Molly Antopol's debut story collection, The UnAmericans, is now available from W.W. Norton.
Fridays were busy outside Alameda Point. Women shouldered past Alexi, coiffed and perfumed and in pumps and pearls and fuzzy sweaters, calling for their children to hurry up and take their places in the inspection line. For the past twelve months, Alexi had only known the other side to these afternoons, the men’s collective anticipation of those sacred hours in the cramped visiting room or, on sunny days, at the picnic tables in the yard—men who had stopped, at a certain point, asking Alexi about his own family once it was painfully clear they were never coming to see him.
Standing at the entrance now, watching his ex-wife and son pull up to the correctional facility, Alexi felt jumpy and nervous and a little out of breath. And not just about his release, or the fact that Katherine was giving him their son for the weekend, but because she’d agreed to come to begin with. He wondered what it meant—a move toward forgiveness, maybe nothing at all. He couldn’t even tell if, after a year inside, he looked any different. Maybe a few pounds thinner but wearing the same slacks and button-down they’d known him in last, clutching, in a flimsy plastic bag, all his remaining possessions: his wallet, containing a mere twenty-two dollars; house keys that would no longer work; the sports section from the morning he was brought in, August 12, 1950, which felt like a cruel joke, as if flaunting that on top of everything else, he had missed the Yankees’ repeat as world champions.
“Benny!” he said, peering into the car. Then, turning to the driver’s seat, “Katherine!”
But she wouldn’t look at him. She just sat there, checking her watch as if frustrated that she’d never get these seconds of her life back, while Benny crawled into the backseat for his suitcase. It was technically Alexi’s suitcase, and he had a sudden image of everything else he’d once owned in Los Angeles, before the house was seized earlier that year and Katherine had dragged all of his belongings, his books and clothes and excellent record collection, out to the street on garbage day and moved with Benny to a tiny studio in Palms.
“Drop him at Ellen’s Sunday morning,” Katherine said, staring at the dashboard, and Alexi found, with a pang, that she still had a disorienting effect on him: her high cheekbones and light brown eyes and delicate hands gripping the wheel, so small they always made his own in comparison feel massive and clumsy. But he noticed, too, the lines that had begun to deepen across her forehead and how pale she was for summer, as if she’d barely had a chance to go outside.
And then, finally, she met his gaze. All at once everything he’d been planning to tell her, the carefully crafted apologies he’d been working on so much of the year—suddenly all of that was moot, seeing from her such a look of disdain it was clear she wanted him erased from her life. “She’s on Twenty-Eighth and Church,” she said flatly, scribbling down her sister’s address, all their road trips to visit Ellen in San Francisco apparently cast away and forgotten, some other couple’s history.
Benny climbed out of the car and ran to him. Alexi stroked his soft hair and breathed in everything at once, gum and sleep and cheese on his breath, wondering, if just through smell and touch, he could determine whether his nine-year-old was okay. “I missed you,” Alexi said, and right then something seemed to kick inside Katherine and she bolted out of the driver’s seat. She pulled their son toward her, pressing his face to her blouse, and whispered, “Call me at Aunt Ellen’s if you need anything.” And when Benny said, “Jeez, Mom, it’s just two days,” she reached through the open car window, pulled a five-dollar bill from her pocketbook, and thrust it into his hand. “In case of emergency,” she said, as if Alexi weren’t standing right there, as if Benny weren’t going away with his own father but a derelict stranger, hurtling her boy into the wild.
She kissed Benny’s head, then got back in the car without even a wave good-bye to Alexi, and he led his son across the lot to the Plymouth he’d arranged to borrow for the weekend, rusty and dilapidated with candy wrappers and cola bottles cluttering the backseat. He slid in beside Benny and drove out of the gates and onto the bridge, where all at once the San Francisco skyline came into view. Flawless, if it weren’t for Katherine in the rearview mirror, as if signaling that the three of them would never be together in a car again, the windows down, her cheek on his shoulder, his hand on her calf.
He sank his foot onto the gas, and the cluster of cars surrounding him, Katherine’s included, quickly disappeared. Then he glanced sideways at his son. As a baby, Benny had looked so much like him that even the sight of his child, sitting in his high chair or napping in his crib, used to startle Alexi so intensely he’d forget why he entered the room in the first place. He’d read somewhere that there was a biological reason for it, that it afforded fathers the kind of closeness and recognition mothers inherently felt after pregnancy. But over the past year Benny had begun to resemble him less, his curly black hair now wavy and light like Katherine’s, his once-olive skin so pale it was like the whole veiny map of his interior was open for public viewing. He’d shot up maybe four inches since they’d seen each other last but hadn’t put on any weight—though maybe, Alexi thought, his son could work the gangliness in his favor if he played the smart, serious card with girls. He knew from Katherine that once again Benny had gotten all A’s, about which Alexi was deeply proud and had been bragging to everyone inside.
“What’s your favorite subject?” he asked his son.
“Science, and probably history.”
Alexi nodded. These seemed like solid answers. “Who’s your best teacher?”
“It’s August,” the boy said, looking at him curiously. “I’m on summer vacation.”
“Ah,” Alexi said. He pulled off at Nineteenth and drove along the park. He’d never liked San Francisco. Its beauty had always felt so showy, with its choppy blue water and steep, craggy hills and all those frilly houses painted candy-egg colors. Alexi was an actor and it had always felt to him, visiting the city, that he was on the set of San Francisco even when in the middle of it, even drinking coffee or eating a sandwich or waiting outside the ferry terminal. His closest friend from inside, Karl Mueller, had set him up with the car, along with a friend-of-a-friend’s apartment for the weekend. But the directions were complex and confusing, and as Alexi backed out of a one-way street, then headed down a dead end, he found himself pining for the wide, no-nonsense boulevards of Los Angeles.
“I have it all planned out,” Alexi said. “I’ve got us a great place for the weekend”—if he ever found it, he thought, silently cursing yet another one-way street to nowhere—“and we’ll do it up, a steak dinner tonight, pancakes for breakfast.”
“Is that what you want?” his son said.
“What do you mean?”
“Your first weekend out.”
How grown-up of Benny to consider his needs, Alexi thought. He’d always been that way. Alexi remembered picking him up from nursery school years ago, and the teacher telling him that when they were playing musical chairs and the girl left without a seat began to cry, Benny immediately stood up and offered his. He’d relished seeing his son through the teacher’s admiring eyes, though lately Alexi had been worrying about the line between generosity and patsiness growing murkier now that Benny had been alone with his mother. He’d sensed, in his calls to Katherine from Alameda Point, the weight that had been thrust on the boy. Usually she’d pass the phone off to Benny the moment she heard Alexi’s voice. But the few times she relented, her responses seemed as predictable as the clicking sounds they always heard five minutes in, saying things like “It’s been rough, but we’re getting through it,” or “We’re finding ways to brighten up the place in Palms,” as if it were perfectly acceptable that their nine-year-old was shouldering half of that “we.” And though he was out now, though he’d been offered his friend’s pool house in L.A. for a month while he, supposedly, figured out what was next in his life, Alexi knew that having a weekend dad wouldn’t save Benny from the year he’d been left without one.
The apartment Karl had set him up with was on a hill at the crest of Buena Vista Park, tidy and bright with a Murphy bed in the living room. On the kitchen table was a note from Karl’s friend’s friend, wishing them a great weekend and offering whatever was left in the icebox. Alexi was touched that someone he’d never met would be so kind.
Benny walked to the window and Alexi followed him. It offered yet another unobstructed view of the skyline, as if the entire city had been built to brag about the same postcard image. Alexi looked out at the treetops, the low-slung buildings and the water beyond, the light so sharp he wondered whether his eyes were still adjusting after his time indoors or if it was, simply, a truly beautiful day. Even the undershirts fluttering from the clothesline seemed particularly white, the trash bins on the sidewalk a glorious green—and though he had no idea where Ellen’s apartment fit within this scene, the fact that she and Katherine were out there somewhere, that they too could be going for steaks tonight and pancakes in the morning but doing everything in their power to avoid running into Alexi, suddenly made him feel queasy and warm, and he backed away from the window, turned to his son and said, “Forget San Francisco. Let’s blow it off and head to Napa. That’s how I want to spend my first weekend out—to relax somewhere, just the two of us. Who knows, maybe we’ll make it up to Oregon.”
“Really?” the kid said, sounding more excited than he had all day, and Alexi, suddenly excited himself, said, “Really.” This was what it meant to be out in the world again. To change plans on a whim, to speed down that narrow one-way street with his son beside him, leaving the city behind as he steered onto the bridge, the windows down, the possibilities flying everywhere.
Somewhere in Napa, Alexi realized he had no idea where he was. Part of the problem, he knew, was that he’d been there only once, three years ago, and he hadn’t been driving. He had been drunk in the back with Julia Wexler, the film’s head writer and cause for so much of the trouble in Alexi’s marriage to begin with, while the husband-and-wife producer team drove them from winery to winery. Stella and Jack had been going to Napa for the past fifteen years, even before it was Napa, when it was just a handful of vintner families scattered across the valley, trying to make a living post-Prohibition, and that entire weekend had felt meandering and glorious, discovery after discovery.
Now he was lost, and it was dark, and the towering oak trees and skinny dirt roads that had once felt so inviting seemed menacing and sinister. For almost an hour he couldn’t find a single place to stop. Benny was staring out the window, his cheek against the glass, and Alexi passed orchards and cattle farms and rickety wood houses, feeling more and more hopeless, until finally, in the distance, he saw an inn and pulled over.
“Stay here,” he told his son, and jogged inside. It was no-frills but perfectly adequate, with overstuffed leather chairs and dark green walls, like a hunting lodge without the guns or taxidermied animals. Through the glass doors Alexi saw picnic tables, and his mood immediately lifted as he envisioned a decent night’s sleep after a year on that stiff, dirty cot, and a lovely breakfast on the patio in the morning, coffee and juice, eggs and fresh muffins. The pretty redhead behind the desk was reading a thick paperback she set down then and said, “Welcome to the Pinecone. Just you?”
“One room, two beds,” Alexi said. “For me and my son.”
The woman smiled at him. Her hair was pulled away from her face and Alexi admired her long, creamy neck, the tiny, almost inconsequential buttons climbing up her blouse. It had been twelve and a half months. There had been a time in his life when it would have felt so easy to lean over the counter and ask this woman when she got off work, then meet her for a drink, or three or four. But her skin, her lips, the sparkly blue stones in her delicate earlobes—all of it gave him a jolt of sadness, just another reminder Katherine wanted nothing to do with him.
“That’ll be eighteen dollars,” she said, and Alexi cleared his throat. If he paid for this room, he and Benny would be sharing a pack of gum for dinner. He realized he had no idea what things cost in Napa—everything had always been paid for, Stella and Jack opening doors to every inn, winery, restaurant, and all that was ever expected of Alexi was that he glide right in. He was struck by a feeling he hadn’t had in so long, a feeling that had thrown him into a crippling panic when he was in his early twenties and first auditioning: of being an imposter, a single step away from being found out. He raked a hand through his hair and looked at the woman. A trio of brass mirrors hung behind her and he could see himself reflected back, dozens of tiny blinking Alexis.
“Just give me a minute. Let me get my wallet from the car,” he said, backing out. He let himself into the driver’s side and took a long breath. Benny was bobbing along to some radio song that sounded to Alexi like all backup vocals. “It was crummy inside. We’ll find something better,” he said, and threw the car in reverse.
He sped down another dark, curvy road. He had no idea where to go. Benny didn’t seem concerned, though—he perked at the task. “There’s one,” he said, pointing to a vacancy sign, and when Alexi drove right past he pointed out another, as if they were simply playing car games on a family road trip. He knew his son was trying to help, but he hated the game—I-Spy Another Inn My Father Can’t Afford—and when Benny pointed out a third, Alexi mumbled, “You don’t think I see them too?”
Benny looked as if he’d been struck in the face.
“I’m sorry,” Alexi said quickly. “Oh Benny, I’m sorry.” But his son had already slunk into his seat, and Alexi stared ahead at the road and wondered how the trip was, so soon, panning out this way. Driving with Benny through the night, possibly being forced to, at a certain point, pull over to the side and sleep in this borrowed shitheap. He’d once, not so long ago, won the starring role as Lev Gorelik, hardscrabble peasant turned war hero. The Russian paratrooper from the tiny, impoverished village of N., who, when forgotten behind enemy lines, finds himself trapped in a collapsed building with seven SS soldiers. Before he’d landed the part, Alexi had been stuck singing hair-care ads for the radio, and he couldn’t believe, sitting in the Paramount lot in his Red Army fatigues, that for much of his adult life he’d actually gotten up in the morning to sing jingles like Wildroot Cream, a little goes a long, long way without wanting to kill himself. The Unknown Soldier had been a serious and character-driven project, following Lev’s fateful encounter with the Germans—a moving film, the publicists promised, with “drama to touch the heart of every woman, adventure to stir the blood of every man.” It had been, in all possible ways, the part of a lifetime, and everyone—the casting director, the producers, Julia Wexler—had believed that he, Alexi Liebman, a working-class Russian himself, was perfect for the role.
Of course, not one of those people knew that while Alexi may have been born in Russia, he had lived in Queens since he was two. That he hadn’t grown up wealthy by any measure but had been perfectly comfortable; that in fact his parents had dedicated their lives in the States solely to maintaining this level of comfort, his father spending his days off from the bottle factory in their driveway, waxing his beloved Model A, his mother stashing away every Sears catalog that came in the mail and combing through them slowly and obsessively in the evenings, her personal pornography. That communism was the exact reason they’d escaped when they could, saying it had only made their lives more miserable, and that, beyond sharing news about relatives still there, they never mentioned Moscow at all. That as a boy, Alexi, in a desperate attempt to seem like more of an American, had dropped the i at the end of his name, and that, by the time he got a high-school scholarship to Collegiate and had a whole new group of friends in Manhattan, he was already known by everyone, including his parents, as Alex. That when he was eighteen and both his parents died of heart failure the doctor was certain had been brought on by the stress of their early lives, he found himself barely thinking at all about Russia, a place he had not a single memory of. That it was only when he moved to Los Angeles and wasn’t even getting callbacks for hair-care ads that it occurred to him his heritage could make him stand out in a good way, could actually give him leverage, when trying to break into an industry run by his own people. And so right away he went back to calling himself Alexi, even paying extra to have all new headshots printed with the name change, fifteen extra dollars just to have that i back where it belonged.
Everywhere he went people thought he was foreign. Somehow, being the child of immigrants gave him the look of an immigrant himself: his thick hair, gray since his twenties, made him seem world-weary and somber; his dark, droopy eyes gave him an air of mystery and exhaustion, as if he’d witnessed terrible, unmentionable things, even after a blissful night’s sleep and a weekend bodysurfing in Malibu. Even his slight, skinny frame, the one thing he’d never liked about his looks, only added, according to Variety, to his “rakish appeal.” And it wasn’t just Variety that believed in him. In the early reviews, Backstage had called him “an old soul, by turns mesmerizing and terrifying to watch.” The L.A. Mirror had called him “a virtuoso capable of embodying both the horrors of war and the optimism of the future.”
And he had believed it. Everyone had. Since the day he’d been cast as Lev, Alexi had been aware that he was getting away with something—though, he reasoned, he’d never explicitly lied about anything. He just never told the complete truth. He may have, when asked about his American accent, mentioned the pronunciation workbooks stacked on his family’s kitchen table, as if he, and not just his parents, had pored over them nightly. He may have once, a little drunk at a party, pretended to forget the English words for the pigs in a blanket being passed around. He may have, that night and possibly a few others, begun sentences with, In my country . . . He may have, when asked by the film’s very openly communist director one night over steaks at Musso’s what he thought about Truman, parroted back what he’d overheard at the writers’ table, that he was narrow-minded and ruthless, his doctrine a farce and an affront to civil liberties. He may have, at Stella and Jack’s invitation, attended a number of meetings in their Hancock Park living room, where there may have been some pretty detailed discussions about following their Soviet comrades down whatever path they took. He may have, on one of those evenings, filled out one of the Party membership forms being passed around, simply because everyone else was. He may have lied to Katherine about his whereabouts, inventing a rummy game with the guys. He may have, after those living-room meetings, followed Stella and Jack and Julia and all the others to the Polo Lounge for drinks, where there may have been talk about making another, even more politically charged film than The Unknown Soldier, a film so important, so heartbreaking, so stirring, the director said, that he’d eat his own shoe if it weren’t an immediate classic. Alexi may have gotten an erection at the possibility of starring in said film. He may have downed his vodka martini and announced, to every bigwig in the room, that if they weren’t considering anyone else, if they hadn’t already made a casting decision, that it would be both an honor and a gift to marry his political and artistic passions in such a project, to entwine them so entirely, and they may have, every person in that room, eaten it all up completely.
Not that he’d admit to any of this, even under oath. Especially under oath. Alexi Liebman may have been a lot of things, but one thing he’d never be was a snitch. Anyway, none of that information, he knew, would have made a difference in court. He’d still gone to meetings, starred in a flagrantly political film, been a card-carrying Party member, even if he often was late paying his dues. Right after the cast and crew had been subpoenaed, Stella and Jack had mobilized everyone—there must have been twenty people—in their living room. They brought in the best lawyers they could find, sympathizers themselves, who all said, over and over, that if everyone banded together in court and invoked the Fifth Amendment, they’d not only protect the group but challenge the House Un-American Activities Committee’s right to ask such unconstitutional questions in the first place. Anyway, the lawyers said, they were certain of victory. Look how easily Howard Hughes had shouted down the congressional committee. The list went on. If everyone stuck together, the lawyers said, if they all meticulously coordinated their statements—and Alexi remembered how glaring Julia Wexler’s absence had been that evening, though they hadn’t yet learned that she’d named names, then scrambled to find work script-doctoring another film—they’d get through this relatively unscathed.
Alexi had believed them. He hadn’t known, that night at the meeting, that the group’s own refusal to give up names would get them cited for contempt of Congress, and that, when their final appeal was denied by the Supreme Court five months later, they’d all be sent to jail. No one—not Stella or Jack or the lawyers—really thought that was a possibility. Their group was one of the first brought in to testify, and at the time not even the lawyers were taking the Committee’s threats seriously. The best thing Alexi could do, they told him, both for his career and for his family, was to plead the Fifth; when the inquiry was finished—and they were all convinced it would blow over quickly—he’d want to be seen as loyal and trustworthy to his higher-ups so he could get back to work. Alexi had no choice but to listen. His career, once on the brink of massive success, was suddenly in danger of being orbited into obscurity, blacklisted before the world had a chance to know he existed. And so he did what he did to stay in the good graces of the only people who’d ever hired him. He approached the witness chair that day in Washington and handed the Committee a short statement the group had scripted: that in America there was a secret ballot, and he didn’t believe the government had any more right to inquire into his political affiliations than an election official had to walk into a voting booth and examine a ballot marked by the voter.
But as the chairman glanced at the statement, so quickly it was impossible he’d gleaned anything from it at all, Alexi had looked out at the packed caucus room, every seat filled, every newsreel camera and microphone aimed at him, and had been filled with a rush of disappointment. Because while he’d prepared himself for the spectacle—everyone knew what a PR gold mine this was for the Committee—he hadn’t been prepared for how bright the camera lights would be. He hadn’t been prepared for the way his entire body perked every time one of those bulbs flashed right at him, a thirsty, neglected plant back under the sun. And while he’d been prepared for the Committee chair’s question—Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?—he hadn’t been prepared for how deadening it would feel to give such a lackluster response during what, Alexi was realizing right then, may very well have been his final performance.
And yet he had known that, in the end, he would answer exactly as the lawyers had advised. So he’d looked right into the cameras and said, “Your question, Mr. Chairman, is both improper and illegal.” It was precisely the response he was supposed to give, vague and evasive—and, Alexi feared, completely unmemorable. He delivered it exactly as he was supposed to, in a clipped, unemotional tone—everything he’d learned not to do in acting class—and, maybe worst of all, the whole thing was over so quickly. The moment his words were out he was excused, all the cameras swiveling away from him and down the aisle to follow the next witness approaching the chair.
Down the road now, on the other side of an overpass, Alexi saw blinking lights spelling out mo el. He pulled into the lot, grabbed their suitcases and led Benny to the lobby. It really wasn’t so bad. Moths flitted around a single bulb and the sofa was threadbare, but back issues of Time were fanned out attractively on the coffee table. There was an older woman behind the desk doing a crossword, and the radio was broadcasting a baseball game. Alexi paid his eight dollars and got the key, and he and Benny walked back outside, around the rear of the lot and up the concrete steps to their third-floor room. It was carpeted and relatively clean. There were two single beds with a desert landscape framed between them, and he and his son put down their luggage and looked at each other.
“You want to play cards?” Alexi said.
“I’m not sure we know the same games.”
“You want to read, then?”
“I didn’t bring a book,” Benny said. “Do you want to read?”
Alexi shook his head. “Are you hungry?”
“Not really. Maybe a little.”
“Oh my God,” Alexi said. “It’s ten o’clock. I forgot about dinner.”
“It’s okay. We can eat tomorrow.”
“No,” Alexi said. “You wait here.”
He locked the door behind him and ran out to the thoroughfare. He could see his son watching from the window and wondered what he looked like from three stories above. There were car dealerships on either side of him but not a single restaurant, so he sprinted ahead to a filling station. He grabbed the first things he saw and brought them all to the register: two root beers, licorice, Hershey bars.
His stomach flipped just looking at the food, but when he returned to the motel and spilled the loot on the bed, Benny’s eyes bugged. “I never get root beer.”
Alexi couldn’t believe this was actually earning him points. “What’s your mom making these days?”
“Meat loaf, tuna casserole.”
“So she still has time to cook?”
“She does it on her day off, then freezes everything for the week.”
“She’s doing all right, then?”
“Yeah. Okay. Not great.”
Alexi could hear Katherine’s voice so clearly—even Benny’s intonation on that last word, as though her thoughts were being transmitted directly through their son. He’d spent the past year thinking about what he’d done, wishing he could fix it, knowing he couldn’t. Knowing, even, that he was capable of making it worse, of rubbing dirt in her wounds, like earlier that day outside the prison when he’d felt so nervous seeing her that Alexi realized now he hadn’t even thanked her for driving Benny up, probably taking time off work to do so. But it was only right then, sitting beside his son, that he understood, even without Katherine in the room, even with the Golden Gate Bridge between them, just how much he’d hurt her. And he knew it wasn’t just his arrest, or the affair with Julia Wexler. It was Katherine knowing that all her conversations, even the most painful, private ones, had been recorded. It was the shitty apartment in Palms. It was the fact, as she told him after his hearing in Washington, sitting together in the bar of the Sheraton Park Hotel, that he’d hidden this whole world from her. “The thing with Julia I can understand,” she’d said. “I hate it and it makes me want to run you both over, but at least it’s something I can wrap my head around. But you swore to me that working with a communist director didn’t mean you were getting caught up in that yourself. You kept a life from me, Alexi.”
And Alexi, at a loss, in a moment of desperation, feeling for the first time that the possibility of losing Katherine was so horribly real, had tried to reason that acting was his career, his livelihood, it was how he supported his family. That if she really thought about it, he’d simply been playing another part—and that was when Katherine had stood up, buttoned her coat and said, “You’re an idiot,” and left him sitting in the hotel bar.
Katherine Baker, one of the most politically mainstream people he’d ever met, one of the only people he’d ever known who had actually voted for Willkie. Katherine, from Burwell, Nebraska, who, when they first met, both in their early twenties and new to L.A., had told him he was the third Jew she’d ever talked to, and Alexi had found something sexy, even thrilling, in that admission, moving her hands jokingly through his hair to prove he didn’t have horns. Back then Alexi had been agentless, managerless, spending his days combing Backstage for casting calls—and even then, even when convinced of his own impending failure, he’d never doubted that things would pan out for Katherine. Right away she’d gotten a job as a receptionist at a furniture design studio, and though her dream wasn’t to answer phones but to be a designer herself, Alexi was certain the moment the company decided to hire a woman, Katherine would be the obvious choice. He used to love driving around with her, watching her point out things he’d passed a million times and never considered, how every lamppost, park bench, stop sign was someone’s aesthetic decision. He used to love, once they were married and living together in that bungalow off La Brea, walking out to their backyard and finding Katherine in a sleeveless shirt with a kerchief on her head, pulling apart some dilapidated chair she’d bought at a yard sale and stripping and reupholstering it herself, seeing potential for beauty in everything.
She was the one person he’d ever confided the whole Alexi-Alex-Alexi transformation to, and though she claimed she was impressed with him for coming up with it, Alexi knew, deep down, that she found the whole thing sort of silly. She found the whole industry silly: always asking how he could be so enthralled by people like Stella and Jack, who spent their weekends lounging by the pool, drinking expensive wine and discussing immigrants’ rights while one of their Mexican workers cleaned leaves from the filter. Katherine was, at her core, so inherently practical and stable and—Alexi found this stunning—happy, that he sometimes feared she didn’t really get him. His anxieties, while initially cute to her in an ethnic, anthropological sort of way, as if his tendency to expect the worst could actually be traced back to some pogrom, soon seemed to exhaust her. Her own parents, immigrants themselves, had suffered just as much, maybe more, than Alexi’s, coming from Norway to an equally harsh climate, the grocery they ran only recently recovering from the Depression, her father’s liver disease exacerbated by all those years he couldn’t afford a doctor.
That’s horrible, Alexi had said when she told him, when they were first together and swapping secrets late at night, more intimate, he had found, than the sex itself. Yeah, well, everybody’s fine now, she’d replied, as if there were nothing left to say. And he’d watched the reel of those difficult times flicker across her face for just a second longer before moving on to the next scene of her life story, where as girls she and her sister Ellen would fantasize about moving to California the first moment they could, and then—this was where Katherine’s voice went high and clear as a ballad—actually doing it.
Katherine was so skilled at blocking out the things she didn’t want to look at, and, only a few years into their marriage, she began telling Alexi that his worries seemed self-indulgent and overblown, as though he had the power to turn them off like a switch. Which was one of the reasons he found Julia Wexler so easy to be around. Another Jewish transplant from the outer boroughs, another person who vacillated between the highs and lows of fame and failure at an athletic, almost Olympic speed. Another person whose ambition was fueled by the same paranoia that whatever success she’d achieved could be rescinded at any moment—though in all truth, Alexi knew Julia, one of the only head female writers in the industry, had more to be worried about than he. Even Stella, whom he and Julia both respected, knew she was able to do more interesting work by leaving her name off the credits, giving her husband all the glory. And while Julia was smarter than anyone on the film—no one would argue against that—she felt she needed to wear these tailored man-suits to fit in at studio meetings; to crack more jokes than any of the guys; sometimes, Alexi felt, taking the shtick a bit too far by lighting a cigar around the writers’ table. But even though, because they worked together, she had no idea about the Alex-Alexi thing, he knew, in his heart, that Julia would have understood that as well. The moment he saw her he felt like he was going home, that all his acts and defenses could be dropped, shrugged off as easily in the doorway of her bedroom as his jacket and shirt and slacks.
Julia was adamant their affair remain casual, not disrupting—let alone destroying—either of their marriages, and she asked about Katherine constantly. They’d never met, but Julia seemed genuinely interested in her. Not out of jealousy—more like Julia was so concerned about her potential threat to Alexi’s relationship that she wanted to protect his wife in some way. She was forever inquiring about Katherine’s background, her job, always taking her side when hearing about some minor tiff, even when Alexi didn’t think he was asking her to choose sides, and he could never tell if it was his wife in particular or some sort of intrinsic loyalty to other women (even if she was, in fact, the other woman).
But Alexi always obliged and answered her questions, sometimes talking about Katherine for so long that he could almost see her in Julia’s house with them. His pretty, wavy-haired wife, complimenting Julia on her spacious Neutra, on her yard, on the wooden deck that stretched out to a garden filled with juniper and jacaranda trees. He could see the three of them sitting around Julia’s bright red patio table, Katherine shielding her eyes from the sun, fielding Julia’s queries about Benny, about the design world, Julia doling out advice on how to nudge her boss into giving her more challenging projects, Katherine shooting Alexi a look that this woman was pushy. Then Katherine would flip the conversation back to Julia—she seemed to believe sharing anything about her accomplishments was inherently shameful and immodest—and as soon as talk of the movie came up, Julia and Alexi would immediately launch into some mistake they’d made at work and lean in together, trying to untangle whatever knot they’d created. And Katherine would sit back, stare up at the trees and tell them both in the calm, no-nonsense voice she’d perfected even before motherhood, to stop their useless analyzing: no one else on the film was possibly obsessing over whatever slight they feared they’d made, and why couldn’t they just enjoy the lovely afternoon?
What Alexi never got to tell Julia, before she’d named names and severed all contact with him, was that she shouldn’t have felt so guilty, that a twisted and terrible part of him wondered if the affair had actually made him a better husband. Somehow spending all that time with Julia, talking about Katherine, only reinforced his love for his wife. Plus getting to obsess over everything work-related with Julia meant he didn’t need to burden Katherine with any of it, letting him throw all his energy into his family. And Katherine was spared his boring industry stories when he knew, strutting around the set in his military boots with a war-torn, gutted-out backdrop behind him, that Julia was waiting on the sidelines, ready to go out for drinks and pick apart everything that had happened on the movie that day, looking, if not for her pantsuit and heavy script under an arm, like one of her own characters, a dark-haired Soviet beauty pining for Lev back in the village.
He’d always felt so rejuvenated, coasting down Culver from the studio, back home to his wife and son. It was as if he were finally fulfilled. Katherine satisfied him maybe ninety percent, but Julia was perfect for that niggling ten. Very little made him happier than pulling into his driveway and seeing, through the window, his family moving around inside, a diorama of his life he could so effortlessly step back into. Katherine’s boss had finally agreed to let her take a stab at designing—sometimes at dinner they’d clink glasses to their good fortune—and Alexi used to feel so blessed walking in and finding her on the living room floor, going over sketches, surrounded by fabric swatches and charcoal pencils. He loved listening to her talk about flax and bark cloth, comparing Prouvé to Ponti, words as foreign and beautiful to Alexi as Italian or Portuguese.
Katherine never got a chance to finish the project. When Alexi was called in to testify, her boss, a man they’d had for dinner half a dozen times, whose son used to play with Benny, said he just didn’t want to “get caught up in all that business” and fired her as quickly as he’d hired her. Now she was working at a dress shop she’d once frequented in Century City, and waiting on, Alexi was certain, the same women she used to shop and lunch with. Women Alexi doubted were calling anymore, let alone inviting her to parties and outings with their children, no one wanting to get their hands dirty, no one believing for a second that the wife of Alexi Liebman hadn’t been involved in anti-American activities as well.
“So things haven’t been easy,” Alexi said now, turning to his son. Benny was sprawled on the narrow motel bed, clutching his root beer with both hands. “Is she—talking to you about this?”
“She said she saw those FBI guys everywhere. So Aunt Ellen told her to see a psychiatrist.”
“Benny.” Alexi set down his drink. “Have you been eavesdropping on your mother?”
He shook his head. “She tells me. But she doesn’t see Dr. Bittman anymore.”
“He fixed her?”
“No,” Benny said. “Stella, from the movie? She came over a couple months ago. She said she felt bad doing this—and she really seemed to—but that Mom had to stop going to Dr. Bittman. That what she told him could put a lot of people in trouble. Stella gave her the name of a good one in the Party.”
Alexi looked around the room, at the frayed carpet and the yellow bedspreads and his son beside him, his tongue licorice-black. So Katherine was being watched from both sides. “And she went to this new psychiatrist?”
“She was pretty upset after Stella’s visit. So she isn’t seeing anyone.” Benny shrugged, but the gesture looked false and exaggerated. This was not the way, Alexi thought, that a nine-year-old was supposed to talk. “During the day she’s okay,” Benny continued, “but at night sometimes she thinks they’re at the window, and it’s just a branch. Or she makes me check inside closets and behind doors. But lately she sleeps with me, and that makes it better.”
“And those FBI men—were they following her?”
“Mostly they’d just park across the street and watch us. Once I went out to the side yard and saw them going through our trash, and another time they threw their sandwich crusts on our lawn, but other than that they were all right,” Benny said, as if the whole thing were perfectly normal, as if he were simply describing nuisancy neighbors, and Alexi felt his throat constrict. He stood up. He scooped all the wrappers off the bed and tossed them in the garbage. “Let’s get you to sleep.”
Benny pulled out a little leather toiletry kit—Alexi could see everything in there, so neatly packed, even a bag of tissues, and a tiny spool of floss Katherine must have measured out just for this trip. His son was a good brusher, working even his back teeth and gums, and Alexi found that he was keeping his own toothbrush in his mouth much longer than he would have were he alone.
Then Benny spit, looked up and said, “I wanted to visit you this year.”
“I know you did,” Alexi said, slowly. “And I really wanted to see you. This thing with your mother and me—it’s complicated.”
“I know,” Benny said. He walked back into the room, where he stripped down to his underpants and climbed into bed.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Alexi said, wanting very much not to talk about it.
“That’s okay. It’s kind of nice having a break from her, you know?”
Benny looked somewhere past him, at the wooden nightstands, the brass lamp, finally settling on the desert landscape on the wall, cacti and brown hills and a moon too pocked and orange to be taken seriously. He seemed exhausted. “From it. From the whole thing. That’s what I meant.” He pulled the covers to his neck and closed his eyes. “You know any good stories?”
“Sure.” Alexi was touched by the question. “About what?”
Alexi stood in the doorway of the bathroom, watching his son. He was so tiny in that twin bed. He thought about Katherine, somewhere in the city, peering out her sister’s window to make sure she hadn’t been followed. He had not only ruined much of her life, he thought; he had passed on the horrible flu of panic to the one person he’d believed was immune. “There isn’t much to say,” he said, finally. “You don’t do a lot in there.”
“But what’s it like?” Benny said.
“It’s not a good place.”
“It’s a place you never want to end up, understand?” That was the way his own father used to talk to him, shutting down a conversation before it had a chance to happen, like watching a storefront’s metal grate slide down right in front of him, one of those shop owners who randomly closed up whenever they felt like it, even when customers were waiting outside. Alexi could have been five, ten, fifteen—it didn’t matter, it was always the same. Always the feeling that every question he asked his father, even something as innocuous as whether he should set the table, was an intrusion and a burden. That Alexi’s presence alone exhausted the man, made him breathe deep as though he were trying hard not to snap. Which of course made Alexi ham it up more, anything for his attention. He had such a clear image of coming home from school and attempting to regale his father with some anecdote about his teacher. Desperately attempting to fatten it into a full-fledged story, impersonating classmates the man might have found more interesting than his son (was that when the performing had started, Alexi wondered, back in that small, bright kitchen in Queens?) while his father closed his eyes and grimaced, as if doing everything in his power to stop his patience from reaching its end, and Alexi wondered now why he couldn’t do things differently. Not just to stand in the doorway ruminating about it, but to actually walk across the room and sit beside his son.
So he did it. He perched on the edge of the bed, the green motel sign reflecting off Benny’s toothpick arms. But the boy was asleep (to be nine again, Alexi thought, dreaming before your head hit the pillow), his breath low and even, his knees tucked to his chest and his arms around them, as if, even with the bed all to himself, he was still carving out the space where his mother usually crawled in beside him.
Alexi had never believed that saying about everything improving with a new day. Usually the moment he awoke, before even opening his eyes, he was well aware of all that was wrong in his life. But the following morning was optimistically sunny, and even breakfast at a nearby diner wasn’t half bad, a fruit cup, eggs, free refills on the coffee and toast with three different kinds of jelly. A breeze hit him as they walked back to the car, that perfect California weather Alexi hadn’t realized he’d missed until right then, when he was so comfortable he forgot about the temperature completely.
“So listen,” he said to Benny, pulling out of the lot. “No filling-station junk today. I say we hit up a few vineyards, have a picnic lunch somewhere special.” In the daylight, even the thoroughfare was quite pretty. Vineyards combed out on either side of him, and beyond, cows ambled across bright yellow fields. They both, at the same time, rolled down their windows, and all that balmy air filled the car.
Alexi found a jazz station and for about an hour they drove around. They stopped at a cheese shop for the best picnic food he could find: a hunk of Camembert, a Bûchette de Banon and a baguette. Down another road he pulled over at a farm stand and bought a carton of raspberries. He didn’t bother to wash them, and he and Benny ate as they drove, licking their lips and wiping their hands on their pants and giggling. Alexi was feeling giddy. He was feeling like a kid again, being with his kid, and as they coasted through the hills, he felt something opening inside him, a tranquility he hadn’t known was there. This was what it felt like to drive around with your son on a warm day, he thought. He put an arm around Benny’s shoulder and his son immediately leaned into him, all his weight against Alexi’s chest.
Up ahead was a Mediterranean-style winery, white stucco with iron gates and bougainvillea trailing the walls and the terra-cotta steps. The gardens on either side of the long, sloping driveway were so impeccably groomed that Alexi felt a little guilty sullying the lot with the Plymouth. Gazebos dotted the property, and in the center of the grounds was a pond where Alexi could see, darting beneath the water, Japanese koi that he suspected cost more than Katherine’s monthly rent in Palms.
Inside the tasting room, wooden barrels were scattered about with cheese-and-cracker samples; Alexi was proud when he saw his son take only one, using the little square napkin to collect the crumbs, without him having to say so. He would tell Katherine, he decided, that he noticed the good manners she was instilling in their son. It might be a good excuse to call her.
Behind the counter, an attendant was waiting on an older couple, silver-haired and so alike in their navy sweaters that Alexi couldn’t tell whether they were siblings or had simply been married for so long they’d begun to resemble one another. He took a moment to survey the wine. An entire shelf of Bordeaux blends, and there, nestled between two Barbeitos, the pièce de résistance, the crowning glory, the 1936 Georges de Latour Private Reserve. He was filled with a rush of memory: Stella and Jack had introduced him to it back when Alexi was a hack, a novice with an unsophisticated palate, not knowing the difference, even, between a Viognier and a Riesling. Of all his friends, those two had always been ahead of the curve on everything, and Alexi had a flash of their trip together, picnicking on grounds as lovely as these, then driving a couple cases back to L.A. in time for an NAACP benefit they were throwing at their place in Hancock Park. Alexi saw himself standing by their pool with a glass in his hand, surrounded by people, all of whom wanted to be near him. He couldn’t remember the story he’d been telling but remembered people laughing and himself laughing along with them, certain that night it would be impossible to embarrass himself no matter how drunk he got—so different from his first industry parties, when he was starting out and never even completely sure whether his invite had been a mistake, every conversation a cause for second-guessing, so afraid he’d say one wrong thing and immediately be outed as a false ally, a false European, a false Alexi.
But there, at Stella and Jack’s, he’d felt his life commencing. There people laughed at his jokes, even if they weren’t funny, though somehow, when he was feeling that good, when he was riding that high, they almost always were. Every story he told seemed to have an arc, a punch line, an effortless, self-deprecating beauty—and he suddenly remembered the tale he’d been telling that night by the pool, about his grandmother’s run-in with the NKVD outside her apartment, a story he’d only heard secondhand from his parents, as he’d left Moscow as a baby, but into which Alexi had found, easily enough, a way to insert himself as a character, the young grandson in the doorway with his Babchi, listening to the old woman shout those officers into silence for lurking outside, then inviting them in for coffee and dessert.
“And for you?” the attendant said then. He was tanned, with dark hair combed drastically to one side and pale blue eyes that seemed to boast about the rest of his face.
“A bottle of the Private Reserve.” Alexi calculated, after the motel room and the filling station snacks and the raspberries, bread and cheese, that he had a little less than seven dollars left, and he was willing to drop it all on that bottle. He turned to Benny. “I don’t care what it costs. Nothing in the world,” he said, “is better than a glass of this with that Camembert.”
“Agreed,” the attendant said. “Absolutely. That will be ten dollars.”
Alexi swallowed. The wallet in his hand, his black leather Ferragamo wallet, suddenly felt flimsy, meaningless, another stupid prop in his ridiculous sham of a life. This was, he thought, a thousand times worse than the previous night at the Pinecone, simply because his son was seeing it. He had a sudden, massive fear that this was what every subsequent day would be, a slightly variant, though eerily similar, round of humiliation.
He surveyed the tasting room. His first thought was that he had no idea Stella and Jack were that wealthy, carrying that wine out by the caseload. His second thought was that no one, not a single person, recognized him—and they never would. The attendant didn’t know he was waiting on a man who couldn’t afford that bottle, who could hardly afford the free samples. He smiled patiently at Alexi. He grinned down at the boy. Benny was looking back and forth at Alexi and the attendant, and then he reached into his pocket and pulled out the five-dollar bill his mother had given him. He laid it on the counter. Alexi stared at the bill. He wondered if there was anything more excruciating for a child than watching his father shamed. “Put that away,” he whispered, and when Benny didn’t, when he just stood there, Alexi snatched it off the counter. He shoved it into Benny’s pocket and led him toward the door. He could feel the attendant staring. Only this time, unlike the night before, he couldn’t come up with a single excuse for why he was bolting back to the parking lot.
He got into the driver’s side and covered his face with his hands. Benny slid in next to him and Alexi knew, suddenly, that he was going to cry. The first time he ever had in front of his son—the first time, since he was a boy, that he had in front of anyone. Benny tentatively put a hand on his arm.
“That’s a good wine,” Alexi said, wiping his eyes.
“I know,” the boy said.
“I promise you, we’ll share a bottle one day.”
“It’s okay,” Benny said. “I don’t even like wine.”
“Of course you don’t,” Alexi said. “You’re nine years old.”
“Actually,” the boy said, “I’m ten. I had a birthday in April.”
“My son is ten.” He stared out at the windshield, tiny dead bugs splattered on the glass. Beyond that was grass and water and more grass, everything beautiful and still as a photograph.
“The thing is,” Alexi said, “you asked me a question last night and I didn’t give you a straight answer.”
“That’s all right,” Benny said quietly. He picked at a mosquito bite on his arm, flinging the scab in the air. “Maybe I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No,” Alexi said. “I want to be the kind of dad you can say anything to. That’s something I thought a lot about this year. It’s just hard for me to talk about.”
“Yeah?” Benny said, looking excited.
“Not in the way you think,” Alexi said. “I didn’t get in any fistfights, no one knifed me in the leg. If anything, life inside was quiet. Most people had done their craziness out in the world and were pretty beaten down by the time they came in.”
He shifted in his seat. “But something happened to me in there. I had a lot of time on my hands and so I finally started paying attention to the news.” The world, it turned out, was falling apart. Every day, he told Benny, new things came up about Russia. They’d all get together, Alexi and his buddy Karl and a few others, over dinner or cards or sometimes during shifts in the garage, and discuss it all. They weren’t so naïve they believed the Soviet Union would be perfect, but in those meetings at Stella and Jack’s they had talked about how it stood for a better way of life. And yet suddenly Alexi was hearing about the treason trials, how even the supposedly staunchest communists in Russia were turning out to be traitors. It was the most depressing feeling, sitting in the prison yard with all these believers, discussing plans to fix the world while it was burning up around them. Sitting around with all these people who, unlike Alexi, had genuinely devoted themselves to the Soviet model. All these people who had destroyed their careers and their families for an ideology that may, in the end, not have worked at all. “That may have been making life worse for all the common people in Russia everybody was always talking about,” he said. “Just like my parents had told me all along.”
Alexi’s tears were coming so quickly that every time he wiped his eyes a new batch was waiting. He had no idea if any of this made sense to the boy. If Benny was old enough to understand even a fraction of it, if all any of it meant to him was that his father hadn’t been around. That he’d missed science fairs and parent-teacher conferences and—Alexi wasn’t even sure what he’d missed.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You must think your dad’s gone crazy.”
“No,” Benny said. “I get it. At least I think I do.” And then Alexi saw something in his son’s face, an expression of pure, unbridled adoration, and he thought about how much he would have killed for a moment like this with his own father. It was all so unfair, he thought. Fatherhood was like one giant free pass. The crying, the rambling, the admissions of weakness: all of it seemed to be making his son admire him more, and when Katherine broke down and did the same thing—the exact same thing—it made Benny want to run from her. He hated himself right then. Benny was the only person he had left, and Alexi didn’t trust himself not to set this relationship on fire along with all the others. He thought about his friend’s pool house awaiting him in L.A., where he’d begin to grovel for work he didn’t even want, now that he could no longer return to the studio, now that all his contacts were still in jail, or hiding out in Mexico, or God knows where.
Alexi had convinced himself all that mattered was that he be near his family. But now even the smallest decisions felt enormous, insurmountable, potentially destructive—and for the first time, it occurred to him that this weekend could be causing Benny even more damage than the past year when he had no father around at all.
He put his keys in the ignition. Alexi suddenly wanted to drive very fast, as far away from himself as possible. “Let’s go,” he said.
“Back to San Francisco.” He’d punished his son so much already. Benny shouldn’t be forced to contend, on top of everything else, with the full reality of the disgraced man his father had become. It would devastate him. “I’ll drop you with your mother and Aunt Ellen.”
“But,” Benny whispered, “what did I do wrong?”
“Nothing. It’s just time to go.”
“But I don’t understand,” his son said, and when Alexi didn’t say anything, when he felt, quite possibly, that he had exhausted every word in the English language and there was nothing left to say, Benny mumbled, “Okay. I just need to use the bathroom.”
He watched his son disappear into the tasting room. Sammy Kaye floated out from the speakers, and a Cadillac pulled up to the lot and a man got out, followed by an attractive black-haired woman: people Alexi might have known in a life that was feeling so far away it was as if it had never been his to begin with. He could see horses meandering in the distance, and, walking freely through the gardens, a peacock. My God, he thought, where was he?
Alexi was itching to go, out of this vineyard, this town, this . . . he could go anywhere, he thought. Anywhere and nowhere. He looked around the property. Benny was taking an awfully long time. Alexi got out of the car and walked up the path where he saw, through the door, his son coming out of the bathroom from the back of the tasting room. Soon, Alexi thought, Benny would be grown, with a wife and a home and maybe a son of his own. And yet all of that seemed so far in the future, watching Benny walk toward him, still so in the process of becoming a boy, let alone a man. There his son was, wiping his hands on his pants, running a finger up his zipper to make sure it was closed. There he was, walking up to the tasting counter, so high it reached his shoulders. The attendant was busy talking to the black-haired couple, and when he turned to the register to ring them up, there his son was, ducking behind the counter. There Benny was, swiping a bottle of the Private Reserve right off the shelf. There he was, slipping it under his shirt, walking past the bar without even a sideways look—a better actor, Alexi thought, than he himself. His pulse kicked. He had no idea what to do. He stepped forward to stop him, to turn him around and make him give it back, to teach his son a lesson while he was still young enough to listen. But Benny was already walking through the doors and into the bright sunny day, pulling the bottle from his shirt and thrusting it at his father: terrified, astonished, ready for his love.