Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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CNF Essay
3569 words
SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

The Ski Jacket

by Laura Esther Wolfson

It was at a funeral parlor that my ex-husband rose from the dead. Eleven years had passed since last sighting, and now here he was before me, his hair utterly gray, much grayer than I could have imagined. His hair could have been far less gray and still have been terribly gray. And he still had years to go before turning fifty. Someone, I don’t remember now who it was, for such reports used to come in unsolicited from a variety of sources, had told me long ago that he had gone gray in the months after I left. In my mind, though, his hair had kept its ruddy tint, right up until this moment.

Irakli was seated near the front of the chapel. I entered at the rear. The back of his head, with that unfamiliar gray hair massed on it, was the first part of him I saw. Right away I knew him.

I had long imagined that we might meet again, but the circumstances of our meeting had remained vague in my mind. Then I heard that Pavel Mikhailovich, who had been a sort of uncle to me until I moved away from Philadelphia and fell out of touch, was in a coma, in hospice care, failing fast. Nora, the love of his last years, called to tell me. When I got off the phone with Nora, my brain began to churn and click, like one of those old-fashioned adding machines with the handle on the side that you turn to do the calculations. As it churned and clicked, it set each proposition squarely atop the preceding one: Pavel will die soon; there will be a funeral; I will go; Irakli will be there; our paths will cross.

I had remarried by then, but I felt a perverse thrill at the prospect of seeing once more the man who had ruined my life. To be fair, I had probably ruined his too, but since he had severed contact, I knew little about what he had become. From mutual acquaintances, I occasionally heard mention of jobs and girlfriends acquired or lost, of the hair gone gray, but not enough to assemble a coherent picture of a life.

I’m not a religious person, but I nurture a secret conviction—it really is almost that, a hope so fervent that it approaches conviction—that someday I will be reunited with all the people who were, at various times, important to me and whom I no longer see, whether due to breakup, death, or merely because we’ve lost track of each other. And I believe that when we meet again, we will get along beautifully, and all our memories of our shared times will match up; there will be no contradictions.

In fact, people drift away, so far away that there is no finding them, Facebook notwithstanding. You never see them again, or if you do, the encounter is meaningless. Or, when you finally see them, they are in their coffins. But I imagine these meetings as I wish them to be. I imagine them taking place in pastures filled with goldenrod and buttercups, by brooks dappled with late-afternoon sun.

During much of our marriage and before, Irakli lavished me with caresses and pet names. Most of his pet names were variants on the Russian word for “beautiful”: krasavitsa, krasatulya, krasatulenka, krasivinkaya, krasavochka, krasatulochka. I did not always know which of these were real words and which ones he had invented; my knowledge of Russian, while professional and serviceable (I still earn my living as a Russian translator), was not native and did not extend to such subtleties. But there was one word that I knew for sure was his coinage: he had melded my name with one of these forms and come up with Lauratulochka. Of all the names he called me, it was my favorite.

And then, as I was emptying my side of the closet and we were deciding, peaceably enough, how to divide the pots, the utensils, and the furniture (he got all of the joint purchases, except the piano, which he didn’t play, and the Oriental carpet, which he didn’t care for, and I kept the family pieces from my parents; there were no family pieces from his side, because his parents were in the former USSR, as were all of their possessions), he told me that I was so ugly and dressed so badly that he had always been embarrassed to be seen with me. It was one of the last things he said to me.

Everything turns into its opposite when a marriage ends. Play the sound track of a marriage backward, and you will hear the satanic lyrics of divorce. Never again would I recall the times when he had told me I was beautiful, a goddess; had exclaimed, if only you knew how fine you are, you have no idea; or the rhapsodic comments about my eyes, hands, shoulders, voice, et cetera, without remembering that in the end he had said he found me embarrassingly ugly.

You ponder these things, trying to extract some sense from them until you can think about them no more, or until your circumstances have changed so much that they no longer matter, and finally, unresolved, they fade. That, I have learned, is how we survive the numerous long decades of our lives with their immeasurable suffering: everything fades. Oblivion. Gone. Maybe he didn’t truly think that I was dowdy and plain; maybe anger and pain made him say something he didn’t believe. I tried to forget. Mostly, I succeeded.

But because of that word, “ugly,” when I anticipated seeing him at the funeral so many years later, I did something out of character: I gave some thought to what I would wear. I didn’t go shopping; that would have been carrying things too far. I simply opened the closet and the jewelry box and took stock, settling on a yellow silk blouse and a black satin skirt with a flounce, a black karakul jacket with a faux fur collar, black boots and topaz earrings to match the blouse. It was a magical outfit, the kind an ordinary woman like me—not a fashion designer, not a model, not even an amateur whose wardrobe is her life’s work—may assemble once every decade or two, if she’s lucky. I already knew its power: when I had worn the ensemble on prior occasions, men followed me down the street pleading for my phone number. That did not usually happen.

Not that I wanted Irakli to follow me down the street. We were well beyond that. I just wanted to point out the error. The fashion statement I intended to make was very simple: I am not ugly. Full stop.

Would he hear? I would never know; that I already knew. The encounter I was preparing for with such uncharacteristic attention to sartorial detail would not matter.


The day of Pavel’s funeral marked a brief return for me to a culture where I spent much of my twenties and early thirties. History has played such tricks that I don’t know what to call it now: It’s no longer “Soviet,” that is certain, but “Russian” doesn’t capture it either. Irakli was Georgian on his father’s side, and most of the people at the funeral would be Jewish, which to a real Russian meant that they weren’t Russian, even if they had grown up in Russia and spoken only Russian all their lives. Whatever you called it, it was a world where I almost never set foot anymore, unless my work called for it; a world where the language spoken was Russian, and where the customs were a combination of unadulterated Old World plus quirky Old-World takes on the New.

I took the train from New York City, now home, to Philadelphia, where I had spent nine years of my life: five with Irakli, followed by four without him. (Before Philadelphia, we had spent some years together in the Caucasus and in upstate New York.) The Russian immigrant quarter of Philadelphia is an expanse of suburban sprawl that seems to approach the size of Siberia. Despite that, there is not a lot to see: gas stations and strip malls and raw, new synagogues, whose signs say not “synagogue” but “Jewish center.”

In the strip malls, there are countless small grocery stores with signs in English and Russian that read “international food store,” “European delicacies,” “Israeli foods,” “Ukrainian treats,” but never, for reasons I can grasp but not explain, “Russian” anything. These stores trade in gustatory nostalgia, the flavors of childhood and home and the long-ago and the never-again: all manner of meat-filled pies, a type of Siberian dumpling called pelmeni, and Salat Olivier, which is made from mayonnaise, boiled carrots and potatoes, ham, canned peas, and then more mayonnaise. (Legend has it that this salad is a French delicacy that was introduced to Russia in the nineteenth century by a Russian chef returning home after serving his apprenticeship in Paris. Salat Olivier is unknown in France, and no French person faced with the dish would ever let it touch his or her lips, but that has done nothing to lay the story to rest.)

Old-World housewives recently arrived in America believe that the traditional dishes can be made only in a home kitchen, lovingly. But once they understand that, yes, these flavors can be purchased from strangers who prepare them for money (it takes a few months in America to accept this, with all it implies about the fungibility of things once thought unique), immigrant women hasten to forget their mothers’ recipes, along with so much other knowledge that was indispensable back home, and they become regulars at the little international/European/Israeli/Ukrainian grocery stores, shopping for the old, beloved dishes.


I rode to the funeral with an old Russian-speaking woman I had never met before. She was a friend of Nora, the bereaved woman. Her name was Valentina.

First, Valentina told me her immigration story, which dated to the seventies. She told it in Russian, with a few English words thrown in—welfare, social security, driver’s license, mortgage—when she couldn’t remember the Russian ones, or if the words didn’t exist in Russian.

That done, she said, “I’ve known Irakli longer than you have.” So, she knew I had been married to him; Nora must have told her. And apparently she thought that she and I were in some sort of a competition to see who had known him longer.

“How long have you known him?” I asked, incapable of changing the subject. Her assertion could not possibly be true, but her version of events aroused in me an idle curiosity.

“I met him right after he came here,” she answered without hesitation.

This was false, I knew. I had met Irakli while living and working in the Republic of Georgia (then still part of the USSR), and we had married there as the USSR was collapsing, and together we had made the complicated arrangements for him to come to America with me. We had gone on to spend years together in the United States, years during which this woman seated next to me had not figured in our lives at all.

I told her this, somewhat less baldly than I have stated it here. Valentina looked perplexed and fell silent. I was perplexed too.

Then I thought back to when we had been married for slightly over a year and Irakli quit his first job in the United States, the one with the boss he couldn’t stand. Nearly two years of unemployment had followed. Then he responded to an ad and landed an interview, which he aced. As it was winding down, the prospective employer said that Irakli should report to work the following Monday. As an afterthought, he asked for a reference. Irakli put him in touch with his old boss, the one he couldn’t stand, because that was his only reference in the entire Western Hemisphere. The reference was checked. The job offer was withdrawn.

After that, I suggested that he tell interviewers that he had just come to the United States, and could provide no references here. There would be no way for anyone to determine precisely when he had arrived. And what if they asked for a reference from back home? The Iron Curtain had just been pulled aside, but phone calls to Irakli’s hometown nine time zones away still cost two dollars per minute, which may not sound like much, but it adds up very fast. And if that didn’t put off prospective employers seeking references, there was always the language barrier. So, he ceased mentioning that first job and the hated boss, who, incidentally, died during a camping trip soon after Irakli left his employ, when a tree fell on his tent during a cloudburst, leaving untouched his wife and young daughter, who were lying on either side of him.

Immigration involves countless hardships, of course. So it seems only fair that—unlike those of us who have the luck to live in the same country our entire lives, rather than finding ourselves abruptly transferred to an “elsewhere” for which we have received little to no preparation—immigrants should be able to draw a line and arbitrarily move back their official arrival date, deleting anything unpleasant or awkward that transpired at the outset.

And now I understood that Irakli had done this with me, too. I had been airbrushed, like his boss. Apparently, he had been telling people that he had arrived in the United States the year after we separated, when he had in fact already been here for the better part of a decade. With this story, he had relegated me to a past inaccessible to anyone he might meet, and perhaps even to himself. He was trying to make believe that our marriage had never taken place.

The trick had not been completely successful, though: Valentina knew of his marriage to me. But I was puzzled; she knew we had been married, and she believed she had known him since his arrival in America, longer than I had. Thus, she must believe she had known him while we were married. How did she account for the fact that she and I had never met before, and that I had never heard of her until now? Her confusion and mine clearly stemmed from some untruth told by Irakli that was at least close, if not identical, to the one I now surmised.

I knew this the way you know things about people you’ve known intimately for a long time, even if you haven’t spoken for over a decade. Which is to say, I was certain of it.

“And you know what he said?” the old woman asked me with a sly smile. She had saved the best for last.

“What?” I asked. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to know, but a lifetime of ingrained politeness has slowed my reflexes. I simply do not know how to deflect unwanted remarks and inquisitive questions.

“He said, ‘She just suddenly left me without ever explaining the reason why.’”

She grinned mischievously, in the way of old women who have nothing more to lose. Someday, in a future that is bearing down all too rapidly, I, too, will find myself grinning that way.

She took her eyes off the road for an instant and glanced over at me.

“Not true!” I exclaimed. “Nepravda!”

I was about to enumerate the reasons I had left, and how I could be sure that he knew those reasons. But—who was this woman I had never heard of before today, and why was she telling me how my first marriage had ended?

I breathed deeply, twice.

He knows why I left,” I said.

We pulled up and parked next to the funeral parlor.


When I came into the chapel and saw the gray back of his head, I knew that he would want me to act as if I didn’t see him. I leaned over the pew behind him and spoke his name just above a whisper; at least I should give him the option of pretending not to hear. He turned toward me and rose.

“Hello,” I said in Russian. That was what we had always spoken.

“Hello,” he said. He did not switch to English, which I took as a good sign.

“How are you?”

“All right,” he said with his crooked smile. “And you? How’s life?”

There was something ironic in the way he said it, as if acknowledging that ours was a case in which words could convey nothing, nothing at all. How could we sum up the suffering we had caused each other, and how we had made it, separately, through the last decade-plus? It was just not possible.

There was a pause. Then he asked where I had traveled from.

“From New York,” I said. “I live in New York now.”

He continued looking at me steadily, his hands shoved deep into his pockets. So, he still did that. I used to stitch up the seams of his pants pockets where his fists had pushed through.

There was another pause, then we nodded to each other and I moved toward the front, where the man who had brought us together again lay in his coffin. The lid was up; my old friend was dapper in a navy blue suit and a red and blue striped necktie. On his cheeks there was a hint of rouge.


After the service, a line of cars made its way to the cemetery. The mourners walked through the muddy January grass, picking their way amidst the graves.

Photographs of the dead were etched onto the stones, as they probably are in countless cemeteries in all the far-flung places where Russian-speakers establish communities and then, one by one, die. I had long been familiar with the Russian émigré groceries, even patronized them, but this was my first Russian émigré cemetery.

I had seen similar cemeteries in the former Soviet Union though. In Georgia, shortly before our wedding, we had visited the grave of Irakli’s grandfather twice, along with the whole family: once to mark the anniversary of his death and once on his birthday. My grandmother-in-law, who would soon lie next to him, had vigorously polished her husband’s tombstone on those visits with a soft rag brought for the purpose, pulled the weeds around the stone and then, with a watering can, sprinkled the flowers planted around it. That done, she had laid out a picnic. We ate cold chicken and boiled potatoes seasoned with dill, then licked our fingers. We toasted with vodka and poured a few drops on the ground so the dead man could partake.

In this émigré graveyard, one stone caught my eye. Beneath the photograph, name, and dates (1991–2008) a single word was carved in Russian: “killed.”

Irakli wasn’t here.

Then I saw him.

He stood on the other side of the open grave, talking with someone I didn’t know. His feet were far apart, his hips jutted forward, his hands, again, were shoved into his pockets. The conversation appeared to be very man-to-man, though I was too far away to hear.

I recognized the jacket he was wearing, black with turquoise-colored side panels. It dated to the last years of our marriage. Long ago, I had owned one exactly like it; in the winter, we used to go skiing in the Poconos almost every weekend, and he had fitted both of us out with all the necessary gear, and then some.

Where was my jacket now? I had divested myself of it years ago. The sight of his, which I had not thought of in so long, rhymed with its old image folded away on a shelf in my memory, and I gasped at the correspondence between the real and the remembered.

Then I wondered, could he afford nothing newer? Should I worry? Or had he simply preserved it out of Old-World frugality? When we married and were preparing to come to the United States, he had purchased several dozen pairs of pin-striped briefs, size medium, from the government department store in downtown Tbilisi. The idea was that, for years to come in America, he would avoid spending precious hard currency—U.S. dollars—on underpants. Those briefs, I thought now, were probably still doing service.

Irakli did not glance my way. The cantor went through his paces, and the mourners walked up one by one to toss dirt on the coffin. Finally, I understood. I’m slow to get certain things, and I persistently believe what I choose to believe, even when it is obviously unreal; I tell myself fairy tales about pastures of goldenrod and gurgling brooks; I’ve said this all already. But finally, I understood that had I not said hello to him, he would not have acknowledged me. And that since I had, responding briefly and with a modicum of politeness was merely the most effective, the most effortless way to ignore me.

For a moment, I ceased to exist. Irakli ceased to exist. The past ceased to exist. Only the ski jacket was real.


SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Laura Esther Wolfson

lives in New York City, where she earns her living as a translator of Russian, French, and Spanish to English. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gettysburg Review, The Rumpus, The Sun, Zyzzyva, and elsewhere and has repeatedly been listed as “notable” in The Best American Essays.

For many years, she served as the interpreter for Russian-speaking writers participating in the PEN World Voices Festival and volunteered as a PEN prison writing mentor. She has translated a book on how to swear in Russian and one on the fate of Yiddish writers under Stalin.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury