Darka saw her in the trolley, the sweaty, June-soaked trolley, brimming with people and their smells: sweet, almost corpselike, female, heavy, equestrian, yet oddly palatable, and even stimulating, sexual, distinctly male. Suddenly all the smells switched off, leaving only a girlish profile on the sunny side of the car, angular as a Braque: abrupt, soaring cheekbones, a fine pug nose, mulatto lips, and a sharp, childlike fist of a chin—a capricious, fragile geometry which occasionally seeps from an artist’s pen, piercing the heart, as when in childhood you pick up a new Christmas ornament (I remember it: a blinding white ballerina, tutu frozen in an upward sweep, an inconceivable liquid legato of arms and legs, so delicate and small-fingered that touching them with your brutish five-year-old’s stumps seemed blasphemous), such faces catapult into the world in order to reawaken us to life’s fragility. She had the disproportionately long (instead of Braque, Modigliani) neck of a wary fawn (Fee, Fi, Fo, Fawn chanted the other girls, but Darka couldn’t bring herself to say it: the fawn was simply Effie and none other, because these slopes and angles, lines pushed to the breaking point, suggested something else entirely). It was the same kind of neck that had emerged from the open collar (stiff, angular, extending over the shoulders in that style from the seventies) of the school uniform, flashing cleavage. Ah, Effie the fawn! In the chemistry classroom her spot was near the window where the light fell on her face and neck that same way, trailing down the trench between her breasts. It deepened as she bent over, giving the sun her downy left cheek. Only, Darka realized now that this couldn’t be her childhood friend, that the real Effie would be well over thirty, and yet amazingly enough, it was her, newly returned in her incomparable-not-quite-twenty-year old prime: every woman’s beauty has (like every figure, its ideal size, where one pound more or less makes all the difference) its own moment of perfection, one in which everything opens to the fullest, and which can change in a minute like the bloom on a desert flower or may, in happier circumstances, depending on care and watering, last for years (so, optimistically, thinks Darka, whose expenses for moisturizing, for creams and lotions, have recently begun exceeding her outlay for clothing), and Effie at the start had been junior-sized. Yet who knows what life turned her into eventually? Effie: ephebe, the word exactly.
Effie or non-Effie, on the sunny side of the trolley senses she’s being watched and turns her head (the butterfly brush of lashes), glance sharp as an elbow: Look, look, said Effie, sweeping up her sleeve, see how sharp, want to feel it? And here too—thrusting forward her neck and, already disheveled and spooked, pushing out her collarbones: held breath, the gaze dead, strange, a little frightened, whether through its own daring trustfulness or because of your unpredictability: she loves me, she loves me not (or, as she played it: love, kiss, spit)—of course it’s not her, and neither is this one as young as she looked in profile—Darka turns her eyes away, and looks politely out the window where at this moment out of the dappled green of Mariinsky Park rises the monument to Vatutin—dull, bald, and smug, a sculptural epitaph to Khrushchev’s era: a peer, Darka sneers (the monument went up the year she was born)—and at that moment she decides about the school reunion (a stiff envelope with a gold seal, an invitation, removed yesterday from the mailbox, and uncertainly set aside—there will be time to think about it), dammit, she’ll go to the reunion though the prospect wearies her: what could be interesting about this pathetic act of self-assertion before the face of one’s own adolescence, what’s intriguing about the gray and the bald blissfully morphing to boyos again, and artificial, elaborately decked-out women who sneak glances at your wrinkles, hoping they have fewer themselves? But she’ll go—whatever happened to Fawn-Effie-Faron? Suddenly, she needed to know.
Once Darka read an article by an American gender-studies guru which claimed axiomatically that boys tended to be competitive, girls cooperative. Only a boy could have blathered such nonsense so glibly.
The struggle for power, not for its dividends in the form of grades (suggestive of subsequent financial achievement), nor for success with the opposite sex (which had not defined itself as being opposed to anything yet), and not even for the applause meter running high at the Christmas Pageant (which principally feeds the vanity of one’s parents, and only later flexes the muscles of your own), but for power in its nearly unalloyed pristine form, like the sweet narcotic of pure, dry white spirit, and all the more intoxicating: the exclusive right to lead the class either from the schoolroom to the playing field, or after class to what they called a “recital of cats”—below a window where you torment the tub from the front row, the one who chews her sandwich wrapped in wax paper from home during the break and then leaves hideous grease stains on textbooks—to lead the class no matter where, no matter whether for good or ill, because the difference between good and evil doesn’t exist, just as it never exists in the presence of absolute power-this struggle, aside from its earliest form in tribal war, you see precisely among girls from ages eight to twelve. Later, thank God, they develop other, more civilian concerns.
By fourth grade, when Effie appeared in their class, Darka already had the rap sheet of either a budding criminal or a political leader (the boundary between them is of course narrow, and depends not on nature but nurture): at least two girls from her class had to change schools, one in the middle of the year, black-haired Rivka Braverman with bluish-white starched bows in her glistening braids, whose father’s chauffeur drove her to school in the company’s glistening black Volga, and after school drove her to music lessons.
Rivka had a plump, confident ass and a disdainful mouth melding into folds of flesh. She smelled of homemade vanilla cookies, vacations at a spa in the Caucasus, third-generation antiques confiscated during the Revolution, and a five-room apartment of the sort reserved for only the most privileged of Soviet families, in a building erected by prisoners-of-war for the new Soviet elite. Such a start in life does little to encourage an instinct for self-preservation, so that Darka, whom Rivka carelessly attempted to treat with all her studied arrogance toward others, none of whom had ever darkened the threshold of such a five-room apartment in a building erected by prisoners of war, forced on Rivka her first lesson in survival training in a society sufficiently transformed that neither her grandfather the Prosecuting Attorney, nor her father the Director of X, were able to secure for her what was most valuable: a more bankable nationality to declare in that fifth blank on her passport. After Darka sicced on her a group of classmates, including red-haired Misha Khazin and Marina Weissberg, who chased her from school to the entrance of that apartment building built by prisoners of war, in one breath chanting Kike, kike, running down the pike—and Rivka really did run like the Wandering Jew of all Treblinkas, her plump bouncing ass suddenly, pathetically deflated, and the next day in class the whole group murmured to themselves so that the teacher facing the blackboard heard only a monotonous hum as though the room had been filled with bumble bees—Zhid, zhid, zhid, the word sounded especially greasy, thick, repulsive, Let the damn bee out, the teacher snapped, at which point the bee fell silent, and then Rivka suddenly leaped up and shouted Again! There they go again! and ran out weeping. After this, no matter how Braverman the Elder threatened the school, no matter how many parents were called in for meetings, it was no longer possible for Rivka, proudly upholding the propellered bows of her braids, to stay in class.
Darka herself was shocked and frightened by Rivka’s unexpected collapse. Her hysterical crying had aborted their game of King of the Hill and for a few days Darka herself lay in bed with an inexplicable fever. Her principal sorrow lay in the fact that Rivka, arrogant and hateful, with her muscling into the class presidency, with her hideous pouting mouth (a clear legacy from her grandfather, an agent of the Cheka, the brutal secret police, a fact Darka could not have known at the time, though she registered it instinctively) with which she talked her way into the coveted position of sanitary inspector, where she would examine her classmates’ hands and send the ink-spattered back to the washroom for a scrubbing, with her methodical nerdiness and unblemished faith in her own perfection, who had once dared to point out reluctantly that Darka too was an A student (it’s you who’s an A student too, Darka blurted back), with her glistening elbow sleeves, and that second pair of shoes in a special pink bag, real pumps, delicate and also pink, like a little princess’s, with heels: You don’t have any like this and you never will. My daddy bought them for me in Copenhagen—that Rivka suddenly appeared to be a child, just like Darka, and because of her, because of Darka, that child was screaming with grief. Her mother and father also grew worried as Darka began groaning in her sleep. She’d gladly have made peace with Rivka, would have apologized, made it up, cheered her up, had she only known how. Her experience of peacemaking involved only her mother and father who, no matter what happened, always found themselves in the pastoral position: Go and sin no more, they’d say after a time, and it was possible to skip out with a leap, lighthearted, with quickly drying-as-in-a-sun-shower tears. Here, however, something had broken irreparably, in Rivka, in the world, in her very own self, and through the break, as in a fence, there crawled a thick, hot, brown darkness, and when Darka’s fever finally fell and she returned to school she found that Rivka was no longer in her class.
The remote consequences of these events revealed the mixed feelings of guilt and shame which from then on dogged her in her every encounter with Jews and which only faded on closer acquaintance. The direct, immediate consequence was that Darka shrank, grew subdued, and dove deep into books (that began the period of intoxication by reading) right up to the end of the school year.
Then, the following year, a new girl appeared.
Darka remembered her first meeting with everyone who’d played any real part in her life, even though it may have been hidden—the bottom of memory’s drawer, a snapshot of another-other-stranger, who God knows why your eye alighted on, cutting him out of the chaotic backdrop that became the rest of the world, like a promise, that when laid out in a row, with the rest of the sequence, reveal various unexpected poses, from the lightning glance of direct eye contact, creating a voltaic exchange across the short distance between two points (blue eyes, gray eyes, green eyes, each with the same enchanting glassy gaze of antique crystal, men’s eyes, but who knows how hers looked to them?), to those taken as though with a hidden camera, when the object has not yet noticed you and not begun to suspect that he or she will soon be someone in your life, profiles, three-quarter shots, even shots from the back of the head: napes can be outrageously singular. Yet, no matter how she rummaged through her memory, she could never find that first shot of Effie.
Effie hadn’t come from the outside; she’d unfolded from within Darka like one of her own organs. Like the dormant gene of an inherited disease.
What Darka remembered were Effie’s panty hose—most of the girls in the class still wore white and brown cotton ones, wrinkled, droopy-kneed, and for some reason eternally sagging too short, oh this damned command economy (did socialism set as one of its goals the breeding of short-legged and suspiciously tubby little girls?), with the crotch always sagging out from under one’s skirt so that everyone, above all the wearer, expected that any moment they would fall off, and so our childhood passed, in the Land of the Falling Panty Hose. Toddlers were constantly hiking up their skirts and purposefully yanking up their stockings. Once tubby Alla from the front row did it in fourth grade when she was called up to the blackboard, the most natural gesture, the same as rolling up your sleeves or smoothing your hair, but in fourth grade they mocked her mercilessly, the boys practically fell out of their chairs, pointed their fingers, and the treacherous girls too yukked it up, and maybe because of that Darka remembered Fawn’s legs, those of a long, vulnerable, lanky newborn fawn, but covered smoothly with a fine transparent wrap. In the sun-drenched classroom they looked golden. It was as though Fawn had no childhood, nothing to outgrow, all the barely visible, minute women’s ways of sculpting, transforming themselves into women, which take one’s entire adolescence to master (some even dedicate part of their youth to it), all that plucking of eyebrows, trying on various haircuts (the shag, the flip, Sassoon-bangs—a chirping already incomprehensible to boys), nail polish with glitter and flowers until settling in tenth grade on, thank god, one’s natural color. She seemed to have been endowed with everything at birth, a fully drawn, breakable gold-legged figure: Braque? Modigliani? No, Picasso, Girl on the Ball.
Effie, Effie, my love.
And she remembers something more about the legs—that unbearable internal burn which you eventually learn to recognize as jealousy when the English teacher (and really as though copied from life, from the grotesquely bland, flat-chested, formless, ageless English women of de Maupassant whom Darka was already devouring surreptitiously) makes Effie stand in the corner: teachers, that is, female teachers (there was only one man, who taught Phys Ed), somehow teachers did not love her, but why? And Effie stands there in her uniform, in front of the whole class, lightly rocking on her golden fawn’s legs and Marinka Weissberg whispers to Darka: Doesn’t Fawn have nice legs, Darka pulls back, this isn’t a subject for discussion, but Marinka keeps on, Long, too. Mine are twelve centimeters shorter. We measured. You know how you measure, here, from the hip, the blow seems so strong that Darka inadvertently opens her mouth to catch a breath and then under her breast the burn spreads with a slow fire, just yesterday she and Effie sat late on the lake in the park, first feeding the Effie-necked swans, and when the swans went to sleep the girls watched the sun set on the burning, splintered, intense dark purple streak of water, wide-eyed as though frightened. Both gazed with Effie’s wide-open eyes: so much beauty, she said, her thin—so thin they looked shadowed with blue—eyelids butterflied: So much beauty in the world, how to grasp it all? You know, Dar, sometimes I can’t sleep all night, I keep thinking, my head goes round and round, how to hold it, this world’s so huge? And you know, the lids dropped, along with Darka’s heart, mulatto lips puckered as though for a kiss sprinkled with dewdrops, the result of an extraordinary internal effort, You know Dar, I think either something very beautiful or very terrible will happen to me, her knuckles squeezing the bench turning white. Something, some way in which I’ll finally be able to capture everything, hold everything, contain everything, you understand? Darka trembled within, not from the cold, because her cheeks and mouth were hot, but from the feeling that in her cupped palms fluttered a butterfly, because from childhood, because everyone knows that if you blow all the pollen off the butterfly’s wings, it will certainly die. Never again in her life would she so desperately want to protect someone, before no one else did she feel such numbing awe as then, with Effie, all later connections were mere shards of this sensation, like those splinters of purple fire on the water (a bit like loving a man, bodies dissolving, and after a few minutes you hungrily move toward him again because you don’t know what else might be done with this flesh, impenetrable as a wall, aside from taking it one more time, because there’s no way to come together so as to never part again—but that’s coarser, more primitive. For that matter, as you develop your self-conscious flesh, everything becomes simpler and more linear, or maybe, Darka assumes now, being a sister, an older sister, is the same as being born with the instincts of a mother, and it was her sisterlessness which had been an absence swelling inside her for years and at the right moment shifted onto Effie, Effie who in fact needed something different)—deafened and blinded, Darka bent low over her notebook, trying not to look at Fawn standing in the corner though she smiled wanly in her direction as if she knew what she and Marinka Weissberg were whispering: that Effie yesterday entrusted to her the most precious part of her inner self meant to Darka a kind of vow to eternal and absolute fidelity, so, aside from the shock that the beloved turns out not to be transparent, that she leads a separate life and can have secrets from you (measuring legs with silly Marinka, giggling, hiking hems to press their hips against each other—she never did such things with me, not even a hint of it). In addition to that shock, there was the grief of insulted love which demands everything at once, unsatisfied with bits and pieces, and therefore is destined to doubt that which it has actually received: is it possible she lied to me yesterday? How is it possible to be so, so hypocritical—Darka remembered she’d used just that word; during recess, she passed by Effie in proud silence; it took her stupefied senses an entire class to recover from the shock, while at the next recess Effie herself approached her: What’s up? You mad at me?
I have to talk to you, said Darka in a tight voice she didn’t recognize herself, a lump in her throat. After school they again sat in the park at the lake, wrapped like fairy-tale heroes in a cloud, an air of Shakespearian thunderstorm, a tempest—the sweet sorrow of parting—Effie, flashing eyes full of wobbly tears, passionately assured Darka that the thing with Marinka had happened long ago, implying that it was before her friendship with Darka, that it was all silly and meaningless and didn’t matter and Darka brightened, the sky cleared, as though pulled out from under an avalanche, yet for a while she still pretended to be offended, partly from an innate sense of form and partly out of an unconscious bartering with Effie for new concessions, new guarantees of undivided and exclusive affection, a scenario which Darka later on inevitably repeated with men except that with them it was much easier, while Effie was about as supple as Picasso’s acrobat, dodging to avoid Darka’s onslaught, from despairing repentance to a sudden collapse into a complete and trancelike absence and a self-absorption, to half-hysterical recitals of poems meant to explain everything (that year they buried each other in poetry), until, exhausted by the endless back and forth, Darka heard her own voice cry: Forgive me! then sinking to her nylon-warmed golden knees, embracing them and at the same time greedily snorting in, through tears, their surprising smell of bread, the odors of home reached after long travels: in the bedroom under your parents’ door the light pours, let me fluff up your pillow, the ticklish scent like a kitten’s on her hair on your cheek, two girls cuddling under the covers, hugging each other, whispering, sudden outbursts of laughter, stop you’re deafening me—like you, but different, that’s what a sister is, that’s what I’m embracing, tightly, so tightly that it can’t be tighter, never to let it go—two wildly intertwined girls on a bench in the park of an evening, her swollen breasts under her school uniform thrust into yours, her lashes tickling your neck, like in that myth where the cloud of the gods rendered the lovers invisible to mere mortals—nobody walked down the path, nobody rustled the fallen leaves, there was nobody to be surprised when Effie began kissing the trail of tears under Darka’s eyes and then pressed her lips to hers and gasped, Effie’s heart beat inside Darka’s chest and both froze, not sure what to do next, and then Darka felt between her lips something quick, wet, salty, and very large, it floated in her mouth like a naked hot fish blacking out the rest of the world and she did not immediately understand that it was Effie’s tongue but once she did she was seized by another, incomprehensible sort of sobbing, inhaling her tears and Effie’s tongue, squeezing the skinny body even tighter: shoulder blades sharp as wings, the keyboard of the vertebrae under the coarse uniform, suddenly brought to memory her first realization of what it meant that something was alive. She was three years old, standing speechless above a basket full of tiny fluffy white rabbits, unable to step aside or turn away, until one of the adults said from above, Would you like one?
She struggled to come to terms with the idea that such an astonishing creature breathed and moved, and then with the equally astonishing news of what one could do with such a miracle: one could possess it (at that most honest of ages, possession meant just one thing: it meant that, out of an excess of feeling, one could put the thing in one’s mouth and swallow it, as one did the petals of the prettiest flowers from the courtyard garden which you plucked and chewed, your saliva turning bitter and green when you spit, and over years that original meaning of the word doesn’t change, only gets clouded over). It takes a lifetime to understand that long ago the grownups fooled you, that in fact nothing living, neither a flower, nor a rabbit, nor a person, nor a country, can in fact be had: they can only be destroyed, which is the one way to confirm they have been possessed.
And here too, said Effie, but it was another time, at home, before a large tarnished mirror in a dark-brown frame—she first unbuttoned her dress, exposing two bra straps on a cubist shoulder of protruding horizontal bones, she’d long ago begun wearing a bra, Darka saw, when they changed before gym class Effie’s expensive snow-white underwear unavailable in any store though there amid the smell of mats stacked up in the corner which were old and rough to the touch reeking of old sweat, there, in the middle of it, it was just underwear, but here, when Effie, not turning her hypnotized, dark eyes—pupils dilated—away, slipped off her bra, a tender, pearl-pink nipple popped out of its cup like an outthrust tongue and at the same time Effie’s fingers stumbled over buttons as though asking permission, began cautiously unbuttoning Darka’s shirt and she saw, alongside Effie’s, her own nipple only darker, redder, like a cherry pit, here blood rushed to Darka’s head and everything grew blurred, Effie leaned lightly over her breast and Darka felt her wet gathering mouth, and goose bumps, and her own rapid breathing, and everything began flowing, was it her, Darka, who was slipping into the unknown, something heady and hot, something forbidden and tempting, compared with which all of Darka’s steady will to power, being first in her class, academic triumphs, captain of the volleyball team, all this was small and insignificant as she went down and emerged new, dark, dangerous, and big as the world—oh Effie Effie, two girls with their shirts undone in the depths of the mirror where Effie touched her kissed breast with her own and said: Here too, pointing to the other one, and that was how it began.
And so it whirled, sweeping all away. All their school recesses spent together on the windowsill, wandering through the park after class, drunken talking talking talking, insatiable as two mutes who’d suddenly discovered the gift of tongues or infants who’d just learned to talk, but they really were just learning to speak, learning to translate each other into words and speech different from what the adults had expected, about the meaning of life, the future of mankind, will there be war, about their own childhoods, it was frightening to see how many reflections surfaced at that age—I remember when I was little—and then you don’t remember a thing until you’re old, when, they say, the sluices finally open again, you can’t even remember what those things were— you spent hours gushing at each other so that the day felt too short, except a few splinters, of poems for instance, So Long Had Life Together Been by Joseph Brodsky (Effie), Lady with Eyes Larger than Asters by Kalynets (Darka), but that was passed on from the grownups, it was the frigging legacy of the sixties generation that was passed on from family to family in a thin stream from a closed tap, while all of one’s own content that filled the cup to overflowing had drained away somewhere, leaving only silt after the passing of a stream—the memory of a bench, of a windowsill in a school corridor, a memory of Effie’s concentrated face—did she know how to listen with shiny eyes and half-open mouth, and all that in the shadowy, autumnal light of sad, nostalgic longing for the long-gone unreachable heights—that whole visible daily aspect of their friendship (sixth grade: just as, among kids, that boiling process of clinging and dissolving molecules begins, friendships forming and dissolving several times a year, so that none of the teachers ever paid these two much attention)—it all continued, this material world, yet invisibly tightening and shrinking the dress (now pinching her armpits) under the abrupt combustible wind of that suffocating, heady element of their friendship which unfolded without witnesses and gathered strength, to be more precise a lot more energy, at least with Darka, went into supporting it because all their trembling falling into each other, all their hot kisses and more frequent, growing caresses exploded not on their own, not from a purely physical compulsion, as later occurred with boys but each time moving to some kind of emotional resolution, a little drama, the improvisation of which they were wonderfully adept at: in the feat of peacemaking after a new argument that took them to the edge of break-up (regular as storms in July), in an ecstasy of simultaneously recognizing the music of the Doors, to which Effie responded by collapsing onto the carpet and pounding her forehead into it, shouting, I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it.
And Darka, seizing that dear warm downy head (smelling like the fur of a kitten), her whole body trembling at the unfathomable mystery of feeling things, at how far more subtle and spiritually richer Effie was than she (that was what Darka wrote in an essay titled My Friend: My friend has a richly subtle and spiritually rich nature; she was stuck for a long time on the repetition: one of the two had to be crossed out, yet neither was willing to leave), really, it’s quite puzzling, Darka now wonders, how on earth did they manage to study that year, where had they found the time for it, or, to be more precise, where had Effie found the time, since she never managed things as well as Darka, yet succeeded in passing all her classes, even earning A’s, and not only in music and gym (honor students, which, as the Vice Principal said during the PTA meeting about her, a girl from an honorable family, because that was what she was, with divorced parents who spoiled her competitively: stereo, French linens at twelve)—where did she find it, the time and strength?
And they read, insatiably, with all their might, living through the work as though it were their own inner life—their own times fit them like a glove: these were the years of the book boom: the hunt for hard to find books from Moscow (special access), bound in smelly fresh leatherette the color of dark amber or bottle green or marine blue, all spines gilded like the epaulets on an officer’s uniform (yet looking for all that like the expensive cognac boxes next to which these books were meant to cohabit on Yugoslavian shelves symbolizing lives of cultured leisure and the ever-expanding well-being of the Soviet people), and Darka, whose family connections gave her access to risky mimeographed samizdat materials, borrowed from Effie high-ranking uniform volumes of Akhmatova and Mandelstam, as well as The Master and Margarita, which Effie read first, before loaning it, rehearsing for her most of the first chapter up to and including the part where the head’s cut off by the tram but Darka never managed to memorize the final chapter: as she was finishing the book she was called out and interrogated by the police, and in one moment her childhood came to an end.
Much later, as a grown-up, Darka finally risked asking her mother just what horrible thing had been discovered at that point (oh if only it hadn’t been) and which had stormed through the entire school for over a month? To an adult, the story seemed utterly banal: a girl from a well-to-do family, not yet thirteen, secretly, without anybody knowing (not even me!), hangs around with sexually mature seventeen-year-old boys, goes with them Sundays to the deserted Trukhaniv Island, and later the mother of one of these boys (you can imagine this mother, someone should have drowned the bitch!), raises a fuss across the whole school (idiot!) because her dear little boy had the bridle on his penis torn, or rather, bitten through (so what’s the big deal? It would heal before the wedding!). Darka’s mother was only able to tell her about the torn bridle because the story had been an unforgettable lesson in anatomy. OK, I agree, said Darka insincerely, hoping to coax more information from her, the story’s not pleasant, certainly not for the girl’s parents, but when you think about it, there are many worse ways to lose your virginity, which don’t always lead to broken lives, and a girl with such a turbulent debut might, in twenty years, why not, surface as an affable matron with a decent university job, while the poor mangled boy may to the delight of his mother, yet become a Ph.D., an oceanographer, a celanographer, or a stylographer, why not?
(What Darka herself remembered was her first glimpse, through a crack in the principal’s office door, of Effie’s mother—young and dazzlingly beautiful, sheathed in leather, draped in pendulous Gypsy jewelry, in sheaves of turtledove, gray veils of smoke which swirled like burning incense round an unknown goddess—apart from the brief shock at the fact that someone had the nerve to smoke in the principal’s office, she remembered it as the first time she became aware of a different species of human which somewhere, no, here, beyond the glass wall, though you can’t get there, thrives—a richer than rich, glamorous, movie-idol with an unfathomably intense life who has been given the world for her pleasure forever.) Darka’s mother, however, also remembered the arrival of a detective, something Darka barely noticed (maybe because the children were questioned in their parents’ presence and parents were, to kids at that age, more significant than any strangers, so Darka retained the vague impression that it was her own parents interrogating her). A detective? That means it wasn’t simply a matter of children’s games under clear skies. What else was up? Chewing gum, American jeans (the height of luxury) given or traded by these kids near the, oh god, Intourist Hotel (where all foreigners stayed), that terrible word—the most terrifying word there was—for-saling, because trading with foreigners was, after all a crime.
What had all this been about? Were they plotting entrapment at a later date, or hoping to keep the kids from racing into the future with extravagant appetites, teaching them instead to sin in secret?
Did you see, Skalkovska has (Effie immediately become, and remained, Skalkovska) that badge with the American flag? Did she tell you where she got it?
Chills, my god, what a nightmare, plus the reek of political informers—was it the mother of the victimized, unbridled, half-circumcised boy who’d used this as a way to break up the circle once and for all?) What could Effie, her Effie, have to do with this? And above all how could she have maintained her life on such parallel tracks, as invisible as panty hose without a wrinkle, without ever giving herself away to Darka?
(There was, however, one moment during which Darka, with the sudden jealous clarity of all lovers, did get after all, one barely visible splinter: Ihor M., from tenth grade, passing them in the corridor, the red-scarved peons whom the upperclassman shoved aside blindly like ants, suddenly stops: Fawn, he says, with an unusually intimate, creepy, utterly adult tone, and a strange smile on his lips, and Effie steps toward him like a ballerina, leg suspended in the air, heel to toe—and while they exchange a few hushed words, Darka sees nothing but the bent leg, toes lightly pressed to the ground, and her heart breaking out of the pain of uncertainty, suspiciously asks Effie after she returns, Where do you know him from?
We’re neighbors, says Effie, puckering her mulatto lips into a chicken’s ass—it was the kind of grimace she put on when called on in class, driving the female faculty wild. This was the single glimpse, brief as a scratch, of a distant and incomprehensible, beautiful and frightening—and could it be otherwise—secret: because she was all mystery, that’s what she was, and neither I nor those hideous boys whose brains leaked out in their sperm, not that there was much there to begin with, could have dreamed of holding her for more than a moment, a moment brief as the flutter of a butterfly’s wings.
At the time of course Darka knew nothing about any bridle, and for that matter neither did anybody else, except for the parents, of course, among whom the news might even have caused a surge of sexual activity: the atmosphere was electrified. All Darka knew was that Effie had been dishonored, irretrievably thrust into some dark nightmare, into a muddy bog suddenly opening where the ground was supposed to be hard and well-lit, and Darka’s parents loudly complained about the little prostitute and even went in a delegation from the PTA to the school director insisting that Effie be immediately removed from school and that the rest of the children, implicitly tender and pure, be forever segregated from her immoral influence. (What Bolsheviks they in fact were, what monsters, Darka discovers, with cold surprise, twenty-five years after. The entire generation, the Orthodox, the Orwellian newspeakers, and the dissidents, the thinkers, the free thinkers, and the thoughtless, my God!). And she also knew that Effie had betrayed her, this time not childishly, but in fact.
Shameful, and frighteningly obscene, and at the same time so unsettlingly grown-up, the head spins: with boys, with the thing that dangles between their legs which just two years ago they’d spied on in gym class, elbowing each other: you can see everything on B! And exactly what was it they saw? with big boys who knew everything and therefore do with her who-knows-what and she lets them, the strangers and grown-up, and they look at her as did Ihor M. It’s curious that no images from their own Sapphic games flashed before her, only this: how could she, with strangers? How could she let strangers take off her panties? Never mind what followed, which blurred in her imagination. But the worst thought was: Effie, what about me? What about me? A mixture of feeling ignored, disrespected, for her gender, her age, and of course for her sex: no matter what, Effie was chosen, this was obvious, chosen by those boys for a different sort of life, while me, I’d metamorphosed in a stroke into one of those comic, clumsy, hunched honors students accompanied everywhere by parents, even to the movies, as though by bodyguards: she didn’t let me in, didn’t let me touch something essential in her, which means that everything about our friendship was a lie because under the best-lit, most ecstatic explosions of our union, which seemed so transparent, there always hid this gigantic dark cave full of sealed shameful treasures, oh what an idiot I was! And nightly tears into the pillow, deeply buried so her parents wouldn’t hear. And therefore, when at the class meeting, as the chairman of the Pioneer unit (Tovarish Chairman—the drumbeat as before an execution, the red flag carried in, red plush with yellow fringes) and as a former friend of Skalkovska’s, sure because there was no getting around the need for distance, as she was told by everyone, the vice-dean, the class tutor, and all the king’s men, otherwise Effie’s fall might drag her down so low she could hardly imagine—when she had to announce the Case of Comrade Skalkovska and be the first to speak (and again at first the strange resonance of a voice squeezed by your own throat so you can’t swallow, it echoes inside your head, you’re constantly aware of the feel of your own head) then she turned Effie in in a way no one would ever have imagined, she least of all.
This must have looked like the unbridled attack of a mean little dog, nipping at her ankles, drawing blood, and again, to the meat: Remember! Remember what you said about all the classmates, that they’re all narrow-minded nonentities! (Naturally these good-for-nothings closed ranks and Effie wound up completely isolated.) You put yourself above the class! Above the collective! You decided you were better than the others, that you were allowed more than the others were, and look where this has led you—your friends (no: first you gather up the unit, then you speak in its name)—are now ashamed of you! And so on, A+ and !!! but alas there’s no such grade.
And it was not an excess of administrative zeal (as it might have appeared to a dull outsider), and even less was it a desire to save her own skin (as it might have been appropriate to say had they not been children) but rather an ardent, overwhelming drive to possess Effie, even if for the last time, to have her back, begging forgiveness, repenting her betrayal. (And because Darka didn’t have that power over her, she pursued instead the one path offered her by the adult world: Tovarish Chairman of the Unit Council—and the drums beat, oh how they beat, a chill went through her, this Shaman’s drum and tympani, that’s right, all turning points in life should be staged as solemnly as tribal initiations, and what is one’s first act of collaboration if not a kind of initiation?) Consequently, Darka’s words should have been read like a secret message, revealed in ultraviolet light: Remember! Remember how you said I was your only soul mate, the only one you could talk to. Remember what I said about the Doors as though the doors were really opening, and you immediately understood, those cast-iron doors! Heavy as those at Vladimir’s Cathedral. And I really saw them as that, and I screamed with joy that you, you too—we stood before the doors together, we breathed as one, Effie, why did you slam them in my face?
But Effie-Skalkovsky stayed silent. And didn’t intend to remember a thing, nor to repent, nor to beg forgiveness.
She didn’t even look at Darka—she looked out the window, at the playing field lined with poplars, occasionally biting her lower lip, she cried—and it was clear it was something very personal, something a galaxy away from Darka, her fiery speeches, and this endless meeting. The doors, which Darka hadn’t been asked to enter and tried to break down, remained shut.
Maybe, Darka speculated now, she’d been pregnant? That, thank God, I’ll never know. Because you won’t find everything out at a reunion over a glass of wine with a semi-stranger whom you can’t exactly ask: Listen, remember, then, at the end of sixth grade or at the start of seventh, did you have an abortion?
Now out of this dull bare plateau which is called experience, Darka could assume something else: namely that Effie with her innate vulnerability was like a package, its contents bubble-wrapped, stamped Fragile on all sides in runny ink and sent on its way, yet without an address, this perfidious, secret, gracious, spoiled, truly vicious and irresistibly attractive, inwardly aflame Effie-Fawn, simply had to find, at an early age, her own way of protecting herself, especially from the suffocating Darka, defending herself with what was most obviously hers, her body. Putting it between herself and the world like a cardboard shield: take it, take it, feel it, you want it?
(I certainly didn’t leave her any other options—why should others have?)
For one, two, or three years after that—in seventh, eighth, yes, and ninth grade too, they passed each other like planets on separate orbits, greeting each other with a nod, though for a long time Darka avoided Effie’s eyes and was careful not to get stuck alone with her: the awareness of her betrayal, which couldn’t be undone, poisoned her, lying somewhere on the bottom like an immoveable rock raising up muddy miasmas so that in the upper grades Darka even had fits of nausea, something approaching morning sickness, problems with her gall bladder, and she had to take a spoon of sunflower oil in the morning and a heating pad for her side—and then she noticed, with embarrassed relief, that when they were in groups Effie began to answer her remarks, calmly, almost warmly. She stopped pretending that Darka didn’t exist, so Darka decided finally to risk speaking with her one on one, politely and purposefully—what’s the big deal, really, let’s get over it—asking Skalkvoska when she’d be on class duty, and Skalkovska politely answering it would be Thursday, and so it went, sideways, as between strangers, and by that time they really were strangers to each other, having outgrown their childhood episodes along with the panty hose and splayed children’s shoes, snub-nosed, which get tossed into closets or storage spaces, where they gradually air out the pigeon-toed warmth that once filled them, and all the falls, scratches and bruises they witnessed, the jump rope, hopscotch, the sand carried into the house (while mother scolded), and sticky as lacquer (to be pulled off with fingers) traces of jam, and after some years, when you find them again, amid the dust and the cobwebs, you drag them into the light to see they have become old rags.
No, they weren’t girls anymore, they were ladies and young women, sighing, well well.
Lies, because in fact nothing passes—no matter how deeply you bury it, what happened keeps growing darkly under the skin of years like an indelible bruise—hematoma.
Somehow, the turmoil passed. Maybe some influential parent from the Bad Company managed to turn down the heat or maybe the school wanted to protect its own reputation—the school had a fine one!—and who needs it, the endless meetings, commissions, inspections, good Lord, enough, and so it all dried up. Dried up. For a while Skalkovska suffered her isolation but it too slowly dissolved. Only the teachers, or more precisely the female ones, continued to rage (rumor had it only the gym teacher—a man—tried to defend her at the meeting but it sounded silly, what kind of defense could he mount?), treating her badly, really badly, which she definitely did not deserve, standing straight, expressionless, an honor student to the end, and she was once even sent to the regional academic tournaments from her English class probably. And yet a teasing, seductive spirit seeped out of her like that slightly nauseatingly sweet, yet barely noticeable (except up close, along with the body’s warm smell) and thus all the more lascivious (so they thought) scent of what must have been her mother’s perfumes, it tickled their noses, entered their bloodstream, darkened their faces: Skalkovska, leave the room! (Shaking her head like a pony with its new mane, biting her lower lip, whether getting ready to cry or to laugh, concentrating as though she were leaving forever, she would pack her books and notebooks in her bag: a long narrow back with a keyboard of buttons running down it, a short skirt, walking down the aisle between the desks to the door never turning around: Darka could never keep from staring at her back, as though she were expecting something, but her back was buttoned tight as the door that had just closed quietly behind her, which teachers were eager to take as a provocation, repeating her punishment, again and again: Leave the room, Skalkovska, that’ll teach her.)
And in ninth grade, before the end of her last term, she finally did leave for good. And after her, the gym teacher, an Olympic medalist in swimming, a forty-year-old with thick gray hair (why do sportsmen so rarely go bald?), with acidy sweat and hair sticking out of his nostrils, was also let go. It turned out that he and Effie had been carrying on an affair all spring. Someone had seen them.
Heaped in a corner of the girls’ gym room, the old mats, rough to the touch as though steeped a long time in brine, and a dry, sunk-in smell, familiar as the odor of old stables, the smell of children’s sweat, or not only children’s, but also that other, violent and acidy?
All the time, somebody is living your life for you, one of its possible, never-to-be-realized versions. All those feelings that really do bind us to others, from love to envy, grow out of this half-secret longing for other lives intuited, recognized, our lives which we will nevertheless never have. And somebody defends us, something shields us, lives them out for us.
And we sleep without nightmares.
Of course, said Darka’s mother, it’s all the fault of the parents: one look at Effie’s mother tells the whole story. She said this while cutting her nails with a sharp, whipping sound: she was using a tailor’s scissors, because they didn’t have a manicurist’s pair. Her triumphant voice a monument to motherhood, utterly beyond reproach. And something apart from this, which even then forced Darka to get her fur back up, though keeping it to herself: faceless and impersonal, with all the pressure of the ten atmospheres at the bottom of the ocean, the truly terrible eternal righteousness of the community, against all breakers of the rules.
Darka’s mother also had her most intense life experience at thirteen. She’d stood at the top of a hill with her sled, red and gasping, awaiting her turn to go down—and suddenly she saw how the snow-covered slope was flowing underfoot in the lilac-colored shadows of the trees: in the sun the snow glimmered with billions of sparks and each one was a planet. The planets burned, shimmered, and as the poet whom she had not yet studied at school said, spun into alignment.
The girl stared while the light grew brighter until she could almost hear the ice tinkling. She didn’t know that that sound had once been called the music of the spheres. That this was the voice of the infinite. She knew only that she had to look away otherwise something terrible and irrevocable, otherwise it’s all over, I’ll go mad! a bolt of black lightening flashed a boundary marker: get back, get back!
And she turned away.
Everything that followed in her life was fine with her: marriage, poverty, children, sickness, work she didn’t like, as well as the little joys, like a new apartment or a leather coat. It’s true, the leather was only pigskin, but had been well tanned.
It could have been worse. Much worse.
—After all, thinks Darka, going through the outfits hung in her closet: her club jacket will reveal the burn on her forearm, the yellow dress begs a tan and I’m pale as a cheese, and so on (it’s fine to laugh at yourself, but a reunion is yet another test, this time of your life-in-progress, which hasn’t exactly fallen into place perfectly but for that reason you hold your head high, dress to the nines, flawless make-up, silliness, but there it is, and what for, what’s the point)—after all, you can’t have infinity, can you? Yet that apparently was what Effie wanted—but this second idea, following the first, plays over the surface of her thoughts, never sinking in: Darka sees herself in the mirror holding a hanger from which flows a long silk dress. She wears an unexpectedly stupid, entirely childlike expression: an obvious discovery, you can’t have infinity. And all our striving to gather up more: money, men, impressions, diplomas, dresses, cars is nothing but our pitifully meager effort to reach infinity by adding one thing to another and then another. There has to be a better way, but what is it?
At the entrance to the restaurant they were figuring out who wouldn’t come, for whom not to wait: Misha Khazin emigrated to America, long ago, back in the early eighties, Kraichyn’s in Paris at a conference, Artemchuk is somewhere abroad as well with a sick child—thyroid problems (Chernobyl)—and Soltys, well they’ll commemorate him separately, and it would be good to someday take a trip to the cemetery, absolutely (at this moment everyone is confident that someday they’ll certainly go)—at Berkivtsi, that unfenced area where row on row of short pillars topped with red stars stand at attention, announcing that they all did their noble international duty in Afghanistan though they say it’s permitted now to put up crosses. That overwhelming feeling at the very first moment—of a group of strangers, unusually silent (everyone overwhelmed by the same feeling perhaps), graying, balding (men) and decked-out (women)—and then at the next moment, as though the film-projector had rewound, there begin to emerge from them the figures of children from twenty years ago until the two frames, the past and the present, finally click together and then from their lips come the sincerest of cries: You haven’t changed! You too! You haven’t changed a bit! (Who but our classmates will give us back those selves that no longer exist—not for anyone, hell, not for anyone? Of course if you don’t count your parents, but then, they’re parents.) So who else are we waiting for?
Holding before her bent fingers: Khazin, Kraichyn, Artemchuk (the Soltys forefinger remains half-bent and uncertain: where should it go?). Hey, look, Sashko Begerya’s here too though he didn’t graduate with us—he went to the technical school after eighth grade—at last Darka gets up the nerve, as though she’d just remembered:
You know, what’s her name. That’s how it comes out. And yet she thinks that for a second everyone falls silent. Meanness is meanness, my dear Darka, and there’s no time limit on it.
But no, that’s not why. And almost immediately after Darka realizes that none of them really remember the incident from all those years ago. Nobody remembers Darka’s speech at the meeting, and even if they do recall something, nobody gives it the weight it’s gathered for her over the years (one may say over her whole life, because she never did anything like it again, maybe cruelty too requires a single vaccination though vaccinations sometimes also prove deadly). Dear Effie, my beloved golden-legged girl, my lost sister, with an addict’s blazing pupils in which tears burn like candles at the impossibility of taking the whole world into herself, or all the men in it, what are they saying about you?
Because they are talking, with increasing liveliness, the ice of estrangement melted by the insatiable human craving for sensational stories: You’re kidding! No! Really? Starting with a plane crash that leaves two hundred dead preferably with a list of passengers along with their ages (taking special note of the couple with an infant who were going to show him off to his grandparents) to all the mighty who have fallen and now allow us to pity them: presidents caught with their pants down before the entire planet, bankrupt oil magnates, pop stars busted for drugs, and the one who yesterday was crowned the king of the Jews and who today appeared weaker than the weakest of us, thereby revealing how he’d cheated us and so we with all due rage shout: Crucify him, asking for revenge for yesterday’s humiliation.
They’re talking, or rather it’s a little plump brunette with a dark mossy mustache talking, who turns out to be Marina Weissberg, while around her the others have gathered with their What? Really? And then?
Last summer, by accident, on the street, I didn’t recognize her. She says, Effie, that you now weigh about a hundred and ninety pounds, huge, a barrel, because they gave you insulin when you needed lithium—but lithium also adds weight, one of the boys, now a chemical engineer, says authoritatively, while another, a doctor, though not a psychiatrist, in the same professional tone, interrupts him (oh men, how hard you work to earn your self-respect from us!), taking an interest in the diagnosis: If it’s lithium, then it’s manic-depression, and that’s that, you can’t cure it, you spend your life on medication, Oh my, coo the girls, a gust of self-satisfaction (or does Darka imagine it) wafts through them, the whisper of wind in the treetops, then gone—but does Marinka know the diagnosis? Did she tell her why? She told her she’d had a miscarriage after which her husband left her, they’d just come back from vacation, from where, from Switzerland (another round of leaf rustling, this time sharper-edged, and Darka sees a few suppressed sarcastic smiles), where she swam under a sign saying Polluted Water where she caught something, some infection probably from that.
The pseudo psychiatrist, alias Vovka Lasota (former nickname: Bucks, who knows why, but nicknames no longer apply), now claims the stage (one of two: either a really good doctor, or this is his only way of asserting himself because there are no salaries being paid and his wife at home nags endlessly) and again, from on high, he declares (for which Darka quietly begins to loathe him) that mental illness doesn’t necessarily depend on specific causes, they, that is, not the rest of us, the ones separated from us with a high wrought-iron fence, are always seeking a cause, often making it up, and they’re good at it (but you, Darka sends him angry pulses, of all people should know that that fence is no boundary, that tomorrow you too might appear on the other side in a washed-out dark blue robe like a marine and even more washed-out pants with food in aluminum bowls and a dazed, drug-induced gaze, don’t you know?) And if it’s really serious manic depression, the guy blathers on (and in his voice evidence of a certain skepticism about the diagnosis, as though to say, I’m not sure of course, I haven’t seen it myself), if that’s the case, then it’s not psychosomatic, it’s organic, like schizophrenia or petit mal epilepsy (in a minute he’ll rehearse everything he’s learned at the institute, a real boy, what he isn’t married, where’s his wedding ring, how is it possible such a catch is still available?) In such cases, the etiology isn’t clear, the disease surfaces only later, usually after thirty (once more the female rustling, bees, on and on). You go on and on and never even taste it, Darka says aloud, trying to derail the conversation, and the conversation turns, your school-girl authority hasn’t faded, immediately defrosts your present appearance into your former self, but the tracks turn unexpectedly: You know, says one of the girls, it’s a nightmare of course, its awful, but she, Skalkovska was always, well, weird, wasn’t she? Everybody nods in agreement, gathering together defensively, hastily erecting between themselves and Skalkovksa that wrought-iron fence with the sharpened pickets at the top, hammering them in one by one, as though it might really protect them from something: someone with servile readiness remembers the time she danced a rhumba on the chemistry table, Girl on a Ball, of course, she took ballet lessons, and at that moment everyone was going crazy until the vice-principal walked in, but there was something in that dancing, the far-sighted sage had already noted it.
Then you should have said something then, why did you keep it to yourself all this time, Darka grins through her teeth, You might have saved her life.
They fall silent and embarrassed. They are in general not bad people. We are all of us not bad people. And yet why is it that, no matter what we turn to, it all goes so bad? Marinka comes to the rescue: it turns out it’s not the end of the story because she then invited Skalkovska over, it was nearby, they’d just moved uptown, finally leaving her parents, and it worked out very fine, they now have a two-bedroom apartment on Mykilsko-Botanical Street with windows on the garden, the subject is a live one and everyone has something to say, especially the girls who immediately take a warrior’s interest in the details of the trade-up: what kind of apartments did they leave, from what neighborhoods, how much more was it, Marinka is puffed out with the pride of responsibility, she promises a few interested parties her top-notch real estate agent’s phone number, Tell him Marina and Vadik sent you.
So that’s it, Vadik’s the husband, and this fine upstanding Jewish husband, can you imagine, Effie tried to seduce when Marina, a good-hearted soul, went out to get a snack, leaving them alone. He told me later, I literally didn’t know where to hide.
Literally. Nymphomania, Vovka Lasota confirms the new diagnosis—and why nymphomania, Darka wants to object, why not the hysteria of an abandoned woman, and, quite possibly the habit of seeking an easy—moreover there’s the instantly recognizable defenseless fragility of hers, which not even two hundred pounds can hide, and which for many, and above all for men, is balm for all their wounds at once, so that our upstanding husband may not be the innocent sheep that he claimed to be. Marinka convinced herself, though—and what other choice did she have. And what’s left for Darka but to force out what she intends to be a caustic remark but which instead comes out mumbled and pathetic: Isn’t it nice for medics, they have a diagnosis for everything, and here, have some pills.
In response Vovka Lasota winces and asks her not to refer to him as a medic since he is neither a male nurse nor an orderly but a doctor, and the head of his department, and as a matter of fact he specialized in gynecology and so if she wants she can leave her his number. Thanks, laughs Darka, and it comes out in a bass, otherwise her voice would have betrayed her, So far, God has been good.
Meanwhile the crowd has begun moving to the tables which glimmer from afar with coquettish kitschy bouquets of white napkins blooming from the glasses, why the hell did I come here, and what am I to do here, God, what emptiness—get drunk, maybe?
Vovka Lasota sees Darka home. In the taxi she notices that his Chekhovian beard smells of cologne, Givenchy she thinks. He kisses her under her dress strap, mutters something about his divorce, Darka says please shut up and wants to add or I’ll scream, it’s the last thing she needs at this moment, male confessions, but she decides to leave such a complex sentence for better days, focusing herself instead on getting the key in the lock which she manages on the third try. The worst thing is that she remembers everything, even more clearly than before: instead of drowning in the drink, it rose to the surface and swirled through her mind, horrible. Lasota meanwhile has turned into a hot bumblebee and buzzes in her ear how from eighth grade on he was afraid to approach her, attacks her from all sides with his heavy breathing and the pressure of a strange body under the bulging, already superfluous dress, and OK, actually not OK, and it won’t save you from anything, and she can’t even focus, but she’ll try, she’ll try, why not—the dress strap pops and the thing drops to the floor, and when he enters her with a groan, and the familiar inner warmth awakens the stilled bodily memory which grows instantly louder than everything else, she surrenders herself gladly, out of genuine gratitude to Lasota for this brief respite which he naturally takes as a sign of his own male irresistibility and so encouraged, he does it well, yes, quite well, and hey look, it’s getting really good oh, oh god, oh, and then she lies like a stone with her face buried in his shoulder and he asks her, leaning over in a voice deep with emotion until she feels ashamed for her absolute lack of responsiveness:
You knew that I loved you?
It looks like he also needed revenge. Isn’t it convenient. Men, oh yeah. How all of them are one-dimensional, linear, like a simple arithmetic (x:y=z; z+a=b). Slipping into sleep, as consciousness loosens its bulldog grip, she remembers how Lasota, who himself was not the worst of students, once asked timidly for her help in math—the only time she might have discerned his wish to be alone with her, and with this pleasant thought, or rather, using it to squash like a beetle under a saucer, a different thought, the dark and formless one, for which she has no more strength, Darka finally falls asleep.
She awakens as though pushed and pops out of bed where, shamelessly, as though he belonged there, lies a loud, breathing, snorting man, along with all the bed smells of a stranger. What was it, a fit of nausea? Sour mouth, room dark, in the window a lone streetlamp burns, what time is it? She’s prodded by some internal, physiological fear but her foot gets caught in a cold pool of silk, her crumpled dress on the ground, her best one, she picks it up, unfolds it, tosses it in the direction of a chair (it rustles, landing), god it’s cold, she’s trembling, her teeth chatter, goose bumps on her forearms, feeling like scattered grains, yes, she fell asleep naked but that’s not why she’s cold, could it be the alcohol, it’s bad—she wraps herself in her husband’s robe (when will that idiot finally get his things?), she stumbles, blind and shaking, toward the kitchen where the digital clock says 3:30, holy shit, and she drops herself down the edge of the seat carefully as though she were made of glass, trying to breathe evenly one two three inbreath one two three outbreath, a meditation session, almost fucking yoga, ah, OK, now she can put on the kettle, a few familiar stabilizing gestures, and the blue flame flickers peacefully below, very touching. No, it wasn’t her teeth that were chattering, that was something rising from within, with the rhythm of castanets, this line of poetry, which repeats itself mechanically as though the needle were stuck: So long had life together been—Brodsky, stupid verse, stupid as green firewood and crackling just the same, and yet it stuck—and suddenly, hands leaning on the oven, Darka starts to cry, the sob coming not from her throat but from her belly, like a groan, and she again has to hold her breath one two three so that she does not shatter: why, why, what is all this for, this fucking life, my God? And it’s no longer clear whose life she’s talking about, if only she could somehow learn to stand this terrible unfairness, somehow digest this burden of injustice, this eternal human scream to heaven: My God, for what? And this grief, live and burning, for all those things we did not become and never will become.
Blotting her eyes with her fingers, she reaches for the cigarettes on the table, strikes a match, and standing there in the kitchen with a cigarette in hand she seems to herself larger than the darkness. OK, let’s sum up, and what have we got? Some reputation in her field, some financial independence, provided such a thing is at all possible under our circumstances, and two published books, one of them based on her thesis, and one textbook for the University, and two divorces, and honorary membership in three western academies which is worth exactly shit but will do for an obituary. E la nave va. The show must go on.
Why the hell, of the two of us, did I have to be the survivor?
And here this disgust with herself, this nausea, the toxicity of the self—the eighth grade, the gall bladder, a spoon of sunflower oil, yes, then, just like now, in a lightning flash changes direction, and Darka is at last rattled to the core, she is turned inside out like a sock, her stomach in her throat, she barely makes it to the bathroom and there, leaning against the cold tiles above the toilet, with more and more tremors, doubling from a silent cry, half-falling in a cold sweat, no longer a human figure, mere intestines pumping backward, she throws up last night’s dinner, and herself at the dinner, and the night with Vovka Lasota, dose after dose, brown sharp-sour-stink-kasha, all of life’s undigested garbage spilling over the top, how does it all fit inside us, the decomposing corpse of her last marriage, all the scandals and humiliating accounts, all the pent-up hatred for the world and herself, hot burning spray of bits through her mouth and nose, she tries to take a breath between fits of heaving, her knees shake as she bends, that’s right, that’s right, that’s how it should be done, to the bottom, to the scraped out dregs, to childhood, to those first jealousies and first foul things, to become sterile, pure and immoveable, like the white tiles which hurt the eyes in the light, because nothing either very beautiful or very terrible, nothing like this ever happens to us, you poor child, and you would still have to work really hard to get either one of the two—and here again Effie made it, it came out as she predicted—while normal life just rushes through us with this jiggly, thick brown stream, just look how it glistens in the toilet, even the walls are brown, and the flushed water roars like Niagara, and the otherworldly cold because your whole life has been cast out of you, and you are standing in the bathroom like a Jew in a gas chamber, leaning against the tiles, struck by tears and your own shit, with bluing fingertips, empty, empty as after an abortion, and those you loved have been flushed out of you down, down the sewer pipes.
Later she takes a long time washing, brushing her teeth (three times in a row because the odor seems permanent), and when she steps out of the bath it’s starting to turn gray outside. Vovka Lasota lies in her bed with his head wrapped in the sheets like the corpse of a Bedouin ready for burial, and just like the dead Bedouin, he has nowhere to go (sure, divorce isn’t easy on anyone, especially on men who soon seem like abandoned dogs who’ll lick anyone, seeking a master). With Darka’s appearance the corpse shows some signs of life: he pulls his head out of the sheets and smiles, somewhat like a victorious man after a successful night, and somewhat like that boy who approached Darka during recess and looking past her, ears red, asked her to help him after school with this math homework.
Which, in fact, she never did.
And only now does Darka understand that she can’t tell him to get out. At least, not right away. She can’t turn on anyone the terrible megaton gush of the uncovered, naked, nothing could be more naked, and merciless because indifferent to the human, essence of life, the stream which, breaking through, flushes out adolescence, childhood, whatever scrap of warmth we’ve managed to collect around us over the course of our lives, leaving a person face-to-face with things as they are. And no human can be left there like that, alone with things as they are. Nobody deserves that.
For this insight she is grateful to Effie. For at least this.
—Get up, Darka says to Vovka Lasota, in the most casual voice on earth. Let’s get some breakfast.
By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright © 2005 by Askold Melnyzcuk. All rights reserved.