Beth Goldner


Beth Goldner is a protocol associate, developing clinical trials in radiation oncology. For over a decade, she worked as a managing editor in medical publishing. She is the author of a short story collection (Wake) and a novel (The Number We End Up With), both published by Perseus Books Group. Her stories have appeared in Missouri Review, Massachusetts Review, StoryQuarterly, Philly Fiction, among others. She was an adjunct instructor of fiction writing at Rosemont College MFA Program. She is a native of Philadelphia, and currently lives in the suburbs of the city with her one-eyed mutt, Millie.


Cuba Cuba Cuba

“There’s a lady out there reading a Harlequin and smoking a fat cigar. I think she caught me staring at her.”

I had just walked into the room from our hotel balcony.

“What’s a harlequin?” Zakhar asked.

“Cheesy romance novel.”

“Well, that cigar sure isn’t cheesy. I can smell it from here. We should invite her to join us for dinner. That’s a good one she’s got.”

Zakhar and I were at the Melia Resort in Cozumel to celebrate our third wedding anniversary. We had not had sex in four months. I refused to sleep with him because he had cheated on me with a Russian whore in his office. I said that I forgave him. But I didn’t. He refused to sleep with me anyway because I would not go visit my mother. She was dying of bone cancer. He said I am disrespectful and shameful and, until I went, he would not love me in the way I should be loved.


I met Zakhar when his sister and I drove into each other’s cars on the Arrivals ramp at the Philadelphia International Airport. I was picking up a friend. Zakhar was standing curbside with mounds of luggage. Faina and I quickly got out of our cars and launched into profuse apologies. Zakhar approached us and started yelling. Faina turned and started yelling at him, then he at her, then he back to me. The exchange slipped back and forth from English to a foreign tongue I couldn’t decipher.

“Stop yelling at her, Zakhar.”

They went back to their foreign tongue, their hands waving. Finally, I figured it out: Russian.

“I’m sorry,” she said, turning to me. “But it doesn’t look like there’s much damage.”

“Just get contact information so we can get the hell out of here,” he said, loading his luggage into the backseat.

He was tall, with a broad Slavic face and a sparse beard. He would not let us call the police to file a report.

“Your insurance rates will skyrocket,” he said. “Just work it out later.”

He stared at us while we leaned on my trunk to write down each other’s information.

“Hey, Faina, last night I sat on the hood of 1947 Packard Clipper, riding from casa to casa, party to party.”

Faina waved her hand dismissively at him.

“Been to Havana?” he asked me, flicking his chin.

He stood with his chest out, legs spread. I couldn’t look at him.

“Been to Havana?”

“Zakhar, just leave this poor girl alone.”

“She’s not a girl. She’s a woman. You been to Havana?”

I shook my head, No, disarmed and still shaking. The cars had hit, but not crashed. Regardless, the sound of impact had disoriented me, a sound I hadn’t heard in so long that I forgot how it reminds you that you have no control of things most of the time. I would probably have done anything anybody told me in that moment.

“Best cigars in the world. Best cars. Just don’t drive them if you go there,” he laughed. “Spare the natives.”

One week later Zakhar called me, said he borrowed my number from Faina, asked if I was still allowed on the road. I didn’t find him funny. He kept talking to me—at me. After determining that I was an educated woman who owned a passport, he said, “Do you want to go to Cuba?”

My life was an aimless bubble of ordinariness and solitude. I was about to turn thirty-six years old. I had no children and a failed marriage behind me. I had not made love to a man in two years. I was living in South Philly with an unholy boring job and my house was upside down on the mortgage. My mother had just been diagnosed with bone cancer, and was probably going to lose an arm if chemo didn’t work. You leap if you want. Ordinary people do this all the time.


Whenever we vacationed, Zakhar made up new lives for us—names, occupations, and the nature of our relationship. He was going to invite the cigar lady to dinner, and he pondered who each of us would be. In Santorini the preceding year, we pretended we were brother and sister. I faked a Russian accent flawlessly. We’d fuck like wild cats at night. The owner of the inn looked venomous every morning. She didn’t change our sheets or replace our towels the entire week.

Our travel lives went both ways. Everybody thought we went to Cuba for that first date. My friends were appalled that I accepted the invite. My mother was amused. Instead of Cuba, Zakhar and I spent ten days holed up at the Marriot Hotel at the Philadelphia International Airport. We stayed up until dawn, slept past noon. Zakhar paid some bellhop a hundred bucks a night to go into the city and pick up filet mignon dinners from Society Hill and eggplant dishes and hot-and-sour soup from Chinatown. Money seemed to be no issue for Zakhar. We’d sit outside at the pool. The summer air rested on our faces and everything felt gritty. Airplanes roared overhead. The pool water was too warm, the air conditioner too loud. It was the happiest time of my life. It seemed like our bodies never really stood or sat or lay more than inches apart. We stole each other’s air. Each evening, when falling asleep, we swore we’d get on the plane to Havana the next day. When we got back from Cuba that wasn’t Cuba, Zakhar told me that we were going to get married. Three months later, we did.

Zakhar knocked on the cigar lady’s door. I stood back.

“May I help you?” She held the door close to her chest but looked curious.

“We’d like to invite you to join us this evening to dine downstairs,” Zakhar said with a barely noticeable bow.

“Who are you?” she asked, leaning closer to him, and gave a small chuckle.

Zakhar’s accent was thick. People would lean close to him to understand what he was saying. And once you leaned closer to Zakhar, you wanted to get even closer. He was tall and menacing, but you knew he was there to protect. It was confusing to be in his presence.

She wasn’t looking at me, but I knew she wasn’t ignoring me. Zakhar’s face was distracting. He looked like he was in too many bar fights, his cheeks and chin aligned as patches of bone, resting in a stack of straight edges.

“Levka Egorov. Lev, for short. This is my wife, Anna. We are in the next room.”

She turned to me and there was a pause as her eyes left the registration of Zakhar’s face.

“Ah, yes, the woman from the balcony,” she said, turning back to Zakhar.

“Apparently she spotted you with a cigar,” he said.

“And? You’re here because you want a cigar?”

“They’re La Flor del Caney, yes?”

“My, you must have really been staring,” she said to me, and gave a deeper laugh, opening her door farther.

“Oh, she couldn’t tell it was a La Flor,” Zakhar said. “The smell came in our room. I know a Cohiba when I smell a Cohiba. I can get a Cohiba down the street, but a La Flor? Tough to find. Too many fake ones around. And yours was no fake.”

Her name was Claire. I sat between her and Zakhar at dinner, dwarfed by their height. Claire’s teeth were slightly buck and her face long and with a squat nose. Claire taught history. Zakhar told her he was a sustainability engineer and I was a stay-at-home mom for our non-existent four children whom we left at home. He talked about our children. He answered Claire’s questions as if I wasn’t even sitting there, and Claire listened in that same way. They laughed at each other but not with me. Zakhar kept poking fun at her that she did not know the details of the Siege of Leningrad. He asked her why her husband wasn’t here. She was wearing a wedding ring. Zakhar’s method of gathering information was to make assumptions. It is always easier to explain the misconception than to answer a question.

“My husband passed away two years ago.”

“I’m sorry,” Zakhar and I said in unison.

“Thank you.”

I looked at Zakhar in a cosmic plea to stop right there, to ask nothing more.

“What happened?” he asked.

Claire fingered the sweat on her margarita, her third, and looked up.


Zakhar was an unflappable man, but his eyes gave pause. We looked at Claire for our cue. Despite his understanding of the disease, treatments, and societal perceptions, he had never stopped referring to it as The Plague.

“People still die of it,” she said.

She delivered this with a calm face, breathless. She asked if I had a cigarette. I gave her one. I was always a smoker in another country.

“He was queer as a three-dollar bill,” she said. “I had no idea for the whole ten years of our marriage. I mean I should have known, yes?”

She blew smoke out from the left side of her mouth. She turned her gold band around and around on her finger.

“Funny,” she said. “I still can’t get over him, don’t know if I want to.”

I wanted to leave Cozumel and our lives and considered standing up, knowing this was becoming the most unfair few hours with a stranger I helped create. But I also wanted to reach out and touch her hand in solidarity. Infidelity is the oldest transgression in the book, almost boring to think about. But it was still devastating. I often thought Zakhar may have cheated before the Russian whore. This was purely instinct. There were never even remote clues to justify this. But for Claire, the infidelity was worse. Her husband’s lie was about more than having a lover—he lied about everything, the whole of who he was.


The day I found out that my mother’s cancer was back was the same day that I found out that Zakhar was fucking his administrative assistant. He probably paid her for it and reasoned with himself. She was related to him in a very remote, very distant way, so it always helps to help family. Zakhar hired only relatives and close friends, many who were in Russia and many who were in the States, but so far removed in bloodline that they might as well have been neighbors. He had an export business. He sold tea kettles and toasters to distributors in Moscow and St. Petersburg. It was shocking how much money there was in tea kettles.

I was sitting on the couch crying when he came home. He looked confused and reached for me, but I told him not to touch me. Her cancer’s back, I said, and I know your e-mail password, Russia, you stupid fuck. I told him to move out. He wouldn’t. He refused to sleep on the couch. And I found that I couldn’t leave, not even our bed, because when you love somebody, your very core, all the way to your bones and blood cells, to places in your spine and fingers that you didn’t know existed, well, even though that love—in that place and time—is wrong, it would never be trumped by all of those things that are right. And what was right was that he was tall and took care of me. He loved me right through my eyes. When his gaze met mine, there was relief in his eyes, relief from the anger in his world, a confusing childhood, dead parents.

During those ten days in the Marriot, one night we got shit-faced drunk, something we did, I believed, to calm the anxiety we both felt, the palpable anxiety of realizing that this thing between us, was simply going to go one way or another, and very quickly and permanently. Drunk and laughing, my husband crossed over, with no prompting, to tears, sitting on that chair and stomping his feet on the floor of an airport hotel room, head in hands, crying that he felt so lost, that he had never been so lost. Although I never have known why he was lost, together we found each other. That night, having known each other a solid eleven days, I made the choice to love him—not to fall in love, that had already happened, happens all the time. It’s a cliché. But what was right was that I made the decision to love him. And what was right was that he was so imperfect.

“I’ll fire her today,” he said the morning after I confronted him. “Book a plane ticket. We’re going to see your mother.”

We were living in Atlanta at the time, and we left the next day for Philadelphia. My mother still lived in my childhood home, alone. My father had been dead so long I couldn’t even remember what his hands look liked. Zakhar was more of a son to her than I was a daughter. He bought her a new television and hired and instructed house painters and roofers. He told her what color the outdoor shutters should be and he put his hand on the small of her back when leading her from one room to the next. He’d put on her pink garden gloves, which tore at the seams from his large hands, and would pull weeds out of the landscaping along the side of the house. He made her laugh. She had a collection of antique tea kettles that he single handedly collected for her from around the world. He told her he hated his business but having tea kettle connections for her was worth it. He would tell her what he was trying to change about me and they’d prioritize, smiling at me and both agreeing that I needed to eat more vegetables. I cried every night during that visit while we lay in my old bedroom, confused why she would not look me in the eye.

“I mean, I’m here. Right? I came here. I don’t get it. She’ll barely look at me.”

“She doesn’t want you to see the dying eyes.”

“What are you talking about?”

“When my papa was dying, my mother told me to not look at him directly, that he had the dying eyes and he knew it, that it would make it worse for both of us.”

When we got home from Philadelphia, I stopped eating. I lost eleven pounds. For the next two months, when he talked about going to Philadelphia again, I told him we should wait a week or so. I said this over and over, each week. He told me every time I put it off that if I didn’t get it together soon, that he would go alone, and that this would feel worse than my not going at all. So before we went to Cozumel, I promised him I’d book tickets when we got back. He didn’t believe me.

I would never see my mother again.


It was Carnaval Week in Mexico and there was a parade downtown. Zakhar invited Claire to join us. I was annoyed that he had done so. We had spent the better part of three days with her already, and every time she was with us, my throat would swell with anxiety, making breathing a chore. Ha, I said to Zakhar while looking a brochure from the hotel lobby, they’ll have harlequins in the parade. He frowned and told me he thought that a harlequin was a book of cheesy sex scenes. I explained that a harlequin was also a character, friend of the devil, dressed in black and red, wearing a mask and chasing down the evil and damning their souls.

“Stop your bullshit, please,” he said. “It’s too late. We will bring this woman joy for a few more days and then go back to our lives. So stop.”

She had seemed joyful. She had gone snorkeling with us earlier in the afternoon. We didn’t see much more than a sand lobster and some turtles. The waves were too choppy and made for murky conditions, but she screamed with glee while we were underwater. The sound was frightening. She told me that it was her first time snorkeling and she couldn’t believe that it was so beautiful, that she couldn’t contain herself. I was trying not to talk, for I wanted the stillness of silence. If I did not move forward in speech, then our choices didn’t move forward. I was starting to crack under the pressure of having to answer questions about four children, four children Zakhar named—Michael, Katya, Petrov, and Jennifer. Two American and two Russian kids, he told her with a laugh. I held back tears when she asked if either of us had pictures of our kids on our phone. Claire said she had three miscarriages, and Zakhar pretended he didn’t hear her. Later that afternoon, the three of us had drank at a tiki bar situated in the middle of the pool. We sat on cement stools, waist high in the water. Zakhar was doing laps and throwing a bunch of little kids in the air. Claire was buzzed and began to tell me how her husband’s lover, desperate but subdued, would knock on their door toward the end, asking to see him, and how she wouldn’t let him in.

“Once I had to call the cops to get him off the property,” she said. “I did it to spite my husband. I hated my husband so much. But these things aren’t simple, are they? You know, I loved him more than anything in this whole world. I wouldn’t have hated him otherwise. You know what I’m saying? Am I making sense?”

After dinner, we headed to town for the parade. I was crying when we were leaving our room to meet with Claire. Zakhar held me.

“She’s a lovely person,” he said, “and she needs people to notice that. And she’s quite pretty, too, don’t you think? In a weird sort of way. She’ll marry again. She’s quite funny.”

We arrived downtown too early and only a few locals had set up their chairs curbside. There were street food vendors selling tacos, churros, and sugary water ices. Although the temperature wasn’t high, the humidity was oppressive.

We went into a bar where Claire and Zakhar began drinking too much. They became louder and their shoulders touched, Zakhar’s hand touching her knee on occasion with that sense of familiarity when she made him laugh. I wondered if Claire had been touched by a man since her husband died. I wondered when was the last time she had slept with her husband before he died, as husband and wife, or not. I wondered what Zakhar meant that she was pretty in a weird way, and if that was prettier than the normal way that I was pretty. I wondered if Zakhar had always liked tall women. The whore of an administrative assistant was tall. I had seen her once at my house, with her tall husband. I was not tall.

Claire and Zakhar were smoking cigars, encouraging me to have one. When I declined, they both laughed. Zakhar patted me on the head like a puppy. We walked outside to a sea of people. Families, packs of teenagers, floats on flatbeds with middle-age women in short silver dresses, makeup glittery, dancing and throwing candy to kids below. Harlequins turned in circles. Young girls marched in groups in front and behind floats, wearing tight skirts and fancy tap shoes, colored shadows and lipstick caked on their faces, sashaying their butts and grinning ear to ear. On other floats were young men in street clothes, playing loud music from a speaker, drinking cans of beer from a cooler, and hollering to the crowds below. When I commented that it was inappropriate to sexualize children and equally gross to see women in their fifties dressed like slutty teenagers, Claire frowned and Zakhar glared at me. It’s their culture, he said. They are celebrating, not whoring.

Along the streets were stores selling souvenirs and cheap t-shirts. Standing next to an open door of a store was a statue of Castro, with the storeowner standing next to it. Everything about the statue was exaggerated, the army green of his fatigues that hid big biceps, the shit-eating grin, and every tooth showing. Hanging out of his mouth was a massive Cohiba.

Zakhar’s family went to Cuba all of the time when Zakhar was a child. His father did business there. Exports. Zakhar claims that there is a picture of him as a very young boy sitting on Castro’s lap. When he told me this, I laughed and called him a liar. He swore up and down that it was true, that Castro was a close personal friend of his father’s. The picture, he claimed, was tucked away in an attic back at his home in St. Petersburg. Faina shrugged her shoulders with no emotion and told me that it’s true, a picture was taken, but that she had not been born yet. For this reason, Faina’s measured tone, I believed him.

“Do you have the camera?” Zakhar asked, standing tall next to Castro.

“We didn’t bring it,” I said.

“You mean you didn’t bring it,” he laughed.

“I’ve got mine. I’ll take a picture,” Claire said.

Zakhar was standing next to the statue posing, but he had turned his head and was talking to the storeowner.

“Look at me,” Claire said to Zakhar.

Zakhar spoke faster and louder with the storeowner, and it dawned on me I had no idea that my husband spoke fluent Spanish.


Even without the time difference it was too late to call my mother from Mexico. I sat on the balcony. Our room faced the ocean, but there was no moon and it was hazy. I couldn’t see the water. The sound of the ocean was drowned out by the music of the nightclub below. Even if I tried, I wouldn’t have been able to describe anything that would make it seem like I was in Cozumel. Zakhar and Claire were at the club, dancing, I assumed. She was unattractive, I had decided, no threat. She cared diligently for her husband while he was dying. She was a good woman, but that did not make her an attractive one, to me at least.

My mom answered the phone, her voice sing-songy, as if it was the most natural thing in the world for me to call her at three o’clock in the morning.

“How are you feeling, Mom?”

I closed my eyes.

“Like I’m dying.”

“I’m sorry, Mom.”

“Why are you sorry? I’m dying. No apologies needed,” she said with a chuckle.

“Zakhar and I thought it would be a good idea if we come visit. We already booked tickets,” I lied. “We’re coming in a few weeks.”

“You might not want to do that. I look like hell.”

“It’s okay, Mom. We don’t care what you look like.”

Eventually the music from the club stopped, and there was a long stretch of sound: people leaving and high-heels on the tiles, guests jumping into the pool and screeching. Soon I could hear them on Claire’s balcony. He was teaching her curse words in Russian. Derr’mo! Derr’mo! ‘Suka! ‘Suka! Shit shit bitch bitch. In that sweet spot before I fell asleep, it got quiet. At some point, Zakhar climbed into bed and I came to in a haze. I didn’t know what time it was, and I didn’t know if the quiet had been theirs, or mine, when falling asleep. I talked to my mom tonight, I whispered to Zakhar. She told me she looks like hell. I told her we don’t care. I drifted out and back and at some point in the morning, Zakhar wanted to make love. Zakhar never asks to make love, never pulls me toward him or leans in the typical way that men do. For all of his relentless movement in the world and our relationship, he asks for me in the most gentle way—he puts the tip of his pinky in the shallow of my ear, with the softest touch. I rely on this restful approach. I relied on his being mine.

When he was in the shower, I sniffed the pillows and sheets and his clothes. All I could smell was cigar. We dressed for breakfast and on our way out of the room, I asked him if he thought we should ask Claire to join us. Claire was leaving on the same day, and the innocent lies—the floating ones, at least—seemed necessary in order to make it home.

“Of course,” he said. “I told her our names last night, okay? You should know this. It’s okay. She doesn’t care.”

I wanted to tell Zakhar that I didn’t care even if she did care. I was so tired.

“She said she knew anyway. After all of that with her husband, she can spot a lie a mile away.”


I stared at Zakhar, my eyes tearing up. I wanted to ask if he was going to sleep with his secretary again, even though he fired her. I wanted to ask him, were he given the opportunity, if he’d sleep with a tall, plain woman with buck teeth, who we lied so much to, who was lied to by more than us, for so long, but who was pretty, also, in some weird way. My mouth was open just a little bit, as if ready to ask him.

“We are who we are, my love,” he said to me, and he took my hand.

Claire opened her door. She was wearing a pink sundress. She gave me a genuine grin. She was kind. Zakhar was ahead of us and he walked upright and with a long stride. Claire said she wasn’t feeling well, all of those cigars. I smiled at her, wanting to tell her about my mother and her dying eyes, and ask her if her husband had them.

“Zakhar told me all about your trip to Cuba last night.”

Her eyes were on mine and I couldn’t read them—I didn’t know if I even wanted to. Zakhar was at the elevator and he turned to us. I didn’t know if Zakhar was still playing his game, our game, and that she only knew half of what was true, or if the joke was on me.

We loved it there, I thought to myself. We loved it. Claire and I reached the elevator and the three of us stood there, Zakhar behind the two of us. He was a gentleman. He would let us walk on first. I waited for somebody to break the silence and let me know what words should hang in the air, who should tell whom what, and I felt the height of my husband, untouchable, and thought, We are who we are, my love. I wanted to look at them both, see if their irises and lashes would tell me anything, if, when we all started to talk, what would pour from their mouths would still be coated with the dark leaves and pungent brown smoke.

When I was in my thirties, I had a casual friendship with a woman whose tales were always a bit tall, which I loved about her. She once told me that there was a picture of her, taken as a young child, sitting on the lap of Fidel Castro. I couldn’t tell if she was telling the truth or lying, but I mentally filed the conversation and the image, because it was delicious and fascinating to me, writer or not. Seven years later, I thought about that picture that may or may not have existed, which made me think abstractly about Cuba. That is where my writing the story began. The rest was concrete decision after decision to create a story, told some truths and plenty of lies.