BILE AND JUICE

“Petrova, Korneychuk and Habibova – JUICE! Makarova and Krushelnitskaya – BILE!” shouts the nurse in the hallway.
Great. Bile.
Stomach juice is better because only takes two hours, you get to sit down and the plastic tube they feed you is thin. Bile takes four hours during which you must lie still on your right side. The thick orange rubber bile tube has a metal nipple at the end. You swallow the tube and the nipple goes deep into your body, through your esophagus, out of your stomach, in your duodenum and almost into the gallbladder. You must fast before both lab tests, but midway through the stomach juice session they insert a syringe into the tube snaking down your esophagus and squirt in some beef stock, to stimulate juice production. When they take bile they squirt in a solution of magnesium salts. No food.
We must fill ten small mayonnaise jars with juice, four test tubes with bile. I don’t know why they need such huge amounts of stuff for lab testing. Four test tubes seems like less; however, juice drips rather freely and the nurses are usually satisfied with our output, while some gallbladders don’t want to give up bile. I myself have never been able to produce more than a tube and a half of it, and so the nurses yell at me. When we make less bile than they like they reschedule the test and we have to do it all over again in a week. That means they won’t let us go home and we will spend our entire lives imprisoned in the Regional Children’s Hospital, 3rd Floor, Gastroenterology.
Now I lie here on the cot covered in orange vinyl next to another unfortunate bile secreter, and I envy the four lucky ones who are sitting up in chairs with plastic tubes in their mouths and happily churning out stomach juices.
When they release us and we get up from the bile cots, all other kids on the Floor will have had lunch already, and we’ll walk to the dining hall where cold leftovers are kept for the kids who have spent the morning in the lab. The nurses tell us to walk close to the wall so we could lean onto it if we start to feel faint.
Today in the dining hall they are serving a drink made from dried bananas. We started getting dried bananas from Vietnam recently and we figured out that the bananas can be boiled in water to make a hot drink even more recently. I get a glass of sweet liquid with a shriveled pinkie-sized poop-colored half-banana in it. After I’ve been biled dry, the banana drink is ambrosia.
Now the juice is done, the bile is done, and I’ve already swallowed the light-bulb. The light-bulb swallow test one is probably the worst of the three, but it also lasts the shortest. The cable with a little camera at the tip that they send down into the stomach is inflexible and they wiggle it around too much, but the test lasts only about two minutes. After the light-bulb my throat was all scratched up and sore.
We are getting daily shots in our butts: vitamins. B6, B1, B12. The shots hurt, especially if Nadia the nurse is on shot duty. Nadia is a curly-haired bottle-legged round-bottomed pink-lipped blue-eyed tiny-nosed dainty doll-like blonde. She is mean as a wasp. Nadia has a heavy hand with everything. When she walks into our ward with a silvery starburst of thermometers in her hand, the thermometers look ouchy.
Every spring in March our mothers take us to mandatory appointments with our pediatricians, and the pediatricians assign mandatory three-week stays in the hospital. All of us have had stomach pains at some point in our lives and now we are on special watch. If we don’t show up for our annual checkups, our mothers will be in trouble. The doctors will yell at them. Our mothers are afraid of doctors. They speak in small voices when the doctors come, and look like little children. We are afraid of doctors too.
We had stomach pains; other kids committed other crimes and must go elsewhere, like Ear-Nose-Throat, Second Floor. We envy them sometimes: we heard rumors that they get sausages and oranges for breakfast in ENT. It sounds unlikely but, then again, they were not assigned Diet #5, like most of us, or Diet #1, like the most miserable of us. Diet #5 is tasteless steamed goop. Diet #1 is strained colorless tasteless watered-down steamed goop which might as well be injected directly into the bloodstream as it requires no digestive effort.
The ENT kids don’t exactly live the life of Riley, though. They may not have to give up bile or food, but there is a scary torture room on their Floor. One device in the room is cutely named ‘the cuckoo.’ The nurses buckle in the kid and then they pump liquid up one nostril and vacuum-drain it from the other, over and over again. Some of the liquid escapes into the throat and ears. To keep from inhaling too much water the kid has to say cuckoo, cuckoo non-stop. The water brings out pus, blood, snot and, we hear, sometimes even eyeballs. The littler kids scream so hard we can hear them up on our Third Floor.
Littler kids have a bad time on our Floor as well. Parents are not allowed on the Floor, and the average kid stay is two to four weeks. Parent visits take place downstairs, in the lobby, three afternoons a week; kids may not visit with their parents for longer than 20 minutes a day. The Floor doors are locked at all other times.
This is a regional hospital. Many kids don’t get any visits because their parents live a long train trip away and do not have the time or money to travel.
The food packages our parents bring are searched, decimated and trashed by the vigilant receptionists. No fruit. No vegetables. The hospital does not want to risk an outbreak of Hepatitis A, so no vegetables or fruit.
We don’t want an outbreak of Hepatitis A either. If we get one, we’ll be quarantined for three months and there will be no parent visits ever, ever. Those metal doors will never come unlocked.
Small kids cry and miss their parents. You can’t successfully explain it to a toddler that they will only be locked here for three weeks, a month tops. More for some, though. For the three-year-old Misha it will be months and months. The nurses told us Misha’s liver is rotting and he will not live past the age of four. We big girls take care of the little girls in our wing. We empty their chamber pots, braid their hair and tell them fairy stories. We would take care of Misha too, but he must stay on the right side of the hallway with the boys. We hope those stinking boys are nice to little Misha.
Big kids cry and miss their parents, too, but they have distractions. For one, there is romance. The girls’ wing and the boys’ wing are always a-stir with gossip and will-they-won’t-they. We just have to make sure no boys are discovered in our wards past bedtime, hiding under the beds and telling ghost stories. The nurses are outraged when it happens. They call us young sluts and promise to tell our parents on us.
Other distractions are singing, scary stories and amateur theater. One girl in our Ward of six is famous for two theater acts. One is telling the story of how her boyfriend jumped off the roof and killed himself because she forgot to put on the silver ring that he had given her; the other is wrapping herself in a bed sheet and performing scenes from The Disco Dancer, a famous Bollywood movie. Her faux Hindi is very comedic; her story about blood caked on the long ash-blond eyelashes of the boyfriend is very tragic.
We get up to hi-jinks. Once, we put a flyer on the door of the Floor bathroom which said “Closed for Poop Inventory.” The flyer looked so official that a couple girls were afraid to enter and held their pee for an hour before the nurses found out.
Since all of us Gastro kids must return to this hospital every year at the same time, we know half the children already when we arrive. Some children even like going to the hospital; to them, it is like a sleep-away camp. You can steal kids’ pillows while they sit through quarter-assed classes in the School Room, and draw on kids’ faces with toothpaste in the middle of the night while they sleep, and your parents are not on your case about weeding the vegetable garden or babysitting your little brothers.
One young girl named Zhenya spent at least three springs with me in this hospital. Zhenya would come by train from a distant whistle-stop town. She was one of those kids who never got visited because their weary parents had to stay home to attend to the cow and the pigs, the potato fields and making ends meet.
One evening –- the hospital is always lonelier and sadder in the evenings, when all the bile has been given away, and all the stories told, and the only thing to do is sit on the vomit-pink bedspreads and stare out the window at the black pines outside – one evening she said to me quietly, her dark eight-year-old eyes large and serious:
“All the kids who came with me got picked up and went home with their mamas already. I am the only fucking bitch left in this whole motherfucking place.”

Little Silver Hoof

My death shall meet me at the spatial and temporal intersection of the icy sidewalk, the gnarly split poplar trunk, the early December afternoon, the horn buttons on the coat of a portly stranger, a very negative Celsius, my best friend’s gleeful spirit and my goddamn slippery heels.
Stop me now!
But my friend continues to push me and I keep sliding over the rind of sooty snow. Off the rind, off the orange of the Earth.
In my city, snow falls twice a year: one snowfall in October, one in May. In October, it falls two centimeters deep and immediately forms a gray crust. We have a lot of people here; and the people do not drive, they walk; they take the sidewalk to the store, the daycare, the bus stop; they trample and trample over the snow; in just one day, the sidewalks are fit for skating.
People slip, trip and fall. They break their arms, hips and collarbones. In winter, fractures are the leading cause for emergency room visits, briefly but overwhelmingly eclipsed by the Happy-New-Year alcohol poisoning around January 1st.
I am skating home from school.
She keeps pushing me in the back for blocks onward. I keep slipping and sliding, missing the trees narrowly, tumbling into people’s scratchy coats. I am such fun for my so-called best friend, me in my shit winter boots.
The winter boots I have this year look like winter boots enough; they are tall, black and leather-like. However, they don’t work as winter boots. My boots were made by Private Entrepreneurs, that is, by people who got a permit to make footwear right in their little hole-in-the-wall store. It’s a good thing the government allowed Private Enterprise: there are shoes to buy now. The shoes are awful, which is a bad thing.
My winter boots have zippers which do not zip. They have cruddy thin fake fur lining. The black paint has started coming off the boots they day we bought them, revealing something strangely and off-puttingly pink underneath.
But the worst thing is the soles. They slide around like they are made of glass.
I am the Cinderella of the perestroika age.
All Soviet girls are.
Our good fairies started enterprising as soon as private enterprise became legal. They make shirts which say something vaguely English, like CRUISING TO MOREA, shoes cobbled together from fish scales and snot, and jeans with unfinished seams, faux-stonewashed in boiling cauldrons of aniline dyes. From our good fairies, my mother bought me a jacket made from mattress ticking, a pair of white pleather kitten-heels sprouting dried glue, and these blasted winter boots.
I sewed my skirt and my satchel myself. My winter coat is from a consignment store. Fourteen years old, and I have never had a new winter coat.
My past coats and hats are a shabby motley crew; they are a bunch of bleary-eyed bums lining up at the soup kitchen on a dim December morning in a city of abandoned hopes.
Exhibit A: we have a blue plaid coat from a consignment store. All colors have bled from it long ago; it is abjectly uncleanable. The fake fur trim around the hood is matted into knots and looks like the fur trim around a wolf’s anus.
Exhibit B: it’s a hand-me-down sheepskin coat. It is not shearling. It is a solid inflexible tube of warm, thick and heavy black sheep, with two smaller inflexible tubes of sheep as sleeves. When I wear it, I cannot move my arms, bend or sit down.
And here, we have a hat that my mother made for me, her lack of millinery experience notwithstanding, from an old red fox that used to be a collar on her coat, a piece of gray fake fur that’d been lying around for ages, and some gray polyester fabric that had already served two terms as lining. She tried to make it as nice as she could. The most worn parts of the fox ended up in the back of the hat — again, looking like an animal’s behind. My schoolmates tease me about the hat. They say: here comes Genghis!
And here –- finally — we have the first coat that I ever got new. I got it when I was eighteen. It is made of a million tiny pieces of dyed rabbit fur patched together. Every evening, like all other Cinderellas who bought the same coat at the Chinese market, I sit down with a thick needle and black thread to fix the holes that have fissured the coat during the day. Most holes occur under arms. After a month of darning, it becomes impossible to move arms in this coat: the underarm sections have shrunk, and are covered in welts and seams like the skin of a burn victim.
Winter provides for a lot of sewing up and patching up: we have to wear so many layers daily, and the garments are so few, that they get worn through and through. Socks and tights turn particularly holey. We sew and fix through the dark evenings, sitting by Grandma’s table lamp with a bendy neck which provides the best light in our thrifty bleak forty-watt house.
But, besides all this tweedy drab darning, winter brings shimmer, glitter and glitz.
I wake up in the morning, which looks exactly like night, and I look at the orange streetlights through the winter-frosted glass. The egret plumes and peacock tails of frost are beaded with diamante stars that promise biting cold. Outside, the air will stop your breath and plug your throat, unless you put two layers of scarf over your lips.
I see the most beautiful things in winter.
In first grade, as a holiday treat, our class is taken to the theater for a matinee. The show starts out as a regular old play with people talking in pretend voices. Then, the lights go down and Vasilisa the Beautiful twirls onto the stage in a single stunning beam. Her gown shines on, crazy diamond, throwing splashes of pale green, pale pink, pale champagne shimmer into the blackness as she moves her billowy blinding fish-scale sleeves around and around to twinkling music.
I am spellbound.
On an inky-blue afternoon, I slowly walk home from my extended day at school. I drag my feet in my round-soled felt boots, lingering by the windows of every grocery store. The stores are decorated for the New Year’s. There are snowflakes cut out of reused candy foil by the ladies of the dairy counter; there is unsafe but pretty glitter dust made from smashed glass ornaments by the cashier. There is silver and gold tinsel craftily suspended from the ceiling: the meat counter lady wraps one end of the tinsel thread in cotton wool, wets the cotton wool in a small bowl of water, and throws it at the ceiling where it catches on the rough lime paint with a splop.
I shuffle past the do-it-yourself New Year glories of the green grocery and the carpet store. I reach the corner with the pastry kiosk and the newspaper kiosk. In my pocket, there is twenty two kopecks worth of illegal tender. I am supposed to spend this money on the school lunch, not on a tart with a dollop of brown jam and a swirl of sugar-frosted pink meringue atop a shortbread rosette.
I’ll just make sure to wipe my face thoroughly after.
Lick, lick. I quickly scan the boring window of the newspaper kiosk for traces of rare and elusive butterfly-shaped hair barrettes. As expected, there are none. But what is this?
Between two incomprehensible smudgy Pravdas, there is a glossy magazine with a most well-put-together woman on the cover. And foreign letters! Kobieta i Życie, whatever that may mean.
The woman’s eyes are peridot-green, translucent, rimmed in fuzzy black eyelashes curling up like a doll’s.
The woman’s lips are frosted pink. Girls in our school make their own frosted pink lipstick by melting red lipstick, silver powder paint and petroleum jelly in small aluminum pots over low heat. But it never comes out quite so pink, so silvery, so reflective, so rich.
And the most mesmerizing thing is the woman’s blouse. It is made of tight sheer black lace shot through with silver thread. I have never seen fabric this wondrous! Oh I want to grow up her!
I am spellbound.
I will, I will be beautiful, if only once or twice.
My mother, my grandmother, all the women I know talk about the beautiful clothes they had, or could have had, with wistfulness and sensuality. Talking about clothes is a spoken word genre. It has its own vocabulary of words and gestures: a yoke (hands smoothly circumscribe the bosom), a Mandarin collar (thumbs and forefingers of both hands gently circumnavigate the neck), an A-line skirt (palms sail away from the waist in opposite directions).
My maternal grandmother makes me at least one outfit a year. Usually, it is cut from an old flowery dress from the back of her pithy closet. She loves to talk clothes. Her favorite story is about the bolt of Chinese brocade her brother-in-law once brought home as a war trophy from Harbin.
“Silky, navy blue, with flowers and birds!” she says dreamily as I rifle through her button box. “My sister made a Sunday-go-to-town dress out of it, with a Mandarin collar (fingers around the neck) and tiny shell buttons down the front (a swift arpeggio down the center of the breastbone).”
I find a round diamante button in her button box. The button marries a big and proud brassy button off a Navy uniform.
And she says, a sequined non-sequitur: “And I used to have such small and pretty ears, like shells!”
Her brother-in-law brought two bolts of fabric from China: the blue brocade and a malachite-green cotton velvet with glued-on golden dots made of real metal foil.
The velvet was made into a gown for my grandmother, and then it became a fancy floor-length skirt for my mother. While I am little enough to fit inside, I go visit the skirt in the armoire. I sit under its dark and murky softness and look at its mysterious constellations. Stella, estrella, nebula.
When I am in second grade, my mother uses the skirt to make a New Year’s costume for me. I am the Mistress of Copper Mountain. The skirt begins under my arms and flows well into the floor.
It is very important for a little girl to be able to twirl in a proper wide swirl of a sweeping skirt, and if the skirt throws off tiny beams of light, then all the better.
The Mistress of Copper Mountain is a fairy story by Pavel Bazhov. The Mistress is a spirit of the mountain, able to turn into a green lizard. She is masterful of many enchantments; those who work the rock in the Ural Mountains to mine gems, copper and malachite should be wary of meeting her, for she can show them her best chambers, walls upon walls of lapis lazuli studded with diamonds –- or, she can kill them, banish them, make them lose their minds. Worse, she can fall in love with them and want to keep them under her crimson ceilings forever. She gives and she takes away.
What power of beauty upon men.
I have a book of stories by Pavel Bazhov. They are written in dialect but, as a child, I do not know this. I think they are written in a magical language, which is both like Russian and unlike Russian, which is understandable and not, which has just enough of here to be penetrable, and a lot of the beyond.
My favorite Bazhov story is Little Silver Hoof.
A little girl stays in a hunting cabin in the woods all winter. No parents: a Cinderella. She stays with a kindly old man who is not related to her and is nearly always away. Her one steady companion is a kitten who grows into a big honking feline brute by the end of the winter. The old man gathers wood before going off hunting. There is enough fire in the cabin to warm the tiny seven-year-old bones of the peasant girl. She has soot on her cheeks, sweat in her hair, and uncomfortable scratchy hand-me-down clothes.
The sun goes down early in winter; her only light and warmth are the embers in the stove and the purring of the cat.
The old man tells the girl about Little Silver Hoof, a small magical deer with one magical silver hoof. When the deer stamps the ground with his hoof once, a gem appears; twice, two gems; and when the deer gets excited and paws the ground over and over, he makes a veritable stampede of gems. Red, pink, blue, white, green, purple. Shiny, sparkly, pretty, precious gems.
She is spellbound.
She starts looking for Little Silver Hoof. Nothing beautiful happens: the cabin stands drab, the ashes gray, the snow boring and the woods woody.
One night, she sees Little Silver Hoof briefly. Before anything beautiful happens, he runs away, scared.
Worse, the cat runs away and gets lost.
Lonely, resolute, the girl puts on her shawl, fits her skis over her round-soled felt boots, and off she is into the big beyond, to look for her cat.
She finds her cat and Little Silver Hoof playing together in the snow, nodding at each other as if in conversation.
Little Silver Hoof runs around the cabin and stamps the ground here and there; gems fall away, excitedly gleaming, from under his hoof. Then, he runs onto the roof of the cabin and starts to paw it in earnest. The cabin is covered in an avalanche of gems, it is piled under fireworks and, as it all happens on a moonlit night in snow-covered woods, the spectacle is all the more spectacular.
The little girl and the old man salvage a few handfuls of the precious stones and take them to the cabin. These few rocks will remain material. In the morning, the deer, the cat and the bounteous glorious riches outside are gone forever.
Years go by, and the old cabin is no more. Time layers itself upon time, dirt layers itself upon dirt – but still.
If you come to that place and dig around, you can still find them: vivid green, refractive, precious and, as the Russian description goes, clear as a tear.
Peridots.

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!