Varen’ka ( mother and father )

Was I born out of love?

Yes. And he was near. My father.

Dad was a special man. Very kind and witty. Sometimes ridiculous. Funny. But never false.

He met my mother when he was still working at the construction site. He was trying to earn money to pay for university, and she sold newspapers at a kiosk and protested against the capital world while she attained a degree in sociology.

It was a rather unexpected and unusual meeting. This love was rolling like a snowball, and what rolled out of it was me.

Since then, he was around me. Not near, but around. He bathed me, tucked me into bed, walked me to the kindergarten and back, wiped my nose and straightened me out. When I was growing up, he used say “it was a creation of a beautiful rigmarole”.

We went for walks whenever there was an opportunity; he would start some evenings with pillow fights and hot chocolate. We fought and jumped on the couch, played cards and laughed all the time. We laughed about everything we saw and heard. There were days we would sit on the balcony while he smoked and I drank my juice. We would watch the sun hiding behind the leaves, exchanged glances from time to time and smiled, just like grownups.

All these were wrapped within the thin web of his stories… Sometimes absurd, strange and unclear, but always new. For many years, he never repeated them.

My world was overwhelmed with desires and addiction to alcohol, inhabited by Buddhist monks, monsters under the bed, which turned out to be one of the nicest creatures — fearing human without reason. Strange grannies defeated the world’s evil and the real world of fairies, who smoked pipes on weekends, drank rum and dry-cleaned their wings at the local shop.

This entire world was ours, made just for us. When I was three, he cut big alphabets out of colored carton boxes and glued them on the wall. My first alphabet. I used to put on glasses, smoothed my pajamas and with my baton taught him new words. He was a good student and by four, I was reading the newspapers. In the toilet. Just like a grownup.

Sometimes, he would come home a bit drunk and then tuck me into bed. And feeling sorry for returning late, he would bring me a bag of sweets. He tried to tell me a new story but would fall asleep quite quickly. I used to lie beside him, trying to figure out the ending to his story. I smelled tobacco and white wine and knew for sure that was the smell of a prince. The one who would come and take me to the real world. And he would be just as kind.

Mother was always cold. They quarreled a lot. She shouted at him, got excited and would fall back to her usual self, exclaiming profanities. And very often, I would hear these words during showdowns: «you are not a man», «third-rater», «dork». He would then come and kiss me good night and I would ask him what those words meant. He changed the topic quickly, but I heard… Yes, I heard in the darkness, his tears, trickling down his stubbled cheeks. And I cried with him, thinking that it might be better and easier for him.

He always protected me from her, always faced the attacks.

She had kicked him out of our home hundreds of times. May be even thousands. He would pack a bag, kiss me and say before leaving, «Bunny, don’t worry, she will calm down and I’ll be back». And he was always right. He would return to my world with his tales and walks on dark streets.

When I was six, another man appeared in my mother’s life. Some boyfriend from the past. Uncle Oleg. Shallow creature who was a fitter or mechanic or something like that. Father was often away on trips. Then this guy started seeing us. He smelled of cheap fags, vodka and lies. I didn’t like him.

Then mother showed my father the door. She divorced him and pulled this creature into our home. Dad’s and mine.

He was quiet, drank and brought home money. I was sent to bed early because of him. I went bonkers. Mother explained and at times shouted, «this is a real man, a man whom she had been waiting for all her life».

“The real man” lasted three and a half weeks. After which, he got his stuff and quietly went back to his ex. Mother sat in the kitchen, smoking and crying. When I tried to comfort her, she whipped me with a belt. Not out of anger but she just lost her temper.

Then another year… mother had other boyfriends, all from the same herd. They rarely came to the house… She came home one morning, leaned against the wall and shouted “Your dearest father is a bastard and a scumbag! He is the worst and is not worthy of me”.

I waited for Sundays. Just to sit with him in the kitchen, drink tea, watch the stars and listen about the world, where there was no room for lies and greed.

I celebrated that new year with father and his mom. Those were happy days. We ate, drank, laughed at cartoons, played cards, dominoes and hide-and-seek. We ended the night with brightly lit fireworks, drew angels in the snow and painted the ice with watercolors.

I would give anything to go back to that winter, in that small room on the top floor. A place where I didn’t have to fear being myself. At a place where he was. My most important prince. And I know he always loved her.

In that same year, mother got drunk at a friends’ wedding, called father and asked him to come back.

He came… She cried, shouted and cried again… The next morning, I woke up and there he was. Mine. Dearest. Kind. At that moment, the world froze behind me. I listened to our heart beats – two beating as one.

Mother lasted eighteen months. And then everything went back to what it was. Rows, quarrels, yelling till midnight. Lonely nights. Throwing his stuff out the door. His bow-backed figure and childish faith will be back again someday. He is mine alone.

I think he had affairs. How could he not? Dad was a handsome man, smart with velvet-toned voice and in good shape. I could not blame him for that.

I remember our walks in the parks where women would glance at him… I walked beside him holding his hand proudly. They can envy me but he is mine.

Mother grumbled. The more father brought home – the more she demanded. All we wanted was to go horse riding, but she was not up for it, she was building plans for the future. A new car, coats, resorts. International school for me, some boots…

Her greed had no limits. Father had put away money for the dentist; she found the stash and bought French perfume instead. One time, he caught pneumonia after he returned from a rural settlement. She borrowed money for his medication… but at the first opportunity, she took it back… I remember how he laughed and cried. And I could not understand why.

This hell was aggravated by another set of circumstances. The neighbor, a single lady without any breeding potential, settled in our kitchen like a teapot on the counter top. Mother’s family was extremely religious, everyone was a believer of love and God’s grace, but they nearly killed each other at the cemetery all because of ance. Grannie Marina, my maternal grandmother, in all her kindness and infinite wisdom, belittled my father. Just like my mother, she too could not stand children.

One day, mother could not hold it inside anymore. All hell broke loose. It was seeping through the walls, holes and from under the floors. The air at home became stale. I could taste it.

He left. Just got his stuff together and left. For the first time, he did it on his own without saying a word.

I screamed at her, “Mom, say you are sorry, let him stay!” But all she replied was, “To hell with him. Why should I apologize to this piece of crap? Let him rot in hell and die!”

The drinking started again, lies about being at her friend’s, lectures about morals and principles, yelling and that neighbor who agreed with her about everything… Grey, colorless existence… When I saw him on Saturday, he looked withdrawn and had aged. He tried to be strong. Even quit smoking from time to time. Those weekends with him were eventful. He never repeated himself… Always told me something new and even newer… And while he never spoke about her, he still loved her…

When I was 13, he moved to another town. There, he started a new life step by step and it worked out for him. He calmed down, but then for the next 6 years in a row, called me (yes, yes!) every bloody day and we chatted about everything. I even went to see him for a whole month. Took me to the theaters and bought sweets. He was also the one who taught me to make pel’meni.

… I was a junior at university when they called from his workplace… They said – heart. They said – at night. They said – that’s it.

I am not. I. This could not be. What is this? He could not have. And. No, no. Not him…

I rushed home. Mother was sick with a cold. She and Grannie Marina were having tea in the kitchen, smoked, and…

I barged into the kitchen with my boots and shouted “He has left us! Do you hear me! Both of you! My Dad is dead!”…

Mother dropped the cup, stood up… slapped me across the face. Told me to wipe the traces of dirt on the floor and take my boots off. Then she went into the bedroom.

Grannie Marina. That old, wrinkled woman in her freaking sweater with stupid flowers, huge belly with eyes of a wicked owl grunted, “Finally, God has taken this fool”.

I sat on the chair. My scarf slid down the floor like a lazy snake. I silently took the mug of tea my mother had been drinking and splashed it in her face.

— Shut up! Shut up, you witch! Shut up with your God. You killed him. All of you…

Then, I don’t remember how… I threw her out of the home, threw her coat, bag and boots… She started to wail, “Honey, calm down, we should go there and bury him properly”. He had a flat there… But all I said was that I would never say a word to her. And I never did.

I closed the door. Washed my face. Tried to cool off and went to mother.

She was in the room with her mouth open as if she could not breathe… She looked at me with eyes of a cat perched on a tree. She tried to say something but could not; she swallowed air and slumped back… all her self-confidence, all her attitude, arrogance and cruelty were melting like an iceberg in hell. She had a clump of hair in her hand and in the other – his letter. The one he wrote to her when she was in labour. When I was born… A small piece of paper, weathered all this with me.

He was forty nine. He passed quietly. I’m still mad at myself for not calling him, knowing that he would usually call.

Then funerals, fog, people, farewells. All artificial, fake. Some women came and cried silently in the corner. Men smoked and talked about him and other…

No priest. Father did not want one.

The lady he lived with, red-haired and fragile. She hugged me and apologized profusely. God knows for what… And mother… Her hair turned grey, she grew lean… and was fumbling with a handkerchief. Somewhat awkward, irrelative and too late. She smoked a lot and mumbled.

I guess she still loved him. And because of this, her betrayal was even more weird and odd. Amateurish and awkward, I would say.

I kept holding on to the phone. I never could let go of it at funerals or after that. I was afraid to miss another call. But that, I had already done. I still keep this phone. Still waiting.

Тranslated by Nina Abramova