After the bout of illness that had long tormented me with coughing, tight lungs, and high fever, and thanks to which the terrifying drum thundered again in my head more than once, I was fine for just two weeks. Then I got my boots full of snow and came down with another cold. The cold, for which Galina Sergeyevna used the odd word “recurrent”, proved not very serious. I had no fever, I just coughed and blew my nose into paper tissues that Grandma gave me instead of handkerchiefs.
“With a hankie, you keep stuffing the infection back into your nose, but with a tissue, you blow your nose into it once and then toss it,” she explained.
So I sat at my desk, catching up with assignments that had spread over several cardboard sheets, and blanketing the floor with used tissues, which I kept pulling out of an open package on the desk. The assignments always made me miserable, from early morning on. I would open my eyes, realize with horror that I was awake, and do my best to sleep some more, trying to delay for as long as I could the advent of the day which had to be lived through in its entirety, just so that another identical day could arrive tomorrow. I knew from the morning on that nothing nice, or fun, or interesting was going to happen today. There will be a bunch of sentences that Svetochka wrote out in class while I was sick, there will be math from Wednesday through Friday, there will be the razor, and there will be Grandma. And the next day. And the day after that. And on and on, until I catch up with all the assignments. But while I’m catching up, Grandma will get more assignments. Why can’t I just fall asleep and wake up when it’s all over?
But today was special. Waking up in the morning, I felt uncharacteristically excited, and even the misery that holed up near my desk couldn’t put a damper on it. I was excited that for the whole day, I’d have something to do, and even studying wouldn’t get in the way; something that I would readily trade my rare joys for - waiting. I was waiting for the evening. In the evening, Bubette was supposed to come and see me.
Bubette was what Grandma and I called my Mom. Actually, Grandma called her the bubonic plague, but I adjusted it my own way and came up with Bubette. Bubette visited very rarely - about twice a month. Grandma maintained that it would have been better if she never visited at all, but then the waiting would have disappeared from my life. Then I would have always felt horrified about waking up, and nothing at all would have stopped me from wanting to close my eyes the moment I opened them in the morning and sleep through as much as possible of the miserable and worthless day ahead.
I loved Bubette, I loved her alone, and nobody but her. If she were to disappear, I would have forgone this feeling forever, and if she didn’t exist, I would never have known this feeling, and would have thought that the whole purpose of life was to do homework, see doctors, and duck from Grandma’s yelling. How terrible it would have been, and how wonderful that it wasn’t so. The purpose of life was to wait out the doctors, to suffer through the homework and the yelling, and finally to see Bubette, who I loved so much.
Complaining to her friends about all the trouble she was having with me, Grandma claimed that it was her who I loved more than anyone, but that I myself didn’t realize it, yet you could tell when I called her Granny. Grandma always demonstrated how I called her Granny, and always made a plaintive face for some reason. Then she’d say that she loved me more than life itself; her friends would admire such bliss, shake their heads in delight and, lamenting my slow wits, demand,
“Hug your grandma, what are you waiting for? She gives you so much; show her that you love her, too.”
I’d quietly seethe. I called Grandma Granny rarely, and only when I needed to get something out of her. Hugging her felt completely impossible. I didn’t love her and couldn’t treat her like Mom. I hugged Grandma only once, after her quarrel with Grandpa, and it felt silly, unnecessary, and unpleasant. It was even more unpleasant when Grandma, expressing her love, would turn me around with my back to her and press her cold, wet lips with their tickling hairs to my neck.
“I only kiss him on the neck!” she’d explain to her friends. “Only on the neck! Not on the face - why would I stick my germs in his face? But the neck is okay.”
Grandma’s kissing made everything inside me shudder, I could barely stand it without breaking free, and I couldn’t wait till the wet chill stopped crawling up and down my neck. It was as if this chill was taking something away from me, and I cringed from it, trying not to give this “something” up. It was completely different when my Mom kissed me. The touch of her lips would give me back whatever had been taken away from me, and then some. There was so much of it that I would get confused, not knowing how to reciprocate. I’d put my arms around Mom’s neck, press my face against her cheek, and feel her warmth; it was as if thousands of invisible arms were stretching out of my chest towards this warmth. And if I couldn’t hug Mom with my real arms too hard, so as not to hurt her, I hugged her with the invisible ones as hard as I could. I squeezed her and held her tight never to let go, and all I wanted was for this to go on forever.
I was constantly afraid that something bad would happen to Mom. After all, she’d walk somewhere by herself, and I wouldn’t be able to watch her and warn her of the dangers. She could be run over by a car, or by a subway train; she could be attacked by the murderer with a sharpened knitting needle up his sleeve that Grandma told me about. At night, looking through the window to the dark street where sinister white streetlights twinkled, I imagined Mom making her way home, and the invisible arms from my chest stretched out desperately to shield her, to protect her, and to hug her wherever she was.
I kept asking Mom not to go out late at night, to cross the street carefully, not to eat at home because Grandma had convinced me that the bloodsucking midget was putting poison in her supper, and I hated my own impotence, which made it impossible for me to be next to her and check whether she did as I said.
Once Mom told me that she was going to come over and bring me a book.
“It’s called I Can Jump Over Puddles. On the cover, there’s a horsie...” she said over the phone.
That night she was very late, and thinking that she had been murdered, I wandered around the apartment, crying and repeating to myself, “The last sweet word I heard from her was “horsie”.”
The word “horsie” didn’t apply to me, but it did sound sweet and very nice, and all nice words came from Mom. Grandpa sometimes jokingly called me a silly boy, a brat, or a blight bag, Grandma called me honey and sweetheart when I was ill - but I’d forget these words like I would the pills and the caplets I had swallowed. But when Mom once uttered the word “kitten”, for a long time afterwards I would repeat it to myself before falling asleep.
I memorized every sweet word that Mom uttered and was horrified to think that “horsie” would be the last one I’d memorize. When Mom finally arrived, I hurled myself towards her and hugged her like she was life itself that had come back to me.
Besides Mom, I occasionally hugged Grandpa but, of course, in a very different way. I enjoyed it when he returned from concert tours with presents, some of which he gave to me, hugged him for a second in order to show that I was glad to see him, but didn’t feel anything other than this fleeting joy. Having returned home, Grandpa would immediately become his familiar self, and I no longer felt like hugging him.
And yet I thought that I loved him, too - not like Mom, not even half that, but I still loved him, and it hurt when he once remarked that I loved his presents rather than himself. I felt guilty, and I was angry that these silly words forced me to feel guilt that I didn’t understand. I forgot about it, but then this cassette player thing happened; it was a few days before Bubette came over, and now I’ll tell you the whole story.
Grandpa went abroad from time to time, and that’s when his presents would get really good. I had to be careful not to thank him in advance, though, because sometimes the present intended for me would later turn out not to be for me after all. When Grandpa came back from Finland, for example, he ceremoniously presented me with a small flashlight, and I ran around the apartment with it all day long, aiming it at everything, but in the evening it turned out that Grandpa brought the flashlight for himself, for fishing trips. Another time, Grandpa brought a spinning rod and said that it was for me, because soon we were going to go fishing together. I put the rod in the corner near the mirror and though that I now had another great thing besides the train set, but Grandpa took the rod to the garage, and when we did go fishing, he gave me a totally different one to use. And sometimes the present was definitely intended for me, but Grandma would confiscate it, saying that I was a lazy bum and a parasite, so she’d give the present to Vanechka next door, who studied two foreign languages at the Diplomatic Academy, played sports, and didn’t suck blood from his grandmother.
From his trip to Iraq, Grandpa brought a cassette player. Not only did I understand that it wasn’t for me, I didn’t even dare to take a good look at it, afraid that Grandpa would notice my interest and would think that I had designs on it. Hiding my eyes full of secret desire, I pretended that the cassette player was of no interest to me whatsoever, and that I was far more intrigued by little things like a can of halvah or a box of oriental sweets.
“Look at this neat packaging!” I gushed, handling the can of halvah while surreptitiously throwing hungry glances at the box with the cassette player.
“Well, let’s see what is it that I bought here,” Grandpa said, putting the box in his lap and starting to unpack it.
“Is that a cassette player or something?” I asked as indifferently as I could.
“Philips”, Grandpa read out proudly.
“Only a moron would buy a Philips,” Grandma announced in the tone of a connoisseur. “You should have asked Belokurov. He’s had stuff like this for a long time, he knows. He would have told you to get a Sony or a Grundig. But you’re a smug ass: your grab whatever crap comes your way without even looking.”
“Why is it crap, Nina?! It’s a good, reputable brand...”
“Sony or Grundig!” Grandma cut him off. “Look at this piece of garbage, it’s all plastic...”
I didn’t know the difference between a Philips and a Sony or a Grundig, or what was wrong with the plastic, but the player that appeared from the box had me spellbound. Still afraid to show my true feelings, I casually examined the picture on the box, then paid close attention to the accompanying cassette, then the instructions, and then my interest burst out into the open. While Grandpa was turning the player this way and that, not knowing from which side to approach it, I had already figured out how to open the cassette cover, stuck a finger between Grandpa’s hands, and pressed the right button. The cover opened. Grandpa was flustered by my impudence, while I took the cassette out of the box, put it in, and closed the cover with the confidence of someone who’d been using this cassette player all his life.
“What’s wrong with you?” Grandpa stopped me in my tracks. “Did you have my permission?”
“I just showed you how to put it in,” I replied, hastily falling back into indifference.
“Then don’t touch it!”
“Why are you stopping him? Let the kid figure out what’s what,” Grandma demanded. “He’s smart, he’d be better at it. When he starts learning a foreign language with a tutor, they’ll record whatever they need to.”
Grandpa was dumbstruck. Me, too. For the first time ever, Grandma took my side. She wasn’t simply not confiscating what was intended for me, she was allowing me to use something that was clearly supposed to stay beyond my reach!
Trying not to jeopardize Grandma’s patronage or the promise of something that was hard to believe, I did my best to contain the ecstasy that exploded inside me.
“Here’s the play button. Here’s fast-forward, record..” I started showing them to Grandpa, trying to remain cool and indifferent.
Now I pretended that the important thing for me was to figure out what was what, while the prospect of using the machine - which was actually earthshaking - was nothing special, maybe even something to look down on. We had quickly mastered the few available buttons, and so I proposed to record something on the cassette, but Grandpa had to go out. He wanted to put the player back in the box, but Grandma said,
“Leave it, let him figure it all out. He’ll show you everything when you come back.”
“Actually, I didn’t buy it for him,” Grandpa muttered.
“Whatever, you can sacrifice something once in a blue moon. You shouldn’t pamper your egotism forever. A sick, abandoned child; let him have just one joy in life - this fucking cassette player. The boy has earned it with his suffering.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Grandpa left displeased. The cassette player remained on the table.
I looked at the smooth, shiny sides, the polished buttons, the needle in the little see-through window; I smelled the new plastic and the magnetic tape, and I was afraid even to touch this totally unexpected treasure. I turned on the built-in radio, tuned in to some music, and it turned out that it could be recorded. The red light was shining, the cassette was turning, the smart needle was jolting in tune with the rhythm. The sight of a machine working at my command went to my head. But that wasn’t the main thing! I always felt inferior to others, and my most daring dream was to be on par with everyone else at least once, in anything. And now, for the first time, I suddenly felt I was above the others, not inferior! Older kids from the circus school often got together in our yard and played cassettes in the gazebo. The sounds of unfamiliar yet somehow particularly wonderful music caused acute envy among the outsiders, but initiation into the mystery was unthinkable. Then Boris got a cassette player... He played for me exactly the same music that the circus kids played, and he told me it was the Beatles. He played a raspy singer with the resonant name of Vysotsky and looked at me with such superiority that it made me dizzy. And now I had a cassette player, too! I would listen to the Beatles, like the circus kids, I would listen to the raspy Vysotsky, I would throw open the window and put the player on the sill, like Boris did, but I’d be above them all because they had an Elektronika and I had a Philips.
My usual envy released its clutches. Young scientists and dancers, polar bear swimmers and motorcycle racers no longer bugged me - superiority in just one area relieved me of my anxieties about everything else. I realized that if I now saw an obnoxious boy my age on TV, singing and tossing his head like an adult, or a film where kids my age go scuba diving and catch spies, while I, having finished the Wednesday-to-Friday math, have blood taken for tests with a cold compress on my back - I wouldn’t shake with anger and irritation. I’d chuckle and think to myself, “Yeah, but I’ve got a Philips!” Unfamiliar serenity cloaked me like a warm blanket.
“Why are you fiddling with it?! You’ll drop it, and then the gitsel will eat my liver out,” Grandma said, surprising me at the height of my euphoria.
“I’m just figuring it out...” I said, again indifferently, and then added in the tone of someone who had already figured out a lot, “Actually, this button here, it’s for recording voice rather than music. To study a foreign language, for example...”
“That’s good!” Grandma approved.
Actually, the button that I pointed out was just the meter reset but, taking advantage of Grandma’s ignorance, I assigned it a different function in order to show that I wasn’t interested in fun and games with music, but that I was a serious person and was planning to use the machine for serious things. To make sure that Grandma really didn’t suspect any subversive designs on my part, I pointed at the picture of a long-haired singer screaming into the microphone on the box, and said as if in passing,
“Look at this mug. Like everyone’s going to record that kind of stuff.”
Assured of my proper intentions, Grandma left me alone with the player again, and I immediately started turning the dial in search of music to record. I recorded Arlekino, Arlekino starting somewhere in the middle, almost all of Hope Is My Earthly Compass, and two verses of a really stupid song about a guy smiling into his wheat-colored mustache. The catch was disappointing. This music wouldn’t floor even Boris, let alone the older kids who would have certainly ridiculed me, especially for the wheat guy. I started searching again and finally found some passable rock-n-roll on short wave, albeit gurgling due to interference. The singer, whose voice immediately associated in my imagination with the face on the box, sang with great gusto something like “Bule-buley, ow-le-lurey...” I recorded the bule-buley instead of the wheat-colored mustache and felt satisfied. For some reason, I was convinced that I got the Beatles. Now I had to get Boris to come over for a minute. I went to the phone and heard Grandma talking to someone.
“...busy now,” she was saying into the phone. “I don’t know, he’s fiddling with the cassette player, Grandpa brought it for him from Iraq. He has to figure out what’s what, it’s a complex machine. Yes, that’s right. He has no mother, but he has a cassette player. At least the player won’t betray him like some people...”
Five words flared in front of me like bright fireworks: “...Grandpa brought it for him.” So it’s for me!
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“Svetochka’s mother,” Grandma replied, covering the phone with her hand. “Go, don’t hover. Or your player will go the way of the last year’s snow. Go.”
Grandma usually talked to Svetochka’s mother for at least two hours, and I rushed to turn the radio back on so that I could record something else. That’s when Grandpa returned. I played “Bule-buley, ow-le-lurey...” for him and was very sorry that I did.
“This is outrageous, I forbid it!” Grandpa declared sternly and began stuffing the player back into the box. “Look at this little shit sticking his hands where they don’t belong!”
“What’s the matter?” asked Grandma, who had gotten off the phone much sooner than expected.
“Nothing!” Grandpa barked, flashing his eyes menacingly from under his eyebrows, as he occasionally could. “Completely shameless! Nothing here is mine anymore! You’ve taken everything!”
“Calm down, please!” Grandma asked in an unusually peaceful tone. “Who took what from you?”
“Everything! You’ve taken everything!” Grandpa continued to thunder, the capricious box refusing to cooperate with his shaking hands. “For the first time ever I brought something for myself, and the moment I step away, this brat lays his hands on it. No permission, nothing! He’s going to figure out what’s what... We’ll figure it out without the snotface! Can’t I have one thing that’s mine, that you don’t grab without my permission?! Or is it all yours?!”
Grandpa finally managed to close the box and shoved it vertically behind the couch.
“It’ll sit here, and don’t you dare touch it!” he told me. “You’ll get it when I die. But for now, remember that not everything here belongs to you.”
The superiority that had lifted me above the rest for such a brief moment was shattered. I could no longer think to myself, “But I’ve got a Philips!”
Grandma, however, begged to differ. In the bedroom, she took me by the shoulder, leaned over, and whispered straight into my ear,
“Don’t worry about the old man. He’s yelling now, later he’ll forget. Tomorrow, when he’s wearing out his ass at that commission, you’ll get the thing out and play it all you want, just hide it before he comes back. I’ll talk to him, he’ll let you use it. He loves you, he’d do anything for you. He just had to yell a bit to show off.”
With that, we went to bed.
When I woke up in the morning, I felt an unusual desire to get up quickly. Something changed in my life the day before, something good and interesting happened... “The cassette player!” I remembered and jumped out of bed impatiently, throwing my clothes on and rushing into Grandpa’s room.
The cassette player was where he left it. Grandpa was dressing in the vestibule, preparing to leave. I glanced sideways at the yellow box behind the couch, and it seemed to me that Grandpa was dressing very slowly on purpose. Why, why did he have to wrap the scarf around his neck twice?!
“Wear the other shoes,” Grandma said.
“I’ll take these.”
“Wear the other ones, these are too light.”
“Too light? They’re fur-lined...”
“Take the other ones, I’m telling you; these are slippery, and it’s icy outside.”
“Go to hell!” Grandpa blew up and finally left.
“Grandma! The player - may I?” I trembled.
“Eat first, what’s the rush?”
“But may I?”
“Yes, you may...”
While Grandma was cooking buckwheat, I carefully pulled the box from behind the couch and put it on the table. I opened the cover, saw the black plastic glistening between the styrofoam pads, and my hands started shaking with excitement. Suddenly the door bell rang.
“Who’s there?” Grandma shouted.
“Nina... it’s me... ” came Grandpa’s voice, breaking strangely.
“Hide it, hide it!” Grandma waved.
I hastily started putting the cassette player away.
“Hey... Open up... quick... I can’t...”
“Just give me a minute... Did you shit yourself? Wait, the phone cord got tangled up, I can’t get past it.”
Grandma peeked into the room and, satisfied that I put the player back in its place, opened the door.
“What’s the matter?”
“I fell, oooh... Slipped near the garage... Hit my side on some stupid rocks... Oooh... Help me get to bed... I can’t...”
Helped by Grandma and me, Grandpa, doubled up in pain, made it to the couch and sat down.
“Off... Help me take my coat off... My side... It hurts so bad I can’t move my arm... Take my shoes off...”
“I told you to take the other pair,” Grandma reminded, taking a fur-lined boot off Grandpa’s foot.
“Quiet! Quiet, don’t nag me! Let me... catch my breath. It hurts so bad I can’t breathe... oooh...”
Grandma took Grandpa’s boots off, laid him down on his good side, pulled his shirt up, and started putting some arnica ointment on the sore spot. Distressed by what had happened, I stood next to them and kept asking, “Grandpa, how did this happen?” Even though I was genuinely upset, I couldn’t control my eyes, which now and then were drawn, as if by a magnet, to the yellow box behind the couch. Grandpa had chosen a bad time to slip.
He got worse toward the evening. He couldn’t move and kept moaning. The skin on his side was puffy and purple. The doctor who came said that he had cracked a rib; he bandaged Grandpa and told him not to move for a few days. At night, when I had already gone to bed, and Grandma stayed on to watch TV with motionless Grandpa, I heard loud screams. Grandpa was screaming at the top of his lungs, begging Grandma to do something. Grandma wailed in fear. I decided that Grandpa was about to die, and rushed into his room as I was, in tights and with no slippers. He turned out to be fine, the pain subsided. After a while, Grandpa started screaming again; I jumped out of bed once again to rush to him and to Grandma who was keeping vigil at his side. Both times, just one word was flashing inside my head: “the player”.
I can’t tell for sure just what emotion was behind this word. Maybe I thought that Grandpa would die and I’d get the cassette player; or maybe I was worried that he’d die, and I wouldn’t get the player; or maybe I was concerned that he’d die and Grandma could not be bothered with the player. In any case, I wasn’t concerned about Grandpa. I felt I was a participant in some perturbing event that could become even more perturbing, and being perturbed was exciting. I liked racing and barging into the room alarmed, asking “What happened?!” It was like a game, and only the cassette player was real. The fact that Grandpa could die didn’t scare me. It would be my death that would send me to the scary cemetery, where I would lay alone under a cross, seeing only darkness and unable to shoo away the worms that would eat me. It was Mom who was in danger of being killed, and then she’d disappear from my life, taking all the sweet words with her. And if Grandpa were to die - I couldn’t see the consequences beyond the cassette player. Grandpa was part of the set, like the trees that rustled behind the window. I never thought of his death before, I couldn’t imagine it, and that’s why I didn’t know what to be afraid of if it were to happen.
Grandpa spent a few days in bed, I was hit by a recurrent cold at the same time, then Grandma obtained some school assignments - and the player faded into the background. I still glanced at the yellow box occasionally, but it was just a sad reminder of the superiority that was not to be. In its box, the player was inaccessible. My grandparents never disturbed a once-established order of things, and if something was put away into a drawer or remained unpacked, they’d become accustomed to it in a couple of days, and there was no question that anybody would ever use whatever it was. The box containing the sewing machine served as an end table for a lamp for as long as I could remember, while the lead chest full of the dishes that Grandpa brought from Germany along with the furniture has been crowding the balcony ever since. Were the cassette player to remain on the table, they would have gotten used to it, too, and I would have found my way to it slowly but surely. But now something extraordinary had to happen for it to appear from the box and linger in plain view for at least a day or two. By the day Mom was supposed to visit, I had already forgotten about it; I thought about it accidentally and in connection with something totally different.
As I was sitting at the desk waiting for my Bubette, I heard that Grandpa was about to leave. He was still groaning and grabbing his side after each awkward movement, but he was already walking and was even able to put his shoes on without any help. I recalled how I rushed toward his screams at night and imagined what it would have been like if it was Mom who had hurt herself so badly! The thought of it made my throat tighten. Whenever I imagined that something bad happened to Mom, I was always on the verge of tears. And that’s when my memory reproduced Grandpa’s words about me loving his presents rather than himself. Could it be true?! I thought about it and concluded that I, of course, loved not the presents but Grandpa, just not nearly as much as Mom. But would I have loved Mom if she weren’t bringing me any presents?
Pretty much everything valuable that I owned came from Mom. But I didn’t love her because of those things - I loved those things because they came from her. Whatever Mom gave me was like a little part of my Bubette, and I was deathly afraid of losing or breaking any of her presents. Once I accidentally broke one of the pieces from the building set that she had given me, and it felt like I had hurt Mom physically; I was inconsolable all day long, even though it was a minor piece that often went unused. Eventually Grandpa glued it together, but by then the piece had absorbed the anxiety associated with Mom and became a prized possession; I had several of them, and I treasured them more than anything.
These prized possessions were knick-knacks that I got from Bubette mostly by chance. In the toys, I saw objects first and Mom second. In the knick-knacks, like the glass marble that Bubette fished out of her purse and gave to me in the yard, I saw Mom and Mom alone. This little glass Mom could be hidden in my fist, Grandma couldn’t take it away, and I could put it under my pillow and feel that she was near me. Sometimes I wanted to talk to Mom-the-marble, but I knew it was silly so I just looked at it a lot. I also came to see Mom alone in the piece that had been broken and glued together. I stopped using it to build little houses and added it to the knick-knacks, which even included a used piece of chewing gum. One day Mom had offered it to me, I chewed it, wrapped it in a piece of paper, and put it away with my stuff. The gum wasn’t particularly valuable, of course: I didn’t look at it, didn’t put it under my pillow like the marble, but I couldn’t get rid of it either, so I kept it until it got lost somehow. I kept the knick-knacks in a small box which I hid behind the nightstand, to make sure Grandma wouldn’t find it. The box of knick-knacks from Mom was my most precious possession; the only thing more precious was Mom herself.
Mom visited rarely. I’d start waiting for her early in the morning, and when she did arrive, I wanted to get as much as I could out of every minute that I had with her. When I was talking to her, I had the feeling that words kept me from hugging; when I was hugging her, I fretted that I wasn’t looking at her enough; and when I leaned away for a better look, I felt bad that I couldn’t hug her. It seemed like I was just about to find a position in which I could do all these things at once, but I could never quite get it, so I kept wriggling, horrified by the swift passage of time - of which I didn’t have much anyway.
Mom usually stayed for a couple of hours, but I only managed to spend a few minutes with her the way I wanted. The remaining time passed the way Grandma wanted. She would sit down next to us, and it didn’t feel right to hug Mom in front of her; she’d start her own conversation, so I couldn’t talk to Mom; she’d act as if I didn’t exist, and all I had left was to look at Mom as hard as I could, as if looking could compensate for the words and the hugs that weren’t possible.
There wasn’t much time for looking either. Grandma’s conversation, unhurried and friendly at first, would slowly and imperceptibly turn into a fight. I always missed the exact point when it would start. Just a moment ago Grandma, ignoring my pleas to let me talk to Mom, was discussing the actress Gurchenko, and the next moment she’s throwing a bottle of water at Mom. The bottle smashes against the wall, sending fizzy green shards all over Mom’s legs, while Grandma yells that the sick old man had to go downtown to get the water. Here they’re peacefully discussing Berdichevsky, who emigrated to America, and now Grandma, brandishing a heavy wooden fox terrier from Grandpa’s china cabinet, is chasing Mom around the table and yelling that she’ll break her head, while I’m crying under the table, trying to peel off the floor the little play-doh figurine that I made for Mom’s visit and which the two of them crushed during the chase. Here Mom asks for her winter coat back, and here Grandma yells, “There’s your coat, sweetheart!”, turns her back to us and pulls down her green underpants, stunning me with something pale-pink and enormous.
“Why are you showing your ass in front of the kid, you hoodlum!” Mom shouts.
“He’ll live! This ass belongs to his grandmother, not a slut who dumped her kid for a midget!” Grandma shouts back.
Each time Mom visited, it ended like this, and each time I hoped against hope that things would turn out fine. They never did. I tried to defuse the fight as it heated up, I cried, I screamed too, I shielded Mom from Grandma, but I still didn’t exist. I even claimed that my nose was stuffed, hoping that Grandma would forget about Mom and rush to me with nose drops, but even that didn’t help. When Mom was visiting, Grandma didn’t follow the rules, and fights broke out even when I was sick for real.
Having kicked Mom out, Grandma would shut the door, start crying, and say that she was provoked. I would silently agree. I never chided Grandma for what had happened and after a fight I always acted as if I was on her side. Sometimes I would even chuckle, recalling some episode from the fight.
“The way she ran from you around the table...” I would remind her.
“She’ll be running even faster, the bitch! She’ll be spitting blood! She must be home by now. Let me call her and give her another piece of my mind.”
Grandma would call, and the recent fight would be replayed over the phone in its entirety. Except that now, left alone with Grandma, I didn’t try to stand up for Mom - on the contrary, I laughed at Grandma’s particularly clever turns of phrase. Grandma was my life, Mom was a rare feast. Feasts had one set of rules, life had another.
I never asked myself why, when left to face life on my own, I had to embrace it and couldn’t do otherwise; why life forbade me to love Mom, and why, when the feast ended, I could love just the marble, and Mom I could only wait for in secret; why Grandma was my life, whereas Mom was a rare happiness that ended before I had a chance to start feeling happy. That’s the way it was, and I couldn’t even imagine that it could be any different. Sometimes, while falling asleep, I would dream about spending a whole day with Mom at least once, so that I could find out what it felt like and remember it; about falling asleep at least once with the knowledge that happiness was next to me, and still have it next to me upon waking up. But that could never happen, and dreaming about it was silly. Life was next to me both in the morning and when falling asleep, while happiness I could only wait for, touch it for a few minutes, and then pretend to ignore it again the moment the door banged behind it. Today I got what I waited for again.
I sat at my desk writing, blowing my nose into paper tissues, and waiting for Mom. She’ll be here soon, it’s almost evening already. I had five sentences to write, and then I could wait for her without any distractions. As long as I make no mistakes!
Grandma picked up the razor and started checking what I had written. I nervously watched her frown over certain words, watched her thumb and index finger holding the razor grow tense. But no... Grandma’s face relaxed, her fingers slackened: there were no mistakes.
“Good,” Grandma approved. “This way you might actually learn how to write, my nerves notwithstanding. Now do one day of math, and that’ll be it for today.”
“But Mom is about to come!”
“So she’ll wait till you’re finished. Sit down.”
I sat down on the chair which felt unpleasantly warm from Grandma’s just having sat on it, set aside the language textbook which was harmless for today, and opened the math book with a shudder. Then the doorbell rang, and the numbers on the pages turned into mysterious symbols, impossible to decipher.
“Your plague has made it. Sit and study. If you don’t do it, I’ll tell her to come some other time,” said Grandma and went to open the door.
I froze behind the desk, listening intently to every sound coming from the hallway. The door opened.
“Good evening, Mom,” came the voice of my Bubette.
I didn’t dare to get up without permission and run out into the hallway, but I threw my invisible arms toward the voice, hugged it, mentally hid my face in the warmth of a cheek, and heard inside myself all the sweet words ever uttered by this voice. The desk and the textbook ceased to exist. The voice and my invisible hugs were the only reality.
“My God, what’s on your head?” Grandma asked.
“It’s a hat, Mom.”
“It’s not a hat, it’s a saucepan!”
“That’s all I have.”
“Well, come in, you frump. Want a bite?”
“I’ll have something. Where’s Sasha?”
“He’s studying, he asked that you wait a bit.”
“I’m here, Mom! I’m done!” I shouted, hoping to convince Grandma to leave the math for tomorrow.
“Sit, I’ll come check!” Grandma shouted back, told Mom to take her coat off, and came into my room.
Without looking at my empty notebook, Grandma took me by the shoulder, leaned all the way down to my face, and started whispering,
“Listen to me carefully... Remember, when she was here last time, she claimed I took you away from her, and we had a fight. You don’t want us to have another fight, do you? If she starts lying again about me not giving you back, about me taking you away, then you get up and say firmly, “It’s not true!” Be a man, don’t be a doormat, a wimp. Say, “I want to live with Grandma, I like it better here than living with you!” Don’t you dare betray me! Don’t you dare make God angry! You’ll say the right thing, you won’t be a traitor, right? You won’t betray your Grandma who gives her blood for you?”
“I won’t,” I replied and, realizing that I could set the math aside, ran to see Mom.
Bubette waited for me on the couch in Grandpa’s room, leafing through the book, Allergic Diseases, that Grandma had left there. I put my arms around her neck and started wriggling, sensing how my minutes were passing, how little time I had to look and hug. I didn’t get to say a single word before Grandma came into the room.
“What will you have, cottage cheese or beet salad?”
“Get me the salad.”
“Better take the cottage cheese, your father will have the salad when he comes home.”
“Fine, get me cottage cheese.”
“What’s with this “getting”?! Go to the kitchen and get it yourself. There are no servants here to “get” anything. You got used to having your ass wiped till you were fifteen, do you still want it wiped at forty?”
“Thirty-six, don’t make me older than I am,” Mom laughed.
“Why bother, the hat makes you look fifty. Plus, this spot on your forehead. No wonder only midgets are interested in you.”
I looked at Mom’s forehead and, to my horror, saw a large light-brown spot there.
“See?” Grandma asked me. “I told you.”
“What did you tell him?”
“That your “genius” puts something in your food. Soon you’ll have spots like this all over.”
“Your jokes just don’t cut it, Mom, if you’ll excuse me. You say things like that to the kid?”
“Never mind the jokes, I bet it’s something oncological. What else could it be?”
“Some skin pigmentation after Sochi. The suntan came off my body but stayed on my face.”
“And did you really need that Sochi? Your child was keeling over in my arms, and you, instead of giving me a hand, went off to be a resort-town maid.”
I laughed and glanced at Mom to make sure she wasn’t upset that I found Grandma’s words funny. She wasn’t, and she even chuckled, too.
“How could I give you a hand when you won’t let me anywhere near him?” she countered.
“Because you didn’t do it right, you did whatever you felt like! You sabotaged his surgery so he still has his adenoids; you took him to the circus so he suffocated for a week afterwards. And when I asked you to register him for school, you did it so that now we have to go halfway across town. You’re the one who’s used to traveling; for your father and me, it’s no fun traipsing around.”
“I thought he’d be living with me.”
“You already have one guy living with you, that’s enough.”
“Are you going to give me some cottage cheese? I haven’t had anything since morning.”
“Coming up,” Grandma said and went to the kitchen.
I hurried to hug Mom and wanted to tell her something but didn’t know what. All minor news slipped out of my mind. Mom moved so that I could see her face while still hugging her, and she herself started talking.
“So, did you miss me?” she asked, knowing full well that I did.
“Yes”, I replied.
“Do you remember when you were really little and lived with me, you were the one asking me that... You came from outside, all businesslike, “Mom, did you miss me?” - “Yes.” I said. - “Did you want to cry?” - “I was going to.” “So how did you miss me?” - “Oh, it’s so sad, it’s so bad without my sonny around.” And you said, “I wasn’t around because you run around.”
I laughed incredulously. I couldn’t believe that I actually once lived with Mom. I remembered the night of the colorful lightbulbs and the birthday, and then right after that it was Grandma and the rare feasts, like today. Is it possible that happiness was once my life? I didn’t remember it and couldn’t imagine it was possible.
“Oh yes, I almost forgot. I brought you something,” said Mom, leaning over to get her bag and producing a small box. “First I’ll show you a funny game, and then we’ll listen to a nice cassette I got. Look, the game is called Flea Hops.”
Mom took out of the box a round metal plate with a tall rim and a cellophane bag full of little plastic discs in three colors. Three of the discs, one for each color, were the size of a larger coin, the rest of them much smaller. A target was painted on the bottom of the plate - five concentric circles of different colors with a “10” in the center.
“It needs to sit on something hard,” Mom explained, set the plate on the couch, and poured the discs onto the allergic diseases book. “You push on a smaller disc with a larger one and try to hit the target. Like this.” Mom pushed on one of the discs, it jumped and hit the plate. Mom laughed. “See how it hops? That’s why it’s called Flea Hops. Now you try.”
I tried, and my disc hit the plate, too.
“You hit seven, I hit five. You win,” Mom said.
“Let’s keep going!” I grew excited.
I lost the next round, but I was still on cloud nine. Mom was sitting next to me, I played with her, chatted and laughed. I had a new game, and it was great that it was so simple. When this feast is over, the fleas would stay with me, they’d remind me of my Bubette, and maybe I’d even add the discs to my special knick-knacks. But I still had so much time left! Grandma was held up in the kitchen, I heard her banging the fridge door. We can play another round. I push with my disc, and my “flea” hits a nine. To beat me, Mom needs to hit the bull’s eye. She aims slowly, presses... and hits the very center of the plate!
“Yours isn’t a flea, it’s like a sniper or something!” I shout jealously.
“The cottage cheese is cold, it was under the freezer, wait till it warms up,” Grandma says, entering the room and taking a chair.
The game is over. I hastily scoop up the discs into the plate.
“Meanwhile, I found out why Berdichevsky sold his car to Tarasova for peanuts,” Grandma reports to Mom, and right away it feels like there’s never been any game, that the unhurried conversation which I cannot break through because I don’t exist has been going on for some time. “He emigrated to America, and she has some family there. So she promised they’d help him. If it’s true, if he believed her and sold it because of that, then he’s simply foolish. Everyone knows she’s a grifter, you can’t trust her. Now she’ll enjoy his wheels and he’ll get diddly-squat. Although who knows... there’s so much wheeling and dealing going on, go figure.”
“Grandma, but Mom came to see me! Let me play with her!” I plead.
“Take it easy, play, who’s stopping you?” Grandma says with surprise and turns back to Mom. “So did they kick your midget out of the theater?”
“They didn’t kick him out, he quit.”
“Mom, it’s a long story... How can you keep working with people who say, “Renounce your authorship, and we’ll buy you a suit”?”
“Well... One can always reach a compromise. He’s a complete unknown here, no reason to jump fresh shit with a dagger...”
“Grandma, please, let me talk to Mom!”
“And what did he achieve? No theater will hire him now.”
“This is strictly between us, I’m afraid to jinx it, but a good director saw the play and asked who the set designer was. And imagine - turns out he and Tolya knew each other at some point in Sochi, and he already liked Tolya’s work back then. So now we’re waiting to hear from him, he might hire Tolya as the designer for his new movie.”
“Well, let’s hope for the best, maybe he does have talent after all. If only he weren’t drinking so hard...”
“What’s with you, Mom, you just refuse to hear anything I say? I told you a hundred times he hasn’t been drunk in two years.”
“I don’t know... Then why was he boozing before?”
“What else is there to do if nobody needs you?”
“Right, and now you’re the one who needs him. You’ve got no use for your child, what you want is the seaside Goya! You’re like a pedestal for his genius! Before he was only able to reach for the stars, and now he can probably reach the sink on occasion.”
“Grandma! Mom!” I yell without any hope left. “Please, let me talk, too! Mom, did you come to see me or Grandma?”
“Okay, Mom, let’s not discuss me now,” says Bubette, finally heeding my pleas. “Let’s listen to a good cassette instead. Where’s Sasha’s player, you said Dad brought one from Iraq... I’ve got Vysotsky here.”
What happened the next moment always remained a mystery to me. I had completely forgotten about the cassette player by then, and suddenly it reappeared in my life, pulled by Grandma from behind the couch as casually as if it had been placed there for a couple of minutes rather than for permanent storage.