She actually was very intelligent, and she did have Jewish genes, and she lived in the most cultured district of the cultural capital, and she had read all the good books one is physically able to read in twenty years, and she had finished school with a Gold Medal, and nobody had had to rub out her bad grades in the class register and write her graduation essay for her because she had never had any bad grades and her essays used to be read aloud by her excitable literature teacher to her old university friends. The friends would go aaah and say that even Lotman couldn’t have dug any deeper, and when she went to university, she became a member of all the relevant scholarly societies, and she never got to know how one made a crib sheet, and she learned four languages instead of two, and the elderly head of her faculty used to feel that all the airless years of academic intrigue and paper-wasting had not been entirely in vain whenever he saw her in the classroom. Having felt that, he would immediately start fearing for her in case she took the whole philology thing seriously and for the rest of her life, but he needn’t have feared because she, despite all the apparent insanity, was a normal young woman, and she didn’t secretly pride herself on knowing the word “polysyndeton”; she simply knew it and that was that.
She was intelligent unobtrusively and effortlessly and had always dreamed of combining an unstoppable public and academic career with a standard-issue female happiness, and even the lieutenant who she for some reason married in the end was not bothered by his own intellectual impotence as set against her IQ and aspirations but rather, in a lenient aside, believed all that to be a forgivable chick’s fixation. For she could cook as well as she could draw parallels between Old Norse and Middle High German, and she made love with even greater enthusiasm than she made presentations at the numerous scholarly rallies, and what else could a good-quality, level-headed lieutenant – or, come to that, a man – possibly have a need for. But all this ensued afterwards, thereafter, months and years later, when I already cared so little that I conscientiously typed all that had happened into my computer as if it had happened directly to me.
I wrote that her name was Tanya, and that was exactly fifty per cent true, while the percentage of truth for the rest would be ninety-nine or more if minus me.
And so I, who was not I, had known her for exactly two years – from an October to an October – and, when running into her, was fond of exchanging some kind of remarks to see her smile dazzlingly and wash me over with her eyes. She had a completely un-Russian smile and soft eyes. I used to watch her walk towards me – in a coy, dignified and meaningful way – and imagine that her life was cut into accurate, confident slices and laid out onto a long plate whose other end disappeared in the clouds and oxbridges. In fact, everything was more prosaic and more motherlandish, and yet I wanted to nibble at a couple of the slices, but life was forever full of somebody / something, and one thing was always even more important and urgent than another though utter bullshit in reality.
One of the days in that October happened to be insanely sunny and easy to see through, the university was being visited by a big fat shot from the Education Ministry, and there was nothing that had to be done, and I went a-walking around the most cultured district in centripetal directions – because she lived in its centre. It was a time when I only episodically traded in my life, that is to say worked, and cash did not multiply in my pockets, and I wasn’t burdened by the desire to come over with flowers-gifts. I only wanted what I could do, but I was infinitely young and could do almost everything. Drunk with omnipotence, I entered her block of flats and went up the clean stairs, as though not in Russia but in a European fantasy land. Tanya opened the door, and lo, I stepped over the first threshold and walked among little cupboards, bicycles, skis and neighbours’ doors, and I stepped over the second threshold, and she was following me and closing the doors.
First to the left was the kitchen, as it ought to be. In the kitchen there was a lot of space and cleanliness, and there was a dish-washing apparatus, and there were small wooden cupboards on which it said “Cereals”, “Spices”, “Pickles”, “Grandmother’s creations”, and I asked where then the “Aphrodisiacs” or, say, “Philosopher’s Stones” cupboard was, but Tanya just – ooo! – smiled and asked if I would have lunch. You know my answer to that question, especially back then, and Tanya began to take things out and heat them up, and on the wall – next to a Maya Plisetskaya calendar – Radio Petersburg, piped in through wires, was mumbling away, and they were transmitting a humorous piece for four bassoons, but then they had mercy and got talking about Voronikhin the architect with a capital A and his contribution to the granite spirituality end quote of St. Petersburg.
Plates and cutlery and napkins and a variety of unknown sauces were all suddenly there in front of me. The food was steaming and very tasty or, to be exact, uniquely tasty because Tanya was having her tea across the table and keeping up our conversation about next to nothing, during which she kept smiling and seeing through me – down to the lowermost bottoms and ends, where I wasn’t especially hiding my desire to love her openly and right away. She could see through me but she didn’t let on, and this endless meaningless sky knows how much more badly that made me want to kiss, kiss, kiss her in that sterling paragon of a kitchen on that fairy-tale autumn day when all parks in the vicinity were hung over with golden leaves and, as yet another hardworking schoolgirl was writing in her essay, were reminiscing about the young curly-headed Pushkin.
The young curly-headed me, about whom trees will never reminisce, said thank you and acted out an impulse to wash the dishes. When Tanya had washed them, I suggested going to the ever-wakeful parks, but she remembered politely that I wrote songs and then sang them, and she asked if I could sing for her. Are you sure it’s absolutely necessary, I asked, happily and painfully selecting in my mind a song that would show her what a subliminal tunesmith I was and how profoundly and uncheesily I did feel the wonderful bitterness of human existence. And so she led me – by the hand and straight into the room, where – ha ha ha – there was no trite guitar, only an old piano, as noble as Lord Chesterfield, and I came to hate myself because, when I was six, I contorted my nasty little child’s face and let my mother realise that the music school could only happen over my dead little body – even though I had been able to play Chizhik-Pyzhik by ear, and the grey-headed, red-faced teacher had remarked upon my obvious potential. Oh thunder and lightning, I had so dully missed my chance to sit down masterfully on the round stool and run my long intellectual fingers along the yellowish keys and tell her modestly that all the best songs had been or would be written without me, and then sing My Funny Valentine – in order to charge, and Besa me mucho ¬– in order to relax the atmosphere.
I laughed guiltily and told Tanya the Chizhik-Pyzhik story, and a stone fell off my heart when she laughed as well. And we once again passed by the skis and neighbours’ doors, walked down the clean stairs and went out into the sun-drenched Boldino autumn and heaven on earth. In the heaven on earth, people with lit-up faces were walking in all directions on their lofty errands, stray dogs on the withering lawns were meditating on the nature of the Buddha, street cleaners were not sweeping leaves and empty crisp packets off the pavements out of love for beauty, and even the schoolboy with the tattered rucksack was not writing “fuck you” on the fence near a construction site; instead, he was writing the enigmatic phrase “Shuffler’s in for some muzzlguzzling”. In the heaven on earth, one felt like talking about God and about love, and we talked about God and reached a consensus concerning his absence, and we talked about love and reached one of the ever-wakeful parks. Due to it being Wednesday and early in the day, the park was empty and didn’t seem to be awake after all. We entered the park, and I told myself that I must kiss her before we exited it, and it was written on every tree that there were in the whole world no plans more feasible and no claims more justified.
We went on talking about love, and I said to Tanya that surely she understood, and she said no, she did not understand, and owing to that we took each other’s hand, and then, in the most untimely fashion, it turned out that I was an interesting personality. For a few frantic moments I was trying to figure out what exactly there was in me that resembled an interesting personality and how I could move on smoothly to uninteresting kisses without losing such an elevated status, and that somehow made our conversation harden and shrink, but in the meantime we came to a little bridge and yet another pond.
We stood on the bridge and could see that the pond and the sky could swap places, and I suggested walking to the other side of the pond – treading on the still coloured leaves, on the soft earth along the edge of the dazzling water, on the water-bound roots of the trees that believed in me. We walked to the other side of the pond and found ourselves facing the sun, and I sat down on a thick root and basked in the sun while Tanya was off peeing in some remote bushes. Something that still hadn’t flown away to the south was twittering on branches, and when I heard the sound of returning feet, I asked Tanya whether she knew, among all the other things, by heart the whole of zoology and if she did, I was wondering which birds, in which sequence and exactly where to flew away from us to the south. Tanya said that the rumours of her encyclopaedicity had been greatly exaggerated, and then she came up to me and, with a barely appreciable movement of her hand, ruffled my hair.
In the Top Twenty of my memories, this touch wanders up and down between the third and the eighth place.
She was my third or sixth girlfriend, depending on what you consider the main criterion, and I wasn’t as unfocused and insane, and I already realised that man plus woman isn’t for the sake of emotions but for the sake of good emotions, at least when you’re twenty years old. Tanya may have seen my point, but she couldn’t see my point in practice, and we were together intermittently, mysteriously and as though against all odds and evens. This prevented my good emotions from getting really going, and I kept asking her, what do you want from our relationship, can it be true that you want a wedding and kids, can it be true that in this shaky world you need me for building households and not for what precedes them so briefly and beautifully. She answered very much the way a woman and a human being would, that is to say she didn’t answer at all, she just kept talking seemingly about the same but not about us; rather, about abstract millions of some others, and that life should be handled with care, and that I was all multi-coloured and bright, and she one-coloured and very nearly grey, and this all at the very end of the twentieth century.
And so it came to pass that shortly before New Year, around which everything always happens, I made up my mind to effect a relationship clarification and delicately extracted Tanya from her home in order to take her to a dubious cafe. I even had some money for the occasion, which just managed to buy us five bottles of dark beer and accompanying pistachios, and we sat down at a small round table and started talking about life and stuff. The youthful proletarians in the adjacent room were having the end of their working day, and there was Radio Baltika, and I wanted Tanya – along with me – to feel everything slipping away through fingers and clock hands, feel youth turning into us playing youth, feel the unsteady earth shaking beneath our feet, and with the help of the beer I was able to achieve the last of the three.
I walked her home along the night streets covered in violet ice, now clarifying heaven knew what, and she was shaking her head and struggling to articulate incomprehensible doubts, and we kissed on the clean stairs, and then New Year happened but nothing else ever did, and I never went round to her place again.
Tanya, I haven’t seen you for a long time, but that means that you also haven’t seen me for a long time, and it’s good that you haven’t seen the balding, belly-wielding creature into which I have successfully evolved. I have increased in diameter and become a nice little pillar of society, and there are eighteen people working under me, and I can draw out five-minute morning briefings until the very lunch break with corporate anecdotes from my own experience. When prosperity gets to me, I blow myself full of abominable bombastic sentimentality and write short stories or bother my old friends but that’s almost the only shortcoming I have, and this is why my wife respects me, takes pride in me and hardly ever cheats on me, my eight-year-old daughter spends her holidays in Cambridge and watches Harry Potter in the original language, and I’m hopelessly pleased with myself, and I’m bulging at the seams with the stability and caution that you for some reason wanted from me.
But that, of course, was not me.
Special thanks to Megan Case for her kind proofreading.
Illustration by Natalia Yamshchikova