The Cake

The night before being arrested and sent to the prison from which he’ll never emerge, the playwright David Gronfein has a long and bitter quarrel with his mistress, Natalya Ivanovna Kalmykov. It’s a quarrel they’ve had before, many times. Natalya wants to marry. Gronfein is already married. His wife, long estranged, lives abroad. To travel to France with divorce papers would require permission from the authorities here in Moscow. Such a request would likely be ignored. Worse, it might provide a bored official evidence to accuse him of spying for Western powers.

“This is pointless,” he says. “The whole topic is a waste of time.”

“For you, maybe. But if you haven’t noticed, I am not yet old and used up. I have a life ahead of me.”

They go to bed hurt and angry, undressing in the dark and lying with backs to each other. In the morning, as usual, they both wake contrite, though pride keeps them from showing it. Gronfein knows the argument isn’t pointless, not if read for subtext, something he should understand professionally if not personally. It might, after all, have been a scene from one of his own plays, back when he could still write them. How else can Natalya express her longing for a future they both know he doesn’t have? How else can she fight off despair?

It’s May, 1938. Many of his friends have already disappeared. The only reason he still lives free is for so long he has produced so little. To denounce his work as subversive now would be to admit having overlooked it for years. Yet he knows it’s only a matter of time before the police come for him. Eventually they’ll run out of more threatening figures and find him an acceptable stand-in for an actual counterrevolutionary, even at fifty-six and wrung dry of words, abandoned by wife and daughter, suffering from a kidney ailment, living with a twenty-nine-year-old engineer who is as much nurse as lover.

What else can she do but occasionally rage against the inevitable, blame him in advance for the pain she is sure one day to suffer?

If not the feeling itself, the memory of insult lingers so that they do not speak over breakfast in the small kitchen they share with an electrician and his wife, both of whom have finished eating and retreated to their rooms on the apartment’s lower floor. But Gronfein has already decided he will stop at the market in the afternoon, to purchase fresh herbs. For his wife he would have bought flowers, but Natalya prefers practical gifts, those she can wear or eat rather than simply gaze at in passing. She is an efficient woman who speaks only as many words as she needs, and when it comes to pleasure, she wants multiple senses engaged. He already imagines their silent reconciliation, the fragrance of dill and parsley filling the kitchen while she cooks and he prepares their tea.

And he’s relieved to find he’s not alone in imagining it. Natalya, too, anticipates the coming dissipation of hard feelings. Before leaving for work, she sets on the sideboard a plate bearing three small eggs. He notices only after she’s shut the door, and seeing them looses a flood of affection that nearly propels him out of his chair, makes him chase after her to call apologies and endearments down the stairs, beg her to return so he can embrace her and cover her neck with kisses. But with the pain in his kidney, he cannot rise quickly and run. In any case, such a display would likely embarrass her. So instead he remains sitting, sipping the last of his coffee, contemplating the scene of a play he guesses he’ll never write.

He understands what the eggs mean. This evening, when she returns from her office at the Metroproekt, where she designs underground rail tunnels and station platforms, she will make Medovik, the honey cake that was her favorite as a child. She will present it to him as an appeasement, though he knows she makes it only when she’s feeling most in need of comfort. And he will do his best to act both surprised and touched, assuring her that they will indeed one day be married, he will find a way, he promises. What’s the harm in a bit of fantasy, if it gives her an hour’s solace, a day’s hope? How lucky he is to share a bed with this handsome young woman— brilliant and intrepid daughter of Siberian peasants, model of the proletariat, symbol of progress—even if only for a short time.

And thinking of their bed, he finds himself aroused for the first time in weeks, the desire that has been suppressed by pain and fear seeping to the surface like warm air through a narrow vent. If only he can maintain it for the rest of the day, then after they have eaten the Medovik he will lead her to the bed, remind her that there is vitality in him still, this small, paunchy Jew who fought White Cossacks in Kuban, who was once considered the standard-bearer of the new Yiddish literature, though now he is mostly forgotten. He’ll sweep her into his arms, ignoring the pain in his side, and for one more night at least give her the passion she deserves.

In the meantime, he will channel the feeling into words, which have eluded him for much of the past decade. He returns to the desk he avoids most days, opens his notebook to a draft of the play at which he has been hammering for longer than he cares to remember. It is meant to be about the early days of the Revolution, the period of famine that followed, the resilience of those who believed in the dream they enacted, the dignity that accompanied suffering. He, too, once believed in this dream—in its purest form, he still does—but for too long he has been writing with censors in mind, those who would weigh each word for the appropriate amount of patriotic fervor. As a result, the characters have become wooden, their lines spoken as if from a podium, even in scenes set in a blighted field.

Today, though, he manages to abandon himself to these people he once felt he knew so well, allows them to argue and say hurtful things masking feelings they cannot articulate. For the first time in many months, he envisions the stage from which the actors playing them will project their lines, and on it conjures a sideboard, a plate with three puny eggs, a sign of hope amid misery and strife. He has written four pages—more than in the last six weeks—and is still scribbling, sweat gathering under his arms, when there comes a knock on the door. He wants to ignore it, to let the words continue pouring onto the page. They seem to arrive now almost without his effort, and he is afraid that once he releases the pen, they will never again come so easily or with such assurance.