We fell into conversation.
“That's what you think – that you want this,” she said. “But in reality you want something different. Not a cum laude diploma, and not even many publications. They are things you also want, but they aren't the main thing for you.”
“And what is?”
"Prepare yourself. Hold on to the bench. Ready?”
I got frightened and held on.
“You want lots and lots of women. Fame and women. The two are connected.”
“No, I don't!” I exclaimed heatedly and shook my head. “Well, fame maybe, just a tiny bit, but certainly not a lot of women.”
The lady was old, about seventy, if not seventy five, tall, with a straight neck. And her way of walking was womanly, that of an erstwhile beauty, used to commanding attention; even the cane she was slightly leaning on did not spoil her supercilious grace. But it was her face that drew the gaze the most: elongated, covered with a whole labyrinth of bigger and smaller wrinkles, it radiated intelligence and willpower. The blue-green eyes filled almost a quarter of that face. She had walked right towards me along a path in Alexander Gardens where I went for a stroll between classes. The day was sunny, in springtime, late May. Guelder rose had just started blooming, which for Moscow meant the end of spring. Spring was late this year and thus a short-lived affair: hardly had it begun than you were already taking leave of it. It would have been interesting to have seen this dame when she was eighteen or so, I thought. I bet she wasn’t short of admirers. Even the rather oblong oval of her face had probably endowed her beauty then – as it did now – with a touch of strangeness. Surely when such a woman was our age she didn't waste her time the way we do: we could learn from her!
As though reading my thoughts she had suddenly stopped right in front of me, leaned on her cane and said: “Time is money. Let's go sit down on that bench and have a talk. I'll explain to you what you want from life.”
I was taken aback and obeyed.
“I take my daily constitutional here from two to three,” she said in conclusion. “Come if you want further enlightenment.”
Curious: she revealed nothing about herself, answered all my questions evasively and again moved the conversation back to me, my life and ambitions - so I was intellectualising while returning to the department.
“Do you know, Vishnyakov,” I said as the two of us were going back to our dorm on a bus, “ it turns out that what I desire to get in life is not being accepted into a doctoral programme and completing a thesis but getting women and fame! So I've been told today by a funny old dame in Alexander Gardens.”
Vishnyakov got really worked up, and was almost in tears. He put his arm around me and confided: “And do you know what it is I desire most?”
“You desire to lose your virginity," I smiled condescendingly. "I've already asked Felix about it, and he'll provide you with a most soulful and understanding whore for a modest price.”
“No, that’s not what
I desire most of all,” he became even more tearful. “I
“Power?” I gasped.
“Yes, I want to execute
and to show mercy! That is, I'll always show mercy, I'm not
bloodthirsty, but I want all this to be up to me only! I want to be
an enlightened monarch!”
“Monarch? Enlightened?” I still couldn't make head or tail of this. “But what about your virginity?”
“That’s a minor point: if I have power, I'll lose my virginity in no time!”
What do you know, who could have thought it! - I was shaking my head. Maybe this old dame was right in her theories. Vishnyakov's a good case in point: here he was talking of nothing but sex – and listen to him now! So much for trying to guess at human nature!
“It turns out that Vishnyakov wants power – more than he does women,” I said to Tikhonenko, coming into his room to borrow a textbook on the physiology of the higher nervous activity. “He's confessed to me. And as for me – it turns out that I, in the opposite way, most of all want to have a woman! And not even one but many! Or at least that’s how I've been dissected and pigeonholed by one old lady in Alexander Gardens.”
“Wait a sec, I'll get my hanky!” He rummaged in his pocket, pulled out a suspiciously grey piece of rag and began to sob into it.
“Are you all right?” I became concerned. “Something in the family – the loss of a close relative?”
“Not a loss of any kind, but what I want most is to stomp on corpses! Give me corpses so I can walk over them! Left-right, left-right! Give me corpses!”
He was marching around the room, bringing his feet down hard in a military manner, but all the while wiping his tears and occasionally sobbing. The sight was not for those of a nervous disposition.
“It seems that Tikhonenko's gone crazy,” I said when I came face to face with Vishnyakov in the dining hall, “he wants most of all to walk over corpses.”
“You don't say!” Vishnyakov was shocked. “Did he say so himself?”
“Oh yes! Only a few minutes ago in fact. Who could have thought it? Didn't we all joke about his surnname - how it suited him so well, meaning Quiet Fellow in Ukrainian? He's always been so gentle and courteous, you could always borrow a textbook from him! I'm not saying this to remind you that you've refused to lend me your textbook – after all, you need it yourself, don't you – just that you're much more consistent, you crave power – and assert your will by refusing the book. That's logical, that makes sense, your character is one whole, but he lends the book while dreaming of walking – and not just walking but stomping, marching, left-right – over corpses!”
“What power? Who told you I crave power? What a load of rubbish, where did you get that from?”
“Are you senile or what? Are you already at this tender age suffering from the involutionary processes? You yourself told me, only a few hours ago, on the bus, number 111, on our way back from the department!”
“I could not have told you anything of the sort, you're confusing me with somebody else, it's you not me suffering from an old man's sclerosis, I don't need any power, I have no idea at all what you're on about – but if you could get me a woman – as you promised – then you'd make me happy, that's what I wish, want, desire and crave above all!”
'Tis strange, something's going
on here – I was trying to understand, as I was giving the book
back to Tikhonenko. As I had suspected, he remembered nothing. Hardly
had I time to say I'd really liked his joke about the corpses –
that he as it were would've desired to walk over them – very
funny indeed ha-ha – when he so candidly, innocently opened his
uncomprehending eyes to stare at me that I hastily said sorry, my
mistake, must have mixed you up with somebody else. So: they
confessed to me and immediately forgot. But what prompted them to
tell me things they themselves weren't aware of, things kept under
many seals and padlocks in their subconscious store-rooms? Was it not
this very phrase, that myself - or Vishnyakov or someone else –
that we had discovered our true desires?
I decided to try it out on Vorontsova when in the evening of that same day we bumped into each other in the dorm hall. Vorontsova was a plain Jane, with thin mousy hair, combed in some indeterminate manner, old-fashioned glasses on a nose that was too long, and a thin flat-chested figure. Everybody knew that her greatest ambition was to get a doctorate and become a professor. Her grades were all As and A plusses.
“Where are you off to in such a rush – must be to get ready, swot for an exam?” I said by way of introduction. Her small eyes behind thick lenses looked at me censoriously.
“Of course. And I'd advise you to do the same. If you want to get a decent diploma and move on and upward, that is. I say this because you and your buddies don't appear to be serious people.”
“Hmm...” I made uncertain sounds. “Perhaps you're right. By the way, talking about me and my buddies, Vishnyakov and I had quite an interesting talk a day or two ago. About what we really want from life most of all. It turned out that the main thing for me is fame” - I tactfully omitted women - “and for him, power. And we'd thought that it was totally different things that attracted us. That's the way it is: you fall into talk with friends – and make completely unforeseen discoveries about yourselves!”
Vorontsova began to blink very fast and tears appeared in her eyes. She shoved her hand somewhere inside her dress, pulled out a little handkerchief decorated with green and red flowers and used it to rub her eyes. I was already prepared for whole-hearted confessions to follow this sentimental tear-shedding, but it was awkward to stand like this in the middle of the hall with a female fellow student crying.
“Don't let him mistreat you,” said Nyutina, another girl from our department who was a year our senior. A husband and wife from the Faculty of Journalism whom I knew slightly came out of their room. They waved at me by way of greeting, then looked closer at Vorontsova whose tears were by now gushing full force – and gave me another, this time unmistakably reproachful, glance. Something needed doing, I couldn't very well scarper and leave her in this state. Besides, I still had to find out what she wanted most.
“Er... Voro... - I realised I didn't even know her first name, but to address her by her surname would have been idiotic, considering the situation - “er... why don't we go into your room until you calm down.”
I greatly hoped her room-mate would be out, but that was not to be. Terentsova (her first name I didn't remember either), about as plain (admittedly without glasses but, to make up for it, short and fat), got frightened at the sight of her friend and asked: “Sonia, what's the matter, why are you crying?”
At least I found out Vorontsova's first name.
“Sonia's got herself into a tizzy, but it'll be all right, don't worry, I'll stay with her a while,” I said.
“I’d better go out then, shall I, and leave the two of you alone,” Terentsova began to scurry and fuss about. She gathered her textbooks and made her exit, rather hastily – obviously deciding we'd had a lovers' tiff.
“I want most of all to walk!” Vorontsova said, weeping with loud sobs.
My God, you too? Is this a kind of modern fashion? - I was flabbergasted and asked: “Walk over corpses? What do you need it for? Trust me, one can achieve anything in life without having to walk over corpses!”
“I want to walk on the podium – on the catwalk!”
“What? Catwalk, podium? What are you on about? I haven't the foggiest what you mean!”
She no longer reacted to me but only exclaimed between sobs: “To walk down the catwalk in glamorous clothes! With a special fashion model walk! Legs forward, hips now right, now left! All the men can't tear their eyes away, they all want you! I want to walk as a model so that everybody will want me!”
“Calm down, that's a good girl, it's OK, now right now left so that everybody'll want you, it's perfectly fine and under control, jolly good, even, so why get upset and cry, I've no doubt it'll all come true, that it'll all be now right now left and there won't be any man left who won't want you!”
I began to feel compassion for Vorontsova, so I gently brought her to a chair and tried to make her sit down. But she held me, pressed her whole body to mine and started crying on my shoulder. Not knowing what to do with my hands I stroked her shoulder blades, saying all the while: “There, there, Sonia, hush, compose yourself, please, calm down, please.”
She stopped weeping, pressed herself to me even more and began to caress the low part of my back and even lower.
So it happened that we found ourselves in bed, where she no longer cried but only went on incoherently muttering something from the realm of fashion shows and the glamorous life that went with them.
Although I already had experience with Vishnyakov and Tikhonenko, I wasn't prepared for what took place next morning. I knocked on the door of their room, entered – they were both in – and asked Vorontsova: “Sonia, how are you – is everything all right?”
“Why, what's the matter?” she lifted her mighty lenses in surprise. “Ah, it must be about last night...”
“Last night, yes-yes!” I was both relieved - she remembers, then! - and worried: could it be she told her room-mate about our intimacy? “Exactly! You were a little bit upset last night.”
“It looks that way.” There was no emotion whatsoever behind the spectacles. “Marina here was already asking me questions why I'd been all in tears when you brought me in last night but honestly I 'd clean forgotten about that episode. All I remember is how you and I talked in the hall about the exam – and that must have upset me. And quite rightly so: the exam on the anatomy of the higher nervous system is just round the corner, and I haven't yet prepared for it properly!”
It can't be that she's such an accomplished actress and lies so convincingly! But on the other hand had she not forgotten everything she wouldn't have been so blank-faced, she would have given me some sign, a little bashful smile, an oblique allusion – anything, without involving her room-mate if she didn't want to. Sure enough, her sexual experience had been zero but she'd made up for this shortcoming by sheer burning enthusiasm: how could one forget a thing like this? And what if she gets pregnant: it all happened too quickly for taking any preventive measures! And if, for argument's sake, she discovers she's pregnant (heaven forfend!) will she still not remember? Will she think it came from the Holy Ghost? And what shall I do? And what if she aborts the baby? How shall I know then? But on the other hand what's the point of knowing it? How do you mean what's the point – the point is to find out whether I would have had a child or not! But of what interest is this to me if it's already been aborted anyway!
You've got to take control of yourself, I said to myself, otherwise you'll end up in a loony bin. You have to forget Vorontsova and clear your head. But I'd never have guessed what her real desire is!
The one who desired nothing from life but glamour was my girlfriend Mira: she was simply obsessed with it. For a model she was, alas, too short: the absolute minimum was one metre seventy of which she fell six whole centimetres short. But she had real beauty, the kind that needs one look to make your heart miss two beats. Hazel eyes, chestnut hair, a tender oval of a face, a few light-coloured freckles by a little nose, sweet little dimples and sweet miniature ears, tiny rings in which completed the charming picture. And her figure was ideal too: not very tall but then extremely well-proportioned, with everything in the right place and of the right dimensions! I'd have married her, honest, had it not been for those trivial ambitions of hers. Her ex-boyfriend had been a footballer. After some hesitation she'd decided to bet on me: my future as a professor, she'd confessed, promised her more than that of a second league footballer. “Maybe he'll make it to the first league?” I'd said wittily. “No,” she shook her head hopelessly, not noticing the irony, “I've already considered this, had he been first league everything would've been different, but he's got no chance, he'll stay second. With you life'll be far more glamorous!”
There wasn't a need, really, to check her out: what she thought she wanted was exactly what she wanted in fact, a rare case of conscious and unconscious desires coinciding! But I still decided to find out, if only just out of idle curiosity. Right after my discovery that Vorontsova had no memory of having sex with me I phoned Mira and invited her for a walk along Moscow River.
“Mira,” I said as we were going over from the Kremlin embankment to the Kropotkin one, “do you remember Vishnyakov, I introduced him to you once, he's very shy, timid even? Anyway, he's just admitted that above all things in life he wants power, to issue orders who should be executed and who should be shown mercy to. I'd never have believed it – not him, not the shrinking, self-effacing Vishnyakov!”
I expected – to begin with - her eyes at least to start watering, but she, on the contrary, first giggled and then burst out laughing.
“And do you know what I want most of all?”
“Of course I do! You want glamour!”
“Wrong, wrong, a miss, a miss, you haven't guessed!”
“What do you mean haven't guessed?”
“I mean what I say! Most of all I want to have a family, to give birth to many kids, to cook tasty food, so when they come from school and my husband from work everything in the house will be tip-top, flowers on the sill and a hot dish on the table and they'll all lick their fingers and ask for second helpings. And that there'll always be the fragrance – either of fresh flowers or, if it's a meal, of tasty food. Sure, to many people my desires will seem old-fashioned but I know they are right!”
The very next day I went to Alexander Gardens, right after two. The weather was promising change. Through the end of May and beginning of June there was an anticyclone over Moscow, it was warm and dry, but now potent cumuli were gathering overhead. Lifting up my head and looking upward, it seemed to me I could see the ascending currents of warm air. However, it might have been nothing more than my imagination, which had become fevered by the events of the last few days.
The old woman was nowhere to be seen, no matter how much I strolled up and down the paths. Instead of her there was a young girl, walking around, just like myself. She couldn't have been more than seventeen or eighteen and was very attractive – even more so than Mira, or perhaps she just belonged to a different type, bolder-looking, open, with a high neck, firm chin and a rather large nose. The girl's face was slightly elongated and her lips full, almost cherubic, but this didn't detract from her beauty, on the contrary, it softenend her strong-willed features, endowing them with a kind of romantic infantility. She was much taller than Mira, taller even than myself. That's who could be a fashion model, I thought. She was evidently waiting for a date and I felt a pinprick of jealousy: if I had such a girlfriend I'd never have kept her waiting! I'd come half an hour if not hour early on a date with her!
It seemed to me that she was eyeing me more and more often. There were many paths in the Gardens but somehow it happened that each time we came across one another – roughly every ten minutes or so – she was coming towards me. I was surprised by this: the theory of probability demanded that at least in some cases we should both walk in the same direction but I never saw her from the back. When we encountered one another for the fifth or sixth time she smiled at me. I tried to smile in return but my smile must have gone awry because she said: “Don't be nervous, everything will be fine,” - and gave me an even bigger and sweeter smile – I'd even have dared to say the smile of a young girl in love had she not been so very beautiful and so clearly outside my reach.
Still, they say that suffering is ennobling. Could it be that as a result of all those shocks with my own and other people's confessions I'd become more attractive to women? What if I'd developed a kind of noble look that had such an irresistible effect on them, even on the youngest and prettiest ones?
“I'm not nervous,” I said, “it's you who are having a date, it's me wishing you that everything will be fine. As for me, I'm simply taking a stroll – just like that.”
“Just like that?” asked the girl with unconcealed irony. “Is it true?”
“Half true, if you really want to know the whole truth. But unlike you I'm not on a date, I only hoped to coincide with a person who usually takes a stroll here at this time, so we might have a chat.” And afraid she wouldn't believe me but think I was waiting for a girl and was therefore lost to her as a potential boyfriend, I added hastily: “I wanted to talk with one very old and very clever lady who usually walks here between two and three, but she seems not to be here today.”
“But wouldn't you want to talk with a young girl?” She motioned towards an empty bench. “Why don't we sit down over there, it's a quiet secluded corner.”
I needed no persuasion! Secluded corner – wasn't there a hint at future intimacy?
“I take it that your girlfriend really surprised you yesterday,” she said when we sat down.
I jumped up as if scalded.
“Don't be jumpy, sit down,” the girl smiled again. “Do you still not recognise me?”
I gave her a closer look. My God, it wasn't for nothing she'd reminded me of somebody – with her walk, her bearing, turn of the head, unusual eyes! And with a tiny birthmark by the left wing of the nose. A witch! Everything in me froze.
“Not a witch but a fay,” she read my thoughts. “Don't fear me: I'm the best, most moral and good-natured that exists among the so-called unclean spirits. I am, if you like, a virtuous wicked one.”
I was slightly reassured, but not knowing what to say blurted out: “Why is it that they all wept but Mira yesterday laughed?”
“Why, that's very simple. In their case, the unconscious desires were worse, more shameful than the conscious ones, but with her it was the other way round. She was glad on account of her subconscious mind, she really had something to show!”
“I'll marry her!” I exclaimed.
“What do you mean why? Isn't it clear? Because she really wants positive, virtuous things: to be a good wife and mother!”
“What about glamour?”
“But that's only external, isn't it?”
“And what was external in
“Well... a doctorate, academic and creative work.”
“Compare them yourself: your externals and hers.”
“But that's unimportant, didn't you yourself teach me that what we really want is more important than what we think we want?”
“I never used the word important. You have a lot to learn, you're suffering from an infantile tendency to simplify everything. A human being in fact consists of an interaction of these two desires, internal and external, unconscious and conscious. That isn't on your departmental curriculum because here in this country, where learning theories and behaviourism are all the rage, psychodynamic approaches are viewed with suspicion.”
I still couldn't get used to the fact that such a young beauty was saying such clever things – and in such intellectual language – but I was gradually getting accustomed.
“Tell me for example – and I apologise in advance for lack of tact – how did this Mira of yours acquire her sexual experience?”
“She told me that when all her girlfriends had lost their virginity she followed their example.”
“Indeed. So as to be like everyone else, so as not to stick out. The same goes for her desire for glamour. Everybody wants it – and so does she, although deep down she wishes to found a stable family. She's very open to influence, she has no opinion of her own. You can't discard what a person considers to be the greatest happiness – especially if that's only because all around consider likewise. You will not be happy with her.”
She placed her hand on mine and gave me the gift of a long langorous look. “As for a child by that four-eyed fellow student of yours – the one who's going to become a distinguished professor – don't worry, you happened upon a safe day. But that doesn't mean you can't have a child by another girl – a younger and – I'll say it without false modesty – much more attractive one.”
I summoned all my courage.
“I don't want to deal with other-worldly powers, even virtuously wicked ones. You've convinced me about Mira. But surely there are other girls! Only please don't take offence. I'm grateful to you for the information about desires. You and I shall remain friends.”
“You're against mystical intrusions into your life, you want to bear all responsibility for it yourself,” nodded the girl as though that was exactly what she'd expected of me. “I respect this desire of yours – just as I do all your other desires, by the way.”
She looked at me again – with incommunicable sadness – and stood up from the bench. I lowered my head. I felt like crying. For the first time in my life I was saying no to a beautiful woman – let her be a witch.
But maybe – the idea had suddenly come into my head – maybe I should feel happy: admittedly my unconsciousness is trashy but my conscious desires evoke respect, and if the final balance consists of a kind of compromise, a sort of modus vivendi between the two, then not all is lost!
I smiled involuntarily and raised my eyes. A tall old woman with a straight back and proud neck was walking away along the Gardens' path. In her hand she was holding a cane on which she was leaning, from time to time.
Translated from the Russian by John Hunt with the author
Published in: Kestrel 24