The two women bumped into each other in the hubbub of Amiryan street. The tall blonde, formally dressed and heavily made up, startled out of her highbrow, serious facial expression, smiled simply and broadly; the other, a short, plump woman, set down whatever she had in her hands, and threw herself into the other’s embrace. They had been college mates once, and hadn’t seen each other since graduation. The short one had come into the city to get some shopping done and to consult a doctor for some medical issues. The past couple of days she felt particularly uncomfortable at the house of the relatives with whom she was staying, so she was especially touched by the surprise encounter, and felt giddy.
“I live right around the corner,” pointed the blonde with her hand, herself moved by the encounter, “let’s go to my place, hang out and catch up.”
They started walking towards her place. While the short one talked excitedly, her friend remembered that she had made an appointment with the hairdresser that she would now have to miss. Her spirit sagged a little, but she didn’t show it, and continued to smile and nod. The apartment they entered was spacious, with yellowed, puffy curtains, traces of neglected splendor, and, what stunned the guest the most, with no hint that it had ever once been cleaned. Every corner of it was littered with all kinds of things, there were winter clothes hanging in the hallways, shoes scattered everywhere, somewhere a pair of skates was leaning against the wall despite the fact that it was already midmay. The hostess seemed utterly unmolested by the mess, so the guest decided not to notice it either; she located a free armchair in the living room, and, gathering up her skirts, took a seat. The plump, black-streaked cat, which was napping in the chair, reluctantly ceded its place and headed to the kitchen, its tail upright.
“Keep yourself busy somehow while I get the coffee ready,” yelled out the friend.
The short woman started looking around, and then her eyes caught sight of her rough fingers, her comfortable but clumsy shoes with triangular metal buckles, and she suddenly started feeling uncomfortable with her appearance.
Finally they sat down to coffee. Yes, the years, the years, how they’ve passed. No, I don’t smoke, said the short one, when her friend lit up a thin, fragrant cigarette and offered her one as well, you know how it would be received where I live? They kept smiling, what an encounter, but it turned out that they didn’t have much to talk about. The blonde’s husband was in Krasnodar, in the asphalt business, her girl in the sixth grade. The other college classmates? She saw them once in a while. Valerik, the cute one, is an accountant, Ruzan’s gotten divorced, Zhanna never married…. Who else was there? No, they don’t get together, only if they run into each other by accident, they are all busy with their own things.
“Yes, we should have some brandy,” remembered the friend, “let me fetch some.”
She went and got cheese out of the refrigerator, some salami, then, after a moment’s hesitation, added the half-empty jar of caviar to the serving tray as well, and pranced back into the living room. She was the same poseur as always. When they ran into each other in the street, it seemed like she’d gotten more sedate with age, but no, the kinds of her never change.
After two shots, the short one shed her inhibition, her cheeks reddened, and she started talking about herself; she’s been working as a high-school teacher since graduation. She’s been able to uphold her principals, although it has taken years off her life because she’s surrounded by vulgar, ill-wishing people. They run a huge household, and her husband’s an automobile specialist. Her perennial wish of moving to the city had never materialized. That was it, now she knew she’d stay out in the rural area forever, because she had her family there.
The short woman felt like bearing her soul to her friend, confiding that in reality the automobile specialist was nothing but a mechanic, with a dirty, messy job, also a drunk, who had no appreciation for what she had to offer. or that her sons had taken after their father, and that all the worries of the household rested on her shoulders. That she achieved everything in life with tremendous difficulty, not easily, effortlessly, like other people. That it had taken her a huge effort to get into college and receive her higher education diploma, and all so that some half-literate vice-principal, or the principal’s mistress or his sister-in-law, or some other nobody, could still look down on her. She desperately wanted to talk, to take a load off, after all, they were not strangers to each other, but she noticed that her friend didn’t seem particularly interested in her stories, so she stopped, deciding to ask questions instead. The hostess answered distractedly, her mind seemingly elsewhere. Her father? Artem Grigorich, yes, he still lectures, but now that they no longer offered atheism in college, he taught Armenian history. He was still sharp, sturdy…. The blonde suddenly remembered that she had yet another appointment for a small but important business.
“I have to make a phone call,” she said, moving over to the couch with her brandy glass and an ashtray. “By the way, did you hear, Gasparyan passed away.”
“Wasn’t he the one who taught intro to logic, a blond, freckled man,” she held out her hand to indicate his height, “we had him for a semester or two, don’t you remember?”
“He passed away?” the short woman couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Why?”
“Why do people pass away, he was sick, I guess.”
“But… did he have a family?”
“No, are you kidding? At some point, he wanted to marry Alvard, his research assistant, but it didn’t work out for some reason.”
“He probably brought female students to his apartment all the way, why would he have burdened himself with a wife?”
“Who, Gasparyan? No, it was actually rumored that he was impotent. Wanna hear a joke? I’m not sure if I should tell it. So a girl goes to her professor’s home to take a make-up exam. The professor’s really old. He sniffs her and says….. No, I won’t tell it.”
“You know, I heard recently that every third female student in Palestine is subjected to sexual harassment by a professor.”
“This is not Palestine, my dear,” the hostess abruptly threw the receiver down; her guest was beginning to irritate her, “here they’d get stabbed for so much as trying. Why don’t you eat anything, please help yourself. Let me quickly get dressed, we’ll head out together.”
“She’s got a date,” thought the short woman. “Back in college, she went out with a different guy every day,” and she deeply regretted having come. She wished she hadn’t come over and hadn’t learned about Gasparyan’s death. It seemed like it was only yesterday that she, a skinny, young girl, her hair in a ponytail, went to take a make-up exam at his house. She read her lecture notes ten times through but still couldn’t so much as get a passing grade. It was possible to retake the exam once, and only at the personal mercy of the dean’s whim. But whatever it was about the course that she’d failed to grasp from the very beginning, it was absolutely beyond her reach now because of her emotionally agitated state. The make-up exam was a do-or-die matter; one of her classmates had already failed out of school after being unable to pass Gasparyan’s class. And yes, he invited her over to his apartment, come around four, he said. He lived in the high-rise right by the student dorms. Students always hung out there, especially a couple of particularly bratty and bright ones, discussing political and ideological matters. His was an unremarkable bachelor pad. Books, periodicals, more books. A clock in a heavy oak frame hung on the wall. A long, bulky clock hanging in a small apartment. He put her on the chair and started pacing. Once in a while, he loomed over her and asked her questions in his squeaky voice.
“What’s a syllogism? What is it, ha? How many terms does it have? You have no idea. You didn’t know it the last time either.”
He paced some more.
“Fine, let’s move on to something easier. Define the conclusion and list its types. What can you say about reason? Just tell me what you know, fine, pick at your own discretion.”
She couldn’t remember anything. She knew nothing. What could she possibly say?
“Missie, if you can’t even handle that, why did you come here? Get out of here, go.”
Her head started spinning, she felt weightless. She felt like she was standing on the edge of an abyss, and this man was pushing her down, to the bottom. Her tears poured onto the white paper.
“There, there,” Gasparyan walked over, stood very close to her, almost pressing against her.
“Write down,” he said, “the formula for the syllogism, write,” he firmly grabbed her hand and they started writing together: “M… P… line, one more line…,” Gasparyan’s other hand, hairy, like a light-colored rat, slid down her shoulder and into her bra, fluttered there, squeezed her breast, pinched her nipple, then made its way over to the right one, chafing it, “write….”
His hot breath was scorching her neck, her ear, and her dry chin, with which she’d accidentally brushed against his cheekbone, scraping and scratching it on his prickly stubble.
By now, she was no longer holding back her tears, weeping openly, with his hand still fondling her breasts.
“Cut it out,” Gasparyan had worked himself up into a fury. “There, go wash up,” and, pulling her to her feet by her hands with something resembling tenderness, he directed her towards the bathroom, forced her inside, “now what is one to do with you?”
After lingering in the hallway for a minute, he followed her in, pressing her from behind, pushing her towards the sink.
“Look at yourself,” he said, “all the time you spend on putting on makeup…. Pick up the soap, pick it up,” and while she was trying to wash the trails of mascara off her cheeks and to suppress her sobs, he unzipped his pants, threw her floral-printed skirt over her shoulders, tried through the fly, found a comfortable position, and went to town. In the mirror, she could see his head with straw-blond hair and a balding top. Then he pried open the girls hands, clutched tightly onto the sink, and bent her over the bathtub, forcing her down. As Gasparyan lifted his foot and rested it on the cast-iron lid of the boiler, his trouser leg rode up, revealing to her a socked ankle, also covered in blond hair, over his black, laced shoe. It seemed like it was this rigid, upright ankle that masterminded and perpetrated the whole thing.
Her tears dried up. The whole thing lasted a long time or only a few short minutes, depending on the point of view.
“Anyway, you should at least memorize the definition of conclusion,” said he, already zipped up and tucked back in, as he peered out of the peephole. Then he brusquely flung the door open, off you go, and quickly shut it behind her. The key turned in the lock with a smash. SMASH.
Wait, no, that was the glass that slipped out of the hostess’s hand and smashed into a myriad little pieces. No worries, at least the evil eye had been scared away. It was all the cat’s fault, with its habit of standing in everyone’s way. The woman had changed and freshened up her makeup. She looked tense, like a runner on the starting line. She was a beautiful woman, and very elegant. The two porcelain front teeth looked almost real. She wiped off her shoes with the flap of a blue bathrobe, tenderly petted the cat that hovered around apologetically, and they walked out.
“Yep, she’s definitely got a date,” thought the short woman bitterly. “She’s always been luck’s pet. She lives as she pleases. Just by virtue of living in the city, she doesn’t have to worry about most of the problems that burden me, like the issue of work or of hostile public opinion. Look how carelessly she tossed some cash to the beggar on the street. Her amethyst earrings are gorgeous though, if I chance upon a pair, I’m buying them for myself.”
They passed, in reversed order, the daycare, the empty swimming pool, the cold drink stand, the arched entryway. Each was lost in her own thoughts. That thing at Gasparyan’s house had happened only once, and she quickly tried to forget about it afterwards, pretending that it had never happened at all. And nobody ever found out about it. About that humiliation, that tragedy, if you will. But she was destined to remember it forever, especially now, when suddenly it came over her. For a while now, for the past few years, that memory was the only thing that had comforted her. Yes. When she realized that she’d made the wrong choice in her husband, when her disillusionment with him was complete, when he no longer interested her as a partner, which happened a long time ago, that thing with Gasparyan, however you want to call it, came back to her once in such a vivid display of details, scents, feelings, so alive and passionate that after many nights of fruitless longing, that night she had an orgasm, so passionate and wild that it completely baffled her husband. The same thing happened over and over again. Eventually, she was no longer able to perform without relying on that recollection.
With time, however, the recollection, too, became trivialized, nothing but a recurring mental picture: Gasparyan hovering over her, his hand, his breath, there, in the bathroom (each minute detail, however irrelevant, became tantalizing), the sink, his position, and so on. Then she started inventing new, fictional details and situations. For instance, she fantasized that it wasn’t just that one time, but that she visited his flat regularly, and her visit always concluded in the same way. A time came when even the memory started becoming ordinary, a repeating mental picture: Gasparyan over her, his hand, his breath, there, in the bathroom (the unimportant details were so tantalizing), all the time, the washing, the position, and so on. And she started inventing new, nonexistent details, new circumstances. Like that it wasn’t just that one time, but many that she visited Gasparyan’s flat, and that things always ended the same way. The fantasies were always based on some plot that started with her walking through his front door. The element of violence and coercion was always present. There was Gasparyan, dragging her to the couch or his bed. He was always livid, although they both enjoyed that. He ripped off her clothes and made her bend over the windowsill, just like that… There were people and cars below the window. Sometimes he embraced and even kissed her. from the front, even kisses her. They kissed. He made her sit in his lap. And in her fantasies, it was always four-thirty. Actually, the time was irrelevant, but the clock was always there, prominent, symbolizing the secret, surprising prowess and size of its owner. One would’ve never guessed from his appearance; he was a slight, small man…. In one of the scenarios, Gasparyan had already given her a failing grade, and she was walking away, dejected, crushed, when he called her back unexpectedly. She was on the bottom of the stairs, he—at the top, and their eyes met for an instant. She raced back upstairs, and they did it right behind the front door, on the floor of the hallway. In her fantasies, she was always pretty, attractive, wearing exquisite lingerie, meticulously groomed and perfumed…. In these dreams, she was always what she should have been, what she could have been had life and fate been a little kinder to her. Back then, Gasparyan seemed old, but now they would have been perfect for each other, he was her ideal mate in every respect, her desired mate, her secret love. He reciprocated her feelings. They quietly loved and possessed each other. In movies, lovers caressed each other, but theirs were different, they had what nobody else did. So many times she resolved to travel to the city one day and go see him, or at least steal a glimpse of him from afar, but her fear held her back. After all, if she herself was so different in her fantasies, how unlike the imaginary person would he turn out to be? And so many years had passed! When she heard about his death, it didn’t settle at first; instead, all those wild thoughts that had become habitual flushed over her, those sweet, fantastical, coveted fantasies. But then, as she and her classmate were crossing the square to get to the bus-stop, the slanted rays and shadow-plays of the setting sun suddenly made her shiver, and an inexplicable tremor took over her body. She felt as if the ruthless Death just brushed by her, ripped some part of her and took it away, but accidentally, mistakenly, left her standing.
“Well, number 11 works well for you,” hurriedly said her friend, pressing her towards the bus. She didn’t invite her to visit again, or to call her, just a casual see you.
The short woman didn’t mind; she was used to being treated like a nuisance, to not being invited anywhere, to being ignored. To people making plans secretly, behind her back, in whispers, changing the subject whenever she walked into the room. She had long been aware of the fact that her presence was irksome to others. And so she always had to fight to make some space for herself in this world, through sheer willpower and persistence, constantly having to prove herself.
The blonde made her way through the crowd, then suddenly turned back, waived, and smiled.
“Good-bye,” intoned the short woman somewhat unevenly and indifferently.
The people standing around her gave her a startled look, then apathetically averted their eyes.