Olya is desperate to get away from the bed she shares with her sister, and the tinkling of their chamber pot. So when a boy she’s never met proposes, what else could she say?
Olya lay in bed between her younger sister, Dasha, and her older sister, Zoya, feeling that, at eighteen, her life was over. For what was life without love? A never-ending shift at a factory assembly line. Left and right, her friends went to the dances at the Palace of Youth, fell in love, and got married. They moved out of their parents’ tiny apartments and no longer shared a bed with their sisters. They lived real lives. Plus, as married women, they could wear lipstick without attracting judgmental stares from nosy babushkas on the street. Olya was dying to wear lipstick.
The room was hot and stuffy even with the windows open. She sat up and looked at her sleeping sisters. Dasha’s lips were pinched by a secret smile. She always seemed so much happier in her sleep. Zoya gripped her corner of the sheet and ground her teeth with the same intensity she applied to her waking activities, from stirring sugar into a cup of tea to expounding the virtues of the Party over dinner. Olya was fed up with Zoya’s lectures, fed up with the poverty and having to put in hours and hours of work at the three different vegetable plots her parents had. She was fed up to death with everything in this town.
She climbed out of the bed and tiptoed into the living room. The old wooden floor creaked in betrayal. On the pullout couch, her mother and stepfather groaned in their sleep. She’d already heard one of them use the chamber pot—a big metal bucket in the hallway—earlier in the night. She was sick to death of that bucket. The nighttime deed made the kind of shameless trickling sound Olya imagined woke the neighbors not only in their house but also on the other side of the courtyard. It gunned the message into the metal: I am alive and I don’t care what you think of me.
Which was very different from Olya’s current state of mind. First, the love of her life, Kostya, had jilted her. Second, she had been denied admission to the Nutrition Institute in Odessa, where Kostya was now stationed. And third, she’d just found out that her tall and handsome Kostya, the dark-haired and green-eyed Kostya, a newly graduated officer of the Stavropol Military Academy, witty Kostya, guitar-playing and campfire song–singing Kostya, had married Olya’s former classmate—she wasn’t even that pretty—and taken her with him to Odessa.
On top of this, another graduate of the military academy, a certain Alek, whom Olya had met just two weeks ago, had unceremoniously proposed to her. He was a communications officer and had been assigned to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, a port city on the Kamchatka Peninsula nine hours away by plane. He didn’t have to say it, but this was his last chance to secure a wife before the lonely military life in the Far East swallowed him whole. Olya always had so many friends, so many admirers from school and the academy. She was the most popular girl in her neighborhood and the star at the dances. How had it happened that her choice now came down to this?
Zoya laughed when she heard of the proposal.
“He can’t be serious about this,” she said. “He hardly knows you.”
“So what? A man can’t fall in love with me at first sight?”
“A boy. You don’t know him at all.”
Olya had known Kostya well, and where did that get her?
So she considered ending it all.
She could cut her wrists, she thought now as she put on her sandals. A slow and painful way to go. That bastard Kostya wasn’t worthy of so much suffering. She could jump off a building. It would have to be high enough so that she perished instantaneously. Life as an unmarriageable invalid was even worse than death.
She could hang herself, but she’d have to rummage in the closet for a rope or a belt, which would wake everyone up. It would certainly wake Dasha. Dasha thought Alek’s proposal was romantic. Poor Dashen’ka, she would never get over her death. Eventually the news would reach Kostya in Odessa. He probably would be too busy with his new wife to give poor, dead Olya a second thought. Such a possibility set off another wave of self-pity.
Olya knew she shouldn’t grumble at her personal circumstances. The war had ended only thirteen years ago, and everyone still incanted: “Anything but the war, anything but the war.” And her current life could hardly be compared to her parents’ life before the war, at the height of the Terror and famine. Her mother was accused of stealing a loaf of bread from the grocery store where she worked. For this, she was arrested and sent to a work colony in Turkmenistan, where Olya and Dasha would be born. Her father, who had worked at the Anti-Plague Institute as a medical researcher in charge of developing vaccines, was accused of spying for the Japanese. He was tortured, his nails peeled off to the all-deafening accompaniment of a song from the film The Children of Captain Grant: “Captain, captain, smile! For a smile is the flag of the ship!” After several years in the Gulag, he returned home a sick and broken man. Throughout childhood, when Olya and her sisters would, in their ignorance, break into the ever-popular song at home, their father would pale, and their mother would scream at them to stop. She didn’t explain why until each girl turned eighteen, and then only in a whisper and after swearing them to secrecy. Dasha still didn’t know. Their father lived for another four years.
Stalin was dead now; food was almost plentiful. People had finally taken a deep breath.
But Olya had had enough of such reasoning.
She found a flashlight and picked up a cloth bag with cut-up newspapers kept by the door for trips to the outhouse. Two flights of stairs later, she plunged into the warm cocoon of the summer night. Her own building was too low for a fatal jump. The almost full butter-yellow moon hung in the sky like a giant river pearl. It seemed to her she could smell a hundred different flowers—most ardently, jasmine. Two opposite windows were lit up on the dark faces of the ancient izbas. Perhaps secret lovers had stayed up all night to relay messages via curtain Morse code, Olya mused, though she knew that those windows belonged to two querulous old hags. Either way, it was a night for secret rendezvous with one’s sweetheart, for kissing so long you didn’t need red lipstick, for not being able to fall asleep. Not suicides. In her small, crowded home she felt forsaken.
She used the pitch-black outhouse, then sat down on a homemade tree swing and looked at the moon again, its big-eyed, mournful face frozen in a cry or a grave request. Maybe Alek wasn’t so bad. He was short but good-looking enough, especially in the dress uniform he’d worn at graduation. His gray eyes were playful, his cleft chin optimistic, his wavy hair shiny like his parade boots. He drew well. He’d shown her an album of his caricature sketches before proposing.
No, Olya wanted something death couldn’t give her—a revenge on love and life, and on Kostya. She wanted to wear lipstick without the gawks from babushkas who sat cracking sunflower seeds on the courtyard benches all day, gossiping about the past and predicting the future. She wanted to be the mistress of her fate.
They married ten days later, on Alek’s twenty-third birthday. At the wedding Olya noticed with disappointment that his lower lip was sizably puffier than his upper lip, and five minutes after she lost her virginity, she threw up next to the bed. The physical act itself had revolted her, and she lay awake all night, wondering whether it would have been different with Kostya. At sunrise, she decided she needed to hurry up with her progress of love.
The day after the wedding Olya bought herself a lipstick the color of a ripe strawberry. It was the first object she had owned that wasn’t a hand-me-down, and putting it on felt as wondrous as she had imagined. In another ten days Alek went off to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky to report for duty. She was to join him two months later, after he was done with training.
At first Olya wished she could’ve spent more time strolling down the leafy boulevards with her new husband, holding on to his arm and flashing her gold wedding band. Then, she realized she could enjoy her new status more without the discomfort of wifely duties. People no longer pushed her in lines, men gave up their seats on the bus, and everyone, even the grouchy babushkas, looked at her with respect and hope. Even her parents allowed her some leeway when it came to domestic chores and working on the vegetable plots. Olya sauntered around town with Dasha, talking about her plans. She would have her own kitchen, with her own pots and pans and knives and plates and a blue embroidered tablecloth, and she would cook whatever she wanted—however she wanted to cook it. And if Zoya didn’t like the taste of it, well, she wouldn’t be there to criticize her. She and Alek would vacation on the Black Sea, but not Odessa, of course. Odessa was an awful place. She would have a vanity dressing table in her bedroom and a separate little box with a cushion for each ring. Dasha looked at her with reverence. Just don’t tell Zoya, Olya said.
By the time Olya celebrated her nineteenth birthday and began to pack for Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, she found out she was pregnant.
An exuberant southern fall was lazily taking over Stravropol. Caught in a chestnut hail, the park hummed and groaned. Giant red maple leaves appeared on the sidewalks like tracks of phoenix the firebird, joining the green leaves that had been patiently waiting since early August. The city was rolling out a crunchy welcome carpet. The warm wind rustled the leaves and the nylon raincoats of the hurrying passersby, and Olya’s soul rustled too, anxiously and excitedly in her chest.
She packed everything she owned: three cotton dresses, a pair of woolen tights, a pair of shoes and old winter boots, a rabbit-fur coat, and her late father’s black doctor’s bag. Olya gave her fourth dress to Dasha, who had long coveted the yellow number with violet floral print and a lace collar.
“Won’t you need it there?” Dasha said. “For military dances?”
Olya threw her head back in laughter, the way she’d seen an actress do in a movie. “Trust me, I won’t need so many summer clothes in the Far East. It’s cold there. Besides, I’m sure Alek would buy me more if I ask.”
In the days before Olya’s departure, Dasha wore the dress nonstop. It looked beautiful on her but seemed to have a strange destabilizing effect. Usually dexterous and sure-footed, she dropped bags and parcels, cut herself while cleaning potatoes or chopping onions, and walked into furniture. And every time Olya took Dasha’s small, clammy hands and said to her, “Dashen’ka, my soul, I’m not leaving forever,” Dasha, her beauty a paler, once-copied version of Olya’s, burst into silent tears.
Zoya, meanwhile, acted like she didn’t care whether Olya left or stayed. A sturdy girl with orange hair and the same dark blue eyes that Olya had, she kept herself busy at the library of her teacher’s college and with her various Komsomol obligations. At home, her already upturned nose stuck up higher still. She was jealous of Olya’s marrying first, Olya concluded, and not just anyone—an officer. In a gush of magnanimity, Olya bought another tube of strawberry lipstick and tucked it under Zoya’s pillow, wishing for a quick improvement in her sister’s romantic life.
With the commotion of the wedding and excitement about the pregnancy, and now preparing to move across the country, Olya hadn’t completely forgotten Kostya. But she found that focusing on his treacherous double-cross made her feel she was doing the right thing.
Alek returned from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky with cans of red caviar and a mustache strip that looked like a pencil stain. He closed his matters at the local military branch, packed up the few possessions he’d stored at his mother’s, and on a bright mid-September morning headed with Olya and her family to the airport.
At the terminal, after offering last-minute words of wisdom and household advice, Dasha and her mother began to cry. Towering over him, Zoya briskly shook Alek’s hand, then turned to Olya and locked her in an iron hug, the way she used to tame Olya’s tantrums when they were children.
“Good luck, Olya,” she said. “You’re going to need it, but you’ll be all right. You’ve always been the luckiest of the three of us.”
“You’re going to need it, too,” Olya said, annoyed. She wasn’t lucky—she was brave. Courage was needed if you wanted to live your life and not just hold forth about it at meetings and demonstrations.
On the plane Alek sat straight, like a real officer. He looked out the bright window and for a moment his gray eyes washed out to almost-white. It frightened her.
“You are so beautiful,” he said and smiled shyly, as though she were not his wife but a fellow passenger at whom it was not polite to stare.
“You think everything will be fine?” One fears what one doesn’t know, her mother always said. Alek was a good man, Olya knew that much in her heart.
“The flight is long,” Alek said. His gray-again eyes glinted with mischief. “There’s a small chance we’ll crash. But don’t worry, you won’t miss much in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.”
Alek took Olya’s hands in his. She liked his hands, with their long, thin pianist’s fingers, the river network of veins. They were a tall man’s hands.
They settled in ramshackle barracks in a military neighborhood across the bay from the city proper. The sparsely furnished room was tiny, but Olya was happy to share the bed with just one person. Alek left for work at dawn, came home for lunch and a nap, then returned in the evening, wolf-hungry and exhausted. During the day, he sent the soldiers from his squad, mere children themselves, to haul buckets of water from the neighborhood pump and chop firewood for the stove. They helped Olya with grocery shopping, too. She saw now that red caviar was the only thing one could bring from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky as a present. Pyramids of caviar cans stood on nearly empty shelves like miniature defense installations. There wasn’t much in the way of vegetables and fruits, compared to Stavropol, and she doubted she could maintain a garden in this cold, wet soil by herself. At least she didn’t have to carry that burden, too. Pregnant and therefore unhireable, Olya mostly stayed home. Something always needed cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, darning. She liked gossiping in the communal kitchen with the other officers’ wives. The nights she was unable to fall asleep because of Alek’s snoring, she read—like her mother told her to—and thought of the nights back home. She and Dasha had often stayed up late waiting for Zoya to return home, and though they read different books, it felt like they were enveloped in the comfort of the same dream of other lives, of other possibilities. Back then, in their minds and bodies they were free.
One night, a month into her sojourn in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Olya woke up in alarm. She had distinctly felt something scurry over her pregnant belly. She jumped off the bed and turned on the lights just in time to see two rats rounding the corner.
“Alek!” she screamed. “Rats!”
“What! Who’s there?”
“A rat just ran over your future child. We have to move out of here. You have to talk to someone about this first thing in the morning.”
Alek made a sour face. “I’m still new here.”
“What does that matter?”
“Well, unfortunately it’s my duty to put up with the inconveniences. I’m a soldier first and an officer second,” he said without conviction.
“Yes, that might be the soldier’s duty, but not his wife and child’s. There is no war going on. I didn’t follow you here like some—” She wanted to say “Gulag prisoner’s wife” but caught herself. It wasn’t safe to yell such things in the middle of the night, especially when the walls were thin enough for rats to chew through. “Like a Decembrist’s wife! Do you want your baby to be eaten by rats?”
Alek put his head in his hands and stayed like that for so long, Olya thought he’d gone back to sleep. He wore a holey undershirt, which she hadn’t yet mended, and, generally, did not look like a husband at all.
“Why don’t you talk to them?” Alek said through his hands, then looked up. “It will be more effective. They’ll take one look at you—your condition—and do anything you say.”
Olya went to the housing office the following morning and yelled at the director, a bald, glistening fellow in an ill-fitting uniform. She never did pay much attention to rank. He listened, leering at her thin shoulders, legs, ankles. He even grinned when Olya said she was afraid to go to bed at night because of the rats. She almost threw up in disgust after leaving his office.
A week later they were moved into a room in the two-room communal apartment with a shared kitchen. Their neighbor was an old army doctor, Vasily Petrovich, who kept to himself. This place was newer and had no rats, just cockroaches. It even had an indoor toilet, though no running water.
I love it here very much. It’s not for the weak of heart… Olya described her new life in vivid detail in her letters home. She knew her mother would read them aloud over dinner, and she hoped her parents, overwhelmed by pride, and Zoya, dumbfounded by jealousy, would talk about her in the stores’ waiting lines and at the Komsomol meetings, and eventually the news would reach Odessa. She didn’t love Kostya anymore, but she wanted him to know that her life didn’t end when he left. On the contrary, it had only properly begun.
Olya found much to like about Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Yes, its streets and squares were not as wide and lush with trees as those of Stavropol. Even the standard five-story khrushchyovkas seemed lower than back home, huddled together in tight neighborhoods to take cover from the long winter’s callous wind. Yet she felt invigorated and alive in a city surrounded by active volcanoes. Anywhere she looked, she saw their pyramidal outlines in scarves of clouds, white and mystical against the blue sky. During her first earthquake, the ceiling lamp swung wildly and the teacups tumbled from the table. Alek had warned her that mild earthquakes happened about once every three months, and after that first one Olya was thrilled like a rookie sailor after his first big storm. Nothing this exciting ever happened in Stavropol.
Alek came back from flights to inspect the radio towers in the mountains full of admiration for Kamchatka’s nature. Such beauty! Such romance! He told her about the Uzon Caldera, the site of a giant extinct volcano. The hollow, surrounded by steep walls, was a veritable museum of Kamchatka, with poisonous mud cauldrons, hot springs, and bogs. Enormous bears bathed in the cold rivers and swans honked near the small, warm lakes. One time, as a very special present, Alek snuck Olya with him on one of these trips. It was strictly forbidden for civilians, but the commander of the helicopter owed him a big favor, Alek had said. When Olya saw from the air the famous Maly Semyachik, she held her breath and thought of her sisters. On the one hand, she felt guilty that they couldn’t see the crater, with its black beach and the unimaginably bright, sometimes turquoise, sometimes green acid lake. They had never even been off the ground. On the other hand, she was vigilantly possessive of her new experiences. Maybe that made her a bad person—a selfish Soviet citizen in the eyes of Zoya—but now that Olya was married, she wanted to be the first in everything, she wanted every sensation for herself. Her soul, dislocated from its warm nest, had become a more sensitive instrument. Back in town, she would pick up on a deep underwater humming whenever she approached the bay. She felt it churn the blood in her veins, raising her body temperature and levels of optimism. She thought it was the surge of adrenaline due to the rapid changes in her life: the pregnancy, the marriage, the new city. Decades later, after declassification, she would find out that Russia’s largest atomic submarine base had been just across the bay.
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky’s seasonal capitulation was sudden and intense. The surrounding tundra burned with scarlet until October, and the birch forests stood drenched in gold. The temperature dropped overnight. On her way to the grocery store in the mornings, Olya could hear the hoar-frosted leaves falling with a jingle. The gusting wind brought the scent of sea and winter. First snow fell in early November.
In the first few months of marriage Olya learned the following about Alek. One: his father had died on the last day of the war. His mother, doubting she could raise two boys by herself, had sent Alek and his brother to the Stavropol branch of the Suvorov Military School, not uncommon for so many fatherless boys of the postwar years. Two: as long as there was hot dinner on the table and a pack of Belomorkanal cigarettes on the bureau, Alek was content. And three: he loved to play preferans, which his mother had taught him on his breaks from the military school. One of his card buddies was the helicopter commander who had flown Olya over Maly Semyachik.
When Alek won, he came home cheerfully tipsy, with presents for Olya—usually chocolate bars with white, blotchy coating from the canteen on base. He gave her all his winnings, danced her around their little room, and felled her on their little bed. His veiny hands hovered centimeters above her swollen stomach, then slid between her legs. His eyes filled with glassy determination. His paltry mustache tickled her unpleasantly, and she kept whispering, “Not so loud, just not so loud, please. Vasily Petrovich will hear.”
After Alek fell asleep, she crashed back into her sore body. She must not have been in love just yet. But she would be soon, when the baby came—at the latest. It was hard to think of either Dasha or Zoya doing this with a man, and even more impossible and revolting to imagine them enjoying it. And yet she couldn’t stop thinking about it. She was scared for them to find out the truth on their own and blame her for not warning them.
If Alek came home with a short smile and headed right for the kitchen, Olya knew that he’d lost. He smoked in the dark, without taking off his overcoat. He didn’t look up at her even when she held his head against her round stomach—which, she knew, he didn’t like touching—and stroked his black, wavy hair. She felt disappointment but also a kind of power in his guilt. She assumed that Alek would either quit when the losses became too big, or go on losing a little and winning a lot. She didn’t mention his gambling to her family. It seemed unpleasant but manageable, like the flu. Besides, what could they do? She was already up to her elbows in marriage. Aside from the cards, it was hard to pick on Alek. He hadn’t cheated or raised his hand to her. Not when he was sober, not when he was drunk. Not even after a loss. A gambler but an officer nevertheless.
Every few weeks Olya received a thick envelope from home. Her mother’s letters were full of recipes and stories from Olya’s childhood, stories Olya had heard a hundred times before. Her stepfather wrote about the vegetables he and her sisters were planning to plant on the plots. Dasha’s pages about the new school year, her last one, were streaked with tears. She already missed her classmates and she missed Olya even more. From Zoya, Olya expected lecturing. Instead Zoya sent proverbs.
To marry is not to put on a bast shoe. Bride has an axe, groom is barefoot.
Olya didn’t know what to make of it, though she didn’t think about it too hard. Her pregnancy was going well. She felt strong; she could haul water from the pump by herself when Alek and his soldiers were gone on training assignment or to inspect and repair the radio towers.
The winter dragged along. After the first blinding snowstorm in December, she understood the purpose of the ropes that had appeared stretched between buildings at certain strategic crossings. You couldn’t make any progress in the sudden whiteout without holding on to something solid, a wall or a rope. You could freeze to death meters from home. There were days in the perpetual twilight of January and February when Olya didn’t leave their room at all, relying on Alek’s soldiers for sustenance, water, and wood. She had her own small army to take care of her, she wrote in her letters. Alek, too, stayed home more often, his passion for cards having gone into winter hibernation. Some snowy evenings, Olya looked away from her knitting of baby socks and watched contentedly as he read a newspaper in the yellow glow of the floor lamp, his brows drawn in concentration but his mouth bunched to one side in a smirk, as though, as entertained as he was by all the lies, he could see through to the truth. One day she might even admire him, she thought—when he rose through the ranks and stopped gambling. One day.
The baby was born in mid-April. The labor was short and easy, the only thing that came easy to her, Olya would say in the years to come. The girl—they named her Marina—had eyes of indeterminate color, chipmunk cheeks, and a full head of chestnut hair. Olya spent hours staring at her small face, hardly believing that Marina was real and hers. Sometimes, she wondered what her child with Kostya might have looked like, but the only image that rose in her exhausted mind was that of her new daughter.
In a recent letter from home, Olya was shocked to learn of the romantic developments in both of her sisters’ lives. Zoya was seeing a Party functionary fifteen years her senior, her mother wrote with palpable glee. Dasha, meanwhile, confessed on her own that she’d met an engineering student. They had danced at the Palace of Youth and gone on long walks around the melting city together. She wrote with so little of her habitual shyness about how much she adored her suitor that Olya became suspicious. Her little sister was changing in her absence. She tried hard to be happy for Dasha and Zoya, and for her mother.
Husband with fire, wife with water, Zoya wrote in her letter without mentioning her new boyfriend.
One rainy Saturday night in May, Alek stumbled home late from a card game, the drunkest Olya had ever seen him. Marina had been screaming for hours, and Olya, in her delirium, was ready to throw the baby out the window. Her arms were sore. Her headache had wiped out all the emotions besides anger and frustration. Vasily Petrovich, the army doctor, had already come twice to their room to complain about the noise and attempted to calm the baby. Marina’s silky face was scrunched like a soiled handkerchief as she continued to screech.
Alek took several uncertain steps toward Olya. The corners of his eyes still flickered with his usual impishness, but the pupils were black holes of fear. He stretched his arms to the baby, and Marina stopped crying. Olya gave the stunned baby to her father. Alek and Marina stared at each other for a moment, as if confused who the other one was and what had brought them to this cramped, cold room. Then Alek began to cry, soundlessly but with a boyish abandon. His daughter resumed wailing. He returned her to Olya and shuffled to their lumpy little couch, where he continued to cry with his eyes closed. Soon he passed out in his coat.
Olya worried all night. Had his mother died? Was another war about to begin?
She found out in the morning. Several exceptionally good players, new to the group, had ganged up to squeeze Alek down to the last ruble. A month’s salary in one night.
“I don’t understand. What are we going to live on? And the baby.” It was both a relief and worse than she thought.
Alek was sitting at the table in their room, eating a piece of buttered black bread with tea. His hair was dirty and matted.
“I’ll quit as soon as I pay off my debt,” he said, not looking at her.
“And what are we going to live on, Alek?” Olya heard herself say again. “Meanwhile.”
“They can’t just come over here and raid your wallet. Although, they’re such dogs, they could. We’ll hide it under the mattress in Marina’s crib.”
“I don’t keep our savings in my wallet.”
“We have savings? Where?”
“In the birch-bark box, in the bureau,” Olya said. His cluelessness shocked her. But she was also moved by his neediness, his complete, childish trust in her.
“How much?” Alek said into his tea.
“For food, another two weeks, maybe. Please don’t play anymore. Or maybe without betting so much. Can you?” She put her arms around him from behind, like a good wife would do.
Alek turned back, clasped her hips, and pressed his head to her stomach, which he was no longer afraid of.
“Such a shame,” he said through his teeth. “I’m a good player, I am. If my mother found out …”
One less girl, one more broad.
“Are you deranged? You can’t bet on winning. You’re an officer, for God’s sake. You’re educated. How can you be so stupid? If you don’t stop playing, I’ll leave you. I’ll take Marina and go.”
“I’m doing this for Marina and you.”
She slammed the table with her fist. Alek’s cup of tea jingled in its saucer. He lifted his head and stretched his lips, as though getting ready to smile. Did he think this was a joke? She struck the table again; she didn’t know what else to do. Marina began to cry and Olya ran to her. Alek followed and stood close without touching either Olya or the baby. The smell of alcohol and cigarettes and acrid male sweat was making her sick. She was afraid he wanted to sleep with her.
“Wash yourself,” she said.
“We don’t have any water.”
“Bring it then!” The echo of Zoya’s righteousness in her voice made her shudder, but the results were swift. In a few moments Alek was clunking with the buckets in the kitchen. Before going out to the pump, he came up to her.
“I will stop, Olya, I promise. I promise this time,” he repeated until she told him not to talk to her for the rest of the day.
She cleaned up the dirt in the hallway while Alek heated up the water and splashed in the bathroom. She wished she could complain to someone. She knew that her mother, despite teaching her girls to count only on themselves, was relieved that Olya got married. One less mouth to feed, one less body to clothe. A village girl, she had married Olya’s father at sixteen and found out at the civil registry office on their wedding day that he was twenty-five years her senior, when she saw his passport for the first time. She had said nothing. She was grateful to him for pulling her out of the peasants and into the intelligentsia. Olya wished that they could have talked heart to heart about those early days of her mother’s marriage—and about everything. Her mother had worked around the clock when the girls were growing up and never had time for much more than a good thrashing or an occasional saying. One of her favorites was: Live with your husband for a century but never show your backside. But how could she not? Olya was at a loss. She wanted to be a good and honest wife.
She couldn’t disappoint Dasha, she couldn’t spoil her new romance with the engineer. As for Zoya: her voice with the proverbs was running through Olya’s head almost nonstop. A wife is not a gusli; you can’t hang her up on the wall after playing.
That day, in self-imposed penance, Alek washed the dishes and changed Marina’s diaper for the first time in Marina’s life.
Nothing changed. Alek kept playing and losing. He came home drunk; often he didn’t make it to the bed. He didn’t defend himself when Olya yelled. He didn’t complain or hit her back when she came at him first with her fists, then with pots and pans or anything else within her reach, and he no longer promised to quit. She was ashamed when Vasily Petrovich caught them fighting in the kitchen or in the bathroom. Zoya’s proverbs crawled, like roaches, out of the cracks in the walls, from the corners of the cupboards and the holes in their socks, from the cold bubbles in Olya’s dishwater, screeching their nonsense. Couldn’t anyone else hear them? The thread follows the needle. The thread follows the needle. The thread follows the needle.
To pay off some debt, old and new, and to buy food and other necessities, Olya and Alek had no choice but to borrow money from Vasily Petrovich and the same officers Alek had lost to. Begging was below his rank, Alek said, so Olya put on her strawberry lipstick, whipped her hair into a coif, and went knocking on doors. She couldn’t bear the looks of the young soldiers when they brought water and wood to the apartment. The old army doctor seemed completely indifferent as he opened his wallet; her domestic drama was nothing compared to what he’d seen on the battlefield. A marriage, she had discovered, was a deep trench inside which festered a hundred previously concealed details about the person in whose company you had enlisted. She wanted to caution her sisters, but before that, she would have to admit her own defeat.
Olya remembered how Zoya had once organized a charity concert to raise money for the families of veterans, how she convinced every music ensemble and dance group in town to perform on Victory Day in the park. She had several schools put on short plays, pantomimes, and gymnastics routines and persuaded shy poets to declaim their patriotic works on stage. Olya had insisted that, though she had nothing against the veterans, of course, no one would come to see a concert without a single professional performer. Zoya took Dasha and went knocking on doors to invite half the town personally. The show was a huge success. Thousands came.
Only now Olya began to appreciate the magnitude of Zoya’s power. If Zoya was able to subjugate that many people to her will, how easy it would be for her to tackle just one husband.
I was tired of sitting home, Olya wrote, so I now work as a second-shift cashier at the Bread and Bread Products counter at the grocery store on the base. Like you said, it’s good to have your own money, just in case. Count only on yourself. A very nice lady from our building watches Marina in the evenings. Marina is getting big and has a loud voice, maybe strong enough to become an opera singer.
The full horror of reality ambushed Olya at home, in two variations. The first featured a mise-en-scène of Alek and his officer friends at a card game engulfed in cigarette smoke. A vodka bottle stood on the table. Marina sat in her crib, covered with tears and snot. In this scenario, Olya went to the kitchen to pick up a frying pan and chased everyone out, disregarding the differences in height, weight, and rank. A young wife cries till the morning dew, a sister—till the golden ring, a mother—till the end of times.
In the second variation, Olya returned from work to an empty room. This meant Alek was playing at one of his friends’ and Marina was with the babysitting babushka. The dinner she’d made earlier would be gone, and Alek would sometimes leave a humorous cartoon to explain the mess in the kitchen—for example, a cat with its tongue out sitting by a bowl of dumplings, sketched on a piece of paper he would leave next to a sinkful of dirty dishes.
In both cases, Olya was shocked and mortified anew as she crossed the threshold of her room, as though she kept accidentally walking into the neighboring apartment, the neighboring life, to catch its inhabitants at something shameful. She yearned for a break, for a summer vacation at the Black Sea or, at least, back in Stavropol. But Alek told her that he was allowed free tickets to the continent only every three years, so they must be patient and wait.
That November, when Marina was seven months old, an earthquake much stronger than what Olya had become accustomed to shook the town in the middle of the night. While Alek snored drunkenly on the couch, Olya rushed outside with Marina wrapped in a thin blanket, the first thing she could grab. Marina caught a chill, and it developed into pneumonia. Olya spent weeks with her at the hospital. As she wrapped the legs of Marina’s crib with rags soaked in roach repellent, she cursed the earthquakes and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, she cursed Kostya, Alek, and her marriage, she cursed Zoya’s proverbs. Marina coughed for months and months afterward, and with each wet heave Olya imagined someone scraping a layer of tissue off her baby’s lungs, tender like the inside of her chipmunk cheeks.
On the rare occasions when Alek won, he still brought home presents for Olya, but she only yelled at him for wasting money on nonessentials instead of paying their Hydra-like debts. He had stopped pushing Olya into bed, and at least for this she was thankful. She was still puzzled, however—in a sociological kind of way—how Alek could continue doing something that was so destructive to the family. Even without love, they still constituted an economic cell of the Soviet society. Shouldn’t that mean something to an officer?
More and more Olya thought about home and her childhood. Sitting in a field as a toddler, when the grass was as tall as she, and watching a bee circle a flower bush round and round. Bzzzzz—bzzzzz was the only sound in the world, the happiest sound, and in that moment nothing else existed or needed to exist. That must have been one of her first memories. Bathing with Dasha in the fountain across from Lenin Square on hot summer days. Twirling with Zoya on a tiny patch of ice in front of their father’s Anti-Plague Institute, imagining themselves world champions in figure skating. Speaking a made-up nonsense language with Dasha and pretending to be foreigners, until their mother categorically forbade it. And then there was the time when she, Dasha, and Zoya had walked twenty kilometers on the train tracks by themselves at night in Turkmenistan. Dasha must’ve been no more than four then. Olya remembered standing on a hill and Zoya pointing south: “That’s Iran over there.” And the time Olya and Zoya decided to heat up paraffin for a hot compress to cure Dasha of her cough, and it exploded in the kitchen. The whole ceiling was black, and they were charged with whitewashing it. And when Olya went with Dasha and Zoya to a Malenitsa fair in Stavropol and ran into a boy she had a crush on in seventh grade. He asked her where she was going, and she replied, too mortified to think straight, “Looking for pancakes.” She was still a chubby girl back then. Zoya laughed about this for three days straight, and one night, when Zoya was sleeping, Olya cut off a thick chunk of her hair. In revenge, Zoya threw Olya’s most treasured possession, her grandmother’s gold locket, into the hole in the outhouse. The locket was retrieved grudgingly by their poor stepfather. How many hours she’d spent weeding those stubborn vegetable plots with her sisters and walking, walking everywhere, and whispering in bed. And all that time of just staring at the snow. It all seemed so important now.
One evening the following spring, when Marina was almost a year old and looked like a copy of her father, Alek stumbled home after another gambling loss. His coat was open, his cap fixed on his head at an inadvertently jaunty angle. His features swam, now forming an idiotic smile, now an unsure frown.
When she saw his condition, Olya jumped at him with a book she’d finally just found a moment for and welted him tiredly in the stomach, chest, shoulders. Marina began to holler. The chronic phlegm slurped in her sinuses with that awful heartbreaking sound.
“You’re killing us,” Olya yelled. Her voice had been pitched to a high roof months ago and refused to come down. If only she could beat him hard enough that he would stop ruining her life.
Alek twisted the book out of her hands and carefully set it on the floor. Then he rose, holding on to the bureau, and slapped Olya in the face. In her shock, a proverb Zoya had yet to mention popped into her mind: If he beats you, he loves you. He hit her skinny upper arm, at first tentatively, as though measuring resistance of the muscle, then harder. He looked surprised and vacant, as if his arm were a separate object from him, something for which he wasn’t responsible. His expression scared Olya more than the beating. He could kill her and not notice.
He struck her back as she broke free, then lurched after her and pummeled her backside with particular viciousness—perhaps for all the times she didn’t let him touch it. She ran into the bathroom, hoping that Vasily Petrovich wouldn’t hear them. Alek barged through the flimsy door and pushed her to the floor. He kept beating her, then throwing fists at her. Then just hands. His eyelids drooped unevenly. Abruptly he turned and staggered back to their room.
After a few minutes Marina’s wailing registered again, and Olya ran back to the room. Alek was passed out on the floor by the couch. Underneath his unbuttoned coat his fatigue-green officer’s shirt was soaked with sweat. She picked up her daughter and carried her in a small circle as though in a dream. She took many, many steps. A new kind of ache seized her arms cell by cell.
Eventually Marina drifted off to sleep. Olya sat down with her on the bed. She should get up and turn off the light, she thought, but the baby was so warm and heavy on her lap. A soft anchor. She closed her eyes for a minute.
Olya woke from a sudden movement of the bed. Not another earthquake!
Alek had revived and was kissing Marina’s forehead.
“Don’t touch her!” Olya screamed.
He jumped away from her. “What’s wrong with her?”
“You beat me.”
He squinted in playful disbelief. Olya knew that look well.
“Don’t you dare make this into a joke.” His mustache and the dimple on his chin repulsed her. And those pathetic Belomorkanal cigarettes. For what kind of person was that enough to be happy?
Shaking from anger, Olya carefully transferred Marina off her knees and onto the bed. The girl curled up into a ball, bracing herself, even in sleep, for yet another skirmish between her parents. Olya showed Alek her arms. They were covered in bruises, blots of dark water under thin ice. Then she pulled up her housecoat and showed him what he’d done to her backside.
He looked at his hands. His face drew back to reveal a panicked rawness. His features reconstituted immediately into a sleepy, drunken grimace, but Olya had already seen that he, too, was terrified of himself, more terrified than she was. Marina woke up and strained her face in preparation for a wail.
“This is what you did,” Olya said and began to cry. “Like a drunken peasant.”
Alek stared at the floor without moving.
A bad husband’s wife is always an idiot.
He hobbled to the kitchen. There was a violent banging of drawers, then silence. In a few moments he returned with a knife. He placed a chair in the middle of the room, sat down, and slashed both of his wrists. As he bent forward to put the knife on the floor, blood began to spout out of the cuts. It was a surprisingly bright hue of red.
Olya turned away. Everything settled within her and retreated. She picked up whimpering Marina and rocked her, staring at the dark window. A few more months and her daughter would no longer be a baby. She wondered whether anyone was still awake, curled up with a book or huddled in the kitchen over tea and secrets. Marina kept sobbing. If Olya fell asleep now, she would sleep through this noise, too, and the ambulance sirens. She would happily sleep through the rest of her life, she thought.
A heavy sigh blew like a ghost from the chair. Alek sat slumped, with his eyes closed. His hands hung at his sides, lifeless as oars. The blood flowed steadily. Olya rocked her baby from side to side. They were out of milk. She would have to go first thing in the morning. Marina liked her semolina porridge thin, with lots of milk. Lots of milk and sugar.
By the time Vasily Petrovich burst into their room—he’d had a premonition about the silence that followed half a night of fighting—there was a puddle of blood next to the chair
“Why are you sitting there like a statue? Waiting for him to bleed out?” the old doctor yelled. He rummaged through their room. “Nothing. What kind of wife are you? Prepared for nothing.”
“And what kind of doctor are you?” Olya said.
Vasily Petrovich grabbed a pillow off the bed and tore the case into strips. Cursing and groaning, he tied Alek’s wrists. Alek didn’t shift, but he didn’t fall either.
Olya still hadn’t moved from the bed when the ambulance came and took Alek to the hospital. Marina had at last tired herself out and dropped off to sleep. Soon Marina would get hungry and start up again. This thought didn’t bring on the usual desperation in Olya. Her daughter was solely hers now. Every problem and burden hers alone. Relief was spreading warmly through her body.
A few hours later Marina woke up and Olya fed her. Then she put her daughter into the crib and began wiping up the puddle of blood, the edges of which had already congealed into a maroon jam.
The following day Olya went to the base to see about the plane tickets home and was surprised to learn that Alek had paid leave and free tickets available for himself and his family every year. “The defender of the Motherland must have quality rest to maintain the highest degree of combat readiness,” said the friendly lieutenant at the transportation department. So Alek had kept her prisoner in their smoky room because he couldn’t return home broke. Because it would be shameful for an officer.
She divided their meager marital possessions into honest halves, assigning herself the last unpaired pillowcase, since its mate had been sacrificed in Alek’s botched suicide. There was no time for a painstakingly calibrated letter, so she went to the post office to call home. Zoya picked up the receiver; no one else was around.
“Marina and I are coming.”
“For a vacation?” Zoya said.
Olya detected underwater mines in her tone. “Yes.”
“Well, it’s about time we all met your little chipmunk.”
“Zoya, already for a while I wanted to ask you. Why did you write those proverbs in the letters? If you wanted to tell me something, you could have just written that. I’m used to your lectures.”
“I never lectured you, Olya. It’s the voices in your head.” Zoya laughed, not maliciously. “It was for a joke, from Dasha’s library book. I thought you of all people could tell. You teased me about Komsomol, so I thought I’d tease you back. At a safe distance.”
“I never teased you about anything,” Olya said. She’d been afraid to.
As the days passed and her departure date grew closer, Olya’s euphoria swelled. She felt as happy and light as in those first fall days in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, when her growing belly seemed to be the one thing that kept her from flying off into the sky. At first Alek thought that her plan to leave was a ruse. Then he begged for her forgiveness and promised to quit whatever she wanted him to quit. “You’ll be the general,” he said over and over, trying to hook her with his wobbly smile.
“Everything will be the way you want. Just tell me.” To Olya, his pleadings were a faint prattle on a radio someone had forgotten to turn off. She and Alek had failed at not remaining strangers.
Alek still couldn’t believe Olya and Marina were leaving when they said good-byes at the airport. Vasily Petrovich had come, too, probably to make sure Alek didn’t do anything else stupid. From the bus that took them to the airplane, Olya spotted Alek’s slumped gray figure in the crowd of passengers’ families. He was waving along with the others. He wore the winter greatcoat to conceal his bandaged wrists, which made him look especially sad on such a bright spring day.
As the plane was about to take off, Olya looked one last time at the volcanoes in the distance. For a second, it seemed as if the clouds had thickened above one of the tops. She squeezed Marina tighter to her chest. Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky was even grayer from the air than from the ground. The naked trees on the snow-covered mountain slopes looked like patchy stubble on a giant’s sallow cheek. The plane broke through a layer of clouds and the city, the crater of her marriage, disappeared.
Back home, everything was understood and all the questions were now asked. Olya’s sisters were ecstatic to have her back and fought over who would get to babysit Marina. One of Olya’s classmates was taking the entrance exams to the surgical facultet at the Stavropol Medical University and dared Olya to try, too. What if? She needed to move on—and quickly. Besides, she already knew she wasn’t afraid of blood. All summer Olya reviewed the old chemistry and physics textbooks at the library. Zoya’s boyfriend had to pull some strings: Olya got in. The surgical facultet ended up with an overflow of qualified candidates, and she was offered a year-long deferral or a transfer to the dental course, which was four years shorter. The choice was clear.
While in school, Olya lived with her parents. Both Dasha and Zoya had married soon after Olya’s return (although she had counseled them about the perils) and moved out. That first summer back was sweltering. In the evenings, Olya studied on the bench in the courtyard while Marina slept in her stroller under a jasmine tree, clearing her chronically stuffed sinuses of volcanic ash. Then came the opulent fall again, with its maple-leaf tracks of phoenix the firebird. Every morning, when Olya went to medical school, her mother took Marina to the nursery under a shower of golden leaves and chestnuts in the park. In time, Olya’s stepfather taught Marina to ride a bicycle. Olya and Marina slept together for years in the sisters’ big old bed and were happy.
In her thirties, Olya moved to Syktyvkar, in the north of Russia, and soon became the chief doctor of a polyclinika. It was considered improper for a woman in her position to be single, so she got married again—this time to a doctor, a man of another so-called noble profession. Her second husband chased every skirt at his hospital and had a five-year affair before they finally divorced, but it was his miserly ways that offended her most. The days when she would open the fridge and see his name written on cartons of milk and packages of cheese and ham that he had bought on his salary, she thought of Alek—how he gave her all his money and was content as long as he had his Belomorkanal cigarettes.
Many more years later, Baba Olya, as she was now called, retired from her post as the chief doctor and returned to Stavropol, to live closer to her sisters. They got together often at one of their apartments or Zoya’s dacha and talked of the past. All three agreed that their childhood and youth had been happy. Zoya never did have children, and Dasha, poor little Dashen’ka, had in the same year lost her husband, the engineer, to a heart attack and both of her grown children. Vityok, her son, was poisoned by a drug addict friend, who knew that Vityok had money in the house after selling his car. Her daughter, Tamara, was stabbed by a boyfriend in a drunken fight.
Now and then Olya’s thoughts drifted to Kostya and her second husband, but most often she thought of Alek. It was inconceivable to her that she, who spent her whole life taking care of people, had once almost let her husband bleed to death in front of her eyes. His good and open heart seemed like the most important quality a person could possess, and she now felt something for him akin to loving pity. Maybe, in due course, Alek would have gambled away his youthful folly.
Other times, she shuddered at the tragic cliché that was her first marriage.
Olya saw Alek again once, several years after their quick divorce. He was in town visiting his elderly mother and turned up at Olya’s to beg her to return. She was about to go grocery shopping and had just put on her signature strawberry lipstick. He looked at her with a stranger’s voracity, as though he was seeing a beautiful woman for the first time. She refused. Her mother had always said, If he hits you once, he’ll hit you again.
He asked whether he could see his daughter. “She’s on vacation on the Black Sea with my parents,” Olya lied. Marina was doing her homework just two closed doors away.
“Next time, then,” Alek said. His eyes were still mischievous but tired.
Olya never tried to find him. She didn’t want his money. She didn’t want anything from him. A few months after his visit, she heard through the town’s rumor mill that some woman had come to Stavropol in search of Alek, claiming to be pregnant by him. Another naive soul trying to capture an officer.
To entertain your wife, become a soldier.
This short story is taken from the collection Snow in May by Kseniya Melnik, available now from 4th Estate.