Letters from Z
By Naya Lekht
“Anticipation follows event”
— Robert Coover
Although they lived in the same city and saw one another quite often, the need to correspond was so urgent that he sent his daughter letters at least twice a week. He preferred writing because unlike phone conversation where a monologue can easily slip into dialogue, the uninterrupted form of communication was too enticing to give up. She found the letters frustrating, desultory, maniacal, and frightfully mad. For a man who had coined the phrase “organization beats merit!” his letters were aimless wanderings, intent on reaching a finite point and yet they made no point at all. She was alarmed enough to wonder if all this was a sign of early dementia.”
And so when on Sunday evening she received his text message, “Mail, pls,” she opened her email without hesitation:
What is your book deal?
You understand that it is a pitch. Marketing. Publishing is a business. They will invest in somebody who will benefit the business.
They have to see: Kiev, literature of minorities, oppression of public opinion, new genre, pilgrimage, family of holocaust literature. I was thinking you have to show what role this literature played in the self recognition of a new independence for the Jewish people in the former SU and how it is well and alive in independent former soviet states and in majdans of Ukraine.
If you want me to give my review on your review I will use only one tool. And I believe in this like in religion. STRUCTURE.
I believe less in trees, their personal characteristics. it is appropriate for painters: impressionists.
I believe more in forest. Its influence on winds, weather, climate, habitants etc.
Back to STRUCTURE.
I usually compare the final product to the house.
Every piece coming out of your writing should have the following structures:
Basement: history, inputs, the reason for the project.
Rooms: divide and conquer. Try to separate issues. prove that each issue deserves to exist and have the role in the final analysis.
Roof: what unites all the issues?
Again: two connections at two levels: basement and roof.
Z, the guru of nobody.
Although known to most as Zorik, Z appropriated his name to situations and people. “Z” was therefore an affirmation to his daughter and to himself that he was well aware of the terse nature of writing in the digital age and therefore should be given full access and attention. Whatever the subject, he would sign off intermittently with one of the following staple phrases: “Forgot something”; “Z, the guru of nobody”; “Don’t delete”; “Is anyone listening?” Or, her favorite: “Verbal diarrhea? Don’t flush yet…”
If one wanted to deconstruct these letters, she certainly would be the one to do it. The Soviet string of consciousness manifest in her father’s letters presented a rare glimpse into the world of fathers, immigrants, megalomaniacs, would-be writers, and latent self-identifying Jews.
The winding sentences would shrink into one-word hints that only she understood: Formulas. Mathematics.
An atheist for most of his life, Z believed in the religion of math and science. More specifically, in the religion of physics. The world of vacuums, matter, and negative acceleration reminded him of his youth and the disintegration of his dreams. She would try to reconstruct the story he had told her repeatedly about his entrance exams to the prestigious physics department at Moscow State University in 1965. The light in the room, the faces of the professors intent on failing the young man, the smell of hopelessness, and his twisted body that was curved inward on a small wooden chair. He was sure he would get in. That summer Z’s father had hired a physics and math tutor for him in order to best prepare him for the examinations. He was more than prepared — he had done and redone the problems from each textbook, dreaming only in verticals, equations, and matrixes.
When the committee invited the young man into the room, they sat him down on a small wooden chair. The leather-bound seat shone impeccably and he felt a faint sense of guilt forming deep within his throat. This guilt, like a mother’s milk, had been passed onto him from generations of affliction. And not knowing from where it appeared, he swiftly recognized its presence by the familiar feeling of suffocation he felt upon meeting his committee members for the first time.
They could have asked him all kinds of things: why he wanted to study physics, why he chose to solve the equation this way when he could have done it differently, what he thought of the Riemann Hypothesis and how Van Koch’s implication of the “best possible” bound for error contributes to the field of prime number distribution. Instead, a gaunt-looking man with a trim mustache asked: “Young man, what language does your family speak at home?”
Z thought he had misheard. When the man posed the same question again, he knew it was over and that there was no more future for him in physics. Even though the language spoken at home was that of Pushkin, Tiutchev, and Nekrasov, the implication was clear: evreiskii. And the Riemann Hypothesis disappeared into a distant black hole.
Before the advent of the digital era, Z wrote on napkins.
The fluorescent lights flickered periodically as they sat studying the glossy Denny’s menu. Sunday brunch at Denny’s was tradition. Luckily, on the corner of Sunset and Martel Avenue, the franchise had expanded and a new Denny’s, camouflaged as a late-night diner with all things seedy, presented an inexplicably welcoming environment for Z and his daughter. His favorite — egg-white scramble with vegetables, English muffin, decaf coffee. At the time she was maybe nine years old and the worries of carbohydrates did not intrude on her decision-making. She waited eagerly for the double-decker with extra mayonnaise and a side order of greasy French fries. Extra ketchup always.
They preferred the booth over-looking Sunset Avenue, with its panoply of scantily dressed prostitutes being dropped off on corners, the cars speeding hastily away. It was a curious alternative universe. Who would ever have imagined that on one and the same street there would walk bitter Russian grandmas, wannabe thugs, gelled pimps, gold-hooped Latinas, and scandalously clad prostitutes eager to return to their marked corners? This mixture of people who just did not seem to fit frightened her. To get rid of the fear and the anxiety, she would fold her arms and tightly close her fists. Sometimes the fear was so strong that she slept with her arms folded and her fists so tight that the open and relaxed form of her hand seemed unnatural.
Z always carried a ball-point pen with him. It hung clipped on the shapeless pocket of his collared shirt. Waiting for the food, he would reach for the pen and hastily push the silverware aside, pulling instead a stark white napkin in front of him, and begin to enumerate:
1. Role of 1st generation European Js in delivering message for American Js
2. Their experiences and permissive environments in Europe
3. What role propaganda plays in Europe
4. If they create something tangible, make a dent
5. Anti-Isr drive in different countries is a canary for future anti-S mentality
There must have been hundreds of such napkins that Z had written on over the course of many Denny’s-years. When she was older — maybe in high school — she developed an acute sense of time. She viewed everything from the point of view of it having already passed. It was an unusual perspective, to be present in the passing of a moment.
And so she came to love the napkins and secretly collected them. One day, she thought, she will canvas them — a palimpsest of Z! She even had a title: “Memory of the Napkins.” This massive archive hung in her mind as he wrote down things that she no longer remembered.
When Z was thirty-one years old, he began a year-long correspondence with his daughter. At the time Z was living in Kiev; his wife and child were in Chernovitz—a three night’s journey by train. It was all because of the Chernobyl accident. Kiev was too close and there were reports of radioactive particles in the air.
This, then, was the third time that he had been separated from his daughter. The first was a scandal. Z abandoned his seven-month pregnant wife with their child kicking in her belly. The second time, Z left two-year old Ali rolling on the carpet crying “Zorik! Zorik!” (That’s what they told Ali, for no two-year old child would ever have recollection of such an event).
His imagination bursting, Z wrote a story set in H.G. Wells’ world where Ali and her father traveled through dimensions of time and space. Their first journey took them to Kievan Rus’, where Ali met Alyonushka, a girl with straw-colored hair and a transparent face. She was cheerful and, like the units of time, limitless in her possibilities to persist in Ali’s memories. Although the encounter was brief, it made a lasting impression on Ali, who would later tell her four-year old daughter that she had once traveled in a fancy time machine and met a girl close to her own age.
On another journey, they were transported to Babi Yar, 1941. That year, winter came early and the sweet earth was terribly cold. Jews were being gathered and marched to a ravine while a young scout stood with a camera and took pictures. Ali and her father stood by a man with a long rifle over his right shoulder. “Hush,” Ali’s father pulled at his daughter’s sleeve. “Get down on the ground and don’t make a sound!” They watched the murder of children, women and old men, as the naked trees cried out, their branches—vases filled with endless sky.
A woman bent over with a child in her arms, shielding her son, was awaiting her turn. She stood with her back to the officer, whose rifle pointed squarely at her nape. Her face invisible, Ali only saw the eyes of the child, two specks washed away as the bullet pierced the porcelain-colored skin of the mother’s body. Ali, who understood nothing, noticed that the child was dressed warmly, bundled in his mother’s coat, a wool cap snug on his little head. When she fell, her body did not immediately drop into the pit. The child’s thrashing gently tipped her over the cliff. The officer lowered his rifle and lit a cigarette.
Someone snapped a picture of the moment before the bullet pierced her skin. The black and white photo is infamous by now, on display in almost all Holocaust museums. Aside from the man whose rifle was an extension of his left hand, the floating mother, and the bundled child whose white calves hang like two strings of noodles, there is no evidence of Ali and her father who were cowering.
The collection of stories about Ali and her father’s travels back in time ended with the reverse. On their final journey, they traveled into the future and came out of the machine aged and shriveled. They had become old little people. It was 1990 and they found themselves in Chernovitz at a raucous party with boisterous laughter, songs, and dance. On this final journey the destination was Ali’s childhood home. Z, who had married Ali’s mother out of necessity and whose parents effectively threw him out of the house, found retribution in this final story that exposed a cold woman who betrayed not only her husband, but her daughter as well. “Why are we here?” Ali asked. “Look,” he pointed to her mother, who was made up in jewels and curled hair. She was getting remarried. It was her engagement party. A man unknown to Ali was hugging and kissing her mother’s shoulder. She had not aged. She was as beautiful and full of life as she had always wanted her to be. Everyone was so happy. The room was crooked.
Suddenly, a shriek was heard. A man at the party had fainted and fallen. “Fast, call emergency!” people cried. Ali turned to her father and said, “Daddy, help him. You are a doctor, help him.” Ali’s father, who knew the rules of his story, tried to explain that they were unable to do anything. There was just no way they could penetrate the space. But then, out of pity, or perhaps a longing to fulfill his daughter’s image of a would-be father, he stepped into the room and approached the pale man on the floor. After a quick examination, Ali’s father had a diagnosis: “This man has acute appendicitis and if he is not taken to the hospital right away, he will die.” The party, which had been disrupted, washed away like the specks of the child’s eyes.
Z felt ignited by the story. He had lived in it so much that when he came to visit his daughter, he brought with him a secret letter that Z said had magically appeared at his doorstep one day.
“I needed to end the story somehow,” Z would later tell. “I did not know how to do it. So I broke my own rules and forged a letter from Alyonushka to Ali.”
Z, who on his daily walk to work would pass by a birch tree, noticed that it was shedding. He ripped a large piece of the bark and brought it home. He followed the rules of pre-Revolutionary Russian orthography faithfully, penetrating the dry surface of the parchment paper with his carefully crossed yats.
It is me, Alyonushka. I remember you.
You could not speak or touch my world.
I want us to be friends. Secret friends.
Don’t forget me.
“It has your name on it,” her father presented the rolled up bark. “I didn’t want to open it. I thought since it is for you, you should open it.”
Ali pulled the string and cautiously unrolled the letter. She quickly read it and knew it wasn’t real. But to keep up pretenses, she took the letter and persisted to live in the crooked world of his father’s stories.
Unlike the Denny-napkins, which were collected and catalogued in his daughter’s determination, the story of a daughter and her father’s travels through time has been lost, and only exists in the refracted memories of a father and child.
Thank you for spending time with me and discussing some issues the other night.
The other night that Z was referring to was, indeed, unusual. Z appeared on Ali’s doorstep ready to enumerate. It was apparent in the way the folds on his face had come together, his index finger placed on his tight lips as if to signal, “Shhh.”
A sad King Arthur with a curled lower lip, Z felt powerless without the armor of his decaf. “Make some coffee,” he said. “Tell me about progress.”
“There is no progress,” she said affirmatively.
The folds on his face tightened. “You have your mind on the wrong things.”
“I’m not going to turn my dissertation into a book.” His index finger was beginning to assume its customary position. “I’m not,” she said. “Tell me something about you. Something that I don’t already know.”
He sipped his coffee and fell silent. They were quickly veering off script. But for some reason that night, Z welcomed the detour. He lowered his head and began to hum, a sign of thoughts abounding.
“When your mother and I got married we went on a trip around the Russian Golden Circle. That’s what it was called. Just let me finish.” He anticipated the shame of a daughter knowing more than she should about her parents’ marriage. “Your mother came from a very Jewish family. I remember that they talked about Israel and about immigration,” he said. “No one in our family talked this way. I felt a bit of a stranger in their home at first.”
“The trip,” she reminded him.
“Listen to me. I’m telling you a story.”
Indeed, that evening Z told her about a time before kids, when he was a young, much too young, twenty-five year old husband traveling to Moscow with a wife he had met six weeks before. On the itinerary was Plyos, a tranquil hamlet made up of wooden houses and hilly winding streets located not too far from the Volga River. They stopped in Plyos to visit a small vacation house turned museum where Isaak Levitan, a Jewish painter associated with The Wanderers Russian art movement, lived in 1887.
“There was a portrait of Levitan on the wall,” Z said. “His eyes were penetrating. They were calling to me and followed me wherever I went in the room.”
“Why Levitan?” Ali asked.
Z hummed and lowered his head. “You see, he desperately wanted to be accepted by his Russian cohort, to be seen as an equal—”
“Because he was Jewish.”
“Yes,” Z said, “and I was so moved by Levitan that day, that I sat down and wrote a poem.”
“Do you remember it?”
Z recited “The Eyes of Isaak Levitan,” a poem he had hurriedly written on a late evening in April 1971. He wanted to gift it to the museum but, on second thought, decided not to, and instead put it away with the other poems he had written during his most productive period.
“The Eyes of Isaak Levitan” was not by any literary standards an impressive poetic feat. Written in iambic pentameter, the seven stanzas demonstrated a typical yearning for acceptance by a Soviet Jew. Although the word Jew is never mentioned, Ali’s well-trained literary ears detected the displacement in such loaded words as pitiful, stranger, and guilty, and she wanted to touch her father, to put her hand on his, and signal something beyond words.
Ali continued to live in anticipation of time passed. After a brief hiatus, Z returned to writing. The letters were growing in quantity, amassing in Ali’s mind a fuller palimpsest of Z. From twice a week, the letters came daily — sometimes even twice a day. And they were becoming desperate.
He resorted to name-calling. Bezdelnista! Literally “without doings”—loosely understood as being inefficient. The worst crime committed by a Soviet person raised on legends of heroic mass production. He desperately wanted her to convert her sophomoric dissertation into a book. Ali refused, knowing that it would be torn apart in reviews by all of three experts on Soviet Holocaust literary representations.
Trying to reach you and discuss several issues. Having difficulties.
You’ve set a very elevated and not very clear lines and I have problems to reach them. Every time I have a problem to express my thoughts if they are not short and extremely reasonable, I am blocked.
Every time I am writing to you trying to share my thoughts, I am blocked on several levels. Mistakes, like grammatical, semantic or not perfect organization of thoughts.
I haven’t received feedback for a long time. So I am talking to you from position of complete outsider. Used to this. Can overcome.
Communication channels blocked. I want to enter the zone. Let me in.
Wrote about Levitan. Will send story shortly.
Z, the guru of nobody.