The goldfinch, p.25
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       The Goldfinch, p.25


  without paying. “Forget that.”


  BORIS LIKED XANDRA A lot better than I did: leaping forward to open doors for her, saying he liked her new haircut, offering to carry things. I’d teased him about her ever since I’d caught him looking down her top when she leaned to reach her cell phone on the kitchen counter.

  “God, she’s hot,” said Boris, once we were up in my room. “Think your dad would mind?”

  “Probably wouldn’t notice.”

  “No, serious, what do you think your dad would do to me?”

  “If what?”

  “If me and Xandra.”

  “I dunno, probably call the police.”

  He snorted, derisively. “What for?”

  “Not you. Her. Statutory rape.”

  “I wish.”

  “Go on and fuck her if you want,” I said. “I don’t care if she goes to jail.”

  Boris rolled over on his stomach and looked at me slyly. “She takes cocaine, do you know that?”


  “Cocaine.” He mimed sniffing.

  “You’re kidding,” I said, and then, when he smirked at me: “How can you tell?”

  “I just know. From the way she talks. Also she’s grinding her teeth. Watch her sometime.”

  I didn’t know what to watch for. But then one afternoon we came in when my dad wasn’t home and saw her straightening up from the coffee table with a sniff, holding her hair behind her neck with one hand. When she threw her head back, and her eyes landed on us, there was a moment where nobody said anything and then she turned away as if we weren’t there.

  We kept walking, up the stairs to my room. Though I’d never seen anybody snorting drugs before, it was clear even to me what she was doing.

  “God, sexy,” said Boris, after I shut the door. “Wonder where she keeps it?”

  “Dunno,” I said, flopping down on my bed. Xandra was just leaving; I could hear her car in the driveway.

  “Think she’ll give us some?”

  “She might give you some.”

  Boris sank down to sit on the floor by the bed, with his knee up and his back against the wall. “Do you think she’s selling it?”

  “No way,” I said, after a slight, disbelieving pause. “You think?”

  “Ha! Good for you, if she is.”

  “How’s that?”

  “Cash around the house!”

  “Fat lot of good that does me.”

  He swung his shrewd, appraising gaze over to me. “Who pays the bills here, Potter?” he said.

  “Huh.” It was the first time that this question, which I immediately recognized as of great practical importance, had even occurred to me. “I don’t know. My dad, I think. Though Xandra puts in some too.”

  “And where does he get it? His moneys?”

  “No clue,” I said. “He talks to people on the telephone and then he leaves the house.”

  “Any checkbooks lying around? Any cash?”

  “No. Never. Chips, sometimes.”

  “As good as cash,” Boris said swiftly, spitting a bitten-off thumbnail on the floor.

  “Right. Except you can’t cash them in the casino if you’re under eighteen.”

  Boris chortled. “Come on. We figure out something, if we have to. We dress you up in that poncy school jacket with the coat of arms, send you to the window, ‘Excuse me, miss—’ ”

  I rolled over and punched him hard, in the arm. “Fuck you,” I said, stung by his drawling, snobbish rendering of my voice.

  “Can’t be talking like that, Potter,” said Boris gleefully, rubbing his arm. “They won’t give you a fucking cent. All I’m saying is, I know where my dad’s checkbook is, and if there’s an emergency—” he held out his open palms—“right?”


  “I mean, if I have to write bad check, I write bad check,” said Boris philosophically. “Good to know I can. I’m not saying, break in their room and go through their things, but still, good idea to keep your eye open, yes?”


  BORIS AND HIS FATHER didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, and Xandra and my dad had reservations for a Romantic Holiday Extravaganza at a French restaurant in the MGM Grand. “Do you want to come?” said my father when he saw me looking at the brochure on the kitchen counter: hearts and fireworks, tricolor bunting over a plate of roast turkey. “Or do you have something of your own to do?”

  “No thanks.” He was being nice, but the thought of being with Dad and Xandra on their Romantic Holiday Whatever made me uneasy. “I’ve got plans.”

  “What are you doing then?”

  “I’m having Thanksgiving with somebody else.”

  “Who with?” said my dad, in a rare burst of parental solicitude. “A friend?”

  “Let me guess,” said Xandra—barefoot, in the Miami Dolphins jersey she slept in, staring into the fridge. “The same person who keeps eating these oranges and apples I bring home.”

  “Oh, come on,” said my dad sleepily, coming up behind her and putting his arms around her, “you like the little Russki—what’s his name—Boris.”

  “Sure I like him. Which is good, I guess, since he’s here pretty much all the time. Shit,” she said—twisting away from him, slapping her bare thigh—“who let this mosquito inside? Theo, I don’t know why you can’t remember to keep that door to the pool shut. I’ve told you and told you.”

  “Well, you know, I could always have Thanksgiving with you guys, if you’d rather,” I said blandly, leaning back against the kitchen counter. “Why don’t I.”

  I had intended this to annoy Xandra, and with pleasure I saw that it did. “But the reservation’s for two,” said Xandra, flicking her hair back and looking at my dad.

  “Well, I’m sure they can work something out.”

  “We’ll need to call ahead.”

  “Fine then, call,” said my dad, giving her a slightly stoned pat on the back and ambling on in to the living room to check on his football scores.

  Xandra and I stood looking at each other for a moment, and then she looked away, as if into some bleak and untenable vision of the future. “I need coffee,” she said listlessly.

  “It wasn’t me who left that door open.”

  “I don’t know who keeps doing it. All I know is, those weird Amway-selling people over there didn’t drain their fountain before they moved and now there’s a jillion mosquitoes everywhere I look—I mean, there goes another one, shit.”

  “Look, don’t be mad. I don’t have to come with you guys.”

  She put down the box of coffee filters. “So, what are you saying?” she said. “Should I change the reservation or not?”

  “What are you two going on about?” called my father faintly from the next room, from his nest of beringed coasters, old cigarette packs, and marked-up baccarat sheets.

  “Nothing,” called Xandra. Then, a few minutes later, as the coffee maker began to hiss and pop, she rubbed her eye and said in a sleep-roughened voice: “I never said I didn’t want you to come.”

  “I know. I never said you did.” Then: “Also, just so you know, it’s not me that leaves the door open. It’s Dad, when he goes out there to talk on the phone.”

  Xandra—reaching in the cabinet for her Planet Hollywood coffee mug—looked back at me over her shoulder. “You’re not really having dinner at his house?” she said. “The little Russki or whatever?”

  “Nah. We’ll just be here watching television.”

  “Do you want me to bring you something?”

  “Boris likes those cocktail sausages you bring home. And I like the wings. The hot ones.”

  “Anything else? What about those mini taquito things? You like those too, don’t you?”

  “That would be great.”

  “Fine. I’ll hook you guys up. Just stay out of my cigarettes, that’s all I ask. I don’t care if you smoke,” she said, raising a hand to hush me, “it’s not like I’m busting you, but somebody’s been steali
ng packs out of the carton in here and it’s costing me like twenty-five bucks a week.”


  EVER SINCE BORIS HAD shown up with the bruised eye, I had built Boris’s father up in my mind to be some thick-necked Soviet with pig eyes and a buzz haircut. In fact—as I was surprised to see, when I did finally meet him—he was as thin and pale as a starved poet. Chlorotic, with a sunken chest, he smoked incessantly, wore cheap shirts that had grayed in the wash, drank endless cups of sugary tea. But when you looked him in the eye you realized that his frailty was deceptive. He was wiry, intense, bad temper shimmering off him—small-boned and sharp-faced, like Boris, but with an evil red-rimmed gaze and tiny, brownish sawteeth. He made me think of a rabid fox.

  Though I’d glimpsed him in passing, and heard him (or a person I presumed was him) bumping around Boris’s house at night, I didn’t actually meet him face-to-face until a few days before Thanksgiving. Then we walked into Boris’s house one day after school, laughing and talking, to find him hunched at the kitchen table with a bottle and a glass. Despite his shabby clothes, he was wearing expensive shoes and lots of gold jewelry; and when he looked up at us with reddened eyes we shut up talking immediately. Though he was a small, slightly built man, there was something in his face that made you not want to get too close to him.

  “Hi,” I said tentatively.

  “Hello,” he said—stony-faced, in a much thicker accent than Boris—and then turned to Boris and said something in Ukrainian. A brief conversation followed, which I observed with interest. It was interesting to see the change that came over Boris when he was speaking another language—a sort of livening, or alertness, a sense of a different and more efficient person occupying his body.

  Then—unexpectedly—Mr. Pavlikovsky held out both hands to me. “Thank you,” he said thickly.

  Though I was afraid to approach him—it felt like approaching a wild animal—I stepped forward anyway and held out both my hands, awkwardly. He took them in his own, which were hard-skinned and cold.

  “You are good person,” he said. His gaze was bloodshot and way too intense. I wanted to look away, and was ashamed of myself.

  “God be with you and bless you always,” he said. “You are like a son to me. For letting my son come into your family.”

  My family? In confusion, I glanced over at Boris.

  Mr. Pavlikovsky’s eyes went to him. “You told him what I said?”

  “He said you are part of our family here,” said Boris, in a bored voice, “and if there is anything ever he can do for you…”

  To my great surprise, Mr. Pavlikovsky pulled me close and caught me in a solid embrace, while I closed my eyes and tried hard to ignore his smell: hair cream, body odor, alcohol, and some sort of sharp, disagreeably pungent cologne.

  “What was that about?” I said quietly when we were up in Boris’s room with the door shut.

  Boris rolled his eyes. “Believe me. You don’t want to know.”

  “Is he that loaded all the time? How does he keep his job?”

  Boris cackled. “High official in the company,” he said. “Or something.”

  We stayed up in Boris’s murky, batik-draped room until we heard his dad’s truck start up in the driveway. “He won’t be back for a while,” Boris said, as I let the curtain fall back over the window. “He feels bad for leaving me so much alone. He knows is a holiday coming up, and he asked if I could stay at your house.”

  “Well, you do all the time anyway.”

  “He knows that,” said Boris, scraping the hair out of his eyes. “That’s why he thanked you. But—I hope you don’t mind—I gave him your wrong address.”


  “Because—” he moved his legs to make room for me to sit by him, without my having to ask—“I think maybe you don’t want him rolling up drunk at your house in the middle of the night. Waking your father and Xandra up out of bed. Also—if he ever asks—he thinks your last name is Potter.”


  “Is better this way,” said Boris calmly. “Trust me.”


  BORIS AND I LAY on the floor in front of the television at my house, eating potato chips and drinking vodka, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. It was snowing in New York. A number of balloons had just passed—Snoopy, Ronald McDonald, SpongeBob, Mr. Peanut—and a troupe of Hawaiian dancers in loincloths and grass skirts was performing a number in Herald Square.

  “Glad that’s not me,” said Boris. “Bet they’re freezing their arses off.”

  “Yeah,” I said, though I had no eyes for the balloons or the dancers or any of it. To see Herald Square on television made me feel as if I were stranded millions of light-years from Earth and picking up signals from the early days of radio, announcer voices and audience applause from a vanished civilization.

  “Idiots. Can’t believe they dress like that. They’ll end up in hospital, those girls.” As fiercely as Boris complained about the heat in Las Vegas, he also had an unshakable belief that anything “cold” made people ill: unheated swimming pools, the air-conditioning at my house, and even ice in drinks.

  He rolled over on his back and passed me the bottle. “You and your mother, you went to this parade?”


  “Why not?” said Boris, feeding Popper a potato chip.

  “Nekulturny,” I said, a word I’d picked up from him. “And too many tourists.”

  He lit a cigarette, and offered me one. “Are you sad?”

  “A little,” I said, leaning in to light it from his match. I couldn’t stop thinking about the Thanksgiving before; it kept playing and re-playing like a movie I couldn’t stop: my mother padding around barefoot in old jeans with the knees sprung out, opening a bottle of wine, pouring me some ginger ale in a champagne glass, setting out some olives, turning up the stereo, putting on her holiday joke apron, and unwrapping the turkey breast she’d bought us in Chinatown, only to wrinkle her nose and start back at the smell—“Oh God, Theo, this thing’s gone off, open the door for me”—eyewatering ammonia reek, holding it out before her like an undetonated grenade as she ran with it down the fire stairs and out to the garbage can on the street while I—leaning out from the window—made gleeful retching noises from on high. We’d eaten an austere meal of canned green beans, canned cranberries, and brown rice with toasted almonds: “Our Vegetarian Socialist Thanksgiving,” she’d called it. We’d planned carelessly because she had a project due at work; next year, she promised (both of us tired from laughing; the spoiled turkey had for some reason put us in an hilarious mood), we were renting a car and driving to her friend Jed’s in Vermont, or else making reservations someplace great like Gramercy Tavern. Only that future had not happened; and I was celebrating my alcoholic potato-chip Thanksgiving with Boris in front of the television.

  “What are we going to eat, Potter?” said Boris, scratching his stomach.

  “What? Are you hungry?”

  He waggled his hand sideways: comme ci, comme ça. “You?”

  “Not especially.” The roof of my mouth was scraped raw from eating so many chips, and the cigarettes had begun to make me feel ill.

  Suddenly Boris howled with laughter; he sat up. “Listen,” he said—kicking me, pointing to the television. “Did you hear that?”


  “The news man. He just wished happy holiday to his kids. ‘Bastard and Casey.’ ”

  “Oh, come on.” Boris was always mis-hearing English words like this, aural malaprops, sometimes amusing but often just irritating.

  “ ‘Bastard and Casey!’ That’s hard, eh? Casey, all right, but call his own kid ‘Bastard’ on holiday television?”

  “That’s not what he said.”

  “Fine, then, you know everything, what did he say?”

  “How should I know what the fuck?”

  “Then why do you argue with me? Why do you think you always know better? What is the problem with this country? How did so stupid nation get to
be so arrogant and rich? Americans… movie stars… TV people… they name their kids like Apple and Blanket and Blue and Bastard and all kind of crazy things.”

  “And your point is—?”

  “My point is like, democracy is excuse for any fucking thing. Violence… greed… stupidity… anything is ok if Americans do it. Right? Am I right?”

  “You really can’t shut up, can you?”

  “I know what I heard, ha! Bastard! Tell you what. If I thought my kid was a bastard I would sure the fuck name him something else.”

  In the fridge, there were wings and taquitos and cocktail sausages that Xandra had brought home, as well as dumplings from the strip-mall Chinese where my father liked to eat, but by the time we actually got around to eating, the bottle of vodka (Boris’s contribution to Thanksgiving) was already half gone and we were well on our way to being sick. Boris—who sometimes had a serious streak when he was drunk, a Russianate bent for heavy topics and unanswerable questions—was sitting on the marble countertop waving around a fork with a cocktail sausage speared on it and talking a bit wildly about poverty and capitalism and climate change and how fucked up the world was.

  At some disoriented point, I said: “Boris, shut up. I don’t want to hear this.” He’d gone back to my room for my school copy of Walden and was reading aloud a lengthy passage that bolstered some point he was trying to make.

  The thrown book—luckily a paperback—clipped me in the cheekbone. “Ischézni! Get out!”

  “This is my house, you ignorant fuck.”

  The cocktail sausage—still impaled on the fork—sailed past my head, missing me narrowly. But we were laughing. By mid-afternoon we were completely wrecked: rolling around on the carpet, tripping each other, laughing and swearing, crawling on hands and knees. A football game was on, and though it was an annoyance to both of us it was too much trouble to find the remote and change the channel. Boris was so hammered he kept trying to talk to me in Russian.

  “Speak English or shut up,” I said, trying to catch myself on the banister, and ducking his swing so clumsily I crashed and fell into the coffee table.

  “Ty menjá dostál!! Poshël ty!”

  “Gobble gobble gobble,” I replied in a whiny girl voice, face down in the carpet. The floor was rocking and bucking like the deck of a ship. “Balalaika pattycake.”

  “Fucking télik,” said Boris, collapsing on the floor beside me, kicking out ridiculously at the television. “Don’t want to watch this shite.”

  “Well I mean, fuck”—rolling over, clutching my stomach—“I don’t either.” My eyes weren’t tracking right, objects had halos that shimmered out beyond their normal boundaries.

  “Let’s watch weathers,” said Boris, wading on his knees across the living room. “Want to see the weathers in New Guinea.”

  “You’ll have to find it, I don’t know what channel.”

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