Natasha Grinberg
Part 1

1977, USSR


Zinka stood in line waiting for her turn. It had been over an hour, and her legs were tired. Because there were no chairs, not just she but all the women, dressed in their formless hospital-stamped robes, fidgeted, shifting their weight from one leg to the other; some held boxes of chocolate or small wrapped packages. At first, everyone looked as if they got stuck in this line by mistake and turned their faces away on meeting Zinka’s gaze.

After the first woman had been admitted and the harrowing yells seeped out of the doctor’s office, the faces of the remaining women paled, and their lips pursed for several seconds. Then, to muffle the sounds, everyone broke into spontaneous conversations with whoever stood next to them in line.

“It’s my fifth,” said a trembling butterball to Zinka, “It’s always like this. I thought I’d die the first time around, but it was over in no time, don’t you worry your pretty face. It’ll get better and easier each time. You’ll see.”

She couldn’t plug her ears without appearing impolite and she couldn’t help but hear snippets of conversations whispered behind her: “‘. . .Vanya!’ I cried to him, ‘not tonight. I’ll get it if you fuck me tonight! You’ll see, I’ll get it again.’ But. . . . My Vanechka, he’s such a stud—when he wants it, there is no stopping him—lie down and get fucked, that’s all. Muzhik!” Zinka detected notes of pride in the woman’s whisper.

“Oh, I hope I am going to make it this time,” another voice answered. “Last time, the doctor said, ‘Lizka, I don’t want to see you here again. You hear me? The walls of your uterus are so thin, I’m afraid to poke a hole. Can’t you use something?’ But I don’t know what to use and my Pyotr doesn’t want to wear no rubber. Wouldn’t even hear about it. No, no—it will impede his pleasure. Son of a bitch. I want to see him get an abortion.”

Zinka sighed and her knees, first unnoticeably then more markedly, trembled and her teeth chattered involuntarily. She wondered why some women didn’t cry during the procedure and finally figured it out—the ones with the gifts made no sound and were led out of the room with their faces if not smiling then at least composed, not like those of the screamers who were led out disheveled, trembling, and almost falling down. Bozhe moi [My God], I should have brought something, too, she thought.

She briefly considered leaving the line and coming back another day, better prepared. But the arrangements she’d set up today were so perfect, they would be hard to replicate. She was still on a summer break and wasn’t going to miss any classes. She had told her mom she was going to stay at Lukin’s dacha—they didn’t have a telephone there, so she wouldn’t be able to surprise them with a call. Papa didn’t care one way or the other.

She didn’t have to tell anything to Valery Alexandrovich—if he called, her mother would tell him the dacha story. Her mother’s so simple. . . . Still thinks they only sketch together in his studio. Hah!

They did sketch in the beginning when Valery Alexandrovich, Professor Sornov, had invited her to his studio, insisting she needed help with her drawings. She didn’t think she needed any help, but didn’t want to argue with the professor.

At first, he made her sketch an alabaster model. Sometimes, he leaned over her so close, his hot breath burned her ear and his sweating palm moistened her skin as it guided her hand with a pencil. After a couple of sessions, the spirit that made him sweat had entered her, too, and she looked at Valery Alexandrovich as if he were not a thirty-two-year-old man whose bearded face and smile existed beyond her own dimension but as an exciting and sophisticated male whose handsome face and smile she wanted to hold on to in her mind when she was not with him.

Once, at the end of the spring semester, she came to his studio and took out her sketch album, as usual. “You know what?” he said, taking the alabaster model from the table into his hands. “I think we’re done with her.” He caressed the model’s head and kissed its lips. “Goodbye.” So that was it, they were done, thought Zinka. So soon. . . . She moved to put her sketch album back into a portfolio and sighed.

“Today, Zinaida, we’ll work with a live model.”

Zinka looked around, but didn’t see anyone else in the apartment. “Who?”

“We’ll do what many artists do—we’ll sketch each other. Just think of me as another nude model.” He snapped his fingers. “You’ll sit here.” He put a chair at one end of the room, “and I’ll sit there,” he walked to the opposite end and put another chair there. “Lay your clothes on the sofa.”

She’d seen nudes many times and learned to think of them less as humans and more as breathing objects, sophisticated robots in the guise of people. No problems. She took her jeans and shirt off, peeked at the undressing Valery Alexandrovich, made sure nothing fell out of her bra’s secret pocket, briefly blushed when taking off her panties, and sat with only a pencil in her hand in front of an easel, squeezing her legs together.

“Move your left leg to the left,” he said. “A little bit more. I said more! Perfect.” He leaned over his easel and bit his lip. His pencil shuffled, and the beads of sweat showed on his forehead. His hand swung up and down the paper and then hovered over a spot in its lower third.

Zinka thought it’s unprofessional not to look at his member—the models in class always had it covered and she needed to get acquainted with its form—but its engorged state perturbed her.

"Vy [You], Zinaida, are a painter," he said still addressing her as a professor would a student, using respectful vy and her official name. "It’s only natural. Painters, like doctors, should feel no shame. Everything in a human body is worthy of exploration, and everything must be explored, otherwise, even if you paint fully clothed people, their bodies won’t come out right. Move your right leg to the right. Good. Everyone’s unique. Nipples could be lighter or bright red like yours; they could be flat or erect. Everyone’s genitals are unique. You have to have an eye, you have to be familiar with various types, you have to see so many as to be able to compare. So many, in fact, that even without a model you’ll be able to conjure up an image from thin air."

He put his pencil down on the easel, took his member in one hand and pulled on its foreskin with another. "You see this? Get up. Don’t be ashamed. Painters are like doctors, nothing to be ashamed of, it’s just a human body. Come closer. Don’t be shy. Zinaida, I hope you have seen an erect penis before. Come."

Barefoot, she tip-toed to him and stood with her hands crossed over her pubic area. "You see this," he repeated pulling the foreskin again. “Not everyone has it intact. Some people, like Jews, for example, cut it off during a ritual of circumcision. You can touch it. Go ahead and touch it. Don’t be afraid. Now, stretch it a little bit. Don’t be afraid. Look at the skin and the blood vessels. See them? Zinaida . . . Zinai—”

“Snow White, you’ll be next,” the nurse said to Zinka and led the butterball into the office.


Zinka felt in the robe’s pocket and squeezed a cross in her palm. Before she turned her clothes in, she had almost forgotten that it was hidden in a secret pouch her mother had sewn inside her bra. If the nurse’s aide were to find it, she would either report it to the authorities or, most likely, just steal it, for who would be so crazy as to report a missing cross—surely not Zinka.

When still in school, to avoid the stares of the other students and the reprimands by authorities if it were found out, she always hid the cross in a small pouch under her school uniform. Over the uniform, depending on the grade, she pinned either a five-pointed star with young Lenin on it or a Komsomol badge; in middle grades, she tied a red Soviet pioneer’s tie over it. Her mother told her to always have the cross with her. “It’s our Savior—he’ll help you if you say this prayer. Repeat after me . . . "

Zinka had never been to a functioning church, unsure if they were legal--why tempt fate. But she needed a prayer from time to time: during the finals in school, during the entrance examinations to the Art Institute, at a time when she still hoped she wasn’t pregnant, and now. “Otche nash, izhesi na nebesah . . ." she kept repeating with trembling lips.

A stern nurse’s aide led the whimpering butterball out—she limped away past Zinka but didn’t recognize her. A nurse whose only feminine attributes were two small swells under a coat appeared at the door and said, “Let’s go.”

Otche nash . . . Otche nash . . . Otche nash. . . ."

“Who are you from?” the nurse barked, picking up a mask connected to a machine."

“My district doctor sent me.”

The nurse and the doctor exchanged knowing glances, and the nurse hung the mask back on a hook.

“Take your robe off and lie here,” ordered the nurse and proceeded to shave Zinka’s pubic hair in silence. Zinka heard the regular city noises—muffled talk of people on the street, screeching and honking of cars.

A bespectacled woman doctor replaced the nurse at the foot of the table. “Closer . . . Slide closer," she said. “Open wider. It’s too late to be shy now. Nu! Wider. Move your left leg a little bit more to the left. Good.” It got so quiet, Zinka could hear the chirping of the birds, the breathing of the doctor, and the clunking of the metal instruments.

“Otche nash . . . Otche nash . . . O-o-o-oh!” Her insides felt like a cherry from which a stone was being scooped out by the back of a teaspoon. “A-a-a-ah!” She just wanted to die—it’s better to die than to bear this scooping out.

“It’s almost over. Nu! Don’t fidget,” said the doctor, “or I’ll damage something. You should’ve thought of consequences before—now just lie quiet. It’s almost over.” Zinka held her breath and counted to ten and hoped it would be over, but it wasn’t. She counted to ten again, then to twenty, to fifty, to one hundred, to five hundred. O-o-o-oh, it’s better to be dead.

“Pooh! Such a fidgety girl,” said the nurse shaking her head. “It took so much longer. Next time, lie quietly. Nu. Get up, get up. Look at her—sprawling here on the table like a princess. Others are waiting.”

The nurse’s aide led her past the patients’ rooms with many beds inside. They turned the corner; several beds lined a wall of a long corridor. They stopped at one. “Lie down, Snow White. You’ll feel better in a couple hours.”

Zinka’s whimpering grew into crying then sobbing and ebbed to whimpering again. She couldn’t forgive herself the stupidity of this, her latest escapade. In retrospect, she should have told her mother—she’d yell and maybe even slap her, but she’d find a way—blaht—a connection somewhere to have this bloody business done under anesthesia. In retrospect, her mother’s wrath didn’t seem that dangerous.

She also couldn’t forgive herself the stupidity of thinking that since Valery Alexandrovich was older, a professor, a married man with no children, he knew what he was doing. She just assumed that unlike some inexperienced teenager in her group, Valery Alexandrovich, judging by the assuredness of his way, knew how to protect her. He never asked about her last period or what would happen if. . . . If and if and if. . . .

She didn’t want to tell him about the pregnancy, afraid to embarrass him—he was her professor, after all, her mentor, the one person who took his time to explain and show the ropes of craft to her. Not the official ropes, dogmatic ropes taught at the Institute, but the ideas and possibilities beyond Realism. How she loved to look at art hung and stored in his studio; to examine his collection of mostly foreign art books; and to listen to his commentaries on Kandinsky’s abstracts, Malevich’s Square, Picasso, and his beloved Russian icons.

She revered Valery Alexandrovich and didn’t want to see him distraught. Of course, he’d look for blaht, he’d find a way to have it done painlessly, but she just didn’t want to subject him to possible ridicule by acquaintances or even blackmail.

The stink of sauerkraut soup floated down the corridor, and shadows of women crept up toward the dining room. She wasn’t hungry; besides, she didn’t feel as if she was going to be able to get up, even though she needed to go to the bathroom. Another woman was just led to a bed next to hers. Zinka noticed the white tidy socks on her feet, but didn’t feel like looking up at the face.

“You’ll be fine in no time. It’ll get better in a couple of hours,” the nurse’s aide said to the woman.

“Sister . . ." Zinka moaned. “Sister, dear, where’s the bathroom?”

“Hold on to me,” the aide said. “I’ll show you. When you see blood, don't worry. You’ll bleed for a while.”

“How long?”

“For a while. Did they tell you—no hanky-panky in bed for two months?” Zinka squeezed out a smile. Sex? She’d never want to have it again.

She drifted in and out of sleep during the night. Valery Alexandrovich caressed her head and kissed her lips. Her father staggered home, as usual, unsteady on his drunken feet. Sitting at the dining table, he pounded his fists demanding more vodka. Then she was in her favorite store Loskut, the one that sold the fabric scraps. Three-meter-long strips of unearthly beauty displayed behind the counter—pale silvery grays, crimsons—she’d never seen anything like that before. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the silky emerald-green piece. She’d make a blouse out of it. She better hurry to get it done before the school year starts. But green looks better on Elka. . . . Elka’s so lucky—she and Andrei are perfect together. Why did she have to go to this stupid Gomel? She would’ve been here with me, massaging my feet and feeding chicken soup to me, the way I’d seen her do it for her mother when she was sick in bed.

In the morning, Zinka dragged herself to the dining room during breakfast but couldn’t fathom eating farina cream—it smelled of dish water. The tea smelled, too, of soda and the floor mop, but she had to drink something. Her white-socked neighbor sat across her and also drank tea. Zinka lay down on her bed and didn’t go to lunch, drifting in and out of sleep until dinner.

She couldn’t possibly eat the globs served in the dining room, but because no one knew she was in the hospital, no one would be bringing food packages to her—she’d have to last till tomorrow. Three days was not a big deal as long as she was going to drink tea.

Patients on duty from the regular rooms crawled and shuffled past her bed, sweeping and washing the floor—at least she wasn’t required to do that. There was an advantage to having a bed in the hallway—they forgot about her.

White Socks must have gone out of the ward to see her visitors because she came back with a package that smelled of smoked sausage and fresh bread. It made Zinka salivate, and she turned her face to the wall. “Hey, Zinka,” she heard her neighbor’s voice, “want some?”

Natasha Grinberg, a refugee from the Soviet Union, lived in New Jersey for over twenty years before escaping once again to Florida. Her advice column "Having Tea with Gena Pertzovsky" appears monthly in the Russian-language edition of Forward. She writes fiction in English and is working on a novel about immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Natasha can be reached at natashagrinberg@yahoo.com


In Posse: Potentially, might be ...