Logo The Fabulist

Intensive Care: Conversations

  • By Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
  • Issue 14
  • FableFebruary 2016

“Hello? Hello? Somebody hold me—I’m sailing away!”

“Patient, can you hear me? How are you feeling? How are you, patient? He isn’t responding.”

Now I understand why I’d met Mara—to end up here, in this state or “condition,” whatever you want to call it.

Mara was short and fat, her hair was cropped, almost shaved, her skirts were always revealing her thighs—something other women try to avoid. Mara was constructed entirely from balls of fat: her head a medium-size ball, inside her mouth a red ball ...

“Can you hear us, patient? Hello? Hang on, just hang on.”

… the ball of her crotch, the yellow balls of her heels, her buttocks two enormous balls.

That Friday she borrowed a recipe book from her neighbors to make a pot of kidneys in the theater dorm she and I shared. The meal was for her daughter, she said, who was due home from the boarding kindergarten. Then Gennady came. He used to give me work; he had contacts in the government. A distant acquaintance, Olga, also stopped by. Gennady was playing the guitar and Olga was singing. She came because in those days I directed a drama studio and she hoped that I’d hire her. She also knew that she needed to charm Gennady. So Mara was lolling on our bed, mocking us all—she was the only one with a sense of humor. I was watching Olga, who was beautiful, with her red hair and gorgeous voice. (Gennady, too, I could tell, was taken with her.) We were drinking vodka. Mara drank like a fiend; I did, too. Olga didn’t drink. I think she was saving her strength for the long battle of survival. But we didn’t care. That’s what I had in those days: courage, contempt for death. Mara had it, too …

“You, hero, how are you feeling? No answer. Tanya, get Alina right away. This outlet’s faulty! We should take him to ICU 6. They have a good outlet there.”

Mara, she just wanted to croak. That night she drank the whole bottle by herself, decided she was going to die there and then. So she offered me and her guests that pot of kidneys, even though she had toiled on them for two hours. Only Olga ate. Ate and praised. Mara’s daughter generally stayed at the boarding kindergarten Monday through Friday and it was my duty to bring her home on weekends. But that night I couldn’t, I was too drunk. And so the girl waited with the janitor until midnight. We sat in our dorm room and ate the little girl’s food, even though I didn’t want any, I didn’t want to mix vodka with food. Mara didn’t eat anything. She kept saying, “Go, you bastard, go and bring the child home”—but I couldn’t budge.

At get-togethers, Gennady usually played, and Mara sang. She had this dark, sexy voice. If she is still alive, she must be working in theaters playing old hags (a very rare talent, by the way). She is the muse of my generation, having slept with everyone famous and not so famous: Zhenya, Andrei, Volodya, Erik, Vasya, Arkasha, who else … Grisha, even with cab-drivers—she paid them with sex—and with plumbers too, but that was after I’d left. Mara couldn’t muster the courage to kill herself outright. Sometimes she went out at night to roam the park. Once, she was found in the attic with a mashed-in head: someone saw a group of soldiers on leave walking down the stairs, tucking their shirts into their pants. She was unconscious, covered with bruises; they must have kicked her with their boots. But she lived. I’m hard to kill, too, same as her ...

“Alina, Tanya, let’s roll him over.”

“Oh, he’s heavy. Roll him over gently.”

I tried, God knows I tried. Don’t kick me, not with your feet, not on the face! Gennady could make anything happen; he could organize a whole drama festival. Mara and I performed in a play for two actors at that festival; I can’t remember the name. In those days, we overflowed with ideas. I turned books into scripts. Mara could play anything. With her talent she could play both Juliet and Mrs. What’s-her-name from The Windsor Wives. Even the Little Prince, with her smoky voice. Without any effort, she transformed herself into any character. All we needed was a contract. This is where Gennady came in. That’s why I groveled before him, while Mara despised us both. Mara, I’ll say it again, could transform herself instantly. Yes, she really was a genius. But what are you doing? Just don’t touch the head, the head …

“Turn it on. Is it working?”

“Yes, with this outlet. Sorry, ma’am, go back to sleep, we were looking for an outlet that works.”

Mara, you too must protect your head. But she never protected any part of herself. She developed high blood pressure like all heavy people. She drank and ignored the risks, although she didn’t want to leave her daughter with me. I finally pulled myself together and had a pacemaker inserted. Because when She comes—you know who I mean—no one wants to go with Her. Although She doesn’t exactly invite you along. She jumps on you and presses you down, smothers you …

“What? What’s happening? Tanya, let’s take him to ICU right away. Hang in there, you, what’s his name, do we know?”

“We’ll look at the chart later.”

She smothers you, and that’s when you want to break free.

“Stop, I’ll give him a shot or he won’t make it. Okay, okay, here.”

I’m hurting, I’m hurting! Let me explain why I left Mara. She became unbearable, sleeping with random people in full view of her daughter. I was directing a drama studio, I was away a lot, and she barely worked anymore. She had destroyed herself deliberately. I came home late, then later and later, hoping they were asleep. I didn’t want to see her. She slept with the lights on, buck naked, snoring on the bed. On weekends her poor daughter would lie fully dressed, asleep at the table, bent over her drawing book and crayons among empty glasses and bottles. Neither of them had anything to eat. I’d undress the child, place her in a cot behind the screen, and lie down under the table with an old blanket. Table, bed, cot, wardrobe: that’s all we had in our room. That was the theater dorm for you. Air, give me air!

“Roll him, quickly!”

The reek of vomit, smoke, filth in every sense of the word, constant partying, hordes of visitors, lights until dawn. Empty cans, cigarette butts, dirty socks, glasses, clothes hanging on nails, graffiti everywhere …

“What about the elevator? Is it working?”

“It’s supposed to work around the clock.”

“Tanya, run downstairs: the operator left the doors open on the ground floor. Hurry, hurry.”

Air, I need air! I pitied her. In the morning she looked horrendous. I had long ago stopped touching her; she rarely washed. Who would sleep with that walking garbage bin? How I managed to pick up the girl from school—now, that was interesting. I took her to school on Monday mornings and brought her home on Friday evenings. That was my assigned duty as a stepfather. I earned very little, and I don’t know what Mara lived on. I just slept under that table. It loomed over me like a protective dome, I dream of it still …

“The elevator’s here. Let’s go!”

I dream of her too. Some mornings I woke up under that table, and she would be lying next to me, hugging my back, like in the old days. I’d push her off, shower, leave for work, and she’d remain on the floor, all swollen, in a house robe, with her jail crew cut. In the evenings, when I came home, she’d curse me dirtily and try to kick me out. Once, when she collected my old clothes—sweater, pants, socks—and set them on fire, she almost burned the room down. She tried to burn them in a basin, but the flames licked the wall instead.

After that incident, I left. A year later, we were suddenly given an apartment, courtesy of her theater. Mara had become famous starring in a movie about country life. Her girlfriends called me to tell me that I had to register in the new apartment. They were her buddies, they had never left her, they took care of her girl when she was filming on location. (I never had such friends.) As soon as I left, she had begun working again, as if a curse had lifted. My God, one could place the camera in front of her and let it roll for a year! The film would have won an Oscar.

I couldn’t have taken the girl. I stayed in a dorm room with theater clowns, literally sleeping under their bed. Above me people fucked, snored, played cards. Thankfully, it was an old bed, very high, and I fit underneath easily. Only when someone lay on the top, the old mattress sagged and I dreamed that I couldn’t crawl out, that I was in a tunnel, flying, and rays of light were piercing me …

“Doctor, he has a pacemaker.”

“Sergei, Sergei, can you hear me?”

Yes, crawling through a tunnel. But Mara had crawled out. The only woman who loved me so much that she wanted to destroy herself, considered herself unworthy of me, stained, dirtied herself, laughed at herself. A genius actress, who despised my work and envied my pupils. Who had destroyed herself and me.

“Nurse, which heart attack is this? Third? Ha-ha.”

Every day: vodka, guests, singing, conversations, fights, hugging the white friend, the toilet. I participated like the sentimental idiot I was. I was so in love with her. Mara had taken me in, into her dorm. We had a big wedding. In those early days I worked at the studio, where I was considered a genius. I directed a pantomime troupe. We were famous until the authorities disbanded us and the money ended.

“Well, Tanya, Alina, go. Doctor and I will stay. Go. Everything will be fine.”

How stifling it is under this bed. I need to get out, to crawl out, no air, and you, my Mara, my love, my friend, you are here, but what are you doing here? Didn’t you die a year ago? I buried you myself. How can we fit in here together? Don’t press, don’t push me …

“His blood pressure has dropped completely.”

Mara, don’t smother me! Ah, you are hugging me again. My love, I knew you’d come to me in the end. I knew it. Just don’t choke me! Enough! Freedom, freedom, enough!

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is a playwright and fiction writer who lives in Moscow, where she was born in 1938.


Anna Summers is a scholar and translator. She is the literary editor of The Baffler.