Book by Ulinich Anya
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An Unspoiled Quality
A CORRUGATED FENCE RAN THE ENTIRE LENGTH OF A STREET WITH NO NAME, until itcrossed another street with no name. At the end of the fence, there were sixevenly spaced brick apartment buildings and a grocery. Just under thebuildings' cornices, meter-high letters spelled: glory to the, soviet army, brushteeth, after eatin, welcome to, asbestos 2, and model town! The letters, red and peeling, were painted along the seams in thebrickwork, which forced the authors of the slogans to be less concerned withtheir meaning than with the finite number of bricks in each facade.
In the fall of 1992, Lubov Alexandrovna Goldberg decided to findan extracurricular activity for her fourteen–year–old daughter.
"Children of the intelligentsia don't just come home in theafternoon and engage in idiocy," declared Mrs. Goldberg.
She would've loved it if Sasha played the piano, but the Goldbergsdidn't have a piano, and there wasn't even space for a hypothetical piano inthe two crowded rooms where Sasha and her mother lived.
Mrs. Goldberg's second choice was the violin. She liked to imaginethe three–quarter view of Sasha in black and white, minus the frizzy bangs. This is Sasha practicingher violin. As you can see, there is a place for the arts in the increasingausterity of our lives, she wrote in herimaginary letter to Mr. Goldberg, whose address she didn't know. But after themoney was spent and the violin purchased, three consecutive violin instructorsdeclared Sasha profoundly tone deaf and musically uneducable.
"A bear stepped on her ear," Mrs. Goldbergcomplained to the neighbors, and Sasha thought about the weight of the bear andwhether in stepping on her ear the animal would also destroy her head, crackingit like a walnut.
"Sit up,Sasha," said Mrs. Goldberg, "and chew with your mouth closed."
Then came auditions for ballet and figure–skatingclasses, which even Mrs. Goldberg knew were a long shot for Sasha. On the wayhome from the last skating audition, where the instructor delicately describedher daughter as overweight and uncoordinated, Lubov Alexandrovna walked twosteps ahead of Sasha in a tense and loaded silence. Trudging through the snowbehind her mother, Sasha contemplated the street lamps. She tried to determinethe direction of the wind by the trajectories of snowflakes in the circles oflight, but the snow seemed to be flying every which way. Sasha was staringstraight up when her foot hit the curb and she landed flat on her face in asnowbank. This was more than Mrs. Goldberg could take.
"I told you to stop taking such wide steps. Youwant to see what you look like walking? Here!" Mrs. Goldberg swung her armswildly and took a giant step. "See? This is why you fall all the time! You tripover your own feet!"
Sasha got up and dusted herself off. Her right coatsleeve was packed with snow all the way up to her elbow, and the anticipationof it melting made her shiver.
"I have some advice for you!" shrieked Mrs.Goldberg. "Watch your step! You should see yourself in the mirror, the way youmove!"
Sasha woke up and stared at the water stain on the ceiling. For awhile, her eyes were empty. She allowed the horror of life to seep into themgradually, replacing the traces of forgotten dreams. It was the first day ofwinter recess. The Fruit Day.
Mrs. Goldberg had a new dietfor Sasha: each week, six days of regular food, one day of fruit only. Fruitmeant a shriveled Moroccan orange from the bottom of the fridge and a mother'spromise of more, since oranges were the only fruit found, if one was lucky, inmidwinter Siberia. Mrs. Goldberg was already at work or orange–huntingsomewhere, her bed neat as a furniture display.
Sasha got up and went to the kitchen. Feeling faintlyrevolutionary, she boiled water in a calcified communal teapot and pulled achair up to the cupboard. In the corner of the top shelf was her mother's canof Indian instant coffee. Sasha put four spoons of coffee granules and fourspoons of sugar in her cup and added water. The next stop was the fridge. Hermother had hidden all the food that belonged to the Goldbergs, but the othertenants still had theirs.
Sasha found half a bologna butt wrapped in brown paper, an egg, abrick of black bread, and half a can of sweetened condensed milk. She ate abologna omelet and washed it down with burning coffee. For dessert she had thebread with condensed milk. Some of the milk seeped through the pores in thebread and made a mess. "Fruit!" cursed Sasha, licking the drips off her fingers.When her hands were clean, she made another cup of coffee and returned to thefridge.
Sasha Goldberg was determined to enjoy her vacation. Winter recesswould be over in six days, and her fellow inmates would be waiting for her bythe gates of the Asbestos 2 Secondary School Number 13, ready to knock her bagout of her hands and send her flying backward down the iced–over staircase. Hello, Ugly! Wanna dienow or later? She would pluck her books and herindoor shoes out of the deep snow like birthday candles out of frosting andhurry to class.
Sasha excavated the Stepanovs' enamel pot from theback of the fridge and lifted the lid. Inside, bits of boiled chicken floatedin the greenish broth. Drinking the broth straight out of the pot, Sashabriefly imagined telling her mother what went on at Number 13. Of course, shewould never do that. That her daughter was an oaf sticking an icicle into herbleeding nostril before going to algebra didn't belong in Lubov Goldberg'sreality. Mrs. Goldberg would try, by sheer force of will, to dehumiliate Sashaon the spot. There would be questions—"Why are they doing it toyou?"—and suggestions—"Perhaps you need to be friendlier. I noticeyou don't have any girlfriends." A multitude of diets could emerge from thestack of old Burda magazines; the spiked rubber mat for flatfoot exercises might returnfrom the utility closet. Sasha knew that every measure would fail, and in theend, she would glimpse the true magnitude of her mother's contempt.
She poured another cup of coffee. Now she had no dessert,except for an old honey jar filled with cough drops. For as long as Sasha couldremember, those cough drops had been in the fridge. She tried the lid, but ithad crystallized onto the jar. Shaking from too much coffee, Sasha slammed thejar against the sink, washed the shards of glass down the drain, and sucked themass of congealed menthol until it turned into a translucent green disc.
After her third cup of coffee, Sasha ran out ofsugar. It was almost lunchtime. The neighbors who worked at the asbestos millwere about to come home to eat. Sasha dumped the dishes in the sink, took herorange out of the fridge, discarded a diamond–shaped Morocco sticker andreturned to bed. In bed, she disassembled the orange, tossed the peel behindthe headboard and, sucking on the sour sections, read Jules Verne until dark.
At six o'clock she heard her mother's footsteps inthe corridor and, seconds later, a shouting match in the kitchen. It wasn'treally a match, because the neighbors were the only ones shouting. Mrs.Goldberg never raised her voice; she wouldn't stoop to it. Sasha knew that hermother just stood there, pale and stoic, like St. Sebastian tied to a tree.
"Don't you ever feed that child?" yelled Mrs. Stepanova.
Mrs. Goldbergshut the door in Mrs. Stepanova's face and crossed her arms.
This was a purely symbolic offer. Sasha shrugged.
"Take off your pants," said Mrs. Goldberg.
Sasha got out of bed, hiked up her flannelnightgown, and pulled off her bloomers.
After beating Sasha with a dainty patent leatherbelt, Mrs. Goldberg dragged a chair over to Baba Zhenia's Romanian plywoodarmoire and took down a roll of Sasha's drawings and watercolors. Sasha lookedaway, preparing for the shredding. It was important to show that she didn'tcare. Oblivious to the suspense she had created, Mrs. Goldberg set the drawingson the desk and flipped through them slowly, sucking her lower lip with thetiniest whistle.
"I've set up an interview at the District 7 ArtStudio tomorrow," she said in a faintly conciliatory voice. "If you'readmitted, you'll be going three days a week, after school."
"District 7 is all the way up the devil's horns,"replied Sasha, trying hard to hide her relief. "Are you sure the place is fitfor the intelligentsia?"
"Don't sneer, detka," sighed Mrs. Goldberg. "Youdon't need another tic."
They got off the streetcar and walked along the fence, pulling thegranny cart with rolled–up drawings over icy acne on the sidewalk; Mrs.Goldberg, slim and graceful, in camel spike heels she wore for the occasion,and Sasha, a brown lump in her babyish synthetic fur coat. A not–quite–rightcounterfeit Mickey Mouse smiled his toothy, savage smile from the coat's back.
Soon they saw a row of apartment buildings, and Mrs. Goldbergstopped to pull a scrap of paper with directions out of her glove. Sasha wascareful to keep her face frozen in a mask of aloof defiance, but inside she wasmore apprehensive. According to the directions, the District 7 Evening ArtStudio for Children was located in the basement of the after eatin building, and Sasha considered that to be a good omen.
That morning, Mrs. Goldberg had offered Sasha someof her precious coffeein exchange for the promise that during the interview Sasha would not:
stare at the wall with her mouth open like a carp
twirl her hair
bite her nails
and that she would:
keep her knees closed
keep her tongue in her mouth
"Please, bunny, I want you to try," Mrs. Goldberg had said sweetly,putting her manicured fingers on Sasha's hand.
They walked past gloryto the, soviet army and brush teeth and turned left. Sasha pushed open the heavy steel door, steppeddown, and felt moisture seeping through the zipper of her boot. Looking down,she saw that the front of the basement was flooded. A plank led to a seconddoor. With the outside door shut, Sasha and Mrs. Goldberg walked the plank inairless darkness, balancing the granny cart between them like a couple ofsuddenly dexterous sleepwalkers.
"What a nightmare," mouthed Mrs. Goldberg, slidingher fingers along the dripping wall for support. Sasha sneered.
Someone opened the second door, and Sasha smelledplaster dust. She pushed past a thick curtain, and when her eyes adjusted tothe light, she realized that she'd just stepped into her own dream. In themessy entryway, plaster busts were haphazardly scattered among easels and spaceheaters. In the next room, Sasha saw a claw–foot tub filled with wet clay, astuffed fox, and a basket of wax fruit. It was as if everything old, ornate,and intricate, every shred of Western Civilization ever found in the vicinityof Asbestos 2 were stored in the basement of after eatin. Sasha would keep her knees closed, keep her tongue in her mouth,not bite her nails, and, if necessary, also lick boots, eat rocks, cry, and begto be allowed to stay in this place.
A dour ponytailed man helped Mrs. Goldberg unroll Sasha'sdrawings on an antique tabletop. Sasha noticed a concrete torso in the corner.The torso must have belonged to Lenin, because it wore a suit and held arolled–up cap in one of its fisted hands. Someone had stuck a bent aluminumfork into the other. Two ancient anatomy textbooks rested on top, where thehead should have been.
The ponytailed man gave Sasha a pencil, a sheet ofpaper, and four rusted pushpins. She was to draw a still life, he explained,leading her down a narrow hallway into the classroom.
The five kids in the room looked up in anticipationas the man took an eraser out of his pants pocket and started making therounds, erasing parts of their drawings. Halfway through the room, his erasergummed up and Sasha watched him make greasy graphite smudges over drawings thatseemed perfect to her.
"You can start now, Goldberg. See you in twohours." The man patted Sashaon the shoulder and disappeared, leaving behind a waft of tobacco smell.
Sasha pinned upher paper and stared at the still life. It consisted of an egg, a butter knife, and a whiteenameled bowl, three minutes' worth of work. Why did the man give hertwo hours? Maybe she misunderstood the assignment.
"Okay, let's see the damage," said one of the boys.
"Oh, fucking Bedbug with his petrified eraser. Whowants to take up a collection for a new eraser for Bedbug? Hey, what's yourname?" A small long–haired boy was leaning over the top of Sasha's easel."Donate money to get Bedbug a nice soft eraser?"
Sasha mutely pointed to the corner of her paper,where her name was written.
"I'm Katia Kotelnikova," said a tall girl with abraid. She unpinned her drawing and folded it in half. "Sasha, did you bringany extra paper? I have to start this over."
"No," said Sasha, staring at the girl's unusualcostume. Katia wore felt boots with rubber galoshes and a vintage Soviet schooluniform: a brown wool dress with a black apron. Sasha wondered if she was sopoor that she had to wear it, or whether she was trying for a certain look.
"Why aren't you starting?" Katia asked. "Youhaven't got all day."
Sasha Goldberg looked around the room. The kidswere still carrying on about the eraser, and she sensed that in this particulargroup even the beautiful ones didn't mean her any harm. It was a pleasantsurprise, this feeling.
"I don't know what he expects from me. I've neverdone this before," she muttered, putting her pencil down.
"A comrade in trouble should never be afraid to askfor help," the long–haired boy said with a smirk. "In this basement, it's fromeach according to his abilities, to each according to his incompetence."
Sasha allowed herself a thin smile. These peoplewere clearly harmless. Only the harmless and the old still made jokes aboutcommunism.
Apparently happy about the distraction, the kidsnudged Sasha aside and took over her drawing. From a corner of the room, shewatched them do her work. First, the boy with long hair constructed thegeometric skeleton of the composition. He took into account the deep shadow ofthe bowl, shifting the whole setup to the right to make space for it. A fatgirl with a bureaucrat's haircut drew the contours of the egg and the bowl, andthen it was Katia's turn to work on the shading.
For a while the room was quiet. Katia perchedupright on the edge of Sasha's stool, deftly filling the still life's contourswith swatches of cross–hatching. Biting her nails, Sasha watched withfascination as the egg in the drawing acquired illusory volume, growing out ofthe paper's surface like an exceptionally healthy mushroom.
"It seems that Evgeny Mikhailovich has been bittenby a white–on–white bug," explained Katia. "Last week we spent six hours on aplaster cube and a dish rag, and the week before it was this big,dry"—she laughed a short, sneezelike laugh—&q...Revue de presse :
"Audacious, clever, and lively . . . a nervy social satire in the spirit of Tom Wolfe, Aleksandar Hemon, Gish Jen, Gary Shteyngart, and Lara Vapnyar."
- Chicago Tribune
"Ulinich has a knack for the tragicomic. . . . Petropolis is engaging, funny, and genuinely moving in all the right places."
- Los Angeles Times Book Review
"A moving account of a perpetual outsider's desire to belong, both to her family and to the wide, weird world she encounters with a sometimes weary heart and plenty of chutzpah."
- USA Today
"A beautiful far-ranging voice equally at home on both sides of the Atlantic . . . Anya Ulinich's satiric romp gives new meaning to the word 'bittersweet.'"
-Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook
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