“The Real Natasha” by Michael Leone

Happy Friday, Story366! So glad to be here finally, at the end of the semester! Welcome to day 1 of the best summer of my life! Grades are turned in and summer is here! I’m going to write a novel, get in shape, get my house in shape, plant the best garden ever, spend a ton of time with my family, travel the world, and maybe even change the world while I’m traveling it. So much is possible on the first day of summer break!

Only, for some reason, MSU is the only school that has not only one but two more weeks left before summer—a week of classes and then finals. I’m not done until two Fridays from now, with a whole lot of grading and grade-figuring in-between. Why is that all my teacher friends are talking about submitting final grades today, about leaving town, about really enjoying Cinco de Mayo, and I have two weeks left? Why?! We did have an extra week for the winter break this year—which I wouldn’t trade, not even now—but why are we going so late? I’m going to be turning in grades and handing out trick-or-treat candy at the same time, surely some kind of record.

Okay, but enough bitching. I’m sure all of my readers who don’t get four months off a year—to pursue scholarly endeavors, of course—feel sorry for me and my impending two weeks of work. I’ve made mention to people of how truncated my breaks feel in the pat, people like my siblings, and they’ve pointed out what a spoiled ass hole I am as they get like two weeks off a year and most of that time is spent at dentist appointments and wakes. But hey, that’s what siblings are for when you’re the youngest of seven. So, bring on the last week of classes. Bring on finals. Bring on grading. Bring on trick-or-treaters.

For today’s post, I read from Michael Leone’s 2017 collection The Real Natasha, out from Braddock Avenue Books. This makes five 2017 collections this week, books I’ve been assembling since the start of the year. I picked up The Real Natasha at the Braddock Avenue table at AWP and have itching to get inside since. Reading a few stories, I see the wait was worth it, as Leone writes fun, innovative tales, including “Minutes,” a story written in the form of English Department meeting minutes, as recorded by an angry, NTT faculty member who puts a very particular spin on the meeting’s proceedings. The form—actual outlined minutes—plus the I-didn’t-see-that-coming ending, makes it a piece I foresee me sharing with students for semesters to come. For whatever reason, though, I’m writing about the title story, “The Real Natasha,” instead, as I find it compelling in another way.

“The Real Natasha” is about this unnamed protagonist who is in love, in love with Natasha. She is his dream woman, accepting all of his faults—impressed, even, that he’s a New Jersey hot dog-eating champion—while shockingly having the exact same interests —amazing because she’s a nubile beauty from the Ukraine. Still, Leone presents the relationship as a match made in heaven. How nice for these characters, for this narrator, you might be thinking as you begin reading, a love story.

Before long, however, this unconditional love appears too good to be true, especially when we find out that the relationship has existed exclusively online. And that Natasha’s visit to America—to marry our hero, of course, be with him forever—is delayed by several factors, though nothing that several thousand dollars, wired directly to her, can’t fix. By this time, all of it is more than fishy, and by the time Natasha disappears—her phone number and email are suddenly disconnected—any reader can figure out that our boy’s been had.

What’s great about Leone’s story, however, isn’t this revelation, but instead how committed Leone is to keeping this Romeo in the dark. After our boy gets fleeced and still can’t get ahold of Natasha, he takes the only logical next step: He flies to the Ukraine to track Natasha down. Once there, having spent another fortune on his ticket, he goes to Natasha’s address and what do you know, he doesn’t find her; this online charlatan somehow not at the address she gave him, the address to which he’s been sending letters, pictures, money, and his heart. Still, he persists. Outside, he runs into a local tough named Punka, who insists he knows Natasha and can take him to her. They drive outside of the city, to an abandoned field, and as our guy is looking all over, wondering if his Natasha is somehow occupying this abandoned, isolated space, Punka is brandishing a pipe and demanding he take off all his clothes.

I won’t go any further with the plot, reveal any more of the humiliations our guy endures, or let you know just how far he’s willing to go to find Natasha, his beloved. Leone is unrelenting, though, in what he’s willing to put this poor sap through, all the time winking at us. That sounds like an unreliable narrator to me, and for sure, this might be the most unreliable narrator in the history of unreliable narrators. There was a point, I have to admit, that I thought to myself, Wow, this is all pretty obviously a scam, but as Leone’s game becomes apparent, I was on board, no matter how long he was going to play it.

I’ve enjoyed all of the new collections I’ve read this week, and Michael Leone’s The Real Natasha is no exception. Leone seems to like to play with all kinds of forms and conventions, all in the name of good fun. I really connected with Leone’s sense of humor, with his ideas, with his world view. This is a damn fine collection, perfect for a Friday with the sun shining, perfect for any day you’re looking for good stories.