“Are you sad?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did something happen?”
“You know, I don’t like it when I ask a question and you don’t answer.”
“Sorry, I was lost in thought. Fel, do you remember how we wouldn’t come home on Sundays until we found the bracelets and rings I wanted from Vernissage market. Then, how before it was time to go home, we would sit at Vernissage after close and eat bananas. This morning I noticed that it’s been two months since I bought any new jewelry—the last one was that red bracelet.”
“Oh man, is that why you’re sad? Let’s go this Sunday and buy the earrings with the petroglyphs you were describing. Where did you see them?”
“Looks like I forgot to buy bread. You take these to the checkout counter while I go run and get bread.”
“Here you go.”
“Do you have a STAR card?” asks the young check-out girl, counting.
“No. And add a pack of white Marlboros.”
“Thanks for shopping with us. Have a good evening,” recites the girl in a barely audible voice as she hands over the change. I look at the girl’s hands.
Before this, I never paid attention to the appearance of girls working in supermarkets, the expression in their eyes, their mannerisms. For me, they were among those who had no distinguishing features. Who could be interested in women who are like everyone else—with dry, neglected hair and nails, while neither their figure nor any distinguishing characteristic of their taste or style is apparent under their uniform? These women and men who stand for ten hours a day on the other side of the checkout were somehow genderless to me. Workers and that’s all. The products lined up on the store shelves were more comprehensible, beautiful, and attractive than the store employees. At least you can read names and ingredients on the product packaging. A different issue altogether, however, are the managers of such big shops. They are mostly women in high heels, showy, with a groomed, flashy appearance and a strict expression frozen on their faces. But this type of woman also wasn’t particularly interesting to me because I knew that her ostentatious appearance, big breasts and buttocks was her mandatory uniform, just as the ordinary workers’ scrimpy appearance was theirs.
Taking the change today, I saw, for the first time, the chipped red nail polish on the girl’s nails. Perhaps if no one’s waiting for you after work, you can postpone redoing your nail polish for one more day. Something else I saw for the first time but, considering it the natural order of things, had overlooked. But now, after living alone for a few months, I’ve begun to feel a sort of repulsive affection toward these people. I quickly grabbed the change, left the receipt on the checkout counter and sprinted out of the store, somehow fearing that the girl would notice the absence of my rings, and the distance divided by the thick wall of the cash desk would be called into question.
These women are like doctors who during the first few years of working sympathize with all their patients, think about them even after work, see sick children in their dreams, talk during their sleep, and are startled awake. Then, over the years, they become callous masters at creating impressions. They pretend that apart from assigning treatment, they also ache for the patient and his relatives, but actually they’re thinking about the unbearable pain in their feet cramped in new shoes under the desk.
The apartment block is a few meters from the store. We walk. A six- or seven-year-old girl with long, curly hair has drawn a house with chalk in the courtyard. She’s sitting inside it. She’s laid plastic jewelry, make-up accessories, and colorful pieces of cloth around her and with surprised eyes blue like the planet, she’s looking at the boys sitting under the tree making garages out of mud. I pass by her every day, wanting to approach her, sit in her house, and tell her in her ear all that her mother will never tell her. I want to tell her that she will never and nowhere else be as safe as she is in this house of hers drawn with chalk on the asphalt in the middle of the courtyard. Tell her that if the long blue dress that her mother dressed her in didn’t press her to the ground so much, she would fly and join that group of boys in drab pants, muddy her knees and hair, and in the evening turn into a billion small butterflies and fly to warm countries where boys wear shorts and play with yellow sand. Then I picture her at my age. There’s no way I can picture her in a skirt. Nowadays, the only suitable outfit for walking fast, running, sitting on public transportation, and working for twelve hours are pants. But as always, today too I walk past the girl without even at least hugging her, because I feel that the walls of the house drawn in chalk between us will be insurmountable until the autumn rains wash them out.
We enter the building. We have to take the stairs to the seventh floor. I go on ahead. The light from the square window at the top of the stairs falls on my eyes. I squint.
“You wore your dress over your naked body again?”
“What’s important is that it’s not transparent. Whose business is it how I wear it?”
“Are you serious?”
“Fel, let me hold those. Better for you to open the door—I’m starving.”
We’re in the kitchen. I go prepare two cups of coffee. From the bag, I take out the new pack of cigarettes.
“Didn’t you quit?”
“It’s been three days already.”
“You know I won’t quit. Don’t look at me with that questioning look.”
“I’m saying it for your own good. What’s it to me?”
“I’m also saying it for my own good. I like smoking.”
“It’s your health I worry about.”
“Sermons about health might change something in countries where people have medical insurance and a path to the sea. In countries like ours, where even the smell of fresh asphalt is poisonous, work hours amount to more than ten, and breakfast is taken at dinnertime, there’s no particular reason to tremble for health. You know, I like this smell. I can’t live on dry bread and cheese. They live like that after death. I want more than that—a favorite smell, a favorite taste, favorite habits.”
I forget about dinner and light a second, third, and fourth cigarette. I get nauseous from the taste. Fel probably understands that I’m in no mood and that there’s no point in arguing with me. He gets up and begins to fry something. I think about rings, bracelets, earrings, and the girl in the courtyard. The doorbell rings. I open it. It’s someone from the water company. I invite her in. A tall woman with short black hair—like the thousands of women we see every day on the street, in shopping centers and markets. I pay. Before she leaves, she asks for a glass of water. I invite her to the kitchen. While she greedily gulps the water, I look at her swollen feet in black shoes made in Turkey. It seems as if her swollen feet want to escape and flee from her shoes. I picture her husband. I don’t know why, but I picture him with swollen hands. A person’s hands can get like that through contact with stone his entire life. The woman had finished drinking and was looking at me surprised. I somehow manage to raise my frozen gaze from her shoes and smile, feeling guilty. It seems I had allowed myself to notice something that people usually keep silent about. I become unsettled, like a thief caught red-handed. The woman becomes confused. She walks to the door. Good-bye. I return to the kitchen. Something is frying on the stove.
“Do you have any money left to spend?”
I nod. I light another cigarette. I approach the open window. There’s always money to spend. Even in a country like ours, you’ll never be hungry or out on the street. Money can always be found somewhere. What’s money for us not to have it? It’s “favorite things” that have become rare. Money is always found to pay the credit on goods, the utility bills, and the rent. Money for public transportation will always be found because you can’t not go to work, but, for instance, you might not drink your favorite beer for weeks. With the money for your favorite jewelry, you won’t go hungry because life without jewelry is bearable. It’s also possible to manage without going to your favorite performances, without buying your favorite authors’ books. Libraries are full and there are friends with large libraries, but the gas bill has to be paid. In the evening, the city is in motion: lights, shops, cars, women who have lost their gender behind the checkout counter, and men who have left their masculine dignity beneath the cement and concrete after having worked with stone for a long time. People for whom human whims are above human luxuries. Young people who have neither the time to love nor the place to have sex. In the evening, the city is in motion: lights, shops, cars. Only there are no “favorite things.” Everyone keeps their favorite things in their pockets and wallets so they can give them to the store and buy bread instead, or spend them on public transportation and get to work or university. The circulation of “favorite things” in the city exceeds the circulation of money. What there’s the most of in this city is frozen money because we practically don’t spend money. The only things that are spent are “favorite things.” In the evening, the city is in motion: lights, shops, cars. But the girl in the blue dress still draws her house with chalk in the motion of the street.
I quickly grab a pen and paper from the drawer and light my cigarette.
Letter to the girl sitting in the chalk house
The house you’ve drawn has no wings and its tail has been cut off. Before it’s too late, remove your blue dress, don necklaces on your bare neck, rings on your fingers, and your favorite bracelets on your wrists, let your long hair fall down to your shoulders, fill your backpack with your favorite toys, swipe the bicycle of the boys playing in the mud, and ride as fast as you can to warm countries where there are seas.
I fold the note and run outside.
“You pour the tea. I’ll be right back, Fel.”
The note pressed in my palm, I run downstairs to the yard. I stand by the chalk house. It’s empty. The girl’s not there. Fearfully, I smile. I inquire with the boys playing in the mud. They say her mother sent her to the store to get bread on credit. I go into the small kiosk nearby.
“Grandpa Zhora, give me a pack of cigarettes.”
I light the cigarette and gladly inhale the bitter smoke. I sit inside the chalk house the girl drew. With the crumpled paper in my hand, I wait for the girl.
© Ani Asatryan. Translation © 2015 by Adrineh Der-Boghossian. All rights reserved.