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.