From "Zhenya"

Valzhyna Mort

… Zhenya moves as if her left side were heavier than her right. She leans
like an old village fence, almost kissing the ground, and a shred of green
cloth, scudded by the wind around the grazing, has finally caught hold of
one of the boards and hangs on it—and it is Zhenya’s jacket. Enveloped
by the damp October soil, under unending drizzle, the fence is rotting.
Leisurely, Zhenya rots at a forty-five degree angle, her putrid insides
wrapped carefully into her skin. Unable to tear my eyes off Zhenya, as
she limps away, stops to thoroughly read the university announcements,
smokes leaning against the corner of the International Affairs building,
I imagine God’s invisible hand that carries the white paper wrap around the
city, unable to find a proper trash bin.

Zhenya has an illness. She conceives space inadequately. During the class
she excuses herself to go to the bathroom, and later, unable to find the way
back to her desk, tumbles around from one desk to another, like a note with
a drawing of a naked professor. We sneak a look and giggle through our
closed mouths. For us, Zhenya’s body disoriented in space is a space of its
own. Her face looks as if her features have taken one step forward. Lips stir
in a tidal movement, always salted with bits of saliva. Before every class
Zhenya refreshes her mascara, aiming it straight into her eyeball, like a
gun. In the proximity of her body it is permitted not to hold anything back,
permitted to call things by the names that first come to mind. In fact, no
rules, no laws, no constitutions apply in the radius of Zhenya’s shadow.
We can be animals. We can move and talk the way we won’t dare to even
with our unseasoned lovers.

Zhenya doesn’t like breaks. There’s nothing more terrifying than the
transition from one classroom to another. God bucks up, sighs, and drags
Zhenya through the long university corridors. A thousand times passes by
the correct door, a thousand times turns around, calculates the trajectory of
getting into the doorway, launches her body forward, and a thousand times
runs her face into the wall. The world of door frames, corridors, staircases,
and roads appears before Zhenya as a reflection of the moon in the dark
water. She approaches that world, but the world caught in the tremor of her
besotted breathing confuses Zhenya; she reaches out for it, first cautiously,
as if she were checking on a sleeping animal, then insistently, aggressively,
she knocks on the air, demands the air to open itself into something to walk
through, to sit on, to lean against; she beats the air in order to harden it
into a knob, a desk, a hand, a shape.

Zhenya likes to talk about men. The way her eyes roll up a little too high
when she utters an obscenity, and she has to shake her head in a
movement of a passionate agreement to bring her eyeballs back to my
face level. She says, your boyfriend looks like Alain Delon. It seems that
the words that come from her mouth have been lying there stored for
months, or even years. They emerge as thin bubbles of odor and saliva,
and she has to breathe harder to shake those bubbles off her lips until
they finally pop up—looks! like! alain! delon! He looks like his mother,
I say. Do you want to marry him, she asks. Of course, I do. Is he good in
bed, she asks again. And I don’t know if I should reply or ignore her.

We come to Grammar class, already exhausted at nine in the morning.
From the earliest moment of waking up, this city reflects our faces in
the windows of its shops, doors and buses, it rains and rains because the
city wants to reflect us with its every surface, wants to turn all of itself
into a distorting mirror, but most of all it wants to reflect us in the faces
of other people, to make us recognize how we all share a certain smudge,
a typo, an almost invisible defect. It is not a broken telephone, but a
broken mirror. Every one of us is nothing else but a reflection of a reflection
of a reflection of this first defected person; first person who stands in front
of that first mirror unable to grasp where it is she is placed, disabled to
decide which way to move away from this site of confusion, too confused
to understand who has to move first—her reflection or herself.

We take our seats and joke idly. Zhenya, the majestic vessel of her body,
tries to loosen the narrow aisles between the desks; she moves lubberly,
but with great concentration, a smile leaking over her face with every
slight advance. Finally she lifts up all of her possessions and places them
on top of the desk, and, as if from an open wound, thick pink yogurt gushes
out of one of her bags. Yogurt beats against the floor, desks, chairs,
blackboard, Zhenya’s clothes, and we do not hide our laughter. We cackle,
and the pink liquid jets into our faces, scores into our wide-open mouths.

Zhenya fusses around the classroom flooding everything on her way. She
cannot find the door to run out to the bathroom.

    Zhenya, to the left!
    And she turns to the right.
    Oh no! Go back, go back now!
    The other way! Follow me!
    Here, Zhenya!

But Zhenya follows nobody. It is us who, after years of the same image
gushing at us through mirrors, windows, and water, are finally pushed
to reflect Zhenya in our own distorted ways. Stepping into a shower,
I have often fallen into a trap of doubt—is it indeed a shower cabin or,
possibly, a desk in my classroom? What if I were standing like that, naked,
bloated, and sweaty, on top of my desk during Grammar class, reaching
for the ceiling lamp, confusing light with water, laughter with the sound
of water hitting my body? I cover my breasts with my left hand, scoop a
handful of my genitals into my right, and walk around the apartment
peering into things in fear of recognizing my classmates in my furniture.
Looking for Zhenya I find you. Walking through a door, I walk into this
kitchen where nobody bakes, where chairs are not built for sitting, a table
not meant to hold a thing. I hear your face, behind the tall dam of your
fingers, gathering strength and speed. I follow your heavy sigh all the way
to the floor. The boards are painted a muted orange color, books are
marked with socks, a beam of light overturns a surprised jug….

At the end of August we take a fat white bus to the countryside where
my distant uncle has a house that remembers my well-fed, then starving,
then well-fed, and then starving again grandmother; and a garden planted
in a different language and century. All those years of the unmatched
harvests of marbled plums, white apples, birch syrup, and raspberry we
used to wear as fingerstalls. In the center of the garden a pear tree stands
since World War I, tasted by no one. Pears were tiny like baby fists,
hanging firm, green and hard; then one night—everybody sleeping—they
suddenly ripened, fell to the ground, all as one, and by the first rooster,
were already rotten. The mawkish decay under the pear tree attracted big
black butterflies that sucked it, making the rot bubble with their impatience.
Nothing could scare them off. A child, I would slip out of my sandals and
walk over that marshland under the tree, savoring the moist softness of rot
and the sharp crackle of the butterfly wings under my bare feet. 

He says, take the plums, the garden stays pitch-dark even at noon because
of the plums this year. He stands like that, rough and real, alone, without
even a dog. The garden, disseminated, overgrown, keeps on producing out
of its own insanity. The flowers bloom in colors we are shy to look at. The
fruit fall on the grass constantly, each carried by its weight, softness, and
sound. In the house, he stays in one room and keeps the rest of them
locked. He smiles like a man who hasn’t smiled enough. His stutter—I
used to think he was trying to laugh through speech. He tells you, come,
City Boy, and pulls out three many-faceted glasses. At the table he stutters
through what a special guest you are and all that. We toast something—
I won’t remember.

Time can penetrate houses like that only on the waves of a radio or an
electric heater. Both standing broken, the house rests in the stagnant time.
The body’s movements lose their meaning and just grow from the body
turning into its new limbs and curves.

He shakes the trees and you and I dive underneath and collect the plums
into plastic buckets. He shakes again, and a purple night falls over our
heads. I try to keep my eyes open to distinguish your figure bent beneath
the trees. We take the darkness apart, one plum at a time, exhaling loudly
like men saved from drowning. And he shakes the trees again and again.
Night and day, night and day, night and day. When we finally emerge,
with our buckets full, five years have passed….