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Feature: Back From the USSR
Mariya Gusev

Dentist chair haiku

tooth extraction:
i don't want to be there
when it happens.

suction tube in my mouth, i ask for a job.
another client of mine works for the UN,
says the woman with drill.

dental work is the closest we get to sex with a stranger:
faith-like trust is required to allow another inside.

a burst of laughter is a biohazard
and survival - in one. we all laugh.
some of us have better tools.

the human is an absurd worm:
don't worry about the shrapnel,
it will come out the other end.

high on suppressed fear i see my life from the outside:
more strange things will happen to this body before it is gone.

an approximation of death:
relax into body feeling nothing.
mind recalls loved ones.

she is down to micro instruments... jubilation!

my last dentist used to work on animals: elephants, tigers.
his crowns are still in place ten years later.

i pause in this chair: in previous visits
i was so much more a scared animal.



My Animal Family

I was blessed with an animal family. My mother is a horse, my dad a hard-working camel. My grandfather, a hedgehog, my grandmother – a mole. I have a swan sister somewhere, who has a phobia of other birds. I myself am not sure what I am, not quite human, but we'll talk about that later. We were all just living, with our ups and downs, and our differences, of course, until Hedgehog had a heart attack, and our lives became a stream of revolving hospital visits, interviews with social workers, attempted home improvements, and impossible conversations. When he was finally released, I came to visit Hedgehog and Mole in their home.

Hedgehog looked bad, worse than he did at the hospital. The usually prominent bags under his eyes were now taking up half of his small face. His hands and feet were swollen, his body unresponsive to the mind’s commands – an animal trapped inside another animal, both scared. Usually reserved and darkly optimistic, the first thing he said to me was, “It’s terrible.” “I'll need to be pulled back from the other world.” “We'll have to work on it,” I said.

I didn’t have the time to help them now, to be away from the city, I was too busy, things weren’t going well at work, the person I’ve been sort-of seeing for the past several months had just disappeared for good, and all of this was making me feel sad and anxious, like a plastic bag caught in a tree. But I needed to help; I had to. I wouldn't be here, if it wasn’t for them. Once – an amazing feat, because neither of them can really drive – they had brought me chopped liver when I was marooned on my ex’s couch, bleeding half to death, many years ago. They didn’t know what was wrong but they said: you need this. I didn’t want them to help, or to see me in that state, but the liver tasted good. So, after thinking about it, I decided to move in with Mole and Hedgehog for a while.

Hedgehog was prescribed a high-protein diet, so all of us were eating meat 5 times a day. When I arrived at 9am, Horse sat me down at the kitchen table, to discuss the details of Hedgehog’s recent angioplasty and follow-up treatments, his physical therapy plan and new medications. Then she offered me a special treat – boiled heart. “Mmmmm,” she said, as she sliced it into thin wedges. “I bet you haven’t had this in a while.” “Looks good,” I said. She then merrily broke into a song in our native animal tongue, a song from some movie I knew from childhood – “my heart, peace you do not want, my heart, it’s so good to be alive in this world…!” “Do you want some hot mustard with that?” “Yes please, I’ll get it myself.” I opened the fridge, marveling at the oddness but also the complete normality of this situation. I quickly snuck a look at Hedgehog. By the the expression on his face I could see that he was also discomforted by all of this, but couldn’t, or chose not to express it.

Later that morning, I drove Hedgehog, Horse, and Mole (just for company) to the doctor’s office, then the social worker’s office. To get follow-up care at home we first had to prove that we couldn’t afford it. This required us to collect every single document – every single piece of paper ever issued with Hedgehog’s name on it, in both native and English. Then we had to explain how a person can own a house, be disabled, and not be able to pay for his own care at the same time. This took many hours of sitting in waiting rooms with Mole watching bad TV, while Horse was doing the talking for Hedgehog in the various offices.

On the way back, I missed a poorly-marked turn, and had to take an alternate route through the neighboring suburbia. We drove and we drove and we drove, and I slowly realized that all of my internal street maps, known by heart for decades, have been collectively erased by the stress. Hedgehog made wrong guesses – a left here, a right there, Horse nodded every time we passed a semi-familiar street name or building, yes yes. We were driving around in circles for an hour now and getting nowhere, through the woods, passing farms, chemical plant dumps and soybean fields which were only about 15 minutes from home, all of it starting to look eerily the same at every turn. Mole in the back fretted and wrung her hands in silence. “Relax, relax,” I kept saying to her, leaning into the gas pedal. “All the errands are done for the day. Enjoy the scenic tour.”

The sun came out, which was shocking, as if somebody had opened a door I didn’t know was there.

“We’ll come see the opera with you in the city, once we’re better,” said Mole from the back. “Sounds like a plan,” I said.

Finally, I got us home, so everybody could rest. “You’re so good at this,” said Horse. “The trick is to never give up,” I answered. “With everything,” concurred Mole.

By the late afternoon, Horse and I decided it was a good idea to celebrate our birthdays while we were all together, which both of us had missed. Hers, a month ago, mine Ė last week. She wanted to buy me a cake, admitting she herself wouldn’t mind some. The rest of the family, although diabetic, seemed faintly excited by this idea, so although I don’t eat sweets and wasn't in the mood to celebrate anything, I said yes. I drove us to a bakery down the street. They were all out of cakes, so we settled for tongue sandwiches and rahat loukum. Horse, Mole and I snacked on this bounty under the bright kitchen light that always made Mole squint. She ate happily with her eyes closed, so it wasn’t a problem. I can’t remember what we talked about. I think Mole suggested that Swan and her boyfriend move back to the States from abroad, and spend some time living with us, for free. “Except they wouldn’t be able to find a job around here,” I said. “Whatever,” Mole said, “my job is to suggest.” She seemed offended. We’ve fallen into this hole in conversation a million times before. “I’m sorry,” I said. Hedgehog joined us as we were almost finished with the tongue; he had just woken up from a long nap. “Do you feel better having slept some,” I asked. Hedgehog didn’t answer, just sat there looking at me. There were painful feelings collected behind his eyes which he couldn’t express, and didn’t want to be asked about. His stare was killing me. Hang on, I thought, hang on, hang on, hang on. I didn’t speak to him for the rest of that evening.

None of us are really that all-right: Horse has high blood pressure, Camel smokes two packs a day, Mole hasn’t eaten a proper meal since before WWII and cleans her hands obsessively, I’ve been bitten by a tick, and Swan’s hair is thinning for no reason we can understand. We are all accidents waiting to happen, mostly all-right, living accidents. Who knows who will be next, which one of us will be the reason for the family to uproot their lives, buck their habits, surrender their peace. We will do this because we have to, then continue on with our individual disorders-in-progress. Because we don’t know how to be any other way.

The person I’ve been seeing was like all the animals I know put together in one big human head, living together in a network of interconnected crawlspaces, lofts, apartments; spending time with him was like walking through a different door each day and not knowing where I’ll end up. He couldn’t read because the animals would fight over the meaning of every word, until each sentence became a jumble of incomprehensible nonsense, and he was left standing in an empty field with all the letters blowing in the wind. This is probably a good thing because he can never read my writing. Music was more his thing but I donít know music, even though my body makes it, untrained it produced sounds Iíve never heard before and so we could never communicate, could never get things straight, all together, on one page. I was afraid to tell him that I liked this, which is probably what made him disappear. I also liked him, the human part, and it also felt like I was beginning to make friends with all the animals, one by one. I regret that he never got to meet my family, actually, because I think the topics of conversation would have been endless.

After two hours of TV, we put Hedgehog back to bed, and the evening proceeds as usual. Horse and I continue to chat and snack, as Mole washes all the dishware in the house. I find myself missing Hedgehog’s habitual lectures about tree-hugging hippies inventing global warming. Rabbit, another relative who is only forty-five but whose head already displays the signature early Parkinson’s bobbing, calls to find out if it’s her turn to drive Hedgehog to another appointment tomorrow — she will need to find a babysitter for her two cats. Her mother, Fox, who is on disability but has spontaneous orgasms in public transport (she’s the luckiest with her disorder), calls a few minutes later, to complain about her disappearing taxi-driving boyfriend (a delivery service and a getaway car in one, hah!) Fox’s granddaughter, Squirrel, who is in film school, calls next about driving the following week. She’d recently wrecked the family car, but we let her drive anyway, because we need the help. Where are all the male animals in the family, you might ask. Well the answer is, we’ve run out. Plus they’re a pain to take care of, when they’re sick. Refuse our help, and won’t ever open their mouths to tell us what they need. Camel is the only one who’s not like that, but somebody needs to work for the money. So I’m the only one who comes close to a man of the house around here, with my art degree that has made me handy. Fixing burnt-out fuses, replacing light bulbs, re-lighting pilot lights, driving to the bank, the store, the doctor, to work.

After a year of this, Hedgehog got better, or maybe he didn’t and we just got used to the way that he now was, and so, we have all moved on. I’ve gone back to the city and am still not sure if I’m human and what kind, though it seems to matter less these days. Mole and Hedgehog never made it out of suburbia to see the opera. Horse went back to the Wild West where Camel was waiting. Swan got married and is happily raising a family flock of her own abroad. I still crave tongue and heart and liver, but steer away from rahat loukoum. Because the city was built by artists, every day on my way from work I walk past Hope Street, followed about half a block down by a light blue graffiti that states “LOVE,” to get to my crawlspace of an apartment, which feels emptier these days. Then on other days, I think that I would rather not know, and could just keep an array of animals to figure things out for me. Canaries for when the next toxic dump is getting dug up down the street, roosters for singing and company, dogs for wild dancing, cats for when people disappear then come back another day as if it were the same day. Cows for milk, and bears for driving. Until the next time we all meet, hopefully for a more darkly optimistic reason.



Persistence of Objects

I lived in an artists' colony on Staten Island for a short time, after a difficult period in my life when a particularly painful emotional engagement had ended and I was struggling financially – during one of my really long late-night commutes from Manhattan I saw something sparkling in the space between seats on the bus. Despite my exhaustion I dug it out and it was a gaudy yellow gold ring – a paisley-shaped centerpiece filled with what looked like small rubies and diamonds.

The bus depot had no "lost and found" box, the bus driver laughed at me when I inquired about it. I normally never keep found objects of perceived value on principle, because I'm intensely aware of their possible importance to the person who's lost them. This time I reluctantly placed it in my pocket, running through my mind the various scenarios of who the owner of the ring might be and what it may have meant to her: an engagement? a showpiece to wear to gallery openings? a gift from a secret admirer or a husband on an anniversary? Could it be the accidental lucky answer to my current financial struggles? After a while I forgot about it.

Several months later, in Brooklyn, I was passing a jewelry shop and felt the ring still in the pocket of my coat. I decided to enter the shop to have it appraised. The Chinese jeweler rubbed it with some solvents and declared to me that the ring was completely and thoroughly fake (the gold rubbed off, exposing a coppery colored metal underneath), and had the total value of zero dollars. A number of new possibilities ran through my mind then: did the owner of the ring know it was fake? did it diminish its emotional worth in any way?

I couldn't think of what to do with the ring now. To place it in an open area for someone else to find would mean initial excitement, and then inevitable disappointment for another unsuspecting human being. To keep it with me would recall my failure to deal with my moral struggle indefinitely. To dispose of it in the garbage just felt wrong, somehow.

Many months later I showed the ring to my mom, telling her the story. Now it sits on the breakfast bar next to the houseplant which requires no water, and I'm sure will become one of those objects that stay around and then re-surface every five or ten years when the boxes are unpacked after a major move, and the answer to why we still have it in the family is always my mom's emotional attachment because she associates the object with a particular event or a period of time, and in another twenty years no one will remember whom it belonged to, who got married or who died in it.



Russia on Wheels, Natalia Klyuchareva, Limbus Press 2008, 200 p.

Natalia Klyuchareva is among the first few authors of the new generation to finally begin speaking coherently about the phenomenon of new Russia – both in itself as well as within the global context – and she does so in a way that is simultaneously sensitive and pulls no punches. Her straight-forward, transparent style and very contemporary yet classically influenced story-telling aesthetic stands her apart from other popular contemporary Russian authors. What emerges in these rough, vivid, and not always polished pages of this experiment rings true and vital, and seems to be relevant to more than one country currently in transition. Klyuchareva’s first novel made quite a splash Russian literary circles due to its unique format and unapologetic deadpan humor directed at all parties, including well-known political figures and (possibly) familiar literary groups. It has been translated into at least 5 languages to date. If you are seen reading this book on a train, you will find all three living generations looking over your shoulder (this actually happened to me after my initial discovery of this amazing work in Petersburg).

Russia on Wheels takes you on a wild train ride across post-Soviet Russia and down into the colorful and conflicted world of alternative-thinking youth whose lifespan embodies the 19 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its characters, who are simultaneously a product of the former system and in rebellion against it, are presented with the gargantuan task of reconstructing the disintegrating identity of their homeland, as well as constructing their own. Russia as a country is in fact treated as a separate anthropomorphic entity in the opening chapter—the tradition of travel by train, still the most popular mode of transportation, is vitally important to the Russian culture, and has produced a tradition of train-travel writing going back to A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow by Aleksandr Nikolaevich Radishchev. Written in 1790, it could be said to mark the beginning of modern Russian literature. The literal translation of Klyuchareva’s title, “Russia, a Third-Class Carriage,” suggests the scenery you the reader will see from its window will not be attractive. According to Nikita however, the novel’s 19-year-old male protagonist, every human being, no matter how lost, broken and unaware deserves a chance at happiness. And so, by escaping his own isolation, he takes upon himself this quixotic quest – to an end that’s both inevitably tragic and beautiful—in a style similar to Jeunet’s Amélie but without the comforts of a romantic comedy.

Nikita begins his compulsive train travel around the country following the loss of his childhood love, Yasya, who had emigrated abroad and, after many years and failed attempts at adjusting to create a life for herself in several alien and unforgiving systems, has committed suicide. The story is told in a series of sketches, written in short, poetic, and at times Twitter-like sentences—that are out of joint sequentially but are structured around formative events in both of these characters’ lives. As Nikita meets a variety of troubled characters and attempts to repair their lives, their stories and the surrounding complexities are revealed, providing additional detail and, at intervals, philosophic commentary on the surrounding landscape. Nikita forms an interconnected network of relationships with these characters, drawing them together and becoming involved socially and politically, which eventually leads to a deadly conflict with the authorities. Although separated geographically, both main characters are trapped in a joined reality which they cannot escape and which eventually reunites them in a post-existential twist of fate. Russia on Wheels is less about fate and more about the problematic of fate as both a guide and a self-fulfilling prophecy in contemporary reality plagued by the irreconcilable conflicts inherent within the predictably unstable social structures—and the attempts of the human spirit to transcend conditions of personal and collective crisis.

Mariya Gusev will entertain offers from prospective publishers for publication of her English translation of the novel.



Mariya GusevMariya Gusev is a freelance writer, editor, and literary translator, based in NYC. Currently, she is Associate Editor for the St. Petersburg Review. Her translation projects include interviews for two chapters on Russia included in Poor People by William Vollmann (HarperCollins, 2007), and stories by Nikolai Epikhin, Vadim Kalinin, Natalya Klyuchareva, and Aleksandr Snegirov, which appeared in It All Depends On Whom You Believe: New Stories From a New Russia (Tin House Books, 2009). Her translations have also recently appeared in Habitus and the Virginia Quarterly Review.


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