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This story concerns a perfect girl, raised by her perfect mother and grandmother. Three ageless beauties, crème de la crème of Moscow’s Jewish intelligentsia.

Even the hard-drinking nurses
at the mental clinic worshipped her.

The grandmother resembled a charming infant. A former pianist, she wore lace gloves in the summer. The mother, a psychiatrist in a mental clinic, looked plainer, but her patients adored her. In her presence they forgot about dangerous emanations, pursuers, and threatening voices. Among her patients were celebrated musicians, poets, and artists. She never mentioned their names outside the clinic, but the top shelf in her bookcase at home was lined with their autographed books and records. Even the hard-drinking nurses at the mental clinic worshipped her.

Like many great women, Maria Iosifovna had a weakness: her daughter. She loved the girl surpassingly. She mopped up after Katya’s bath, brought her tea in bed, and refused to lecture or discipline her. Katya’s classmates adored her; the girls surrounded her in a ring, while the boys studied her every move. But the teachers couldn’t forgive Katya’s innate sense of superiority, which expressed itself in an exaggerated, icy politeness. A new gym teacher put his foot down and demanded performance and attendance in physical education. Katya was a lazy child who didn’t believe that she should be expected to run laps with her tongue out, to climb ropes like a monkey, or to hurl discs in a vulgar squat—all mandatory exercises. She tried once, and her girlfriends giggled at her, while the boys gasped. Katya then refused to go to school, and her mother provided her with an unreadable but impressive medical note of excuse, something to do with Katya’s legs—prophetically, as it turned out. From then on, Katya sat in a corner of the gym with a book, while the boys paraded their athletic prowess. Katya looked like a pink beauty from Renoir’s paintings.

At college she chose math, but later switched schools and took up languages (she already knew two)—in other words, she took the path of least resistance. Most boys came to that college after their army service; they were hardened ambitious men, a lower breed. After college, Katya found much-coveted work in the periodicals section at the Library of Foreign Literature, which was frequented by intelligentsia and artistic bohèmes. Katya fell in love there. She fell in love with Anton, an older, degenerate gambler who made a living as an orderly at a hospital. She brought him home to introduce him to her mother and grandmother. He brought with him a suitcase.

Maria Iosifovna took one look at Katya’s fiancé and diagnosed psychopathology with a touch of epilepsy—but she couldn’t exactly send him to the clinic for a Wassermann test. Soon, Katya became ill and hid her symptoms. An abortion was performed: Katya’s beloved had insisted on taking her to a back-alley clinic he knew. The mother knew about Katya’s pregnancy and wordlessly supplied the required sums. Then, one day, Katya tossed an empty vial past the trashcan. Her mother, who cleaned and mopped the house (the grandmother had taken to her armchair) picked up the vial, read the label, and asked Anton to join her in the courtyard for a little talk. Anton blamed Katya, who, he claimed, had picked up the disease from someone at work—who knew what went on at that library? Maria Iosifovna did the impossible: Anton disappeared from their house. Go, she told him. They are sending you on a business trip. In fact, he had nowhere to go. What housing he had once, he had surrendered to an ex-wife and their child. All he had to his name was three years of jail, as he’d once confessed to Maria Iosifovna.

The same day, Katya came home from a clinic, where she was secretly undergoing tests. She found a note on her desk. She read it, collapsed on her bed, and stayed there. She remained in bed for months, next to the phone. On hearing the wrong voice, she simply hung up. She ate nothing. Her mother brought Katya’s letter of resignation to the library. She began giving Katya IVs with glucose and vitamins, but her condition worsened, and the grandmother returned to life from her armchair to nurse Katya and to walk her to the toilet.

Katya eventually put two and two together. She must have understood what made Anton disappear; or maybe Anton got in touch with her. In any case, she stopped talking to her mother. After some time, the grandmother brought her a letter from the mailbox. It was empty and without a return address, but the handwriting on the envelope was definitely Anton’s. Katya revived. She began leaving her room, and talked about going outside.

Katya didn’t know that her mother had copied Anton’s handwriting from an old envelope he had addressed from a prison camp to another woman six months before he met Katya. (So this Anton was barely out of prison when he latched onto Katya.) The letter must have been returned to Anton in person. The woman must have broken up with Anton violently and for good—people usually save letters from loved ones. She must have loved him once, as she did take the time to throw that letter in his face.

Later, Katya’s grandmother observed her flipping through the phone book. Katya asked for the map of Moscow, probably to look for the post office where the fraudulent letter had been stamped. But to actually get up and go, Katya didn’t have the strength. Mother and daughter began speaking again, their exchanges brief and to the point. Maria Iosifovna offered to resume Katya’s IVs to improve her blood and complexion. A nurse came and took a blood test, which showed that Katya’s venereal disease had been cured but that Katya herself remained as weak as a newborn kitten.

Katya grew stronger and began leaving the house. After a tremendous effort, she returned to work at the library—as a part-time replacement of someone on maternity leave. Katya was trying to place herself in Anton’s old tracks. Instead of Anton, however, she captured Gleb, who set for himself the herculean task of asking her out on a date. Negotiations were conducted over the family phone—everyone in the house followed Gleb’s progress. Finally, Gleb invited Katya to join him and some friends at his dacha for a New Year’s party. Maria Iosifovna immediately added a certain compound to Katya’s IV, and it worked: Katya came back from the dacha with swollen lips and shadows under her eyes. Her resistance had been overcome by Gleb’s sexual onslaught (Gleb was built like a spermatozoid—stocky, with a large head), and now she followed him around like a zombie, eyes half closed, lips perpetually swollen. Through the flimsy door in Katya’s room, her family listened to the creaking and the thumping.

At the wedding banquet, Katya briefly regained consciousness and ran outside to cry. Her mother and grandmother left soon after.

At the wedding banquet, Katya briefly regained consciousness and ran outside to cry. Her mother and grandmother left soon after.

Gleb’s parents, Colonel Ivan Petrovich and his wife, Emma, liked to emphasize their blue-collar origins and to keep their manners simple. Without waiting for the banquet to end, therefore, they threw an ugly scene and practically kicked Gleb out, together with his young wife. The newlyweds had planned to settle in Gleb’s room in his parents’ apartment, where he had painstakingly redone the floors and painted the walls, but what can you do? Gleb shoved Katya into a cab and took her back to her mother’s. There he dumped the entire story on Maria Iosifovna (people dumped their stories on her whether she wanted them or not), and stayed there to live—there was nowhere else to go. Katya cried all night. Her mother didn’t come to her.

Eight months later, Katya gave birth to a girl. Every night, Gleb carried the child for hours: the girl had a hernia. Two years later, a boy came who looked—surprise, surprise—exactly like Anton. Nonetheless, Gleb carried this child, too, every night, despite his mother’s protestations that the boy wasn’t his. Katya, in the meantime, grew thinner and weaker, like her grandmother, who soon died. Maria Iosifovna held herself like the Queen of England, despite everything. Her son-in-law hated her absolutely.

In her youth, Gleb’s mother, Emma, had so charmed Col. Ivan Petrovich that he left his wife and son and never heard from them again until the first wife died and left their teenage son alone. That son ended up in a colony for juvenile delinquents, from which he wrote to his father asking for food. No food was ever sent: Emma saw to that. Later, the son resurfaced once more. He came to visit, was sent away for good, and, apparently, died.

Emma’s husband found her enchanting. She sank her teeth into her son like a bulldog and kept on gnawing and nagging, gradually killing all that was best in his nature: his kindness, his sense of pity for the ailing Katya, his love for the babies who both had hernias and weren’t supposed to cry. Emma couldn’t stand all that sickness and weakness. She ridiculed Gleb, kept telling him that he was being used by these strangers—that’s right, instead of giving all that love to her, to his own mother! She expounded like this in front of Maria Iosifovna, declaiming loudly that Katya must be suffering from gonorrhea at the last stage, that she must be tested! (Katya must have confided to Gleb in a tender moment.) Her other constant theme was that the children were not Gleb’s.

Poor Gleb bounced between his mother and his own family. He despised his mother but couldn’t help believing her; he loved his wife but didn’t trust her. He came home drunk, reeking of booze, and often slept on the floor where he collapsed. His dissertation stalled. He stopped talking to his mother, who began calling Maria Iosifovna to shower Katya with obscenities (prostitute with a lover from prison and so on).

Maria Iosifovna died. She died a strange death, at her desk, during her shift at the clinic. Why did her heart stop like that? At the funeral her colleagues were seething with hatred and suspicion. Again, why? Maria Iosifovna never revealed the goings-on in her house to anyone. But people knew. (People always know.) Gleb’s parents were there with unspoken words frozen on pursed lips.

The mother was screaming,
“Aren’t we all family?” outside the locked door.

Katya’s family survived. Gleb stopped drinking after the funeral. He didn’t even drink at the wake. He told his parents to stay away from the wake, but they came anyway, and he slammed the door in his mother’s face. (The father was hiding on the stairs, the mother was screaming, “Aren’t we all family?” outside the locked door.)

Katya was made director of the periodicals at the library. Her mother’s soul seems to dwell in her. Always surrounded by adoring colleagues, serene and competent, Katya can barely walk. Her husband fetches her in his car, carries her down the steps, and then places her in the elevator. The kids are growing. They bring their homework to mama’s library and stay there all afternoon.

Emma continues with her prophesying. She calls her son regularly, to accuse him of abandoning her and to warn him that Katya and her children must be carrying bad blood, as she puts it, since Maria Iosifovna clearly killed herself. Who knows where she picked that one up! According to her, Maria Iosifovna made her own heart stop, without any pills—she knew, you see, that Gleb was going to leave his family because of her, because of her unyielding pride. But you won’t, Emma screams into the phone, you won’t leave them like your idiot of a father left his family, you take after me, not him! The screaming is harrowing, but Gleb cannot hang up on his mother. He sits there, squirming, taking it all in.

How much women know, how much.

Translated from the Russian by Anna Summers.