Translator into English: Mārta Ziemelis
I was in third grade when I got up and solemnly announced that I didn’t have a father. I trembled on the inside when thirty pairs of surprised eyes looked at me. There was something between sympathy and doubt on the teacher’s face. “We need to know for school statistics,” she explained. In my opinion, the fact that my father had a new wife was enough of a reason for him to have no right to really call himself my father. I knew the point of her survey question – “Father: alive, dead or unknown” – was something completely different, but that didn’t matter. I was even proud of this, because it made me different from other kids, the ones who had everything going right in their lives.
One morning, when Dad went to work early, Mom’s nose was red. I asked if she was sick. Mom said she wasn’t, but that Dad would be here less often now, because he’d be living somewhere else. That didn’t surprise me much – the same way you’re not surpised by events that happen, no matter whether you’re hoping for them or are worried that they’re coming up. I’d heard my parents’ fights before, but the previous night’s had been different. I heard Mom sobbing and saying broken sentences in a hoarse voice. Dad mostly kept quiet, unless he was whispering something calming. That’s when Mom cried even harder. When Dad came into my room I pretended to be asleep, because I was scared of what would happen after we said goodbye to each other.
That evening I eavesdropped on Mom’s conversation with Aunt Tamāra, hiding behind the kitchen door. Now I understood that everything was some stranger’s fault. Dad had gone to be with another woman.
After that, Mom often had dark blue circles under her eyes in the mornings. On those days I tried to talk less and to stay out of the way. The most innocent questions made her sad, and I often got scolded for no reason.
Mom had started smoking a lot more. I thought she had cancer, because what else would make her lose weight so fast? It had to be cancer. Probably she thought the same thing, because her friends urged her to go see a babka, something like a witch. The babka had a pretty vague idea of what the diagnosis was, but she suggested that Mom drink a tincture of celandine. A visit to the doctor proved there was no cancer; she’d lost weight because of a nervous breakdown. Mom was convinced that the tincture of celandine had helped.
She always told me the main thing was that nobody should even think of pitying her. Before leaving the house, Mom carefully powdered her face, outlined her eyes in black eye pencil, and shaded her eyelids with pearly blue eyeshadow. Those, along with a mildly pink lipstick, were kept in a toiletry case I wasn’t allowed to touch. Makeup was expensive and could only be bought on the black market. She used the lipstick and eye pencil sparingly, digging out the last precious scraps of colour with a sharpened match.
Sometimes Mom listened to records in the evenings. Eyes closed, she swayed in the gentle waves of Karel Gott’s voice, or hummed along with Joe Dassin’s warm French chansons. I stood pressed against the doorframe and wished for these moments not to end so soon. On the evenings when she read Ārija Elksne’s poetry – something about graves and cawing ravens – and the earthy smell of valerian floated through the apartment, I stayed well away from her room.
I liked it when there was a party at home. Then Mom’s cheeks glowed, her eyes got misty, and she laughed a lot. The air was thick and hot, loud with passages of fast accordion music. Vodka flowed like birch sap in the spring. In the kitchen, the women smoked, hugged each other, kissed each other with moist lips and said how much they loved each other. They sang all those popular love songs: “By the Amber Sea”, “Dark Forests”, “Chrysanthemums” and “Waterlilies”. I especially liked “The bonfire blazes bright in the dark night” – about parting and lost love. The women sang this one with their eyes closed, with a certain kind of ache in their voices, as if each of them had experienced something like that, even a little. I knew the words to every song and sang along with the choir eagerly.
The men, jackets off and ties loose, loudly explained the meaning of life to each other and remembered the old days, how well their fathers had lived. When Uncle Jānis disagreed with Uncle Valdis and had grabbed him by the collar, Mom squeezed in between them and flirtatiously asked them to pour a lady some champagne. The men reluctantly relaxed, and filled glasses briskly. The layered herring salad smelled homey; pork cutlets and boiled potatoes steamed. I ate up the pickles almost all by myself. After I’d secretly eaten the creamy frosting with little glazed nuts off the top of the cake, of course.
Mingling with the guests, I found out that my father’s wife was a “whore”, a “bitch”, and that “it will all come back to haunt her”. The main point was “you’ll see, he’ll come crawling back with his tail between his legs, like a beaten dog”. The wives seemed to be the experts. The husbands, flushed from vodka, smiled and praised Mom’s potato salad. Uncle Valdis, roaring “Hey hey, you lithe black-panther girl!”, pulled Mom onto the dance floor. I guess he was holding her too close, because Aunt Anna hurried up right away to talk some sense into her husband. That’s what she said. “Be sensible.”
That evening, I started waiting. Waiting for Dad to be sensible. Waiting for him to leave the strange woman.
I liked my birthdays less. Dad always brought a present and went away quickly. Mom got ready carefully every time he came. I helped her pick out a blouse, and confirmed several times that she looked slender enough. I dressed up too, and acted cheerful. This year I got a carefully wrapped box from Dad, with a huge satin ribbon tied around it.
“There’s a doll inside,” he said conspiratorially. When I opened it, I realized why the box was so light. There was no doll. I hoped the doll would show up if I closed the box and opened it again. No luck. I tried opening it from the other side. Again, no luck. I put it on the table and thought that this had to be a joke. Any minute now, the door would open and Dad would come in with the real surprise.
He came in to say goodbye. I didn’t dare ask about what had happened to the doll. What if Dad got angry and stopped coming? Later, I didn’t want to play with the other kids. I sat on the couch in the other room and stubbornly insisted that I wouldn’t blow out the candles on my cake without Dad. Mom’s curled hair shook – she was going to tell Dad not to come at all, then. That always worked on me.
Then we saw her, that other woman, by accident. Dad got out of a car, but she stayed inside. A blonde in dark sunglasses. I called out:
“Look, there’s Dad!”
Mom’s purse slid off her shoulder, and she wobbled on her high heels.
“Let’s cross the street,” she whispered. She yanked on my hood so hard that I tripped.
That’s when I understood we were leaving because of her. Because of that woman.
One evening, Mom was talking to someone on the phone. I heard short, sharp phrases: “…I still have to think about it”, “…I don’t know if that will be OK”, “it’s all very complicated”, “why don`t you ask her yourself?” Then she hung up and asked me in a hollow voice whether I wanted to visit Dad. I wondered: and that whore, too? But I didn’t ask out loud. I wanted to visit Dad.
There were windows from floor to ceiling in their apartment, like in the foyer of the Daile Theater. There were paintings hanging on the walls – I noticed several portraits of a woman among them. They also had shelves full of books, that reached the ceiling. I could see all of myself in the hallway mirror with a gilded frame.
When I came in, she was sitting at the desk. It wasn’t like mine – inherited from my cousin, with legs gnawed on by a collie and a surface that had scratches and pen marks all over it. Her desk was covered in dark lacquer, with curved legs and gilded handles. She was taller than Mom. Her blonde hair hung in stiff curls. The red knit dress she wore emphasized her figure. Mom would never wear something like that. Too provocative, she’d say. Something in a shade of beige or blue would be better.
Her name was Kristīne. The woman in the portraits was her. I thought: Why didn’t I put on my red skirt?
She joked and laughed a lot. She took a box of candy out of the desk, opened it and put it in front of me. Just opened and put down a whole box. I guess I stared at the assorted shapes too long – she said encouragingly that they were really for me. At home, if someone gave us a box of candy as a present, Mom always hid it in the closet, behind the towels – “just in case.” If we had to go visit someone and bring a host gift, we’d be saving money, she said. Candy’s very expensive.
She did the same thing with the new umbrella and the set of bedclothes we didn’t use, which were hidden away in the closet for when I got married. What if I never get married? All that stuff will rot away, I thought in horror. Still, Mom always brought me something when she came home from work. I reached out impatiently for Mom’s purse, which smelled like the bus and like stale face powder, from a jar so old the name on the lid faded away long ago. I knew that in the pocket of the purse, there would be a piece of halva, a piece of candy, a bit of Uzbek baklava or a couple of nuts, wrapped in graph paper – treats from friendly factory workers.
I sat in Kristīne’s kitchen, ate candy and stared at the calendar from overseas with black and white photos of cats. I’d never seen one like that before. We only had a tear-off calendar with namedays and the phases of the moon in it in our kitchen. Then I noticed that Dad was wearing his old slippers, the ones he wore when he lived at home with us. They didn’t fit in here, as if the slippers carried a stolen part of the warmth of our shared life. I noticed that as Dad and Kristīne passed each other they touched, just barely. I put back the piece of candy I’d just taken.
She asked me all about school and took an interest in my hobbies. She told me that she worked in some sort of ministry, and had been to Bulgaria and America twice. She gave me a present – a little picture where the image changed when you moved it. Nobody else at school would have one like that. That evening, she made my bed with a duvet. I remember a classmate told me, once, that her dad had been to Poland, and that he’d stayed at a hotel where his bed had a duvet. He’d cut off a little corner of it, to show his family and friends how civilized people sleep. I thought, Maybe I should cut a piece off my blanket too. But I didn’t know where to find scissors.
That evening, Dad sat by my bed for a long time, telling me about the book he was reading. Something about World War I. I waited for him to finish, so I could ask questions. Them Kristīne came in to say good-night, and joined in a lively conversation about that same war. I understood almost nothing. We weren’t studying history at school yet. The two of them debated intently, as if I wasn’t there at all. I can’t remember Mom and him having such enthusiastic conversations at home, let alone about war.
When Kristīne went into the bedroom, Dad stroked my head silently for a long time. The skin of his fingers was dry and rough. I didn’t say anything, even though it scratched my cheek. I knew I shouldn’t.
I was lying under a fancy blanket, but I was cold. I hadn’t thought that I’d miss the heavy quilt and Mom’s thin hand on my head before I fell asleep so much. Waking Dad up to give me something warmer felt too awkward. I put on my sweater, which I’d hung on an elegant blue velvet armchair, and wrapped myself in the lightweight down blanket.
The next morning Kristīne came into the room with a loud “Good morning, sweetie”, to open the balcony door. It was stuffy, apparently. Only Mom and Dad called me “sweetie”. I was still cold. She had a long neck, pale skin that contrasted sharply with her black lace slip, and graceful hands with blood-red fingernails.
Kristīne’s toasted sandwiches were carelessly made with two kinds of cheese, sliced dried meat and tomatoes. They smelled delicious, but I didn’t eat. “Sorry, I’m in a hurry,” she said as she ran past, surrounding me in a cloud of fancy perfume.
When she went to work, I greedily ate up all the sandwiches. I went into the bathroom to wash up. Inside, I saw Kristīne everywhere – a flowery silk robe, a cherry-red lace bra, foreign shampoos, perfume on the shelf under the mirror. I took it and gave myself a good spray behind the ears. A toothbrush and razor, sitting on top of the cabinet above the bathtub just like at home, were the only signs of Dad.
One of the little mother-of-pearl dishes had different-sized brushes, eye pencils and also scissors in it. I took the scissors without thinking and, hiding them behind my back, went out into the hall. I saw Dad in the kitchen as I passed, reading the paper and drinking coffee, one leg crossed over the other. I pulled the closet open and saw it straight away. I grabbed a red sleeve and started cutting. My heart thumped in my throat. I tore the cloth everywhere I could reach, as if my life depended on it. The metal ends of the scissor blades got stuck in seams. I saw spots. Dad could come any minute now. I shut the closet door. Scraps of thread glowed red on my hands and dark blue skirt, like veins. I ran into the bathroom, dropped the scissors, cleaned off my clothes. I couldn’t breathe. My hands were shaking.
Earlier, as she was going out the door, Kristīne had asked,
“I’d like it if you came to visit more often. Will you?” No, I won’t.
At home that evening, I disconnected the phone line, and watched to make sure that Mom didn’t notice. If she did, I was ready to lie that I’d tripped over it by accident and yanked out the plug.
Mom didn’t say anything, just studied my face carefully. She grasped hungrily at every word I said; her hand, holding a cigarette, shook a little. I told her about the duvet, the desk, the bathroom and the red dress. I only mentioned the fact that Kristīne had a dress like that. Mom got a bit gloomy, gave the narrow, green-painted kitchen a hollow look, then leaned closer to me and asked:
“Is that her perfume?”
I jerked back and covered my neck. “Mom, I hate it,” I said. “I sprayed it on by accident.” Mom sat down across from me at the table, looked slantingly at her profile in the window and asked,
“Do you think I need a red dress like that too?”
“No, Mom.” I swallowed some spit. “You don’t need red; blue suits you better.”
I looked at her hands, at her nearly transparent, slightly peeling cream-coloured nail polish, and asked:
“Could we please open one of the boxes of candy we keep in the closet “just in case”?”
Mom was quiet for a while. Then she sat up straight and smiled mischievously.
“You know what? Yes, let’s open one! We can do it at least once, can’t we?” She put out her cigarette and went to the closet. Then she turned around and, as if encouraging herself, said again: “Just for us for once, right?”
I stopped her, hugged her and said that I never wanted to go visit Dad again. Mom gave me a kiss and didn’t answer. I don’t know what I hoped to hear. I didn’t even want candy anymore.
A week later, Dad was waiting for me when I got out of school. I desperately wished for wings, so I could fly away. He spotted me first.
He came up and took me by the hand, just like when I was little. I felt my palm turn clammy. Sweat poured down my back; my legs shook and wanted to give way. The time’s come, I thought. It’s all over.
We got into the car. He was quiet, looking straight ahead tensely. That’s how he acted when he didn’t know what to say, when he felt confused or emotional. I didn’t understand. Finally he said:
“I couldn’t reach you on the phone. I… We’d love it if you came to visit more often. Kristīne likes you a lot.”
I couldn’t stand it anymore. I turned to him and, full of determination, managed to say:
“Dad, that time on my birthday, the pretty box you gave me was empty. There was no doll.”
I saw surprise and puzzled alarm in his eyes.
I burst into tears, not wanting to. Unable to wait for him to finally say something, I yelled that the dress was expensive, that it couldn’t be fixed. That I couldn’t fix anything anymore.
“What dress?” Dad asked calmly.
I stared at him and swallowed salty tears, sobbing.
“I don’t understand. What dress are you talking about, sweetie?”
I stopped crying. Through the window, I noticed the first dandelions blooming in the roadside grass. I hadn’t noticed that the grass was already bright green.
Then Dad took my hand. I squeezed, hard.
“Let’s go!” he said. “Let’s go get your doll.”