The Assassin

“All I ask is that you behave,” Roman says as he gets ready to step out. 


He is a new lecturer with a one-year contract in the Slavic Studies Department at Alabama University, which has tasked him with coordinating tonight’s Living Writer Reading Series at the art museum, along with a reception for said Living Writer at our new rented home. The only problem is that the Living Writer made a mortal enemy of me last year, so Roman is terrified I will embarrass him with some kind of dramatic confrontation, though I have no such plans. As my daughter tosses apple slices on the ground from her high chair, I stroke her sweet hair, as if to emphasize that I will do nothing to ruin the peaceful home we’ve made here for the past two months. 

“Of course I’ll behave,” I tell him, as I pick up an apple slice and pop it in my mouth. Sasha’s resemblance to Roman has become even more pronounced now that, at fifteen months, she has basically the same hairdo, brown locks just covering her ears. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I add, for good measure. 

“If you can’t be nice, just keep your distance. Really.” 

“I’ll stick with Maya,” I tell him as I wipe our daughter’s face, and we both smile. Maya is his colleague, a rotund Babel scholar who has been obsessed with me ever since she read my novel and handed me her handwritten memoir of her Soviet girlhood, begging me to “give it a glance,” though I’ d rather choke on a gefilte fish bone. 

“You do what you need to do,” he says. “I’ll text you when we’re on our way. Let’s throw a good party,” he says, kissing me and Sasha goodbye. 

“God, I don’t even remember the last time we threw a party,” I say.

“We had that goodbye thing in Iowa.”

Roman made a brisket that was finally ready at midnight, and our friends gossiped over a fire pit in our yard, and I felt genuinely sad to go. It wasn’t like the wild ragers we’ d had pre-Sasha, where random twenty-three-year-olds barely older than my current students would proclaim controversial opinions like that Cheever was a misogynist and then go pee on the side of our house, but it was still something. 

“Ba-bye!” our daughter cries, and he heads for the door. 

It thrills me to see him dressed up and going off to do something official, feeling a part of things at last. Though my past year on the job market was fruitless, I did pick up some part-time composition classes in the English department at the last minute, so instead of sharing my love for Chekhov with captivated grad students like I’ d imagined, I’m teaching sweet but distracted Southern kids about thesis statements with my tail between my legs while Roman and I scrape by on his lecturer’s salary and the dregs of my book money, which has dwindled significantly after our move. I’ve just sent out my first round of applications for this year’s jobs. 

Now that I’m not at the end of my rope, I see that not getting a job on my first try is no tragedy—that, in fact, most people are lucky if they can get one after two or three tries, like Roman did. And though I hoped to be a creative writing professor with a highly acclaimed novel now, I also spent the year in a postpartum insomnia haze that made me wish for oblivion every day, and I figure if you split the difference between being a real professor and wanting to kill yourself, the result would be teaching part-time composition without wanting to die, so I’ll happily take it. It’s been a full month since I’ve stayed up all night without sleeping a wink, and I’ll happily take that, too.

As Roman pulls out of the driveway, I tell my daughter, “He’s got nothing to worry about.” I tickle her under her chin to make her giggle, and then I carry her upstairs. After I change her, I place her in her crib and my heart tightens. With her soft curls and Roman’s deep-set blue eyes and less-Jewish-than-mine nose, she’s truly perfect, and her goofy little wave as I shut the door is one of the many things that have made my first postpartum year worth it, have opened up a Pandora’s box of new feelings, both the highs and the lows. 

But for now, the party. Roman’s department just got approval for a tenure-line position, which he will apply for, and which would take our situation from a one-year temporary bliss to the promise of stability forever. It would not hurt his cause to massively succeed with his first event, which he contrived when one of his fellow Dostoevsky scholar friends had mentioned his connection to the Living Writer, convincing him that he would impress the department with his vision and connections and ability to get someone well-known to come all the way out to Alabama for us. Roman spent a month sending overly florid emails, writing invoices, making flyers, and pulling his hair out, convinced this would be his application’s pièce-de-résistance. For my part, I just had to clean the house and promise to be nice to our honored guest. That’s all. 


After the sun sets, I see there’s a hitch in our plan, which is that our neighbors, a trio of kind of hot rude undergrads, already have a few guests in their yard, a sign they’ll be throwing one of their deafeningly loud parties tonight. Other than that, everything’s perfect. We’ve got a tower of blini, bread and caviar, cherry and meat dumplings, a cauldron of borsch, and an assortment of pickled vegetables, all courtesy of Maya but paid for by the Department, because I could never dream of cooking anything Russian the way my mother or grandmother could, unless you count heating up Trader Joe’s chicken pelmenyi. I am, however, capable of decanting the wine and putting on some music. I pour myself a glass—my anti-anxiety meds are at such a low dose that I’ve been drinking again. Anyway, I need to calm my nerves. 

Last year, I sent the Living Writer an email gushing about how her novel Liza the Luminous changed my life and asked if she would blurb my forthcoming book. I was thrilled when she said she’ d read it, but later, she wrote back and said, I would have loved to help you, but your book was a bit of a disappointment. “A bit of a disappointment!” I had cried, eight months pregnant and raging through the house. The words were cruel enough to even irk Roman. “Only a bit of a disappointment? Not a full disappointment? How much disappointment are we talking about, exactly? That’s crap writing, for a writer,” he had said, not knowing that the darkest year of our lives was on the horizon. 

Roman texts to say they are on their way, and after I finish my glass and pour another, I check my phone again against my better instincts. I find the following: rejections from Wichita State and Yountville University, news that my upcoming online creative writing class got canceled due to low enrollment, a tweet that the Selena Gomez movie based on the bestselling novel of my Iowa classmate is hitting theaters this weekend, and an email from one of my students begging for an extension on her rhetorical analysis essay because she sprained her ankle tailgating over the weekend. Oh well. Fuck it. I think I can still manage to enjoy myself. As my morning meditation app tells me, I should be grateful for all the good in my life and face the rest with courage.

I’m saved by a rustling at the door and everyone’s there—Igor the chair, Roman, Maya and her silent husband Shapinsky, at least two dozen undergrads and grad students, and then, at last, wearing a long-sleeved black dress too thick for the end of September in Alabama, the Living Writer appears in the flesh, coolly taking in the scene. 

Roman gives me a bright smile and I can tell the reading went well, that this reception will be the icing on the cake. He heads to the fridge to get drinks for the chair and the Living Writer, and I face her at last. Will she remember me, or know what I look like—did she Google me when I asked her for the blurb, or happen to see my picture in my lukewarm New York Times review, one of the only scraps of press my book received, which offered its highest praise when describing my “spot-on drinking-and-sex scenes”? I see no recognition in her eyes when I shake her stiff hand. Annoyingly, she is even more beautiful and intimidating in person than in her author photo. She’s at least a decade older than me but doesn’t look it, with her long dark curls and enormous eyes and no sign of a waistline, as severe and striking as Tsvetayeva. I introduce myself and tell her I hoped she had a good trip out here and she smiles blandly. 

“It was just fine,” she says. She came to America in her late teens and she has the sharpness and resignation of a true Soviet person, something I can barely fake, since I only spent the first five meager years of my life in Kiev. 

“I loved Liza the Luminous,” I can’t help but say, though I had told myself to keep my cool. “It’s one of my favorite books of all time.” 

“Thank you,” she says, but she’s looking around like a caged animal plotting her escape. “Is there a place I can smoke?” 

I gesture toward the back deck. “A lot of lovely trees out there,” I say idiotically. Though I do stand by the loveliness of the damn trees.

“The two writers meet at last!” Maya says as she plows toward us, putting her plump hands on our backs. The Living Writer seems to barely hear her, seeing Maya only as an obstacle between herself and her cigarette. But this has never before stopped Maya, who is married to bald Shapinsky, a Tolstoy scholar whose voice I have yet to hear. Maya would blather the same amount to a barista or Barack Obama; she has no sense of her place in the world, which must be nice, actually. We’ve only just started piling food on our plates, but she’s already managed to get a sprig of dill stuck in her front teeth. 

“Oksana wrote this novel War Story, you’ve surely heard of it, it came out last spring. I loved your novel too, of course—I mean, they’re quite different,” Maya spews. 

A thin smile curls on the writer’s lips. “You’re a writer, too?” she says. “How nice. Roman didn’t tell me that,” she adds, and he smiles at her from across the room, where he’s handing beers to graduate students. And was that smile—dare I say—flirtatious? Has my husband betrayed me, or is he just being polite? 

“Maya’s right. Our books are really different. I mean, mine wasn’t a—sensation—like yours or anything,” I hear myself say, having no clue why I’m blathering on as much as Maya, checking the Living Writer’s eyes to see if the title rang a bell, but it did not. Why would it? It got a few tepid reviews, spent six weeks in bookstores, and then fell off the face of the earth, like most debuts. My mistake was expecting the book to save my life when I was in the depth of my postpartum depression, eight months of unrelenting insomnia that I spent crying and staring at the ceiling as my family slept around me, wondering what I had done to deserve such pain, or how I had gone from being a person with reasonable confidence to feeling like the biggest loser on the planet, one that rejected me so much that it would not even let me complete the most basic function of sleeping.

War Story was about my grandmother’s Great War experiences, as well as some of my writerly struggles. The Living Writer’s novel was a coming-of-age story of a teen whose family moved to New York to escape Chernobyl, where she got enough radiation poisoning to give her a talent: if she gazed into any dish from the Motherland, she could see scenes from her past—a useless skill, only good for stoking nostalgia. 

If I possessed the magical powers of this famed heroine, then I could peer into my borsch and see myself as a scrappy mulleted immigrant kid in the front of the bus in Florida, when a trio of long-haired popular girls are snatching away my backpack and calling me “Ok-suck-a” and then “commie,” a word I don’t fully understand then, let alone how it applies to me. At the end of the ride, they return the backpack, and inexplicably, I say, thank you, which makes them laugh at my attempt to win them over, just as I am trying to charm the Living Writer now. Because I still have the twisted idea that she could absolve me, telling me I’m not a loser, after all. 

“A sensation?” she says at last, her thin smile curling into a frown. “Is that what my book was? If you’ll excuse me.” 

Her novel was published to universal acclaim when I was in college, where I took my dog-eared copy everywhere with me like my daughter does with her stuffed purple monkey. Though the book’s arrival wasn’t as flashy as my ex’s addiction memoir Asscrackhead, which is now being made into an HBO miniseries starring Adam Driver, or my classmate’s novel MILF vs. Sorostitute, which just won the Simply Scintillating Prose Award and seven other debut novel prizes, I know it has more staying power. Thirteen years later, it still appeals to hip teens and old white ladies, transcending the Russian immigrant niche my book got stuck in, though the books she’s written since haven’t had the same cult following. I still see Liza cropping up on various lists and meditations, while my weekly Google search of my novel six months after it came out only yields news of minor tennis tournaments or pornography sites featuring protagonists who share my name. XXX watch Oksana suck big fat cock pussy Oksana pussy XXX, the search would reveal, and occasionally I am so disheartened that I click on the link and masturbate. 

After the Living Writer, whose self-Google-searches would never leave her so bereft, weaves through the crowd and out to the back deck, I lean closer to Maya. “Who put a stick up her ass?” I say, forgetting that Maya is pathologically forgiving. 

Her eyes get big. “Oh, Oksana. I think she’s just had a long day.”

Roman approaches, looking slightly annoyed, and I hope it’s not because he heard me shit-talking the Living Writer this early into the evening. 

He nods toward the neighbor’s party. “I might have to tell them to keep it down.” 

“Oh, come on,” I say. “Let them have their fun.” Then I try to distract him. “You know, I was thinking, I kind of miss having people pee on the side of our house.”

He laughs. “I do miss some things about Iowa, but not that.”

“Like what?”

He thinks for a minute. “I miss going to that farm with the brick oven pizzas in the summers. And the beer was so much better there. I miss drinking with you on our old porch swing. Remember our neighbor’s sons? I miss watching them get picked up for baseball games in their little uniforms.”

I give his arm a squeeze. I have known him for almost fifteen years, but he still manages to surprise me. Sure, before things went south, we sat on that porch and drank, a lot. And yes we would watch those two boys cram into their ride’s backseat with their baseball outfits and the routine did give me some kind of odd comfort too, but he never commented on it. But now he’s looking outside, not to search for comforting baseball youth, but to hear the decibel level of the party, which isn’t louder than some of the Iowa parties we threw, not by a long shot, but that was before the baby and his job and Maya.

“It’ll be fine,” I say. “I think everyone’s really impressed by how the reading went. I can tell. And your colleagues already love you, no matter what . . .” I don’t really let myself dream of one of us actually getting a tenure-line position. It feels too good to even mention, and I may not have retained many Soviet habits, but being superstitious is one of them, and mentioning a good opportunity before it happens is considered an unforgivable sin. 

“We’ll see,” he says, and he looks up to where our daughter is sleeping, though we both know she can snooze through a siege, that his real concern is his own party getting drowned out by the noise. I distract him by describing how at bedtime Sasha tried to tuck in her purple monkey like he was going to bed with her, one of the many new tricks she’s picked up at daycare. We glance at her monitor, where she’s sleeping all splayed out with her belly up, looking more like “drunk Roman” sleeping than ever, which is one of the many things we are able to laugh about again. He’s amused until the sounds of our neighbor’s stereo blast right into our party, and he glares at the backyard like he’s expecting an ambush. 


When the neighbor’s music starts shaking our furniture, I march to the back deck, past the smoking Living Writer toward the yard in question, where a throng of students are hiding behind trees, playing a raucous round of beer pong. From what I’ve gathered, three undergrad boys live in the house. The leader of the pack is the most handsome in that I’m-Christian-but-binge-drink look of my dear male students, and while I don’t entertain any Sexy Mom Next Door fantasies, I’ d like him to be friendlier, to wave when I’m playing with my daughter on the front lawn, not to want to fuck me, but just to think hey, there’s a hot mom living near me, that’s cool. In fact, he’s so blindingly blond that he reminds me of Frankie, my college boyfriend, who accompanied me to our fair share of parties. 

As I stand outside the students’ circle, I forget my purpose and feel like an outsider wanting to join their party. They look so sleek and happy, the guys yelling at each other about the LSU game while the girls sway to Post Malone, and their party seems more appealing than my own. A sleek peroxide blonde takes a shot and does a little dance when she makes it. The smoke from a vape rises behind her like a little cloud. 

Then the hot Christian neighbor in question looks up, and I think, if Roman flirted with the enemy, then why can’t I? I look good in a little green slinky dress for the occasion, and I’m still in decent shape and on the right side of thirty-five, and there’s a small chance he’ll think I’m one of them, a student coming to join the fun. I don’t look or feel the way I do when I push my daughter around the neighborhood wearing an old smock, my hair in a bun. 

“Shit. It’s my neighbor,” he says, like I can’t hear him. “Sorry, ma’am,” he tells me, lifting a hand. “We’ll keep it down, I know, I know.”

“How did you know who I was?” 


“I just can’t believe you recognized me,” I say. “Because of the dark, I mean.”

One of the girls whispers to her friend clump and they giggle, and I can imagine what they’re saying. Why is she still here? Does she want to fuck our boy, or what? What a commie. It actually kind of feels good to see it so nakedly, that look. I had imagined it coming my way from the world for a long time now: from other moms judging me for losing my mind, my classmates laughing at me for writing an “average” debut, and job committee members shaking their heads at my thin CV. I could spend all night soaking up that look, feeling better for having my worst suspicions confirmed. 

Unlike his girlfriends, the boy is unfazed, staring at me with a curious smile. “I just kind of knew it was you. Wanna play?” 

I look back at the house, to where the Living Writer seems to have left the deck to schmooze against her will. I see myself walking back—trying to beg her to love me some more, or staving off Maya, or keeping everyone happy and entertained, or even hiding out at the foot of my daughter’s bed to hear her sweet breathing, pretending she needed me. The boy takes a step back, into the shadows, and I imagine he’s just Frankie, my college boyfriend, the one who sweetly took my precious virginity, and who could turn him down? 

“Sure,” I say, though I don’t think he’s serious. “I’ll take a shot.” 

He nods and one of the girls laughs again. I feel the ball’s weight in my hand, home in on one of the remaining cups, remembering myself in college, partnered up with droves of popped-collared preppy boys, feeling infinitely cool because I was famous for my beer pong game, known to some as “The Assassin” for my ruthless ability to throw a ball into any cup without cracking a smile. And now here I am, in my own personal MILF vs. Sorostitute. I throw my ball toward its target, channeling this ferocious long-ago energy, and miss it by about a mile. 

“Still got it,” I say, and they just stare, mouths gaping open. “That was a joke,” I add. 

The whispering girl steps out of the darkness, and with horror I realize she’s in one of my comp classes, though it’s too early in the semester for me to tell all the Maddies and Emily Graces apart. I don’t know her name, but seeing her shapely little figure and pin straight hair reminds me there’s no way anyone could mistake me for a student, that I am far closer to being Maya than her, a thought that fills me with utter revulsion and terror. I put a hand to my mouth, wondering if I too have dill stuck in my teeth. 

“Aren’t you my English teacher?” the girl says.

“I’m no teacher,” I tell her. “I’m a mom. You must have me confused with someone else. It must be the dark.” 

“Yeah,” the hot young man confirms helpfully. “She’s got a kid. I’ve seen ’em.”

He steps out of the dark to make this declaration, proving that he’s not sweet, thoughtful Frankie—not even close. I feel like an idiot as I take a step away from the table. I remember the parties Roman and I threw in Iowa City, before everything turned, when I still felt generally desirable, and I’m proud to say the cops had come to our house a number of times. I guess that’s the cycle of life—first, you’re the person throwing the party, then you’re the one breaking it up, and eventually, there’s no party at all. I hesitate and grab a full can of Bud Light off the table to take with me. I have done nothing at all to help my poor husband. 

“Just keep it down, all right?” I say, wagging the beer at them. “I don’t want to have to call the cops.” 


Inside, the Living Writer is with Maya and Roman and two fawning graduate students, all of them comfortably switching between English and Russian in a way I never could do, though I’ d like to think Roman is more skillfully bilingual because he came to America from Moscow when he was almost ten and has been studying the damn language for a decade. Shapinsky has pulled a guitar out of the ether and is belting a Vysotsky classic, his voice guttural and raw, all the more shocking because I have never heard it before. Igor the chair and a few grad students sing along, and I am pleased that everyone is letting loose. And why not, the people in this dwindling field getting absorbed by mightier language departments, fans of Onegin and Petrushevskaya and experts on the dim shadows of my own consciousness like the Bolshevik Revolution and Siege of Leningrad, deserve to have a little fun. The Living Writer, though, does not seem to be having much fun, scowling the whole time.

“I just loved the scene where Liza finally dances with her crush,” says Maya. “How did you pull it off?”

The Living Writer shrugs. “It’s hard to remember,” she says. “It’s been so long.” 

But Maya keeps staring, waiting for a good answer. She does not understand basic things like that you aren’t supposed to grill writers about the scenes in their novels, but then again, the Living Writers series is new, so maybe she is still figuring out how to be. And she does have a point, after all—it was subtle and sweet, the best scene in the book. 

“I guess it was just how it was meant to be written,” the Living Writer says, at last. 

“A memorable scene,” says Roman, pointlessly. 

Maya looks hopeful with her mouth partly open, dill sprig miraculously gone, and I think of my beer pong friends, those blond girls staring me down like what the fuck is wrong with this loser, and instead of joining the Living Writer in being mean to her, I put an arm around Maya.

“Maya’s being humble, but she’s a writer too,” I tell the Living Writer.


“She wrote a memoir. I just started it and I can’t put it down. Let’s talk when I’m done,” I tell Maya, and her eyes get big.

“Oh,” she says, clasping her hands together. “I would like that very much.”

It occurs to me that I have said this out of the goodness of my heart, not because I want Maya to permanently hire Roman, or because I want to spite our guest, and it’s a relief that there is still some kindness in me that extends beyond my immediate family. The Living Writer is watching me, her successful lips curling into a smile, and I wonder if I see it—a flicker of recognition, her mouth working as she tries to place me. But then she’s roped into a chat with the grad students, while Roman nods at me approvingly, pleased that I was kind to Maya. I have racked up so many freaking bonus points with him it’s like I’ve made up for the year I was a total insomniac shitshow; he’s smiling and doesn’t care that we can still feel the neighbor’s music vibrating through our furniture, and everything feels good in the world. 

If I had Liza’s gift and stared into my blini, I’ d see our last year in Iowa playing out, a year in which “a bit of a disappointment” becomes our joke mantra after the Living Writer wrote her infamous phrase. “A bit of a disappointment,” we say, as a few of the applications we sent out get rejected by places like North Dakota State. “A bit of a disappointment,” we say, when my insomnia sets in when Sasha is three months old. Then our job rejections reach the hundreds, and my book comes out and fails to make a splash, and my sadness does not budge, and it’s no longer a joke, everything is disappointing as fuck, so we stop saying it altogether. But then, just before summer, before Sasha turns one, Roman gets offered this job in Alabama and we flee to it like refugees escaping a war, and everything, slowly, becomes good again. 

As the Living Writer returns to the deck to smoke, Roman puts an arm around me and nods at the pounding music outside. “Sounds like you really put the fear of God in them.” 

“I could have been more forceful,” I admit. “The funny thing was, they all thought I was an undergrad.” 

He tilts his head. “Really?”

“Are you that surprised? I guess you like older women anyway,” I tell him, nodding in the direction of the deck, and he laughs and shakes his head.

“Come on,” he says.  

“I’m just fucking with you,” I say, lowering my voice, though the group is getting so loud that I doubt anyone can hear me anyway. 

But he looks nervous, staring at our deck, from which the Living Writer has yet to emerge. “This is getting ridiculous,” he mutters, and I know what he’s thinking. He spent a full month making sure this event went off without a hitch, and yet he can’t even seem to get his prized pig to mingle with anyone for more than three minutes. There are likely dozens of other Dostoevsky scholars out there who will impress the job committee. His life is basically over. There’s a pause in the concert of Shapinsky and Igor the chair, and they mumble to each other, potentially about nothing, potentially about the Living Writer’s failure to deliver. “You’ve got to get her, Oksana,” he says. “You’ve got to tell her to come back inside.” 

“I’ll tell her that her social skills are—” I say, hoping he will complete the phrase, saying “a bit of a disappointment” once more, thus bringing our hellish last year to an end, stripping the phrase of its power. 

He just bites his lip and says, “You can be very charming when you put your mind to it.”

I nod, as if I know what to do. Then, I search for a way to express my undying love to him, but the most I can muster is “And so can you.”

Then I look down and realize I’m still holding the can of Bud Light and wonder why I can’t let it go. 


The last time Roman and I drank on the back deck, actually, we ended up fighting about the only thing we ever argue about anymore, which is my soul-crushing disillusionment with the publishing industry. If I recall correctly, not only did I question whether all of the contemporary books I read growing up were actually good or just tools of the octopus-like book conglomerate, but I wondered if even the masters I loved were just part of the same bloated myopic system, which cast aside so many “minor” writers in favor of a few sexy giants. Speaking of sexy giants, Post Malone is belting “Sunflower” from the party so loudly that it’s like the man himself is giving us a private concert. How many thousands of mediocre grungy-ish pop singers never got one moment in the limelight because of Mr. Malone?

“Do you think Dostoevsky got a bunch of like, The Brothers Karamazov tote bags made? Or did they do a book and gravel-from-the-railroad-tracks pairing? Or did they make him an Instagram personality quiz to promote his book—which Karamazov brother are YOU?”

“I believe it would be called the Grand En-quiz,” Roman said sharply, but I could see his lips curling into a smile. 

I leaned against our deck as I pictured Russian aristocratic influencers strolling along Nevsky Prospect with cloth bags featuring the three brooding brothers perched over their graceful shoulders, telling all the world that this is the only book worth reading, while Turgenev and Tolstoy’s blood boiled over not getting the same treatment. I intended to conjure this ridiculous image to crack myself up, so I was surprised to find myself sinking down onto the ground of the deck instead, my throat heavy. “I mean, was Dostoevsky even good?” I whispered into the hushed woods, my voice cracking a little. 

Roman finally laughed, genuinely feeling sorry for me. “No, I don’t think old Fyodor got tote bags made, and yes, I do think he was ‘good.’ But time will tell you, Sana. Even in ten years, people will remember the good books, not the ones that got tote bags made for them.” 

“But how could they remember my book if Michelle Obama never tweeted about it—if they never knew it existed in the first place?” I asked, and then we stared into the dark silence as he admitted I had a fair point. Then we heard the little sneaky skitter of a bat, and then a second one. At least someone other than poor Roman bore witness to my suffering. 

He lifted me up and kissed me. “I know I’m not an Obama,” he told me. “But I will always remember it, darling. And more importantly,” he added, squeezing my hand and suspecting what this was all really about. “I will always remember you.” 

“Unless you die first,” I tell him.

“Even if I die first, you little fool.” 


The Living Writer is smoking in one of the cozy Alabama Hornets chairs Roman bought as soon as we got to town. Though fall has technically already begun, tonight’s one of the first reasonably cool nights we’ve had since we moved here in August, and as I approach her, I wonder why everyone is crammed indoors. It’s lovely out here, on the big deck facing the infinitely tall trees in our yard that leave just enough room to see the sky. During the day, I can look up and see hawks gliding through the air, not even needing to flap their majestic wings to stay afloat. In the evenings, I hear the church bells chime every fifteen minutes, a sound complemented by the roar of the train, and it’s enough to almost make me believe in something. 

I look up at the stars while the music from the undergrad party pounds through my bones, mingling with the increasingly loud guitar from indoors. These trees, the crickets, the geckoes at my feet, the heat in the air: even if my stay here is temporary, it fills me with peace. Sometimes, when I’m out here, I remember that I literally almost died, that I fell asleep at the wheel during one of my insomnia battles, that there had been a chance I wouldn’t have lived to hear my daughter say her first word—“Hi!”—or my husband get his first job, or to watch this sky bleed pink and purple through our trees. 

I’m all but ready to accept my place in the universe, but as I sit next to the Living Writer, she glares at me like I’m a raccoon scurrying over to ruin her alone time. I consider all I could say—how could you not even know who I am, you rude cunt, or these gorgeous trees saved my life—and remember Roman, that I am here with the goal of luring her inside. 

Then I look behind me and see it: Shapinsky and his guitar, Maya laughing with some grad students, another professor holding court near the high chair, and Roman at the center of it all, commanding the action. The party is a complete hit. Even if they forked over a ton of money for a writer who spent the evening smoking outside, it got everybody together, Roman did; he made something good happen, and that’s what they’ll remember about him. Whatever is happening here has no bearing on what is or will be happening in there. Which is freeing, in a way, because it means I don’t have to give a shit about getting her out of her chair. 

I take a sip of my beer, gaining courage from its lukewarm power. “What’s it like to write a book that was such a success?” I ask her. “Really. How does it feel?”

She sighs and takes a long drag on her cigarette. 

“Really fucking good—for a while,” she says. “I felt like a queen.” 

I keep looking at her, realizing that she has nothing to add to this declaration, though it sums it up nicely. I can imagine all of the things she could say, partly from the resigned look in her eyes, and partly from interviews I’ve read. She might add that she got tired of reading from her youthful, magical book. That she wishes people had cared about her other two books, grimmer tomes set in post-Soviet Russia that I rather loved. That she’s divorced and has a teenaged son she leaves with her mother in Brooklyn, where she teaches part-time just like I do, though she occasionally has to come to places like Alabama to make ends meet. 

Then she adds, “And after a while, I was no longer a queen. Then I was just another writer, trying to survive.” She takes a long drag of her cigarette and gives a condescending glance to the landscape before her, or at least that’s how I imagine it in the darkness. 

“Alabama is pretty great, actually,” I say, unprompted. “I’ve never seen such beautiful trees in my life. Did you notice all the hawks during the day? They’re amazing. I’ve never seen so many butterflies in one place, it’s like life just thrives here, you know? The food’s delicious. And the students are sweet, for the most part, they call me ma’am all the time. Even the kids next door were polite when I told them to keep quiet. Except I didn’t really put my foot down. I ended up playing a round of beer pong.” 

“And?” she says, her brows raised, showing a glimmer of interest in me at last.

“I took a shot,” I tell her. “It went right in. After all, there’s a reason they called me ‘The Assassin’ back in college.”

Her lips draw a thin line. “I see.” 

I drain my beer and try to focus on getting her back to the party. “I loved the final dance scene from your novel, like Maya did. It was this beautiful moment—the kind of thing that made me wish I had my grandmother’s Soviet gift of memorization, because it would have been lovely to always have it with me.” 

“Hey,” she says, looking at me like she has finally realized I exist, that I too breathe air. “That’s very kind of you.” I’m surprised she seems to be softening, to actually mean what she’s saying, and for the briefest of moments, I feel sorry for her, all alone in Alabama, far more thin than is reasonable for her age. Then she puts out her cigarette and nods at the yard where the party’s still raging. “Did you really make the shot?”

But I ignore her. I look inside my beer, where I find twenty-year-old me in her boyfriend’s dorm in the morning, my copy of Liza the Luminous tucked under my pillow. Frankie and I won an epic beer pong tournament the night before, which was when I crowned myself “The Assassin.” I ask him why nobody else had used my new name, why I couldn’t get it to stick. He’s handsome, his blond hair glowing in the morning light. “You’re no assassin,” he tells me lovingly. “Then who am I?” I ask, but all he does is laugh and kiss me. 

I put down my beer and turn to the Living Writer. 

“You really don’t know who I am, do you?” I ask. 

The noise from our neighbor’s yard is rising along with the noise inside my house, and it blasts at us from all sides, a symphony in our small dark forest. She smiles and opens her mouth. I can barely hear her when she finally gives me an answer. 


Maria Kuznetsova is the author of the novels Something Unbelievable (Random House, 2021) and Oksana, Behave! (Spiegel & Grau, 2019). She is also an assistant professor at Auburn University and the fiction editor of The Southern Humanities Review and The Bare Life Review, a journal of immigrant and refugee literature. Her writing can be found in Slate, The Southern Review, Guernica, Crazyhorse, The Threepenny Review, and elsewhere.