Gwen spotted the Russian wife at the farmers’ market on a swampy August day. She had last seen the woman years before, when she was living with her then-husband, Jeffrey, in a sagging Charles Village rowhouse with a view of a parking lot and a bail bonds shop. Now she was forty and lived in a windowed condo with a view of the Jones Falls River.
Home later, she checked the basil for caterpillars while her boyfriend, Luke, quartered the heirloom tomatoes.
“You know that feeling when you see someone from your past,” she said, “and suddenly you become the person you were when you knew them?”
“Emotional teleportation,” Luke said. He flicked tomato flesh off the knife into the sink.
“Is that what it’s called? Anyway, it just happened to me.”
She’d been standing in line at the kombucha stand when she noticed the Russian wife to her left, boxed in by apples. She was as beautiful as ever, her back still ballet-straight, her face elegantly angular. Her husband, who stood beside her, also looked much the same: hunch-shouldered and parchment-skinned, with a glossy pate and baggy cheeks. He said something and the Russian wife nodded. She put a Granny Smith into the plastic bag that he held open for her, then added another. Were they going to make a pie together? The Russian wife’s husband—Ernest Jacobsen, the name returned—had lived alone in the house attached to Gwen and Jeffrey’s when they’d moved to Charles Village.
“He barely left home on the weekends,” Gwen told Luke. “His blinds were always shut. I said hello to him once and he skittered away. I was sure he was a child pornographer.”
She’d shared these same suspicions with Jeffrey, back when they were married, and he’d responded with, “You’re being a snob,” and “You’ve got some imagination.” Gwen had met Jeffrey in grad school, at Pitt, where he studied engineering and she studied communications. They’d both grown up in the Midwest, near empty grain towers and steel mills, the first in their families to go to college. After getting married, they moved to Baltimore when Gwen took a teaching job and Jeffrey joined a firm that kept the city’s sewage from leaching into the Chesapeake Bay. They bought a three-story townhouse on an ungentrified strip of Greenmount Avenue, charmed by the gables and original slate roof, the brick façade veiled in ivy. The plan was to remodel the five bedrooms and fill two of them with children. Once moved in, however, they learned that the slate roof needed replacing and the foundation needed shoring. Four years and eighty-thousand dollars later, they were quicksanded in debt. Each new month raised another problem with the chimney or the furnace. In what she came to consider the winter of her marriage, Gwen escaped upstairs to her study, a space heater beneath her desk and student papers heaped atop it, occasionally staring out the window at the gray street. If, as Jeffrey claimed, she had too much imagination, he seemed to have none. He didn’t read novels. He fell asleep halfway through any movie they watched, especially if it had subtitles. The differences between them, once intriguing and seductive, now seemed to be mere differences.
Then one day in early March, fresh snow having made their street sparkle and look fairytale-new, a woman with a willowy body and a swirl of blond hair walked up the steps to Ernest Jacobsen’s porch. She tapped her boots against the railing, took a key from the pocket of her tailored overcoat, and disappeared inside. The next morning, the blinds of Ernest Jacobsen’s house were open. Afternoons, Gwen would see the woman headed down the sidewalk, striding over the puddles and slush, her arm draped with empty shopping bags. The following Saturday, she and Jacobsen unloaded a wall mirror from his car and then brought it into the house. Not long after, the snow a memory, a forsythia wreath appeared on the door.
“Who could she be?” Gwen would ask Jeffrey, and he’d say, “I don’t know,” or “Maybe his daughter.” Jeffrey simply didn’t get it: a man like that couldn’t possibly have a daughter who looked like that. So Gwen looked him up on the web.
“And guess what?” she told Luke. “I found him right away. On a site for men seeking Russian wives. There was a photo of him sitting in front of his fireplace. The listing said that he worked for a spice company. He liked woodworking and classical music. He hadn’t even thought to use a different name. That’s who she was. She was a Russian wife.”
“Tragic,” Luke said. “She was basically a prostitute.”
“True,” Gwen said, although she hadn’t quite thought of it that way. The Russian wife had seemed so much more sophisticated than Jacobsen that it was hard not to see her as having the upper hand.
Luke had finished quartering the tomatoes and was now scooping out the seeds with a teaspoon. The kitchen glowed around him, all moonstone and birch. His feet were bare; in the cloud of his thinning hair, he’d perched his reading glasses. His iPad sat on a cookbook stand in a confusion of produce. They were making a summer stew from eight kinds of vegetables and fruits that would simmer all afternoon to achieve what the recipe referred to as “a gorgeous unity of flavor.” They’d been dating for three years, spending weekends together and weekdays apart. Like Gwen, Luke taught communications. Whereas she lectured on public speaking in a bleary classroom with a view of a freeway, he lectured on the emoticon as phoneme and the semiotics of graffiti at a tony private university.
“Did you ever talk to her?” Luke asked.
“Not once,” Gwen said. “I knew this secret about her that spring, and I was gone by summer. I figured she’d get citizenship and leave the guy. But there they were today, still together. And looking happy. For all I know, they’ve had children.”
“They might have been pretending. Married people do that.” Luke moved on to the carrots.
“Why pretend at the farmers’ market? They didn’t know anyone was watching. I think they have a good relationship. I think she ended up loving him.”
“Maybe she loved him from the start. Maybe he wooed her over email when she was in Russia.”
“He could barely get out a hello the one time that I talked to him.”
“He might have been more eloquent on the page. Or given her limited English, his prose could have seemed more seductive than it was.”
“No.” Gwen twisted the greens from a beet. “This wasn’t an epistolary romance. Ernest Jacobsen was an awkward, lonely man who couldn’t get a date. So he advertised for a wife from Russia. And this woman wanted a better life, so she took him up on it. There’s no more mystery to that mystery. The mystery is that they’re still together and that they seem happy.”
“All right, then,” Luke said.
Their conversations about anything serious usually followed this track. Gwen tried to express a profundity and did it badly. Luke moved behind an invisible podium, raising questions and challenging theses. Gwen got irritated; Luke threw up his hands. She chopped the rough collar off a turnip. If she’d been living with Luke back then, instead of with Jeffrey, Luke would have been equally curious about the sudden appearance of an elegant woman in the house next door. Unlike Gwen, he would have gone right on up to the Russian wife, asked where she was from, helped her to bring in the groceries, learned all about her childhood in Moscow or Saint Petersburg. He would think that he was interested in her life story when, actually, he wanted to fuck her. He didn’t recognize his contradictions. Gwen had picked up his iPad one afternoon and seen the frozen image of two Asian women, plaid skirts bunched onto their backs, their bare bottoms lifted for spankings from a naked white man. At cocktail parties, when Luke would wax on about racism and sexism in political rhetoric, Gwen recalled those women in their schoolgirl skirts.
Following dinner, while Luke read in the bedroom, Gwen sat at her computer and opened Jeffrey’s Facebook page, as she did occasionally. He lived in Montana. He and his wife rode horses with their helmeted, saucer-eyed children saddled behind on ponies. They all looked high on sunshine and fresh air. Gwen clicked through the photos of a swimming hole and a new deck, a baby tooth in an eggcup, a stick gooped with marshmallow that Jeffrey held over a firepit. A pale man in Baltimore, he was tan in his new life. His smile had broadened. He seemed fun and adventurous, which Gwen didn’t remember him being at all. But perhaps her having left him had made him this way? Jeffrey had been depressed in the months after Gwen moved out; he slogged his way to divorce court, unshaven and taciturn. They’d sold the house, split the remaining debt, and he’d left Baltimore for a new job. Now here he was with this earthy woman in a cowboy hat who had a gap between her front teeth, played the guitar, and cross-country skied.
Gwen clicked queasily through Jeffrey’s photos. What was this feeling? Homesickness? Once, she had thought that they would be together forever. Once, she had said vows that she meant. She couldn’t even quite remember why she had felt so repelled by Jeffrey during the last year of their marriage. Calmly, one summer morning, she had told him that she didn’t love him anymore and that she wanted a divorce. Jeffrey was stunned. He said that they could go to counseling, that once they dealt with their debt, things would improve.
“No,” she’d said. “I’m sorry. It’s not going to work.”