Baba Seva’s apartment was on the second floor of a white five-story building off a leafy courtyard. I entered the courtyard and tapped in the code for the front door—I still remembered it—and lugged my suitcase up the stairs. My grandmother came to the door. She was tiny. She had always been small, but now she was even smaller, and the gray hair on her head was even thinner. For a moment, I was worried she wouldn’t know who I was. But then she said, “Andryushik. You’re here.” She seemed to have mixed feelings about it.

I came in.

She wanted to feed me. Slowly and deliberately, she heated up potato soup, kotlety (Russian meatballs), and sliced fried potatoes. She moved around the kitchen at a glacial pace and was unsteady on her feet, but there were many things to hold on to in that old kitchen, and she knew exactly where they were. Her hearing had declined considerably since my last visit, so I waited while she worked and then helped her plate the food. Finally, we sat. She asked me about my life in America.

“Where do you live?”

“This one simple draping trick will make people think you work out a lot.”

“New York.”


“New York.”

“Oh. Do you live in a house, or an apartment?”

“An apartment.”


“An apartment.”

“Do you own it?”

“I rent it. With roommates.”


“I share it. It’s like a communal apartment.”

“Are you married?”




“Do you have kids?”


“No kids?”

“No. In America,” I half-lied, “people don’t have kids until later.”

Satisfied, or partly satisfied, she then asked me how long I intended to stay.

“Until Dima comes back,” I said.

“What?” she said.

“Until Dima comes back,” I said.

She took that in.

“Andryusha,” she said. “Do you know my friend Musya?”

“Of course,” I said.

“She’s a very close friend of mine,” my grandmother explained. “And right now she’s at her dacha.” Musya, or Emma Abramovna, was my grandmother’s oldest living friend. An émigré from Poland, she had been a literature professor who had managed to hang on at Moscow State despite the anti-Jewish campaign; long since retired, she still had a dacha at Peredelkino, the old writers’ colony. My grandmother had lost her own dacha in the nineties, after Uncle Lev got swindled out of his share in a geological-exploration company he’d founded with some fellow-scientists.

“I think,” she said now, “that next summer she’s going to invite me to stay with her.”

“Yes? She said that?”

“No,” my grandmother said. “But I hope she does.”

“That sounds good,” I said. In August, most Muscovites left for their dachas; clearly, my grandmother’s inability to do the same was weighing on her mind.

We had finished eating, and my grandmother casually reached into her mouth and took out her teeth. She put them in a little teacup on the table. “I need to rest my gums,” she said, toothlessly.

“Of course,” I said.

“Tell me,” she said, in the same exploratory tone as earlier. “Do you know my grandson, Dima?”

“Of course,” I said. “He’s my brother.”

“Oh.” My grandmother sighed, as if she couldn’t entirely trust someone who knew Dima. “Do you know where he is?”

“He’s in London,” I said.

“He never comes to see me,” my grandmother said.

“That’s not true.”

“No, it is. Ever since he got me to sign over the apartment, he hasn’t been interested in me at all.”

“Grandma!” I said. “That’s definitely not true.” It was true that, a few years earlier, Dima had put the apartment in his name—under post-Soviet-style gentrification, little old ladies who owned prime Moscow real estate tended to have all sorts of misfortunes befall them. From a safety perspective, it had been the right move. But I could see now that, from my grandmother’s perspective, it looked suspicious.

“Andryusha,” she said. “You are such a dear person to me. To our whole family. But I can’t remember right now. How did we come to know you?”

I was momentarily speechless.

“I’m your grandson,” I said. There was an element of pleading in my voice.


“I’m your grandson.”

“My grandson,” she repeated.

“You had a daughter, do you remember?”

“Yes,” she said, uncertainly, then remembered. “Yes. My little daughter.” She thought a moment longer. “She went to America,” my grandmother said. “She went to America and died.”

“That’s right,” I said.

“And you—” she said now.

“I’m her son.”

My grandmother took this in. “Then why did you come here?” she said.

I didn’t understand.

“This is a terrible country. My Yolka took you to America. Why did you come back?” She seemed angry.

I was again at a loss for words. Why had I come? Because Dima had asked me to. And because I wanted to help my grandmother. And because I thought it would help me find a topic for an article, which would then help me to get a tenure-track job. I decided to go with the one that seemed most practical. “For work,” I said. “I need to do some research.”

“Oh,” she said. “All right.” She, too, had had to work in this terrible country, and she could understand.

Momentarily satisfied, my grandmother excused herself and went to her room to lie down.

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