I have come here in order to destroy all other faiths, in order to make the thought soar higher than faith, and penetrate the truth.

Buddha Shagyamuni

Prince Gautama

                                

“The train from Petersburg to Moscow is departing from Track 2,” a female voice announces in Russian from the station’s loudspeakers. To whom could that voice belong? A beautiful woman, no doubt, no, probably a kind woman, no, probably a bland woman, because her voice is also bland—immaculate, sonorous, and lifeless. Only the information it contains imbues some life into it—about train departures and arrival, the availability of the mother-and-infant room, tickets and ticketing offices, discounts for handicapped people and war veterans, fines and penalties for various violations, choices for where and what to eat, listings of various city services and other irrelevant information along these lines, which is always jammed into these announcements. In other words—it’s all advertising; these days there’s no getting by without it. After all, the first words a visitor hears are the ones emanating from the train-station’s loudspeakers, and it’s all advertisement. “Advertising is the vehicle of commerce,” as the saying goes. Brains filled with advertisement to the brim, people watching advertisement on television. Yes, there are such people; I can vouch for that because I used to watch TV commercials myself. For many years, we used to have an old, black-and-white Rekord TV set because we didn’t have much money, and then we bought a barely-used color one. I was a stay-at-home wife and mother, and my husband would get jealous of the books I read, yes-yes, honestly, of books. One day he picked up a book I’d borrowed from someone, tore it to pieces and tossed it right out the window. I didn’t have the nerve to show my face to the book’s owner, so I was forced to pick a quarrel, after which we sort of got on bad terms with each other—and all this just to avoid being asked about the book. That black-and-white TV set kept me company for many years. So when we finally bought the color TV, the color contrast was so sharp that for the first few days I just sat glued to the chair and watched everything on end, without pausing: soaps, news, concerts, analytical programs, before and after midnight, the putch, chto-gde-kogda, Pugacheva with her weight fluctuations from skinny to fat, Kashperovski, Alan Chumak,[1] and between all of those, of course, the bright, loud advertising.

Accordingly, my life, much like my way of thinking, followed that mold.

These days I’m different. These days I know that my previous life was wrong, that I lived an inane philistine life, concerned only with feeding my husband and child and taking care of them, and not the well-being of world overall. This was an act of selfishness; even though I didn’t think only of myself, I still cared only for my immediate family. In short, the life I lived was not right, with me treating different people differently and all.

The husband I have now is a punk. The old one, who was a doctor, told me one day, I’ve got no more use for you, you two are just dead weight on my shoulders, go back to Armenia. I didn’t go, because our child had already started school, I waited until it was summertime and only then shipped her off to Armenia. I met Pasha[2] not long ago, and now we are madly in love. Pasha washes cars in front of the Cosmos hotel. It’s decent, not so bad. These days, there are people who break their back all day for half of what he rakes in. Does he love me? I can’t say. I do love him. I’d be crazy not to—he’s good-looking, seven years my junior, tall, well built, his father’s a writer, his mother’s an architect, and he’s a punk. That’s the way it goes these days, everyone’s gotta be either a punk, a hippie, a skinhead, a nerd, a Krishna-follower, a Christian scientist, a Limonov[3]-styled revolutionary, or a Buddhist. Nobody stays as is, everyone becomes something, joins some group. And Pasha’s chosen to be a punk. Nothing wrong with that, I reckon. Piper, the guy who was my partner before Pasha, was a good guy, but he wasn’t of this world: he was a hippie, so I was a hippie, too. Now Pasha’s a punk, and I’ll be a punk. Both groups have their art, their own ideology. There’s this Vadim Stepantsov, he’s got a band called Vellet Compote or something. He sings post-punk. He’s got a trend, it’s called Curtural[4] mannerism. I’ve no idea what it means but their lyrics are nice.

I used to think that punks all had to be dirty, digging through the McDonalds dumpster for scraps of food, getting wasted and just passing out in random places. Turns out I had it all wrong. There are some punks, and then there’re others. Pasha’s the kind of a punk who’s clean, lives at home, and is a student at Bauman University. He’s just got a whole lot of tattoos, and one day he said, I’d like my girlfriend to have a few tattoos as well. So I said you got it babe, what would you like me to get? He requested a swastika, so we looked around, found an ancient Armenian swastika, and I got that done. He smoked some weed, but who doesn’t? He chugged beer and vodka once in a while. Everybody else was doing that, too. In short, Pasha was a typical punk-affiliated member of Russian intelligentsia.

We were visiting Piter.[5] I’d brought Pasha to show him Piter. I wanted him to fall in love with Piter like I’d done years before that. I went there once for a month to do an internship and ended up staying for ten years. It’s not for nothing that they call Piter a swamp. The city breathes, especially when you’re walking towards the Marsian Field, and it’s May, and there are bunches of lilac trees there, and they seem to be genuflecting to you—no, it doesn’t seem like it, they really are. It’s not for nothing that the city is built on corpses. Especially when you’re feeling unwell, you go over there, inhale the lilac, gather up the strength of the people who are buried under Piter, who make up Piter, and then you’re ready to turn the entire world over. But if Piter falls in love with you, it will never let you go. Wherever you go, wherever you live, you’ll forever be Piter’s captive. Then the word motherland creates only one association in your brain, with Piter, regardless of whether you’re Armenian, Russian, or Ukrainian. Wherever you were born…. I don’t have the stats on foreign residents, but I know for a fact that no former Soviet nation is immune to Piter-sickness, we all belong to the high-risk group.

Pasha liked Piter, but somehow I didn’t get a feeling that Piter reciprocated. I never did figure out why, for what reasons, and what test it was that Pasha had failed. The fact remained that we were heading back to the golden-domed Moscow, which didn’t like me. But then, what could I do? That’s how I was brought up—to follow my husband regardless of whether he chose to settle.

We met up with some acquaintances in Piter: one of them was a pot dealer, a musician guy named Michael—Misha, that is. I don’t know why Russians, Armenians and other backwards people like to foreignize their names. I reckon that by borrowing foreign names that belong to a country that’s more economically sound, more civilized than theirs, they feel cooler, more protected, or something.

Michael-Misha, of course, like all the other sewdo-musician guys, had large ambitions in life. He was an unrecognized, unappreciated genius, and consequently was broke. And everyone always has a need for weed, including him—and how could he not have a need for it? What else would have moved his poetic soul, how else could his muse squeeze inspiration from oily-haired, pretty-faced, and empty-headed Yana with morning breath and permanently foul-odored armpits and crotch, so that Michael could continue writing his music and bang, bang, bang on his base-guitar. And so he shuttled weed from Piter to Moscow and sold it there.

Anyhow, so we were heading to Moscow. We were going back with the guys with whom we went to see Piter—our common friends from Moscow, hippies, quiet guys, the type that won’t talk unless spoken to. Michael was with us, too. I’d taken some warm clothes with me that took up too much space, so I had nowhere to put my boots. Michael said—lemme put it in my backpack, I’ve got plenty of space there. So I did.

The train started. I arranged our stuff in the overhead compartment. Michael had to hang on to his bag, because it reeked of weed and would have otherwise stunk up the whole car. He found some space in the storage space under the bottom bunk. We were just moving along. We had some beer with out, and the guys were sitting around, drinking. I didn’t join them. I’m pregnant. I’m two months along. I’m going to have a baby boy. I’m going to name him Fedya. My boy’s going to be Fyodor Pavlovich Chuiev. So what if I’m Armenian? What, an Armenian can’t name her child Fedya? Especially if her husband’s Russian! Why is he Russian, you ask? Well, it’s because Armenian men, husbands, that is, turned out to be the ditching kind, and like that’s not bad enough, they have sex like rabbits, they all think themselves Antonio Banderas, and consider you frigid because you prefer foreplay to rabbit sex. They dump their plate of borsch on your head if it’s too hot, they cuss you out, and if they kick you, it’s in your gut, always in your gut. Then, of course, they beg you on their knees not to leave, not to file a complaint with the military-medical academy so that they don’t get kicked out and preserve their mighty title of a Soviet colonel, not to get divorced, not to tell your father because your father could beat the living daylight out of them if he finds out they so much as laid a finger on  you, blackmail you that if you do, they’ll tell your parents that you smoke, and share with them the details of how you like to make love…. And what is a girl to do under these circumstances, when she’s been raised in a household full of fear, has a dwarfed sense of self and self-worth, and believes that her the world ends with the first and only (so far) love, now add to that that there were war and hunter in Armenia in those years, and people could get killed for a pair of pants—it’s a true story, too, I knew the victim personally. Armenia…. It was a horrifying place back in those years. No light, no bread, no water, no firewood, no life. And so you stayed in the marriage. For six years, purposeless, cowardly, your heart and soul smeared in shit by your Armenohusband’s betrayals and beatings, by putting up with someone who lived in eager anticipation of selling his soul to Satan, someone who asserted himself by taking out his fears and insecurities on one as weak and helpless as you, someone who went off whoring for months on end, someone you’d already begun to suspect of being gay since every time you asked him where he was, his inevitable answer was—at Andrey’s.

Whatever…

Michael’s got some weed. But he can’t smoke on the train, there are cops around. We’re moving along. Choo, shoo, phoo, poo, it’s good to sing on the train. Russkoie Radio,[6] the trainradio sings through static. The radio interferes with singing to the rhythm of the train. But it has to be said that the rhythm of the train is peculiar in how it adjusts to various other rhythms, and how any melody goes well with it. Russkoie radio is playing Gazmanov.[7] I can’t stand Gazmanov, so I tune his frequency out of the sound and listen only to the rhythms of the train.

We’re sharing our compartment with some Georgian guys. We’re traveling in a car with reserved seats, too bad that we got all the top bunks. The young Georgian said, no problem, sister, you can have my place, we’re practically compatriots. If we don’t get each other’s backs, who will? I said thanks, I don’t want to sleep just yet, when I’m ready, I’ll lie down.

They polished off the beer. Then they remembered they also had some zubrovka.[8] They finished that off, too. Then they started speaking in very loud voices. When you’re are sober, drunk people’s manner of speech, gestures, and carriage become comical. Sometimes they say really smart things, especially the Russians; they become real dispensers of sublime wisdom, whereas Armenians, when drunk, start acting like tough guys, Grand Candy’s[9] wound-up toys who charm you and then show you their ice-cream stick, short on both sugar and chocolate…

Wait a minute! Why am I trying to make apologies for having a Russian husband? He’s Russian, that’s it! This is my life, I’ll marry a Russian or a black guy if I choose to, so long as my husband’s a decent man. Pasha is a nice guy. In any case, he hasn’t said a single sour word to me so far. The only thing is he used to have a lover who was a whore, yes, really a whore, actually—a hooker, what you call a prostitute. Ain’t nothing you can do about that, love sticks even to manure, to quote our great poet. When Pasha and I met, Lena—Pasha’s hooker lover, had gone to Shusheinskoie, the place of Lenin’s exile and also her birthplace, to get an abortion. As fate would have it, I’m going to bear Pasha a son. Pasha said to me—don’t let me remember Lena, and I will love you, I will love you a lot, you are good, you’re Armenian, Armenians are moral, they’re no whores. I said to him, hey, buddy, you don’t know what you’re talking about, god save you from an Armenian whore. An Armenian whore is a superwhore, a whore with her soul, a whore with her heart, and a whore with her mind. Your Lena’s just making an easy buck, but she loves you, doesn’t she? And she brings her money home, doesn’t she? And she looks after you and buys you stuff, like your computer and clothes, doesn’t she? He goes—yes. So I tell him, the Armenian whore spends her money only on fur coats and tropical vacations for herself. Aside from the whoring in her crutch, your Lena’s no whore anyplace else. And he said, no, I can’t take her home to my parents, they’ll never accept her. To this I said—what’s your rush, you’re still young, you’ll meet someone else. He begged me on his knees, I can’t, if you don’t help me, I’m a gonner, Lena’s an addict, she’ll drown me. I was like—but I’m so much older than you, buddy. And he came back with so what, I love you with my brain.  You’re smart, wise, moral, I’m begging you, love me. So I did.

By this point, they’re completely wasted. Their eyes are bloodshot. I told Pasha to get some sleep. He said, “In a second, let me just go have a smoke and I’ll come lie down. Michael is talking tough, showing off in front of the Georgians. He’s pissed drunk. Michael is the kind of a drunk who first gets really loose, then really angry, then curses the entire world for being so unfair to a genius like him, then, finally, if you don’t manage to get him to sleep, he picks a fight, doesn’t matter with whom, as an outlet for the anger and hatred towards the entire world that he harbors within him.

He finally climbed onto the top bunk and fell asleep. The Georgians stepped out, probably for a smoke. Pasha was prone on his bunk, resting. So I lay down on the Georgian’s bunk. Did I fall asleep? What’s that noise? Lo and behold, it’s the Georgians escorted by the police, who are checking their papers; the Georgians are dark, so they’re probably having their residence registration checked.

No, they came back again. Now they get me off the bunk. I can’t make out what it is they want. They’ve taken Michael’s bag out and now they are rummaging through the storage compartment under my bunk. I guess they’re probably checking the Georgians’ bags; what if they find what’s in Michael’s bag?

They went away to talk amongst themselves for a little while. And then they came back and said, miss, you have to come with us, step out of the train please. Why is that, I asked. And they said, the train is about to start, get out, and then they started pushing me towards the exit. I screamed for Pasha. Pasha woke up and asked what they want. The cop’s like—who the hell are you, how are you related to her? Pasha told him he was my fiancé. In that case, you get off the train too.

So we got off the train. I was afraid of the cops. I once saw them handling a girl on Arbat, and how she was all covered in blood. So we got off. The station sign said Balagoie. So this is the place that song’s about: “Balagoie, Balagoie, Balagoie, that’s somewhere between Leningrad and Moscow.” Well then, dear Balagoie, pray do tell me why they’ve roused me from my sleep and removed me from the train in your Balagostation? They’re taking me to the lock-up. Ok, fine, lock-up it is, I’m not so scared. What can they do after all? I guess this is all because I don’t have a residence stamp in my passport, that’s why they’ve taken me off the train. They’re gonna fine me and let me go. But what next? How on earth are we going to get to Moscow? I doubt they’ll arrange for our trip and come wave goodbye to us. Sons of bitches. First they woke me up, then they took us to the lock-up for no reason. We’re sitting in the hallway, waiting. Oh, I forgot to mention, they separated us, so Pasha is sitting at one end of the hallway, and I’m sitting at the other. Idiots! Pasha’s looking over at me, moving his hands, as if trying to signal something. I can’t make out what it is. Looks like he’s pretending to be smoking a joint, one hand over the palm of the other to keep the smoke in. That’s pretty funny. Wait, is he trying to tell me he’s got some pot on him? Then we’re done for. Definitely, that’s what it is. You silly, if you wanted weed, why did you have to take some from Michael instead of waiting until we got to Moscow? Now go figure out a way to get out of here.

There’s one young cop there, good-looking, with green eyes. I tell him I need to use the bathroom. He says it’s not allowed. What am I supposed to do, go right here?  Incidentally, I’m pregnant, I tell him, call your supervisor, let’s see what he says. This must have scared him because he said, fine, I’ll take you. So he walks me to the bathroom and just stands there, right in front of me, waiting. I told him to close the door but he refused, sorry, he said, not allowed. Why the hell not? He said, because if I leave you alone you might dump the drugs you have on you into the toilet. Listen, buddy, I’ve got no drugs on me, why don’t you search me and then let me piss in peace. What the hell kind of a place is this? What’s the buzz, what’s the fuss? He said fine, just give me your purse and close the door.

Well, at least I got this problem taken care of. For a pregnant woman, nothing’s worse than not being able to urinate whenever she needs to.

I leave the bathroom. The young’n’handsome cop is digging through my purse. I ask him, what are you doing, planting evidence? He’s looking at me, all scared. I’ll be passing by Pasha on my way back; I’ll touch his hand to give him some strength. After all, what are they gonna do? They won’t put him in jail for an ounce of pot. They want money. We’ll make a call, Pasha’s dad will come, pay them off, period, end of story. As I passed him and squeezed his hand, I felt him shoving something into my palm. When I got back to my place, I sat down and looked—a folded piece of paper. How should I contrive to read it? I asked the young cop for some water, and as he went to fetch it, I opened it right away, read it and… Oh, dear mother! I felt the entire world collapsing on my head. What the hell? The note said: “They found Michael’s bag under your bunk, with your boots sitting on top of a bag of weed, now they’re pinning it all on you, just tell them the boots aren’t yours. Don’t be afraid. I love you.”

Another cop showed up, this one with a mustache. Probably the big boss. Maybe a captain, even. He called me. Name, last name, the reasons for not having proper residence registration. I told him that my husband had bribed the housing committee behind my back and had me removed from the registration, and I didn’t renew the stamp in my passport because there ain’t no place to get it done. Ok, fine, he says, where do you live? In Moscow. What were you doing in Piter? I took my fiancé to show him around Piter, since I lived there for ten years. Do you have children? Yes, a daughter, she’s seven. Fine, he says, why don’t you unburden yourself and tell me straight out for whom you were muling two kilos of heroine? WHAT!? Now it’s suddenly heroine? I know nothing about no heroine! Stop trying to pin this on me. Then whose boots are these, he asks and shows me my boots. I must have blushed, and my eyes must have taken on a strange expression, though I’m not sure what kind of strange, but probably unusual—I’ve always noticed that whenever I try to lie, my eyes look strange; right now, they are probably trying to stop the signals from getting to my brain so it doesn’t start boiling over from my lies, because he says–—don’t make your life any more difficult than it already is, these are your shoes, a small size like yours, dear Cinderella, the chance of the size 35 shoes we found in a bag stored under your bunk that fit your feet perfectly being someone else’s is one out of a million. To say nothing of the fingerprints. Of course I know this isn’t yours, you’re just a mule. What am I? Well, he explained, someone in Piter gave this to you to transport to Moscow and deliver to someone, no? I go—no. Then what is this, whose is it, if not yours? I’m standing there thinking what to say and what to do. I know for a fact there’s no heroine there, that they’re pulling some dirty trick on me. If I say it belongs to Michael, Michael, the first-rate scumbag that he is, will say I’ve no clue what you’re talking about, never seen it, never heard of it. What else can I say? Better keep pleading complete ignorance. The cop keeps pushing me to spill the beans, I keep insisting that I don’t have anything to tell him. I just ask him over and over—maybe the heroine belongs to the Georgians who were traveling with us? I try not to refer to it as weed so that he doesn’t suspect that I know anything. He says—you’re young, pretty, you seem like a decent girl, why have you gotten mixed up with this human trash? This daughter you have, where is she? She’s in Armenia for the summer. He’s staring at me as if trying to devour me with his eyes. I guess he likes me. I should tell him I’m pregnant preemptively—just in case he wants to screw me or something. So I say, by the way, I’m pregnant. Really, he says. That son of a bitch, I knew it, I knew he had dirty thoughts. Take that, you ass, now go put your dick under cold water. An interesting observation—with the likely exception of the kind of scum that can’t even be categorized as human, like the Turks during the genocide who raped pregnant Armenian women, men recoil from copulating with women who are carrying another man’s child. It’s probably instinct. But then again, didn’t those Turks have the same instincts? Whatever, what’s more important now, the question of the Turkish instincts or my fate?

The cop, with a lit cigarette between his fingers, is pacing back and forth. I suddenly start understanding what it must have felt like to be in the skin of a victim of Stalin’s repressions, and how it feels when they openly cook a case against you; you want to bang your head against the wall, you argue, reason with them, offer your explanations about how and why you cannot possibly be the person guilty of the crime of which they accuse you. But they don’t listen to you; they don’t want to listen to you. They have a plan. They had it in ’37 and they have one now. In ’37, their plan was the extermination of the enemies of the people; now, they seem to think, it is the extermination of narcomafia. Yeah, right! Damn them all!

And now, they’re weeding me as part of their plan, eh? It’s funny. Nobody would believe the story if I told them. If I get out of this in one piece, I promise to never again roll my cooties into balls and flick them at people, I will never dump stuff of the balcony, I will raise my child to be a very-very-very productive member of society, I will cut down on smoking, I promise many-many other things. Just please let me get out of this weed deal in one piece.

To be weeded because of weed….

I don’t know when, but some day I’m going to sit down and write this story down as a lesson to anyone who makes light of being falsely accused of something; it can happen to anyone.

The cop’s smoking again. I am smoking, too. If smoking wasn’t allowed either, it would have been real hell here. For as long as you’re allowed to smoke, there’s still hope that you’re human, that they still think of you as human, because one of your most fundamental desires is still being met. It means you’re still alive. The cop keeps staring at me, while I’m in a stupor over the suddenness of the situation: only two hours ago, I was asleep on the train, dreaming sweet dreams about how Pasha and I are getting married in church and how our son grows up to be a good man. In short, it was a good life-dream, and just like my great-grandfather from Van was unceremoniously pulled from the dinner table and taken away in 1937, his half-eaten soup still on the table, his half-spun yarn still on his lips—a habit which, according to the tales my great-grandma told, he liked to indulge around the dinner table, because he was an upbeat person, a blacksmith in a village with 3 Armenian families and as many Turks, with hard hands and a soft heart…. Now, in the same way, I pulled me from my slumber and placed here, under a harsh Gestapo-Cheka[10]-esque police interrogation lamp. And just as my great-grandfather from Van couldn’t understand why he’d been arrested, so I, too, can’t figure it out now. He was executed by firing squad in Siberia a year after his arrest. All he’d done was say that there was no way Aghasi Angjyan could’ve killed himself, that it was all Beria’s[11] doing, and he’d said this around the village elders and some Arsen, eager to pull the ground from under my great-grandpa’s feet, sold him out to Cheka.

What are they going to do to me, I wonder. Obviously, they’re not going to execute me. Worst-case scenario—they’ll put me in jail, but for how long and, more importantly, for what? What am I to do now? All else aside, what if my parents find out? My father will go mad if he finds out I’m in prison, and for such a crime, too. My daughter… Who will ever marry her in Armenia? They’ll shun her because her mother is an ex-con. And she has no chance of moving back to Russia, her father couldn’t care less about her. Who’s going to believe me? It’s a straight, clean, and perfectly grounded charge. Naturally, if under my bunk they found a backpack, which, in addition to two kilos of pot, man’s socks, a comb, and two computer-related books, also contained my boots, what else are they going to think? I’m done for. Finito…. I wonder what it is I’ve done wrong, what cockroach or ant I’ve stepped on in my time, whom I’ve ruined with a false accusation in one of my previous lives that now, by law of karmic retribution, I have to go do penance with a child in my womb.

The cop realized that I’m not one to spill beans. They took me out to the hallway, and brought in Pasha. As he passed me, Pasha gave my hand a squeeze. A flow of energy rushed through my body, the energy of love and caring. Oh, Pasha, again I failed at love, poor guy, I am the one who needs saving, not you, you shouldn’t have gotten mixed up with me, that’s the way I am, a luckless Panos,[12] my fate following me at my heels and periodically slapping me. It’s probably trying to tell me—enough, you keep making the same mistakes, change your life, your way of thinking, c’mon, otherwise I’ll keep slapping you.

I am sitting in the hallway studying the posters on the walls. They all date back to soviet times. The print’s in huge letters but I still can’t make out what it says, I’m sitting too far. When a person’s idle, the brain starts looking for ways to occupy itself, for example, when riding on the train, we start reading the store signs, ads, the flyers hanging inside, what else can we do to keep busy? Now I can’t even read the posters, they’re too small, and I can’t see from so far because I have astigmatism. I keep thinking. How’s this story going to end? I’m pregnant, so even if they lock me up, they won’t torture me too much, besides there are such things as amnesties and what not, maybe I’ll get out early. And why should I do time, anyway? Why should Michael be off making love to his dirty, unbathed Yana, playing his base, and hanging out, while I do time for him? But what can I do, they won’t believe me if I tell them!

They brought Pasha back. He’s smiling. He came over, asked me for a smoke and walked away again. We’re sitting there, staring at each other across the hallway. If we were using words, it would have taken us three years to tell each other what we conveyed in that single hour with our eyes. The feelings of Romeo and Juliet, Leila and Majnun,[13] Ruslan and Liudmila, Bonnie and Clyde and of all other lovers traveled back and forth on the magical magnetic bridge that ran straight from Pasha’s eyes to mine. That hour would have sufficed even if that was the last time we ever felt the energy of love in our lives.

They took me downstairs, probably to a cell. Yup, that’s exactly what it is. Ew, how it stinks! There’s nobody in here but me. I’m all alone. It’s a small town, they probably don’t have many female criminals. Am I a criminal? Yes I am. In the sense of being so naïve as to give my boots to Michael, for falling asleep on a shelf that I knew had pot hidden under it. I am a retard, I never think, I just believe that the entire world is as innocent as me.

The cop that brought me here told me that I was entitled to one bathroom visit a day, in the morning. I asked, but what if I want to go again during the day? He pointed at something covered by the door and said, you can go here, and then in the mornings you’ll take it with you, dump it out and wash it. I looked—a bucket. There wasn’t much of a bucket to speak of. It was as if in its years of being a bucket, it had been cut repeatedly from the top until it had shrunk to one-third of its height on one side and half—on the other. It was a rusty, terribly disgusting bucket with piss crystallized on its walls; I’d never seen anything fouler in my life.

The cell had four beds. They weren’t really beds so much as metal bars with a brown sheet of metal attached at the top. There was nothing on them, no mattress, no pillow, no blanket. What could I do? I decided to empty my bladder first. Ew, the bucket! Squirming, I removed the so-called cloth from it, squatted over it, did my business very quickly, and threw the cloth back over it. The original intention of the cloth must have been masking the stench, but the cloth itself stinks, so how could it help? I simply cannot allow myself to panic at this point. There’s a bed, I can fashion a blanket out of my skirt, it’s pretty warm, the only thing is that I’ve got no pillow or anything to make it with, since they’ve taken away my purse along with my scissors and all the other stuff. I’ve always found this expression of concern for the prisoners’ well-being amazing. First, they lock you up, then they pretend to care about you by taking away shoelaces, belts, scissors and razors, so as to protect you if you should want to harm yourself in a moment of despair. Fake humanism! Who would they put on trial and how would they play their charades if they left the suicide tools at the defendants’ disposal?

Anyway, I should get some sleep. The dawn will break and bring some good with it, I guess…. But what the hell, why have they left the lights on? I call out to the guard, and he goes—that’s the rule, we’re not allowed to turn it off. The overhead lamp is huge, like the lamp they used to light in our yard in the village when I was a kid. I used to love going back outside after everyone had fallen asleep to watch how our smallest feeling and moving brethren would start a circle-dance around that huge lamp. They fluttered around it until they burned their wings or got exhausted. Now I have a lamp just like that one in my cell. Nobody is fluttering around it, it’s too cold for that already. It’s especially cold in the cell. I don’t even feel hungry, just cold. From the cold, I constantly want to pee. Of course, I squirm at the idea of touching the disgusting bucket every time, but what choice do I have, I’m still human and I still refuse to piss in my own clothes. I’ve wrapped myself in my skirt and lied down. It’s very cold. I am freezing. The cold bunk is pushing me up, and my body wants to rise up and soar towards the sun like Icarus. I don’t even feel like crying. I’ve frozen over on the inside, gone numb. It’s must be the most elemental instinct of survival that has killed all the other feelings in me, leaving me able only to think of ways to get out of this absurd, terrible story. I remembered a movie with Nicole Kidman. It was practically the same story. It was set in Thailand. People got hanged in cases like mine to scare others from getting involved in narcotrade. The only difference is that here nobody’s planning to have me hanged for two kilos of pot. Here, a different form of terror’s at work. My parents. I can only imagine. They’ve spent their entire lives telling me that I can’t do this, I can’t do that. They should have named me Cantdoit. There’s a town called Canterbury, and mine would have been Cantdoit. Well, now, my dear parents, your hour of triumph has finally arrived. You can look at each other and say, see, didn’t I tell you that she’s incapable of surviving on her own? Didn’t I warn you that her grandma was going to spoil her rotten? Didn’t I tell her that man was no good, and that she shouldn’t marry him—

even though they told me no such thing, but they’ve gotten so used to supposedly having told me and my supposedly not having listened, that in this case, too, they’ve convinced themselves of it.

Eh, my parents. Of course, I love them, but they also don’t understand that they pushed me to commit thoughtless acts with their dictates. The terror of thinking that every hour of every day I could go back to living guided by their lack of confidence and “see, I told you so,” drove me to spend another five years living with a man I didn’t love—because it only took me a year to figure out what he was about. I kept thinking—better stay here than go back home, where every time I lit a cigarette, my mother said, “shame on you, and you call yourself a girl” and where every idea born into my head was nipped at the bud by father’s cantdoit and every opinion I expressed was countered with “who are you to have your own opinion.” Now they should be content.  And they don’t even get it, they think they love me. I, on my part, don’t believe there’s love there, only the parental duty towards the child. I see it as care prompted by an animal instinct of feeding, clothing, and nesting. That’s not love. The love is that fairy-tale kind of love, when the son takes his mother to the forest in a sack to abandon her there, and the mother hands the sack back to the son and says, take this with you, my boy, you may need it later around the house.

When I was a child, there was nobody around to raise me properly. Everyone was busy. My parents were busy with their lives, with my father’s dissertation and their fights, with construction and purchasing furniture so that our house could be better than everyone else’s, so that it could be perfect, and my grandmother—with cleaning. My grandma’s name should have been Magruhi.[14] I was always left to myself and my books. I was brought up by my books and my friends. What I am now is the result of that. It’s a good thing there was no internet when I was growing up, otherwise I really don’t know what I would’ve turned out to be. What are my parents going to do now? Whatever…. Time to get some sleep.

Oh no, what just passed me? A mouse! It’s a good thing it’s not a rat. I’m scared of rats. The mice are tiny, I’m not afraid of them.

They’re calling me. There isn’t a single crack or a chink anywhere, so there’s no way to make out whether it’s day or night. Out you go, they’re saying, dump out your bucket, use the bathroom, wash up and whatnot. I have neither soap, nor toothpaste, nor a toothbrush, nor toilet paper—how am I supposed to use the bathroom? It’s terrible to not even have paper to wipe your ass. It’s ok, there’s running water, I’ll just wash up afterwards. At least they’ve closed the door. I scoop water into my cupped palms, and wash myself. Oh, that feels nice. Clean butt. My panties may not be very fresh, but I put them on right before we got on the train, so I’ve had them on for only about fifteen hours. Whatever happens around me, I have to keep my panties and my butt clean at all times. For this habit I have my nanna to thank. She taught me this when I was little. And once a butt gets accustomed to being clean, it really suffers when it gets dirty. Oh my goodness, what I am going to do when my underwear gets soiled, I don’t have an extra pair. If these people really want to torture someone, they should make them dump out this bucket. I am strong, I can live through this, I’m going to get out of here, marry Pasha in church, and bear him a Herculean son, like David of Sasun.[15] These are the reasons why I must dump out this bucket, and then later I’ll have to figure out a way to minimize how much I use it, so that I don’t have to empty it frequently. Wait, what the hell am I thinking? What “later”? I’ve no intentions of spending my life behind bars, and here I am already thinking about being here as my future.

I dumped out the bucket. Go me! I have no soap. I found some old scraps of soap here, so I squished them together in my palm, lathered my hands and washed them. My teeth worried me the least. I could never understand those people who treated the absence of a toothbrush as a problem. I can clean my teeth with anything. After all, it’s not like the aborigines have such healthy white teeth because they spend their entire days brushing them. Brushing teeth has nothing to do with their health and longevity. I could have made an anti-Colgate ad. I neatly dragged my finger over my teeth, scraped off the plaque. That took care of that. I rinsed my mouth, gurgled in my throat, spat. There was no smell or anything. But I need at least one more pair of underwear. And I’ve got no money except for one single dollar bill in my purse.

Anyway, under the current circumstances, I should really take on the problems as they come. Pasha’s cell is on the other side of the wall. I guess it must have been him tapping messages out on the wall in the middle of the night. And I thought I was dreaming. I’ll tap back tonight. Too bad I never learned Morse’s code in all my years as a pioneer.

I’m hungry. My stomach is grumbling. They’ll probably feed us, they can’t just starve us. Too bad I’m running out of cigarettes. I only smoke very little now, the doctor told me to cut down to five a day, so I went from ten to five, it wasn’t that hard. I’ll try not to think about smoking. It is my brain that wants to smoke, not my body, a pregnant woman’s body can’t want to smoke.

Someone opened the door—they brought the food. I was informed that I’ll be fed once a day. Why’s that, I asked. Rules, he said. Screw the rules, you’re a human being, talk like one, if we’d run into each other anywhere else, your knees would have trembled under you before you ever worked up the courage to talk to me. The one with the green eyes was nice, this one’s gross. He’s got pimples, a red nose, and I bet he has bad breath, too. Everyone has some kind of a breath. But there are people whose breath wreaks, not of cigarettes but of a hungry stomach, a sickly throat, or of morning breath. This one’s probably one of those, you can tell just by looking at him. People like him have rotten insides. These are the people who grow into serial killers. And also those who loved their mothers in an unhealthy way, while their mothers kept them at an arm’s length. But the smell’s gotta be there. Now this moronic potential serial killer in a cop’s guise is telling me they’ll feed me once a day? Fine. I’m the prisoner. You call the shots; you’ll skip feeding me altogether if you so desire. The person delivering the food is a kid who’s barely hit puberty. I asked him if he’s also a cop, and he said, no I work at the train-station cafeteria, we bring food from there “for the detainees.” What a sensitive kid, instead of “for the prisoners,” he says “for the detainees,” which in itself already endows you with a completely different status and lightens your mood. For as long as you’re not referred to as a prisoner, you still have hope that you can still get out of this mess.

I take my daily portion of food, which consists of half a loaf of rye bread, a huge cup of tea, six pieces of sugar, soup that deliciously smells of peas, some spaghetti and one cutlet. Not bad. If only they distributed it at different hours throughout the day, at least twice—morning and evening, it would be better. Fine, I’ll save it and eat it little by little throughout the day. What? I can’t? What should I do, I’ll explode if I eat all this food in one take. And all I’ve got is half an hour. What can I do to convince this young oaf to leave me one bowl, so that I could eat the soup now and save the rest for later? Phew, I managed to talk him into it. He said, tomorrow I’ll bring an extra bowl, now eat this before I get caught. I’m eating. Can’t finish. It’s tasty, but I’m too full. I ate the soup first, because I need soup now to avoid getting constipated. My intestines are not in a great shape. What choice have I got, I barely shoved the spaghetti in and drank it down with tea, and put the cutlet and the bread away for later. The tea-mug is mine—the cell’s, that is.

I felt sleepy. I lay down, and stared at the ceiling. The ceiling is white. Very tall and white. It’s a strange place. It doesn’t look like a prison. I wonder what it used to be. There’s a built-in stove in the wall behind the disgusting bucket, but I’d only go check it out over my own dead body—the stench is too strong. How should I keep myself busy? What does one do in a situation like this? If I had a pen and some paper, I could’ve started a diary or something. I’ve got neither. There are drawings on the walls. There’s a drawing of Jesus, a middle finger under it, names of prisoners and the reasons for why they were here. There’re no Armenians among them. Oh, Armenians are nuts. Like it’s not enough that we always look for Armenian last names[16] in movie titles, I’m looking for them on the walls of a holding cell in Balagoie? What a stupid habit, but it’s genetically encoded. We always search for other people who share our scent, who belong to our tribe.

I have to find something to do, pronto, otherwise my brain will morph into a big, very bright lamp. I lit a cigarette with a match. Oh, this feels good! The smoke trickles in, passes through my throat, tickles my vocal cords, then little by little fills all the nooks and crannies of my lungs. I got it, I can burn a match to ashes and then use it to draw on walls. The walls are white. What should I draw? I like to draw profiles. Pushkin, a fat lady, a kind man. With a little tweaking you can change the personality of the face you draw. I draw a girl with big eyes and then a three-dimensional cube. Then the black and white squares of a chess board. Like life…. The chess of my life must be different. There are no rules in mine, and no such thing as taking turns.

I don’t feel like drawing anymore. I can make figures out of bread. Prisoners carve some really beautiful things. I’ll do that tomorrow. Now I should try to sleep. I pull the skirt over my head, and….

Time to get up for interrogation.

It’s the guard with the pimples. He takes me into an interrogation room. It’s the room next door. It’s clean. There’s a chubby man sitting there, not very fat, no, but he’s got the kinds of round cheeks you want to pinch. He’s blond. He’s wearing a tie. He’s examining me from under his brow. Somehow he resembles an American cop from one of those Police Academy movies.

“Hello.”

“Hello, please have a seat. My name is Aleksandr Anatolievich. I am conducting the investigation on your case. I suggest you begin cooperating with us, you will make your life significantly easier.”

“What are the charges against me? On what grounds have I been arrested?”

“You have been arrested for illegally transporting narcotics.”

“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Your boots were found in a backpack, sitting on top of a bag with two kilos of pot.”

“That backpack isn’t mine.”

“Whose is it, then?”

“I don’t know (I ain’t no snitch, I’m not ratting Michael out).”

“Listen, don’t make your already very complicated situation any worse, why don’t you just confess whose mule you are, and we’ll let you go.”

“I really don’t know whose backpack it is (Yeah right, like I’m gonna believe you).”

“Your fiancé has told us everything. Who’s Michael? He said it was Michael’s, but he doesn’t have his address or contact information, he said you’d have it.”

“Pasha said that? Well then, it is Michael’s, yes, but if I give you Michael’s phone number, what are you going to do? He’ll never own up to it.”

“You just give us his number, we’ll take care of the rest.”

“It’s in my address book, in my purse, which was confiscated from me.”

“Bring her the purse.”

They bring me my purse, I take my phonebook out and say,

“There’s no mattress in my cell.”

“We’ll get you one.”

“When?”

“Tomorrow, it’s too late tonight.”

“I also don’t have a blanket.”

“We’ll take care of that, too.”

“I would also like a pen and a notebook.”

“Fine, we’ll get you those as well, just give me Michael’s number.”

I flipped through the book, located the number, and gave it to the cop. They went to another room to call him. They came back and said, some little girl answered the phone and said there’s nobody here by that name.

Oh, you motherfucking morons!

What did you think she was going to say, that Michael does indeed live there? Michael’s probably long gone, off to another city, or in hiding until this story gets resolved, and I’ve been safely locked up, and then he can come out again. How do you expect to find him there now?

“That’s all, take her back to her cell.”

“Good-bye.”

“Good-bye.”

I wonder what time it is now. I wish there was at least a tiny crack somewhere in the cell so that I could see some light through it. There isn’t a single one. The only thing the cell’s got is the huge, white lamp with no moths dancing around it.

I’ll go eat my cutlet. The only good thing is that I can have as much water as my heart desires. And also, the guards keep bumming cigarettes for me from the adjacent cell.

Let me sit down and think this over. What can I do? To summarize, I’ve been arrested, and they want to put me away from something that I haven’t done. I’m pregnant, which gives me quite an advantage. Pasha has told them that the weed belongs to Michael; I don’t know whether they’ve believed him or not, we’ll find out later. Now, if they can haul Michael in, there might be hope for me to get out of here; if not, then my close ones should start putting a care package together. And who are my close ones? My family? They no longer recognize me, and in order to be considered one’s close person, you must be able to at least recognize them. My friends? They’re there for me when the things are well and vanish once the going gets rough. For example, by now Michael must have made it back to Moscow. Surely, they know that I’m being held here. If only one of them would come visit me, bring me a clean pair of panties, a toothbrush, a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Of course, they’re far. Balagoie is not Moscow, I’m they’d come bring me stuff if I was being held in Moscow.

Besides, they’re worried that they may get pulled into the case as well. Who needs that kind of a pain in their ass? I’d probably do the same if I hadn’t gotten mixed up in this business; we’re all but human.

I should write a letter and figure out a way to send it out, Piper definitely doesn’t know I’m here, otherwise he’d have been here by now. Piper’s different, he’s not human, he’s more like Buddha. I’ll write to him as soon as they give me paper and something to write with.

Someone’s tapping on the wall. I wonder what – – – – – – –  means. I should remember it and tap out the same message back. I did. He knocks again. My dear Pasha, what have we gotten ourselves into? Did my Piter hate you so much that it cursed us like this? Or is it that Piter just doesn’t want to let me go? I don’t know anything anymore. My brain’s boiling over. Like that’s not bad enough, I’ve managed to catch a cold over night, so now I also have a wheezing cough. I should lie down for a while.

I wake up because I need to pee. My goodness, what is this, it’s pitch-black in here. Have I died and gone to heaven? Don’t be surprised, my heaven has to be pick-black, because I don’t like bright lights. Bright sunshine drives me into a rage. I must have an especially dark personality. My name is Lusine.[17] And Lusine, of course, prefers the dark, when she uses the reflection of the sunlight to show her face and at the same time pretends like she’s got no use for the sun. I am one of those Lusines. That’s why now I feel like I’m a Lusine’s heaven. But where’s my sun, who’s going to shine some light on my face? Without a little bit of sunlight, there can be no moon, she’ll just blend into the darkness. Who’s my sun, and where’s it hiding? Whatever it might be, it’s definitely not here now. Perhaps, my own sun is within me? Could it be that the answer to the Supreme Question is inside me? Nah, I doubt it. If that were the case, everyone would catch on to it right away instead of going off to search for the answer by becoming dervishes, priests, and practitioners of yoga. No, it’s not inside me. Really, what strange thoughts pop into my head when I’m sitting in this darkness. It has an interesting quality though. If you’re not afraid of it, it becomes your friend, and begins to cleanse your thoughts. The visually distracting objects disappear, and if it’s also perfectly quiet, then it’s awesome. You think different thoughts and then try to trace their origins, their process, and their trail after they disappear.

All things aside, how am I supposed to find the bucket and piss into it in the dark? I lit a match. Walked over to the bucket. I took out my hankie to wipe—I can’t just pull my panties back up when I’m wet; not since I was a child was I able to understand how some girls could just pee and put their panties back on without wiping first. That’s for guys. That’s why so many girls exude such a musky odor. It’s not for me. The match went out. I lit another one. I quickly pulled the soil-cloth off the bucket, squatted over it, peed, threw the match in. Done. Feeling my way through the darkness, I hung the hankie over the corner post of the bunk.

It’s been so long since I’ve been this alone. There’s always some kind of commotion in my life. Now, Lusine, here’s your chance, sit down and contemplate away. In movies, they always say, please just leave me alone, I need to be alone, and so on. I used to wonder why people needed to be alone so much, ad what was so great about being left alone. This lasted until I fell in love and had my heart broken for the first time. It was then that I finally understood why people wanted to be alone—so that they could suffer in solitude. The pleasure of suffering is unique. They say moral sufferings ennoble a man’s soul. That’s exactly right, and all because you’re tripping. Your body produces natural endorphins but they don’t get released because there’s no object of love. There’s no reverse reaction, there’s no going back. So the endorphins just circulate inside you. Add to that the adrenaline produced by the terror of having lost your love, and you’ve got yourself a killer cocktail. And how could you not want to be left alone? In solitude, you can relax or reenergize. Because of all the chemical reactions, you begin to engage in mental masturbation. In short, the suffering of unrequited love gives you a major high. But, of course, reciprocated love is even better. The nature has wisely arranged for the man and the woman to be physically drawn to each other, otherwise back in the stone ages, who would voluntarily put herself through labor pains for the sake of the deliberate perpetuation of the mankind? No way.

So here we are, me, myself and my darkness…. This entire story is probably the direct result of my having left Piper. It’s fate’s payback. I dunno. Well, it was Piper’s fault. Fine, I got it, he’s a musician, making records and such. If it wasn’t bad enough that neither he nor I had a permanent job, and our only source of income was his street performances the only money coming in was from him playing in the streets. It would’ve been ok if he’d played at least two hours a day. Instead, he’d play for half an hour, to make enough money for tea, sugar, buckwheat, and cigarettes, and come home. So I had no choice but to go stand at his side to make sure that he played longer. People dug his music, especially when he played on Nevsky,[18] right next to Detskii Mir.[19] People also stopped for his music in the subway underpasses, the so-called pipe, the longest underpass in Piter. The marginals always gathered there, and underage marginal girls with their rich boyfriends would go there, and make them give Piper lots of money. But we managed ok without those large contributions, too. People loved him. He had style, a good image, he’d put on a worn Cheka-styled overcoat, don a hat, in short, Piper’s persona was very unique.

He appeared in my life when I was very sick. I couldn’t understand what was going on with me. I ran a high fever; I’d gone to visit the grave of the untimely-departed poet Bashlachov,[20] gotten my feet wet, and gotten sick. I wasn’t working, but I still had some savings left from before, so I lived on those. The last time I got fired from my job, on my way home I accidentally got off at the wrong subway stop, at Nevsky. I got out of the subway, dazed, fretting over my future, and came back to my senses only when I realized that I couldn’t find the church by the Vladimirsky subway stop. No big deal, I quickly figured out where I was. I decided to go have a smoke and then continue on homeward. I didn’t have any cigarettes on me. There were some hippies squatting around, and I asked to bum a smoke. They were like—we don’t have any. I had just bought six of those gin-tonics—back then they’d just started selling them, they were great. You could drink them like lemonade but they worked like wine. Suddenly one of them asked, “Why don’t you offer us some gin-tonic?” I used to be afraid of these marginal types, thinking that they were all scum and beggars, lowlifes, and I always stayed away from them, worried that they’d inject me with their AIDS-infected needles, and never sat next to them to avoid contracting their lice. That day I felt burned by society, so I thought whatever may be, may be, why don’ t I go have some gin-tonics with them. I invited them to go sit down somewhere decent and have some food. I said, I was fired today because supposedly my cash register came up short, so they withheld my three-month salary and kicked me out on the street. I shouldn’t have come up short, I was a good, honest worker. When they hired me, they promised me a good salary, then one month I came up short and they told me to be careful, and took money out of my salary to cover what was supposedly missing. Then these shortages started adding up, and eventually amounted to so much that I just didn’t get paid anymore. They told me, you’re on commission, you have to earn your own money, and when I asked them how, and they were like—what, that’s our job, too, to teach you? I realized that in order to survive I had to start cheating the customers. What was I to do, with a kid on my hands, all alone, so I did. Some people caught on to this, and some even just gave me extra money. On my way home from the night shift in the early morning I would stop by this church on Vladimirsky, hand out money to all the beggars and donate to the church, anything to expiate my sin of cheating others.

At the end, they stopped paying me a salary altogether, and in addition to that they blamed a one million-ruble debt on me, and even tried to take away my passport as a security until I paid them back. What money back? I figured out what they were up to—

they’d pick the busiest time to start loading the groceries into the showroom, so I didn’t have time to keep track of the inventory lists, so they just wrote off whatever they wanted to. Twenty-five kilos of hunter sausage, three packs of Snickers ice-cream, with 24 bars in each, a carton of olives, very-very expensive, ten-thousand-ruble drinks, and I didn’t see any of this stuff behind the counters. And so they just piled it up, preparing this shortage charge to blame on me.

It was a disgusting, unbearable situation, and I could neither do nor prove anything. And that was the store fired me. The people, my customers, loved me, I always smiled at them no matter how bad of a mood I was in, and I was never rude to anyone. Very different sorts of people shopped there, different alkies, some former members of the intelligentsia, whom life had driven to drink, each with a story of some misfortune in their past— one had a son who had sold the apartment from right under him and kicked him out in the street, another’s husband had died and she had started drinking vodka the day of the funeral and wasn’t able to stop, someone had his invention stolen and had started drinking because of that. But for the most part these were regular, banal alcoholics who had started drinking with dinner and fallen into a binge that never ended. There were addicts with either absent or scorching glances who stopped by to purchase cream-soda and soda-pop; they all looked like aliens. The night crowd was different from the daytime one. There was one family, where the father brought the money home in the evening, and the three of them would show up after midnight to buy food. There were cool “nouveau Russians,” it was in the prestigious Vasil’ievskii Ostrov neighborhood, so they’d show up with a new hottie on their arm every day to buy very expensive food and drinks, and they always left me money, for tips, they added. There were those who, driven by solitude or idleness, would simply come to the store at night for a chat. That was the most intriguing crowd.

Anyhow, so that was the store from which I got fired the day I went to drink gin-tonics with the marginals. I had a couple hundred bucks saved up for the rainy day, but those people had nothing. We went and sat down at a café right around there, in the street, near the entrance to the subway, I bought everyone hotdogs—there were ten or so of them, we sat around, ate, drank the gin-tonics, then they bought some spiked port-wine, and we drank that, too. Hanging out with them made me feel better, and life started to seem less terrifying. Little by little, I started coming to terms with the people who were rejected by society, or, rather, had rejected society. I got acquainted with the lifestyles of the hippies and the punks, discovered that they had their own art forms, unique poetry, their own principles, and that they consciously had chosen their lifestyles rather than fallen to the bottom.

It was around that time that I met Piper. That man was made for two things—sleeping and dreaming. He was a dreamer. He would stay up all night reading and watching TV, and during the day, when all the normal people earned their bread, he slept and had dreams. When we met, Piper said to me, you don’t look so great, the protective life energy inside you has gone awry,  you need help. I had been told that his hands had healing powers, but I never believed it. He offered to work on me and I agreed. He came over to my place and I fed him some soup that I’d made using Galina Blanca;[21] he was very impressed, and Galina Blanca’s commercial fulfilled its promise, it was love at first spoon indeed. Then he put me in a chair in front of him and told me to close my eyes and not to open them no matter what. I closed them. I couldn’t feel anything. I kept thinking—this quack has found quite a way to pick up girls. Suddenly I felt ants walking all over me. They started at my feet and climbed up ever so slowly. And they all came and gathered just below my navel. Once quite a few of them gathered over there, they marched on towards my breasts, and from there—towards my head, and once they all reached in my head, they went for my eyes; I saw a momentary bright flash, it was so attractive, it beckoned me so, it wanted to embrace me…. Just as I wanted to go towards it, Piper called my name, and the light disappeared. It made me want to cry. I asked him, why didn’t you let me embrace the light, and he told me that it was his light and not mine, if you’d embraced that light, he said, you would’ve been forced to spend the rest of your life with me. And I said so what? And he said but what if you don’t want to, what will you do then, you won’t be able to live without that light. I guess whatever light I saw that day was enough for us to start living together. Thus we lived together for two and a half years, he adored my daughter and she loved him too. At first she didn’t like Piper, and used to say that he had an ugly faced and looked like a really tall gnome, but then she would refuse to go anywhere without him. Piper played in the streets of Piter, and we lived on the money he made.

Pasha appeared in my life when Piper went to Moscow to make a record, and I went along with him. They gave concerts but he didn’t take me with him. I was all alone in a foreign city, holed up in his friend’s apartment. Every time I complained, he said, why don’t you just go walk around by yourself, you’re not a child, you’re too dependent on me, and your presence at concerts makes me self-conscious. And Pasha was a friend of the friend at whose place we were staying. So Piper was like—there, why don’t you go hang out with Pasha. So I did, once, twice, and that was it.

Then he beat himself up over it; he begged me, come back, I swear, I’ll find a job, earn money, we’ll move to Ukraine, live a normal life, and I said to him that it’s too late, I am very indebted to you, but our paths part from here on. I did a cruel thing. Piper stood in the middle of Taganka,[22] hugging a tree and weeping. He didn’t cry in front of me, but I saw him later, when I passed him by in a trolley. What was I supposed to do, eat buckwheat for the rest of my life? What about my daughter? A growing child cannot survive on buckwheat alone, I wanted to be able to buy her a Milky Way bar once in a while, or some trifle that was not calculated into our family budget. With Piper, I couldn’t have lived comfortably. He was a hippie, a hippie with big dreams. A kind, positive individual, but not mine; he’d guessed it right when he didn’t allow me to embrace his light.  And now that jilted Piper is the only one who’s capable of thinking about me and of sending me a care package, but he probably doesn’t know I’m here.

I wonder when the light’s coming back on. I’ve already replayed my entire life in my head. A little while longer, and I’m going to start thinking about David, and I simply cannot allow that to happen. David was someone else’s life, not mine. I think of the time I spent with him as one extended, six-year-long unpleasant day, I remember it like a horror-flick, and I’m not even a character in it. If I don’t do this, I’ll have no choice but to hate him, and I don’t want to, although it’s really hard to think of a single reason not to.

Why don’t I call the guard and find out why the lights are out and whether it’s part of my punishment. I doubt it though, Russkoie Radio has also stopped singing, so I assume it’s some accident or disruption in the electric lines. I wonder what time it is. Hello! What is it, what’s the hollering all about? How come there’s no light? There just isn’t, how am I supposed to know? It’s ten o’clock. PM? Yes, go to sleep.

Fine. What choice do I have? The dawn will break and bring some good with it, I guess. My ass is itchy and sore, and really wants to be washed. I keep pulling my legs up to my chest, wrapping the skirt tighter over my head, and trying to imagine that I am back in my village, in my bed, with the moon singing me a lullaby in our secret supersonic register which only I can here.

Get up! What’s the matter? It’s still dark. Wake up, it’s morning already. I get up, fully clothed, so I don’t need time to get dressed. I’m ready. I go through the motions: I pick up the bucket, squirming, and go to the bathroom. I scoop water with my palms and wash myself, squish the scraps of soap in my hand, lather and wash my hands after touching the dirty bucket. What should I do with my panties, how should I get them to be clean, fresh, and smelling of soap? I take off my pants and my underwear, wash it as best I can with the squished soap, and put them in my pocket. I have no idea how I’m going to dry them in this damp place. I put my pants back on over my naked body, in the movies people do this all the time, no big deal, I can live with it as well. I take the bucket back to my cell. It’s still dark there. I sit down on the edge of my bunk. I want to cry but my tears just won’t come. I want my nanna. My nanna is like an angel to me. She’s lived her entire life doing goo for others. She was the one to raised me. My parents didn’t have their own house, my dad was writing his dissertation, and I got in his way. My nanna would peel and slice apples, pears, peaches, and any other seasonal fruit into a bowl and set it by my side. So I could eat it while reading. Oh, nanna, nanna, what’s become of your queen (that’s what she used to call me). She would kiss my hands and say, you’re my queen…

What would she say if she found out where I was and what I was up to? I’m facing possible jail-time and the prospect of a permanent criminal record, and then my family will no longer want to have anything to do with me. They’ll tell me that everyone would have been better off if I just croaked one day. No, they won’t, they’re nice. I’m the bad one, because I constantly manage to get myself entangled in these ugly stories. First my husband turned out to be a sadist, but they weren’t the ones who had chosen him for me, I was, and I was the one who failed to recognize it in him; then I found a hippie and almost starved with him, and now I’m in jail…. Well, what can I do, why do these things keep happening to me? I have no idea. They say whatever happens, happens for the best. What’s good about this entire story? Maybe I am just too blind to see it. Maybe it’s meant to teach me a lesson, but I haven’t been able to figure out what that lesson is yet.

The little shutter to my cell door opened. It’s the green-eyed guard. Yey! I approach the door:

“What’s your name?”

“Dima.”

“You’re sweet, Dima.”

He smiles.

“Are you here to tell me something?”

“No, I just started my shift. I saw that there’s no light, so I figured I’ll open the shutter so that you get some light in here and don’t get frightened.”

There you go. Not everyone is scum if there’s a kind-hearted cop out there who worries that I may get frightened in the dark and opens the shutter for me. It means that life is not so bad after all. My panties are soaking wet, I should probably hang them somewhere to dry. Good thing they’re so thin and old. Sireg,[23] as my grandma used to call them. She’d say, how can you wear those siregs, they don’t cover anything, that’s why you always get sick. Well, dear nanna, it’s a good thing that I am wearing them now. If I had your favorite sturdy underwear on, it would have taken three days to dry here. Not that these are going to dry any faster. What should I do? Perhaps I should swirl them around my finger, and dry it with air, like a blow-drier. I keep swirling and swirling it. I’ve become a human-sized panty-whirling machine with head and feet. There’s no Lusine here, just a swirly. I guess that’s a good thing. If I’m a swirly and not Lusine, then I no longer have any of Lusine’s problems. Yes, it’s definitely a good thing. I’ll just stay a swirly until Lusine’s problems are resolved. From now on, I’m a spinner, it’s decided.

The light’s back. Like in Armenia—the lights go out, the lights come back on. What’s the big deal? After the temporary outage, the cell looks different, prettier. This ceiling is at least 10 feet high. I should ask Dima what this building used to be before.

“Dima?”

“Oops, I forgot that your shutter was open, the lights are back on, I should close it.”

“No, leave it open, tell me, what used to be here before?”

“This used to be a bathhouse. The czars, when traveling from Petersburg to Moscow, would stop here, bathe, and continue on their way freshened up. And I should add that they’d close the whole place down so that nobody would see the czar naked.”

So, it turns out I’m a prisoner in czar’s bathhouse. He-he. I’ll have to tell everyone about this later.

“Oh, also, they’re about to bring you food.”

“Dima, how long are you here for?”

“My shift’s twenty-four hours.”

“In the evening, do you think you could arrange for a bucket of hot water for me to wash up? I am a woman, after all.”

“Sure, no problem. You’re pregnant, too.”

“Yes, I am, I totally forgot about that.”

Fedya, Fedya, your life’s off to a bad start, in prison.

They brought the food, and it smells great. I wonder what it is. The prepubescent guy comes in, smiling.

“Hello.”

“Hello. Were you able to get me what I’d asked you for?

“Yes, I’ve got it right here, but please put it away, if they find out, I’ll lose my job.”

“Do you like your job?”

“Yes, it’s good, pretty tranquil, too—it’s hard to find jobs here. Here you go, why don’t you serve yourself some food?”

“What have you got for me today?”

“It’s borscht. Then there’s split-pea puree and boiled beef. And compote.”

Wow, there’s compote, too? Just like that Shurik[24] movie. The grub’s pretty good.

“Thank you.”

“My name is Vasya.”

“Nice to meet you. Mine is Liusia.”

Yes, I’m Liusia here in Russia. I love the “iu” sound. It softens things. When I was little, they called me Lius’ka, which was even better.

Vasya’s gone. Mm, what delicious borscht. I normally don’t like borscht, but this is good. I generally love cafeteria foods. Armenians use too much spice in their food, and some of it completely out of place; they just add the same herbs to everything: basil, dill, sage, and don’t even get me started on the hot pepper. The taste of the food, its very natural flavor, vanishes in the overabundance of spice. In high school, I used to love the cafeteria-made cutlets. My nanna insisted that these should have been called breadlets, not cutlets. I don’t know whatlet they were, but I loved them. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I’d eat in a cafeteria, the smell of homemade meals made me nauseous, and I simply couldn’t stand the smell of cooking meat. I’d get nauseous from the smell of home-cooked meals, I couldn’t stand the smell of cooking meat. I didn’t’ use spices in anything. My husband ate everything I cooked and loved it. I finished the borscht. Yum. I’ll have the split-pea puree and the boiled meat in the evening. I should have some tea. What tea, I don’t even have any.

“Dima, Dimaa.”

“What is it?”

“Do you have any tea with you by any chance? Could I have some?”

“Don’t you have any of your own?”

“Where would I get it?

“Nobody has sent you a care package?”

“No, nobody knows that I’m here to send me stuff. My fiancé is in the next cell over, and Michael has probably gotten to Moscow and disappeared.”

“Who’s Michael?”

“The guy because of whom I’m in here—it was his weed.”

“Didn’t you tell them it’s his?”

“I did.”

“And?”

“And nothing, they called his house, and somebody told them there’s no Michael there.”

“Well, then tell them to go look for him.”

“I don’t know, they probably will, eventually.”

“No they won’t, what do they care, they found the weed, they need someone to lock up—and they’ve got you. If you say nothing, they’ll put you away.”

“Fine, I’ll tell them first thing tomorrow, now can I have some tea?”

He went and got me not only some loose tea-leafs wrapped in a piece of newspaper but a mug of freshly brewed, hot tea. And he gave me a piece of candy. It was some toffee called the golden key. He closed the shutter. I took a sip of the tea. I’d never had tea that tasted this good. I started shivering all over, clearly getting sick. What should I do?

“Dima.”

He opened the shutter again.

“What is it?”

“Dima, I’m running a fever, there’s some askophen[25] in my purse, bring it over, I’ll take a couple.”

He went away and came right back.

“I can’t find it.”

“Just give me my purse, I’ll find it.”

“I’m not supposed to.”

“Look here, you guys have already memorized the contents of my purse, right?”

“Yes, we have.”

“So then how could I take anything out of it without you noticing?”

“I know, but it’s not allowed by law.”

“Well, then it’s a stupid law.”

“I’m not the one who makes the laws here, I’m just the one who enforces them.”

“Fine, just hold the purse in front of the shutter so I point where the pills are. Right there, see, the pocket with a zipper, they’re in there.”

“Here you go.”

“Thanks. Can I have some water, too?”

He brought me some water. I took the medicine. Since askophen contains aspirin, it irritates my stomach. I decided to nap for a while.

“Dima. Where’s the investigator?”

“Today is Saturday, he wont’ be back until Monday.”

Oh, shit. I was hoping that everything would have been settled in the next couple of days.

Some time ago, in Moscow, I went to an exhibition at the Pushkin Museum[26] of some artist named Pasha Idunnowhat. I was standing in front of a painting, talking about it, and there were two people behind us. I have a habit of speaking loudly, so I was telling my friend in a booming voice what I thought the artist had wanted to convey with his work. The people standing behind us asked me, are you an art critic? No. What art magazine do you represent? I don’t represent anything, I’m just a regular person. In that case, they said, could you write something about this exhibition and bring it over to our office? If it suits us, we’ll publish it and pay you a honorarium. After that, if all goes well, you could become a contributing writer for our paper. Whenever there’s an exhibition, we’ll commission you to attend it and then write it up for us. I said sure, I’ll write it, but I should warn you that I don’t even have an art or literature degree, I’m a mathematician by training. And they said, you don’t need education for this, you just have to be able to feel the art and interpret it in your own way, and then describe your impressions. I told they I’d bring the essay over as soon as I returned from Piter. Now it’s sitting in my purse, ready to be delivered, and I have two more days before the deadline and I’m stuck here in jail. I might have become a reporter, but instead I’ve turned into an inmate. Granted, it was a “red” publication, but who cares, it still had an art section. What can I do now? Absolutely nothing.

This lamp is way too bright. I liked the darkness much better.

I’m just sitting here, staring at the lamp. When I stare for a long time, the lamp transforms into Christ. I also keep carving Christ out of my bread. Then I carve Piper’s trumpet. It’s nighttime already; I should probably try to get some sleep. I never got the mattress they promised; housekeeping’s gone until Monday, they said. I can’t breath. I should take another pill, but I should eat first so that it doesn’t hurt my stomach too much. I’ll take the pill and try to get some sleep. Just wrap the skirt around my head and sleep. I wonder which guard is going to be here tomorrow. Dima said that there are three guards in total who work in twenty-four-hour shifts, alternating between the hold-up and the train-station. That means that the disgusting pimpled one isn’t going to be back for another two days. Tomorrow, he said, it’s going to be some guy named Uncle Semion,[27] his father’s friend. Dima’s going to tell him to take good care of me. My shutter flung open. Wait, no, it’s the door. It’s Dima, come to bring me some water.

Good for you, my boy, may your path always be a green one for trying to make my days in this cell easier. I’ll never forget what you’ve done for me; your treatment when I’m here is the same as if you’d given me a thousand bucks on the outside. Thank you, my boy. He brought hot water, a sea of hot water. I took my clothes off and got into the bucket. This is how we used to bathe back in our village. A person who’s had running hot water from the shower his entire life would never be able to bathe like this, but I can manage. With a bucket of hot water, standing in a shallow basin about twenty inches deep. My panties are dry. I wiped myself off with my undershirt, put my clean panties back on, gave the bucket and the basin back to Dima and fell asleep, squeaking clean. I had a dream about being back in my village. I was picking blackberries. I was eating cheese wrapped in lavash.[28] I’ve turned into Gigor,[29] my dreams are about my nanna and my village….

It’s morning. I’m hot. I’m burning up. If I could get my hands on some milk, I’d have a glass. As much as I hate hot milk, it would taste better to me now than my favorite dolma. Normally, the taste of milk makes me nauseous. Here, nobody’s going to go get milk for me. I have one dollar in my purse, maybe I can ask them to at least go buy me a can of condensed milk, and  f there was milk, I’d drink a glass of hot milk, my hated hot milk would now taste as good to my as my favorite dolma. I always got nauseous from the taste of milk. Here, nobody’s going to be giving me milk. I have one dollar in my purse, I should ask them to buy me a jar of condensed milk, at least. I’ll wait until it’s Dima’s turn again and ask him. The shutter opened. It was Uncle Sioma.[30] He has a kind face. I ‘ beginning to think that the only reason why provincial cops become cops is because of the lack of other jobs; what other explanation could there for the green-eyed and gold-hearted Dima’s being a cop? The same goes for Uncle Sioma.

“Hello, dearie, want some tea?”

“Yes.”

He brought me some tea along with a Danish. The Danish is incredibly tasty. I ate it and drank it down with the tea. I thanked him. He’s nice, this Uncle Sioma. I asked him—is there any chance I may get a mattress today? No, they don’t have any here, they have to get it from storage, and housekeeping’s gone. Uncle Sioma, I know, I just figured I’d ask just in case if by some miracle one had turned up. I am burning up though. What should I do? I’m going to end up catching pneumonia in this place. My cough is scratching up my insides, and my throat’s hoarse. The Piper used to tell me that whenever I feel sick, I should lie down on my back and breath in a special way. You have to breath in slowly and count to seven, then hold your breath for another count of seven in a special way, when you’re still kind of inhaling, and then exhale slowly, while counting to seven. As you breath in, you must imagine that light, purity, health, and happiness are pouring into you; as you hold your breath, you arrange all of these positive feelings inside you; as you breathe out, you expunge the darkness, the impurity, the affliction, and the misery. I tried it. Nothing’s happening, nothing’s changing. It’s probably because I don’t believe it. I do believe, I do believe, I do believe… I did it for a while, seven times seven. I felt weak. I fell asleep.

I wake up; seems like I’m feeling better. Yey, it means it’s working. It’s called yoga, primitive yoga. I’m hungry. I’ve worked up quite an appetite, and Fedya’s hungry, too. The shutter opened. It’s not the prepubescent boy, it’s some old guy. He says hello and then quietly serves me today’s portion of food. Today’s soup smells like chicken. Then there’s buckwheat and chicken. It’s definitely chicken soup then; they’ve probably fished out the pieces of meat from the soup and fried them. The remnants of the Soviet times—using one meat twice. I ate the soup, and put the buckwheat and the chicken into the secret bowl. I had some tea. Uncle Sioma, on his own initiative, fetched me some cigarettes from Pasha’s cell. I smoked one. Feels good. I wish this day passed faster, that way, tomorrow they’d give me my mattress; my back feels really cold sleeping on bare metal. And I’m also supposed to be getting a blanket, they promised.

I drew a little with a burned match; I drew a motorcycle, don’t know why, I drew Pushkin, and then my usual large-eyed girl. That girl isn’t pretty, but she’s got a special spark. They call it charisma, that’s what she’s got. I’ve been drawing the same girl since I was seven-eight years old. I wonder who she might be. What life is she from? Then I prayed. Our father who art in heaven etc, etc…. Save me from here, I’m begging you. I’m praying in Russian; in general, do I think in Russian or Armenian? In what language does a person think? No matter how hard I try to find out, I can’t. Just like I never managed to figure out whether I dream in color or not.

Am I Christian? What else would I be? I chose to be baptized myself. My parents are non-believers, they’re materialists. They don’t believe whatever they cannot touch. I do. I believe that there is something there. Something important. Whether it’s called god or something else is not important. Most likely, it’s probably all the good deeds and thoughts of all humans, animals, and all else, merged into the concept that we call God. I may be a greenhorn. But I know that there is something there, not just arms and lets, not just this life; there might be tons of other worlds out there, filled with living creatures, and they all have the same God—the sum total of everyone’s good deeds and thoughts. The bad ones are the devil. I think. I haven’t quite figured out this part yet, but ever since I was born, I’ve been concerned with that Supreme Question.

My cough’s killing me. I’ve almost run out of askophen. I asked for some tea, and drank it with the last piece of toffee left from of those that Dima gave me. That felt nice. The tea is wrapped in paper with a crossword puzzle on it. Why don’t I try to solve that? It’s not complete, it’s torn, but it’s ok. My Pasha is tapping on the wall again. I tap back. I’m sitting there, tapping and solving the crossword puzzle. I did the whole puzzle except for one word that I didn’t know. If I had the other half of the puzzle as well, I’d probably figure it out. Normally, if I don’t’ know something, I can still figure it out.

I fell asleep and woke up some time later. My cell’s dark again. The shutter’s open. But all I see is some candle-light on the other side of the door. The lights must be out again. What should I do? I’ll  I only see a light from a candle coming in. The lights are out again. What should I do? I’ll reflect, but on what? My cough’s so bad that I can’t even reflect in peace and quiet. I asked for more hot water and drank it. I breathed. Seven times seven. Sleep, sleep, sleep right away. Drive away the thoughts and sleep. There are people who count sheep in order to fall asleep; I try to drive my thoughts away. Not bad, so far it’s working. Now I am sick and emaciated, I fall asleep very easily. I am asleep practically all day.

“Get up.”

It’s morning, and Uncle Sioma’s standing there with a bar of soap in his hand. I took out my bucket, dumped it out, and flushed the leftovers of digestion into the toilet. Oh, I forgot to mention, the toilet here is the kind where you stand over it, like in the village; good thing it doesn’t have a seat. In these kinds of places, poorly maintained, public, with a large traffic of people, it’s preferable to have this kind of a bathroom. I washed with normal soap. I came back to the camera. I ay down, because my cough worsened to the point that it wouldn’t let me breathe at all. The guard changed. It’s the pimpled one’s turn. They called me to see the investigator.

“Good morning.”

“Hello.”

“Have you settled in?”

“It’s not so bad, except I’m sick, it’s freezing in my cell, I have a bad cough, and I have neither a mattress nor a blanket.”

“What, they still haven’t gotten them for you?”

“No, it was the weekend, they said they’ll give them to me on Monday.”

“That means you should be getting one now. I’ll call the housekeeper right away.”

He made a phone call, and someone came in, an ensign. The investigator told him to get me a mattress and a blanket, and he went away to procure them.

“Here’s the deal: when we called the number you gave us for Mikhail they say there’s nobody there by that name, and it’s a rented apartment, so we can’t find him by his residence registration, there’s nothing we can do to have him arrested and brought in here.”

“What do you suggest that I do?”

“Pray to God that he is stupid enough to remain in his apartment.”

“Why, what does that change?”

“If he’s still there, we can have on of our officers go check. You see, Moscow has nothing to do with the Oktriabrskaia railroad’s police force, it’s an independent constituency.”

“What I am to do?”

“Nothing, I told you, just pray. We’re going to send someone over to check on the spot.”

“But your man’s not going to be able to figure out whether Michael’s there or not, you’ve never seen him.”

“You’re absolutely right, which is the reason why you’re going to go with him.”

“How am I going to go, handcuffed, through the whole city?”

“Yes, with the handcuffs, there’s no other alternative.”

“And when are we going to go?”

“Tonight, someone will wake you up.”

“I see. Can I have a few of your smokes?”

“Help yourself, I buy an extra pack every day to distribute among the suspects.”

“Thank you.”

“Now get back to your cell, our chief wants to talk to you at some point during the afternoon.”

“For what?”

“He wants to chat with you.”

“About what?”

“I don’t know, I assume about your situation and about the possibility of our mutual cooperation.”

“Good bye.”

“Good bye.”

I went back to my cell to discover that my mattress and blanket had arrived. Surprisingly, they’re even clean. I’m not going to ask the pimpled guard for anything. It’s silly to ask for sheets, I’m sure they won’t have any. I threw the mattress over the bed, folded up my skirt and made something resembling a pillow out of it. I threw the blanket over it. This is just like being in a pioneer camp. I’m a humorist. I’ve turned my life into a comedy, and I look at these kinds of silly stories in the same spirit of comedy. What else can I do? Go nuts? Besides, I have this one friend, Vitalik. He says, when I’m down, I just sit down and tell myself: “When I’m down, this isn’t I.” The same here. Now, I’m doing the same. It’s helping. I do a little more breathing and Vitalik’s exercise. There’s no Lusine here, there’s a swirly, a dinner-eater, a lamp-starer, a crossword-puzzle-solver with a burned matchstick, there’s no Lusine. Lusine is back in her village, swinging on a swing.

Sea-saw, sea-saw

Dog, get out of here, go home

Sea-saw, sea-saw

Dog, go chase cats.

Moon, moon, bright faced moon,

How round you are, how round you are,

You are bright all day,

You walk around in the dark.

Tell us, please, so we can know

Have you seen our Lusine?

My cell’s dirty. I wonder, will the pimpled guard get me a broom if I ask him for one? He did. As it turned out, it was in the regulations, and he was obligated to provide one for me. He also brought me a bucket and a floor rag. I washed the floor, straightened everything out, and dusted all the surfaces. The cell began to look almost like a home. When, as kids back in our village, we played ‘house’ in the basement, this is what it looked like after we straightened it out. Now I’m lying on my bed, feeling content. It’s nice. If it weren’t for my cough, if there was some hot milk and a few books, it would be completely livable.  So this is what prison’s like. I don’t know, I guess a person can get used to anything. In any case, the state has never taken care of me before, and now it feeds me and provides a roof over my head. Now I’m beginning to understand those people who go to European countries and commit crimes there only to be able to go to European jails. This is not Europe, of course, it is by far, by far not Europe, but it still feels nice when the state takes care of you. I’ve reached my goal; I’ve forced the state to feed me and put a roof over my head. This is my share of food and roofing, I guess.

They brought my food. Vasya is smiling.

“Hello, how are you?

“I’m sick, Vasya, very sick. I want some milk.”

“We don’t have milk, I’ll buy you some tomorrow and bring it with me.”

“Yes, please do, I have a dollar, I’ll pay you back.”

“No, don’t worry about it, I’ll just get it for you.”

“Ok then, please do.”

Vasya’s sweet. It’s some unfamiliar soup, with barley in it, looks like solianka.[31] I don’t like solianka. But this is not the time for dontlikethat-ing. I have to eat to survive. On the plus side, the main dish is pel’meni.[32] They’re stuck together, with the dough melting off, but still—pel’meni.

“Vasya, are these pel’meni store-bought?”

“No, we made them ourselves, I even helped make it, we just overboiled them and they fell apart a little. But they’re delicious. Here’s some kisel’,[33] too.”

“Thank you, Vasya.”

So here’s the plan: I’ll eat the pel’meni now, otherwise they’ll turn to mush. I wish I had some yogurt-garlic sauce to pour over them. But they’re fine just as they are, too, and Vasya said there was some butter on them.

I’ll have the kisel’ now, too, and leave the solianka for later.

I should get some sleep, we’re going to Moscow tonight. Why aren’t they taking Pasha, why are they taking me instead? Oh, right, Pasha, unlike me, hasn’t been to Michael’s house. Pasha-Pasha-Pash, our love has turned to mush, ha?

My cough kept me up. I asked for some tea. The pimpled guard got me some. Maybe he’s not so bad, he’s just a regular guy, he probably has pimples because he’s got no girlfriend, he’s suffering from sperm-toxicosis, and, as a result, little red-and-white buds have blossomed all over his face. Poor guy. Perhaps he’s not such a stinker after all, I was just being partial. That’s not good. Not good at all. If it was an unattractive, pimpled girl and somebody treated me with such disdain, how would that make me feel? Oh, my girl, my puppy, my poor little girl…. Your mom turned out to be no good, and through no fault of her own, either. On the other hand, it’s really easy to dump the blame on someone else, your mom is probably just very silly. A primitive human being, empty and hollow. Forgive me, my child. Please be good. Good and wise, and by this I don’t mean be obedient, I mean be wise and make your own decisions. Forgive your crazy mother.

It’s to Moscow tonight, and now I must sleep, sleep, sleep.

“Get up.”

I get up. They’re taking me to see the chief. His office is on the third floor. I’m having a hard time walking up the stairs. I keep running out of breath. K’he-k’he-k’he, that’s what I sound like.

We made it to the third floor, and it feels like I’ve walked five kilometers. I don’t feel well. I entered the office—it’s huge and pretty. There’s a man in his late fifties sitting at an elongated oval table, another obvious remnant of the Soviet times. Who knows what important questions were once resolved around this oval table and how many execution orders signed back in those years.

“Hello.”

“Hello, please come in, sit down.”

I enter, approach him and sit down, leaving one empty chair between us. He’s a handsome man, with blue eyes and a mustache. He has the face of a normal person. The proprietor of that face could have been a professor; in fact, we used to have this math professor from Shamshadin,[34] Darbinyan was his name, he looked just like this policeman. That Darbinyan used to deliver his lectures in his Shamshadinian dialect.  He pronounced “S-H” as “esh[35] because he was missing one of his teeth in the front.

“Would you like a cigarette? Are you comfortable here?”

What a strange question, as if were visiting a sanatorium and he wanted to ensure that the services were good. Well, let me tell you, our service sucks, buddy. I had to sleep on hard, cold metal for three days, my cough’s killing me, my bucket is awful dirty, I want milk, I want to go home, please let me go…

“Thank you, yes. Your staff is wonderful, very friendly, and eager to help me with whatever they can. How may I address you?”

“My name is Nikolai Il’ich. I am the chief of police of the Balagoie station of the Oktiabrskaia railroad.”

“What can I do for you, Nikolai Il’ich?”

“Do you want to cooperate with us?”

Yes, of course, what other choice do I have but to cooperate? Does he think I gave them Michael’s information out of my sense of civic duty? In my current circumstances, of course I will cooperate, there’s no other alternative.

“In that case, this is the plan. You will be taken to Moscow, handcuffed. You will travel by train, in a special compartment, with two of our officers. We’re asking you to behave properly and not to create tension.”

“Very well. Will I be allowed to call my friends and ask them to put some things together for me, since I’m deprived of the most basic necessities of life?

“Yes, you’ll have a right to make one phone call.”

“Thank you.”

“Now about the operation itself. When you approach Michael’s apartment, you will ring the doorbell; our armed officers will be standing right behind you. Remain very calm, and as soon as Michael opens the door, quickly step aside to avoid the danger of being in the line of fire.”

Goodness gracious, this one’s a real movie cop. A commando. But what if that silly Michael begins resisting arrest, and they start shooting, and I accidentally get shot in the process? More problems to worry about! But then again, what choice do I have, I must submit to my fate quietly and calmly if I want to make it out of here.

“Got it.”

“You can keep this pack of cigarettes.”

“Are you trying to bribe me?”

“No, of course not, I simply know that one tends to smoke a lot in these kinds of places.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Why don’t you go get some rest now? You’re looking at a difficult night ahead.”

“Wait, I forgot to ask you one more question. Why haven’t I been offered a lawyer? I am entitled to one, no?”

“You are entitled to one as soon as you are charged with something. So far, you haven’t been charged, we’re simply holding you here so that we can clarify the circumstances of the case and also because your registration stamp is expired, which gives us the right to detain you for ten days. If at the conclusion of the ten days we press charges against you, you can hire an attorney; if you cannot afford one, the state will provide one for you gratis. At this point you re neither a defendant nor a suspect, you are here merely as a witness, and we can hold you, as I already explained, for an administrative violation, namely, you illegal residence on the territory of the Russian Federation. This is all our legal explanation; in reality you know very well why we’re holding you.”

“Yes, I do. If you believe my innocence, could you at least give me permission to consult a physician? I’m pregnant, after all.”

“Yes, as soon as you return from your trip to Moscow, we’ll invite a doctor to examine you.”

“Very well.”

“Good bye.”

“Good bye.”

This is the way things work, I guess. The good thing is that they seem to believe me. But if they can’t Michael, they’re going to pin this on me regardless of whether they believe me or not. So the guy who questioned me was right, the only thing that remains is to pray. I will say, dear God, dear God, I’m asking you, I’m begging you, please let Michael be stupid enough to have stayed in his rented apartment until I take the cops to him and have him brought here.”

Am I snitch? No, I am no snitch. This is my fourth day here, Michael  at least could’ve sent me a care package, take better care of me here, I mean I don’t even have toilet paper, an extra pair of panties, or a toothbrush, to say nothing of food. Why should I feel guilty? I won’t! Whose weed is it? Michael’s! Then Michael’s the one who should bear the responsibility for it. Why should I have to be punished for it? No, the way I see it, nobody’s going to hold this against me. Besides, even if they do, it’s their problem; I’d like to see them come live in this hole without toilet paper, without a clean pair of panties, without a toothbrush and cigarettes for three days, sleep on bare metal, piss into a dirty bucket, and then go wash it out, pregnant, queasy, put their food away for later so that they don’t starve, draw with a match, contract the whooping cough, and then I’ll ask them how they feel about snitching.

I’ll have a smoke and then go to sleep.

The door flings open. “Up!” orders the pimpled guard. Is it time to go to Moscow already? Yes, get ready. What do you mean by getting ready? I just have to brush my hair. Thankfully, they at least let me hang on to my hairbrush. I need to pee. I won’t go here though, I’ll wait until I get out of my cell, and then they’ll have to let me use a decent bathroom, one less time I’ll have to use the disgusting bucket.

I wish the green-eyed Dima was there, but he’s not. I haven’t seen either one of these officers before. They don’t strike me as unpleasant. As soon as I walked out of the cell, I said, I need to use the bathroom. They said, go ahead. I went to the one in the hallway, they put the handcuffs on me…. I’m a prisoner. I feel like I should be singing Murka.[36]

They take me to the station. The handcuffs are chafing my wrists. Once we get to the train, I’ll ask them to loosen them. The station is dead-quiet. The Piter-Moscow train is standing there, waiting for us. We got in and proceeded to a very nice private compartment. They removed my cuffs and told me to be quiet if I didn’t want a 38-caliber bullet lodged inside my head.

I am sitting there quietly. There are some railroad magazines lying around. Information. Information is a good thing, it keep the brain busy. I start reading. It’s not particularly interesting, but I can’t stop, I am starved for information of any kind. I remember how when I was diagnosed with astigmatism, I was told to read less. But I couldn’t live without reading, so my brain started withering. I was in Yerevan, wit my parents, who had taken me back to supposedly take care of me once they finally had their own place to live. They hid the regular books from me, and I’d already read my textbooks so many times that I could recite them by heart. I had read my entire history textbook so many times that every day I was the one talking in class instead of the teacher. So when one day, when I could no longer find anything else to read, I locked myself up in the bathroom with the instruction manual for our new gas stove. I guess I must have spent quite a bit of time there because my parents finally got so worried that they broke the door down only to find me trying to hide the manual behind the toilet. I guess the human brain needs new information to subsist. So I shouldn’t be complaining about this magazine, it’s not bad. It contains some crossword puzzled. I’m not generally a fan of crossword puzzles, but I’d gladly solve them now if only they gave me a pen. I finally worked up the courage to ask for one. They gave it to me—so here I am, sitting here, solving crossword puzzles.

The train speakers are tuned to Russkoie Radio, and again it’s singing Gazmanov.  They should rename the train radio into gazmanovradio.

I need to use the bathroom again. The cop takes me to the one down the hall. Judging by how clean it is, this must be a nice train car. This is fun! When I got back to the compartment, I told them I was hungry. They called the conductor and asked him if he had any food. He said al he had was some Danishes. Mmm, Danish, nothing seems more delicious to me right now that Danishes. They also brought some tea. So I take a full bite of the Danish and wash it down with warm tea. If only I managed to forget about my current condition and pretend that I’m just a regular passenger, I’d fall asleep no problem. But how? It doesn’t matter how, I just have to! They told me to go to sleep on the top bunk. I refused, I said, I can’t, I’m pregnant. They made round eyes. Jeeze, what kind of people work in this police department, there are so few of them, but I have to keep telling every single one that I’m pregnant. Fine, they said, take one of the bottom ones. They’ve padlocked the door, as if I were going to jump off the train while it was moving. I should get some sleep. I should say a prayer and try to sleep. I dream another dream about my village. My Grandma. The swings. My cough woke me up again. I looked out the window, and so some station called Klin. That means we’re going to be in Moscow soon. I have to get some sleep. I keep driving away my thoughts and falling asleep. My cough keeps waking up not only me but also the two cops. They express their displeasure with fake “ah-hems,” as if they were clearing their throats. What the hell?

We’re there. In Moscow. The evil city of Moscow. The pretty, stinking, city of Moscow. The city of Moscow that raises people up and crushes them. Moscow doesn’t like me. I don’t like it either.

It’s early morning. They’ve handcuffed me to one of the two cops. I asked them to loosen the cuffs a little. I need to use the bathroom again because I didn’t have time to go on the train. We were pulling into the station when I woke up. The cop to whom I’m cuffed found some she-cop, attached me to her, and told her to take me to the bathroom. The she-cop is mean. She keeps looking at me as if I were some sort of an animal. She must think I’m a thief or an addict. Whatever. This isn’t exactly the right time to be making conjectures. I went to the bathroom, did my business, washed my hands and got chained back to the handcuff-cop. All the people are staring at us. I wonder what they must be thinking. Then again, let them think whatever they want. I’m never going to see them again in my life anyway.

We took the subway, then transferred to Michael’s line and took it straight all the way to Petrovsko-Razumovskaia. There, by Yerevan movie-theater, we took a bus to Michael’s house. I couldn’t remember exactly which building it was. The cops probably thought I was pulling an Ivan Susanin[37] on them. I finally found the alley-way. I’d only been here once before, and I definitely suffer from topographic cretinism as a result of my poorly functioning vestibular apparatus. I always get lost everywhere, and I can’t ever find my direction. If I’ve been somewhere at night, I’ll never be able to find the same place in broad daylight and vice versa. The same with summer and winter. It’s a good thing I found it. Otherwise they might have finally put their handguns to some use, they were already annoyed with me for keeping them up all night with my cough, and they would’ve just insisted that they shot me for trying to escape. We made our way to the entrance. I was shaking all over. His apartment is on the first floor. The cop rang a neighbor’s door and asked if such and such a person live here, and they said, yes, there is, there’s a boy and a girl, a very quiet, shy family.

So they put me in front of the door and pointed their guns at me. Then they ordered me to ring the doorbell. Dear lord, save me! Please don’t let Michael do anything crazy, otherwise this is the end of me. I rang the doorbell. Who is it? It’s Yana’s sleepy voice. It’s me, open up. Where did you come from, have they let you out already? I said, yes. So she opens the door, and Michael’s standing right behind her. The cops jump out from behind me right away, and cuff Michael’s hands behind his back. Yana’s just standing there, entranced. Her eyes are full of hatred. Michael, too, keeps cursing me, mentions my father and mother, calls me a hairless dog, just mixes it all together and hurls the insults at me. He keeps calling me a snitch. I’m standing there with my mouth shut. The cops tell him, pack up, you’re coming with us. For what, asks Michael. They say, it’s because you transport and sell marijuana. He says, you can’t just arrest me because of what she’s told you, you’ve gotta prove it first. They say, it’s not just her, Pasha also insists it’s yours. Pasha doesn’t count, he’s her husband. Fine, we’ll search the place. They invite the neighbors in as witnesses and start taking the place apart. Suddenly…

Moronic, greedy, brainless Michael! Like it wasn’t stupid enough that you decided to stay put, but you’ve also kept the weed stalks that normal people discard and stored them in your closet in a large plastic bag! He-he-he! This is how greed destroys a man. They removed the stalks from the bag and asked him what they were? He says it’s just some dried stalks, and they say, yes, we see that, and we also see what stalks they are. To make a long story short, they showed the contents of the bag to the neighbors and entered it as evidence into their report.

I’m in the kitchen. Yana keeps staring at me with hatred. What does she want, was I supposed to do eight years for his crime? She won’t talk to me. I say to her, why did you guys stay here, why didn’t you just get the hell out, but in my mind I keep thanking god that they decided not to leave. Yana’s crying. I felt sorry for her. I say to her—what was I supposed to do, I wasn’t even the one who told them it belonged to Michael, I just gave them your address, Pasha was the one who told. And Pasha told because he wanted to protect me.  And he did the right thing. I tell her to pack warm things, and, as I’m talking, I keep hacking. She says, Michael’s got tuberculosis, he’s going to die in there. So what, I’m pregnant.

“Yana, can I take a shower here?”

Can you believe my insolence? I’ve ratted out her husband, and now I’ve come to her house and want to take a shower. She says, go right ahead, not like I can do anything to stop you. She even gave me a towel, a somewhat damp towel. Should I ask her for some underwear? No, she’s always dirty, I’ll skip that. I tell the cops I’ve been promised a call. He tells me to give him the number so that he can dial it. I give them the number of Piper’s friend, but alas he’s not there. The cops leave a message with the friend’s wife to tell Piper that I am in the Balagoie prison, and to tell him to bring me some basic necessities and food. I get into the shower. The cops have no objections to that. Oh, what a great thing this running hot water is. I aim the water at my head, my body, and try to etch in my memory this wonderful feeling of how the shower tickles and caresses me. The magnificent sensation of hot, pleasant water. I’ll take it back with me to the prison and every time I wash myself in the bucket, I’ll pretend that it’s the shower in Michael’s house. Yana is packing some stuff and crying. I feel like a complete bitch. This is what people must have felt during the Stalin repressions when they were forced to sign a paper knowing that with it they’re signing away someone’s life. Well, nobody’s planning to execute Michael. He has tuberculosis, and then they have amnesties all the time, he’s going to spend a year behind bars at most. I just hope he doesn’t say that we were in business together, thus upgrading the case to organized criminal activity. I doubt it, he can’t be that stupid.

We’ll be traveling back to Moscow in the same compartment.

The same road in reverse. Bus, Yerevan movie theater, subway, Leningraskii[38] train station. It’s midday already. Back in the prison, they’ve brought the food around already. I feel very tired. I asked Yana if she could buy me some condensed milk and she said, yes I can. She went and bought me a jar, and a loaf of bread.  I’ll save the milk for later; when I get back to my cell, I’ll open it, and drink it with hot water. It’s gotta be good for my cough. Yana’s trying hard to win the cops over. She even bought pizzas for everyone, and we ate right there in the waiting area. Michael won’t look at me, if his glance meets mine, it darts fire. As it is, he’s a crystal-head, wound up from all the stimulants, although he supposedly stopped using meth when he moved in with Yana.

Meth is a poor country’s drug. It’s cooked at home. People buy Solatan,[39] the cold and cough medication that contains ephedrine, then perform some alchemy, add some other stuff including gasoline, then cook it and inject it. They inject it and start tripping. They say that it works for twenty-four hours, so whatever they do, it’s under the influence: doing housework, solving crossword puzzles, working on the computer, and even having sex. In short, for a brief period of time, say twenty-four hours, all the energy contained in the human body surfaces in concentrated form, making a person feel omnipotent. Then, without warning, the withdrawal kicks in. Then they feel something inexplicable, which they describe as a small death. And that’s probably what it is, anyway, since many brain cells can’t survive this incredible aggression towards the human body, the unexpected flow of blood and the changes in blood pressure, and die. I don’t get it, and how could I? How can you explain what dolma tastes like to someone who’s never had any? All I know is that I’d certainly not want to eat the kind of dolma that might later give me diarrhea. Pasha’s hooker Lena was an addict; she injected meth to be able to fuck tirelessly. Michael did it to be able to play his base. The eyes of meth-addicts’ eyes eventually become frenzied, vacant and frenzied. The expression remains even if they get clean. And they stay that way even after quitting. Anyway, so Michael was staring at me with his vacant, frenzied eyes, and it made me terribly afraid.

We boarded the train. We’re moving. I am in one compartment with the cop that’s cuffed to me, and Yana, Michael, and the cop cuffed to him—in the other.

I’m solving a crossword puzzle again. The cop’s asleep. He’s asleep in the middle of the day. I’m trying to suppress my cough as much as I can so that he can get some sleep, he’s also a fellow human, after all, a mother’s child. So what if he’s a cop? In his sleep, he looks like an angel. He has golden hair, white skin, and a tiny nose. He’s cute, this cop. He can’t be more than twenty. The pizza is burning my stomach. I want water. How can I go get some without waking this guy up? I quietly pull the door, and the cop jumps up. He asks me, scared, where the hell do you think you’re going. I tell him I’m thirsty. The pizza is burning my stomach. He takes out an antacid and hands it to me; he says, I frequently get acid reflux myself, just put this in your mouth and let it dissolve, and you’ll feel better. In the meantime, I’ll go get you some water.

The antacid helped. The cop is sitting there and pretending to be staring out the window, but in reality he’s checking me out. After the shower, I definitely look prettier. God has given me great hair, I know, it’s thick, sitting in waves on my shoulders. I know I’m pretty. Now he’s literally caressing me with his eyes. I am tiny; my father used to tell me I looked like a raisin. I used to feel uncomfortable that I was so short, but then I realized that guys went nuts over me. The misbalance in size is probably another one of nature’s clever tricks to ensure a medium-sized progeny. Anyway, now that I am nearing thirty, I’ve started liking myself. I no longer curse at myself in the mirror, and I think the more mature I become, the more attractive I get. I just hope I don’t get wrinkly and fat, like a doughnut, the rest is fine. I always feel eighteen. They say you always look as old as you feel. Now the cop is staring at me directly. I feel like he’s undressing me with his eyes. Well, if he wants to look, let him look, ain’t nothing wrong with looking. He stepped out, and locked the door behind him. He came back with two beers in his hands. He offered me one, but I said no thank you, didn’t I tell you I’m pregnant? Yes, you did, he says, but what’s one beer going to do to you? I was like fine, I’ll take it. What does this dork want from me, could it be that he thinks that I will get drunk on one beer and lose my senses and then he can have his way with me? I don’t like the beer. I put it aside and said no, I don’t want it. What do you want then, he asks? I said I want some milk. He said fine, when we get to Tver’,[40] I’ll buy you some milk. I asked him, how come you’ve suddenly decided to be nice to me? He says until we picked up Michael, I didn’t believe that the pot wasn’t yours, I thought you were a junkie and a dealer, but now I look at you as a normal person. I said, so what that I’m normal, what does that change? Well, nothing has changed except I used to look at you as trash, and now I am see you as a woman.

What can I tell you, man? You’re a cop, that’s all there’s to it. The cops are the guardian dogs of philistines, their ideology and conceptions, of their desires and urges. If the rest of society considers sick people trash, then naturally you should doubly think that, you can’t help it, you’re a cop, even though it’s not always the addicts’ fault that they’re addicts.

I’m not a druggie, but I do understand how people get hooked. Stop chugging, you may not be a junkie but you’re certainly on the right path to become an alcoholic! Look, you had one beer and already you’re red. You emanate that scent of being alcohol’s captive. Perhaps for the Russians, drug abuse is a step forward from their current state. I don’t know why, I keep thinking silly thoughts. The little cop drank my beer, too, and now he’s sniffling in his sleep. We’re in Tver’ already. Look at this one, he was planning to fetch me milk! I can easily step out, he won’t even notice. But I won’t. One way or the other, I’ll be out free in a day or two, they told me they could only hold me for ten days without charging me with anything. They’ll let me out in six days at most. It’s better if I try to get some sleep.

We’re here, says the little cop. He chains me to him again, and off we go. It’s evening. I hear drunken noises and laughter coming from here and there. The illumination at this train station is equal to none. Before, every time I passed through Balagoie, I’d wake up, stare at the lights and wonder what kinds of people lived here, what kinds of problems they had. Now Balagoie has become part of my life, it has become an involuntary haven. Now I live in Balagoie, in the police station’s lockup that used to be the bathhouse of the Russian czars.

We’re walking to the lockup. The cop says:

“If I was the one who’d found the weed, I would have asked you to sleep with me, and then I would have dumped the weed and let you go.”

“And what if I’d said no?”

“How would you say no, why would you say no, wouldn’t it have been better for you to sleep with me than to get yourself involved in this convoluted story.”

“I wouldn’t have slept with you.”

He’s clearly struggling to wrap his brain around this one. What can I tell him?

“Is it because I’m not good-looking, or is it because I’m a cop?”

“No, you’re not bad-looking, and I don’t think of cops as derogatory figures, ever since my childhood I’ve revered the pristine image of Uncle Stiopa.[41]

“Then why, what are you, insane?”

“No, I just wouldn’t have. I can’t explain it, I don’t know myself why, but I would never sleep with a strange man for personal gain, probably because I’m not a whore.”

“You’re weird. You’re not Russian, are you?”

“You’re right, I’m not Russian, I’m Armenian.”

“You should have started with that. Now I get it. You’re conceited, national pride, look at me, I’m Armenian, I’m not a whore.”

“No, it has nothing to do with being Armenian, it’s like I have a bar inside me that holds me back, it would’ve been the same if I were Russian.”

“No it wouldn’t have been, this is just the way you’ve been brought up.”

“Nobody brought me up to be anything, I was born this way. If I’m in love, regardless of how many times I’ve been in love in the past, and how many men I’ve been with, I calmly accept him into my bosom, and when I stop loving him, I discard him from there. And without love, buddy, I simply can’t have sex.  Unless I’ve completely lost it and am not conscious of what’s going on, but that’s an unlikely scenario.”

Take that.

The cop walked me all the way to the station, and stood in front of the entrance, unwilling to uncuff me. He stared into my face under the blue light. Just stared, quietly.

“I’ve never met a girl like you before, I always thought your type was a myth that existed only in the movies.”

“What do you mean only in the movies, I’m just a regular woman.”

“No, you’ve changed something, and from now on I’ll be looking for a woman like you.”

“That’s a good thing, but be prepared for the fact that a woman like me will only be with you for as long as she loves you. As soon as she stops loving you, she’ll toss you out of her heart, and there’s only one short step from being tossed out of someone’s heart to being tossed out of someone’s bed.”

“Yes, I agree. But then for as long as she’s with me, I’ll know she really loves me.”

Poor little cop, poor little cop. Me, with my disgusting half dirty panties, my raspy cough, my pregnant belly, three husbands, and a dubious future, who the hell am I that you should be looking for someone like me? As you wish, but I suspect the first chick you meet will wipe my image clean out of your brain.

We get to my cell. Who the hell is this? There’s some girl sleeping in it. She’s taken my mattress, wrapped herself into my blanket, and is sound asleep. What am I supposed to do now? Hello! She woke up.

“Hello.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Nadia.”

“This is my mattress, I had to sleep on the bare metal bunk for three days, before they finally gave it to me yesterday, and now you’ve come and taken it. Where am I supposed to sleep?”

“Here, you can have it back.”

I’m sitting there thinking what to do.

“Fine, why don’t we just lie down together, but I’m warning you that I’m not into girls, I’m not lesbian.”

“Neither am I.”

“Good, let’s get some sleep then, tomorrow we’ll ask for another mattress.”

We got into bed. She doesn’t smell, it seems like she’s clean. We should sleep. My cough started up again. I got up, had some water, lay down on the other bunk, did the breathing seven times seven, I told myself, now that I’m down, I am not I, calmed down a little, and climbed back into my place. It seems like I’m falling asleep. Tomorrow I’ll figure out who she is.

“Get up, girls.”

It’s Dima.

“Hi there, Dima.”

“How are you? I heard about your successful trip to Moscow, good for you, congratulations, maybe now they’ll let you go.”

I took the bar of soap that Uncle Sioma gave me, and picked up the bucket. I told Nadia, today I’ll dump it out, tomorrow it’s your turn. She said ok, and we went to the bathroom. The tiny, dim mirror in the bathroom is the only place that can show my face. It’s an ok face, with black circles under my eyes, a bit swollen. But it’s ok, not bad, could have been a lot worse. I wash up and get out. We return to our cell.

“Nadia, so what are you in here for?”

“I snatched a purse on the train and got caught.”

“What did you do that for?”

“I dunno, it was sitting in such a way, far from the owner, as if telling me to take it, so I decided that since everyone was asleep I’d snatch it and get off at Balagoie. The owner was all dressed up, I figured it would have some nice stuff inside. I’m a thief, I’ve been stealing since I was a kid. My husband was with me on the train, but I didn’t sell him out. He went on to Moscow; besides, it was my idea to steal the purse anyway. I’ve stolen a lot like that, I even spent time in a juvie once, I was fourteen years old when they locked me up. My parents were both drunks, but I don’t drink at all, not even beer, I hate alcohol. I only steal. My husband’s a pickpocket. We love each other and live together nicely. And now, well, I got caught, so I guess they’ll give me a couple of years, maybe even conditionally, if the owner of the purse doesn’t get too persistent with the charges. That much. How did you end up here?”

“We were traveling to Moscow with my fiancé, and there was this dealer guy with us. I put my shoes on top of his bag. There were Georgian people with us on the train, this dealer got sloshed and lost it, started bragging to the Georgians about being a dealer, and about how he had weed with him, and the Georgians asked him for a joint. He gave them one from under the bunk on which the cops found me sleeping. So they arrested me, and brought me down here. It turned out that the Georgians were standing on the little platform between the train cars, smoking, and some cops were passing by and caught them. So the Georgians just pointed to my bunk and told the cops that’s where the weed had come from. The cops never bothered to ask who had given them the weed. They let the Georgians go, rummaged under my bunk, and found the dealer’s bag with my boots in it. And so now I’m here.”

“Didn’t you tell them that it wasn’t yours?”

“I did.”

“Did they believe you?”

“It seems like they did. They took me to Moscow last night so that I could lead them the dealer’s house. I’m afraid the dealer will mix me into this business, he’s got nothing to lose, they found some stems at his house, so he can’t deny it was his, but he could say that I was with him, he’s so angry with the world and with me right now that he may decide to take me down with him.”

“I doubt it, wouldn’t that mean worse charges against him as well?”

“Yes, that’s what I’m banking on, but he’s a meth-head, he’s not normal, who knows what unpredictable stuff he might pull.”

“I don’t think he’ll take a risk like that.”

“From your lips to God’s ears.”

“Everything’s going to be fine, don’t worry, you obviously don’t look like a dealer. I’m shocked that they’ve been able to even keep you here until now.”

“I don’t have residence registration, they’re using that as the excuse.”

“Things simply must work out for you. You seem like a good person. Another person in your place would have snatched the mattress back from under me, but you shared your comfort with me.”

“If caring for others in such matters determines the quality of the rest of your life, I deserve to be Rockefeller’s daughter-in-law and Richard Geer’s wife. Instead, I’m sitting in this mockery of a jail. You also deserve a good life, Nadia.”

“No, I’m a thief, and a thief at heart. I see nothing wrong with stealing, it’s my source of income. I have no other profession, my world is the criminal world, yours isn’t, you’re born for comfort.”

“I don’t think so. I shunned the peaceful, calm philistinism when my first marriage ended, and instead chose the path of searching, and who knows where it will take me.”

“I don’t know where this path of searching could lead to. I think you’ll run into walls here and there, and then return to your previous life. I can see it in your face, visible to the naked eye that you’re not made to be dwelling at the bottom.”

“I’ve long stopped dividing life into clearly distinguishable layers, into upper floors and basements. And while here, I’ve come to realize that my life has become a single instance, there’s nothing permanent in it, everything changes, which is why it’s important to live with abandon in the present, in this very moment. Today you’re a thief, tomorrow a pop-star, the day after—an old woman, and when you die, you can’t take either your thieving nor your stardom, nor your grandchildren with you to the grave. I’ve stopped striving for comfort and personal happiness. All I want now is some mental balance and peace, so that I can be comfortable even if I find myself in such a terrible place as this one. If I didn’t have this inner calm, I would have died by now of a hysterical hatred towards the entire world. So you see, Nadia, there is no such thing as a comfortable life, or life’s top, or life’s bottom. You alone decide where you are. I know people that are so ecstatically happy in their poverty that even the richest person envy them. So there you have it. When I get out of here, I’ll do my best not to harm to anyone, to help with whatever I can, and to be happy if I can, and if I can’t, that’s life.

They’ve brought us our food, and Dima’s calling,

“Here’s your water, wash up, my prison princesses.”

Dima’s an interesting type. A cop. Dima’s a cop now. Later, he may be Santa Clause. Or else, the Dalai Lama.

Vasya opens the shutter and says hello, and passes us the bowls. It’s some soup that smells of canned meat, with noodles.

“Vasya, I went to Moscow and came back.”

“Yes, I know, you’re something of a celebrity here. Everybody knows you, talks about you, follows your case, and exerts psychological pressure on the investigators.”

“Come on, Vasya, what are you talking about, you jokester you.”

“I’m serious, the entire train-station territory is abuzz about this case, do you think things like this happen frequently in Balagoie? The only other thing that came close was when they caught this criminal who was on Interpol’s most wanted list five years ago.

Uh-oh, my case has become equivalent to the case of a criminal sought around the world.

“Is that good or bad?”

“Well, Liusia, it’s neither. It’s just that the splash that the two cases generated were similar. Here, people like you, they feel sorry for you. And Oleg, the young cop who took you to Moscow, keeps telling everyone that you are a unique woman. Everybody keeps saying they should let you go. It’s just that finding two kilos of weed is a rare successful operation here. So just hang in there, if they can put away that acquaintance of yours, they’re gonna let you go.”

“Thank you, Vasya. You can just put the entire main dish into my stash bowl, we’ll have it later. Omelets? Desert? That’s a first.”

“Yes, it’s delicious, you’ll see for yourself when you eat it.”

“Ok, thank you, Vasya.”

“You’re welcome, Liusia, be well.”

“You too, buddy.”

Nadia’s looking at me and smiling. She’s got brown, closely cropped hair, her nose is small, straight, with a sharp tip, Nadia’s a boyish-looking girl with average height and small breasts. She’s neither pretty nor unattractive. She’s just bland. The impression is that she’s transparent, or, more precisely, empty. What kind of a life has she had not to be empty! She ran away from her alcoholic parents, grew up in the streets, got sent to the juvie when she was fourteen, Nadia’s had a real street life. I’ve never hung out with the likes of her. She may be a thief, but she’s human. And she doesn’t seem half bad. I wonder what’s going on inside her head right now.

“Nadia, what if they put me away? Will I croak in the clink?”

“No, what are you talking about, you will enjoy universal respect and honor there. In those places, they’ve got a full range of human shortcomings and good qualities. There they feel very acutely who’s kind and who’s mean, who’s willing to share her bread and who’ll hide hers and eat it alone. Since you shared your mattress with me, you’ll live a nice life in prison.”

“That’s comforting to know, thank you. But what of the fact that I ratted out a drug dealer? How would the criminal world feel about that? Won’t they cast stones at me and call me a snitch?”

“Well, in your circumstances they won’t. You’re pregnant, you must think about yourself and your baby; besides, if that dealer had taken good care of you while you were in here and you still sold him out, then they might have said some things, but since he didn’t even bother to send you toilet paper and a toothbrush, they’d say, good for you that you sold him out. Don’t worry, you would do fine in a colony. There are lots of interesting people in there, some even with the same mentality as yours. It happens sometimes that people in there become very pious in different religious, they become Jehovah’s witnesses, or they go to the Russian priest; I remember there was one who was constantly meditating and reading books. She was from Tuva.[42]  We found out later that she’d become a nun at some Buddhist temple in Buriatia.[43] The colony makes a good person even better, and a bad person even worse. And the middlings, the ones that are neither here nor there, the ones that are empty and hollow, just cling on. Those are the worst. Those are the ones who sell everyone out, hide the bread, and become the communal whores.”

“Ok, Nadia, but I know that in the colonies those who cut it as the lesbian bosses exhibit sexual aggression towards the other inmates.”

“Yes, they do, but if you behave in the right way, they get it and leave you alone.”

“What’s the right way to behave yourself?”

“You can’t be rude, you can’t look down on others with disgust or contempt. For a lot of women in prison, lesbian love is the only ray o light. There are couples who develop strong feelings towards each other. But those are not aggressive, the aggressive ones are those who take out their rage on the newcomers by sexually degrading them. When you feel them approaching, you simply say you’d love to but don’t want to infect them, since you have trichomonosis. That’s all. You’re pregnant, anyway, so nobody’s going to bother you.”

“That’s good to know because women disgust me. I am not opposed to same-sex love. I just find them physically repulsive. There are more unclean women than unclean men. That’s the female physical constitution. And it’s not like these prisons have ideal hygiene.”

“Yes, you’re right, not everyone keeps herself clean in such a place.”

“It’s a good thing that you’re here. No, of course it’s not a good thing that you got caught, but now it’s good for me that I’m not alone, solitude makes me crazy. Tell Dima to tell that ensign to issue you a mattress and a blanket.”

“That’s right, I forgot to tell him.”

“Dima, Dima!”

Dima opened the shutter, we told him, and brought over the ensign loaded with a blanket and a mattress.

“This is great, at least they issued them to you right away, Nadia, let me tell you, it’s so terrible, sleeping on this metal shelf without a mattress, that’s how I caught this cold, and now I’ve got this cough. They had told me they were going to call a doctor.”

“Dima, weren’t they supposed to call me a doctor?”

“Yes, they’ve put in a request, he has to come. Now get your bearings and go see the investigator, he’s calling you.”

I go over there.

“Hello, Aleksandr Anatolievich.”

“Hello, have a seat.”

Now are you going to let me go?”

“No, the case is taking on a different turn, Michael insists that the weed is yours, not his.”

“But doesn’t my fiancé’s testimony count for anything?”

“No, he’s your fiancé, he might have chosen not to testify against you.”

“So what’s going to happen now?”

“Tomorrow we’re going to put you and Michael face to face with each other. He insists that you’re an addict and that you’d even borrowed money from him at some point to start your drug dealing business, and that he tried to talk you out of it, but you were so bent on it that in the end he lent you the money.”

“But that’s absurd, look at me, do I look like a drug-addict to you?”

“No you don’t, in my opinion. But I could be mistaken.”

“You know what, I didn’t want to mention this before because I didn’t think it was relevant to the case, but now I feel compelled to tell you that it’s actually Michael who’s an addict. He’s a meth-head. Do you know what that means?”

“Yes, I am. However, right now it is your word against his and Yana’s.”

“Yana also says that I’m an addict?””

“Yes.”

“So what am I supposed to do now?”

“Now you should give us the names of a few people that can attest to the lifestyle you lead.”

“But what does my lifestyle have to do with these two kilos of weed?”

“Well, it’s your moral character, so it would be relevant.”

“Ok, I’ll give you a list.”

And I gave him the names of a few people in Piter and Moscow. They are my friends, they can testify that I’m a normal person, neither junkie nor a drug dealer.

“And how’s your health? I hope your neighbor’s presence is not disturbing you.”

“On the contrary, she’s a great companion, we chat, and, at the very least, I’m not alone. What are you going to do with her?”

“I don’t know, someone else is handling her case.”

“She’s not a bad person, she’s just lost, her life has made a victim out of her.”

“It’s easy to blame your fault on your difficult life. Why is it that life hasn’t turned me into a victim?”

“Well, it has turned you into an … investigator.”

“Were you going to say ‘a cop’? Go ahead, I’m used to it. I’ve picked my own path in life, just like everyone else. This is what I wanted to do ever since I was a child, and eventually that’s what I ended up doing.”

“What year were you born?”

“Sixty-seven.”

“And I in sixty-eight. We belong to the same generation.”

“Yes, we do, as does Michael, he was born in sixty-six.”

“Do you have a family?”

“Yes, I have a wife and one daughter, six years old.”

“Mine is seven, she’s probably starting second grade now, my parents were supposed to send her back to Moscow so that she could go back to school here, but here I am instead.”

“Don’t get down on yourself, everything’s going to work out just fine.”

“Well, it’s all in your hands, you get to decide whether it will work out or not.”

“That’s not how it works; your testimonies must be compared against each other, we’ll interrogate the two of you together. Now if a few of your friends could come here and testify on your behalf and say that Michael was the real drug dealer, it would really help your case. Write letters to them, we’ll find a way through to deposit them into mailboxes in Moscow and Piter tomorrow morning, and your friends should receive them by tomorrow evening, or the morning after, at the latest. If they get here within the next to days and testify on your behalf, it will make a huge difference in your case.”

“Yes, I’ll go write them right now and give the letters to Dima to mail out. Dima is your best guard. He’s a great guy.”

“Yes, he’s nice, his father’s my friend. He’s been trying to get into med school for two years now, but he can’t get high enough scores on his admission tests, so he’s just working here to get some work experience. These days the young people who haven’t found themselves a job, are included in the high-risk population category.”

“See, and I’ve been wondering why he’s so humane. He’s going to be a doctor, a great doctor. It makes perfect sense. Well, I’ll go write my letters.”

“Good bye.”

“Good bye.”

My cell is still clean. I feel as though the cell were mine, and Nadia was just visiting me for a couple of days. Could she have been planted here undercover? In order to gather information from me? It’s possible, everything’s possible. Well, I don’t care, I’ve got nothing to hide. I returned to the cell and told Nadia what the investigator had told me. Nadia said, no way your friends are going to show up. I said, they will, I’ve helped them out a lot, every one of them in a special way. They won’t diss me like that, they’re not going to let me go to prison for someone else’s weed, pregnant, because they’re too lazy or afraid for some reason. No, they won’t. I’ll write. I’ll write to Plafonich, Katia, Tania; Tania will definitely come, I supported Tanya when she had no money for food. Tanya’s dad was a representative of the Tuva Autonomous Region, he comes to Piter supposedly to visit his daughter and to bring her some money, but instead he spends all his money on vodka and leaves his daughter hungry…. Tanya would come to me, crying, she lived nearby, and I’d tell her, no problem, don’t cry, you just worry about your school, it’s just an extra plate of food, you’ll eat here. She lived with Katia, now Katia has moved to Moscow, and Tania is on her own. How’s she gonna live? She used to have a lover, perhaps he’ll help her? She’s a good girl, smart, pretty. She’ll definitely come when she finds out that such a thing has happened to me. Denis will come also. I helped him out when he showed up at my door, jonseing, with beer in his hands, and said—I’m dying, go borrow money from your neighbors for me, so that I can buy an ounce. And I went and bought vodka, got him drunk, and put him to sleep. And then I stayed by his side for a week, until he was done jonseing.

Now he’s working, dating a nice girl named Zhenia, of aristocratic origins; with the last name Malakhova.

Who else should I write to? Iulia can’t come, she’s always at work and she has a little child at home. Piper will come. Who won’t come though? Everyone will. I’m not bragging, but when I soberly assess my good and bad deeds, it turns out that the good ones outweigh the bad ones. That’s normal. I feel good when I help people out. I get a high from it. And the best kind of a high is when you do something anonymously. You see how a person feels happy, keeps searching for his benefactor and wonders who it could be. And you just observe from afar and feel high. I am addicted to doing good for people. I was born that way. When I don’t feel needed, I feel like I’ve become nothing but a weed and start wanting to die. That’s egotism. To do good to feel good? But it’s not harmful egotism. Whatever, I believe that I am not a bad person and I probably deserve to have people come give me a hand when I find myself in a difficult situation. I don’t know, that’s just what I think. I wrote. I should also write a letter to the Armenian church in Piter. They know me there as well, a church will not refuse to help one of its members, will it?

That’s it. I’ve written briefly, in three-four concise sentences that such-and such a thing has happened, a misunderstanding has taken place, I need your testimony about my being a law-abiding citizen and not a drug-addict. If you don’t testify, I’m looking at four to eight years in prison, according to Article 228 of the penal code, and I’m in a family way, that is to say—pregnant. Nice and clear. They’ll come. I know they will.

I’m coughing again. Where is this doctor they’ve promised?

“Dima.”

“What is it, tell me?”

“Dima, I’m not feeling well, where’s the doctor?”

“I don’t know, we’ve written a request, he’ll be here sooner or later.”

“But isn’t it dark already?”

“Yes, it’s night o’clock.”

“That means he won’t come today.”

“Yes, he probably won’t.”

“Dima, you want to become a doctor, right?”

“Yes, I do, I’ve been applying for two year, but can’t get in. I came to work for the police so that they don’t recruit me into the army, then I’ll apply to the academy of military medicine.”

“Yes, you should apply there, it’s a great school, my ex-husband graduated from there.”

“Why did you get divorced?”

“Because he no longer needed me, he’d already graduated and needed a woman from Piter, so that he could get Piter residence.”

“Oh, I see.”

“Ok, Dima, so what I am supposed to do now, this cough is killing me.”

“Well, you should take some antimucus medication, Solutan works well.”

“Right, all I need now is Solutan, with its connection to with meth, Dima.”

“Yes, but Solutan was created to clear mucus, not to be a narcotic, how is it Solutan’s fault that it gets abused and used outside its intended sphere?”

“Yes, you’re right Dima, the atom was also created for peaceful purposes, and it resulted in Hiroshima-Nagasaki. But I don’t have any money to buy medication, Dima.”

“I’ll buy some for you. Oh, wait, that won’t do, you’re pregnant, you can’t take Solutan, I’ll bring you something milder, herbal.”

“Yes, do that. Now, could you please bring me some hot water to wash up?”

“Nadia, do you want to wash up?”

“I dunno.”

“What do you mean ‘I dunno,’ you either do or you don’t, but decide quickly.”

“If I do wash up, what am I gonna wear, I don’t have clean underwear.”

“Don’t wear anything, do you think I’ve been sitting here for five days with an unwashed butt?”

“Fine, then, I do want to wash up.”

Dima brought the water.

“You go ahead, Nadia, I’ll go after you.”

Nadia gets undressed. She’s so skinny, she looks thirteen, fourteen at most, her ass is the size of a fist. I wonder what’s going on inside that head of hers, how she commits robbery and thinks it ok? Poor thing. It’s a good thing that she’s at least not an alcoholic. What can I do, how can I influence her way of thinking a little? She could be a planted agent in which case she has no need for my intervention, she’s playing her role admirably. This police snitch! Police snitch or not, she’s the closest person I have right now. If she is a snitch, it’s on her conscience. She’s washing up. I’m ashamed to look. I was even ashamed to look at the other clean-shaved crotches at the maternity ward; they shamelessly made up bare everything, we weren’t allowed to wear underwear, and everybody was buck-naked. We would secretly put together underwear-type things from the children’s’ diapers and wear them to feel a bit more human. When a person’s crotch is bared, she feels more vulnerable. Whatever inhibitions I used to have before giving birth disappeared afterwards. Now I can’t look at Nadia’s crotch; on one hand it’s interesting, you wanna know what hers looks like, what another woman’s looks like, whether it’s a primal instinct back from the stone age or just some kind of curiosity. Nadia finished.

“Dima, bring us more water.”

He brought more water.

I’m not ashamed. And Nadia’s not looking. She’s reading the magazine I brought from the train, I’ve turned my back to her and am washing up. I washed my panties, and now I’m swirling it around my finger. Nadia’s laughing.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m drying it. Otherwise it’s going to take 2 days to dry. Why don’t you do the same thing? Haven’t you washed your underwear? “

“No, I don’t feel like it, my husband’s going to bring me a package tomorrow anyway.”

That’s strange, I thought she told me her husband was in Moscow. Anyway, it makes no difference to me whether she’s a police snitch or not.

“Liusia, you’ve got a package.”

I wonder who’s brought it.

“Dima, who’s brought it?”

“He said he was your fiancé, but it wasn’t Pasha. Now which one’s your fiancé, ey, Liusia?”

“I don’t know, Dima, I guess everyone’s my fiancé in some way.”

“You’re something, Liusia. You’re little but feisty.”

“Yes, Dima, you got that right.”

“Oh, by the way, are you aware that your Pasha was released two days ago?”

“What? When?”

“When they took you to Moscow. His father came to get him. He picked him up and took him away.”

“What about me? Why didn’t he take me with him?”

“Because you were in Moscow when it happened.”

Sons of bitches. They did this on purpose. They probably told Pasha that I’d been released already.

“Fine, can I have my package, Dima.”

“Hang on a second, they’re checking it out in security.”

“Nadia, it’s my Piper, he’s brought me a care package, I left him for Pasha, and he’s brought me a package.”

“Dima.”

“What is it?”

“Why couldn’t my Pasha have brought me something?”

“Because when his father bailed him out, he signed an affidavit that he won’t travel outside Moscow.”

“Oh, I see.”

Dima brought in the package. It contains ten packets of instant noodles, some teabags, toilet paper, sugar, candy, cheese, two jars of condensed milk, two loaves of rye bread, a carton of Dallas cigarettes, warm clothes, which aren’t mine—he just have collected it from here and there, but they’re nice and warm, at least I won’t have to freeze anymore. But the main reason why I was hoping for a package was clean underwear. There’s a toothbrush and a tube of Colgate, and a bar of soap….

A care package. So now, I’ve gotten one of these as well. Nice…

“Dima, get us some hot water, we’ll have noodles.”

I emptied the noodles into the secret bowl, poured hot water over it, the noodles have swelled up, I scattered the spices over it, poured out the contents of the small packet of oil. Yummy… We’re sitting around the bowl, enjoying the meal.

“Nadia, life’s good, isn’t it?”

“You’re something, you know that? Even in some prison hole you say that life’s good.”

“Yes, well, it is good, isn’t it? The state has never cared about me before, and now it finally has, they’ve put a roof over my head, they feed me. I have two fiancés instead of one, my friends have put together some clothes for me, they appreciate me, they love me. What is there to complain about? I’m here only because of my own stupidity. I stupidly gave my boots to Michael, and lay down on the bunk knowing what was stored under it. If I were smart and used my brains a little, I wouldn’t have been here. It’s all my fault. Everything will be fine, though. They’ll release me in another week at most, as soon as m friends come and testify on my behalf, everything will fall back into its place. You must be able to see the life’s lessons, to read what’s between the lines.

“I hope everything works out the way you’re describing it.”

“It will, Nadia, it most definitely will. My David of Sasun wasn’t conceived to be born in jail, he’s going to be a great man.”

“Yes, I hope so, Liusia.”

“What do you say we have a smoke before going to sleep, Nadia, huh?”

“Let’s.”

We fell asleep. My cough has gotten a little better, it’s either the breathing or the condensed milk, but it’s definitely a little better.

Goodness, what is this pain, what is this needling, my right side feels like it’s bursting!

“Nadia, wake up, I’m dying. Nadiaaaaa.”

Nadia jumps up from her sleep.

“Dima, Dima, Liusia’s sick.”

“What is it Liusia?”

“Dima, I have a piercing pain in my side, quick, call an ambulance.”

“The ambulance won’t come here, Liusia.”

“It will, call them, tell them that I’m pregnant, they will. Ah, it’s killing me!”

The ambulance came. It’s some woman. I tell her my side hurts. She asks, have you had jaundice before? Yes, I did, when I was seven. But I fully recovered from it and never had any complaints until now. Well, your liver’s on that side. Let me give you a Noshpa[44] injection, but have them take you to the clinic first thing tomorrow morning. We’ll perform further tests to check on the condition of your liver.

She gave me the injection, it let up a little. But I still feel a nagging pain. Dima has left the door open, has taken a seat next to me and is patting my head. I’ve been very lucky with this prison’s employees. Generally, I must be a lucky person. If David had thrown the knife a little to the side, it would have hit my temple, and I would have been dead now. I could have not met Piper, and I would have died of some indefinite disease, the doctors couldn’t figure out what was going on with me, my ESR[45] was fifty two, but they couldn’t find anything wrong anywhere.  I had an abscess over my tooth, I went and had the tooth extracted before the May holidays. First they couldn’t find their instruments, then, by the time they did, it was the end of the work day, and the doctor, who was my neighbor, said why have you waited this long, you were getting blood-poisoning already, and I told her I was afraid of contracting AIDS at a dental clinic. I told her, I only came to see you because you’re my neighbor, I trust you. So there’ve been many, many times when I’ve closely escaped death. What am I if not lucky?

“Dima, you should leave, if they see you in here, you’ll get in trouble, buddy.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll leave once you fall asleep.”

I must have fallen asleep, because when I woke up, Dima was calling us, telling us it was time for the bathroom trip. Nadia took the bucket, she was very quiet last night, poor thing, she must have gotten scared. I feel nauseous, I don’t know if it’s morning sickness, or, as the doctor told me, it’s my liver, I don’t know. I want fruit rollups. I want my nanna. We did our bathroom routine, and then Dima said I’m leaving, feel better, I’ll come check to see what they told you at the clinic.

“Take care Dima, many thanks to you, you’re my guardian angel in this prison.”

He’s smiling, and there’s a sparkle in his green eyes. He’s so nice.

It’s uncle Sioma’s shift.

“Liusia, what happened to you last night, were you sick?”

“Yes.”

“Oleg’s on his way to come take you to the doctor.”

Oleg. The little cop with yellow hair, who was amazed at how between sleeping with a cop like him and spending ten days in lock-up, one could choose the latter. He came over, afraid to show me his eyes. He cuffed me to him again. We’re going. It’s fall already, in five days summer managed to turn into autumn. It’s September, the season’s changing.

I have needles in my side again. I wonder what it is. They’ll check out my pregnancy to see how that’s developing as well.

“I remember that you needed condensed milk, I’ll buy you some on the way back.”

“I don’t need it anymore, I got some in a package.”

“What do you need then?”

Eh, what can I tell you, Oleg, should I tell you that I need underwear?

“Nothing, Oleg.”

We got to the clinic. There’s a huge line in the waiting area. Well, that’s to be expected, it’s autumn, people start getting colds, the flue, so the clinics get filled up. Russian people really like going to the doctor. Especially housewives and retirees. To them, it’s probably an excuse to mingle with other people. Especially the elderly, they have a need for basic human interaction, my neighbor, who was a generalist in one of Piter’s clinics, used to say that they would put in calls for doctors’ home visits just to have someone to talk to, poor things.

The entire line is staring at me. Of course they are, I’m cuffed to a cop. They’re whispering to each other. Oleg says, let’s go cut in front of the line. I say let’s. We cut, and it starts buzzing, but we just ignore everyone and enter the doctor’s office and go into the office.

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

The doctor’s a matron of about sixty sitting there with a lifeless, emotionless face, with sorrow imprinted on it, and with small wrinkles of cruelty gathered around the corners of her lips in brackets.

This is not good. She’s an unhappy, bitter woman, that’s why she’s probably so hardened against life and people—ironic, considering that by dint of her profession she must help people, despite the fact that in reality she would’ve loved to throw all the pencils, cards and her stethoscope at them and say—enough of your whining, my son is an alkie, my husband’s dead, my daughter moved to Moscow twenty years ago and has only visited twice, once to take herself off her residence registration, and the other time when her father died. I have diabetes, my body is constantly itchy from the overproduction of sugar the herpes sores that I have all over my body. And you’ve come here with your ‘it hurts here,’ ‘this hurts, that hurts,’ well mine hurts too, get the hell out, leave, leave me to stew in my own misery. This is probably the kind of a life this woman doctor has. Poor thing.

“What are your symptoms?”

“I had an attack of sharp pain in my right side in the middle of the night, a very strong pain. The ambulance doctor told me that it’s possibly my liver. I had jaundice as a child.”

“The ambulance doctor is not a reliable source for me. Remove her handcuffs.”

Oleg removed my handcuffs and left the room.

“Please undress from your waste up and lie down on the table.”

I undress and lie down. I bend my knees, I remember that when I had jaundice as a child, that’s how they examined me.

“Does it hurt like this?”

“Yes, it does.”

“How about here?”

“Yes.”

“How about here?”

“Also yes.”

“Are you feigning sickness to get yourself released from jail?”

Goodness, she’s completely nuts! But then maybe there are people who really do that.

“No, what nonsense! I’m also pregnant.”

“Get dressed. There’s nothing wrong with your liver. Go see an obstetrician, maybe something is wrong in that area.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Why have you been arrested?”

I told her. I could tell she didn’t believe me. If a person wants to believe something, she does, and if not, then she doesn’t.  There is no absolute lie or truth. The person who always expects to be cheated will be, and the person who doesn’t, won’t. Now this one has always been lied to, and will always be lied to. She’s been born and lived amid lies and cheating. It’s her fault. Everyone will always diss her.

“You don’t believe me, do you?”

“No, I know your kind well, I’ve met quite a few.”

“You know what? My grievances will eventually end, but yours have lasted your entire life and will never expire, because you’re incapable of seeing anything outside your own personal problems, you always expect the worst from life and receive it accordingly. Change your attitude towards life and people now, otherwise you’ll finish your days in an old people’s home, alone and forgotten.”

She’s trying to shush me, but I can’t be stopped, she drags me out the door, and I keep screaming, so in the end I told her everything. I added that she was very helpful. Oleg’s tugging on my sleeve, trying to drag me away, but I’m fired up, all red, I think I’m Jesus, trying to save the world.

People are staring at me, they can’t understand anything, they probably think I have the jonses, and that’s why I am talking crazy talk.

We went down one flight of stairs. Oleg tells me to calm down, otherwise he’ll take me back to the cell and I won’t see an obstetrician. I say I’m fine, I won’t do it anymore. There’s no line for the obstetrician’s office. In Balagoie, women must be healthy in that area.  It’s a good thing I washed up in the morning, even the most untidy woman doesn’t not go to an obstetrician dirty.

Uh-oh, it’s a young guy. He’s very young, probably about twenty-five. What can I do, he’s a doctor. I tell him what’s happened, about my attack, I tell him I’m pregnant. He puts me in the gynecological chair. It’s the most unpleasant medical procedure. You spread your legs in front of a stranger, and you show your most private, most shameful parts, turned inside out like a sock. To do it in front of a young guy is even worse. He puts on a glove, sticks his hand inside me, presses here, presses there, asks me if it hurts, I say no.

I get dressed, he says it’s a normal pregnancy, six weeks. I know it’s six weeks old, I even know the day and the hour when I got pregnant. I always know, I feel it when someone enters my body to grow in it.

“Well then what’s caused this attack in my abdomen?”

“I don’t know, I can’t say, we have to do some general tests and an ultrasound. But there’s a fee for the ultrasound.”

“Could you at least help have me transferred from the prison to the hospital, at least?”

“There’s no hospital here.”

I coughed.

“Could it be that your appendix has shrunk from the coughing? Where exactly does it hurt?”

I show him.

“That’s not your appendix. It’s either your liver or your spleen.”

“What should I do?”

“Get the tests done.”

“Thank you.”

I exit the room. Oleg is sitting there.

“He told me that I have to get some tests and blood work done.”

“You can’t, you don’t have local residence papers.”

“Yes, but now I live in your prison, doesn’t that means that my residence is the prison, which is located in Balagoie?”

“Sounds right, but I’m not a lawyer, let’s go back to the department and talk to them, see what they say.”

We’re walking through a park. What nice, clean air. The leafs have fallen, it’s already rustling autumn, my favorite kind of autumn. As a kid, I would go to the park, there would always be piles of fallen leafs under the linden trees; in the mornings, the Turks would clean them up, and in the evening they would accumulate again. I’d go and start pushing a pile of leafs into shapes. The rustling sound was the melody of the autumn, I would step on them rhythmically, with drumming, or slowly, in the tempo of a waltz.

It’s a Balagoie autumn, a beautiful autumn.

“Oleg, do you mind if we walk around here a little? It’s been a week since I’ve taken a breath of fresh air, and I could really use some, I’m pregnant.”

“Fine, we’re not under time constraints.”

“Just don’t talk, ok, Oleg?”

“Ok, I’ll be quiet.”

We’re walking down a park trail, and I’m leading our handcuffed pair during the walk. Oleg forms a part of me, he’s my shadow. I run, he runs with me, I stop between three trees and start spinning, and he spins with me, I laugh, he laughs as well, I waltz through the small piles of rustling leaves with him, humming Khachaturian’s waltz[46] under my breath…. Joy…. Life is a wonderful thing, come what may. There’s no prison, there’s no cooked criminal case against me, there’s no struggle of single-panty existence, there’s no Michael, there’s nothing bad, it’s an illusion, there’s only this moment, the beautiful moment of the Balagoie autumn….

I got tired.

“Oleg, I’m tired, let’s go home.”

Home. Home?! Where is my home? Is the prison cell my home? Yes, it is. I’ve been given a home in the Balagoie prison cell. When this story’s over, I’m going to move to Balagoie permanently. Here, the cops are kind. One should live in a place that has kind cops. I’m definitely going to move here. Why not? It’s a town, a small town. I’ll take Pasha and move here. We’ll open a café, call it At Liusia’s, all the marginals traveling from Piter to Moscow will stop by there and enjoy delicious, cheap pirozhkies, Danishes, and dolma. It’ll be nice. There will be live music, with time Balagoie will become a cultural center, with rock music festivals, I’ll turn Balagoie into the cultural center of the marginal movement. So long as I get out of this story with honor. I will. Too many bad things cannot happen to a good person, and I, objectively speaking, am more of a good person than a bad person. I’ve tried not to do bad deeds, at least not intentionally. Perhaps this was how it was meant to happen, that I would thus end up in Balagoie, fall in love with it, stay here and flourish…. I’m Ostap Bender, and Balagoie is Vasiuki,[47] that is to become an international chess center.

I am a combined reincarnation of my grandfather from Van, Tsvetaieva,[48] and Ostap Bender.

Oleg is quiet. He seems to be perplexed. He can’t figure what kind of a person I am to be making such plans in my inconsolable situation. Yes, it turns out that I’ve been dreaming all of this up out loud. He takes out the key, uncuffs us from each other.

“Go, there’s a Piter-bound train passing through in ten minutes, board it, take off, I’ll hang out here for another couple of hours so that they don’t start looking for you, and then I’ll tell them you escaped when I let you use the bathroom. Go, Liusia, the prison is no place for you, go.”

“No, Oleg, I won’t go, whatever’s meant to be will be. Don’t be stupid, c’mon, put the handcuffs back on, let’s go. I am grateful to you, of course, but no. If I see that they’re definitely putting me away, I’ll tell you, and you’ll help me escape then.”

“There will be no second chance, if you don’t want to escape now, I can’t make you, let’s just get back to the station.”

We got back to the prison. Oleg took me back down to the cell, took off the handcuffs and looked at me:

“I’ll never forget you, you managed to completely transform me in just two days. I’m going to go quit this job and enroll in pilot school. I always dreamed of being a pilot, and never had the guts to do it, thinking that I’m not smart enough. Now I’m going to go give it a try, if it works, it works, if not—at least I won’t spend the rest of my life beating myself up for not trying. I wish you much happiness, everything’s going to work out for you. How can it not, for an optimist like you?”

He bent down to kiss me on the cheek, but instead, I put my lips to his lips, and softly, just the way I like it, without pressing, I took his warm, meaty, almost adolescent upper lip with my lips and kissed it.

“Thank you.”

“It was heart-felt, take it with you, may it bring you luck, Oleg. Good luck, my boy.”

“Good luck, Liusia.”

The cell looks the same, Nadia has cleaned up, good for her. If it weren’t for the bucket, our cell could pass for a dorm room at a summer camp. I told Nadia what they told me at the clinic and told her that Oleg and I went for a walk. I didn’t tell her about the unexecuted escape, if she’s a police snitch, she’ll rat him out, the poor kid will get in trouble.

Nadia says,

“You have some special fluids that captivate people. This is the first time I’ve seen cops being so gentle and genuine with a criminal. What do you do to people?”

“I don’t do anything, I just don’t close myself off, I keep my heart open, I seek out good traits in people and start liking them for it, and they invariably reciprocate. There’s no mystery, I’m not a wizard or a Vanga,[49] just a regular Liusia.”

You know, everyone keeps singing me praises, one of these days I’m going to get a big head and really start believing that I’m something special. I’ll start getting broken without even getting fixed first. I can’t let that happen. I know who I am, I know that I’m a simple woman with an average IQ who can’t even find her proper place in life, and who keeps throwing herself every which way like a moth darting around a big, bright lamp until it falls, exhausted, or burns its wings from the lamp’s heat. The lamp’s my life. Do I have an alternative? I don’t. I either have to become flame-resistant, or pick a dimmer lamp, which I don’t want, or I have to not be a moth, but I AM, I have to transform into a supermoth to survive, and in order to become a supermoth, I guess I have to go through all this turmoil. That’s gotta be the case. Could it be that this is just the beginning, and there’s more in store for me? Possibly. The important thing is to make sure that the lamp doesn’t get extinguished. I’d rather have it blow up from an encounter with a moth like me, rather than see it grow dimmer. A dim life is not my life, it’s not my path.

Nadia was taken away for a questioning. Is she a police snitch? Eh, who cares. If she is, I’m sure she was forced into it. I thought of Nadia’s childish bottom and felt sorry for her again. Well, maybe she’s not a police snitch, maybe they arrested her for the robbery, brought her here, put her in the cell with me and told her, talk her up, if you can make her tell you whatever she’s hiding from us, we’ll let you go without pressing charges against you. It’s possible. Everything’s possible. If that’s the case, then all’s well, I’ve got nothing to hide, she’ll go, tell the cops whatever I told her, and they’ll let her go, she’ll go to Piter, and maybe even start a new life. She’s only human, and no human should ever blame another human, we’re all fallible. I hope she can go on to have a good life, so far it’s been pretty bad.

Amen.

Nadia’s back from interrogation.

“My husband’s hired me a lawyer, but they haven’t filed charges, and the lawyer refuses to wait until they do, he’s going back to Moscow. I told him everything, and he told me to pretend to be a kleptomaniac.”

“Why pretend, you really are a kleptomaniac. It’s an illness. They’ll take you to a psych ward, you won’t have to do jail time, don’t worry, your lawyer has picked the right strategy. Listen, just follow his advice.”

“You know, you must be right. I myself have a hard time figuring out what’s wrong with me. Whenever I see something that’s not attended to properly, my brain starts stewing, making plans about how to get my hands on it. And I can’t stop until I’ve stolen it.”

“Yes, Nadia, you’re definitely ill. And now, I want to have some milk and get a little sleep, they’re probably going to take me to the interrogation soon, they were supposed to question me earlier, but I was at the clinic, he said we were going to have our face-to-face with Michael soon.

“Uncle Sioma, can I have some water?”

“Here you go, my girl. How are you? Is your side still hurting?”

“No, it’s calmed down, we’ll see how it behaves at night. We took a little stroll with Oleg in the park, I got some fresh air. I’m good, Uncle Sioma, I’m good.”

I made the condensed milk drink and sipped it. Oh, that feels nice. I should sleep a little, it seems like my cough’s getting better, my side no longer hurts, I’ve got toilet paper and a tooth brush; all in all, I feel like a human being. I don’t have underwear, but it’s ok, I’ll fold up some toilet paper and make panty liner out of it, like the everyday ones, and wear it. No big deal, how did women make it in concentration camps? I’ll do the same. A human being is capable of surviving harsher conditions that one would think.

Did I fall asleep? It’s Nadia, telling me that my investigator’s expecting me. I got up, brushed my hair and called Uncle Sioma.

“Hello.”

“Hello, please take a seat in this corner, we’re going to bring Michael in in a moment and start the confrontation. You went to see a doctor, what did they tell you?”

“They didn’t find anything. They said I needed further tests but I couldn’t get them done for free because I was not a local resident. They just told me that the pregnancy was fine, that’s about it.”

“Well, if we file charges against you, that automatically makes you a resident of Balagoie, because you will be registered at the local penitentiary. In that case, you can get your tests done locally. If we don’t press the charges, then we’ll release you in about four days, and you’ll take care of your needs at that point.”

“Yes, you’re probably right, I doubt anything’s going to go terribly wrong in the next few days, even if this is something more serious than just a common cold. I can handle it. I just really hope I won’t have any more attacks in the middle of the night.”

Michael came in.

“Hello.”

“Hello. Please take a seat in the right corner, Mikhail.”

He takes a seat and stares at me with his terribly hateful, bloodshot eyes. Each eye is a black, knotted, coiled up snake.

“Lusine here insists that the weed belongs to you, and that you were the one who offered to put her boots in your backpack because she didn’t have enough space to store them. Is this true?”

“No, this isn’t my backpack, it’s hers.”

And he starts spinning a tale in which I am the main character with five years of experience in selling drugs, a junkie, and overall an antisocial element.

“He’s the one who used to be a junkie. I say used to be because he supposedly stopped shooting meth once he started going out with Yana, and he’s even started to look more human. Michael, why would you say such a thing? It’s yours, and I know it, and you know it. Why don’t you be a man for once and own up to things? I’m pregnant, and you know that too. You want me to go to jail, pregnant, because of your weed?”

“It’s your weed, not my mine.”

And he stared into space with his frozen, vacant eyes.
“I can see already that nothing’s coming out of this face-to-face. Why don’t we just wait

to get your character testimonies?”

“You know, this is unfair, Aleksandr Anatolievich. Michael has money, he’ll bribe a few people, they’ll testify on his behalf, and I’m not even sure that I can get anyone to testify for me. I mean they would if I were being held in Moscow, but this is quite a ways off. People have their own lives. After all, you initially mentioned fingerprints, and I guarantee that my fingerprints won’t be found on that bag of weed because I’ve never touched it. They could only be on my shoes. Why don’t you check that out? This is not fair.”

“Very well, we’ll continue tomorrow, and now I’m going home, after all, I have a family too. Michael, think about it, if you confess, it will help you quite a bit, whereas if we have to resort to proving your guilt ourselves, that’s a different story. Lusine, I hope you feel better. Good night. This much for now.”

“Michael, why don’t you stop being such an ass and admit that it’s yours, and I promise I’ll never say anything about you again.”

“Fuck off, snitch.”

What else could I do?

I returned to the cell and started crying. Nadia came up to me, touched my hair. I told her everything. She said, your only way out is getting the character testimonies. You’ve sent out some letters, now you can only sit back and wait. You have only three-four days left to the ten-day deadline; after that, all they can do is either file charges against you or get you a lawyer. Then the lawyer will call your father, and he’ll come bail you out. No, what father, what are you talking about, I’d rather die than tell my father I’m here. He’ll have a heart-attack. He loves me. He may not realize this himself, but he really loves me. I think he sees himself in me, a more liberated, independent, and fearless version of him. He sees himself the way he would’ve been if instead of marrying my mother, he’d have married someone closer to him in spirit, if he didn’t write his dissertation, if he didn’t’ buy a house and then spend years renovating it, and if he just lived instead of constantly preparing to, if he wasn’t afraid to chance his life, to love and be loved, and if he could’ve allowed his brain to think of things other than his wife’s problems. My father’s a good man. He’s an honest man, patriotic and pure. But he’s miserable. It’s all because he’s not with his real half. In general, I always think that had my mother’s husband been a different man, and my father’s wife—a different woman, everything would’ve been perfect, and everyone would’ve been happy. There are countless Armenian families that live like that, hostage to public opinion, hiding behind a shared concern for the future well-being of the children, but in reality the only thing that holds these families together is a fear of starting a new life, and not love but quotidian codependence. My parents are like that, and I don’t want the same life for myself.

“We should get some sleep, Nadia. Why don’t we have a smoke and go to bed? I can’t remember, what did they feed us today, Nadia?”

“We had fish soup, mashed potatoes and fried fish.”

“That’s right. I don’t know what’s wrong with my but I’ve started forgetting things and I don’t seem to be able to focus on anything for more than a few minutes. I must be sick. I should have more milk.”

I called Uncle Sioma and asked him for some hot water. I diluted some condensed milk and drank it. Bedtime.

Here it goes again.

“Nadia, tell Uncle Sioma to call an ambulance.”

He did. The ambulance came, they gave me an injection, and left. So this is the medical treatment that prisoners get—they just come, give you a shot, and leave. But it’s just not working—I can understand having some internal disturbance from a cold, but what’s wrong now? Something’s just not right. It’s like some vital organ has defaulted.  No use worrying about it, I can’t do anything while I am here anyway, so I’ll just have to hang in there until I get out, and if they lock me up, at least my status will no longer be ambiguous and I’ll get medical help as a prisoner. I should get some sleep.

It’s morning,

The pimpled guard’s shift is about to start. Today is my turn to dump out the bucket. Quietly, in a steady cycle, accompanied by an already familiar sequence of shows on Russkoie Radio—the cops apparently like listening to Russkoie Radio, the monotonous daily routine of the prison, begins. I’ve gotten so used to being here that I no longer hate it; if I was healthy, too, I wouldn’t have minded spending more time here.

“Nadia, when’re you going to see the investigator?”

“I don’t know, they haven’t told me anything.”

“It would be nice if they released you, I’d give you a letter to take to Piper.”

“If they do release me, I’ll take care of it.”

The pimpled guard opens the shutter and says hello, your food’s on its way.

Nadia sets “the table.” She spreads the railroad magazine on the free bunk, breaks the bread into pieces using the spoon handle—knives are not allowed here, places the plastic spice packet with flavor enhancers leftover from the instant noodles on the “table,” and we sit down to wait. We’re humans. We’ve set a table so that we can have our meal around it.

It’s Vasya.

“Good morning, I’ve brought you some delicious things,” he announces with a smile.

Vasya pours the borsch into our bowls. We eat it. Nadia says, the food here is great, it’s not the case at the correctional colony. But then, there they don’t make you eat it all at once, like here. The main course is buckwheat with a cutlet. The cutlets here are so delicious, they taste a little like the ones in the high-school cafeteria, though not as great as Auntie Amo’s were. I can see it now, Auntie Amo, standing in front of the big table in the school kitchen, her sleeves rolled up. She’d scoop up palmfulls of the meat, toss it from one hand to the other three times, then throw it into a big bowl filled with breadcrumbs. Once she’d made ten of these, she’d roll them around in the crumbs, flatten them, shape them into cutlets and put them in the frying pan. The oil sizzled and the cutlets turned golden, and we’d stand around and watch that magic which would soon be inserted into a freshly-sliced bun and transform into a cutlet-and-bread sandwich. Auntie Amo always gave me the crust, she knew I liked it. She often made a delicious split-pea puree with tomato sauce, and not one like the sweet ketchups they have these days. Auntie Amo used her magic for the sauce as well; she’d cook the tomato paste in oil, and then slowly pour in hot water, then add a handful of previously roasted flower, mix it all together, and the delicious sauce was ready. Even the teachers ate at the school, and so did the principal, everybody did. I, for my part, went to the cafeteria even on the days when I wasn’t staying in afterschool daycare; this always severely offended my nanna, who’d be waiting for me at home, with the dinner ready. Auntie Amo loved me, she always pinched my cheeks to the point that they hurt. I never let anyone but her do that, and all because of the delicious cutlets she made. She’d hand me the sandwich and say, eat, dearie, enjoy it.

Oh, Auntie Amo, your dearie is now eating a poor imitation of your cutlet off a prison bunk. But this one isn’t bad, either, I shouldn’t complain. Today marks a week since I got here. I wonder what’s going to happen today. My cough’s almost gone, I slept well after the injection, Fedya’s well-fed and calm. Everything’s good.

The pimply guard calls me, time to go talk to the investigator.

“Hello.”

“Hello. Come on in, have a seat. How’re you feeling today?”

“Ok, thank you. We had to call an ambulance again last night, they gave me an injection, so I managed to fall asleep. I don’t know what the problem is, but I know I am developing something serious, because I constantly feel weak, I tire quickly, and I’m having a hard time staying focused. I am in dire need of a real medical evaluation.”

“Please continue to be patient, you’re almost done, we’ll soon know what’s going to happen with your case.”

“What else can I do if not be patient?”

“The bad news is that none of your friends provided a character testimony for you.”

“How about Michael?”

“Nobody showed up for him either.”

“So what’s next, then?”

“To be honest, I myself don’t know. We’re waiting to hear form the DA. I have handed over my investigation report, so now it’s up to him to decide whom to charge. It’s basically your word against Michael’s.”

“In this report, have you included your own opinion?”

“Yes, of course, I’ve mentioned that I believe Michael to be the owner of the backpack.” “Thank you.”

“You don’t have to thank me. It’s merely my opinion, it has no official merit and doesn’t figure into their decision making. Now, all we can do is wait.”

“Well, let’s wait then.”

“I will no longer be interrogating you, there’s no more need for it. You can go now. Be sure to take good care of yourself.”

“Thanks. I hope that this absurd story will be resolved soon.”

“So do I. Good bye.”

“Good bye.”

When I get back to the cell, it’s empty. Nadia must be talking to her investigator. I’ll lie down for a while. My side only hurts at night, it’s quiet during the day.

I wish I had something to read. I’m not sleepy. I do, however, feel very weak. My entire body aches, and I feel nauseous.

Nadia’s still not back. I don’t know the name of the pimply guard. He’s the one who turns up Russkoie Radio the loudest. Tanya Bulanova[50] is singing her weepy songs.  I guess someone out there must like them if she keeps singing so many. She has on the charts, people love her. I bet her concert posters say “The beloved and renown singer Tatiana Bulanova with her new solo concert program.” No, they only write that in Armenia, on every single musician’s poster, even if the only people who’ve ever heard of the artist are his parents and maybe a couple of friends. I think she must have divorced her husband at some point, and was left a single mother to her child, so now she sings her lonely-woman songs to the entire world. The only thing I can’t figure out for the life of me is who needs these many similar songs, especially sung by the same singer.

Hello, guard, where’s my cell-mate? She’s been released and gone home. Really, how did she get out? Then she  was definitely a police snitch. She came in, did her work, and left. Good for her, she must have done well. In any case, Aleksandr Anatolievich now believes me. I found myself alone with my thoughts again. I’ll breath a little. Then I’ll tell myself this is not me for a little while. I’ll become myself again when things get better, but until then I’ll remain the Not-I.

It’s Dima’s turn to be on guard tomorrow. My guardian angel with green eyes and a kind heart. I’m not going to ask the pimply one for washing water, he’ll peep while I’m washing and look at my butt. I’ll make do without it. I can’t wait for these two days to pass. And shame on my friends for not showing up. If the letters were hand-delivered, I sure would have loved to find out what excuse they gave for not coming down to put in a word on my behalf. The church, too, dissed me. Maybe they didn’t remember who I was? But I doubt that, my daughter’s godfather’s sister works there. They must have simply ignored it, or maybe these people didn’t receive my letter to them…. I will no longer be talking to the investigator, so I don’t even have that to pass my days now. At least, when I was taken in for questioning regularly, I knew to wait for it. What am I supposed to do now? How will I keep busy? Sleep, sleep, sleep. Drink milk, drink tea, eat buckwheat, piss, feel pain, and get lots of sleep.

I can hear the pimpled guard making a date with some girl over the phone. At least I assume it’s a girl, because one would only call a girl “my swallow,” I doubt he’d address his mother like that. He’ll go on a date, they’ll walk around, probably drink a beer or two, and then they’ll have sex. And then one day the pimpled guard may lose his pimples, get himself a family, become a decent husband, and there I was, thinking ill of the poor guy….

“Wake up, it’s morning.”

I picked up the bucket, and proudly handed the roll of toilet paper, the tooth-brush, and Colgate along with the soap-bar to the pimpled guard to accompany me to the bathroom.

Wait a minute, I didn’t have an attack last night, that’s good, it means I worried for nothing. Everything’s getting better. Everything’s going to be fine. I feel it. My intuition is usually pretty shitty and always wrong, but this time I know it’s going to be right.

I even had a cigarette while making peepee, it’s awesome to smoke while making peepee, your pee seems to come out easier.

Dima’s here.

“Dima, I’m so glad you’re here, you light things up around here, you know that?”

“C’mon, Liusia, don’t make me blush, I’m a cop, even if only for the time being, I’m still a cop.”

“Yes, and I’m a prisoner, temporarily. Everything’s temporary, Dima, there’s nothing permanent.”

“What about the soul?”

“There’s no such thing as a soul.”

“What’s there, then?”

“There’s nothing, everything is just a product of our imagination, of our mental imagination. It is this imagination that creates wars, creates murderers and heroes, love and hatred. We’re all prisoners of our imagination, Dima.”

“Eh, Liusia, you’re talking nonsense. There’s a soul, most definitely.”

“No, there isn’t, there isn’t, there isn’t. Nor is there heaven and hell. I mean, there is, but even that’s not permanent, it’s all in our heads. Nothing exists independently of it. Hell turns into heaven the moment you start feeling your neighbor’s pain, start commiserating, feeling empathetic.”

“So then there isn’t life after death?”

“No, there isn’t. There are many lives, each one begins when the previous one ends, and this goes on endlessly while there’s still good and bad, kind and evil, black and white.”

“But then what is it that passes from one life to the other if there’s no soul?”

“It is the sum total of your mental activity, the fantasies and imaginings that you have accumulated throughout your life, your good and bad deeds, the flow of your realized intentions.”

“All of this is really hard to grasp, Liusia, what kind of a worldview is this?”

“It’s called Buddhism, Dima, I don’t completely understand it myself, but in my heart I feel that that’s the truth.”

“But what about God? Isn’t there a God?”

“No, there isn’t. There is no such thing as a God-Creator.”

“What do you mean there isn’t? To whom do you pray then?”

“I implore that nonexistent God, I simply send thoughts into the universe; besides, God does exist, I mean there are many gods, but they’re impermanent, just like us. It’s possible that at some point we, too, were gods. Now we’re human. If we lead wicked lives, if we allow ourselves to be guided only by our animal instincts, if we think only of ourselves and our pleasures and fall prey to our desires, we’ll come back in our next life as animals or insects, cockroaches, infusorians. If we lead righteous lives, then the next life will be qualitatively better.”

“I still think there’s got to be a God-Creator, Liusia. Otherwise, how did life start, where did all the living creatures come from? God must’ve created them.”

“Ok, Dima, then tell me, who made God?”

“Nobody has created him, God has always existed, he’s auto-created.”

“If God can be auto-created, why can’t humans, animals, birds, or insects be self-created as well?”

“Because they’re not God.”

“So what if they’re not God? Who says that God should be the only one to be auto-created?”

“I don’t know, it says so in the Bible.”

“Yes, it does, but the Bible was written by people.”

“But it contains God’s will and his words.”

“God’s will may be in the right place, but it’s not really his.”

“Aren’t you Christian, Liusia?”

“I am, Dima.”

“But how can you consider yourself Christian if you don’t even believe in God?”

“I do believe in God, I just don’t believe in a God-Creator, Dima. I believe in the existence of Christ, the son of God, and that he was put on this earth to inculcate some morals in people, so that people would be able to save themselves. Christ was a great man, and the God-protector of the Christians was a benevolent God, but the teaching of Christ will limit people to being human until they’ve matured enough to embrace another teaching that is more difficult for the consciousness to understand and embrace.”

“Do you mean the teachings of Buddha?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t know, I have to digest all of this.”

“Take your time to think about it, Dima, we all have to arrive at this teaching on our own, it’s not the kind that can be simply preached.”

“Very well, Liusia, thank you, this was a very interesting conversation.”

“I enjoyed it too, Dima.”

“Your food’s about to arrive, why don’t you wash up. How did you learn about this teaching?”

“When I was living in Piter, I spent about half a year working as a janitor in a Buddhist publishing house, and I never stopped being amazed and surprised by those people, it seemed like they had no problems, they had such peaceful faces. So I became curious how they managed to maintain such unshakeable peace and calm within them.  So I started reading whatever they published there. I still have a hard time figuring out myself what’s what, but it will come slowly. When I get out of here, I’ll continue to do research, it’s interesting. What I like the most is the idea that you create your present life as well as all the future ones, until you reach the point where you no longer exist, you just blend in with this ancient void, with eternity, and since you don’t exist, nothing else exists either: no problems, no pain, no death, no love, and no disappointment… Yes, I understand that it seems like nothing could be worse than a void, than emptiness, but since nothing exists in that void, nothing happens in it, nothing offends anyone, because nobody even exists anymore. They do and don’t at the same time. The only important thing is the moment, being in that moment spontaneously and self-consciously. At the moment at which I have gained the wisdom to comprehend this, I will no longer exist; there will be no more Liusia. There will be no one to comprehend these things. Things happen, but nobody’s there to make them happen, there’s pain, but nobody there to feel it, there’s love, but nobody doing the loving. There’s only the is and the isn’t. The isn’t and the is.

“Now you’ve completely confused me. don’t understand anything at all. If there’s really nothing, then why do you worry whether you’re in prison or out free?”

“Because I’m human, I still exist. For as long as I exist, everything exists. It exists inside my head.”

“Anyway, Vasya’s here, have some food.”

“Hi, Vasya.”

“Hi, Liusia. Is your friend gone?’

“Yes, I’m alone again, can’t you see I’ve been torturing Dima with my stories about my theories of searching for the truth?”

“I’d love to hear them too, Liusia.”

“Not now, Vasya, I’m tired. What’s to eat today?”

“I’ve got chicken soup, mashed potatoes, boiled chicken and kisel’.”

Nice. I start eating; I’ve lucked out with the food here, really. La-la-la. I feel happy but I myself have no idea why. It doesn’t matter why, the important thing’s that I’m happy. Vasya has brought me condensed milk. Oops, I forgot, Dima has also brought me my medication, which I should take it before I start eating. It’s some herbal pill that smells of anis, with an aftertaste familiar since my childhood. It resembles zhingial[51] bread; tastes a little like its green stuffing. It’s also a little like ozu, the Greek vodka. Ozu is sweet although it has no sugar in it; but the anis gives it that deceptively sweet taste.

I’m full. I should get some sleep. I want to talk to Dima, doesn’t matter about what, probably about Buddhism. I may never be able to attain wisdom, so maybe I can at least plant some doubt in him, and then he’ll start thinking and arrive at the truth. I’m a fickle person, I’ll be thinking one thing today and another one tomorrow. This way at least Dima can embark on the road to truth and follow it, it may just work for him. And I, oh well, maybe in the next life. I’m not important. I’d like to be unnoticeable, like toilet paper. Toilet paper is a useful thing; while it’s there, one never notices its existence, but when there isn’t any, inconveniences arise. That’s exactly the way I’d like to be as well, always handy and unnoticeable, that’s how I’d like to live and be understood. I don’t want many things, I only want to be as useful as toilet paper.

I’ve eaten, had my after-meal smoke, and I’m sleepy; it’s not a good idea to talk to Dima a lot in the afternoons, he may get in trouble.

I have a pain in my side again.

“Dima, my side is hurting again.”

“Here, I’ve brought some Noshpa with me, take two tablets, so we don’t have to call an ambulance again, they complain every time they have to come here. They’ve just brought a junkie half way through his withdrawal to the adjacent cell; we’ll have to call the ambulance for him tonight.”

“Is he young?”

“Yes, he can’t be more than eighteen. They found him at the station, tripping, and when they searched him, they found a doze on him, so they brought him in. Poor thing.”

“Dima, when did they bring him in?”

“Last evening. He’s about to start howling.”

“Tell him to do my breathing exercise.”

“I’ll tell him, Liusia, but I doubt he’ll do them.”

“How can we help him then?”

“Don’t worry, the ambulance will come ready with an analginum-dimedrol[52] shot, he’ll pass out, his parents will come get him tomorrow, we’ve already notified them.”

“Poor thing.”

“Yes, he is.”

In about thirty minutes, Noshpa started kicking in. I kept listening for any noise, waiting for the poor young junkie to start howling. He didn’t. I should really get some sleep.

He finally started to howl. There was commotion—must have been the ambulance. Everything calmed down half an hour later.

It’s morning.

Dima picks up my bucket to go dump it out. I say, no give it to me, I feel uncomfortable, why should you be carrying my dirty stuff? He says no problem, you’re like my sister, aren’t you? Fine, let him carry it, but I’m not going to let him dump it. If I get released the day after tomorrow, does that mean I will never see Dima again?

“Dima, I’m never going to see you again after today.”

“You will, I’ll put you on the train, how will you travel without a penny in your pocket.”

“Good, come.”

I took the bucket from his hands, dumped it out, rinsed it; the bucket seems to have started getting cleaner. It doesn’t smell as bad. I’ve managed to clean an impossibly dirty bucket, hurray, good for me! I’m washing up. Oops, I forgot to ask Dima to bring me warm water in the evening to wash my butt. I should ask him for some while he’s still on duty, although Uncle Sioma wouldn’t mind bringing me some as well. Never mind then, I won’t ask Dima, I’ll wait for the change of guard. I brush my teeth—it feels nice. When you brush, your teeth become squeaky-clean, no plaque-shmlaque, just smooth, clean, nice-smelling teeth. My teeth are neither good nor bad. There are a couple missing both in the right and on the left, but they are all the way in the back, so you can’t really see. I had the last two removed together when I had that abscess, in order to avoid blood poisoning. Oh, no, what if I was infected with something at the clinic? NO! It was Galia, I doubt I have reasons to worry. But what if they’ve given me AIDS? What if these random pains in my side are caused by AIDS? No, that’s not how AIDS begins, it begins with a cough. But I had a cough. Goodness, have they given me AIDS? No, no, no. A person like me can’t get AIDS. I look at myself in the mirror, my eyeballs are slightly yellowish, and so are my palms. That’s it. It’s gotta be hepatitis. The moronic doctor examined me, how could she have not noticed that my liver’s enlarged? I know what size the liver’s supposed to be, my David-husband did quite a bit of learning through my vocal cords; he’d lie down on the couch, and I’d perch myself next to him, and read his books out loud for him, and he’d practice palpation on me. As it turns out, the noise reverberating from tapping reveals any changes in your internal organs. Yes, I completed the entire course of medical study, I graduated the medical academy with David, when I went to his boards with him, everyone was amazed at how much I knew without being a medic. I’ll have to look into this a little further once I’m back in my cell.

“Dima, do I look a bit yellowish to you?”

“Yes, a little, but what did you expect here, a sunless tan?”

“No, Dima, look at my eyeballs, aren’t they yellow?”

“Oh, you’re right, they are.”

“Dima, please take me to get some tests done, I’m pregnant, it will harm the baby.”

“Liusia, how can I, they won’t let you get tested without residence registration.”

“Well, let’s just get the paid ones then, I’ll just pay you back later.”

“Ok, let me see what we can do. Go lie down.”

Hepatitis! Damned hepatitis. I hope it’s type B, at least B’s still curable, C will stay inside me for the rest of my life, it’s chronic. In the end, it can lead only to the cirrhosis of the liver or cancer.  Not good. Buddhism. What do you say on this subject, Buddha? He says nothing. He says—you get what you deserve. This is what I’ve deserved then. So I should live among junkies, help them through their withdrawals, lead them to the right path, avoid becoming an addict, and then manage to contract hepatitis through a tooth extraction? For which sin of mine, Buddha? Buddha is not a god, you can’t ask him these kinds of questions. You have to ask the Buddha inside you, Lusine. But what about my Fedya, my little Fedya? Fedya can’t be born with hepatitis, can he? He probably can’t. Too bad. Maybe he can? I should find out. Don’t’ panic, Lusine, dear. It’s not like this is the first crisis in your life. This is also a lesson. Maybe I’ve gotten some of the junkies’ karma by association; I empathized with them too much, and ended up embracing part of their pain. And hepatitis is the junkies’ domain. Uh-oh!

Dima went to find out what could be done. He came back:

“Get dressed, I’m taking you to the clinic, I told the boss, and he told me to use his name to get the free tests. If they don’t do it, I have money, I’ll pay them, and they’ll take care of everything.”

The clinic.

“We are not properly equipped to diagnose viral hepatitis here, you have to go to either Tver or to Vysshii Valachok,” says the chief doctor.

“If you suspect it might be jaundice, what can we do to know for sure?”

“Well, give her bilirubin, give her alt ast,[53] then bring us a urine and stool sample, we’ll get some idea bout the general state of the liver. The trigger will remain unclear, but we will still be able to find out whether she has jaundice or not right away.

“Thank you, good bye.”

“Thank you, the lab is in the basement, tell them I sent you, they’ll do the tests for free.”

They drew some blood from the vein in my forearm and some from my finger, I even urinated into a cup, but couldn’t make them a stool sampled. Fine, they said, we’ll be able to tell without that.

“Thank you, Dima.”

“You’re welcome, Liusia.”

Crap, I forgot to ask whether Fedya still had a chance. Oh well.

Vasya ha come and gone already, Uncle Sioma greets us and says, my girl, when God was handing out luck, you must have been in the other room, reading, and someone else got your share, too, I can’t believe how unlucky you are.

“Yes, I know, Uncle Sioma. Can you bring me some water to wash up?”

“Of course, let me just turn on the heater. In the meantime, have something to eat.”

There’s soup with canned meat and spaghetti, with either fried calamari crabmeat in it, I can’t tell. My head is spinning. I ate my soup, and came to a little. I lay down. Uncle Sioma calls me—come get your water.

I have to get up, I can’t stand it anymore, I’ve been unable to wash my butt for two days now. When I get old and become unable to wash, I am going to stop eating and die, like my great-grandma. That’s what she did. She didn’t eat for eleven days. She said, enough, I’m done living. We were like, nanna, It’s not your decision to make, stop talking nonsense, but she didn’t’ budge. We asked her, are you going to kill yourself? She said no, that would be a sin, I’ll just stop eating and die. She waited, it was the anniversary of the passing of her young, prematurely departed son; she marked it, then called my grandma, showed her the outfit in which she wanted to be buried, left instructions about who should wash her, gave her some life lessons, and lay down to die. For the first two days, we laughed, but then we realized that she wasn’t joking, that she had really decided to die and wasn’t eating on purpose. All she did was to drink water. She would get up, go to the bathroom, and go back to her bed. And so everybody gathered around her, her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, trying to convince her to eat, and she’d say no, I’ve had enough, I don’t want to, I’m tired. She died on the eleventh day. She went calmly. She was about to die when her daughter screamed, so she came to and said, come on, be quiet, don’t distract me, I’m going already, and here you are ruining everything with your screaming, shush. She died thirty minutes later. Fully conscious. Completely on her own volition. Perfect death. And she never lost bladder control, she didn’t trouble anyone. When they were washing her afterwards, they were astonished that an old bed-bound woman had such a clean body.

I want to die like that, too.

I washed up and laundered my panties. I don’t have the strength to swirl them now, I’m too sick. I just wrapped them into my undershirt and gave it a good twist, squeezing out as much water as possible, I hung them on the bed, and lay down. At this point, I must’ve become delirious. My consciousness grew dimmer by the minute. Someone kept opening and closing the shutter. I was out of it, as if drunk. I couldn’t even go pee; just sleep, sleep, sleep.

“Liusia.”

It’s Dima

“Liusia, I’m coming straight from the clinic, your tests show you have jaundice. Tomorrow, demand to go see the chief, go tell him that you have jaundice and that you can’t stay here.”

“Ok, I will, but could you let me get some sleep now, Dima?”

“Get up, have some tea. Don’t you want to use the bathroom?”

“Is it morning already? Then what are you doing here, it’s not your turn today, is it?”

“No, but I went to the clinic to pick up your lab results and brought them straight over here. Here, keep them with you, you’ll show them to the chief.”

“Dima, I forgot to ask, does Fedya still have a chance or do I have to have an abortion?’

“I asked, they said that was something you should ask a hepatologist, they can’t say for sure. They said some women with jaundice carry to term, and deliver completely healthy babies. In any case, you can’t have an abortion if your blood coagulation factor is below seventy.”

“What’s mine?”

“It’s thirty. You could bleed out and die from a deep cut or a tooth extraction.”

“Ok, thank you, Dima, go do your stuff.”

“Eat something, but be careful not to eat anything fried. I’ll come back to check on you.”

Hepatitis. I no longer have pains. My liver has begun to disintegrate and has adjusted to its new state, like I have to mine. Sleep, sleep, sleep….

“Get up, dearie, go to the bathroom, wash up.”

“I can’t, Uncle Sioma, I’m too weak.”

“You have to force yourself somehow, it will make you feel better, trust me.”

My head feels like it’s packed with led, I’m nauseous, my head is spinning. I can’t stand on my two feet. My bucket….

I’ll skip emptying the bucket. I don’t even want to smoke. My Fedya… Dear Fedya, hang in there, let me see if you can be born or not. I wash up and barely brush my teeth. I’m yellow. I look like a Cuban orange. I should go to that chief, ask him to be released. I’ve got to get to Moscow, Pasha will take care of me once I’m there.

It’s Vasya.

“I’ve brought you some food, Liusia.”

“Vasia, I’m sick, buddy.”

“Up, up, it’s delicious, I’ve brought you your favorite split-pea soup. Eat it warm, you’ll feel better. Don’t stay hungry.”

I try to eat what he’s brought.

“It’s bitter, Vasya.”

“No, Liusia, it’s not bitter, it’s good soup, you just have a bitter taste in your mouth.”

“Probably. No, I can’t eat.”

“The main course is buckwheat. And fried fish.”

“No, I can’t have the fish, it’s fried, Vasya, why don’t you give it to the young kid in the next cell.”

He did, and told the guy that the Liusia from next door has sent it. The young junkie said thank you, I can’t hear you guys here.

“No, leave the buckwheat, maybe I’ll be able to eat it later. Bye, Vasya, thank you.”

“Feel better, Liusia.”

“Eh, I’m not going to get better even in my dreams for a while, Vasya.”

I should get some sleep.

It’s the pimpled guard, saying, the chief’s calling you, get up and go talk to him. I get up, brush my hair, and barely climb up the stairs, with him practically carrying me over his shoulder.

“Hello.”

“Hello. I’ve heard you’ve fallen sick with jaundice, is this correct?”

“Yes, please let me go, I’m not guilty, I’m begging you.”

“We can’t, we’ll have to wait and see what the DA says first.”

“When will you have a definite answer?”

“It’s going to be ten days tomorrow, we’ll inform you of the DA’s decision.”

“Very well. Good bye.”

“Good bye, please don’t be angry, there’s nothing we can do right now.”

“How can I be angry? Angry or not, what difference does it make for you?”

“Take care.”

Why the hell did they drag me up here in my condition if he didn’t’ even have anything to say?

The pimpled guard took me back to the cell. I’m falling asleep. It doesn’t hurt. I dream of Fedya, aged seven, outfitted like a rapper, with pants hanging low on his butt, with brown hair, green eyes, my mouth, and a round face, playing ball in the yard. I call him, I say, baby, come have something to eat. He says, ok, mom, I’ll be right there, in about ten minutes. Better yet, just send the food down on a rope, I’ll eat here, please, mom. That’s exactly what I do, the way my grandma used to do it for me, so that I wouldn’t have to interrupt my playing. All the kids in the yard envied me. I’ll send my Fedya food and water while he’s playing. Back home I used to let my daughter make art projects out of spaghetti and ketchup on the kitchen table before she ate it. I let her make the hopscotch grid on the carpet and play indoors. Her friends envied her, too, they’d say your mom’s so cool, she lets you do mischief. And why not, I just cleaned it up afterwards. And she played to her heart’s content, and she always ate well…

“Liusia.”

It’s Dima.

“How are you?”

“I don’t think I’m well, Dima, I can’t figure it out.”

“I’ve brought you some apples and farmer’s cheese, have some, it’s good for you.”

“I can’t talk. Is it nighttime, Dima?”

“Yes, it’s around 1 AM.”

“I’m sorry, Dima, I’m simply not up for chatting.”

“Don’t worry, Liusia, go to sleep, I’ll just sit here.”

It’s so nice to be falling asleep with Dima by my side. It makes me feel protected, like I am no longer all alone in the world, because there’s somebody to sit by my sickbed. A stranger, Dima, who’s taking care of me for no apparent reason, at the risk of getting sick himself.

“Dima, step outside, I need to pee.”

“Come, let me take you to the hallway bathroom, I don’t want you to touch this dirty bucket anymore.”

“Ok.”

We went and came back. I felt exhausted, as if I’d just finished weeding an entire field.

“Dima, go home. What do you say to your parents it when you get home so late?”

“I don’t have to say anything, they trust me. This is a small town. With the exception of the train-station, which is considered a high-risk area, it’s a typical provincial place, very calm. Besides, I’ve told my parents about you.”

“What have you told them?”

“I told them your story—they feel for you. My father’s the forensic medic here, and my mom’s the librarian. My mom insisted that I’ve fallen in love with you.”

“Really? And what did you say to that?”

“I didn’t deny it.”

“Dima, stop talking nonsense, what do you mean, fallen in love with me?”

“Yes, I am in love with you, what’s the harm in that? I’m not asking you for anything, just enjoying the feeling, nothing more.”

“Is this a dream, Dima?”

“No, this is real.”

“What about me do you love?”

“I don’t know. I know that when I swallow, my saliva goes down funny, and I have this weird feeling in my stomach, right under my heart, I feel compelled to make random noises and say silly things. Haven’t you ever been in love, Liusia? What’s with the questions?”

“But when people fall in love, they usually want their feeling to be reciprocated. What about you?”

“I am not asking you for anything, this is just the way it is, I’m just enjoying the feeling, I’m not after anything.”

“That’s impossible, Dima.”

“No, it’s not. That’s exactly the way it is.”

“Ok, Dima, if you say so, but I feel like a total bitch.”

“Don’t. How is any of this your fault? I just want you to be happy, nothing else.”

“Well, as you wish, but I feel like a bitch.”

“Poor guy, you’ve picked the wrong person to be in love with.”

“Maybe, but it’s good, it’s very good.”

“What are you going to do when I leave?”

“Nothing. I’ll just keep loving you until the feeling fades away, but one small part of my heart will only be yours. Liusia, did you forget all your former loves once you stopped loving them?”

“No, I didn’t, but it’s the same as the things you have around the house. Some of them are necessary, and you use them every day, and then there’re others, no longer useful ones that are nice, but no longer needed. So you put them away somewhere far, like the basement. Every time you clean the house, you take the things out, dust them, put them out in the sun for a little while, thank them for serving you for so long, and then put them away again. The former loves are the same way. A good housewife doesn’t toss things that are dear but useless to her. A good person does the same with loves.”

“I’ll keep you on top of the TV, Liusia.”

put you on top of the TV, Liusia.”

“Yes, you will, until I fade.”

“I’ll never throw you out.”

“Ok, Dima, now you should really go home before your mother beings to curse me—I’m ill as it is.”

“Fine, I’ll go. You’re not mad at me, are you?”

“No, why would I be mad at you for falling in love with me? Quite the opposite, it’s very pleasant. It means I’m still a woman, if even in prison someone could’ve fallen in love with me. I’m so grateful to you, Dima. Have you been in love with me for a long time?”

“No, just the past four days.”

“So that means that when you first started taking care of me, I was still a total stranger to you?”

“I guess you were.”

“Thank you, Dima, especially for taking care of me in the early days.”

He left. But a piece of his heart stayed with me. Hmm… No, this can’t be love. The poor kid must be confusing pity with love. Why would he fall in love with me? Nonetheless, it’s very pleasant.

It is his turn to be on duty tomorrow? How’s he going to sit through an entire shift without getting any sleep? How could I have misjudged so badly as to assume that he wouldn’t be here?

It’s morning. Dima’s still not here. It’s the pimpled guard, telling me it’s time for the bathroom trip. I go, or, rather, he drags me. I go through the morning routine, and crawl back to the cell.

Dima’s here. I feel slightly uncomfortable, as if guilty. What can I do though, it’s not my fault that the twenty-year-old Dima has fallen in love with me in my present condition. I haven’t done anything to cause it. I didn’t flirt with him, I didn’t hint at the possibility of having a fling. No, I’ve done nothing. I’m innocent.

Vasya has brought me food. Dima has also brought me some food from home, homemade chicken soup; he heated it up for me, and I had some. No matter how you cut it, homemade food is better. I even felt something resembling an appetite. But everything still has a bitter aftertaste. They’re going to tell me about the DA’s decision today.

“Liusia, your lawyer’s here.”

“What lawyer? That means they’ve filed charges against me, Dima, doesn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“What should I do now?”

“Call your father. If you want, I can call him and tell him to come.”

“No, Dima, don’t.”

They took me to the adjacent cell, where I met with the investigator.

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

“I am Igor Mikhailovich, your attorney. There have been charges filed against you under article 228. What can I do for you?”

“How should I know? I’d never been question before, nor had criminal charges filed against me.”

“Well, then let’s call your father and have him come here.”

“Is that necessary?”

“Yes, you’re going to need money.”

“For what?”

“Well, I’m a state-appointed attorney, but if you pay me, I guarantee you won’t do jail time.”

Asshole! He’s trying to make a buck off me.

“Ok, here’s his number, go ahead, call him. But tell him not to travel here under any circumstances, and make sure to tell him that the charges are fabricated. My family is a decent family, my father’s a scientist and has no clue about the criminal justice system, please try not to scare him.”

“Rest assured that I won’t scare him.”

This man’s trouble.

“I also want you to do something to have me transferred to a medical facility, I’ll die here.”

“No problem, as soon as I get in touch with your father, I’ll get started on that. You see, criminal defense work requires serious expenses.”

“Yes, make the phone call, no problem, my father will send you whatever you need.”

Of course he will. He’ll also permanently relegate me to the status of a prodigal child. No matter what I do for the rest of my life, in the eyes of my father I will always remain the prodigal child, who did jail time and dishonored him forever. Dear me! I wish the earth just opened up and swallowed me whole. I’d be better off dead.

“I have to go, I’m sick, I need to lie down.”

“Yes, go get some rest, and I’ll start working on this. Your investigator will be here in a minute to officially read out your charges.”

“Hello, Liusia.”

“Hello, Aleksandr Anatolievich.”

“I’ll read these, it’s just a formality, but I’m obligated to.”

And he reads, so and so, citizen L. Sarkisyan is charged under article 228 of the Russian Federation’s Legal Code, with the accordant penalty of imprisonment.”

As if until now I was just running around, free as a bird!

My lawyer has left.

“I should go, I need to lie down.”

“Yes, please do.”

“Goodbye.”

“Goodbye. See, you wanted a lawyer, and now you’ve got one. Do you see what having a lawyer’s really like?”

“Yes, I do, he’s a jackal.”

He’s smiling.

“Dima, see, not everything turned out alright?”

“Don’t despair, Liusia, I’ll get my father involved in the story, and plus your father’s going to send the money. Everyone’s in on it with the DA. They’re going to get the money, split it evenly amongst themselves, and that will be the end of it.”

“No, Dima, that’s impossible.”

“I’m telling you, that’s really how it works. Big cases like yours are rare here, and of course they want to milk it as much as they can. They earn so little, you can’t really blame them. Besides, you’re Armenian, so they know you must have some cash.”

“In that case, why didn’t they just call my dad from the very beginning?”

“If they had, you father would have ended this cooked case in its initial stages. This way, you’ve been detained for ten days, your spirit has been broken, and now you’ll give them anything they want to get out of here.”

“If this is their calculation, they’re probably right. But how can you stand to work here if you understand the workings of the system so well?”

“What else am I supposed to do? If I enlist in the army, I’ll forget everything I’ve learned. This way, I work here, do my cop thing and still have the opportunity to prepare for the entrance exams.”

“You’re right, Dima. I should lie down. What’s should I do, serve in the armu, I’ll forget everything I know. This way I work here, do my cop thing and study, to pass the entrance exams.”

“Yes, Dima, you’re right. Im going to lie down. Wait, what’s Karsil[54]?”

“It’s for your liver, it’s a hepatogene.”

I don’t have the energy to ask him what a hepatogene is. Doesn’t matter, I know Dima will never let me take anything that’s not good for me. So I should take some.

“Liusia, eat a lot of sweets, you need glucose in order for your liver to get through this. Have some candy or at least sugar.”

“You know, I’ve noticed that I’ve been craving sweets, Dima. I guess my body’s trying to tell me what I need to eat. I’m going to get some sleep, Dima.”

“Go ahead.”

My side’s at it again. It must be nighttime. Dima’s turned off the light and lit a candle. Quite romantic. Eh, Dima, if the circumstances were different, I’d love you back, even though you’re nine years younger than me. I’d definitely love you. But right now I don’t have the energy to play with love, the center of my feelings is blocked, sorry.

“Ok, Dima, I’m going to sleep.”

“Sleep. I’ll just sit here by your side, if you don’t mind.”

“I don’t.”

It’s morning. I need to use the bathroom.

Dima has removed the old bucket and brought in a brand new, brass, shiny one. It’s a beautiful bucket. The only thing more beautiful that that I’ve ever seen is the sunset.

“Good morning, Liusia.”

“Good morning, my light.”

“How did you sleep?”

“Well, surprisingly well. These past few days I was dazed but couldn’t sleep well. Did you put sedatives in my food? Be honest, Dima!”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Did you spend the entire night by my side?”

“Yes, I left at about half past six, so that they wouldn’t catch me in here.”

“So you must be the reason why I slept so well, Dima.”

Another affliction. What am supposed to do now? What if I fall in love with him? I can’t, Dima, I can’t just love for the sake of loving like you do. I have to squeeze love, and drink its juice. I’m a love vampire, Dima. Get out of my sight before it’s too late. I don’t want to fall in love with you. I’m pregnant, I have a fiancé, two, actually. I have jaundice. I can’t allow myself to fall in love with you. I am much older than you. Get out of my sight, Dima, get out of my sight, my boy!

Dima left. It’s Uncle Sioma’s turn. He asked me how I was, what I was up to. Then he said, you’ve eaten our Dima’s heart, Liusia. I said,

“What have I done, Uncle Sioma? I’ve done nothing. Is it my fault?”

“Nobody’s blaming you for anything, dearie, I’m just stating a fact. He’s a guy, he’ll fall in love, he’ll suffer, he’ll get over it.  I’m glad he’s not fallen for some brainless bimbo but for you.”

“So I’m not a bimbo then?”

“No, you’re Liusia. A Liusia can’t be a bimbo.”

Really, a few more days here, and I’m going to develop a real delusion of grandeur here. What kind of a prison is this, what kind of a lockup! Feels more like heaven than like prison.

I wish the DA had found me attractive and hadn’t filed charges against me, so I could just go home. The DA wouldn’t have fallen in love like Dima but selfishly, and surely he would have demanded sex-shmex. But I’m sick and in no shape to have sex or even want it.

My lawyer’s back. He’s spoken with my father. My father told him that he’ll send whatever’s necessary to get me out of here. That’s good news. I shouldn’t think about my father, otherwise I’ll go mad. My poor father, I hope he hasn’t said anything to my nanna or my daughter. It’s ok if my mother finds out, she’s a sturdy woman, she can handle it.  She was orphaned as a child and raised by her grandmother. Orphans are a tough bunch, not easily broken by what life throws at them. I never managed to get along with my mother, and I still feel guilty about it. I love her, but probably not in the way one should love a mother. What can I do, she’s a nice woman, but there’s no spiritual connection between us, it’s like we’re not even related to each other. I don’t know who’s to blame. Maybe it’s because she wasn’t the one who raised me. My mother never managed to really see me. All she saw was the external shell, but not the real me. Mother, I’ve been bad, I’ve been a bad daughter to you. But this is who I am, and I cannot be any other way. Here, in this prison, men fall in love with me the way I am, without a second pair of panties, sick with jaundice, pregnant. I probably deserve my right to live if I awaken these feelings in people. What can I do if other people see something special in me and love me for it, while you, my parents, fail to see it? It’s not my fault. I have to live, to make mistakes, to love, and to suffer. And there may be some happy moments once in a while. This is I. This is the way I’ve turned out.

I am striving for some peace of my heart, mind and soul. For a more conscious life. For purity of thoughts. If I can’t do good, I want to at least not hurt anyone. This is what I want. Is it bad? Should I be punished for it?

Whatever.

I’ve been here for twelve days now. I have drawn many positive feelings from prison, the absolute adoration of Dima, Uncle Sioma, Oleg, and Vasya, the respect of Aleksandr Anatolievich and Nikolai Il’ich, I’ve gained the DA’s notice, have stunned the doctor, and have compelled all of Balagoie to care about a complete stranger. Not a bad way to spend twelve days. If I weren’t sick, if I had some books, paints and brushes—although I don’t know how to paint, tons of paper and pencils, and if I weren’t pregnant, I would’ve liked to spend my entire life here. You could get illuminated by spending a lot of time in a place like this. I’ve never been loved anywhere the way I’ve been loved here

I eat with a hearty appetite and save the mashed potatoes for later. I’m beginning to feel better. Could it be that it was just a mechanical onset of jaundice caused by a cold, and after I took medication for a couple of days, stayed warm, and ate enough sugar, it just went away? I shouldn’t have blamed my dentist neighbor for giving it to me at the clinic.

Dima isn’t here.

Dima still isn’t here.

It’s evening, and Dima’s still not here.

Finally, he showed up, glowing, with a single rose in his hand.

“This is for you. Now get some sleep. Everything is going to be fine, I just know it. I’m going to sit up with you for a while, Uncle Sioma doesn’t mind.”

“Go ahead, Dima.”

“Should I light the candle?”

“Go ahead, Dima.”

“You go to sleep, I’ll just sit here and look at you.”

“Go ahead, Dima.”

“Should I hold your hand?”

“Go ahead, Dima.”

He’s just sitting there quietly, holding my hand. Dima’s a strange guy. He keeps humming a song to himself, a Bulat Okudjava[55] song. I hum along with him. Michael keeps yelling from the other side of the wall, you whore, first you stick me in here, and now you’re singing? I don’t give a shit about Michael, I keep on singing. Are you human? Are you? No, you aren’t. You’re going to rot here, Michael. You won’t get out until you’ve realized and really acknowledged the true depth of the baseness of what you did. For now, I’ll just sing along with Dima. I wish things were always like this, the prison, the candlelight, no jaundice, and the green-eyed Dima, my hand in his, always by my side. I want to stay here. On the outside is the strange and frightening world. Here I know everyone. Here, the ceiling lamp transforms into Christ. Here, I’m loved. I don’t want to go back to Armenia. There, I’m bad. I want to stay here, where I’m good. Whenever I see goodness, I become better, whenever I see badness, I become bad. That’s how life works. That’s why you have to live side by side with those who think you’re good. Otherwise, you’re facing complete degeneration. Love can transform us, it can turn a murderer into an illuminated person. And hatred can transform the most innocent person into a scumbag and a cannibal.

It was a good night.

“Aleksandr Anatolievich’s calling you, Liusia.”

“Hello, Liusia. We’re letting you go.”

“What do you mean you’re letting me go? Where?”

“Wherever you’d like. You’re free to go. Your lawyer will be here in a minute to explain everything.”

“I don’t believe you, are you joking with me?”

“I’m not a child, I don’t make silly jokes. You’re free. If you’d like, wait for your lawyer, if not, you can go right now. Here’s your release form.”

My lawyer came in. He’s sitting there like a dog who’s been forced to eat his own shit. He says the charges against me have been dismissed for lack of incriminating evidence.

I have no idea what he just said.

I’m outa here.

“Good bye, thank you.”

“Thank you, Liusia, for bringing some freshness into our monotonous life here.”

“Aleksandr Anatolievich, good luck to you. And to you, Igor’ Mikhailovich. Can you please give me some cash, Igor’ MIkhailovich, I will pay you back as soon as I get to Moscow.”

“Of course, would twenty rubles be enough?”

“Yes, it ‘s enough. Thank you, and be well.”

“Have a safe trip, Liusia.”

Tish-tidish, tish-tidish.

Dima!

Where’s Dima?

Dima’s gone, it’s the pimpled guard’s turn.

“Where did Dima go, Il’ia?” As I found out three days ago, the pimpled guard’s name was Il’ia.

“He went home, where else would he have gone?”

“But they told me I have to leave in an hour, how can I leave without seeing Dima?”

“Go back to your cell, pack up your stuff, I’ll try calling him.”

“What stuff, I’m leaving everything here, Iliusha.[56]

“Ok, then just wait here, I’ll go call him.”

He calls, but Dima’s phone doesn’t answer.

What should I do? I have to leave in an hour. How can I leave without even saying thank you to him?

“Iliusha, call him again, leave him a message to come down here, that I’ve been released, that I’m leaving in an hour, that I have to leave on the next train in order to get to Moscow by nighttime.”

This sucks.

My cell. My bunk. My little built-in cabinet in the wall.

“Give these to the people next door, Iliusha. I’ve got three packets of noodles, seven packs of cigarettes, take some of the cigarettes for yourself, about ten teabags, Colgate and soap. Yes, and there’s also toilet paper. Hang on, let me take some for the road, give them this condensed milk, too, it’s open, but it’s still more than half-full. Give it to them.”

He took the stuff away. Michael has no idea I’ve been released, otherwise he’d have made his foul-mouthed howling heard by now.

“I’m off, Iliusha, thank you. I’ve left my clothes, do whatever you’d like with them, some of them are nice, it’s just that they say you shouldn’t take anything with you when you get out of jail, so that you never return. I won’t come back. Although it wasn’t so bad for me here.”

I’m off. Everybody’s waiving goodbye.

I’m already at the station.

Freedom! Your scent is the scent of the train-station. It’s the scent of hot cocoa. It’s the scent of spilled beer. It’s the scent of ozone after the rain, the scent of the station bathroom. It’s the scent of the homeless people.

Is that Dima standing there? Yes, it’s him. With a bag in his hand. He’s smiling. I run up to him.

“I have no idea why they suddenly let me go. Is it possible to have charges dismissed in a day?”

“Well, I guess so if you’re here now, Liusia.”

And he smiles this mischievous smile.

“It’s because the good always wins in the end, Liusia.”

He’s done something, his hand is somehow mixed up in this business.

“Maybe you should stay here?”

“No, Dima, this is how this story must end. It shouldn’t have a part two so that it doesn’t become trivial.”

“You’re right.”

“But it is our story. It’s a love-story without a kiss. It’s a story of prison love. It’s a story about how human love has no boundaries, there are no boundaries between kind and evil, there are no boundaries between good and bad, between a cop and a detainee. It’s all in our hands. Be well, Dima.”

“Get well soon, Liusia, everything else is within you. Have a safe trip.”

The train starts. Dima is standing there, waiving. He looks farther and farther, becomes a dot, and finally dissolves into the emptiness of the train station.

I open the bag; it contains pastries and a heart drawn in apparent hurry in red pencil. Without an arrow. Just a heart.

Later there will be Pasha, my struggle for him, my struggle for life, for my Fedya’s life, which may be impossible to save, for my freedom. Struggle for happiness, struggle for the right to be called and to remain a human, struggle, struggle, struggle, struggle….

But for now, what I have in my hands is the heart drawn by the green-eyed cop Dima with his childhood pencils. My share of the heart….

Nanna, detainee, junkie, cooked case, fabricated case, slam me with a cooked case.

[1] A list of popular Russian shows and pop-icons. Chto-gde-kogda (lit. what, where, when) is an intellectual game show in which groups of contestants must answer questions submitted by the viewers. Alla Pugacheva is an icon of Russian pop-music. Kashperovski (sic) and Alan Chumak both specialized in telepathy, mass-curing, and hypnosis, becoming popular TV fixtures in the 1990s.

[2] The diminutive form of the Russian name Pavel.

[3] Eduard Limonov (bron Eduard Savenko, 1943), a Russian writer, author of the controversial It’s Me, Eddie, founder of the left-wing newspaper Limonka and the National Bolshevik Party, known for its anti-Semitic, xenophobic, and militant tendencies and implicated in a number of minor terrorist acts in Russia.

[4] Sic.

[5] Abbreviation for St. Petersburg, in Russian pronounced with a long [ee], as in “keep” in the first syllable.

[6] Literally, Russian Radio, a popular radio show that plays current Russian music hits and incorporates witty dialogue.

[7] Oleg Gazmanov, Russian pop-singer.

[8] An herb-infused vodka of Polish origin, which gets its name from the herb, known as bison grass, zubr in Polish.

[9] Grand Candy is a large Armenian producer of sweets, candy, and toys for children.

[10] Cheka, a commonly used abbreviation for Chrezvychainyi Kommitet, lit. extraordinary committee, was the original Soviet Secret Police, which was later disbanded and transformed into the KGB.

[11] Lavrentii Beria (1899-1953), at some point the head of Soviet Secret Police, and one of Stalin’s most trusted subordinates, actively involved in Stalin’s purges.

[12] The hero of a poem by Armenian poet Hovhannes Toumanyan (1869-1923), Dzakhord Panos (lit. unlucky Panos), synonymous in the Armenian literature with being unlucky and constantly having to face unexpected and undeserved hardships.

[13] Layla and Majnun are the heroes of a Middle-Eastern epic love story; Ruslan and Liudmila are characters from the eponymous long poem by Aleksandr Pushkin.

[14] Magruhi, an Armenian first name, derives from the same root as the “magrel,” to clean, and literally means one who cleans.

[15] Hero of the eponymous Armenian epic dating back to the 8th century. David of Sasun was allegedly endowed with superhuman strength, which allowed him to free Armenia of Arab invaders.

[16] Armenian last names almost uniformly contain an “ian” or “yan” (depending on transliteration) ending and are thus easily distinguishable.

[17] Play on the shared origins and phonetic similarity of the female first name Lusineh and the Armenian word for moon, “lusin,” both derived from the word “luis,” light.

[18] Nevsky Prospect, or Nevsky Avenue, is one of the central avenues in St. Petersburg.

[19] Lit. Children’s World, a large department store for children.

[20] Aleksandr Bashlachov, (1960-1988), Russian rock poet.

[21] A brand of instant soup and broth.

[22] A district in Moscow known for its bohemian establishments, including a famous theater house.

[23] Minimalistic, revealing underwear.

[24] Reference to a scene from Operatsia ‘Y’ i drugie prikliuchenia Shurika [Operation ‘Y’ and Shurik’s Other Adventures] (1965), a Soviet comedy about the adventures of a student named Shurik.

[25] Aspirin-based cold medication.

[26] One of the largest fine arts museums in Russia.

[27] In Russian, “uncle” is an appropriate semi-formal form of address towards older men.

[28] Traditional Armenian unleavened flat bread.

[29] Gigor is the title character of Hovhannes Tumanyan’s short story “Gigor,” in which a poor village boy is taken to the city as an apprentice, and eventually dies at the hands of the cruel master, all the while dreaming of being back in his village.

[30] Diminutive form of Semion.

[31] Thick Russian soup with sausage, meat, tomatoes and various pickled vegetables.

[32] Meat dumplings

[33] A fruit and starch-based desert.

[34] A region in north-eastern Armenia where people speak a distinct dialect.

[35] Esh—donkey in Armenian.

[36] “Murka” is a Russian song, an example of the genre of “blatnaia musyka” (criminal music), associated with the criminal world, about the adventures of a precocious young woman named Murka.

[37] A 17th-century Russian hero who, according to a legend, volunteered to take Polish insurgent armies to the hiding place of the Russian crown-prince Mikhail, and instead took them down the wrong path, where the entire group is thought to have perished.

[38] The central train-station in Moscow

[39]  A cough and antimucus medication with a high doze of ephedrine.

[40] A city in Russia, the administrative center of the Tver’ Region.

[41] Diadia Stiopa [Uncle Stiopa], achildren’s poem by Russian poet Sergei Mikhalkov (b. 1913) about a very tall patriotic man named Stepan who seeks out various ways to serve his country and ends up becoming a marine in the Soviet Navy.

[42] An autonomous region of the Russian Federation located by Siberia.

[43] An autonomous republic on the territory of the Russian Federation.

[44] The commonly used name for iso-dihydroperparine, a medication uniformly used against abdominal spasms and aches.

[45] Erythrocyte sedimentation rate

[46] Reference to a waltz written by famous Armenian composer Aram Khachaturyan (1903-1978) for a production of Mikhail Lermontov’s Masquerade, one of the composer’s most iconic works.

[47] Reference to a chapter from a satirical Russian novel, Zolotoi Telionok [The Golden Calf] by Il’ia Ilf’ (1897-1937) and Yevgenii Petrov (1903-1942) about Ostap Bender, a swindler in search of a fortune. In this particular chapter, he defrauds a small town called Vasiuki by pretending to be a traveling chess-master and promising to turn the small provincial small town into an international chess chapital.

[48] Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaieva (1892-1941).

[49] A Bulgarian-born clairvoyant

[50] Russian pop-icon.

[51] Zhingial bread, zhingialov hats, is a regional delicacy specific to Nagorno-Karabakh. It is flat bread stuffed with a combination of spices, normally referred to as kndzmndzuk, which includes, among others, anis.

[52] Analginum is a pain-killer; dimedrol is a strong antihistamine. Together, they are used to help drug-addicts suffering from withdrawal symptoms.

[53] Elements whose increase in the human body usually indicates a liver or metabolic dysfunction.

[54] An antihepatoxic agent used to strengthen internal organs.

[55] Bulat Okudjava (1924-1997), Russian poet, song-writer, and singer, a representative of the Russian “bard” tradition.

[56] Diminutive form of the name Il’ia.

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