The Passion Collection, or The Adventures and Misadventures of a Young Ukrainian Lady

Chapter 1

When to Start, What Not to Pay Attention to,
How to Fall in Love with George Michael

Tolya was the tallest, fattest, curliest-headed kid in the whole class. That his school uniform rode up his rotund little stomach and that he couldn’t quite button up his jacket and that his mom made him put on knee socks instead of normal socks in the summer and warm woolen long johns that his grandma made him in the winter were sources of perpetual shame for Tolya. I sympathized with him, because my mom, too, made me wear a lengthy pair of granny panties made of thick wool called—for reasons unbeknownst to me—”reformers,” which would sometimes stick out from beneath short skirts, or anyway so it seemed to me at the time. Just that awareness—that you had something that hideous on—would be enough to ruin anybody’s life. I don’t know what Tolya did with his long johns, but starting around sixth grade I would take my underwear off at the base of the stairwell of our apartment building, stuff them into the mailbox, and then extract them again coming home from school. At least until my mom came home from work early one day and found my “reformers” next to her Science and Life Magazine.

Tolya was easy to embarrass in general and would blush every time our math teacher would call him up to the board. During recess, while all the other boys were scampering outside to play ball or hopscotch or leapfrog, Tolya would find a little nook where no one would see him and remove from some secret jacket pocket the slender forest green booklet he would read all recess, in secret, it not being the type of thing to especially impress his classmates. Tolya would usually go to the top floor of the school because it was always deserted and quiet in the corner by the physics lab: the physics teacher felt recesses were not for pupils to run wild and make a racket but rather for teachers to rest and ready themselves for the next class.

And so it was that she would make absolutely sure that nobody jumped rope or played truth or dare, let alone leapfrog, anywhere near her office. Anyone that sullied the sanctity of that spot was risking considerable unpleasantness; this having already been confirmed by several students, everybody avoided her office and its environs like the plague.

But back in first grade neither Tolya nor I could have known about any of that: we hadn’t taken physics yet; we didn’t even have classes in multiple classrooms like the older kids yet. We had all of them in the same “Starter Classroom” in the opposite wing. Out of our whole grade it was only Tolya and I that conducted expeditions to the wing with the physics, both of us with a slender forest green booklet that actually turned out to be the same book in the end, namely Cosette—a selection from the novel by Victor Hugo—which I was ultimately able to recognize from a distance thanks to the standard Soviet cover that still graced the bulk of the books in our parents’ libraries back then, when you could still get paid for recycling them afterwards.

I don’t know why Tolya and I both happened upon that particular book for our secret recess reading. It now occurs to me that there was little childhood romanticism in it and more just that that book of Hugo’s was the littlest and lightest and—of course!—the easiest to smuggle around under a school uniform. Then, though, that coincidence struck me as enigmatic, mysterious—a secret message.

Tolya had been the first one in our grade that had learned how to read, and he always got A’s in Writing. He wasn’t a geek, per se, and his preference for the humanities was strong, but the other kids made fun of him nonetheless, as mercilessly as if he were already on the math team. They never even took him with them when they went to watch the older kids play soccer.

At the end of first grade, Tolya’s mom had a talk with the principal, and Tolya skipped second grade so as to not stand out too much now that his peers were shorter and petiter than he. He made up the materials over summer vacation. His parents worked with my parents, and sometimes they would all come over; once we even went on a trip together.

As was in fashion back then, we drove down to Odessa and stayed in a cheap place near the city. The whole way Tolya tried to get me to play chess with him, or checkers, or to talk to him about books. We had such bad car-sickness, though, that our parents had to pull over every half hour so our moms could take us by turn out along the side of the road, where with the good influence of the fresh air we would deposit the contents of our stomachs. We would then get back in the car clutching plastic bags in case next time we didn’t get stopped soon enough. It must have been that that kept us from coming up with mutually stimulating topics for discussion; our friendship failed to flourish over the course of the trip. Tolya did try talking me into badminton, but because I could still remember the details of the voyage and the fact that Tolya just about barfed all over my skirt and would have had I not leaped out of the car with a brimming bag in my hands, I refused.

Besides which I disliked intensely the green polka-dot underwear Tolya’s mom put on him in lieu of swimming trunks, besides which there was the matter of Tolya’s rotund stomach lolling over the waist of his green polka-dot underwear. Add to which barely had we crossed the threshold of the dining hall when Tolya would be held up as an example for me to follow.

“Look,” my mother began and finished every meal, “Tolya finished ages ago, and you’re still sitting there pondering your plate.”

Equaling Tolya, who with an expression of bliss would in ninety-degree heat devour several servings of pasta salad with warm dried-pear compote and then while taking a walk on the beach would jam into his mouth the four pieces of bread with butter they gave out at breakfast to accompany the tea, was absolutely impossible.

Basically, Tolya did not arouse in me even the slightest sympathy nor friendly interest, even though there was no one else our age in the whole hotel.

Even by the time I was bored out of my mind I didn’t give in, and instead of going to Tolya I began to read the Science and Life Magazine my parents packed at the last minute—my mom having brought nothing else to read, so as to prevent me from “wrecking my eyes.” The optometrist had recently recommended a break from reading so that I wouldn’t have to wear glasses.

It was with unusual frequency, then, that I read the article dedicated to the latest discovery in the field of chemical crystallography, perhaps because the issue began with it. When for the umpteenth time my parents tried to force-feed me a piece of meat, and I discovered I couldn’t take it anymore, I wound up reciting the following:

“A central place in the study of mineral evolution in heterogeneous mountain geological formations ought to be occupied by geocrystallography, as a new branch of traditional crystallography; a sizeable role ought also to be given geocrystallography in the exploration of defined-property fluid synthesis from a crystal-energy perspective, as well as research in isomorphism and polymorphism utilizing x-ray diffraction, electron diffraction, and neutron diffraction, as much for chemical properties as for the entire aggregate of physical properties. And you all are busy with your same stupid nonsense.”

I then exhaled victoriously, drank the rest of my compote, and left my stunned parents to keep watching Tolya finish his meat and kasha.

Tolya was within earshot of the grand finale of my monologue: he had actually just finished his lunch and was walking by our table with his mom when I delivered it. After that my parents hid Science and Life Magazine somewhere, and Tolya never asked me to play badminton with him again.

Much later it occurred to me to regret my youthful arrogance, when in the eighth grade I realized that, for the first time in my life, I had fallen in love.

Michael Jackson, Poetry, and Gracious May

Actually May that year was particularly ungracious to the female half of our grade. A particular type of epidemic had struck, and there were three sub-types of sick: the first kind was head-over-heels in love with Michael Jackson, the second with George Michael, and the last—and least numerous—with the then-popular band Gracious May. It was unclear which among us were the worst off.

Symptoms of the illness, independently of whom it had befallen, were always identical. Every single one of them—even the biggest dorks we had—suddenly raised the hems of their school uniforms, stopped wearing the required ribbons in their hair (sky-blue on weekdays, snow-white on Sundays), pilfered their mothers’ heels and ignoring the various inconveniences of them not fitting at all attempted to wear them after school and then at school.

The next stage of the illness was characterized by the painting of fingernails in the unlikeliest of shades as well the application of artificial eyelashes, the meticulous plucking of eyebrows, and the application of considerable amounts of other cosmetics, to the point that periodically some girl would even wear bright red lipstick. That was what it was like at school.

After school the makeup got considerably more intense. Everybody looked like somebody out of a James Cooper novel. Skirts were peculiarly abbreviated, and sometimes you couldn’t see them at all from underneath a jacket, even if you were looking hard. Add to that the perfumes our moms had, only in greater quantities, and our very first cigarettes at the gates.

The most advanced phase was walls covered in the posters that came with Peer, a kind of Seventeen magazine that we all read religiously, private collections of photographs from other sources and still more radical changes in outward appearance. This last symptom depended upon the type of illness.

The friends I had that were amassing Michael Jackson memorabilia ordinarily dyed their hair black and used mass quantities of henna. The George Michael girls focused less on hair style and more on owning as many black turtlenecks, jeans, and jackets as they possibly could. They would just wear their hair gently combed; they would also wear several earrings in each ear.

Those devoted to the oeuvre of Gracious May didn’t pay even the slightest attention to outward appearances, taking a page from their idols’ book, not to mention the fact that their parents were generally less well-off than the girls’ that were in love with “Western pop-stars.” Physical symptoms, then, were less evident; the less observant might take them for totally normal teenagers.

Nor was I immune, although the epidemic cropped up in me only after everyone else was already violently ill. Plus it did not happen how I wanted it to. I had already begun to worry about whether or not I was going to actually undergo the process of sexual maturation properly—if I underwent it at all.

This is why every morning I would run into the bathroom when I woke up and examine the posters of Michael Jackson and George Michael I had carefully cut out of Peer, as well as the little black-and-white picture of Gracious May. Here, inspecting each of the men in turn, I would try to detect my heart skipping beats at the sight of any of them.

Ashamed of my belated development, I would try to artificially stimulate the process of falling in love and think intensively about each of the potential candidates for object of my affection. At first I consoled myself by thinking you probably had to get used to the way your crush looks before you designate him as such. Then I tried going into the bathroom twice, once before and once after breakfast, figuring probably love arises slower on an empty stomach than it does when you’re full. After a week I took up regular visits, on the half hour, which only ended up making my mom inquire as to the state of my stomach; she force-fed me two pills of something. And my heart kept beating the best at breakfast and not while I was gazing at any of the objects of my girlfriends’ ardent desires.

The situation became critical when one day in the cafeteria I happened to glance at Tolya. My heart began to pound with the intensity of someone who has just run multiple meters to catch a tram. I refused to believe this was actually happening to me. I took a close look at my old classmate, who had just wolfed down a third helping of wieners and mashed potatoes. But the more ardently he shoveled in the sauerkraut, which was dangling down his chin, the closer I wanted to watch him.

As we’d grown up, Tolya had indeed grown, but he hadn’t really changed. He was still the tallest kid in the class, his school uniform was still riding up his rotund little belly, he would still run to the cafeteria every chance he got, and he still never played soccer. He still took a book (Sir Walter Scott’s Quentin Durward) with him everywhere he went, including to the cafeteria; he now made no attempt to conceal this from anyone. He spent every free second reading, even the time he was waiting for the hall monitors to deliver his tray of plates heaped with steaming wieners and potatoes. He didn’t even notice that the kids sitting with him were using that same waiting period to bang their elbows on the table in an attempt to eject the last kid sitting on the bench from said bench, nor did he notice their mad cackling whenever they succeeded in doing so. No one dared pick on Tolya, no doubt due to his powerful build: if he were to exert himself even a little, he would be able to knock them all off the bench with the whack of a single elbow.

I was reading Quentin myself at this stage, albeit at home and in secret, firstly because the doctor had forbidden me reading yet again, and secondly because the book was too heavy to drag to school along with all my textbooks. And this coincidence, which then seemed to me to be mysteriously significant, made my heart pound even harder.

I was in over my head. My situation had no actual exit. Up until then I had been ashamed of my overdue adolescence, and when my friends had asked solicitously, “So? Which one do you like?” (the results of my attempts to fall in love with one of the pop stars being tracked tensely by the whole female half of Grade 8A) I would avert my eyes and wind up having to admit that I didn’t like any of them. I was risking the last shreds of my authority at that school and might have been considered underdeveloped. Things, however, had gone from bad to worse. Settling upon Tolya as my love object was like signing my own death warrant. None of my friends would be in a position to understand it. Such a blatant lack of aesthetic values-of good taste-such absolute incomprehension of the essence of masculine beauty, such an absence of enthusiasm for muscles, for the very symbol of masculinity, sheathed in tight spandex swimsuits, of their trembling, breaking voices, suggestive of a subtle eroticism I just didn’t get. I couldn’t even appreciate a great haircut or a wide array of earrings. And so it was that I had sealed my fate as a deserter. All the girls were doing the same thing, and yet I had been unable to pull it off, even out of feminine solidarity.

The object of my affections looked more like he had spent the last thirty years working himself to death as a CEO: it was clear that not one of his muscles had ever even heard of strength equipment, let alone free weights.

This was the absolute worst-case scenario. It had become apparent that this wasn’t just overdue adolescence. This was something pathological. Although it was tricky, I could in fact imagine myself confessing to my best friend the fact of my indifference to Michael Jackson, but to tell her (even having sworn her to secrecy) that I was in love with Tolya would be unthinkable.

First of all, the whole school would find out about it immediately, because what friend would be able to keep something so sensational to herself? Secondly and worst of all, Tolya might find out. Which I would never survive.

The only reasonable way out was suicide. Before I decided to do so, however, I thought I might just pour my suffering out onto paper. My first work was titled “For You.”

My heart in gloom
Rain down the window in my room
I’m not going to tell you
I am crying for you

The moon is shining bright
But all the same it’s night
You are a glorious sight
I am so sad

Despite my doubts about whether the word “glorious” really suited Tolya, I really liked how the poem turned out, and I decided I’d wait on the suicide so as not to deprive mankind of my immortal works. The next poem was penned that very night and bore the title “Of You.”

I’ll be thinking of you
I’ll always be true
As a woman damned
For this my yearning

You don’t even know
You suffer nothing
But I suffer everything
I’m not the same

Without a doubt, this marked poetic progress. “I’ll always be true/As a woman damned,” that was really something. Only such a rich poetic image could do justice to the conflicting emotions that came with first love. Short, powerful, cruel. Reminiscent of Ukrainian writer Vasyl’ Stefanyk. I was unlucky in love, but maybe, just maybe, I would go down in history as a poet, and by breakfast the next morning I had already written “From You.”

But for you I’m blind
The world is so unkind
And live I cannot
Without you now

What the future holds
No one can know
Yet this heart cannot
Be taken away from you

There was a hint of folk-song lyricism in this, and even if it wasn’t overly original, then at least it was abundantly sincere, and if you looked hard enough, you might just see a certain flair for style. I was extremely pleased with myself. I copied all three poems out into a special notebook, which I titled You.

Over the course of the next few days I filled up an entire pad of graph paper with my poetry, and then another one, until I realized I needed to put together a larger notebook more befitting of my feelings. My work from that period was characterized by a certain stylistic unity, as evidenced by the titles themselves: after the You cycle I’d written a collection of five sonnets called Me, and then an epic poem called “You and Me,” until ultimately and upon my third sleepless night I had come up with such a sum of poems as to require compilation in volume form in said proper notebook. I titled it About Us, at which point I felt I had exhausted the prepositional as well as pronominal possibilities of the Ukrainian language. Their extensive use in that first volume ought to interest, if not literary critics, then at least linguists. If they study “The Role of Exclamatory Particles in the Late Works of Nineteenth-Century Ukrainian Philologist Panteleymon ‘Panko’ Kulish,” why would someone not write their dissertation “On the Interaction of Prepositions and Personal Pronouns in the Early Work of Olesya Pidobidko?”

Literature in Notebooks and Literature in Life: Mysteries of the Male Soul

The days passed, my feelings increased, and humble nighttime scribblings no longer satisfied me. I’d composed multiple notebooks of confessional verse, and yet what had any of this changed? I longed to share my feelings with someone, most of all with Tolya so as to get some idea as to whether or not I could count on his returning them. The only advantage I had over my girlfriends was that no matter how much less they were currently suffering, nor would they ever have any hope of reciprocity.

On the other hand, Tolya’s behavior had not changed at all despite having recently become the center of the universe. Either he was concealing his feelings as diligently as I was, or he felt nothing.

I tried to tell myself that fate could not possibly so cruel as for the latter to be the case, but still I wondered, and with each passing day my desire to find out for sure increased.

I ruminated long and hard as to how to do so, until finally I discovered a way.

Over the course of the subsequent sleepless night I translated Tatyana’s letter to Yevgeny Onyegin—the classic declaration of feminine ardor—from Pushkin’s Russian into my own Ukrainian and determined to slip this very missive into Tolya’s jacket.

The letter begins, “I love you, Sir—what more do you need?” and ends with “I’m stopping, it hurts to read it.” Afterwards I put in a little P.S. that told Tolya to put his response in the pocket of his jacket, which he would hang in the coatroom on the third bar on the second hanger from the right and not request a rendezvous nor ask anything else of me. I signed the letter “Mrs. X” and addressed it to “Mr. Y.”

Several feverish days passed with my checking the coatroom repeatedly and always expecting but never actually finding Tolya’s jacket in the agreed-upon spot. A week passed, and then a second, and Tolya was still taking his jacket off same as before. His pockets were empty. I had been concerned that Tolya had mixed up the instructions and put his response in his pocket but hung the jacket up in its old place, so naturally I had had to check.

So passed two feverish weeks, with me frantically searching my would-be mailbox and the hall monitors giving me funny looks all the while, no doubt elaborating their own theories as to my motivation for digging around in other people’s pockets.

After two weeks I couldn’t take it anymore. In Tolya’s next letter, I abstained from poetic expressions of my feelings and reported everything in my own words, trying to be as clear and straightforward as possible. I was aiming for maximum sincerity so as to make the best possible impression upon Tolya and convince him that I was deserving of his love. The result was as follows:

“Do not think ill of me, but I believe that under circumstances conducive to the development of an appropriate situational context the emotional slant of our extraordinary conversation might well produce a positive vibe. Given my desire to preserve anonymity I suggest starting with a virtual-verbal relationship with the intention of transitioning later into direct contact.”

Once more I asked Tolya, or rather Mister Y, to hang his jacket with his response inside it on the second hanger from the right on the third bar in the coatroom and to not ask anything else of me.

At that point he gave up, and for the next three months he couldn’t even bring himself to wear a coat to school, despite the fact that it was winter.

This might have meant either that Tolya had misunderstood my letters and thought someone was playing some kind of trick on him, or that Tolya had understood perfectly and decided to play some kind of trick on me, thereby confirming my worst suspicions.

If the former, Tolya was a coward. If the latter, I had suffered a major defeat. The next night I wrote the last poem cycle on the subject of my love for Tolya, titled You Don’t Deserve Me, ceremonially burned a piece of paper with Tolya’s name on it and swore to never again fall in love unless it was reciprocated, and for the rest of my days I would avenge upon the male race my first failed love. The poem commemorating this ritual I entitled “Oath.” It contained exceptionally strong, as I saw it, lines:

Taking a solemn oath to forget them all
I seal my lips, until into the grave I fall


Natalka Sniadanko

Natalka Sniadanko is one of the most vibrant voices in Eastern Europe today.  Translated into German, Polish, Russian, and Spanish, Sniadanko is also a translator herself, with such credits as Czesław Miłosz, Günter Grass, and Franz Kafka under her belt. She has received several prestigiuos residencies and fellowships in both Poland and Germany, and her work is marked by her travels.  Ever sharp, ever sensitive, Sniadanko possesses a wit and perspicacity that render each of her sentences sparkling and all of her interests contagious. Her first novel, The Passion Collection, funny and touching by turn, tells the story of a young Ukrainian woman falling in love with philology while also experiencing her first crushes and first love affairs. She has published a total of four books in Ukraine since that first, in 2001, and has appeared widely in literary journals and newspapers across Central Europe. At still under forty years old, Sniadanko is a writer to watch and to savor.

Jennifer Croft

Jennifer Croft is currently completing her PhD in Comparative Literary Studies at Northwestern University in Chicago. Her dissertation is on duels in literature from Chekhov to Bolaño. She holds an MFA in Literary Translation from The University of Iowa. She also translates from Polish and Spanish. She lives in Paris.

Copyright (c) Natalka Sniadanko, 2001. English translation copyright (c) Jennifer Croft, 2010.