Her previous thoughts on motherhood had brought her no peace. There were times she feared them even; intolerably changing tram cars when in too close of a proximity to a small child or sometimes a pregnant woman; feeling her own intimidation at the span of her life rise up in her: What would happen if she were to have a child?
It was as if she was allergic to the very idea of it, perhaps until she was ready, with time. Except that readiness never really arrived: Fear simply changed places with acute loneliness to which the sometimes seemingly easy solution presented itself in a trustful face of an infant. Maybe, that’s it. May, that’ll fix it. Maybe, if only she had a baby, she’d learn how; and perhaps, she’d grow softer. But it could also be just the very opposite — losing traces of self in the chaos of unknowing; and every single time, she shook the idea out of her hair as if it were a mere layer of dust from the construction site she passed every morning, on her way to the university.
“But you don’t have much time!” the other women warned her, their faces altered by some insider knowledge, for which she was expected to be grateful. Many had already procreated more than once by her age. “You’ve gotta try it,” they suggested with knowing smiles. “You’re gonna love being a wife!” (No one ever stopped to differentiate between the two events: motherhood and marriage did not have to be bound into a sequence.)
And she’d seen her own former school mates float around the city bazar with growing swellings of their stomachs — “I didn’t know she’d gotten married already!” — appearing too hot, uncomfortable or weighed down; rarely looking blissful. To her, the young mothers appeared to have gone distances. They were gone, off to the places outside of all this: This place, in the middle of winter, always just making it.
Most of Larisa’s girlfriends had left the town in the first five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Angela got into a law school in St. Petersburg. Oksana left for Israel. It happened in such a rapid succession, she didn’t get a chance to ask anyone yet: Do you feel that way sometimes too? (Larisa’s mother seemed to have no tolerance for such questions.)
Meanwhile, mother’s girlfriends dropped loud hints in her vicinity:
“Perhaps, Larisa is just not into it.”
“All books — no boys.”
A bluestocking, the librarian type. An old maid. Larisa wasn’t necessarily plain looking, but had always been bookish; and that would be intimidating to anyone, let alone a man with a domestic proposition for her.
“She should try putting on lipstick sometimes. She’s not that bad looking after all!”
It had to be a particular quality to the Russian women: to cross the lines of respect into forced familiarity, as if, just on the mere basis of their common sex, they could treat her as an fumbling ignoramus. Some of her mother’s girlfriends she always found invasive and somehow intentionally diminutive. It was if they knew better, and she should too. Often disguised with good wishes, they invaded and pointed out where she somehow didn’t measure up to the accomplishments of others, even though she, all along, strived for something different; something more specific, more organic to its environment: like the color of sunset before a thunderstorm, or the way her footsteps sounded after each first snowfall and they moved the heart to awe by the magnanimity of it all, even though it couldn’t be — nor needn’t be — described.
And then, there was their insincerity, one might even call it “mean spirits”. Larisa looked to her mother for a back-up, but the woman didn’t see it her way: Mother was always better at belonging:
“Such things, Larisa, they take a woman’s heart to understand!”
The little girl had let go of her grandmother’s skirt, sat down onto the dirt floor of the church and rested her chin on top of the propped up knees. Larisa hadn’t noticed that the child had been studying her. The hum of the recorded organ had carried her away; not because she would’ve rather been elsewhere. No, she enjoyed drifting off like this, and then observing the world from a haze of her own thoughts; vague and left better undefined.
And she had known men — one Pyotr Nedobry — who forced their own thoughts to be defined and insisted to interpret hers. With attentiveness rooted in hunger, Pyotr would study her with desire: as if she could fix it, be his long sought-out solution, whatever had been missing out of her life. And when he, last May, lifted her up over his shoulder and ran toward the lake, she was expected to laugh. Instead, she couldn’t catch her breath. Too late, she thought. Such romance no longer tempted her. Or maybe, she was the type to have lived out her youth already, for there was nothing left to miss of it; no delightful memory but the mournful knowledge that she, indeed, was never really youthful.
Pyotr Nedobry placed her down, that day, on the lawn, by the bank.
“The dandelions!” Larisa tenderly whispered. They were everywhere!
“Oh, I know! So annoying!” Pyotr exclaimed, and he took off his jacket so that they could sit down without staining their clothes. Not at all what she had meant!
They spoke while looking out. He would pick up blades of semi-dry grass, small branches, sharp-edged pebbled and continue sticking them into her slip on shoes. Hurtful, irritating — he demanded too much!
If she were to go for it, she knew at first the attention would be elating; and it would lighten her days for a while. But she had already done that, a number of times! Once with a student from Argentina who convinced her that he would be her life’s regret if she didn’t let him woo her. He wasn’t. And all this attention eventually turned on itself. Everything that they would learn of each other could become ammunition, for it was humanly impossible for one woman to get the job done. She would grow tired and mourn the mysteries she’d surrendered under the influence of lust.
“All these girly secrets!” Pyotr smirked, looking down at her, sideways. He was already becoming mean.
And she — was already gone.
Larisa looked up at the statue of Christ. The sun, parting the clouds after a week of snowfall, shined through the colored bits of the mosaic windows; and a column of caramel-colored light came down onto the thorn-crowned head. Larisa felt warmer: That’s it! That’s how she wanted to discover beauty: never expecting it, never molding the circumstances that were out of her control; but by simply and habitually mending her spaces, she could give room for it all — to flood in.