You never led a dissolute life. In love you preferred listening to your conscience, not making empty promises and unsubstantiated vows; instead, you humbly paid your taxi fare, be it 25, or 30, or even 50 rubles in cash and harmlessly received in return your due compensation. On the other hand, neither scandal nor court fees hounded you, and, although Polyansky kept saying that his wife cost him less than a prostitute, around 15 rubles a session, you concluded that, in such matters, it was better to overpay than wallow in regret for the rest of your life.
When monetary issues did arise, you were always able to survive easily for a month, even perhaps a year, without those sketching assistants and Ministry typists. Were you to invite one of them to the movies, you wouldn't even bother to score a single grope above the knee. With an honest women one never knows beforehand whether she will give in or not – and this insecurity always alarmed and weakened your spirit. It was better just to say "No!" right off the bat and let both of you go your own way.
So when you leaned over towards Lida and immediately began wooing her, it was provoked by extreme necessity. You parried Graube's first attack with dignity; nevertheless, you still felt the odds were in his favor. For the attack would start again at a moment's notice and you had to forestall it no matter what happened.
This is how things were: an elderly man would come to visit, a serious man, even perhaps an academic. He would drain a few glasses, and, wouldn't you know it, he was already pocketing his host's good silver or reciting verse of rather lewd content, and sitting under the table with no desire of ever resurfacing. We usually look down upon actions of this nature. Yes, they'd banter and laugh: "What's your problem, Vasya, you scumbag," they'd say. "Dragging the honor of the academy in the mud and trying to overshadow its great accomplishments?" And yet, as they said this, they were still slapping each other on the shoulder and being merry and supportive. Because it was immediately obvious that this fellow was not educated in the proper schools, and was, in the moral sense, as pure as Jesus Christ. This was not the type of guy who would give away military secrets nor betray the homeland at a critical moment. No, this fellow was above all suspicion and content with such status.
A similar lot provoked your envy. You wooed her with the help of Lida the librarian, the only woman capable of salvaging your reputation. Having discovered Lida next to you, only a meter away, you were inspired to scream:
"Lida, I love you!"
The private eyes looked at one another somewhat lost; but Lida, not believing her own ears, sat there motionless. Her clavicle was twisted on her décolleté and sunken chest. A sharply raised elbow now resembled a duck wing gnawed down to the bone.
"Lida, I love you!" you repeated more loudly, and grabbed her with your withered fingers above the knee.
"Not in front of everyone!" Lida whispered and appreciatively stroked your hand, which was fondling her leg. This was how your love began – in a game with death, in the eyes of your pursuers all knocked senseless by your unexpected temperament.
You didn't hesitate to organize a riot. You grabbed the best pieces of food from under the guests' noses, announcing "This is for you!" and demonstratively treating Lida to what you had snatched. Then you piled up a food barricade around her and cycled through a gamut of tender diminutives:
"Lidochka! Lidunchik! Ledenchik! Lidiastaya Lididil'ka-limousine!"
Screwing your eyes tight you saw that all this had made an impression.
"And we didn't know that you were such a rake," said the detective with the boxer-like appearance who had been transformed into Vera Ivanovna, forcing a laugh. "We always thought you were more of the quiet type, modest, keeping your thoughts to yourself."
He was very embarrassed about his calculations and suspicions, but still maintained the outward appearance of the mistress of the house, the wife of Heinrich Ivanovich Graube at their anniversary.
"Now, now, Vera Ivanovna, you must be joking!" you then said to him with a bit of gusto. "What do I have to hide? And from whom? No, I have nothing to hide and readily admit to you that I am a true Lothario, especially when I load up on drink."
In attestation of these words, you, wobbling like a wino, came right up to him and, fighting off your natural timidity, ever so carefully touched one brown- and orange-spotted hand that was pressed against his chest in bulging camouflage. And so you knew: it was nothing more than a resin pillow, inflated with empty breath.
"Now you are a joker!" the detective cheeped in fear, jumping back in his seat – most likely because he didn't want to reveal every last lever of his costume's mechanism. And you, teetering, made your way back to Lida and bit her lightly on the elbow just so she wouldn't be jealous.
"Not in front of everyone," she whispered in shame. "We'd better step out for a minute if you keep insisting."
Heinrich Ivanovich turned green with longing from this interrupted provocation. Now he would definitely pay his wedding party expenses himself.
"Oh, I am a wounded man!" he exclaimed, turning to Lobzikov and Polyansky with hypocritical indignation in his voice.
They laughed soundlessly, rocking back and forth like metronomes.
"What an impassioned lad! No, think about it now: what an impassioned lad!" the liberated boxer by the name of Vera Ivanovna prattled on.
And here another brilliant idea occurred to you: instigate a scandal and flee from everyone with Lida in the guise of unbridled emotion. That's how it was. Passion raged, the howls of ancestors were heard, and women were fought over along with some German fraud and Stefan Zweig.
This is the modus operandi of drunk people who seek ambition, you said waving your hands all over the room.
"Lidia, I am abducting you. Let's get the hell out of here. These people can carry on their conversations without me. It'll be much easier for them to find fault with these governmental ducks when I'm not around. What am I? I am nothing, just completely loyal. And you, Heinrich Ivanovich, I see right through you."
And you looked him directly in the eye with your own penetrating gaze as if it were he who was visiting you.
"Yes, yes, yes! I see right through you!"
Lida obediently gathered her belongings, bag, and lipstick. You helped her on with her coat made of goat hair, two thirds of it mangy. You both left, slamming the door before Graube's empty-eyed physiognomy. Graube, who was standing with his mouth agape, apparently lacking the authority to have you detained by force.
Thick snow was falling now. It swallowed you and Lida in its noiseless crowds. It seemed like there were thousands if not millions of paratroopers in snow-white parachutes flying down from the sky, invading the silent city in a full-out air raid. Before they landed, some spun around nearby, choosing a softer spot to plop down.
The snowfall prevented you from discerning the enemy's manoeuvres. The enemy who was so cunning as to follow you masked in that curtain of snow. And you, in a black coat, were a good guide. You only had one cover, and that was Lida.
Heinrich Ivanovich had undoubtedly set some grizzled experts on your tail so as to check on what you and she would do once you were by yourselves. Heinrich Ivanovich's hunches were accurate enough so that he didn't take your shotgun romance for a given. For that reason, as you walked on the streets with Lida, you continued to be repulsed by yourself and kept tripping like a drunkard, and even uttered assorted sentences and proposals, including a proposal for marriage, to Lida and anyone else who would listen.
Lida clung trustingly to your side and talked to herself, looking at her feet and chirping in delight.
"Why couldn't I have met you a long time ago? When I was seventeen, for example. When I was just a girl but completely mature?"
But the two of you had neither a past nor a future together. You took her the way she was, intoxicated and in love, with her ragged fur over her chest, which served nevertheless as rather comfortable protection for your face grown so thin from all your worries. And as you spoke to her about love, you thought lustfully about that sweet moment when you would walk Lida home and then go back to your place, to your isolated apartment, and lie down with a light heart in your clean and unoccupied bed.
From time to time you would stop and spin Lida around in a sharp axis, a rapid movement, kissing her on the mouth and her blissfully covered cheeks. And kissing her you would keep peering above her head, which was thrown back in attentiveness, at the murky distance behind you, where darkness and snow, snow and darkness melted in turn.
And they were watching you. And although you couldn't quite make out the look in these eyes fixed on you from every corner, you wanted to proclaim proudly to the whole world:
"Go ahead and look, I'm not afraid! You'll see that I have a lot to do; I love Lida and I'm not to blame for any of this."
Four days he spent in my field of vision. To him I must have seemed like a python whose cold-blooded stare deprived the rabbit of all sensation. His notions of me were pure rubbish. And even if he had taken these silly fantasies as the basis of fact, I didn't know which of us was holding the other by the leash: was I holding him or was he yanking on me? We had both fallen captive, and the glazed looks that we exchanged couldn't be ripped asunder. And although he didn't see me, beneath those whitish lashes throbbed such a nexus of fear and hatred towards me that I wanted to scream: "Stop or I'll swallow you! All I need to do is slam my eyelids and you would tumble like a fly!" This torture was really starting to wear me out.
"Fool! Understand one thing: you live and breathe as long as I look at you. After all, you are only you because I address you. Only once you'd seen God did you become a human being. Oh, you!"
He did not want to listen to my friendly attempts at persuasion. And he had his reasons for everything. For four straight days he got no sleep so as not to let himself be taken by surprise. But at night he would lie on the couch in a state of military preparedness, with his jacket and pants on, now already quite creased, with his boots tightly laced up, and stare into the darkness.
And before his tense gaze there arose circles and spots of various colors. To him they seemed to be eyes, without a nose or ears, just eyes. They growled, stared, and prattled on, these brown, gray, light blue eyes; they flew around the room, batted their eyelids and settled on his chest when they got tired. When he got up they would fly off above his head, occasionally blinking their spread wings.
He felt particular discomfort in the bathroom. Compelled by his privates which he disliked and was embarrassed to display in public, he would hide behind a newspaper, grimace, whistle arias or, wanting to provoke me even more, fall into deep meditation, and all of this just had one goal: to draw my attention to his face and keep me there for a while. As if all these stupidities interested me!
Owing to his nervous thoughts, all of which I see, his urine did not flow nor did the muscles of his rectum contract. I felt bad for him as I saw the tortures he endured and tortured myself along with him out of indiscretion.
Ah, if only those blessed with a higher level of awareness of their guilt and obvious insignificance were to suffer on occasion from persecution mania! No, it was more like he was being stopped by another ailment, what medicine terms mania grandiosa. The universe had only one concern: to vex him. And scampering out to the city in the early morning for bread and sausage, he unabashedly assumed everything he happened to see had something to do with him.
Moscow was teeming with impostors. They pretended that they weren't looking his way (and, as it were, they were looking at him askance). They convened in random meetings and lollygagged around the streets with absent expressions on their faces, but were somehow all dressed the same, both in shape and sporting dark cloth boots. Others, in white mask-robes, had frozen expressions. Not a single one of them bought anything.
But most repellant of all were the houses, those eye-like creatures with their innumerable windows...
"What a lovely coincidence! Hello, hello! You're here in Moscow? You still haven't left? And how's the ulcer?"
You turned around. It was, of course, Heinrich Ivanovich who had touched you on the shoulder next to the gourmet store. On the second day following the so-called "wedding anniversary," you had taken leave at the Ministry under the guise of having something wrong with your stomach. Your colleagues were told that you had been sent to Yalta on a cure, but of course you spent your leave locked up in your apartment. What joy then must this omnipresent Graube have experienced when he caught you red-handed somewhere between an ulcer and Yalta, just when you were popping out for some provisions!
While you searched for reasons for having delayed your departure, Heinrich Ivanovich unceremoniously seized you around the waist and dragged you off the sidewalk. Five steps later and you were outside, and all signs pointed to a trap, falling somehow in balls of yellowed snow. These had to have been approved by Graube.
"I get it! I get it! Cherchez la femme. No questions there. We've all had our share of adventure."
He was bouncing on every side of you, as if sniffing you before biting, and threatening you with his index finger. All the while his round palm never relinquished his thick ministerial briefcase.