I am sorry to say that, at the moment I received news of the NEA fellowship, I was breaking U.S. law. The call came as my plane was about to take off for Cleveland. "Turn off all electronic devices," said the pilot, and echoed my seatmate, while poking me in the arm. But how could I hang up on the NEA? I couldn't -- but I did tell the NEA I would have to call back. (Later, the woman who'd called said that she'd assumed I wasn't really on an airplane; she'd thought I'd made it up to check whether she was a practical joker.)
"Sorry," I told my seatmate after I hung up. "It's just -- I just found out I got a government grant!"
Shrinking away, he may have thought I wanted to hug him. If so, he was right. "So, are you going to cure cancer, or what?" he said.
"Um, no, probably not..."
"You should try, at least." He nodded firmly, closed his eyes, and feigned sleep.
And he was right. Not about my finding a cure for cancer, unfortunately, but about the importance of trying. My first novel went to fifty publishers before someone bought it. I've applied for enough of these grants to have developed unfunny, punny routines to greet the arrival of the thin envelopes. And yet, today, a committee of writers has given me the means to continue working. As I write my second novel, I will keep two lessons in mind: don't break the law, and, no matter what, keep trying.
Excerpt from The Cosmopolitans
Everything was in confusion in the house of the Molochniks. The Chaikins were due to arrive in an hour, along with their son, Leonid, a stock analyst with a face like a potato, who'd bought himself two mountain bikes, just in case the right girl came along. That girl, according to Osip's wife, was Milla, but Milla drooped through the house, a dying swan in sweatpants. She'd mentioned the Chaikins' visit to her boyfriend Malcolm, and Malcolm had said that if she was seeing other people, he would, too. Osip thought his beautiful Milla had nothing to worry about -- Malcolm was not a James Bond -- but who cared what Osip thought? No one even cared that he was wearing the fuzzy checkered sweater his wife had put in the trash the previous week.
Yana, their middle daughter, tried to work the word "clitorectomy" into every conversation, as if it were the name of a boy she loved, and had created a mountain of what she called "girl clothes" in the upstairs hallway, and the mountain was slowly collapsing, skirts fluttering to the floor whenever anyone passed, and she was taking photographs of this.
Katya, the youngest, had locked herself in the bathroom again. Was she dyeing her hair? Cutting off her eyelashes like she had that one time? Smoking crack, like the police chief's daughter on The Commish? Creating a viable hydrogen fuel?
Osip stood at the table and watched his wife whip meringues.
"It's perfect," she said in her meticulously Muscovite Russian. "Milla's an accounting major, and accounting is a little lower than stock analyzing. So the woman is a little lower than the man, and the man feels good, and they talk about business." Every few seconds,she wiped the counter clean of batter, only to splatter it again, only to wipe it again. This was completely contradictory to the Just-In-Time manufacturing techniques Osip had just learned at work, which he could resist sharing with her only because he had a more important mission.
"God loves the trinity," everyone had said when Katya was born. Osip loved the trinity too, but he had always wanted a son, for the sake of one important Jewish word: moderation. Many of the Molochniks' problems stemmed from the immoderate number of girls in the house. A boy would tell Yana that Osip wasn't actually very patriarchal at all. A boy would address Katya in the street language of modern youth: "Tell me the dealio with all those earrings, and failing math, when you have a father to tutor you, yo," and she would explain herself, and then Osip would know what to do. It wasn't natural, him alone, battling all these forces.
Stalina called up the stairs, "Yanka -- are you waiting for Pushkin to set the table? Get to it, girlie."
Yana said, "Why? So the prospective owner of Milla's vagina can think she's tidy?" and clattered down in her steel-toed boots.
"You give me headache already," Stalina said. Whenever anyone spoke English to her, she took it as a dare.
"Shh, little girl, shh," Yana said, "Your voice will never be privileged." She began tossing silverware onto the table.
"Katya," Stalina called up the stairs. "Nu, come on."
The Commish, Osip's favorite television policeman, off the air four years now, but never to be forgotten, would say now or never, junior. "You know that program at the Jewish Community Center,
"No," Stalina said, chopping an apple into a variety of abstract shapes.
Osip deployed Zionism. "It's to benefit Israel. They send children to Jerusalem, and bring other children here."
"Children should stay where their parents put them." She looked up from the apple battlefield."These other children, who are they?"
"They're Muslims, Stalinatchka, but from nice countries, Bangladesh, Egypt, these are the ones who, if they see someone making a bomb, they can say something like, "Look here, my fellow Allah-enjoyer, I've lived with a few Jews myself, and they're really not so bad.'" Stalina raised her flour-hoary eyebrows. He'll say, "Did you know Jews invented the hologram?' Because we'll have taught him things like that, veedish, see?"
"What is the Point of Stamford?" Stalina said. Osip knew what was coming: a speech she often gave to visiting Boston friends. "It's provincial, yes, without question. However: have you noticed, historically, that most blockades and suchlike happen only to large, important cities? No one cares about Stamford, so it's safe."
He grabbed her shoulder. "And that's exactly -- "
"But when you start bringing devils to these quiet waters -- " "Devils? Stalinatchka!" he said, possibly overplaying his shock.
"People used to call us that."
Yana came back in and took some glasses from the cabinet. Stalina asked about Katya; apparently, she remained in the bathroom.
"Still? And Milla?" Stalina said.
"The hozaika vlagalishta, keeper of the vagina, is in my room."
Stalina said, "When you're done, tell Milla to get down here.
And get Katya out of the bathroom -- Milla needs to make herself up. And enough with trying to shock us with your feminist tricks. That's not even the word Russian people use -- they say pipka, for children, or zhenskiy organ, which is more polite, or pizda, to be crude, right, Osya? You think you can shock me?" Stalina lifteda ladle of meringue batter. "When you and your sisters had full diapers, guess who had to clean your pipkas?"
Yana clattered back upstairs, muttering something about Stalina being a rebel.
Osip said, "The boy the JCC has for us is a graduate student, in industrial engineering. Maybe Katya will let him tutor her in math."
"Katya doesn't need a tutor, she needs to listen to her mother and learn some manners. Like you, why are you just standing there like a prince? Finish the salad."
"Of course, zaychik."
"And don't call me zaychik. I'm a big fat woman, not a little bunny rabbit."
Quick as a fox, he got three cucumbers, a bag of spinach, and four tomatoes from the refrigerator, laid them on the counter as a symbol of good faith, and wrapped his arms around his wife's waist.
Nadia Kalman has published stories and essays in Subtropics, Moment Magazine, the Walrus, the Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere. Her first novel, The Cosmopolitans (Livingston Press, 2010), won the Emerging Writer Award from Moment Magazine and was a finalist for the Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature. Between 2007 and 2009, Kalman was a fiction fellow of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. She has received other fellowships from Ledig House, I-Park, SLS in St. Petersburg, and the Ragdale Colony. She was born in Ukraine, grew up in Connecticut, and lives in New York City. Formerly a public-school teacher and administrator, she now consults for several not-for-profit educational organizations.
Photo by Erica Ehrenberg