Translated from the Russian by Bela Shayevich
Margarita K., Armenian refugee, forty-one years old
I didn’t like how he and I met. In the morning, I usually walked right through security, everyone knew me, so no one would ever ask for my I.D.: Hi, hi, no questions. Then, one day: “Your I.D., please.” I was dumbfounded. There was this tall, handsome guy standing in front of me, not letting me through. “But you see me every day.” “Your I.D., please.” It just so happened that that day, I had forgotten my I.D. I dug around in my purse, but it turned out that I didn’t have any of my documents with me. They called my boss … I got chewed out … I was so mad at that security guard! And he … I was working the night shift, and he and his friend came by to have tea with me. Imagine that! He brought me pastries filled with jam, they don’t make them like they used to, they were so good, but it was scary to bite into them because you never knew what side the filling was going to come out of. We laughed! But I didn’t talk to him because I was still mad. A few days later, he found me after work. “I got tickets to the movies. Wanna come?” They were tickets to my favorite comedy, Mimino, starring Vakhtang Kikabidze. I’d seen it ten times already, I knew the whole thing by heart. It turned out that he did, too. We walked along quoting lines, testing each other: “I’ll let you in on something smart, just don’t get mad at me.” “How am I supposed to sell this cow if everyone around her knows her?” So we fell in love …
Back then, there were these vending machines all over town that dispensed soda water. They’d have cups attached to them by chains, and everyone would drink out of the same cup. You’d rinse it out and drink from it. We went up to one of the vending machines, but there was no cup attached to it, and the next one didn’t have a cup, either. I was thirsty! We’d sung, shouted, and laughed so much when we were by the sea—I was thirsty! For a long time, magical, improbable things kept happening to us, and then, one day, they stopped. Yes, yes, I promise, it’s the truth! “Abulfaz, I want to drink! Think of something!” He looked at me, raised his hands to the sky, and began muttering. He muttered at the sky like that for a long time … Suddenly, from behind the overgrown fences and shuttered kiosks, this drunk appeared out of nowhere and handed over a cup: “For a be-a-u-ti-ful girl, I can spare it.”
My father had abandoned us, he lived with another woman, but he was still my father. I went to him with the news: “Papa, I’m getting married!” “Is he a good guy?” “Very. But his name is Abulfaz …” My father didn’t say anything, he wanted me to be happy. But I had fallen in love with a Muslim … he prayed to a different God.
My wedding … our wedding … Abulfaz stood alone … as though he were kinless … “I’ll have your baby and then you won’t be alone anymore,” I vowed in my head. Solemnly. He knew, I’d confessed to him long before, that I had been very sick as a child and the doctors had told me that I must never give birth. And he agreed to that too, anything just to be with me. But I … At that moment, I decided that I would have his baby anyway. Even if it meant that I would die, the child would live.
Men or teenagers … I was too terrified to remember … were beating—murdering—a woman with a fence post … She lay on the ground, not making a sound. When passersby saw what was happening, they’d turn the corner and walk down another street. Where were the police? The police had disappeared … I would go days without seeing a single policeman. At home, Abulfaz was nauseated. He was a kind man, very kind. But where had those other people come from, the ones out on the street?
My mother quit her job … It became dangerous to walk down the street, people instantly saw that she was an Armenian. I didn’t have that problem, under one condition: I could never bring any of my documents out with me. None of them! Abulfaz would pick me up from work, and we’d walk home together so that no one would have a chance to suspect that I was Armenian. Anyone could come up to you and demand to see your passport. “Hide. Leave,” our neighbors, the old Russian ladies, warned us …
I was already pregnant … Under my heart, I carried a child …
They didn’t just kill Armenians, they also killed the people who hid them. My Azerbaijani friend hid me, she had a husband and two kids … They had these thick drapes … thick as a coat … They’d had them sewn especially for me. At night, I would come down from the attic for an hour or two …We spoke in whispers, but I absolutely had to be talked to. Everyone understood: they needed to talk to me so that I wouldn’t go dumb and lose my mind. So that I wouldn’t miscarry or start wailing in the night like an animal.
I remember our conversations very well. Afterward, I would spend all day up in the attic going over them in my head. I was alone … All I saw was a thin ribbon of sky through a crack …
And then Russian troops entered the city. I could go home … My friend’s husband was bedridden, he could only move one of his arms, and barely. He embraced me with that arm: “I thought about you all night long, Rita, and about my life. For many years, practically my whole life, I’ve railed against the communists. Now I have my doubts: so what if those old mummies ruled over us, pinning medal after medal onto one another, and we couldn’t go abroad, read forbidden books, or eat pizza, the food of the gods? … You wouldn’t have had to hide in the attic like a mouse …”
My mother left first … After her, it was my father with his second family. Then me and my daughter. We had false documents, passports with Azerbaijani last names … It took us three months to buy the tickets, that’s how long the lines were! When we got on the airplane, there were more cases of fruit and cardboard boxes of flowers than passengers. Business! Business was booming … In Moscow, our cousin came to meet us at the airport … “Where’s Abulfaz?” “He’ll be here in a month.” My relatives got together that evening. Everyone begged me: “Talk, please talk, don’t be scared. Silent people get sick.” A month later, I started talking, even though I thought I’d never talk again. That I’d shut up for good.
I waited, and waited … and waited … Abulfaz didn’t join us in a month … or six months. It took him seven years. Seven years … seven …
It was morning, just another morning … He stepped into our apartment and embraced us. Then he just stood there … For a month, he followed me around the apartment on his knees, kissing my hands. “What are you trying to say?” “I love you.” “Where have you been all this time?”
… They stole his passport … and after he got a new one, they did it again …
My father … He wanted me to be happy … He took away my passport and gave it to some guys to put a stamp in it certifying that I was divorced. To falsify my documents. They wrote something in it, washed it off, tried to fix it, and in the end, they made a hole in my passport. “Papa! Why did you do that? You know I love him!” “You love our enemy.” “My passport is ruined, it’s not valid anymore …”
…We live here as though we’re at war … Everywhere we go, we’re foreigners. Spending time by the sea would cure me. My sea! But there’s no sea anywhere near here …
… I was a cleaning woman in the Metro, I scrubbed toilets. I dragged bricks and sacks of concrete at a construction site. Right now, I clean at a restaurant. Abulfaz renovates apartments for rich people. Nice people pay him, bad people cheat him. “Get the hell out of here, churka! (A Russian racial slur for a person from the Caucasus region or Central Asia.) Or we’ll call the police.” We’re not legally registered to live here … we have no rights … There are as many of us here as there are grains of sand in the desert. Hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes: Tajiks, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, Chechens … They escaped to Moscow, the capital of the U.S.S.R., only now, it’s the capital of another country. You won’t find our nation anywhere on the map …
My daughter finished school a year ago … “Mama, Papa … I want to continue my education!” But she doesn’t have a passport …
All the Armenians left Baku for America. They were taken in by a foreign country … My mother, my father, and many of our relatives moved there. I went to the American Embassy myself. “Tell us your story,” they said. I told them about my love … They were silent; for a long time, they didn’t say anything. Young Americans, they were very young. Then they started discussing it among themselves: Her passport is all messed up, and it’s weird, where was her husband for seven years? Is he really her husband? The story is too terrifying and beautiful to believe. That’s what they said. I know a little English … I realized that they didn’t believe me. But I have no proof other than my love for him … Do you believe me?
“I believe you …” I tell her. “I grew up in the same country as you. I believe you!”
Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. Secondhand Time, from which this essay was adapted, was published in May by Random House, in a translation by Bela Shayevich.
Image: Photo © Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos