MARINA APTEKMAN - MY ANXIOUS HEART
My Anxious Heart
Count Alexei Razumovsky was born a serf. A peasant from a distant village, all he had was a beautiful voice, a bass, and for this voice he had been brought to St. Petersburg to sing in a church choir. By a pure chance he was noted by Empress Elizabeth of Russia. Razumovsky was not a noble, but he was a good and kind-hearted man, and if we believe what rumors tell us, he indeed loved the Empress, not the queen, but a woman who shared his bed and his love, and who secretly married him at the end of her life. The rumors also tell that Elizabeth named Razumovsky her heir. When Catherine the Great succeeded to the throne, the very first thing she did was to send an armored envoy and her own lover, Gregory Orlov, to Razumovsky’s residence with the goal of confiscating the will.
A short gallop ride over the empty St. Petersburg streets. Officers knocking on the door. Everyone in the house asleep. A single candle on the night table and a dying fire in the fireplace light a small cozy room. Razumovsky, quietly sitting in a night robe in a neo-classical armchair, reading… no, he cannot read Tolstoy, he even cannot read Voltaire yet! Maybe just a weather almanac? Yes, reading a weather almanac by the light of a single candle… (I like it!) The officers enter. Politely, not as enemies, but simply as visitors.
It was for Alexei Razumovsky that Empress Elizabeth built the Anichkov palace. There are many famous palaces in Saint Petersburg, the city of my childhood that I always knew by a different name, Leningrad, now wiped from all maps for more than a quarter of a century. They once were owned by the great families: the Yusupovs and the Sheremetyevs, the Belozerskys, and the Golytsyns. Pink and white marble facing the grey granite of the river embarkments. A dream of sunny Italy in a Northern gloomy city. I saw their gravestones on small cemeteries in France and in upstate New York, last names that reminded me of nothing but architecture. These graves belonged to real people, those who had been lucky enough to cross the Black Sea or the Chinese border, running away from the approaching Bolshevik advance, resting there, so far from all the marble and granite that had long ago turned into various regional district offices and communist party quarters.
When I was ten, I was a small, shy and extremely anorexic girl wearing large and ugly plastic glasses. My mother was a writer, an intellectual, a strongly minded, opinionated and very independent woman. In every detail she was different from all the mothers of other children in my school. By Western standards my mother certainly could be called a feminist. She had a child late, already in her late thirties. She did not go to work from 8 to 5 and then rush home to make a dinner for her child and her husband. She did not go to a dacha, a small summer cottage in the suburbs, in the spring to plant vegetables, nor did she spend time pickling those vegetables in late summer. She did not cook jams as most of my friends’ mothers cooked in fall, making their kitchens smell of sweet apples and raspberry leaves. Neither did she make cabbage pies on weekends. Instead my mother wrote novellas about the struggles of Uzbek collective farmers and the hardships of Siberian miners and constantly complained about the lack of pre-cooked food in the local stores. Absorbed by her work, my mother never cared about the way I was dressed or knew how to make those beautiful braids that every other girl in my class wore. So, she just kept my hair short. She believed that with short hair I looked like Marina Tsvetaeva, a famous female poet. But I did not. I just looked ugly.
I was not a lovable child. I knew a lot about books and very little about human relations. Books were easier to deal with than people. And, just to add to this, I was a Jew. I hated school, my prestigious non-district English-as-a second-language school that my father was able to enroll me in through his connections at the local Department of Education, and I had no friends there. We lived far away from the historical center, in a new neighborhood that was still under construction. In order to get to the school, I had to wake up at 6 am, take a long walk through a huge wasteland field between two blocks of high-rise apartment complexes and then ride a bus for nearly forty minutes. In return for short and striking beauty of its stunning White Nights, St. Petersburg gets six months of dreary Arctic winter. The large field between my building and the bus stop from November to March was a huge ice rink, covered by a puddle of dirty water. I had to walk very, very slowly in order not to fall. I was not afraid so much of hurting myself than of ruining my beautiful backpack that my father brought from East Germany. It was very colorful, yellow and blue with a large red mushroom on the cover. At the end of the field was a bus stop, filled with tired, sleepy and gloomy people. When the bus came, it was already crowded with the same sleepy folk, and for the long forty minutes that I rode it, I invented stories. I sat on the bus and was making in my mind stories about my life. A different life, in which I wore long braids, and my mother made jams and pies in our tiny kitchen. This was how eventually I started to lie. I started telling everyone stories. In these stories I won prizes for skating championships and piano festivals. I met famous Soviet actors. I travelled to distant foreign places.
One day I proudly told my mother that I had earned first place in at art show at school and that my painting was sent abroad to an international exhibition. To make the exhibition more interesting I placed it in Japan. Japan was far and kind of did not really exist, by contrast with, let’s say, friendly socialist Bulgaria. I said that my prize certificate would arrive very soon, maybe in a day or two. My mother was impressed. Every day for a whole month I was constantly asked about the prize and the day when it would finally arrive. I had to invent a new story every day, but in the end even I ran out of imagination. I had nothing left than to draw and paint the certificate myself. The next morning my mother went to the school and learned the truth. I was summoned to the principal’s office and accused of lying. “You know, - the principal said, - ‘if I were you, I would take your child to a physiatrist. I do think that she is… - she paused and ended the sentence – strange…”
It was Friday, and the school was nearly over. My mom left the principal’s office in rage. “It was disgusting,”- she said, - “and I am tired of how you keep humiliating me in front of other people. Kakoj pozor!” She stormed and left. I was slowly walking the staircase back to my classroom when a boy came out of a bathroom. He was broad-shouldered and big. Red pimples covered his round face that looked swollen. “O!” - he said cheerily, “evreechka ideot!” “Here comes an ugly little kike! Listen, kike, why did you kill our Lenin?” I was not replying. I knew that in such situations it is better to stay silent and try to pass. But he was broad, and the staircase was narrow. I had no way out. I turned and tried to walk back. “What a pity Hitler did not burn you all in the ovens, you filthy kikes,” – he hissed; and with all his force he grabbed me back by the stripe of my beloved new backpack and spit on it. A mouthful of smelly spit landed on the red mushroom and I could not stand it anymore. I turned and hit him. And he hit me back. I fell and the last thing I remembered was his boot hitting me on the head.
I stayed in the hospital for two weeks and was released. I still remember the doctor’s office, with its greyish olive yellow walls, the color of a sick person’s poop, covered with educational medical posters. I was sitting quietly in the corner; my parents by the desk. The doctor talked to my parents, as if I did not exist at all. No one paid attention to me. They just talked. But I heard everything.
“You know, the trauma can be quite serious. I think there was a significant damage to the brain. We will see, of course. But I would predict that she might become quite mentally disabled in a short time. If I were you, I would pull her out from a regular school. She does not seem a bright child even at first, after all, and now… you know, these tech schools with physical labor can be a good choice…”
The office was on the second floor. The ground was quite close. The window was open. It was spring, early morning, and a little drizzle outside. No one noticed how I got to the window, jumped down and ran. And then it was too late.
I was wandering around the city for hours, feverishly walking and not knowing where to go. I did not want to go home. I did not want to go to a tech school for retarded children. The night was approaching, and the city was waiting for its summer nights, ghostly and mysterious; and roaming through its streets and bridges I somehow made it to the white palace with a lacy brass fence facing a granite embarkment, and read an advertisement poster on the wall of the building.
From all the palaces of my childhood city the Anichkov palace always appeared to be the most elegant. It was painted white, a strange celestial airy white, the type of color of the air during the White Nights; its front entrance preceded by a long, seemingly endlessly long colonnade that faced a narrow brown river and an arched granite bridge, guarded by four bronze untamed horses, pulled down by four bronze men to the dirty stones worn out by all the centuries that have passed.
This palace did not avoid the fate of its fellow buildings. Immediately after the revolution, it was appropriated, nationalized and looted. For a brief time, it accommodated such strange Soviet establishments as the Department of Communal and Social Hygiene and the Office of Food Rations. Then the wheel of fortune turned over; the palace began to host children. It became the regional after-school enrichment center, the Palace of Young Pioneers, Городской Дворец Пионеров. The great ballrooms started to serve as ballet studios. Their walls were gradually covered with watercolors of various sizes named “The Portrait of My Teacher” or “The First Day of School.” Behind the cracked wooden doors the sounds of badly tuned pianos and violins irritated the visitors’ ears, and in its numerous rooms where once the Tsar’s children played, the children of Leningrad built model airplanes, recreated scientific experiments, sang in choir, draw, played chess and mastered the craft of puppet making.
Outside of the walls of the palace a city spread out, a huge wide city that even in the early 1980s, the years of my childhood, still stood haunted by the ghosts of the revolution, the Great Patriotic War, and the famous and tragic Siege of Leningrad. Some facades still have kept faded signs informing citizens that this particular side of the street was the most dangerous during an air raid. Further from the center the historical houses, now largely divided into overcrowded communal apartments, gave way to endless blocks of residential high-rise developments, very long and tall apartment buildings, featuring windows and balconies constructed in such a way that, intentionally or not, they strongly resembled long and tall cruise ships. The city inhabitants nicknamed them “boathouses,” doma-korabli. It was always windy amongst the boat houses because they were separated by ex-wetlands so widespread in this once-Finnish-land, and wide-open broad avenues romantically named the Avenue of Education, the Avenue of Science, the Avenue of Enthusiastic People. From every corner of this cold unfriendly city parents sent their children to Anichkov Palace, the oasis of culture and education, to learn to paint, master chess moves, build the best plane model ever, to sing and play instrument, and to recite poetry in a special artistic way. The children exited trolleybuses and metro stations, they crossed the bridge with the men desperately clinging to their untamed horses, and a memorial board that reminded the citizens that during an air raid this exact side of the street was especially dangerous. They entered the white colonnade and mounted the grand stairs, that once had been shiny, polished and beautiful but now were dirty and slippery, and smelly, and rubbed by the thousands of young feet. Their parents worked full-time and then stood in long lines trying to get Hungarian salami, and Polish cosmetics, and Czech shoes. They were mostly cared for by their grandmothers, still in their fifties but considered old women. For many of them this place felt much more like home than their real residences.
The Theater of Youth Creativity, Teatr Yunosheskogo Tvorchestva, known simply as TYUT, occupied a chain of nine and a half rooms at the end of a long corridor in the basement, away from the lost glamour of the upper floors. The unspoken goal of the creators of TYUT from the start was to establish and maintain an independent children-governed state, a goal that by itself already sounded dissident in a highly regulated Soviet system of education. It would be wrong, however, to call TYUT a dissident place. It was very much a normal Soviet youth theater that produced shows about young communist dreamers building railroads in a distant taiga or middle school students by chance meeting some aliens on their way to the final exam. Yet beyond the ideologically correct façade, just like nine rooms hidden behind the inconspicuous entrance door, it hid its own country. The teachers of TYUT tried not to dictate but to guide the children’s thinking and self-expression, allowing them as much intellectual and artistic freedom as was logically possible without doing any harm and working along with them as equals rather than as authorities. The result of this cooperation was always a miracle of a creation: a theatrical production that from the beginning to the end - lighting, stage design, make-up, songs, music, even directing - was done primarily by the hands of the children.
Each of the nine and a half rooms was filled with its own little treasures, so unusual for a palace of young pioneers: antique coffee tables on half-broken lions’ legs, shabby mahogany chairs, pictures that imitated old Dutch masters, costumes that smelled of lavender, mysterious sparks of colored light. The largest of the rooms contained a small theater hall, a beautiful fin-de siècle theater with burgundy velvet chairs and a small stage. In the pre-revolutionary times this distant basement corner probably served as maids’ lodging or kitchen quarters. But then, nearly a century after the revolution, this tiny part of the palace somehow preserved that little of its grand history that remained intact. It was cozy, homey, beautiful, a strange place for an official cultural organization for youth. Behind the old door that led into the first of the rooms all outside life stopped to exist.
The poster on the front wall of the palace announced entrance auditions. I looked at it and went inside. I read a poem by Tsvetaeva, too grown-up for my age, but I did not know any children poems. I was told to come again for the second round the following week and went home where my parents were already looking for me with the help of the local police, милиция. I came again as I was told and stayed for six years. My success at the auditions had not earned me the lead roles. The best role I ever played was a fifth chick out of total of seven in a play that narrated a story of a baby fox who fell in love with a pullet. Yet for six years this place became my second home. I also completely stopped inventing stories. No invented stories were needed there at all, because every etude, every scene, every masterclass performed on our little stage at TYUT felt like creating a personal magical story. I also never left my regular school for the school for retarded children. And I was never bullied again because what’s the fun of bullying somebody who really does not care?
The little hamlet of Sebastianovo was nestled in the deep woods about half an hour from the Finish border. I have never seen such nature before. It was wild and enormous. Endless lakes, grey granite rocks covered with moss, deep woods of fragrant balsamic furs and tall pines, colored dark green. For the summer TYUT rented a house in a small village where we lived as a small camp commune. During the day everyone was supposed to work in the fields of the nearby collective farms, pulling out weeds and harvesting turnips. The organizers of the camp, however, still remembered that we were a theater. So, during the day we weeded turnips, and at nights we performed concerts at the shabby culture clubs that belonged to the same farms that provided us with turnips and weeds during the day. We built human pyramids and recited poems, we sang songs, and we made sketches. We criticized capitalism, American racism and military aggression, and commemorated dead soldiers fallen in renowned Soviet battles. Surprisingly I do not remember any chairs in the clubs. People in my memory seemed to sit on the floor, by the walls. What I do remember very vividly, however, were the faces of the audience: tired, not-very-interested-or-engaged, mostly men, most seemingly drunk.
A handsome boy emotionally and energetically recited from the top of human pyramid a poem by a popular liberal poet about the unpromising future of American youngsters meaninglessly dying in Vietnam.
We are irrepressible, unpredictable.
No one understands us
We do not understand politics
We understand love!
Slaves of fresh untamed flesh,
We are superfluous generation
For a night and a day!
I was thirteen and I did not understand love. Not that I knew much of untamed flesh. The boy atop the pyramid was our theatrical legend. “Very gifted”, the adults said. He was not very handsome yet somehow, he always radiated charm. It might have been his smile, his chuckle, his laugh that always seemed to emanate a genuine, uncontrolled, bright joy. Or maybe it was his voice, a mellow, velvety voice, boyishly husky yet unusually deep for his age, or an always ironic, seemingly careless tone and appearance. He was constantly surrounded by very pretty girls, older girls who knew how to flirt and how to dress, and how to apply mascara.
My mother did not care about her appearances. “What is important is within,” - she kept telling me; but it seemed that what was within was important only to my mother. Every weekend we had a dance party on a small lawn in front of the house. Boys invited girls. No one ever invited me. And even if somebody would, I, in any case, did not know how to dance. But, God, how desperately I wanted to be invited! I wanted to be invited by anyone but most of all by this boy. Sometimes I tried to sit next to him, just to attempt to bring his attention to me. In my brain I created sentences that elaborated into long and interesting discussions, but as soon as I tried to say them aloud, I was so nervous that I forgot all I wanted to say. And after that I was so ashamed that I rаn away into a little clearing in the woods behind the house to sit on a warm granite stone and cry for hours.
Once one of the older girls noticed me and took pity. She decided to beautify me. It was the last dance party of the season; the camp was nearing the end. She brought her make-up, hidden under a bed. Bright blue and green greasy Polish eye shadows, quite hard to obtain and a dream of every schoolgirl. Bright red lipstick. And then a true treasure – a tiny golden mascara box with an elaborate rose on the cover and foreign letters, Lancome. She applied the make-up on my eyes and lips. I looked at the small mirror. To my own taste my eyes looked as somebody hit me right in the eye. My mouth was unnaturally large and crooked. But she nodded in delight and I trusted her. From her own hair she then took a few pins. With those pins she took my hair, that had recently grown down to my shoulders, pulled it back, and made a loose bun. I looked at the mirror again, and suddenly I realized that I really liked myself. Actually, I loved myself. I would even say I did not love myself but that young pretty stranger in front of me in the mirror, the one I have never seen before.
“Look at you! You look stunning,” - the elder girl told me – “you are a real beauty. You just hide it really well.”
All girls lined up by the wall of the house. The large reel recorder with clumsy big speakers was brought in front of the lawn. I was standing in the center of a line of girls by the wall with my bright red mouth and the green and blue heavy eye shadows under my glasses. I felt beautiful. I was beautiful. The girls were invited one by one. I was standing by the wall. I was still standing by the wall when everyone had been already invited and while everyone was dancing these long, so-called slow dances with various levels of graciosity. Then my legs got tired and I sat on the grass. I never was invited by anyone during this whole evening. And then it was time for the last dance, the “white dance”, белый танец, when the girls were supposed to invite boys.
I invited that boy, the tall boy with the cunning eyes of a lazy cat that every second was ready to catch a careless mouse, the boy who never paid any attention to me. I invited him and we danced, and we had a great conversation and then he walked me home…. Although how he could walk me home if the house was just behind and no one was supposed to leave the lawn without a special permission, especially the younger kids? Of course, I did not invite anyone. I was watching everyone dancing, tears washing out my cheap French mascara that no one saw behind the thick lenses of my large plastic glasses.
The party was over, and everyone was going to make a big campfire. We made a campfire that night on an island in the middle of a cold and grey sparkling Karelian lake. It was sunset and the wide and long scarlet line stretched along the lake, connecting all granite islands – dozens of them, small and large, in one glowing chain. The adults put us in the boats, one by one. The older children rowed. By pure chance I got into the boat with this very boy. I was sitting on the back end of the boat, looking at him. He raised and lowered the oars and they hit the water with a funny splashing sound. I felt as something was growing inside me, down somewhere inside my stomach and between my legs, something very heavy and dull and painful as if something was pulling me down towards the wooden bottom of the boat. It was extremely hard to breath and it burned. And then it was released, it burst inside me, as one huge blow, with such intensity and such sweetness and such exposure – it lasted a second, maybe two, and was over. I suddenly felt absolutely light, and absolutely free as if for that very second, I was able to lift myself from that boat, high above, and see the lake and the islands and the people below as a drawing on a canvas of earth. No one noticed anything. The boat touched the land in a small harbor at the tip of the island. Our boat was one of the last, and from somewhere in the dark I could already see the fire and hear guitars playing, and people singing. The sun finally set. And of course, nothing happened.
I still remember the song that I heard in the woods when the boat launched. It told a story of a boy and a girl walking home in winter from an evening rehearsal. “The snow is falling on the sleepy granite embarkment” – said the song – “and only the two of us are walking hand in hand through the night. You have not heard from me the words I have not yet told you, the poems I have never yet written, the songs I have not yet composed, but when you are with me, my heart is singing, my anxious and disquieting heart.” “The years would pass” – said the song – “our hair would turn grey, but nothing would ever separate us. Let it be twenty years, let it be thirty – we will still be here, still walking hand in hand from an evening rehearsal through the snow. And no one, even the years passing, will be ever powerful enough to take from me the words that I have not yet said and the poems I have never written.”
Придет последняя весна
Твоих висков мой друг коснется седина
А мы по прежнему вдвоём
По переулкам с репетиции пойдем
I nikogda i nikuda
Ne unesut ot nas goda
Eszhe ne vyskazannykh slov
Ne spetykh pesen, ne napisannykh stukov.
А сердце грустит и поёт
Тревожное сердце моё
А снег всё летит и летит
Ложится на сонный granite
How many personal belongings can you carry on the plane that flies you out of your previous life at the age of nineteen from a country that is falling apart? And even more, how much of your past can you take, leaving behind your childhood, with its familiar smells and tastes and sounds, stepping from the plane into the strong smell of heat and orange peel, into the sound of guttural language, into the desert wind that bakes you on a spot? Sholom haverim ve brukhim habayim haarets! Now, nearly thirty years afterwards I sometimes wonder if my childhood life has ever existed. Indeed, how can you make anyone believe in a country and a city that are not even on maps anymore? Yet after all these years my heart is still singing, my anxious and disquieting heart, singing of us and of that unhealthy, psychotically beautiful, cold unkind city that has already turned into a myth, leaving us behind but staying in us forever.
I left Israel to study in the USA a few years after my family made Aliya and, visiting only sporadically, missed the moment when my mother started to slip into her illness. It took her a few years to change from an independent strongly minded woman into a confused brittle creature who constantly forgot a screaming tea kettle on the stove while daydreaming. When I realized what was happening, it seemed like we had exchanged the roles. It was now me who was – at least on the surface – an independent strong woman. She was frail and disoriented and perpetually afraid of something: the future, the lack of money, a possible war, a terrorist attack, the wind and the rain.
Exactly quarter a century after my family left Russia, I came to Jerusalem to bury my father. My father was put to rest in a small cave on a large balcony, made of yellowish white sandstone, on a high hill, overlooking the deep valley. In Israel it is cheaper to bury a dead in a cave than in a real grave dug in earth, so scarce in this land; so, most of those who found their final rest on that balcony were elderly Russian immigrants. For as long as the eye could see, there were lines and lines of burial caves, all covered with the same bizarre mixture of Hebrew and Russian engravings. The valley below was full of blossoming cherry trees, and somewhere behind them a small bluish lake was visible in the distance. A lake in the middle of a city made of nothing but sandstone looked totally unreal, and made an impression that as soon as the small hole entrance door to the cave was sealed, the souls of the departed flew away from the balcony straight into to that blossoming ravine - away from sand and stone, from old eucalyptuses, dusty olives trees, and orange groves of their new motherland - directly into the afterlife.
I got the phone call on the night of the funeral, and even in all the hassle of the post-funeral shiva and jetlag immediately recognized the speaker’s voice. Actually it was even more the tone than the voice - it had not changed much over the years, still deep and mellow and deliberately seemingly ironic and careless, although now sounding rather smoky than husky, with all the power of male sensuality and seductiveness that comes at a price of too many cigarettes and too much whisky. The voice belonged to the boy, my secret crush of the summer in Sebastianovo, now in his early fifties. We met in Aroma, a coffeehouse on a busy street in Tel Aviv. We discussed old friends, now mostly either living abroad or dead - from alcohol, from stray gang shootings of the wild early post-Soviet capitalism, from broken illusions. He was a software developer. I was a college professor and long ago traded my ugly plastic glasses for fashionable rimless Austrian frames. He was starting to get bald and his lower eyelids were puffy and wrinkled. His teeth had yellow stains. His hands were always slightly shaking. From mutual acquaintances I heard that he was a heavy drinker. I also knew that in his younger years he had been widely known as a womanizer and had gone through a nasty divorce. He was now married to a woman with a stylish haircut, stern glance, and a gentle apologetic expression, and had three children: two girls, and a boy from the previous marriage. He showed me pictures. His gaze still reminded me of a lazy cat, but that cat was now old and exhausted, and knew better days, and looked a little homeless. Yet somehow he still radiated the same enticing warmth that I so much remembered from long ago, and it was still easy to fall under the spell of his smile that stayed the same, a warm, compassionate smile that, however, no longer emitted the joy it possessed while he was a child. The following morning, I flew to my own family in Boston, my two boys and my husband, taking with me my mother.
I started making up stories already on the plane. I really did not mean to. On the contrary, I tried to close myself as much as I could off this strange creative window that so suddenly and unexpectedly opened in my brain. In these stories we met twenty years ago. I was thirty. I did not even try to imagine myself as being twenty. It was so long ago that even imagining this age and time was hard. Thirty worked fine. I was thirty and I was single and so was he. Or maybe he was not yet single but was going to divorce his first wife. What the hell? Did not he indeed end up divorcing her at the end? We met in a coffeehouse, in an Arabic fish restaurant with an American literary name, in a tiny Hungarian eatery, on the seaside promenade. Each time I imagined a new place for this first date, never being able to settle on one and the only one. The leaves on the palm trees were meaty and fat and lazily waved their deep green wings in the hot air of the fall, the cool air of the winter, the refreshing air of the early spring in Tel Aviv. Waves were crashing at the shore while we sat on the big wet stones that piled along the promenade and watched the lights of the planes heading for Ben Gurion airport grow larger and larger in the darkness between the city and the Mediterranean. We discussed films. Books. Politics. I wore new bootcut jeans and high heeled sandals. I wore a linen dress and a straw hat. I wore a white cotton shirt that made my tan brighter. Sunglasses. Large. Black. Pink. Blue. And a kimono. Black long flowery kimono with wide sleeves. We travelled to the Dead Sea, covered ourselves in mud like all tourists do. We made a barbeque in a pine grove. We talked in the car. We went to my apartment and he had a drink while I was changing into my long black flowery kimono. Wait, I have no apartment in Israel. So, we went to his. What if he was still married? What about his wife? Well, we stayed in a car. Here goes away the kimono - no way I can be in a car in a house kimono. Or we could go to a hotel. Was he able to afford a nice hotel twenty years ago? I hope so since I certainly could not. But what about my husband? Well, I forgot. I was still single. It felt awkward to be single.
Usually all my stories ended right after entering whatever place it was, a car, an apartment or a rented hotel room. My Soviet upbringing did not allow me to elaborate on a sexual topic even after all these years spent in the free world. Also, at the most electrifying moment I usually was distracted by something:
I spoke with him every day making coffee in the morning and driving the car to work. In my own head, of course. I described to him my friends and my colleagues, told him anecdotes from my life, complained, asked, answered. I imagined that he suddenly came to the US and remembered me and decided to come to see me. He had gotten the address from a mutual friend. I needed to be prepared. I started going to gym. I constantly wore my kimono to look stylish even when at home. Maybe one day he would ring the doorbell and I would greet him in my beautiful kimono? Like, here I am, making coffee, and here he is, in a Boston suburb.
- Privet! Kak zhizn’?
Over the time the kimono got stained and dirty because I was constantly cooking and cleaning in it. It also developed quite a few holes because its sleeves were wide and open, and I burned them while watching pots on the stove. A few times we indeed did meet. I kept visiting Israel occasionally even after my parents no longer lived there. We had lunch on a side street in Tel Aviv, coffee on a roof cafe atop a British colonial building in Jerusalem. There was nothing much to talk about. I was shy and he seemed bored and kept looking at his phone all the time while answering messages from his wife, who, as he explained, did not like when he met with girls from his past. Each time we met I was eagerly waiting to leave. I longed for that very moment because as soon as we parted, I could go back into the world of my wonderful stories, my perfect romance which would resolve forever all the humiliation and loneliness and desires of my teenage years. After a few years we lost touch with each other. I still, however, see his name sometimes at night. It comes in my dreams and the letters are flashing in color, like in the Jewish mystical writings of medieval kabbalists. Some letters are yellow as sandstone of Palestine, some are green like the balsamic firs of Northern Russia, but then all of them fade in the pale sparkling grey of Karelian water and I stop dreaming. It has nothing to do with the real man whom I sometimes see on the Facebook pictures posted by friends from the past I have not seen for decades. And nothing happened of course.
When I was young, everyone told me that I look just like my mother. Yet recently, while looking in the mirror, I more and more often see the facial features of an aging woman of the black and white pictures of my childhood. As if I, by some magic, unnoticeably has entered an alien body that cannot belong to that clumsy thin teenager that I still consider myself being, a large heavy body of a grown up woman, that very woman that once pushed me out of herself into the life of my own.
The first time I realized that my mother was becoming delusional happened after the Passover Seder at our local community center. Her illness had been progressing. She became more and more withdrawn. She was sitting silently all days long on the sofa in the living room, not paying attention to any of us, reading the same book over and over, looking at the same page for months. A few days after the Passover Seder my mother suddenly told me that she was going to die soon. “Why exactly soon?” – I tried to joke. “Anton told me,” - my mother replied. “Who the hell is Anton?” - asked my son from under the table.
“The boy I knew as a teenager, - my mother replied, - We performed in the same theater when we were children. Do you remember that man at the table across from me on Passover Seder? It was him.” I did recall the man. He was a young American lawyer. “Mama, - I tried to use common sense, - the man did not even speak Russian!” “He pretended, - my mother said, - “He did not want the others to recognize him. He is in heaven now. He came to visit and to tell me that he remembers me and that I will die soon.” “Mama, - I said, - you have never even been a part of any children’s theater. I was.” My mother shrugged her shoulders and walked away.
My mother had not died, yet Anton started to come to her at night. Sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night to hear her talking, asking questions, laughing at the answers no one else heard except for her. After my mother stopped taking her pills on Anton’s advice, we called an ambulance. I visited my mother in a geriatric psychiatric ward of a local hospital. She was lying in bed and I was amazed by the intense blue depth of her eyes. They were bottomless, those eyes, and within them I could see eternity. She was talking to me happily, once in many months; and all she wanted was to tell me about the theater she used to perform in when she was a child. I listened to her with a growing awkwardness, because while she was speaking, I felt as if my mother somehow had replaced me, as if she took my memories, my personal half-forgotten experiences and made my story her very own. Could it be possible that in her delusional dementia she somehow mixed my life with hers? Yet even if yes, how could she know these memories, how could she know about my secret loves, my fears, my moments of glory? Could it be that I indeed resembled not only her physical appearance but also her personal world? Or was it vice versa - that now she resembled me?
Then the nurse came with the pills and in a second my mother changed. She screamed and raged, she cursed the nurse in the foulest Russian language I ever heard, she spat on the doctor. At the end I told them to leave her alone, because I began to understand that all that she now wanted was to return to that distant corner of her inner life that all these years had been hidden in her brain, suppressed and forgotten for reasons I would never learn, or probably has not even ever exited. She was young there, and gifted; and all of us - me, doctors, nurses - were her enemies, who wanted to take her away from this wonderful bliss of past and bring her back to the life where she was a crippled, old, and confused lonely woman in a foreign land.
After my mother returned from the hospital, she has never mentioned Anton again. Nor has she her theater. She seems happy and content. She takes her pills and does not show any real interest in life except for food. Kiev cake. Buttercream cupcakes. Salmon roe. Meat borsht. So, recently, I have been cooking a lot. Bake, preserve, roast meat, mash potatoes. The house smells of sweet apples, of cabbage pies, of dill and garlic that I add to pickled cucumbers. And in the mornings, when I sip my coffee on the porch, I have recently gotten to a new habit of closing my eyes sometimes to slip through the white colonnade of the Anichkov back into the long-forgotten concealed door to the nine and a half rooms. I start remembering the songs we sang, the names of girls that I envied for being sexy and experienced. The sketches on our small stage. The gift swap night. The wooden village club. The grey reflection of granite in the cold water, floating pine needles by the shore, a rowing boat, oars cutting though the surface. The elder boy in the front, the younger girl in the back. The relationship that never started and never ended. Time is linear, love goes in circles. Past Perfect. The prank of memory. The slowly opening door to getting old.
On the weekend when I donated my kimono to Salvation Army, I took my mother to the ocean. We drove to a small cove in Gloucester. It took us nearly thirty minutes to get my mother to the water from the parking lot. Her legs dragged helplessly thorough the sand. We literarily had to carry her, and as we moved towards the water, it seemed to keep getting further and further away. Finally, we reached the water edge. We sat my mother down on her commode chair facing the harbor and left her there for some time.
My mother sits on a chair. The chair’s legs sink in the wet sand. Low tide is coming in. Water is going away like language; words leave the memory if you stop using them every day. They fade, lazily roll away, leaving white noise behind like white sand.
Broken shells frightened mollusks clams oysters hide in the sand small crabs run away their claws sideways the sea leaves wavy stripes on the sandy sea floor.
This is a light-house - says my mother in an uncertain voice. This is oce-an. This is a sa-il.
Eto Ma-yak. Eto Oke-an. Eto Pa-rus.
I say mama I don’t know how to live on like this
I say mama how long ago the childhood was
how little love there was
what is loneliness
who am I
In the middle was life where did it go
is this age
I say mama I don’t want to be old
thick legs dragging through the sand empty eyes white as sand look into the space of the bay thoughts leave wave after wave roll and recede
I say mama I want you to be
come to me
talk to me
Chocolate bar eskimo leningradksoe эскимо ленинградское American technology Soviet production melts on the tongue snow slowly falling on the sleepy granite embarkment on the other side of Earth the other side of life the most dangerous during the
All what is left is love
do not leave me mama
do not leave me the boy of my childhood
do not die do not die do not
But my heart is still singing, my anxious disquieting heart, and no one can take from me the words I have not yet said and the poems I have never written.
Eto may-ak, - says my mother. Eto oke-an. Eto pa-rus.
Это маяк это океан это парус