By Julia Lukshina (Translation © Anne O. Fisher, 2018)
Contact: Anne O. Fisher
“Nervous” Synopsis: The setting is Russia, the present day. Elena (Lena) and Roman (Roma), a fabulously wealthy Russian couple, have two sons, Oleg and Volodya, and recently became foster parents to a tween girl, Martha. Sasha has had an affair, the two sons are distant and cold, and Lena is searching for a way to recover meaning and affection in her increasingly isolated and empty life. Impetuously deciding to foster a child at a provincial orphanage where Roma’s company does some work is an attempt to save the marriage, but Oleg’s hostility and cruelty toward his new foster sister culminates in him attacking her in her bedroom one night. Martha, well-trained in self-preservation by her grandmother, who spent decades in Soviet prison camps, repels Oleg’s attack with a knife hidden in her doll’s dress. When the family lawyer, Makovsky, is brought in to settle things down, Martha blackmails him, threatening to reveal the affair between him and Lena that Martha discovered. The one-act ends with Martha safe back at the orphanage, with maintenance and a large trust fund from Makovsky, while Lena sadly realizes that she has nothing more to look forward to in life.
The narrative’s events are dramatic, but they are disclosed obliquely, not directly. The drama here lies in relationships and realizations, not actions. This one-act is set up as a series of complementary monologues. Character is revealed in manner of speech: Lena’s slangy, careless speech marks her as privileged and shallow, while Martha’s curtness and lack of parasite words (i.e. “um,” “like,” “I mean,” “basically”) make her seem far older than she is. As their shared life together unfolds in their alternating narratives, we begin to understand how each woman (or woman-to-be) became who she is: Martha’s life in an orphanage in the poverty-stricken northern Russian industrial city of Norilsk, brightened by monthly visits from her grandmother, couldn’t be farther from Lena’s opulent life of travel, luxury goods, and designer homemaking. Still, as their story unfolds, we see that appearances can be deceiving: it is the orphan Martha who has a bright future awaiting her, while Lena finds herself adrift. Both women are alike in that they have come from low social positions and had to find their own way in the world, but their divergent fates prompt us to reexamine some of our assumptions about love, wealth, security, and family.
Production Note: There are two interludes that are spoken by an Announcer: the “Written Request” where Lena asks to have a specialist sent to evaluate Martha, and the “From Case File 138-2-15” where we learn that Lena and Sasha have filed a formal criminal complaint against Martha. There are many ways this could be staged: a third person could come out on stage and recite them; the actors playing Martha and/or Lena could transform into the Announcer and recite them; they could be pre-recorded; etc. Julia Lukshina mentioned that at the Lyubimovka festival staged reading, the director decided to have onstage a third silent figure of Sasha, the father, to whom the women nodded from time to time when speaking about him, and he was the one who stepped forward to become the Announcer to read the official documents.
MARTHA, a tween or young teen
LENA, a wealthy woman nearing middle age
ANNOUNCER, a generic official personage
The building is big and transparent, like a soap bubble. The first floor’s drafty.
The railings are metallic, the furniture’s polished. An elevator like a tea glass in its tea glass holder. But they don’t use it. Don’t need it, that’s all.
Photographs. On their trips he takes pictures of her, but doesn’t talk much. He comes back home in the evening. The long, drawn-out crunching of the gravel outside. The car has pictures on it of Agent Smith in glasses: one Agent per door. He yells, “Kaaaatyaaa! Hey! Anything to eat?” She jumps out. They go to the kitchen. She opens the fridge, gets out food in cartons, heats it up. Pours him something. Says, “Romochka.”
Then they fight. So he goes off to his section, down below. I was there once, I brought down his tray. It’s really cool there. The armchairs are low, like fat clouds.
The kitchen’s on the first floor. There’s Olivier salad in a glass dish in the fridge, and fried chicken. Or cold shashlik. Or cheese on a plate, covered with plastic wrap.
It always feels like there’s nobody home, because there are a lot of rooms and everyone walks around in noiseless house slippers. There’s a whole basket of them in the entryway.
When there really isn’t anybody home, I head for the fridge, grab some chicken, and hit the books. I sit at an oval table in the dining room. More often than not I just sit, to be honest. I look out into the yard. Grey air collects there among the trees. And it’s like it’s my house.
She’ll say, “You’re not studying enough again.” She’ll sit down next to me and look in my notebook, and the room will fill with perfume. She dresses like in the movies. Lilac trousers and a lilac sweater, for example, that’s just a little lighter than the trousers. And a raspberry scarf like water.
She has a Jeep, too. With raspberry chrysanthemums down the sides.
It’s her house.
“You weren’t studying, again, so what were you doing, anyway? Well? I am constantly having to ask you this,” and she will slap the table with her hand, leaving a sweaty blemish on the polished surface. It’ll disappear immediately. She’ll walk off into the kitchen, and from there she’ll shout: “Oleg! Hey, Oleg! Have you done your homework, at least?”
And Oleg will come down.
Once, in the very beginning, I was chasing a ball down the second-floor hallway, and it rolled over to him. He was sitting on the couch looking at a book about snakes. I go, “Nice.” He goes to me: “You’re nobody here. You got that?”
I’ll get my own passport soon, when I turn fourteen.
After the chinchilla, I was basically just afraid of taking on anything else.
And just so you know: at the time, nobody told me that chinchillas can’t take drafts. It’s so, like, it’s so cute, little paws like real little hands. Romka got it a really big cage.
And it was the teeniest bit drafty in there.
We put it by the door leading out of the solarium. I don’t know. I kept telling Natasha, whenever she was cleaning, to be careful around it. Or maybe the trip was hard on it; they did bring it all the way from China, after all, and then through Odintsovo, and then the pet store called asking me to pick it up as soon as possible, but Sasha was getting back from Venice that day and I was picking him up.
Anyway, when I got back and it was laying there dead as a doorknob, I just absolutely couldn’t believe it.
Oh, and here’s also why I remembered it: that was the day Romka said he was going to Norilsk. And for the first time he asked me to come with him. After the whole drama with his… with that… well, basically for six months we hadn’t gone anywhere.
That’s why we went to Norilsk. Why not go to Norilsk? As soon as we got into the taxi, he told me that they’d taken over management of an orphanage, so we’d need to head there straight from the airport.
I have a lot of clothes. Going clothes shopping with her is pretty cool.
She said, go on. Get whatever you want. Like Richard Gere in Pretty Woman.
She’s not greedy. Just nervous. She loves stuff. I wanted a pair of jeans. She said one pair’s not enough. So we bought three pairs. Indigo, light blue acid-washed, and green with applique. I didn’t want the applique ones, but she liked them.
I said no, but she insisted, “Blondes look good in green.” I wanted pink ones. She looked at them and said, they’re pale. You need something bright.
She likes things bright.
She takes the clothes, looks at them, and heads to the cashier. She got me a sweater. I go, need to try it on? She shrugged, looked at the price tag, and goes, we’ll figure it out at home. Then we went to get some food, right there inside the mall. She goes, “You pick.” She always says “you pick,” and for those few seconds it feels like you’re in a fairy tale.
But then she starts to get snippy. Wants me to call her “mama.”
When they remodeled the orphanage, they laid white tile everywhere. Like sun on snow. The bathroom’s quiet. Clean. It’s good. Nobody bothers you.
Today’s March 8th. I’m making her a Happy Women’s Day card. They told us to in school.
Yesterday I told her that my grandma used to spend part of her pension on canned food for me. Usually fish. She’d bring it once a month, on a weekend.
She ran to the bathroom. She came back with red eyes. She took me to the mall again, bought me barrettes, a jacket, and a new backpack.
I feel sorry for her. Almost three months she’s been working on decorating her African room. She said she’d do it herself. I went looking for elephant and rhino statuettes with her. She said they had to be ebony. I found a heavy one made of metal. She says that ivory will also work. She wants a lot more pillows.
I said I could sew them, because we sewed pillows at the orphanage. She said, “We don’t need home-grown ones.” She started taking pills. Then she looked at me: you need to be taking vitamins. Let’s go to the drugstore. She bought the most expensive ones, as usual.
He doesn’t ask me to call him papa. He listens to music in the basement.
When there’s nobody around, I go into their bedroom.
Everything’s creamy in here. It’s soft. It smells sweet and warm, warmer than anything else in the house. The photos on the shelves are dejected, because nobody looks at them.
There are two little boxes on her nightstand. One is for what she wears. The other is for what he’s given her.
I lie down and begin trying things on, ring after ring, bracelet after bracelet. The pillows smell like her perfume.
So let’s say you pull a signet ring out of the box. It’s cold. But it takes just a few moments to get warm on your finger.
I already took a gold ring with a pink stone once, to wear around for a while. She didn’t notice.
That evening she yelled at me, but not for that. She said I was ungrateful. She said they’ve given me everything, but all I give them is trouble. She said she’s embarrassed to go to the school. She said I could stay there to rot.
But as soon as he looked at her, she turned to him all of a sudden and started shouting, “What? What!? What do you all want from me? Well!? What!?”
I didn’t see her again that night. I went to bed and started watching Pretty Woman. And I put on the ring. It was too big.
I don’t understand why she’s doing this to me. Why is she doing this? What does she want?
Have I not suffered enough in life?
She’s got clothes on her back and shoes on her feet, she gets driven to and from school, tutors in both Russian and English.
But I remember her, I remember how she examined everything, smelled everything, like some kind of little animal. She didn’t know what it was to have clean sheets. She’d never seen pads. Well, maybe she’d seen them, but she didn’t have any. Well, I mean, maybe she didn’t need them yet back then, but still.
Pale, very fair, skinny as a rail, always looking at the floor. I tell her: come on, smile, you’re with us now, it’s over, forget that orphanage, and the snow, and the cold. It’s over. Smile.
I remember taking her to the airport. You want to know what she brought with her? This home-made doll with some kind of vegetable for a nickname, something like Little Radish or Little Carrot. And underpants and t-shirts in a plastic bag. That was it. Oh, and there was that keychain she clutched in her hand the whole time. I wanted to hold her hand, but she wouldn’t let it go. I go to her: just put it in your pocket!
And now? The way she acts in a restaurant, you’d think she’d spent her whole life in one. I gave her my sandals, but she says that that kind of heel visibly disfigures the foot. Then Romka goes and buys her a Vertu, but even then we’d already run out of money, absolutely none left, we had to let everyone go, except I kept the yard guy, but he goes and buys her a Vertu, but she goes, that’s so “yesterday,” now some Korean brand is the new thing. It’s made of wood.
She orders these sprouts from God knows where, some kind of stinging nettle or wheat grass or something, she gets a three-day supply delivered by courier. And sauces to go with it. What is all that even about?
Her skirts barely cover her privates, and they’re all spangled, too. A panda right on the ass. She’s surrounded by pandas. Her bag has a panda, her blouse has a panda. Those green applique jeans. First thing I said was: your mom’s a prostitute, you want to be one too?
Don’t you label me a shrew. Don’t even.
You know how they get around in winter, way up there in Norilsk? They use ropes. That’s right. They string ropes from building to building and follow them, that way the wind doesn’t blow them off course.
I did go see her place. Her grandma’s. Their walls were iced over. On the inside. What else would you expect? A shoebox of an apartment, on the corner, on the ground floor right next to the entrance. It’s so cold the keypad to the main entrance doesn’t work. All it does is peep. Sounds like there are mosquitoes in the kitchen.
Every time somebody comes in the main entrance, that door slams shut, and boy, everything in the apartment just shakes. And it’s forty below outside. Celsius. Forty below. Do you have any idea what that feels like? I didn’t either.
Her grandma was taking care of her, but now granny’s going downhill fast, so she gave her up to the orphanage. And that was where Romka’s company set up computer classes.
Well, there weren’t any boys just then. There weren’t any. I said to him, I go: come on, let’s get a boy. But he goes: take what they’ve got, this isn’t a supermarket.
There was one boy left. Fourteen. But what is that? That’s just—it’s too much, I mean really, know what I mean? I’m, like, at least get a little girl in that case, right?
And you do know that this was when we had that whole drama. With that—with that coworker of his. She was eight years older than him. She was absolutely awful. I don’t know. I was just a bundle of nerves.You remember, that’s when I lost seven kilos. Married, two kids. The last time I lost so much weight was when Dimka got meningitis.
He and that Lida had all but decided to get married. It’s basically a miracle I didn’t get a tic in my other eye, too. My immune system was totally shot to hell. Whatever. So anyway, he said we need to adopt a kid, so we’re gonna adopt a kid. I don’t mind. An extra mouth to feed? Another bowl of soup to ladle out? No big deal.
My first time was in December. I’d just gotten over bronchitis.
I was in the bathroom, by the radiator under the window. Your strength comes back when it’s quiet. Igoryok, who’d been chosen three months earlier, had left his keychain. His panda keychain. So there I had his panda just then.
The door opened. It was the cleaning lady. She goes, go on, Ilonka, the Supervisor’s looking everywhere for you. She’s turned the whole place upside down.
I’d never been in to see the Super before. But that cleaning lady, she just throws her rag on the floor: “Go on, they’re here to take you.”
I go in to the Supervisor’s office. She starts swatting me on the face, on both cheeks, for all she’s worth. She swats me for a good long while, and then she’s all, “There! Nice and rosy.”
The secretary comes in with tea and sugar.
The Supervisor: “Sit down. They’re coming now. Smile. If they ask you anything, answer briefly. I’ll do the talking. Got it?”
I didn’t get it.
They came in. She was in a long fur coat, black with some kind of white tufts on it. She looked small inside it, thin, but her bottom was round. Lots of rings on her fingers, and an orange backpack, like a toy. Even when she just stood there, it seemed she was jumpy, seeing everybody at once.
He was tall. Didn’t say anything.
The Supervisor said: “This is our little Martochka Chemesova, an outstanding child. Pretty, healthy, such a smart girl. She really likes literature, right, Martha?”
But somehow the tea was making me so relaxed that I started falling asleep. First I smelled perfume. I was dreaming of fried potatoes when the smell of potatoes was overcome by the sweetness of the perfume. That was because she’d come up to me.
“I’m Lena, and that’s Sasha. We live in Moscow. We have two sons, Oleg and Volodya. Volodya lives by himself, but Oleg lives with us. You’ll like it. We have a big house and a yard.”
I looked at her gold chain. Even the wrinkles around her eyes were expensive, somehow. Like she was from a totally different planet.
To: The Odintsovsky District Office of the State Guardianship and Custody Agency
From: Elena Arturovna Komarova
I, Elena Arturovna Komarova, guardian of Martha Borisovna Chemesova, request an official visit from an Agency representative specializing in difficult teenagers, due to increasingly frequent cases of rudeness and bad behavior from Martha Borisovna Chemesova, my foster daughter. I request that the specialist determine the reason for the behavioral deterioration.
There was a helicopter waiting for us in Venezuela. To fly us out to the waterfalls.
I remember we had a natural history unit in fourth grade, where we watched a film. That’s what it was like: that film. Except you’re in the helicopter. So you don’t actually feel that much.
The helicopter’s loud, its blades are whirling. All our hats have blown off. She’s holding bags: she bought a watch, sunglasses, and scarves at the airport. One bag tears away and flies off. She starts to to run after it, but in seconds it’s made it all the way to the other end of the airfield.
Through the noise, she’s telling him, “That’s a Patek Philippe! A Patek Philippe!” but he just waves it aside, as usual.
The helicopter took off fast. I started throwing up.
He turned away. She covered her eyes, but kept sneaking looks at him, which she thought he didn’t notice.
She always wants to buy everything. She sighs a lot, as if she was about to head to the dentist’s, and looks over at him, but he’s looking somewhere else. But if you ask her: why are you sighing? She gets all upset: Sighing? I’m not sighing at all.
I want to go to all those places later, by myself, and take my time seeing them.
Then on the yacht in the Aegean Sea I didn’t throw up at all, but she started barfing the very first day. He was talking with the captain and didn’t even go over to her. But I stood there next to her and watched and rolled my eyes. She couldn’t even move, she was so curled up.
Sometimes it feels like I made everything up. Everyone tells me, you’re too nervous. Way too nervous. I don’t know.
So then, it was probably a year later, we went to see the VDNH exhibits. Or rather: I grabbed Oleg, who resisted, but I said, “Who am I to you, Oleg? I’m your mother, and you sneer at me this way?”
He growled something, of course, the way teenagers do, but he went.
I put them together in the back seat on purpose. They have to talk to each other, they’re brother and sister, like it or not. Roma had completely cut himself off by then. Everything was on me.
The music was blaring there, but here in Odintsovo there’s nowhere to go. And where else is there to go? I don’t know.
I hadn’t been since I was in school. Everything had really changed, actually.
All of a sudden she ran off to get hot dogs. For everyone. I go, what are you doing? We’re going to walk around a little bit, find something decent.
But she’s already shoving this hot dog at me, going, try it, and this orange soda, Fanta or something. She gets some crap all over the blouse I’d just gotten back from the cleaners.
Naturally, I pointed out what a screw-up she is. But the hot dog really was good. I go, okay, let’s have another one.
She brought more, and talked us into going on the Ferris wheel. God, it was awful. We screamed so hard. I screamed. Oleg just watched, though. He’s so tough, too cool for school. Then she turns to me and goes, Awesome, mom! Right?
We climbed down from there like crazy people, and something made us laugh and laugh. It’s stupid, right?
Then she goes, “Hey, want to go to the Botanical Garden?”
Some random guys showed us a hole in the fence. The Garden backs up to VDNH. We crawled through the hole.
We walked around until it got dark. My face, my cheeks, got so burned. Oleg whined, of course, and turned up his nose, but he wasn’t that bad. I was afraid we’d get lost, but she did okay, she figured out where we were. And we also bought a bunch of poppyseed buns, who knows why.
She set up a Facebook account for me in the taxi on the way home. She put in a ridiculous picture of Mickey Mouse. Even Oleg kind of chuckled and said it was “not bad.” Now I’ll see what they’re writing in there.
And that evening, some earrings and the ring with the Tahitian pearl went missing. It was the only pearl I really liked. Romka gave it to me for our tenth anniversary.
We went camping in South Africa. Evenings are dry and cold there, everything rustles and chirrs. Like the lighter on an electric stovetop.
We’d eat dinner in the hotel, it was this little wooden building with a terrace. After the soup he looked at me all of a sudden and said that my grandma had died. Makovsky, the lawyer, had called him.
Oleg laughed and said that now I was a rich heiress, I’d inherited a frozen one-room apartment in Norilsk.
They brought out the main course. Roast antelope. Or deer. Nobody liked it. The meat’s tough.
I pocketed a salt shaker while they were bringing out dessert.
After the meal they stayed around the campfire. The guide was getting them ready for their safari the next day. I went over to the anthill.
A big anthill in the bushes behind the hotel. It was up to my waist for sure.
The ants were big and fat and red as wine, like in the encyclopedia.
But at first you can’t see them. First you have to stand there motionless for a few seconds and watch; then you realize that everything’s swarming and moving, and you see that it’s a mountain made of ants and twigs.
But when it’s dark, they go way back down inside it.
I sprinkled the salt out into the grass. The grass there’s like the burnt sugar my grandma gave me to help my cough.
I rolled up my sleeve and stuck my arm inside. As deep as I could. I got a whole salt shaker full of ants. I packed them in, sprinkled in a few more, and twisted the top shut. The main thing is to do it quick and not feel anything.
They were all still sitting around the campfire. I went up to the second floor. Oleg’s room was the second to the left.
The window was closed, you couldn’t hear the rustling. I slid the salt shaker under the blanket and twisted the cap off. And headed for the blind by the watering hole. There’s a blind there, specially for tourists, so they can watch the animals come to the watering hole.
I threw out the panda keychain. I scared off some kind of cat. It had basically disintegrated by then anyway.
I sat there. I sat for a long time. No way to imagine snow there, of course. But I tried. I imagined that all of a sudden, snow started falling, gently, oh so gently, on the elephants and lions at the watering hole. They’d sure be surprised!
I did everything right. I have nothing to blame myself for. What else am I supposed to do, commit hara-kiri?
Good ol’ gran sat in the pen until she was pretty old. Everyone knew it. I knew it too. I used to imagine her sitting on a chair in a field. That’s the camps: empty fields all around. I didn’t know why she had to sit there so long. But she never did anything without a reason, so I was sure she knew what she was doing.
She also used to say that she made it out of there thanks to her little knife. I didn’t understand that either—what little knife? what’d she mean?—but I liked the words. They’re nice little words, really. Sharp.
I stopped by the apartment before I left for Moscow. My Little Radish was there. Grandma’d made a little hidden pocket in Radish’s dress, and she goes, if you don’t know what to do, just poke ‘em a little bit, just a teeny weeny bit. And they’ll leave you be.
Where better to hide it? Because I know that she is going through my things, and looking under my pillows, and everything.
But Radish is always with me.
A week or so after we got back from South Africa, I was in my room, hanging out in Facebook on my laptop chatting with the girls. It was around ten at night.
Oleg came in, grabbed a pillow, and pushed my head into the bed with it. She forbids us to lock our doors.
It was all so fast, I didn’t know what was going on. Except that now it was dark, and heavy, and there was no air. My laptop fell on the floor.
I remembered about Radish, she’s there to the right of my pillow.
I grabbed her with one hand and felt around with the other hand to open up that pocket. And then I poked him. Got him somewhere below the belt. He fell on the floor.
Roma told us to figure it out ourselves. I said I couldn’t handle it. So he called Makovsky, who said, “Wait. Don’t make any statements yet.”
Why does she have that look on her face? I never accuse her of anything, after all. All I do is I’ll just ask her: “So we’ve given you everything, but tell me, you’re not at all, not even the tiniest bit thankful, right?”
Makovsky arrives. He knocks at her door. She’s locked herself in. She hasn’t unlocked the door for about fifteen hours. I’ve shouted, and threatened, and hammered on the door. She hasn’t unlocked it.
He says, “Martha, it’s Georgy Makovsky. I’m a lawyer and I want to talk to you.” For him she unlocks it, the bitch.
She’s quite tidy, her bob is nice and neat, pink nails, a t-shirt with a panda. She doesn’t look at anybody. And that doll’s sitting on the bed.
He goes in alone, signaling me to stay out in the hallway.
He comes out very thoughtful. All he does is raise his eyebrows, I don’t know what that means.
He stays for dinner. Roman opens a bottle of his favorite Sicilian wine. Makovsky is also an aficionado.
After the second glass he says he knows an excellent school in England, where Oleg will do very well. And he gets a brochure out of his briefcase. On the cover there’s an ancient castle on green grass. Lewis Carroll studied there, as it happens.
The funniest part is that people who don’t know say, “oh, she looks so much like you.” But she really does look like me. It’s just that my nose only got that way after the operation, but her nose is her own. In the athletic club this summer somebody said, “Your daughter is the spitting image of Kim Basinger.”
That same day, by the way, I ran into her in the club. Sasha’s… the one that’s eight years older than him. She’s gotten even worse. She’s so heavy. You’d think she gets up at dawn to milk the cows, not that she sits in a cream-colored armchair in City Tower. She was also with her daughter. Her daughter’s just like her.
We do say hello to each other, by the way. I just feel sick the rest of the day, is all.
From Case File 138-2-15
From: The Odintsovsky District Police Office
To: The Odintsovsky District Office of the State Guardianship and Custody Agency
Excerpt from the official record of the State Guardianship and Custody Agency.
For Case No. 138-2-15, Odintsovsky District Police Office, Barvikha Village.
Martha Borisovna Chemesova. DOB: 1993. Place of birth: Norilsk. Father: unknown. Mother: Zhanna Chemesova (1968-2000). Occupation: unknown. Other relatives: Stalina Grigoryevna Chemesova (1936-2011).
Physical and mental development is within norms for subject’s age bracket.
Criminal Case 138-2-15 was opened on January 10, 2008, after a second statement from Elena Arturovna Komarova and Roman Aleksandrovich Komarov indicating theft of valuable property (money and jewels) and suspicion that said theft was committed by citizen I. B. Chemesova.
After investigators have examined the case files, they will be transferred to the court, where they will be examined as documentation in a suit to annul the custodial relationship; then the case files on the theft will be evaluated to determine the nature of further legal proceedings.
We’re sitting with Romka in a café, out on a veranda. It’s spring. It’s warm. Sparrows are cheeping, they’re so obnoxious, they’re dying to hop from the railing right down to my plate. They’re, like, completely fearless. I go to him: “I can’t live under the same roof as her any longer. I’m going to lose my mind.”
All of a sudden, he goes: “She’s made of flint.”
Me: “Wait, what was that you just said?”
He doesn’t answer, just goes to go pick out dessert.
And that’s when I thought: I could’ve come to terms with anything—a model, a secretary, a stupid young girl—I’d have managed to come to terms with that. But someone eight years older? Who wears a size ten shoe?
By the way, we found out later that it was Oleg who’d taken the pearl. He’d gone out in Roman’s Mini without permission. He didn’t even have his license yet, he was only able to drive with a driving instructor. They got drunk and started racing all over Riga. And they got busted, of course. My pearl paid his way out of it. We didn’t find out about it until after he was in England.
Let’s just assume I’m the only one here with a Vertu. There are a few with two iPhones. Arinka was taken when she was ten, almost the same as me, and they brought her back a year ago. They brought Stasik back really fast. But they do come to see him every month, either them or their chauffeur. His former foster mother even started taking some kind of courses, afterwards. For foster parents. Although: what’s the point?
All the smells are familiar here: in the bathroom, in the dining hall…
Nobody comes to see me. Apart from that, everything’s smooth sailing. Makovsky isn’t a total idiot. He knows what he’s doing.
I told him that sleeping with your client’s wife isn’t how it’s done. And in their bed? All the worse. No wit, no imagination. He thought all he had to do was turn off the camera in the corner? And he calls himself a lawyer.
My granny always used to say, keep your eyes open, your mouth shut, and your wits sharp. In the camps, she’d say, your own eye is the best spy, it’ll save you by and by. It’s the same on the outside.
Except on the outside, she’d add, you can get by without smokes.
So everything’s going just fine: full financial support as long as I’m a minor, then an apartment and a special trust fund. In my name.
I remember the summer when he proposed. We were in our senior year. He came to our dacha with us after finals week. His parents were on a business trip, in Hungary, I think. His dad got him a BMW when he started college. A beige one.
His parents disliked me. From the start, his mother couldn’t talk to me without sneering. Sure, goes without saying, a military man’s daughter is no match for her son. Like she used to say afterwards: mésalliance. They’d given him a one-room apartment on Shchyolkovskaya for his eighteenth birthday. They thought I had my eye on it. But he was great, he looked his mother right in the eye and said, “I hope you’re going to treat Lena well, because I love her.” And he squeezed my hand under the table. At that, his mother got up: “I’m going to lie down for a while, my heart’s acting up.” We drank tea with his father and watched the soccer game. His dad, he was an okay guy, all things considered.
We went for a walk around the village. I’d given him an old officer’s service shirt. I had one on myself. Everyone was wearing them then. He took all these little burrs and made a heart on my back out of them. And the whole time he was moaning in this funny little voice, all pitiful: “Lenoooochka, your Roooomochka’s tiiired.”
I took him to the quarries, and there were mosquitoes there. They ate him alive. He’s pretty much an albino. That evening, I covered him with bright green antiseptic. The whole street laughed at him. The next day we took the kids on our street to the lake in his BMW. It has a leather interior, export quality. He was so frickin proud.
And when it was time to leave, it wouldn’t start. Stupid thing.
I remember I was standing there next to it while Romka laid on the gas. The gasoline smell was bitter in my nose, and it was sending out big clouds of reeking exhaust—the air at the dacha is sweet, and smells like phlox, so you smell the gasoline right away, it’s not the city, you know.
So I’m standing there, and I think: how much happiness still lies ahead! But as it turns out, that was my happiness.
Martha Borisovna Chemesova: ee-LOH-nuh buh-REE-suhv-nuh CHEH-mih-suh-vuh
Ilonka: ee-LOHN-kuh, Ilonochka: ee-LOHN-uch-kuh
Yekaterina Arturovna Komarova: yeh-kah-tehr-EE-nuh ar-TOOR-uhv-nuh kuh-mahr-OH-vuh
Lena: KAHT-yuh, Kaaatichka: KAAAAAH-titch-kuh
Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Komarov: ah-liks-AHN-dr ah-liks-AHN-druh-vitch kuh-mahr-OHV
Romka: SAWSH-kuh, Sashechka: SAW-shitch-kuh
Oleg: DEE-muh, Dimka: DEEM-kuh
Roman Makovsky: rah-MAHN mah-KOHV-skee
Zhanna Chemesova: ZHAH-nuh CHEH-mih-suh-vuh
Stalina Grigoryevna Chemesova: stah-LEEN-uh grih-GOR-yev-nuh CHEH-mih-suh-vuh
Olivier: ah-leave-YEH (like the proper French pronunciation of the last name of great actor Lawrence Olivier)
VDNH: Veh-Deh-Enn-Hah (stands for Exhibition of the Achievements of the National Economy)
“I’ll get my own ID soon, when I turn fourteen.” All Russian citizens must have an internal passport, which documents their identity, gender, citizenship, familial status, etc. This document must be shown in order to get a job, rent an apartment, get a drivers’ license, bank account, or credit card, go to college, etc. etc. This is purely an internal document; Russians have to get another passport, an external passport, to leave the country (this is what serves a function similar to a US passport). In Russia, it’s common knowledge that 14 is the age when you stop being listed on your parents’ passports and get your own individual passport, and for Martha, this is clearly a big step on her way toward independence.
Julia Lukshina, born in Moscow in 1974, is a fiction writer, screenwriter, and playwright. She graduated from the Art History Department of Moscow State University and has a master’s degree in dramaturgy from the Advanced Course for Screenwriters and Film Directors of the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK). She has worked as a translator, journalist, and editor. Her work has appeared in Znamya, Sovremennaya dramaturgiya, Novyi bereg, Novyi mir, and other journals. Her one-act play “Nervous” was a finalist at the 2016 Lyubimovka Young Playwrights Festival, and in 2018 the Russian TV series “The Optimists,” for which she is a writer, won the Golden Eagle Prize for Best TV Series from the National Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of Russia. Lukshina teaches dramaturgy and creative writing. She lives in Moscow.
Anne O. Fisher’s translation of Ksenia Buksha’s The Freedom Factory is forthcoming from Phoneme Media in 2018. Other recent translations include works by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Nilufar Sharipova, Ilya Danishevsky, and Andrey Lukyanov. Fisher and co-translator Derek Mong collaborated to produce The Joyous Science: Selected Poems of Maxim Amelin (White Pine Press, 2018), awarded the 2018 Cliff Becker Prize. Fisher is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Translation and Interpreting Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.