What is a vacation by the sea, if not a return to eternal youth? Every summer, land-locked Muscovites flock to the Black Sea to face rowdy crowds, suspect food, infernal partying and drinking, horrible beach music—all for the sake of a dazzling day in the water followed by an equally dazzling evening when the skin tingles as though on fire, and a vacationer’s new face looks out young and rosy from the mirror. Whether she jumps off the pier, descends the steps cautiously, or runs into the water happily, intoxicated with coolness and freedom, the result is the same. Out of the sea foam emerges a goddess, a Venus, invisible at first, but by the end of the vacation fully hatched, like a snake that has shed its skin. (There are lots of recipes and lotions, but mistakes can still happen, and the old skin may peel unevenly. The new face can resemble a young potato, but that can be corrected by subsequent total sunbathing.)
The daily grind has been shoved aside, replaced by endless aquatic vistas. Soon, new routines and concerns take over paradise, along with petty complaints that this is wrong and that is bad, all the beach cots are taken, a drinking party is raising hell, blaring music on a boom box, and so on. Next come endless arguments with family members who drag their feet in the morning and can’t leave for the beach on time to avoid the afternoon heat and so quickly get burnt. Children in the water are a torture to a parental heart; one needs to keep constant watch on the shore or else swim in circles in shallow water without any pleasure, like a bodyguard, and to look for sunburns, apply the lotion, send the child into the shade despite loud protests. But the process of regeneration is taking place. A mass of golden hair falls over the shoulders like a cloak; eyes lighten against the tan skin; leg muscles tauten like ropes; the children grow healthier by the minute, although not without contracting bronchitis first, or an ear infection, or a simple cold.
The precious days are rolling past; more than half are gone. The husband spends most evenings with his pal from last season, a prominent scientist like himself, although in a different field; both are nominated to the Academy of Science. The wife receives friends and acquaintances; the children join their own little cabal.
In the evening, the family reconvenes. Shower; quiet haggling over the upcoming hike to the mountaintop to watch the sunrise—Mirbala, their local friend, is leading the group.
The husband refuses definitively. The children make faces: they have plans, a girl in their gang is having a birthday party, they need money for a present and cake, please, Mom.
All this means that the following night, Vera, the wife, is free—and there she is, marching uphill with a group of seven adults, Mirbala leading the way. Each carries a jacket and a bedroll. Mirbala is also bringing marinated lamb, for kebobs; Serezha is dragging wine. There is also Serezha’s gangly wife, plus Mirbala’s mysterious girlfriend in large earrings and a turban, plus a shy woman, Valya—Vera will make friends with her. A friend of Serezha’s is carrying the grill and skewers. Vera is responsible for coffee and dessert. Hooray! There are three children, tired and miserable; two belong to Serezha, and the other is his friend’s little girl.
Finally, they stop for the night. Fire in the grill, excitement, first glass of wine, first kebob off the fire. (“Not enough marinade,” Mirbala moans; “Enough, enough,” shout the women.) The kids are exhausted; everyone stretches out on their bedrolls, closing their eyes, but almost immediately Mirbala gets them up; again, the sleepy fussing of the kids; the little girl can’t wake up and her father touchingly carries her on his shoulders—what a cute pair!
At dawn the four women are not the same tireless vixens they were last night. They look like witches, with stringy hair, red eyes, green mugs. The exception is the turbaned girlfriend who is fresh as a rose, clearly a mistress of her face; it’s so important for a woman. (In the evening, a woman is capable of anything, but in the morning, the mirror reflects something unrecognizable!) They are marching again, up and up, in the morning twilight, breathing cool, dewy air, thinking that every step will have to be retraced. Finally, they are at the top, embraced by a fresh breeze, waiting for the sun to rise.
And soon it appears, just the pink trembling corner, and the sky catches fire, hooray! Slowly the star rises, straightening its dazzling shoulders; its sweltering mass leaves the sea valley and fills the background. Happiness. Tears of delight bubble in the chest, the shy new friend is sharing the experience, the old girlfriends are busy with themselves. Lord, Lord.
They are descending now, flying down the beaten forest path, toward breakfast, beach, a swim, a cot under an awning, a nap. Happiness.
Later, she tries to tell her husband and children what she has witnessed that morning. But they aren’t listening. The girls had food poisoning at the birthday party and didn’t go to breakfast. Vera, full of energy after a sleepless night, races to the dining hall to fetch them all breakfast, which they refuse, so she makes them tea, but the husband makes coffee for himself, takes a long look at his wife and suddenly declares, loudly and clearly: “You are so healthy, one could beat you on the pavement and nothing would happen.”
“That’s right, on the pavement,” Vera agrees lightly and leaves for the beach, where her new friend, Valya, has been guarding a cot for her.
Naturally, the children arrive at the beach in the worst afternoon heat, splash around sleepily. Vera has to control them unobtrusively. Her husband makes an entrance, too, drops his stuff near the family cot, and immediately moves to the next awning, where the other guys are congregating. Mirbala and his harem have crawled home to sleep.
But the happiness experienced at dawn, the difficulties overcome, the reward in the form of a new sun (she looks at it suddenly and thinks, Hi, I saw you waking up!), continue their magical effect all day.
Vera feels contented. She doesn’t concern herself too much with domestic problems. Let it all flow, she thinks. She shoves those problems into a far corner and allows herself another night of freedom, which she spends on a porch, surrounded by friends from previous vacations: Mirbala, the turban, Serezha and Serezha’s friend with the little girl and a beautiful wife, plus another girlfriend with her husband, and the shy Valya. Other women treat Valya with established condescension, but she doesn’t seem to mind, she perches shyly on the edge of her chair, takes little sips of wine, like some poor relative. Vera feels wonderful, she is exaggeratedly nice to Valya, all these women are her friends from previous vacations, she wants everyone to be friends. Her festive mood won’t leave her.
She reunites with her family late at night, when the kids are already in bed with unwashed feet (sheets are full of sand; little darlings refuse to wash in mama’s absence). With a light heart, Vera settles down for the night and falls asleep instantly, without the usual nocturnal reading and struggle with mosquitoes.
And what’s there to lose sleep about? The girls are almost grown, ten and thirteen, and the husband, too, has grown, nursed almost to the point of self-reliance; he’ll soon be elected to the Academy. Everything is rolling smoothly, the future seems to hold nothing but joy—and then the husband announces that Manya is coming to join them. Manya is his niece, his sister’s daughter. The girl has apparently nowhere to go this summer; that scoundrel, the head of her department, refused to sign off on her vacation, demanding sex, so she just left, lost her position.
Manya arrives. They have rented a room for her near their hotel, quite a decent room, although without a shower and with a shared bathroom, so she’ll have to use theirs. Pale and lethargic Manya, bespectacled, an exact replica of her mother, accepts her new conditions meekly and joins their household on lawful grounds. She rejects the food, swims in brief stretches with a seeming distaste, but then burns up, quickly and thoroughly.
Vera slathers cooling lotion over Manya’s freckled, anemic skin, the weak back muscles, the endless legs. The husband gives Manya his bed; she is burning with fever. He sleeps on the floor, keeping vigil, gives her water, while Vera runs out for medicines or to fetch a doctor or to get food, which Manya rejects. Finally, the doctor allows Manya a shower. Vera goes in with her to assist; the husband waits outside, pacing nervously. Vera starts the shower running, turns to the mirror to apply some cream; behind her Manya fusses with her clothes, gets into the shower clumsily. Vera turns around to offer assistance—and encounters a vision. A young goddess is standing under torrents of water, with breasts like white lilies on a thin golden body, a healthy profusion of pubic hair, the back a divine shape, like a Greek amphora. Well. Vera scrapes that back with a sponge, sighs slightly over her own forty-year-old body. This one is twenty-three.
The vacation ends. Manya develops pneumonia. The husband stays behind to nurse her, while Vera, healthy and brown, returns with two healthy, brown girls to an empty Moscow apartment. From there, two weeks later, they set out on a wide road of disgrace and suffering because Vera’s husband and Manya return from the south not alone but with a baby in the womb.
Oh, horror. Immediately, Manya confesses to her mom.
Across town, Manya’s mother is wailing with grief and fury. At home, the husband is whispering passionately into the phone, sick with love, barely human. He soon leaves. First, he rents an apartment where he installs pregnant Manya; then, he demands a divorce and his share of square feet in the family condo.
The rest follows like a spring flood, sweeping away people and things. Vera’s destroyed family eventually finds itself in a tiny apartment with rooms like closets, and brief was the moment when Vera, tanned like a peach, was showered with compliments at her office; and on the subway, too, her refreshed beauty attracted looks, for her youth had indeed returned and, along with it, clingy stares and questions. But Vera didn’t respond. She waited for her husband. And the husband arrived, with Manya.
Time has passed, a boy is growing, a normal child, forever ostracized by his family and grandparents because his grandmother also happens to be his aunt; imagine. Vera’s grown daughters have reconciled themselves to the new state of things and visit their father in his new home. He is a full member of the Academy now, and they bring to him their petty, mercantile needs.
Vera in the meantime is migrating from hospital to hospital, from operation to operation, going though chemo, through radiation, hoping and surviving, while all the time her doctor’s first question is ringing in her ears: Has she suffered an injury—or maybe a sunstroke?
“Yes,” Vera tells her, “there was a sunstroke, yes.” She wants to say more, but chokes, falls silent. She wants to say that all she ever wanted was a little break, a little happiness, to return, to go back. But it didn’t happen that way.
Translated from the Russian by Anna Summers.