Being Frosya Shneerson by Tasha Karlyuka
Extract translated from Russian by Michele A. Berdy
Contact for enquiries: Michele Berdy
When everything in the house is upside down and all mixed up, it could mean only one thing: we’ve got company. It doesn’t matter how many of them there are — one or thirty-one — before their arrival the home and hearth are squeaky clean, like the squeaky clean of a plate of leftover fried chicken legs after a dog has licked it: there isn’t a speck or a drop left behind. Grandma Rosa runs around with a dust broom, Mama with a mop. Grandpa Yankel scrubs the toilet bowls until they are blindingly white and polishes the taps until they gleam. Meanwhile, Great-Grandma Genya chases after everyone with extra brooms, mops and polishing cloths while giving each cleaner invaluable instruction. This running around with brooms goes on for several days until one fine morning the long-awaited guests burst into the house and, like the years of the Tatar-Mongol Yoke, his Highness Mayhem takes the throne.
In the end, tablecloths got mixed up with curtains, the aquarium fish went into the three-liter pickle jar and the pickles went into the aquarium; a crooked pile of dirty dishes rose towards the clouds like the Tower of Pisa, and bits of food were on the plates, on the tablecloth, under the table, on the rug, under the rug and on the ceiling. This was our house after the warm greetings, embraces, questions-interrogations-answers, the endless “We haven’t raised our glasses to…” and “Why haven’t you tried my… it took me hours to make…” and all the rest. Let’s be honest here: our house in the morning was like a train station, or to be more exact — the cafeteria in a train station.
Something’s really bothering me, but Mama tells me in no uncertain terms, “Don’t you dare ask!”
The thing is, these relatives say they’re coming for two days, but judging by the number of suitcases they brought, it looks like they’re moving in with us. How can I not ask?
Pickles, tomatoes and home-made sour cabbage have gotten all mixed up together in a deep salad bowl and released their juices, which are now plopping from the table edge like drops off the roof of a house. I already know that Uncle Yosya will wake up soon and demolish the contents — which he calls “what the Lord created on the eighth day.” “Frosya, you think tzimmes is a mixed fruit stew? This is real tzimmes! When you grow up, you’ll understand!”
Uncle Yosya always says that. He’s Grandma Rosa’s cousin. As he gargles with a magical potion, he unconsciously scratches his left butt cheek and then goes back to the television, where Dnestr — his favorite Odessan football team — is losing again, while he, despite everything, remains their fan, going on 35 years now. He was never as faithful to any of his previous five wives as he is to that team.
Being at home is good, but being at home is best when no one else is there. This happens rarely — it almost never happens — but there is a way around it: wake up when everyone else is still sleeping. I always get up earlier than everyone else. I wander through the halls, through the rooms, through Grandma’s closet, Grandpa’s study, and Papa’s atelier. I stick my nose in the corners, in the closets, in forbidden books. I channel surf with the remote. I try on Mama’s beads, Papa’s boots, and Grandma’s knickers.
I love to do that — try things on! One time, just once — and then return them to their lawful owner. I love new movies, new books, new people, new things, new tastes, sounds, smells — anything that will make me say: “What was that? Can I try it again? Give me one more piece, play another note, read it again…”
It’s like getting your ears boxed, or your face slapped; like a bucket of cold water, but not really painful.
“Let me touch it again, let me take another peek, let’s get to know one another, all right?”
Routine is good. Routine is the triad of whales that hold up the earth, it’s the skeleton, you see? The foundation is there, and that’s wonderful, so now think about what to put on it, what to build. Routine combined with something new — for me, that’s good reason to be happy with life, and if on top of it all you wake up before everyone else, and you greet the new day with a sense of your solitude but the knowledge that there, behind the wall, and here, behind the door, and up there on the second floor are sleeping people — annoying people who constantly ask questions, endlessly drone on, tell me what to do and won’t let me take a breath on my own — but also the people I love and feel closest to — then life seems even better.
I am standing in my bare feet — which grown-ups don’t allow — on the white tile floor in the bathroom. In front of me next to the sink are a row of little soldiers on parade: three beveled glasses, a cup, and one deep soup bowl. In each of these are dentures. A lot of dentures in the bathroom of our house in Pushcha-Voditsa means only one thing: our relatives have come to visit. I wouldn’t be me if I walked by this still life. Why should teeth be white anyway? We have to fix that. It’s good that I have watercolors – red, blue, yellow, and lots of green. And who said you’re supposed to have thirty-two teeth? Twenty sounds like plenty to me. I’ve got big plans. I bring in my paints and got a hammer… I put all the dentures in a hat. I close my eyes and pull one out. I hold it in my hands and am just about ready to make the unsuspecting owner of these dentures very happy… no, no… no need to thank me. And then, as usual, at the most interesting moment… I hear footsteps. Footsteps mean that the grown-ups have woken up and I’m not the head of the household anymore. I look in the hat where the dentures are all mixed up, like cabbage with cucumbers and tomatoes — remember Uncle Yosya’s favorite dish? And so, like a shot I shove the dentures every which way in the glasses and then run out into the garden.
In a few minutes I hear a shout from the bathroom, then a second, and then a third.
“Frosya! Frosya! What have you done now?! Where is that little shit?” Uncle Yosya and Aunt Eva shout in unison, and then Grandma Rosa, Grandpa Yankel and Great-Grandma Genya join in.
Trying on each other’s teeth brought them closer together. Just that once, just one time. Now give the dentures back to their real owners! You don’t have to thank me. There isn’t a single word of gratitude in all your shouting. But if you calm down, when you breathe evenly and go deep down — that is, when you don’t do what you usually do, which is stay on the surface, your eyes on the top layer, without breaking the eggshell and getting down to the yolk, to the very heart of things — if you stop doing that, well then, we might have something to talk about.
My big plans to refurbish the dentures have not been cancelled, just postponed. Don’t worry about me — I’m up in a tree. They can’t get me up here. A dust brush sailed by a few times, and then a broom almost hit me. A polishing cloth missed me and ended up on the top branches like the star on a New Year’s tree. The shouting, moral education, and things thrown at me would have continued for a long time if Aunt Eva hadn’t arrived. She is the sixth wife of Uncle Yosya, and a real beauty. They came together from Odessa, but she spent the first night with a friend she hadn’t seen in a long time. A girlfriend. If you believe Aunt Eva.
“Hello, my dearies! Say hello! Here I am! I made it! I found you… I didn’t get lost. I brought what I promised. I bought what you asked for! Pour me a glass! Fill up my plate! Make yourselves comfortable and give me some love. I’ve missed you!”
Her words — the familiar, usual words she always says and that I love to hear — they saved me.
Aunt Eva came to take a refresher course, and Uncle Yosya came to keep an eye on her. She is a long-legged blonde with big eyes and a pretty chest. Oh, I mean the other way around – pretty eyes and a big chest. She is 20 years younger than her husband. Uncle Yosya is short, with bandy legs, a little bit bald and a great bit overweight. “How can she sleep with him?” All the grown-ups ask that question. But always in a whisper, for some reason. If breakfast is a big bowl of homemade farmer’s cheese with sour cream and jam made of sea-buckthorn berries — that means Aunt Eva has come to stay. That’s what she does — she makes a big bowl of farmer’s cheese for everyone and then dashes off to her courses. Uncle Yosya gets very worried.
“The day will come when I wake up, and instead of Eva there will be a note on the pillow: ‘Forgive me, farewell, do not weep for me.’”
Early in the morning I’m woken up by the sound of howling. Uncle Yosya is sitting on the veranda, his shirt open, crying and drinking at the same time. “His favorite football team lost again,” I thought, and fell back asleep.
When I woke up an hour later, Aunt Eva was sitting on the veranda, smoking and crying at the same time.
“My dear, he’s not worth it!” Mama hugged Aunt Eva, and my aunt cried even harder. “One leaves, another arrives. You’re so pretty!” Mama went on.
Aunt Riva is bewildered. “Can you believe it?! If it were the other way around, it would make sense. It would be logical. But Yosya… Where is he going to go on those short little legs of his? He’s short of breath, he’s got an infected appendix, and he spouts a load of nonsense every time he opens his mouth!”
Aunt Riva is Great-Grandma Genya’s cousin. She always arrives without warning and wants us to be happy to see her.
“So, you are happy to see me, eh?”
“Happy. Very happy.”
“So where is this happiness on your face? You want I should leave?” And then, without waiting for a reply, “Genya, do you hear them? They are not happy to see me.”
Aunt Riva is not an easy person. Once my parents and I stayed with her in Moscow. Every morning and every evening she counted all the spoons, forks, carafes and money. Until she retired, Aunt Riva was a math teacher. I think that’s where her habit came from.
“Frosya, you get TWO cheese pancakes (stress on ‘two’). Pyotr, you get THREE. Bella, you get TWO AND A HALF. Pyotr, how many spoons of tsuker?”
“Aunt Riva, thanks, but I’ll help myself to sugar.”
“No, Pyotr. Let me! So how many? Bella, how many for you?”
“Aunt Riva, I drink tea without sugar.”
“Excellent!” Riva replied in a tone close to adoration.
“Aunt Riva, could you pass me the box of sugar cubes? I like to suck on them,” I say.
Thanks to me, that evening Aunt Riva had valerian drops instead of cheese pancakes. Forty drops. Exactly forty. Don’t doubt it. Aunt Riva counted out the drops herself.
A week has passed since Uncle Yosya disappeared to run after “who-do-you-think-his-next-one-is.” I wake up to voices in the yard. I look out the window. Under the tree where I usually hide from grown-ups were Yosya and Eva.
“Eva, sweetheart, I love only you!”
“Why did you go to that other woman?”
“I needed a raise.”
“In what – your qualifications?”
“In my sense of self, Eva dear, my sense of self.”
Yosya begins to cry again, laying his bald head on Eva’s large breasts while his short little legs flutter above the ground and his fat little hands wrap tightly around Aunt Eva’s tiny waist. With one hand the beautiful blonde pets her husband’s bald spot, with the other she makes him farmer’s cheese for breakfast. Being alone is hard, not being not alone is hard, too… When can a person be happy?
Eva and Yosya left for Odessa together.
In my notebook I drew their portrait: Uncle Yosya’s little legs are all tangled up with Aunt Eva’s long legs. Eva wants to run away. She struggles, but she can’t. So they stand there in place. Together.
Michele Berdy is an author, translator, and regular Moscow Times contributor. Read her column “The Word’s Worth” here. Read more about Being Frosya Shneerson here.