Love in Times of Perestroika
I hear the pounding on the door and I know that we are lost. I hug my mom and we lean ourselves against a corner in the kitchen. We do not try to hide or to lock ourselves in a room, because it is useless. They must have brought sledgehammers because it seems they are tearing the house down. The plates and glasses shake and the ceiling lamp flickers. I hear the door crashing to the ground. My mother grabs her crucifix as if to ward them off, but these vampires are only afraid of Russian tanks. They advance, shouting and breaking everything. They enter into the kitchen. The smell of sweat is intense. I turn my head and see five armed men. I recognize one of them, the oldest: he was an instructor of the Pioneers. He points at me and gives the order.
“Take her to a room.”
But now I hear footsteps. Someone is running down the hall. Suddenly, Amir enters into the kitchen.
Today at school the geography teacher showed us pictures of the fifteen socialist republics that make up the Soviet Union. He told us that our country is two and half times larger than the United States and that it covers a sixth of the earth's surface. The teacher also taught us that more than a hundred ethnic groups live harmoniously in the Soviet Union, unlike the United States where blacks and natives continue to be discriminated against; this is evidence of the many superiorities of Socialism over Capitalism. My cousin Nadia recalled the assassination of Martin Luther King as an example of racial hatred and was praised by the teacher.
When I get home, I go to my mother. The kitchen is our place: we have a cooker, a small table, a closet and a fridge. At dawn today, she spent several hours in line to get fresh vegetables and dried fish because she wants to prepare a special dish. Her eyes are half closed and her legs swollen, but she never complains. I give her a kiss and start to help her. Within an hour, my father will be home from work, and we want to please him. She puts wood in the stove and checks the pots. I peel beets.
‘’Be careful Masha, do not cut your fingers” – she says.
My father works as an engineer in a weapons factory and usually arrives late because of the war in Afghanistan. He was born in Russia and studied in Moscow. He was then sent to Azerbaijan. It was here that he met my mother, who had come from Armenia with her parents when she was ten. My teacher says I'm a true Soviet girl, daughter of parents from different ethnic groups who live in a republic where they were not born. At school, although there are Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Lezguians and Talysh, they all belong to a single country.
My mother woke me at five in the morning because I have to be at the Pioneer Movement headquarters in an hour. Pioneers include all the youth of the Soviet Union aged ten to fifteen, and they are our second family - the instructors say they are even more important than our parents. We camp in the mountains, practice sports, enter competitions and, above all, we learn to serve our country. Today, the Pioneers will take my group to the fields to see how agricultural cooperatives work with farmers. I am pleased to contribute to the development of the Soviet Union and, above all, because I'll be next to Amir all day . I have only told Nadia that I like him.
I wear a blue skirt and white shirt and put on a red scarf. Amir says that the uniform looks better on blondes with blue eyes like me. When leaving home, I look at the orange sky and see the first rays of light passing through a cloud.
When I get to the headquarters, I see him and my heart bursts out. The instructors make us line up, count us, and only then do we enter the three vans. I have to sit next to Nadia because girls are separated from boys, but Amir finds a spot next to mine on the other row of seats. The seats are torn and have loose springs, the engine snores, the luggage trembles. Finally, the bus starts and everyone claps.
The trip takes three hours and during that time the instructors explain how our country is building a better world, while the United States just wants a nuclear war; fortunately, we have more advanced missiles and satellites that protect us. Capitalism is about to end anyways. After saluting our leader, comrade Brezhnev, we promise to devote our lives to the construction of Socialism and denounce the enemies of the people and, finally, we sing patriotic songs.
While we sing, Amir and I exchange glances; sometimes he dares to take my hand. Nadia pretends she does not see. The other Pioneers are having fun. The instructors drink vodka and nobody notices anything. Except Micha, who is always looking back, because he is jealous. For some time now, he's been after me. Micha thinks that because his father belongs to the Central Committee he can conquer all the girls, but I do not want anything with him.
We can already see the farm. There are three white houses with thatched roofs, a wooden barn, and, farther away, two brick buildings for, they tell us, the pigs and cows. On the left side, there are wheat fields and on the right there are vegetable plantations. We feel an unpleasant smell of manure. The buses pass through the gate of the farm and park near the main house. About thirty men and women are waiting for us. Our instructors are the first to leave, and a bearded man comes to them and embraces them. Then he takes them up from among the peasants and they appear to inspect some of them: grope their arms and ask them to open their mouths. Only then do they let us get off the bus and line up again. I expected the country people to be young and strong, but these peasants seem old and tired to me. The women have headscarves and the men use caps like my grandfather’s. I've never seen people with such sad faces. ‘Are some of them enemies of the people sent here to be re-educated?’ I wonder.
The bearded man turns to us, clenches his fist, gives a speech about the honor of collaborating in building Socialism and tells us that we are going to pick tomatoes. The sun begins to burn our heads, blinding us with light, and we are thirsty, but a pioneer never complains. Then they give us baskets and send us to follow a group of farmers. While laughing, our instructors and the bearded man walk towards the big house.
As we walk to the tomato fields, Amir stands beside me to join our hands again. He is fifteen and is a year older than me, but we are almost the same height. However, as he is brown and has curly hair and dark eyes, he could not be more different from me.
Now I notice that the peasants are not as old as they seemed, despite their wrinkled skin and drooping shoulders. Nadia, with her athletic stance, glowing skin and green eyes, makes them look like servants next to a princess. She tries to talk to them, perhaps out of pity, but no one answers her.
The farm seems to be endless and the dirt begins to enter our shoes. I'm all sweaty and still haven’t even started working yet.
The tomato field covers an area larger than a football camp. Green leaves and red berries make for a beautiful contrast. The aroma is similar to grass. There are black birds flying over us and bright insects crawling. Crickets and cicadas sing. One of the women hit two palms - her hands are like the paws of an animal - and begins to give us instructions.
“Attention. First, you are prohibited from eating a single tomato. Your job is to fill the basket and offload it over there – she points to a group of carts - but be careful not to crush them. Form a straight line and advance all at the same time. Beware of snakes and scorpions because there is no infirmary. If someone is thirsty come to me. Go to work.”
The Pioneers are spread out and the tomato field is now a green patch with white and red spots. The plucking of fruit and the shaking of branches generates a rustle that drowns out the singing of insects and the chirping of birds. Everyone is engaged in work so they might be commended for their productivity. Nadia was stung by a wasp, but, as she tries to be the best in everything she does, she holds the pain and has already offloaded a basket.
After an hour, my back hurts and I have blisters on my hands, but I do not want to show weakness to Amir. When we crouch he leans against me and the sweat of our bodies mix. In those moments, despite the heat, I feel chills on my back, I lose the strength in my arms, and I drop the tomatoes to the ground. To compensate for my lack of productivity, he also fills my basket, takes me to the carts and help me unload it. Two of the peasants have noticed that we like each other and mumble something as we walk by. When we look at them, they lower their eyes as if they fear us.
I'm feeling the urge to pee and I turn to an area with bushes where the girls go. I do my business without anyone noticing, but when I return, Micha appears. He is shirtless. I see that he has some chest hair. He puts himself in front of me, raises his arms and contracts his biceps.
“Grope my muscles.”
“I don’t want to. Leave me.”
“Why? Do you think you are better than the others?”
“Don’t be stupid” – and I turn my back on him.
He grabs me by the throat and starts kissing. I try to escape, but he is stronger. I shout. Amir comes running and punches him. Micha drops to the ground.
We are looking at each other, he gasps and I tremble.
We move closer and embrace each other.
Two days later, we are called to the office of the director of the Pioneers, comrade Volkov. He is a hero of World War II who at sixteen distinguished himself in the fight against the Nazis. He lost a foot and had part of his face burned, which further instilled respect for him. Although he knows my father, I, like everyone, have always been terrified of the day I have to enter his office. Being summoned usually implies an accusation, which means being kicked out of the Pioneers. Someone, then, has denounced us and I realize that could only have been Micha, for revenge.
A clerk takes us to the office, knocks at the door and as soon as she is given permission, makes us enter. There is a portrait of Lenin on the wall and a desk where the director is sitting reading some papers - one lock of hair hides the scars on his face. Without looking at us, he begins to question us.
“You have been accused of making capitalist propaganda and denigrating your country. Do you confess?”
He expects an immediate confession, without explanations or apologies, and I'm about to do it because I have no choice, when Amir takes a step forward.
“I confess. I did denigrate my country, but she is innocent. Do no punish her.”
The director raises his head, the lock of hair slides like a curtain and the scars are in sight - the absence of the right eyebrow is what most horrifies me. With that awful face, he starts watching me from head to toe, and I lower my eyes - right now I could confess to being an American spy.
Then he gets up, limping to us. He then smacks Amir, throwing him against the wall.
Amir is banned from the Pioneers and I am suspended for one week.
“I will never let anyone harm you.” – he says.
After my last class ends, I ride my bike to the canteen of the Economics University for lunch with Amir. I'm in the second year, he is in his third, and as soon we get a job, we will get married. In our country, the state guarantees education, employment, housing and health to everyone. It is easy for young people to start a family.
When I approach the canteen, I begin to hear an unexpected fuss near the entrance. The air is stuffy and the room is full of people. They all jostle and try to see something that I ignore. I ask a girl and get to know the reason for such curiosity: a Cuban volleyball team. They are touring the Soviet Union. They are being shown the university before that night’s game. I go through the human wall, moving my body like an eel, and see twelve towering black men and a white one, that is probably the coach. They wear red tracksuits with the country’s name in blue letters, speak a singsong language and are very excited. I have never seen such strange people.
The entourage starts to walk away and the crowd chases them as if they were exotic creatures. I finally find Amir. He comes to me smiling and gives me a kiss on the cheek - he already confessed that he cannot express affection in public. Then, we go to get food - while we are in the queue, I lean against his body and I caress his hair curls. When we look for a table, I see Nadia sitting with a boy - a new boyfriend? She makes a sign and we go towards them.
The boy is called Ruslan and is studying History. We start talking about the Cubans, recalling the defeat of the Americans in the Bay of Pigs and the courage of Fidel Castro, but suddenly Ruslan changes the subject and tells us something he had seen on last night's news.
“It seems there was an accident in Ukraine, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.”
“Is it severe?” - I ask.
“No, it’s nothing important. It's just a technical problem, and the scientists are already working on it. The government has said it has everything under control and that there was no risk to the people.”
“Yes, we are safe here. These disasters only happen in the United States.” – says Amir.
“Three Mile… something.” – says Nadia.
“Island – says Ruslan. There was a radioactive leak and the American government tried to prevent the people from discovering what happened.”
“I feel sorry for the Americans.” – says Amir.
“Don’t feel sorry for your enemies. No mercy.” – says Ruslan raising his finger.
And because Ukraine was so far away, we quickly forget about it – Amir has his hand on my leg and my heart felt crazy.
Not even on a sunny day does the Caspian Sea lose its mysterious purplish color, as if the oil beneath its soil dyed the water. The wind blowing from the south creates a ripple and the light glimmers over the waves. Seagulls squawk near the rocks. In the distance, somewhere between water and sky, there are fishing boats out in search of sturgeon. I'm sitting on the seafront waiting for Amir. It has been half an hour and I begin to worry. Since his father died a year ago in the Afghan war, his mother's health has gotten worse. Although he has already completed his program and I have only one year left, our wedding has been postponed. Moreover, these changes brought about by Perestroika have left the people confused and not knowing what direction to give to their lives.
Gorbachev has used us as guinea pigs in an experiment that has gone out of control. Before we had security and people were happy. Now, we have chaos and everyone complains. They say there's more freedom, but, after all, what is freedom about? I never felt any lack of freedom. And for what reason Socialism has become a bad thing and Capitalism a good thing? After all, if Cuba resists why have we lowered our arms? They want to delete our history, just like that? And then what will we have left? My parents are right: this will end badly.
I meditate on it as he appears. I get up. His eyes are red and his lips are pursed. He keeps some distance and I feel that I should not move forward. A newspaper, blown by the wind, passes between us.
“It’s my mother… she is getting worse.”
“Don’t you want to take her again to the hospital?”
“No. I have already said it.” – he responds brusquely.
“Please let me help you.”
“My aunts got home two days ago. They’re treating her, but little can be done...”
“I know, but I would rather be at your side in this difficult moment.”
I take a step and embrace him. He puts his head on my chest like a child.
“I can hear your heart” – he says.
“It is yours”.
Half an hour later we arrive at his mother's house. She lives in an apartment complex on the city’s outskirts. It was once considered an example of Soviet architecture, but now this gray area is depressing. The sidewalks are all cracked and the lamps broken, with bags of garbage everywhere and rats all around; the houses are cracked, the shutters are damaged, and there are clothes left to dry on the porches. Only old people live here.
Amir’s aunts open the door for us: they are twins with gray hair and look cross-eyed. They stare at me askance and do not respond to my greeting. Amir lowers his head and escapes to the corridor, making a sign to me to follow him; the aunts come after me like two watchdogs. The room has a sickening sweet smell. It's a small space with white walls and green carpet. Amir’s mother is lying on a double bed. Her husband’s picture is on the bedside table. He is wearing a military uniform and all his war decorations. She has her eyes closed: her hair is white, her skin is pale and her lips are purple. She is very thin and breathes with difficulty. Amir kneels at the foot of the bed and kisses her cheek. I stand next to him and stay some time without knowing what to do. I've known her for over four years and I care for her. She approved of our marriage and said I would give her many grandchildren. I take her cold hand and start talking into her ear.
The aunts call Amir to eat – they treat me as if I were not there. I realize that they are tired and want to go home. Amir thanks them and they leave without saying goodbye to me. After a while, we return to the room and he turns on a red lamp - the light makes his mother look like a wax doll. Then he asks me to change her diapers. I've never done such a thing, but do not hesitate - and he turns his back. When I finish, we sit in pads placed on the ground and I end up falling asleep with my head on his lap. At dawn, his mother begins to moan. She is delirious and calls for her husband. I take her hand again, Amir caresses her face and puts a wet cloth on her forehead, but she continues to be agitated. This torment extends for more than an hour, her whispers becoming increasingly weak, until, finally, she ceases to breathe.
When the war in Afghanistan finished, my father was fired and began to drink too much. He now has a miserable aspect: his face is swollen and his eyes are puffy. He goes days without showering and shaving. Sometimes, he becomes aggressive and mistreats my mother – I have found her more than once crying in the kitchen. He cannot adapt to these new times.
His friends became capitalists and now sell American jeans, Italian furniture, German appliances and everything people did not have before - even comrade Volkov created a security company. They are rich, with women the age of their daughters. They have bodyguards and travel the world. Before they spoke about Dostoevsky and Toltsoy, and now they only talk about money. But my father cannot. He was educated to hate profit and detest trade. He continues to believe that Socialism is the only salvation for humanity and is capable of hitting anyone who criticizes Stalin. You cannot ask him to become another person.
I also cannot turn into another person, as Nadia did. She left her job as a doctor and became a model. She tells me ‘it's much better to enjoy life than having to deal with death,’ and that she earns more money parading on catwalks and having her picture taken than she did when she was treating patients. Now she lives in Moscow, dates a British diplomat and appears in magazines. She has not forgotten the Pioneers’ lesson of trying to be the best in everything you do, but I know what she has become: a luxury whore within reach of my father's friends. Nadia thinks herself a princess, but she will take stings worse than a wasp's.
One day, however, hope seems reborn: on television we see tanks on the streets of Moscow and they say the traitor Gorbachev has been overthrown. For the first time, I see my mother praying. My father is euphoric and requires blood.
“The mess is over. They must all be shot.”
But I see the people in the streets and I'm not so sure that the revolution will triumph. And why did the people turn against the army? Are they being manipulated by the Americans? A friend says that Gorbachev opened the cage and the beasts are on the loose. I just become more confused.
Suddenly, we see Yeltsin climb into a tank. The people applaud him and the military obey him. He raises his arms in victory and starts talking. At that moment, we realize that all is lost.
But worse is to come. Days after, it is announced on television that the Soviet Union no longer exists, that my country is over now and that Azerbaijan is recognized as an independent nation.
My father cannot bear all this and has a stroke a month later. We take him to a public hospital where doctors and nurses demand money to treat him. But the next day, a richer patient comes and they put him in a bed placed on a corridor where he ends up dying.
None of his friends attend the funeral.
Amir invents an excuse and doesn't show up either.
These political changes are also destroying our relationship. An earthquake has broken the continental shelf where we lived in two, with each of us staying in a different part. Suddenly we are no longer Soviets: I am Armenian and he is Azerbaijani. For me, it doesn't matter at all. I can hardly understand this distinction, but he has started to become cold and has started to avoid being with me and not answering the phone. One day, I knock on his house and no one answers; then one of his aunts comes to the window and makes a sign to go away, as if shooing away an animal.
Our love was there at the top, as a satellite shining in space, but Perestroika launched a missile hitting it.
I have not seen him for three weeks and then, one evening at the end of class, I find him waiting for me at the university gate. At first, I do not recognize him: he has grown a beard, is thinner and wears trousers that looks like a soldier’s. By the yellow light of the lamps, he resembles the bums that have begun to appear on the streets. I advance toward him trembling like someone condemned to execution. There are people passing, and even when he was so zealous about his privacy, he begins to speak loudly without caring about anyone on the street.
“My aunts and my cousins will never accept our marriage. Now the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians are enemies. It is best to never see each other again.”
“I am not anyone’s enemy – I protest. “And we can go live somewhere else, away from here.”
He shakes his head.
“There is a war in Karabakh and I have the obligation to defend my people.”
“Do you want to die in the war, just like your father?” – I shout at him.
“I will not die. My God protects me because I will also fight against your religion.”
I am surprised to hear him talk about religion.
“What? God? But which God? We never believed in such things. We were taught that religion was superstition, the opium of the people...”
“Do not say blasphemies. I converted myself and now I'm a new man.” – he beats his fist against his chest.
“A new man? And this new man no longer feels anything for me?”
He remains silent and bites his lips – his mouth disappears under the beard.
“Answer me.” – I shout again. “Because I still love you and nothing will change my feelings. Not race. Not religion. Not politics.”
I try to hug him, but he repels me. The hand that used to interlock with mine now becomes a barrier. His eyes, once so bright when he saw me, are dull.
“Go away. Take your mother and go to Armenia or Russia. This is not your land.”
He turn his back on me, pushes those coming through the front and disappears.
The satellite fell to earth and was crushed into pieces.
I walk aimlessly through the city for some time when I catch an aroma similar to grass. I stop. Then I run in that direction as if I could find a tomato farm there, full of sun, birds and insects, where I could return to being fourteen.
He was right: the Azerbaijanis and the Armenians have become enemies, but we’re not the ones who started the conflict. Newspapers, political leaders and clerics incite hatred against us. Suddenly, we have become the target of popular fury: we are considered invaders, exploiters, thieves. We are the snakes and the scorpions. Our neighbors stopped talking to us, in stores they refuse to serve us, and in schools Armenian students have been expelled. While Russian troops have not withdrawn, the violence is limited to aggressions, broken glass and insults written on the walls. But then, when they leave, with no one to protect us, there is a massacre.
Armed groups join at the Lenin square and began patrolling the streets: men, women and teenagers searching for us. Armenians killed with shots to the head begin to show up, or stabbed in the back and hung on trees. Women have become an easy target for rapists. Children are abducted and never heard of again. A militia enters a house and shoots dead a family of six people; the youngest daughter, a girl of twelve, tries to escape to the top of a tree, but the killers fire at her until the girl falls at their feet like a downed bird. A church is set on fire with the faithful inside, killing twenty people. A pregnant woman is thrown off a window of the building where she lived.
The new authorities do nothing to prevent this and, it is said, participated in these acts, took possession of the empty houses and dispensed the loot.
Where did this hatred and this inhumanity come from? Just a few months ago we were brothers and comrades. Solidarity, the new man, the paradise on earth. Where did all that go? What failed? Were we really beasts in a cage?
Nadia offers to host us in Moscow, but my mother refuses to leave. She says this is her land and she will die here. She says she is sick of everything and does not want to live in this new world. Will we be able to survive?
Amir breathlessly enters into the kitchen, pushing the other men. He has a haggard look and his mouth is open. There's blood on his shirt. We are looking at each other, he gasps and I tremble, like when he saved me from Micha. Amir begins to shake his head and move his lips, but he cannot say anything. Tears run down his face.
The former instructor of the Pioneers puts a hand on his shoulder.
“She is ours, now. You already had enough fun.”
Two men lift me from the ground, shoving my mother with their feet to separate us.
“Wait.” – says Amir.
He hugs me intensely, then release his right arm, and I feel a pistol aimed at my heart. He whispers in my ear "forgive me."
By João Cerqueira
João Cerqueirais is the author of eight books.
The Tragedy of Fidel Castro won the USA Best Book Awards 2013, the Beverly Hills Book Awards 2014, the Global Ebook Awards 2014, was a finalist for the Montaigne Medal 2014 and for The Wishing Shelf Independent Book Awards 2014 and was considered by ForewordReviews the third best translation published in 2012 in the United States. Besides the US, it was published in Italy by Leone Editore, in the UK by Freight Books in Spain by Funambulista and Argentina by Eduvim.
Jesus and Magdalene won the silver medal in the 2015 Latino Book Award, the silver medal in the 2016 Hungry Monster Book Awards, the silver medal in the 2017 Feathered Quill Book Awards, was nominated for the official selection of the New Apple Book Awards 2016, was finalist for the Chanticleer Book Awards 2017, was nominated book of the year 2016 by Latina Book Award, and was considered by the unheard-voice.blogspot one of the best books published in 2015.
The short story A House in Europe received an honorable mention in the Glimmer Train July 2015 Very Short Fiction Award.
The short story The Dictator and Poetry was published in the 2016 Bombay Review Anthology.
His works are published in The Adirondack Review, Ragazine, Berfrois, Cleaver Magazine, Bright Lights Film, Modern Times Magazine, Toad Suck Review, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, Danse Macabre, Rapid River Magazine, Contemporary Literary Review India, Open Pen Magazine, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The Liberator Magazine, Near to the Nuckle, Narrator International, The Transnational.
His work can be found here: