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Excerpt: 'Broccoli'


A Bunch of Broccoli on the Third Shelf

Another one, seduced and abandoned," Nina's husband said, pulling a bunch of wilted broccoli from the refrigerator shelf. He held it with two fingers as if it stank, his handsome face scrunched in a grimace of disgust.

It doesn't stink, Nina thought. She blushed and hurried to take the broccoli—to throw it into the garbage. It isn't fresh, but you can't say that it stinks. She didn't say these thoughts aloud. She said she was sorry, she was busy all week and didn't have time for cooking. Nina worked in Manhattan. By the time she came home to Brooklyn, it was already seven thirty, sometimes eight, and she felt too tired to cook. The most she could do was fix a sandwich for her husband and herself or boil some meat dumplings from a Russian food store.

"Yes, I know," her husband said. "But why buy all these vegetables if you know you wont have time to cook them?" Nina shrugged. She liked shopping for vegetables. Nina couldn't say when she'd first begun the habit of shopping for vegetables. Probably two years earlier, on her second day in America, when she and her husband left her sister's Brooklyn apartment to explore the nearest shopping street. Her sister, who'd lived in America for fourteen years, called herself an American. She thought Nina would be impatient to see everything. "Go, go," her sister said. "But don't buy anything. To survive in America, there are two rules you have to remember. First: Never buy anything in expensive stores unless they have a fifty-percent-off sale. Second: Never ever buy anything in cheap stores."

On the street with the unimaginative name Avenue M, they walked through narrow stores that all looked alike to Nina, no matter what they sold: food, electronics, clothes, or hardware. After a while, it seemed that they were walking in and out of the same store over and over, just to hear the chime of its bell. The February morning was cold, and the sunlight was pale. Nina hid her reddened nose in the fur collar of her Russian coat. She clutched her husband's elbow and carefully stepped over piles of garbage, reluctant to look up or sideways at the ashen sky or the motley signs of the shops. She felt dizzy and a little nauseated from the flight and the all-night talk with her sister. Only one place attracted her attention: a small Korean grocery with fruits and vegetables set outside on plywood stands—colorful piles of oranges, tomatoes, and cucumbers, almost unnaturally clean and bright. Nina read the sign on the box of tomatoes: SUNRIPE. She was still learning English, and every new expression seemed exciting and full of great meaning. SUNRIPE brought to mind a vegetable patch on a summer afternoon, the smell of the rich soil heated by the sun, palegreen branches sagging under heavy tomatoes bursting with juice. SUNRIPE reminded her of her family's tiny vegetable garden when she was little. Nina wanted to touch the tomatoes in the box, hoping that their surface would still be a little warm from all the sun that shined on them while they ripened. She was reaching for one when her husband dragged her away to another store.

Now Nina shopped alone for vegetables every Saturday morning while her husband slept late. Nina drove to 86th Street to visit the Korean and Russian vegetables stores between 22nd and 23rd avenues. The assortment in the stores was generally the same, but Nina liked to explore each of them, hoping to find something surprising, such as the occasional white asparagus, or plastic baskets of gooseberries, or tiny nutlike new potatoes. On days when there weren't any new or exciting items, it was still interesting to compare the stores. In one store the onions could be large and shiny, but the bunches of lettuce wilted and colorless. Another store could boast of the freshest, brightest lettuce, while the squashy gray onions hid timidly in string bags.

Nina felt a thrill as soon as she climbed out of the car by a store entrance, her feet touching a sidewalk littered with bits of lettuce, onion peel, and broken tomatoes. Inside, she walked between the produce shelves, touching the fruit and vegetables and marveling at how different their surfaces felt. She ran her fingers over the tomatoes; they felt smooth and glossy like polished furniture. She cupped oranges, feeling their lumpy skins in her palms. Sometimes she would hook an orange peel with her nail so it would sputter a little of its pungent, spicy juice on her finger. She avoided the hairy egg-shaped kiwis and wormlike string beans. She liked to stroke the light, feathery bunches of dill and parsley, and to squeeze artichokes, which felt like pine cones, but soft ones. She liked to pat cantaloupes and tap watermelons with her index finger to hear the hollow sound they made. Most of all, Nina loved broccoli. It smelled of young spring grass, and it looked like a spring tree with its solid stem and luxuriant crown of tight grainy florets that resembled recently blossomed leaves.

Regardless of the other vegetables she bought, Nina took home a bunch of broccoli every week. She carried the heavy brown bags proudly to the car with the firm belief that this weekend she would find time to cook. There was the rest of Saturday afternoon ahead, and all of Sunday. She would wash the vegetables as soon as she got home and then cook something on Sunday, maybe spinach gnocchi, or grilled zucchini, or broccoli topped with a three-cheese sauce. Somehow, Nina invariably managed to forget both the errands she had to run on Sundays and the Saturday-night parties at her husband's friend's. As soon as she came home, Nina immediately found herself in a whirl of things to do. She had to shower in a hurry, hot-curl her hair, brush it down if it turned out too frizzy, try on and reject various sweaters and pants, put on her makeup, find her husband's socks, iron his shirt, tell him where his other sock was, check if the gas was off, and lock the door.

In what seemed like only a minute, Nina found herself back in the car on the way to the party. She alternately glanced at her husband in the driver's seat and at her reflection in the mirror. Her husband seemed distant and deep in his thoughts, which was natural, she told herself, because he was driving. And her own reflection seemed unsatisfying. Her hair was still too frizzy, her soft-featured round face required a different type of makeup, and her blue angora pullover cut into her armpits. The thing about clothes bought at fifty-percent-off sales was that they were either the wrong size or the wrong design. In the car, Nina didn't think about vegetables. They lay abandoned on the refrigerator shelves, where Nina had shoved them in a hurry: tomatoes squashed under zucchini, lettuce leaves jammed against the edge of the vegetable basket, a bunch of broccoli that didn't fit anywhere else placed all by itself on the third shelf.

The parties were held at Pavlik's place, Nina's husband's friend from work, whose wife had divorced him a few years earlier. Pavlik was a heavy man with an uneven ginger-colored beard. He wore ill-fitting trousers and unclean shirts. He loved to laugh heartily and smack his friends on the back. "Don't mind the mess!" he yelled, as his guests wandered through the dusty labyrinth of his house, stumbling on mismatched furniture, broken electronic equipment, heavy volumes of Russian books, and slippery magazines. It seemed to Nina that Pavlik's function as a host was limited to yelling, "Don't mind the mess!" He didn't feed or entertain his guests. People came to him with their own food and wine, their own plastic dinnerware, their own guitars, and sometimes their own poems written in notebooks.

Not one of Pavlik's guests was a professional poet or musician, though. Most of them worked as computer programmers, the occupation they took up in America, finding it easier and more profitable than trying to prove the value of their Russian degrees in science or the arts. Some of them, Nina's husband included, adopted a condescending, slightly snobbish attitude to their new profession, as something easy and boring, something beneath them. "A computer programmer, like everybody else," they answered reluctantly, when asked about their present profession. "But that's not what I used to be in my previous life." They preferred to talk about art or music or their exciting hobbies, such as mountain climbing, rafting, or photographing Alaskan sunsets. Nina was a computer programmer too, but unlike everybody else she'd also been a computer programmer in her "previous life." What was worse, she didn't know much about poetry or music, and she didn't have any exciting talents or hobbies.

"My wife is a vegetable lover," Nina's husband said, introducing her to Pavlik's circle. Nina didn't like Pavlik's guests. The men were untidy and unattractive. They piled up their paper plates with cold cuts, smoked too much, and laughed with their mouths full. They repeated the same things over and over, and it seemed to Nina that there was always a piece of ham or salami hanging from their mouths while they talked. The women, on the other hand, with the exception of one or two, were attractive but in a wrong, unpleasant way. They were thin and sophisticated, with straight hair and strong hands with long powerful fingers, toughened by playing either the piano or the guitar. They had soulful eyes, sad from all the poetry they read, and wore expressions of eternal fatigue. They had everything that Nina lacked.

Nina usually sat through the whole evening in the corner of Pavlik's stiff sofa, away from the other guests, who sat on the floor by the cold fireplace, and away from her husband. The sounds of their laughter, their singing, and their reading floated around the room but didn't seem to reach her. The food and wine on a rickety folding table by the window were more accessible from the sofa. Nina made frequent trips to that table, where cold cuts lay on paper plates, loaves of bread stood on cutting boards, and pickles swam in glass jars with a fork invariably stuck into one of them. There were usually a few unopened bottles of vodka, and a five-liter box of Burgundy or Chablis. The wine often dripped from the plastic spigot right onto the beige carpet, making intricate patterns, so that by the end of the party Pavlik's modest carpet looked like a fancy Turkish rug.

When they first started going to Pavlik's parties, Nina sat by the fireplace with the others. She loved to sit across from her husband and watch his face while he played. His neck was bent down, the bangs of his dark hair fallen over his halfclosed eyes. From time to time he glanced at her, and then his eyes flickered through the forest of his hair like two tiny lightning bugs. At those moments Nina felt he was playing for her, and then the music touched her, making her skin prickle and her throat hurt.

With time, Nina noticed that she wasn't the only one staring at her husband while he played. Nina saw how the faces of other women lit up just like hers under his fleeting gaze. Each of them must have felt that he was playing for her. Sometimes Nina thought those women had more right to be looked at by her husband. Sometimes those women threw quick looks at Nina, and then Nina felt that she was changing in size; she was growing, bloating up, turning into an enormous exhibit: a dull, untalented woman wearing the wrong clothes and the wrong makeup. She thought that all of them must have wondered why this interesting, talented man had married her.

Her sister didn't wonder. "You were his ticket to America," she often reminded Nina, having first said it on Nina's arrival in New York. "Can you disprove that?"

Nina couldn't.

It was true that Nina's husband had always wanted to emigrate but couldn't obtain a visa. He didn't have close relatives in the United States. It was true that, having married Nina, he had gotten his visa. And it was true that Nina hadn't wanted to emigrate but yielded to her husband's wishes. But it wasn't true that he had married Nina just for that, and it wasn't true that he didn't love her. Nina's sister didn't know what Nina knew. She didn't know that when Nina was in the hospital after appendix surgery, her husband wouldn't leave her room even for a minute. She begged him to go and have some coffee or to take a breath of fresh air, but he refused. He held Nina's hand and squeezed it every time she moaned. Nina's sister didn't know how sometimes he would hug Nina from behind, bury his face in her hair, and whisper, "There is nothing like it. Nothing in the world." She could feel his sharp nose and his hot breath on the nape of her neck, and her eyes would grow moist. And Nina's sister didn't know that he often said the same words when they were making love.

It was a relief to come home after the party and find herself in bed, next to her husband, with a book. Nina had covered the nightstand with cookbooks bought at a fifty-percent discount at Barnes & Noble. She read lying on her back, using her stomach to prop up her book. The thick, glossy pages rustled against Nina's satin nightgowns (fifty-percent off at Victoria's Secret). She loved the rustling sound as much as she loved the prickly sensation in her feet when they touched her husband's hairy legs from time to time. She also loved the euphoric feeling roused in her by lustrous photographs of okra and tomato stew in rustic clay bowls, grilled zucchini parcels on ceramic trays, and baskets of fresh vegetables against a background of meadows or olive groves. Her favorite book, Italian Cuisine: The Taste of the Sun, included step-by-step photographs of the cooking process. In the photos, smooth lightskinned female hands with evenly trimmed fingernails performed all the magical actions on the vegetables. They looked like Nina's hands, and Nina fantasized that they were hers. It was she, Nina, who made those perfect curled carrot slices. It was she who pushed the hard, stubborn stuffing into the bell peppers, or rinsed grit off lettuce leaves, or chopped broccoli florets, scattering tiny green crumbs all over the table. Nina's lips moved, forming the rich, passionate words of the cooking instructions: "Brush with olive oil," "bring to a boil and simmer gently," "serve hot," "scoop out the pulp," "chop," "slice," "crush," "squash." When eventually she put the book away, cuddled against her husband's back, and closed her eyes, her lips continued moving for some time. Nina's husband left her during the middle of September, when the vegetable stores on 86th Street were full of tomatoes and zucchinis. There was an abundance of them in Nina's refrigerator when her sister opened it.

"The fifth week is the worst. The first four weeks it hasn't sunk in yet. You feel the shock, but you don't feel the pain. It's like you're numb. But the fifth week. . . . Brace yourself for the fifth week." Nina's sister crouched in front of the refrigerator, unloading the food she had brought. She came to console Nina with four large bags from a Russian food store.

Nina felt tired. She sat at the table, staring at her sister's broad back. Nina thought that if you tried to hit it with a hammer it would produce a loud ringing sound, as if her sister's back were made of hardwood. The refrigerator shelves filled quickly: bright cartons of currant juice—"Currant juice saved my life; I basically lived on it when Volodya left me"—cream cheese, farmer's cheese, soft cheese, Swiss cheese, bread—"Always keep bread in the refrigerator, it preserves much better this way"—pickles, a jar of cherry compote. "Nina!" her sister suddenly shrieked. "What is this?" She pulled out a vegetable basket. Inside was a pile of mushy tomatoes with a white beard of mold where the skin split, oozing dark juice; zucchini covered with brown splotches; dark, slimy bunches of collard greens. "You've got the whole vegetable graveyard in here." Her sister emptied the basket into the garbage can, where the vegetables made a squashing sound. The faint rotten smell stayed in the kitchen for a long time after Nina's sister left. The smell wasn't unpleasant. It was a simple, cozy kitchen smell, like vegetable soup simmering on the stove, the kind Nina's mother used to make.

Contrary to her sister's prediction, the fifth week didn't bring Nina any extreme pain but only added to her fatigue. Nina felt as if she were recovering from a long, exhausting illness. She tried to do as few household chores as possible. She didn't shop for vegetables anymore. She still read her cookbooks after work, but she was too tired to decipher the recipes. Instead, she ran her finger over the index pages, which were filled with neat columns of letters. The austere phrases were logical and easy to read: "Broccoli: gratin, 17; macaroni with, 71; penne and, 79." She had no desire to look up the recipe on the referred page, she simply went on to the next entry that caught her eye: "Eggplant: braised chicken with orange and, 137."

Pavlik's booming voice on the old, creaky answering machine broke into the elegant sequence of string bean recipes. Nina had turned off the ringer on the phone weeks earlier and now only listened to messages as they came through her machine. Most often they were from Nina's sister, who called to ask if Nina was eating well and to tell her the latest news: that Nina's husband had been seen on Brighton Beach with some "dried herring," then that he was moving to Boston, then that he had already moved. Her sister's voice seemed to Nina distant and somewhat unnatural.

Pavlik's voice made her jump. "Hey! Nina! Are you home?" he shouted. On impulse, Nina looked at the front door. It was hard to believe that all that roaring came from a modest plastic box on the kitchen counter. Pavlik's voice suddenly went low, and it became hard to make out his words. "Don't disappear," he said, if Nina heard him correctly.

Pavlik's place looked different. Nina saw it as soon as she stepped into his living room, but she couldn't quite figure out why. The rickety food table still stood on the "Turkish" rug, the fireplace was crammed with piles of old magazines, Pavlik's hulking figure was shaking with laughter, and the vacant sofa was waiting for Nina in the corner. Everything was there, everything was in the same place, yet something was undeniably different. The size—it's become bigger, Nina decided, taking her seat between the sofa cushions. Pavlik's place had more space and more air. A thin, delicate woman's voice sang something about a little path in the woods that meandered among the trees. Just like the words in this song, Nina thought. She liked the song. When it ended, the singer put her guitar down and walked to the food table. She was wearing a long gray cardigan with drooping pockets. There wasn't anything mysterious about her. A balding man with a closely trimmed gray beard took over the guitar. Nina's eyes traveled from the man's outstretched elbow protruding through his shabby corduroy sleeve, to his stooped shoulder, to the greasy line of his hair. Nina suddenly saw that his untidiness wasn't some kind of snobbish fashion statement but a sign of loneliness, of being uncared for. She saw that the women sitting in a circle were watching the man just as they used to watch her husband. They were tired, lonely women, just as she was. There wasn't anything mysterious about them either. Nina also noticed that she wasn't the only one sitting outside the singing circle. In fact, only a few people sat in the circle, while others were scattered all around Pavlik's house. A lonely figure here and there sat quietly on a chair, an old box, or a windowsill, or wandered around the room. From time to time the paths of the lonely figures intersected, and then conversations were struck: awkward yet hopeful conversations, just as the one Nina was having now.

"You are a vegetable lover, aren't you?" a man asked, having seated himself in the opposite corner of Nina's sofa.

Nina nodded.

"Yes, I thought I heard that from somebody. Do you like to cook vegetables?"

Nina nodded again.

"You know, I love vegetables myself. My wife hates it when I cook, though." The man rolled his eyes, making Nina smile. He was short, with thin rusty-red hair and a very pale complexion. A tiny piece of toilet paper with a spot of dried blood stuck to his cheek.

"Are you a computer programmer like everybody else?" Nina asked.

The man nodded with a smile.

"And in your previous life?"

"A physics teacher in high school. But I can't say that I miss it. I was terrified of my students." Nina laughed. It was easy to talk to him. Nina looked at his smiling eyes, then down at his hands—short fingernails, white fingers, red hair on the knuckles. She tried to imagine what it would be like if a hand like this brushed against her breast. Accidentally.

Nina wiped the little beads of sweat off her nose. He was a strange, married, and not particularly attractive man. He introduced himself as Andrei.

"So, what's your favorite vegetable?" Nina asked.

"I would say fennel. Fennel has an incredible flavor. Reminds me of a wild apple and, oddly enough, freshly sawed wood. Do you like fennel?" Nina nodded. She liked fennel. It had a funny, slightly ribbed surface, and it was heavy and spouted weird green shoots that seemed to grow out of nowhere. Nina'd never tasted fennel. "I like broccoli," she said.

"Oh, broccoli! I love how they cook it in Chinese places. How do you cook it?"

This man with the piece of tissue stuck to his cheek looked safe enough to confide in. "I've never cooked broccoli—or any other vegetable," Nina said.

"Let's have a cooking date," Andrei offered. A cooking date! Nina couldn't remember ever feeling so excited. She was sure she had been as excited sometime before, she just couldn't remember when. So the better part of the following Saturday Nina spent shopping for cooking utensils. She went to Macy's and abandoned the fifty-percent-discount rule for the first time, buying two drastically overpriced skillets, a set of shiny stainless steel saucepans, a steamer, and a pretty wooden spoon with a carved handle. "Do you want it wrapped as a wedding present?" the cashier asked.

Halfway home, Nina realized that she hadn't bought nearly enough. Knives! She needed knives! And a cutting board, and a colander, and God knows what else. She swerved her car in the direction of Avenue M, where, abandoning the second rule about never ever buying anything in cheap stores, she bought a set of knives, two wooden cutting boards and one plastic, a colander, a curved grapefruit knife just because it looked so cute, a vegetable peeler, a set of stainless steel bowls, and two aprons with a picture of wild mushrooms on a yellow background. In a grocery store next door Nina bought a bottle of olive oil, black pepper, chili pepper, and a jar of something dry and dark-green with Chinese letters on it. Well before three o'clock—the time of their cooking date—Nina had everything ready. The sparkling saucepans and the skillet stood proudly on the stove. The bowls, the colander, the cutting boards, and the knives were arranged on the kitchen counter in careful disarray around the centerpiece: the opened Italian Cuisine: The Taste of the Sun. Nina observed her kitchen, trying to shake off the embarrassing excess of excitement.

Andrei came on time, even earlier. At five minutes to three he already stood in Nina's hall, removing his bulky leather jacket and his leather cap sprinkled with raindrops. He smelled of wet leather. He handed Nina a bottle of wine and a baguette in a sodden paper bag. "In movies, when a man hands a woman a baguette and a bottle of wine, it always seems chic, doesn't it?" he said. Nina nodded. Andrei looked more homely than she remembered. Nina's memory somehow had managed to erase the red spots on his pasty cheeks, to color his brows and eyelashes, to make him slimmer, and add an inch or two to his height. It was strange seeing him in her house, especially in her tiny hall, where every object was familiar, its place carefully considered. He clashed with the surroundings like a bad piece of furniture. Nina hurried to lead him into the kitchen.

"So, are we cooking broccoli today?" Andrei asked. He began leafing through Italian Cuisine: The Taste of the Sun, his freshly washed hands still smelling of Nina's soap.

"Broccoli, yes," Nina mumbled. She was suddenly struck by a dreadful suspicion, which was immediately confirmed upon opening the refrigerator. In all her shopping frenzy, she had forgotten to buy any vegetables.

She jerked out the vegetable basket, faintly hoping for a miracle. The basket was empty and sparklingly clean, wiped with a kitchen towel moistened in Clorox by her sister's firm hand. There was only a tiny strip of onion skin stuck between the edge of the basket and the shelf above. Nina turned to Andrei, motioning to the empty basket. Her throat felt as if someone were squeezing it. Suddenly everything seemed hopeless and absurd: the counter crammed with gleaming, artificial sets of kitchenware; the barren vegetable basket; this perfect stranger, who came to cook in her kitchen; Nina herself, with all her energy and excitement of moments ago, now pressing her forehead against the cold vinyl of the refrigerator door.

"Do you want me to drive to a supermarket?" Andrei asked.

Nina shook her head. She knew it would never work now, after everything had been exposed to her in all its absurdity.

"What's this?" Andrei asked. He was looking toward the back of the refrigerator. A bunch of broccoli was stuck between the third shelf and the refrigerator wall. It hung upside down, the florets nearly touching the shelf below. The bunch wasn't yellowed or covered with rotten slime. On the contrary, for the weeks that it lay between the shelves, it had become darker and dryer. A few more weeks and it would have turned into a broccoli mummy. It smelled okay, or rather it didn't smell at all. "I'm sure we can still cook it," Andrei said. He began showing Nina what to do. Nina ran cold water over the florets, then shook the bunch fiercely, letting out a shower of green drops. She chopped off the stem, then cut off the base of each floret, watching with fascination how they split into new tiny bunches of broccoli.

She then peeled the stem and cut it into even, star-shaped slices. Some things turned out to be different from Nina's cooking fantasies, others exactly the same. Some were disappointing, others better than she ever imagined. The best thing of all was that, when the broccoli was already on the stove, sputtering boiling water from under the shiny lid, Andrei pulled one of her kitchen chairs close to the stove and suggested she stand on it.

"Climb up and inhale," he said. "The hot air travels up. The strongest aroma should be right under the ceiling." He stood back, giving her room.

Nina stood on the chair, her hair just grazing the ceiling. She closed her eyes, lifted her nose, and breathed in deep. The warm aroma of broccoli rose up, caressing Nina's face, enveloping the whole of her.

From BROCCOLI AND OTHER TALES OF FOOD AND LOVE by Lara Vapnyar. Copyright © 2008 by Lara Vapnyar. Reprinted with the permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

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Lara Vapnyar