If he hadn’t been who he was, I never would have married again. I had everything: a child, a job, my freedom. And suddenly there he was . . . clumsy, practically blind, wheezing. Letting someone into your world with so much baggage—twelve years in Stalinist camps, they took him as a boy, sixteen years old. . . . With the burden of that knowledge . . . the differences. That’s not what I’d call freedom. What is it? What’s the point? Admit that I only pitied him? No. It was love, too. That’s exactly what it was: love. (She talks more for herself than for me.) It’s seven years he’s been gone, and I actually regret that he never knew me as I am now. I understand him better now, I’ve matured to where he was, but without him. Look . . . The story I’m telling . . . I’m afraid again . . . I’m afraid of not being me. Sometimes it scares me . . . Like in the sea . . . . I used to love swimming far from shore, until one day I got scared—I’m alone, it’s deep down there, and I don’t know what’s there.
(We’re drinking tea. We talk about something else. The memories resume just as abruptly as they stopped.)
Oh, those beach romances. Not for long. All too brief. A tiny maquette of life. You can begin beautifully and you can leave beautifully—what hasn’t worked out for us in life, what we would have wanted. That’s why we’re so fond of trips. Look . . . I have two braids, a navy blue polka dot dress bought at Children’s World a day before our departure. The sea. . . . I swim far from shore. More than anything in the world I love swimming. First thing in the morning I do my exercises under a white acacia. . . . A man is walking. A man, that’s all, very ordinary-looking, not young, saw me and for some reason rejoiced. He’s standing there and watching.
“Would you like me to recite some poetry to you tonight?”
“Maybe, but right now I’m going to swim far from shore.”
“And I’ll be waiting for you.”
He recited badly, constantly straightening his glasses. But he was touching. I understood . . . I understood what he was feeling. His fidgeting, those glasses, that agitation of his. But I’ve clean forgotten what he recited or why this was supposed to be so significant. Feelings are distinct beings—suffering, love, tenderness. They live their own lives; we feel them, but we don’t see them. You suddenly become part of another person’s life, without ever having the least suspicion. Everything happens to and without you. Simultaneously. . . . “I was so looking forward to seeing you,” he greets me the next morning. And he says it in such a voice that for some reason, at that moment, I believe him, though I wasn’t at all prepared to. Quite the contrary. But something’s changing around me, I can’t tell what or how. I’m at peace with whatever is going to happen. It isn’t love yet, I’ve simply felt. . . . Here’s that feeling. . . . That I’ve suddenly been given something huge. A person heard a person. He got through. I swim far from shore. I come back. He’s waiting. Again he says, “It’s all going to be fine for you and me.” And for some reason I believe it again. Look . . . Every day he met me at the sea. . . . We’re drinking champagne: “It’s red champagne, but decent champagne according to the price.” I like that sentence. (She laughs.) He scrambles eggs: “I’ve got an interesting deal going with these scrambled eggs. I buy ten eggs at a time, cook them two at a time, and there’s always one egg left.” Incredibly sweet things.
Everyone looks at us and asks, “Is this your grandfather? Is this your papa?” Here I am in that short dress. I’m twenty-eight. . . . It was only later he got handsome. With me. Why me? I was desperate all the time. Serve. There’s no other way. Or else don’t bother starting. A Russian woman is prepared to suffer. What else is she going to do? We’re used to our men, our ungainly, unhappy men, like my grandma and mama had. We don’t expect anything else; that’s passed down to us. But we’re terrible dreamers. . . .
“I was thinking about you.”
“What were you thinking about me?”
“I wished you and I were going somewhere. Far far away.”
You took my arm. And I didn’t need anything except to feel you next to me. That’s the tenderness I feel for you—looking at you and walking next to you is enough.
He and I spent happy hours together, utterly childlike hours. Good people are always children. Infantile. Helpless. You have to protect them.
“Maybe you and I will go away to some island where we can lie on the sand. . . .”
This is mine. . . . But how it should be in a general way, I don’t now. It’s like this with one, like that with another. Well, how should it be? Who’s going to measure it? And where are the scales? This . . . All Russian culture is built on the fact that misfortune is the best university. We grew up believing that. But I’d like happiness. . . . I wake up in the night: What am I doing? Look . . . I was uneasy, and that tension made me . . . “Your neck is always tight,” he remarked. But how can I stretch it out, put this out of my mind? What am I doing? What am I falling into? It’s an abyss there. . . .
He scared me at first. . . . A breadmonger. . . . The moment he saw bread, he’d start eating it up, methodically. Any amount. You can’t leave bread. That’s your ration. So he’d eat and eat, however much bread there was, that’s how much he’d eat. I didn’t understand right off. . . .
They tortured him with light. . . . Just a boy. Lord. . . . Sixteen years old. . . . They wouldn’t let him sleep for days on end. Ten years later he couldn’t tolerate bright light, even bright summer sunlight. What I loved was that morning brightness in the air, when the clouds are still high, sailing very high overhead. But he could spike a fever . . . from light. . . .
In school they beat him and wrote on his back in chalk: “Son of an enemy of the people.” The school principal ordered it. . . . Childhood fears don’t go away; they linger in a person until he dies. They pop up in difficult moments. . . . Poke out. . . . And I sensed that in him. . . .
Where am I headed? Russian women love to find just these unfortunates. My grandmother loved one and her parents married her off to another. How she disliked him. How she didn’t want to! My God! And she decided when the priest in church asked her the question—Are you marrying of your own free will?—she would say no. The priest was tight, though, and instead of asking what he was supposed to, he said, “Don’t you humiliate him. He froze his feet off in the war.” So naturally she had to marry him. That’s how my grandmother got our grandfather, whom she never loved, for her whole life. That’s our whole life in miniature: “Don’t you humiliate him. He froze his feet off in the war.” My mama’s husband was in the war, too, and came back devastated. Living with someone like that, with all that baggage, is a big job, and it lay on the woman’s shoulders. No one! No one has ever written, never have I read, how hard it is to live with victors. In his diaries Gleb makes an accurate point: in the camp he realized that in Russia one out of every two people did time, whether for an arrested father, for an ear of corn picked from a kolkhoz field, for being (ten minutes) late to work, for refusing to inform, for a joke, for an abortion. . . . Our men are martyrs, they were all traumatized—either by the war or by the camps. For many the war ended in the camps; echelons marched straight from the front to Siberia. Immediately after the victory. Echelons of victors. It’s our usual condition, waging war against someone. The woman keeps on doctoring. She treats her man a little like a hero and a little like a child. She saves him. To the present day. . . . The Soviet empire fell. Now we have the victims of the collapse. Take a look around you, at how many have wound up on the sidelines, thrown from the moving train. The army is being cut back, factories stand idle. . . . Engineers and doctors are standing in the markets selling stockings . . . bananas. . . . I love Dostoevsky, but he’s the prisons, the camps. In Russia, the war theme is a constant; we never seem to get to the epilogue. Look . . . (She stops.) Let’s take a break. I’ll heat up some tea. Then we can go on. I have to complete this journey, from beginning to end. With my small cup of experience.
(Half an hour later our conversation resumes.)
A year must have passed, maybe a little more. He was supposed to visit me at home, and I had warned him that my mama was fine but my daughter, you see, wasn’t quite . . . she was . . . I couldn’t guarantee how she’d greet him. Oh, my Anka. (She chuckles.) She used to hold everything up to her ear: a toy, a stone, a spoon. Children usually put things in their mouth, but she put them up to her ear to find out what they sounded like! I started her off on music fairly early, but she’s such a stubborn child, the moment I put a record on she would turn around and leave. She didn’t like anyone’s music—the mark of a composer. She was only interested in what was sounding inside her. Well, Gleb arrived, you see, very nervous. He’d gotten a bad haircut, too short, and he wasn’t particularly handsome. And he brought records. He started telling how he’d been walking along and how he’d bought the records. But Anka has an ear. She doesn’t hear the words, she hears . . . the intonations. She picked up the records immediately: “What plitty lecolds.” And that was how their love began. After a while she cornered me: “How can I not call him Papa?” He didn’t try to make her like him, he was simply interested. They would love each other more than they did me. Both of them. Him and her. That was right, I think. I wasn’t insulted, I had a different role. . . . He asks her, “Anka, are you stuttering?” “I’m stuttering bad now, but I was stuttering good before.” They were never bored. So: “How can I not call him Papa?” We’re sitting in the park, Gleb has gone to buy cigarettes, and he comes back: “What are we talking about, girls?” I wink at her—under no circumstances, it would be silly at the least. But she says: “Then you tell him.” What could I do? What choice did I have? I admitted to him that she was afraid she might slip and call him Papa. He said, “It’s a tricky business, of course, but if you really want to, then call me that.” “You’d better watch out,” my miracle says very seriously, “I have another papa, too, but I don’t like him, and Mama doesn’t love him.” It’s always like that with her and me. We burn our bridges. On the way home he was already Papa. She was running and shouting, “Papa! Papa!” The next day at kindergarten she announced to everyone, “My papa’s teaching me how to read.” “And who’s your papa?” “His name is Gleb.” The next day her little friend brought this news item from home: “Anka, you’re lying. You don’t have a papa. That’s not your real papa.” “No, it’s the other one who wasn’t my real papa. This one is.” Arguing with Anka is futile. He was “Papa” now. But what about me? I wasn’t yet his wife. . . .
I have a vacation. I’m going away again. He runs after the train and waves for a long time. But a romance starts up right on the train. Two young engineers from Kharkov are traveling to Sochi, as am I. My God! I’m so young. The sea. The sun. We swim, kiss, dance. For me it’s simple and easy because the world is simple. A cha-cha-cha and a ka-za-chok and I’m in my element. They love me, they carry me around, two hours up the mountain. Young muscles, young laughter. A campfire until morning. I dream: the ceiling opens up . . . the sky . . . I see Gleb. He and I are going somewhere, walking along the shore, and that’s not a gull polished by the waves over there but very sharp rocks, thin and sharp, like nails. I’m wearing shoes, but he’s barefoot. “Barefoot,” he explains to me, “you feel more.” “You don’t feel more, you hurt more. Let’s switch.” “What’s the matter with you? Then I won’t be able to fly away.” And after he says that he lifts off, his arms crossed like a dead man, and in that position flies, is carried, off. Even now, if I see him in a dream, then it’s always flying. But for some reason his arms are crossed like on a dead man, nothing at all like wings.
God, I’m insane, I shouldn’t be telling anyone these stories. Still, more often than not I have the feeling that I’ve been happy in this life. Even after he was gone. I went to the cemetery, I can remember now, I’m walking . . . He’s here somewhere, such an acute feeling of happiness—I want to shout. My God. (To herself. Mumbling.) I’m insane. . . . You’re left one on one with death. He died many times; he’d been rehearsing his death since he was sixteen. “Tomorrow I’ll be dust and you won’t be able to find me.” We’re getting close to the main point. . . . In love I start living slowly, living very slowly . . . in slow sips. With us all these stories are for telling. We love continuations. . . .
Vacation is over and I come back. The engineer sees me all the way to Moscow. I have to tell Gleb everything. I go to see him. Lying on his desk is a weekly all scribbled over, the wallpaper in his office has writing all over it, even the newspapers he was reading. Everywhere, just three letters: s, t, i. Capital and lowercase, print and cursive. I ask him, “What’s this?” He decodes: So that’s it? There are question marks everywhere . . . like keys. So it looks like we’re breaking up and we have to explain it to Anka somehow. We go to pick her up, but before she leaves the building she insists she has to draw! She doesn’t get to, though, and she’s sitting in the car sobbing. He’s used to her being so insane; he thinks this is a sign of talent. It’s a family scene: Anka’s crying, he’s explaining something to her, and I’m in between. He’s looking and looking at me. (She pauses.) And I realized he was a wildly lonely person. (She pauses.) What happiness that I didn’t pass him by. What happiness! We had to get married. He was afraid because he’d been married twice. Women had betrayed him. They wearied of him and it wasn’t their fault. I didn’t pass him by . . . and I . . . He gave me an entire life.
He didn’t like being questioned. He rarely opened up, and if he did start to reminisce he always added a bravado to it, to make it funny, something from camp life, which concealed something all too serious, of a completely different order. For instance, he always said “my little freedom” instead of “freedom.” “And here I have my little freedom.” A rare mood. . . . He would tell such delicious stories. I could tell what joys he’d brought back. How once he’d gotten hold of some tire scraps and tied them to his felt boots, and they had a long march, and he was so happy to have those tires. Once they were brought half a sack of potatoes and somewhere in his little freedom, when they were working, someone gave them a big piece of meat. That night in the boiler room they made soup: “And you know, it tasted so good! Marvelous!” When they freed him he received compensation for his father and they told him: “We owe you for your house, your furniture. . . .” Big money. He bought a new suit, a new shirt, and new shoes, then he bought a camera and went to the restaurant at the National, ordered the most delicious dishes, and drank brandy and coffee with their trademark torte. In the end, when he’d eaten his fill, he asked someone to photograph him at this, the happiest moment of his life. “I went back to the apartment where we’d lived, and reminisced—and caught myself thinking that I didn’t feel any happiness. In that suit, with that camera. Why wasn’t this happiness? Those tires came to mind, that soup in the boiler room. Now that was happiness.” And we tried to understand. . . . Look . . . Where does this happiness reside? He wouldn’t have given up or traded camp for anything. From sixteen to nearly thirty he knew no other life, and if he tried to imagine not having been imprisoned he would get terrified. What would have happened then? Instead? What would he not have attained? What would he not have seen? Probably what was absolutely pivotal, what made him who he was. To my question, “What would you have become if not for the camps?” he would reply, “I’d be a jerk driving a red racecar, the most stylish one around.” Camp inmates rarely hang out together. Something gets in the way. What? In each others’ eyes they trace what happened; the humiliations suffered get in the way. Especially for the men. Old camp inmates rarely visited us at home, and he didn’t seek them out.
He was thrown to the thieves. . . . A boy. . . . What happened to him there no one will ever know. A woman might talk about her humiliations, but not a man. It’s easier for a woman to talk because violence is part of her biology, part of the sex act itself. Every month she starts life anew. Those cycles. . . . Nature itself helps her.
Two cases of severe malnutrition. He lay on his bunk covered in boils, soaked in pus. He should have died, but for some reason he didn’t. When the fellow lying next to him died, he turned him toward the wall. He slept with him like that for three days. “Is that one alive?” “Yes.” That got him a double ration of bread. His horror was so intense that he lost touch with reality and death ceased to frighten him. It was winter. Outside, a row of neatly laid out corpses. Mostly men’s.
He went home on an upper berth. The train took a week. He wouldn’t come down during the day and went to the toilet at night. He was afraid. If his traveling companions offered him anything—he’d burst into tears. If they got to talking they would find out he was from the camps.
He was a wildly lonely person.
Now he proudly told everyone, “I have a family.” Every day he was amazed at ordinary family life and took great pride in all of it. Only the fear . . . the fear was sucking him dry, eating away at him. He would wake up in the night sweating, terrified that he wouldn’t finish his book, wouldn’t be able to feed his family, I’d leave him. First fear, and then shame over his fear. “Gleb, if you wanted me to dance in the ballet for you, I would. I can do anything for you.” In the camp he survived, but in regular life . . . an ordinary patrolman stopping the car could lead to a heart attack. “How did you stay alive there?” “I was very well loved as a child.” What saves us is the quantity of love we’ve taken in, it’s our reserve of strength. I was his nurse. . . . nanny. . . . actress. So that he wouldn’t see himself as he was, so he wouldn’t see his own fear. Otherwise he couldn’t love himself. So that he wouldn’t find out that I knew. . . . Love is a vitamin without which a person can’t live, his blood ebbs and his heart stops. Oh, I dug so deep down inside myself. Living was like a hundred-meter dash. (She pauses and sways slightly to the beat of her own thoughts.) You know what he asked me right before he died? His sole request: “Write on my gravestone that I was a happy man. I managed to do so much: I survived, I loved, I wrote a book, I have a daughter. My God, what a happy man I am.” A stranger hearing or reading this-he wouldn’t believe it. A clinical case, he’d say. But he was a happy man! He gave me so much. I became a different woman. . . . How little our life is. Eighty, a hundred, two hundred years would not be enough for me. I can see my little old mama looking at the garden. She doesn’t want to say goodbye to that. No one wants to say goodbye to that. . . . I’m sorry, so sorry, that he didn’t know me as I am today. I understand him. I now understand him. Look . . . He was a little, just a little, afraid of me. He was afraid of some female essence of mine. He would repeat: “Remember, when I’m in a bad way, I want to be alone.” But . . . I couldn’t. . . . I had to watch over him. (She pauses to think something through.) You can’t purge a life before your death so that it will be clean, like death. This is when a person becomes as handsome as he is. Breaking through to that essence in life is probably unthinkable. You get close.
When I found out he had cancer, I lay in tears all night and in the morning raced to see him in the hospital. He was sitting on the windowsill, jaundiced and very happy. He was always happy when something in his life was changing. Whether the camps, or exile, or the start of his liberty, and now it was something else. Death as liberty . . . as change.
“Are you afraid I’ll die?”
“Well, first of all, I never promised you anything. And second of all, it’ll be at home and not very soon.”
“Is that true?”
As always, I believed him. I wiped away my tears and convinced myself that I had to help him again. I didn’t cry anymore. In the morning I’d come to the ward and our life would begin, a life we’d lived at home and were now living in the hospital. We stayed in the oncology center half a year.
I can’t recall. . . . We talked so much, more than ever, for days on end, but only scraps come to mind. Snatches. . . .
He knew who had informed on him. The boy was in his club at the Young Pioneers House. He wrote a letter. Maybe it was his own doing or maybe someone made him: Gleb had cursed Comrade Stalin, tried to vindicate his father, that enemy of the people. His investigator had shown it to him. All his life Gleb was afraid the man would find out that he knew. Once he even wanted to mention him in his book, but then he was told that the man had a retarded child and he got scared. What if it were retaliation? Camp inmates have their own relationship to their informers . . . their executioners. They often meet on the street, once we even happened to live next door. Gleb died and I told our mutual friend. She couldn’t believe it: “N.? That can’t be, he speaks so well of Gleb and what good friends they were as children. He cried at the cemetery.” I realized I mustn’t . . . mustn’t. . . . There’s a line that’s dangerous for a person to cross. Everything about the camps has been written by the victims. The executioners have been silent. We can’t tell them apart from other people. Look . . . And he didn’t want it. He knew it was dangerous.
He had been used to dying since he was a child. He wasn’t afraid of this little death. . . . The thieves’ leaders would sell their bread rations, lose, and eat coal. Black coal. And they would perish with their stomachs stuck together. But he would simply stop eating and only drink. One boy ran away . . . he ran away on purpose so they would shoot him. Over the snow, in the sun. . . . They aimed . . . they fired. It was fun . . . like hunting . . . like killing a duck. They shot him in the head, dragged him back on a rope, and tossed him out. Gleb didn’t have any fear there, but here he needed me.
“What’s a camp?”
“It’s hard work.”
I can hear . . . It’s as if I can hear his voice.
“Election day. We’re giving a concert at the polling place. I’m the emcee. I come out on stage and announce, ‘The choir will now perform.’ Political prisoners, Vlasovites, prostitutes, pickpockets-they line up and sing a song about Stalin: ‘And across distant lands our song flies to the top of the Kremlin.'”
A nurse comes in with a shot: “You’ve got a very red rear end. There’s no place left.” “Naturally I have a red rear end. I’m from the Soviet Union, after all.” We laughed a lot even during his last days. We laughed a whole lot.
“It’s Soviet Army Day. I’m on stage reciting Vladimir Mayakovsky’s ‘Poem of the Soviet Passport.’ ‘Read it. Envy it. I’m a citizen of the Soviet Union.’ Instead of a passport I’m holding a piece of black cardboard. I show it, and all the guards envy me. ‘I’m a citizen of the Soviet Union.’ The prostitutes, the former Soviet prisoners of war, the pickpockets, the SRs, they envy me.”
No one will ever know how it really was, what they came away with. He was a wildly lonely person. I loved him. . . .
At the door, I looked back and he waved. I came back a few hours later and he was already in a coma. He was asking someone, “Wait up. Wait up.” Then he stopped and just lay there unconscious. For three more days. I got used to that, too. There he is, lying there, while I’m alive here. They set up a bed next to him. Look . . . The third day . . . It was hard by then to inject intravenously. . . . Clots. . . . I had to give the doctors permission to stop everything. It wouldn’t hurt, he wouldn’t feel it. And he and I were left alone. No instruments, no doctors, no one coming in to check on him anymore. I lay down beside him. It was cold. I got under the blanket with him and fell asleep. I woke up but didn’t open my eyes. It felt like we were asleep at home and the balcony doors were open . . . he hadn’t woken up yet. My eyes were shut. I opened them-and it all came back to me. I began to toss. I stood up and put my hands on his face: “A-a-ah.” He heard me. The death throes began, and I . . . I sat like that and held his hand. I felt the last beat of his heart. I kept sitting like that for a long time. I called the aide, and she helped me put on his shirt, the blue one, his favorite color. I asked, “May I sit here a little longer?” “Yes, you’re welcome to. You’re not afraid?” I didn’t want to give him up to anyone. He was my child, and a mama is afraid of being parted from her child. What does she have to be afraid of? By morning he was handsome. The fear had left his face, and the tension was gone. All life’s vanity. And I saw his fine, elegant features. The face of an oriental prince. That’s the kind of man he was! That’s the kind of man he really was! I never knew him like that. He had never been like that with me. (She cries. For the first time in our entire conversation.)
I always shone with reflected light. I could make, create. . . . It was, of course, always work. Always work. Even in bed. So that he’d come—first him, then me. “You’re strong, you’re good, you’re the very best. You’re won-der-ful.” Never in my life have I had a man who could take me so that I didn’t feel like a nanny. A mama. A nurse. I was always lonely. Later, I had admirers. Romances. Even now I have a friend, and he’s all clenched up inside, too, unhappy, uncertain, because that’s our life, the country we live in. Our history is our misfortunes and catastrophes. Even Gleb was bolder. After the camp. He had some conceit: See, I survived! See, I endured! The things I’ve seen! He was proud. But this one has today’s fear . . . in every cell. I have the same part to play. Always the same part. . . .
Nonetheless, I’ve been happy. Sure it’s been hard work, but I’m happy that the work has come out well. Most of the time in my life I’ve had the feeling that I’m happy. I just have to close my eyes. . .
By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2005 by Marian Schwartz. All rights reserved.