Thursday, January 20, 2011

Short-a-Day: Sana Krasikov's "Debt"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 6, 2008. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 66.

Krasikov's one of those writers who knows her characters so well that it takes us a moment to catch up to her: Sonya is the twenty-year-old niece of Lev; she is visiting Lev and Lev's wife, Dina, for the first time in four years, bringing with her her considerably older (thirty-five) husband, and pictures of their sixteen-month-old daughter, Andjela Bliss. They've not brought the child because they've spent Friday and Saturday operating their business -- "selling food out of their van at a music festival on Long Island" -- and so we at once get a mix of characters that are both responsible and irresponsible, grown-up and childish. It's a mix that fits the story, as the "Debt" of the title refers to Sonya's prior relationship with Lev and the one that she has come seeking.

Lev now finds himself poised between the familial and the financial, a situation complicated a little further by a casual dinner revelation that he was once sponsored by a "temple," a religious organization of some kind that they still, on occasion, make contributions to, as a way of clearing their own obligations. The story is filled with such small nothings, little bombshells of information that don't really advance the plot so much as they fit the characters and partially fill in their motivations.

As another example, we learn more about Sonya's mother, who "depleted and divorced" Lev's diabetic brother (now deceased) and then shacked up with the ape of a man she was having an affair with, all while generally neglecting the basic needs (like a proper bed) of her daughter. This is all flashback, but it clarifies why Sonya ran off on her own at such an early age (sixteen), and why Lev started wiring her money every few months . . . which, of course, comes full circle to why Sonya feels that she can come and press Lev for a ten-thousand-dollar start-up loan, and why Lev must refuse. Though he is capable of giving the money (he's a successful inventor), he is not a lender.

It's not a fully satisfactory explanation, but the individual moments, conversations, and details that lead up to this refusal all ring true, particularly fully-fleshed flashbacks like these:

It has always been hard to tell if Sonya is utterly earnest or entirely insincere in her flattery. When she was twelve, Lev can recall, coming to stay with them for the first time (her mother had put her on the Greyhound), she'd told them how happy she was to see them again. The "again" had prompted a little laugh of disbelief from Dina; they'd left Tbilisi eleven years ago, when Sonya was not even two. She couldn't possibly have remembered them! It had been almost taxing to watch the child laboring so hard to be loved . . .


The way she crossed her legs and leaned forward, how she didn't pause to exhale her cigarette smoke but simply let it pass out of her mouth while she spoke or laughed. It didn't seem like girls got this way by merely growing up.

One of Krasikov's characters mentions that the relationship between Sonya and her husband is "A sad [love story], the story of people who've fallen into each other's arms out of some shared knowledge that nobody else gave a damn about them." It's the one truly wrong note in this story, both because there's no example of it, and because it's so irrelevant to everything else going on around it.

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