I’m a direct person, always smirking and poking fun when we all get together at Marisha and Serge’s on Fridays. Everybody comes. If one of us misses a Friday, it’s because he or she couldn’t get away, or has been banished by the enraged Marisha or the entire gang. Andrey the informer, for example, was banished for a long time after socking Serge in the eye, that’s right. Can you imagine? Serge, our bright star, our precious genius! Serge has figured out the working principle of flying saucers. I looked at his calculations: some universal point of departure, some this, some that—a bunch of nonsense, if you ask me, and I’m very smart. You see, Serge doesn’t read about his subject. He relies on intuition—a mistake, in my opinion. Some time ago he intuited a way to increase the energy efficiency of a steam engine from fifteen to seventy percent—a miracle. He was feted, presented to the members of the Academy of Science. One academician came to his senses and pointed out that this very principle was discovered a hundred years ago and described in a college textbook on page such and such; the same textbook explains why it doesn’t work. The miracle was canceled; seventy percent became thirty-six, also purely theoretical, but by this point a special unit had been set up at the academy to study Serge’s so-called discovery, and Serge was invited to be the head. A mass rejoicing among our friends followed—Serge didn’t even have a PhD! But Serge chose to stay at his miserable job in the Oceanography Institute, because they had been planning an expedition with stops in Boston, Hong Kong, Vancouver, and Montreal—six months of sun and freedom—and Serge hoped to go too.
The thirty-six percent unit, in the meantime, began operating at a leisurely pace. They fetched Serge once or twice for a consultation, but soon got the hang of the utopian project: to replace all modern technology with an impossibly efficient steam engine. This stupendous goal was to be accomplished by five people jammed into a single room, who divided work hours between cafeteria and smoking room. In addition, the head of the unit, who was hired instead of Serge and did have a PhD, was having a child on the side any moment, and the parents of the woman had filed a complaint against him. He spent his workdays screaming on the phone in the same room with the other staff. Our Lenka was the lab assistant there; she told us all the gossip. As far as Lenka could tell, no one once mentioned Serge’s principle. All that had been accomplished was a draft of an application to use the lab for three hours after midnight when the building is closed, as if anyone were going to be there.
Serge’s bid for sun and freedom also came to nothing. In his Party questionnaire he wrote that he wasn’t a member of the Komsomol, but in his original job application he had written that he was. The Party committee responsible for approving everyone who went abroad compared the paperwork and discovered that Serge had simply stopped paying his dues, just like that, and that couldn’t be fixed by anything, so the committee didn’t admit him. All this was told to us by Andrey, who also worked there, and who stopped by Marisha’s one Friday night, drank some vodka, and then revealed in a fit of honesty that he’d promised to inform on the other members of that expedition—that’s how the Party committee had admitted him. He said we shouldn’t tell him anything, even though he had promised to inform only on the ship and not on dry land. True enough, Andrey left with the expedition and brought back a small plastic dildo, purchased in Hong Kong. Why so small? He didn’t have money for a bigger one. I said that Andrey had bought it for his daughter. Serge was there too, looking distracted, for he had spent the last six months in Leningrad with a bunch of lowly assistants, taking care of the expedition’s correspondence . . . You must understand that all this happened some time ago, in the days when Marisha and Serge stood up together and together lamented Serge’s career. Alas, those days of friendship and understanding are long gone; these days, God knows what mess is happening, and still every Friday we come, as though magnetized, to the little apartment on Stulin Street and drink all night.
In the beginning, “we” meant, first of all, our hosts, Serge and Marisha, and their daughter, Sonya, who slept in the next room through the racket. (All three are now my relatives—such is the absurd result of our communal life.) Then there was myself; my husband, Kolya, who was Serge’s oldest friend; Andrey the informer, first with his wife, then with a string of temporary women, and finally with a new wife, Nadya; then there was Zhora, whose mother is Jewish, something no one but me ever mentions; and then Tanya, a blonde valkyrie, Serge’s favorite; sometimes, when especially drunk, he stroked her hair.
Once, there was also Lenka, a D-sized beauty, twenty years old. At first Lenka behaved like a common con artist: talked herself into Marisha’s favor, borrowed twenty rubles from her, and disappeared. Lenka reappeared without four front teeth but with Marisha’s twenty rubles and said she had been at the hospital where they told her she could never have children. Marisha showered her with affection, Serge found her a position at the thirty-six percent unit, and Lenka replaced her missing teeth and married a young Jewish dissident who turned out to be the son of a famous underground cosmetologist, a fantastically rich woman. According to Lenka, the contents of a single closet in her new home could feed us all for the rest of our days. Lenka, however, didn’t appreciate her new comfortable position, and continued running around seedy holes and basements. Finally she declared that her husband’s family was immigrating to the U.S., via Vienna, but she wasn’t going with them. So she went and divorced her nice Jewish husband, and at our gatherings she developed a habit of flopping on the lap of every boy in turn. Only Serge she considered untouchable because he belonged to her deity Marisha.
Every Friday we come, as though magnetized, to the little apartment on Stulin Street.
But Andrey the informer wasn’t untouchable, and Lenka regularly mocked him by flopping on his lap, so his super-young new wife, Nadya, turned purple and fled to the kitchen. That Nadya was just eighteen, even younger than Lenka, and looked like a corrupt schoolgirl. No surprise there: as Andrey’s previous wife told everyone, Andrey was impotent. Only something like this Nadya could arouse his interest. When this corrupt nymphet got married, however, she changed her tune and became a plain housewife: what she cooked, what she bought. Her only remaining perversity was a wandering eyeball: at moments of stress it would literally fall out and hang over her cheek like a hard-boiled egg. Andrey, I suppose, lived for these dramatic moments: he would grab Nadya, carry her to the ER, and on those nights, I imagine, he was able to perform.
Andrey’s life with the previous wife, Aniuta, was similarly punctuated by high drama, involving the attacks of her so-called venomous womb. This venomous womb, which prevented them from having children, was a popular subject among us, their friends. By then we all had had children: Zhora had three; I had my Alesha; and if I missed two Fridays in a row they joked that I was in bed with child, a reference to my figure. Tanya had a son who as a baby crawled all over her, from breast to breast, the mother and the child’s favorite amusement. But Andrey and Aniuta were sentenced to childlessness, and we all pitied them, for the whole point was to live normally, to worry about feedings, childcare, illnesses, but then one night a week, on Friday, to escape the routine and relax so completely that the neighbors across the street would call the cops. Then one day, almost without any physical change, Aniuta gave birth to a daughter. That night Andrey bought two bottles of vodka, he and Serge invited my Kolya, and the three of them spent the night boozing. That was the high point of his family life, and after that, I expect, Andrey forsook his conjugal duties for a long time, while Aniuta became an ordinary woman without any venomous womb and expanded her circle of friends, so to speak, especially when Andrey was gone squealing for six months. Andrey found consolation in a string of gorgeous girlfriends, all of whom he brought to Marisha’s.
Lenka once flopped on my Kolya, too, and Marisha turned away abruptly and began to talk with Zhora. This was when I first began to understand. Lenka, I said, you’ve gone too far: Marisha’s jealous of you. Lenka just grinned and stayed on top of Kolya, who drooped like a little flower. From that moment on, Marisha’s affection for Lenka began to cool, and eventually Lenka disappeared from our gatherings. Lenka never flopped on Zhora, because Zhora, like many runty men, demonstrated constant sexual excitement and was in love with all our girls—Marisha, Tanya, and even frigid Lenka. Flirting with Zhora was dangerous, as one incident demonstrated: at the end of a dance with Andrey’s girlfriend, Zhora simply grabbed her by the armpits and dragged her into the next room, where he threw her on Sonya’s little bed (Sonya was at her grandmother’s that night). Except for the attacked woman, we all knew, of course, that Zhora only played at being a ladies’ man, that in reality he spent his nights writing a dissertation for his wife and attending to his three children, and only on Fridays did he throw on Casanova’s cloak. But the careful Lenka refused to play sexual games with Zhora, for then it would be two performances: she’d flop on his lap, and he’d have to grope her, which Lenka didn’t enjoy and neither did Zhora. But Lenka has long been gone, and when I mention her name it’s received as another of my blunders.
Recently my memory grew hazy and I began losing my eyesight. How many years passed in our Friday gatherings—ten? fifteen? We heard of the political unrest in Czechoslovakia, then in China, then in Romania, then in Yugoslavia; after that came the news about the trials of the culprits, followed by the trials of those who had protested against the original trials, then the trials of those who had collected money to support the families of the incarcerated dissidents, but all these events rolled past our nest on Stulin Street without leaving a trace.
Occasionally we had a visitor. One night the neighbors summoned the local patrolman to quiet the noise. On Fridays Marisha’s door was always open, so this patrolman, Valera, barged in and demanded to see everyone’s papers. None of our boys had a passport on him, and the girls Valera didn’t ask, which led us to believe he was looking for someone. After days of nervous phone exchanges we decided that Valera was looking for a certain Lev, a naturalized American whose Russian visa had expired and so he could go to jail for a year. This Lev had been coasting from house to house, but I never saw him at Marisha’s. Her neighbors—a couple of eternal students and their ever-changing lovers—accommodated him for a night, and he, by mistake, took the virginity of the government minister’s daughter, a sophomore in the journalism department. Apparently the girl woke up covered in blood, panicked, and dragged her bloody mattress to the kitchen sink—they didn’t even have a shower in that apartment. The neighbors told us all this with a laugh when they came the next day to borrow a ruble. The daughter, they said, was now looking high and low for Lev, considering him her intended after the Russian custom, but Lev disappeared from Stulin Street, and the patrolman wasted his visit.
Nadya had a wandering eyeball: at moments of stress it would fall out and hang over her cheek like a hard-boiled egg.
The following Friday, however, Valera returned to turn off our boombox at five minutes past eleven and didn’t leave. He stayed all night, watching in silence as we drank. What he wanted remains unclear. Marisha was the first to find the right tone and addressed him as a misunderstood, lonely young boy. (In that house, everyone was welcome and comforted, but few chose to impose.) Marisha offered Valera bread and cheese with dry wine—all they had on their poor table—and, followed by Serge, engaged him in a conversation. Valera answered their questions calmly and unselfconsciously. Serge asked, for example, if Valera had joined the police to get a Moscow registration, and he said, no, he’d had registration before; he chose that neighborhood because of its toughness and because he knew karate. He had to quit sport after an injury: during a practice he didn’t signal to his opponent to stop. “What kind of signal?” I asked. “Well,” he blushed, “one has to cough or, pardon me, pass wind.” I wanted to know how one can fart on demand, but Valera ignored me and proceeded to tell us that things were soon going to change back to where they were under Stalin, when we at least had some order.
We tried to subject Valera to the same mocking interrogation we inflicted on all our guests, but either he was very clever or we were too passive. He deftly avoided our hesitant questioning and revealed nothing of himself or of his work duties and instead went on and on about Stalin, and we were too afraid of his provocations to reveal our own political opinions. Who reveals them anyway? It was considered childish and rude, and so Valera remained untapped and unstudied, and at midnight we all slunk away, but Valera stayed on. Maybe he had nowhere else to spend his shift or maybe he was in fact waiting for Lev—who knows. We all felt put on the rack. Lenka didn’t sit on anyone’s lap, and Zhora didn’t shout “Hey, virgins” at the passing schoolgirls; only I wouldn’t shut up about the one subject he avoided, and he couldn’t do anything—he introduced the subject himself, plus “fart” wasn’t on the list of obscene words punishable by fifteen days of prison. I alone kept interrupting the flow of Serge’s condescending questions, but Valera didn’t give a damn about Serge’s condescension and persisted in his dangerous speeches about the army and those who control it. “But still, tell us, do they teach you how to fart in the army?” I asked him again and again. “You, obviously, didn’t learn the trick and sustained an injury . . .” The army, Valera intoned in response, you can’t begin to imagine, hands of gold they have, they know every weapon inside out . . . . Serge asked Valera how often he was on duty and where they gave him a room, and Marisha asked if he was married and had children. Tanya quietly commented on Valera’s most idiosyncratic remarks, always addressing Zhora, who was half Jewish but looked entirely Jewish, as though supporting him in this difficult situation. Zhora was the only one with a passport, and Valera read his data out loud: Georgy Alexandrovich Perevoshchikov, ethnically Russian.
I was curious to see how Andrey the informer would react to Valera’s presence, but he was calm and reserved. When Valera turned off the music, Andrey had to sit down next to his Nadya, who, despite looking like a perverse teenager, was dying of banal jealousy. Her father, however, was an army colonel on the rise, and she listened to Valera’s macho speeches through the prism of his lowly rank of lieutenant. She relaxed, went out to call a girlfriend, and then walked off with her Andrey, and Valera said nothing. Who knows, maybe we all could leave and he would have allowed that. But then again, maybe he wouldn’t. In the end Marisha gave up and went to sleep on the floor in Sonya’s room, and Serge stayed to ply Valera with diuretic herbal tea. Yet in the course of the night, Serge reported later, Valera hadn’t once left the room to pee. Serge held it too, afraid that Valera would search the room in his absence.
That night Kolya and I made it in time for the subway, and on coming home at half past one discovered that Alesha was snoozing in front of the television, which was transmitting only static. When I was putting him to bed, he said he was afraid of the dark and of sleeping alone in the house. The lights were on in every room. He didn’t used to be afraid, but then my father, his grandfather, was still with us. My father died recently, three months after my mother. She died from an illness that began with blindness, the same illness I now seem to have. My parents raised him, surrounded him with love and care. And now he is to remain completely alone, for I am going to leave soon, too, and as for Kolya, I can’t rely on him to take care of our son. Kolya, so generous and kind to the others, quickly gets bored and irritable at home and yells at Alesha, especially at mealtimes. In addition, Kolya was preparing to leave us and not just for anyone—for Marisha.
Many years, I’ll repeat, passed over our peaceful Friday gatherings. Andrey the informer turned from a golden-haired Paris into a father, then an abandoned husband, then the owner of a condominium bought for his new wife by her father the colonel, and finally an alcoholic. But, as in college, he remained in love with Marisha, who knew and appreciated it. All other women in his life were just replacements. Once or twice a year Andrey performed a sacred ritual, a slow dance with Marisha.
Zhora grew from an unruly undergraduate into a penniless research fellow with three children, a future star of his field, but his essence remained unchanged, and that essence was his ardent love for Marisha, who had always loved Serge and no one else.
My Kolya also worshipped Marisha. All our boys lost their heads over Marisha in our freshmen year, and their competition continued up until the shocking moment when Serge, who was married to Marisha and alone had rights to her, suddenly up and left her for another woman, whom he had adored, it turned out, since grade school. It happened on New Year’s Eve, in the middle of the charades: he simply got up with an announcement that he must call his beloved, to wish her a happy New Year. Just like that.
“Fart” wasn’t on the list of obscene words punishable by fifteen days of prison.
We were all deeply shaken, for if the boys worshipped Marisha, we all of us collectively worshipped Marisha and Serge as a couple. Many years ago Serge fell in love with Marisha and offered her marriage, but Marisha was seduced by a charming scoundrel, a certain Jean, and rejected Serge’s pure first love. After Jean left her, she crawled back to Serge and proposed marriage to him, forever rejecting the idea of erotic love on the side. She used to say that Serge was a sacred crystal vessel. (“Difficult to make love to,” I’d remark.)
In those early days we lived for camping trips, drinking by the bonfire, mocking everything and everyone. The only aspects of the sexual sphere that caught our attention were my white swimming suit that turned transparent in the water, and the absence of a lavatory at our camping site, because Zhora complained that in the ocean poop didn’t swim away. Romantic Andrey walked three miles to the TB sanatorium to dance with the patients; Serge expressed his masculinity through scuba diving. At night I could hear rhythmic knocking coming from their tent, but her entire married life Marisha remained a jittery creature with shining eyes, which didn’t speak well of Serge’s abilities.
The sexual flame that flickered around Marisha in combination with her inaccessibility held our circle together for so long. The girls loved Serge and wanted to replace Marisha, but at the same time pitied Marisha and wouldn’t betray her. Everything and everyone was full of their undivided, irresistible love, but Serge, the only one with the right of access to the beautiful Marisha, was restless with anger, and one time this ulcer broke. We were sitting at the table discussing sexual themes—innocently, for we were pure people and could discuss anything innocently. Someone mentioned the book Sexopathology by a Polish author. Now, that book was an entirely new phenomenon for our society, where every citizen lived as if on a desert island. In the book, I announced, sex is divided into three parts: in the first, the spouses arouse one another by stroking their ear lobes! Did you know that, Serge? Everyone froze, and Serge began to shake and sputter and scream that his attitude toward me had always been deeply negative, but what did I care? I knew I had hit the mark.
All this had taken place before Serge rediscovered the love of his life, a plump brunette, and before the patrolman Valera began his vigils on Stulin Street, and also before I found out that I was losing my eyesight, and definitely before I realized that Marisha was jealous of my Kolya. Suddenly all the knots became untied. Serge stopped sleeping on Stulin Street; our Friday gatherings moved to the room Tanya shared with her teenage son, who was pathologically jealous of her and had to be moved to Stulin Street where he spent the night with Sonya. I remarked that it would do them both good, they should get used to sleeping with each other, but as usual no one paid me any attention.
In between Fridays we were overtaken by a wave of tragic events. Marisha’s father was run over by a car outside her house—he was heavily intoxicated, as the autopsy showed. That night he had had a conversation with Serge, man to man, about his decision to leave Marisha. The conversation took place early, when Sonya was still awake. They were keeping from Sonya that Serge had left the family. Serge came home after work and stayed until nine to put Sonya to bed, then went back to his childhood erotic ideal. Poor Marisha’s father, who himself was onto his second family, walked in on them right in the middle of this fake family time, said some useless things, and uselessly perished under the car at nine thirty, when there is no traffic.
During that time my mother melted from a hundred and sixty pounds to seventy. She held up bravely, but right at the end her doctors decided to look for a nonexistent ulcer: they opened her up, then by mistake sewed a bowel to the stomach muscle, leaving her to die with an open wound the size of a fist. When they rolled her out to me, dead, crudely stitched up with a gaping hole in her belly, something happened: I couldn’t understand how this could have been done to a human being, let alone my mother, and began to think that my mama was somewhere else, that this couldn’t be her.
Kolya wasn’t with me that day. He and I had separated five years earlier but didn’t pay for the divorce and continued to live like roommates, as is often done. After my mother’s funeral, though, he informed me that he had paid his share and suggested that I pay too, and so I did. Three months later my father died from a heart attack, in his sleep: I got up to put a blanket over Alesha and saw that papa wasn’t breathing. I went back to bed, waited till morning, and saw them both off: Alesha to school and papa to the morgue.
I missed several Fridays, and then came Easter, when by tradition we congregate at my house. My parents used to help me with the cooking; then they and Alesha would travel for ninety minutes to our allotment, where they would stay the night in an unheated shack so my guests could party all night in our house. This year I told Alesha that he was going to the allotment alone: he was big enough—seven years old—and knew his way there perfectly. He was to stay the night there by himself. I also forbade him to come back and ring the bell under any circumstances.
That morning I took Alesha for the first time to visit my parents’ grave. He helped me carry water; we planted some daisies. Alesha overcame his initial fear and took pleasure in planting flowers in our clean, dry soil—I had my parents cremated, so there are just urns with ashes, nothing to be afraid of—and then we washed our hands and ate our bread, apples, and Easter eggs, leaving the crumbs for the birds. Everywhere around us people were drinking and eating at their family plots—we have preserved the tradition of visits to the cemetery on Easter, when the air smells of early spring and the dead are lying in their neat graves, remembered and toasted, and we will all go down the same road, everything ending for us with paper flowers, ceramic portraits, birds in the air, and bright Easter eggs on the ground. On the way home, on the subway and bus, everyone was tipsy but in an amicable, peaceful way, as though we had just peeked beyond the grave, seen fresh air and plastic flowers and drunk to them.
From the cemetery Alesha set out without rest for the allotment, and I went back home to start dough for cabbage pies—all I could afford that year. A cabbage pie, a pie with mama’s jam, potato salad, boiled eggs, grated beets, a little cheese and salami—good enough. My salary is small, and I couldn’t expect Kolya to chip in—he had practically moved in with his parents, and on his rare visits yelled at Alesha that he didn’t eat right, didn’t sit right, dropped crumbs on the floor, watched television all the time, didn’t read anything, and was growing up to be God knows what. This pointless rant was in fact a scream of envy inspired by Sonya, Marisha and Serge’s daughter, who sang, composed music, went to the elite music school where the competition was three hundred students per slot, read since age two, and wrote poetry and prose. At the end of the day Kolya did love Alesha, but he would have loved him more if Alesha were talented and handsome, good at his studies and popular with his peers. Right now Kolya saw a version of himself, which drove him up the wall. Like Kolya, our son had poor teeth, which hadn’t come in completely. Also he had never adjusted to his orphaned status after losing my parents and ate sloppily, without chewing, dropping large pieces on his lap and spilling everything. In addition, he began to wet his bed. Kolya flew like a corkscrew out of our family nest in order not to see his little son drenched in pee, shaking in wet underpants. When Kolya saw this for the first time, he slapped Alesha with the back of his hand, and Alesha fell back into his filthy bed, relieved to be punished. I just smirked and left for work. That day I had an appointment with an ophthalmologist, who diagnosed the same hereditary illness that killed my mother. (She didn’t name it, but she did prescribe the same drops and the same tests.) So how could I care that Alesha was peeing himself and that Kolya had hit him? New horizons opened up before me, you understand, and I began to take measures toward saving my son from the fate of an orphan.
Boiled potatoes, pickled cucumbers, and many bottles of wine—clearly, they planned to party all night.
That Easter day I baked my pies, extended the dinner table, covered it with a tablecloth, arranged plates and wine glasses, salads, cold cuts and bread. In the evening, with Alesha gone, I received my slightly embarrassed guests. They all came because of Marisha, who was too brave and too proud not to show her face. Serge was there too, and my newly divorced husband, Kolya, with his ruined teeth. He went straight into the kitchen to unpack everyone’s contributions to the table: boiled potatoes, pickled cucumbers, and many bottles of wine—clearly, they planned to party all night. And why not? There was an empty apartment at their disposal, plus the titillating fact that Marisha and my Kolya had been married the day before. Serge behaved as usual, only was a little ravenous for booze; he and Zhora immediately retreated to celebrate. Lenka had long been gone; someone saw her on the subway wrapped tightly in a shawl: she said she had delivered a stillborn baby but didn’t complain, only mentioned that her breast milk arrived. Andrey the informer put on a record; his underage wife, Nadya, began to play mother of the family, telling me in detail how much child support Andrey was paying, and that he didn’t want to defend his thesis because his entire raise would go to his former wife and daughter and so on. Tanya the valkyrie walked in, flashing her eyes and white teeth at me; I asked if her son was sharing Sonya’s bed, but she just brayed.
“For you, Tanya, it’s nothing, but Marisha has a daughter—have you taught her how not to get pregnant?”
“What’s going on?” Nadya jumped in.
“Nadya,” I asked her, “is it true you have a glass eye?”
“She’s always been like that,” explained shining Tanya, and Andrey added that his attitude toward me had always been deeply negative, but I ignored the informing scum.
Serge and Zhora, already drunk, emerged from the kitchen, and Kolya stepped out of our former bedroom—God knows what he was doing there.
“Kolya, have you finished selecting sheets for your new marital bed?” I addressed him. I knew by his reaction that I was right.
“Marisha,” I continued, “do you have enough sheets to sleep with my husband? Mine are all ruined. Kolya decided to wash the sheets for the first time in his life, and he boiled them: all the sperm cooked, and now it looks like clouds in the sky.”
They all laughed and sat down to eat. Then it was Serge’s turn. Mumbling drunkenly, he argued with Zhora about the theory of a certain Riabkin: Serge attacked it viciously, and Zhora defended it, but without enthusiasm. Finally Zhora grew tired and agreed with Serge with obvious condescension, and suddenly we saw that our genius Serge was just a failing, unrecognized scholar, while bedraggled Zhora was a true rising star, for nothing betrays success like condescension toward one’s peers.
“Zhora, when are you defending your thesis?” I asked him at random and guessed correctly, for Zhora took the bait and told us excitedly that his pre-defense was on Tuesday and the actual defense whenever they could find a slot in the schedule.
These people, who will rip out each other’s throats without blinking, couldn’t stand the sight of a child’s blood.
For a moment everyone was silent, and then began to drink. They drank to the point of blacking out. Andrey began to complain that his local Party committee wouldn’t allow them to buy a three-room apartment, to the displeasure of Nadya’s papa, who was recently promoted to general and wanted to shower her with presents—if she agreed to study and hold off on a child. Nadya pouted that she wanted a baby, but no one listened to her. Marisha and Kolya were talking quietly, probably deciding when Kolya should pick up the rest of his things and where they were going to keep them while Marisha’s apartment was being exchanged for a room for Serge and a small one-bedroom for Marisha, so that Sonya could have a private room for her music, and Serge could have somewhere to live with his childhood love, and Marisha could sleep with my husband.
“Marisha,” I asked her, “how do you like my apartment? Do you want to move in there? Alesha and I will live where you tell us—we don’t need much. You may keep all my things, too.”
“Idiot!” Andrey yelled. “All Marisha thinks about is how not to take anything from you!”
“But why not? Go ahead, take it. Alesha’s going to an orphanage. I’ve made arrangements—I found one in Borovsk, a long way from here.”
“Let’s get out of here, I’m sick of this show,” protested the informer, but as Andrey got up to leave, the others didn’t stir—they wanted to stay for the curtain.
I reached for the papers on the bookshelf and showed them to Kolya. He took one look and tore everything up.
“Idiot, shameless idiot,” spat Andrey.
I leaned back in my chair. “Help yourselves, dear guests,” I told them, “I’ll be right back with the pies.”
“Fine,” said Serge, and back to drinking they went. Andrey put on another record, and Serge invited his former wife Marisha for a dance. Marisha blushed and threw me a guilty glance.
The party went into high gear, with everyone drinking, singing, dancing, and shouting; only Kolya was unoccupied. He came up to me and asked, “Where’s Alesha?”
“Out,” I said.
“But it’s past midnight!”
He went out into the hall, then detoured into the bathroom and stayed there for a long time. In the meantime, Marisha, who had drunk too much, couldn’t think of anything better to do than to lean out of the kitchen window and throw up the beet salad on the wall of my building.
Ruined pies, cigarette butts, unfinished salads, apple cores, empty bottles under the couch, Nadya weeping and holding her eye, and Andrey dancing with Marisha in his arms, his annual sacred ritual, which Nadya witnessed for the first time, and it shocked her to the point of losing an eye.
Then Andrey quickly got dressed and dressed Nadya—the subway was about to stop running for the night. Serge and Zhora were also getting dressed; Kolya finally emerged from the bathroom and lay down on the couch but was roused by Zhora and led to the door; and at the end of the procession walked beaming Tanya. I opened the door for them, and they all saw Alesha, who was sleeping outside on the steps.
Thus began the final act. I jumped outside and punched the sleeping child on the face so hard he started spouting blood from his nose and choking on blood and snot. Screaming, “How dare you come back when I told you not to,” I continued to pummel him, but they grabbed me and shoved me back into the apartment, holding the door while I kicked and yelled. I could hear them shouting; someone was weeping; Nadya was promising to strangle me with her bare hands. I could hear Kolya, on the way down, calling Alesha’s name, swearing to take him away from me—anywhere, it didn’t matter where. My calculations were correct: these people, who will rip out each other’s throats without blinking, couldn’t stand the sight of a child’s blood.
I locked the door, turned off the light, tiptoed to the kitchen window, and looked out over Marisha’s vomit. Soon the whole gang marched out; Kolya was carrying Alesha! They were talking excitedly, high on their righteousness, waiting for the last one, Andrey, who was holding the door. Nadya wept and screamed hysterically that I must be stripped of my maternal rights. Their drunken voices echoed throughout the neighborhood. They even flagged down a cab! Kolya, Alesha, and Marisha sat in the back, Zhora in the front. He’ll be the one paying, I thought, as always, but why should I care? They’ll all get home, somehow.
Of course they won’t sue me, that’s not their style. They’ll hide Alesha from me, surround the abused child with love and attention. The most enduring affection will come from Andrey and his childless wife, Nadya. Tanya will take Alesha to the seacoast in the summer; Kolya, who tonight took Alesha in his arms, is not the same Kolya who slapped his little son for wetting his bed—he’ll be a decent father from now on. Marisha, too, will love and pity my talentless, toothless boy. Zhora, who’ll become a famous professor, will throw him a few crumbs and maybe help him get into college. Now, Serge is another matter. He will end up living with the only person he truly loves, his own daughter, his crazy love for whom will continue to lead him through life by dark corners and underground passages until he understands what’s happening and gives up other women for the one he himself brought into the world. Such things do happen, and when it happens to Serge, my friends will find themselves in a serious predicament. But that won’t happen for another eight years, and in the meantime Alesha will grow stronger and smarter. I’ve arranged his fate at a very cheap price: I simply sent him to the allotment without the key to the shack and forbade him to ring the bell or knock—he understands what “don’t” means. My performance, the beating of an innocent child, threw Alesha into the protective arms of his indignant new parents, who otherwise would have sent him to an orphanage upon my death and barely tolerated his visits in their new home.
That’s how I planned it, and that’s how it will happen. And I’m glad that this odd family will live in Alesha’s home, not he in theirs, it’s better for him this way. Very soon I’ll be gone; Alesha, I hope, will visit me on the first day of Easter at the cemetery, like I showed him earlier today. I think he’ll come—he’s a very smart boy—and there, among the drunken crowd, with their painted eggs and plastic wreaths, he’ll think about his mother, and forgive her. My son, my Alesha, will forgive me, I know, for not letting him say goodbye at the end, for leaving him in the world without a mother’s blessing, covered in blood, at the mercy of my so-called friends. That way it was best—for everyone. I’m smart, and I know.
Translated from the Russian by Anna Summers. “Among Friends” will appear in Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s forthcoming There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In, translated and introduced by Anna Summers.