The Youngest Sea
He had piloted the plane over barbed missiles and sheared a wedge off the Kremlin star when landing. This surprised them sure enough, but they went on with their supper. It was my pubescent demand I made after the news footage that made them drop their spoons.
“No – you have nothing to hide yet!” Mother snapped.
“With your Venus in Pisces, kitten, you should swim naked altogether,” said Dad.
Mother cast a teaspoonful of cocoa powder into my semolina porridge, whether to comfort me or conceal the outrageous quantity of lumps in it that evening, I didn’t know.
Well, if Mathias Rust had made it, why couldn’t I fight for my small cause? I said that I would quit the piano for accordion and tennis for ping-pong if they didn’t oblige me. I spat out ten lumps, arranged them neatly around my plate and left the kitchen.
The day of our departure to the Crimea was marked by the advent, on the chair beside my bed, of two red cotton triangles joined by a white strap. To avoid meeting parents before I smoothed out the joy on my face, I picked up the trash can and ran to the garbage chute in the hallway. Into the fetid gullet, not wincing once, I fed the archaeological layers of family diet topped by the dripping dome of last week’s “Pravda”, which had revealed Stalin as Lenin’s bastard son by Fanny Kaplan. Into the same gullet, I emptied the contents of Class 5. Down tumbled pistils and stamens, subjects and predicates, fractions and common denominators, Cleopatra and Tutankhamun. However hard I tried, one obnoxious item did stick in a remote cranny. The item was called “A Letter to an American Pen-Friend”, which I was to submit at the first English lesson in Class 6, if I didn’t want Maria Ivanovna to impale me with her sharp pointer.
“Lo and behold, what sudden love of domestic chores,” Mother remarked, and Dad winked at me from behind a heap of suitcases.
At midnight, we stepped onto the southbound train. The way to our bunks lay through rows of sleeping feet at the level of my nose, feet of different calibres and varying degrees of freshness. My eyes watered from ammonia and tar – the inimitable, inevitable air of the train journey. The route map was pinned in a wooden frame onto the carriage wall, in the form of a spine with vertebrae of transitory stations. The farther south, the wilder, ever less Russian their names became, but I honed, domesticated them, turned them into rosary beads to fondle between my mind’s fingers: Horseradish –Frying Pan; Frying Pan to Macadam; Macadam to Equinox; Equinox to Chickenpox. Horseradish –Frying-Pan… And I lulled myself into slumber until Sevastopol – the final destination, which would rhyme neither with Gogol, nor with Wobble or anything else I could think of.
Screeching of the brakes my alarm-clock, I fell off the train ledge into my Uncle’s greeting and was top-spun onto the back seat of his blue Moskvich.
“Pale like dough, child, but we will bake you well”, Uncle said.
Apart from a military hug and an unquenchable desire to bake me, there were two more important items pertaining to Uncle: a dacha on Grape Lane and a son whose chest muscles formed a reclining eight of infinity. Denis looked like a young pharaoh, with a face regally impervious. He was much older – three years, and an excellent gymnast. He spent his days on the beach, exercising backbone-breaking stunts. Last year, I secretly followed him everywhere, but he never noticed – or never cared.
Wooden, once painted royal blue, the dacha was cool inside even in direst heat. The rooms were laid with old rugs, fluttered by draughts, ready to take off amongst the silver particles of dust.
Uncle took Mother and Dad for a long lap of honour around the garden. While the parents were letting out artificial groans of admiration at an especially monstrous eggplant, I skulked into the farthest room of the dacha. I took off my T-shirt and drew my cotton triangles out of the safety of the shorts pocket. The fit was nearly perfect although they loosened a bit when I moved my arms. I tied the white straps in a ribbon between my shoulder blades and dashed out of the house through the back door.
It would take me no less than twenty minutes to reach the sea, even running downhill on a macadam road as I was. I wished I had taken one of the dacha rugs to fly. How mean of me: I had forgotten that Mathias the Pilot was in prison now, with but a concrete wall to view out of his striped window, and certainly bored to death. Rattled by downhill trot, the Class 5 atavism in a remote cranny rolled to the vanguard of my brain – Mathias! He would be my pen-friend, my confidant. I didn’t care that he was not American – to hell with Maria Ivanovna and her sharp pointer.
So Dear Mathias Rust,
Big are the eggplants, hot is the sun, red my bikini and fast am I run.
I cannot tell what is wrong, grammar or rhyme. The first words I learned in English were as weighty and smooth as marbles, each a treasure in its own right. I felt almighty, knowing the names for nearly everything within my sight. I could join the marbles using fair rules, watch to be rainbow into is or are, depending on how many roses, noses or boys I wished to mention. But recently, my marbles have, all at once, become too light, too bland, as if I were hitting a ping-pong ball with a tennis racket. The next words and the next rules, suiting my present size, are as unfathomable as my cousin’s countenance, apparently waiting for my breasts to grow to reveal themselves. For now, I just dally with Russian words, dressing them in English letters. White” is biely – belly. “Black” is cherny – churning. Blue is siniy – sinewy – and the sea is morye – the More.
What is your favourite poem, Mathias? If I were mistress of more words, I would translate mine for you. “The biting butterfly” it is called. The poet wrote it for a beauty he was in love with, but the beauty said she would rather sleep with a donkey. When Dad recited the poem to me for the first time, a tear ran down his cheekbone and hid in his moustache.
For weeks, unmarked essays tower on the kitchen table. When they fall down on the floor, Dad does not pick them up. With a pair of compasses and ephemeris, he discovers things more exciting than his pupils’ mistakes: a mean septile that directed the bullet into Pushkin’s stomach; an opposition which spurred Tolstoy onto his last train – and the latest find – a quintile that painted America all across Gorbachov’s bald head. Mathias – what trine was guarding your flight?
A snail cracks under my left foot and a slug bursts under my right. Dad says that each living being you kill becomes a stupid pupil for your next life – “I must have been a butcher”, he laughs. I wonder what punishment awaits Mother. Every afternoon, dreadful screams shake the living-room – Mozart is racked on her violin. Back and forth, she drives the bow ever deeper into his wriggling flesh until, bled out, dismembered in minor seconds, he is ready for public display at the philharmonic concert.
Please Mathias, don’t think that Mother is cruel. She can’t help it with Mozart just as she can’t help sawing anything within her reach. Look at her at the cooking-stove. She stirs the semolina with the same back-and-forth movement of the spoon: for what crimes do I expiate to choke on these endless lumps?
Can you do salto mortale, Mathias? It is so dangerous that merely watching it last summer caused me to fall the worst possible way: I fell in love.
With shingle instead of sand, the east end of the beach is too rough for most holiday-makers, so it was no wonder that we were there alone there at noon – well, he thought he was alone. The sun was glaring white, and the sea was a blue blotter. Through a crack at the bottom of the changing booth, where boys used to peep from outside when a girl was in, I did the opposite. Crouching like a frog, with my head propped on my hands, I watched Denis against the tide.
He ran up. His dark body lost its skeleton and liquefied into ink. As if led by a swift pen, it flourished a cursive m with an elegant loop in the middle, ending in suspension points – he lost balance a little when landing. My frog position was quite inconvenient. I turned around, kneeling on all fours with my backside above the crack. I dropped my head to continue watching upside down from between my legs. Denis ran up again. Topsy-turvy, the salto looked like a w, ending in a taut exclamation mark.
My knees trembled and I toppled over inside the booth. I curled up into a foetus and closed my eyes.
Have you ever made love, Mathias? If so, I hope you did not do it the way I abhor.
I wouldn’t believe that the squalor my classmates were bragging about was ever possible between a man and a woman, until, in the second row of the upper bookshelf at home, I found a tattered “Encyclopaedia of Soviet Marriage”. The chapter “Communist Principles at the Core of the Family” was followed by “Legitimate Gender Act as a Means of Procreation”. Black on grey, I found the deplorable confirmation of the hideous mechanics. The complicit parts of Man and Woman were described in Latin words I would never like to have among my marbles. Why didn’t they name them, say, Horseradish and Frying-Pan – the enormity would have at least been softened by laughter.
Thinking it was for children, Dad took me to a new movie “Little Vera”. The little Vera appeared to be eighteen and straddling her listless boyfriend without a trace of shyness. She was smoking and thrusting ashes into his navel. I was sick right there in the cinema.
I was even more confused when a woman on Telebridge explained to American people and me that there was no sex in the USSR, whereupon Mother gave Dad an intense glance and Dad looked away.
Since last summer I have known what it is like to be in love. But I wonder, Mathias, when I will find out how to make it.
Red my bikini, fast have I run, shall I see Denis under the sun? I must say bye for now, Mathias, because I am on the beach and I do see Denis on the shore.
It is only eight thousand years old, the sea as flat as my torso, with not yet a single alga in its groin. It is called Black because it is darker than Mediterranean, and prone to pranks. But I have never seen any other sea than this pre-teen, the youngest sea in the world. For me, it is fair enough, the Black More, the Churning Sea. It is the closest I can get to the Soviet frontier, to fancy, through an unhindered horizon, what is beyond.
Denis is not in an acrobatic mood. He is sitting still on the light foam of the shore.
I am not going to use the changing booth – I want to be seen. I plunge into the water, my Venus in Pisces, my costume a perfect fit. For a whole year, I have been training to hold my breath in the bathtub. Dramatic suspension underwater – the longest the bathtub has taught me – and I come on the surface. I coil like a snake and I sprawl like a star. I arch like a bow and I churn the plump wave. To and fro – right hand swept up, left foot tiptoed to the sun – my body one dizzy poem. The More applauds me. It beams at me with all its blennies, and its lips give me a jellyfish kiss.
I wade out, lithe and breathless. There is, at last, an expression on that pharaoh face. Which one it is, I realize when I emerge from the water. My first urge is to plunge back, but groping about in the surf, under his scornful scrutiny, would be an even worse disgrace. With palms pressed to my chest, I run to the changing booth and furl myself into a foetus. Wait another millennium to grow tits, stupid More – one day you’ll burst with envy when you see mine. But now that my love is debased to Gender Shame, I have nothing left but cry myself dry.
I couldn’t share this with Mathias Rust – male confidants are too rare to lose by such confessions. My letter hung in the air unfinished, but on Grape Lane that evening, he still hovered over my sun-scorched shoulders, while Mother was drilling sour-cream into them.
“This Cleopatra will bathe in milk and honey next,” she said.
Oddly enough, the loss of the ignominious item charged the supper much less than an unexpected request in the news, in a rich American voice, “Mr Gorbachov, tear down this wall!” Upon which President Reagan looked at the dish of fried eggplants on our table with envy.
Uncle’s face turned crimson. He switched the channel, nearly tearing off the knob.
“Bravo, Ronald!” Denis said. It was the first time I heard him speak.
Uncle turned to him. In a second, Denis was on the floor beside his chair, rubbing his left eye. He got himself up coolly and disappeared into the Crimean dusk.
“Aquarius...” Dad began, but then thought better of it.
The fried eggplants were not finished, and the dishes squeaked a dismayed pizzicato in Mother’s hands.
I was so sorry for Denis that I almost forgot my own distress. I wished I had something nice, something valuable to comfort him. But I didn’t – neither a Zippo lighter, nor a Pink Floyd cassette, or even a Wrigley’s Spearmint. I considered writing a nice verse or two to put on his bed for him to find when he came back, but I didn’t dare, not then, not yet.
So I ran to the docks, where Denis awaited me. In the dark, unnoticed, we skulked aboard a merchant ship named Equinox. We hid in the hold, listening to the sailors’ American voices. The vessel sailed into the dark, and off we were.
The hold was fully laden with Soviet export delicacies: slates of Moscow chocolate, barrels of Caspian caviar and jugs of Crimean wine. We scooped the caviar in handfuls, and scraped off the chocolate with his pocket knife. We emptied whole jugs of wine, like pirates. And then we made real love – on the rocking deck. No jerking, no smoking, no Latin lies – just m and w, forever in clove hitch.
“My Horseradish,” I whispered into his ear.
“My Frying-pan,” he whispered into mine.
The hold filled with suffocating smoke and a scorching stench. Denis was gone. Were we to burn alive? How unfair, Mathias, to drown in the youngest sea, never to grow up, never to master more words, never to see beyond the wall.
I held my breath as long as I could. Then momentarily, against an unhindered horizon, glimpsed my figure, in the future I would never see, those hills and valleys....
"I don't cook for you to stare forever at the plate!" The plate came suddenly into focus, with Mother's chickenpox of burnt porridge and no cocoa to hope for.