I didn't want to pick cabbages. I was a music major at the prestigious Moscow Institute, but in the Soviet Union, in the summertime, students worked on collective farms and picked fruits and vegetables, for "the common good of the people!"
"And what's wrong with cabbages?" said my father. " They are perfect for pirozhki or soup--"
"Nyet!" my mother shouted, in a voice that would stop a galloping troika in its track. "If it was apple-picking, fine; they have women supervising the orchards. But not cabbages!" She sniffed, picked up a kitchen towel and tied it neatly into a knot. "Why do you think they call it a collective farm? They collect more then vegetables!"
We stared at her in disbelief. Surely she wasn't suggesting that…
My father was the first to regain his voice. "You mean that some bastard deflowered you in a goddamn cabbage patch?! Who was he? Sukin Sin!" Son of a bitch!
Mama raised her shoulders in a theatrical shrug. "Don't be a cretin, Vitaly. It was a long time ago. I was barely seventeen, younger than Katya here. He came at me from behind like a bull in heat! And what could I do? If I'd resisted, he might've killed me."
I'd heard enough. My own mother raped in a cabbage patch. If I had to sell my soul to a commissar, I vowed not to give up my "common goods" to some smelly, greasy kolhoznik. Screw that!
I ran out of the room, crying. Slammed the door. And eavesdropped on their discussion. “We've got to do something,” my mother was ordering my father. “Do you want our daughter to be sodomized in a filthy cabbage patch?!"
“But what can be done? The law is the law,” he said meekly. My mother's revelations had taken a serious toll on his manhood.
“Be creative!” she yelled. “Do like American politicians. Bribe somebody!"
Bribery sounded like a wonderful expedient to me. The only problem was, it required money. Which we didn't have. The trickle-down economy of the five-year plan hadn't quite trickled down to us yet.
"But we have furniture!" my mother said, and the next day, she organized an "auction". In America I think it is known as a "yard sale". First to arrive was our neighbor Katerina Alexandrovna, a waistless woman in a drab-brown dress that hung down to her swarthy ankles.
"This way, please," my mother gestured. "Now here is a lovely commode." She shoved dishes aside and lifted the tablecloth "And here is a walnut table, circa 1960...or maybe 1970? The table is German! Lovely, yes?"
"Um...I'm not sure," Katerina muttered. "I like bleached Birchwood. It's so cheerful, you know. Can I think about it?"
Mother slammed her fist on the table, "What to think about, tovarisch? Take the table, before somebody else grabs it. Cheap! German! Only third-hand!"
By the end of the week, all of our furniture was sold, plus most of the dishes, pillowcases with embroidered roosters and a few Palekh lacquer boxes. We slept on mattresses, ate off pots and pans, using our few remaining pieces of silverware. The truth is, once we got into a selling mode, it was very contagious. What might we get for this torchiere? we would philosophize, and the next day--torchiere went for thirty-two rubles and fifteen kopeks…and good riddance, too.
In no time we had enough money for a decent bribe. My father asked around, and found a butcher, who had a black belt in bribing. While hacking up some stringy-looking goat meat, he lectured my father. "You must concoct a story that your daughter has some kind of a medical condition. Then get a doctor’s permission to be absent from the idiotic farm. Understand, nyet?"
We thought it was a brilliant idea. Only what medical condition? My father, who had just finished re-reading Jerome K Jerome’s “Three Man in a Boat,” snapped his fingers. “Inflammation of a kneecap! Yes, you could fake a meaningful limp, just long enough to be out of picking season, and who would know the difference?”
The black-belt-in-bribing butcher knew the right doctor, a middle-aged fellow in the neighboring block. The doctor had somewhat unsavory reputation, but any old port in a storm.
The next day, Mama came home late, looking quite disheveled, but victorious. "It's all arranged," she said, on a tired exhale. "I persuaded the old scoundrel to write up the required diagnoses."
"I can see that," growled my father, eyeing her mussed-up hair, her inside-out blouse and twisted-seam pantyhose. I stood by silently, gaining a whole new appreciation for my mother’s checkered past.
"Be quiet," she hissed. "I spit on your vulgar insinuations!" And she spat on the kitchen linoleum, and rubbed the spit with her shoe, which left a big ugly scuffmark. "Now, for the sake of form, Katya needs to see a physical therapist."
"Won't he notice that my kneecap is perfectly fine?" I objected.
"You have a point," Mama said. She grabbed a massive cookbook off the windowsill and hurled it at me, hitting my right kneecap dead on center. As I jumped up and down, screaming in falsetto, my mother inquired sweetly, "Did I get it?"
When I whimpered, she nodded somberly. "Good. Everything proceeding according to plan."
The physical therapist was geometry gone wacko: oval-shaped peasant face, thin parallel lines for a mouth, square shoulders which threatened to rip out of the sickle-and-hammer logoed t-shirt. He cocked his head at my swollen kneecap, then hit it smartly with a rubber mallet, so hard that I jumped nearly to the ceiling. He softened my fall by pushing the table out of the way. "We'll beat the devil out of it!" he cried out, his face maniacal.
“Excuse me?” I said dizzily, from the floor. “What do you mean--beat the devil?"
“Oh, that,” he said benignly. “The new governing principal of Socialist physical therapy. Fight fire with fire. But don’t worry; you’ll leap out of this place pirouetting like a Bolshoi ballerina!”
And so began arduous weeks of stretches, sit-ups, stand-ups and leg bends, escalating to front kicks and--his coup de grace!--vulgar sideway leaps. Soon I was reduced to using crutches…procured by my mother…who made another visit to the doctor and came home wearing nothing but a raincoat.
My father was aghast. "I don't believe it! All these years I've been married to a common whore!"
"Don't be stupid," my mother scolded. "If it was true we'd still have our furniture."
On my first day at the Institute I was dozing in the lecture hall when a flock of my friends sailed through the doors like foaming surf. They all sported healthy, tanned complexions, and as they descended towards me, their voices merged into a high-pitched chorus:
“What the devil happened to you, Katya?”
“We had a great time! Did you know? They switched us to apple-picking!”
“Oh, what joy that was! We ate more apples than we picked. Jonathan, Red and Golden Delicious, Macintoshes…"
“You should’ve seen them, big as fists!”
“But what happened to you? You've lost weight. Look how pale you are."
"Are those crutches? Is that a cast on your knee? Poor thing...”
After the class ended, I struggled to my feet, and hobbled down to the cafeteria. For lunch we had cabbage soup.