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THE BEST IN CONTEMPORARY RUSSIAN FICTION
IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION


Nikolai Klimontovich

THE ROAD TO ROME

Translated by Frank Williams

(from Glas 35)

I: LIBERTY ISLAND

A healthy adolescence: football in the yard, picture books about pirates, puerile mucking about between lessons and the constant itch to get under a girl’s skirt and at her knickers – try and remember where exactly on this latter voyage of discovery my odyssey began. But even supposing I did have some kind of hazy dreams about her, what could I have dreamt of? The smell of coconut milk, tangles of sugar cane, peaceful pink sands at the ebb tide, the fretwork silhouettes of palm trees, and out in the lagoon a schooner riding at anchor? All so unlike the unpretentious northern landscape in the area of the knickers of my classmates Tanya, Olga and Lyuba, a region I had explored pretty thoroughly.
These expeditions around home territory were not short of a sense of excitement, of course, but it bore no comparison with the feeling she aroused in me, forcing me to run the other way, down the stairs from our classroom as soon as her slender figure appeared in the dusty and shabby reaches of our corridor. Yet I wasn’t really in love with her, the way I was with Tanya or Olga or a dozen other girls – on and off and with all of them at once; and to be frank, she didn’t strike me as beautiful: she was skinny, half a head taller than me – for though I might have been shy, I was still a strapping lad; she was swarthy, with a thin, sharp face, and eyes very dark and small, a bit rodent-like, and a year older than me, too, which could have been a huge plus for her if she had been in the class above, but she had been put in our year which cancelled out her advantage in age. Not that she had been made to repeat a year, no, she was Cuban, or as I would have liked to think, a mestizo, because at that time I was more than just a soccer-mad Lothario, I was a voracious reader, devouring verbose Dickens, tedious Daudet, heroic Captain Blood and the enthralling Mayne Reid.
She had been born during Batista’s rule (The Young Pioneer Pravda had run a series about the horrors of his regime), and was the daughter of a Cuban envoy, apparently from the old aristocracy which the fearless, but pragmatic Fidel had partially won over to his side. Rather like he’d made all the incredibly flamboyant Havana prostitutes, who before the revolution had serviced American clients, drive taxis, because the only thing they could do besides a blow job was drive a car. She despised Russians – perhaps because she reckoned all Russians were communists, which in those days wasn’t far from the truth – and her contempt showed in her cool manner, if you can talk about manners in a thirteen year old girl, and in her independent opinions, and in a standoffishness, which killed any willingness on the part of our teachers to teach her anything. The other girls treated her with no more than a twinge of superstitious revulsion, though not without curiosity, as if she were an over-intelligent house-trained monkey, so they were not at all envious of either her clothes or her things – actually, she was modest and ascetic in this respect; as for the boys, they called her Tarzan’s ape and on the whole ignored her. Anyway, Moscow in the twilight of the Krushchev era was full of foreigners, for the most part dark-complexioned like her, or even plain black. My more enterprising friends used to trade badges for chewing gum with them, and get arrested for it, picked up briefly either by the police or by the student volunteers from the University patrol at the Lenin Hills viewpoint from where you still get the best view of our awkward, sprawling, charming monstrosity of a city.
For months we never said a word to each other, but then I began to detect an inquisitive glance, very direct, and one day she gave me a fright when, after our eyes had met briefly, a smile appeared on her usually glum face, a smile quite without playfulness, reserve or come-on. I had been watching her quietly before that, and discovered much that was seriously enticing. She had unspoken permission not to wear school uniform, and mostly she wore tight-fitting jeans, which, incidentally, at that time looked like ordinary sports gear, they weren’t a symbol or a fetish; naturally, she didn’t wear the red pioneer neck scarf, since she wasn’t formally a Soviet Pioneer. I was captivated by her voice, husky in comparison with the shrillness of the other girls, by her accent, by her foreign pronunciation and by the way she almost completely ignored declensions, even though she spoke Russian tolerably well compared to the other foreigner in our class, a Hungarian girl who was fat and slovenly, but still game for a laugh. Secretly, I watched her walk – she moved lightly, on the balls of her feet, she didn’t shuffle, didn’t sway like some of the older girls; she had very pink nails on her dark fingers that were always clean and neat, and I guessed she manicured them every day; in each translucent lobe of her golden ears gleamed the almost invisible silver dot of an earring, her shiny straight black hair was always combed smooth and pulled back into a knot, while her blouse was taut across the mounds of her breasts with their claret-coloured nipples. She was different in every way, and this in itself evoked dangerously mixed feelings. She was more perfect than all the others around her, including me of course, and any intimacy with her would demand strenuous effort and perfection on my part.
What could I do to impress her – perform prodigious feats during a game of football; offer her a nibble of my jam doughnut during break, which always worked with the Olgas and Tanyas; take the piss out of our class tutor, a hysterical old maid of a civics teacher who was always looking for any excuse to call my parents to the school; name off by heart a couple of dozen writers – that only worked on the Russian teacher, Alevtina, she of the hooked nose and moustache, who would call me out of lessons to the staff room under the pretext of helping her with the wall newspaper, stroke my hair and talk breathlessly about her summer love affair with a flight lieutenant? There was probably only one time I could have won her admiration – at a Pioneers’ meeting, which censured my habit of keeping my pioneer scarf in my pocket instead of around my neck – but she never went to meetings. How could I win her over, make her weep with gratitude, write me notes, breathe into the phone, blush when I caught her sneaking a look at me? It was unthinkable to lure her to my place some grim winter day while my parents were at work, or up to an April attic with the cooing of doves and mounds of droppings, or to May-time bushes by the volleyball court for a solitary kiss and a fumble. It was quite impossible to imagine her in a collective grope in the locker room, like Lyuba, the best endowed and most generously proportioned girl in the class, overflowing with such seductive juices that even the least prepossessing boys swarmed like flies around her big thighs and sateen slacks.
The more I spied, the more I realized the degree of courage to reject home, habits and the peaceful joys of a cosy and carefree existence that adventure requires, since even a chance exchange of looks with her seemed an adventure to me. Of course, a real pirate captain, were she captured by his men, would have ordered her taken to his cabin and, true gentleman that he was, guaranteed her total inviolability – to do that, though, you would have needed to hang a dozen or so mutinous swabs from the yardarm and to have at least two permanently loaded pistols, not to speak of other arms and accoutrements, about your person. But it wasn’t just the lack of practice at quelling mutiny and scanty ammunition that made chatting her up such a difficult thing to do – caution, fear of rejection, and an unwillingness to risk my hard-won leadership of the class also played a part, since my emotional state, despite my friends’ dim-wittedness in affairs of the heart, threatened to become all too obvious at any moment. Furthermore, there was something else – something women regard in men as chicken-heartedness – a vague presentiment that, besides a simple urge to get into their knickers, girls can sometimes provoke, by use of their powers of bewitchment, a mysterious, dangerous and irresistible feeling in your soul, which, to quote a Scandinavian novelist of high emotional charge whom I did not read until later when it happened to me for the first time, inclines even the heads of kings to the ground.
Meanwhile, I discovered other details about her, which in my eyes placed her at an even more insuperable distance. First of all, it turned out she spoke other languages besides Russian. That she knew Spanish was not too hard to figure out, but one day during an English lesson, when we were struggling with irregular verbs and the teacher asked a question, she suddenly came up with, I don’t like Mondays. She shut up immediately, realising she’d said too much and given the game away, that her earlier pretence and fake efforts to learn like any other beginner had been exposed. A little later we found out she played tennis; someone met her on the street carrying a racket, not that it was a big deal, in foreign movies they often played tennis, then kissed, rich people as a rule – we didn’t like rich people much, but we tolerated them as a relic of the past, especially in the movies. Besides, we had rackets and balls at home; true, I’d never seen my father play tennis, though he tried to get me to play against the wall a couple of times, but it was boring just belting a ball, there was no obvious purpose or competitive spirit. Anyway it wasn’t so much the tennis as the fact that, when I heard about her interest in it, I instantly saw her, with a stab of pain that surprised me, all of her, from her head to her toes, dashing to pick up a low shot and the vision was so gracious that for a long time afterwards I went about obsessed by an image that was purely the product of my own imagination. Then one day I was walking past the apartment building for diplomats where she lived, the dipdom as we used to call it, because I lived on the other side of the street in a block which was its identical twin in appearance – the same brick, the same eight-storey box, the same Krushchev-era utilitarianism and abhorrence of architectural flourishes – I was coming up to the entrance to her yard, glanced at the guard perched in his glass booth on the pavement, and was forced back by a gleaming car flying a brightly coloured flag on its bonnet as it pulled very slowly out of the entrance. She was sitting on the front seat, looking supremely aloof. The man at the wheel was, presumably, a chauffeur, because in the either silk or velvet-upholstered rear I glimpsed a swarthy gentleman with an unbelievable moustache, though not as long as I remember it now, and not as pointed as in the photographs of Salvador Dali. I don’t think she saw me. The car drove off, I didn’t even look round, but I was filled with such an unbearably sweet longing for the unattainable that that very evening I picked a fight, and drew blood, with the boy next door. The next morning she was the one who made the first move.
She walked over and took out of her satchel a big, shiny, gaudy record like I’d never seen before and I didn’t see another until two years later when my dad brought me one from Belgium, when they let him go there for a conference. She offered me the record and asked: Listen? It was so unexpected I didn’t really catch on to what she meant, but nodded anyway. You listen Bill Haley? The second time around her question sounded more like an order. I took the record obediently, trying to hold it so my sweaty fingers wouldn’t leave marks all over the sleeve. Listen! She repeated the order, turned and walked off down the corridor, not with the satchel on her back, but carrying it by one strap and swinging it just above the floor.
I had a record player. It could play Soviet-produced records of two different diameters, both of them smaller than this disk, which turned out to be American, that is, of almost astronomical value – even I understood that, though I was never a music freak, either then or later. I used to listen to Soviet records from series like Sing Along, Friends or Spread the Circle Wider, the most daring things in them, I remember, were versions of the twist by Arno Babadjanyan, though you could detect something vaguely akin to rock n’ roll in the music to Amphibian Man, a movie, locally produced of course, which had a song that went: we all, we all, we all, we all want to live in the slime – which summed up the debauchery of some hypothetical, un-Soviet, foreign way of life. Speaking of which, some of my friends had big brothers or sisters, even I had an older cousin, and if you gate-crashed their parties you could hear bootleg boogie-woogie recordings cut on exposed X-ray plates, ribs and all. And here I was with a genuine western record, Rock Around The Clock – that it was a Top Ten hit, I had absolutely no doubt, she would never palm me off with something second best. As soon as I put it on, I was seduced by the seeming casualness of Bill’s delivery, but above all by the beat, so crisp, so tight it set your feet tapping of their own accord.
I played the record once, twice, three times, jumping around the record player, in a hurry to carry out her instructions and have the chance to report back and, possibly, get something in reward. I wasn’t that naive, I understood – Bill was just an excuse for closer acquaintance, though I hadn’t a clue what, exactly, our acquaintance might consist of. I was so impatient I was late for school, and when I flew into class, she was already at her desk – in the middle row. During break I went over and silently handed her the record. She looked at me quite impassively: You can dance this? Thanks for, yeah, I can, I mean no, I can’t rock – was sort of what came out. I learn you, she said. When? – I managed to ask, without hesitating. Today possible, she said after a pause to work it out. You know where live? Know where live, I replied, not intending to take the mickey in any way, just anxious we might not have understood each other fully – in other words, not know. I realised I’d put my foot in it, but it was too late. You know, she affirmed, I wait four...
What did she mean, wait? Because even if she had told me what number her flat was, I still couldn’t get into a dipdom, the guard would probably detain me. Explaining wouldn’t be any use, it was forbidden to pester foreigners, so my friends who liked to barter for chewing gum told me. The guard would hold me and make out a detention notice, though Letuchev had three of them and still seemed fine; true he didn’t have a dad and had had to repeat a year. I could try not going past the guard in his booth, by climbing over the wall at the far side of the yard, but – and I’d heard of stunts like this – there was probably some invisible wire stretched along the top, which would either strike you dead if you touched it, or, at best, set off an alarm, the guards would come running and you’d end up in a colony for juvenile offenders for attempted breaking and entering. However, by half past three I’d already completed one circuit of the outside wall of her courtyard, trying to check out the best place for committing the putative crime – no doubt defectors paid just as careful attention looking for the weak spots in the defences of the Soviet Union’s inviolable borders. I slipped past the gates twice, trying not to look at the guard who was reading a newspaper anyway. At the far end of the apartment building there was a solid concrete wall twice my height and absolutely smooth, whichever way I craned to look, I couldn’t make out any wire along the top, I calculated it wouldn’t be too hard to scale the obstacle – it was a matter of technique – but spotted in time that the guard’s booth was positioned so he could see everything going on in the yard, which meant I had to find the exact spot to climb over where I could use some kind of cover inside, otherwise I’d be trapped, and with these thoughts in mind I was wandering along the fence, making my third circuit, when I saw her walking along the pavement. She waved, and as soon as I came close, grabbed my sleeve and pulled me past the guard, who gave us no more than a perfunctory glance.
My preparations for committing a crime had somewhat dulled the sense of anticipation before a date, but now instead of being pleased to see her, I felt vaguely humiliated – she was in my class, after all, and I wasn’t used to having girls lead me by the hand to places where I couldn’t go; but there was another feeling, too – of slightly stupid pride: if only my friends could see me going somewhere they had no chance of getting into; but there was also, of course, fear from the knowledge that what was going on was illegal. The one thing that was absent was the question: why, actually, should what I was doing be against the law?
Meanwhile, I was surprised to notice that the dipdom was scarcely different to ours – the same pathetic trees planted any old how, the same cracked asphalt, except the kids in the sandpit were black. The only difference was the lobby, which had a different smell and tiled walls for some reason, otherwise the metal lift was just as noisy and just as scratched inside. The miracles began on her floor, where instead of the obligatory four doors per landing, there were only two. She drew me to the right, didn’t have to ring, the door just opened, and in front of us stood an absolutely black woman in a white apron and cap, and I was caught off balance by the contrast between starched sugar white and the blackness of her skin – she smiled a no less dazzlingly white smile and with a slight bow gestured me inside, but my escort paid her not the slightest heed and drew me on down the corridor. On the way past the dining room I caught a glimpse through the open door of some unusual furniture, polished chrome legs and bright blue surfaces. To sit on chairs like that, eat at a table like that you’d surely need a lot of practice.
Her room struck me as actually pretty simple: semi-transparent curtains at the window, books with Latin script on the spine lying open face down on a chest, here and there the usual soft girlie things, dolls and straw mats everywhere. At last she let go of my hand and the first thing she did was switch on the record player. I was completely thrown when the sound came not from where I expected, but from the other side of the room – the only record player on the Soviet market in those days had the speaker mounted in the lid.
A dark-skinned woman, resembling the gentleman in the car in some intangible way, only without the moustache, came into the room. She pulled funny faces and moved her lips silently, smiling and looking at me, and I understood she was saying she was sorry she didn’t speak Russian. She put down a little tray with two bottles and a bowl full of shelled nuts, and with the same mimed smiles and gestures went out, looking at me all the while. Coca, my friend said like she always did, half question, half order. I shrugged my shoulders. I had never tasted Coca-Cola before, but wanted to try. Dance, she decided, without giving me the chance. She pulled me out into the middle of the room, chanting; one, two, free, one, two, free... She was already dancing, jerking my arm, and I tried to copy her, to overcome my awkwardness. She found my clumsiness funny, I felt. The music played, drums beat, Bill Haley urged me on. Finally she burst out laughing and collapsed onto a narrow divan, poured herself some coke, drank thirstily, stopped laughing, put her glass down, looked me in the eyes, beckoned and pouted: Kiss!
The word was new to me, but I put my lips to hers. She was taking too much of the initiative for my taste, but on the other hand I was pleasantly surprised she wasn’t a tease. As soon as my lips touched hers, her expression changed – her smile became radiant, tender, I didn’t know she could smile that way, she took off her blouse and dress, kicked away her sandals, leaving only her knickers on. I must have looked really stupid, because I was riveted by those knickers, I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Not there, she said, intercepting my gaze, and for emphasis pointed between her legs. It was all pretty weird, but strangely enough it was her knickers I found most amazing. I’d never seen anything like them – they weren’t some scrap of fabric, but seemed to be of transparent human skin. You could see everything under them, even the moles in the hollow of her skinny thigh, right beneath her hipbone, the fit was so tight and smooth across her flat little tummy, except for between her legs where they were heavily embroidered in a pattern like dense, hoarfrosted grass, and in this place there was nothing to be seen. And so I understood her words and her gesture not so much as to mean that getting under her knickers was forbidden, as that knickers like that were impossible to take off, and if they were taken off they would be more like a plaster cast, grown to the shape of her body. I couldn’t think straight any longer and decided that probably over there, on Cuba, girls wore knickers like that as a precaution, so nobody’d try getting into them, and was astonished at the subtlety of their foresight. I sat down next her, almost naked, on the divan. She leant over and pressed her mounds against my sweater. In this act, too, I felt there was something exotic – I’d heard that on some islands people kissed by rubbing noses. She took my hand and brushed it against her cheek, then her neck, then put it on her swellings, and suddenly I wanted to take it away, I felt something akin to disgust, as if I was being forced to touch somebody’s inflammation. But when she began unbuttoning my shirt, saying over and over kiss me, kiss me, I even began to pull away and resist. Then she did something I really had not anticipated: she slipped her hand down and put it on my zip. No girl had ever put her hand there before. I didn’t even feel embarrassed – I felt wilted, and my wilting appendage also acted the puppy dog – too young to come to whistle and do as he was told. It was limp, like a felt Father Christmas on a tree, like Father Christmas with a sniffle, because its nose was dripping – from overexcitement and overstimulation – a steady drip from goodness knows where of sweet and sticky juice. Boy, she said with her usual semi-interrogative intonation, and carried on persuasively, but without a shadow of irritation or disappointment: You are boy. And she left the room, her quick bare feet not touching the floor, and I realised to my horror that all that time the door hadn’t been shut. It had been left half open.
She left it half open as well. I was still trying to figure out where she had gone dressed like that when I heard the unmistakable gurgling sound. At this point I got upset, really upset: it meant she hadn’t had to loose any bonds! Her knickers came off quickly and easily, there was no ban from which she herself was exempt... I was blind with fury when I quit the dipdom and walked past the guard. Probably, if he’d called me over, I’d have thumped him, and that would have been suicidal, they’d have put me in a juvenile penal colony, but at that moment I would probably have been glad to suffer for my freedom, for freedom in general. But the guard didn’t even look at me.
Yes, I was hurt at the time, but not that gut-wrenching hurt which longs for an opportunity for apologies, forgiveness and reconciliation; it was that everlasting and most bitter of emotions which the proud call disappointment and for which there can be no forgiveness. But now, though we never spoke after that and in the autumn she disappeared from the class – now I can, strangely enough, remember her hands, and transparent earlobes, and even her smell, it seems. Because I’ve forgotten nothing. I remember that golden era, Fidel’s beard on posters midway between Marx and Engels in size, I recall the chipped five-pointed star made of opaque red glass we put on top of the Christmas tree, Christmas trees had just been allowed again, remember the newsreel pictures of Krushchev’s bald head bobbing peacefully, like a buoy, in the Black Sea just before Brezhnev’s coup... My God, what a lot of good things there were: Wonderworker soda, the first and last strike I ever led (the class I was in, 4-A, wasn’t taken to the welcome parade for Yury Gagarin), the fat yellow volumes of the Children’s Encyclopaedia with colour gatefolds of dinosaurs, the food processor (GDR made) which could even juice carrots. And the first bottle of Trifeshti drunk in the entrance to our block, and Indian cigarettes – brown with a gold band, and Krakow sausage, and duffel bags, and loose hiking trousers, and the weeds’ song from a cartoon about maize, and Chinese Two Balls brand juggling clubs, and the movie If This Is Love, and the happy taste of childhood’s semi-freedom, and my father’s Norwegian skis, and the dacha at Skhodnya, and the university swimming pool, and the exercise book with songs copied in by hand, and pineapples in mid-April – in time for my birthday, and apple trees on Mars...

II: THE BERLIN WALL

Continuing in the communist nostalgia vein, I can’t help but introduce at this point an episode that robbed me of yet another sweet illusion. It took place in the later sixties, ninth class coming to an end, springtime, round about our sixteenth birthdays. Let’s have a bardak, we used to say, if somebody’s old people had gone off to the country and there was a flat free. Not a party, because that implied something much more insipid. A bardak had the same ingredients – music, booze and girls – the difference was in the quantity and quality.
For a full-blown bardak booze was obtained in copious amounts, plonk was very cheap in those days and came in many different varieties, most of them called portvein, an appellation that figured as a sort of postscript on the label as a generic description of the contents’ type, though it had absolutely nothing to do with real port, no more than shampanskoye has to Champagne or kon’yak to the spirit from that distant French province. It was fortified, sweetened filth, called by a wealth of names which sonorously illustrated the broad expanses of a multinational power: Ukrainian Belo Mitsne (popularly known as Biomicin), Turkmenian Agdam and Sakhra, the old Slavonic Solntsedar, labels with an Azeri accent -- Kardanakhi and Alabashli, Armenian Aigeshat and Arevshat, Moldavian Fraga and Gratiesti, Arabic numerals – 777 and 33, fruit-and-berry wines from Central Russia such as the cloying Zapekanka or the tender Vishenka, pepper and citrus vodkas, and also stuff exotically described as liqueur – apricot, lemon, anis, strawberry, jubilee and even Benedictine, even Chartreuse, all priced roughly the same, between a rouble and two roubles fifty. Lord, where have those golden and magic days gone, when for such a reasonable price you could buy a bottle of some bright green fluid. And how could they have called this sticky mentholated stuff Chartreuse? And some poisonous sugar-based swill, port? Was it because somebody, somewhere in our then Great Power still retained the music of these names in his memory? I remember going into a village shop near Smolensk one day and buying a whole rucksack of wine just because of its enchanting name, Chateau d’Yquem. It was the usual portvein, of course, but what streak of linguistic tenacity had retained these thrilling outlandish sounds all those many years? How strong the dream of paying homage to the pure springs of the land of holy miracles must be, how deep-rooted the need for variety in life, how responsive the soul to a dim and distant appeal that is borne inaudibly from an alien geography and a past that long ago ceased to be part of ours...
To go with the drink there was music, all imported, but under the foreign cover the sounds were pretty basic, the Beatles’ rock-n’-roll, their dizzy miss lizzie, the unpretentious go jonny go, the obscure hippy hippy shake and speedy gonzales and tutti frutti – all of it recorded on disgusting quality thick brown tape which was always breaking – you stuck it back together with acetone or nail varnish thinner – and played on antediluvian Yauza or Kometa tape recorders, which had the dubious virtue of a choice of two speeds, so you could record at either nine and a half or eighteen if you wanted. That year we did the shake to everything. It didn’t involve any special steps, just stamping, writhing, jerking and hopping, and the one who got the most body parts twitching most convincingly was the winner.
These two components of the bardak were subsidiary to the main purpose, and it was the girls available that determined the choice of drinks and music. You never see their like today, except maybe on Moscow suburban trains or in some bar out in the sticks, but at that time Moscow was full of them, our age, fifteen or so, usually studying in a trade school, excitingly different to the prissy girls in our class.
The scenario of the bardak was astonishingly consistent, as if it were some ancient rustic festival or mystic rite, though, regrettably, there was no sub-text, the aim being no more than the pursuit of not very subtle carnal pleasures – swilling portvein, spewing in a corner, dancing in a clinch, groping under a skirt and ejaculation – frequently into your own trousers. First of all the male half had a drink to boost their courage, then sent someone to fetch the girls who were waiting in a strictly pre-arranged quantity – matching the number of sabres mustered by the male contingent – at a cinema or tram stop, and while waiting debated whether they’d show up, but then the bell rang, the girls squeezed into the hall, crowded round the coat hangers, jostled giggling by the mirror, filtered into the main room, though never singly, settled in a bunch, village-style, on the divan, sipped at the portvein, went pink in the face, the sassy ones, who’d already paired-off last time, were dancing by now, a burst or two of swearing, the light went out, solo dancing gave way to dancing close, when the girls were squeezed and groped without mercy, some couples were already snogging in the corners, and so the desired atmosphere of alcohol-fuelled exhilaration and idiotic bravado was achieved, producing those little incidents which added spice to the evening and for the sake of which the whole business was, in fact, undertaken. Either somebody, after performing rigoletto in the toilet, passed out on the floor, curled foetus-like around the porcelain, or one of the tousled and dishevelled girls was so drunk she forgot her knickers on the bed and they were found by the next couple, or one of the girls had her period and the owners’ bedcovers had to be soaked in the bath, another created a jealous scene, or ran out into the street without her blouse and had to be dragged back. It was all discussed afterwards – which of the girls went all the way, who scored, even though he had got off with somebody else last time, who played tight, and was she really a virgin? – until the next bardak. Actually, all these confessions, consultations and commentaries were mostly talk, coitus took place infrequently and was a real event. Basically, physical relations with the ladies were confined to relatively innocent petting, but whatever happened, there was always a taste of adventure to savour, since neither the invitations extended to street girls nor the consumption of large quantities of alcohol figured in the edited version of events presented to the parents, who returned from the dacha and couldn’t understand where the hairpins in the marital bed came from, or the peroxide blonde hair in mother’s comb, why the number of matching glasses had shrunk, what had happened to mother’s lipstick from the dressing table, father’s dry wine from the fridge and grandmother’s favourite books from the bookcase (they’d been taken to the second-hand bookshop before the event, to raise the funds for the booze).
If the truth be known, fundamentally we were swottish little homebodies, and our criminal inclinations were masochistically exaggerated by the more anxious of our parents. We probably lacked some essential vitamin, a fourth dimension to the naked three-dimensional world, and neither books nor sport were a substitute. Secretly fearful, our bravado a pose, we were trying to get a taste of a life that was different to our school world, but only succeeded in catching a glimpse of life on the other side of the windowpane, not realising that only too soon we would have to live in it. The street provided that window, and so there was actually little erotic about the bardak. The girls from our class were mostly as homebound as us, but were more grown up. What we saw were snooty, unbearably pretentious, two-faced goody-goodies who had no concept of our other life. In fact it was all the other way round, the most single-minded of them were preparing for that other life, and we were only practising how to be irresponsible, growing a shell of infantilism which would help us survive later.
And then, incredibly, a group of German girls turned up at one of our events. Yes, a whole gang of them, more or less presentable, in Moscow as part of a youth exchange with the GDR, our age, and every last one wearing a blue neckscarf, pioneer scarves we discovered later. Maybe you stayed a pioneer in the GDR until you married, or maybe they were young pioneer leaders on socialist training in the USSR? One way or another, one day in May they turned up at our school just before what promised to be a very lively bardak – Seryozha’s mum had gone away on a business trip and his grandma had plans to stay with a friend in the country. To digress a moment, Seryozha’s family was living at the time in a flat that was tiny, but had three rooms, two of them adjoining, one separate, which was just perfect for the needs of a bardak, and equipped with heavy furniture – all that was left from Seryozha’s industrialist grandfather, as great a legend in their family as the monarchy. The women’s team had not yet been named, but the booze money had been collected, the only threat lay in the changeableness of the weather, some stupid shower or idiotic fall in the barometer could frighten off the old birds. But the weather was consistently May-like, here and there you caught a scent of lilac, grandmother’s ailments retreated, Sereyozha’s behaviour was model and even I, so used to urging him down the road to the ruin of a dissolute body and the destruction of an already parlous state of health, temporarily backed off.
In actual fact, the idea of inviting the German girls was mine. And it was not an idea you could ever dismiss as uninspired. It was one thing to ask the loose, somewhat coarse girls from the new Krushchev-era housing developments and the technical school hostels who liked portvein and a good time, quite another these wholesome over-aged foreign pioneers in their blouses and coloured socks, with their open expressions and indefinable social origins, who had come from the inscrutable West, which only formally counted as socialist, of course, because to our generation even Latvian farm girls and Estonians from the islands seemed European. Looking back, I think somewhere deep down there was a certainty that it wasn’t just the obvious behavioural differences, the greater openness and readiness to smile, there was, in the subtleties of a foreign girl’s inner make-up, something intangible that made her different to the local models. No adolescent can imagine the object of his adoration pissing or shitting, and it was similarly inconceivable to us that one of these unearthly German girls in a blue pioneer scarf might bonk or fuck, they had to have some kind of substitute for these functions, and most probably our schoolboy joke about Martians who reproduced by slapping each other on the back was no coincidence. With this in mind, it might be thought the idea of a bardak with the German pioneers was blasphemous and cynical, as, actually, any research idea is, because it really only amounts to stepping beyond the boundary and dismembering the object under investigation. Like anybody else standing on the threshold of the unknown, we were timid, but sixteen is the age for daring, and I went up to the most likely looking of the Germans – a slim girl, wearing a short skirt, with a friendly laugh, cropped dark hair and an adult’s face, and managed to explain that my friends and I wanted to invite her and her friends to a party where there would be music. Obviously delighted, thanking me profusely, the effect of the European upbringing so lacking in us, she accepted – and we agreed the time and place.
We made conversation somehow, they in their stumbling, broken Russian, we in what passed for English. Though they turned down the offer of portvein, we had been foresighted enough to lay on dry wine and ice cream, but the party really got going as soon as we put on the Beatles. The fact that we listened to She Is A Woman, Baby You Can Drive My Car and Can’t Buy Me Love came as a profound surprise. And their surprise, in turn, filled us with pride, and we were happy to make out we were little Europeans, barely touched the portvein, gallantly stroked our partners’ backs as we danced, and conversation turned more and more to literature, to Goethe and Heine, though neither of these names meant anything to them the way we pronounced them in Russian.
The dry wine worked as well on the abstemious German girls as fortified portvein, and one of them, a little shorter than the others and with a big bum, was already giggly as she danced in Seryozha’s long arms, another was in the corner and looked about to burst into tears, a third was drinking bruderschaft with a boy, several more were dancing energetically in a circle. Imperceptibly – eins, zwei, drei – we smooched off to the other room, the grandmother’s, with a carved divan embellished with a crown, a bookcase containing a set of the complete works of Sholom Aleikhem (sheer size had saved it from the second-hand bookstore), and grandfather’s framed portrait watching us carefully. It was as cramped as a broom cupboard in there, dancing was impossible, with bated breath I pressed my German girl gently back against the wall and cautiously kissed her on the cheek. She cautiously kissed me. I put my arms around her, pulled her close, and at the same time squeezed her small taut buttocks under her smooth little skirt with both hands, and with my two others fondled her small tight breasts in the tight bra. But when my hand slipped under her hem and moved up to the top of her stockings, she took fright; she gasped, shook her head, pulled away, I repeated mindlessly: all right, all right, I won’t, I won’t, my knees so wobbly they’d hardly support me. She believed me, started to kiss me again tenderly, she, too, was trembling, and I knew that with such an inconceivably foreign chick nothing would happen first time, and when she whispered in her accent that sentence which I was to hear so many times later in just that instrumentation ya lyu-b-lyu te-bya, I love you, I was convinced I would be her faithful suitor, and we would make a great couple, I would write her tender and crazy letters, and then she would open a window to Europe for me, and a huge world would burst open, and I could physically feel the pressure of the wind against my face, the way you can on only the tightest bends.
Next day they left for Leningrad – there was no sense in seeing them off at the station, they were an official delegation and their leader had only let them go that evening after they’d said who they were going to see, the address and phone number. I was left with the impression that I was on the verge of an otherworldly love and with her promise she would write to me from Berlin.
No letter came for three weeks, and then I was called to see the headmaster. I was often called to his office – either for smoking in the toilets or for drinking behind the garage -- we only did it out of sheer bravado it was so uncomfortable there – but today the headmaster was beside himself. He told me to sit down, while he remained standing, which meant things were really bad, for him, probably, as well as for me. I sat down on a chair by the wall, while he paced up and down and checked twice that the door was properly shut. Then he looked at me with a look of real anguish. Many thoughts flashed through my mind: he suspects me of setting fire to the sports hall, though it was still intact when I came to school this morning; he reckons I’m involved in a bank robbery, the police rang and told him; somebody had grassed me up for reading samizdat – and this was the only accusation that had any truth in it. To my astonishment he started on about the German girls. He told me who had invited them – it was me, which I admitted, but he just brushed it aside. He told me what we’d drunk and what music we’d danced to. He even knew I’d got off with one them, and she happened to be the one in charge, and that Seryozha had suggested they raise the question of the GDR joining the Soviet Union as the sixteenth republic, something even I didn’t know of. He was extremely upset, stumbled over words, and it wasn’t difficult to tell that his version of events hadn’t come from one of my friends, every one of whom I was as sure of in those days as I was of myself. This rather spiteful and neurotic man, a chemistry teacher, could only have been as upset as he was because of a signal received from somewhere on high. I realised quite quickly what he actually wanted me to do – keep quiet. “Why, oh why did you have to do it?” he repeated a number of times, then blurted: “Don’t you know they write reports?”
I had no clear notion of the mechanics: most likely, each of the pioneers had described what happened in a report to the group leader, who in turn reported to the Embassy, from where a memo went to the Ministry of Education and from there down to the school. Actually it wasn’t so much the trajectory of the report that interested me. I was dumbfounded by the revelation that they squealed over there as well.
I found this simple fact so amazing because it was absolute proof positive – they were just like us. It was a remarkable discovery: in the heart of Europe, in Berlin and Budapest, in Prague and Warsaw – people were doing just the same, informing and squealing on one another. And if that was so, then everything else was undoubtedly the same there as here, too. Like anybody else in my place, I was only sorry I hadn’t fucked her on the spot.
“Why, why”, the headmaster kept saying as he wiped his forehead, “Couldn’t you get enough of your own?” This was a mistake, shifting from the plane of morality to the level of politics. This left the field wide open, and I began shouting at him, it was them, our teachers, who’d taught us to dare, to seek and not to yield. He flapped at me with his handkerchief like I was a wasp.
“Enough of your own...” Even if there were five times fewer of them it would still be enough for everybody. But what about the first half of the question – why? Is it really that to convince yourself you are with a truly different being, the fact of a hole in the place where you have an appendage is insufficient? Or that a different skin colour, a different language, foreign citizenship and different habits are more arousing? And if this difference also happens to be forbidden... But at that time I couldn’t have explained that to the headmaster, nor to myself either.