It was never quiet in the woods at night. There would be a creepy rustle in the grass, or a branch would snap here or there, and that unceasing choir of cicadas. The smell was creepy too. It ought to have been some kind of romantic smell, something like pine sap heated by the sun during the day. There were plenty of pines, and it was a summer with a lot of warm, bright days, so couldn’t it have smelled nice at night? But it didn’t. The smell was moldy and damp and a little putrid. In daytime they could detect distinct undertones of rotten cabbage that came from the so-called Cabbage Creek, a small stream leading from the kitchen to the woods, where the kitchen guys sometimes dumped leftover cabbage soup. But at night it just smelled of decay.
Lena kept looking at their hands, bluish-white in the moonlight. Her fingers looked so thin and transparent in his. His were sturdy and warm. Yet, it was he who disappeared. Danya.
Or sometimes the story would come to her like this:
“Masturbation is very bad for boys,” Yanina Ivanovna had instructed the counselors, “bad and dangerous.” The head counselor went on listing the dangers: Memory loss. Impotence. Early death. Bad grades. She was a short beefy woman.
“Just tell them: ‘Hands over the blankets!’ ”
Lena couldn’t possibly tell the kids that. She would enter the boys’ bedroom, sit down on the edge of the windowsill, and begin a scary bedtime story in the most boring voice she could muster, developed specially for putting the kids to sleep. The room smelled like starched linen, toothpaste, and pee—some of the boys would hide their wet underpants under the mattresses. The boys in her unit were nine to eleven years old. They looked strangely alike in the soft light coming from the moon in the window and the yellow hall lamps. Shorn hair, large ears, dark skinny necks against the heavy white pillows. Eyes closed. Eyes wide open. Eyes squinted in a giggle. Eyes clouded by tears. Hands moving under the blankets seeking out comfort and peace.
As most of the eyes closed to the sound of Lena’s voice, she would walk from bed to bed moving their sticky little hands to a decent position above the blanket.
Or at other times the story would start with her friend Inka:
Inka had light brown hair streaked with pink and blue, and the longest fingernails Lena had ever seen. They shared a tiny counselors’ bedroom that always smelled of Inka’s face cream, her nail polish, and her hairspray. Sometimes Inka composed poems in her sleep. She would wake up in the middle of the night and yank on Lena’s arm, “Lenka, listen! Listen, listen.”
“What?” she would groan.
“Listen to my poem:
“ ‘Take your bread and take your spoon.
You’ll be really healthy then.’ ”
“That’s your poem?” Lena would ask.
“Yeah, I guess it sounded much better in my sleep. I might have lost some lines.”
“Inka, that’s just the camp’s call for dinner:”
‘Take your bread and take your spoon
They will serve the dinner soon.’ ”
“Oh, shit . . .” Inka would say, and, giggling, they would go back to sleep.
Lena’s train to the conference was scheduled to depart from Penn Station at 5:40 P.M. on Wednesday. At 5:41 it started to move softly, gliding farther and farther through the tunnel. Lena stored her suitcase in the rack by the toilet and went to look for a good window seat, which wasn’t that difficult since the car was mostly empty. She picked one in the middle, sat down, and unbuttoned her coat. She needed to calm down, but it was impossible. Less than an hour ago, she had run into Inka, whom she hadn’t seen in almost ten years, ever since Lena and Vadim left Russia for the United States. People from the camp kept popping up here and there in the most unexpected places. Lena rarely traveled alone, but the last two times she had, she had bumped into one or another person from the camp. She wondered if anything similar ever happened to Vadim. He had never mentioned it. Sometimes Lena thought that it was she who made all these people materialize, because every time she found herself alone, she would think about the camp intensely and try to piece the story together, as if hoping that solving the mystery of what happened twenty years ago would help her solve the mystery of her present unhappiness. A ridiculous idea! It was nobody’s fault that she was unhappy.
“Ticket, ma’am!” Lena opened her eyes and handed her ticket to the conductor. The looming brownstones of Washington Heights were rushing past. How she hated to be called ma’am!
Lena put the ticket stub in her breast pocket, folded her arms behind her head, and closed her eyes.
Ten years ago, she had run into the head counselor, Yanina Ivanovna, in New York, exiting a Century 21 store with her Russian tour group. She clearly didn’t remember Lena, but she pretended to. And about five years ago in London, she saw one of the girls from her unit, Sveta Kozlova, at the Royal Albert Hall of all places. Lena remembered Sveta as a tall, pudgy nine-year-old; she would never have recognized her in this six-foot-two-inch beauty. But Sveta had run up to Lena and lifted her off the ground with her hug. Sveta said that she was married to one of the richest men in Russia, who was now exiled to London. She kept insisting they all have a drink after the concert, and that she had something amazing to show Lena, but Lena developed a bad headache and had to leave before the concert was over. She didn’t think she would enjoy the company of glamorous “new Russians” anyway, so she didn’t regret leaving.
And now Inka. Lena had lost touch with Inka after Lena and Vadim left Russia for the U.S. years ago, but in the last few years, news of Inka had been popping up here and there. Apparently, she had become a prominent human rights activist. Her name appeared in the New Yorker, her opinion in the New York Times, a glimpse of her on CNN, her deep, lulling voice on NPR. Who would have ever believed that Inka would become famous? And as a human rights activist? Lena was both jealous and proud. She had the urge to boast that Inka and she used to be friends, best friends, but there was nobody besides Vadim to boast to, and Vadim hated when she talked about her experiences at the camp.
And now she had seen Inka in New York. By pure chance. Friends gave Lena a lift to the city, where she was supposed to take a train to Saratoga Springs, and since she had an hour before her train, she decided to go to Macy’s. She was on the first floor smelling all those perfume sticks, getting nauseous from the stench, when she noticed a plump woman, with a long nose and messy blond hair standing at a counter nearby. The woman was wearing glasses, so it was hard to see her face, but something familiar about her carriage, about the way she moved her whole body rather than craning her neck when she tried to see something behind the counter, reminded Lena of Inka. “Inka!” she yelled, impulsively, and Inka turned, removed her glasses and squealed in delight. It turned out that Inka had come to the United States to give a series of lectures about Chechnya. When they hugged, it comforted Lena that Inka felt just as soft and pliable as she used to. They didn’t have very much time to catch up, though. Lena’s train was leaving in half an hour, and this was Inka’s last weekend in the U.S., so they just exchanged quick essential information. Lena was surprised to learn that Inka was about to end her third marriage and Inka was even more surprised that Lena was still married to Vadim. Awkwardly, as if to make up for it, Lena began to gush about her two sons, Misha and Borya, but Inka didn’t have much to add to that part of the conversation. She seemed happy to see Lena, but there was no real warmth. Inka kept fiddling with her phone, checking her messages, texting. Her long nails tapped against the keys with annoying speed. Lena asked if Inka stayed in touch with anybody else from the camp. Inka shook her head. She was too busy to keep in touch, but Sveta Kozlova had visited her recently in Moscow. “Remember Brunhilde, that fat monster? She is married to some tycoon and lives in London. We talked about how you had a secret admirer at the camp,” Inka said, winking at Lena wickedly, but insisted the story was too long to tell then. She promised to tell Lena more in an email. They exchanged email addresses and phone numbers, and swore that this time they would stay in touch for sure, though Lena didn’t think either of them really believed it.
Lena raised her arms above her head and stretched against the train seat. It was much more fun to think about Inka than about this stupid conference, which was making her nervous. She used to love train travel. The slight tremor in her knees, the vibration of the train, used to give her that bubbly feeling that something exciting was in store for her. These days though, premonitions like that only brought on panic. This morning, as she was boarding the bus to New York, she felt only a momentary sensation of escape, followed by exhaustion and disappointment.
She was annoyed with Inka. Her condescending “Oh!” when Lena said that she worked at a community college, her tapping fingers, but most of all her surprise that Lena was still married to Vadim. Lena used to be proud of their longevity, but recently the thought that she might stay with him forever filled her with dread. The feeling was especially intense on vacations and weekends, when they were thrown together for long stretches of time, with few distractions except their two boys, until everything—every single little thing that one of them said or did—annoyed the other to the point of violence. “Those are piling up, aren’t they?” Vadim said to her last weekend, gesturing to the rather tall pile of magazines on her nightstand. He asked her to put them away. She didn’t. He walked up to her nightstand and pulled a magazine from the bottom of the pile so that all the other magazines fell to the floor. She grabbed one of them and threw it at him. She hit him on the shoulder. It wasn’t that bad, but the fact that she could even think of physically hurting him was sickening. Still, Inka couldn’t have possibly guessed that she’d gotten to that point. So what right did Inka have to be so surprised? But then Lena was pretty sure Inka had never liked her husband.
Lena checked her watch: Vadim and the kids must be still at the airport waiting for their flight to San Diego. She dialed the number. Misha and Borya sounded very excited, as did Vadim—apparently he let them try all those crazy massage chairs at Brookstone. Did she catch a little bit of glee in his description of how much fun they were having without her or was she just being paranoid? She felt a pang of guilt for not going with them. But they were happy, they were fine, and she was just going to a conference, which was supposed to advance her career. Why then did it feel as if she was running away?
The conductor announced the Tarrytown stop and the train came to a halt. An old woman with a gleaming leather suitcase climbed in, waddled to her seat, asked a young man to hoist the suitcase up, sat down, thanked the young man, and immediately started a lively conversation with him. Lena felt pathetic for sitting there talking to herself. She looked in her bag. It held a book, an apple, and her paper for the conference. She took out the paper, but the thought of reading it made her nervous. The conference was a big multidisciplinary event, “The Aesthetics of Oppression.” A lot of big names. Historians. Writers. Architects. Even a composer who had written an opera based on the Kinsey Reports. Lena’s talk, titled “Sex Education in the Former Soviet Union,” had been added at the last moment, apparently after somebody else had canceled. Secretly, Lena was worried that neither she—a mere adjunct at a community college—nor her work was important enough. Vadim’s reaction when she got the invitation only fed her doubts. He suggested that she had to have been a replacement. “You don’t seriously believe that they’d want you?” he said. He claimed he was only providing perspective, protecting her from disappointment. And he did believe that he was acting in her best interest, she knew that. It was just that in this uncertain period in her life, when she felt like such a failure, the last thing she needed was sober perspective. The format of the talk seemed especially frightening. She would have to sit onstage with a moderator and answer her questions. Lena would have preferred a panel, so that other panelists could share the burden. Nervously, she reached into her bag for the apple but realized that she didn’t want it.
In the restaurant car she bought a cup of tea and sat by a huge window with a view of the Hudson. The weak tepid tea matched the dullness of the landscape. Her mind kept returning to her encounter with Inka. Had Inka looked at her with compassion?
The first time Lena had met Inka, they were standing in the crowd of students waiting for the train at a station in the southeast tip of Moscow. They were all freshmen from the State Pedagogical University—on their way to the summer camp, where they would have to complete their six-week-long pedagogical practice.
Other girls stood in pairs, or in groups of three or four. Lena stood alone, thinking how for the whole nine months at the university she had failed to make a single friend. She ended up spending every recess in the bathroom, going in and out of the stalls, washing her hands until they stank of school soap, endlessly fixing her hair in front of the mirror, studying her wary face in the background of chipped tiles, blue stalls, and other girls going in and out, chatting with one another. Lena had accepted the fact that she had been unpopular in school—all that history of baking mud pies in the corner while other kids chased each other in kindergarten, or hiding behind a tree to read a book on school camping trips, or standing by the wall all alone at school dances, which could be a result of baking mud pies as a child, and hiding behind the trees as a teen. She was hoping to reverse that in college, to become, if not popular, then at least likable. Her plan had been to approach people with a smile, listen to conversations with interest, and join whatever activities they offered. None of that worked. The other students seemed to have a similar plan, but they were better and quicker at it. They formed groups of friends in a matter of days, or hours, and there was no place for Lena. Lena felt particularly excluded, because her entering college coincided with the most exciting period in all Soviet history, perestroika. It was hugely exhilarating. New things that had been previously taboo, new activities, new life. All of that created enormous pressure to be a part of something important, to be enthusiastic, energized, and active.
There was only one other person at the train stop who stood alone the way Lena did. A tall, chubby girl who was peering into a book that she held very high, very close to her face. Lena remembered that she had seen this girl in the lecture halls, and in the cafeteria, and sometimes by the window in the lobby. She was always alone and always with a book.
When the train pulled close to the stop, the tall girl shut her book and walked up to Lena and introduced herself as Inka. “Your name’s Lena, right?” Lena nodded. They took seats together.
As the train passed through the ugly industrial outskirts of Moscow, Inka admitted to Lena that she hated their school and hated the idea of being a teacher. She confessed she had picked this program because it was reasonably easy to get into, and she really wanted to get out of her hometown and live in Moscow. And Lena told her that she ended up in State Pedagogical—her safety school—because she failed the auditions in the four acting schools to which she’d applied. “Acting?” Inka asked. “But you’re so shy.” Lena explained that acting allowed people to become somebody they were not, even if only for a brief time. She wouldn’t be shy on stage. She said that she wanted to be an actress because she really wanted to live many lives instead of just one. She wanted to see what it was like to murder somebody, or to be murdered, what it was like to be at war, to live in the nineteenth century, to lose a loved one, but she didn’t want the experience to affect the rest of her life. As she spoke, Lena was scared that Inka would laugh at her, but Inka didn’t laugh. Instead, seeing how embarrassed Lena was, she confessed that she composed poems in her sleep. Lena felt a kind of affection blossoming, not because the other girl wrote poems, but because she’d been willing to reveal it to Lena to ease her embarrassment.
Inka had light brown hair streaked with pink and blue. She dressed differently from other girls in their school too—most of the clothes that she wore were imported and obviously expensive, but they seemed to be bought at random, so they didn’t match, and some of them didn’t even fit. On the train Inka said that she’d come to Moscow from a small town and was under the impression that Muscovites existed on a different frequency, which she couldn’t tune in to. That was her excuse for why she couldn’t make friends. Lena couldn’t respond, having been born and raised in Moscow. If she couldn’t make friends, it was only because she sucked at making friends, or simply because she sucked.
As the train got farther from Moscow, Inka asked Lena if she had a boyfriend. Lena shook her head. “Me neither,” Inka said, explaining that she had gone out with plenty of boys, but there hadn’t been anybody to really spark her interest.
Lena was terrified that the next question would be whether she had had sex, so she decided to change the subject.
“What have you got there?” she asked, pointing at the box with books Inka was holding in her lap. Inka opened the top of the crate and showed her.
The Satiricon, The Golden Ass, The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, The Arabian Nights, and Excerpts from the Bible with the long introduction meant to prove how wrong and silly the Bible was, written by somebody who had a Ph.D. in scientific atheism.
All the books were from the summer list for their Foreign Literature Part 1 class. Lena laughed—she had the same books in her backpack. Plus, she had several issues of Art of Cinema magazine, with the screenplay of Last Tango in Paris in the last one. “Ooh! That’s the one where he—never mind—I’ll have to borrow that!” Inka said.
About two hours into the trip, when the train was passing some bleak countryside, with lopsided barns and skinny cows stuck in mud, they unwrapped and ate omelet sandwiches that Lena’s mother had made for her, and little meat pies that Inka’s mother had baked at home and brought to Moscow on a train, in a big aluminum pot wrapped in a woolen shawl.
Inka said that her mother was only thirty-four years old. She got pregnant with Inka while still in high school and had to marry Inka’s father. Her father was a smart, mean man who had once been an artist but was now just a common drunk. Her mother was a hairdresser and very pretty. Her biggest fear was that Inka would get pregnant and have to get married young too. Inka had to promise her mother that whatever happened she wouldn’t get married before she was twenty-three.
“Why twenty-three?” Lena asked.
Inka didn’t know. She sighed and cleaned a spot on the window with her sleeve. She said that her biggest wish was to escape the pattern. She said that it was the scariest thing—falling into a pattern and knowing what was going to happen to you.
Lena’s parents had gotten divorced when she turned sixteen. The official version was that her mother threw her father out. At first her mother was euphoric, energized, proud of her resolve. She was brimming with plans for her new independent life, but in a month or two she started to fall apart. What horrified Lena the most was her mother’s staggering insecurity. She acquired this strange new expression, this sideways questioning look, as if she suspected that people were laughing at her. But if she told a joke, it was the other way around; she was terrified that people wouldn’t laugh, and she smiled with such gratitude when they did. And even those stupid omelet sandwiches that she’d been proudly making for years: Now she would push the omelet from the pan onto the cutting board and freeze with the knife suspended in her fingers: “Do you even like them? Are they even good? Lena, please tell me the truth, do you like my omelet sandwiches?” Lena couldn’t stand her like that. She couldn’t bear to talk to her, to look at her. She tried to hide from her mother’s unhappiness as if it were an infectious disease. She loathed herself for that, but she couldn’t help it. Her father, on the other hand, seemed to be okay. “I feel as if I were learning to breathe anew,” he’d whispered when Lena saw him last. He rented a tiny room in a shoddy, crowded, roach-infested apartment, but he didn’t seem to mind. He began to wear a look of cautious happiness, as if he’d discovered a treasure and was afraid that someone would take it away. Lena couldn’t bear to see him happy, when she knew how much the divorce pained her mother. She couldn’t bring herself to visit him after that. She cried at night, both hating and missing him.
Lena looked at Inka’s solemn profile, which didn’t go with the mess of pink and blue in her hair, and wondered if she could understand. She looked like she could.
About an hour away from the camp, the scenery changed dramatically. Woods gradually supplanted fields and meadows, and the closer we got to the camp, the denser the woods became. Inka and Lena stopped talking and looked out the window. At one point they thought they saw a moose. The girls in the seat behind them giggled in delight.
“Was it a moose?” one of them asked.
“I think so, I saw a few last year,” another said, launching into stories about her superfun experience at the camp the year before. Fresh air, sunbathing, good food, plenty of free time. Not only that, but the camp belonged to the Ministry of Defense, so many, many guys worked there. Officers. Soldiers drafted into the Soviet Army from college. Some were even seriously smart. She gushed about discothèques under a starry sky, the riverbank where you could take romantic walks, and the touchingly beautiful clearings in the woods where the grass was tall and silky-soft under your back.
Inka and Lena exchanged glances and smiled. Inka said that she had thought she’d fall in love when she started college. “It’s been eight months—and nothing. Eight months!” Her face tensed with panic. Lena knew exactly how she felt. She told Inka that she had been playing the “boyfriend game” for several years herself. Every time she was about to reach a certain milestone—turn fifteen, sixteen, enter high school, college—she thought, “Now!” And nothing happened. Every time she was going to someplace new—on vacation, on a long train trip, to a party, to a museum—she thought, “There!” And nothing. She would meet a boy from time to time, and he would ask her out, and she would feel a surge of excitement, but the excitement would evaporate pretty soon—usually before the date ended.
In three hours, when they finally got off the train, their knees were trembling and their butts hurt from all the riding. They felt queasy and lightheaded, but they were immediately taken in by the beauty. It was very quiet and unusually cold for July. Everything had the air of spring. The woods, the pines, the squishy soil under their feet, the unbelievably loud singing of birds. Inka shivered in her light shirt and laughed. Lena laughed too. They wanted to run, to squeal, to jump. On the way to the camp headquarters, they passed a group of soldiers sawing branches off a huge fallen pine. One of them waved. They waved back. Lena was overcome with the strange feeling that she experienced only a couple of times after that. She didn’t know what to call it. Anticipation of happiness? No, it had to be stronger than that. Certainty of happiness.
Inevitability of happiness.
The train arrived at Saratoga Springs at a quarter to ten. There were no taxis at the station. The thin crowd that got off the train with Lena petered out within minutes. Some people walked to cars that had been waiting for them with their lights on, others disappeared along the semidark streets leading to the town. And now Lena stood all alone facing the dark parking lot with the empty, brightly lit station behind her. She walked back into the station and asked the woman at the ticket booth for the number of the car service. The woman gave her the number but said that the hotel was only fifteen minutes away by foot. “Twenty—max,” she added before dropping her glazed stare back to her Stephen King novel.
It was slightly colder here than it had been in Boston. Streetlights and windows of the closed shops shone brightly, brighter than necessary, Lena thought. She would see her shadow against the wall of one or another strange house. The shadow would be larger than life, and sometimes if the light was especially bright, the shadow would be so large that she saw the contours of her head looming on somebody’s roof. There were no people around. No movement—not even wind. And no sounds, except for the pleasant rapping of her heels against the pavement. She would hear an occasional car honk up on the main street, too far in the distance to sound real. There was nothing specifically American about this place. A town like this could be anywhere. Western Europe. Eastern Europe. Russia. Lena had a fleeting thought that her summer camp memories had actually transported her to Russia.
It took her thirty minutes to get to the hotel, and by the time they gave her the keys, it was ten fifty-five. She went up to her room and dialed Vadim’s number. He said that he was okay as were the kids. He asked if she was okay. She said that she was. They didn’t know what else to say to each other. Lena plopped down onto the bed, feeling tired and heavy, as if the bed was pressing down on her and not vice versa.
Impossibility of happiness was what she felt now.
The Scent of Pine
Though only thirty-eight, Lena finds herself in the grips of a midlife crisis. She feels lost in her adoptive country, her career is at a dead end, and her marriage has spiraled into apathy and distrust—it seems impossible she will ever find happiness again. But then she strikes up a precarious friendship with Ben, a failed artist turned reluctant academic, who is just as lost as she is.
They soon surprise themselves by embarking on an impulsive weekend adventure, uncharacteristically leaving their responsibilities behind. On the way to Ben’s remote cabin in Maine, Lena begins to talk, for the first time in her life, about the tumultuous summer she spent as a counselor in a Soviet children’s camp twenty years earlier, when she was just discovering romance and her own sexuality. As Lena opens up to Ben about secrets she has long kept hidden, they begin to discover together not only the striking truths buried in her puzzling past, but also more immediate, passionate ones about the urgency of this short, stolen time they have together.
“Enchanting…vivid and rich” (The New York Times), filled with Lara Vapnyar’s characteristic empathy, deadpan humor, and striking honesty, The Scent of Pine weaves themes of ambition, loneliness, longing, and the fickle nature of desire into a “book of elegant writing and propulsive storytelling” (Chicago Tribune).
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Reading Group Guide
Though only thirty-eight, Lena finds herself in the grips of a midlife crisis. It seems impossible she will ever find happiness again. But then she strikes up a precarious friendship with Ben, a failed artist turned reluctant academic, who is just as lost as she is. They soon surprise themselves by embarking on an impulsive weekend adventure, uncharacteristically leaving their middle-aged responsibilities behind. On the way to Ben’s remote cabin in Maine, Lena begins to talk, for the first time in her life, about the tumultuous summer she spent as a counselor in a Soviet children’s camp twenty years earlier, when she was just discovering romance and her own sexuality. At a time when Russia itself was in turmoil, the once-placid world of the camp was equally unsettled, with unexplained disappearances and mysterious goings-on among the staff; Lena and her friend Inka were haunted by what they witnessed, or failed to witness, and by the fallout from those youthful relationships. As Lena opens up to Ben about secrets she has long kept hidden, they see more