She stroked my cheek with her fingers, put the sweet, tasty cotton candy in my hand, smiled, and talked a little with my mother. The sweet cotton candy did not reduce the magic of that moment. Big black nipples winked from her transparent white bra. I replied. Unfortunately, it was still too early for an erection. I felt the remainder with the palm of my hand, rubbed it thoroughly when I got home, and washed myself with soap, but nothing came out. I plucked my skin with a towel. Bloody blisters. Mom got worried:
“Who hit you?”
“No one... It scraped against a branch while I was eating mulberries, Mom.”
Auntie Lia joined the earthquake, the rallies, the bread with ration coupons, the warm hot-water bottles, the heater, the watching of soap-operas with accumulators, the tearless funerals, to become—unnoticeably and innocently—the most wanted guest of my dreams. I was not at all interested in the lives of the residents of our courtyard, but willingly and unwillingly I was apprised of the latest and freshest news: the tattling mothers were the guilty ones—it was simply unbearable when they got together for coffee, impossible to concentrate on my homework.
“My mother-in-law is driving me crazy! She’s started soiling herself. Why doesn’t she just die!”
“So have you heard? Lia’s husband has been appointed a judge.”
“Girls, I’m going to the gynaecologist tomorrow. I want to get an IUS”
I was studiously memorising everyone’s intimate relationships—my age allowed me to be an auditor of such stories in the auditorium. Any broken toy was an excuse for me. Lia’s name whetted my senses. When I was playing in one corner or another of the courtyard, I would freeze for a moment and let her scent soak into me like warm asphalt soaking up rainwater. My rickety bicycle had changed its course –as soon as it came out of 21st street, the asphalt was replaced by Lia’s milky-white skin. It would roll over Lia’s body, roll up and down her delicate creases, the bicycle, leading itself, had forgotten all about me, its loyal owner.
We lived like relatives, all of us sharing whatever we had and didn’t have, but Lia’s family set themselves apart. The position of the judge husband demanded other values and other people who weren’t like us. The first rumbles of a petrol generator in the building were heard from apartment 19. Auntie Lia’s son, Arman, was going to school in jeans. Even their garbage was different—I had examined it secretly. My ideas of Auntie Lia’s family and their lifestyle were rich. In my mind I would go to their apartment, participate in their merry parties, savor the fried chicken with mushroom, sprawl in their leather armchair. I was sure that in their house you never heard “there’s nothing to eat,” “we’ve run out of candles,” “we’re sorry for your loss,” “may your father be remembered well”. New, pleasant changes had also started in me. When I lay in bed and thought about her, the thing between my legs, for which I had become ashamed, would get warm. My new world had nothing to do with cutting wood, with the arguments at home, and with me in general. All of this was like listening to a movie on the radio when, fixing the scene in your head, you see the images. I wasn’t alone then: my happiness comprised three letters, where no permit allowed entry. At night I slept in the little leather bag attached to the back of my bicycle. It was convenient there; besides, no one at home could see what kept their son busy—that made me incredibly happy. Questions had arisen in me around which revolved naked bodies and strange visions, but these were answers that aroused doubt and did not satisfy my insatiable interest. I asked my mother with an innocent look on my face about the details of coming into the world: “a stork brought you,” “Santa Clause brought you as a gift,” “we plucked you out of a cabbage”. I would nod, as if I believed it seriously, but when I would get more specific, they would scoff at me and send me to buy bread, and I would get annoyed, lose my courage, and have no other choice but to pick up the facts from street education: rough and wild. I remember my classmate, a beautiful girl called Esther, who had a weakness for candy. I would take her to a quiet place after class… Candy... She would pull up her skirt... Candy... She would pull down her underwear. Her pink crack, with all its magic, would smile heartily. I was convinced that the beginning and the end was a pink crack, the source of life, the road to heaven. I had become absorbed, lost in my own secret game, forgotten everyone, noticing nothing around me—my new stop had become the bathroom, from which it was beyond my powers to unchain myself. But one day I got my fingers burned: my father caught me. He caught me and beat me, in a homely sort of way. The beating was horrible; I couldn’t walk for days. A pity… my father did not live long. Maybe he would have understood that beating me at the time only widened the gap between us, but he probably wouldn’t have. As a result, he and I never became close. The word “close” did not exist in our dictionaries in general; we were only alike in our features and last names. He would also say that I was an apple that had rolled far from the tree and then laugh at me. He would never listen to me and that was the main reason for my alienation. But I loved him.
One day I heard an exchange that changed my inner world. There was a chubby boy who lived in our courtyard, a child of prospering parents. When he talked, he always deliberately belched and what was interesting was that his father always encouraged that behavior and said, “What do you want me to buy you, dear child?” and we would hear, “Hm... grrr... Sni... grrr... ckers... Snickers... grrr...” and so on. But he had a more serious weakness: he was a born thief. Even though he had the latest, most expensive bicycle models, he would steal mechanical parts from our various old and rickety bicycles. The next time my bicycle disappeared, even the toddlers of the courtyard knew who the thief was. It was interesting: every week he would steal a few bicycles, take them to the entrance of his building, line them up in a row and, greedily devouring a Snickers, rivet his dreamy eyes on their twisted corpses, on the misshapen wheels of various sizes, but what was most unbearable was taking back the bicycle from that riveted stare: a sharp, ear-piercing shriek would shake the whole building. The boy would fall to the ground, bawl and cry, and then his father would beat him long and hard, and, foaming at the mouth, say: “Son of a beast, you don’t have enough bikes? Why are you collecting these broken bikes, bringing them here, eh?”
The boy bribed me a few times with peach yoghurt; one circle around the courtyard in exchange for a yoghurt; but in the end he got annoying, taking my bicycle wherever he wanted. Then I had to go and find it. The next time it disappeared, I knew whose hands had done it. I went up to the last floor to get my bicycle. I was coming down the stairs when Auntie Lia’s voice reached me through her apartment door.
“Enough already, tell those whores of yours not to call here anymore. You have no shame. Arman already understands everything! At least be ashamed in front of him!”
“Scream... Louder! You want the neighbors to hear this, don’t you?”
“Yeah, let them hear it, let them hear it and understand that the most miserable woman in this building is me.”
“Miserable? Man, if anyone asked, where does anyone live like you? For God’s sake.”
“I hate this life. I couldn’t care less about the money you bring—someone else’s blood and sweat.”
“Shut your mouth!”
The slap did not stop Lia’s voice.
“Kill me if you want, it’s all the same to me now, I’m sick of this disgraceful life. Every other day I get a call, ‘Lia, your husband is cheating on you,’ ‘Lia, what is this we hear? They say your husband is taking whores to Marriott Hotel.’ That’s not you? At least have the decency to cover it up so that no one finds out.”
“But I do it precisely so that they know and you know. No, I know your pain, you want to get laid, you haven’t done it in a long time. That’s what you want, period.”
“Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!” I ran out into the courtyard with sweat dripping down my forehead. Lia, bicycle, cotton candy, Esther, leather bag...everything collided, “you want to get laid”.
I thought for days after that, I wanted to understand, to analyze, to sort the reasons in my head, but nothing came out of it, and there was nothing left to do but be sad. Being sad is always there and now, even more now, the urge was stronger, after all, Lia was sad, and sadness was like the cookie that is distributed in school: you bite it temptingly and leave your teeth in it. I wanted to walk up to her and say, “only do not be sad, it’ll be easier together,” but I didn’t dare and had no other choice but to pass it on mentally.
I graduated from school one way or another and I had to be accepted to university, so I took private lessons. Life had changed after the ceasefire. The changes were new and interesting, but also tedious. Lia hardly ever appeared; she was leading the life of a hermit, she did not come down to the courtyard, did not mingle with our mothers, sometimes it seemed to me as if she had never existed, as if she had only been a figment of my imagination. Her husband had grown a huge belly, as if he were a pregnant woman. She would trudge out of the padavat, staring ahead of her, looking for the wizened old women who greeted her several times a day just to make the greetings reach somewhere. With full plastic bags from “Orchard” supermarket in her hands, she would walk through the entrance slowly and go up to her apartment counting the stairs. How much I wanted for us to exchange places just once! I would press the doorbell, and a few seconds later, Lia would open the door, but I don’t know why, right there, her face would shatter and I didn’t always manage to pick up the last little shard that would complete the picture.
We took English language classes in a group: four boys, three girls, one of whom I was not indifferent to. She always wore brightly colored clothes, short skirts. Once in a while we laughed. As soon as she appeared in the distance, we would say, “the prissy princess is here, hold your breaths.” She always used Russian words when she talked, probably to follow the trend. In class, she callously drove me crazy, scratching her breasts in front of me, slowly pulling up her skirt, winking, in a word, trying to tell me something. I started to collect money; I took loans from my friends, sold my bike’s Bosch bell to Pushko, and felt in my head that I had gathered quite a capital. After class, I followed her and stopped her as she was about to cross the road.
“Hey, Son, wait a sec, I want to say something.”
She calmly stopped; she had probably been waiting for this for a while.
“Nu, skazhi, so, tell me, what is it?”
She brushed her hair back from her brow.
“I’m inviting you somewhere. Are you coming?”
“Ti, you are inviting me somewhere? Good boy, and where would that be?”
“Well, you decide, I don’t know.”
“Tak, tak, tak, okay, okay, nu ladno, well, esli tak, in that case, podyom karaoke, let’s go do karaoke, I want to sing a little... only do not bring that razvanila, wrecked bicycle of yours, it’s embarrassing.”
I listened; I left my bicycle with my friends and we walked to Prospekt. I was tense, there was emptiness in me. No sooner did we walk in than the waiter stood before us with a tray.
“Wh-wh-what would you like?”
“A ‘Masquerade’ cocktail, a Bologna pizza, a fresh orange juice, popcorn, cut fruit, I, and... the list of songs.”
I coughed out of the blue.
“And fo-fo-for you?”
“I’ll have a black coffee.”
More and more kept being put on the table; Sona was having fun, stroking my hair with her thin fingers.
“Kak ti, malchik moy, how are you, my boy, I want a cocktail.”
It was fun. She sang all of Alla’s songs, but in the end she was letting out random barks, she drank a lot. I quietly asked for the bill, and when the waiter brought it, the pupils of my eyes dilated: 25,100 drams. I broke out in a cold sweat, I drank a gulp of juice, what was I going to do? I held my stomach.
“Da, malchik moy, yes, my boy.”
“Son, my stomach hurts. I’m going to the bathroom a minute.”
“Nu, davai, okay, go.”
I ran out. I hailed a marshrutka and went to Komitas Avenue. Ten minutes later I was in our neighborhood. Khryush was squatting under a wall.
I assaulted him, “Hey, friend, if it’s no trouble, I need money until tomorrow, help me, will you?”
“Ar jan, I took all my jewelry to the pawnshop, these are bad times for me, brother, be forgiving, go to the car wash, maybe the boys will have some.”
I got embarrassed: how could I ask those boys for money when they worked all day like Africans? No, I couldn’t ask them. What should I do, what should I do? The thought that was born in my head scared me, but the fear felt very pleasant, for the first time I wished to properly feel fear, it was like being run over by a car, when you somehow avoid the crash and calm down again. How I went, I don’t know. Did I go, did my childhood go? I don’t know. I knocked on the apartment door of number 19 and Lia opened.
“Hello, Aram jan.”
“Aram jan, what happened? You look pale.”
“Auntie Lia, ca-can you l-lend me some money?”
“Of course I’ll give you some. Come in. How much do you need, Aram jan?”
“Thirty-thou-ousand drams. I’ll b-ring it b-ack in a few d-days...”
“Whenever you can bring it back, you’ll bring it, okay?”
She smiled. She soon brought the money and put in my hand. I didn’t have time to come round, I found myself at the bus stop again, half an hour had already gone by, it was becoming quite long for a bathroom visit, so I got a taxi to the karaoke bar. I went in, Sona was fighting with the manager, she saw me and cackled.
“Malchik moy, my boy, were you laying eggs in that bathroom? I want a Malibu.”
“It’s time for us to leave, Son jan.”
I paid the bill and dragged her out by the arms barely able to convince her. She had taken the microphone with her and was starting to give a concert in the middle of the street. I somehow managed to get it out of her hands and return it to the terrified waiter running after us. On the way back she started to curse the taxi driver for driving slowly. I got her home somehow.
My first date came to an end; my bicycle remained without a bell.
I took money from my tuition fees to pay Lia back. At home I said I had forgotten it on the bus and they believed it. I put on my graduation suit, sprayed Cigar cologne, brushed my hair with green gel, looked in the mirror for a long time, took the money, and went to Lia’s house. When she opened the door, I was shaking.
“Hi, Aram jan, come in.”
Trying to keep my cool, I walked in, walked up to the leather armchair, and sat down.
As I passed the window, my gaze fell on the roof of the opposite building, from which I had watched the closed windows of apartment 19 for hours on end. There was no fried chicken with mushrooms on the table. Lia was wearing black pajamas, home alone. She got whiskey from the bar, poured it in triangular tumblers, walked up to me, extended one to me, and sat down next to me. She was very sad.
“Aram jan, why are you sad?”
We drank whiskey.
“Arman went to England, to study, and left me here alone.”
“You are not alone.”
She embraced my neck, and I don’t want to remember what happened next. I loved her, I loved me. At that moment I wasn’t even thinking that wherever he is, the Armenian justice fighter will come and…if only the knot didn’t break. I told her my sweet wet-dreams and secret deeds, whose protagonist was she... and I loved, loved, loved with as much strength as I had. She told me that for ten years there had not been a man in her life, she apologized and cried for a long time.
After that we met a few times, all we did was talk, we recalled the old neighbors of our courtyard, we looked at albums. I promised her to forget everything, but I lied. I passed my exams successfully and was accepted to university. When I received her last message, it was snowing, the flake resembled Lia’s face. She had divorced the judge and had moved to Malta.
I will feel and you will sit in an outdoor cafe, drink coconut juice with a straw, and for a moment you will think about Komitas Avenue and me. I will feel this as I’m writing down what the lecturer dictates during a lecture and, holding my pen tightly, I’ll scratch the paper.
When my bicycle was dying, I held its handles, it was impossible to bring it back to life, so I decided to let it turn to dust. I took it to naberezhni’s gorge and, from a convenient hilltop, let it roll down, and then I sat on the ground and smoked.
My next journey started by car.
Glossary of Terms:
Padavat - Special car with chauffeur provided to employees by the company, organization, or governmental department they work for. In this case, a car provided by the court Lia’s husband works at.
Prospekt is the old, Soviet name for Mashtots Avenue, one of the main streets of Yerevan.
A marshrutka is a type of minivan used for public transportation.
Jan is an endearing term, close in meaning to “dear.”
Naberezhni is Russian for embankment or river bank. In this case, it is a colloquial reference to the bank of the Hrazdan River, one of Armenia’s longest rivers that also runs through Yerevan.