Dinner at Mikhail's and Igor's
Mikhail turns the knob on the stereo to on. Strains of Chopin drift through the living room. He places the hand-crocheted doily his mother made to give his bride, Luticia, in the center of the dining room table. Weathered fingers smooth the lace. He arranges daisies and roses from the garden in the crystal vase which he places on the doily. His son, Igor, is bringing home a girl, Natashia. Mikhail remembers the night he brought Luticia home. His father prepared a feast so long ago, so far away. Mikhail sighs.
When Luticia was pregnant, they left Russia to immigrate to America. The new culture was not good for her. It made her spoiled. When she was thirty-five, she left him and their son to live with her rich boyfriend. It was hard to raise Igor alone, teaching Russian to students from the university, helping Igor with his homework in the evenings, shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing and ironing their clothes, researching Russian music in his spare time... when there was any. He had been both mother and father to the boy, but it had been worth it. Igor had grown into a healthy young man. He had made acceptable marks in school and he loved music as his father did, even if the rock music he played with his band wasnt exactly Mikhails taste.
Mikhail inhales deeply, his chest swelling with pride. "A good boy, my Igor," he thinks. "Yes. He has rhythm and style. If only he would not drink so much. Perhaps this new girl will calm him down. Studying medicine, yes: a serious profession for a woman. Perhaps she will provide the mother's touch my boy has missed."
The aroma of homemade borsch, the red beet soup made the way his father taught him, fills the kitchen, overpowering the fragrance of roastbeef in the oven. Mikhail adds a generous dollup of butter and fresh cream to the mashed potatoes.
Igor drives his old Toyota through Berne to Natasia's apartment. He still can't believe his good fortune to be dating her. She is the most exquisite girl he has ever met. He spotted her watching him from the audience at a concert. When he smiled at her from the stage, she smiled back. Elegant and tall, with shoulder-length, auburn hair and skin so pale it seems to glow, her almond-shaped eyes have flecks of gold in the irises. During a break, he pushed his way through the crowd to reach her; couldn't believe it when she agreed to meet him after the show. They had been dating since March. For Igor, the relationship was in danger of becoming serious. He hoped his father, near-sighted, absent-minded, and clumsy wouldn't make too big a fool of himself this evening. Oh well. "I can't put off the inevitable forever, and Dad is Dad," he thinks as he slips a CD of his band's rock music into the CD player before climbing out of the car to ring Natashia's doorbell.
Shutting the oven door with a smile, Mikhail straightens up and surveys the fresh strawberries from his garden, homegrown salad, dill and chives from the window sill, everything washed and ready to serve. After whipping fresh cream, he arranges the silverware and china on the diningroom table. Should he light a candle? The scene reminds him of Luticia. In the kitchen, the borsch simmers. The soup is practically a meal in itself: navy beans, lean beef, bacon, bay, peppercorns, garlic, parsley, carrot, celery stalk, red onions, cabbage, leeks, potatoes, tomatoes, simmered for hours and spiced to piquantness with red wine vinegar, sweetened with sugar, and made rich with butter, but most importantly, cooked with beets to lend the characteristic color: ravishing red. Mikail dips a spoon into the creamy sauce and lifts it to his lips, sucking to savor the flavor. Perfect: pour it into bowls, add a swirl of sour cream, a sprinkling of chives, a sprig of parsley and...
The pot lid falls from Mikhail's hand and lands sideways in the soup splattering the stovetop, the carpet, and Mikhail's shirt with crimson. His eyeglasses tumble to the floor. Setting the soupspoon on the stovetop, he kneels and pats the carpet. "Good heavens, Igor!"
"Let me help you Mr. Petrovinski." Kneeling beside him, the blurred figure of a woman, hair the color of borsch, a smear of cream, two dark spots for eyes and a smudge of pink where lips must be. Natashia slips the glasses over Mikhail's ears and comes into focus. She is the most bewitching creature he has seen since Luticia walked out their front door the last time. "Here, let me help you clean this up." She reaches for a washrag.
"Thats o.k. He can handle it now that hes got his eyes back." Igor takes the rag from her, flushes it with cold water, squeezes, and hands it to his dad. Mikhail stands and draws in a breath, sharply, barely noticing the wet rag dangling from his fingertips. His eyes are drinking in this vision of Natashia standing in before him. "Oh, yeah," Igor adds, "Natasha, my dad, Mikhail Petrovinski. Dad, this is Natashia."
"Enchanted my dear."
"Likewise, Im sure." Natashia smiles, amused.
"Why don't you two lovebirds take your places at the table in the dining room. No harm done here. Ill be with you in a minute."
Seated at the diningroom table, Natashai gazes around the room. She leans closer to Igor and whispers, "Your dad is so cute."
"Sort of a klutz, but he's got a heart of gold and he's a great cook. He's been working on this meal for you for two days. Wait'll you taste his dessert. And he's so proud of his borsch; always bragging how he got the recipe from his dad back in Mother Russia, like hinting that maybe I should learn it, too."
"Maybe you should."
"Yeah, sure: rock musician cooks."
"The way to a womans heart is through her stomach." Natashia leans closer and kisses his lips. "He has excellent taste in music, too."
"Don't you think this stuffs a little slow? Let me put on something with a bit more life to it." Igor slips a new CD into the player. Drumbeats fill the room. A steel guitar slides down an octave followed by a plaintive wail.
"Couldn't we listen to the music your father chose? I think it fits this scene better. He's gone to a lot of trouble creating this atmosphere. Look at these flowers!"
"He grew those himself, just like the vegetables you'll be eating. He's sweet, but so old-fashioned its unbelievable. I think his soul is stuck back in Mother Russia. He tries his best to bring her here.
"I think that's wonderful. People ought to hold onto their traditions. Its romantic, too. Men used to know how to win a girls heart in the old days. My mother tells me stories. The world back then sounds so much simpler, clearer, kind of beautiful."
"Yeah, but what about all the rest that goes along with all that old stuff: 'A man's home is his castle' and 'A woman's place is in the home.' That doesnt really fit in with your plans, now does it, Madame Doctor-to-be?"
"Don't you think its possible to have both?"
"How should I know?"
"Sure." Igor replaces the CD. A ripple of piano fills the room, then violins soothed by an oboe. Mikhail enters carrying two bowls of borsh.
"Just like in Mother Russia," he exclaims, proudly.
"Thanks to good ol' Mother Russia I have to go through life as Igor. Igor! I sound like a character from a horror film."
"Igor is sweet," Natashia giggles, kissing his cheek.
"I'm changing my name, Dad. Lenin. Thats a good Russian name. Kind of Russian and kind of not."
"Igor, we have been all through this before. Please. Not now. Not in front of the lady." Mikhail places the soup bowls in front of the young people with the loving care of a five-star waiter. Natashia leans over her bowl, closes her eyes, and breathes.
"Mr. Petrovinski, I believe you have created a masterpiece."
"Why thank you, my dear." Mikhail's chest inflates as he draws a deep breath. He returns to the kitchen, beaming.
"Created a masterpiece! Whats gotten into you Natasha?"
"Your dad has gone to so much trouble. Come on Igor, be nice."
"He's calling you my dear! Whats gotten into him, too?!"
Mikhail returns with another of bowl of borsch and sits down at the head of the table. "Some wine, my dear?"
"That would be lovely." Natashia gazes at Mikhails face as he pours.
"Igor?" Mikhail asks.
"Uh, what do you think, Dad?!"
With gracious calm, Mikhail pours the wine. As dinner progresses, he and Natasha sip as they talk about Russia and history and politics and travel. Igor refills his own glass again and again.
"You are Russian," Mikhail states.
"My parents were. They moved to America before I was born."
"Ah! Like my lovely wife Luticia and I, before our little Igor was born."
"Dad!" Igor groans and downs another glass.
Natasha continues. "I grew up here. I feel American but I think I would love Russia, at least from what my mother says, and from what you have told me." She gazes into his eyes. A trickle of harp music washes over them. Unable to contain her enthusiasm, Natashia exclaims, "Oh, I love this! The harp is my favorite instrument. I wanted to take harp lessons when I was young. My mother gave me a choice: harp or piano. Harp lessons cost twice as much so I chose the piano. Maybe it was a mistake. Mother would have paid for the harp. She was always ready to do anything for us. But I was worried that maybe we didn't have that much money. I've never stopped loving the harp, though."
"Who is your favorite composer?" Mikhail inquires.
"Chopin. Definitely Chopin. I love the way he makes his chords combine and, you know, migrate through the variations."
"Migrating chords! Jesus, Natashia!" Igor downs another glass and pours some more.
"Do not swear Igor, especially in front of the lady," Mikhail reprimands.
"Oh cut the crap, Dad."
"I am sorry my dear. I do not know what has come over my son."
"Whats gotten into me!? Christ, Dad! You too, Natashia!"
"I think your son has had a bit too much to drink." Natashia removes the wine bottle and places it on the table between her and Mikhail. "Dinner was lovely, Mr. Petrovinski."
"Thank you, my dear. I am very glad you have enjoyed it. Why do you not call me Mikhail?"
"Mikhail. I like that. Thank you, Mikhail. I will."
"Oh for heavens sake." Igor slouches deeper into his chair and covers his forehead with his hand.
"I'm afraid I must be going. I have class early in the morning. I don't think Igor is in any shape to drive me." Natashia looks at Mikhail, hopefully.
"I would take you, my dear, but because of my eyesight I cannot have the license to drive. I will call you a cab."
"That would be wonderful. Thank you, Mikhail."
When the doorbell rings, Mikhail holds Natasha's coat as she slips her arms into the sleeves. He holds the door for her and accompanies her outside and down the steps. The screen door shuts behind them. Igor stands and gazes at it. Awkwardly, he carries the dishes into the kitchen and piles them into the sink. He drains the water from the vase into a potted plant and tosses the roses and daisies into the compost bin. He pours the rest of the wine over the dishes, walks to the CD player in the living room, and turns the knob to off.