After I got my first period — less than a month before my twelfth birthday — is right around when the two women began including me in their gabbing sessions, in the kitchen.
At first, I joined reluctantly: I would much rather “waste my life away”, as mother dramatically accused me of, with a novel. But face it! When the two of them returned from their separate errands, both beautiful and smelling of the same perfume — the flirtation of all the men still echoing in their voices — I would be a major “dura” to resist the temptation of their company.
And the stories, the day’s gossip — the life force pumping through the street of our town — seemed more titillating than my mother’s romance novels (through which I, when home alone, would rummage and then re-hide them in the cupboards of her bedside stand). Now: Our neighborhood wasn’t really happening. Someone would die, occasionally, after drinking too much. Someone else got married, before an accidental pregnancy showed. Both the town’s funerals and its weddings could be attended by anyone. For Russians, it’s bad fucking karma to turn guests away! So, as processions crawled through the main roads (not many Russians owned cars, not in those days!), neighbors joined in; because at the end of either line, they’d find free food. And what’s more important: Vodka!
Breathlessly, I listened to the women’s stories, never putting my two kopeks in. Assigned the most menial jobs in the kitchen, like peeling of potatoes or sorting out grains of rice, I kept my head down and worked my ears overtime. At times, the exchange of information was packed with details so intense and so confusing, it hurt my brain to follow. Still, I tried to comprehend in silence because asking either my sis or mother to repeat — was borderline suicidal.
“Now, mamotchka!” (Marinka was already notorious for kissing up. She’d learned how to work our mother’s ego.) “Have you heard about Uncle Pavel?”
The way my sis was blushing now, in the opal light of fall’s sunset, solidified that she was rapidly turning into her mother’s daughter: A stunner, simply put. The prospects of the townswomen’s matchmaking had already begun coming up at the dinner table; and every time, Marinka turned red and stole sheepish glances at our father. There was no way around it: She was easily becoming the prettiest girl in town! Not in that wholesome and blonde Slavic beauty way, but an exotic creature, with doe eyes, long hair of black waves and skin the color of buckwheat honey.
Marinka carried on. “I got this from Ilyinitchna,” she gulped. She’d gone to far, corrected herself: “Anna Ilyinitchna, I mean.” (The tone of informality common for most Russian women was still a bit to early for Marinka to take on. But she was getting there: Whenever she joined our mother’s girlfriends for tea, she was permitted to address them with an informal “you”.)
Mother was already enticed. “What?! What’d you hear?” she wiped her hands on the kitchen towel and turned her entire body toward my sister.
“He and Tatiana’s daughter…” There, Marinka took notice of me. She looked back at our mother for a go-ahead. The silence was thick enough to be cut with a knife. I pretended to not have heard anything.
But mom had no patience for not knowing: “Oy, Marina! Don’t stretch it out, I beg of you! What did you hear?!”
Sis ran her nails to tame the fly-aways by pushing them behind her ears. Her hair was thick and gathered into a messy construction on the back of her head. Ringlets of it escaped and clung to her sweaty neck.
Whenever mother spoke, I noticed the tension Marinka’s shoulders — a habit of a child who took on a regular beatings from a parent. In boys, one saw defiant thoughts of brewing rebellion. But it looked different in girls. We had to bear. It could take decades to grow out of oppression. Some women never made it out. They would be transferred from the rule of their parents’ household to that of their husbands’. Forgiveness already started seeming too far-fetched.
Marinka blushed again. Lord, give us the courage! “He and Tatiana’s daughter were seen having dinner together in the city. He took her to a rest-aur-ant!” She slowed down, for effect: Dining at Soviet restaurants was NOT a casual happening. “And she was dressed like the last whore of Kaliningrad. She now wears a perm, although I’m sure it’s not her parents’ money that pay for it.” Sis was on a roll. “I mean you see how Tatyana dresses! The thing she wore for her husband’s funeral! A woman of her age should watch such things!”
It felt like something lodged inside my throat. Was it words? Or a hair-thin bone from a sardine sandwich from my breakfast? Although I didn’t understand the situation completely, I knew it wasn’t something that left my brain untarnished.
Mother, by now, was smiling ear to ear. “Hold up! Which daughter?! Oh, Lord! Is it Oksanka?!”
Marinka shot another stare in my direction. You’ll break your eyes, I thought. Oh man, I wanted to get out of there! Blinking rapidly to remove the layer of forming tears — the shame! alas, the shame of it all! — I fished out the next wrinkled potato from the iron basin at my feet and hurriedly scraped it with the dull knife.
“Well, Oksanka, mamotchka! Of course! She’s got that job at the City Hall, remember?”
“Well,” mom shook her head. “WELL. That little bitch! She knows how to get around, I’ll give her that!”
I looked at Marinka, she — at me. Mother bluntness was a common happening but even we were surprised at her bluntness.
“The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” mother concluded. Marinka chuckled, fear freezing her eyelids into an expression of panic. The clock of her girlhood had stopped its final countdown.