The Street

Anzhelina Polonskaya

Illustration by Gianna Meola


I’ve never liked the streets I’ve lived on. Maybe they weren’t really mine. Maybe mine don’t exist, or we simply passed each other by, like legendary lovers. Streets are always linked with death, or the expectation of death that derives from a provincial childhood with the white wooden coffins in which dead bodies were placed. The only color in my memory is purple. Playful ruffles around the edges. Like some kind of final mockery.

I’m old enough to remember hired keeners. With fat, flowing thighs underneath their long, rustling skirts. The endless howls that accompanied the funeral procession. There’s nothing more pitiless than tradition. It sullies everything, buried in gray-black women’s scarves and coarse male faces distorted by alcohol. Tradition stomps on every living thing, leaving emptiness and petrification in its wake. Human nature. Something repulsive appears when it’s touched by the eternal ecstasy of death. The most horrifying wounds. Pagan fear and rapture comingled. You think they’ve come to accompany the body on its final journey? Not at all, they’re moaning over themselves.

The street is straight and empty. A gorgeous birch tree with its light green spring foliage is completely destroyed. The maimed stump of its trunk with slightly ripped bark—sap still oozing from the gashes. The idiotic expression of my neighbor who doesn’t understand what he’s done.

“A pity,” he says.

“Why did you cut it down?” I ask.

“Well, you see . . .” he blinks stupidly, shrugging his shoulders. He shifts around in his overalls, his sweat-streaked dirty-blond hair sticking out from under a baseball cap.

“So, we’re taking down the fence. And it had grown through the slats.”

In his eyes either tears or vodka. The fence is still standing and will stand until the end of time—a crooked stockade, peed on by the local dogs.

I start my engine and drive off.


It’s just the two of us now. “Just us two, get it?

In this enormous empty house. No one in front, no one behind.

“The wider you open your arms for an embrace, the easier it is to crucify you,” Nietzsche said.

I’ve never been closer to thoughts of suicide. But I can’t tell you, because you’re my mother. This state of mind surfaces as if I’m in a drug-induced stupor. Your long daily monologues make me feel guilty, but there’s no way to do without them—at least they fill the void. You say “You are impossibly selfish; no woman has ever behaved like you behaved toward him . . .” I interrupt you. My guilt sways like a body in a noose.

Stop!” I shout: “You don’t understand. Over twenty-one years he turned me into a zombie.” You start to cry and run into the next room. Leaving me alone with a deafening silence that’s even harder to take than howling. Because you never know what is happening on the other side of the line. I hear my own throat swallowing.

Coming back in you wipe away the tears. I can see it like a chess master playing with his back to the board.

We hadn’t slept together for fifteen years. I couldn’t imagine what would happen to us, when you were gone,” I say.

The garden with the climbing wild grape vine in the fall, every tiny detail tied up with our quotidian lives. Who needs such horrible memories? I want to take the portrait of the smiling five-year-old girl on your dresser and rip it to pieces. The dress with a pattern showing a mother duck followed by her fearless duckling regiment. But where is she leading them? Into the inscrutable darkness of adulthood? It’s a crime to have children from instinct. No one asks them, “Are you ready to be crucified?

My own malice makes me want to give up everything, hop the first flight to you and fall into your arms.

If only escape were a cure!

To live a different life, not with the person I was supposed to live with. The one who stood inside all those years has gone. Traded me in and downsized. Because he hadn’t been living his own life either.

I’m covered in blood, Mama. There’s blood everywhere.”

Can you really call that selfish?

In the dining room my estranged husband’s chair is empty. Manipulated by another woman, his muscle fibers twitching like in an anatomy book, he’s attached himself to some other home, charging around the decaying roads of our fatherland, driving the kids that the other woman got from god knows whom (and god was apparently generous). With a pitiful bald spot beginning to appear, cruel in his own stupidity. He was tricked like a little kid, when he got the chance to drive “a rented car.”

“You’re pretty cheap, my marionette, in the hands of an experienced puppeteer.”

And, finally, crying next to me in the dark living room when we found out about his mother’s diagnosis.

Coming home from work, he lifted up his head toward where I was working in the library and screamed “Vasya!

The sole expression of his love for me.

He cried, finding one of my hairs on his pillow. Made long toasts in Georgian that boiled down to “we’re together forever.” And then he found an enchanted spot in the land of Oz. And buried all the gold coins of his life there.


I’ve turned into a Chagall figure, floating parallel to the earth. I haven’t yet disappeared into the blue, but I’m no longer standing with my feet on the ground.

You reach a point where you just stop trying to fight.

Remember,” I say in my mind, turning my head toward my still-wedded husband, “how I almost drowned when we were in Vietnam?” There was a storm. It was easy to swim out beyond the waves. I’m an excellent swimmer, as you know. But the storm wouldn’t let me come back in, and started to drag me out to sea. People were crowded on the shore. I fought hard, barely managing to come up to grab breaths of air, just before the waves crashed over me. My body was being turned around as if in a steel drum. My bathing suit filled with sand and pulled me toward the bottom. The surf ripped my goggles off. By some miracle I managed to crawl out of the water on all fours. You just sat there, having no idea what to do. Furious because I had caused a problem. And you hated problems.

“Why the hell did you go out there?”

You hurled down the keys and went into town. Without me.

Most important, you never knew what to do with yourself. Because you were as empty as the pack of Marlboros you carried as a teenager in your breast pocket so that everyone would know what “he smokes.”

“Party’s over,” you said on our last New Year’s together, flipping the Santa Claus hats you gave my mother and me onto the windowsill. A face full of hatred. That’s the way it stayed—a death mask.

You died.


That winter, while I was on the long road leading from Berlin to Swabia, in Southern Germany, frozen in anticipation of the coming cataclysm, suffering from horrible stomach pain—the symptom of a recurring virus—drowning in lies, our street was buried in snow. I kept calling my mother, who was stuck in our cold house. The thought that it would be wonderful to just stop thinking about everything at one fell swoop came back to me for the first time in four years. And every morning, when I opened the window into reality, it bore into my head like a metal drill bit. “Sleeping pills. Drink them all and the night will never end.” But very few sleeping pills remained. I was alone in my tiny room, multicolored Christmas lights hanging in the windows. The strings of lights glowing in the half light brought on paroxysms of magical nausea.

“You’ll take them down by March 8,” R said with a laugh.

My fellow traveller and friend, and something more than that over these eight long months.

His rare visits, the black sofa with the red blanket in the living room, were ample proof of my uselessness. I no longer believed in anything. Other than my own ugliness.

R loved my legs, more I think than anyone ever loved them.

We planned to go to Amsterdam to see the Van Goghs, but the fever that laid me low in the Berlin apartment of my translator at Christmas came back with a vengeance. I’ve never been as sick as I was that winter. It wasn’t merely sickness but something that turned all my insides out.

A third of my life.

The pain strengthened my emotions.

Lifting my head up from R’s shoulder, I looked at the strings of malevolent Christmas lights.

I was covered in goose bumps at his slightest touch.

“What’s the matter, wild thing?”

But how could I explain to him, almost a stranger, the evil joke of wintertime Berlin, the lack of a corner of my own, not so much the lack of a home, but particularly of a homeland, my aging mother, literature, again literature, and, most important, the plangent emptiness of the future?” I had made mistake after mistake, and behind these mistakes was a hidden ball of tenderness.

Spring was a long time coming. The snow just would not melt in the fields. The German language, which I was trying to learn in order to fill my head with something other than my upcoming divorce, refused to stick. It needed love, but I had no love left.

We went to Hamburg, on the North Sea.

A beautiful, eclectic city. I’d like to live there, I think, were it not for the climate. The beach is seventy kilometers long with little cabanas to shield you from the wind.

We rented one, and while R slept I thought that the whole thing reminded me of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. The only difference being that our beach was deserted. There was no Gustav von Aschenbach, tortured with desire, observing the beautiful boy Tadzio from a cabana like this one. Could an aging writer really think that such a strange and destructive mask would fall to his lot?

Sometimes fate tosses a man like a rag doll, and the only thing it can do is keep him safe or break his back.

Completely frozen, we went to a restaurant on the shore to have some chicken soup. The waitresses all had piercing blue, almost white, eyes, and their faces were lined with wrinkles. It was impossible to guess their ages.

R said that they were big drinkers.

What else is there to do? It’s the north, after all?”

We were happy, it seems.


Then there was a crash, which is what usually happens after a short spell of happiness that basically doesn’t have anything to do with you; someone else’s happiness, on short-term loan.

It was still cold.

“Do you know what Greenland is?” I asked R.

“A piece of the world.”

“It’s what people generally call the soul.”

For hours I looked through the window, lying on the black sofa with the red blanket, waiting for it to finally get dark. The days were all the same. Completely by accident I managed to get some unusual photos of the window, first pale, then bluish, and finally pitch black.

Talking to my mother on the phone, I found out that Natasha B had died.

Natasha had lived on the other side of my street for as long as I can remember. A former flight attendant, she never ceased to wonder how it is that “our planes are still flying.” And she knew what she was talking about. Her father refused to let her get married for some pathological reason. I can guess what thoughts drove him crazy.

Only he could touch his daughter.

“How did she die?” I asked.

And right away an image of Natasha wearing an oversized sweater and trying to reach over the gate leading to the nearby forest came into my mind.

She liked to walk barefoot in the snow.

“She put her feet in a tub of warm water,” my mother said.

The neighbors found her. The door wasn’t locked.

The news did not touch me in any way. I imagined her being taken away in a car marked “Ritual Services.” And the blinds closed.

In my mind I saw the image of a big blue snow shovel, thrown down on the path to our house.

May 2015

translated from the Russian by Andrew Wachtel