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Chapter Sixteen

NATALIE LEANED AGAINST A TABLE IN THE AUTOMATIC laundry in Valparaiso, watching their clothes tumble through the dryer. Her entire wardrobe was a single dryer load now, and the children's made up another, only slightly larger one. Back in Baltimore she had a laundry room larger than her childhood bedroom, outfitted with not only an extra-capacity washer and dryer but a special sink for hand washing, built-in cedar closets for out-of-season storage, and a pine table where she folded and stacked the endless, fragrant loads. She had been embarrassed when Lana had pointed out that her folding table was nicer than the Ikea one from which Lana ate her meals. "Take it, then," Natalie had urged. But Lana refused, probably out of pride. "It's too big for my place, and the style is different."

Lord, how Natalie had hated Moshe's house, if only because she could never make it hers. It had so many constant, unending needs-even more than Moshe. The Sabbath was supposed to provide a day of rest, but Natalie spent her Saturdays thinking of the tasks that the next week would bring, and the week beyond that. She had never dreamed she could miss such a burden, but life on the road had made her wistful for the things she had taken for granted, for the very things that had held her captive. For that laundry room, for bathrooms that never smelled of mildew, for gleaming copper pots, for cool lavender-scented sheets on a king-size bed in a room that belonged just to her. And Moshe, of course.

Today's trip to the launderette marked the first time Natalie had been alone in days, apart from when she was in the bathroom, and she wouldn't have been given this brief reprieve if Zeke hadn't agreed to watch the children in the room, rather than try to control them here. Plus, this way they could strip the kids down to nothing and wrap them in towels, giving Natalie a chance to clean all the clothes at once. "We're outnumbered when we take them out," Zeke had agreed. "Besides, no one's going anywhere wearing just a towel."

Isaac's head had swung up sharply, as if he wanted to disagree, and Natalie knew her oldest son would forgo modesty if he saw a chance to get away from Zeke or make another phone call. It would take more than a towel wrapped around his skinny body to keep him in his place. If his spirit weren't so wearing, she might have been proud of him. He was tough. Those were her genes, her family, the Tseltsins.

That was their name back in Russia, their real name, before her father had helped himself to the identity of Boris Petrovich in order to immigrate to the United States as a Soviet Jew.

"We're Jews?" Natalie had asked her mother, not even sure what the word meant, yet certain that it was at odds with whatever she imagined herself to be.

"Sure, why not?" her mother replied.

Her father changed the name again, after they settled in Baltimore. The reason for that second change was unclear to Natalie, like much her father and mother did. The truth was, she wasn't particularly interested in her parents. "Is your father affiliated?" Lana had asked in a tone of hushed respect the first time she had visited the house on Labyrinth Road and seen the evidence of his so-called job-the boxes of electronic equipment stacked in the kitchen, the new clothes that he would sell without letting Natalie pick even one outfit. "I don't know. I don't care," Natalie said. She wasn't ashamed that her father was a criminal. She was embarrassed because he was a bad one, as Zeke never stopped reminding her.

But it was her parents' foreignness that Natalie resented. She couldn't help feeling they were holding her back, that an American girl with her looks would have had dozens of ways to make her mark on the world. The Russian girls who became famous in the United States tended to do athletic things, figure skating and gymnastics and tennis. Natalie had no talent for sports. She was too short to model, according to all of Lana's magazines, and acting did not appeal to her because she didn't want to be anyone but herself. Still, whenever she looked in the mirror, she just knew that destiny had special plans for her.

She was fourteen when she saw the movie with the improbable name Inside Daisy Clover. It was old and strange, and she probably would not have lingered on the channel were it not for the fact that the television had become a mirror. "You look like her," Lana had said, and she did, she really did. Natalie tracked down other movies with Natalie Wood-the other Natalie, as she thought of her-even went to the library and checked out books about her. That was amazing enough that someone might have noticed, if anyone had been paying attention to her at the time. Natalie, who never read, filling out reserve cards at the branch library, even taking the bus downtown to find the one old video that wasn't at Blockbuster, This Property Is Condemned.

Here was the amazing thing: Natalie Wood had been born Natasha, just like her, and changed her name to Natalie, just like her. She was Russian, too. And she had died in a strange accident not long after Natasha came to the United States and became Natalie. So no, she couldn't say she was rein-carnated, but perhaps the actress's spirit was lodged in her body. Natalie submitted herself to Lana, her sights already on cosmetology school, and the results were surprisingly good. Lana shaped her brows into those perfect arches, showed Natalie how to paint her lips and fix her hair. The resemblance was amazing.

Yet somehow no one else seemed to see it. They saw her beauty, and it greased her way through the world, making most things easier and a few things harder. But no one else made the connection.

Until Zeke. She still remembered the feel of his eyes on her the first time she went to visit her father, just after her eighteenth birthday. She was used to stares, but this gaze was different. Intense, about something more than sex. Then he pursed his lips and let out a soft, lingering whistle, five distinct notes. "Somewhere." He was Tony, singing to Maria. Except, thank God, he was a million times better-looking than the actor who had played that part in the movie. He was better-looking than James Dean, too, in Natalie's opinion, better-looking even than Warren Beatty, with that coal-black hair and those shocking blue eyes.

And he had been so courtly. He did not want what the others wanted. He had asked her father permission to write to her-acting as if Boris were the accomplished man he wanted to be, instead of just another prisoner. Zeke's letters had been amazing, better than anything she had read in books or even seen in the movies. He said theirs was a true love, a once-in-a-lifetime love, and the obstacles to it only made it more precious. His sentence was two years. She would be a mere twenty when he got out, a baby still. She promised to wait for him. Months went by before he told her about the federal time that awaited him after he did his state stretch. She was furious with him, but by then she would have done anything he asked, absolutely anything.

Even marry a man she didn't love, because a loveless marriage was, in its own way, the best way to stay faithful to Zeke. True, she hadn't seen it that way, not at first. But between their visits and his letters, Zeke had convinced her. She was so young. She knew about sex, but she knew nothing about love. Committed to Zeke in her heart, she was still susceptible to false love, to falling under a man's spell, only to find that it was a pale imitation of the real thing. She should marry a man who could provide for her, a man whose embraces would never move her-a man who would never threaten her loyalty to Zeke. It wasn't really wrong. She was like an artist, back in the Renaissance, Zeke explained, and her husband would be her patron. Lots of marriages ended, for all sorts of reasons. She would give a man ten years of her life and then leave, asking for no more than was her due. It was more than many women gave their husbands.

Zeke had chosen Mark Rubin. He was rigid in his ways, older than his years, but basically decent. Natalie didn't mind him too much. And once the children came, her affection for him increased. He had given her the greatest gift she could imagine, a gift that doctors had claimed was beyond Natalie, because of a disease she never knew she had-a disease you couldn't see, or even feel, until you tried to conceive. And it had taken quite a bit of talking, trying to explain to Mark how she had come to have this thing called chlamydia. She had told him it was too painful to speak of to him, and let him draw his own conclusions.

True, children were not part of Zeke's plan, but even Zeke had to yield to God's wishes. Besides, Zeke knew about the other men, and he had never minded that. He also knew she had to sleep with Moshe and that he would never allow her to use birth control, given his beliefs. Besides, she had needs, too, and ten years was a long, long time. Mark was not her dream lover, but he wanted to make her happy. If she closed her eyes and thought of Zeke, which one was she really betraying? Both? Neither?

The dryer ended with a shudder and a sigh. Like most of life's obligations, like the children themselves, laundry seemed to multiply in mass when it had to be carried anywhere. Look at the mounds of clothes on the table-you would think it would last them a month, yet Natalie would be back in another laundry, in some other town, within a week. She had packed very little, because she had thought they would be on the road no more than five days. Now it was going on three weeks, and nothing made sense to her. She had thought Zeke would be happy to see her in Terre Haute, that they would go to Chicago as he had promised. Actually, he had seemed kind of mad.

And now they were traveling in odd, directionless circles through ugly little towns. She did not like the way Zeke had chosen to make money, especially her part in it, but he said his counted-on windfall, a trust or something, had been delayed by a few weeks. He pointed out that they harmed no one, unless fooling people was a kind of harm. For his part, he said, he was giving something in exchange for what he got, a great story, an anecdote. "I'm the single most exciting thing that ever happened to these people."

The phrase lingered in her head-the single most exciting thing that ever happened. Zeke had been that for her, a secret treasure, her double life. Driving her minivan, waiting in line at Seven Mile Lane Grocery, enduring the long services every Friday and Saturday, fumbling her way through the prayers she had learned so late in life-the knowledge of Zeke had been like a secret drug that made her heart race, filling her days with soaring expectations.

And yet here she was in a coin laundry in Indiana, reduced to five pairs of underwear, three T-shirts, and two blouses. Zeke had allowed her to buy three pairs of blue jeans with their scant funds, a wonderful treat after years of wearing the wool slacks Mark insisted on. Still, she couldn't help thinking about the clothes she had left behind. Conservative, true, but beautiful and well made. She missed those, too.

Catching her reflection in the porthole of the dryer, she saw a young man sneaking a look at her behind. Too bad for him, his girlfriend caught the look, too, and gave him a nice flat-handed smack across the back of his head. Natalie approved. She would have done the same, or worse. Maybe not for looking, but if she ever caught Zeke doing anything else-well, just say that she would make sure he'd never cheat on her again. In the end it was up to women to take a stand, stake out their men, keep them in check. Zeke may have been afraid of losing her, but she had been just as afraid of losing him, that he would disappear, leaving her in the cold, sad lie of her marriage. Even now that they were together, the fear hadn't subsided. Not for her, and not for Zeke. Something gnawed at him, late at night, made him whimper and fret in his sleep like a small boy. Yet when she asked, he said he never dreamed, that he had willed himself to stop dreaming long ago.

She carried the clothes to the car, taking two trips. She would have liked to stop at the Dairy Queen for a shake, or even a hot dog, but Zeke would make her account for the money she spent. Not because, like Moshe, he didn't trust her, but because they had so little. For now. He swore they would have plenty of money soon.

She checked under the front seat and made sure the box that Amos had given her was still there. Funny, but Zeke wouldn't use it. Even when working, he wanted no part of it. He had a knife, but he never unsheathed it. He said she was a fool, using up precious dollars for something they didn't need, but it made her feel safer. She tied the string back around the box, making sure it was knotted tight. It would be a tragedy for the twins to find it, or even Isaac, prudent as he was. She knew from her own father how the mere fact of having a gun at hand could wreck so many lives.

Although, in the long run, it had saved hers. She wouldn't be where she was now, on the verge of finally being happy, if it weren't for her father's mistakes, if he hadn't killed a man and ended up in prison, where he met Zeke, and then Zeke found her. You could even say a man had sacrificed his life so Natalie might realize her destiny. More proof, as if she needed any, that she and Zeke were special, God's favorites, living by different rules from everybody else.

Chapter Fifteen | By A Spider`s Thread | Chapter Seventeen