Odessa’s autumn laid the paved streets with golden, crimson and orange leafy carpets. Leaves were everywhere, spinning around the warmly dressed pedestrians, tickling their exposed noses. At the beginning of the season, as the flirtatious coolness spread its squalled kisses, Odessa’s kitchens started coming to life. The housewives shook off the summer drowsiness, mastering hot heavy foods to ward off the forthcoming frost.
So too it was at our neighbourhood Krasny Pereulok, the Red Alley. The women were rolling out dough for vareniki, crushing garlic for the reddish lemony borsch, filling blintz with sweet cheeses. From the small apartments, built prior to the revolution, pungent smells escaped and stretched between the neighboring windows like the laundry ropes. Overseas visitors sneaking late at night into our flat to avoid the KGB surveillance would smell the delicacies and could easily forget about disastrous Soviet agriculture programs. At the time they wouldn’t have known or remembered the Ukrainian famine from Stalinist times that killed millions or Khruschev’s expensive failure at growing corn. Long live Communism! Even though the visitors would come to assist us with our illegal practice of Judaism and other dissident activities, like many Westerners they were prone to a fascination with ‘Soviet Exotica’.
If the visitors stayed late, at dawn they could observe those same housewives in the long shop queues rubbing their drowsy eyes, fighting over the last bottle of milk. Russia’s famous cuisine was actually a new Soviet invention. The traditional recipes of the Czarist days were impossible to follow with limited shop supplies, so the housewives learned how to make their own butter and turn boiled potatoes into a sumptuous dish.
There were no sumptuous dishes at our home, mainly piles of laundry, books and people. My mother returned home from her workday as a cleaner. She dropped her bag somewhere in the hallway amongst my brother’s broken toys and torn papers. Who is home? She checked with me before proceeding into the main room, where we ate our boring porridges and curds and received guests, and where my parents and brother slept.
I told her the names of a few of our friends who were in the house. My mother cheerfully picked a few books from underneath the fridge, shaking off the small reddish cockroaches, then joined our guests. Right now they would be having their usual long conversations using words similar to what we were using at school: freedom to choose; democracy; opportunities. At home these same words were whispered in secret, acquiring a new and no less confusing meaning. I wanted to understand the difference, but my stomach rumbled. I took a rouble my mother had given me earlier and went out to buy something to eat.
It was a cool afternoon; nevertheless several neighbours were sitting outside on upside down crates, cracking sunflower seeds and watching their children’s games attentively. My mother never pulled a crate up to join them. She never disturbed my game with her shouts and never had sunflower shells glued to her lips while talking to the neighbours loudly. Sometimes while playing with the other kids I would stop all of a sudden and peer at our lit windows, imagining her descending down the collapsing wooden stairway. She never did.
I passed the alley and turned right into the main street, Deribasovskaya. Even though they taught us at school who Deribasovsky was, I could never remember. I remembered much better who Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky were through listening to the conversations in our living room. I was perhaps ten years old then, but had already learned to better trust knowledge whispered behind shut doors. Yet sometimes I would envy my classmates, who marched proudly at the pioneer ceremonies. Their lives were simpler. And perhaps even my parents’ lives were simpler in some sense. They didn’t march on the streets; they prayed. I didn’t fit into either life. I ran away from the boring pioneer ceremonies to eat non-kosher pelmeni.
Deribasovskaya was a happy street, crammed with shops and cafes that served whipped cream cakes, vanilla ice cream in glass goblets and steaming pelmeni. I asked for pelmeni and a silver-toothed woman filled a deep plate with the minced meat wrapped in white soft dough. She mixed it with yellow butter, sour cream, salt and vinegar. I sat on my own at a corner table, devouring the pelmeni, listening to the conversations at the tables beside and to the classical music from an orchestra playing in a nearby garden.
Back home it was even more crowded than usual. Men and women surrounded the big round table, which was pressed to the sofa where my parents slept at nights. Everyone was speaking English. A plump man with a cap was sitting at the head of the table. ‘He is from America’, said my father with excitement. ‘Look what he brought for you.’ He gave me a pack of brightly coloured chewing gum.
I peered at the beautiful wrapper, couldn’t believe my luck. It was exactly like the one from Vika’s collection, with the golden Donald Ducks. Vika lived across the street in a big renovated apartment. Her father was director of a clothes factory and often traveled overseas. At the time the idea of travelling overseas was more magical for me than the stories about Ded Moroz . I was never invited into her three-room apartment like the other children.
Yet Vika would often approach me and ask to exchange chewing gum wrappers from our collections. Even though our family was one of the poorest in the neighbourhood, my collection was almost as good as hers, with lots of overseas wrappers. It often upset Vika, especially since she couldn’t understand where I got them. ‘They’re from,’ I would say to Vika, who wore Polish tight slacks called ‘bananas’, ’my suitor. We study in the same class and his father is a film director. He’s so crazy about me that he won’t talk to his father unless he brings me chewing gum from his overseas trips.’
Vika would stare suspiciously at my cropped hair and huge thick glasses and shrug her shoulders. Yet no one had a better explanation for where I got those rare wrappers. No one knew about the nocturnal overseas visitors who brought us prohibited literature, Hebrew dictionaries, religious paraphernalia, Western news and chewing gum.
‘Lenochka,’ said my mother, ‘want to sing with us?’ And there we sat through the night with the tightly shut windows, singing the Hebrew words I couldn’t understand but knew by heart. My father taught Hebrew to the other underground members in the evenings, but I knew only a few words. We sang while my baby brother slept in his cradle next to us, accustomed to the noise. My mother was still wearing her cleaner’s apron.
Everyone left long after midnight. I didn’t feel like going back to my tiny narrow room full of dust and bedbugs, so I fell asleep curled between my parents amongst the piles of new books brought by the night visitor.
A loud knocking on the door woke me up. The central heating had broken down again and the room was freezing. I heard muffled voices and dripping rain. Shaking, I moved the curtain that separated the sofa and the dining table at nights. It was still dark outside and the clock showed five to six.
I did love the autumn, when grand, robust rain roamed about like the Red Army Choir. The rain and wind often spoke to me, promising long absences from school, when I would lie in my sickbed, drinking hot lemon tea with tablets, chewing black bread with salt and garlic, reading books and dreaming of adventures. I didn’t know how to explain it, but rain often brought unexpected things. Like it did that day.
I put on my green flannel robe and walked to the door to see who could be there at such an early hour. I heard my mother saying in the hallway: ‘The warrant. I want to see the warrant.’
‘Whatever she says,’ repeated my father as he always did, ‘otherwise I’m not opening.’
Eventually the door opened and there he stood – a huge bald man. He was so big that it took me a while to notice the two smaller men behind him.
‘I have the right to know what you are after.’ My mother still wouldn’t give up. She had reddish spots on her face. She was six months pregnant and could never get enough sleep. Yet, she seemed like she was ready for a good fight. My father wore blue pajamas and always appeared somehow adrift from the present moment. We all assumed that as a theoretical physicist he possessed his own time dimensions.
‘We’re looking for diamonds.’ said the bald man, while his colleagues stood with dirty galoshes on our chairs, scrabbling inside the dust clouds of the closets. ‘Yes,’ repeated the bald man not very confidently, ‘stolen diamonds.’ Then he looked around desperately at the tall piles of unidentified objects that were our home. After we had applied to leave the Soviet Union (and been refused), my mother had been fired from her job as an English translator, and we had sold all our valuables on the black market.
‘Diamonds.’ repeated my mother after him. ‘I thought by now the KGB might be more creative. Any other reasons?’
‘Look,’ said the bald man seeming quite uncomfortable. ‘See the warrant? It’s a legal warrant, right? See, it says diamonds, right? See?’ Then he paused, waiting for my mother to confirm it. But it was my father who probably felt sorry for him and gestured to invite him in.
One of the smaller people had a coughing attack and almost fell off the chair. The bald man rushed to him unhappily, as though he was trying to save the KGB’s reputation. I heard my mother whispering to my father: ‘Where are the books?’
I couldn’t hear his answer, but I knew they were talking about the books from last night. They were in English and I could read only the titles. They all contained the word Israel. I remembered that that month a few members of the Jewish underground in Moscow and Kiev had been arrested. In Odessa we were the first to be searched.
The bald man came out, his face decorated with a shiny smile: ‘What’s this?’ He was holding a book and grinned at us happily, over-polite.
My mother was polite too: ‘It is a Russian-Hebrew dictionary. Why, she enquired, is it not allowed?’
‘No, no.’ The bald man erased his smile. ‘Of course it’s allowed. But it’s a fine start, comrade Kugel. Because I was just thinking to myself, you know, just kind of imagining of course, maybe someone here is spreading anti-Soviet propaganda under the cover of the so-called study of a non-existent ancient language? Huh?’
My mother was well trained at keeping a poker face. But as soon as the bald man disappeared into my babushka’s room, she turned to me: ‘Lenochka, you don’t have to do this, but…’
‘Yes,’ I said excitedly, ‘yes.’ Thank you rain for bringing moments of glory into my marginal existence. If only Vika knew…
It was a freezing morning outside. The brave bosomy neighbourhood women with their shopping bags were the only ones walking along the streets. Yet the bald man wasn’t surprised that ‘the girl’, as was explained to him, still had plans to meet her girlfriends outside to play with their dolls. He even seemed relieved.
I buttoned my fur-coat and put a woolen scarf around my skinny neck. My mother used to call it a ‘swan’s neck’. What a pity, I thought grumpily, that I had no hair to trail behind. My mother insisted on cutting it short, otherwise I’d get lice like all the neighbourhood children. But Vika and her girlfriends all had long plaits. I was obviously the ugly duckling.
I tied the flaps from my old fur-hat beneath my chin. ‘Maybe I should check her doll’s pram?’ suggested the small man, whose eyes were still red from the coughing fit. The bald man was gazing at our piles of mess. ‘Leave it,’ he said abruptly, ‘don’t you have enough work to do?’
On my way out I looked at the smashed plates and cups in the kitchen, the cracked TV and the deep scratches on the floorboards, where previously they had dragged the heavy chest of drawers. The last sight before I left was of the second little man using a penknife to slash the feather pillows my babushka had made. My little brother kept sleeping peacefully.
Only when I was far from our courtyard could I breathe freely. Beneath the doll’s blanket laid those new books. My heart was racing, but I was happy in a way I had never been. It wasn’t the grand happiness of bravery, victory or other big words that my government and family fancied, just a pure optimism that surely the future would be beautiful. After all, on Krasny Pereulok things did go smoothly. The autumn rain promised adventures with happy-endings and kept its word.
I hurried to our playground; the place where I used to hang about waiting meekly for the other children to invite me to join their games. Sometimes they did. How I hated myself for hanging around those hours. I was a much better person in my sickbed, in control of my own fantasy games.
Now I felt great in that stony playground. I knew there were a
few loose rocks in one of the corners. I hid the books beneath the
rocks, far from the KGB people, who didn’t understand much
about children. That was their biggest mistake, I thought.
I floated about Krasny Pereulok with my doll pram. I imagined that from now on my life would be like my favourite New Year’s Eve movies, where ordinary Soviet children could meet Ded Moroz or Snegurochka and embark on magical journeys. As I passed Vika’s building, I saw her sitting outside with Igor, the best-looking boy in our neighbourhood. Their satchels lay on the ground, they were probably waiting for Vika’s mother to take them to school.
‘Hey you,’ said Igor as I was passing by, wondering whether it would be appropriate to say Hello. ‘What number of glasses are you wearing?’
‘Why bother asking?’ giggled Vika, who was nicer to me when I had new chewing gum wrappers. ‘She’s almost blind, can’t you see? That’s why she doesn’t even notice that her hair is a mess.’
‘Yeah-yeah,’ said Igor, ‘and she never brushes her hair. She looks like a boy.’
They were probably right about me being blind, because as I rushed past them, I bumped into a post and my doll was thrown into the middle of the road. I didn’t even bother to pick her up, just continued on towards home. The heavy Odessa rain started pouring down again.
**2005 Identity Theory Nonfiction Contest Winner**