It’s Not Going to Get Better

Dave V Riser

Weathered hands push back Artem’s hair. His face aches under the ice pack. Rage, dull and ugly, blooms in his chest. His grandmother traces counter-clockwise spirals over his forehead, his temple. Her short, manicured nails drag through his dark hair, occasionally pulling. It’s supposed to be soothing.

“There are no snakes in our sea,” she says, overly precise. “So I understand, you do not know, that when you press your face into a snake hole, it is only a matter of time before you are bitten.”

Our sea. She used to hold Artem when he was younger, not yet ten, and tell him of their ancestors crawling out of the Black Sea. Fish with legs who became men with salt in their veins and dead hearts. Her father was one of these men, and she said, Artem is too.

“Your father, not so much,” she said. “His father, Hungarian. Your mother, American, God rest her. We may be in America now, but our sea is inside you. Can you feel it in your eyes, flooding over?”

“Yes,” Artem had said, desperate to please her, to belong to the old country and the old ways. He recited his grandmother’s stories through grade school, oblivious to the polite disinterest of teachers and the scathing looks from his peers. Now a college freshman, he knows better.

“I can handle the snake,” Artem says to his grandmother. He enunciates carefully, to compensate for his aching and swollen nose. “I’m going to bite him back.”

She makes a low, disbelieving sound, but continues to stroke spirals through his hair.

There’s a painting of a young boy reading on a hillside hanging on the wall of his grandmother’s study. A print of Ivan Yizhakevych’s work—dark background, the sense that a storm is only a few hours away. The boy is blond, his face unfocused, only a few brush strokes of paint. There’s something dark in the grass next to him.

The hand in his hair pauses. “I’m going to be in New York for a while. Your father needs help.”

“Mmm.” Artem knows better than to ask what kind of help. If she wanted him to know, if it were important for him to know, he would.

“Do not die while I am gone. Do not get expelled while I am gone. If you burn the house down, I will be upset.”

“But I can, right?” Artem drags his gaze from the painting.

“I will be upset.”

The beer is sour on Artem’s tongue. Music, low and distorted, pulses through his skin down to his bones. The flashing lights are starting to make him nauseated.

Mikhail Sokolov is across the room, drinking vodka and leaning against some girl Artem vaguely recognizes from orientation. Sokolov is letting her touch his arm, showing off a collection of cigarette burns. He’s wearing the ugliest pair of sunglasses Artem’s ever seen, huge and black, a brand name engraved on the side.

Artem takes a drink. He lets his eyes wander like he’s bored. He can feel when Sokolov spots him, lets his own gaze brush Sokolov’s like it’s an accident. Sokolov smiles, slow as acid, eating away whatever reserve Artem’s been trying to keep. His teeth are perfectly white.

They have some of the same classes. Artem is majoring in Economics. Sokolov is majoring in house parties, with a minor in cocaine.

“Fresh meat?” Sokolov says, suddenly next to him. The girl is nowhere in sight. He’s taller than Artem, leaner. Almost blond. Not very attractive, not enough to account for the people who trail him from room to room. Artem has watched richer boys, prettier boys, stronger boys all break on the concrete under his feet.

Artem takes another drink of his beer and lets his expression answer. Sokolov laughs. He sounds like a dog barking. Artem’s stomach clenches.

“Artyom, right? Skovron. Where you from, how long you been here? First generation? Second?” Sokolov turns so they can survey the room together, leaning hard against Artem’s shoulder.

For a frat house, it’s surprisingly neat. Maybe it’s the mark of Georgetown. There are string lights hung next to mirrors to amplify their effect, lots of white and off-white, showcasing an overflowing collection of alcohol. There’s a fish tank next to the kitchen doorway. Electric green. Something small and blue darting between wilting plant life.

“Artem. Odessa. Second.”

“Mmm. I can tell.”

“Fuck you.”

Sokolov laughs again.

“So aggressive! Does your nose still hurt, upsetting your disposition?” He pronounces every syllable in “disposition” like they’re separate words.

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