31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 28: “Natasha” by David Bezmozgis

May 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

From Natasha and Other Stories

“When it comes to love,” writes Jeffrey Eugenides in the introduction to the anthology My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead, “there are a million theories to explain it.” He continues:

But when it comes to love stories, things are simpler. A love story can never be about full possession. The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims – these are lucky eventualities but they aren’t love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, without exception, give love a bad name.

“Natasha” by David Bezmozgis (which Eugenides includes in his anthology) is a love story. And, true to Eugenides’ formula, it traffics in disappointment and features “at least one cold heart.”

The cold heart in question, however, arguably belongs to someone other than the story’s central lovers – Berman, a 16-year-old living in suburban Toronto, and Natasha, the 14-year-old daughter of Zina, the Russian mail-order bride of Berman’s uncle Fima. The story is narrated in the first person by Berman, a fairly typical suburban teenager living in his parents’ basement. “At home, separated from my parents by doors and stairs, I smoked hash, watched television, read, and masturbated. In other basements I smoked, watched television, and refined my style with girls.”

Notwithstanding Berman’s refinements of style, he is not terribly experienced in matters of the opposite sex. “At sixteen, no expert but no virgin, I lived in a permanent state of want to. But for everything I knew, I knew almost nothing.” Natasha, by contrast, is quite experienced sexually, even despite her young age. When she nonchalantly disrobes in Berman’s basement and asks if he wants to have sex, the answer is all but predetermined. During their summer together, Natasha introduces Berman to a world of sexual delights:

With the house to ourselves and no threat of being disturbed, we did everything I had ever dreamed of doing – including some things that hadn’t even occurred to me. We showered together, we slept in the same bed, I watched her walk across the room, I watched her pee. These prosaic things, being new, were as exciting as the sex. And for me the sex was as much about the variation as the pleasure. Much of the pleasure was in the variation. I kept a mental list from position to position, crossing off one accomplishment after another. Nothing was repeated until everything was attempted. That way, in the event that I was struck by a bus, I would feel as though I had lived a full life. Most of the things we did Natasha had already done, but she was perfectly happy to oblige. If she was doing it as a favor, she never expected gratitude and demanded nothing in return.

“Most of the things we did Natasha had already done.” If this seems at all odd to Berman – Natasha is, after all, only 14 years old – it goes unremarked. When Natasha tells Berman about the men back home in Russia who would pay to take naked pictures of her, she does so without emotion, and without apparent affect. Berman’s sole concern is with Natasha’s insistence that while the men took pains to position her the way they wanted her, she never cared about the way they looked. “You don’t care how I look,” Berman asks, leaping from Natasha’s description of what are very clearly exploitative, illegal acts engaged in with adult men back home to the kind of self-absorption that adolescent males are quintessentially capable of.

Natasha tells Berman that she eventually fell in with a Soviet film director who wanted to make movies of her and her friends performing sex acts at a dacha he owned. Again, she shrugs this off as unimportant:

She was never asked to do anything she didn’t want to do, and she never saw anyone else do something that she wouldn’t have done herself. Even though she and her friends knew they wouldn’t be at the dacha if it weren’t for the movies, the sex never felt as though it were the focus. The director and the other men became their friends. They treated them very well. And if they wanted to sleep with the girls, the girls could see no reason why not. At the end of the day everyone got twenty-five dollars.

Berman follows this story by recounting his disappointment that Natasha did not have any of the movies the men took of her because he would have liked to see them. Whether he is at all aware of the immoral nature of the activities the adult men had involved Natasha in is unclear; at the very least Berman is hopelessly naive about what is appropriate in sexual matters and appears to take Natasha at her word when she claims that because she and her friends were treated well and paid by the men who used them, everything is fine.

Berman’s lack of insight is perhaps due to his age and his narrow, suburban life experience, but his unwillingness to speak up on Natasha’s behalf is the thing that ultimately dooms their relationship. When Zina discovers what the two teenagers have been doing in the basement together, she banishes Natasha from Berman’s house. At the urging of Rufus, Berman’s erudite drug dealer, the young man goes to Zina’s house to get Natasha back, but is blocked from entry by the girl’s mother. “I don’t blame you for what happened,” Zina tells Berman. “It wasn’t your fault. She has turned grown men inside out and you’re just a boy. It was crazy to expect anything else. I know how weak men are.”

It is Zina who possesses the “one cold heart” Eugenides refers to. By refusing to allow Natasha to continue seeing Berman, she puts an end to what is undoubtedly the healthiest sexual relationship her daughter has ever engaged in. Zina’s admission that she knows about Natasha’s sexual past in Russia is astonishing: she blames her daughter for allowing herself to be exploited, despite the fact that Natasha was all of 12 years old when she first began disrobing for money. In Zina’s backward outlook, it is the men who are “weak” in the face of Natasha’s sexual provocations. She is unable – or unwilling – to admit that her daughter has been victimized, or to see the extent to which she is damaged.

Natasha returns once more to confront Berman and ask him why he didn’t stand up to Zina. “You listened to her lies,” Natasha says. “Why did you listen to her lies?” It transpires that Natasha has used her sexuality to get back at Zina by seducing Berman’s uncle Fima, an act that has precipitated her flight from home. She asks Berman to accompany her on the run but he refuses, out of fear, confusion, or a combination of the two. The collision of Natasha’s worldliness and Berman’s naïveté mitigates against the survival of their tenuous relationship: she has grown up too fast, he has a ways to go before he can hope to catch up to her. But at the end of the story, he realizes that his experience with Natasha has essentially changed him, and that he can never return to his “subterranean life.” When he finally parts from Natasha for the last time, after discovering that she has taken up with Rufus, Berman returns home and peers into his bedroom window from the outside. “I saw what Natasha must have seen every time she came to the house. In the full light of summer, I looked into darkness.”

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