THE WHITE CEILING
THE WHITE CEILING
I didn’t go to school very often. Maybe seven times a month, sometimes ten. The longest stretch was when I went for three weeks straight, and I remembered it as a string of identical, unremarkable days. By the time I’d come home, eat dinner, and do my homework, the 9-o’clock news on TV would be over, and it would be time to go to bed.
I didn’t like going to bed. Normally, unless I had to get up early the next morning, Grandma would let me watch a movie with her after the news. She would scratch the spots that were chafed by the elastic of her bright-green underpants, I would crunch on breadsticks; we would both lie on Grandpa’s couch and stare at the screen. The movies for the most part were boring, but lying in bed waiting to fall asleep was even more boring, so I watched whatever was on.
Once we watched a movie about love.
“Why are you watching this? What can you possibly understand?” asked Grandma.
I decided to be clever and replied,
“I understand everything. The flame of love has died.”
I knew I was “quipping” as I uttered this, but I had no idea that Grandma would be so touched that she’d burst into tears, and then for a whole week she’d repeat my words to her friends, “I thought he was just a little dope killing time, and he got to the bottom of it in two words: “The flame of love has died.” What do you know...”
After that, Grandma would let me watch even the extra-long movies that played well into the night, but I no longer dared to get to the bottom of it in two words. In Grandma’s eyes, I was an idiot; it was very hard to break out of the mold and make a good impression on her, so having succeeded once, I tried to keep a low profile to let the impression last longer.
If I had to go to school, Grandma wouldn’t let me watch late-night movies, so I was off to bed right after the news. I would lie alone in the dark room trying to make out the distant mumble of the TV, tossing and turning out of boredom, and envying my grandparents who went to bed as late as they wanted. Luckily, as I already mentioned, going to school was a rare occasion, so getting into bed early didn’t happen very often.
There were many reasons why I skipped school, all of them good. First, I was constantly sick. Second, my Mom, who naively believed that I’d be living with her, had signed me up for the school near her place, while Grandpa, who took me to school and back in his car, occasionally drove elsewhere on his own business, to the accompaniment of Grandma’s cursing. Then we’d have to go seven stops on the subway - something Grandma would undertake only if there was a quiz. And finally, we might be going for some medical tests in the morning, which was the weightiest reason of all.
The tests, evaluations, and doctor’s appointments were numerous. They took blood from my veins and from my finger, did allergy tests and cardiograms, subjected my kidneys to ultrasound, and made me breathe into a fancy machine that produced curves similar to a cardiogram. Then Grandma would take all those tests to professors.
A professor from the Immunology Center leafed through a bundle of test results and said that I probably had cystic fibrosis. People don’t live with it for very long, so just in case, he suggested some special tests at the Pediatric Center. Turned out I didn’t have cystic fibrosis, but while they were at it at the Pediatric Center, they took my intracranial blood pressure and found it elevated, which confirmed the diagnosis of idiocy that Grandma had made a long time ago.
I frequently provided Grandma with proof of my idiocy while doing homework. I have already explained why I didn’t go to school that much, so let me tell you now what my schooling looked like. Every day, Grandma would call Svetochka Savtsova, a straight-A pupil, and learn from her not only the homework but all the exercises that the kids did in class as well. I even had two notebooks for each subject: “in-class” and “homework”. I used both of them at home, but the “in-class” one contained exactly the same, to a letter, as that of Svetochka, who did attend the class. If there was a dictation in class, Svetochka would dictate it to Grandma, and then Grandma would dictate it to me. If there was a composition, I composed. If they drew a hammer in the art class, I would draw the same under Grandma’s supervision.
When I was sick and had a fever, I didn’t study for a while, but then, when I got a bit better, I would have to catch up on everything. As a result, I often had to do several days’ homework all at once. But while I was doing both in-class and homework math for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, the new math for Thursday and Friday would be coming in. I would do a dictation conducted in class on Tuesday, and would be catching up with homework in Russian through Thursday, but then it was already Friday, and in-class Russian now included the Wednesday writing exercise. If I was sick for a long time, I would have to catch up with two weeks worth of homework, and then spend another week catching up with what was assigned while I was making up for what I had missed.
I studied at a small folding school desk; Grandpa had to make a special trip to the warehouse of a big children’s store to pick it up. Grandma would write down the assignments on sheets of cardboard and set them up in front of me. I looked in horror at the boards with assignments for the 15th, 16th, and 17th, while Grandma was already finding out what was assigned between the 18th and the 22nd.
“Uncle Vanya is a party member”, “Red is the apple in the garden”, “We made our steam engine ourselves!” Svetochka would shout out the sentences that she had been writing in class.
“Uncle Vanya...”, okay. “Red is the apple...” Write, you bastard, don’t get distracted!” (That was to me). “So, what about the steam engine?” Grandma would write things down, laying on the bed and holding the phone to her ear with her shoulder. “Thank you, Svetochka. Now please give me the dictation from the 21st. “Young pioneers marched in tight formations...” Okay... “Uncle Yasha loaded his rifle...”
Having dictated to Grandma all the classwork and homework for several days, Svetochka, who also went to a music school, would then play her own violin exercises for Grandma. Grandma’s eyes would get misty, she’d glance at me with contempt, hold the phone out to me and say,
“Listen to this, now there’s a precious child. Her parents are so lucky.”
She repeatedly invited me to listen to Svetochka, but I only did it once. Afterwards, I gave the phone back to Grandma and said,
“So what? It squeals like a door, big deal.”
“A door?! May you, bastard, squeal like a door! She plays the violin! The girl goes to music school! She’s smart, and you are a moron, not even worth her shit!”
With this last remark, which was so hurtful that at school I was tempted to push Svetochka off the stairs on more than one occasion, Grandma stuck a piece of cardboard with new assignments in front of my face and swore that if I made a mistake, she’d mistake me so hard that people would be mistaken to think I was a human being. Then she lay back on the bed and spent two hours on the phone with Svetochka’s mother.
“Oh, no,” Grandma was saying, “your Svetochka is a healthy girl compared to this cadaver! He’s got the pathogenic golden staph, sinusitis of three different kinds, chronic tonsillitis... When I take his clothes off in the bathroom, his skin and bones make me sick... Oh, no, what swimming pool! Forget it, he won’t grow out of it! Yes, some do grow out of it, but not his kind. Oh well, your Svetochka is a healthy girl, she will grow out of it, of course! What does she have? Rashes from chocolates? Have you had her pancreas checked? His is enlarged. Plus, a bad liver, weak kidneys, ferment deficiency... Pancreatitis since birth... There’s a wise saying, Vera Petrovna: children pay for their parents’ sins. He’s paying for his whore of a mother. Her first husband, Sasha’s father, dumped her, and good for him. He just had no idea that her hormones would hit her so hard that she’d forget what her name was. She found herself a sweetie in Sochi - a boozer with delusions of grandeur, and now she’s pampering this unrecognized genius. Dumped the child on my back. I’ve been killing myself over him for five years now, and she just shows up once a month, makes herself comfortable on the couch, and then asks to be fed! All my food comes from the farmers’ market, for the sake of her cripple; there’s not even enough for me to eat sometimes. I just survive on cottage cheese. Oh... is that her playing? What a sweetheart, just listen to her! Your daughter will be a great violinist! Yes, I’m knocking on wood... Oh, pardon me, my borscht is burning, I gotta run. Talk to you later. Wish you the best of health, just the health, the rest will come with it. My best to Svetochka, she has a great future. Goodbye...”
“Boy, does she mess up my brain!” said Grandma, hanging up. “She talks and talks and there’s no escaping. So what did you write here? “We maid our steam engine ourselves...” Idiot! Bastard! May the engine that they made run you over! Give me the razor!”
I gave Grandma the razor, which was a crucial object in my studies, and which was always at hand. To keep the notebooks spotless, Grandma wouldn’t let me cross anything out but instead scraped the wrong letters off with a razor blade, after which I would carefully make the corrections.
“What a jerk...” muttered Grandma, starting to scrape off the letter i, but for some reason in the word engine. “You only study because I make you.”
“You’re scraping in the wrong place,” I said.
“How about I scrape you off!” shouted Grandma and waved the razor under my nose. “You messed up my brain - of course I’m scraping in the wrong place!”
Grandma scraped it off in the right place, I made the correction, and she kept on checking.
“Through snow he’s riding in his sley!” You’re such a moron! For two years now, you’ve only been studying with razors! Hope they stick all those razors in your throat! Here, I fixed it, now write. If you make just one more mistake, I’ll make a “sley” out of you.” With that, Grandma pushed the notebook back in front of me.
I started writing. Grandma lay down on the bed with the Science & Life magazine. She glanced at me occasionally, trying to determine whether it was time for her to pick up the razor yet again and make a “sley” out of me.
I kept writing, looking gloomily at the long list of sentences, and thought about how a couple of days earlier, I wrote that “a road is good when dyrect.” Grandma scraped out the wrong y, I put the letter e in the blank spot, but it turned out that derect road was no good either. Wishing me just one road - to my grave, Grandma started scraping in the same spot, scraped a hole through the sheet, and made me redo the whole notebook from scratch. Good thing I had started that one fairly recently.
Then I caught myself writing out the same syllable twice in the sentence about the sun. As a result, as the sun was rising, it shone its radidiating light on everything. Seeing what I had done, I huddled behind my desk, giving Grandma a hounded look which met with her intent gaze. Realizing that she sensed something was fishy, I decided to flee; I got up and headed out of the room, saying, “That’s it, I can’t study like this anymore.”
“What, another mistake?” asked Grandma, ominously putting Science & Life aside.
“Yeah, take a look...” I replied without turning back.
In order not to be corralled into a corner, I had to make it as fast as I could into Grandpa’s room, which had a large table in the center. By running around it, I could keep Grandma at arm’s length.
“ Radidiating! Bastard!” I heard from behind, but by that time, I had already reached the table and steadied myself. When Grandma appeared at the entrance to Grandpa’s room, I was like a sprinter at the starting line.
“Fuck-ck-ckerrr!” came in place of the starting shot.
Grandma lunged toward me, and I from her. A carousel started rolling around the table. The china cabinet, the side board, the couch, the TV, the door, the china cabinet again, the side board again - all went flying past me, while from behind came Grandma’s menacing breath and threats against my person.
“Come here, bastard!” she blustered. “Come, or else... Come, or I’ll cut you to pieces with this razor... Come here, don’t be a sissy. Stand still, I’m not going to touch you. Stand still. Come here, Sasha sweetheart, I’ll give you a candy bar. You know what kind? Like this...”
I couldn’t see exactly what kind, because I was running without looking back.
“Come here, I’ll buy you some cars for your train set, and if not, I’ll buy them and smash them on your head. Come here.”
All of a sudden, Grandma stopped. I stopped in front of her. We were separated by the table.
“Come here, I’m asking you nicely.”
I shook my head.
“Come here, I’ll check if you’re sweating.”
Grandma took one step toward me along the table. I took a step away from her.
Suddenly, Grandma’s expression became sly. She pushed the table with her whole body; I didn’t have time to counteract and found myself pinned against the balcony door. There was no escape. I squealed like an arctic fox caught in a trap. Grandma got hold of me and triumphantly dragged me back to my desk.
“Radidiating light...,” she muttered. “May you never see the light of day again!”
Grandma sat behind my desk, picked up the razor, and drawled,
“You cree-ep... You know how to torture! You know how to suck blood! How many times did I nag your mother, “Study, be independent.” How many times did I nag you - all for nothing... You’ll be just like her. The same dependent shit. Are you going to study, you goddamn asshole, are you, are you?!!!” Grandma suddenly screamed at the top of her lungs and, tossing the razor aside, grabbed a pair of scissors that I used to make cutouts for the crafts assignment. “Are you going to learn?!” screamed Grandma, stabbing the desk with the scissors with every word. “Are you going to learn?! Are you going to study?!!!”
The scissors were leaving deep gashes in the desk.
“Are you going to study?! Are you going to learn?!!!”
Standing next to Grandma, I was shaking, not even daring to look away from her, let alone flee.
“Are you going to learn?! Are you going to study?!!! A-a-ah!... A-ah... agh-ha-ha-a!... A-ah!” Grandma suddenly burst into tears, dropped the scissors, and grabbed her face with both hands. “A-ah... a-a-ah...”, she screamed and, while continuing to scream, started scraping her face with her fingernails.
Blood appeared. I froze and didn’t know what to do. I was terrified. I thought Grandma had gone mad.
“Ah-ah-a-a-ah!” Grandma continued to scrape herself. “A-ah!” she shrieked in a particularly piercing way, hit her head on the desk, and started sliding off the chair.
“Granny, what’s with you?!” I shouted.
“Ah...” Grandma moaned quietly and fuzzily.
“Grandma, what’s with you... What’s wrong? How can I help you?”
“Go away... kid...” Grandma uttered haltingly, putting the emphasis on the last word.
“Grandma, what should I do? Do you need any medication? Grandma!”
“Go away, kid, I don’t know you... I’m not your Grandma, I don’t have a grandson.”
“Grandma, it’s me! Me, Sasha!”
“Kid, I... don’t know you,” said Grandma, raising herself on her elbow and glaring probingly into my face. Then, apparently satisfied that she really didn’t know me, she leaned back again, threw her head backwards and started wheezing.
“Grandma, what should I do? Call the doctor?”
“I don’t need a doctor... kid... Call one for yourself...”
I leaned over Grandma. She glanced up, as if looking through me, and said,
“White ceiling... White, white...”
“Grandma! Granny! What, you can’t see me at all? Wake up! What’s with you?!!!”
“You drove me crazy, that’s what’s with me!” replied Grandma and got up with surprising ease. “You only study because I make you, you torture me to death. Well, just wait, my tears will cost you a bundle. “Radidiating...” she scoffed. “Moron.”
Having fixed my error with the razor, Grandma put a rubber band around her messed-up hair and went to wash the blood off the scratches on her face. Completely dazed, I sat behind my desk.
“Oh, Lord!” a wail suddenly came from the bathroom. “Think of the other kids out there! They go to music schools, they do sports, they don’t rot like this cadaver. Lord, why did you hang such a heavy cross around my neck?! For what sins? For my little Alex? Now he was a precious boy, would have been someone to lean on in my old age! But it wasn’t my fault... Yes, it was! I’m such a bitch! Shouldn’t have listened to this traitor! Shouldn’t have left! Shouldn’t have given birth to this whore either! Forgive me, Lord! I’m a sinner! Forgive me, but give me the strength to bear this cross! Give me strength or give me death! What can I do with this bastard? How can I live like this?! How can I not kill myself?”
I kept quiet. I still had three days worth of math to do.