By ANNA BADKHEN
As soon as I read about the albatrosses in the Times, I thought of my big sister. Natasha.
“Natasha—albatross ty nasha,” Aunt Lyuba would sing in the communal kitchen, slinging blobs of wheat porridge into my bowl with the cornflower border. Each time she’d shuffle the bowl from the stove over to Natasha-and-my table, her felt slippers would catch on the peeling linoleum floor, and I’d worry about my breakfast. But Aunt Lyuba never slipped.
“Here, scamp, have some.”
“I’m not a scamp,” I’d say, and Aunt Lyuba would snort and roll her eyes and stomp on the linoleum with her big felt feet and say, “Don’t you dare give me that look.” She’d say shit like that tender, like a lullaby.
Aunt Lyuba was a spinster who had no family, which to us girls meant that she loved no one, and she was what we had after Mama died. Mama had loved a lot. First she loved Natasha’s father, then mine. After my father left, she loved communism. Its collapse crushed her.
“Mama died of a broken heart,” Natasha said before she left, when we were all in the kitchen and she and Aunt Lyuba were discussing how Aunt Lyuba would take care of me while she was gone, and Aunt Lyuba grunted on her short stool and said, “Broken heart my ass. It was broken liver that got that lushed-up cunt.” She had planted her massive hairy ankles like portico columns on either side of an aluminum bowl with half-peeled potatoes sunk in murky water. She reached down for a potato, and her long, knit mustard skirt hiked up so I could see where the white flannel bloomers wedged into her fat privates. All these body parts intimidated me, but much about Aunt Lyuba intimidated me back then: her language, her size, the awful noises that exploded arbitrarily inside her shapeless nose. It felt like a curse that I was too young to go with my sister and had to be stuck with her.
When Natasha quit the university and got a tutoring job abroad, Aunt Lyuba said, “Let’s just hope our teacher doesn’t get schooled.”
I remember thinking: How can such a big, frightening woman be so slow? The whole point was that Natasha was not going to school anymore. She’d be working abroad with foreign children and making enough to save for a separate two-room apartment for us in The Ships, overlooking the water, and we would eat real macaroni, not the Polish or Iranian crap that came apart in the pot, gooped like Aunt Lyuba’s wheat porridge. And pizza from Pizza Hut, where none of my classmates who had parents could go even. And we wouldn’t have to deal with Aunt Lyuba and her fat ankles and her foul mouth. We would wear real jeans. I would get my own brand-new imported winter boots, in my own size. Since Mama died, I’d had my own bed, because Natasha had taken Mama’s, and now I would have my own room while Natasha was abroad earning money.
I finished the first quarter of my second grade with all A’s, and then the second quarter with a B in Russian because I got caught passing notes between Varya Pechkina, who sat at the desk ahead of me, and Misha Shatz, who sat across the aisle, and for New Year’s Aunt Lyuba ordered me to both lock and bolt the door to Natasha-and-my room, because you never know.
“Never know what, Aunt Lyuba?” I asked, still too naïve to know the kinds of things men can do. She said if I didn’t listen, I’d get no present. In the morning it was the first of January, 1993. I unlocked the door to the long corridor that always smelled like disinfectant. At night I woke up a few times because of the boozy stomping of party guests (I don’t know whose; there were eight different families living in our apartment), but there was no trace of them now, and in the kitchen on Natasha-and-my table there sat a large platter with purple and green grapes, and withering blossoms of cold cuts, and a cut-crystal vase heaped with potato salad, and a fat slice of Napoleon cake, and also a bottle of Pepsi, warm but unopened. All the neighbors in the kommunalka were asleep. I ate all the canned peas out of the salad first, with my fingers.
Natasha came back in late January or early February, cold days still overcast and short. My big sister! She was so beautiful! She had stonewashed skinny jeans and knee-high snakeskin boots, and she wore a pretty round watch that you didn’t need to wind up, and if you pressed a button, the face glowed pale blue. Her long hair had perfect blonde highlights.
“Nu, albatross, whatcha bring us paupers from across the stormy seas?” Aunt Lyuba demanded from the threshold of her room in her rudest voice, fists on hips, but I could see that her eyes were wet. When Natasha opened her suitcase to give us our presents, its satin-lined top shell smelled like the entrance to the fancy hotel I would pass on the way to school.
She stayed for a week. At night she would open the window in our room and sit on the windowsill and chain-smoke real American Marlboro Lights she had brought back. Smoking was something she’d picked up at work, she explained. All of her clients smoked, she said. As I drifted off to sleep, I pictured little kids in bright winter hats at a playground, harnessed together the way we were when I was in daycare, straining to bend their arms in bulky padded coveralls to reach their mittened hands to their mouths, puffing on American cigarettes. Natasha brought back three blocks of American Marlboro Lights: one for her to sell, one for Aunt Lyuba to sell, and one to give away to the rest of the kommunalka neighbors as gifts, pack by pack. She brought me a pair of brand-new boots that were half winter boots, half sneakers, snowproof and waterproof but not rubber, brown and purple with turquoise stripes and in my own size, and when I wore them to school, Misha Shatz said they smelled like hard-currency pussy but Varya said it was because he envied me.
The article in the Times said albatrosses in New Zealand, which are famously monogamous and mate for life, were leaving their partners because of climate change. “Increasing sea surface temperature leads to an increase in divorce.” As the ocean warms, the albatrosses’ food resources migrate to colder seas, which means the albatrosses have to fly farther away from their nesting grounds to get provisions. By the time he gets back, the male albatross discovers that his wife has taken up with someone else. Or the female bird gets tired and lands on the wrong rock and just stays there. Or worse: the female bird travels off course to find food and gets killed by a fishing trawler. The guy comes home and finds out he’s a widower.
This disbalance, the article said, prompts “desperate decision-making” by single male albatrosses. Boy-birds start hooking up with boy-birds, for example. “We’ve been getting these male-male pairs forming—the males can’t find mates, and after a while, they decide other males are better than nothing at all.” I’ve read this about prisons, too. Desperate times, desperate sex.
The last time, Natasha came home changed. Deep circles under her eyes, two left teeth missing. She undressed and dressed in the dark, didn’t want me to see her naked. When I asked her about her face, she snarled at me.
“You’re an ungrateful fucking thing around my neck. May you never find out how much I sacrifice for you!”
I was in fourth grade, doing well academically, but lonely, friendless. She had gone abroad three times by then, each time for a longer stretch. I cried, asked her to stop sacrificing, she could go back to the pedagogical university and we could manage on her university stipend, Aunt Lyuba was solid and actually kind and would help us, I was skinny and didn’t eat much, hand-me-downs were just fine. She cried, too. Her breath stank.
“Stormy petrel,” said Aunt Lyuba after Natasha left, and hugged me for the first time ever.
I was in fifth grade when we understood that Natasha was never coming back. It had been a year since she’d last called. Aunt Lyuba filed for adoption. The government gave her some money for me. I moved into her room, and we rented out mine to help with the rest. My classmates became kinder to me, probably a combination of puberty and pity, me now being a full orphan and an adoptee. Also, I had filled out—boobs, butt—though I was still pretty thin and never used makeup or anything. Plus, I was the best student in class. Aunt Lyuba had made sure of it, checked my homework every night before bedtime, like I was still a little kid. Misha Shatz tried to hold hands once or twice, and Varya and I became close. I graduated high school and got into and finished the pedagogical university, the same one from which Natasha flew the roost a month into her sophomore year, except I was in marketing instead of English. Marketing was a brand-new science in Russia then; our department was only two years old when I enrolled. It seemed promising. They taught you English in marketing anyhow—in the early aughts everyone believed they had to learn English to survive.
One afternoon in March of my junior year, Aunt Lyuba felt queasy, lay down in her felt slippers on the fold-out couch where I normally slept, and there she soiled herself. There was blood. At the hospital, the doctor said it was stomach cancer, they would keep her for a week and see what they could do. Thankfully it took her just two miserable days. It was only the neighbors and me at the funeral, and the neighbors drank vodka in the kitchen after, and I had cranberry juice, and everyone had the fucking potato salad, and I remembered how after Mama died Aunt Lyuba kept piling food on Natasha-and-my table, but I couldn’t recall what it had been. I sold our two rooms and bought a single-bedroom in The Ships, on the eighth floor. From the kitchen window I could see the black Neva River slowly breach the steel-blue Gulf of Finland.
Ulrich and I met at an art gallery during my senior year. I hadn’t yet met many foreigners; he might have been the first American I had ever really talked to. He looked, I don’t know, uncorrupted, innocent. Still, given Natasha, I didn’t really trust his intentions at first.
“She gave me this look,” he likes to say. Honestly, he is the first boy I ever kissed. Ulrich doesn’t drink, I don’t drink, and the wedding was quiet. Some of the kommunalka neighbors came, and his parents flew in from Philadelphia, where we live now. His family on his mother’s side runs an import business here, lampshades and window dressings, and they figured they could use my skills. They like to say they hired me to “keep it in the family.” I guess that’s how in-laws are all over the world: condescending. But I keep thinking I was right about my field of study—Russian higher education can be as marketable as Russian beauties. Ulrich and I are both homebodies—his long trip to Russia, after college, was the first and last time he’d ever left the States—and the farthest he travels for work is the company warehouse in Northern Liberties. I was working remotely for years even before the pandemic, out of the home office we had set up on the fourth floor of our skinny little brownstone (a room per floor, and a spiral staircase so steep Ulrich likes to joke that even if he drank he would’ve had to give it up to stay alive on the stairs). It came in especially handy when the children came; I could be so flexible with my hours. The kids like to cuddle a lot.
When I was still pregnant with our youngest, Ulrich suggested we name her Natasha. I can see it now: a humid summer evening, backyard cricket songs filtering in through the open French doors in the parlor, my swollen feet in his lap so he can massage them, Netflix on, and there’s this documentary—by a Bulgarian director, I think—about Eastern European women tricked into sex slavery. I just gave him this look. We never finished the movie.
Do you know how marketing works? Back at the university, we had to take a psychology class. Russian higher education is different from here: you don’t get to choose which subjects you take; once you enroll in a particular field of study, right after high school, your entire class schedule is preset for the next five years of your life. The only way to step off the conveyer belt is to leave. A miniature version of Russia when I was little, if you ask me. Anyway, the psychology professor explained that the human brain has evolved to see and recognize patterns. It’s something about how our neurons store information, and, apparently, it was originally developed to keep us safe: for example, if we watched a lion eat our neighbor, the next time we saw a lion, or anything that looked like a lion, we’d know to stay away. Pattern recognition is also what helps us find our way home, or identify familiar faces. It’s how we develop tastes for certain things. It makes us think we like something we have never seen, because it reminds us of something we saw and liked before, so that I can sell you a lampshade that looks similar to the one you had but is actually slightly different. Maybe it’s even a bit more expensive, but I can persuade you that you’ll love it; and if you buy it, you actually will. Each pattern of recognition is unique to your particular brain, to specific memories that are stored in your particular cortex and the specific associations and interpretations that these memories produce. That’s why we call it “personal taste.”
Maybe because I’m in marketing, I’m not really the sentimental type. I hear people say, oh, that person looks like my crush from kindergarten; oh, that old woman looks like my grandmother—I don’t know. But about a year ago, last winter, it was nice out, sunny, almost no wind, and I left Ulrich to watch the girls and went for a run along the Schuylkill. The water was still as glass, and there were seagulls fishing in it. People walking their dogs on the path, women with strollers. I remember thinking how nice it was to run, how free it felt. And when I was coming back, already back in the neighborhood, cutting through Fitler Square over to Pine Street, I saw a young woman who looked exactly like Natasha. She was walking toward me through the park, passing the bronze turtles that the girls love to climb, and she was smiling, and I swear she was looking right at me. She was wearing skinny jeans and elegant block heels and a nice sweater with a cowl neck, like Natasha the first time she came home. And I can’t tell you why, but I got really, really frightened. I turned around and ran in the direction opposite of where our house is, as fast as I could, so fast that when I made it to the Walnut Street overpass, I had to stop. And while I was standing there, hands on my knees, so winded I almost felt like throwing up, I realized that of course it couldn’t have been Natasha. This woman looked like Natasha the way she was when I was little. This woman was in her late teens, early twenties maximum—a girl, really—and Natasha would be in her late forties now. So I jogged back toward the house, and of course the woman was gone. But what I still can’t figure out is, if I thought, even for a second, that it was my own long-lost sister walking down the street toward me, why did I get so scared? Why didn’t I run toward her?
From what I learned in that psychology class, our pattern-makings are not voluntary, but they can be suppressed. Wouldn’t you rather forget watching a lion eat your neighbor? Maybe that’s why Natasha went back abroad that last time.
We talk a lot about climate change at home. Even the youngest—I named her Stephanie—keeps asking about it, and she’s only five. The women with whom I play tennis on Saturday mornings say the younger generation is growing up depressed because of it. I always resist telling them that they know nothing about growing up depressed. Why ruin their privilege? They’ll be in deep trouble sooner than they think. When the last hurricane came through Philly, the Schuylkill flooded all of their cute little hipster backyards.
Sure, climate change is real and terrible, but when I read about the albatrosses, how the males go away to get stuff and come home to build a nest for their partners who may or may not wait for them, I thought: But we humans have been doing this for so long. It’s even in all the folktales! Sometimes we too go farther and farther afield; sometimes we go away once and never return; sometimes it takes a few years. In some societies, it’s the men who go away: Natasha’s dad went to Siberia with his Komsomol comrades to build the project of the century at BAM; by the time he came back, Mama had fallen in love with my dad. Then my dad went away, too, and Mama never said where, and he never returned. Or look at the Mexicans working in construction here, all men, earning, earning…. In other societies it’s the women—the Filipina housekeepers in Jordan, the Bangladeshi cleaning ladies in the Gulf, the Uzbek nannies in Moscow. Here, it’s the Caribbean women. In my part of Russia after the fall of communism, when my sister was seventeen, it was the pretty teenage girls.
When I sold our rooms in the kommunalka, I left the forwarding address for The Ships with the neighbors, just in case. And when I was about to move to the States with Ulrich, I returned to leave the new address in America, but the apartment had been sold and a nice middle-aged couple lived there and they did not know where the former tenants had gone. They had remodeled the place. Gone were the eight rooms, and the dingy corridor that smelled like disinfectant, and the peeling linoleum tiles stained from Aunt Lyuba’s potato water in the kitchen: there was a master suite and a guest suite, and a large living room with large potted plants, and the kitchen had imitation parquet and a skylight. I tried to count the windows from the entryway to figure out where Natasha-and-my room had been, where our Mama had died of whatever it was that took her, but I couldn’t.
The thing is, one by one, most of my classmates eventually also left Russia. Turns out that my generation was born into a sliver of possibility of financial well-being, a short-lived calm between storms when you believed you could see the horizon ahead of you and getting visas stopped being difficult. Ten of our girls live in the States—Varya’s somewhere in Texas, we’d drifted apart—and I have two classmates in the UK, and three in Germany, one in Austria, two in France…. Israel, too, of course, but that’s an old story. I talk to some of them. Most of us rarely go back, though some do, and by now I am not the only orphan. A few months ago, maybe a half a year after I thought I saw Natasha in Fitler Square, I got a message on Facebook from a classmate who lives with her husband in Saudi Arabia (and has two Filipina maids and a live-in nanny from Pakistan), and she wrote that she thinks Natasha might be in Turkey.
“I know we all think she died, but last year, when we were visiting, I ran into Misha Shatz. He’s super Orthodox now and doesn’t touch cell phones or any technology—can you imagine?—and he said he had seen a picture somewhere: a typical Turkish family smiling for the camera, seven or eight people, and in the middle this blonde matron who looks like a plainer, heavier version of Natasha. Who knows? I would have liked to have seen the photo, but he couldn’t remember who’d shown it to him. You know, we all envied you, that you had such a soaring, seksi big sister who traveled abroad.”
Anna Badkhen is the author of seven books, most recently the essay collection Bright Unbearable Reality, which was longlisted for the National Book Award. A Guggenheim Fellow, Badkhen was born in the Soviet Union and is a US citizen. She lives in Philadelphia.