He calls it our khrushchyovka. He loves how small it is. Just 625 square feet. He doesn't even consider it small. It's the same size as the house he grew up in among California redwoods. More like a cabin than a house, he says. Strands of ivy grew indoors. In the back room, you could see your breath in the winter. Me? I grew up far away from here, in a neighborhood full of doctors and lawyers. A house of 4,000 square feet.
Our khrushchyovka includes seven stucco-sheathed buildings, each one four stories high. Something like three thousand residents live in hundreds of apartments here. We know our neighbors by scent and by sound, by brief glimpses as we come and go from work or walk to the grocery store or wait for the bus or open the gate to the pool we share.
We hear the klezmer tune that the couple next door plays in the evenings. We smell lemon and lentils from behind the door down the hall. Though the rules prohibit it, a bell hangs from one neighbor's door so each time she comes or goes, we hear a jingle. Sometimes a trace of rose-scented perfume remains in the elevator, a souvenir from a Russian woman I saw in the pool one afternoon, talking in her native tongue as she swam, her head above water as her husband swam nearby, his head submerged. He'd pause briefly, coming up for air, and I imagined her asking, "Are you listening to me?" but never waiting for an answer as she continued talking and he continued swimming, the two strangely and beautifully in synch.
A French-speaking couple was living in the unit across the hall when I first arrived. One night, I came home just as a party ended. Guests spilled from their place as I stood before my door, pulling out my key.
"Bonsoir," a man said, first to my neighbors, then to me.
"Bonsoir," said the woman at his side. She smiled.
"Bonsoir," I said, filling the pause between us, knowing my pronunciation must sound terrible. The air smelled of cologne and wine. When I locked the door behind [End Page 193] me, I blushed, full of envy for these people who looked so easily coupled, who had parties, who did not share the loneliness that seemed forever mine.
For the first year here, I lived alone. Then my person moved in, bringing with him boxes of books, wearing his usual uniform of Levi's and a blue shirt. He traveled light. He owned one pair of shoes.
"Don't you need a backup pair?"
"These are perfectly good shoes," he said. "What would I need a second pair for?"
Before him, I'd lived alone for nearly twenty years. I did not know if I could do it, share a space with someone else, even someone I loved, even someone like him, who, like me, loved books, who was fond of solitude and routine.
"If it doesn't work, I'll move out," he said one night, over the phone, as we discussed this moving in–together thing. "But we will stay together," he continued. "We'll figure out what's next."
Has anyone offered a more romantic gift? A way in and out simultaneously? A way forward I hadn't foreseen? It never occurred to me that two people might live together, then part, taking up different addresses but remaining coupled. It never occurred to me that two people might find a way to do what made sense for them, rather than following a cookie-cutter blueprint.
That first year, he cooked most nights and made a mess of the kitchen. Every night I'd panic, even as he'd say, "My mother's overjoyed when I cook for her."
I'd swim after dark, the solitude of water with the moon overhead enveloping me as I wondered if I'd done the right thing: agree to set up house, and, in doing so, give up on the dream to have a child. He'd helped someone raise two...