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Maria Arbatova

MY TEACHERS

Translated by Joanne Turnbull

(Excerpt from the autobiographical novel My Name is Woman)

The product of protracted stays in hospitals and sanatoriums, and of an overprotective Jewish mother who derided me when I needed defending, and lectured me when I needed loving, I was long at a loss before the image of my first teacher, Irina Vasilievna, with her pale blue eyes, waved blond locks and white blouse. I expected kicks and rebukes in return for the blots in my copybook, for the rumpled appearance of my school uniform after the inevitable rows at recess, for my shocking precocity and petty mischief in class. But I kept getting As; these I ascribed to my lameness, subject of inordinate fuss throughout my childhood.

Then one spring, while rinsing the chalk out of the blackboard rag, I happened to overhear a conversation between Irina Vasilievna and the headmistress:

"How many A students do you have?"

"Seven." My name was among them.

"Gavrilina, the lame girl?" the headmistress specified.

"Yes."

"But she's worse than a little boy with her constantly torn cuffs, her satchel dangling by one strap, her dishevelled hair. Stop giving her good marks because of her bad leg." I froze at those words so completely that the chalk rag dropped from my hands and stopped up the sink, causing the milky water to seep upward along my ink-stained fingers and torn cuffs.

"The good marks are not for her bad leg," Irina Vasilievna took umbrage. "Suvorova has a bad heart but I can't get her to do better than C work." Suvorova, a plump little girl with a brown nylon bow in her short hair, didn't live to graduate. "She's an A student because she's bored in class, she could go straight into fourth grade. She knows whole pages from Shakespeare by heart."

"Shakespeare?" the headmistress sounded doubtful. "Well, what else can she do with a lame leg? All right, then. That's seven As, so seven."

Did this dialogue determine my career as a playwright? Did it complicate my life? By setting a value on real merits, so to speak, did it create a false precedent? Why did it sound with such intonational exactitude, combining as it did with the click of the teachers' high heels and the chirring of the stream of milky water overflowing the edge of the sink, drowning my arms up to the elbows in those hypnotic overheard words? How would my life have turned out if not for the coincidence of my class duty in the form of rinsing out the blackboard rag; the headmistress's interest in the number of A students in grade 1B in the form of a dialogue outside the girl's bathroom; and my preference for a volume of Shakespeare because of its gold-embossed cover, again a matter of form? In short, how would my life have turned out if not for what we call unity of time and place - the form that gives the content its kick?

I might have gone merrily limping along the easy road of "give me all that is my due" had I not heard with my 7-year-old ears that real rewards are not given but earned. Or I might have joined the Party of certified idiots which did without multiplication tables, declarations of human rights and farmer's almanacs altogether.

Irina Vasilievna's main lesson - overheard from the girl's bathroom - saved my life. The girl's bathroom, meanwhile, had an educational status of its own: that was where we taught each other to smoke in the eighth grade, to skim porno magazines in the ninth, and how to moan during sex in the tenth.

Of my school teachers, Irina Vasilievna was my first and last stroke of luck, all the others blurred into a single middle-aged woman, worn out by life, by her hatred of children, by sexual frustration and the passionate desire that her pupils endure the same. This woman's standard vocabulary consisted almost entirely of reproaches such as "Everyone knows what happens to girls who start wearing earrings in the sixth grade", "I won't begin the lesson until everyone has taken off their rings and washed their eyelashes", and "Put your hair back in a tail, you're not in a brothel yet." Hunger for knowledge drove us out of house and school onto the streets where other standard vocabularies were still fairly hard to come by, but occasional rabble-rousers darted.

The pop music black marketeers, for instance. Having stolen into the traditional throng on Lenin Hills, my friend and I would eye the long-haired, denim-clan men in loose fur vests with American records tucked under their arms. We knew about these profiteers as eighth graders from the loyal Soviet poet Sergei Mikhalkov: "Today they're playing jazz, tomorrow they'll be selling the Motherland." We, too, longed to sell the Motherland, meaning the endless humiliation we necessarily endured at the hands of our parents, our schoolteachers and the system that had created them. As a first step towards "selling the Motherland", I chose to change my style of dress. My friend Zhenia and I labored for hours, ripping the sleeves off our old fur coats and imparting the look of real jeans with a past to our fake jeans from `Children's World' store. Step No. 1 involved changing into our "old" jeans and proceeding triumphantly from my apartment to Zhenia's past our school, naturally when the grown-ups were at work. Painstakingly equipped, we issued forth, hand in hand. The first woman we met promised to turn us in to the police immediately on grounds of our appearance. Zhenia began to sob.

"Please! Let's go home! I can't do this! I just can't do it!" she whispered. Her beautiful eyes expressed such pain that I handed her the key and carried valiantly on alone. Zhenia's father was a military man, but the main militarist in the family was her mother. You could chart Zhenia's progress in school by glancing at her knees: after every C, her mother locked her nylon stockings in the cupboard and took the key with her to work; after every D, she got out the belt. Need I add that after finishing school, Zhenia plunged into dissipation. That day, however, she would not go through with the plan and left me, as other friends would later on, to get out of the fix we had gotten into together. That taught me a lesson, and I am thankful for it.

In the ninth grade, I joined the university-sponsored Young Journalist's Club where overexcited undergraduates, graduates and even non-graduates - kicked out for immoral behavior which they passed off as cool anti-Sovietism - filled cheeping children full of claptrap. The most striking exponent of this genre was Volodya, a would-be violinist, journalist, bibliophile, and later a director; he lived through his unfulfilled period as a sociologist. But since he had no ideas of his own, he read us the lectures of Professor Levada - a Soviet-era dissident scandalously sacked by the university - and allowed us to take notes. In our adolescent imaginations, the legendary Levada was a sort of multiple of Solzhenitsyn; we learned his lectures by heart on the assumption that he had links to the opposition. We might have learned Mendeleev's periodic tables with equal success had anyone managed to convince us that the great chemist had run afoul of the Soviet regime.

Even so, all I wanted to do was to learn, day and night, from anyone who would teach me... Hippy friends taught me to wear knitted vests, to weave beads into my braids, and how to deal with cops; prostitutes at the Moscow Cafe taught me how to talk to waiters and how to lower my eyes into my champagne glass, flutter the lids up at my interlocutor and wearily detail my private life; underground poets taught me to read verse aloud, swooning with passion, among drunken friends; inexperienced journalists taught me to strike up conversations on the metro using words like "existential" and "transcendentalism"; an aging alcoholic artist's model - a former teacher - taught me to sit stark naked on a chair in a sculpture studio and, rather than die of fright, say in a deep voice, "Guys, you'll make me catch cold" or "If it weren't for the money, do you think I'd be sitting here bareassed?"

I could do one of two things: I could study to become a woman or I could study to become an individual; one couldn't do both. A "certified" woman was meant to be seen and not heard, a "certified" person of the female sex was meant to be invisible. Society permitted one to practice both trades simultaneously only rarely, and the exceptions to the rule bore the psychological scars. Those who forged careers with their bodies forfeited their self-esteem while those who succeeded independently looked on their own sexuality as something foreign, like so much borrowed clothing. Consequently, men, as the more balanced sex at that juncture in our history, made better teachers.

My own lameness began to occupy me less and less; my approach to life had to do with social convictions, not an inferiority complex. I refused to be drafted into any Party organizations, beginning with the Young Communist League. I decided to become a hippy instead thanks to certain healthy instincts, but also an unhealthy sense of nonconformists as infallible. As for any feeling of inferiority, whatever my losses to lameness, my figure more than made up for them. Experience soon showed that eight out of ten men were attracted to me without any effort on my part, nine out of ten with only minimal effort. The tenth man was the orthopedic surgeon whose fascination was confined to my right leg.

"Another couple of operations and you'll be walking just fine! Think about it, honey, think about it, you'll want to get married, after all!" They would steal up to me, fondling my X-rays. "We'll just cut a little here, saw a little there, cement a little, and you'll be dancing like a ballerina!" I didn't want to dance like a ballerina, and two years spent in hospital beds, in casts, and on crutches hardly tempted me to continue relations. The first operation was done in the interests of the dissertation then being completed by the doctor treating me; the second operation was done mechanically, automatically, in a complete set with septicemia and the threat of amputation. The doctors wanted to go on cutting and experimenting, but it seemed to me I'd donated more than enough of my own body to their professional curiosity. The last one tried to dupe me on the eve of my first marriage. Poking me maliciously in the hip, he yelled:

"You're a fool! You're a conceited little fool! You don't realize what this means! This means that one day you'll stop short in the middle of the street and you won't be able to take another step! If you're lucky they'll bring you to me and I'll fix you up; if not, you'll be on crutches the rest of your life! And God forbid you should get pregnant, that will only make things worse! It hurts you to walk and don't tell me it doesn't. You're not walking on the joint, you're walking on sheer will. If I had my way, I'd tie you up right now and throw you on the operating table!"

It did in fact hurt me to walk, but I set great store by my will, as opposed to his professionalism. That professor has long since died and my twin sons are already in college. I am grateful to him because the inner war I waged against his world renown was an enormous lesson for me...

Lovers taught me liberally and variously. The first was a remarkable avant-garde artist who supported himself creating Party posters. He taught me to make good coffee; to chat easily with grown-ups; to see my body to an aesthetic value and earn money as an artist's model. He also taught me that a 30-year-old man is perfectly capable of sleeping with a 15-year-old girl without so much as a word on the subject of contraception...

My second lover, a 40-year-old script writer, taught me that the tender, gallant man poring over one's girlish diaries may actually be gathering material for a script about young people he's under contract to write.

My third lover, a brilliant physicist, taught me that the man brave enough to refuse to sign a letter condemning Sakharov may tremble at the thought of his dealings with a minor being found out.

My fourth lover, a mad poet, taught me that if your partner locks himself into his tenth-floor apartment with no phone, slits his wrists and tells you it's all your fault, you mustn't go into a stupor, you must examine his wrists to see how many times he did this before he ever met you.

My fifth lover, a French-speaking mulato at Patrice Lumumba University with three Russian rudiments under his belt - "USSR", "asshole" and "come here" - taught me that one's body exists not only for purposes of entering into relations with older men so as to improve one's education and self-esteem, but also for purposes of receiving pleasure at the level mastered by French-speaking mulatoes. The highlight of our affair was his black buddy with the Georgian roommate: he wound up speaking Russian with a Georgian accent for which he was regularly beaten up by touchy Caucasian vendors at the local market.

Having had my fill of these and lesser investors in my education, I fell wildly in love at the age of 19 and married the best-looking, most talented, most sexual singer I'd ever met in my life. I offered myself to him as compensation for his stalled career. My husband taught me to appreciate vocal singing and classical music, and to banish all the bugbears nurtured in me by my Jewish mother. He also taught me that even the most passionate attachment may turn one's marriage into a battlefield. For all the infidelity on both sides, we could not bring ourselves to separate for sixteen years during which we raised two marvelous sons.

I went on with my marriage and my spiritual-sexual education. I soon discovered that most of the older generation were pigs who paid with their learning only in the intervals between coituses, and who proved themselves at your expense. I also discovered that most of the men my age were eunuchs looking for mother figures, monetarily and erotically speaking. I realized, too, that I wasn't any better than any of them since I was no less primitive in my way.

As for my higher education, the philosophy department taught me only two things: that the world's variety was far greater than I had imagined; and that if I, unable to calculate the price of food at the store, could pass higher mathematics with the formulas etched on my knees, then I didn't understand anything and would have to learn everything all over again.

My literary instinct taught me cynicism. My creative masters were the king and queen of our national dramatic cynicism, Viktor Sergeevich Rozov and Inna Lyutsianovna Vishnevskaya. Rozov's annual contribution to my future as a playwright amounted to the following dialogue:

"My dear, I cannot pass you in creative work because you haven't attended my seminars."

"My children were sick. Here are the letters from their doctors. But I've written a new play, please read it."

"My dear, I haven't got time to read your plays. You must decide what it is you want to be: a writer of plays or a mother of many children."

"But I've written a new play."

"I haven't got time. I'm off to an international festival abroad. Better talk to Inna Lyutsianovna." Neither his professor's salary, nor his post as creative director compelled Rozov to read even my graduation play, a review of which he was obliged to write. For the "master" to have deigned to read even one page, I would have had to work on him - everything from crawling on my stomach to gentle threats. Relations with Vishnevskaya seemed more formidable:

"Let me see your grades. You don't really think I mean to read your gibberish, do you? I already know that none of you will ever write anything worthwhile."

The ever-cynical and resplendent Vishnevskaya, thanks to whom I ultimately did receive my degree from the Literary Institute, mistook my infatuation with her for a pledge of ideological loyalty. Subsequent attempts to set forth my own views in discussions with the deputy minister of culture and various playwrights were dismissed by her as vile treason; today, she turns away from me in disgust when we meet socially. But I cannot resist her charm, anymore than that of anyone whose views I do not share.

On one of the rare occasions when I didn't skip Rozov's creative seminar, I flew into the lecture-hall late clutching an armful of white roses. The roses signified that my husband was on tour, my children were in kindergarten or at their grandmother's, and I was in the midst of another spiritual-sexual adventure. The students, unlike the teachers, eyed the roses with contempt. I put the roses down on my desk, assumed an "Oh-how-interesting!" expression, and began listening to Rozov's theatrical banalities and Vishnevskaya's tales of the stage. The bell rang and Inna Lyutsianovna announced:

"Today is a special day for all of us: Mr Rozov's birthday. Look, even that impossible Gavrilina has come with roses!" In a cold sweat, I began stuffing the roses into my desk.

"Good for you!" the know-it-all sitting in back of me whispered. "So snooty, so snooty, but on his birthday you arrive with roses. You've outdone us all."

"You idiot," I hissed. "I didn't know it was his birthday. Those are my roses and I'm not giving them to anyone."

"In that case, I guess you're in kind of a bind," he sympathized.

"This evening we are to meet at the Columned Hall where I will give a speech about Victor Rozov's contribution to world culture," Inna Lyutsianovna declared. "And it will be such a speech that everyone will weep. But standing here before you now I can tell Victor all that I think..." What followed was, as Stalin once said about a story of Gorky's, "stronger than Goethe's Faust".

The students cackled and blushed, afraid to look their master in the eye. He chuckled and reduced it all to an interlude, but could not bring himself to interrupt. Inna Lyutsianovna had license thanks to certain unofficial aspects of her influence within the institute. When she finally ran out of steam, she turned to me and commanded:

"Now you may present the flowers!" I evidently looked so furious that the ultraintuitive Vishnevskaya decided to rewrite her speech: "Actually, you'd better present them this evening in the Columned Hall."

Bearing my mark of shame in the form of the white roses, I dragged myself to the Actor's Club to pass the time until evening and show everyone - especially Rozov - the undelivered flowers. He was the first person I ran into. And for once, he gave me an affectionate look. I couldn't bear to throw the flowers away, so I tried to give them away.

"What will I tell my husband when I come home with flowers?" the women friends I met all said in unison.

"Today you're giving me roses, tomorrow you'll be demanding my hand," a male friend and fellow theater person recoiled.

"What are you trying to tell me? That I'm a shit and you're a saint because I never gave you flowers like these?" a former actor-lover exploded in the coffee bar.

In despair, I rang for the down elevator and got in. When the doors opened on the fourth floor to reveal a talented, mournful-looking director, I began screaming hysterically:

"Your last play was just a miracle! You're a genius! Thank you for your art!" I thrust the bouquet at him and the doors snapped shut. I'll never know what became of the armful of white roses; the director I forced them on has treated me ever since with the patience one would accord a mad woman, and he has never once alluded to the mise en scene by the elevator...

My most distressing involvement at the Literary Institute was with a senior and highly respected teacher. Not that he was a sadist or a sex maniac. He was an ordinary teacher, more educated than those who qualified for the department on the basis of ideology, but also more intolerant than all the ideologists put together.

At a Literary Institute evening at the Writers' Club - where I found myself at a table with him, his wife and his official mistress - he proposed adding me to his list of sexually favored women. Now that I am middle-aged and well versed in many aspects of male menopause which elicit my sympathy, I would be more circumspect in turning such a man down. But at 23... when any lascivious look puts you on your guard; when there is no legal means of keeping dirty old men from rubbing up against you and grabbing you; when the least dependence, from a test to be taken to a tiny paper to be published, means being propositioned; when your body is seen not as your property, but as a ware with which you have come to literature...

In short, I rebuffed him without any of the affected ambivalence that would have guaranteed me a peaceful education. And the war began. His eminence appeared at every one of my exams connected with his department, questioned me himself, and promptly failed me. When we met in the hall, the cafeteria or the courtyard, we didn't so much as acknowledge one another. I knew that he had tortured many of his female students in this way, and some had found it easier to retake the exam in his apartment when his wife was at work: to grit their teeth, close their eyes and be done with the whole business.

When I finished my last exam under his jurisdiction, I jumped for joy. But then my tormentor materialized at an exam in my special seminar on Dostoevsky where no law allowed him.

"I will question this student personally!" he barked from the door. The examiner, who had reason to be indignant at this boorishness with respect both to me and to himself, scurried away faster than a mouse. The examiner was an avant-garde poet who, by some sleight of hand, had managed to insinuate himself into this thoroughly ideological institute; he didn't care what his students thought of him.

"The institute lawyer said I could choose my examiner myself," I began bawling.

"You may choose with whom you sleep!" my persecutor bellowed for the whole lecture hall to hear, stunning students and teaching assistants alike. "But in this institute, I will choose to whom you answer!" The examiner looked like he'd rather be dead. I sat down before my tormentor, expounded the story of the Grand Inquisitor, received my traditional failing grade, ran outside and collapsed in tears on the chest of my waiting husband. For a moment I was tempted to put the problem on him: I imagined with delight how he, a fan of operatic displays off-stage, would burst Superman-like into the dean's office and slash his hateful face, how the ladies would scream, how the chairs and books would go crashing to the floor, how the windows would shatter and decanters overturn, how my offender's slovenly jacket would rip to shreds... Then, however, a police car would pull up and take my dashing husband away - not to the Bolshoi, but to Sing Sing!

"It's just nerves," I sobbed. My nerves were in fact shot and the next day I definitively announced to the dean's office:

"I will not take the Dostoevsky exam! From anyone! Ever!" The women in the office froze. They undoubtedly regarded me as the worst student in the history of the Literary Institute. They saw my children - who had managed, in the space of a lecture period, to tunnel under the statue of Herzen and lay all the flowers from the surrounding lawns at his feet - as future bandits. But they also felt that I - as the mother of twins my freshman year, perpetually worn out by diapers, new teeth, skinned knees, children's hospitals and impecuniousness - was not the best object for the sexual curiosity of an elderly pedagogue. This said, they had their sacred duty to do:

"If you don't pass Dostoevsky, you won't graduate!"

Time passed. I took the state exams, defended my degree work, saw my plays produced in underground studios. But the hole in my transcript devoted to Dostoevsky and the ancient professor still gaped. My teacher's face, reminiscent of a head of cheese eaten away at by mice, kept popping up. He knew the hour was near when I would have to decide whether to graduate or not because of him. He also knew, as I did, that no one had fewer rights than a student mother of one, except perhaps a student mother of two.

"I'm being humiliated and persecuted," I tearfully told our august pro-rector, now the Minister of Culture.

"I've heard about you," he sympathized. "But I see no simple solution. You may write a formal letter of protest. We will discuss it and then give your teacher a Party reprimand, but as a result you'll never graduate. And I don't advise you to go to the rector about this: he may not grasp the subtleties."

As for any subtleties, the rector had not been in his right mind since I had been at the institute. But in that there's a method to every madness, the rector's madness was dictated by his 1937 approach to life; had the story of the student who shamed the venerable pedagogue reached him, he would have settled everything with one blow of a Red Army sabre.

"What can I do?" I asked the pro-rector.

"I don't know. Think of something original, you're a playwright after all."

I thought all night and in the morning I flung open the door to the dean's office and drawlingly declared:

"Tomorrow I'm going to the Soviet Women's Committee to see Valentina Tereshkova, the cosmonaut. I will tell her that the institute does not wish to protect the mother of twins from an old lecher!"

I slammed the door - the trick was to get out before the women could get a word in - and raced down the steps. What exactly the Soviet Women's Committee did was anybody's guess. The women in the dean's office evidently envisioned Tereshkova landing on campus in her space ship forthwith and causing countless heads to roll. That evening the dean's office telephoned and politely relayed the place and time at which I was to appear with my transcript for purposes of clearing up this sad misunderstanding.

I dragged my children - there was no one to leave them with - to what seemed like the end of the earth and rang the bell. For a long time there was no answer. Then came the sound of bare feet padding to the door which opened to reveal the bearded avant-garde poet zipping up his jeans, the only piece of clothing on his fragile frame. I held out my transcript. He insisted we come inside. The room was crammed with underground paintings, icons, bells and other evidence of his rejection of Soviet rule in the midst of which, on dingy sheets, lolled a famously promiscuous classmate of mine, happy to see me. For some reason, the avant-garde poet needed my seven-year-old sons to serve as witnesses to his sexual claims.

"Here's my transcript. Sign here," I rudely directed the Dostoevsky expert.

"I didn't realize what this was all about," he began bleating in his high voice. "I didn't interfere because I thought you and he were involved. After all, anything can happen between a teacher and his female students," he smirked, thus legitimizing my classmate between his sheets.

A few days later I ran into my persecutor. He stopped opposite me on an empty campus path, screwed up his eyes in fury and asked:

"Happy, bitch?"

"Very," I confessed. "But if someone were to shoot you, I'd be happier still! So would a lot of people!"

He winced, turned, and trotted off, practically ran from me, stooped, pathetic, foolish in his last battle with a student who did not want his body. In short, the Literary Institute in those days could teach one a number of things not just about art, but about life's truths.

Another one of my teachers spotted me at a table in the mural-decorated refectory of the Writers' Club. While my friends twittered and swore, we eyed one another and came to a silent agreement as to our future happiness. Without any further preambles, he scrawled his address on a cigarette box with strict instructions:

"Tomorrow at 7. I'll be waiting." At that point, I knew nothing about him except that he wrote brilliant prose and that I would follow him to Siberia. The symbolism of the Decembrists was so deeply embedded in my consciousness that for years I classified men according to whether I would or wouldn't follow them. But after I'd been to Irkutsk and seen what was involved, my classification necessarily became more complex since I realized that I wouldn't have followed 90% of my lovers even as far as greater Moscow.

At 7 o'clock, pretentiously dressed in black-market jeans and make-up, I rang his doorbell. On the threshold there appeared a middle-aged, raven-haired woman of incredible girth, with an incredible accent.

"Who do you want?"

"V. "

"And who are you?"

"I'm a friend of his."

"I'm his wife, so please keep that in mind!" I almost fell down the stairs.

Music was blaring from one of the rooms inside where a drunken, aging hippy and a good-looking girl with short hair sat discussing the sexual philosophy of Rozanov. V., clad in an old dressing-gown, kissed my hand and whispered:

"That's my wife Barbara, she's Italian and a little crazy. Don't pay any attention to her. What would you like to drink?"

Having sat half an hour - in the course of which the gruff-voiced Barbara recounted how wonderful it was in Italy and how dreadful it was in Russia; the aging hippy fell facefirst into his plate of peas and emerged none the soberer; the short-haired looker purred something about Christ being "humanity's icy tears"; and our host devoured me with warm, loving eyes - I decided it was time to go. V. threw a raincoat on over his dressing-gown and saw me to the metro in complete silence. Near the metro something happened, and we were in each other's arms kissing as if we had spent our entire lives together and must now part forever.

"The cigarette pack didn't say anything about an Italian wife," I said in a lull.

"But you didn't tell me yesterday either that you were married."

"But I didn't invite you to my apartment."

"I apologize, my mistake. She won't be there tomorrow. Will you come?"

"No."

"Come. I'll be waiting for you."

The next day two Baltic poets were playing a furious game of cards in one room and the short-haired looker was in the kitchen making a salad with an enormous cutlass.

"Is this a dorm?" I asked V. surlily.

"It's just that I have the money right now to rent a place, and they don't. We're none of us Muscovites."

"What is the girl making salad doing here?"

"Living."

"With you?"

"Only geographically. She's Polish, from Lvov, studying at a drama shool. Very lonely."

I went into the kitchen, met a hateful stare and asked:

"Where's Barbara?"

"I'm Barbara," the looker informed me.

"So yesterday you were both Barbaras?"

"No, that was our neighbor Raisa, she's half Georgian, half Tatar, she works in a food store."

"Then why did she pretend to be his Italian wife?"

"He asked her to, he said he was expecting a woman he didn't know how to be with, she was bored, and glad to do it." And then without any transition: "What do you want from him? You have everything. You'll play with him, then toss him away, I can see it coming. But he's a genius, a genius! He needs devotion!" That was more than I could take.

"Are you going to be making your salad much longer?" I asked.

"It'll be done when it's done," she replied sensibly.

"And then?"

"Then I'll fry the fish."

"Great. That means you'll be busy for quite a while and it won't seem rude to you if we lock the door to our room," I enunciated.

"To our room?"' she hissed. "You're just an animal."

V. was in his room playing the guitar.

"Sitting tight while the women fight over their favorite toy?" I asked.

"You shouldn't pick fights with her, she's very nervous, she thinks everyone is out to hurt her." We fell instantly into bed to the strains of the evening news and the thump of the cutlass shredding salad.

Two hours spent alone with V. legitimized me in Barbara's eyes and even made me worthy of the fruits of her culinary labors.

Over a period of three years in that apartment I encountered an inebriated hairdresser with a black eye; a dressmaker of Caucasian descent with abundant facial hair in plunging decollete and the conviction that this was incredibly sexy; a nationally acclaimed actor turned born-again Christian; a ninth-grade runaway pregnant by her homeroom teacher; a young Hare Krishna follower, child of the Party elite; a professional extortioner with a university degree in psychology; a district executive committee second secretary in a deep depression; an artist who survived painting apartments and a mathematician who survived dealing drugs. V. adopted them all, took them in, cared for them. He was a one-man band, and people were drawn not so much by the place to live as by its atmosphere of celebration.

"I want everyone out of here in a week," I announced at the outset.

"You want me on a leash, do you? It's not even the fact that you don't mean to part with your passionately beloved husband that I mind, it's that you mean to part with my inner space and then leave me on my own." He was right. I surrendered.

"Good play," he glumly praised me one day.

"All my plays are good," I replied with 25-year-old ostentation.

"Don't you mean `my creations'?" he snorted, showing me once and for all where the line of self-parody lay. With his irony and praise, V. taught me everything: how to live, how to write, how to converse, how to help, how to sort out differences without getting bogged down in them, how to have fun, how to love.

Strange things happened in bed:

"You see," I tried confusedly to explain, "right now I hear music, foreign speech, I even understand it, I don't know where I am, I hear a river rushing, women are dancing, horsemen are jumping... Every time it's a different kind of music and a different geography..."

"Excellent," said V. "Now let's add some breathing techniques." A long-time student of yoga, karate and power games, he adored to experiment with the female body.

Once I dreamt that I grew long, fluffy white feathers. I jumped out the window and flew up into a sparkling golden funnel. I just managed to squeeze through its narrow throat only to find myself in another funnel, and then another and another... The greater the number of funnels, the greater the high... I came to in a flood of happy tears... We added some little pills. I sank back into oblivion and saw myself in a military uniform, falling down a dark elevator shaft. I managed to grab hold of some wires and ledges, slipped, again caught hold, and again fell, figuring that I might as well get it over with and screaming wildly... When I came to, V. was desperately slapping my cheeks and also screaming. Apparently I had been unconscious for a long time. On that note, the spiritual-sexual experiments came to an end. I began to be afraid of V. and time did not cure my fear. He felt enormous guilt and together we searched for a safe basis on which to associate.

I knew that when V. had first come to Moscow, he had been a student of a Buddhist named Samson. Of course, I wanted to get to the source.

"I won't give you his number. He's a serious person and you're all worked up over nothing," V. snapped.

"Why the petty jealousy? You were the one who always said that a new road comes with a new teacher," I egged him on.

"You'll get into even bigger trouble with him than with me. I'm an amateur, he's a professional," V. warned.

Shortly thereafter an easily amused Slavic studies major, writing her dissertation on V., arrived from England. She had inherited a castle and all the sexual complexes that came with it. She shaved her head; never wore a bra on her voluminous, voluptuous utters; and always wore jeans, virginal in the sense of freshly washed. She tried very hard to pass for one of us and so used foul language where appropriate and where inappropriate. She was especially thrilled by the water closet (the apartment was in an old building). She would tug on the tank's rusty chain and shriek with laughter when she heard the resounding crash and roar:

"This is postmodernism, cunt!" she'd scream distinctly.

"He must come away with me," she once informed me. "He's a genius. He'll perish here."

"And what will he do in England?" I asked spitefully.

"Write novels."

"About Russia?"

"You think there's nothing to write about England?" she took offense.

"We're flying Tuesday," V. confessed one day. "I'll go and have a look. Otherwise, I'll just sit here the rest of my life. You don't understand, there's nothing between us. She's afraid of men."

"Go ahead and go, you won't last a week there. And pick me up an IUD while you're at it. My husband tried to buy me one in Greece when he was on tour: his sign language had the lady pharmacist phoning for the police in no time."

"It seems to me your sole purpose in coming to see me all this time has been to rave about your wonderful husband," V. bellowed.

"That's not true, but if that's what you want to think it should make moving into an English castle easier!" And I slammed the door on three years of incredible happiness.

I was wrong. V. fit right into the Albionic life, gave the Slavic studies major three daughters, became a second-rate translator of Russian prose, and a stout, well-dressed gentleman. He comes to Moscow occasionally and favors mutual friends with ecstatic forecasts of the Motherland's impending doom which is why I do everything not to run into him.

When V. left, I conjured up Samson. Whenever I need anything, I try to materialize it. You can only materialize good things. God forbid you should try to conjure up someone bad, you'll come to such harm, you'll rue the day... It took three months to materialize Samson.

"I'm studying with a man named Samson," the young lover of a friend of mine announced over a cup of tea one day.

"Take me to him."

"I can take you to him, but Samson is different. He may throw you out. He's capable of anything, he sees right through people. He's not a man, he's a god, there's a radiant light around his head. Tibetan elders come to him to ask his advice."

"How did you find him?"

"I grew up in the country outside Tula, graduated from a medical college, came to Moscow, and saw an ad for Indian folk dancing. I'm interested in everything exotic, so I went dancing, and there I met a girl who was his student."

Samson's tiny one-room flat was way out of the city. He was a lean creature, ageless, with fluffy grey hair draping over his shoulders and a long beard. He was barefoot and wearing a loose-fitting robe embroidered with an Eastern design. I didn't notice any halo, but I did notice enormous dark eyes that seemed completely dead and focused on some parallel expanse. Sometimes they blazed like headlights, and you could see the vastness of the inner aggression he was suppressing.

"Wash the floor," he said by way of greeting to the girl who had brought me. Then he took me into the kitchen which was arranged, like the rest of his abode, in the manner of a Buddhist monastery.

"Why have you come?" he asked, looking through me with his dead eyes.

"V. sent me," I lied.

"Don't lie. V. has gone abroad."

"How do you know?"

"I know everything. Why have you come?"

"I want to be your student."

"You can't."

"I can. I was V.'s student," I answered proudly and launched into the story of my spiritual-sexual experiments.

"You shit!" he screamed, and his eyes blazed. "That's why I threw him out. He knocked up half the girls here. He'd tell them: `As soon as I fuck your brains out, you'll be Buddha!'"

We went into the room. Dissatisfied with the quality of the floor-washing, Samson took the wet rag my friend had used and slapped her face hard with it several times.

"Forgive me, teacher," she pleaded, genuinely contrite, then darted out of the room for more water. I realized that this scene could not be discussed, only interpreted. I went on with what I had been saying:

"Why don't you want to take me on as your student?"

"You have a Western way of thinking. Such people cannot believe in a teacher, cannot believe in God. It's not in them. They're unable to put basic things above criticism. They'd be happy to study, but no one will have them."

"Is that bad?" I was suddenly scared.

"It's not bad and it's not good. It's like the color of your skin. It's a little harder because you have to make all your decisions yourself."

"Why didn't you send me packing right away?"

"You have a very nice energy," he said. He looked as though he might have been discussing some epicurean delicacy. "Something interesting will come of you."

I began dropping by. Why Samson spent the time, I'll never know. He would brew a revolting-tasting tea from Tibetan herbs and we would talk. Samson really did know everything. He simply read the information off a sort of monitor that only he could see. He could diagnose illnesses and tell the futures of people he'd never met just by hearing a story about them. He could discuss books he'd never read, movies he'd never seen, countries he'd never been to just by connecting to the energy of the person talking about them. He claimed this ability was accessible to anyone who took the time and effort to learn it, that it wasn't the supernatural power our lazy, incurious age would have us believe. But having immersed himself in a parallel life, he managed very poorly in this one. A trip on the metro or to the store presented a huge problem. Students diligently attended to the daily chores, schooled as they were in brutal obedience and multifarious tortures. Homo sovieticus multiplied by the abandon of a lamaist tutorship gave Samson's group the feel of a sado-masochistic vocational school. Students disappeared, but new ones instantly appeared to take their place, they were always young, from the provinces, suffocated by their small towns, lost in the big city, and desperate to belong to something to justify the humiliation of their makeshift lives. The majority went on to became assiduous materialists, a minority died of drink and drugs.

"Doesn't it seem to you that you're just feeding them a lot of nonsense?" I finally worked up the courage and asked Samson.

"I give them what they've come for. They leave me happier than they arrived. They have lost their way and will never find the road again on their own. I chase them out onto that road with a stick, not a carrot, because they don't believe in carrots. Life has taught them to look for the truth at the end of a stick, not a carrot."

"What do you need them for? Why don't you go to Buryatia and live in a Buddhist monastery?"

"I have everything I need here. Only fools believe that climbing a mountain will bring them closer to the stars."

Creeping up on my ultimate objective, I playfully ran my palm over Samson's hair one day. He knit his brow, switched on his internal monitor, read what this meant in worldly language and said:

"I am not V. I see people not as sexual beings, but as spiritual capacities."

"And you have no interest in the female body?"

"It concerns things that are of no concern to me."

"You mean some of your reflex systems have shut down?"

"All I have to do is press a button to get them back. I can satisfy your curiosity, but you'll be disappointed. You're expecting a flight through golden funnels, whereas all I can offer you is naked physiology."

When it finally happened, on the mat Samson used as a bed, I nearly died of fright. The person whom I had managed to animate with my chatter over tea was suddenly a robot, methodically and qualitatively going through the motions.

His eyes seemed even deader than they did ordinarily, his body was like a shell whose occupant was out. If we were able to connect in conversation, in bed there wasn't even the intention of connecting on Samson's side. This part of his essence had no need to connect. I prayed to God, in whom I did not believe, that all this would end before I died, but I didn't dare ask Samson, the creature in whose arms I lay seemed so unfamiliar and unresponsive to my appeals.

"Now, you see? It's not at all what you had in mind," Samson finally took pity on me.

"But why? Why was it all different with V.? He's just a dilettante, you're a professional."

"On the contrary," Samson smiled.

"What if we were to add breathing techniques and drugs?"

"You mean you still don't understand that breathing and dope are just gimmicks? If they could produce that, humanity would have developed that sort of a culture."

"And then what?"

"Your type of psyche, multiplied by his type of psyche, multiplied by what you mean by the word `love'."

That was Samson's main lesson.

We have hardly been in touch since then. I call him only in emergencies, such as when my first husband and I were on the verge of divorce.

"A flower will bloom at home, the two of you will go south and spend as many more years together as you have already," said Samson.

"But I don't have any flowers at home that could bloom!" I protested.

"One will bloom," he said and hung up.

We bought tickets to go to the Ukraine for the children's summer vacation.

Two days before we left, a cactus which blooms once in a blue moon put out four enormous, lotus-like flowers. And my husband and I did spend as many more years together as we had already.

Sometimes Samson was slightly off. In June of 1991, for instance, he called me and said:

"Be in Moscow in July. You'll get the chance to indulge your social-mindedness." I put off going on vacation till August. I left Moscow feeling let down - and missed the abortive coup.

Once, when I was between marriages, I called Samson. We chatted, as everyone did then, about politics. Before hanging up, he instructed me:

"Finish up everything you have to do, tie up all the loose ends. In two months you'll marry a foreigner who will give you the opportunity to fulfill yourself in many spheres at once." I was horrified because none of the foreigners I knew at the time seemed capable of giving anyone the opportunity to develop in any way. Samson was wrong only about the citizenship of my husband, a St. Petersburger born in Riga. True, his ancestors came from Scotland two hundred years ago, hence the Scottish surname and his father's claim that they were related to the Stuarts. My husband doesn't play genealogical games and scorns my habit of categorizing people according to whether they eat with a fork and knife or just a fork...

Western feminists taught me a lot.

"Every time I think of getting married, I consider what part of my inner world this person will force me to give up," one American woman told me.

"Association with a man makes sense only if you build each other up and don't destroy each other," a French woman told me.

"I cannot think of myself as a real person unless I share the daily responsibilities, including children, with the man," a German woman told me.

My own feminism has come of living with a man with whom I share all domestic duties: now I see any other kind of man as an enemy and a trespasser. My second husband has taught me to be conscious of myself as a great gift to humanity, he has taught me to solve problems by breaking them down into parts, rather than piling them up until they bury you. He has also taught me that the ideal husband is not the one who crawls in the window with a bouquet in his teeth after seven years of married life, but the one who respects you always and never treads on your spiritual territory. Still, you cannot be the student of your husband. As one classic said: "It is dangerous and harmful to touch idols, their gilt sticks to your fingers..."

I lift up my arms - gilt to the elbows - to heaven and I pray:

"Heaven, send me a teacher in whom I can believe! If not an intelligent one, then a kind one, if not a kind one, then an honest one! And let that teacher be like my first teacher, Irina Vasilievna..."

In response, heaven contemplates me with a pale, cold smile.