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Clown

By Emil A. Draitser

Copyright by Confrontation Magazine, 1999


Late autumn. The deserted park around the stadium stood neglected and overgrown. They had circled it again and again, sinking up to their ankles in fallen leaves, and talking. Actually, Tamara was talking; he just nodded his head from time to time in agreement. 

"Grisha, we should get married," she said. "We really should. You know it perfectly well. How much longer do I have to drag myself across the whole city just to be with you? Let's get a place somewhere near the center... Near the stores, where we won't have to get on a tram to go to a movie, and we can just walk there. Besides, you've got to understand what it's like for me to keep sneaking into the men's quarters every time..."

They had met a year before at a party. Afterwards she would come to see him on the outskirts of the city, straight from her shift at the factory. She would come, and without talking much they would cling to each other, and only the warmth of her body helped him escape, while they were together, from complete numbness, from the oppressive longing that gripped his head. She worked as a shift foreman in a textile plant. Although she carefully tied a scarf over her hair, she suffered, because there was nowhere in the men's quarters where she could get really clean. When he rested his face against her shoulder, a faint scent of machine oil would reach him, and it would seem to him that her body was still vibrating in unison with the looms; one day he came to the plant to pick her up, and saw how the shuttle flew with insane speed, like some bald, raving devil, and when he tiptoed up behind her and took her by the hand, her hand quivered in time with the machine. There was so much young energy in her! He felt that it was because of this, not because of anything else, that in moments of passion words broke away from her which threw him into a fever and muddled his thinking. "Gri-sha," she would whisper, burning his ear with her breath. "Don't stop! Don't stop! You're made for me... Grisha."

He would hug her even harder and think that he couldn't bear the pleasure, that he would cry out. It's stifling, stifling in the textile plant; sweat on her face; it stings his eyes too; and the shuttle, gone mad, speeds from one end of the enormous loom to the other, promptly and accurately, from here to there, coupling the impossibly separated threads, swiftly tying knots, lifelong knots. The threads lashed together, twisted, tightened, flattened against each other. The shuttle must arrive everywhere on time. If he doesn't make it, the thread will sag, tangle, be torn off, disappear. Faster, faster, faster still. The threads are joining and spreading left and right; they are pulled somewhere sideways, they entwine, alternate, change place and time and direction of movement, fill with the light of the moon, the impossibly brazen moon, forcing its way through the cheap, banal curtains of the quarters of the young working people, the hard, hard-working people. The threads can't come undone--there's no empty time, no time not filled with movement, no space in which to catch one's breath. The shuttle flies headlong, arriving at the very last moment at the intended point, the desired point, the point of highest, sweetest destination; arriving on time, neither earlier nor later, just on time, when it's wanted and welcomed, arriving with a new thread in tow, full of life and endlessly spinning, the thread itself twisting with the passion of movement, it too overwhelmed by passion. The shuttle runs, tireless and nimble, gone crazy from the heat of battle, from the passion of clasping, embracing, interlacing, gladdened and frightened by the challenge of the endeavor, by play, which is also work, and by happiness, which is also torment.

Grisha felt as if a hot hand were squeezing the back of his neck. Through the sharpness of pleasure it occurred to him that Tamara's whisper not only gave him joy, but that it also, for some reason, frightened him... In these moments of deepest intimacy, she would suddenly become inconceivably close to him. But as soon as she left, he would discover to his bewilderment that the feeling of closeness had disappeared. With alarm and guilt he would feel that he was forgetting her, even if she had only been gone a few days. Days! Sometimes only an hour would go by, and it would seem as if she had never existed. Like moisture on a sidewalk under an emerging southern sun, all trace of her would somehow vanish.

Well, it's all right, he would tell himself, everything takes some getting used to, even the good things. We'll be seeing each other again, and the little knot will be tied, that delicate thread will stretch out between us, the spool will be filled with the memory of the time we spent together, and everything will be fine. There will be no more emptiness. There will be no pillow next to me that has grown cold during the night... But the little knot wouldn't come together; it just wouldn't happen. The threads that had lashed around each other would unfasten for some reason, would hang in the air--loose, untied...

They met irregularly--sometimes she would visit almost every other day, sometimes she would call to say she had to work overtime, and a couple of weeks would go by before she appeared again. About two months after they had begun seeing each other, she told him that she had been having a complicated affair, for more than a year, with her shop manager. His name was Victor, his wife was an unbearable woman. He was really in love with Tamara, and only the complexity of his relationship with his wife, her stubborn unwillingness to let him go, stood in the way of their happiness. Grisha was unprepared for this news but, to his surprise, he felt something like relief, he heard her out calmly, and only asked toward the end, tonelessly, muttering, why she liked Victor so much. In answer her eyes flashed in the semi-dark. "He's special," she said dreamily, lightly patting Grisha on the shoulder.

What exactly made him special, she didn't specify. AllGrisha understood from the things she said at various times, with carefully controlled enthusiasm, was that Victor was very witty, that he valued her as a young, promising scientist, that they were to write a scientific article together, that she had already gathered enough initial data for it in the plant. They also understood each other remarkably well. Just a word or two between them was enough.

Grisha asked no more about it. Months passed. Tamara dropped by from time to time as before, but spoke about Victor less and less. One day, when Grisha happened to ask, nonchalantly, how her affair was progressing, she said she had decided to break up with Victor, because he had disappointed her--he had turned out to be an indecisive man. And an indecisive man... is not a man at all.

Meanwhile, Grisha's life was up and down. For the first time he was alone, far away from family and friends, in a completely different city. He kept to himself, asking himself for the first time what kind of person he was, and what really mattered. From his long, lonely hours in the room in the men's quarters, he was beginning to get headaches. He lost faith in the wisdom of Khayyam--that it's better to be alone than with just anybody. He had discovered a long time ago that he preferred the presence of anyone, no matter who, rather than complete emptiness. Sometimes he, a young specialist, would be asked to put up an engineer who had been sent on a job from another district. Although their conversations usually didn't amount to much--those who had been sent would arrive towards nightfall, falling asleep, having gotten pretty drunk after the working day--the acute pain in his temples would vanish nonetheless. Grisha often regretted that he couldn't have a dog; the superintendent of the men's quarters wouldn't even hear of such liberties.

The loneliness only really receded when he clung to Tamara's small body. He would lean his forehead against her stomach, and she would encircle his narrow shoulders with her arms, just like his grandmother in his childhood. In a few minutes the numbness would be gone, the hand that had been gripping the back of his neck would let go, and this in itself was surely happiness. It would be time, then, for caresses--caresses so bold that at times he was surprised at his own daring and assurance in knowing how to touch her.

Sometimes she would get up unexpectedly in the middle of the night falling asleep, turn on the little table lamp and walk over to the small mirror in the opposite corner of the room, in front of which Grisha shaved. She would look into it and groan because she didn't like the way she looked. "Like a witch," she would say, laughing and starting to brush her hair and powder her nose, complaining that her beauty was fading, fading, that soon guys would be completely uninterested in her.

"You wonder why I spend so much time at the mirror," she said, turning out the light, already coming back to him in the darkness. "Because it's the only thing worth spending time on," she said, stroking his chest. She spoke liltingly, as if she were telling a children's story. "You think it's all foolishness. But it isn't. Maybe it's the only thing that keeps life going on this planet. I think that mirrors all over the world somehow transmit images of women to somewhere far away, to other galaxies, which hold our fate in their hands and decide whether we will exist or not. They could easily annihilate us for our uselessness, and only beauty stops them. As long as there are beautiful women on earth, the world is safe. That's how it is, my Simple Simon," she said, laughing.

Maybe there's some truth in what she says, thought Grisha, falling asleep. Life doesn't make sense. Maybe beauty makes sense? Maybe it isn't by chance that men tease women at the mirror by saying they're performing a sacred ritual. 

So it went, right until autumn. When the rains came, Tamara's ankle boots would get stuck in the mud in front of the entrance to the men's quarters. The puddles didn't much bother the working men, because many of them worked outdoors; they wore rubber boots the whole year round. But Tamara became quite upset, and finally she sighed and said to Grisha that she couldn't go on like this any more, enough was enough, they had to get married. He nodded his head, shrugged his shoulders: "Well, of course, she's right, it has to be done. It'll be better that way, it's obvious." They applied for their marriage certificate and received the usual store coupons for newlyweds. He didn't have a decent pair of pants. With some difficulty, she was able to find a pair of fashionable white shoes with high heels.

"Grisha, do you like them?" she said, turning around in front of the mirror.

"They're fine," he said.

"That means not really." 

"What's with you, Tamma? I don't know anything about women's shoes, that's all." 

She hesitated for a minute and bought the shoes.

The day before the signing of the marriage certificate, he phoned her at the factory, they had to call for her for a long time, the machines were making terrible noise, and she shouted into the receiver: "What happened, Grisha? Didn't we agree to meet tomorrow?"

"Nothing happened!" he shouted in answer. "Come to the city! Today!" 

Between them, "to the city" meant the city square, in front ofthe main post office. She got there on time, even a little earlier than Grisha; she'd taken time off from work. When he arrived, she had already picked up a package at the claims window. The parcel was from her mother, from Frunze, where she lived with Tamara's stepfather. Not saying anything to each other, they headed upthe street, in the directionof the Dnieper. When Grisha and Tamara had reached the river, she glanced quickly into his face.

"Grisha, what's going on?" she said, turning pale. "What's with you? Didn't we agree?..."

Grisha was silent.

"Well, all right," she said, gripping the parcel with both hands, and forcing herself to smile. "All right, let's put it off. You're not ready yet. I understand ... I understand you better than anybody else, isn't that true?"

Anybody else? There wasn't anybody else who could understand him or not understand him.

She glanced at him again.

"Grisha, be a man. Why do you have to torture us both? You'll have a house, a family. It's easier to live together. Everything will be normal. Everything will be the way it's supposed to be."

She was silent for a little while, then said calmly, already looking not at Grisha, but into the distance, at the bare treetops, at the Dnieper, cold dove-gray in the rapids, dull gray by its banks, "Everything will be the way it should be, Grisha."

She walked up to the cliff, looked down at the thorny, wet, bare shrubs, and with the tip of her shoe kicked a small stone. She waited while it rolled down to the very bottom, to the water, and added quietly, but still he heard: "Great love, though--none of us is immune to that. Not you, not me..."

He understood all along that she was right, they should get married and not think any more about it. He wouldn't be tormented any more by loneliness, by long days off that were filled with nothingness when Tamara wasn't there; it wouldn't be empty and dreary during the holidays, and he could sleep every night in the same bed with Tamara and hear her living breath besides him. 

"Well, what is it, Grisha?" she said smiling like an older sister who sees through her younger brother, sees all his simple little thoughts. "What are you afraid of?" She burst out laughing. "Everything will be fine. Come to the registry office tomorrow. Will you come? My God, it seems I'm talking you into marrying me! How embarrassing!"

Grisha continued to be silent. She couldn't bear it and started to cry. Her swarthy face darkened further, so that dark-gray freckles showed through on her cheeks. He noticed a little thread in her hair, at the side, on her temple, that she hadn't managed to comb out in her hurry to be with him. She wept, and a vein beat on her temple, and because of the little thread and the vein he felt an intolerable compassion for her. He tried to force himself to take her in his arms and hug her hard, but although he felt guilty, he couldn't move...

Out of habit they were heading toward the cafe across from the post office. It was dinnertime. He was surprised at how grief walked its path while life walked a path of its own. They were on their way to the cafe, Tamara was crying, and he was struck by how impatiently, despite her tears, she tore open the wedding package from her mother. She quickly looked over the lacy pink silk nightgown and shoved it back in the box.

Then they ate in the cafe. Tamara, weeping softly, pulled a sausage across her plate with her fork. "A little streetcar," she said, looking at it with a smile.

They met again once, maybe twice, at the deserted stadium.She was crying again and said: "What do you want from me? Go away, I'll find someone else." She tried to laugh, but there was a lump in her throat. 

"I'll go to the beach, spread out a towel, lie down, the guys will come running, they always did...Why shouldn't they come running again? I'm still all right, I watch my weight. Oh, you, Grisha, Grisha! Simple Grisha. Simple Simon..."

She teased him without any hope. For the sake of teasing... Grisha was silent. He felt morose, empty, unhappy, and didn't know what to say to her, how to comfort her.

 

Seven years later they met again. By that time he had already managed to get married, and in a few years get divorced. He lived in a narrow, long, low-ceilinged little room, like a pencil case, on one of the side streets in the center of Moscow. He stood at the entrance to the subway and saw her. She was talking about something with two other young women, but when she felt his gaze she turned around.

"Grisha," she laughed. "Imagine meeting like this!" 

"Are you living in Moscow?" said Grisha, still not believing it was she.

"No," she said. "I live in Tashkent. I'm here on business." She nodded in the direction of the young women, who had been looking at them with curiosity. "From my institute. We're staying in the same hotel."

And here Grisha said, surprising himself, "Come to the theater tonight. My part's small, but maybe you'll like the play."

He said this and only then noticed the ring on her finger.

"Grisha, are you an actor?" she asked, loudly and with a laugh. "I never expected that!"

"I guess so," Grisha shrugged his shoulders. "It passes the time..."

Having ended up single again, he had joined an amateur theater group so he wouldn't be alone in the evenings. She laughed again and said that he had really surprised her and that, although she was terribly pressed for time to get all her business done in the capital, she would see if she could manage to take a look at what he was doing on stage, she was really curious.

She sat through the performance, and waited in the lobby while he removed his greasepaint. Then they walked, wandering aimlessly through the Moscow streets. Yes, she had gotten married soon after they split up--to a mathematician. She herself had also received her doctorate three years later. She and her husband were a very efficient team. Their first priority was an apartment--they'd have to put pressure on the authorities at the institute for that. Then a car--they'd already been on the waiting list for two years. Next on the agenda--a baby. She was smiling, talking about how, between her and her husband, everything was planned and considered way ahead. That's the way it is these days, you can't throw your life upon the will of the waves. Her dark eyes were laughing: "Everything, as they say, is as it should be with me; everything's on track." 

It was late evening, they walked through the thinning crowd of pedestrians, and without any real reason, just as a natural continuation of the conversation, and because it was drizzling, he invited her to drop in at his place--to see how he lived. She followed him without hesitation, as if she had known all along that things would take that turn.

There was little light in the room. The window had swung open. She walked over to it, stood frozen at the windowsill. A smell of damp rose from the street. The light rain seemed out of place, although it was only May, Moscow's own cool month, chilly as a newborn kitten. The neon sign of the confectioner's across the way blinked on and off. The badly fitting switch of the sign made it buzz like a bee peacefully flying along a flowerbed. Because of this buzzing and because of the way the pale green light of the advertisement flickered along with it, it seemed to him that her cheek was trembling, her pale green, sorrowful cheek. She looked down at the narrow street, the street that was by now completely empty. He offered her some wine.

"You go ahead," she said, not turning around. "None for me."

Then there was silence. It went on so long that he couldn't stand it, he walked over and carefully, awkwardly, laid his hands on her shoulders. She kept looking down at the narrow street. A pale pink--no, she'd already turned pale green again--aquarium fairy, a mermaid who had emerged from the depths of his lonely past. She patted Grisha's hand, which rested on her shoulder, patted it lightly, as if to say, never mind, Grisha, everything will be all right. He held her closer. In answer she calmly freed herself from his embrace. She took his hands from her shoulders and, smiling, crossed them on his chest, as if to say, this is where good boys' hands belong, then walked to the door. "Is she really going to leave, just like that?" he thought in confusion, sinking into the couch.

She walked across to the far end of the pencil case, to the door. She took off her shoes--white shoes with high heels. He had noticed them earlier, when they were walking along the street. They looked like the shoes from the newlyweds' store. Surprisingly new, as if they'd never been worn before...

Without shoes, she became small. She walked up to him, drew aside his hands, on which his chin was resting, and pressed his head against her belly. He put his arms around her hips, sensed through her dress the long-forgotten scent of her body. It even seemed to him suddenly that he could smell the dust from the textile plant. He knew it was nonsense, that she hadn't worked at the plant for a long time. But he would swear to God the scent was there...

She sat on his knees, swaying a little, looking not at him, but out the window. It was awkward for him to hold her on his knees, but he couldn't do what he wanted so much to do--remove her dress, see her dark shoulders, hear her hot breath and the little whisper in his ear: "You're made for me, Grisha... You're perfect for me." Later he often remembered this scorching whisper, this profoundly secret incantation of tormented female passion--no other woman, least of all his former wife, had ever uttered anything like it.

She got up off his knees and silently and deftly, with a single motion, pulled her dress over her head.

After two hours or so she started to get dressed, although he was asking her to stay until morning. 

"What are you talking about, Grisha!" she said, as if he had said something incredibly stupid, which she had never expected to hear from him. "My colleagues are waiting for me in the hotel." 

While she collected her things, he got up, and when she was ready, embraced her again. In response she suddenly cried out.

"I could have had a seven-year-old son now," she said, with fierce resentment. "Imagine. He would be seven years old, a little man."

Taken aback, he slowly released her. There was a sour taste in his mouth. But the wine had been good; it couldn't have been that. He wanted to say something like, "Why didn't you tell me?" but instead he said:

"How do you know it was a son?"

She smiled bitterly: "By three months it's already clear."

In a moment she calmed herself, pulled herself together, a grown woman, a scientist, a strong woman, in full control of her own life. She put her arms around his neck and, as much as the half-darkness would allow, looked into his eyes.

"Well, and what about you, Grisha? Why are you alone?"

Grisha told her, dully, about his short, unhappy marriage.

"That was God punishing you for me," she said, completely calmly, and passed her hand lightly over his face.

Outside the window, in the quiet of the beginning night, a late motorcyclist roared down the narrow street. Tamara waited through the din before she stepped away from Grisha, and she said, with a light sigh, laughing a little, words which left him in complete confusion and which he remembered forever, "You know, Grisha, to me you're like some sort of clown. With you, nothing really counts." 

He didn't understand what she was talking about. Why was he a clown? He seldom made jokes; he was, if anything, too glum. His role in the play was rather lyrical...

She was already at the door, bending down to put her shoes on, when he said: "Is it possible you'll come tomorrow?"

"It's possible," she said. With her shoes on, her eyes were now level with his. She looked at him one more time, and he noticed a small smile on her face. "It's possible.In this world, everything is possible. And whatever isn't possible... doesn't happen."

 

Translated by Melissa Bowen Rubin

 

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