toasted the weather. We have toasted our health. And now, when Yury steps back in, we toast Chekhov.

Chekhov, instead of Turgenev, because there was no agreement there.

“Turgenev is not even Russian!” Yury insists, referring to the writer’s strong European influences. “He is practically French, certainly.”

“Absurd!” my husband insists—and they both laugh, deep in their glasses. “Still, you must admit ‘A Month in the Country’ is brilliant.”

“All manners and very superficial,” Yury counters. “All the action takes place on the surface.”

“OK,” my husband concedes. “But beneath that, the subtext is very rich.”

“You think?” Yury shakes his head sadly. “Turgenev doesn’t understand Russia.”

This is not a point an American can argue. What is Turgenev’s understanding of Russia? What is Yury’s? What is ours? My mind takes a vodka-induced detour to the limited pictures we grew up with—long bread lines of Russians, dour and dark and haggard, bundled against the snow and impending political doom.

Yury next explains the cultural origins of a meat and pickle salad we are eating, how in the Soviet Union this would have been canned meat “which is not as bad as it sounds” and how when you are eating this particular chopped salad, it is automatically a party of sorts. There was another dish they wanted to bring over as well but they couldn’t find the right ingredients.

Tania says something to Yury in Russian and he translates. “She says she tried to buy the ingredients at Safeway but it was crazy. Everyone was buying milk and eggs and everything else they could find—and the shelves were practically empty.” In Russia, he explains, they buy sugar, salt, and matches when a storm approaches. “That is enough.” Here, the grocery store was a mob scene yesterday. “My God!” Yury says, “the lines at the Safeway were too much!”

I like the idea of Tania stomping out of Safeway in a snit, thinking about the stories she will bring back to Russia of these dour, haggard Americans with their long milk-and-egg lines, bundled against the weather and impending economic doom.

Yury stands up, patting his chest pocket. He steps back out onto the deck for a smoke, letting our snow-covered dog in as he exits. “You are not going to keep me company?” he asks her. She merely shakes a blizzard of snow at his feet and makes a beeline for her spot near the heater.

We sit with Tania who, having been in the country only eight months at this point, speaks English haltingly. She only speaks for herself when her back is up against the wall; this happens every half-hour for five minutes while Yury steps outside to smoke. Tania was an actress in Russia and had never been to the United States until she married Yury and they moved here for his job. She is beautiful with dark hair pixie-framed around a pale face and carefully arched eyebrows that give her a permanent expression of surprised curiosity. She valiantly searches the air with her hands to find words for the questions we fire at her in these moments. “How was the snow where you lived? Was it cold? What did they do all winter when it was too cold to go outside?” She names the town she grew up in and we pull out an atlas nestled among the cookbooks on the kitchen shelves so she can point directly to it. Following the lines of latitude, we learn that it is on a level with Canada’s Northwest Territories. “Minus 20, 20, 28!” she says, describing the average winter temperature. My husband and I struggle to do the math—no mean feat after four shots of vodka. “Is that minus 20 Fahrenheit?” we wonder to each other, aghast. As to what they do with themselves all winter when it is so frigid outside, Tania shrugs and spreads her hands out at the food and vodka and company arrayed before us. “This!” she says.

Yury re-enters on the end of this tale, stomping the snow off his shoes and shaking his head—like the dog—to get rid of the flakes coating his hair. “When I first arrived to direct a show in Siberia once,” he tells us, “the snow was so deep it was confusing.” He settles back down in his chair next to Tania who leans away from him as he leans in to put his arm around her—maybe because he is wet and cold, maybe not. “I didn’t understand why none of the houses had doors. They had only windows. And then, people would emerge from these holes in the ground. Where had they come from?” He laughs, explaining that the snow had accumulated to the second floor of most houses. People simply built snow steps up as much as 12 feet from their buried front doors and would appear to step up right out of the ground. Everyone simply adjusted. “Nothing stopped,” he says. “Cars just drive on higher ice roads, that is all. Life goes on, certainly, just on a different surface.”

Surface and subtext, I think. But this is, or is not, “very Russian?”

“Surface?” Tania asks. She is shy and hesitant about speaking English but her comprehension is decent. Still, this word has thrown her.

My husband takes a stab. “Surface, like surface of ice on a pond.” He runs his hand in a horizontal line through the warm air of the kitchen. “And then underneath something different. Water.” He makes a flowing-wave gesture, looking like drunk Hawaiian hula dancer.

Tania nods her head agreeably, but then turns to Yury with a question in her eyes. He rattles off a few words of Russian and she nods. “Ahh, yes,” and then repeats the word, “surface,” with new firmness, comprehension.

Meanwhile, as my husband fumbled through his weird explanation, Yury had been collecting the shot glasses in a row in front of him. He now refills each from the bottle of Kutskova vodka and passes them around the table.

I study Yury trying to decide if I should have another shot. There are not yet two of him, a solid round presence and his faint ghost next to him, as there have been on other occasions when I have followed him down this path, but he is starting to blur a bit about the edges. I hesitate.

He scolds. “Karen, pick up your glass, we are toasting.”

I pick up my glass. “What are we toasting?”

“The surface,” he says.

“How about the subtext?” I suggest.

He shrugs agreeably. “To the subtext!”

We all drink. And the glasses one by one clink down on the enamel kitchen table. Between their resonating sounds, I hear the sounds of my 12-year-old son’s audio book, “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” filtering down from his bedroom on the third floor. What time is it? I wonder vaguely, thinking it must be at least 1 a.m. Surely Zack is asleep? I should run upstairs to turn off Sherlock Holmes whose clipped British accent interrupts my fragile train of thought—and surely interrupts Zack’s peaceful slumbers—but the effort of climbing all those stairs seems too much. Instead, I try to think about the differences between Turgenev and Chekhov and the one Chekhov story that keeps pushing its way into my thoughts is “The Lady With the Lapdog.” And this small, random section of it. In this scene, Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov and the beautiful Anna Sergeevna are sitting on a bench on a cliff, looking down at the sea which is partially obscured by white clouds and mist. Gurov has been thinking about how the sea will go on century after century with the same dull indifference to the life and death of each of us—but he says nothing aloud. “There is dew on the grass,” his lover Anna Sergeevna finally says, or something along those lines. From this I flash to Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country” where a married woman, Natalya Petrovna, also having an affair, meets her son’s unsuspecting tutor in the greenhouse. She gushes something like “Yes, yes, I love you . . . I have loved you from the very day you arrived . . . What is the use of affectation and duplicity when everything is known; why pretend when there is no one to deceive. . . . But good-bye, we were not destined to know one another.” And I think, yes, it is true that characters in Turgenev are more likely to say what they think, that perhaps the plot does unfold on the surface—but they mostly don’t know what they think, and so that becomes interesting. Their speech is a gush of high emotions that may or may not fit the more muted circumstances.

Yury gets up to go outside for a smoke and the blast of cold air as he opens the back door brings me back to the moment. I have too many plots going on in my head, lap dogs and love affairs and Baskerville hounds. I focus for a moment on Tania and my husband. They are talking about a new Russian playwright, Maksym Kurochkin, that they are keen on. My husband is directing one of Kurochkin’s newly translated plays called “Vodka, Fucking, Television.” In this play, an author who has writer’s block has made a Faustian promise to give up one of his three vices—vodka, fucking, or television—if the muses will restore his glorious ability to create. The three vices are actually personified characters in the play and as they fight for the writer’s soul, they sell themselves, of course, as virtues. (Lithe and slinky Sex is an obvious temptress, but a slatternly Vodka who amuses the writer with her seductive delusions and a scolding Television who lures him with the promise of mindless oblivion also have their appeal.) Tania and my husband are in agreement, both of them could let vodka and television go easily enough. But Yury, Tania implies, has a more complicated relationship with the three. For one thing, we know he is a news junkie, watching TV and listening to radio whenever he can. I have seen him at all hours of the night through the window, across the alley just past the fire escape that divides our two buildings, hunkered down over his laptop on the kitchen table listening to Ecko Moscow, the independent Russian radio broadcast he favors. “And vodka?” Tania laughs, reaching down to the floor beside Yury’s seat where he likes to keep the vodka handy, as the official pourer. She holds the nearly empty bottle aloft.

“Well, all of them help you forget,” my husband says. “And I can see the appeal in that.”

“Appeal in that?” Tania repeats, perplexed by the phrase.

“I see why someone would like that,” he recasts.

“Ahh,” she says. “You like...forgetting?”

“Yes,” he says.

She turns to me. “Karen?”

“No,” I say. “I do too much forgetting already.” She laughs. I consider whether the appeal of, say, vodka, is really the forgetting or whether it just allows the remembering of something different, revealing tangents of thoughts that are usually kept in tighter check. As my husband and Tania talk, my mind drifts to a conversation I had earlier in the day as I was driving with Zack.

“How come the way you write is different from the way you talk?” he asked me at one point, out of the blue, as far as I could tell.

“What do you mean? You mean me, specifically, or one in general?”

“You, in particular.” He admitted he had been reading an essay I was working on about memory loss—how it seems I can remember nothing these days—because he saw it on the desktop of my computer. The essay didn’t impress him. “It doesn’t really sound like the way you talk.”

I considered this. “I guess I was after something different. I wasn’t really trying to capture the way you talk but more, the way you think, like the way your thoughts are in your head.”

“You mean, like those voices you hear in your head that you don’t really necessarily say?”

“Mm hmm.” I was concentrating, trying to make a left turn then maneuver over a lane to make the next right.

“Mine speak in a Russian accent,” he said.

“Really?” I said, laughing. “You mean your conscience?” I pictured Jiminy Cricket, a cheerful, moral little fellow in a top hat sitting on Zack’s shoulder, chiding with a Russian accent.

“No, I mean the ones telling me ‘Burn the house, kill the leprechauns.’”

I glanced over at him.

“I’m joking,” he said.

“Are those voices the ones that told you to shout out ‘penis’ in the middle of class today?” I asked. I’d been waiting to bring this up. His teacher had emailed me earlier that afternoon, explaining why he had been sent to the principal’s office.

“No, that voice was Luis,” he said, referring to his friend and frequent co-conspirator. “He dared me.”

“Oh.”

“No, I mean the ones that are like, when you’re sitting somewhere and you glance at the clock and the voice in your head says, ‘Oh crap! I’m late.’ Or you’re wandering around the room saying to yourself, ‘Where did I leave my cell phone?’”

“Those voices have a Russian accent?”

“Well, maybe it’s actually more German. Like the ‘W’s make a ‘V’ sound. Like, ‘Vy did I leave my vindow open?’” He considered this, and then wavered. “No, actually I think they are more Russian.” He was silent for a few moments, thinking, and I concentrated on driving. It was dusk, hard to see. The wind was fierce, buffeting our boxy SUV and the snow was starting to really whip down. “Actually, you know what they sound like?” he said suddenly. He loved the word actually. “They sound like the hedgehog in that cartoon Yury showed us”—and he began to recount the story of “Hedgehog in the Fog.”

I remembered the Russian Animated Film Festival we attended with Zack a few months back. Yury had curated the series at Towson where he and my husband teach. Zack had been particularly struck by a strange 1975 short directed by a Russian named Yuri Norstein. As I crawled through the snow-obscured streets of East Baltimore in third gear, I thought about that cartoon, in which this round, guileless little Hedgehog embarks on his weekly walk through the woods to meet his friend, Bear, so that they can sit by the campfire and count the stars together. But the night is foggy, spooky, and as Hedgehog approaches a valley filled with dense mist, he thinks he spies a white horse below. There is very little dialogue in the film, but I remember it because it was provocative—and oddly translated. Hedgehog, upon seeing the white horse in the mist, says something like, “Interesting, if a horse will go to sleep, will she sink into a fog?” and he goes down the hill into the fog to try and answer his question, to see. Immersed in the fog, the Hedgehog is full of wonderment, confusion, and also fear as he hears strange sounds and spies strange creatures—not just the mysterious white horse, but an elephant, a giant snail, a bat, an owl, ghostly moths. He begins to run away, tripping through the unnatural night until he falls into a river. He struggles a bit in the water, but then achieves a kind of Zen, floating on his back with the current. “I am in the river, let the river carry me,” he thinks, gazing at the stars as he drifts along. At the end of the 10-minute film, Hedgehog has found his friend Bear who is talking and talking, the narrator tells us, but Hedgehog is quietly thinking: good to be together again. The tale ends in this vivid moment where Hedgehog and Bear gaze up at the starry night with Hedgehog still thinking in wonderment about the unicorn-like horse and asking, “How is she there? In a fog?”

“And isn’t it funny?” Zack was still talking; we were still in the car skidding down unplowed city streets while the snow altered our perception of the once-familiar landscape. “How Hedgehog and Bear were eating toast with raspberry jam and drinking vodka while they looked at the stars?”

“We are almost out of vodka,” my husband says. I start as he swirls the bottle to speculate about the number of shots left.

“I thought they drank tea,” I had said to Zack in the car.

“They drank from a samovar, I remember that,” Zack said. “What’s a samovar?”

“I’m not really sure. I picture it like a giant teapot or something.”

“Oh,” Zack said. “I thought it was a brand of vodka.”

“We probably have four more shots left in here,” my husband is saying as Yury opens the door from the back porch and comes in, covered in white flakes and stomping a pile of snow onto the tile—which quickly melts into a puddle in the overheated kitchen—before he returns to the table.

Yury assesses the bottle, announces his expert opinion that there is enough left for a final shot each, and begins to collect our glasses.

I wonder, watching him carefully line up the four small glasses, what it is we look for in these moments of altered consciousness? I am back with the little hedgehog having his vision in the fog. Maybe we yearn for the echo of our personal subtext as it bubbles, for these brief moments, to the surface and the two merge? The imagined world nudges its way into our reality during these moments (with a little push from vodka, perhaps)? We get a little eureka moment. Perhaps because what we always suspected was out there in the fog—white horses, an elephant, a bat—actually, convincingly appear to be so. Our suspicions are confirmed, things aren’t what they seem.

Yury pours and then bends his head low to the table, tilts it and studies the four glasses for what feels like an inordinate amount of time.

What he is looking for? What does he see?

My husband knows, laughs. “I think they are even,” he says.

Yury blinks, coming out of his own fog and passes the final shots around the table.

I study the cut-glass shot glasses that Yury and Tania brought back from Russia at Christmas and gave us as a gift. The design is intricate, lacy but with a rigid, geometric pattern that shimmers when filled with the clear liquid. And it suddenly seems that all art is simply the futile quest to bring these two things together, the surface and the subtext, subconscious and conscious thought, to align them in some sort of knowable space and to give the outer world its merged—and thus truer, deeper meaning?

Or maybe I’ve just drunk too much vodka?

I focus my eyes on Yury, sternly forcing Yury B who sits like a shadow beside Yury A to merge into a proper, united Yury AB. With his round shape and the pale dusting of snow on his hair, his mustache, his beard, his shirt, he looks just now a little like the adventurous hedgehog. I hear myself telling him that I couldn’t remember what brand of vodka he drank when I was at our neighborhood liquor store, the Schnapp Shop, this afternoon. I told the cashier who runs the place and speaks English haltingly, that I was having a friend for dinner but I couldn’t remember what kind of vodka he liked. “Do you know this Russian guy with a ponytail—” I began because I knew he shopped there. But she cut me off. “Yury!” she exclaimed. “Kutskova. Always, Kutskova.”

Yury smiles.

“You are famous in these parts,” I say.

Tania rolls her eyes. “Yes, famous Russian director,” she says.

Yury raises his glass. “To Kutskova!”

“To Kutskova,” we echo.

And drink.

And in the silence that falls after, we each wander around in our private thoughts for a moment until my husband yokes us back together. “How did you like your first Super Bowl party?” he asks Tania, recalling that she’d gone to a mutual friend’s house for the game last weekend.

“Bad!” Tania says, pulling her lips down at the corner for dramatic effect.

We laugh, sympathetically. I have been bored watching football ever since I dated the team captain in high school—and at every football game I’ve watched since. I can’t imagine trying to follow the rules of the game and the flurry of surrounding sports trivia if you are from a different country with no vested interest. But that is not what she is talking about. I have misunderstood.

“We had a—” She cannot find the right word to finish her sentence and turns to Yury, chattering quickly in Russian.

“Disaster,” Yury says.

“Disaster,” she repeats, looking at us. She launches a stream of Russian at him again. Yury moves his arm off the chair where he has rested it behind her and looks at her sheepishly, wondering if he really must translate for her. She folds her arms across her chest and nods her head sternly at him. He is silent. She begins. “Ring!” she says, pointing to her wedding ring. “He has lost.”

“Oh, no!” I say.

“I shook my hands,” Yury continues, explaining that he stepped outside the party to bring in some firewood, at the host’s request and as he brushed snow off the woodpile and then shook his hands to get the snow off them, the ring went flying into a deep drift. Soon, everyone was looking for it, crawling around in the snow by the glow of a flashlight trying to locate a glint of metal. “I know exactly where it went,” Yury says. “But the snow was too deep.”

Tania frowns. “I don’t know,” she says, pausing, but continuing smoothly, “If I am . . . sad or mad.”

Yury looks at her, pleased at her apt use of English and chagrined at her apt ability to hold a grudge.

“Well,” I say, “it probably hit the snow pretty hard and fell way down. It’s not like it’s actually gone, right? It’s just below the surface somewhere.”

Tania gives a tentative smile.

“In the spring, when the snow melts, you will surely find it.”

We all nod our heads, silently thinking, “When the snow melts, the fog dissipates—all will be revealed.” 

A portion of this essay was previously read on WYPR’s “The Signal.”

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