MASHA MIRONOVA IS THE only girl I know who wears nylon tights. The rest of us put on vest-like lifchiks, under-bodices that sprout elastic suspenders with rubber clips, and pull on ribbed cotton stockings that twist around our legs like snakes. Masha’s cut hair, held back by a hair band, is a challenge to another institution: braids. Braids and bows keep our hair long and innocent of barbers. When Masha walks, her shining hair bounces above her neck, and every time I see her cross the courtyard on legs covered with perfectly aligned nylon, my own ankles thickened by cotton instantly turn into lead weights.
Masha is unique in other ways, too. Of all my friends, her mother is the only one who wears high heels. Every morning she clicks across the yard on her way to work: a tailored skirt, teased hair, red lipstick. She teaches college English: the word “English” sounds majestic and alien. In my family no one speaks a foreign language, especially one as foreign as English. My mother knows the names of all the body parts in Latin, but Latin isn’t exotic, it’s ancient and dead. My father speaks nothing but Russian. My sister studied French at her Moscow drama school, but French is so ingrained in Russian history that even my provincial Aunt Muza sometimes says, “Merci beaucoup.”
Besides her bold appearance and her high-heeled mother, Masha has another quality that makes me admire her: she can speak this rarely heard language of mystery. Every morning, when the rest of us walk to our district elementary school, Masha takes Bus 22 to an English school, one of the few in the city, clearly a place for the chosen. In addition to Russian, math, and biology, she studies literature, history, and geography—all taught in English. Every morning my heart skips a beat when I glance out my window at the bus stop, when I see her nylon-clad legs climb into the crowded bus.
MASHA’S LAST NAME IS her mother’s, Mironova, and not her father’s, Finkelstein. Uneasy to ask Masha herself about this discrepancy, I ask my mother.
“Mironova is a Russian name,” my mother says, not going into any explanation, as if what she said were self-evident. I know that names ending with -ova or -ov are Russian and that names ending with -stein are Jewish. Realizing that I am waiting for more, she adds, “Parents can choose which name to give their child, father’s or mother’s. It’s usually the father’s, but Masha’s parents wanted her to have an easier life.”
I am relieved. My own name is Russian, so maybe I’ll have an easier life, too.
WE ARE SITTING IN Masha’s apartment leafing through glossy magazines her mother has brought from work. There is Bulgarian Burda, with toothy women perched on skinny heels; there is Polish Moda, thick as Crime and Punishment. I look at the beaming models, who undoubtedly all wear tights and have never heard of lifchiks and snaking stockings. Masha and I are trying to figure out why in Bulgaria and Poland, countries much smaller than ours, people can be so interested in fashion that they publish whole magazines dedicated exclusively to appearance.
“My mother’s friend from work went to Sofia as part of cultural exchange,” says Masha. “She lived in another teacher’s apartment. She says there were flowers blooming in the lobby of the apartment building.”
It is difficult to imagine flowers blooming in such an unfitting space. The entrances to our apartment building are cement, with broken light bulbs and a smell of pee.
“What’s a lobby, anyway?” says Masha.
I don’t know about lobbies; I only know about stairwells, so I shrug.
“I also know someone who took a trip to Prague,” says Masha nonchalantly, which in my eyes raises her to an even higher level of worldliness. In the overseas ranking order, Czechoslovakia is above Bulgaria, although both are way below England.
“Wouldn’t you like to go to England?” I ask wistfully. “With all the English you’re learning?” We both know it is a purely rhetorical question because England is the West and going there is completely out of the question.
“I’d like to see the Beefeaters,” says Masha, who just finished a lesson on the Tower of London. “And a Laura Ashley store.”
We saw a picture of a Laura Ashley façade in England, the only Western magazine we find in her mother’s heap. It is published in both Russian and English by the Moscow house Progress as a joint British-Soviet venture and is available only to reliable readers like Masha’s mother.
The Laura Ashley dresses are so bold in color that they hurt our eyes. They resemble gardens in full bloom, colors merging, rolling into one another, making fantastic arrangements, like bouquets of resplendent flowers. They would fit well, we think, in a lobby of an apartment building in Sofia.
I love sitting in Masha’s apartment. It is similar to hearing English—mesmerizing. Soft yellow armchairs caress my elbows the same way palatalized l’s and rolled r’s caress my ears. A floor lamp with an appropriately foreign name, torchier, soars over the armchairs like a rising tone at the end of English sentences and then suddenly curves down in one bold jazzy stroke, pouring light on Moda and Burda and England scattered on the coffee table. And the coffee table—a round, dainty thing, the epitome of decadence and luxury, serving no purpose whatsoever—is as alien as the English language itself.
What amazes me most about Masha’s apartment is that it contains a room not serving a basic function, a room not used for cooking or sleeping, a room where we can simply sit and talk and gawk at exotic magazines. The word “living room”—gostinaya—sounds as strange as “coffee table,” evoking frilled ladies in chestnut curls and whiskered gentlemen puffing on cigars. Its four syllables, slick and cool, linger on my tongue, as foreign as ice cubes.
In my apartment there are only two rooms, neither defined by name. One room has two beds covered with a silk bedspread, pink doves embroidered on a purple background, my mother’s pride and joy. My father was forced to make a call to a department store, where she’d seen it delivered and then hidden by a saleswoman under the counter. A bright red couch, my bed, flames against the wall. A television sits on a chest where linens are kept, and next to it stands a dressing table with tall triple mirrors that no one ever uses for dressing.
In the other room, my sister’s, gleam two pieces of furniture required for every respectable home: a cupboard filled with cut crystal and a piano. Everyone I know takes piano lessons, whether they have an ear for music or don’t, and every apartment boasts a black upright called Red October. Ours is covered with a lace runner and porcelain ballerinas bending in the poses of dying swans.
I hate dusting the dressing table and the piano. I hate practicing the piano, too, and that double aversion keeps me away from my sister’s room, which suits us both. When I come home from Masha’s apartment, my parents’ purple beds, and my red couch, and the un-dusted triple mirror where nothing interesting is ever reflected, seem sorry-looking and old, mismatched pieces of furniture forced into cheerless coexistence.
I AM IN A streetcar, on a seat made of wooden slats varnished yellow, too hard and straight for a fifty-minute ride. It’s a morning in July, and we are clattering along Leningrad streets that are nearly empty. All the citizens who could get out of the city are in their dachas, tending to strawberry shoots and tomato seedlings, shivering on the windy beaches of the Gulf of Finland between watering and weeding.
It’s the first summer in my ten-year-old life that we are staying in the city. My father, who has been home for the last two weeks, doesn’t feel well, my mother says, because he’s been working too much. He sits in bed in his long underwear, light blue like the pale sky behind the window, staring into the television screen.
“You want Channel One or Channel Two?” asks my mother, ready to turn the knob. Channel One is from Moscow: news, figure skating, a travel show. A combine rolls across a field, over acres of wheat, with a truck crawling behind it, filled with tons of grain. A couple glides over a skating rink, a woman pirouetting on one foot, her back almost touching the ice in a movement called “the death loop.” A herd of zebras is galloping across African savannah. When my father shakes his head—a slight, exhausted movement—my mother switches to Channel Two, the Leningrad station, where we see the same combine roll across the same field of wheat.
Looking out the streetcar window, I think about my father back home, sick of the black-and-white television images, reading Pravda from beginning to end, all four pages. He scoffs at figure skating and says that if they broadcast soccer as often as they show ice dancing, the country would come to a halt.
“A bunch of silly men chasing a ball,” my mother says. “Give each one his own ball if they’re so desperate to have one.”
My father doesn’t dignify her remark with an answer. He focuses on the screen, where a sports commentator talks about the republic championship. His favorite team, Zenith, has just lost to a pathetic Dynamo, and he mutters in a barely audible voice, “Sudiu na mylo!” which is what they shout at soccer matches, a demand to make soap out of the referee. I don’t know if any referees have ever been turned into soap, but it occurs to me that if I could substitute my teacher Vera Pavlovna or Aunt Polya for a referee, it would be a pretty neat call.
I am in the city in the middle of July because of my English lessons. Every weekday I take a streetcar to a tutor’s apartment, where I memorize words, decipher grammatical rules, and contort my mouth around strange sounds until it hurts. During my two-month summer vacation I have to learn what my friend Masha has been learning in her English school for three years. In August, I’ll take an exam to enter the fourth grade of Masha’s school.
The backs of my thighs are glued to the wooden slats of the streetcar seat. My hands are sweaty, too, and I notice that I have left damp marks on the envelope I am clutching. Every ten lessons I hand my tutor, Irina Petrovna, a rainbow of bank notes—green threes, blue fives, red tens, and an occasional purple twenty-five, the largest note I’ve ever seen.
Irina Petrovna is my sister Marina’s age, and I think it’s funny that she could also be my sister. She has short hair and thick eyebrows and isn’t as erratic as Marina, who can benevolently let me use her desk to listen to my English records one day and yell at me for leaving my dictionary on it the next. Irina Petrovna is predictable but strict. She teaches me the tenses, the most difficult part of English grammar, which do not seem that bad compared to the conjugations, declensions, and six case-endings a foreigner would have to sweat over to master Russian. “You’re lucky you were born here,” she says. “Look at those poor Vietnamese and Cubans who come to our universities and have to learn Russian in one summer.”
The thought of the Vietnamese, who don’t have an alphabet anyone understands, makes learning English easier. If some Vietnamese can learn Russian in one summer, I can certainly learn English. For an hour and a half I listen to Irina Petrovna, to her melodious English voice that sounds so much more thrilling than the familiar Russian cadence. In the evening, I write out the exercises she gives me for the next day, after reading five pages from Kipling. It is the same routine, six days a week, until the end of August.
In addition to the envelope with my tutor’s money, I hold a three-kopeck coin, my streetcar fare back home. The coin is copper, darkened by many fingers, and I roll it around my palm until it inadvertently slips out of my grip and disappears between the wooden planks of the floor. Squatting between the two seats, I peek into the dark, but the coin has vanished, lost in the guts of the streetcar.
At the end of the lesson, I know I should ask Irina Petrovna for three kopecks—a minuscule amount, the price of a glass of water with syrup squirting out of vending machines at every railway station. As I linger in her apartment doorway, she asks if I need something, giving me a perfect opportunity to word my request, but my tongue refuses to move. I cannot bring myself to ask for money, even for three kopeks, so I shake my head and say good-bye.
Outside, for about five seconds I contemplate stealing a ride. Since there are no conductors to collect the fare, it’s an easy thing to do—simply ignore the box where you are supposed to drop the money and quietly sit down, pretending you’re so distracted by the unfolding landscape that you absentmindedly failed to buy a ticket. But then there are inspectors who could expose your guilt and question your honesty, putting your character in doubt in front of the whole car as they demand a five-ruble fine. It is ultimately fear that guides me past the streetcar stop and along the tracks, the only way I know to find my way home.
I walk for hours through the afternoon haze, then the evening twilight. Streetcars are flying past, screeching at the turns, sparks bursting on the electric wires above. Finally, after one more bridge and one more turn, a familiar street extends before me, with my apartment building looming at the corner. The courtyard seems to be waiting. It does not reproach me for my stubbornness, for my silly fears. As I walk to my door, a gust of wind puffs in from the street, as if the yard is breathing a sigh of relief: I am three hours late, but I am home.
MY MOTHER TEACHES A late class at her medical school and isn’t back yet. I don’t have to make up an improbable story she won’t believe or admit that I couldn’t bring myself to ask my tutor for a three-kopeck coin. My sister isn’t home, either: after graduation from drama school she has been working at the Leningrad Comedy Theatre. It makes me feel important to have an actress sister, but it also makes me feel jealous and resentful.
The only person at home is my father. He is out of bed, sitting in a kitchen chair in his long blue underwear with one knee drawn up to his chin. His knee is so sharp that I can see the outline of his bones under blue cotton, the skinniest knee I’ve ever seen, even for his reedy frame.
He is smoking his Belomor, although it’s a half a pack a day now, instead of the usual two. In the cloud of smoke around his face, his nose seems sharper, too—another angle protruding out of his body, in addition to his elbows and wrists and long, bony fingers. “I can teach anatomy on you,” my mother said ruefully the other day, looking at him sitting up in bed. This is what she usually says when Marina or I refuse to eat another slice of bread with dinner, although we both know we aren’t so skinny that you can see the outline of our bones. But this time, with my father, she actually could teach an anatomy lesson: his body is nothing but skin shrink-wrapped around bones.
There is a plateful of salad in front of him on the table, cucumbers and radishes sliced by my mother’s expert hand, mixed in with wisps of dill and scallion chopped into bits so small they look like dark green paste. In the summer, when fresh vegetables appear in the markets and in all the gardens, my mother insists on a plate of salad every single day, the same way she insists on a bowl of soup. The salad is necessary for our nutrition, she says, and the soup for our digestion.
“Cow chow,” says my father each time, pushing the salad away, which never stops my mother from chopping up another plateful.
“That’s the reason you lost all your teeth,” she says, banging a knife on the cutting board, reminding him that had he understood the nutritional value of vegetables he wouldn’t have had scurvy during the war.
Next to his untouched salad is a saucer with caviar, which my mother has recently started buying at a deli three blocks away. It sits on the deli counter in two-hundred-gram packages wrapped in wax paper, above a pile of kotlety, palm-sized patties of ground meat, and a pot of borsch, next to a handwritten price tag of two and a half rubles. Two and a half rubles is a lot of money, the price of one hour with Irina Petrovna, but my mother doesn’t think twice. Nutritionally, caviar trumps the soup and even the fresh vegetables, so she divides the package into three equal parts and every morning sets down a portion in front of my father, next to the plate of salad he never eats.
“Here, Brother Rabbit, come here,” he calls. Brother Rabbit is the first book I read on my own, at five, perched on his lap. “Have a bite. Mother says it’s really good for you.”
He lifts me onto his thigh and spoons some caviar from the saucer. It’s salty and rich, melting on my tongue, and I eat it all because he keeps feeding me spoonfuls, smiling and pleased. Inside my mouth it now tastes like fish, and I think of our fishing trip on the Gulf of Finland, the only one we took last summer. I had my own rod, with a round bobbin painted half red and half white, and my father hooked a worm for me because it had been wriggling in an inch of water on the bottom of the boat and I didn’t want to impale it. We sat on two boards, and he cast my line without getting up, without tipping the boat. The line whistled in the air in a perfect arc and plunked down ten meters away. He hooked worms on his two rods, his fingers black from digging them up in the compost pile, and cast them on the other side of the boat. We sat and waited, silently, because fish, as he’d explained, could hear the slightest sound you make, even your coughing, even a dripping oar. We sat for a long time, the gray water swirling in small ripples, until the red half of my bobbin plunged beneath the surface and my father whispered, “Pull.” I pulled, astonished by how heavy the rod had become, leaning back so far that the boat tipped and the oars grated against their metal casings. He guided my arms until I could see the fish sparkle just a few centimeters below the surface. In a precise, meteoric movement he whipped the line, and the fish vaulted through the air and thumped to the bottom of the boat. It was small, too small for the force of the tug and the resistance it had worked up in the water. I watched it thrashing against the boards, with a comb of spikes on its spine. My father grabbed the fish by the head, avoiding the prickly fins, and I saw the hook in its open mouth as it gasped, gleaming far down its perforated jaw. He yanked the hook down and out, and the fish stopped gasping and lay still. “A perch,” my father said. “Your first catch.” I picked up the perch and held it between my palms, its scales hard and glistening silver, its eyes like glass. I held it the same way I’d held a dead duck my father had once brought from a hunting trip, stroking the shiny scales the same way I stroked the green feathers of the duck’s neck that lay in my fingers, soft and docile as a piece of rope.
My father never cleaned the fish he caught and never ate them. It was my mother who opened the bellies, scraped the guts into a garbage pail, and plopped the fish onto a frying pan. I never knew, though, what she’d done with that duck.
The strong taste of caviar in my mouth stays after I swallow the last bite, when my father circles his arms around me and lowers his cheek into my hair. He smells of tobacco, and I feel his stubble pressed against my head. I like his stubble and his smell and the fishy taste in my mouth, all happening at the same time, but he lets this feast of senses last for only thirty seconds, and then releases his hold and puts me down on the floor.
“Let’s hear you play,” he says. “Some Tchaikovsky or something.”
I don’t like playing the piano. I don’t have an ear for music, as my piano teacher reminds me every week as he tries to teach me bits of solfeggio. But now it is my father asking me to play, and I follow him into my sister’s room, where our Red October piano gleams against the wall.
He shuffles across the hallway and slumps onto the couch as if he’d walked up six flights of stairs, watching me fold the lace runner and open the piano lid. The book of sheet music, Works for Secondary School, is open to Tchaikovsky, just as my father asked, to the piece my teacher has been assigning to me for weeks, “A Doll’s Funeral.” I don’t like it very much because it’s too slow, all in the low range of the left hand, but it’s the only piece I can play well, so I begin, making it more upbeat, banging the keys to turn the funereal notes into a march.
“Good, good,” my father whispers with his eyes closed. “Nice tune.”
Through my chords I hear a key in the door, my mother getting home. Without taking off her raincoat, she walks into my piano banging, her face tense with worry, demanding that my father immediately get back into bed. In one sweeping glance she surveys the kitchen, her eyes pausing on the untouched salad and the saucer empty of caviar. “Keep practicing,” she tells me, wiggling her shoulder under my father’s arm to help him lift himself off the couch and walk to the other room.
I close the piano and pull the chair to the desk to do my English homework for tomorrow. My father is in bed now, with tea on his night table and grainy figure skaters floating across the TV screen. I carefully pull a record out of its cardboard sleeve and set it on the turntable. After a few moments of hissing, the needle falls into the groove and a voice, British and familiar, announces the lesson: the simple present tense. When we started classes, Irina Petrovna allowed me to borrow the British-made set, her pride, telling me to listen to two pages of each lesson a day and write down ten sentences of my own using the lesson’s grammar.
“I go to school by school bus,” the voice says, giving an example of a habitual action characteristic of the simple present. I don’t know what a school bus is, but I can easily substitute Bus 22 that my friend Masha takes to her English school. I hope it will also be my English school this September, after I take the entrance exam, and with audacity, I write in my notebook for Irina Petrovna, “I go to school by Bus 22.”
My mother walks in, critically regards the room, and unfolds the lace runner from the couch to place it back on the piano lid. She draws the curtains closed, straightens pots with aloe and scallions on the windowsill, and looks into my notebook as if she could read the English sentence I just wrote. Her eyebrows are mashed together in an exasperated look, as though she cannot understand why I am doing something so different as learning English; why, despite her hopes for me to enter the medical field just like her, I would spend a whole summer glued to a seat—in a streetcar, at Irina Petrovna’s, at the desk in my sister’s room. I’m glad she wasn’t home earlier to ask why I was late, to lament my obstinacy, to have another chance to say I am stubborn like my father.
I AM IN IRINA Petrovna’s apartment for our last class. Two days from now I’m scheduled to take the entrance exam for Masha’s English school.
“Here is a chart of all the tenses,” says my tutor, unfolding a poster-size paper with auxiliary verbs and past participle forms. Four groups of tenses—present, past, and future—twelve in all. “Don’t kill yourself over the perfect continuous; it’s seventh-grade material anyway.” She quizzes me on the form for each tense, satisfied with the answers. “Concentrate on the simple tenses,” she advises. “Especially the irregular verbs of simple past.”
She checks my last homework, an exercise from the British book and record set I’ve brought back to her.
“What is privacy?” I ask as she scans over the page.
She looks at me and I point to the sentence I copied from the text, “Helen and her new husband lost their privacy when her mother moved across the street.” After consulting my English-Russian dictionary I figured out it had to do with the word “private,” as in the “private property” that plagues all capitalist countries, according to our third-grade history book. Perhaps they lost some money, I thought, some essential part of their private property, but it was still unclear how it was caused by the mother’s move. I tried a couple of other possibilities, but no matter how I turned and twisted it, the loss Helen and her new husband suffered refused to reveal itself.
Irina Petrovna squints at the sentence and I notice that her cheeks are turning pink. She has always answered my questions with confidence, everything that had to do with tenses, infinitive constructions, uncountable nouns, and even articles, the most mysterious grammatical element of all. She has distinguished participles from gerunds in a fraction of a second and recited all three forms of every irregular verb we’ve ever encountered. But now, gazing at the sentence I copied from the last lesson in her British textbook, she doesn’t know the answer to my question.
She opens her English-Russian dictionary, the same edition I have at home, which I know doesn’t contain the word “privacy.” Then she climbs onto a chair and pulls a tome off her shelf, The Oxford Dictionary. It is as fat as an encyclopedia, all in English. She bends over it, carefully rustles the pages to P, and we both stare at the foreign word. “1. The condition of being secluded or isolated from the view of, or from contact with, others,” we read. “2. Concealment; secrecy.”
The phrase still makes no sense. Did Helen and her husband want to be secluded or isolated? And if they did, how could the mother, all the way on the other side of the street, affect their isolation? If they all lived in one apartment, like my aunt Muza with my three cousins and my grandparents, I would understand. But across the street? We think, bent over the page side by side, clueless. And if it’s the word’s second meaning we need to consider, were the two of them secret agents or spies whose cover the mother had exposed?
Irina Petrovna, back to her normal color, finally shrugs her shoulders and says that we don’t have the word “privacy” in Russian. “It simply doesn’t exist,” she proclaims. “We do have seclusion, though, as well as isolation.”
She makes me think of the time when a neighbor in the communal apartment on our landing had diphtheria and all three families were put under isolation by a local polyclinic. There was a handwritten sign, “Diphtheria,” posted on their front door so that no one, not even a telegram delivery woman, would think of ringing their bell and having that door opened.
Standing on her toes, Irina Petrovna squeezes the Oxford dictionary back into its spot on the shelf. “Seclusion and isolation, yes,” she confirms. “But no privacy.”
How strange, I think, that an English word has no translation. Does that mean that the English people know something we don’t? Is this mysterious “privacy” an invention of the capitalist West, something that we, the only people destined to inherit a bright future, lack?
WHEN I WALK INTO our apartment after my last lesson with Irina Petrovna, I immediately sense that something is not right. My sister is in the kitchen pouring hot water from a teakettle over a folded towel in the sink. My father is in bed, stretched under the blanket with eyes closed, his arms on top of the duvet cover, nut-color on white.
“Where is Mama?” I ask, struck by her absence in this moment of trouble.
My father opens his eyes and tries to smile.
“She’s at the neighbors’, calling the hospital,” says Marina, walking in with the towel and stretching it over Father’s head. “They finally agreed to admit him. Forty years in the party, and we had to beg and plead with every idiot in the District Committee.”
“Come over here,” says my father and taps the blanket with his fingers. He doesn’t try to sit up, and that’s unusual because he hates lying in bed. “Come here, Brother Rabbit.”
I sit where his hand patted the cover, and he peers into my face, his eyes dark in the electric light, deep as the water under our fishing boat.
“How is your English?” he asks, words barely audible, a small whistling coming out with every breath. “When is that exam?”
“Monday,” I say. In two days one test will decide if I take a city bus to a new school or stay in my district elementary with Vera Pavlovna, who likes to talk about Stalin and the heroic valor of the Great Patriotic War.
“You’re a smart Brother Rabbit,” says my father and covers my hands with his palm. His fingers are cool and leathery, and they smell of tobacco when I lean down and touch them with my cheek.
MY MOTHER AND SISTER walk him to the elevator and then down to the waiting taxi. With his arms around their shoulders, he hangs between them, an open raincoat thrown over his long underwear, as if it no longer matters what he wears, as if his relevance to the world dressed in street clothes has ceased to exist. My mother lowers him into the car without any seeming effort, as if he were a feather. I see him through the glass recline across the backseat, stalky in his blue underwear, wispy and pale as the sky.
As soon as my mother gets into the front seat, the car begins to move, and Marina and I both start waving, but neither Mama nor Papa turn to look back.
ON MONDAY, MY MOTHER goes with me to the new school, but she is only an escort. This is my test. This is between me and the English language.
The school’s hallways are empty, its wide stairway both inviting and intimidating. The testing classroom is small, very different from the huge rooms of my school that must accommodate forty students. “Zdravstvuite,” I say as politely as I can to a solemn-looking woman at the desk. “How do you do,” she replies.
She gives me a story in English from a book about animals, which I must read and retell. No dictionary is allowed, but I can take notes. At first the words blur like tiny black figures in a crazy dance. I close my eyes and think of my father, and that slows the words down, structuring them into a pattern. I sit there for as long as the woman allows, rereading the story about a tiger and a monkey, rehearsing its retelling, which requires desperate searches in the book for the words that are hard to remember.
Finally, she calls me to her desk in the corner, a very modest, very British desk. In her solemn English she begins to ask questions. I describe from memory the tiger who lived in the jungle: his appearance, his character, his habits. The teacher’s questions echo in the small space of the room, her pronunciation majestically foreign, swollen with rolling and lilting sounds so uncharacteristic of our docile Russian. Her elastic mouth moves in a mysterious way, lips parting and stretching sideways, to produce something that looks like a pretentious smile, although I know well enough that she is not smiling.
“Hu-els lived in the jungle?” she asks, and I realize with horror that I don’t understand the question. I don’t remember any huels in the story, although if she is asking this question, there must have been at least one. I keep silent, desperately trying to recall every character, and even furtive peeks at the book do not help. She repeats the question; I keep silent; she repeats the question again. I faintly hope that at the last moment, as in a fairy tale when the princess is about to perish, there will appear a handsome huel on a white stallion, a savior who will deliver me into the shining kingdom of English. I stare down at the desk in hot, shameful horror, hearing my own blood rushing through my head, realizing that this may be the end of everything that has not yet begun: I will never have a living room or a coffee table, my hair will always be long and braided and my stockings cotton.
“How was the test?” asks my mother, who used the time while I was inside to go to a farm market and buy the nutritional delicacies to take to Papa’s hospital. Her arms are weighed down by string bags with pears all the way from Azerbaijan, huge scarlet tomatoes from Georgia, and bouquets of cilantro and other greens my father will never touch.
“All right,” I say, and start walking in the direction of the exit.
“What did you have to do?” She hurries after me.
“A story.” I keep walking. “To read and retell.”
“Were there any words you didn’t know?”
“A couple.” I push open the front door and take a breath of air. “Can we go home now?”
At home we don’t talk about father’s illness. We talk about the nourishing value of the chicken bouillon my mother boils on the stove and pours into pot-bellied jars, in which it cools on the windowsill, forming a yellow crust of fat under the lids. She’ll take the jars to the hospital because the food there is all stolen by the nurses and orderlies. We talk about the absence of direct streetcar routes to the hospital, which makes her, and sometimes my sister, too, lug the string bags with the jars of bouillon and the harvest of her market trips from the last stop to his ward almost a kilometer away.
She never takes me: children are not allowed in the hospital. The closest I can get to my father is to trail her downstairs to the phone booth in front of our apartment building and wait, leaning on the squeaky door, during the daily call to a woman in Hospital Information.
ON OUR WAY DOWN to the phone booth, the elevator lurches between floors, threatening to get stuck. Outside, clouds seep through the gaps between buildings, promising more rain tomorrow.
I stand outside the phone booth, leaning on the door. I don’t want to hear the words my mother is saying; I don’t want to guess the answers. All I want is to stay outside—out of what’s happening, on the fringes of the actual events, of what I am not told.
This time my mother stays on the phone longer than usual, her lips slowly falling into a new, unprotected curve. She seems to be asking questions; she covers her eyes with her hand while listening to the answers.
“What, Mama, what? What did they say?” I ask. I want to know and at the same time I don’t.
“Nothing new, really.” She is trying to pull her mouth back into a controlled position. “They’re going to change Papa’s medicine. The old one isn’t working so well. That’s all.”
She grabs my arm and pulls me across the broken asphalt of the courtyard so fast, her pace so resolute, that I have to skip after her to keep up.
Back home I hide under the coat hooks, between the crinkly raincoats, alone, because my mother and sister are both in the kitchen pretending to be busy with dinner. I’d rather not hear what they’re talking about, and yet I stand there straining my ears. Nothing much escapes from behind the closed door, only the drone of their voices and splashes of separate words.
“Oxygen,” I hear, a word not normally used while cooking dinner. “Didn’t let me stay,” my mother says more loudly, moving from the stove to the sink near the door. “They knew I’m an anatomy professor, so they told me the truth,” I make out, my hope buoyed by this complete sentence, yet immediately suspended by the banging that begins in a cupboard near the door. I hold my breath, but nothing audible escapes from under the kitchen door, until my mother clinks plates onto the table and says something ending with “too young to understand anything.”
At night, pretending to sleep, I hear her sniffle in her bed, which is next to my father’s, unopened and empty.
“WE’RE GOING TO CALL the hospital early today,” my mother says in the morning.
The three of us chug down in the elevator, staring at the floor, mother clicking two-kopeck coins for the phone in her palm. It starts to pour again as we walk across the courtyard, around the puddles, and into the street, where the green phone booth gleams under the rain. We stop in front of it, and Marina tightens her fist around a piece of paper with the hospital phone number.
“Here is the number,” she mutters, glancing sideways, avoiding my eyes, stuffing a piece of paper into my hand. “You call today.”
With fingers as wooden as my legs, I dial the six digits scribbled on the paper, my heart pounding, my stomach queasy. I don’t recognize my voice when I say my father’s name; it whistles out of my throat, barely audible, like his voice before the taxi took him away to the hospital. On the other end, I can hear the Information clerk rustle through paper, slipping a funny remark to someone, chuckling in response.
“Died last night,” the voice resounds from the other end of the city, a normal female voice accustomed to delivering abnormal messages. It sounds a little like Irina Petrovna’s, only much harsher because the woman is speaking in Russian. I hear a click and then a long tone, flat, droning, and endless.
We are silent on the way back up. In the apartment, Mama trudges into the bathroom and thoroughly towels her face and hair. Slowly, she fills a watering can and makes her way down the hallway to water the plants on the windowsills. She moves carefully and methodically, her rhythm and silence dictated by a long-practiced habit of survival.
“The latest news from the fields,” barks a voice from the radio. “Collective farm number fifty-four of Oktyabrsky region is happy to report the largest ever harvest of …” Marina reaches up and turns the knob, but the voice continues humming from the neighbor’s apartment behind the wall.
Death, I know, makes people cry, but no matter how I fumble inside myself, I cannot locate grief. Uncharted on the map of my ten-year-old life, it belongs to the theater and movies, to the world of my third-grade teacher Vera Pavlovna and the textbook valor of the Great Patriotic War she declaims.
Strangely, life outside my body continues as before, reeling out scenes with the same predictability and order: my mother shuffling around the apartment; my sister trailing after her, as if waiting for orders; the brakes screeching when a car on the corner fails to make the light; the smell of fried onions oozing from a neighbor’s kitchen through the cracks around the door. I mechanically register everything, as if I were Irina Petrovna’s British record, but I don’t know how to feel.
My mother goes back to the bathroom and refills the watering can. She keeps watering the plants, walking from one windowsill to the next, not noticing that the water is rising in the pans around the flowerpots, spilling out onto the sills, dripping on the desk in Marina’s room. It’s dripping onto my English notebook, the only evidence left of my summer of vocabulary lists, irregular verbs, and the twelve tricky tenses.
I lift my notebook to save it from the trickling water, and it opens to the lesson on simple past. The simple past that now contains my father. Yesterday he was still in the present, yesterday and every day for the past ten years, when I watched him dip the oars into the gray water of the Gulf and stroll across the field of our dacha, three fishing rods bobbing on his shoulder. The past has won over the present, the warped irregular past, the most incomprehensible of all the twelve tenses, as inexplicable as the English word “privacy.”
I feel that something has cinched my throat and I know I’m crying. I cry because I was the one who held the phone and dialed the number. I was the one struck by the word “died.” Not my mother, the anatomy professor who was privy to everything about his illness. Not my sister, the actress, who knows how to bring out tears and how to hide them.
I cry because my notebook glares with the past tense, the tense that now contains not only my father but everything my father and I have done. There is a part of me trapped in that past along with him, and I don’t know what that means. Maybe I will die, too—whether I eat salad or don’t, whether or not my dinner includes soup and bread every single day without fail.
What I do know is that I won’t smell tobacco on his hands or feel his stubble or be “Brother Rabbit” ever again, and that knowledge makes me cry even harder, so hard that my mother breaks out of her watering trance and presses me to her soft breasts and whispers to Marina, “Vsyo ponimaet,” which means I’ve instantly grown up and now understand everything.