|Grabbing a towel to staunch the flow of blood coming from my nose, I blubbered at my wife:
“Goddamn it, Lisa, that hurt like hell. You shouldn’t have done that. You really shouldn’t have.”
“Oh, Mike,” she responded, “I am so sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I am so sorry. I just lost it.”
“I could have you arrested, don’t you know that? I could arrested you myself. You can’t just be slugging me like that.”
“Give me that towel. Let me look at it.”
“Get away from me. Leave me alone.”
All of her joints suddenly doing a slow collapse at the same time, she melted down to the blood-spattered floor and covered her face with her hands. Even through sobs and convulsions I could make out repeated apologies. But I felt like I had hit her. Even before I joined her on the floor, I was repeatedly saying how sorry I was.
The masks and protective gear, the continuing twelve-hour shifts and the endless flow of new cases had suddenly become too much for her. We had known our irritation thresholds were elevated and had even talked about it, but when I complained that she was overcooking the pork chops she whirled and hit me a right cross worthy of a professional boxer.
Lisa was a nurse in San Francisco. Not in the Intensive Care Unit where the ventilators and worst cases were, thank god, but on a ward with room after room of Coronavirus patients either recovering and eventually to be sent home, or worsening and about to be transferred to the ICU. She had always loved her work and only a couple days ago told me she was so glad she was able to do something meaningful to alleviate the suffering she seemed to take more personally than most. Several times she related that since she was a little girl, the only thing she ever wanted to be was a nurse. And, she was a good one. A big strong, never agitated, take-charge type of person, with confidence and even sometimes humor, she was a born leader. I had repeatedly told her she should have gone on to become a doctor.Lisa and I had been married for six years and despite endless tests and a fortune spent on in vitro fertilization attempts, were childless, a fact we hadn’t considered fortunate when the crisis had begun three weeks before. Now, even though neither of us expressed it, we regarded it as a blessing that we didn’t have little ones to worry about bringing the virus home to.
Still holding the towel against pain that I hoped was an unbroken nose, I whispered into the long auburn hair now hanging down across the side of her face:
“Honey, it’s my fault. It really is. What a stupid thing for me to say. I am so sorry.”
As a California Highway Patrolman, I hadn’t been working “twelves” like Lisa had been. No need. Our roads and freeways were all but deserted. There were few accidents to investigate, and even though the number of speeders going more than one hundred miles per hour had doubled, including one idiot clocked at one hundred and sixty-five, my work consisted largely of cruising up and down Highway 101 looking for expired license plates and wondering at the contents of every Code Three ambulance. Was another Coronavirus patient inside? Would getting him or her to the hospital a couple minutes quicker under cover of red lights and siren really make a difference?
Amid repeated expressions of love and remorse, Lisa and I slowly recovered and rose to deal with the increasingly complicated job of living our lives. It took more than an hour for her to examine my nose (it wasn’t broken), for us to clean up the kitchen and then to eat what she had been preparing (several times I said they were the best pork chops I had ever tasted). In bed a little later, she smiled sweetly and said:
“Honey, I know your nose is killing you, but if you thought it might help, I wouldn’t be opposed to making love.”
I knew the last thing she wanted to do right then was to have sex and thus in recognition of what it must have cost her emotionally to make the offer, I declined as softly as I could:
“Sweetie, if you really want to, we can, but I don’t think you want to. Why don’t you tell me about your day, instead?”
“I love you, Mike,” she whispered, and then immediately adopted a more business-like tone:
“Let me tell you about a new patient who came in today. He was ambulatory when he arrived. Drove himself to the hospital. Complained of a cough, fever, chest congestion and tiredness, all the classic symptoms. Even though he was on the borderline for admission, it seemed pretty likely he would get worse and he was admitted.
“Except for his symptoms, he was in great shape. Seventy-eight years old, had the body of a much younger man and seemed to be extremely fit. He had gray, close-cropped hair almost as if he was in the military. He had one of those thin little moustaches on his upper lip like men used to wear back in the forties and fifties. He said his name was Andre something or other – a long, Russian-sounding last name. Spoke very good, even somewhat aristocratic English, with just a twinge of an accent.
“I was in charge of getting him situated in his room and while I was doing so, the guy really wanted to talk. I was puttering about doing my usual thing and he was going on and on. Occasionally he would ask me a question about something he had just said, I guess just to make sure I was listening.
“Turns out the guy is a cousin or something of that Romanov fellow who used to live out in Inverness. I can’t remember this guy’s name – it wasn’t Romanov – but somehow he’s part of that whole Romanov clan. He said he didn’t have a title or anything, but that they’re all related.
“He said he had come to the U.S. right after perestroika, in 1990 or so. I think he said he was a college professor, or maybe a businessman of some sort. Or, maybe both.
“In any event, after I had finished what I needed to do for him, there was a bit of a lull on the ward and the shift supervisor told me to take a little break. Usually, I would have gone to the break room or cafeteria, but the guy was so interesting, I hung around just to listen to him.
“So he starts telling me an unbelievable tale about those Russian Faberge eggs and his mother, who is almost one hundred years old, still in Moscow.”
“Faberge eggs,” I interrupted her. “I know about them. I read a whole long article about them. Incredibly ornate and beautiful, encrusted with diamonds and jewels. Almost priceless. They made almost seventy of them, most of which are now in various collections in the Moscow Kremlin and around the world.”
“Right, that’s all true,” she answered. “But Andre also told me that a bunch of them have been lost. They disappeared in the chaos of the Russian Revolution and Civil War after 1917. Andre said the rich people who owned them hid them from the Communists and then when the Communists executed these people, no one knew where the eggs were hidden. But, he says, his mother has one.”
“Oh, come on,” I again interrupted her. “Surely you don’t believe that hundreds of historians and treasurer-seekers can’t find them, but this guy’s mother has one?”
“Well,” she continued, “he’s pretty convincing. First of all, it does seem that he’s related to the Romanovs. I can’t remember them all now, but he ticked off a couple dozen names of his family’s connections to the most aristocratic families in Russia or ones that wound up in Paris. I think he said he was even related to one of those oligarchs that owns some sports team in New Jersey or New York. The only name I remember for sure is Yusupov because Andre said it was in the Yusupov Palace in Saint Petersburg that Rasputin was murdered. Also, he was able to tell me some personal details about that Romanov out in West Marin.
“And, it wasn’t just any egg he said his mother has. He said she had one of the first ones created, called the Cherub with Chariot egg, one of the ones treasure hunters have been trying to find for years. I’m going to verify that on the internet, but it’s so easily checked, I can’t believe he would say it unless it were true.”
The cop in me coming out, I scoffed:
“Sweetie, an old guy comes into the hospital with Coronavirus, probably already delirious and tells you some far-fetched story and you believe it? I’m surprised at you.”
“I’m not saying I believe it exactly. I’m just saying that the way he tells it, it might have some truth to it. But wait, let me tell you what he says about his mother.
“Her name is Ludmilla, which I understand is a common Russian woman’s name. He says his mother was born in 1922 in Ekaterinburg, a big Russia city in the Ural Mountains. At that time the Russian civil war was still going on and Russia was still feeling the effects of the Spanish flu of 1918 which killed millions of people around the world. In short, Russia was a complete disaster.
“In the midst of all this, Andre says, here are his grandparents trying to escape execution by the Communists and holding this incredibly valuable egg which they had somehow obtained, probably from a relative about to face the firing squad. They took on alternate identities and for a while after Ludmilla’s birth were able to avoid capture. Finally though, they realized the secret police were on to them and they had little time left.
“So they buried the egg, along with several other pieces of their best jewelry, in some forest outside Ekaterinburg. The infant Ludmilla, along with a map to the location of the goodies, they entrusted to Ludmilla’s aunt, who had become a nun. Her name was Natalia.”
“Come on, Lisa,” I barked. “Next you’ll be telling me a Hansel and Gretel story about how Natalia sprinkled breadcrumbs to mark her way back to the egg after she had gone there the first time. This sounds like that tale Kevin Spacey’s character made up at the end of The Usual Suspects, when he used whatever facts popped into his head to create a plausible story.”
“Mike, let me finish. I don’t know anything about how she found it. Andre didn’t say. All he said was that somehow before Natalia died, she either got the map or the egg itself to Ludmilla. After all these years, Ludmilla still has the egg. First not trusting the Communists and then not trusting those who replaced them, she just held on to it. Now, feeble and infirm, she just recently told Andre the whole story and said he should come Ekaterinburg and get it. He was about to do that when he got sick.”
“So he wants you, a woman he just met, to fly to Russia for him, right? And once you’re there, he wants you to meet with a senile old woman who no doubt doesn’t speak a word of English, who will give you an egg worth zillions of dollars which you will somehow smuggle out of Russia and back into the United States? Is that about it? Is that what he wants you to do?”
“Well, when you put it that way . . .”
“Is there some other way to put it? To me, that sounds like it in a nutshell. So what’s supposed to happen next? Surely you’re not thinking about doing it, are you?”
“Yeah, I guess in a crazy sort of way I kinda was. But now that I tell you the story, it sounds a lot loonier than when I first considered it. No, don’t worry, I’m not going to Russia.”
“Well, thank goodness for the small shit,” I said with as much derision as I could muster.
“During my shift Andre deteriorated,” Lisa continued. “He was being taken to the ICU when I left for the day. He may be in great physical shape, but on the other hand he’s almost eighty years old. If he has to go on a ventilator his chances of recovering are not good.”
“Let me know tomorrow how he’s doing,” I said. “I’ve had enough for one day. Sleep tight.”
The next morning, I shambled into the kitchen where Lisa was dressed for work and already at the stove, frying bacon. On the counter behind her our small kitchen TV was tuned to CNN, where Wolf Blitzer was ticking off the latest dismal statistics: thousands of deaths in New York, with many more thousands infected, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles with their own accelerating numbers threatening to catch up, the administration’s medical expert using a new term called, “flattening the curve,” the president babbling on and on, contradicting himself and the scientists.
Sensing my presence, Lisa put down her fork and turned to examine my nose.
“How is it?” she asked. “Is it still painful?”
“Not bad,” I mumbled. “I’ve had worse.”
“Oh, Mike,” she started. “I’m so sorry.”
“Stop,” I said. “We went over it last night. Apologies given and accepted all the way around. No more about that. But what I’m concerned about is how I’m going to explain this nose at work today. I can hardly report in looking like Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and not have a good story to tell.”
“I guess you walked into a door won’t get it,” she wanly smiled.
“Oh, well,” I said. “Never mind now. I’ll think of something before I get there.”
Lisa and I had both been married before; she for almost eight years and me for ten. Neither of us had children. I didn’t have any because my first wife said she wasn’t ready, while Lisa told me she had always been ready but that despite lack of precautions, she had never conceived. Before the virus, we had both been increasingly aware of the ticking of a clock (Lisa was almost thirty-nine). But we had never talked about it. Even during all the tests and attempted fertilizations, we, mainly her, just did what we had to do and stoically received the results. Even when she read an article saying that a woman’s supply of eggs diminishes rapidly as she approaches menopause, she just told me about it, without comment. Of course, her request for a transfer to the obstetrics ward several weeks previously spoke volumes, but it, too, went without comment. She was still waiting for her request to be approved when the virus hit.
My own desire for children had been brought to a head by the births of my brother Mitch’s cute-as-buttons infants. Before his first was born I had always assumed that I would have children of my own, but the matter didn’t seem imperative. Then when Ashley was born and I held her and looked into those deep blue, innocent eyes, some primal urge took hold and I knew my life would not be complete without my own. After the birth of Brett, Mitch and Julie’s second, I told Lisa we would do whatever it took to have kids.
That evening I had dinner on the table when Lisa arrived home from work.
“Oh Mike,” she said as soon as she glanced at the roast chicken waiting to be carved, “you are a godsend. I don’t know what I appreciate more, you having dinner ready for us or that glass of chardonnay I see waiting for me. How is your nose? What did you tell them at work?”
“My nose is much better, thanks,” I said. “I’m still taking Tylenol every couple hours, but it’s a lot better than it was this morning. As to what I told them at work, the only thing I could think of to say was I was working out with weights and one of them slipped. Even when I told them my hands had been really sweaty, I’m not sure anyone believed me. But at least it got them off my back.”
As Lisa finished sanitizing her hands and went to shower, I mentally compared the days each of us had had. While I thought of my boring sorties up and down Highway 101 hoping I wouldn’t have to arrest anyone and take a chance on getting the virus even through my mask and gloves, I imagined Lisa on her ward in full defensive garb, rushing from patient to patient, hurriedly talking with doctors and other nurses, knowingly checking respirations and heart rates, all against a background of tubes, screens and beeping machines. Before she had arrived, I had entertained the idea that since my nose was so much better, she might even be willing to renew her offer of the night before, but one look at her tired eyes and thoughts of what she must be going through each day completely dispelled any notion of that.
She returned to me in the dining room wearing her over-sized fluffy white bath robe. Still towel-drying her hair, she abruptly said:
“Mike, I want a baby.”
“Well, of course you do, Sugar. So do I. Did you forget we’ve been trying for the last six years?”
“Come on, Mike, admit it. You know it’s hopeless. That last doctor made it pretty clear. I’m not capable. I’m never going to have a child.”
“OK,” I said, “we’ve always known we might have to adopt. That’s fine. Let’s get started.”
“No, Mike. I don’t want to adopt. I want for us to have a baby that has at least half our genes. An adopted child, as much as we might love it, would have none of our genes. I want you to father a child with my sister.”
“What?” I exclaimed. “Harper would never go for that.”
“It was Harper’s idea,” Lisa said calmly.
“Well, I’ll be goddamned,” I mumbled.
“Honey, don’t you see the logic of it? The baby would have half its genes from you and because Harper and I are so much alike, a goodly portion of my family’s genes from her. It’s a perfect plan.”
“No fucking way, Lisa. It’s the stupidest idea I ever heard of.”
“Please, Mike, just think about it.
“Not hardly. What doctor or fertility clinic is going to inseminate Harper with my sperm and then fill out whatever paperwork is required to say that you and I are the parents?”
“Mike,” she said as if she was addressing the newest nurse on her ward, “we’ve already spent a fortune on failed embryo implants. We’re tapped out. Have you looked at our credit card statements lately? We don’t have to do artificial insemination.”
I stared at her.
“Don’t you see,” she said, “we’re all mature adults. We could do artificial insemination, but why incur that expense? I’m sure we can handle you and Harper having what would amount to therapeutic sex. Harper said that if she was just doing us a favor, she even doubted she would enjoy it. Then, shortly before the baby is born, we can all fly to Thailand, where I understand we can buy a birth certificate listing you and I as the parents.”
Intending to dispose of the matter once and for all, I allowed my authoritarian self to take over and calmly announced:
“No, Lisa. We’re not going to do that.”
“Mike, you and Harper have already seen each other naked. Remember that backpacking trip when we spent half the time skinny dipping?
“And you think seeing each other naked is anywhere close to being in the same ballpark with having sex? Wow. At first, like with the Russian guy, I thought you had gone off your rocker. But you’re not just off your rocker. You have gone absolutely bat shit bonkers. No, no, and no.”
The next evening, after we had eaten the cheeseburgers and French fries I had prepared, Lisa brought it up again.
“Mike, I hope you’re reconsidering Harper’s offer. She and I have gone over and over it and we just can’t see that there are any drawbacks. Please, Mike, this is a really good idea. Think of that son you’ve always wanted.”
“No drawbacks! Well how about me fucking your sister? That’s a pretty big drawback in my book.”
“During our single days,” she responded, “you and I both had sex with partners that didn’t mean a damn thing. Ever had a one-night stand? I know you have. Me, too. You probably don’t even remember their names. Meaningless. Give it some more thought and we’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
During the ensuing twenty-four hours I thought of little else besides me, Lisa, Harper and babies. In addition to trying to think of every possible consequence of what the women had in mind, several times I reminded myself that both Lisa and I still had as friends three or four people with whom we had slept in our single days. I certainly didn’t think those short trysts had any lingering meaning and I doubted that Lisa did either. Finally, as I was pouring from the evening’s bottle of wine, I said:
“Lisa, I’ve thought about it a lot and maybe your idea is not as crazy as I first thought it was. The answer is still, no, but give me a couple more days to think about it.”
But I didn’t need two more days. By the next night when Lisa came home I had pretty much made up my mind. I wanted children maybe even more than she did, and the plan she and Harper had come up with seemed like the best we could do under the circumstances. But for some reason, I asked about the Russian guy.
“He’s still in the ICU,” she answered. “The docs say he’s holding his own. He’s not on a ventilator so that’s good. The next couple days should tell.”
Something about Lisa’s answer irritated me. I didn’t care about the Russian. I had baby-making on my mind. I couldn’t even say why I had asked about him. Nevertheless, her innocent, straight-forward answer struck a discordant note. A lot of things had been irritating me the past few days. Like the citizen I had almost arrested when he didn’t immediately produce his driver’s license. In the past, I would have just calmly warned him that non-compliance was not an option. In this instance, I had to fight off an impulse to slap the cuffs on him.
“So just when do you and the breeder propose that we get this show on the road and she and I do the deed?” I regretted saying it as soon as the words left my lips.
“Oh, Mike,” she said, “don’t be that way. If we can’t talk about it nicely, then I don’t want to talk about it at all.”
As we stared at each other, my mind involuntarily began relating my sarcastic question to the blow she had delivered to my nose. No comparison, I thought. She had crossed the line – big time. All I did was ask a question in a rude way, something spouses did all the time. Her hitting me was something completely different. It took a few seconds to see that I was comparing apples and oranges. She may have been in the wrong when she hit me, but this was a different time and place. I no right to speak to her so disrespectfully.
“I’m sorry, Lisa,” I said. “I guess this whole situation is getting to me. I didn’t mean it like that. What I meant to say is that, yes, I’ve thought about it — actually, I’ve thought of little else since you mentioned it – and that I think we should do it. And, I want to say that Harper is an absolute angel. I don’t think there are very many women that would have a child for someone else. If by some slight chance there might be a heaven, this should qualify her for it. The only question is when?”
“Harper wants to do it as soon as possible. She’s afraid she’ll meet her next husband and he’ll put the kibosh on the whole deal. So, let’s see how this virus thing plays out and as soon as we think the end is in sight, we can get her impregnated.”
One year later, our son, Harry, was born into a much different world.
The virus had peaked in the U.S. during the summer with thousands and thousands dead and millions infected. Worldwide, mostly due to unreliable counts and government coverups, accurate figures were hard to come by. However, the most reliable statistics had it that more than a million were dead and many millions more infected.
As to the economy, after absolutely tanking when the virus first hit, with more unemployed than even during the Great Depression and a precipitous fall in GDP, it slowly began to recover. With individuals and businesses adapting to new concepts and new ways of operation, the businesses that hadn’t failed began a slow climb up which has not yet peaked. Of course, it’s not back to where it was and the lower classes continue to suffer disproportionately, but some claim that from the ruins a more prosperous, even perhaps more just economic order will arise.
Our trip to Thailand came off even better than we had hoped. The three of us, Lisa, Harper and me, had all taken leaves of absence from our jobs and spent a lovely three months waiting for Harper to deliver. The doctors, nurses and hospital staff in Bangkok were absolutely first class. Perhaps because Harper reminded all within earshot that Lisa was a nurse, the care and attention we received was superb.
At birth, Harry weighed eight pounds, ten ounces, was twenty inches long, and had an Apgar score of nine. Lisa and Harper both think he looks their side of the family, but that chin and jawline could have come from none other than my father and me.
And, oh, yeah, the Russian guy. First of all, you’ll be glad to know he made it. After a few rough days in the ICU he was transferred back to Lisa’s ward where he spent almost three weeks getting well enough to go home.
Unfortunately, he didn’t get to Moscow before his mother died. He flew there as soon as he could, but there was no sign of the egg or any clue as to where it might be. Despite his thorough search of her apartment and intensive questioning of her neighbors, he returned empty-handed.
During the time Andre had been recovering on Lisa’s ward, the worst of the Corona virus crisis had passed in San Francisco, so that Lisa and the other healthcare providers were able to return to a semblance of their former routines. As a result, she and Andre had time to talk, sometimes at length.
“I’m not sure what it is,” Lisa had told me one evening. “Andre and I are developing this incredible connection. It’s uncanny. It’s not like I have Russian roots or anything, but we seem to think a lot alike. We really enjoy talking with each other. He’s really smart and knows a lot about many things. I’m not quite able to hold my own with him, but he doesn’t seem to mind, and I like learning from him.”
“Lisa, are you falling for this old guy?” I asked, slightly piqued.
“Mike, what a stupid thing to ask. He’s almost eighty years old. I love you and always will. But, he’s got a son who’s single. I’m not quite sure how old the son is, but he visited with Andre and I think the son and Harper might be great together. I was thinking that maybe after the baby is born and things get back to normal, we might have them all to dinner.”
|Tommie W. Whitener writes novels and short stories, often with a Russian connection. He still considers Los Angeles his true home, even though for many years he has lived in Marin County with his wife, Svetlana. His previously published works include the novel, Mother Earth: Three Couples, an exploration of the nexus between marital relationships and personal development, the historical novel, Tom & Leone: Star-Crossed Lovers, and the collection of short stories, Wanda and the Watch. His short story, Too Many Memories was recently published in the literary magazine, Red Fez. In addition to a new collection of short stories, he is at work on another historical novel, this one set in Russia in the late nineteenth century and inspired by a Chekhov short story.|