artwork for Sarah Cipullo's short story While She Reads

While She Reads
Sarah Cipullo

She reads The Brothers Karamazov while we wait for the train. Over her shoulder, I spy at the Cyrillic among the pages in her hands. To me, it is like looking at a language from the side of its seams. Whenever she speaks to her sister on the phone, I always wonder if Russian scrapes her esophagus as it goes up her throat. She has a broad, solid jaw, Natalia. Like her father. It has the structure needed to support the sounds of her mother tongue. They remind me of an old tree in winter. She also has her father’s nose, which is small and straight. And green leafy eyes. She once told me that when she was 15, back in their home in Moldova, the dog he kept tied to a pole in the yard was barking. That he had gone out in the middle of the night holding his rifle. That they had heard his screams. And that after the shot they had heard nothing more. Only the rain was beating on the glass of the windows.

I met him a few times, Natalia’s father. On my last visit a year ago, he sat at the head of the table for lunch one month before his death. He motioned for Natalia to fill his plate and pour some wine into his glass. Then he told Tatiana, his younger daughter, to go get his slippers. And the sisters obeyed with their heads bowed, while he stared at me.

“Alice,” he pronounced my name, turning it into a distance.

I’m sure he never suspected anything.

“I’m reading ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ chapter,” Natalia tells me without taking her eyes off the words, no train on the horizon. She is wearing a short dark dress and has her legs crossed. One thigh is uncovered. In the evening I always lean my head on her thigh while she reads me something before going to sleep. I curl up near her legs and sit in this intimate time that I have no way to experience anywhere else. On that bed, each pain goes out little by little. She caresses my hair, the warmth of her voice fills my chest and I am no longer alone.

I look at her now, I feel the desire to slide my hand under the fabric of her dress and say: “It makes me feel better. Knowing your father’s dead.” These are the words that come to my mind and that I have been waiting for a long time to tell her. The train lines remain, suspended over our heads.

Sarah Cipullo’s Comments

There is some autobiographical material here. Alice says words that I have actually said as well. Those words mean a lot. They speak volumes about how lives are shaped by homophobia.

Table of Contents

Frigg: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 60 | Fall/Winter 2022