I came late to the play.
Vlad was already onstage, dressed like a butterfly. His face was made up: red lips, eyeliner, white powder, and charcoal eye shadow making little unfolded wings on either side of his eyes. Vlad stood cocooned in green gauze in the warm center of the stage, spotlight, his head to one side and his large eyes shut. The two girls playing fairies were already surrounding him with arms outstretched, dancing with large, slow gestures that seemed to embrace his standing, sleeping figure with wings folded in. They were bringing him to awareness, and he raised his head slowly, blinked twice with slow, exaggerated blinks, and looked to his left and to his right, miming the slow growth of consciousness. Under the bright lights, he could not see me in the audience, watching him.
I had been with Seseg, Vlad’s wife, in the green room. I had burst into that dry, overheated space, red-faced and swaying slightly as I walked: when I was sober I did not like to be touched. I found her sitting on the couch, sewing a bit of costume. She stood when I entered. She was alone. I walked up to her and pushed her back down and sat next to her on the couch, I was kissing her with heat, draping myself over her. I reached for her and she pushed me away, telling me that she was on her period, asking me whether I wanted to fill the room with her blood. I told her I did not care, and she stood to get a towel to lie on. One of Vlad’s theater students, a high school girl, opened the door and came into the room, and I was immediately, automatically, on my feet, with a shiver of shame traveling over my body. Seseg and I stood frozen together for a moment in the harsh light of that room, staring at the girl in a cold sweat, and then suddenly we sat down again together, and the girl left, and the moment had passed and I felt a thrill of nausea course through me. I left the room.
As I watched Vlad onstage, I heard his rich, textured voice speaking his lines and saw the butterfly awakening to anxious awareness, and he cast off the gauze cloak he had stood under. My mind was thick with headache. I was an American living in provincial Siberia, teaching English in a local high school, with a contract for a year. Seseg was an artist, a Buryat painter, a native Siberian. Her paintings were abstract and traditionalist, with twentieth-century techniques and established Buryat subjects: she painted the profile of a winged woman composed of polygons and smooth curves, dressed in Buryat robes and a headdress, in a riot of color and white canvas. She and Vlad had befriended me months earlier.
I no longer remembered how Seseg and I had started this new stage of our relationship, one month before the play. Before anything had begun, she asked me whether I had a strong will, and I was confused, in part because I mistook the Russian for will, volya, for the Russian for wave, volna. She asked me in her studio, on the upper floor of the nearly empty concrete building that looked like a large bunker, and I said I did not know. I repeated my answer to every question, in every context, I don’t know, disoriented after months in a foreign culture, speaking a language not my own, alienated from myself. I did not understand the question. What was she asking? Was she asking if I could resist her? Or whether I had the determination to reach her? Nothing made sense.
She had had her eye on me for months, watching me go about town. She told me about the shape and color of my aura: as I walked alone in the black, unlit night she said she could see it, large and impermeable and dark, like a mysterious object from another planet, something she could not ignore. It was in her studio that we fucked first. And I do not remember how that started. But I remember the moment when she mounted me, brought me inside her, and began moving like a piston up and down and back and forth in that echoing room, making strange yelps, sounding like she was in pain. I was distantly aware that I was experiencing intensely pleasurable sensations. Like cold water being poured over an overheated, aching body, only the water was warm, and then it was all so far from me, like it was happening to someone else. I wondered if she was hurting herself, was I hurting her, I wondered whether what I was doing was right and wondered how it should feel, was this all it was, and then it was over and she strode briskly over to the corner of the room and lifted her leg and was washing herself, one foot up on the wall, straddling the washbasin.
A sound came through the door: Vlad was climbing the stairs. Go to him, she cried, her hands down by her naked crotch, I need to be alone. I formed my face into an open, happy expression, to greet Vlad as I always did, as if it was another day. I went out to the stairwell, closed the door behind me, took him by the arm, grinning. Let’s go get some beer, I said. Beer? he said, puzzled, are we going to have a party?
When we returned, the three of us drank and talked on the roof of their building, dotted with tufts of grass amid the concrete and the tar, and Vlad played his guitar and sang into the still night, and the soft May air of Siberia was cool on my skin. We talked about art, life, and the ways that people lived in the world; Vlad sang and we listened. We did not talk about what had happened. I struggled to recommit myself to the steady, even rhythm of interaction, and I kept myself from glancing across Vlad to Seseg, sitting on his far side.
Vlad sang a song that he had written for Seseg. You are of this earth, he sang, this is your land. He was not from Aginsk, the provincial town where we were living, but she had grown up in a small village nearby. His song spoke of her bond with this part of the country, with rural life, a bond that Vlad seemed at the same time to celebrate and to envy. There was something so passionate and earnest in his love for her, so unshakeable.
Vlad seemed never to want things for himself, only for others. Seseg and I were at their house one evening in May. He had gone out on a beer run. She had made a thick mutton soup with potatoes and carrots, I had eaten it, and we had drunk together. I stood, went to her, and we fell on each other, kissing and touching, her children asleep just two open doors away. She pulled out my penis and knelt and was making strange cupping motions toward it, and then I saw Vlad. He was coming past the windows outside with long, loping, angry strides, across the light from inside that was spilling onto the frosted grass. It was suddenly silent and I felt I could hear the crunch of his footsteps on the frozen ground through the double-paned windows. I could see the steaming exhalations of his warm breath.
I was gripped by a cold, guilty sensation of alarm. My skin crawled and I yanked back away from Seseg. I covered myself and went out. He had seen us, he must have seen us. He was going to say something. It would be best to talk outside, away from Seseg and the children. I wanted him to be able to express himself to me without constraint, to challenge me if that was what he wanted. I quickly put my coat on, went out, and met him before he reached the door, I stopped him and took two cans of beer out of the plastic bag he was carrying, its handle twisted around his wrist, I opened them, and I handed one to him. I asked him what was on his mind. I can’t stand it, he said, not looking at me. This was it. He had seen everything, he was going to confront me. I looked down, I wondered what lovers felt at times like this – did they miss in anticipation the homes they were ejected from? I glanced around the yard one last time, I looked at Seseg through the window, busy in the kitchen, and wondered if I would see her again.
What is it? I asked. What can’t you stand?
This! and his gesture took in the ground we were standing on, the hills up above, the low houses all around, the fenced yards, the yellowed, brittle grass. All this, she thinks it is good enough. But is this any place to live, is this any place for children, her children, and later our children? I involuntarily sighed in relief, and he took it for commiseration. His frustration inhabited the large, rapid, sure movements he made with his hands. He laid out for me his complaints about Aginsk: its provinciality, its small-mindedness, its gossip and hostility to outsiders. And he spoke of Seseg as content with this petty place, where the only ambition of the best of their students was to leave and never come back.
I had asked her about him once, while she was cutting thick bread for dinner with a dulled knife, which tore as it sliced. I had been curious. Wasn’t he lonely in town, wasn’t he far from the place he grew up, how was he taking life here? She told me that she had urged him to find a girlfriend, someone to pass the time with and make life interesting, but that he never did. There is nobody here for me, he said, except for you.
Vlad was born in Ulan-Ude, the largest city within the territory of the Buryats, the indigenous Siberian group to which he and Seseg belonged. He did not speak Buryat as a first language, having grown up in the city, although she did, coming from the countryside. Vlad had seen more of the world: he had studied theater in Yaroslavl and had seen Petersburg and Moscow, whereas Seseg never had. His name was Russian, hers was Buryat.
They had been together for six years, working in Ulan-Ude, until they were invited by the local government in Aginsk to practice their arts there. A sponsorship meant a great deal; in Ulan-Ude they had been dependent on hard-won grants and sales of her paintings and tickets to his shows. Vlad wrote and performed plays and taught theater to young people. Seseg painted pictures, designed sets, and created costumes. I met them when I had been in Aginsk for two months, and I was starved for company. I had been spending most of my free time alone, reading, unable to understand or be understood by the teachers at my school or the woman whose house I was living in, and my self-reliance was wearing. It was a bright fall day, crisp and cold. Two journalists were speaking with Seseg in a gazebo on the central square downtown by the desolate church. Vlad had a stack of cassettes with him of classic Russian rock from the eighties. I struck up a conversation with him about them while Seseg was being interviewed. We understood each other easily, quickly falling into a rhythm. He was charming, interested and interesting. Vlad became my best friend in town. We met again and again, we drank and talked, and talked. He told stories in a rich, gravelly voice that seemed to envelop you as he spoke, mesmerizing you with his rich tones, the way he had of sustaining certain low sounds on the air, his whole chest vibrating as he spoke.
Though I had arrived late, I left the play early, and the bright light of the hallway fell into the auditorium as I left. Looking for excuses for myself, I told myself it was a children’s play, it had nothing to say to me, it was for the Aginsk audience, they did not take theater seriously, they were only looking for ways to entertain their children. It would be nothing to Vlad whether I stayed, his heart was not in it. I defended myself from my own criticism of myself by criticizing. I walked home over unpaved roads lightly coated with frost on this late spring evening. I said nothing to anyone when I arrived, passing Natasha and Lygzhema squatting by the black iron stove, smoking by it, exhaling their smoke into its open door. I went to my room and lay down, my head spinning, wondering. I wondered about Vlad. What had he been like before he met Seseg, what had he dreamed, what were his disappointments. What was the world like, to his large eyes. Had he thought of playing in the Moscow theaters, of having his songs recorded professionally, of travel, of becoming famous? What were his sacrifices? And what was I for him?
My mind went to Seseg, lying on my narrow bed. I looked up at the dim lamp above my head, and looked away, green and purple spots on my vision. She was unclear to me. My mind slid off her like fingers off a smooth, rounded, metallic globe coated with oil. I could not understand why she chose me, and I did feel chosen. Was it this, that she intended to go outside her marriage with someone, and she chose me partly because I had no way to damage her reputation, in my own precarious position as a foreigner only temporarily in town? Or did she desire me? I had trouble believing that. She had eyes that seemed to reflect more than their share of light, that seemed always to be looking more inward than outward, focused on something fascinating within herself, watching it the way you might watch a fragile preparation simmer on the stove. I wondered what were her purposes, what were her thoughts and feelings. I found her opaque: her plans, her ideas, her intentions.
Seseg told me that before that evening in her studio, before we had sex for the first time, before I dreamed of doing anything with her, before she asked me about my will, before all that, she spoke to Vlad. She told me her exact words, and his. I imagine they are rounding a corner on an empty street, unpaved, with wheel tracks in it making ridges in what was fall mud and now is frozen in a certain mold. It is dusk, colors are fading, fires are alight. She says to him, I am going to betray you, and he only says, with who, I wonder? They continue their walk at an even pace, their feet rising and falling on the frozen road. I cannot imagine her response.
Seseg did not want to hurt him, but she needed novelty. She told me that she had warned him. She did not tell me that he took any action or cautioned her against what she meant to do. So he must have agreed with it, allowed it. She had his implicit consent. She told me this because she felt I was concerned about what I was doing. I was concerned, about the implications for who I was, what kind of person I wanted to be. But these questions only came up for me after we had already been having sex for weeks. I passively took what was offered to me, without reaching out for it, in this as in other things. It was concerning in the way that news of a disaster in a distant country might be.
In the school where I worked, there was a young biology teacher named Yulya, who wore short bangs and had large glasses, rose tinted around their edges. She introduced herself to me as Julia. She was twenty-six and was already beginning to be treated as an old maid. I was told that she was looking to get married. When my hair began to get unruly, when it wandered over my collar and puffed out around my ears, she cut it, the two of us alone in a classroom in the evening, dark outside the windows. With her hands on my head and my neck she asked me, Patrick, you are searching for yourself, aren’t you? I said I didn’t know. I didn’t then but I understand the question now. She was asking me what I had come to Siberia for. And whether I knew who I was. The answer to neither question was clear, to me or to anyone else. Even now, all I know wanted was to be somewhere where I knew no one, where I had no attachments. And Yulya was also asking, I think, whether I was looking for what she could give. Each time she saw me after that haircut, which was not repeated, she greeted me sadly. I began to avoid her.
In June, I left Aginsk for the summer. The school year was over and I wanted to go study French, as I had taken over the French classes when the instructor disappeared, halfway through the year, and my skills were rusty. But when I tried to return in late August, I was unable to enter the country, because my visa was incorrect. I spent a month waiting for a new one. I stayed at my aunt and uncle’s apartment, feeding myself eggs and beer. I was filled with resentment toward them for no clear reason. My uncle warned me of the dangers of my diet to my health, and I stared at him, fighting my desire to shout in his face until he averted his eyes and I left the kitchen, happy that I had stayed calm. My aunt asked me about my future, talked to me about settling down, and I shouted I won’t get married, I won’t I won’t! slapping the table in their dining room with the palm of my hand, my face flushed. The thought of being together with a woman revolted me.
It was mid-October before I arrived again in Aginsk, and it was already bitterly cold. I had trouble adjusting. I was angry with the people around me, other teachers, the school administration, the family I was living with. I isolated myself, coming home and going into the little closet I used for a bedroom, lying there and reading.
Later that fall and winter, I again began to spend my evenings with Vlad and Seseg, though only with the two of them together. I felt a peace and acceptance with them that I did not feel elsewhere.
One day late that fall I came home from work, lay down and rested, and went out again to a café. It had tall booths with purple curtains that you could draw closed, shutting out the rest of the restaurant. Vlad and Seseg were already there, sitting with the curtains open, and Vlad pulled them shut after I arrived. They ordered traditional Buryat steamed meat dumplings, a cabbage salad, a corn and mayonnaise salad, and soup for each of us with meat still on the bone sitting in the middle of the bowl. The waitress, dressed in black, kept pulling aside the curtain to put down food and then pulling it closed behind her as she left. We talked about what an artist was, and Vlad told me the flexibility that he needed to possess in his body as an actor was the same as the flexibility he needed in his life. Seseg said that she felt her creativity came from someplace else, that she didn’t think of her ideas, she never planned out what to do, but it came to her through some mysterious means, without her needing to think about it. I said nothing but only asked questions, happy to be with them. We ate and drank and at the end of the meal we sat back and put our hands on our stomachs and said we were full, with slow, happy voices. Before I left, Seseg grasped my soft hand with her rough one.
The family I was living with expected me to spend New Year’s Eve with them, and I did, up until around eleven o’clock. Then I left to see in the New Year with Vlad and Seseg. I stood up from the table in front of the television, where the New Year’s fare was spread out, the meats, cheeses, salads, and dumplings. Lygzhema, the mother of the family, said, Patrick doesn’t want to meet the New Year with us, speaking to the air in front of her guests, who were looking at me strangely as I got myself ready. There was resentment in her tone, which bore a bantering air on its surface. I said, No, I want to be here with you, I just also want to be somewhere else. No one answered this and it hung in the middle of the room.
After a two-mile walk in the cold, dry, still air, I arrived at Vlad and Seseg’s house to find hot food on the table and the whole family enjoying themselves. We ate and drank and we toasted the New Year until late. I slept on the floor. Seseg and I sat with our backs against the wall the next morning quietly reading two Nabokov books and drinking beer out of a two-liter bottle, passing it back and forth. Vlad paused over us as he was tidying the house and put his hands out, making a frame with his fingers as if he was taking a picture of the two of us together and said, This New Year’s Day will be long remembered. Nabokov and beer on the floor. He smiled in pure domestic contentment.
I never felt bad about Vlad. I evaded him, I deceived him by omission, I hid what we were doing, but I never felt that I was hurting him. Was this just a failure of my imagination? Or rather, it was a sense that he, so grounded in his love, so aware, so solid, would have been impervious to anything I could do to him. But I couldn’t escape the thought that I might be hurting Seseg, or disappointing her in some way. Did she feel the contempt I felt for her, for this role, for myself? It was an ugly, defensive feeling, because I had never played the role of a lover before, the role I had hoped to avoid and found myself falling into again, against my will. I did not know how to play it, what gestures and lines were expected of me, how I should carry myself, sit, stand, walk. I felt that I brought nothing but my foreignness to her. And I never knew what she wanted, she never said. Except she did ask me, when we were making love, whether I loved her, and asked me to say it. She asked me again and again, and unlike myself, I cried out my line I love you, I love you to her when she prompted, as she prompted.
I found the word love repulsive. I hated the feel of it in my mouth, the shapes my lips and tongue took on in saying it. It was easier in Russian, as I had fewer associations, but it was still difficult to say, it still took an effort to force it out of my face and into the world. Ya tebya lyublyu, with its soft, liquid, tonguey lyus, the open-mouthed yas, and the bs with a shape like a kiss. I felt uncomfortable in my own skin when I said it, like I was betraying something in myself or suppressing it. Some dry, raw displeasure or even old anger within me, still hot and just barely held within the flesh of my arms and legs.
This anger fed the contempt that I felt but tried to keep in check around Seseg. In a sort of spillover of my detestation of what we had done and were doing and the compromised position it was putting me in, I did not respect her art, which seemed imitative of both cartoons and high modernism, with a surface layer of what seemed to me to be easy spiritualism and ethnic provincialism. I wanted her as an artist, just not the artist she was. I acted in contradiction to my feelings, willing the creation of their opposite. In my underdeveloped, insecure adolescence, I thought I could be the respectful, loving man I felt it was right for me to be, but I could only suffer a dislike.
In an article on Seseg’s work in the journal Vestnik Chitinskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta (Chita State University Herald), Nimazhab Gonchikova notes that Seseg often associates the fragility of the female soul with the image of a butterfly, which, says Gonchikova, represents longevity and health in Eastern philosophy, and, although in everyday life it is taken for a symbol of frivolity, Seseg herself compares the butterfly to the transience of life. If, Gonchikova writes, the butterfly is woman for Seseg, then this implies women’s fragility, vulnerability, and desire. That is, if Seseg as a woman is a butterfly, she is so only for an exposed, weak, wanting hour.
The night before I left Russia for good was a cold still February evening. I had been traveling; it had been a while since I had seen Vlad and Seseg. We drank together, as we always did, the street outside Seseg’s studio was empty and dark, lit by a single bright streetlight making a small illuminated area, clear against the gloom. Vlad and I went out for beer, bread, meat, and cheese, and we talked as we walked about the larger view of life and our place in it, how small we were and how little anything that happened to us could matter when looked at in the context of the whole world. When we returned, Seseg had a large fire going in the stove and there was a light, delicious smell of wood smoke. She laughed with her entire broad, small-mouthed face as I stripped off my burgundy sweater, the cuffs of whose sleeves I had chewed through. She was wearing close-fitting black pants and a black top that clung to her neck. I realized I had never seen her full body, our relations had always been hasty, in the times when Vlad was out and I could come by.
They knew I was beginning a new phase in my life. I was abandoning Siberia, leaving for Turkey, where I wanted to try again to build a new life, a fresh start for myself, in a new line of work and among new people, with whom I could be different than I had come to be. Their talk was full of general reflections. Seseg said that talking to me was just like talking to a friend, she had no sense of me as a foreigner. Vlad gave me some paternal advice that I immediately forgot or did not even hear, as I was listening to his voice more than the words it carried.
It was a proper send off, with music, drink, dancing, and rich conversation. Vlad told me about a time when he was a young man living in Yaroslavl and his first winter he tried to start a fire to keep himself warm in his basement apartment, but the chimney to the stove had been blocked up when central heating had been installed, so he only filled his room with smoke, telling how it spilled out after him as he escaped his room and he startled a man in a wheelchair into rolling backwards all the way out into the street. Seseg told me a story in her fluid, musical voice, a fable of how a swan had been captured from among her three sisters at the side of Lake Baikal by a blacksmith who stole her feather coat for flying and trapped her in his hut. She remained prisoner for years and they had nine sons who became the progenitors of the Buryat tribes, but later she took the coat back from the blacksmith when he was sleeping and flew out of the hut through the smoke hole. He woke up as she was escaping and grabbed her by the feet with his sooty hands, and that is why swans have black feet to this day.
We ran out of bread and cheese and beer. Vlad went for more, telling me to stay. As he left, Seseg took me by the hand and stepped out of her studio window onto the roof of the building. She led me around the corner, away from the window and the orange light it cast out on the snow and ice of the roof. She pulled me to her and asked me if I was ready, but I did not know ready for what. She turned her back on me, wriggled her pants down to her shins, and braced herself against the concrete wall, her back to me. I felt something inside me melt. I felt my stomach drop and a grateful relief come over me, looking at her naked backside, vulnerable, exposed in the forty-below cold, outdoors in Siberia, with the smell of the smoke of a thousand fires in the air. I uncovered myself and pressed myself between her legs. I whispered in her ear that I loved her, easily, happily. We roughly thrust our bodies against each other for a few minutes and then it was over.
And the relationship was over. I left the next day and I never came back. I never talked to her again. But even years from last seeing her, she would rise up suddenly in my mind, the memory suddenly arriving, strong as life, as when I smelled the scent of my own saliva on the pen I was chewing: she would come again as full and as tender to the touch as she was, in that odor of myself, which I had smelled on her face, her cheeks, her neck so many times that I thought of it as part of her own, while her own, proper scent had faded from my memory, beyond recovery.
Patrick Findler is an academic editor living in Portland, Oregon. He spent seven years working as a teacher and teacher trainer in post-Soviet countries. He has recently begun to write of his experiences. His work has been published in upstreet magazine, Catapult, 1001 Journal, and Numéro Cinq.