Svetlana Lavochkina is a writer of fiction and translator of poetry. Her novella Dam Duchess was chosen runner-up for the 2013 Paris Literary Prize. Born and educated in Ukraine, Svetlana currently resides in Germany with her husband and two sons. Her work has been published in Circumference, Witness, Cerise Press, Drunken Boat, Eclectica, Mad Hatters’ Review, The Literary Review, and Chamber Four Fiction Anthology. Svetlana is co-founder and president of Leipzig Writers, a non-profit organization supporting literary projects.
Tiers on tiers, the Botanical Garden piles up towards the sky. Indigenous section, endemic, succulent; another slate higher, tropical fruit trees. At the very top, the orchid orchard offers a splendid view of the Atlantic Ocean, whose royal blueness not even my husband’s breeches can match.
The guide is a local Botany professor, his English spiced with fresh parsley of sibilants, “Welcome on Madeira, dear guests. Far enough from the heat of the Sahara, twice as far from the winters of Europe, the Gulf Stream swathes our island in seventy-three blankets of Fahrenheit all year round. It is said Adam and Eve lived there before their fall. Put a stick into the ground, wait a minute and it’ll bloom – magnolias, crane flowers, roses, but it’s for the orchids you’ve come here, haven’t you.” I’m actually laying much hope on this excursion: Lev and I desperately need an aphrodisiac, and in the lore of our marriage, orchids had once played that role.
“I’ll fill you with sweet wine and then rejuvenate you, organically and for free,” the guide continues, “A pawpaw for a head; a mango for a heart; a bamboo for a spine – end to your maladies, once and for all.” Judging by his strawberry nose, the Botany professor has been filling himself with sweet wine for decades. My left eye can’t help following a spider in his silver wattle beard. My right eye squints at my husband apprehensively. Under a light blue t-shirt of very fine, very expensive cotton that he shot down at BuyVIP.com at a quarter of a price, Lev is a huge reproach making me stoop. He moves heavily. Along his spine, the t-shirt is stained with sweat. His vertebrae are twisted, disjointed from sitting at the computer ten hours a day. His face is puckered in pain but he is stubbornly aiming the present tense with a new Canon caught at half a price at Cyberport.com. This morning Lev complained of an ear ache. I wish I’d known that yesterday’s stupid breeze would stick in his ear. I wish I hadn’t left Ibuprofen on the bedside table.
“Give me the fucking pill,” Lev half-hisses, half-moans.
“Elefantine equations,” I said solemnly at my first term Math exam, announcing my topic. Why did it have to be the youngest, the most wicked professor in the college to examine me in hated Math? I had no idea of diophantine equations; to top that, a slip of the tongue. Suddenly, the professor burst into laughter, tears besprinkling his spectacles. “Elephantine, elephantine,” he repeated. “No one has ever made a joke I would laugh at. For knowledge of the topic, you get “poor." For estimated vivacity of character, “good." The average is “fair.” He wrote down “fair” into my record book and I, my telephone number onto his palm.
Where we come from, there is the Sea of Azov, the Blind Gut of the Atlantic by nickname. Maybe a couple of Gulf Stream molecules reach it from time to time. The water is usually red, orange or brown, depending on whether, at the moment, acids, alkali or oils prevail in the sewages dumped into the sea.
Lev insisted on our going to the beach on our first date. He said he wanted to show “this girl” to the whole world, and the Blind Gut was the only direct passage to the world, however remote. His eyeglasses were thick and clumsy, with smart black eyes behind. His trousers were too short, his acrylic pullover smelled of nutmeg. Back then, he didn’t give a damn for such philistine rubbish as clothes.
Lev likes to say I shouldn’t have sold myself so cheap, touching him on his zipper and allowing him to get under my oversized polyester blouse on the very first date but then his opinion was different. “Moon in Scorpio in females in a square to Jupiter, makes for delightful erotic partisans,” he said, showing me my birth chart he had drafted to impress me on our first date.
On our second date, before we made love for the first time, in the changing cabin, I said to Lev, “Most people are three dimensional, but I – don’t be scared – am more of a plane.” It had taken me two days to devise that phrase: for the young assistant professor of mathematics, wording had to be more elaborate. Back then, I felt obliged to warn every new young man about my physique in a way he could most relate to. A percussionist was told about cymbals, and a greengrocer was hinted at a plastic bag.
All through the first months of our acquaintance, Lev caused me headaches. He rattled on and on and there was just nothing that he didn’t know. He knew how to say “I love you” in ten languages, including Urdu and Mandarin. He spoke alternatively in blank verse and limericks, then in fancy prose, and I could never tell whether those were his own words or a quote. “Existence is a series of footnotes to a vast, obscure, unfinished masterpiece,” Lev loved to say – I could swear the words were quite in his register but they were Nabokov’s. Even the plainest phrase “I had a shit and then called Sarah” appeared a quote from Charles Bukowski. We started every morning with a quarter-marathon along the Azov coast.
With considerable difficulty, I understood the esoteric structure of the Earth, the essence of the ethereal and astral bodies. With the difference of Galois from Fermat it was less complicated, but I kept forgetting which of them died young and which wrote on his cuffs. “The Fermat theorem is going to be solved, it’s a matter of two years,” Lev predicted, rippling my flat body in waterfall (on the Kama Sutra list of most demanding postures).
We had only one reason for disagreement – I couldn’t stand poetry. Lev tried to make me learn a poem a day, Brodsky, Yeats, Rimbaud, at which I always growled like a wounded tigress. I couldn’t memorize a single line. Once, I was so angry that he splashed a glass of water by the bedside in my face, to cool me down. Lev was more amused than upset. “We’ll civilize this Scorpio Moon of yours,” he said, “my Twiggy, my Coco Chanel.”
Lev was of the opinion that for a wedding, a real gentleman should present his bride with orchids, not with trite roses. I had nothing against trite roses either, truth to say, but there he was in a white second-hand suit, with a white Phalaenopsis whose tepals and anther shouted desire, whose roots peeked out indecently out of the pot like overgrown pubic hair. While the registrar was thumbing infinitely through our files, Lev deftly hid his wrist under the polyester skirts of my wedding dress. “We’ll have four sons – like Bernoulli the mathematician brothers,” he whispered.
The professor of Botany points at a tawny species that looks like a hybrid of a rooster and a spaniel. “This is Catasetum, Darwin’s pet orchid. He admired its unadulterated straightforwardness – launching its viscid pollinia with explosive force when an insect touches its pod, so that the pollinator is knocked off the flower.”
My first miscarriage in the twenty-third week had an unexpected pleasant side effect: some pounds I had put on during pregnancy made me look more feminine.
“Three sons are okay, too, like, say, Brothers Karamazov,” Lev comforted me. He had brought in a huge cream cake, and all my nine hospital roommates had also got a piece. Lev was enthralled at the recent solution of Fermat theorem by Andrew Wiles – “Didn’t I tell you, didn’t I tell you!”, and proceeded to explain it. I pretended to listen, my fingers destroying the cream rose.
We both agreed that the Blind Gut was not a place for us to live. We needed well-being, expansion, good medical care. So Lev applied for emigration to Germany which was accepting a quota of refugees from the ex-Soviet states. Lev was sure his excellent qualifications would enable him to find a teaching position at a university. The language was not a problem: Lev had taught himself German some years ago to be able to read Freud in the original.
I dropped out of college, for I didn’t see myself a teacher of Mathematics. To while away the time of waiting for the green card, I signed up for an English course. Learning simple conversational phrases was so refreshing after Lev’s incessant racking of my IQ.
“In our case, English is impractical – actually, you should learn German. Here is a textbook: forty vocabulary items a day plus ten irregular verbs with conjugations in all tense forms.” The norm had to be amended to seven words a day and one verb conjugation in one tense form. “Your Mercury in Taurus is especially obtuse but we will flog it on,” Lev said, one eighth of disappointment in his voice.
It took us two years to get the permission to emigrate, and another miscarriage.
“What a saboteur,” the doctor said before releasing me, “just too lazy to carry children! Fifteenth week and she already spits it out. Did you pity the little thing at all? It was a boy – I saw when I scraped you out.” The Blind Gut doctors always felt that pep talk was essential for convalescence.
“Never mind, it’s okay,” Lev comforted me, his hand almost firm on my shoulder. “Two children are a somewhat mediocre performance, but there were plenty of famous sibling duos, Romulus and Remus, the Grimm Brothers, the Klitschko boxers, at the worst.”
The professor cups in his hands an orchid not too dazzling in appearance but quite healthy-looking, obviously thriving. “Chocolate Starburst belongs to Brassocatleya family. It smells of coconut and cocoa at the same time. This orchid requires unorthodox care: first, keep it in the fridge for two weeks. Then, put it out into direct sunshine, preferably the temperature of Death Valley. Never even think of watering it.”
Our belongings consisted of four checked polyester bags, four and a half filled with Lev’s books, clothes strewn on top. In two days and two nights, the bumpy road turned into an autobahn as smooth as a mirror, lined with wind turbines. The bus left the motorway and went uphill, to a little town with an immigrant hostel at the outskirts.
Rhododendrons, magnolias and even tiny palm-trees shaded pink and blue villas. Spotlessly clean cobbled alleys toddled to a fairy-tale market square. For weeks, we roamed about drinking supermarket milk that tasted like paradise.Then we tried to resume the daily quarter-marathons along the raps fields, but Lev said ghosts of Nazis stood in his way and wouldn’t let him run. The area had been a Second World War battlefield.
Late in May, my husband put on his wedding suit and took a train to the city with a five hundred-year-old university. The Head of the Mathematics Department looked at him with exuberant amusement, as if Lev was a talking orangutan. The professor explained that Lev’s Eastern European education as well as his Doctor’s thesis were not exactly on par with the west and offered him to obtain a decent Bachelor degree first, generously offering to start with the third semester. “What a precious accent you have in German!” the Professor of Mathematics couldn’t help remarking, “a classical Russian brute.”
Lev wept in bed all night and the following day signed up for a web designer course at the Employment Center. He bought a computer with a 400 MHz Celeron processor. I got used to falling asleep to the chirping of the modem that catapulted my husband into the new world of the Internet, yet virgin-free for the conquest. From that day, Lev never mentioned literature or astrology. The topics of domestic conversation became Java Script, HTML and Flash. He applied for his first job with a portfolio, the gem of which was a Flash cartoon: from the sky of very dark blue (HTML color code 000033), Ursa Major fell on the ground star by star, turning into golden coins (code FFCC33).
His first salary barely exceeded the dole level. His second employment was somewhat better paid, and the third was really decent, with a web agency of local reputation.
We started traveling but not to London, Paris or Venice as we used to dream in the Blind Gut. Lev was too tired of Babylon towers of information. Beach, palms and sea not burdened with art or history were just perfect. He said he wanted to bury his blisters in the sand, an expression he would never have used before.
Our first holiday destination was Tunis, a three-star hotel with contemptuous waiters and without air conditioning. But we didn’t mind, the two prodigal molecules of Gulf Stream on the way home. We made love three times a day. I went to the beach topless, upon which the local young men jeered at me, shouting something, probably Arabic insults. We were too happy to pay attention.
We booked our second holiday out of reckless bravado: Andalusia, a hotel of the Princess chain, way too expensive for us. At the restaurant, bejeweled matrons in evening gowns were wielding armies of unknown cutlery. Lev flung a fork into pink ham, “What the hell am I doing among these primped poodles who know paté from galantine but not Madras from Phnom Penh? And you – do you think you’re any better? I thought I could educate you some day but you are a real black hole – you would swallow diamonds or shit without chewing or judgment.” Lev had never spoken to me like that. I choked on my crème brûlée and spilled some wine onto the white table cloth. “No pasa nada, señora,” the jinn of a waiter emerged, and a new crisp swan of linen flapped from his hands onto the table. The following day Lev apologized to me and we made love after breakfast. The crystal chandelier jingled above the bed.
Since then, we were wiser. We booked the following holidays in moderate middle class hotels but with no less than ninety per cent recommendations on holidaycheck.com. Mallorca, Ibiza, some of the Canary Islands. Every year, five pounds clung to Lev’s once slim outline.
“Van Cleef & Arpels patented dipping a Dendrobium orchid in liquid gold,” the professor says proudly, as if he was the head manager of that respectable company. “Such a brooch costs fifty thousand dollars, I can sell you one, formidable gentleman,” he addresses Lev, “you look as if you could afford it.”
My husband turns his back on the guide demonstratively and makes a lot of loud snapshots of the ocean.
I signed up for the Employment Center office manager course. It was good fun, especially acting out telephone conversations. Unfortunately, I didn’t pass the German Language Exam. I was given another chance. With more assiduousness, I would have made it but I just couldn’t develop enough motivation. Instead of cramming Präteritum or Plusquamperfekt, I gulped down intermediate Penguin English readers. My counselor said she could not give me a third chance and I would do better as a geriatric nurse, where the emphasis is not on linguistic perfection but on more nitty-gritty things. This was more than I could imagine. I caught a severe flu and stayed in bed for a month.
“It’s careless not to have a job,” Lev said in a soft voice while making me chamomile tea. “If you had a child, this would be a different matter of course, but now you should learn a profession and earn your retirement support. Geriatric nurses are well paid – do be so kind as to pull yourself together.”
The training started with a theoretical block and, to my surprise, was not all that unpleasant. We did a lot of role playing: situations from a nurse’s practice. One day before the practical block began, I caught another severe flu. When I recovered, the practice was over and the next theoretical block started again.
Lev took two weeks off but we didn’t go online together to book another warm ocean destination. He said, “I must take a time out,” and put on his long cashmere coat. He went to the railway station and bought a ticket to our hometown at the Sea of Azov. He switched off his mobile phone for two weeks. On the ninth day of his absence, I invited a compatriot co-trainee who I knew liked me, a married man for whom it was apparently his first and last escapade to be remembered with guilt. He giggled shyly while pronouncing “sixty-nine”.
Lev returned refreshed. He had lost weight and was bursting with stories about incredible parties he had thrown in our hometown. He had easily afforded booking whole restaurants, whole hotels for a night. Women had worshipped him, the gala man from abroad. I felt grateful to them for doing me vicarious good, having remained at the Blind Gut of the Atlantic and returning my husband to me in high spirits. In the midst of those Sindbad stories, we made wanton love. Still panting, I honestly told him about my guest in his absence. The languished Lev slapped me lightly on the butt as if for a child’s mischief, “Well then, let’s open this marriage up and air it a bit.”
The guide opens a heavy door and ushers our tourist group into the degustation room, where colonies of Madeira bottles flash their dusty asses from the rough shelves. He takes out a dark, ancient-looking one, “Rasputin’s favorite sort, semisweet. The Tsarina sent him fifteen bottles a day. I wonder how he could perform all his infamous sex deeds after that. The murderers put potassium cyanide into his bottle enough to kill a horse but the villain didn’t show any signs of dying so he had to be drowned instead. Don’t worry, dear guests, there is no poison in your glasses.”
“I wish to God there was,” Lev growls.
I expected Lev to find bunches of women in town but, after a couple of minor episodes, he didn’t seem interested anymore, whereas my bouquet of affairs grew fast: to name a few, an Italian café owner whose manhood could adorn a porn magazine; an American English instructor with manhood as flimsy as his character; a retired city mayor, still imposing in his tailcoat and dickey when delivering a Christmas address to the job center trainees. Partly, I went for him because I thought his septuagenarian body would be good preparation for my future work placement that I could not dodge forever.
Our strict rule was spending nights at home but Lev and I didn’t use this time to be together. We lived as if in different time zones. He stayed online till three am. I fell asleep at ten, on a Penguin Reader – I had reached advanced level by then. One night, I dreamed of Lev saying, in the love voice I hadn’t heard for many years, “Venus in Pisces makes for delightful subaqueous kissers.” The following night, the same voice recited a long poem by Brodsky. The words sounded too clear for a dream. I pinched myself awake but the poem continued. There was a short pause, and then Lev said softly, “Too much for you? Don’t worry – we’ll fix that obtuse opposition of Mercury, my Marigold, my Terra Incognita.”
When I made a wary inquiry in the morning, Lev said casually that he had a new pen friend from Chelyabinsk whom he had met in ICQ. They shared a lot of common interests. Beside his computer, I saw a printed-out astrological chart; Terra Incognita was eight years younger than me.
Lev unfurled the peacock tail of courtship that had lain folded for a decade. The telephone bills soared into heights hitherto unheard: it had been a year or two before the epiphany of Skype. He booked a weekend trip to Paris. He returned elated and lighter by ten pounds. He showed me the pictures of Marigold high-heeled on Champs-Elysees; her hair in chestnut disarray at Moulin Rouge; her dimples deepened in a café at the Seine. By the end of the year, they had also visited London and Venice.
Lev sensed I was somewhat crest-fallen and booked me a week in an all-inclusive hotel on the Turkish Riviera. I saw little of my five-star room, having spent most of the time in a shabby staff barrack, at a handsome DJ’s. “I want to marry you, too,” the sleek barman whispered, fixing me a Sex on the Beach, and a passing waiter chuckled knowingly.
I don’t know if Lev had noticed my third miscarriage, week eleven. The polite doctor shrugged and agreed to act out the story of a polyp that had to be operated on. Dutifully driving me home from hospital, Lev suddenly started to sing “Ten Little Indians”. “One little Indian left all alone,” he repeated all over again until we reached home.
Our only pastime together became the Internet shopping. Sixty per cent discounts at shopping clubs and ingenious bonus systems excited Lev to no end. Online, he was the noble crusader and I, his faithful esquire. Our flat filled with the Grails: in the wardrobe, branded clothing piled up, half of it never worn; perfume bottles in the bathroom, never finished; on the coffee table, a gadget park.
The professor sighs, “We are approaching the sad part of our collection,” The orchids you see here look as beauteous as any but all of them are ill. They are infected with an incurable virus. Naively hopeful in their pots, they wait for us to help and we try our best. But neither in their lifetime, nor in ours will we will find a cure.”
On the first day of the practical block at a retirement home, I watched experienced nurses work. The second day, I took over serving lunch. Then my patron nurse ordered me to wash a bedbound patient. I fainted when I opened his diaper.
The retired mayor persuaded my counselor not to expel me from the Employment Center’s training system. Then he offered me a booby prize: a weekend in Amsterdam.
It was October. The mulatto brows of Prinsengracht facades were hung up with golden fringes of maple leaves, fishing for compliments in the grim canal. A young painter’s pastels rattled in the wind like colored teeth, “Distinguished gentleman, I must draw a portrait of your lady, her cheekbones are puce eclipse!” My mayor was flattered. He paid twice the price asked and headed for the hotel, following the peremptory call of his afternoon nap. I took a seat on a folding chair, and the painter fastened his irises on my face like suction cups. His chalks set to gnawing the paper.
My features came out too seasoned, as if caught within a nasty joke. I told the painter to keep the drawing. “I owe you a portrait you’ll like,” he said, and wrote “Van.gogh66” on my palm. It started to rain, and he took me under his rain cape. His warm armpit smelled of nutmeg and fixative. He put his palm on the inner seam of my jeans. Behind my eyelids, all the Rijksmuseum still lives flaked in tipsy pixels.
Lev had just returned from Prague, or was it Warsaw, where Marigold had set him a deadline to decide whether he would leave me or not. “Frankly, it would take a miracle for me to stay with you,” he said. He installed an intensive German course on my laptop. “You must exercise three hours a day, or you’ll end up a charwoman. I’ll pay you alimony of course but if I have children it won’t be much.”
After an hour of intensive German, I sat up in bed and logged in on Skype. Lev was safely downtown, at a corporate dinner. “Take off your clothes, I’ll draw you nude,” Van.gogh66 typed in the chat line. I took off my night shirt. “Straddle spilt,” was the next command. I was still in my earphones that were droning a pre-intermediate German dialogue. I didn’t notice the door agape then flung open.
“What a fucking good way to earn your living!” The earphones softened the thunder boom of my husband’s voice. The laptop hit me across the head and broke in two pieces. I bit into Lev’s fleshy forearm.
The professor gestures at an upper shelf, “Early in the evolution, all orchids used to be white. It took them millions of years to develop colors, the darker the longer, until some came to be as black as this.” I have never seen a flower more beautiful. “And this black belle is also fatally ill.” I want to take the poor orchid home, and take care of it as if it was a baby. I nearly open my mouth to ask for the price but the professor says, “To preclude any unnecessary questions, this particular orchid is not for sale – there is always a person in the group who asks. Sick as it is, it’s still priceless, the last black orchid in the world, and we pride ourselves in being its hospice.”
“Are you going to faint at the sight of a washcloth and a pail?” my counselor inquired.
I said I wasn’t, and got my very last chance at acquiring a profession: a chambermaid. The training started right away with a work placement in a downtown conference hotel.
Against all odds, I fell in love with the job. Every room was a new country, and I, its queen. I administered hoover winds, flush floods, set finger ploughshares on blanket fields. I treated my inanimate subjects with affection, and even a lavatory pan was just a tyke to be civilized.
While I cruised along the corridor with my maid cart trolley, Human Rights Convention flowed into the Annual Meeting of Dentists, Sustainable Forestry Assembly into “William Blake at 250” – it was then that my kingdoms filled with birds of passage: poems freed of paper. Not that the lawyers or dentists hadn’t used transparencies before, but their pie charts and diagrams, always computer-printed, lay heavily, drowsily in presentation folders. The Blake poems fluttered, hand-written, all over the rooms. “The Tyger” hid in a crumpled bed, “The Angel” on a sink, “A Poison Tree” on a window sill next to an empty beer bottle. When I lifted them, they pecked my fingers with their cellulose beaks. Those feathery things built nests in me. “What the anvil? What dread grasp dare its deadly terrors clasp?” I chirped, scouring the tiles, and the Tyger playfully waved the tail of its “y”. “I dreamt a dream! What can it mean? And that I was a maiden Queen,” I chirruped, polishing the mirror.
Lev put on thirty pounds and stopped shaving. “Too much, too much – I should have noticed before,” he kept mumbling. Before his deadline expired, Terra Incognita had married a farmer from Ohio.
The living room couch became his seabed. He lay there all nights with “Harry Potter” until he finished all the seven hulks: it was a year before the revelation of Kindle. He would turn forty in a week, and it had been years since I last saw him in good spirits.
“Sad Catfish, weave the roe of smile in wisps of your moustache,” I thought suddenly, and a whole stanza wrote itself in my head. I stole a transparency and an overhead marker from the conference room. I bought a bouquet of parrot tulips and put the transparency in its midst.
Lev was startled. His eyes blinked vigorously behind his Ray-Ban eyeglasses. “You have written a poem – do you understand that, for your circumstances, it’s a miracle? We might have a chance, after all. Let’s go somewhere nice to conceive a child – Newton was the only son, as was Jean-Paul Sartre – and ours, too, will be a solitaire. How does Madeira sound?”
I made an appointment at the center of reproduction. The doctor said my condition could be helped and prescribed me some drugs.
We spent the first Madeira evening on our balcony, swathed in the strong breeze, drinking supermarket wine that tasted like paradise – two molecules of the Gulf Stream home at last. We read “Auguries of Innocence” on our new Kindle. After “Some are born to sweet delight,” we went to bed. We tried to make love but it didn’t come out naturally. Lev turned his back on me, “I’m too drunk, let’s put it off till tomorrow.”
“What was it you said at the beginning, once again? Pimp up for free?” my husband interrupts the professor in the middle of a new orchid sentence, “Start right away, man, pawpaw for head, mango for heart, bamboo for spine – once and for fucking all!” The tourist group stares at him, mouths agape. Lev takes me by the shoulders and shoves me to the front, “But first, stick a healthy orchid between her legs!”
I must not lose my temper. I already feel this unmistakable shot in the groin, this cocking of the hammer before another follicle shoots out of my reproductive cartridge, day fifteen of my moon cycle. I hope the shuttle bus is waiting outside – then it will be a matter of minutes for Lev to get to his Ibuprofen.