by Svetlana Grobman
Our lesson in World History ends with a description of another horrible event from the past. This time it is the burning of the astronomer Gordano Bruno by the Inquisition. If you ask me, history is one of the most depressing subjects on earth: torture, wars, natural disasters, terrible rulers--not to mention deadly diseases like the plague, cholera, and consumption. Sometimes I wonder if anything good ever happened in the world before the Great Soviet Revolution. After the revolution, according to our teachers and textbooks, things have been getting steadily better--in our country that is--although, unfortunately, not in my class.
“Hey, you!”--sounds behind me as I get up from my desk, trying to erase from my mind the image of Giordano Bruno writhing at the stake. “Yes, you! Dintcha hear me?”--a push in my back accompanies the words. I stumble and turn around to face a stocky thirteen-year-old girl with straw hair, blue eyes, pale skin, and colorless lips twisted with disdain.
“Who do ya think you are?” She says, her eyes piercing me with the force of a drill. “My Mother says there’re too many of your kind around. No place to spit without hitting one!”
I glance at her. If there are too many of “us” anywhere on earth, that place surely is not our classroom. Here, I am the only one. In fact, outside my extended family, a couple of mother’s friends, our neighbors from the third floor and their daughter Mila, who is two years older than me, I do not know of anybody else. My classmate, on the other hand, is surrounded by a large group of “them,” all elbowing each other, exchanging meaningful glances, and thoroughly enjoying the unexpected spectacle that breaks the monotony of the school day.
This is not the first time Lena Popova has singled me out. She hates me. But why? I never speak to her first and never talk about her with anybody but Mila. Still, every time Lena Popova finds herself near me, she “accidently” pushes me into the wall or kicks my briefcase so hard that it flies open, spitting out my books and notes, or she says something hateful, like now.
“You, kike …” Lena Popova gives me another look of disdain, turns around, and leaves the classroom--a string of sympathizers slithering behind her like a snake. I stay still. My cheeks burn, stung by bitter shame.
Is she mad at me because I got an A in the class? She could’ve studied the lesson, too. And I wasn’t the only one who knew the answers. Why didn’t she lash out at the others? Well, I know why. They are not “kikes” …
I take several deep breaths, but tears stream down my cheeks. Why do I have to go to this horrible school at all? I’m already twelve. I can study at home. In fact, the only thing I would miss here is our drawing class. I like drawing, and I like its teacher Vladimir Alekseevich, who brings wooden pyramids and papier-mâché fruit and vases to class and lets us draw them. When I first started, I drew triangles for the pyramids and circles for the apples and vases, and they appeared abstract and lifeless. Vladimir Alekseevich showed me how to draw lights and shadows, so my drawings would no longer look weightless and flat but recognizable and firmly grounded. It is easy to do--you just hatch several thick lines with a soft pencil and carefully smudge graphite on paper …
I rub my eyes with my fists. There is nobody to complain to, neither in school nor at home. Father is always out of town. As for Mother, she would give me her usual, “Don’t pay attention. Look at Mila, she never does.” Easy for Mother to say. Mila is very pretty: tall, with a waterfall of dark wavy hair, huge hazel eyes, and legs so long that when she walks, she looks like a ballerina fluttering on the points of her dancing shoes. Even Mila’s nose, which appears a little large in profile, does not spoil her, but makes her look distinctive--just like the famous Soviet poet Anna Achmatova. The boys in Mila’s class adore her, so nobody dares to call her names. As for me, I’m ugly. Even Grandma says so. Well, she doesn’t put it that way. She presses me to her warm bosom and says, slowly stroking my head, “You have beautiful hair. And eyes, too.” But soon after that, I read in Chekhov’s play “Uncle Vanya” that a woman who receives compliments only on her eyes and hair must be ugly.
The worst thing about me is my nose. It is long and protruding--a typical Jewish nose that I inherited from my father. Mother’s nose, on the other hand, appears normal. In fact, her nose is so normal that she does not look Jewish, and her factory patients tell her anti-Semitic jokes and complain about the global domination of Jews: “Those kikes took over all the good places, so true Russians don’t have anywhere to go!” To which Mother, whose miserable salary is often smaller than the salaries of her “true” Russian patients, only nods and says, “Take these pills twice a day and get a lot of rest …”
The bell must have sounded, for my classmates begin pouring back into the classroom, laughing and talking as if nothing has happened. The last to enter is our Russian Literature teacher Marina Petrovna.
“Why are you standing here? Didn’t you hear the bell?” She says on finding me standing in front of the teacher’s table.
“I’m sorry,” I say, sniffling, and wipe my cheeks with both hands.
Marina Petrovna eyes me suspiciously, “Are you sick? If not, you’re interrupting the class. Go and sit down. I’ll talk to you later.”
Marina Petrovna puts her things on the teacher’s desk and her briefcase on the chair next to it, and slowly turns her gaunt face right and left, making sure that all eyes are turned to her and all minds are emptied of anything that is not related to Russian Literature.
“Today, we’ll talk about poetry,” she announces in a stern voice, apparently satisfied with the state of the class. Then she picks up a piece of chalk and writes on the blackboard, “Great Russian poet Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin.”
We open our textbooks and start discordant chanting:
“I like May’s thunderstorm the most,
It flies in quickly from up high,
And rumbles frolicking and gaily,
And playful in the cobalt sky …”
“What’s the matter with you?” Marina Petrovna says, her eyebrows taking on the shape of checkmarks. The lesson has ended and Marina Petrovna and I are alone in the classroom. She sits at the teacher’s table, and I stand in front of her.
“Nothing,” I mumble, looking at Marina Petrovna’s brown shoes, hidden underneath the teacher’s chair--worn but perfectly polished.
“Then you disregard class discipline,” Marina Petrovna says--her eyes directed at me like two rapiers. “I won’t allow that in my class!”
I blink. “I didn’t mean that. It’s just … because … because of Lena Popova … She called me names,” I force myself to say, still studying the teacher’s brown shoes.
“She called me a kike,” I whisper and quickly glower at the teacher.
Marina Petrovna winces and lowers her gaze. She does not like it, I can tell. After all, she is our head teacher. She tells us about the poor workers of the world, how they need to act together and demonstrate their united front to the vultures of capitalism, and how our country is always ready to help suffering and oppressed people everywhere. But aren’t I suffering? Don’t I need help and support? Of course, Marina Petrovna will help me! How come it never occurred to me to confide in her before?! The tightness in my chest begins receding, and I straighten up and look at my teacher.
Marina Petrovna bites her narrow lower lip, and a pen in her hand begins drawing circles, one inside the other, until she ends with a tiny dot. Then, she puts the pen down and says, looking above my head, “You must’ve misunderstood.”
“No, no!” I protest. “Everybody heard it. You can ask them!”
“I’m telling you, you misunderstood!” Sharp notes punctuate Marina Petrovna’s voice, and her eyes are fixed on the ceiling. “I’ll talk to her tomorrow and you’ll make friends. Is that clear?”
Then, with one swift motion, Marina Petrovna picks up her briefcase and hurries to the door.
“Yes, Marina Petrovna,” I exhale into her broad back.
“Mom, I’m sick,” I announce as soon as I open my eyes next morning and see Mother waking up my little sister.
“What’s the matter? Do you have a fever?”
Fever is not easy to fake. I have tried many times but it has never worked. Mom does not even look at the thermometer, which I rub and shake on the sly until the red mercury column jumps above normal--just enough to prove my sorry state. Instead, she puts her hand on my forehead and, in a split second, concludes: “You’re fine. Go to school.”
I clear my throat and cough, loudly. Then, for a good measure, I pound myself on the chest.
“Have some water,” Mom says.
“Sveta, have some wa-a-ter!” Tanya echoes, happily.
“I have a headache,” I say.
“Everybody has a headache sometimes,” Mom says, putting a dress over my sister’s head.
“Every-body-has-a-head-ache-some-times!” My sister sing-songs in delight.
“I have a headache now!”
We have repeated this same scene too many times. True or false, Mom never wants to hear that I am sick. Probaby because of Tanya--who is sick a lot!--and also because Mom, a doctor, is “sick” of sick people at work. Which cannot be helped, since seeing sick people is, after all, her profession.
Mom does not look at me but tries to put shoes on my sister’s dangling feet.
“It means that you’re alive. The only people who don’t have aches and pains are the dead.”
“Dead-dead-dead, Sveta-is-dead!” my sister carries on.
“Tanya, sit still!” Mom says and turns to me, “I don’t have time for this. Stop pretending and go to school!”
“I’m not pre…” But Mom is already out the door--my singing sister behind her.
I sigh. Being dead would not be so bad today. In fact, if I were dead, I would not have to go to school, and I would not have to see Lena Popova ever again. Yet since I am alive, I get up and start putting on my school uniform.
The day goes uneventfully. The teachers do not ask me any questions, and Lena Popova does not seem to pay attention to me either. After class, I run into her at the school entrance. She is standing there alone, as if waiting for someone. I keep on walking.
“Hey, you, stop!” I hear behind me. Reluctantly, I turn and look. Lena Popova’s face is blank, and her eyes are screwed up so tightly that I can hardly see her pupils, as if she is trying to take in as little of me as possible.
“Marina Petrovna said I shouldn’t call ya a kike in school. She said Jews can be good people, too,” Lena Popova says.
I inhale deeply, but say nothing.
“She said we must make friends, but … if you don’t wanna,” Lena Popova pauses and opens her eyes a little wider, “It’s fine with me.”
I clap my briefcase to my stomach. My adversary obviously has no regrets, nor does she sound apologetic.
“I’m going home now. Maybe we’ll talk tomorrow,” I say, moving sideways from Lena Popova and her “friendship” until my back rests against the school wall.
“Who’s home?” Lena Popova says, watching me the way a butterfly collector watches a new specimen, while planning to pin it onto her board.
“Really?” Lena Popova’s eyes flicker with sudden interest. “I’ll go with ya then.”
I clench my teeth.--What can I say?--and, giving in to my fate, trudge home with Lena Petrova by my side.
“What’s here to eat?” Lena Popova looks around our communal kitchen and walks straight to our neighbors’ refrigerator. She has already examined our room: a sleeper-chair for me, a small bed for Tanya, a sofa for my parents, a wardrobe, a large bookcase, a dining table, and my piano--a cheap reproduction of a famous Russian landscape painting hanging above it. Lena Popova is not amused by any of this, as if everything in our room is exactly as she has imagined, but quickly closes the door and heads to the kitchen.
“This is our refrigerator,” I say, pulling the heavy refrigerator door open and getting out my dinner: a bowl of shchi with pieces of meat peeking from under its yellowish greasy surface. “I don’t like shchi. You can have it. I’ll flush it down the toilet anyway.”
“You’ll flush it down the toilet??? Why? Are ya stupid or somethin’?" Lena Popova says.
I bite my lower lip and swallow, hard, “I just told you. I don’t like it.”
“That’s why ya’re so skinny,” Lena Popova says, twisting her mouth and reaching for the bowl. “Where’re the matches?”
She finishes the soup standing by the stove, wipes her mouth with both hands, and looks at me.
“There’re canned apples up there, but the jar is too heavy,” I say and point to a wooden shelf above our kitchen table, which holds the preserves Mom made last fall to last us through the long winter and into the spring: jars with wrinkled tomatoes, burgundy-colored jams, and a large jar with pale-green apples sunk in colorless liquid.
“Good,” Lena Popova says and, without taking off her shoes, climbs onto a chair and comes face to face with one of my drawings--a vase with red and yellow tulips that my Father recently brought back from a business trip to Turkmenistan, a land where snow is rare and spring is a month or two ahead of ours. Lena Popova turns to me, “Yours? I hate drawing. Bo-o-ring.” Then she reaches for the jar with the canned apples. “What are ya starin’ at? Hold it!” She orders, and together--Lena Popova gripping the jar by the neck and I holding the bottom--we lower the jar onto the kitchen table.
Lena Popova pries the jar open and reaches for an apple. “Hm, tasty,” she says biting into it. “My Mother don’t cook much. Just drinks.” What about your father?--I open my mouth to ask, but I do not. Chances are both of Lena Popova’s parents are alcoholics. I may even have seen her father passed out on the streets of our neighborhood. Drunkards are common around here. People just walk around them the way they walk around puddles on the sidewalk. My mother, a doctor, often stops and says to my father, “Wait, Natan. What if he had a heart attack?” To which Father invariably replies, “What are you talking about? He’s drunk, that’s all. Let’s go.”
One by one, apples disappear inside Lena Popova’s mouth, and she reaches deeper and deeper inside the jar. Finally, she pulls out the last three apples, looks at them, and puts one down.
“I need to go now. I’ll take a couple with me. See you tomorrow.”
After she leaves, I pick up the last apple and bite into it, too. It is tasty-- I think to myself.
Next day, in school, Marina Petrovna talks more about poetry, and we recite more of Pushkin’s verse. The teacher never looks at me and, to my relief, Lena Popova ignores me, too. When the last bell sounds, I grab my briefcase and rush to the door, but a familiar voice stops me:
“Hey, do you wanna walk together?”
No!--I feel like shouting into Lena Popova’s face. Yet instead I lower my gaze and mumble, “Whatever.”
It is early May. Snow is long gone, but the streets are wet from a thunderstorm that is still rumbling in the distance. The sun illuminates patches of fresh grass, which sprout here and there. The wind carries sweet after-rain smells, and the birds chirrup in the cottonwood trees. We walk silently--not bitter enemies and not friends but prisoners chained together by misfortune and chance.
At home, Lena Popova hurriedly eats my shchi, slurping like my little sister. Then she looks at me
“Do ya have more apples?”
“No, that was the last jar.”
This is true, but Lena Popova does not believe me.
“Don’t be a greedy kike,” she says.
A hot lump rises in my throat. “I said, the apples are gone!”
Lena Popova screws her eyes, “You’d better find where they’ve gone to or I’ll tell yer Mama that ya flush your shchi down the toilet.”
Her statement takes me aback, but I quickly recover, “You won’t! You don’t even know my mother!”
“I don’t hafta. I’ll just sit here and wait for her to come home,” Lena Popova says, positioning herself firmly on the kitchen chair and crossing her arms on her chest.
My heart skips a beat. Throwing away food is an enormous offence. First of all, food is hard to come by, even simple things like milk and eggs, not to mention meat. And the money … we never have much … and the time Mother spent cooking … She will never forgive me. As for my father …
“Please, go,” I say, my throat sandpaper dry.
“Why should I? I like it here,” Lena Popova says, and wicked exultation illuminates her colorless face. “You Jews have it good! Soups, tulips, pianos, pictures …”
Here, she uncrosses her arms, stretches her right hand, and pulls down my drawing of Turkmenistan tulips. The top of the drawing tears in the middle.
“Oops,” Lena Popova says and, looking straight into my eyes, tears the damaged page in half--the yellow flowers in a half-vase on one side and the red ones on the other. She drops the piece with the yellow flowers to the floor and brings the other piece to my face. I stop breathing. Without their yellow counterparts, the red tulips seem paler, and they look vulnerable in the half-torn vase. Lena Popova twists her mouth into a satisfied smile and, holding the paper above the kitchen table, tears the piece into halves, then the halves into quarters, and so on--until the scarlet petals turn into tiny pieces of paper. Lena Popova gathers the pieces with both hands, emits another “Oops,” and lets them all drop. Tiny bits flutter to the floor like fall leaves. Lena Popova looks around--How can I do more damage?--but the sound of the opening front door spooks her.
“Who’s that? Your mother?” She says, suddenly shrinking, her expression lusterless.
“No,” I begin, my throat still parched, “It’s too early for her. Probably our neighbors ...”
There I stop. How could I have been so stupid? She was just bluffing! She would never say anything to my mother. For one thing, she would have to explain how she happened to be in our apartment and what she said to me in class--which, I suddenly realize, even Lena Popova would be afraid to repeat to an adult. As for my destroyed picture, she is just … jealous. Of course she is! She never gets decent grades for her drawings, and Vladimir Alekseevich, our teacher, never smiles at her and never stops at her desk, the way he stops at mine. And--as if an invisible wizard whispers into my ear--Lena Petrova does not hate me. Or rather, she does not hate me for who I am, but for the life I have: the dinners waiting for me at home, the books in our bookcase, and the piano with the picture above it; for my obligatory “how I spent my summer” essays, in which I write about swimming in a lake or about the hedgehog my father and I brought home from the woods, and how that hedgehog scared my little sister to death when he started his nocturnal stomping under her bed ... Lena Popova has nothing like that, nothing but alcoholic parents and habitual abuse.
I look at Lena Popova without fear, almost without anger. She is mean, for sure, but even more so, she is … miserable. “Stay. If you want to.”
She stares at me, “Ain’t ya afraid what your Mama will do to ya?”
“You won’t tell her,” I say. “And even if you do … Well … I shouldn’t have done it. And the drawing …” I look at the kitchen floor, covered with the torn fragments of a Turkmenistan spring, and something light and stubborn begins growing in my chest: a power I never knew was there--an innate strength like that which makes grass grow through cracks and which makes birds on a journey to the other side of the world. “I can always draw another one,” I continue, enjoying the ease with which my words roll off my tongue. “I can draw lots of them. Flowers or whatever.”
Lena Popova clenches her fists until her knuckles turn white. Yet gazing straight into her eyes, I say, “I know why you hate me, but … it’s not my fault.”
Lena Popova grabs her briefcase and springs to the door. “You, kike,” she spits out in a quavering voice and darts out of our apartment, almost knocking down our neighbor Klavdia Petrovna. In a moment, I hear the sounds of her feet clattering down the stone staircase. I feel calm, very calm--calmer than I have ever been. And sad, too.
When Mother and Tanya come home, I summon all my courage and say, in one breath,
“Mom, there’s something I have to tell you. I know you’ll be angry, but ... I don’t eat your shchi. I flush it down the toilet ...”
My punishment is severe. I stay at home after school for two weeks: “No playing outside and absolutely no books!” I spend more time with my little sister than I ever thought possible, although Tanya’s response to it is an utter lack of appreciation and--once--open hostility, which she expresses one day by throwing her toy iron at me. The heavy iron scratches my left arm deeply, and for the rest of my “sentence,” I wear a bandage. On top of that, I have to endure Father’s lectures about children who do not understand that money--and food for that matter--do not grow on trees, and of course, I have to listen to Mom’s numerous laments: “How could you do that? How could you throw away food that I spend hours getting and cooking? How could you be so ungrateful?!”
Gradually, though, my parents calm down and--with some exceptions--life settles into its usual channel. The exceptions are good, though. Lena Popova ignores me, and Mother no longer leaves me dinners in the refrigerator. When I come home from school, I am allowed to make myself a sandwich--my usual choice is bread with varenje (jam). Other things do not change: I still have to babysit my sister, still have to eat food that I do not like, and, of course, I am still Jewish. Yet I do not complain too much. There are worse things in life.