Unearthing Our Schizophrenic Past

My old friend Tanya used to live across the street, in an old communal apartment with no bathtub or hot water, in the October Revolution district of Leningrad.  In our last year of high school, we sat on a bench under a rickety tree and talked about the future.  There wasn’t much to discuss: we were both going to college, which would then assign us to jobs; we would live with our mothers in the same apartment, even after we married and had children.  A room would be divided in two with a hanging sheet as a permanent partition.  The future was set for us, just as it was set for everyone else.  We were never more than little cars in the long, glorious train of our collective, obediently clanging along the designated track.

Now, almost forty years later, Tanya – still my friend – called me from a town in New Jersey, where she lives, to say that she had finished A Mountain of Crumbs.  She liked it, but some pages were painful to read, she said.  “Why?” I asked, pretending to be surprised, pretending I didn’t know the answer.  She chuckled, and I imagined her looking into the endless hallway of her new house, big enough for her, her mother, and her two sons and their families.  Only her sons and their families, I know, live separately and in far away locations.  They’ve never heard of sheets partitioning rooms, or of washing hair in cold water under a kitchen faucet, or of our old pre-fabricated, collective, shining future, which never beamed its light on Tanya or my many other friends who emigrated here.

The schizophrenic system of our youth may no longer exist.  It only remains on the pages of books, from where it can still scowl at us, can still rattle its bones.  It only remains in our memories, where nothing ever fades or loses contrast.  In the corners of our minds, shelves will always be empty, books banned, and poetry strangled.  That other life – gone – is what molded us, and damaged us, and cleaved our souls.  It takes courage to admit that it is still smoldering inside us, like a nasty virus, and all these years later – despite our vast houses and many options – we are still trying to heal.