Three Prose Miniatures by Margarita Meklina

Wife

She told me she had never felt as calm and protected with anyone as she did with him.

She had many different lovers; imaginary ones, young ones, but still she was always uninterested, uncomfortable with these heavy-browed men who only livened up at night, stuffed as they were in their business suits. Her child was stolen, taken from its carriage while she was getting the car out of the garage, and ten-twelve years after the fact, the police were still useless, reassuring her to hold out hope.

And he was taking an interest, asking her about the child: were his little feet plump, what was the shape of his mouth, what kind of baby shoes he wore, composed algebra problems for him, carved a rabbit out of a block of snow, saying that children at about age fifteen sometimes lose their way, experiment with sex, and with drugs, but soon enough her son will almost certainly return and will sit at home, his hair shining as he gets out of the bathtub, his head nodding above a circuit board. She told him that for the duration of the entire twelve years, every day she would check the carriage to see if her son returned, and he embraced her and said: “We have such a happy, close-knit family.” He told her that the adoption would be complicated, but he would do everything in his power, but about having children of his own, he wasn’t sure–plus he’s too old, probably, for a broad like her.

She showed me the engagement ring; he came up with the design himself, melted and molded it himself out of his high school honors gold medal. Suddenly, she began to cry as she was telling me this. You could tell how strongly attached she was to him.

Never did she feel so calm and protected with anyone, she said, as she did with him. And then she revealed to me that he is a political prisoner, a murderer. Out of a nebulous object of fear, from a terse and morbid line in a local paper, he transformed into a family man, a flesh and blood person: with three simple sentences pronounced in a timid, uninflected tone, “Your excellency, honorable judge, I have something to tell you…” he manipulated everything to his advantage, altered the turn of the wheels of justice toward an outcome rightfully his by fate, transformed himself from a bandit in rags into a victim, a pure prince, a prophet, a defender of the trammeled principles of the nation. He lived in hiding like a solitary in a hut, and after his terrible crimes, he became famous and so came to her attention. And so they got married, and now she travels to visit him in his cell and makes the rounds of the lawyers, worries, waits for the time he’s granted his freedom, and he has only one hundred and twenty six years left on his sentence.

January 6, 1998

A Triple Test*

Despite the fact that the course of the pregnancy proceeded smoothly–no toxicity, no constant bathroom alarms, no jaundice–she awaited the day with impatience. While smoothing with her palm her belly, pointed upward, stretched like a drum, protruding like a boar’s snout, she would observe closely the faces of all the children. But she did not find a single endearing face among the urchins running around the street unattended.

She was retarded from birth, there were no suitors in sight, so no one could comprehend how she’d gotten pregnant. With mindboggling, almost genius-like evasiveness (when addresses were dictated to her, she would write down the numbers in reverse order, and reading a book she transposed the words and their places), avoiding “human contact” and telephone calls while preferring as she did, as though she were deaf and dumb, to communicate in gestures, terrified by the folk wisdom about the squabbles between parents and children, she awaited the day with great trepidation.

Finally, in her attempts to recognize familiar features in the faces of strangers (perhaps her son will look like this, like this her daughter?) in a somnambulistic stupor and with night terrors (what if she doesn’t find with her child a common language?) twenty weeks flew by. When time came for the blood analysis test, she pulled on her oversized brown boots, the only ones loose enough to still fit her swollen feet and, huffing and puffing, stunned by the noises of all the cars, climbing breathlessly to the third floor, stretched out her hand to the elderly nurse who was waiting there for her:

I hope everything will be okay.

Well, it’s a pretty rare thing to be pregnant with a Down’s baby, the woman answered.

The pregnant woman suddenly became animated:

But if such a child were born then, when he grew up, he would be entirely dependent on me!

Hearing such a repugnant reply, the nurse, her eyes wide open and already prepared to fire back an answer, noticed the pinned ears and low forehead of the patient and clammed up.

After a week, she received the results. It was positive, which meant that the possibility of Down’s syndrome existed. The doctor, trying to cheer her up, explained that this was possibly an error and the results of the analysis likely inaccurate. Plus, she was only thirty-four, still young, and the incidence of “defective” births were prevalent later on.

When the doctor offered her amniocentesis to remove any doubt, she declared, glowing from within, “I am sure everything will be alright–the child will be with me always!”

The doctor, unable to decipher the meaning of this, sighed: “As you wish, but, if anything goes wrong, we can still put an end to everything.”

Everything inside her tightened. Even without the aggravating doctor, she dreamed anguished, terrifying dreams: that she will be run over by a truck and the tiny, unsuspecting of anything, unceremoniously bearing its life, miraculous child will transform into a soulless and useless pile of mush–or that she will awkwardly collapse on the bed and will accidentally smother or smash the priceless being….

In short order, someone began spreading rumors that coming to term in her stomach was a retard. Knowing nothing of the rumors, her neighbor, the one with the stale elderly smell and narrowed forehead, who was envious of her, seethed silently. Shabby, poisoned by vodka, forever going to the unemployment office (she somehow always managed to find part-time work), he was furious that he was losing out to her, whom behind her back he invariably called “M.M.” (a mental midget).

She gave him wide berth and would often wake up at night in a sweat–she imagined the neighbor tearing out the metal door chain as though with its roots, breaking into her place.

And when those who hadn’t yet heard the toothless tales of the shameless, loafing old crones asked about the forthcoming birth, her face would dissolve in a smile: “Everything is well.” To her mother she would say: “The test showed he’s a Down’s baby; he won’t need anyone except me.” The mother would timidly begin: “Well, then, maybe, we should say we don’t want him…” but the daughter answered: “I could not survive it, when the fruit of my loins, having moved abroad, having fenced himself off from me in his own room, having staged a wedding, leaves me. This one will always live with me.”

And then the worst thing that could have happened happened–that which she foresaw in her dreams. Her piss-drunk neighbor, instead of putting his car in drive, shifted into reverse and she, not having time to protect herself (she had become sluggish and plodding toward the end of her term), fell right under its gigantic, knobby tire.

She was saved, but the child died.

As the doctors later established, he was completely healthy.

March 12, 2005

Author’s Note: The triple test, also called triple screen, is an investigation performed during pregnancy in the second trimester to classify a patient as either high-risk or low-risk for chromosomal abnormalities.

A Gathering

The guests at Martin’s party were: a journalist, a masseur, a sales associate at the jewelry department of a luxury store, a millionaire with baby fuzz on his head (Martin himself) taking a course of medication to stimulate hair growth “because people with a full head of hair are more respected than those who are balding or bald”; also a stock trader named Stas, a male hustler, a fan of ballet dancers and retired jockeys who had once upon a time joined the millionaire at a beach, a hangout for nudists, who, ever since, had been spreading rumors nonstop about the diminutive size of his member.

Also in the room with them was a woman-chemist, with a bad dye job, the faded features of whose face seemed to merge with the fabric of the couch; she had long been in love with Martin–had stayed with him before overnight, but had always left in the morning so to speak without a bird in hand.

“I’m getting married,” she announced almost inaudibly to the puny, thin-boned master of the house, gazing down from up above him.

One of the guests recalled the evening two parties ago, which resembled this one as do two drops of water, with its low-budget hors d’oeuvres (smoked salmon, crackers, cheeses) and the international assortment of guests.

“Why did the Italian guy get so upset?”

Yalik, the host of the evening TV program for Chinese expats, congenially explained:

“He is from a well-known wine family. He had discovered in the margin, behind the frame of a painting by William Blake, a fragment of a previously unknown text and asked me to run a program on this discovery. But what can I tell the Chinese residents of San Francisco about Blake? If it were about poorly disinfected plastic chop sticks or how to fit into the local English-speaking establishment…. Who needs Blake here? They wouldn’t understand me.”

Martin never visited museums or read books but, given his membership in Mensa, considered himself versed in high culture:

“What was the text?”

“A Beggar’s Banquet,” Yalik recalled the title, and with this the conversation had naturally exhausted itself.

Stas started passing around photographs, in the majority of which he was posing by himself at the foothills of unnamed mountains.

“This is a famous dancer, I know him!” the woman-chemist exclaimed, sticking her finger into the photo. The rest of the guests remained silent. They had already been informed that the dancer had dumped Stas seven years ago. Their relationship had lasted three days.

Yalik proposed they all go to The Café, a trendy gay dancehall in a café, where once Stas had begun to heehaw, having seen a kissing heterosexual couple. Martin said that he was familiar with a hairstylist who, Chinese like Yalik, had just parted with his partner, and unattractive Yalik, staring at him with a blank expression, patiently waited for Martin to throw him a bone and offer to introduce them.

The appetizers were gone, and they were too lazy to go dancing at The Café, so Martin invited them all to a restaurant.

“There’s an Indian place right downstairs from me.”

At Lorenzo’s Restaurant, the jewelry salesman who looked like an Arab prince (“I wanted to work in electronics, but the boss said: The rich women adore you, diamonds are your fate!) was singing folk Brazilian tunes to the Peruvian waiter.

“I’m from São Paulo. Do you know the film The Kiss of the Spider Woman? I just cried and I cried when I saw it…. And once I saw a TV program about fish: how they are born and what their life is like afterwards. Since that time, I’ve eaten neither salmon nor any meat.”

Martin was telling stories about several lucrative business deals he had completed during the past week, but everyone’s discomfort was rising. All those invited realized that he was not about to pay for any of them.

It was Martin’s birthday. At the very beginning of the gathering, the bell had rung out. Martin, shuffling his sock-shod feet across the floor towards the door with the sign “Please take off your shoes” on it, swung the door open. Lorenzo stood there staring at Martin with his eyes exhausted by the luster of diamonds. In his hand he held a box, wrapped with a golden ribbon.

“This is my old lover,” Martin informed all the guests while Lorenzo went to use the bathroom.

“And the Frenchman, Jerome, who just went out on the balcony for a smoke, is my current one, though there’s nothing serious going on between the two of us.”

Martin had an expressionless flat voice, ten pairs of absolutely new, not yet even worn boots, a spacious apartment that resembled an office on weekends, mustaches like decorative, suspended in air wheat-like whiskers.

His mother had died when Martin was twelve; his father, a retired diplomat, had moved to Mexico and was now drawing portraits of homeless children in his leisure time.

“Martin! You didn’t even know the word “lover” before. What has happened to you?”

“I came out once I hit it big. Do you know how rich I’ve become!? And business is only getting better. Now I don’t have to hide that I’m gay!”

The Café, The Café. They never did reach the joint with the beckoning name. In the Indian restaurant, slowly, while avoiding looking at each other, they took out the wallets from their pockets and pulled out bills one after another, counting the money and haltingly, as though expecting they would be asked to stop, placed the bills down on the table littered with plates holding leftover scraps. It was very awkward.

After the restaurant, they went back to the apartment to drink up everything that was left in the bottles. Somebody opened the refrigerator, but it had long ago been emptied. Stas began rushing to leave and the woman-chemist, taking advantage of the moment, left the gathering with him.

And so now, four middle-aged people are sitting in a spacious, impersonally sterile room.

Lorenzo, who is forty-seven, the masseur Jerome, a blurry and ill-defined fortysomething, and squinty-eyed, puny Yalik, to all appearances thirty-five, who is really fifty-three.

Today, Martin had turned forty-one.

Bios

Margarita Meklina

Margarita Meklina is a bilingual essayist and fiction writer born in Leningrad and currently residing in San Francisco. In 2003, she was awarded the Andrei Bely prize for her collection of short stories, The Battle at St. Petersburg. In 2009, she was awarded the Russian Prize, established by the Fund of the First President of Russia Boris Yeltsin, for her manuscript My Criminal Connection to Art. Her English-language articles have appeared in The Context (Dalkey Archives), Words Without Borders, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Brooklyn Rail. The Rail most recently featured her article “Randy Raccoons: The Threat to Russia’s Youth” in its September 2014 issue. She co-authored the epistolary novel God na pravo perepiski with poet and essayist Arkadii Dragomoschenko (published in the U.S. under the title POP3) and is at work on a young adult novel in English.

Alex Cigale

Alex Cigale's poems have appeared in print in Colorado Review, Green Mountains Review, North American Review, Tampa Review, and The Literary Review, and online in Asymptote, Drunken Boat, and McSweeney's. His translations from the Russian can be found in Cimarron Review, Literary Imagination, Modern Poetry in Translation, New England Review, PEN America, Two Lines, The Manhattan Review, Washington Square, and InTranslation. From 2011 until 2013, he was assistant professor at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. He is on the editoral boards of Asymptote, Mad Hatters' Review, The St. Petersburg Review, and Verse Junkies, and is a 2014-2015 NEA Translation Fellow for his work translating the poetry of Mikhail Eremin.

Three Miniatures. Copyright (c) Margarita Meklina, 2003, 2005, 2011. English translation copyright (c) Alex Cigale, 2014.