Zulya, Zulya, Zulya with the Little Red Padlock


Sunshine on Petrogradsky, the heart of St. Petersburg: it was a day–a timeless, endless spring day, one of those days you see as if through a sterilized magnifying glass, when everything suddenly acquires mass and dimension, and your vision is twenty-twenty, like in childhood. The future promises everything you could wish for, and “one for the road,” too, and the only reminders of the past are the commemorative plaques on the buildings. A cellar on the 1st Line, [1] next to the Philology building, where cornelian cherry vodka pours into flimsy, unsteady cups, filling them to the brim . . . Krylov . . . Vasnetsov . . . A wine shop by the hotel, selling tasty Petersburg vermouth, which they gulp on the go, passing the bottle back and forth in its bag . . . Born, lived, shot . . . “In this building a division of the People’s Militia was formed . . .” Perelman . . . Shostakovich . . . Popov . . .

A minute ago, the concierge (who had the typical look of all those women worn out by Soviet life) was locking the door behind them, as she had done every day of these May holidays so far, and she’d said with fulsome, inflated friendliness, “Have a nice day!”–as if, while she swept bits of eggshell off tables and carted rubbish out of rooms (in theirs carefully skirting the blue silicone pestle left out by mistake on the bedside table), she knew by some sixth sense that they really would have a nice day.

Well, any day you spend together is nice, when you’re in love.

They emerge from the neat and scrubbed bed-and-breakfast into the smell of cat on the stairs. (A globe stands in the reception area, and it was this, when she saw it on the website, that made M. book a room here, since she knew how much Zulya loved them–unlike, incidentally, “life on the globule,” on this “detestable globule,” which Zulya, after a few drinks, “wanted to jump off and never come back down to earth.” On the metro, when an adult bumped into her, she would stop, square up, and shove back. When a child did it, she–never having forgiven her dead, alcoholic mother the two abortion attempts–would yell: “Kid, open your peepholes!” When she ran into an obstruction of prams, without hesitating she would comment: “They’ve been breeding! Now they think the world belongs to them!” She would boast: “I clouted a child in the kisser on the train. I thought someone’s bag had fallen on my feet and kicked it away, turned out it was a kidlet crawling about!”)

M. looks at Zulya. At her bluish-black hair. At her coarse, thick, short eyebrows, which come to an end so abruptly, like halves of the center arch of a bridge, hanging in mid-air (Zulya plucks them, “to remove that Asiatic look, I’m not some slanty-eyed churka, I’ve only got a quarter Tatar blood”). At her hard, small, fist-like breasts. At her steely, merciless (when twisting a corkscrew into the soft flesh of a cork), tireless (in bed) fingers. Zulya is petite (for her, a beer is “as good as a meal of barley”), just fifty kilograms in weight, and therefore physically weak, in theory, but she thrusts aside her surroundings with such force that “the globule cracks.”

Now the warden at the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition is telling Zulya off while she is giving instructions over the phone about how to help a guinea pig with a poorly tummy, and Zulya flips him off. Now they are traveling to Zelenogorsk, on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, to scatter the ashes of her actor friend, and Zulya, seeing his daughter, a university student, rummaging torturously for change in a plastic bag when everyone is chipping in for wine, comments at the top of her voice: “What’s she being so stingy for? See, her dead daddy was absolutely the same, such a freeloader. Lord forgive me, what am I saying? . . . he was a marvellous man . . .”

Zulya’s red handbag is the same colour as her lips. Her teeth are white and cleaned with Splat, Russia’s best-selling toothpaste brand, but very quickly they turn dark again, the color of wine. The wine penetrates into the cracks of those lips, so familiar, so tender at night–and so pitiless after a double shot of vodka “and just a little one more to wash it down”–those demanding, trembling lips.

Those lips have, over their year and a half of assignations, been everywhere.

Angling for a compliment, Z. asks: “Do I look bad?” M.’s gaze settles once more on her fresh scar (apparently she slipped on a puddle of spilled beer somewhere and fell) and says: “I love you. Don’t worry.” “Here, drink the rest, just leave me the last drop,” Zulya holds out the almost empty bottle, and M., checking around for police, drinks up their Petersburg vermouth and then looks sideways at Zulya. Seeming to hover before her eyes are Zulya’s tiny–so as to be virtually non-existent–panties with the word “Paris” and pictures of the Eiffel Tower, which Zulya wants to climb some day, as well as the incense sticks Zulya always lights before they go to bed. Soon. Soon. The wine soothes her throat on its way down. A moist tenderness wells up. M. looks. Suffers. Treasures. Pities. Despite Zulya’s malice–reckless, incomprehensible, all-encompassing–towards everyone and everything.

Victory Day. A very quiet and utterly unmilitary morning. Philip Glass. Homogeneously fluctuating sounds. Repeating notes. Intertwining legs. Quivering lips. A replay of what took place yesterday. The day before yesterday. A year and a half ago, when they met in a five-star hotel called Liberty. There, in Antalya, a transparent elevator with a blue butterfly on its glass went up and down, up and down. There, when you checked in they handed you a bottle of champagne and a bunch of flowers . . . there, playing Chopin’s Nocturnes on a grand piano, was the long-haired, inspired Jamilia, swaying in time to her feelings and the music, and Zulya, taking off her quasi-military commissar’s jacket, immediately became a meek, flustered little girl, like she was thirty years ago at music school, and began to dig fitfully in her red handbag: “God, what a beautiful pianist, what can I give her . . . ?”

Holiday boredom, unexpectedly ousted by lust.

Dryness in her mouth. M. tips the water bucket over the hissing stones. The dark-haired, hook-nosed girl lying on the scorching, skin-imprinting slats does not stir. Three circles of hell, steam, and heat. This tension when they are left alone together. This bench practically attached to the skin. Hamam . . . bar counter . . . swimming pool . . . sitting on a sun lounger next to her, M. contrives a way to start a conversation, but the girl puts on a brightly colored, wide-sleeved “ethnic” top and stands up, scattering and then gathering up again some scraps of paper . . . Was she rehearsing lines?

And now at last. The girl is standing on the darkening, gradually emptying beach trying to call a lost (or so she thought) dog. She is all adrift.

“Is that dog yours?”

Waves crash. The girl is standing on the beach in a skirt so long it brushes the sand, watching over the animal. She is almost crying in her anxiety for this lonely, droop-tailed creature.

“Come with me, you’re cold.”

“Are you absolutely sure she knows where to go?” The girl repeats her question. She has forgotten about the glass clutched in her hand, and wine pours unnoticed to the ground. Red drops sink into the sand. The dog has long since lain down at their feet, and M. has to take the girl by the arm and all but drag her to the hotel lobby, where the dancing is already beginning . . .

And now their turbulent Turkish lust is already behind them . . .

On its heels comes amorous harmony in Montenegro . . . Climbing up mountains, caressing in showers. Mons pubis, monasteries. The sea stretches out at their feet. M. stretches out on the bathtub bottom at Z.’s feet. Drizzle in Lviv seems golden–tinted by the sun breaking through the clouds. The bus ascends to the highest point, then sets down its passengers. They must proceed on foot. Again and again, at every turn of the steep steps billowing up to the heavens, Z. buys mulled wine. “Why be stingy? It’s only ten hryvnia. Splash some cash, you’ll see how delish it is.” Then sunshine in Kyiv. Crowded Kreshchatik, the main street occupied by tents and banners. Mutinous (at that time) Maidan. In the daytime Zulya rubs the golden nose of the creator of Master and Margarita on Andriyivsky Descent, for luck, and at night they stay in her stepsister’s flat. Cosy Ukrainian kisses, lust comes creeping up on tiptoe. Furtive lovemaking in a fusty, freezing, old-fogeyish little room is succeeded by placidity and piss-ups in Peter. [2] “Book us a place in the city center,” Zulya commanded, “we shall go to the Hermitage.” But they did not make it to the Hermitage.

They drank, slept. Screams, groans, drooling mouth stopped up by the special ball with little holes in, and the pricking spiked collar were all things of the past . . . Zulya could only get up to such things in five-star hotels; this one did not even make it to three stars. The white waffle-cloth dressing gowns and slippers they had been given were reminiscent of a hospital ward. The walls were thin; the guests, fat and old-fashioned; the maids, stuck in the communist era; even the tube of mayonnaise in the kitchen said, “Our traditional hens lay only happy eggs,” which Zulya sniggered over. This place required silence. And so at certain moments she let out a cautious purr. M. pressed up close to her. That the wave sweeping through Zulya might carry her away too. She embraced the pulsating, spicy-smelling, docile body. The large mole behind her ear, which only she saw; the sweetish, tightly squeezed little circle at the rear, which quivered and opened only for her tongue; the blood inside, in her veins, the blood outside, every month, the steady breathing during sleep, which quickened during intimacy–all this roused life in M.

A Frenchman called Prétreaus was the architect of the building their B&B was in. At one time he was a curly-haired infant. Then a father of several sons. Next a middle-aged man with a successful career. In 1938 he was shot, in the action against the Russian All-Military Union. This morning as they were walking down the cat-scented stairs M. had pointed out his biography on the notice board in the entranceway:

“Look who built our home!”

Zulya, her heart already set as usual by that time in the morning on the Monopol wine bar, brushed her off:

“That stuff’s boring! Talk more about conceptualists! Them carrying some poor bastard down from the ninth floor in a closed coffin! What a jinx! And he died pretty much straight after!” [3]

“This person imprisoned . . . that person shot . . . the Children-404 [4] society banned . . . Do you reckon anything will ever change here? Don’t you find it stifling, cramped? Come on, why don’t you come and visit me after all . . .”

“Not this again! What about my cockatiels?”

Zulya abruptly pulled on her cotton gloves and marched off ahead. Back perfectly straight. Black trousers cleaned with a clothes brush–and furious zeal (she disinfected her hands with a special solution after every trip on the metro; besides sunglasses, her red handbag sported a little vial, its contents fatal to microbes). M. lifted her eyes to the sky. Watched her go. Then sped up, caught up with her. Those two cockatiels, and that guinea pig Antony, inherited from an elderly actor with heart disease who collapsed during a play–Zulya was always using them as an excuse.

“She’s offering me asylum in Boston!” Zulya’s high, childish voice rose to a shriek. “And what would I do with my cockatiels? Would they get refugee status too?”

“You’ll be fine coming, even bringing your pig and your cockatiels. You’ll just have to come through the red channel.”

“Not pig, guinea pig . . . Through what channel? Go on, explain.”

“The red one. At Customs. ’Cause they’ll need to be declared. And actually, what in hell’s name do cockatiels have to do with anything, you’re throwing our love away over some stupid birds!”

“You’re the stupid bird! You’ve got flies fucking in your head! Those cockatiels–they’re my children! While I’m with you now, they’re there all alone . . . will that bumpkin from Ryazan come to take care of them like she’s supposed to? Last time, while we were prancing around the Prince Islands on horses, the cockatiels were sitting alone in the dark without water . . .”

“Well, if they are your children, then you ought to have your parental rights revoked!”

And then Zulya flipped M. the bird–right in her face, with both bony middle fingers.


* * *


. . . At the airport in Antalya, parting, they had been wiping their eyes . . .

Zulya’s plane was ready to depart, and M.’s flight was not for another four hours, so she stood in her black felt hat and white shirt, back leaned against the wall, with Zulya in front of her, and both of them knew that this first meeting would not be their last, and that they would meet again “somewhere on the globule,” but Zulya suddenly leaped up with a cry of “I’ll be right back,” ran off somewhere, and quickly returned with a paper bag. She pushed something metal and brightly colored into M.’s hands. “It’s a present for you.” It turned out to be a cezve. M., who only drank tea, said nothing. “You’ll make coffee and remember.” Zulya was still fussing with the bag, she pulled out a plastic gel pen with the Turkish flag on it, magnets, a set of postcards . . . she pushed them all into M.’s hands, repeating over and over: “Remember, remember me.”

Oh, how could anyone forget you, Zulfiya . . .

And especially that red, somehow playful little padlock in its impenetrable plastic packaging . . . the padlock with the little white heart engraved on it . . . the padlock with the motto “the best surprise for lovers” on its box . . . the padlock with the short, chubby shackle, which played its own small, stupid role in this story . . .

But now look. This story of mine was rejected by a certain American journal with the comment: It lacks a story arc. Do you know what that means? No. Despite your tearful assurances that some day you will indeed come to live with me in the USA, you have not managed to learn the “native lingo.” I’ll translate. They said that my story has no climax. The characters, they emphasized, must develop. It was essential for some sort of event to take place, roughly in the middle of the story, which would alter and invert everything, turn everything “on its head.”

But you, you, the one who insisted that we both had to change in the name of love, never changed a single bit! And you never reduced your alcohol “dose” a single drop! Those fatheads at the journal even added at the end: You also did not explain her constant desire to drink. What is behind that?

But I have no idea what is behind any of it.

What drove you to wine. And me–to you. And you–to our flights around the whole “detestable globule”–so cold and frozen, as it seemed to you–of the world. Love does not change people: now do you agree? Well, then, cast your eye over what those analytical anglophone literateurs rejected; what, in effect, you rejected too.

Because things won’t ever be like this for us again.


* * *


For your birthday I gave you a trip along the Mekong, including toylike, charming little monkeys, a mud bath in an enchanting park, and feeding crocodiles from a fishing rod. Ah, how powerfully they tore the meat from the hook, how they snapped their jaws, and how you laughed, how happy you were that we were together again. How happy that, thanks to me, you had left Kazakhstan behind you, if only for two weeks. Do you remember how the elderly Vietnamese woman rowing us up the river sighed and theatrically rubbed her lower back, and as her comrades sailed past and saw us they mimed counting money in the air, and without exchanging a word you and I both took out our wallets? How we climbed up to some high point and you flirted with Wan, an ex-pilot who had learned Russian at flight school in Ryazan, and then after whispering with him about something you walked up to the huge recumbent statue of the Buddha and rubbed its elbow “for luck”?

That love of yours for portents, for the protection of Higher Powers . . .

I glanced over your shoulder in the cathedral in Montenegro and suddenly caught sight of my name, repeated several times over on the piece of paper . . . To this day it puzzles me: were you trying by means of this multiplication to increase my chances of otherworldly success, or did you simply have too many friends with the same name as me, and you were wishing all of them health and happiness . . .?

Your fortieth birthday. Da Lat. The Valley of Love. In the evening we sit in a little open-air restaurant in front of a sort of bubbling cauldron that people here call a hot pot and chuck prawns, fish, mushrooms, fresh vegetables into it. Your face, usually tightly locked down, impenetrable, chalk-white, has blushed red. Your Vietnamese hat becomes you very well, and I already want to tell you this, when you call the teenaged waitress a dirty Russian word for accidentally turning off our bubbling cauldron . . .

And so, a few months later, Peter. My thirty-fifth birthday. Petrogradsky. We are together again. You are writing the postcard you brought with you from Atyrau right in front of me, adding a phrase at the bottom that astonishes me: “God help you”–although ever since my return to Boston, where I was unexpectedly laid off and ran out of money both for rent and for flights to you, it’s your help I have needed.

But you, believing in the magical powers of the padlock, did not want to notice any of this.

That padlock should be hanging on a bridge in Peter right now, with our names on it, and the keys to it lying at the bottom of the Fontanka . . . or the Moika . . . or Chernaya Rechka . . . or the Neva . . . being geographically challenged, I never could tell those rivers apart . . . A little padlock forever fastening us together. Can you believe that as I write this I am stroking the belt you gave me, the one that says Iceberg? The belt you once asked me to tie you up with . . . One of your spur-of-the-moment, frantic, last-second presents, as if you felt you hadn’t given enough love, enough gifts, enough . . . Iceberg. Just here . . . do you see? Right here. This part here touched your knees, your back . . . now, feeling my blow from here, from afar, you probably flinch in fear, like that time when you froze in anticipation of pain . . .

What about that portly, plummy Georgian at the Rustaveli restaurant? He brought us our chacha and told us we must drink every last drop. He watched you closely as you cautiously turned the cup of chacha round in your hands, and then he smiled and declared:

“Now, one young lady be feeling warmth from chacha spread through body, but not, it seems, the other. Admit it, you be cold?”

You always asked me either for pain or for warmth.

Zulfiya . . .


* * *


They are sitting in a dimly lit theater on Nevsky Prospect. M. feels sick. Just this morning she had been exultant, because Zulya had agreed to go to a play:

“The production’s by Georgy Filigontov? I know him. When I was interning in Moscow, I tried to help him get a job, but that idiot went out all night on a bender and showed up to the meeting wearing the same clothes he’d been out cruising in . . . But the play, it’s a children’s play . . .”

M.’s head sinks onto her knees. For some reason there’s an awful lot of children around. The “kidlets” are shamelessly noisy. Then they go quiet. Apparently it’s started. The stage is laced with something green. Pondweed. Algae. Or is it flower petals? The actors are in green unitards. Taken aback by this homogeneous color scheme, M. closes her eyes, but everything is green there as well. Swimming. She endeavors to look at the stage. There, too, everything is unsteady. A little doll all in white with ophthalmopathically large eyes bobs around on the water in a wicker basket. All around–toads with huge red mouths. Or is she imagining it? Perhaps the demon drink is to blame? First the Petersburg vermouth, then the vodka at Kopeck. And then Zulya thrust her the Cinzano to try. “Just a sip, leave some for me.”

M. is almost asleep, her head buried, like the ostrich, in the sand. Tucked between her knees. Sometimes with great effort she looks at the stage. When will this end? When will Thumbelina save Swallow? When Swallow’s heart starts to beat, they can leave. As soon as Thumbelina revives her. As soon as she saves her with the power of love. That is the most important point of the play–and if they only stay for that, then they will have seen everything and understood everything. And anyway, after that there will just be more of that endless green nonsense and actors in boggy unitards.

Only that morning M., still on her feet, had read out this paragraph to Zulya:

“‘A little being no bigger than a thumb, Thumbelina in the course of this play goes on a journey of discovery–of the world. Of evil and good. So strong is her desire to save the dead Swallow that Swallow’s heart begins to beat. She revives and in her gratitude carries Thumbelina off to a magical country of little thumb-high beings like her, where the merry red-haired Elf invites her to water flowers with him.’”

That morning M. had herself been merry as the elf, but now she felt so sick, so sick, that she would like Thumbelina to finish the whole journey of discovery of good and evil as quickly as possible and get to the magical country. So her suffering would end. So she could quit once and for all this green, quagmire-laced “globule.” So she could end up with midgets like herself. So she could finally attain happiness. So they could get up and leave. So they could leave behind the rod puppets, the hordes of foot-stomping children, the mole, the toads, the beetles . . .

But how? M. knows that if she stands up now, she will feel worse. A small, hard fist pummels her side. Like it’s hammering thumb-length nails into the small of her back. It’s Zulya, of course: “Get up, get up, what’s wrong with you, how can you be falling asleep here?!” But M. cannot utter a single word. If she does, the demon drink will erupt from her mouth and snake across the theater floor . . . A man turns to them: “You should be ashamed of yourselves! You’re stopping the children hearing what’s happening on stage!” M. tries to stand up, but realizes that the only pose she can adopt is sitting with her head between her knees. Zulya continues to hammer thumb-length nails into her back.

“Let’s get out of here . . . when I was little we had a puppet theater in our neighborhood . . . this isn’t Andersen, it’s a perversion–a mix of all the fairytales at once. Only a faggot could shit out a travesty like this!”

An usher comes up to them.

With her help they get M. outside. M. sits down on a chair in a nearby cafe. Zulya says something to the waiter, and they cover M. with a purple blanket. Some time passes. At last M. feels better. She has almost reached the magical country. She is almost happy. The sickening suffocating demon has slithered away from her. Green has turned to purple, and Zulya is no longer pounding her like a gong with her merciless, hastily manicured little hammers. M. puts her rucksack under her head and feels something hard. It’s Zulya’s padlock. The little red padlock, which she brought with her and which they absolutely must attach to a bridge.

“Maybe we could go attach it now?” M. tries to say to Zulya as she approaches, but Zulya cuts her off.

“What’s wrong with you? Have you come to your senses? Why do you always fall asleep when you’ve been drinking, like you’re an alcoholic? Like a drunken, down-and-out lout!”

“I’m not an alcoholic.” M., embarrassed by her attack of sentimentality, buries the padlock in the rucksack.

“Who drank in the mornings, then? Who went to work in Boston already under the influence? Who got behind the wheel of their pickup truck with a half-bottle hidden in a brown bag under the seat?”

“And what, you saw this? Saw it across the ocean? Espied it from your roost in Atyrau?”

“You told me all about it yourself!”

“Well, perhaps I was slandering myself!”

“Slander, slander away, just don’t shame me like that again! You were snoring like a goddamn alkie!”

“You’re the alkie! You drink and goad me to drink! I only started drinking the day I met you! Since those dances in Turkey, when you drank too much and threw your boots, one after another, at Jamilia! We barely managed to smooth everything over! ’Cause you didn’t only hit Jamilia, you also hit the wife of some new-Russian gangster! We told him: the girl has an artistic temperament, she’s emotional, she’s just dancing, please don’t get upset, it wasn’t aimed at you! And in the morning the “artistic temperament” couldn’t even remember what she had got up to the night before!”

Zulya winced.

M. continued.

“You’re an alcoholic, of the two of us you’re the alcoholic, the irony is that you’re accusing me of it.”

Zulya shook the plastic bag with its Monopol insignia. A bottle of Spanish tempranillo rolled around at the bottom. M.’s heart tightened.

Zulya reached into the bag. M. faltered. It was one thing getting Zulya to stop drinking forever, but it was quite another losing a wonderful evening of wine and snacks.

“Now you’ll see what kind of alcoholic I am!” Zulya took the bottle out with such an expression of determination on her face that M. knew their two hundred and ninety roubles had been spent in vain. Whatever gods you pray to, whatever entreaties you write on church paper to omnipotent Almighties, all are powerless now before Zulya.

“Just you wait, just you wait!” she said, and M., looking at her small, doll-like, tight-lipped, triangular-chinned face, suddenly remembered that her friends nicknamed her “Kinder Surprise.”

They were standing on Nevsky Prospect. It was already growing dark, but crowds of people were walking by. No one noticed Zulya, standing with the bottle, or M., gazing expectantly at Zulya . . . Frozen, she looked at Zulya, who was casting around for something to break the bottle against.

“Right now, I’ll pour this wine away right now!”

As Zulya sought a destructive object, M. remembered how that morning they had walked painstakingly along the shelves. “Only medium-dry or medium-sweet, all the rest, the sugary ones, are bad for your health.”

M. dreaded public scenes like fire.

And now Zulya dashes that healthy wine onto the asphalt. Maybe that breaking–rather than the usual drinking–will truly be a turning (away) point in her alcoholic career? Maybe it will make her forget wine forever?

There she is, with her brushed-clean black trousers, with her anti-microbial vial, with her hands covered in blood–she has cut herself on the metallic foil wrapped around the neck of the bottle, ripping it off with her teeth and fingers.

“Where the fuck’s the corkscrew disappeared to? Where, I ask you, is my corkscrew? It’s always been right here,” Zulya shouts. Things fly up out of the red handbag like fireworks. Finally she walks up to the nearest building and slams the bottle against the wall with all her strength. Passersby pass by. It gets slightly brighter. The cafes are lighting their lamps. Zulya slams the bottle against the wall and it releases a sluggish trickle of red liquid. Like blood. From Zulya’s fingers, wine drips. Down the wall of the building designed by some soon-to-be-purged architect, her blood flows. His untried crime; wine; blood untimely spilled. Tempranillo poured away for no reason. A pint-sized chest with a mind-boggling secret. Such a Kinder Surprise.

Green algae with red wine. Nauseating morning greenery and enraged reddening night. A girl in stained black trousers releases a bottle from maimed fingers. It keels over sideways like a dead man. Leans against the door frame. Doesn’t even teeter. Just stands sort of at a jaunty angle, like it’s in a film. Out of it–onto the wall, onto the pavement–there trickles a red liquid.

The next morning, for the first time, they do not pop into the Monopol wine shop.

Any moment now M. expects Zulya to suggest: “Let’s buy some vermouth and do a little shot each, just so we’ve got some,” but Zulya remains silent. M. rejoices inwardly. They have one day left to finally find the right bridge.

Zulya tries to scratch her name on the padlock with her corkscrew, but only manages the first letter. “That’ll do.” She passes M. the padlock. “Now it’s your turn.” Hand in hand, they walk up to the bridge. The bridge is perfect, but there are too many people around it. Police vans, Zenit [5] fans. Flags, stadium transfixed in expectation. The curlicues here are slender, and so the shackle will definitely fit, but M. is scared. Police are posted every two meters. They stare intently. Zulya tries to tease her into it, but M. is adamant that they had better not do it here, with everyone watching.

They decide to look for another bridge.

But their little padlock does not fit round a single curlicue . . .

At first they crossed an unnamed bridge and tried to click with its cast-iron spirals–the little padlock would not go on. Then they walked over the Tuchkov Bridge and M. began to inspect some electrical wires near the pavement with the idea of attaching it to them, but Zulya pinched her painfully on the elbow and said she would get hauled off in a police van straight away as a terrorist, because right on this spot was the mechanism for raising the bridge. Then they promenaded along the Zhdanov Embankment, and Zulya complained that M. had dragged her into some “awful industrial place, into some dirty building site,” but M. insisted that nevertheless there were lots of bridges here, and they continued rushing to every curlicue, every seemingly suitable feature of a bridge, and measuring it, but it was never even worth opening the padlock: it was obvious at once that the shackle would not fit. It did not fit on the University Embankment, nor on the Admiralty, nor on the Vasilevsky, nor on the Apothecary, nor on the Krestovsky, and then Zulya took it off her and put it together with the corkscrew in the pocket of her red handbag, where it disappeared forever in the chaos of bits and bobs . . .

But in the morning, the morning of their departure, her hand was there, in her, making movements, rhythmic movements, measured circular movements, which were bringing her to ecstasy, but somehow gradually dwindled and subsided . . . Zulya’s breathing became more even, her hand stopped moving, her always tightly compressed lips softened, her wrinkles smoothed out, and the orgasm fell away like an unopened parachute. M. asked Zulya to stay awake, but Zulya, who had shouted at her for nodding off in Thumbelina, continued to fall deeper into unforgivable sleep, while her hand, as if of its own accord, kept attempting to do something, to make circles somewhere, causing a sea of melancholy to well up inside M. Unquenched melancholy and desire that had not quite been defused–after all, it was nice, very nice, even, but, as it were, not complete, not the release she was owed, and M. tensed all her muscles, but the climax did not come, the story did not stand “on its head,” and they never did manage to agree on whereabouts “on the globule” to settle, what with Antony and the cockatiels, which Zulya did not dare transport in their cage, and what with the abundance of odd jobs for M. in America, which paid her lavishly enough that she could not bring herself to leave . . .

The hand made its circles, set pleasure in motion, and then subsided again, release did not come, only the suffusion of large, warm, sharp tenderness in her chest towards that wayward Zulfiya Alexeyevna Shakhmametyeva, with her small scar, her corkscrew preserved from her student days, and her little red padlock in the shape of a comfortable, rounded heart; the little padlock that in the end did not fit onto a single bridge: not the Moika, not the Fontanka, not the Zhdanov Embankment; with that little padlock for fastening lovers together, in which she had placed such hopes, and which, distraught and tearful in the shuttle bus, she took away with her to Kazakhstan.



[1] Vasilevsky Island in St. Petersburg is arranged on a grid system, with thirty-four parallel, mostly numbered “lines,” which were originally intended by Peter the Great as canals.

[2] Locals’ affectionate nickname for St. Petersburg.

[3] Conceptualist writer and artist Dmitri Prigov planned a performance together with the Voina (War) art collective, titled “The Voina Group Only Does Unskilled Labor.” On June 7, 2007, members of Voina were due to carry Prigov in a wardrobe up 22 flights of stairs in a student residence hall at Moscow State University, as he recited his poetry. Prigov was hospitalized the day before, following a heart attack, and died just over a month later, on July 16. Zulya (or M.) has garbled the story somewhat.

[4] Online LGBT community (on Facebook and Vkontakte) which supports “invisible” gay and transgender Russian teenagers.

[5] St. Petersburg’s soccer team.


Margarita Meklina

Bilingual essayist and fiction writer Margarita Meklina was born in Leningrad and shares her life between Dublin, Ireland, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Her English-language articles and short stories have been featured in The Cardiff Review’s queer issue, The Chicago Quarterly Review, and Words Without Borders, while her fiction in English translation has appeared in the Norton Flash Fiction International (2015), The Mad Hatters’ Review, The Toad Suck Review, and Eleven Eleven. Meklina has written six books in Russian (two of them in collaboration with Lida Yusupova and Arkadii Dragomoshchenko) and two in English, the YA novel The Little Gaucho Who Loved Don Quixote and a collection of short stories entitled A Sauce Stealer. Meklina’s awards include the Andrey Bely Prize (2003), the Yeltsin Center’s Russian Prize (2008), the Mark Aldanov Literary Prize (2018), and The Norton Girault Literary Prize’s Honorable Mention (2019).

Georgina Barker

Georgina Barker has translated poems by Elena Shvarts (Dryad Press, ed. Thomas Epstein, 2019) and Polina Barskova (Cardinal Points, 6, 2016; Classical Receptions Journal, 9, 2017). She holds a PhD in Russian Literature from the University of Edinburgh. As an IASH fellow at Edinburgh in 2018, she wrote and staged the historical verbatim play Princess Dashkova, the Woman Who Shook the World, which featured many of her own translations. As MHRA scholar at the University of Exeter in 2018-19, she wrote her book USSR Meets SPQR: Classical Antiquity in the Poetry of Elena Shvarts (Legenda). Her current research project, supported by a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at UCL, explores Russian receptions of classical “lesbians.” She has a red-lored amazon parrot (who, sadly, does not speak Russian).

Copyright (c) Margarita Meklina. English translation copyright (c) Georgina Barker, 2019.