____1. идти (idti): to walk/go, unidirectional;
______ex) Он идёт по улице: He walks along the street.
Paul walks along the street, deliberately aimless, avoiding the courtyard, the apartment, the median where the benches all face one way.
He passes a man with twin cataracts of tears falling from his eyes, holding a fistful of paper flowers and exhorting passersby, in Russian, to purchase them. His sobbing is so loud. Paul hurries by, takes the first available turn and finds himself on her street. It’s a long street—he’s at the edge of the wide-spread fan of St. Petersburg, far from her home—but it is immutably hers. Well, he says, to himself.
____2. ходить (hodit): to walk/go, bidirectional/habitual;
______ex) Каждую ночь, он ходит в кукольный театр: Еvery night he goes to the
Every night now Paul goes to the puppet theater on Ulitsa Kirochnaya. “The Big Puppet Theater” it’s called, as if there were a Little one hidden somewhere. He sits in the back. The hard, turquoise upholstery resists being sat on, plushing his body out of it. Sasha, wooden cross in hand, makes marionettes cross the stage, makes hand puppets grip their heads in agony, makes each confront their various joys and deaths. She’s the Fox in The Little Prince, the Witch in Gogol’s Viy. A month ago, Paul turned their breakup into a story. It turned out okay; he called it “The Puppetrix” which he found angular and jarring, a decent title.
Marionettes are, by nature, fragmented: wrists, knees, necks, elbows, ankles and hips, little wooden joints hinging on shining pins, limbs dangling by strings from a fractured St. Andrew’s cross. She moves the pieces of them, beautifully together despite their brokenness.
Sometimes she’s wrapped all in black, only her hands and eyes exposed, but he remembers those hands next to his at the bar, remembers those eyes glinting in the light of a bitten-down thumbnail moon above them. Once, all he can see is her wrist, poking up behind a little puppet stage, her hand jammed into the felt body of Snegurechka, sidekick to Grandfather Frost. Snegurechka is helping the hero wake his beloved from eternal sleep and defeat Baba Yaga. He has disassembled her into all her pieces like a puzzle, like a tortured doll. Paul sits in the back and fights into his chair.
____3. ехать (yehat): to go via transportation, unidirectional;
______ex) Он едет с сестрой в Павловск: He goes to Pavlovsk with his sister.
Paul goes to Pavlovsk with Kate, his sister. It can be a relief to talk to a native English speaker after too many weeks of Russian, although the rigid syntax of English takes some readjusting to. I think to go there will be nice, he says, and spits, as if this will clear his mouth of a foreign language, like it’s a bit of lettuce. His voice is in a different register, higher by a step, speaking in English; many people experience this, as if speaking a different language transformed the body.
They take the train together in silence. Kate’s nail beds are stained six different colors, jagged lines of oil paint on her cuticles. He stares at them while she reads, and occasionally reads over her shoulder. Something by Calvino. She holds down the pages with all the fingers of her left hand.
In the Pavlovsk gardens they sit with their backs against the fake Grecian ruins, a reminder that we destroy even our false pasts, pre-fade them, break them like so. They feed acorns to red squirrels, who come right up to them and take the nuts from their hands. He and Kate eat kolbasa and cheese on thick, black bread, and drink wine straight from the bottle.
She already knows it all: how he met Sasha, the art history seminar on Pavel Filonov, the forgotten, 20th-century “anti-cubist”; instead of taking notes, she would draw echoes of Filonov’s paintings, little worlds composed of fragments—towers and arches and gates and faces, all built of silver-penciled scales and slivers, like a fish. Kate knows that the first time he slept in Sasha’s apartment, all the puppets she had built—hanging on the wall like slaughtered animals—kept him from sleeping, a story he’d told and retold. She knows how Sasha helped him learn Russian, threatening to kick him out if he misused perfective verbs or positive-definite and positive-indefinite pronouns. He helped her learn too, when he could (phrasal verbs? he had asked. What the hell are phrasal verbs?).
It sounds, says Kate, like you’re stalking her.
I’m not, he says. It’s the geography. All the Prospekts meet at the Admiralty. I’m statistically bound to end up near her.
Sooner or later, he says.
And the puppets? his sister asks, unbelieving.
What, I’m supposed to never go to the puppet theater ever again? he asks. Just because she works there?
Why don’t you just talk to her?
The idea terrifies him. They sit a moment, watching squirrels chase each other around and around the trees.
____4. ездить (yezdit): to go via transportation, bidirectional/habitual;
______ex) Он ездит на автобусе в музей каждую неделю. He goes to the
______museum by bus every week.
Paul goes to the museum every week. He sits on the benches and tries to draw the paintings there, like he used to, but he breaks the images into little pieces, smaller and smaller flakes, a world broken apart, without thinking about it. He is calm.
If pressed, he would find it hard to say why the blurring of his last relationship bothers him so strongly. What does it matter if he misremembers it? Isn’t all remembering misremembering? Isn’t that Psych 101?
And yet, it’s not like Proust wrote The Past is Past and Good Riddance to That Garbage, right? Volume One: Hey These Madeleines Taste Great and Not At All Like the Pain of My Mom Not Kissing Me.
Any story that can be mapped intelligibly is probably a fiction, he thinks.
So once he’s made an intelligible story of his life—beginning, middle, end—what is he to make of that?
Why don’t you just talk to her? Kate asked.
What would he say? Hey there, long time no see, listen, do you remember how much of our relationship I invented after the fact and how much actually happened? If you could give me a list, chronologically ordered, that would be ideal. Maybe we can compare notes?
He knew he’d invented the fight in “The Puppetrix,” at least the particulars of it. He’d never been drunk on a ferris wheel, nor stuck at the top of one for an hour. And he definitely hadn’t thrown up on one. The man jumping into Kanal Griboyedeva while on a date was a story his sister had told him. But the conversations, the passion, the anger, the love…which parts were true, and which were just storytelling? And what about the parts they imagined together?
____5. перехать (pereyehat): to move, to change houses
______ex) Он перехал в хостел над театром: He moved to the hostel over the
Paul moves to the hostel over the puppet theater but he stops going to the shows. They aren’t helping.
In the stairwell, he can hear the stress patterns as Sasha speaks.
Right before they broke up, he had run to her in this stairwell. She’d been clothed from toe to neck in black, face flushed to the cheekbones, her pale-brown rus hair pulled back in a tight bun. Not now, she had said to him. In her hands was a marionette, and it, too, shooed him away, flapping its little wooden hands. Cla-clack.
He’d known she would be there, that he could catch her there even if she wouldn’t respond to his calls. What did I do? he had asked. What can I do?
You can leave, she’d said. She had pulled a black balaclava over her face, obscuring all but her eyes, and he found himself looking to the puppet, beseechingly, as if it were more human. The puppet had shrugged at him and shooed him away again, he remembers. But then, that was in the story, too.
He meets up with his sister at Kofye Hauz. Many European countries are known for the quality of their coffee, but Russia is not one of them.
How’s your thesis going? Kate asks, and he says fine before he even remembers what she’s talking about: Kandinsky, Petrov-Vodkin, concerning the spherical in art, etc. The reason he’s in St. Petersburg. He sketches a commissar on the back of a napkin, substituting lines for conversation. He sketches infantrymen, leaving behind their wounded comrade in spherical perspective. Looks like a heavy-handed metaphor, she says.
He laughs. No, it is going fine. Or it’s going to go fine. Or going to going to go . . . He crumples the napkin and wipes his mouth with it. What about you? How’s Kostya doing?
He’s still off in Chechnya, she says. Reporting. There’s venom in the word, echoes of gunshots, the screaming of bombs, of children. So it’s just me and Anya at home. But, she says, I’m working on a neat kids’ book. She pulls a slim, white-spined book from her bag and holds it up: a Calvino novel, Invisible Cities.
Damn, babies got smarter, Paul says.
It’s for the LittlerLiterature series, she says. You know, like Moby-Dick becomes a book of colorful whales and ships and teaches kids useful words like “harpoon” and “spermaceti.” Kate sips her coffee and grimaces. They’re putting out one for Invisible Cities, with Marco Polo exploring various cities. There’s plenty of urban vocabulary, slightly less semiotics . . . anyway I get to draw it all.
____6. входить (vkhodit): to enter
______ex) Он входит в театр опять и он сидит в тени: He enters the theater again
______and sits in shadow.
On the stage are two puppets, male and female. A third puppeteer stands onstage, swirling pieces of cloth around the female puppet like curtains caught in a windstorm, or a constantly-forming cocoon. The cloth is white, but in the thick stage lights it looks like a bolt of fluorescent light. The male puppet sits on a tiny chair, all four of his strings slack. The two lead puppeteers begin to speak.
HER: It’s easier than you think.
HIM: I’ve been trying to learn for years.
HER: Trying how? How hard?
HIM: My entire childhood, my sister drew beautifully, painted beautifully. She could paint grapes so vividly that birds would come to peck at them.
HER: You stole that story from Zeuxis.
HIM: Did I? I remember it exactly like that.
HER: Zeuxis wept because although the birds believed the grapes were real, they weren’t scared of his painted boy. The birds knew he was fake.
HIM: I bet you could paint a boy who would scare off birds.
HER: Sycophancy will get you nowhere.
HIM: If it’s so easy, then teach me.
They move together and the swirling fabric envelops the male puppet as well. At the back of the stage, constellations of copper wire and multicolored string are tacked up by a man in all black. Their background is the dark blue of sky just after the sun disappears. Light fades. The sound of a whippoorwill calling.
A new scene begins. Rain sound. The male and female puppets stand under an umbrella that casts light downward, onto them. The rest of the stage stays dark.
HER: When my brother died I was seventeen. He was hit on a train trestle. All I did for months afterward was draw his face. I drew it from every angle I could envision: him looking over his right shoulder, then his left; him straight on, or cocking his head like he was listening to music from far away. Eyes open, closed. I divided his face into its composite parts—nose, eyes, lips, cheekbones, chin. I cut them out and rearranged them into new expressions on the cork board in my room, depending on how I was feeling that day, and then I’d draw his face again, just to be sure I didn’t forget it. If I went blind I could still draw it from memory, by touch, I think. That was what drawing became for me: a way to fix him in time.
HIM: What happened to all the drawings?
HER: When I turned eighteen I burned them. I didn’t need them anymore.
HIM: Because you were done grieving? Or because you held them all in your head?
The umbrella’s light suddenly shuts off. A spotlight shines on the wire and string behind the puppets. The lines of copper and thread have taken the shape of a faceted eye—a Filonov eye, made up of a hundred tiny polygons—which, as the spotlight moves up and down, blinks stereoscopically.
Lights Up on HER apartment, tiny puppets’ puppets hanging from the walls, dozens of them. All the Russian folk heroes are there, the princes and princesses and evil wizards; Pushkin’s Horseman is there, too; further back: Odysseus, Circe, blind Tiresias, all in a tangle; Orpheus and Eurydice hang apart, faces turned away from one another, safe. SHE is wrapped in light again; HE is sitting on the bed, holding a picture frame. Outside, bare cherry tree branches scratch ghostly notes against the window. HE lifts two shards of glass from the frame that sits on his lap, sets them
g e n t l y on the bed.
HIM: You’re being irrational.
HER: (turning, the bolts of light swishing away from her like a lost swarm of birds) I’m what?
HIM: It’s just a picture, look, you can tape it back together.(Flinching) Ouch.
(A thin red piece of yarn spools down from his hand, pools in long coils along the floor)
HER: I’m not mad that you damaged the picture.
HIM: What are you talking about? Of course you are.
HER: I’m mad that you laughed.
HER: You knocked the frame to the ground, trod on it, looked down at his broken face and you fucking laughed.
HIM: Why the hell would I laugh?
HER: I don’t know. (SHE turns away) I don’t know.
(HE just sits there. HER puppets—the puppet’s puppets—clatter softly against the walls of the room, chattering like teeth.)
____7. выходить (vyhodit): to leave
______ex) Он выходит: He leaves.
He knows how it ends. More or less.
____8. Гулять (gulyat): to walk aimlessly, to wander
______ex) Он гуляет по городе: He wanders around the city.
The imagery was nice, of course. The big blinking eye, the visible and invisible. Was she suffering through the same thing?
Because of course,and the catalyst for their breakup hadn’t been a photo of Ivan but Ivan’s photos, a scattered stack he found on her nightstand, left out one evening, the general kind of trash a teenager with a camera might make: out of focus shots of city streets, a teenage boy flipping a very American bird, lots and lots of clouds, one of just shoes. And Paul had said what the fuck is this trite shit or something like that and Sasha glared at him and he knew, knew instantly, that Ivan, who never made it past nineteen, had made these. And so he slowly backed out of the room, out the front door, and walked home. A Mulligan, he figured. She had later slapped him and called him a snob, and although it was still a month until they broke up, that was the beginning of the downward slope, the Freytagean falling action, as he remembers it. As she remembers it too, apparently. But what does that mean?
She must have known they were bad, right?
If only there had been some impartial third-party observer to their relationship, he thinks, some chronicler who could tell them both that the good was less good than they remember but so too was the bad less bad, who could tell them exactly which fights were won by whom, if they were won at all; someone who could catalogue their blacked-out nights and whited-out days and blotted-out losses, their inadequacies.
Paul punches nine numbers into his dark-blue Nokia, thumb resting against the tenth so that he can feel his pulse in it. But he doesn’t push down. He pockets the phone, carrying its nine numbers like an unclosed parenthetical.
What would you feel if I died? he asks Kate in the Pavlovsk gardens. They go there regularly now, and sometimes Anya, his niece, comes along. She chases red squirrels through the fallen leaves and on the train home she falls asleep on Kate’s lap, the car gently rocking against the railroad ties.
His sister looks concerned I’m not planning on it, he says. Just wondering.
You mean apart from feeling sad?
I think it’d be very hard for the present to ever feel real again.
Yeah. It’d be like waking up one day to discover I was a tree or a fox or a red squirrel.
Giant cockroach, he mutters.
Sure. I think the entire definition of my life would be so distant from its current definition, would have broken so suddenly, I wouldn’t know how to feel real ever again.
How would you feel? Kate asks. If I died.
Extremely tired, he says. I think I would be extremely tired for a year and a day, and never leave my home or my bed. And then I would get up.
____9. Пойти (paiti): (imperatively) to shove off, to get the fuck out; more generally
St. Petersburg is forty-two islands, broken by rivers and blue yarn, a Frankenstein’s monster built on swamp, stapled together by drawbridges. After midnight the bridges rise up to let ships pass through. At the end of Liteniy Prospekt, a giant dark road lifting into the sky, all the islands are set adrift on black water.
Every time he passes the steep sides of the canals, he wonders how would I get out if I fell in there.
Paul sits in his hostel room and sketches drawbridges that rise up so far they curve back around, joining in an enormous loop like a never-ending Hotwheels track, tiny cars racing along their insides perpetually. He crumples the paper into a ball and says spherical perspective out loud to himself, laughs.
He fingers the paper, pushing in eyeholes and pulling out a nose, making a little paper face, covered in wrinkles and rivulets.
Will I learn anything if I talk to her? he asks the paper head. Or will she punch me in the throat? He laughs. That’s the eternal question, right?
Silence from the head.
Everyone rewrites their past to make it easier to understand, he says. But when you actually, literally write it down, when that’s cemented, published, unchangeable, and you compare it to your scattered, broken memories . . . it’s gonna feel more real. It makes more sense than the truth.
He has not, will never, open Invisible Cities, although he will enjoy Kate’s illustrations of it.
The story of your life is not your life, he says. He almost writes that down, but throws that piece of paper across the room. Jesus, enough, he says. He spits, trying to get the taste of tiny stupid wisdom out of his mouth, and tosses the paper head out the window, and it plummets.
____10. взойти (vzaiti): to ascend
Paul moves out of hostel and stays with Kate for a while. His niece climbs over his lap and he reads to her children’s books that Kate’s illustrated, books about escaped loaves of bread and enormous radishes. The pictures are made of thick, bright blocks of color.
He writes. He writes and rewrites their story from a thousand different angles, a thousand conflicting versions of the truth. He creates his own multiverse for his past to live inside.
Borges would be proud, Kate says. You’ve got a Garden of Forking Paths in reverse: the outcome is the same every time, but the steps change.
You can make a perfect circle by drawing a hundred imperfect circles around one another and then erasing the oblong edges, whittling it down to perfection.
Or, you can live with dark, oblong circles, knowing that in their sum is the possibility of perfection.
Did you ever think it was funny, he asks his sister, that you became an artist and I’m becoming an art historian? Creator versus critic?
She looks at the sheaves of paper that litter his desk, all scattered like pear blossoms in spring. No, she says. You never learned to leave anything alone, not a song or a picture or a story. You pick at it, like a scab. This thing you’re doing isn’t fiction, it’s a different kind of criticism. She picks up a sheet of paper with his frantic, all-caps writing crowding against the margins. Criticism of the self, she says, and laughs at herself.
I think I missed a few steps there, he says. A pitfall of the critic?
Kate laughs again. No, that’s because I’m smarter than you. She is in a good mood; Kostya is coming home from Chechnya soon. Paul laughs—really laughs—with her. Anya laughs too. You guys talk like you’re in a book, she says.
He writes during the day and in the afternoons he takes his niece to the Russian Museum and they look at paintings by Ge and Repin, murderous tsars and barge-pullers; they look at Filonov and Kandinsky too—his niece likes Kandinsky’s colors, all bright and jumbled together. There are a thousand things in there she tells him. And he says Yeah.
____11. проходить (prohodit): to move/walk past, through
In the Metropolitan Museum, a piece neither American nor Russian hangs on the second floor of the southern wing: a scrap of fresco from Greece, almost entirely eroded by time. On the plastic board behind the plaster, the museum staff has carefully reproduced what the rest of the fresco must have looked like, sketched out its lines in blues and yellows and whites. There are three women. One looks behind, one looks ahead, and the one in the middle looks at another woman.
Years later, Paul and Sasha will each be in the Met on the same day, will each glance at the piece of fresco and smile to themselves imperceptibly. But their paths will not cross. While he’s looking at it, she’ll be staring down a Fra Angelico saint; while she’s looking, he’ll be pressing the foot pedal on Narva, the Dadaist “clock gone awry,” watching the wheels spin and the metal bars grind screechingly against one another.