I was born in Sebastopol, a town on the Black Sea, famous for its bloody military history, vast pebble beach and the ruins of an ancient Greek town called Chersonesus.
We lived in Sebastopol because that was where my father worked. He was an oceanographer employed by a huge lab on the Black Sea. My mother used to live in Moscow, where she worked at the Ministry of Education. When my father offered to marry her and move her to Sebastopol with him, my mother didn’t hesitate, even though that would mean losing her job. She had just published a very successful math textbook for children, and she hoped she would be able to work from home and earn her living by writing more textbooks.
We would go to the beach every day, even when it was chilly, and do math with pebbles.
The pebbles were all cold and rounded, but of different sizes and colors, so you could do all kinds of mathematical operations with them. You could count them up, you could arrange them from smallest to largest, you could build various geometrical shapes out of them.
Sometimes, I would bring pebbles home to show to my father how well I knew math. “Look Papa, there are five pebbles in my hand. If I take two, how many would be left?” He would say “three?” and I would give him the most beautiful pebble as a reward.
He died when I was five. He was only forty. My mother was only thirty-six.
Our apartment in Sebastopol belonged to the lab, and they wouldn’t let us stay there after my father’s death. My mother had to move back to Moscow, to the apartment she used to share with her parents.
My mother spent most of our train journey in the compartment, lying on her berth with her back to us, howling into the pillow. She would sit up only to drink tea from a thick glass in a massive metal glass-holder. And she would stand up only to wobble down the corridor to the bathroom.
Our apartment in Sebastopol belonged to the lab, and they wouldn’t let us stay there after my father’s death
I spent most of the time crying too, but my grief wasn’t absolute like my mother’s. It was possible to distract me. I had never been on a train before, and there were many exciting things that managed to steal my attention. It was exciting to lie on the narrow berth with my ear pressed to the pillow, listening to the rumble of the wheels, or to sit balancing that huge glass-holder in both hands.
The most fun, though, was to watch the changing scenery and occasional animals through the window. Once, I saw a fawn chasing another fawn across a field, and I started to clap and laugh. I stopped myself right away, but it was too late; everybody heard me. My mother heard me. I touched her on the back and I said that I was sorry, then I started to cry from embarrassment.
My first impression of Moscow was that it was humid and smoky, with crowds of people hurrying, pushing, shoving each other, while eating ice cream. It seemed like every single person was eating ice cream. Licking the chocolate squares on the sticks, nibbling on waffle cups, biting into the whole bricks of ice cream, staining their chins and their hands. I desperately wanted some ice cream, but I didn’t ask for it, because I thought it would be awful of me to ask.
The neighborhood where my grandparents lived was on the outskirts of Moscow. It used to be a separate village just two decades earlier. When all the little houses were demolished to make space for high-rises, but the gardens stayed. My grandparents lived in a long nine-story, ten-entrance building (buildings like that were nicknamed “supine skyscrapers,” and they did resemble skyscrapers lying on their sides) that, along with other identical buildings, formed a half-circle around a school and a kindergarten. There were fruit trees in front of the buildings, behind the buildings and between the buildings. Apple trees, peach trees, house, plum trees and cherry trees. They would bloom every spring and bear fruit every summer. The fruit from the neglected trees wasn’t good enough for eating, but people would go and pick it for jams and compotes. Late August was the time for apples. The year my father died was a crazy year for apples. Everybody said they had never seen so many.
My first impression of Moscow was that it was humid and smoky, with crowds of people hurrying, pushing, shoving each other, while eating ice cream.
The first thing I noticed upon entering my grandparents’ place was that it was very hot and reeked of rotten fruit.
The apartment was a small one-bedroom. My grandparents gave the bedroom to my mother and me, claiming that they would be perfectly fine on the sofa in the living room. My moth- er’s bed was moved to the wall, and a narrow foldout bed was bought from the neighbors and placed at a 90 degree angle to my mother’s bed, right next to the bookcase. I slept on that foldout bed for 16 years, until I got married and left Moscow for good.
As soon as we entered, my mother marched into the bedroom, got into bed and stayed there for what seemed like months. I was left in the care of my grandparents, whom I hardly knew and didn’t love.
What the three of us did every day was pick apples and make jam out of them. I was sitting at the folding Formica table across from my grandfather, and my grandmother was standing at the stove. I was a child of six, so I wore nothing except for my little underpants. My grandmother was dressed in her sleeveless housecoat. Her body was all jittery and lumpy, as if thick soup was poured into her skin. My grandfather was dressed in his old boxers and undershirt, and his limbs looked crumbly and dry like discarded firewood.
. . .
My job was to sort the apples—good ones were for jam, bad ones for compote. I would pick better apples and push them toward my grandfather, and he would take them from me and cut them up and pass them to my grandmother, who was stirring the bubbling, sputtering matter in aluminum washing basins at the stove. The process was unbearably boring. I tried to entertain myself by engaging my grandparents with doing math, but it didn’t work out, even though I picked the easiest possible problems for them.
“Look, Grandpa, there are five apples in the bowl. If I take two, how many would be left?”
He wouldn’t answer me at all or would give a deliberately wrong answer, like “a thousand fucking apples.”
His disrespect for math was shocking, but it was better than my grandmother’s indifference. She wouldn’t even try to solve my problems, or she would say that I was “a poor little orphan” and start to sob.
My job was to sort the apples—good ones were for jam, bad ones for compote.
The only thing that made that time more or less tolerable was when somebody came to take me away for an hour or two. My mother’s friend Rita would take me from time to time, to play with her boys, Sasha (who was my age) and Misha (who was older). Rita’s husband (formerly a heavily drinking artist, now a full-time alcoholic) was always sleeping on the couch, his head hanging off the edge, his mouth agape, his snores like a mad dog’s gnarls. “God help you if you wake him up!” Rita said, and we took her words very seriously. Sasha and Misha kept kicking and punching and biting each other, grimacing in pain, but not making a sound. And I just sat on the floor cheering them on in a low whisper. “Good for you, Misha… Sasha, now bite him back!”
And there were rare weekends when Uncle Grisha came to take me for a walk. He would have to sit in our kitchen first, eating some heated-up soup, wincing at my grandmother’s sticky hugs and frowning at my grandfather’s nagging. “I already have a job, Dad. I’m a photographer. Yes, it’s a real job! No, Dad, I don’t want you to speak to your veteran buddies on my behalf. I don’t care how high they are in the Communist party!” I could see that Grisha was as eager to leave the apartment as I was.
He usually took me to Kuskovo Park. The park itself was leafy and sprawling and seemingly endless, with the woods, and the lake, and beautiful mansions and even a small amusement park. Grisha explained to me that before the revolution, this entire territory used to belong to Count Sheremetyev and nobody was allowed in except for his family and his servants.
“But now everybody is allowed in!” I said with the due eagerness of a Soviet child.
“Yes,” Grisha said under his breath, “and everybody can shit all over the place.”
He did say stuff like that often, and sometimes he even made jokes about communism, or Brezhnev or even Lenin, making it seem as if he didn’t believe that the Soviet Union was the best country in the world. His attitude confused me, but I enjoyed our outings too much to think about it.
In October, a spot opened in the ministry, and Rita begged her bosses to give it to my mother. Every day, my mother would put on a black dress and black shoes and leave for work, where she would sit at her desk staring at the piled up files, doing absolutely nothing. It took her two years to start wearing gray and brown—I don’t remember any other colors in her wardrobe—and about the same amount of time to resume working on her books.
Grisha explained to me that before the revolution, this entire territory used to belong to Count Sheremetyev and nobody was allowed in except for his family and his servants.
My mother came home from work around seven, and at a quarter to six I would be glued to the kitchen windowsill hoping to spot her as she got off the bus. I would follow her journey to the entrance door of our building, then I would run to the front door and listen for the sound of the elevator going up. The idea was to open the door as soon as she got to our floor. For some reason, I was hoping that the woman who walked through the door would be my old mother from our Sebastopol time, dark-haired and smiling, and happy to see me. Seeing my mother the way she looked now—gray-haired and zombie-like—always came as shock. I would still rush to hug her, but those hugs brought me little joy, worse than that—they frightened me. She still felt like my mother, with her familiar smell, and familiar feel—soft and pliable in the same places as before, bony and scratchy in others. But she didn’t react to me like my mother used to react, or like any mother would. It was not just her facial expression; but even her hugs were so devoid of warmth that sometimes it made me so angry that I wanted to hit her, or just run away and cry.
There were pills to alleviate the sadness, and my grandmother, and Rita and Uncle Grisha kept begging my mother to take them. She vehemently refused. She explained that doing something to ease the pain would be the ultimate act of betrayal. She didn’t want to feel nothing! She screamed. She didn’t want to numb down her love for him. Danya might have died, but her love for him didn’t!
“Nina is really stubborn!” Uncle Grisha once said to my grandmother, but she shook her head.
“This is not stubbornness,” she said. “This is real love.”
Years later, in fact, just a few months before my mother died, she told me that the thing that tortured her the most back then was the intense sexual desire she still felt for my father. He was dead. Wanting him, dreaming about him, imagining all those things he would do to her felt like the ultimate violation. Her confession made me cringe, but not because I found it shameful; I thought it was perfectly natural to still want somebody who died. If the death of a person doesn’t make the longing for him any less, why should it diminish sexual desire? Every night during our first year in Moscow, my mother lay in her bed and howled into the wall-carpet to muffle the sound.
During that time, I didn’t miss my father at all. I was used to his absences, and his being dead didn’t differ that much from his being away. When I thought of him at all, I imagined him being far away, beyond the horizon, the tiniest speck on one of those tiny ships that crossed the horizon’s line, and disappeared from view, but not altogether. Even though I couldn’t see them, they were still there, as my father had explained to me, out there, somewhere, or just There.
With my mother, it was the opposite. She was right here, and yet she wasn’t. I missed her terribly. My entire life up to this point had been filled with her presence, and I couldn’t function without her.
I would make up prayers to make her come back to me. It was my mother who taught me how to pray. My father, like most Soviet scientists was an atheist, but my mother said that she was agnostic. She explained that agnostics didn’t believe in Anything Specific, but they believed in Something, because it was too scary not to. She said that by saying the prayer, we let Something know that we believed in it so that it wouldn’t get mad at us. We would make up our own prayers, which resembled nursery rhymes rather than anything else and included some silly rituals like biting on our little fingers. “Water, air, metal, wood. (Bite.) We be happy, we be good.”
Now, I had to make up my own lonely prayers. My bed was pushed against the bookcase, and I made a habit of touching the book spines before I went to sleep, and naming the animals on the covers of the books that stood on the level with my head. “Bunny, mouse, doggy, cat. Make my mommy love me back.” I would end my prayer by pressing my face to the spine of the last book and licking it from top to bottom.
And guess what? My prayers worked.
Exactly nine months after we arrived in Moscow, I developed a cough, accompanied by occasional fever that wouldn’t go away. My grandmother tried to cure me with chicken soup and raspberry jam, but none of that helped. One day, my fever rose to 104, and my grandmother insisted that my mother stay home and call a doctor. I remember that doctor as a monstrously tall woman with huge hands as hard as wooden boards. She tapped and poked and squeezed various parts of my body with those hands, hurting me, making me cry. And then she spoke to my mother, making each sentence land like a hard slap.
“The child has pneumonia!” she said.
“And it’s very far gone!” she said.
“What kind of a mother are you?” she asked.
They took me to a hospital, and my mother never left my side there. She kept begging my forgiveness and promising that she would never, ever leave me again. I didn’t understand her words, but I understood that she had returned to me from that strange place she had inhabited for months, and that she was with me now, possibly more with me than she ever had been before.
Lara Vapnyar emigrated to the United States in 1994. Her novels include Still Here, The Scent of Pine and Memoirs of a Muse. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker.