I didn’t know Isa personally. Like many other guys from the so-called “public sector”, I knew only his Facebook profile. And although he had sent me a friend request, probably a year previously, I only accepted it recently. I heard from our mutual friends, including Lala, that Isa’s coming out had been taken by his family in an expected unambiguous manner. His father beat him up half to death; his mom wailed and wept uncontrollably, tearing her own hair out; her brothers emptied their salivary glands into his face, all the while keeping a truly enviable verbal restraint. The final scene of the family drama became the finishing blow and the peak of predictability: Isa was thrown out of his family home on the street. He was left with the clear understanding of his inappropriateness within the walls that had used to be a haven to his childhood emotions, joys and fears. And there he was, barely a step over the twenty years mark, on the streets, without a family, without money, without a permanent place to sleep at night…
According to Lala, Isa move into the LGBT office, fishing out expired produce from the store, cooking something edible in the small makeshift kitchen, washing himself and his clothes in the office bathroom. Some of his friends offered to help with accommodation, which turned out to be no more than verbal as only few of them could boast an apartment of their own. When it came to housing conditions, most of them were tied to their families and were hesitant to share their place under the parental roof with him, subconsciously hearing the whoosh of the sword of Damocles hovering above—the sword in the form of their parents and the probable consequences that were bound to take place should they find out about Isa’s orientation. Isa’s inappropriate sincerity only made the situation worse: after coming out he firmly expressed his unwillingness to hide his views on love. That came to bite him in the ass with the few lucky ones who lived separate from their families but were afraid of their neighbors or landlords. This is why he made the office his home. However, looking at his photos in the social network, no one could even think that this smiling, neat and well-groomed boy with a fancy hairstyle was living the life of a tramp.
Six months ago, a literary website announced a competition for the shorteststory. Isa had the nerve to participate with his two-sentence short story. On the day Mom told me she was disgusted by her fag of a son, I could hardly breathe. Since that day, I could no longer breathe like I used to… It became etched in the memory of the bohemian youth.
The news of Isa’s death hit me like a hammer and, to some extent, pushed my primal fear to the background: the trembling in my hands subsided, and I stopped convulsively scrolling the newsfeed with itching anxiety, waiting for my phone to ring and tell me that the local press had awarded me the title of the Baku-wide porn star. I caught a waiter and asked for the check, and while he was doing my bidding I continued to look through my Facebook feed with a new-sprung and, as I thought, unfair serenity. Isa’s death was everywhere; our friends kept reposting his last status update where he wrote, in perfect sincerity, about his intention to take his life. Some, made aware of his orientation, scribbled cheerful updates one after another like monkeys, and the gist of those mostly came down to the less fags more air memorized in the distant ignorant childhood. The brainier ones cooked up photo collages depicting Isa, in a perfectly fitting wedding dress and with a brighter make-up on than any local doll, walking down to the altar with some burly mustached man. Most of that handicraft equated gay men with those women who were not aggrieved by the traditional values, who were dying to mount themselves on a man’s penis. Never mind that this folk art that enjoyed the undeserved popularity belittled all women — not only liberated ones.
I minimized the social network app and opened several news portals. It was the same everywhere. The first positions of the tops were occupied by headlines related to Isa’s death written in the usual manner assiduously emphasizing the sexual orientation of the diseased: “Gay man killed himself”, “Gay man hung himself on LGBT flag”,
“Gay man committed suicide in LGBT office”.
I set my jaws to stop myself from blowing up with obscenities. I was pissed off by such presentation of information and I could not help it, no matter how I tried to calm down, telling myself that this was the usual subtle calculation on the part of the mass media to use this kind of clickbaits to get to the heart of our admass society. All information resources indulged themselves in this, from respectable giants of media holdings to tabloids. If you tried to admonish them, they raved unanimously about the rigorous policy of the editorial old-timers, about the splash headline clause stipulating the obligatory presence of a negative fashionable word—in this case “gay”—and hammered it down saying that by failing to follow these rules, they failed to achieve the goal set by their bosses, who, in turn, wouldn’t get approval from their own bosses, who were answerable to their higher-ups, and so on and so forth, until this disgraceful chain of servility reached the government. And we lived in the time when the latter sealed the fate of both state-owned and free mass media in our country.
Shame and guilt lurking at the back of my mind, I felt a sudden joy spreading in my heart like a plague, a traitorous elation that Isa’s suicide was now the news of the day. Yes, while the social networks and the press swarmed with the stories related to his death, the subject of my bedroom adventures and the accompanying video evidence would probably be pushed back or, even better, forgotten in the raging nation-wide dark joy. But streaks of black were already seeping into the whiteness of the base optimism covering my mind. Flickering thoughts were fusing into one new dreadful speculation: media people were just biding their time, waiting for the bacchanalia in the net to subside so that they could serve a new plate of spicy deliciousness to the public craving for scandals. They just needed the spotlight. Their goal was to humiliate me, to make their revenge as cynical as possible. And as long as Isa’s death was the day’s special, the predators had to lie in the bushes of their departments, casually celebrating the successful informational gambit. And then the black dot drowned in the whiteness of the insidious joy again. I felt like I was losing the connection to my rational mind, allowing odd coping mechanisms to take over. I couldn’t explain to myself how the valid reasoning that Isa would be forgotten in a few days and it would be the convenient time to publish the home video of one opposition journalist was spontaneously fended by the hope for a bright tomorrow.
“I’ll think about that tomorrow,” I muttered under my breath, like the heroine of my favorite movie, paid the check and walked out of the café.
I had to go to the LGBT office immediately to join my friend who sat there choking on sobs. And while I was at it, I had to shake off that stupor. I hailed a taxi. This type of public transportation could now be considered a luxury, but I remembered that, despite the termination of employment earlier today, I was still secretly a well-paid employee of the holding. I hadn’t lost the title of Ma’s favorite and she’d given me my year’s salary in advance. There was no point in thinking small and bumping and grinding on a bus. A Mercedes pulled up level with me a moment later. A young dark-skinned broad-shouldered driver with very beautiful eyes looked at me from the rolled down window.
“Please, get in, Miss,” he nodded to the passenger seat.
I opened the door and dove inside. The car had comfortable seats, air conditioning pleasantly chilled the air, the driver’s clothes were giving off a fresh woody scent of a men’s fragrance, and I thought again how far away I had sailed off from my quiet island of blissful noninvolvement by writing that piece. The inordinate amount of strength, the monumental efforts in the primal struggle for life it took me to achieve all that…
On the banks of the railroad…
First of all, let me tell you that I was not particularly lucky with my family and with the place where I was born and spent my childhood. It was a dull, gray archaic village of two hundred households, sprawling along the railroad with trains roaring and clattering by, their buffer springs crushing our dream of a better life. When a passenger train rushed by the village, its windows barely covered with tiny curtains fluttering in the wind, all of us village children would run to the railway embankment—the real thoroughfare of our village—to stare hungrily at the cars. People in nice clothes looked at us from the windows, their children clutching toys, chocolate, cookies, pointing their fingers at us, saying something to their parents. Those children would occasionally throw bright-colored chocolate bar wrapper out of the windows, and we would all but fight to the death for these pretty pieces of paper and tinfoil. Sometimes, during a fight, a wrapper would tear and no one got it. And sometimes, someone quick and nimble stealthily snatched a wrapper—while the conflicting parties were too busy to notice—and took off, and neither we nor the stones we hurled after him could reach the rascal. He would cherish his trophy and the happiness lasted until the cheap paper started to fade, turning into regular, plain paper.
Trains killed up to four people a year because, defying the administration of the region who visited the village with annual inspections, people kept blindly running on the tracks. It was all about the main road of the village—there was no asphalt on it, just like on any other road there, and the rain turned it into a boggy hell. The shapeless tentacles of mud crawled all over your rubber galoshes, gluing a walker to the road. So people crossed the railroad tracks to get from one side of the village to the other.
The administrative center had only one diner joint, one barbershop, one tailor shop and one grocery store with huge faded Cyrillic letters nailed to the front in times immemorial.
The diner served unpalatable cold grub. Anyhoo, as my father used to say, the patrons were all men. It was considered unthinkable and shameful for a woman to go there, and fathers did not spoil their children with visits to the blasted establishment. The only clothing store had an extremely poor choice of everything, which is why all villagers dressed alike. The only barber in the village gave the` same haircut to all men and shaved them, and there was no one to give haircuts to women. Women in our village were not supposed to get haircuts, and a rare occasional lady of fashion cut her own hair to the best of her abilities.
In our village, youth was the only asset that could make a person beautiful. Only young people looked pretty, fresh and pleasant. But beauty and freshness were not made to last—young people married early, girls by the age of twenty, guys by the age of twenty five. In a few short years, their youth withered and burned in the furnace of hard work and struggle for survival. As luck would have it, there was no stylish clothes or cosmetics in the village, or any other ways to preen your feathers. If you lost a tooth, you lived the rest of your life with a gaping hole in your gums; if you burned yourself, you lived the rest of your life with burn marks; if, by mischance, you got a scar on your face or body, the scar remained a lifelong mark. Women gave birth at home; sick people did not go to see a doctor until their ailment drove them to the critical condition, and when that critical condition occurred, they paid the only taxi driver in the village, who drove people around in his old faded orange Zhiguli, to take them to the hospital in the regional capital.
The only grocery store had only several kinds of produce—the shelves always sported sugar in an open sack, sold by kilo and wrapped in yellow paper, wrinkled and dented paper packs of tea, rice packs, tins of clarified butter, canned goods in small quantity and several kinds of cookies and candy that were also wrapped in yellow paper. Plastic bags were scarce all over the village, and the only way anyone could get one at home was when relatives from the regional capital came to visit. Women gave these bags to each other as pretty gifts or used them as handbags until the last pictures and letters faded.
The villagers cooked the same dishes at home, mostly from vegetables they grew in their own garden, dairy from their own cows or buffalos; on special days there would be something made from meat of poultry or livestock. Trash was taken out and piled up by the gate of people’s houses, and the towering pile of waste was burned only once a year. The ashes were then scattered over the garden. All dung from livestock was gathered into a pile and then made into “cakes” and left to dry on the side of the road. Yards were swept with crude brooms made of wormwood growing freely around the state-owned plots where the soil was unsuitable for sowing. In other words, not a single gift of Mother Nature was ignored.
I don’t remember children of our village ever enjoying a cake or an ice cream. The only joy for me and my three brothers, and for all village children was mud and cobbles scattered along the railroad. We could juggle those cobbles, play war with them, and if someone got hurt, then their mother came and each of us got slapped, including the injured party—for not being able to fight back or at least defend themselves.
Outside the “war” hours, we played with mud. We made cars, houses, beds and small people that for some reason always wore hats. Probably because our sculpting skills were not that good to make fancy hairstyles from brittle and sticky material. When evening came, we smashed our sculptures into shapeless flat cakes with one palm strike so that other children couldn’t get them. I remember feeling so painfully sorry for my small hat-wearing people but no one would dare take them home. Our mothers would whip us for bringing mud into the house. Truth be told, there were opportunities to replenish our arsenal of makeshift toys. Bulrushes started to grow when summer came. We pulled and broke them with our bare hands, sometimes cutting our palms, to make pipes we never learned to play.
If some kid got a toy from relatives from the regional capital, he kept it hidden for some time but then the desire to look down on the others got the upper hand and he paraded the toy on the same day, which was very reckless, because on the same day the neighborhood children got together and beat up the lucky one and broke the toy. If it was a car, it was dismantled and every part of it was meticulously crushed; if it was a doll, they tore off its ears and nose and scraped out its eyes.
Yes, we all were tough, unjaded by care and everyday blessings, strong and ruthless children—we were the way the reality of our village and parental education made us.
Everyone in our village made children; making babies was the main goal of all villagers. Their existence was a circle of priorities that remained unchanged for centuries: start a family, make children, raise children, marry them off, nurse grandchildren and die with a sense of accomplishment. One life scenario for the entire village. The only entertainment the adults knew was weddings, when the couple’s parents arranged a feast—inexcusable financially but very important traditionally. An enormous tent with long bare wooden tables and benches would be put up in the yard, its walls decorated with carpets woven by the women of the family, with strips of white cloth forming the words “Congratulations on the marriage!” on them. Neighbors and family would gather in those tents to be served several meat courses and tea. Almost every one of such feasts took place to the accompaniment of folk songs about parental and marital love sung by mustached and gold-toothed musicians.
The bride, decorated with too much of a clumsily executed makeup and a loud, glaring and crude manicure and gold jewelry bought by the groom’s family, sat with her intended. It was the only time in their lives when a man put on a black suit, pulled up his tie and sat with his woman at the head of the table, looking coyly at the guests together. Neither the bride nor the groom even thought to have fun, eat or talk to their acquaintances who came to their tent. They did not even talk with their best friends—the wedding day raised some kind of invisible barrier between friends and relatives and the happy couple that didn’t let them join the celebration of life.
Men walked to the musicians to snottily throw a bill on the table before them and order a song, and then invited their friends to keep them company, sometimes they called up their wives and children too. There was some reticence in the way they danced, some discrepancy and falseness in the pantomime: their serious look, the movements of their bodies, arms and legs disagreed with their facial expressions. Young men of our village had a habit of smashing each other’s faces at the end of the party, for the duration of which women and children left the tent.
Faces of many children had similar features because all villagers were to some degree related. Everyone knew everyone and the details of everyone’s family life, which didn’t stop mothers from attaching all kinds of odd objects rto the swaddle of their newborns, such as a thorn, a dry piece of dog shit or a black bead. This shaman’s arsenal was supposed to protect the child from evil eye. But who or why could put the evil eye on an ordinary child from an ordinary family in this abode of ordinariness? Incomprehensible! But new mothers and all their relatives somehow thought that the cursing and hexing eyes of their neighbors stared at their and no one else’s child.
I suppose everyone was poor but my parents’ poverty was special. Their poverty dictated them how to live, how to raise their children, how to act, how to eat, how to dress. I wore rags inherited from my father’s sisters who were only a few years older. I don’t remember anyone ever buying me new clothes, a toy or anything at all. I don’t remember Mom stroking my hair, I don’t remember Father talking nicely to me. I don’t remember a single day when our parents took us to the café to have ice cream and soda. I bought my first ice cream when I was nineteen. That day, I got another measly pay from the paper for my interview with a decorated singer whom I had wept into talking to me and finally decided to subdue my parsimony and satisfy at least one tiny whim of mine.
Poverty and struggle for survival dictated my parents’ rudeness, callousness and heartlessness to their children. They were not actually educating us at all; there were no heart-to-hearts, no explanations of human relationships, of right and wrong; our parents did not teach us manners or anything proper. The only thing they have instilled in us was how not to be a softy simpleton, not to give your things to other children, not to tell anyone how many heads of livestock or poultry we had—in other words, they molded us to the conditions of utter rural avarice. And inhuman labor.
My fragile girlish shoulders carried the burden of endless hard work: I had to look after the turkeys that Mom kept in the yard, to gather firewood in the village vineyard, to sweep and wash the rough unpolished floor that did not get or look any cleaner after washing, to wash the bottoms of my three younger brothers when they shat right in their pants (diapers were a thing of science fiction, and our parents did not have time to potty train them), to rip out the weed in the garden, to bring water from the nearby stream, to clean the cowshed, to make “cakes” from the dung that we burned in the stove in winter.
My body apparently was crippled by this hard work from childhood. Heavy buckets made my fingers and my legs crooked. Firewood that I broke off from the thorny bushes of saxaul and acacias left nasty scattering of scratches and scars on my hands. Frost tirelessly gnawed at my hands, face and lips in winter, making them resemble takyr, and the scorching sunlight and black dirt painted them sickly swarthy color in summer.
We rarely ate our fill and what we did eat was tasteless. Mom usually spread an old holey tablecloth, laid out a shapeless piece of homemade bread, boiled potatoes, cheese she made with her own hands and greens from the garden. On holidays, there could be leftovers, bones from a slaughtered chicken or turkey. The juiciest bits were meant for Father who sat at table. Yes, we did have a table and six chairs but only Dad and his guests who had a habit of coming by unceremoniously often were allowed to sit and eat there. A starving family fed those village men who came to our house pretending they had something important to discuss but actually striving to fill their maws. They knew our father’s weak spot—he was vain and wanted the whole village to think of him as the symbol of wealth and generosity. I have no idea if his guests spread the word of his magnanimity but I do remember living from hand to mouth because of them.
You could endure malnourishment. Village children were able to find anything fit for the stomach in the nature. In spring, we fed on blackberry seedlings, they were juicy and a bit sour. Stalks of very young thistle were edible too; we stole carrot and turnip from gardens, and in summer, we spent hours sitting on tree branches—mulberry, cherry plum, apple, peach, apricot, sweet cherry and summer pear that ripened in the middle of July instead of the end of fall. The overdose of fiber made us suffer from diarrhea every spring and summer, and our dilapidated wooden water closet that had no door, let alone a proper toilet bowl or toilet paper, could not meet the needs of four children walking with their arms wrapped around their swollen bellies. We usually wiped ourselves with pages of some book from Father’s library that he had kept before getting married.
According to Grandma and to our eldest aunt, Dad used to be an artistic and romantic young man. He dressed with elegance, read books and followed the city fashion—he let his hair grow out, wore corduroy pants and rare colognes. More importantly, at the agricultural vocational school where he studied for two years, his teachers, who represented hardcore Soviet intelligentsia, turned him on to fiction. He started taking out subscriptions to literary magazines and borrowing romance novels of local authors, who were plenty and multiplied thanks to the Soviet cultural policy, from the village library.
But years passed and Father got married. Now he had to build a house of his own, even if it was small, to plant his own garden, even if it was the help of his new wife, a typical village girl, to get his own livestock, even if it was on borrowed money. Then came children, bringing new worries: how to feed us, how to dress his wife and himself, how to stock food for winter for the family and for the animals. All these cares killed everything fashionable, romantic and beautiful that had lived inside him when he was young. The new life of a married provincial man, a wife that could not be farther from literature and any kind of art made him become like her, turned him into the proverbial crude, rude, shabby peasant.
Years later, when I became a journalist, I rented an apartment and communicated with my parents once in three months, traveling to visit them for a few days just to give them some money—they never learned to use any of the conveniences of the modern age or to go to the bank where they could open an account or get a wire transfer from me. On days like those, I felt related to them only physically. In my heart, I saw them as people from another life, from another world, from another century, in other words, from somewhere very far away. Looking through the pages of Dad’s old album filled with black-and-white photos from the 1980s, I could not relate that smirking long-haired young man in corduroy flares with a book in his hand to this bloated toothless old man whose entire existence came down to neighborhood gossip, taking care of the food stock for the animals and yelling demands for a large portion for lunch at noon.
Having eradicated the last traces and urges of romanticism, city manners and love for literature inside him, Mom began to use his massive library for completely different purposes. She tore off cardboard covers and used them to start the stove or tandir. Soft pages went to the water closet to serve as toilet paper or were used to wrap the eggs that Mom carried to the local market every Sunday. And that was what our family lived on, on Mom’s income from the market, on the fruits of Dad’s work in the field, in the garden, and in the cowshed. And although I was just a child, I could see something symbolic in her burning Father’s romantic past or sending it to the toilet …
Thus, toilet was how I got into fiction, thanks to my parents. During the spring and summer fits of diarrhea, when I had to squat for hours on the dirty stinking wooden boards that made our toilet, I entertained myself with fragments of the novels at hand. Those were romance novels or, sometimes, Soviet short novels from the 1960s. The common and very distinguishable thread running through them all was the idea of young love and total devotion to one’s Motherland as represented by the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, years later, when I had the Internet at my disposal, I could not find even one author of the books I had read during those onsets of diarrhea. Gone were their names, gone were the titles of their novels, and it seemed that the only proof of their existence was our memory, the memory of the last echoes of our country’s Soviet past.
But the authors’ names and the titles of those books were not the only things I remembered. For each book that I read I was rewarded by a beating from my parents. My father loathed educated woman and even girls who displayed any sign of nonconformity. Not without reason. My eldest aunt made her way out of poverty and country life and settled in the city. She managed to enter a university, moved to the capital and studied to become a journalist. She was the first—the first girl who left her father’s home not for her husband’s but for a university. For the city. For the capital. For a remote village like ours, it was so colossal, so incredible that the locals split into two camps. Women envied her because she had broken free of the dull province, and men could not come to terms with the fact that a daughter of the poor shepherd whom they always treated like dirt had dared to enter “the house known under the magical name of university!” Someone started rumors about a girl living alone, “without her father and brothers to look after her”, and definitely “straying”.
The whole village cried shame upon Grandfather and Father. They were told all kinds of made-up stories about my aunt, how she was allegedly seen gallivanting in a company of many men, in nightclubs and with a new boyfriend every day. In the villagers’ opinion, such behavior was unacceptable and disgraceful both for a local girl and for her family. And I think that if it wasn’t for my imperious and formidable grandmother, whose fury frightened not only her whole family but all neighbors as well, Father, driven by slander, would have followed his sister and killed her on the delusional pretext of defending family honor.
In reality, my poor auntie lived in the capital for five years, studying with children of moneybags and government officials, wearing hand-me-downs, spending hours in the library and eating soup she made once a week. The family barely had the money to pay for her apartment in the capital. Her screaming poverty did not allow her to mingle with the fellow students—social life was all about get-togethers, walks, shopping and so on, and all that took money.
After graduation, my aunt returned to the village. There was nothing was her in the city. She had no friends because of her lack of social activity, she never managed to make any connections, so in her fifth year, when her classmates were already on a certain step of their career development, she didn’t know the address of even one editorial office in the capital. Her parents had no intention of paying for her city life after graduation, and Auntie had to go back home.
Her only hope not to drown in the tedious, exhausting whirlpool of country life was a job at the provincial newspaper, while her parents cherished the dream that their daughter, a certified journalist, would marry a respectable, by the village standards, man. But local gossips and slanderers damaged my aunt’s reputation so badly that no one would take her. She got married when she was over thirty, and the fellow who came to ask for her hand worked as a caretaker at the regional hospital. The family grudgingly gave their consent to the wedding—as Grandma said, this wasn’t the kind of man worth straining your eyes over books for five years and eating nothing but soup for weeks.
My aunt’s case became a festering wound on my father’s pride. He was not going to have another girl with a high education in his family. Belatedly trying to live up to the image of a respectable and well-meaning father, he made plans to marry me off at the age of fifteen and thereby relieve the itch of his inflated ambitions. So every time he or Mom caught me with a book in my hand, they saw it as first cracks in his master plan.
I remember Memed, My Hawk, the novel by the Turkish author Yaşar Kemal, for a beating on the floor where I lay bloodied—Father’s fist met with my teeth, filling my mouth with blood. The “Genius” by the American author Theodore Dreiser bought me a whipping on the back. Each book I read then left an imprint on my memory as various kinds of beating, and my memory associated the books titles with the pain it caused me: each book had its own particular pain.
But the most terrible thing in my childhood was the rooms filled with clouds of the stifling cigarette smoke. Father’s guests had a habit of staying up late into the night playing dominoes, smoking one cheap cigarette after another nonstop. The pungent smoke from the lungs of five or six men filled our bedroom through the open door. Being but a little girl, I let my imagination run wild—I imagined those swirls of smoke gleaming languidly in the dim light of the living room to be hostile alien beings and pressed my face into the pillow. In winter, our sleep depended on the kindness of our guests—the fire was burning only in the stove in the living room, while the bedroom was freezing. Our whole family just sat and hoped that those gentlemenwould be so kind as to leave soon. We sat on the floor under the canopy of fumes waiting for the guests to leave so that Mom could arrange the mattresses that we used for beds—only Dad slept on the actual bed—and we could finally surrender to our dreams.
From time to time, one of my younger brothers would fall asleep right in Mom’s arms, dazed by the smoke. Dad saw that but neither he nor the guests would stop their smoky supper accompanied by the rhythm of their loudly banging dominoes, demanding fresh tea from Mom every half hour.
My mom was probably the most hardworking, the most proficient woman I have ever known. I wish I had bright memories of her. Even as I go through the slides of the scenes from my childhood, desperately trying to find those that could capture a memory of the softness of her touch, the warmness of her embrace, her gentle kiss, her carefully buttoning my jacket, I am left with nothing. Instead, the mental screen of my memory shows flashes of her beating me: here is one of her hand covering my mouth when I’m about to say something in public; here is one of her dealing me hard ringing slaps in the bathroom only because she was sick and tired of bathing four children every week; there she is raining blows on me for being careless and burning the dinner; I scroll again and see myself screaming under the rods—a fox stole chicks from our henhouse; and again—my younger brothers broke some houseware but I’m the one who pays for it; the next slide is of Mom dragging me off the bed by the hair when I wake up after six in the morning. I was beaten if I came home from school empty-handed, because it was my responsibility to gather firewood so that Mom could bake some bread in the tandir. I was beaten for laughing too loudly, because it did not become a village girl to express her emotions openly, because a village girl had to be reserved. And, of course, the sad refrain of all those flashing slides is the image of me, hunched and covering my head with my arms, taking the hail of Mom’s strikes for my love of books. All that was instigated by Father.
Nevertheless, I did not hold that against her—Father was another matter entirely. I forgave her even as I was still a child. I saw and understood the hard joyless dull life she had lived in her father’s home and continued to live in my father’s home after the age of seventeen. Hard work and poverty, the exhausting hustle of monotonous days in the village, isolation from social diversity, and the fact that she had never been in contact with anything bright, beautiful, sublime, cultural did not let her soul nurture something gentle and humane inside. There was the typical roaring brashness in the way she spoke and her manners betrayed something bestial; she ate quickly, sinking her teeth in big chunks of food, champing and slurping loudly, licking her thick blackened calloused fingers. Her hair were always shiny with oil, her clothes were always damp and greasy, and she herself always gave off a stench—the mixed smell of sweat, dung and cow milk. She was always so tired that she slept with her mouth open, wheezing because of her asthma—it sounded like a newborn baby was wailing in the room. Always in a hurry, always tired, never resting properly, she could not eat slowly and savor the food instead of barely chewing it and swallowing, and more than that, she had no opportunity to take care of herself in any way. The hustle and bustle of everyday life made her irritated, she was always hurrying herself and rushing me. The tiniest lag, the tiniest deviation from the set pace threatened me with more manhandling and a downpour of filthy swear words from her. She beat up my brothers too but more work and more beating came my way because I was a girl and because I was the eldest.
I left it all behind as soon as I was admitted to the university. Fortunately for me, that was the year when Father went abroad where my eldest aunt lived to earn some money. And I talked Mom into allowing me to submit my application to the university. Father’s absence freed Mom’s hands because there was no one to be afraid of now. She gave me her permission but said at once that she did not have the money to pay for my education. I managed to enroll on a full scholarship but life in the capital still required some funds and we were too poor. I promised Mom that I would take care of all my expenses in the city myself and even help her out.
When the precious letter from the university came, I prostrated myself before our formidable grandmother. She was the only member of our family who had any money. She saved for a rainy day her pension and the money my aunt sent her from abroad. It did not take much to convince her but it was not much use: the amount she gave me would cover the bus ride to the capital and a few new dresses. After all, I was a student now and my wardrobe had to be renewed a little, to look more modern. My old and worn out holey rags were no good for the university. As for the rent, Grandmother dismissed me out of hand.
“We are not that rich to afford renting a room for you. You have an uncle in the city, your mother’s brother, so you can stay at his place. Maybe they can feed you too. I think your uncle has the decency to share his roof and food with his blood niece.”
I kissed her wrinkled hands and thanked her heartily and then I left for the city.
In the city
I remember that hot summer day when I dove out of the bus and into the boiling cauldron of city life. The smell of burnt asphalt hit my lungs. It seemed as though the entire city, this entity woven from people’s loud voices and cars honking, covered in huge billboard and washed with the endless ocean of products laid out right along the pavements, was eager to push me back into the bus and send me on my way. I, who had left my country abode with its tranquility and clean air, was disgusted with the sounds, smells and the bustle of the city life. Frankly speaking, I did not fall in love with the capital at first sight. Take away the myriads of scurrying people, lines of stores, shops, restaurants and cafes and joints on every corner, high-rise buildings and other outlines of urbanism, and the city in its despondency was little different from my village. But I knew that behind the tapestry of the capital’s unfriendly detachment there was a life full of colors, sparkle, glamor and fun and that only money, career and connections could help me get there. I did not have any of that yet. But I will, I said to myself, and it was not a fit of optimism and faith in my successful future, it was the voice of realism that rightly equated leaving back for the village to leaving life.
No, I wasn’t encouraged by romantic illusions of conquering the capital, I wasn’t dazzled by the glitter of the future luxurious life in my dreams, my imagination did not paint magnificent pictures of a successful marriage to a millionaire. I knew that these things could only happen in movies or romance novels. In this matter, Auntie’s experience was a cautionary tale to me, and I only hoped to find a modest place among the constellations of the city lights. I wanted to make friends, to find some job, to be able to go to a café at least once a week and enjoy food cooked by someone else instead of killing myself in the kitchen; I wanted to wear nice practical store-bought clothes instead of some cheap rags from the market. To put it simply, I wanted to live a fun life that would annihilate any memory of my joyless childhood.
The enormous plastic bag, which I had put down on the ground to let my arms rest for a while, contained the presents from Mom for Uncle’s family. She had wrapped two dozen eggs in book pages and swaddled the leg of the lamb slaughtered two days ago and two chickens in a large white cloth, and there were greens and vegetables from our garden at the bottom of the bag. People walked by looking at me either with a smirk or with a vague bewilderment. It felt like they all knew that it was my first day in the city, that I had just come from the country. My clothes, being a size too big, betrayed me easily—Aunt’s dress hung on me like Pierrot’s blouse; dangling from my right shoulder was my eldest aunt’s small purse that Grandma had probably kept from her student years. I was wearing rubber slippers because there wasn’t enough money to get a pair of shoes and Aunt’s shoes were too big. Of course, I felt ashamed and embarrassed of my grotesque look that seemed to be a magnet for mocking and arrogant stares.
All of a sudden, a young man in jeans and glasses stopped in front of me.
“Miss, your bag is leaking!” he said and, seeing my puzzled expression, laughed and walked on.
I looked down at my plastic bag. The chickens and lamb leg that had been frozen yesterday now melted from the heat, and streaks of water were sprawling from the bag over the hot asphalt, like spider legs from spider’s body. I blushed with shame. Great, I thought, so my bag is leaking too now, is this why people are scoffing at me? I did my best to hold back a scream of despair coming up my throat. It didn’t even occur to me to throw the bag away. My hungry childhood made me thrifty and careful with every single piece of stale bread, not to mention such expensive products as meat and vegetables. SothereIstoodwithmyleakingplasticbag.
On that day, a neighbor of ours who had come to the capital on business gave me a lift to meet my uncle, an ex-serviceman who lived with his wife and three children in a one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of the city. His family definitely was not delighted with the new addition to their already cramped apartment. They were also bothered by my peasant status and the indefinite duration of my stay. But neither Uncle’s wife nor Uncle himself didn’t let it show. Uncle was Mom’s brother and he knew for sure that had he refused to accommodate me, his sister, that is my mother, would have been disgraced for life in her husband’s family. They would keep reminding her that her brother was no man, good for nothing, if he denied his niece a place to stay. Suchwerethelaws of familial relations.
I saw my uncle’s small flat, I saw his wife racking her brains every evening to figure out how to arrange the mattresses so that each one of us could get to the bathroom at night without disturbing the others, I saw her trying to make enough food for everybody from scarce tasteless groceries. I felt ashamed of leeching off them but I was a long way from independent life yet. In a few days, she said regretfully that, as much as she would like to, she would not be able to make me anything for lunch I could take with me to the university, because there was nothing to cook from. I put her at ease by telling her I would find a job and have the money for lunch at the university cafeteria. Shesighedwithrelief.
So it was time to think about a job.
Shortly before the classes started, I camped on the doorstep of editorial offices of all newspapers in the capital. I offered my services as a journalist, not having the first clue about this profession or the lexical specifics of the word. Saying “journalist”, I meant an employee whose responsibilities included searching for the person the editor wanted to find and interviewing that person. The main selection criterion almost everywhere was work experience. No one wanted to hire an inexperienced girl with explicit manners of a peasant who did not know the first thing about journalism. Some editors regarded my offer as too insolent: look at this kid, doesn’t have any experience but demands a job. I saw that arrogant astonishment in their eyes, I heard it in their annoyed voices. But nothing seemed to be able to stop me. My poverty was too obvious, so I had to grin and bear it and come again and again. I think only rich people could afford the luxury of feeling angry or hurt—or at least people who were not as poor as I was back then.
Fortunately for me, in those years, two thirds of all editorial offices in the capital were huddled in an enormous old building near my university. I didn’t have to travel from one end of the city to another and spend what little I had on transportation. I walked the corridors of the eleven-storied building, knocking on one door after another. Each door opened into a large room with huge uncurtained windows, with four or five people inside, each at a decrepit dirty desk covered in ballpoint pen writings, with hardened lumps of chewing gum and cobwebs underneath. An employee’s equipment was not scanty but it was nothing remarkable either: a big calendar, several notebooks and pens, a landline phone, an old dictaphone and a pile of crossword puzzles to diversify their leisure time. Only the chief employee, who was trained in speed typing, had a computer, all others used more traditional writing methods. The Internet would not arrive for another ten years…
I opened a door, shyly introduced myself, said that I was looking for a job and asked to see the editor-in-chief, and the employees openly expressed their hostility, stressing it with a humiliating smile. Sometimes they called a human resources specialist from the next room. The HR specialist did not invite me into his office or display any elementary politeness by suggesting I sat down. I was asked a few questions and when I said that I had no education or experience, I got a categorical no. I closed the door, walked down the corridor and knocked at the door of their competition. A month passed. No one would hire me but I was always saved from despondence by despair that painted nightmarish pictures of my future awaiting me upon my return to the village if I gave up.
I had to find a job.
One day I met a young man smoking by the door to the building of editorial offices, where I had come in another attempt to find something. My old clothes and frightened, helpless look probably got his attention.
“Do you work here, Miss?” he asked with a smile, in a confident tone of voice.
Although he did not look like someone proudly and confidently staring down at me from a high step of the career ladder at one of those damned publications—in the month of my wanderings from door to door, from office to office, I had become quite skilled in recognizing big bosses—bashful and trusting, I saw in this man my smoldering hope to find a job. My answer was not long in coming.
“I don’t but I would like to. I’m looking for a job.”
The man held out his hand and introduced himself.
In a few years, I would be known in mass media as a famous journalist and a bodacious, provoking writer, and my name would be heard in the press and in the literary circles more and more often. I would turn my signature into a popular brand, the presence of which would determined the increased rate per post, due to the ring of authority. I would be able to rent an expensive apartment, wear famous brands, spend time in elite cafes and restaurants, but my paranoid frugality bordering on bean counting would hold me back, pushing me away from even allowed and justifiable expenses. Pitying my parents, I would give them the lion’s share of my earnings. But even in this scenario, the remaining amount would be more than enough for me. Besides, I would rarely pay for myself because almost every day I would eat at dinner parties given by famous rich people. With my nose proudly in the air, I would not remember that man, the first person who offered me a helping hand, I would loathe cheap dirty joints where we used to have lunch together, I would forget his shabby office with crooked furniture, his old faded gray suit stinking of tobacco, his perpetual armpit sweat stains, his hairy hands, his gold teeth, his primitive articles stinking of cheap provincial spirit, the topics he gave me, the pathetic editorial office with all its pathetic employees, their one-track minds that never failed to betray them in the pathetic subjects of their conversations. I would forever erase from my memory everything related to that lousy period of my life. I would drown it in the whirlpool of new events, great accomplishments, acquaintances and connections that awaited me in the following years.
But on that day, the man with gold teeth was my only chance and I clung to it without hesitation. He invited me to his office and introduced me to third-rate journalism and other employees of the newspapers that lived not on the readers’ money but at the expense of the state budget and small businessmen.
The journalists in that paper were divided into those who earned their living wiring articles and those walking the beaten track of informational blackmail. The latter followed a pretty trivial pattern, calling petty officials and telling them that they had something incriminating and that the secrecy of the dirty laundry fully depended on the amount the victim could offer.
Out of the proposed categories I chose the one that appealed to me the most. I was not hired as a full-time employee but I got quite an important assignment—I had to interview famous singers, actors and writers whom I was to seek out at social events. The condition was that I would be paid for my work only after the old timers saw and evaluated my interviews. The same condition said that my fee was half the standard one, the other half being given to the proofreaders.
In the following nine months, I chased celebrities across the capital—and I didn’t know the city well and could only use metro stations as reference points. It took me a year to finally develop a sense of direction and learn to navigate the city with the ease inherent in its natives; I also learned to be quick, sociable and mastered the art of ingratiation through smarmy speech that was often the best medicine for the defiance of some stars. And I learned to ask the right questions, to articulate my thoughts briefly, coherently and clearly, like a real journalist. My colleagues and my mentor, whose withdrawal was not natural but a consequence of a joyless life, already knew that I would not stay long in their little closed-off world, for journalism was almost the only field of work where professional growth required not mentors or guardians or respectable acquaintances or an affair with the boss but a great professional acumen and, of course, a writing talent.
Gunel Movlud Imanova is an ICORN guest writer living in Norway.