Part II: Na Zdorov’ya (A Ukrainian Toast to Health)


(continued from the April issue of Cape Fear Voices)

When we arrived at the Ukrainian farmhouse the following day, the extended family, including cousin Sasha, was already gathered outside. I stood to one side as my suitemate Monique absorbed all the accolades from her relatives. You’re the spitting image of your mother! A university scholar! And how well you speak the mother tongue! When the compliments were finally exhausted, the matriarch waved us inside for a hearty lunch. 

Bowls of cabbage soup and plates of steaming pork, potatoes, and beets filled the table. During and in between courses, the vodka flowed…and flowed. Uncle Vanya repeatedly stood and raised his glass. Na Zdorov’ya! There were toasts to health, a good harvest, and family, including every relative, dead or alive. I took sips to pace myself. It was hard enough to understand what everyone was saying without adding alcohol to the mix.

At a lull in the conversation, Uncle Vanya went around the table, reintroducing me to his family and their respective spouses. When he failed to mention Sasha, I innocently asked, “And who is Sasha’s wife?” The table erupted in laughter. Unsure why the question got the reaction it did, I looked pleadingly at Monique. She only pointed at me and touched her heart. Sasha, meanwhile, was grinning, his face flush. Had I embarrassed him? No, on the contrary, he seemed rather pleased. 

When lunch concluded, the family ushered me outside while they cleaned the dishes.

“Go with Sasha,” Uncle Vanya encouraged. “He will show you the village. You get to know each other better.” Puzzled, I followed Sasha out along a dirt road. With my weak Russian, his lack of English, and a little too much vodka, we could barely communicate. Instead, he mostly looked at me and smiled. 

Finally, we reached our destination—a small cemetery. Sasha pointed to several headstones, reading the inscriptions of who lay beneath. They were clearly important to him, so I nodded in politeness. Once he was satisfied that I had “met” all the family, we returned to find everyone gathered outside a large barn in the back. After a heavy meal and several bottles of vodka, no one was in condition to drive. 

“We will nap before heading back,” Uncle Vanya announced. He showed me a thin mattress and blankets laid over a block of hay. “This is where you and Sasha sleep.”

“What?!” I turned to find Sasha standing beside him in nothing but his underwear. He was smiling broadly, and a glance below the torso told me he was more than ready. It was time, apparently, to consummate our relationship. “I can’t,” I cried, “I can’t sleep with Sasha! I…I hardly know him!” 

Both men looked hurt, so I scrambled towards the entrance looking for Monique. Standing several yards away, she was bent over, holding her head. “Monique! Monique! Explain to them that I can’t sleep with Sasha!” 

“But, Janet!” she said, staggering towards me, her breath stale. “If you marry Sasha, we’ll be related!”

I don’t remember how, but I managed to convince Uncle Vanya that I needed to sleep alone. In truth, I probably slept with one eye open, fearful that I would awaken with another body next to me. This was all a silly misunderstanding. Things will be different when everyone is sober.

The next morning, Uncle Vanya waited for me in the kitchen. His eyes were bloodshot, and a small glass of vodka sat next to dirty plates of leftover pork and cabbage. Taking my hand in his, he looked at me intently. “Why you no want to marry Sasha?”

What could I say? That despite Sasha’s attractiveness, we had nothing in common? That I would languish here from lack of stimulation? That I planned to see the world and pursue a career before settling down? In an awkward attempt to explain without giving offense, I used the word “Mat’” (Russian for “mother”). Uncle Vanya looked at me. “Ahh, you would miss your mother,” he decided. 

Although I was at a stage in my life where I sought independence and an escape from home, the phrase appeared to resonate. “Yes, yes,” I told him. “I would miss my mother terribly.” 

On the train ride home, I asked Monique whether the “arrangements” she had made at the start of our trip included my marriage to her cousin. She was non-committal and spent most of the ride buried in a book. I never saw or heard from Sasha again but often marveled at how ready he was to make it work.