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Feature: Back From the USSR
Pavel Lembersky

translated from the Russian by Alex Cigale


I too am not entirely convinced about reincarnation, but I am of my total uprooting of myself from your soul. Do you remember what I sound like? Forget about it. Are you reading my thoughts? I cannot hear you. Are you people in thrall to me?

This is a concise industrial discourse about a girl, who desired love and fortune. She wanted to walk into a restaurant with a handsome young man so that everyone turns their head. Wanted to be the subject of envy of her high school and college girlfriends. A trip to the capital for the holidays and to be up on what's being produced in the theaters. To know all the newest actors and actresses, who appeared in what roles and who's the next hot thing. Do you understand what she was risking, what floats everyone's boat!? She was risking a peck at a pickle and to lose control of her bra, and this in the hands of people with bad intentions who attach like leaches to your heart. For this very reason I ask you once again: think hard about it! Again I ask you to pour it back and forth in that head of yours. Do not cease your top-of-the-circus-tent races across the aisles of the marketplace, where that war cripple, Charlie Checkpoint, or whatever his name, is collecting the ticket stubs.

And here she is, in the capital.


A young man visited her, stirred the tea with a spoon, she waited: when would he insinuate himself on her, but he was timid, a History student. And the battery was already hissing, the affair was heading into November. Steam heat, he asked: do you have central heating?! She turned frigid all the way down below her belly, because he barked this question out and covered her in spit, and the salami also, then turned beet red. Here is your air kiss, and so it went, long awaited. And that is when she understood what the elevator woman Gloria Fate’eva warned her about in her time – this young man, Lenny Schlemiel, was not right in the head.


She arrived late on a rusted jangling bicycle, and took her time tying it to the post, before saying hello. Interminably and drearily went on about the pros of bicycles in the city, that she lives nearby, but got so used to bicycles that…. They were going out to see an Almadovar. She had seen the movie three times, but all the same laughed aloud often, especially during scenes when the protagonists pissed or shat themselves. She had chosen the film – Italian, with a long nose and unmanageable curls. Her fingers were fat and stubby – early on he would stare at the fingers of the women and if they differed from N's (slender, with rounded fingernails, which he loved to kiss) – he would become depressed. He knew this was silly and unfair, but ....

She couldn't understand why he didn't think it was funny, and he couldn't understand why she picked this particular flick. At one point she also lived in California. After the movie, they went to drink tea in a Euro-trash cafe, Dante. You know very well that moment during the first date when it becomes absolutely clear, as God's day, that there will be no second, under any circumstances, but still it is awkward to get up and leave because your friends who gave you her telephone (or yours to her) will ask afterward. “You are really something. What the heck. Couldn't you wait till the end and say goodbye like a human being and a gentleman”? Well no, I couldn't; gave me the heebie-jeebies!


The limo dispatcher Nana was entirely up for grabs. Gorgeous – to be tied, all the boys were calling her, but she spoke with them quite firmly. And gave it up to only two. Well maybe three: the handsome Gesha and the very handsome Lesha. Gesha loved her every which way, and Lesha always in the same significant way, but longer and more piercingly than his friend, which was understandable: black stud he. Igor, as it were, ripped her flesh out of the front seat, where she melted for two reasons: because she was a woman and because it was winter. But winter was winter the previous year also. And Igor, simply, only needed people: laughable, busybodies, weak a priori, fascinating, almost to the hilt.


Himself from Tbilisi, made his dough in real estate, and from it croaked also: paralysis. Bought a house with three swimming pools in Beverly Hills, found out the wife was fooling around with the woman gardener and threw them both out. His daughter from the first marriage is acting in soap operas, parading up and down Melrose Avenue without underpants. My crotch's gotta breathe. Crotch's a he, her bodyguard corrects her: a male noun. Men's crotches are male, women's are different.


The Glass Cockatoo

So Lenka came here for the summer to save up some money, her father's got a really bad case of schizophrenia (the old man went nuts in the mid 80s, decided he was two bobbins of the “Autumn” brand tape player instead of a store manager, and started to spin around like a dervish – a rare case in psychiatry but not unique,) needed money for medicine and not a small amount. Jimmy-Johnny met her in the restaurant; she had a job as a dishwasher in Brighton Beach. Asked her out for coffee, offered her to move in, economize on rent. Otherwise – how else are you gonna save anything…. She thought to herself, the guy's harmless, not too bright. She agreed. Wrote to her family in Kemerovo. She's got a mother there, a house, two little brothers, and a fiancé with a shot-through foot. She asked him for permission. “Do what you gotta do,” the laconic cripple Vitek answered by email. The sugar bowl slid off the table, but didn't break, only the sugar scattered. Next door, the glass cockatoo began to blare out. Jimmy-Johnny stopped dead in his tracks, passed his hand over his chest then his neck, as though in a dream, as if checking to see if he was wounded. Not wounded, but he's drawn to Lenka as though to a magnet, to a girl's parts that are moist. Wants to kiss the sweet squeezebox, to root about with his tongue in the hair-covered garden. So after all he is wounded, Jimmy-Johnny. Otherwise he wouldn't be licking the toothpick he found in the bedroom by the futon, photographing the flip-flops by the closet, wouldn't be clashing the cymbals. Somebody told him, a bartender by the name of Photoshopshire, that Russian girls are more responsive than the American. Perhaps that is so, but even with them, it doesn't go all that smoothly. “Lena-a,” Jimmy-Johnny grabbing his banged-up knee cries through his tears while coughing. “Let's go see a Broadway show on Friday!” And Lena raps out an answer. “Go F.C.K. yourself. You gone and pissed your pants you bag of shit, okay, Mr. McKay? You better go play your base-base, and not with me, you hear, hey-hey, perhaps you’re gay-gay?” It’s well that fatty Jimmy-Johnny doesn’t know a smidgen of Russian from a hole in the ground. Otherwise, like a horse at bad water, he’d get sore. There you go girl, Lenka! Oh, biyatch … you’re heartless. Lives off of him, and mouths off at her benefactor. You could have expressed the very same thoughts in more polite form. You could’ve told him about your Afghan-War-vet groom, how jealous Vitek is ….

Lena’s mother recently retired, taught physics for 35 years in middle school. Once, in the early 90s, she had been a witness to a vehicular fatality. A speeding “Moscvich” had lost control, crashing into a pancake, mixed with fresh human meat-burger. Afterwards, to recover from the shock and make some cash, she decided to travel back and forth to Turkey as a courier. But from Kemerovo to Turkey is no hop, skip, and a jump. Lenka didn’t want to let her mother go, sensed something wrong in her guts, wept bitterly, wiping the snot with her palm. She’d just turned seven, so welcome back to school kids, you know how it goes! Jimmy-Johnny was an intern in Japan at the time; I can’t think of anything else to say, what inspiration can there possibly be, not a thought in my head, a familiar feeling? She grabbed his glass parrot by the neck and started choking him. But glass is no easy choke. People – women, children, frail old men – are much easier to strangle. And by the way, Lenka loved it when her partner would gently constrict her throat during times of intimacy. But one time, her cripple of a groom didn’t account for his own strength. So when the SWAT team arrived, the parrot was sitting on his perch dressed in his red frock pretending like he was smoking a cigar, his crest quivering while he exchanged double-entendres with his invisible pigeon-interrogators. Given the sounds emanating from the latter, they too were made of glass. And this, you must agree, is unusual. Because this bird was Jimmy-Johnny’s gift to Lenka before her departure. “Write, or something,” the American had asked at the airport, shifting his weight from foot to foot. How much he wanted at that moment for Lenka to stay with him! Inasmuch as she would be returning home, as it were, to a certain death. Of course, there was no way he could have known this, but he had some sort of premonition. Truth be told, we’re born to a certain death also. So that even the proverbial grandmother, as in that song by the sexy Peter Nalich, had already predicted the future for them: where, who, and under what circumstances will be departing for the other world. “Well, what can we do?” you ask me. At least don’t sit around on your butt face reading this crap that I am composing with my left ass-cheek like that canine-author in the fable by Lafontaine; neither writing down nor reading these notes, my dear friends, will save you, neither from misfortune and universal indifference nor from the stabbing senseless pangs of melancholy.



Pavel LemberskyPavel Lembersky graduated from The University of California at Berkeley with a degree in comparative literature, did graduate work in film at San Francisco State University, and worked on film projects with Jonathan Demme and Spalding Gray, among others. Pavel writes his prose primarily in Russian and his screenplays primarily in English. He authored three collections of short prose in Russian, River #7 (New York, 2000), The City Of Vanishing Spaces (Tver, 2002), A Unique Occurrence (Moscow, The Russian Gulliver, 2009) His work appeared in The Anthology of Short Stories (ACT, Moscow, 2000) and A Unique Occurrence made the long list for the Russian Prize in 2009. His short stories have appeared in literary magazines in Moscow, New York, Munich, Jerusalem, and Helsinki, and have been translated into English, German, and Finnish. The German translation of Fluss #7 (Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt) came out in 2003. Six of his stories open the 2006 issue of the literary magazine Kommentarii and his work is featured in online TextOnly (2006-2007) magazine. His short stories in English translation have appeared in the Words Without Borders magazine of international literature. Pavel covers the New York literary, theatre and film scene for the Moscow magazines Foreign Literature and Teatr and is a columnist for Snob magazine.

Pavel Lembersky photo credit: K. Drobyazko.


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