At the end of the summer, Marinka aimed to take entrance exams to the two top medical institutes in the city. Mother offered to pull some strings: The woman was never at a lack of connects. But I’ve gotta give it to sis! She was determined to get in on the basis of her merit alone. (In those days, the idealism of the Russian youth tended to have a longer expiration date. Skepticism stepped in much later, flooding anywhere where the Soviet control of information gave room.)
So, after half of June spent on cramming for her high school finals, Marinka hibernated for about week; then, immediately resumed her studies. Mother wasn’t thrilled about it:
“Now, instead just one bookworm, I have two Oblomovas in the house!”
Those days, I began to wonder about what constituted a woman’s happiness. Mother, whose only expression of joy was overly stretched, forced — a sort of a strained delirium — didn’t strike me as genuine, but something quite the opposite, nearing insanity. She wasn’t happy in the way that Olya Morozova seemed, in her mother’s altered dress, on her own wedding day. And any time I’d seen her since, blissfully pregnant or contemplatively picking tomatoes at a market on weekends, she looked like someone composing a complicated orchestral movement: Lost in thoughts that she desired, never seeking approval (and why would she need it, with her moderate beauty, always basking in adoration?); content but not out of love or out of curiosity; fluid, available; kind.
For the first few weeks, mother struggled with the no longer vague signs of her oldest daughter’s ambition. She sized up our bunk beds, branding us with the name of the biggest lazy ass in the whole of Russian literature: Oblomov. Other times, she tempted us with distractions: a rerun of Santa Barbara or the news of other women’s misfortunes. It would happen mostly in that late afternoon hour, when mother, having returned yet again from a day of hunting for discounts and gossip, was expected to be in the kitchen. And we were expected to assist, simply because we were daughters. And therefore born female. And therefore, we had no choice. (But one always had a choice, even in the country that didn’t advertise freedom. We could choose the other way: the way outside of the expected, of the presumed.)
In response to the call for confrontation, I listened to my sis remain motionless above my head. It gave me the courage to stay sprawled out on my stomach as well, despite the signs of mother’s fuming in the doorway. The smell of her perfume lurked more oppressively than her silence. The anxiety of always, somehow, being perpetually wrong — inappropriate, incorrect — stirred in my chest. What was to happen?
Mother exhaled audibly, turned on her heels and stormed out of our room, making a ruckus with the bamboo curtains in the doorway. I held my breath, just in case of her abrupt return; until a few moments later, the kitchen appliances began tuning into an orchestra of percussions. I suppose a light touch does not belong to every woman; and our mother exorcised her frustrations via the objects that reminded her of domesticity.
I slathered up the ladder to Marinka’s bed and rested my chin on the last plank:
Sis looked up: “Hey, monkey.” She stopped chewing on her pencil for long enough to smile faintly, as if to herself. There was that mystery, again; the place of thoughts where women departed — to create, to process, to understand; or maybe rather to mourn, or to escape.
“Oooh,” I bulged out my eyes in the best dramatic delivery I’d inherited from mom, hissing: “Mom’s pee-ssed!”
Marinka smirked — inhaled — and resumed making a meal out of her pencil again. The two females had been in a bickering war this entire summer. Still, sis would not speak unkindly of our mother, at least not to me. To be the last to abandon her graces was my sister’s route to growing up. Descending into silence, she never gossiped in return these days, only listened whenever mother couldn’t hold it in.
Sis was curled up in the corner or plastered against the wall. She looked dewy and flushed. Her eyes shined with the symptoms of the cooped-up syndrome. She appeared sleepy and slightly dazed. Colorful drawings of human insides, notebooks, flashcards, a pile of reference encyclopedias borrowed from the library, a tipi of stacked colored pencils were spread on top of the purple blanket we’d inherited from our grandmother in Siberia. The old woman had died having accumulated nothing.
I watched Marinka’s plump lips mouth off unpronounceable terms. Mean smart! Ignoring my adoration (which was always too nosy or too hyper anyway), she leaned forward to flip a page; and, as she sometimes did in obedience to the flood of her kindness, grazed the top of my head with her sharp nails.
In those moments, oh, how I missed her already!
Some afternoons, when the heat became so unbearable not even the open windows offered much relief, we agreed to leave the house for the river bank. Half the town would have had the same idea by then. Mother grumbled about how we had wasted half a day on our shenanigans; yet, from the way she readied herself — nosily, running in her bra between the closets and the bathroom I wondered if she relished arriving to a packed beach. Giant straw hats with floppy edges were matched to colorful cotton sarafans with wide skirts that blew up at all the wrong times. There was a weightiness to most of mother’s possessions.
I was ordered to carry our picnic basket. Marinka was loaded up with blankets, towels and old linen sheets. We treaded ahead, while mother joined and laughed with various families, also en route to the river.
As predicted, everyone and their mother was out catching a break from the afternoon sun. The tilted bank was dressed with a smog of accumulated heat. For days, it hadn’t let up. Sheets and towels were splattered on top of yellowing grass, and families in various states of undress moved around sluggishly. Seemingly every kid in town, with the exception of the Slow Vanya who was home-schooled all of his life, was now squealing and splashing in the water.
As soon as we reached the top of the hill, an abrasive smell of fresh cow dung greeted us when the barely palpable breeze blew in our direction:
“Oh. We’ve missed the collective bath!” Marinka said under her breath. She was becoming funnier, too.
En route to and from their feeding ground, the farm cows were led into the river daily, to cool down and to get a break from the murders of flies. They must’ve just left.
Without getting up, the mothers were already hollering their instructions to the frenetic children again:
“Be careful, Irotchka!”
“Sasha! Don’t manhandle your sister!”
“What did I tell you about swimming that far?! MASHA!”
There were some fathers who got into the water on occasion, but they immediately got flocked by their own and other people’s children with runny noses and, for whatever reason, fatherless, for that day.
Our stuff hadn’t hit the ground, yet I was already squirming out of my clothes and hauling ass toward the water. Marinka dropped her load and scurried off after me, still in her jeans skirt with rhinestones on her pockets.
“Marina! Please watch where she goes!” mother, already slathering herself with sunflower oil in a company of her girlfriends, barely took notice of the fact that my beautiful, olive-skinned sister shed a few shades and turned nearly pale with terror.
She stopped. “Mama? She’s fine!”
I too looked back. Seemingly every hairy male appeared to have propped himself up on his elbows to get a better look at my sister’s behind. Mother was already gone, having departed quickly from any parental awareness. Marinka was expected to step in.
I slowed down and waited for my sister to catch up.
“If you’re lonely, I don’t have to go in.” Devotedly, I looked up at my sis. She seemed so out of place here, somehow kinder than the rest!
“It’s fine, my monkey,” she reached for my hand and looked ahead, at the glistening water at the other edge of the river, and the field of sunflowers there; or possibly further beyond all that, maybe somewhere where her life was going to begin.