TVOROG • by Katherine Gleason

The hallway smelled of cabbage, yet Suzanne remained optimistic. Despite her heavy boots, she bounded up the stairs, clutching the slip of paper Yuri had inscribed with his address. Yuri and Irina had invited her, their first American friend, home. Quite an event. She knew their invitation meant extended conversation and a real meal. All term her dorm cafeteria had suffered closures for repairs. She’d subsisted on a narrow diet scrounged from the local market, a dusty grocery of sold-out shelves and grumbling consumers.

On the third-floor landing, Suzanne removed her coat. She bundled it into her arms and continued. She had news to discuss with Yuri. A recent PhD with a new faculty appointment, he’d appreciate the offer she’d just received. The language institute proposed extending Suzanne’s contract as student chaperone for another semester. Instead of returning home at the end of the fall term, she’d stay in Moscow until spring 1982. In the time that opened ahead, she’d further her dissertation research and not have to worry about teaching or paying bills. Her Moscow job provided her with housing, a modest stipend, enough work to structure her day, and enough free time to concentrate on her writing. Considering the job market at home, staying in Moscow was probably her best option. As a friend, Suzanne wanted to jump into Yuri and Irina’s arms and crow her news. She’d be with them through the winter thaw and into the blossom of May.

On the sixth floor, she knocked on a gray door. Yuri waved her inside. He hushed her greeting, requested that she speak only Russian in the communal apartment’s corridor, and motioned that she remove her boots. In a pair of guest slippers, she shuffled into Yuri and Irina’s room. Irina embraced her and took her hand.

“Our guest,” Irina said. “Please to the table.” And the three sat. Yuri produced a bottle and poured three vodka shots. “It is lingonberry, made by my father.” Irina chopped three small cubes from a loaf of dark bread and passed them around. They toasted each other’s health, downed their shots with loud exhalations, and each chewed their morsel of bread. The sour bread, instead of easing the drink down, stuck in Suzanne’s throat.

Irina spooned a creamy dip onto plates and passed around more bread. “The last of our mushrooms,” she announced.

“We could not find smetana—” Yuri began.

“Sour cream,” Irina added.

“Which is traditional, but we have made a substitute.”

Like Yuri, Suzanne scooped up the mushroom-flecked spread with her bread. She recognized the sensations on her tongue right away — slightly sparkling, sour, a tang that gave way to the sweetness of milk solids. Tvorog — the pasty cheese, her only source of protein, that she’d consumed for breakfast, lunch, and so many meals before.

“You know this?” Yuri asked, pointing at his plate. “Our tvorog. You do not have this in America.”

“No,” Suzanne said, “no tvorog.” She swallowed, forcing the sticky cheese down her gullet. Suzanne wanted to mention her offer, the benefits of her continuing job, and the possibilities of her deepened research. The words gathered in her head but lodged in her throat. Her mind flooded with American meals — the sweet crunch of fresh corn on the cob, the warmth of a hot dog with golden mustard consumed curbside on a cool New York day, the zing of thin-crust pizza with peppery sauce.

Irina drew a covered dish from the top of the bookshelf. She unfolded a steaming towel and placed a croquette on Suzanne’s plate.

“It is chicken,” Yuri said.

“And potato,” Irina added.

Suzanne envisioned herself ensconced in the Lenin Library, poring over manuscripts, jotting notes, and vibrating with ideas. She lifted a forkful of croquette to her mouth — and tasted tvorog. Her frustration with the archive’s intricate rules ballooned in her chest. She coughed, grasped her water glass, and gulped. “With tvorog?” she asked.

“Yes, with tvorog.” Irina grinned. “You are quite the expert now in Russian food.”

“A toast,” Yuri cried and poured another round of vodka.

“To Russian cooks,” Suzanne proposed, and her eyes welled with tears. She imagined the New York waiter who always called her “lady” delivering steaming bowls of rice, sautéed pea tendrils, and lo mein with ginger and scallions.

“To Russian cooks!” Yuri and Suzanne raised their glasses to Irina, and they drank again.

“You have Russian soul,” Irina said, snaking an arm around Suzanne’s shoulders and giving her a squeeze. Suzanne nestled into Irina’s embrace and took her hand. Who would Irina be if she’d had choices, the freedom to decide her own direction in life? A journalist perhaps or an editor, but surely not a hospital administrator. And what of Yuri?

Irina offered seconds on the croquettes but had no takers. She scurried to the kitchen to fix tea.

“So, what news?” Yuri asked.

Suzanne hesitated. The magnetic pull, the hunger for home engulfed her. The silk of her mother’s cream of wheat, prepared with brown sugar and raisins, danced on her tongue. Irina returned with tea in glasses, a pot of jam, and a plate arranged with sliced bread. They wrapped their napkins around their glasses and blew on the hot liquid.

“No news,” Suzanne said. She sucked in a sharp breath and thought, Did I really say that? She exhaled her frustration and with it her fear of the archivist’s official disapproval. Her library idyll, the carefully copied Cyrillic, and impending discoveries slipped away from her. Suzanne saw herself in her favorite East Village restaurant. She’d order fried artichoke hearts, linguini with clam sauce, and a glass of Chianti.

Irina spooned jam onto the small squares of bread, squares that were covered with a familiar white paste. More tvorog. She offered one to Suzanne.

“Oh, no really,” Suzanne said, her mind made up. “I couldn’t eat another bite.”

Katherine Gleason’s stories have appeared in journals such as Derelict Lit, Gone Lawn, Juked, Jellyfish Review, and Menacing Hedge. She won first prize in the River Styx/Schlafly Beer Micro-Fiction Contest, garnered an honorable mention from Glimmer Train, and has been nominated for a Best of the Net award. Her play “The Toe Incident” won the Christopher Hewitt Award for Drama in 2020.

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