Siberian Wood

“Siberian Wood” by Lara Vapnyar
Illustration by Kevin Lucbert
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Lara Vapnyar reads.

The thing about horseradish vodka is that it makes you forget that you’re drinking vodka. The greenish color and the smell of hay bring to mind the kind of herbal infusions you’d get at a spa, and the taste is so sharp and bracing that it feels like an energy drink. Yes, an energy drink! You feel strong and vigorous as you down one shot after another. You’re delighted with everyone, but most of all with yourself, your witty, charming, quirky self, and you believe that everyone else is just as impressed by you as you are, until you suddenly realize that you’re so drunk you can’t fully control yourself—your movements, or your words, or that crazy laughter that makes your mouth twist and your eyes water—and your whole body convulses and you splash the drink all over your plate, your knees, and your chest. And then you realize that this isn’t that big a party, that there are only five seemingly respectable middle-aged adults at the table in this neat Upper West Side apartment, that your husband, Mark, is staring at you in horror, and that his friend Sergey is red in the face, because your charming, witty self has been mocking and abusing him for the past two hours. The hosts are trying their best to look away, even though they are almost as drunk as you are.

The only remedy for this is, of course, more horseradish vodka, but God help you if you find that the bottle is empty.

“Are we all out?” Helena asked, taking the empty bottle from me and shaking it with great force, as if shaking could magically refill it.

“There’s more,” Alex said. “I’ll pop it into the freezer.” His voice was muffled, because his face was buried in the fur of the large gray cat he’d been cradling for most of the evening. Alex had recently shaved his beard, and I wondered if he felt drawn to the cat’s fur because he missed his own.

A different cat, skinny and black, sprang up onto Helena’s lap. There was also a third cat somewhere, but that one preferred to bide his time hidden under one of their pieces of elegant furniture.

“Please don’t think that we’re crazy cat people. They were my uncle’s cats,” Helena explained. “My uncle and aunt died within a few days of each other. My aunt was the first to go. We were helping my uncle with the funeral arrangements when he suddenly stopped answering our messages. Turns out he’d died, too! Can you imagine that?”

We could imagine that, but we didn’t want to, so what followed was an uneasy silence.

I noticed a few remaining drops of vodka at the bottom of Mark’s shot glass, and lunged for it. Mark gave me a warning look. He sat across the table from me, but he looked as if he were far away, planets away from me. But then I often felt that when we were in the company of other people. Feeling this way terrified me, because it made me think that the profound intimacy we enjoyed at home was just an illusion that evaporated as soon as we ventured outside, and in the absence of that intimacy we couldn’t feel independent or self-sufficient but were, instead, broken and outcast, uncomfortable and unprotected.

To quell my panic, I raised Mark’s shot glass and held it over my face until those last drops of vodka had rolled into my open mouth.

Sergey was sitting next to me. I could see him through the thick glass. He was taller and thinner than anyone else at the dinner party. His face was still red, his glasses fogged over, his very long legs awkwardly folded under the table. He looked exactly as uncomfortable and unprotected as my fear suggested that a person in the absence of love would look. He’d been looking that way ever since Daria had disappeared.

I turned away from him, my eyes falling on the open notebook in the middle of the table, splotched with oil and barely legible writing. The handwriting was Helena’s, but the ideas were mostly Mark’s and mine.

The goal of this gathering was to help Sergey create a YouTube channel, on which he would deliver lectures on art. Back in Russia, Sergey had been an art historian, a true fanatic of art, his passion being sculpture, particularly wooden sculpture. He’d enjoyed travelling to faraway places, searching for ancient artifacts, often in the company of devoted students, writing, teaching, giving talks. YouTube was different, though. Sergey wasn’t sure that he had enough charisma for the screen. His new girlfriend, Federica, thought that his charisma was just fine: he had a comforting, nonthreatening presence; all he needed to do was to overcome his insecurity and learn to sell himself.

It was Federica’s idea to enlist us to help. After all, Mark and I were journalists, and Alex and Helena owned a successful branding company. She was sure that the four of us would have the perfect combination of skills to figure out how to sell Sergey. Federica had planned to supervise the effort, but had had to cancel at the last minute when a friend offered her a singing gig that was too good to pass up. Her absence was unfortunate. She was at least twenty years younger than the rest of us, but there was something sobering about her. Or perhaps it was her age that was sobering. We all had children, most of them grown up, but we still thought of them as kids. We would have died of shame if any of them had caught us behaving in this way. If Federica had been there, I wouldn’t have got so drunk, that’s for sure.

“Let’s continue?” Mark said, reaching for the notebook and the pen.

“Yes!” Helena said. “Where were we?”

“Sergey’s books. What’s the title of your latest one, man?”

“ ‘Siberian Wood,’ ” Sergey said.

“Siberian what?” I asked with a chortle.

“ ‘Siberian Wood,’ ” Sergey said and proceeded to explain why Siberian wood was superior to other types. Especially Siberian birch. Apparently, it could grow in the most hostile climates, which made it ideal for wooden sculptures, because it was both pliable and extremely hard.

“Siberian wood?” I howled. “Hard Siberian wood? Is it porn? Have you written a porn book, Sergey?”

Helena immediately joined in, chanting, “Super-hard super wood! Gimme some super wood!”

Even Alex started to laugh, shaking along with the cat, which was still in his arms.

I was laughing so hard that I dropped a piece of herring from my fork into Sergey’s lap. He picked it up and placed it on the edge of his plate. His herring-stained knee was trembling. Federica had made him cut his hair way too short, and he looked like a bullied schoolboy. And, in this case, I was the bully. I felt queasy all of a sudden.

“Hey, why don’t you go and lie down?” Mark said to me.

I stood up with some difficulty and walked toward a small couch by the window.

“Wait,” Alex said. “I’ll give you another pillow. That one’s all covered with cat hair.”

But I was already lying down and very reluctant to move. I could still hear the others, but at least I couldn’t see them and interpret their expressions as disgust toward me.

They were discussing what made Sergey special.

Cartoon by Rich Sparks

“Listen,” Helena said. “Is it true that you’ve had six wives? I think someone mentioned that.”

I knew who that someone was. It was me.

“Six wives, dude? Fucking A!” Alex said.

Sergey began to say that it all depended on the definition of a wife, but I yelled from my couch, “No! We count them all! All six of them!”

I loved counting Sergey’s wives, because it made me feel less insecure about being Mark’s fourth wife. At least I wasn’t the sixth.

Sergey’s sixth wife was Daria. She was an old friend of Mark’s, one in an endless cohort of friends and acquaintances who came into my life after Mark and I got married. I didn’t meet her until a year after our wedding, because she was living in Europe at that time, but Mark spoke of her often, always with a strange mix of awe and bewilderment, as if she were a character in a fable or a myth, a woman whose superhuman charm allowed her to get whatever she wanted, but who always fucked it up in the end.

Mark first met Daria about twenty years ago, in Boston, at a party for recent émigrés from the former Soviet Union. She was the center of attention, even though she wasn’t witty or especially beautiful. For one thing, she was too tall—towering over the other guests like a lone tree in the middle of a prairie. Daria’s grandfather was said to have been a Romanian aristocrat who’d ended up in Siberia, and her parents were famous sculptors—her father had received an important Soviet art prize. That father was also rumored to be a madman and a creep, who had caused Daria to run away from home when she was only sixteen. A few years later, she came to the U.S. all on her own and managed to get accepted into Harvard, and then into a prestigious arboriculture graduate program at some other school.

Mark was intrigued by Daria, but he didn’t have the nerve to approach her. His wife (the second) had recently left him for another man and taken their daughters with her, and he was still reeling from that. As far as he remembered, he and Daria barely exchanged a few words. So he was naturally surprised when she called him a week later to ask if he could pick her up from a hospital; she’d just had a procedure and wasn’t allowed to drive. (Mark wouldn’t tell me what the procedure was, only that recovering from it required a complicated diet.) He wondered why she’d contacted him of all people, and Daria admitted that he was not her first phone call. “You see,” she said with a sigh, “most people turn out to be fair-weather friends.”

Mark met Daria in the lobby of the hospital, walked her to his car, and helped her in. Then he asked where he should take her. She said that she was between apartments at the moment and asked if it was possible to stay at his place for a couple of days. She gave him a warm, crooked, miserable smile that made his heart melt.

Daria stayed at Mark’s place for almost two months. He gave her the bedroom and slept on the living-room couch for the entire time. He did her laundry, got her groceries, cooked her food, and helped her with her schoolwork, all late at night after working long hours.

I wanted to know if they’d fucked, so I asked if their relationship had become romantic at some point. Mark said that it hadn’t. Neither of them was interested. Or, rather, he did suggest to her, a week or two into her stay, that he was available, but he did it more out of politeness than anything else. She firmly declined, and the subject was never raised again.

They were very friendly, though. After a couple of weeks, Daria had recovered enough to take over cooking duties, and he’d come home to the delicious smell of stew. She was vegetarian and knew her way around vegetables, often using ingredients that Mark hadn’t even heard of, like kohlrabi or Japanese turnips or chicory. She’d ask him about his daughters and listen with genuine interest, and she’d talk about her dreams of starting a family and building a house according to her own design, with a large back yard and a vegetable garden. They would all tend that garden together—she, her amazing, brilliant, beautiful husband, and their many kids. She and her husband would raise the kids to be vegetarians, because how could you not? Mark thought that there was something silly and artificial about Daria’s fantasies. As if she had no idea what a family was or how it operated but took her clues from children’s picture books.

After five weeks, Daria had fully recovered and had even resumed going to her classes, but she showed no inclination to look for her own place. It wasn’t that Daria’s company annoyed Mark, but he was starting to date again, and he wanted to be able to invite women to his place. He finally asked her when she was planning to move out. She acted surprised, even hurt, as if she couldn’t imagine that he would actually want her to leave, and he dropped the subject. Their cohabitation might have gone on forever if it hadn’t been for Mark’s second wife, who suddenly announced that she had made a terrible mistake and was coming back with their daughters. He was afraid to tell Daria about this, worried that she would make a scene. But, when he finally did, Daria surprised him by squealing with joy. She seemed to be genuinely happy that Mark was getting his family back, even if it meant that she’d have to leave. Mark offered to help her look for a new place, but Daria said that she’d manage on her own. She proceeded to cold-call her many acquaintances and soon had a solid offer to stay with one of them.

Mark drove Daria to a ramshackle house in Sharon. A short, dishevelled woman surrounded by many children and barking dogs opened the door. It appeared that she didn’t know Daria very well. Daria stood there leaning against the porch column, pale and smiling, but the woman wasn’t smiling back. It occurred to Mark that tall people in distress looked more vulnerable, more exposed than people of average height. He carried Daria’s bag to a dark, stuffy room at the back of the house, and when he returned he saw Daria sitting on the dingy living-room carpet, desperately trying to engage both children and dogs in some sort of game. “Your kids are just wonderful!” Daria said to the dishevelled woman, then threw an apologetic glance at the dogs and hurried to add that the dogs were wonderful, too. This was when the woman smiled for the first time. Daria ended up staying there for four months.

Apparently, this was Daria’s modus operandi. She had a gift for making people want to do things for her, like house and feed her or drive her places.

“Is she kind of a schemer, then?” I asked.

“No!” Mark said. “Not at all! Schemers have a long-term strategy. Daria is too impulsive for that.”

She would effortlessly strike up friendships, but she’d ruin them just as easily. The problem was that, after a while, she’d start testing the limits of love and good will, demand too much, and then act betrayed if her demands weren’t readily met. She wouldn’t accept anything less than unconditional love, the sort of love that most people would expect only from a parent. Take her stay with that family in Sharon, for example. After a couple of months, Daria complained that her room was too stuffy and hot for someone who had recently recovered from a serious medical procedure and asked if anyone in the family would swap with her. It didn’t end well.

“I was lucky that she only stayed with me for eight weeks,” Mark said. “Not enough time for her to start acting up.”

Daria’s professional life seemed to follow the same pattern. She’d ace her interviews and get one great job after another, but soon she’d start insisting on her maximalist vision for whatever project she was working on, conflict would inevitably grow, and she would end up quitting or getting fired. After a few years, she’d acquired a reputation and accrued a lot of debt, so she had no choice but to leave the U.S. and look for a job in Europe. There, she repeated the same unfortunate cycle, and eventually she moved to Russia, where no one had heard about her troubling history, and where her Harvard degree gave her superstar status.

“What about her love life?” I asked. “Was it troubled as well?”

Mark said that he assumed so, but he actually didn’t know that much about it. Daria was either extremely guarded about it or it was rather uneventful. “Who knows?” he added. “Some people are bad at love.”

I took offense. My love life, unlike Mark’s and that of most of our friends, wasn’t very eventful, either. Basically, there had been only two men in my life, my ex-husband and Mark. Which didn’t mean that I was bad at love, did it? What it actually meant, I thought, was that I treated love more seriously than the average person.

“Perhaps Daria’s standards are very high,” I said. “She won’t settle for just anyone.”

“Sure.” Mark shrugged. “If you say so.”

Then, about a year after that conversation, Daria called Mark to tell him that she had finally found the kind of love she’d been looking for her entire life. She was getting married! To the tallest, smartest, kindest, most brilliant, most beautiful man ever!

I felt vindicated.

She told Mark that she and Sergey had met when Sergey was working on a piece about Daria’s father. He asked her for permission to use some old photos; they got to talking, first about her father, then about her childhood in Siberia, then about Sergey’s passion for wooden sculpture, and her passion for trees. He asked her what her favorite tree was. She said Siberian birch. They couldn’t stop talking. Couldn’t get enough of talking. Couldn’t get enough of each other at all. That was just what love was. When you couldn’t not be with each other.

Mark recounted the conversation verbatim, and I thought that Daria’s definition of love was the simplest and the best I’d ever heard. That was it. You couldn’t get enough of each other. You couldn’t not be with each other. Until suddenly you could.

Daria said that she and Sergey would get married in the U.S. They were moving here for good. She was sick of Russia anyway—it didn’t agree with her, what with Putin’s politics and the lack of quality vegetarian food. They would settle in New York City, because all the best landscape-design firms and museums were here, and she was sure that employers would be interested in a renowned arboriculturist and a renowned art historian. She had already found a place for them to stay—one of her former professors was putting them up in a spare bedroom. She promised to visit us as soon as she and Sergey had settled in.

“Too bad Daria won’t be able to charm me,” I said to Mark. “I’m not easily charmed. I’m too mean for that.”

“We’ll see,” he said with a smile.

Still, I was very excited about meeting Daria. I kept assessing our tiny fifth-floor walkup, trying to decide if it was cool enough. My marriage to Mark had come as a result of a love affair that descended on us like a tornado, unwanted and unexpected, and upturned both our lives. Mark and I had left everything we had to our respective ex-partners, so the only apartment we could afford was grimy and dark, furnished with the cheapest Ikea items. It had a single redeeming feature: a roof terrace facing the towers of the Eldorado building. Both Mark and I were ridiculously proud of our terrace, as if this were our baby. We had decided that we wouldn’t try for a child together; Mark thought that he was too old, and I didn’t want to hurt my kids’ feelings. One of them was in college, the other was just about to start, but they were still vulnerable. I wanted them to know that, although I had left their father for another man, I would never replace them with other children. So, in a way, our roof terrace was the closest we came to having a child together—we gave it life by loving it with all our might. We bought some modest outdoor furniture so that we could have meals there. We even managed to grow a tiny vegetable garden, with herbs and tomatoes. And we ordered a small cherry tree, which arrived in a huge clay planter. We had to make frequent stops to breathe and curse as we carried it all the way to the fifth floor. Now, looking back at that period in our lives, I can’t help but think of our attempts to “play house” as childish and silly, not unlike the fantasies of family life that Daria had shared with Mark.

Daria arrived at our place alone. She apologized for Sergey, who was delayed by a meeting with someone important at the Metropolitan Museum. She marched straight to the roof terrace and stood there admiring the view. Her height and her stately features would have been intimidating if it weren’t for the awkwardness of her posture and her timid smile. She looked like a mother and a child molded together, both caring and vulnerable.

I was immediately smitten, and it didn’t hurt that she proceeded to lavish me with attention. She asked questions about my family, praised my work, complimented the vegetarian food that I made, even asked for the recipe for my spicy cauliflower soup. No one had ever asked me for a recipe before! And then, after a shot or two, she leaned in and whispered that she thought that Mark and I were a much better match than Mark had been with his previous wives. Daria had never met No. 1, but, apparently, No. 3 was a nuisance, and No. 2 was a complete disaster, who had left Mark for another man not once but twice.

Then she said that, though this would be her first marriage, for Sergey it would be the sixth. “Can you believe that he’s had five wives before me?” she asked. She said it with a laugh, but I could see that Sergey’s complicated past worried her.

“I know the type,” Mark said. “Too agreeable to say no to a woman and too restless to stay with one.”

His words pricked me. I rushed to argue.

“No!” I said. “That’s not it! Some men just refuse to settle for an imperfect marriage and prefer to keep searching for their true soulmate.”

“May I hug you?” Daria asked, and, when she did hug me, I was stunned by the pure physical force of her gratitude. I hugged her back with almost as much force.

That was when I caught Mark smirking. I knew why. He thought that I was being a crow to Daria’s fox, that her flattery was turning me into mush. He thought I was naïve enough to fall under her spell, just as he had been, just as everyone else had been. But he was wrong. Daria may have been a known charmer, but that didn’t mean that she couldn’t sincerely like me. Wasn’t I likable? And, even if I was susceptible to Daria’s flattery, why couldn’t I genuinely like her, regardless of it?

Sergey was an hour and a half late. As if to compensate for that, he flew up the stairs to our apartment and arrived breathless and flushed, firing off one excited rant after another. He was in awe of New York City—the streets, the buildings, the traffic, the people, the energy, the art! The Met was just stunning, especially the wooden sculptures made by the Asmat people. They were breathtakingly complex—it was as if tree roots were growing out of a person’s body, connecting her to her ancestors, who had roots growing out of their bodies, too, connecting them to the deeper past, and it went on and on. It was a brilliant way to show continuity of life, to hint at immortality. At one point, Sergey had to remove his glasses and wipe down the lenses, and I imagined that it was the steam of his incredible enthusiasm that had made them foggy. Then he looked up and noticed the twin towers of the Eldorado right in front of us, enormous, fantastical, bathed in golden light.

“Oh, my God!” Sergey said. “The view from your roof just might be the best thing about New York City!”

Now it was Mark’s turn to be smitten and my turn to smirk at him.

Sergey wasn’t as handsome as Daria had implied—Mark was more handsome, in my opinion, and also objectively speaking—but he was full of romantic charm. A charm of a different era. His height, his thinness, his longish hair, and his manic speech—it all evoked a sort of Quixotic hero. Actually, there was something Quixotic about Daria, too. As they stood on our roof together, their arms around each other, their eyes trained on the towers of the Eldorado, it was clear how good a match they were.

The only thing that Sergey found disappointing was the meal we served. “Oh,” he said. “You’re vegetarians, too.” He looked both bored and betrayed, like a child who had received a pair of socks for Christmas. Mark said that we had some salami in the fridge, and Sergey’s face momentarily lit up, but then he looked at Daria for permission. “O.K., just a little bit,” she said and added in a conspiratorial whisper, “Men don’t get perfect overnight. We have a journey ahead of us.”

They had a beautiful wedding. Low budget but deeply moving. So moving that it made me regret our decision to get married at City Hall. Sergey and Daria exchanged vows on a Williamsburg pier, surrounded by a large crowd of Daria’s friends, who chose to forget their old conflicts for the sake of the occasion. My impression was that only a few of the guests knew one another. The thing that they all had in common was that they had let Daria stay with them at some point. The best man and the matron of honor were her most recent hosts.

It was a cold and brutally sunny October day. The sun was in my eyes the whole time, and I couldn’t find my sunglasses, so I kept placing my hands over my face to form a sort of visor. Daria was shivering in her cream-colored shift dress. Sergey took off his dark jacket and put it over her shoulders. But then he himself started to shiver, and one of the guests took off his jacket and gave it to Sergey. So then Daria had a jacket that was too big for her, and Sergey had a jacket that was way too short. I found this both silly and endearing.

The wedding officiant, Michelle, was a tiny elderly lady who had hosted Daria when she’d first arrived in the U.S. Michelle read a rambling speech from a sheaf of wrinkled pages that were violently flapping in the wind.

Then Michelle’s granddaughter, Federica, a large and moody teen-ager back then, stepped forward to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love,” which was Daria and Sergey’s choice. Federica’s classmate was supposed to be accompanying her on the guitar, but she had cancelled at the last minute, so Federica had to sing on her own, which made the lyrics sound especially harsh.

“Don’t you think it sends the wrong message?” I asked Mark, but he was too busy tearing up.

I imagined a couple dancing on a treacherously flat surface, like the top of a mesa, inching closer and closer to the edge without realizing it, until one of them made that unfortunate final step and the couple fell into the abyss, their bodies still bent in the shape of their last dance move.

“Did you know that Sergey met Federica at his wedding?” I asked Alex and Helena from my sofa.

“No! What?” Helena said, while Alex just shook his head and Mark looked at me with alarm. He hated it when I blurted out stuff like that. I decided to ignore him.

I pulled myself up a little and reclined against the cushions so I could see everyone. “She sang ‘Dance Me to the End of Love,’ ” I said.

“Yes, that’s true,” Sergey confirmed. “My fiancée was looking for someone to perform for free, and our wedding officiant suggested her granddaughter. That was Federica.”

It was amazing how much his speech had changed. It was the opposite of manic now. If anything, it was too slow and measured. I wondered if this change had taken place during his marriage to Daria or after she had left.

“What, this old thing? Oh, my God, stop!”
Cartoon by Luke Healy

“Federica has such a beautiful voice,” Helena said with a sigh. “Is she going to be wife No. 7?”

“I don’t think there is going to be a seventh,” Sergey said.

Neither Helena nor Alex had had a chance to meet Daria, because they had become our friends quite recently, during the post-pandemic shakeup, which resembled the movement of tectonic plates. Some of our friends had moved away geographically, others ideologically. Social circles had changed their familiar boundaries, narrowed, expanded, merged, broken. We’d lost a few friends and made some new ones, Alex and Helena among them. They had met Sergey through us, at our place—not at our old place with the roof terrace but at our more practical new apartment, where we’d moved when our old landlord refused to renew our lease. I thought of that move as the termination of the romantic phase of our marriage. What followed was a murky, unsettling period that could possibly lead to the formation of a tender and comfortable routine but could also signify the beginning of the end.

Sergey’s marriage to Daria had lasted eight years, and some people said even that was a miracle.

Money was one of the problems. A big one. Sergey couldn’t find a job. Daria would set him up with one important person after another, but it didn’t help, because Sergey’s English didn’t improve, no matter how hard he tried—or perhaps, as Daria suggested, he simply didn’t try hard enough. His only income came from his occasional publications in art magazines. True to herself, Daria easily found jobs and just as easily lost them. They kept living at friends’ apartments, a few months here, a few months there. These stays rarely ended well, and I was secretly happy that our apartment was too small to house them.

Their failed fertility treatments were another problem. They tried everything. I will never forget Daria’s face after each attempt. It wasn’t grief, it was worse—an ashen emptiness and despair. It was different for Sergey. He sat there, sombre and attentive, holding Daria in his arms, but he seemed a little bit relieved.

Before Daria, I had never really understood this particular pain. I had both my kids when I was very young. I was too focussed on the struggles of motherhood at that age to see the magnitude of suffering that childlessness could cause. I’d spend hours discussing with other young mothers how tied down we felt. It was so much easier to list the hardships of having a child than to pinpoint the things that made it worthwhile. What was it that made it worthwhile, anyway? It was not about being fulfilled, no, though it was about being full—full of care, full of worry, full of affection, full of a love so great and pressing that it was almost indistinguishable from pain, full of something heavy and real that made you feel grounded, rather than weightless. You felt more there. That was precisely what Daria desperately wanted—to feel rooted, securely tied down.

After each failed attempt, Daria would stay in bed for a very long time. Then she would lash out at Sergey, attacking him for days—sometimes weeks. “He’s going to run!” everyone said after yet another attempt had gone nowhere. I thought so, too, and yet I wanted to be proved wrong. I wanted to know that love would win in the end. I wanted to know this for Daria’s sake and for mine.

It was the pandemic that did them in. Not the disease itself—neither of them caught it—but the new life order that the pandemic brought about.

Shortly before Covid started to spread, Daria got an unexpected job offer in Iceland, of all places. She wanted Sergey to go with her, but his immigration lawyer advised him against leaving the U.S. while he was waiting for his citizenship papers. Daria decided to go alone; it was a temporary job, anyway, and she’d be gone for only six months. She arranged for Sergey to stay with Michelle, the elderly lady who’d officiated at their wedding.

Little did she know that a few weeks later the entire world would be put on hold—offices would be closed, universities would be shuttered, and students would be sent home to continue their education online—or that Federica, who had been attending the Berklee College of Music, would move back in with her grandmother.

For the first few months, Daria and Sergey had daily Zoom calls, during which they shared every detail of their lives. One day, Daria called while Sergey and Mark and I were having a picnic in the park. He stepped away for privacy, but we could still hear every word. Sergey told her that he’d borrowed Michelle’s bike and ridden across the Brooklyn Bridge and into Manhattan, where the streets were so empty that he zigzagged up Fifth Avenue. Daria said that she’d had to walk to a store through a blizzard even though it was April. Despite the brutal climate, she said, Icelanders seemed like nice, relaxed people. For the first time ever, she had no conflicts at work. “Those folks are used to constant volcanic eruptions,” Sergey said. “They are uniquely qualified to handle someone like you.” Daria laughed.

It was during one of these Zoom talks that Sergey told Daria that he and Federica were now together.

Mark and I heard about the breakup from Sergey. We tried to call Daria many times, separately and together, but she wouldn’t answer. Wouldn’t talk to anyone. She even deleted her social-media accounts. Some friends told us that the Icelandic firm had offered Daria a permanent position and that she had accepted, but we didn’t have any other information about her.

“Hey, are you doing O.K.?”

I opened my eyes and saw Mark kneeling by the sofa. He traced his finger along my cheek, and suddenly the enormous distance dividing us was gone. He was not planets away—he was right there, right next to me, with me, mine. It never ceased to amaze me that mere physical contact could do that. His expression was tender and a little teasing.

He knew what I was scared of, and he was trying to let me know that we didn’t have to be scared of that. Not yet, anyway.

“Do you want to go home?” he asked.

I nodded.

He shooed the gray cat off my feet and helped me up.

Helena and Alex tried to protest. “Are you leaving? What? So early! No! We’ll get the other bottle out. It must be cold enough by now!”

But we said what people always say in this situation—that we had an early start the next morning.

We took a long time putting on our scarves, hats, and coats, and lacing up our winter boots. Then Helena asked us to wait while she wrapped up some dessert for us. Then Alex decided to tell Mark a really long joke. Sergey remained seated at the table, picking at a crumbling piece of potato on his plate.

We were already in the hallway waiting for the creaky elevator when Sergey came out of the door and started limping toward us.

“My leg fell asleep,” he explained.

We braced ourselves. We knew that he was going to ask if we had heard from Daria, because he asked us that every time we met.

“No, nothing, man,” Mark said.

Sergey nodded and limped back to the apartment.

But I did know something about Daria, something that I wasn’t going to share. I had recently stumbled on a piece about her in an online magazine. Well, to be completely honest, what I did was Google Daria every couple of weeks. Usually, I’d come across a mention or two, but this time there was a long feature describing the new project of the “spirited American arboriculturist” who was going to plant some trees in the barren vastness of the Icelandic highlands.

There was a photo of Daria in the middle of a sea of volcanic ash, kneeling over a puny tree. She had her head cocked to one side, and her self-conscious smile suggested that she knew some people might find her endeavor ridiculous, like that of a child “planting” a stick in the sand. And yet she was doing it anyway. There was something inspiring in her insistence on continuing to try when most people would have given up, in her ability to preserve hope, no matter how absurd it was.

I saved that photo on my phone. Even the happiest lives inevitably lead to grief, both expected and unexpected. I hope that, when it comes to me, that photo of Daria will help sustain me. ♦