Cabbage House Rules

We have sacks upon sacks upon sacks of cabbage sitting on the pus-brown linoleum floor. My father drags the crude hemp sacks in through the double entrance doors. His mustache is frosty. Frothy drafts slither around his feet, snaking into the apartment from the cold stairwell.
The green cabbage heads bulging out of the drab sacks are large, firm, heavy and well-developed.
There will be cabbage cores aplenty.
I think cabbage cores are the single best thing to eat in the world. Among the shortlisted are green bananas from Vietnam, which come available every February or so, and frozen pineapple. I’ve only eaten it once or twice; it is as freaky, unreliable and little-understood a food as manna from the sky. Cabbage cores, however, come every fall without fail or change, and are always plentiful and crunchy.
The stinky fermenting barrel has been soaking in the bathtub for two days. We’ve had to crawl around the barrels to squat and crouch under the faucet to do out nightly ablutions. The barrel is made of wood planks banded with strips of rusty metal; dark, wet, tall as I am, it reeks to high heaven. We use it only for the sour cabbage, and it fits enough cabbage to last our family of five from October to the next October.
Sour cabbage is one of the reliable food sources, like potatoes that come in earth-leaking sacks from the fields we keep, like raspberry, blackcurrant and gooseberry jam that is made over the summer and stored in jars upon jars upon jars upon jars, this year’s batch gooey, last year’s batch crystallized into hoary-white sugary solids.
We have jars upon jars of pickled cucumbers and tomatoes, some red, some green, a cellar full of carrots, beets and black winter radishes stored in sand; those are the things we grow ourselves, and they are always there. We can always come back to the cellar and the sour cabbage barrel and get more. Unlike the fickle fruit, meat and dairy, our garden food stays by our side, a faithful spouse. We barricade ourselves in glass jars against whatever may happen.
Autumn means food. Autumn is made of food.
Sour cabbage making occupies an entire weekend, and the entire kitchen and hallway. There are vegetables lying around the floor, ready to be processed; more are being processed and done being processed. Our father is in charge of soaking the barrel, sharpening the huge sauerkraut shredder blade, bringing in the cabbages, carrots and bags of salt, getting the remaining equipment ready, and shredding the cabbage into the barrel. The shredding takes a whole day, with meal breaks. Our father stands over the barrel running cabbage heads methodically against the sharp blade, his arms sinewy, a look of concentration on his face.
Us girls’ job is to do the carrots.
Our house is made of food and rules.
The carrots come with rules. We may not use, or even own, a carrot peeler. Carrot peelers are fancy, says our father, and our father resents fancy. Therefore, we are not fancy, ever, if we know what is good for us.
We peel carrots with knives instead. Knives are not fancy. We peel endless carrots with knives and shred them into metal tubs and washbasins on small handheld graters. The shredded orange pulp colors our hands yellow, and they remain yellow for days afterward. The carrot pulp goes in the barrel, and we make more, more, more. Carrots go on for the whole day, too.
Some people add apples or berries to their cabbage. Now, that is despicably fancy. Our father wonders who those people think they are. We never add anything to ours: it’s just cabbage, carrots, salt. Stir it with a long slimy wooden pole; pierce the surface while it cooks; let the stink out while it burbles. Our sour cabbage is the most correct cabbage in the world.
Other people do stupid things; we are not to do them. We are never to make pickles with vinegar. We are never to simmer beets in butter before we put them in our borscht. Ha! Those fancy people who do it – who do they think they are?
We are not to cut potatoes on a cutting board. We are all taught how to do it holding potatoes in one hand, knife in the other. People cutting potatoes on cutting boards – laughable!
The right way to sweep the kitchen floor is toward the center. We may never shuffle our feet when walking. We may never stand in the doorway, especially resting our palms on the door frame. We may never make little pigs out of boiled eggs by giving them little carrot ears. We may never cut bread slices into two lengthwise, only across. The worst way to cut bread is to cut into hateful fancy triangles.
Who do those people think they are?
Your triangle bread may get thrown out, just you watch.
When we eat soup, we may not have anything – cabbage leaves, bits and pieces – hanging over the rim of the bowl. We may not bury butter in hot porridge: it has to stay on the top and melt on the top. At dinner, we may not be caught glancing at our father’s newspaper.
if we do, we may get thrown out of the family dinner.
Ours is the most correct household in the world.
So, we peel and shred the endless annoying small slippery orange carrots correctly. Shredding carrots is women’s work; shredding cabbage is men’s work; this is the correct way of things.
The cabbage takes a few days to cook. It sits in the kitchen corner and makes noises and smells. In another kitchen corner, we have a huge green glass bottle, which had been previously discarded from some chemical lab; in the bottle, last year’s preserves and water are being fermented into berry wine. The wine makes noise. Air bubbles go through a rubber tube into a small clear bottle filled with water.
We have a fridge inside the kitchen wall. It is not electrical. It is just a niche in the wall that stays cold in the winter. The house was built by Japanese POWs in the ’40s, and the stone walls are a meter thick. Once the cabbage is done getting sour, some of it will go in jars to be stored in the wall fridge. The rest of it will be stored frozen solid in the shed outside. When my father goes outside in the winter to get some cabbage, he does not scoop it out; he mines it out, with tools, by the sweat of his brow. He brings it home in a solid block of ice.
Some people store their sour cabbage on the balcony. We don’t have a balcony, but even if we did, we would have pried it off the wall and thrown it down, because balconies are ridiculous and so are the people who own them. Ha!
My mother peels cabbage cores for me to eat; I can put away quite a few in one sitting. I like things that go crunch: cabbage, carrots, turnips, radishes. We don’t get a lot of apples, but we do get all the crab-apples we want. We just have to wait till fall comes and night temperatures dip below the mark where we start to get colds from going outside without a hat on.
When the night temperatures are at that mark, your mother bundles you up in scarves, coats, mittens, hats, itchy scratchy undergarments, lest you get the Interminable Snot, which could stay with you and your poor mother till next May. Then, you mother would have to drag you to the pediatrician in search of a magical cure, despite her own resigned knowledge that the doctor would prescribe the same cough syrup she always prescribes, the same syrup you get from the same spoon three times a day every November, the month of the Interminable Snot.
Our Interminable Snot is our mothers’ interminable shame.
Our mothers have so many opportunities to feel shame and to be shamed. If your child is sick, the doctor might scold you for not following the treatment plan; the neighbors and the old ladies on the bench by the front door might scold you for letting your child run around hatless eating filthy crab-apples while you, the negligent mother, are off gallivanting; your boss at work might scold you for taking too many sick leaves; your own mother might scold you for not doing the mustard foot baths for your child correctly, and for wrong techniques of child rearing; your husband might scold you for letting the kids run around wild and shuffle their feet with abandon, which causes them to get holes in their shoes, which causes them to get their feet wet, which causes them to get the Interminable Snot, which is not even really an illness, so why are you making such a big deal of it, it’s ridiculous – ha!
If you are to feel like a decent mother, you cannot let your child get sick, wet her bed, have bad handwriting, be left-handed, gain less weight than the chart in the clinic says she should, or enjoy breast feedings on demand when the Polyclinic chart clearly says: nurse every three and a half hours on the dot! You cannot let your child go to school with hair not brushed properly, or tights wrinkling around the knees. You cannot let your child draw margins in her copybook in blue pen when the teacher clearly requires green, or make the margins three centimeters wide when the teacher clearly said two. You cannot have her go to school with red ribbons in her braids when the school clearly said brown or black. You cannot have your child go to school with an eighteen-sheet copybook in her bag when the teacher clearly said – twelve!
Our world is made of rules. It is the most correct world in the world.
Mother! Make sure your child is up to everyone’s standards. Spank her if her cursive letters start slanting left. Bathe her in hot mustard water when she gets colds. Don’t let her run screaming around your disapproving husband. Wash, train and insulate your child!
When the temperatures dip below the mother-insulate-your-child mark, the crab-apples become frostbitten and edible to humans. Soft, sour and squishy, they are covered in black soot; our city has a coal power plant, a machine-building plant, a textile factory, a brick factory, a sheepskin processing factory, and many other things that throw up black bile into the sky and cover freshly fallen snow overnight with a dusting of black pepper.
The soot never deters the kids from eating the blackened crab-apples. From September to November, kids hang in clusters from crab-apple trees. Their school bags litter the lawns underneath. Every day, around two p.m., when school is finally out, the crab-apple alleys and crab-apple groves around the Lenin Square suffer an infestation of filthy-faced kids calling out to each other like birds from atop the trees, laughing, gorging on the source of vitamin C as faithful as the sour cabbage that their parents are making at home en masse.
In their backpacks, the kids each have two twelve-sheet copybooks for math and two twelve-sheet copybooks for writing, two pencils, one pen with green ink, one pen with blue ink, one wooden ruler, one gray eraser, three tetanus shots, a bouquet of dahlias for each September 1st, five breast feedings a day, none for the night, two brown-ribboned braids, one pair of gym shoes, a white top, a dark bottom, one light spanking a week on the average, one daily radio program for Young Pioneers for breakfast, and one Interminable Snot.
At home, their parents have seven bushels of cabbage per October per household, one less room in the apartment than they minimally need, one light spanking a week on the average, a two-bit piece of land on which to grow dahlias for each September 1st, one school uniform per child per year, always perilously close to being too small, one stupid boss and three useless meetings per month per workplace, five days before the payday and the money is all gone, and a lot more Interminable Snot than they ever wanted.

REVEILLE

The Forbidden Cabin stands abandoned, maimed and ruined amid tall weeds and overgrown bushes. Its windows are dark and reflect nothing; nothing inside, nothing outside. No glass. Black. Black weeds.
The counselors would probably skin us alive if they saw us go there. There would be a punishment of a special order. The Forbidden Cabin has a broken porch, they say. It is off limits, they say. It may as well not exist. It is a black hole. It is Forbidden.
It does not exist for me, personally. If you ask me, I have no desire to go. It is not on my map. I am ignoring it.
I would rather swing back and forth, back and forth for hours, as the dusk becomes thicker, as the day bears on and wears off, and I kick my legs up and down, up and down, and I look at the tops of the poplars come up and away, up and away. I would be on the swings all evening, and it would keep me busy, too busy to go to the Forbidden Cabin and do what I am supposed to. (And not supposed to.)
I did not ask to be sent to this stupid camp. And I did not ask to be anyone’s stupid girlfriend.
I am just happy on the swings. Not happy, but reasonably, manageably sad. I know that it will be fourteen more days, and I am just about done swinging this day into night. Fourteen days more, and they will take our moist mattresses and thin cold cotton blankets away; the blue-stamped sheets will be put in a pile in a corner of the counselors’ room; we will sweep moldy breadcrumbs and stray candy wrappers out of our shared nightstands, we will drink our final half-glasses of acidic apple juice in the drafty plywood canteen, and chuck our uneaten cold kasha with congealed margarine puddles on top into the trash, and we will be loaded onto the factory bus, the bus of my freedom and salvation, and we will be taken to the bus stop in front of the factory, and the hot city asphalt will greet me with its wonderful toxic breath, and my dad will pick me up and take me home, and I will be so happy for once to see my scary grumpy dad who never talks.
Manageably sad is not the worst.
Zhanna runs by the swings, giggling. Her face is red. She shouts something to me, but as she is shouting in secret, it comes out pretty quiet, and as I happen to be high on the swings and going really fast, I can pretend that I do not hear her, that I am very busy.
She runs along, and I do not get off the swings to run with her to the Forbidden Cabin.
Maybe I am no fun. Maybe they are no fun.
Zhanna is silly. When the bigger boys come to our bedroom after bedtime to tell us ghost stories, all the girls tuck themselves in under their blankets and lie there very modest, only their noses showing. Zhanna, in her nightie, sits up all the way hatched from the blanket, and drops one nightie strap off her shoulder, and just sits there with her naked shoulder and her missing teeth and her boy haircut, sticking out like a sore skinny tan thumb. Her nightie is like what grown women wear, blue, synthetic and thin-strapped; I don’t know where her parents bought it, I never saw these for sale for third graders.
There is thin lace on the straps, dirty, filthy-gray. There is nowhere for us to launder our clothes, or to shower, and camp is thirty days and thirty nights long. They don’t even let us swim in anything. The pool is drained, and the little creek is off limits. “You’ll drown and we’ll go to prison!” they say all the time. By the time camp ends, we are all crusty. “You’ll go to the Forbidden Cabin and be up to God-knows-what, and we’ll go to prison! You’ll let the older boys come into your bedroom after hours, and be up to God-knows-what, and we’ll go to prison!” Seems like there are a lot of pedagogues in prison.
Zhanna brokered this stupid girlfriendship, and now she wants me to go the Forbidden Cabin and do it all properly.
I am not getting off these swings. If I get off the swings, someone else will get on them, and I will have to while away the hours before bedtime on the ground, which is seven times slower.
I only agreed to be his stupid girlfriend for Oksana, by the way.
Oksana has freckles all over her face. Oksana has curly brown hair. Oksana has plum eyes. Oksana is great. Oksana was my best friend in preschool. I was so surprised and happy to meet her again in this stupid camp.
Oksana’s parents lifted her from camp, barely a week in, and took her to a Black Sea resort.
Oksana had a boyfriend in camp. His name was Sasha, and I did not even know what he looked like, although he was in our troop. And I had zero interest in what he looked like.
Not getting off the swings. Do whatever cursing and shouting you have to do, you small asshole boy underneath. I am kicking higher. Yeah, try throwing pinecones. Ha! You missed, dumbo!
And then, a couple of days after Oksana left, on a dusky evening like this one, I was sitting on my bed, which is the fourth counting from the door, just one away from the window, and I was glad it was not right by the window because, if in the middle of the night the boys break in through the window, it’s the girl in the window-side bed who gets it, whatever “it” is.
And so, I sat, reading Jules Verne and feeling very hungry, and I was just about to ask if anyone had a piece of candy or bread, without much hope, because parent visit day had been two days before and all the care package food was long eaten.
And Zhanna walked in with a silly mysterious smile on her face, and waltzed up to me, and said in a special secretive voice: “The boys want to talk to you. Will you talk to them?”
The boys? To me?! What in the hell would boys ever want with me?
And then she went back to the door, and opened it, and beckoned in three boys, first Igor, then two more, with no names and no lines, behind him.
Igor sat down on my bed and looked at me with his electric galactic glacial gaseous mystical chiffon blue eyes which he could turn on and off. They were like a fridge light: sometimes you open the fridge and the light comes on, and sometimes you open the fridge and it doesn’t, and you never know which it is going to be.
And he turned his eyes on. And he said:
“Sasha, as you know, is without a girlfriend now. Since Oksana left. He is asking you to be his girlfriend instead. Please, agree. Please, agree. Please. We all have girlfriends.” He motioned to his own girl who was far, far, far prettier than I would ever, ever, ever be. “Don’t be a meanie? Please, agree?”
That was how I got suckered into being a girlfriend of someone whose face I did not even know properly.
(And it turned out I did not like him in the slightest.)
And now I have to go to the Forbidden Cabin, if I dismount the swings.
Zhanna is running past the swings again, in the other direction. Her face is shining happy and she is dramatically fixing her clothing, which is in ostensible disarray.
“See?” She rubs her face red. “See? I have to rub all this off before the counselors catch me! Or they will see I was kissed all over!” Fast words, glee and little bits of spit tumble out of her mouth where half the teeth have been lost to cavities. “Oh, and Sasha asked me! To tell you! That he is breaking up with you! Because you won’t go kissing in the Forbidden Cabin! And he does not think you are pretty! And he said Oksana was so much prettier! And he does not love you anymore! I am his girlfriend now!”
She runs away, rubbing her neck to remove the telltale signs of neck kissing.
The Forbidden Cabin of Dissolution and Ecstasy is drowning in late shadows, its green plywood back crumbling into darkness.
The mosquitoes are on the prowl.
I am going to pee, and look for a piece of bread in my bag, and put on socks before I go to bed so that I freeze slightly less underneath the voile blanket, and re-read Jules Verne, and have trouble falling asleep, and lie awake in the pitch-black room, and wait for the reveille.

 

Who’s a Moron? Immer Bereit!

Some girls seem to be born blessed with an innate sense of propriety.
They dress just right, they dance elegantly, their grades or romantic choices are never a subject of peer discussion, no one points and laughs at them.
They do not accept invitations to host a talent show while clad in a swimsuit top and harem pants, and they certainly do not announce the show’s intermission as their own personal bathroom break.
I, on the other hand, do that. I did that. I did once say onstage to a few hundred peers, “Now we will have a fifteen minute entr’acte, and I am going to pee.”
When I was a schoolkid (i.e. when being a laughingstock mattered the worst) I often landed myself in something, or some other entity landed me in it.
Either way, I landed.
Allow me to share two personal embarrassments related to the Soviet culture and wound around my formidable 3rd Grade teacher Aleksandra Fyodorovna.
(Yes, I know that the word “wound” visually creates a syntactic maelstrom in the sentence above.)
In 3rd Grade, we were given an assignment to memorize a few stanzas of our own choosing from Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem “Vladimir Il’yich Lenin.” We were to recite the excerpts in class in front of everyone.
Such poem was indeed found in my home library.
I leafed through.
Fancy words caught my eye.
Fancy curly-wurly made-up words caught my eye.
The part with the fancy words began with “Capitalism, in the years of his youth, was an okay guy, a hardworking one…”
I memorized the part with the fancy words and I brought it to school in my small idiot birdmouth.
And there I stood in class, in front of thirty ten-year-olds, singing a tale of capitalism’s spoliation:,
“He built a palace/ Which makes the mind boggle/ More painters than one/ Have crawled over its walls/ Its floors are Empire-ic/ Its ceilings Rococcal/ Its walls are Louis the Fourteenth/ the Quartorze!”
Aleksandra Fyodorovna the teacher and assigner of Mayakovsky poems looked at me like a chicken.
Really, the expression of her eyes and the tilt of her neck were chicken-like.
The kids around me were like, WTF?
I went on: “It’s surrounded by mugs which are of a piece/ With both faces and butt-cheeks/ The ass-faced police!”
Sit down, Anya. Maybe be normal next time, and pick something properly didactic.
Sit down.
Next!
Next, we had a school-wide Marching and Singing Parade.
For those innocent: the Marching and Singing Parade is an annual school-wide event in which each class puts on Parade uniforms, names itself via the teaching staff’s suggestions after a Soviet war hero, and marches around the school gym shouting out cadences, waving flags, drumming drums and being alternately at attention and at ease.
What’s this tight-knit marching group?
It’s our Young Pioneer troop!
Sound off! Soviet!
Sound off! Union!

(I made up the last two lines in this marching cadence just now.)
Aleksandra Fyodorovna the teacher and taskmaster appointed me to carry the flag of our troop during the Parade.
Trouble is, we were not Young Pioneers yet in 3rd Grade.
We were pre-Pioneers, October Kids, and so we were not yet technically marching fodder. We were admitted into the Pioneer and Komsomol Parade through some odd decision of the teaching staff.
Our school’s staff seemed to be quite into all things military; I mean, a year before the fateful Parade they had shown us, second-graders, WWI documentary reels illustrating the effects of nerve gases on human physiology.
(I am still unable to sleep.)
So we the weetle October Kids were to march in the school-wide Parade, which apparently posed issues for Aleksandra Fyodorovna.
She decided that we had to march differently, to indicate that we were not full-grown marchers yet.
Specifically,  she instructed me not to carry the red flag vertically, like the Pioneers did.
I was to carry the flag at a slant.
And so I did.
What did I know?
Didn’t know any different.
I marched out with the half-lowered flag, leading the troop behind me into
a gym full of finger-points and sneering laughter.
Apparently, carrying the flag lowered is a giant marching faux-pas.
The flag HAS to be upright UNLESS it’s a funerary procession.
And no Soviet leader happened to die or be interred that day.
They laughed, and teased, and laughed, and teased, for days, and weeks, and months.
“Did you think you were at a funeral? What a moron! Who died? Moron! Sound off! Ha-ha! Sound off! Moron!”
I don’t know if Aleksandra Fyodorvna got upbraided in the teacher’s lounge afterwards, for trotting out a ten-year-old with a funerary flag during a joyous Soviet occasion, but she never did apologize to me for wrecking what little social cred I had.
I got moved to a new school after the elementary. That school, too, had Marching Parades. In one, I stood at ease; I overheard whispers behind me:
“In this other school, this one stupid chick marched out with the flag lowered! — No shit! Ha-ha! What a moron!”
Sit down, Anya.
Sit down.

Mimosa (Sergei Mikhalkov, 1972)

Who’s this person lying down,
Piled with blankets stuffed with down?
Who’s this, resting on three pillows
Near a table laid with food?
Who has left his bed a mess,
Who took centuries to dress,
Who washed his cheeks with tepid water
Just as gently as he could?

It’s a grandpa, you must mean,
Aged one hundred and fourteen?
No.

Who grabs a cake and starts to chew
And says: “Gimme some juice now, too!
Gimme this,
And gimme that!
That’s not what you’re supposed to do!”

Is this someone we heard speak
Lame and weak?
No.

So who is he?
And why is he
Given winter booties and
Thick fur mitts to warm his hands,
So he won’t catch any chills
Or a deadly flu that kills,
Though it’s sunny out and though
For six months we’ve had no snow?

Is he going to the North Pole,
To bears swimming in an ice hole?
No.

Take a better look and — wait!
It’s just Vitya, he’s a boy,
Mama’s boy
And Papa’s boy
From Apartment Number Eight.

He’s the one who’s lying down,
Piled with blankets stuffed with down!
He’s the one who will eat nothing
But his pastries and his cakes!

For what reason?
For the reason
That as soon as he’s awake,
Someone will run up and take
His temperature; then someone puts
On him his clothes and then his boots,
And he will always, day or night,
Get what he wants without a fight.

If he’s sleepy in the morning,
He will stay in bed all day.
If a cloudy day is dawning,
He wears his rain boots all day.

For what reason?
For the reason
That he’s treated like a king,
And that he lives in his new house,
Unprepared for anything.

Unprepared to pull a trailer,
Or be a courageous sailor,
Or to fly a plane, or step in
And learn how to fire a weapon!

He’s raised warm like in a bathhouse,
With his Ma and Pa as wardens,
Like a mimosa in a glasshouse,
Which they have in botanic gardens.

She’s with the Band

Hooray Women’s Day! I was taken to a cardiac ICU once. Not for cardiac purposes; for drinking vodka. Upon the fresh ruins of the Soviet Union, a situation like that was not extraordinary. I was a nineteen-year-old female, and my then-boyfriend brought me along to a vodka gig in a hospital.
Boyfriend was in a short-lived attempt of a band. Their frontman worked nights in the ICU. The rest of the band came, and they drank, shouted, fought and sang, and their lead guitarist played acoustic in the little room off the beeping patients.
They sang some Beatles. I knew some Beatles.
The lead guitarist, who had not said a word to me all night, or at any band practice previous, never thereafter, not in the street, not in a tree, said to my boyfriend, past my face:
“She has a voice like The Mamas and the Papas.”
The frontman, who had not said a word to me all night, or at any band practice previous, never thereafter, not in the street, not in a tree, suddenly stood swaying, blocking my exit as everyone trickled out, and said to my face:
“Oh won’t you stay! Just a little bit longer! Oh please please please! I don’t know where you’re going to! Yo-mama-don’t-mind-wop-wop-doo-wop!”
Or something to that effect.
“Stay the night!” he said. “Why are you with him? Come on! He can go! Stay the night!”
And he shoved my boyfriend aside.
Well, I didn’t stay but that’s not the point.
The point here is the triangulation of conversation.
It’s not about objectification, oppression, aggression, macro, micro, nano; it is about who-said-what-to-whom-and-why-it-went-that-way-and-which-parts-I-care-about.
The triangulation of motivation.
And mostly – mine.
While a young woman, I was herded through situations. I was an infusorium. I was intelligent but dumb.
Now I am stupid and wise.
The progressive transparency laid over the “Mamas and Papas” part of the dialogue says: she is referred to in the third person because she is an object.
I object.
I now think that the guitarist did not speak to me directly in part so no one would think he’s flirting.
“She has a voice like The Mamas and the Papas”: observational.
“You have a voice like The Mamas and the Papas”: invitational.
(Just to be clear, I don’t. Mama Cass is divine and I am terrestrial.)
With occasional exceptions, relationships between girls and boys at that time in Russia were romantic or none.
That’s why the frontman spoke to me directly. He wanted to go from none to romantic.
And I said nothing then; an infusorium, I crawled around what other people did on my pseudopodia, a lot.
I mean, a lot more than I do now.
Now, it saves me that I really do not want to be an object. I mean, I do not need to be a subject and an object at the same time; I don’t want to be noticed and picked; I don’t need to be praised or found pretty, or special; I don’t need both agency AND acknowledgement, agency AND admiration.
I just like agency.
Agency is enough and plenty.
I can build everything else for myself out of agency alone, with the help of oh, maybe, the theory of mind.
As my subjecthood ripened, I realized: I don’t want to be With the Band.
I want to be In the Band.
In my late twenties I found I don’t like it that men, in Russia, will shake hands with each other but not with me, a woman.
And so I said: I want to shake hands, too.
And I reach out my hand and shake theirs.
No one has slapped me yet.
Once in my early twenties I came to a house-party of a Russian classmate, a very intelligent person who, for some young idiot reason, segregated the party like a public restroom: into Males (living room) and Females (kitchen.)
I surveyed the kitchen, greeted the females in a friendly manner, acknowledged that I did not really know any of them and their discussion at the moment was of no interest to me, got off the chair, went into Males, most of whom I knew well, sat down and joined the drinking and the conversation.
No one slapped me.
I sweep the micro-shit with a micro-broom into micro-trash.
If that cardiac ICU party happened today, I would not just sit there with an insipid smile. I would look in the eyes of the guitarist and say:
“You are an excellent guitarist but I question the validity of your claim re my voice according to the Fach.”
I would look in the eyes of the frontman and say:
“You are blind drunk right now. I love your singing because your voice box is attached to your feelings box; however, now is not the time for telling you this, as you are blind drunk. I will not be staying the night. Thank you for thinking about me that way! If I ever wanna stay the night, I’ll reach out.”
And I will reach out, too.
Happy Women’s Day!

Your Words Are like Farts in the Water

“Do you like candy?
Sure do!
Have you ever had (mumbled very quickly) pikupterdsandeetums?
What?
It’s fancy candy! Really yummy! You can only get it in Moscow! Have you ever had (mumbled very quickly) pikupterdsandeetums?
Uh… Maybe?
Ha-ha-ha! Pick-up-turds-and-EAT-THEM! You ate TURDS!”
Juvenile Soviet backyard scatology.
Taunts.

“Shut up, you inner-long-johns stench!”
“Oh, look, you are singing! With that voice! Your voice is only good for yelling ‘Occupied!’ from the shitter!”
“How long are you gonna be in the shitter? Did you swallow a rope?”
Taunts, comebacks, chants.
“Buy an elephant!
I don’t want to.
Everyone says they don’t want to, everyone says they don’t want to. Buy an elephant!
No!
Everyone says no, everyone says no. Buy an elephant!
Leave me alone!
Everyone says leave me alone, everyone says leave me alone. Buy an elephant!
Leave me alone!..
…Came a voice from the dumpster!
I said shut up!
…Came a voice from the dumpster!
I’m gonna punch you!
…Came a voice from the dumpster!
You are the voice from the dumpster!
…Came a voice from the dumpster!
Oh, you think you are so smart! You’re smart like a swan ‘cept you swallow no seeds and you swim like a stone! Your words are like farts in the water!
…Came a voice from the dumpster!”
A see-saw.
“I’m up here in space, you’re down there in the waste! I’m up here in space, you’re down there in the waste! — I am sad, you think it’s funny! You get shit and I get honey! — Ha! This song is tired, it’s time it got retired! — But… — But! But! But! You smell flowers with your butt! — Do not teach the educated! Time you baked some shit and ate it! — I’ll give your noggin a good swat, you’ll fly away on your pisspot! — Your words are like farts in the water!”
Breaking into song.
“Once an American man/ stuck a finger up his can… — Solve this riddle for me, something no one knows/ What shoots you in the foot but hits you in the nose?”
“Once upon an early morning/ I peeked around the neighbor’s fence/ Where a tan Moldavian lassie/ Used her hand to wipe her ass/ I went pale and I went red, I felt like saying to the lass/ Here’s a piece of paper! Take your finger out your ass!”

Mexico

She does not care for the academic aspirations that public schools hold for their long-term captives.
She stares blankly at the wall; the teacher drones on. She sighs, takes a comb and a handheld mirror out of her schoolbag and starts working on her hair. Assured that the Mohawk is in its proper upright position (or, depending on the style du jour, that the flat too-long bangs securely conceals one eye), she spreads her red-and-green striped angora scarf on the desk and begins to brush and burnish it. When the scarf animal is smooth, soft and shiny – no fleas, no patches of unkempt fur – she puts her tired head on its warm welcoming belly and falls asleep.
When the teacher’s sharp siren rouses her from her dreams (but not from her ignorance or her indifference) she lifts her face and looks obligingly with her emotionless green eyes at whatever is so damn important: petals and pistils, the formula of benzyl, the natural resources of Mexico.
Once the storm has passed, she produces a mirror and eyeliner and starts working on her too-heavy teenage makeup: a thick black line on the upper lid, a thick black line on the lower lid.
Next hour, the cycle is repeated: hair, scarf, eyes, sleeping, dreaming.
We share a desk; the only class for which she does not copy my homework is math.
She is really good at algebra.
******************
We were not even friends until the fifth grade.
Before fifth grade she went to a sleep-away camp. There the kids were up to no good for 24 days.
Namely, girls and boys were kissing, smoking vile Bulgarian cigarettes and drinking diluted toothpaste, for lack of alcohol.
The language that they used was no better or worse than the language boys and girls used in our elite prestigious gymnasium. The children in the school were mostly progeny of Communist party bureaucrats; their swearing would put a wild swinging party of sailors on leave and cheapest hoarsest drunkest hookers in town to deep abiding shame.
Twelve is a serious age for some people.
That summer I went to camp too; I gave those Bulgarian cigarettes a whirl. An actual whirl sometimes: what is the point of smoking if you do not twirl the cig in your fingers, do not know how to let smoke out of your nostrils and cannot blow rings through rings?
So, we became friends on September 1st of the year we were twelve.
Since then we’ve been up to a lot of no good.
**********************
We have decided to become sisters for real.
Here is how. We will prick our respective thumbs with a Young Pioneer badge, of which we miraculously still have one between the two of us.
We’ve been stuffing our red Young Pioneer neckerchiefs into our pockets for a while now. They look like crap. For the special all-school occasions when we would be drawn and quartered if seen without the neckerchiefs, we hand-wash them in the kitchen sinks in the morning before school and iron them wet. If ironed dry, those polyester things melt.
We illegally wear nylons and makeup. Once, a teacher grabbed my friend and washed her face clean of blush and mascara with cold water in the cafeteria sink.
So, we’ll prick our thumbs till we draw blood. Then, we’ll press our thumbs against each other’s so that our blood mixes.
Thus, we’ll become sisters.
We do it under the desk in Physics. The teacher whines on, something about compressed gases.
Another thing we do to entertain ourselves in Physics is pinch each other’s hands so hard it hurts, to see who can keep a straight face the longest.
One of our friends beats her fists against walls for about an hour each day. She is convinced it will make her fists very hard; so far they look like bruised squashed plums.
It is important to be impervious to pain.
************************
After school, we go to her place, or mine. There is no one at home either way. I like to go to her place more. She has a fish-shaped pillow. We whack each other with that pillow, see what’s there to eat in the fridge, shout at passersby from her balcony.
When we cut school we go smoke behind the big tree in the schoolyard, or buy ice-cream, the only kind they have, vanilla in wafer cups.
One spring day we cut school, buy ice-cream and walk around eating it, the wind flapping our scarves and hair. In the middle of a crosswalk a gray nondescript government worker-looking man says to us matter-of-factly: “Girls, you’d be better off eating cock.”
Seriously, thirteen is the age for that.
************************
We have two pairs of white sneakers between four friends.
These sneakers change feet like Marlon Brando mistresses. In our teen minds white sneakers are definitely cooler than some old Marlon Brando.
Man those sneakers have a rough life! Before passing them on to the next girl in line, we clean them with toothpaste and toothbrushes. The sneakers are canvas. They take neon bright shoelaces. They laces are bought in twos or in bunches from tiny Vietnamese women who came to work at the local textile factory and try to support their families at home by selling knockoff perfumes, shoelaces, color-changing lipstick rumored to cause lip cancer, and their puny fragile bodies to whomever pays in the factory dorms.
We trade: jackets, sweaters, any manner of clothes, watches, Vietnamese lipstick which smells really good, and anything that can be passed from one girl to the next. The four of us are all different in height, weight and shape, but who cares? So the sleeves on the jacket are too short; big deal.
One of us has better makeup than the rest. We go to her house to do our nails and spray her mother’s Poison on our necks. We also steal her father’s cognac little by little, filling the bottle up with weak tea.
Petty larceny is just one of the no-good things we do.
We steal: cigarettes from our mothers, no-filter cigarettes from our fathers, rumpled rubles from the pockets of both of our parents (my algebra friend only has one parent) and any kind of alcohol, particularly available in the fall when the parents start making hooch.
Our younger siblings steal our lipstick and shoelaces.
My algebra friend goes through a stage of commercial theft; she takes things from vendors in the market stalls. Once we go to the flea market and she blatantly takes a bottle of atrocious Soviet perfume from under the nose of the woman selling it. The perfume, named Lilacs of Spring but smelling like Our Old Lady of the Musty Coffin, languishes unused for years on my makeup table.
Next, she steals two pairs of cotton baby socks. There are no babies in her house. She gives me the socks too.
We deal in all sorts of business.
Fourteen is a serious age for some people.
*************************
We are going back to communism.
Or at least it seems so.
We are at the lake with her Mama and her Mama’s boyfriend. We left for a week in August, to swim, fish and tan. Next thing we know – we might be going back to communism. Her Mama and her Mama’s boyfriend are happy about this. They drink a lot of vodka and gloat over the downfall of Gorbachev. I keep diplomatic silence. She does not care.
Fifteen. Whatever. Seriously.
We beautify ourselves. We brush our teeth with the fine yellow sand from the lake bottom. We scrub our feet with the same sand. We roast on that sand for days on end. We are as brown as cookies.
Her Mama runs out of cigarettes, bread and booze. She sends us back to town for one day, for provisions.
We fall out the bus and buy the stuff right there at the bus stop: ten loaves of bread, twenty packs of Bulgarian cigarettes from swarthy street peddlers. Gorbachev made cigarettes disappear from stores, and vodka became expensive. That is world according to her Mama. I keep diplomatic silence.
Next we go to my house. We read the paper left on the kitchen table: no communism for us. We will have to take that news back to the lake.
We only care about the progress of our hooch, really.
We have started some in the guano-filled attic of my building. A kilo of sugar stolen from the sack by her balcony door and a couple kilos of potatoes join yeast and water in three-liter glass jars. We put a rubber glove on top of the jar and leave the stuff in the hot August attic.
Maybe the hooch will be done making itself by the time we come back from the lake for good.
***************************
Apparently, at sixteen we four developed into some sort of a serious menace.
We haven’t even really beaten up anyone, ever, but our fame travels.
When it is our turn to clean up in the school cafeteria, a couple of girls a grade younger do it for us. They get stinky brown rags and wipe down the aqua plastic tabletops, covered in stale bread crumbs and milky tea. We sit at the table fifteen minutes past the bell, in no hurry to get to Physics. We are cleaning up in the cafeteria, after all.
One of us four left high school and went to Vo-Tech, but she comes to have lunch with us every few. She comes to our school dances and we go to hers.
At the time we wear plaid men’s trousers or floor-length dark skirts with bomber jackets and sneakers. In dark gyms and cafeterias we dance in circles, small and big, and God forbid anyone should shove us. Then, we’ll have to go sort it out, won’t we?
Girls go sort it out all the time. Gossip, nasty rumors, accidental shoving at the disco – girls cannot have their dignities offended and offenses unaddressed. They go sort it out in the bathrooms, or outside, or in the hallway, whichever. They shove you against the white peeling window sill and tell you how it’s gonna be.
You might get a black eye, or one of those fists that have been cured against Vo-Tech walls shoved in your solar plexus. You better bring friends.
When we have nothing better to do one evening, we go to this girl’s house. This girl is one of the younger girls who clean the cafeteria for us. At her house, we eat everything that’s in her fridge. Everything. Mostly it is pickles.
She just giggles.
It’s okay. She’ll be kicking someone else’s ass soon.
**********************
She sits opposite me at the tiny table in the tiny box of a kitchen in the house that Khrushchev built.
The table can accommodate two chairs around it, a third being a stretch and a terrible imposition.
There are shelves right above our heads, a knife drawer right below our knees, a stove at an arm’s reach, a pantry in the wall under the window. The fridge is in the hallway.
We are making flatbreads. There is no bread in the house because there is no money, but we have a sack of flour next to the balcony door in the living room. We have a sack of sugar next to it. We have baking soda and five eggs, one of which we will use. We have salted pork in the freezer, and strong homemade mustard that eats your throat, eyes and heart out, leaving heavenly fire in its wake. We have blueberry preserves from last summer. We have half a bottle of Stolichnaya, also in the freezer, next to the pork. We have some of her mother’s cigarette butts in the cast iron tree stump of an ashtray.
We are golden. We are stardust.
She spreads the dough on the powdered aqua plastic top of the table and rolls it out with a bottle. We cut the dough in squares and fry it in sunflower oil. The smell is everything one would wish for on a November night in Siberia.
She remembers one more thing that we have: an onion. I slice the onion into rice-paper-thin rings and douse it in simple white vinegar, same sunflower oil and a little salt.
********************
Here is our school of thought for girls with no boyfriends: Don’t Go Out. Going out will only make you sad.
You stay home and eat onions and blueberry jam. You stink and reek; your teeth and tongue are blue. You are as unattractive as a girl your age can make herself be. You stay home and drink vodka and smoke your mother’s cigarette butts and laugh at shit.
We sit there smelly and blue and laugh like loons, lunatics on a full moon, cackling, howling and other unfeminine noises. She throws some mustard in my milky tea. I salt hers. She pours her tea into mine, lights up a rumpled piece of newspaper and throws some ashes in for a good measure.
Then, we decide to do some fortune-telling. We rumple up more newspaper and burn it, watching the shadows of the fire on the wall, shadow shapes to portend the nature and character of our future husbands. Hers is an elephant, apparently.
So of course men arrive unexpectedly. No one calls anyone. No one schedules anything. People just think hey, ten p.m. and the night is young, let’s take your father’s green Zhiguli without permission and go see if any girls are up to anything tonight!
Is seventeen a serious age for anyone?
*******************************
The boys are at the door and we are awesomely happy, blueberry teeth, warts and all.
First, we are going for a ride. We are going to be looking at the pretty lights as we circle the city. We’ll be listening to the latest tapes in the car. Punk stuff, with language and dirty shit.
Then, we are going to come back to her place and hang out. I am spending the night. My parents know. Her mother is on a bender again, and has not been home in a week. Each day we come to her place in the evening to find the same note on the fridge in the hall: “I’ll be home tomorrow, Love, Mama.”
We read the same note, satisfied that she’ll be home tomorrow like she said.
She has not called. No one schedules a bender. No one calls anyone.
We’ll hang out all by ourselves, and drink vodka, and cackle with the guys. We don’t sleep with these guys. We don’t sleep with anyone.
We don’t sleep. We stay up till four a.m. and laugh like loons.
******************************
She fell in love with a junkie. He looked really bad, his kidneys almost shut down production. His eyelids were blackly purple. He was taken with her young beauty. He kissed her eyelids, eyelashes, fingernails, vertebrae; he kissed her into oblivion.
No man had ever loved her like that before. No man had loved her before, period.
Not even when she was an adorable four-year-old in a small black-and-white photo: two short pigtails, an upturned nose, serious face, pudgy arms, doing sit-ups in her white cotton underwear. It was morning exercises in the state daycare: our Soviet children are well taken care of.
The junkie responsibly decided he was not a match for her. She would do much better with a good guy her own age.
When he left her she got sick. I came to see her. She was in bed with a Victorian malaise, drying out without love. There was a glass jar with re-hydrating fluid on a stool next to her bed. Her eyelids were blackly purple.
Eighteen is such serious business.
**************************
This one girl had her first sex when she was eighteen, with a Muslim man. He was beautiful, young and muscular; his eyes were purple black, his eyelashes three inches long. To him she was just a Russian girl: a whore, a non-person. He did not use condoms.
When she came to the obstetrician’s to have an abortion, the doctors told her she could not get one until she has had her STDs taken care of. They did not talk to her directly; they just talked to each other in derogatory tones, over her head, for her to hear.
She sobbed into my lap in the little park next to the hospital.
Dance, baby, dance.
This other girl got a part-time job when she was eighteen. The company driver, a single unattractive man of about forty, took her home every evening in the company bus. The company bus was an old Soviet machine. Once, the driver locked the door from his central control there by the wheel and would not let her out of the bus for two hours, waiting for her to grant him some sexual favors.
Dance, baby, dance.
She comes over and we push a tiny bedside table against the door of my tiny room. One time we had a liter of low-grade alcohol, a small plate of peanuts and two liters of orange juice. We drank and drank, and then we took a bath. When my father woke up at two am, he saw us stagger out of the bathroom wet and wrapped in towels, carrying out a washbasin full of vomit.
Dance, baby, dance.
There are girls with silly faces and fantastic bodies, they live in Vo-Tech dorms three girls per room and buy their red polyester lace underwear at the Chinese market. They have sex on their crappy hog wire beds with their Muslim boys whom they love; the mattresses bounce and hit against the chipped enameled washbasins underneath their beds. They use the washbasins to hand-wash their red polyester underwear. They go home to their villages to have their babies and leave them with their moms.
Dance, baby, dance.
We push the tiny bedside table against the door of my tiny room and play my formerly hip father’s old LPs and 45s.
The singers howl and wail like a crazed Baptist choir.
We dance upon future unemployment, boredom, fear, genital warts, unwanted pregnancies, heartbreak, benders, vomit, black-eyes, cigarette butts picked off the streets; we dance upon the vile bodies of everyone who has ever trespassed, or ever will; we dance upon the broken concrete of the abandoned construction sites, the bolted doors of closed factories, countless dicks painted on fences, collections of Turkish soap bars hoarded against shortages, heartbreak, fear, boredom.
We dance ourselves into oblivion.
We shimmy, jive, jig, reel, twist and turn, twist and shout, rock and roll, till our cardio rates are dangerously out of this galaxy.
We collapse and howl, laugh like lunatics, cackle like loons.
Les Humphries Singers.
1972.
“Mexico.”