Inna woke up to the sound of the television set, located on the other side of her bedroom wall. It was a common occurrence in their apartment: everyone’s mandatory obedience to the schedule of her mother’s whimsy. Sunday mornings of waking up to blasting music, recorded from the previous night’s TV concert, for which Inna was rarely allowed to stay up, were a part of the family’s routine. Each time, Inna would attempt to ignore the ungodly hour and bury her head under the pillow where she would often find a flashlight and the book that she had been reading, in secret, under the covers, the night before. There, she would give her interrupted dreams another try. But knowing her mother to be convinsingly oblivious, soon she would give up on any hope for silence; throw aside the covers in a fit of rebellion, and march into the kitchen, sleepy, grouchy and barefoot. (To protest mother with her own loud noises was her only resource — NOT that it would be of any success).
Father was often already there, at the wobbly kitchen table, slouching over the Sunday Pravda, with a large cup of black coffee, next to the bowl of white Cuban sugar.
“Well, brown-eyed girl,” he’d greet her with a conspiring grin, sleep crowding the corners of his cornflower-blue eyes. “Good morning, eh?”
“I’ll say!” she would respond.
Inna couldn’t recall exactly when it began, but a change was happening in her relationship with dad: a newly found bond, mostly communicated with knowing silences and smiles that betrayed the seriousness of what was actually being said. In her classes on Soviet literature, a similar smile appeared on the lips of her teacher Tatyana Ilyinitchna, whenever she read out loud the works of Gogol and Evgeny Petrov. In the previous quarter, they had studied the concepts of satire and irony, adopted by the Soviet writers against censorship. Inna suspected her teacher’s smile was related to those concepts — and that’s exactly how one was to read such works. (Although she still, for the life of her, could not understand the difference between a metaphor and a simile. But that was a whole other matter!)
Recently, she had also begun to notice her parents’ lackluster attempts to hide their arguments from her. It was as if the two adults had suddenly grown tired, like many others in their town. And while it appeared that everything else in the country was hurriedly revealing its flip side — scandals competing for the front page news, daily — Inna’s parents had also stopped putting up a front. These days, father tended to drink more. Mother bickered, easily irritable; and she eventually maneuvered their every argument to the deficit of money.
Still, father would never criticize his wife in front of Inna. To the contrary, it was Inna’s mother who took such liberties in their one-on-ones. And at first, Inna was thrilled: Was mother also changing, from a strict disciplinarian to her friend and confidant? But on their rendezvous into the city that summer, she quickly realized that mother’s confessions were a one-way dynamic. Never was Inna permitted to quote her mother’s list of grievances or to voice her own. She was there to merely keep her mother company; and it would be in her own best interest to adopt the delicate understanding of exactly when she was her mother’s ear — and when she was quickly demoted back to being her inferior (which quite often, as it turned out, happened in the company of other adults).
But this was a Monday morning. With father traveling to Baykalsk, Inna was alone in her frustrations. School would start in a couple of weeks; and she began anticipating the strenuous studies her first year of Junior High had in store. After all, this was the year that everyone determined a profession and chose their future institutions. Some boys would choose the army, although military service was no longer mandatory. Inna, as most adults predicted, was bound for her mother’s job. Which meant that after this year, she would be headed for the Pedagogical University No. 3.
“This once! Couldn’t she just let me rest, just this once?!” To stifle a grunt, Inna ducked under the pillow only to find the second — and the more tedious — tome of Mikhail Sholokhov’s Tikhy Don, which she pushed herself to finish, even if for the sport of being the only student in her class who had read everything on their summer reading list.
Not bothering to change out of her nightgown — “Maybe then she will feel guilty!” — Inna forwent washing up and made her way into the living room, from where the sounds were coming. She had hoped to make enough noise with her bare feet, as well as the bamboo curtain hanging in her doorway, to let mother know that she was coming. And: that she was pissed!
In the living room, she found mother, in nothing but a beige bra and a pair of matching, shape-enhancing bicycle shorts that she would always wear underneath her pencil skirts. She sat on the couch, nearly slipping off its seat cushion from leaning forward. Mother’s right hand covered her mouth, as if to stifle any sound of torment. Her eyes were glued to the TV screen.
On the small, black-and-white montage, Inna saw the footage of Moscow’s White House, flocked by tanks. Crowds of locals had gathered around. (Muscovites were always a courageous people! Some of the best in the nation, Inna thought. One day! Oh, but one day, she would find herself among them, living on her own!)
At first, Inna assumed that mother was consumed by a documentary on one of the recent upheavals, of which, since the start of Gorbachev’s perestroika, there had been plenty. When a newscaster with a knitted brow interrupted the footage, through the bits of fragmented news Inna gathered exactly what she had nearly slept through: Gorbachev’s heart attack. Change of leadership. Moscow in a state of emergency.
It wasn’t the first passing of a leader in Inna’s lifetime, but she was too little to understand the grieving of the nation that followed. But Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev: She liked him a lot! She found him to be one of the more handsome General Secretaries that the Party had ever had; and even though in recent folklore, he was the pun of multiple jokes — for his Ukrainian accent or presumed provinciality — he seemed to be a less mysterious figure, often appearing among crowds, talking to factory workers; and laughing with children, women and American politicians alike.
The newscaster proceeded building sentences that to Inna’s mind, still groggy from sleep, sounded nonsensical: The roads leading in and out of Moscow appeared to be cut off. There were reports of downed phone lines. New leaders were in place. The news seemed mixed, somehow suggestive; but already it appeared that this was not a typical succession of one leader after the next.
Mother, silent and unaware of Inna, sat still; and Inna knew: All was quite serious.
“Ma?” she said softly, fearful to approach. “How long?” She couldn’t finish her thought. She found herself unsure on how to act in time of great upheaval.
When mother looked at her, Inna remembered how prettily her eyes appeared in photographs. In the darkroom that mother always made in their half-bathroom, Inna liked to walk along the shower curtain with drying black-and-white photographs and study the wet images. Unlike Inna’s eyes — of bluish-gray, as if diluted from her father’s (a metaphor or a simile here?) — her mother’s irises appeared nearly black; mysterious and endless in all photographs.
But father’s eyes! When on the previous month’s salary, the family purchased a color camera, for the first time Inna would notice just how blue — was their blue. And often, they appeared illuminated by a stifled smile, as he the shutter caught him in the midst of reading Gogol, out loud.
They heard from father on August 22. By that time, all of mother’s quiet stoicism had long dissipated. She now wore strictly head-to-toe black attires when out on the town. She left the apartment every morning, returning with a group of worried-looking girlfriends who served her tea, rummaged through the kitchen drawers, and for some reason always spoke in half-whisper whenever Inna entered.
For several days, Inna had gotten her fill of the news: Her favorite General Secretary was fine after all, but out of the city on vacation. She’d also seen reports about a young politician called Boris Yeltsin, who climbed onto the tanks and spoke willingly, from make-shift barricades, to both the Russian people and the press.
When townswomen came to take over the living room, Inna returned to her bedroom. The women’s eyes on the TV screen, their spoons — in the jars of homemade jam, they whimpered when the news shifted from uncertain to anything poignant or tragic. Some pecked at Inna’s mother; while others crossed themselves and nibbled on their crumpled, pastel-colored handkerchieves.
Despite avoiding these congregations at all costs, there — into the living room — Inna ran out, when she overheard her mother whaling on the phone, inside her parents’ bedroom:
“Oy! Sasha! Sasha! Sashen’ka! How scared I was! How lonely! What if you’d died! I’m so scared!”
The other women clumped together in the bedroom doorway, and finding it impossible to get past their motherly behinds, Inna gave up and listened to the bits of news from the other side.
“Oy, Sasha! I was so worried, I tell you! I hadn’t slept a wink.” (When mother’s tenderness surfaced, it wouldn’t last for long: Impatience always crowded it out.) “Udmurtya? Still on the train?”
“Ah! Glory to God!” the women exclaimed in the doorway. “He must’ve gotten out of Moscow on time!”
“Oh, yes! What the Lord giveth!”
“Lord! Bless this family!”
Inna sized up the wall of motherly behinds again. Feeling discomforted by the religious proclamations — which weren’t much done around her before — Inna returned to her room. It was the first time she would notice that she’d run out with book in hand; a pair of her father’s giant earphones, unplugged and dangling around her neck. (She had been using them to ward off the sounds of the women; their loud passing through the house, none of them offering to take off their heels.)
She looked outside the window. The town’s cobblestone road glistened from that afternoon’s rain. Inna remembered when, from the kitchen stove back at her grandmother’s one summer, she witnessed the old woman lower herself onto her knees. Grandma had come out in a nightgown, in the middle of the night, to fetch herself a glass of water. Her head, for a change, was barren. A gray, long braid ran down her spine. At first, the woman studied the black window with her own ghost-like reflection; and traced the cold glass along her lower jaw. Before she kneeled, grandmother put down the glass, lifted her nightgown’s hem, and looked over her shoulder. Inna, in her hiding spot, stopped breathing.
That was the first time Inna ever witnessed prayer. She now imitated the old woman’s actions, slowly recalling them from memory. Once kneeling, she felt awkward, silly. But she forgave the unfamiliarity of the moment and lowered her head.