The day after Valya got citizenship, she left Bill for her tennis instructor.
Bill became a ghost in the apartment, pattering about in his yellowing socks and wondering if his feet even made a sound. The mismatched coffee cups next to the kitchen sink sat there. In the past, an unseen and unnoticed force had washed them and put them back in the cupboard. It left when Valya left.
He didn’t dust the rows of china figurines, polish the silverware, or wind up the finicky brass carriage clock that they’d inherited from his grandmother. The glass over their wedding photo accumulated greasy smears that coloured their faces yellow. Two jaundiced figures, one fifty-five and one twenty-two, grinning inanely at the camera. Each celebrated their separate achievements, and neither of those achievements was marriage.
When he had told his family about Valya, their scepticism had wounded him. Siberia, he informed them, was a different world, where women were different: less complicated and more adoring. A stunning twenty-one year old could fall in love with a man in the prime of life. How could she fail to do so? She would adore both him and the gifts he brought: a new country; security; chicken chow mein in front of the television; a man who didn’t drink or hit her; worn snot-green carpets to vacuum; stares in the streets; that pale sweaty body in bed.
He made a holiday out of his first visit. Stopping in Moscow, he bought a set of matryoshka dolls from a tourist trap shop. He gave them to her as a gift. She seemed bemused, then shrugged, and in the narrowing of her eyes she was even more beautiful. The dolls sat on the mantelpiece, and a chip in the paintwork revealed cheap cardboard underneath, gradually curling.
She spoke no English. It didn’t matter, as long as he could look at the lines of her curves and the shine of her hair. He enrolled her on language courses, and she went along, and though she received excellent marks on her assignments, she rarely spoke at home. That, he was slightly surprised to discover, didn’t bother him at all, so he did not bother to learn Russian.
She started going out in the evening, leaving his dinner in the oven and returning dutifully at bedtime, but in a better mood than before, so he was pleased. One time he saw her outside a bar, with other young people, laughing at something until her cocktail came out of her nose, and then laughing more because of it. Her laugh displeased him. He had not heard it before, and now it seemed like a dirty secret she’d kept from him.
When he awoke to find her gone, a note written in impeccable English on her pillow, he felt aggrieved. When did she even start tennis lessons? His investment was in a woman who would be easily pleased, would easily love, and need so much less than a western woman. Hadn’t she looked perfect by his side?