The wretched mother could easily have lost her sanity watching her husband love their daughter—the way he stroked the child when she was falling asleep or waking up, his blissful expression when they touched, the fact that he bathed her himself, believing it to be his right and his responsibility. His happy laughter when he recounted to his guests how, in the tub, Manya always tried to cover her privates with her hands (leaving the rest exposed, the guests surmised). That was how matters proceeded until the girl turned eight and insisted on bathing alone, and the mother grew even more worried, wondering what might have gone on between the two.
The mother, Irina, kept their home spotless; she had hands of gold—they actually did feel like gold or another metal, and how could they not, when they constantly peeled, chopped, cranked the meat grinder, boiled, fried, mopped, dusted, beat rugs, and changed sheets? She made holiday pies for guests, and every winter she washed and sealed all the windows, and every spring she unsealed and washed them again. Plus, in the summer, there was a shack with a vegetable garden, where everything required cleaning, dusting, and mopping, and also sowing, watering, weeding, and, later, harvesting, pickling, and preserving. The resulting preserves included Irina’s signature cranberry drink and her gooseberry wine, which tasted exactly like champagne.
She worked, too, commuting an hour each way. Then, after being gone for ten hours, she had to listen to the husband’s excited tales about their daughter’s baths—in front of their guests! The girl was always nearby, or perched on his lap, kissing him on the cheek, sometimes even on the sleeve. The wife screamed more and more often. She was exhausted; her beautiful, translucent eyes filled with the question “What is going on?” Not only did she keep the house and work, she also looked after her mother-in-law, a former language-arts teacher, who was crazy about the theatre and literary readings, enjoyed the courtship of elderly military officers, and regularly came home “under guard.” Laughter, late-night dinners—the father would bathe the girl and read her a bedtime story before coming to the table. His mother entertained everyone with impressions of her latest suitor. They all ate and turned to the TV, while Irina washed dishes in the kitchen. In the marital bed everything was peaceful: both read their respective books, then turned off their respective lights, and a minute later the husband would be snoring.
Here’s the thing: Irina wasn’t loved, not at all. Her husband took her, and what she did for the family, for granted: clean shirts, juicy meatballs, neat house, the girl’s excellent grades. And Irina earned a good living as an engineer. It was a perfect family, in short.
Occasionally (very occasionally), the husband performed his conjugal duty, usually after they’d been out and had had a few drinks, when the wife looked different, festive. Something would wake up in him and he’d roll over to her side of the bed and stroke her. They’d kiss, as though reviving some forgotten feeling, then he’d turn away, put on a condom, do his business in a push-up position, and that was it, all done. A trip to the bathroom to relieve himself and to dispose of you-know-what. A vulgar but precise description, alas—some things simply can’t be observed without a shudder. (We could describe the act metaphorically: A bumblebee lands on a flower that bends under its weight and exudes sweet nectar. When the bee’s proboscis pierces its chamber, the flower arches and shivers beneath it. A second later, it’s back to innocent blooming in the wind under a blue sky.)
Commuting to work in the morning, coming home late in the evening, dragging full grocery bags, rain or shine. The result was that Irina nagged and nagged at her husband: he did everything wrong, not the right way, not the way it should be done.
The literary grandma shook her gray head. There’d been no screaming in her house: she and her late husband had respected each other. He was a retired Army colonel; at bedtime, he took a little cognac, she tea with candy. After that, off to sleep, in peace and quiet, without mutual demands. While here there was this unsated heat, a cat’s yowling or a sow’s endless squeal (the summer-shack experience). She wished she could say something to her son, but how could she?
The daughter clung to her father, waited for him to come back from work to explain math to her, wouldn’t leave his side. On Sundays, they went jogging in the local park, while Irina spent weekends at her own mother’s little apartment: her mother was ill, bedridden; she needed to be changed and fed, and there were bedsores to treat. Irina checked in on her before and after work, too.
Then her mother died, and they buried her properly, everything as it should be. Irina began to spend all her spare time in her late mother’s home, on the pretext of cleaning it, but really avoiding her own. She did all the cooking for the day in the morning—her mother-in-law had only to warm it up, and Irina did the dishes in the evening.
Then, without warning, Irina packed everything she had into two suitcases and announced to the mother-in-law that she was leaving, that’s right, and taking the daughter with her.
Where to? How? Why?
She’d heard from a high-school friend who ran a factory outside of Murmansk, in the Far North, and who needed a quick-witted assistant with a college degree. The pay was three times what she’d been getting.
So she left and took the girl, who found a way to call her father and cry into the phone, but only once.
The former marital home grew quiet. The mother-in-law no longer went to the theatre in the evenings; her inner light had been extinguished. Now she dragged herself to the food market on Sundays and at the end of the day, when they gave produce away almost for free. Her son was no use—he changed jobs, was never home, was always away on business trips. The girl, in the meantime, managed to communicate with him by sending letters with a return address. She wrote that she didn’t like the local school, that the other kids mocked her Muscovite accent—Northerners spoke without eliding their vowels.