A mother brought her girl to a sanatorium for sickly children and left. I was that girl.
The sanatorium looked over a big pond that was encircled by an autumnal park, with meadows and paths. The tall trees seemed ablaze with gold and copper; the scent of their falling leaves made the girl dizzy, after the city’s stench. Once upon a time, the sanatorium had been a gentleman’s stately manor, with classical pillars, arched ceilings, and upper galleries. The girls’ dormitory, called a dortoir, once was a drawing room with a grand piano.
The revolution had repurposed the estate into a sanatorium and school for proletarian children with tuberculosis. By the time the girl reached fifth grade, of course, all Soviet citizens were proletarians. They lived in crowded, communal apartments, traveled in trams stuffed with commuters, waited in lines for seats in public cafeterias, and so on. (They waited also for bread, potatoes, shoes, and, on rare occasions, for a luxury like a winter coat; in communal apartments, workers stood in line to use the bathroom.) A well-regulated line represented fairness. One had only to wait long enough for one’s portion, as, indeed, the girl had waited for her spot at the Forest School—that was the name of the sanatorium.
I cannot describe the girl’s appearance. Appearances cannot reveal inner life, and the girl, who was twelve at the time, carried on a continual, inner monologue, deciding every second—what to say, where to sit, how to answer—with the single purpose of behaving exactly like the other children, to avoid being kicked and shunned. But the girl wasn’t strong enough to control her every step, to be at all times a model of neatness and moderation. She wasn’t strong enough, so she would run through the rainy, autumnal park in torn stockings with her mouth flapping open in an excited yelp, simply because, you see, they were all playing hide-and-seek. Between classes, she’d stampede the hallways, snot-nosed, hair undone, fighting and cawing, what a sight.
The sanatorium expected all students to keep track of their basic and necessary belongings. One week into the school term, no one, including the girl, could locate his or her own pens, pencils, erasers. But the girl lost her handkerchief, too, followed by her right mitten, her scarf, and one of her two stockings. (One lies there by the bed; the other, God knows where.) Plus, she was missing one of her rubber boots! Without her boots, she could neither walk through the muddy puddles in the park nor enter the dining hall. In an old boot from her teacher, she dragged herself like a pariah behind everyone in class.
Such was my condition at the very moment when I needed to look no worse than the others. There was this boy, Tolik. We were the same age, but he was six inches shorter and unspeakably beautiful: a chiseled nose surrounded by freckles; thick lashes over starry eyes; his mouth poised for a coy smirk. The girl was too tall for him, but this young god radiated his charm evenly and meaninglessly a hundred yards around like a little nuclear reactor. When he arrived in the dining hall, the space near his table lit up, and the girl felt a surge of merriment—Tolik’s here!—and Tolik’s eyes would grow larger, as though under a magnifying glass, as he scanned his kingdom. Heads turned toward him like sunflowers to the sun. The girl felt stabbed in her heart. There was a swelling right above it, the size of a young berry.
In a commune, no one is entitled to private meals; that’s considered hoarding. Everything, even poor biscuits from home, must be shared. A commune also dislikes odd behavior, such as arriving late or wearing mismatched boots. The girl, inevitably, became an outcast in her class. She began to fall behind on purpose to avoid scornful looks. One October night, at the end of the second week, she fell so far behind the other girls that she found herself alone among the boys. Dark shadows fell across the path, cutting her off from the girls and their teacher up ahead. The boys, like a pack of wolves encircling its prey, surrounded her.
The girl stood there on the edge of the park. The other girls, protected and safe, she could barely see.
I screamed after them. I bellowed like a tuba, like a siren.
The boys nearest to me grinned stupidly. (Later, in my grown life, I could always recognize that dumb, dirty smirk, a companion to base, dirty deeds.) Their arms opened wide, ready to grab me. Their fingers danced and their berries probably hardened. I stood still, screaming toward the girls. A few of them glanced back, but they all continued to walk away, even faster. I screamed louder.
What would they do to me?
They’d have to tear me to pieces and bury my remains, but before that, they would do everything that could be done to a person who became their property.
For now, they just wanted me to shut up.
When they were only five feet away, something made them pause. I hurled myself through their ring and ran wildly across the meadow, losing my oversize boot in the mud. At the door, I overtook the last of the girls. She heard me thumping and looked around: on her face I saw the same dirty, complicit smirk. I tumbled inside, red and swollen from crying. But nobody asked me a single question as to what caused all that yelling in the park. Those girls knew instinctively. Maybe they’d shared a past in the caves where their female ancestors had been chased down and raped. (How quickly children can regress to primitive life and accept its hard, simple truths! Fire and women to be used in common; collective meals shared equally—the strong get more, the weak get less or nothing at all; sleep together on a filthy floor; grab food from the pile; dress in identical rags.)
That night the girls seemed quiet in a strange, contented way, as if their hunger for primitive justice had been stoked and sated. They didn’t know I had escaped! They assumed I had come back alive but broken, soiled.
Excreted was the name for such children. The girl herself had known excreted kids in her schoolyard. The excreted were outside the commune, up for grabs—anyone could abuse them in any way. The thing to do was to stalk them, then to slam them into a wall in plain view. The excreted wore the look of dumb cattle; two or three stalkers tailed them. Nothing less than constant adult supervision could protect them, but one can’t expect an adult presence across each path, or around each corner.
The next day began like any other. I fished my boot out of the mud. The boys greeted me as usual (slugged on the neck, shoved into a puddle), while the girls watched me keenly. But no one shouted, no one pointed fingers—eventually it became clear that nothing truly awful had happened to me. I must have escaped. Life returned to normal.
One person at the sanatorium, Tolik, sensed that something had happened. Tolik, a prime chaser, possessed the sharpest hunter’s instincts in the pack. He began stalking me. In dark corners, his starry eyes frisked my body while his cohort, not sharing his smirk, guarded the perimeter glumly—this chase wasn’t theirs. It wasn’t a courtship, exactly; it was something else, something for which the girls couldn’t find a name. They shrugged their shoulders. I alone understood that Tolik was drawn to the whiff of shame that clung to me.
The girl was left alone. She’d won a place in the sun, with her powerful lungs and her refusal to cave in. It turned out that she was blessed with an exceptionally strong voice (she could bellow as low as a hippo and screech as high as a drunken cat), and this talent could kick in at a moment’s danger. In addition, she’d pushed herself academically, and that, too, mattered at Forest School, which wasn’t just any public summer camp where a child was measured by her ability to wake up on time. Good grades were considered an honest achievement here—you couldn’t get an A by punching noses—so if a teacher read your composition in front of the class, then that was hard to sneer at.
I’d spent my childhood in lines at public cafeterias and in the kitchen of our communal apartment, where academic excellence didn’t matter to my survival. Now, pitted against this hostile tribe, I feverishly applied myself to writing a composition about autumn. My final draft piled azure skies upon turquoise dusk, bronze upon gold, and crystals upon corals, and the astonished teacher—a consumptive beauty in an orthopedic corset—passed my opus around to the other teachers and then read it out loud to the entire class—the same class that had nearly destroyed me.
I followed up with some verse for a special edition, in honor of the Constitution Day, of the school’s newspaper. It wasn’t real poetry, the kind that spills out of a dying person like blood and becomes the butt of ruthless jokes. No, my creation was beyond mockery; it could bring only respect. The Soviet people are the strongest in the world, I wrote, and they want peace for every nation—six lines in all. “Your own work?” the beautiful teacher asked, as her corset squeaked.
A new pair of rubber boots arrived from home. In the electric light of the girls’ latrine, at night, I memorized spelling rules. My new powerful voice was now part of the school choir, and I was chosen to dance, too, in a swift Moldavian circle dance—the school was preparing the New Year’s program. After this, we would all go home.
That meant I would never again see my tormentor, my Tolik—your name like sweet, warm milk; your face shining over me like a sun; your eyes alive with indolence and lust.
In dark corners, Tolik showered me with obscenities. Six inches shorter but straight and firm as an arrow, he was a high-strung consumptive boy keen on his target. Everyone at school grew used to the sight of a tall girl pushed against the wall, trapped between Tolik’s arms. Every night, I dreamed of his face.
The girl pulled on her new boots and trudged through the snowy park to meet her mother—her time in paradise was up; she was going home. At the winter palace, among crystals and corals of frozen trees, Tolik was living through the final hours of his reign.
At the New Year’s concert, I had performed solo in front of the choir, then had swirled in the wild Moldavian dance. (For you alone, my Tolik.) Tolik performed too (it turned out that he possessed a beautifully clear soprano), singing of the Soviet motherland and her brave sons, the aviators, to the accompaniment of a grand piano. He was visibly nervous. The absence of his cynical smirk so struck his classmates that they clapped uncertainly, surprised at their king’s concern for their approval.
After the concert there had been a dinner, followed by a formal dance. In the early 1950s, children still were taught the orderly dances of the aristocratic finishing schools—polonaise, pas de quatre, pas d’Espagne—and so a slow minuet was announced, ladies ask gentlemen. Tolik, recovered from his stage fright, was exchanging smirks with his entourage. I walked over to him. Our icy fingers entwined. We curtsied and bowed woodenly across the floor. Tolik, discomfited to see me sniffling in public, didn’t crack jokes. Instead, after the dance, he respectfully walked me over to my nook behind a pillar. I retired to the dortoir and wept there until the girls returned. There were no more heady interrogations in dark corners. Tolik didn’t know what to do with me anymore.
I was picked up last, as always. We crawled along the white highway, under dark skies, dragging my poor suitcase. The dortoir windows were throwing farewell lights on the snowy road.
I never saw Tolik again, but I heard his silvery voice over the phone. He called me at home, in Moscow.