Translated from the Russian by Anna Summers
People like to imagine themselves in control of the innumerable objects that fill their lives, even though the silliest trifle can force its owner into an unwanted, unpredictable direction.
For three years Olya Rozova was a devoted wife of an honest husband. Extremely shy, she almost never went out and didn’t mind spending evenings in their modest home. Then, one day, an unusual object caught her eye at the Gostiny Mall. It was a wide starched collar with a playful yellow ribbon drawn through it. Olya’s first reaction was, “How ridiculous!” She walked in and bought it.
At home, she tried the collar on. It turned out that if she tied the ribbon not on the front but on the side, the resulting effect, though quite indescribable, was definitely good rather than bad. Unfortunately, the effect was ruined by Olya’s old blouse—the collar clearly asked for something with soft wide sleeves in buttery yellow. All night Olya tossed in her bed, torn between desire and duty. In the morning, she marched over to the Gostiny and purchased a new blouse with the household money.
The collar seemed pleased with the purchase, but Olya’s shabby skirt spoiled the ensemble—the collar obviously called for something longer, with deep pleats. The household funds were exhausted, but it was too late to stop.
In the morning, Olya took the family’s silver spoons and a bracelet to the pawnshop. She felt helpless and scared, and when the collar demanded new shoes, she collapsed on her bed and cried all afternoon. However, the next day she walked around without a watch but in the shoes the collar had made her buy. In the evening, embarrassed and pale, Olya drank tea with her grandmother, lying awkwardly about her husband’s illness and the doctor’s injunction to rub him down with expensive cognac. The grandmother was a kindly woman, so the next day Olya could buy a new hat, a belt, and a pair of gloves.
The following days were very painful. Olya ran from friend to friend, from relative to relative, begging and lying. Then she took the borrowed sum to a furniture dealer and bought an unspeakably ugly, fat couch that made her and her honest husband gag with disgust, but which the starched scoundrel had demanded from her.
Olya began to lead a strange life, a life that wasn’t her own. Because of the collar’s eclectic style, she felt confused and disoriented trying to please it. “If you come from England and insist that I eat soy and kidney pie, then why this coy ribbon? Why do you turn me into a shameless liar and coquette?” A spineless and inert creature, Olya quickly weakened before the collar’s onslaught and just staggered along in its wake.
She bobbed her hair, took up smoking, and began to laugh shrilly at off- color jokes.
Deep within her still flickered the knowledge of her degradation; at night or even during the day, when the collar was in the laundry, Olya cried and prayed for a way out. She tried to confess to her husband, but the honest fellow decided she was pulling his leg and just laughed.
You may ask why she didn’t simply throw away the cursed rag. Well, she couldn’t. As any psychiatrist will tell you, weak and inert people prefer the sweet pain of suffering to a healthy but dull peace of mind. So the collar stayed and continued its attack, growing stronger and bolder by the day.
Two weeks after the fateful purchase, Olya was invited to a dinner party. She used to spend her nights at home, but now the collar jumped on her neck and dragged her outside. At the dinner, the brazen piece of cotton acted boldly to the point of indecency: it cocked her head this way and that, flirted and giggled loudly. When Olya’s neighbor, some university student, squeezed her hand under the table, Olya blushed with indignation, but the collar answered for her, “That’s it?” Olya couldn’t believe her own ears!
After dinner, the student offered to take her home, and, before Olya could refuse, the collar giggled again and said yes. In the cab, the student planted his paw on Olya’s waist and kissed her right on the mouth. His beard reeked of the pork they ate at the dinner, and the insulted Olya was ready to cry from nausea and shame, but the collar just giggled, pulled her head closer and asked, “That’s it?”
The emboldened student stopped the cab at a restaurant, ostensibly to listen to the music, and took a private booth. Olya piped up indignantly that there was no music there, but the collar and the student ignored her and went on kissing, drinking liqueur, and talking nonsense.
Olya got home at dawn. Her honest husband opened the door. In a shaking hand he was clutching Olya’s pawnshop receipts and IOUs. “Where were you all night? Where were you?”
Olya’s whole being trembled with remorse, but the collar wouldn’t let her say a word. “Where was I? Fooling around with a student, that’s where.”
The honest husband swayed. “Olya, dear Olya, what’s happening to you? Why did you borrow from the Yanins and Satovs? What did you do with the money?”
“The money? Spent it on—” and the collar made a rude gesture she didn’t know existed.
The honest husband fainted. The next morning he packed a small suitcase and transferred to another city, leaving behind his once beloved wife and happy marriage.
The worst part of it is that the very next day the collar disappeared while in the laundry.
Now Olya works at a bank. She is so shy that when someone says “address” she blushes violently because it rhymes with “caress.”
“And the collar?” you will ask. “What happened to the fateful collar?”
I will tell you, “How do I know? Ask the laundry, they are responsible.”
That, my dear reader, is life.