We started laughing. The two of us had been waiting in the restaurant bar, drinking the product, when the commercial appeared on the television above us. And of course Stephen’s parents were from Russia:
An old man with a white beard and round glasses is cleaning the counter of his bar. The first few notes of “Kalinka” start strumming. Three matryoshka dolls peep out from behind a bottle of vodka. The old man is amazed, mouth agape as these dolls turn into three dancing Russian girls in traditional costume. “Kalinka” is blazing and the old man hikes up his trousers and does a spinning jump into the midst of the girls and they all start dancing. Then, POP, the girls turn into modern Russian women and the music becomes some crazy rock fantasy with light-flashes and colorful clouds. The old guy is absolutely in ecstasy. He’s shaking his booty. Then a belly-dancer runs into the mix. She starts doing the shimmy and shake with the old geezer. (It was at about this point that Stephen said, “The old guy is tripping on something besides vodka,” and we both started laughing.) Then POOF, the old man wakes up — he’s been sleeping on his arms on his countertop. The plucked notes of “Kalinka” start up again, and he slowly turns around the bottle in front of him, that of course he’s been imbibing. It’s Vodka Matrioshka — part bottle, part matryoshka doll. And a female voice-over with a seductive Russian accent announces, “Vodka Matrioshka. From Russia, with love.”
We were drinking cranberry Vodka Matrioshka. Naturally we had to buy the entire bottle; just looking at that thing made us giggle some more. The top third of it was the upper body of one of those fantastical egg-shaped, painted dolls. It was mesmerizing, weird, and funny at the same time.
Later, over dinner, we wished each other a happy anniversary. I was wearing a black short, shirt-waist dress. My hair was pulled straight back. My dangling three-diamond earrings, a present from Steve, caught the soft light of the table lantern and shimmered every time I moved my head. Steve looked great in a suit and tie. Off the rack, but the material was a nice olive-gray wool, his tie olive-green silk. Mummy would have approved. Maybe. If mummy hadn’t disowned me for marrying Stephen in the first place.
We were thirty-something, professional, childless. Married for ten years today. Ten years of struggles, and verbal battles. Ten years for me of compromise and coping and adjusting.
When we were almost finished with dinner, Stephen raised his red-wine glass and offered me a toast: “To my wife, a princess who … I pulled down off them columns, ‘and you loved it, having them colored lights goin’. And wasn’t we happy together?’ ”
I shook my head, feeling blushed and pleasantly drunk. “Ah, ‘Stanley Kowalski,’ yes we have been mostly happy together. Just don’t yell ‘STELLA’ at me and expect me to fall at your feet.”
“Seriously,” he said softly, almost tearing-up. “Seriously, babe, I love you. Sometimes there are happy endings, right?”
We were still holding up our wine glasses and I joked, “Is this still part of the toast?”
He smiled patiently. “Okay, here’s to my All-American princess who married a Russian Jewish guy with parents from the old country who like to tell fart jokes in Yiddish at parties. Here’s to my Theresa who stood up to her Main Line Bryn Mawr mother for me. And so far mummy hasn’t called on her friends in the CIA or FBI or M15 to have me whacked. So far.”
“Can we drink now?” This was exactly how our marriage worked, day in and day out. It wasn’t easy. I wasn’t sure how honest I wanted to be with Stephen. He sometimes said things that grated on my nerves. He wasn’t always subtle or tasteful, and he was always playing the part of Bogart or Brando or the like. Tonight he was an aw-shucks version of Harrison Ford.
He continued, “I toast our marriage, and us and you and our future together. Cheers!”
As we sipped the wine I looked into his blue eyes. I loved him. He was handsome, brilliant, and funny, and I loved him. But I wanted to tell him I wasn’t a princess, I wasn’t anyone special. I had no particular talents. I was a school teacher, and enjoyed it. I wasn’t even that pretty. He had cast me in this role of Maiden in the Tower who needed rescuing. He had cast himself as the underdog, the antihero who won the girl. He had cast my mother as the Wicked Queen saying “Mirror, mirror on the wall.” And these parts he had us all playing were the basis of our bond, our wedded bliss.
Stephen set his glass down and leaned across the table. “Don’t you have anything to add?” he prodded with a slight slur.
“Did you like your present? You haven’t said anything about it,” I asked, trying to divert him.
He glanced at his new watch — yes, a Rolex — and smiled thinly. “Way too much money, and it is a regression on your part. But of course it’s fantastic.”
“A regression? Steve, I worked hard and saved and used a little credit and bought that for you. It’s not a gift from a cliche, or a particular social status, or a ‘princess’ but from me, Theresa, your wife.”
Stephen’s expression softened, he leaned back and winked at me. “I know sweetie, it’s wonderful. It’s great. I love the watch. I know it’s hard to give up your old life, your old economic standards. You were born into American royalty. You’ve got class. It’s in your genes.”
I silently counted to ten, taking in a deep, deep breath. Then I slowly let out the air. “Are we finished with dinner, Stevie? Because I have another present for you when we get home. And it’s not going to cost a thing.” You can’t say I didn’t try.
After paying the check and leaving a generous tip, Stephen stood gallantly, bowed slightly, came around to my side of the table and pulled out my chair as I stood. “My lady,” he whispered in my ear as he briefly nibbled my neck. I winced just a little bit, but then wrapped my arms around his neck and gave him a kiss. I decided that if any marriage lasted, there weren’t any happy endings, just lives that ended in old-age together, with one or both partners mostly satisfied, or somewhat satisfied, or neutral, or fairly unsatisfied, or not satisfied at all.
As we walked toward the entrance of the restaurant, my left arm twined around Stephen’s right, we passed the bar where we had waited for our table. And that same commercial must have been on again, because I distinctly heard balalaikas strumming as the “Kalinka” played us out the door.