“I’m very happy,” said Personov as he left the house for work. “I’m very happy,” he reminded himself as he performed the process in reverse that evening. “I’m very happy,” he repeated as he rode the carousel with his kids. There were two: a six-year-old boy and a girl of four. The boy was full of curiosity and used to construct fleets of ships out of cardboard; the girl was cute and round-faced and already demonstrated a talent for housekeeping.
“I’m very happy,” insisted Personov as he gazed at his wife, Tanya. She had long legs, a slender waist, and affectionate eyes. She was successful at everything all the time and never got angry about anything at all, and she loved her husband very much. He was tall and charming, with an athletic build. He played tennis well, was a good swimmer, and enjoyed skiing. He earned the money for his skis by honest toil. As it happened, he drew a high salary. Right after his studies at the institute, Personov found a job at a highly respectable research and development office where the pay was exceptionally good. He was made senior engineer after only a year, and thereafter he sailed lightly and brilliantly over the waters of his profession. And at the same time he never participated in intrigues, nor did he take shortcuts. He didn’t flatter his superiors, yet in all the lists for promotion his name always came up first. He had no influential relatives. But benefits and awards ceased to shower on his head—they began to fall in a heavy, frightening avalanche. Personov was respected. Personov got invited places. Personov was made offers . . .
“I’m very happy,” he thought as he crossed the street one day. “And if right now a car or bus hits me, all this happiness will end,” he mused further, and caught himself in the horrific realization that this was in fact precisely what he wanted.
Personov got sick with happiness and had to be taken to the hospital. Lying on his bed and staring at the white ceiling of the ward or out the window, where the sky was blue at some times and gray at others, he whispered in his sorrow, “I’m very happy, very happy, very happy.”
At night Personov kept the man next to him awake. “Look, will you shut up with your fucking happiness?” his neighbor growled, tossing and turning. “You’re happy? Well, keep it down. The idiot has everything and he has to keep the whole world awake with it. Shut up, do you hear what I’m saying?”
Personov was quiet for a minute and then began to mutter again. The doctors held consultations at his bedside. Tanya, ever cheerful, thoughtful, and lovely, brought him delicious, juicy veal, books, fruit compote, and regards from their friends. “You’ll get well soon, I’m absolutely certain,” she said to him in a deep, disturbing voice. “As soon as you get out of here we’ll fly straight to Issyk Kul. The lake looks like an emerald set in a bezel of mountain peaks. Just think how marvelous it will be.”
“She had soft facial features, and whenever we decided on something or other her eyes and smile sparkled, as though she had just received a precious gift,” Personov thought, remembering a phrase from Hemingway and groaning inwardly. “How happy I am! My God, how happy I am!” His neighbor meanwhile pleaded with the doctors to inject the happy man with sedatives. But the doctors only frowned. They understood that it was inadvisable, even improper to arrest the expression of positive emotions. Something else bothered them: “Is there anything causing you worry, anything with which you’re dissatisfied?” they would ask, peering attentively at their bizarre patient. He would ponder the question, staring into the middle distance, and then reply, “I’m very happy.”
All this went on for ten days or so. Ten days is long enough to exhaust the patience of a saint, and Personov’s neighbor was certainly no saint. He decided on a simple and direct course of action: to smother the happy fellow with a pillow. One evening, when Personov’s moans of happiness had become particularly loud and intolerable, the man leaped suddenly from his bed, gripping the pillow with both hands like a heavy saber. He reached Personov in one leap and collapsed upon him with all his weight. They fought silently, ferociously for a short time; and at last the neighbor was thrown, defeated, to the floor. “You’re as strong as an ox,” he whimpered. “Anybody as strong as you are should be ashamed to whine. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Yes, I thoroughly understand, and I do apologize,” wheezed Personov, blood coursing from his nose.
“Well, damn it, get off me, then. You’re breaking my ribs.” Personov obediently rose, settled himself in bed, and pulled the gray hospital-issue blanket up to his chin.
His neighbor remained seated on the floor. “Well, what is it you’re so happy about?” he asked, after a short silence.
“First of all, work,” Personov began to list his reasons. “Every year a raise. Like on a silver platter. No end to it.”
“You can always get yourself fired, no problem there,” declared the voice from the floor.
“Fired? And then what? Become a janitor?”
“You could be a janitor. What’s wrong with that?” mused Personov’s neighbor, getting up and settling comfortably on the edge of his own bed. He took an apple from the night table and began to twirl it.
“A janitor!” Personov raised himself cheerfully on one elbow. “And what do you propose I do about my wife?”
“What’s wrong with your wife?” His neighbor was turning the apple around and around intently, as though he were trying to find and read something on it.
“She’s a beauty, pretty as a picture, a great cook, considerate, spends pennies on new clothes, makes as much as I do, and raises the kids so well that everybody just envies us,” Personov rattled off in one breath and glared evilly at his neighbor, as if to challenge him: Well, what do you say to that?
“Get a divorce,” his neighbor replied, shrugging his shoulders with indifference.
“And the kids?”
“It’ll be easier with them, too.”
“What are you saying!”
Personov burst out laughing, splitting his sides. The bed took off, the walls grimaced, and an utterly foul mug of a face squinted through the window, pointing at Personov. “You won’t get me,” he screamed, giving the face the finger.
Personov’s wife was bending over him with some kind of glass in her hand. “What’s this?” he asked, baffled.
“Rose hip tea. Nothing terrible, you just had a coughing fit.”
“I dreamed I was in the hospital,” said Personov plaintively, reluctantly.
“You’ve just been suffering from exhaustion,” replied Tanya in a pleasant voice brimming with reason and calm. “I talked with Litovtsev yesterday. He’s prepared to give you a week off as compensation for overtime. We’ll take the kids to Grandma’s on Saturday and head for Issyk Kul. The lake there . . . ”
” . . . is like an emerald set in a bezel of snowy peaks.”
“Exactly. And now drink your rose hip tea.” Personov obediently extended his hand to the glass and saw the obscene creature giving him the finger. “I won’t drink any rose hip tea,” he said to Tanya.
“As you please,” she replied gently, taking the glass away.
“And I’m not going to Issyk Kul either,” continued Personov, feeling a cold wave of ecstasy wash over him.
Tanya didn’t reply. She raised her silken eyebrows in astonishment, looked attentively at Personov, and then softly and lightly caressed his hair. “I’ve already made the reservations. You’ll be back to normal at Issyk Kul in no time.” She smiled encouragingly, her eyes—which really were very beautiful—agleam.
Well, what is the conclusion? Everything has remained more or less as before, so does Personov still pant under his heavy burden of unimaginable happiness? No, not entirely. Whenever he can’t stand it anymore, he remembers his neighbor on the ward, hears his voice as if he were in the room, and sees him thoughtfully twirling his apple. “So, I guess it’s time to get a divorce and become a janitor?” Personov asks him. The man nods, and Personov’s lips shape themselves into a smile.
There have been some objective improvements besides: the strange grin that now appears from time to time on Personov’s face has not gone unnoticed at the office and at home. “There’s just something suspect about him. Not one of us,” the boss muses, and then and there deletes Personov’s name from some private list. “What the hell are you smirking at?” says Tanya to herself with a sudden, uncharacteristic vulgarity, when she sees the divine bliss suffusing his features. The crease of a frown traverses her brow, and the darkness of a gathering storm obliterates the placid blue of her eyes. “You’re tired—let me do the dishes,” offers Personov then. And that, you must agree, is at least something.
For Vera Kobets’s “Pallida Turba,” please click here.