For as long as I could remember, my sister was always afraid of water. She was eight years older than me; and as we both grew up, her inability caused me confusion, delight and pride at my own skillfulness — exactly in that order.
“That’s ‘cause you were born a total daddy’s girl!” Marinka teased me. She was jealous. Obviously.
It had become somewhat of a tradition between the two us to huddle up in her bunk bed at night (until she’d left for college, Marinka would always have the top); and for hours at a time, we flipped through the albums of black-and-white family photos, while Marinka told me the stories that predated me. The stiff pages of teal cardboard smelled like the chemicals from the darkroom. Lying on my stomach, I studied the contours traced by Marinka’s fingers, until my elbows became sore.
In the year of Marinka’s birth — 1967 — the Soviet Union was peaking towards its highest glory. My sister was lucky to be born with a promising future of the citizen of the “Best Country in the World”. But in exchange for that giant favor, our dear Motherland claimed the life our father. Well, not literally, of course: This isn’t your typical sob story, of vague third-worldliness, in which the parents die off too young, leaving their poor children seriously messed-up for the rest of their lives. Dad just had to work a lot, that’s all. So, Marinka wasn’t exposed to a fatherly influence during those tender, formative years.
For weeks, for months at a time the old man would be gone from our household. According to Marinka, it made our mother none too happy.
“Really?” I whispered while patting yet another image of my mother holding her firstborn in a professionally done family portrait, while father was, well, not there.
At that point Marinka would realize she’d gone too far — after all, I was only six years old — and clumsily, she changed the subject: “Ugh! Stop groping my photos so hard! You’re gonna leave a mark!” I sat up into an imitation of her cross-legged position. The secret was to wait for Marinka’s temper flares to fizzle out.
Soon, the story continued.
In response to his woman’s nonsense, father would smile discretely; and mother would have no choice but take his word for it. No, wait. Considering the man never spoke much, it was his silence that she had to trust. And if dad were a cheating, lying scumbag, like the likes of his coworker Uncle Pavel — a handsome, salt ‘n’ pepper haired player with a mustache of a Cossack — he could’ve gotten away with it. I mean, the man was gone all the time. No matter the town or the city in which the family settled (for half a decade at the most), soon enough dad would go off to the same place called “the Polygon”.
Now, that’s exactly the part that Marinka could never clarify for me: While I patted the images of our uniformed father — gingerly this time — she couldn’t explain if he was going to the same place, or if our glorious Motherland had these Polygons up the wahzoo.
“Did mama cry?” I detoured back to gossip.
Marinka considered. “Nah. If she did, I never saw it!” Out came the photo of mother surrounded by her colleagues, laughing at the camera.
What else was the woman to do? After about a week of her spousal absence, mother would begin going over to her girlfriends for dinner nearly every night. Sometimes, Marinka came along. But on Saturdays, all the women dressed up and went to a discoteca, leaving my poor sister to her own devices.
“Oy, no!” I tried my luck at flattery. “But who’d change your diapers then?” I knew my time was running out, and soon enough Marinka would get bored by my endless questions.
Sure enough, “You idiot!” sis scoffed. “She waited until I grew out of them before she started going out!” For a moment, we both studied mother’s graduation portrait in which she, a Komsomol member, looked like that one actress from Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears. “You’re so dense sometimes, Irka, I swear!”
Before my sis would succeed in chasing me out of her bunk bed though, I managed to give a decent comeback:
“Ooh! Look at you, using big words and stuff. Dense does as dense sees!”
“Get out, I said!” sis flipped out. A person of great impatience, she really did inherit mostly my mother’s prickly predisposition. (I, of course — was my father, reincarnated.) “And look at your feet!” Marinka squealed if she got a glimpse of my sandbox activities marked all over my soles. “I’m so telling mom!”
I don’t know about the rest of the world and its children — who, as our Motherland promised, did NOT have as happy of childhoods as we did — but Marinka’s telltale threats were worse than, say, the warning of the nuclear attack from America. Mom was the biggest disciplinarian around town! Or maybe even in the whole of the Soviet Union!
Sometimes, Marinka did manage to tell on me. But with age, I’d gained enough escape routes from the house, to never let my mother’s disciplinarian belt to graze the skin of my ass. If worse came to worst, I climbed out of our kitchen window and hid in the giant pear tree, in the garden. No one but armies upon armies of honey bees was ever much interested in that giant monster anyway. In the summer, they flunked the heavy branches of sour fruit. But for the rest of the year, that pear tree made an excellent hiding place.
Besides, from an early age, I had noticed the difference in the athletic predispositions between the women of our family. That is to say that my mother and sister had none! I, on the other hand, was the best son that father could ever desire! I could run faster than any of the boys in my elementary school, and had scabs to show for it. Playing with my sister’s girlfriends didn’t interest me in the least, unless, of course, they were jumping rope. Then, I was like a grasshopper gone berserk inside a glass jar. And nothing transcended me into a better sense of zen than to climb trees and to organize and reorganize my father’s tool box, over and over again.