Original Illustrations by Harut Tumaghyan.
Translated by Nazareth Seferian.
My efforts to pursue yet another story or extract one from the drawers of my memory were interrupted by the sound of the doorbell. I walked up to the door lazily and squinted as I brought my eye closer to the peephole, which transported me through a kaleidoscopic spiral to the Ninth District of Massiv, as distant as nine years ago, when my friend Samo had taken me to introduce his Nina.
“Who’s Nina? Give me some idea of where we’re going and what I have to do with all this?”
“Man, what difference does it make to you? We’re not going to hook up with girls, we’re not going to get high, you’ll see soon enough… Those assholes haven’t oiled this door yet,” Samo complained as he opened the building door with a loud creak.
“Here’s how to remember it, man. Ninth District, building 9a, ninth floor, the door without the peephole, and her name is Nina. Get it? It’s like you’re holding four nines in a game of belote. Get it? Like pronouncing ‘nine’ with a French accent. How would you pronounce ‘nine’ with a French accent?”
Samo chuckled at his own joke as he knocked on the door without the peephole.
“Who’s there?” The deep voice of a female I imagined might have been black could be heard from the other side.
“A well-dressed mare, Brendan O’Hare, Baloo the Bear,” Samo responded with his usual stupid puns and rhymes, as if relaying a password.
The door opened.
Her back to us, there was a large and fat woman walking away along the corridor, and her baritone voice echoed from across the threshold towards us, “Why have you come?”
“Come on, girl, get a hold of yourself. I’ve brought a friend with me, an intellectual type. But don’t turn around too fast, I don’t want you to scare him.”
Nina turned around. Her huge body and the folds of thick flesh bursting through her black blouse all seemed to vanish and the only thing I could see was her eye. Yes, just one, the other was missing.
“So this is Nina, Kar jan. A one-eyed, black devil. I’m sure you’ll like each other. Look at those shelves – Nina’s made everything you see there. She’s our very own Kuklachyov.”
I turned towards the bookshelves. They were covered in dolls – several dozen of them were arranged there next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, their backs to us.
“Sam, you know that Kuklachyov’s name has nothing to do with the Russian word kukla,1 right?” I tried to lighten the awkward silence as I looked closely at the shelves.
“Man, don’t be a smart aleck. I wasn’t born yesterday, you know. Kuklachyov does have something to do with dolls, because he was a doll too. I had one of his dolls, there was one in every house back in Soviet times. Its eyes popping, damn scary, it would make me shit my pants when I was a kid. So when I’m talking about Kuklachyov’s kukla, I don’t mean that curly blond cat-doll he used, but the doll that they made of him, get it? Like the statue that they put in front of the Opera recently, who was it again?”
“That’s right! You know, don’t you, that they say this wasn’t a statue sculpted by Rodin, but a statue sculpted of Rodin. So they’re calling it ‘Rodin’s statue’ but, who knows, someone could have made it in a basement somewhere, and now they’re pretending it’s an old piece of art. Hey, Nini, do you have one of those Kuklachyov dolls you can give my man here? Hey! Hey, peephole face! I haven’t said that to you in a long time. Remember how I’d say, ‘Eenie, mini, miny, moe?’”
“Fuck off,” Nina spat, leaving the traces of her red lipstick on her rose-flavored cigarette.
“You should say ‘Pardon my French’ before you curse, you goat. You know what the Farsi word for goat is, don’t you? It’s boz, which sounds like the Armenian word for ‘slut’. And ‘No’ is nakher, just like the Russian for ‘fuck off.’ So if someone sees a goat and asks you in Farsi if it’s a kid, and you want to say, ‘No, a goat” then what you end up saying sounds like ‘Fuck off, slut!’ Man, that’s hilarious! I mean, you’re the intellectuals in the room, but I’m the only one having fun, while you’re sitting there like a bunch of kids… no, no, goats!”
We sat for another half hour around cups of coffee that Samo had been forced to brew, given that Nina had refused. There was no pause in either Samo’s endless puns and rhymes or in Nina’s strange silence. It was a silence that seemed both depressed and haughty at the same time.
Samo said that we should go. This pleased me – first, it would mean the end of this unusual, confused, and awkward encounter, and I would also finally hear an explanation for our visit, which I had been denied on the way there.
“Samo, who was that? Why did you bring me here?” I asked after we closed the creaky door, which had not managed to find someone to oil it in the forty minutes we had spent on the ninth floor.
“That was Peephole, man. Our Nina. My Nina. Our ‘zero one nina-ty nina,’ our ‘golden beaver,’ our ‘takes two to tango.’”
During our long walk from the Ninth District in Massiv to the Opera, those equally long silences were broken once in a while by Samo’s stories of his time in the tenth grade, when he had spent dozens of hours with his friends from the courtyard of his building—Gmbuz, Lalosh, and Gnelik—in that apartment where we had been for 40 minutes around 40 minutes ago.
“Was she a whore?”
“No, man, she wasn’t a whore at all.”
“So what were the four of you doing there with her? Making dolls?”
“No, we were giving her a beating.”
“What do you mean, a beating?”
“Exactly that, a beating.”
As soon as he said it, Samo’s face twisted, like a trace of shame unnatural to him passed over it, but it changed back immediately to the expression of cynical excitement it always carried.
“We barely attended any of our classes in the tenth grade, we’d buy a liter-bottle of Kilikia beer, a bottle of vodka and go spend time at her place. We’d play ‘Go there and come back.’”
“You pour beer into a glass and take a sip, then you add as much vodka as you sipped. Then you take another sip and do the same. This goes on till the glass ends up containing vodka only. As soon as it does, you add a bit of beer for each sip you take and you do this till it once again ends up containing only beer. So we would ‘go there’ and ‘come back’ in this way and all hell would break loose, and Nina would be the target. Lalosh would point to her and say, ‘Godzilla, Godzilla,’ and we’d attack her with those heavy Soviet pillows on the couch. We’d knock her to the floor and start hitting her. One day, Nina managed to kick Lalosh in the balls; he dropped on the couch and started moaning. I sparked up my lighter and held it in front of his eyes, saying, ‘Tell us who did this. Give us a name before you die. Who did this?’ Watching the lighter’s flame as it moved from side to side, Lalosh acted like he was telling us the monster’s name, ‘Godzilla… Godzilla…’ Dmbuz burst out laughing and lay down next to Lalosh. Then we all got up and turned to Nina, dropped her to the floor and started kicking her ass, her breasts, her mouth, and soon the poor thing was groaning the same way that Lalosh had been pretending to be a few minutes ago.”
“What the hell is wrong with you? And something must be the hell wrong with her too if she didn’t report you to the police.”
“Maybe there was something the hell wrong with us, but please don’t pretend to be a saint and preach at me now. We were boys, we did foolish things. And she would just as foolishly open the door for us each and every time.”
“That’s one thing that makes no sense to me. How could she open the door each time? Why?”
“Well you know, man… that’s love.”
“Love? Are you crazy? What love?”
“That’s a whole different story. She loved one of those guys like crazy. But it doesn’t matter.”
“One of your gang?”
“Samo, she loved one of the guys in your gang?”
“Yeah, and because even a street dog didn’t want her that way, it made her… how should I put it? It made her hot that at least the guy she liked was hitting her. And she had to bear with the others as well. We would go see her, get piss drunk, then start to beat her up. We’d run out of drink, take every bit of cash she had, and go down to buy vodka and beer again.
“One evening, we came and saw that she was sitting in the dark. We said, ‘Hey, how come your electricity’s out, you idiot?’ and she said, ‘You drank up the money I needed for the electricity bill, assholes.’ So, you know, we were angry that there was no electricity and we beat her up for it.
“Then, one day, Lalosh hooked up with two drunk sluts at a karaoke club, and gave them the last 20,000 drams he had. They insisted that they go somewhere else and Lalosh realized that he couldn’t take them anywhere – he didn’t have any money to even call a cab, so a hotel room was out of the question. He called me and we realized that the only option was Nina’s place. We managed to make it to Massiv somehow and we rang the doorbell. Nina opened it and got herself into a pile of shit, we all did.
“Lalosh and Dmbuz pushed the sluts into the bedroom while I stuffed Nina into the bathroom. She started shouting and screaming, but when she heard the sounds of sex coming from the bedroom, she broke down and cried. I thought she might cut herself or something and then we’d been in deep trouble, so I opened the door. She pushed her whole weight at me, digging her nails into me. The guys in the bedroom realized that something was going down, so they ran out without any underwear on, and we all started beating Nina up. Then those sluts jumped in and tried to separate us and Nina went crazy and attacked them, trying to kick them out. We knocked her to the ground and Lalosh kicked her so hard that Nina finally shouted, ‘My eye! You knocked my eye out, assholes! My eye!’
“This scared the shit out of us and we ran out of the place. I slipped off to stay at my grandpa’s place in Aghavnadzor for month, Dmbuz went to Akhlkalak. I have no idea what Gnel did. A long time went by and we realized that Nina had not reported any of us to the police.
“I called the guys up a few months later and said that we should go see her. They came up with excuses, so I decided to go alone. I got to Massiv, went into the building, went up to the ninth floor and saw that she’d changed the door. Not a good sign, I thought.
“But I decided to ring the doorbell anyway, and she opened the door. I went in and she stared at me coldly with her one eye. We sat in silence, but not like today. She was the quiet one today, but we were both silent back then. I noticed that she had turned the dolls’ backs to the room, and when I was leaving, I realized that the new door didn’t have a peephole…
“Rodin’s statue, we’re here. You’re going straight, right? Ok, I’m off, then, that’s my bus. Might be the last one of the day.”
The rest of the road seemed longer now that I was alone. I walked down Mashtots Avenue confused, my head constantly whirring with scenes not from Burgess or Seidl, nor Haneke or Pazolini, but from a one-room in Massiv that had been converted to a two-room apartment, Nina and her missing eye, the door without the peephole, dolls with their backs to the room, and how Samo, who had decided to confess to me of all people, was surely “one of the guys” that Nina had loved; my friend was one of those guys…
“Hello, I’m here to check your water meter. Could you please open the door?” As I squinted through the peephole, the faded images in my memory were cleansed right before my eye.
The door opened.