Happy Naked People
by Kateryna Babkina
Translated from the Ukrainian by Hanna Leliv
I bought those photographs – the entire album – for 70 euros at Place du Jeu de Balle in Brussels. Roma always said I didn’t know the value of money, and he was probably right. I don’t like flea markets; I prefer new, nice stuff. Roma’s the complete opposite, though. It was his fault that I spent my only free morning in Brussels at Jeu de Balle. It was dirty; there were nasty old people and tourists snooping through boxes of used dishes and books, shabby clothes hanging in the sun – when I was a kid, my family threw such rags away. No one even considered donating them to the poor. There was so much fur there for some reason, moth-eaten fox skins with empty eye sockets – it’s beyond me why the heck anyone would sew such a thing on their coat. All that junk was dearly priced: vendors, mostly old men, pretended they didn’t speak English, so market-goers, mostly people visiting the city, ultimately had to pay the asking price.
I knew the numbers in French, but there was nothing for me to bargain over; I was mad at myself for wasting my morning at a junk market, but, again, Roma had told me about it a thousand times, so I had to check it out. He’d bought something there once, an old Belgian woolen sweater or maybe a scouting whistle with a compass, something he didn’t keep at home, to be sure, but remembered fondly anyway. Everything at Jeu de Balle irritated me; Roma not only didn’t travel with me this time around but he also ruined my day on top of that.
And then I spotted an album, a simple one, where you don’t even tuck the photos into cut-out corners but glue them right onto the pages and the pages turn yellow later on because of the glue. The pictures in that album were so funny, dirty, and charged with dumb happiness that I paid the asking price and didn’t even cringe at the sight of some gook stuck to its cover. As I walked to the hotel to get my luggage, I picked at whatever it was, a dried-up rotten apple or something, and it came off in pieces.
This was a vacation, some strangers’ vacation – most of the photographs showed six adult men and women, visibly overweight and aged, and two kids (most likely their grandchildren) running around a small cottage with its overgrown flower beds, a few trees, and a small swimming pool. Judging by those black-and-white pictures, they got tipsy from time to time that summer – only a little, really – tried to fly a kite twice (it wouldn’t fly even once), had frequent barbeques in the garden (the man responsible for the meat protected his secondary sex characteristics with an apron, his shriveled, wrinkly buttocks drooping cutely underneath the apron, half-turned), celebrated a kid’s birthday (three years, three candles in a store-bought cake), and never wore any clothes ever. Yes, they were absolutely naked, naked like people who are not afraid of anything and have nothing to hide, who don’t expect anything in particular from their lives, yet gladly accept every gift that comes their way.
After I came back, Roma didn’t make fun of my photo album, and he even mentioned that his mom and dad also had a couple of similar photos which he found after his parents had already passed away. Far from young, they were playing badminton with their friends in a clearing in the woods – sliced salami on plates, bottles of cheap alcohol, all of them naked and very happy.
Roma’s parents did everything to keep up with others. Had they known anything about how others actually lived, they would’ve done everything differently, no doubt, but they hadn’t, so they lived the way they did. Moving into a family-sized room at the leather factory dorm, his twenty-year-old father had brought along three brand-new thin mattresses (the third one was in the middle, underneath the other two, so you wouldn’t rub your buttocks and back against the floor should the top two slide apart at night) and some books in a chipped, dark, wooden crate designed to hold twelve used milk bottles, three rows, four bottles each. At the department store, his mother had bought a flexi disc of British musical ensemble with no label on the jacket, not even in small letters, and then gone to stand in another line to get a turntable to play it at home later, “sell the turntable under the counter, too, shouldn’t they?” After she finally got it and brought it home, they made Roma on those three mattresses, “I me mine” playing in the background; in return, Roma’s grandma got four rolls of flowery wallpaper for them through the army exchange. In that family-sized room, surrounded by all those tiny white flowers on the wallpaper, one vinyl record, three mattresses, and one crate of oddly selected books, Roma learned from those very broken yet unbreakable people, as he described them jokingly, how absolute love is born with nothing and out of nothing – and he should have remembered that forever. Whenever my feelings were hurt, I told him that knowledge was completely wasted on him. And one more thing – for some reason, I wished I had met his parents when they were still alive. I was kicking myself for splurging on that photo album; it somehow became disgusting right away, all the more because I would never have bought it had I been there with Roma, not by myself.
Ever since I met him, Roma hardly ever seemed to pay much attention to me. It must have been this slight imperfection only I could see that made me cling to Roma. I felt that if I could chase away that imperfection which made him not the way I wanted him to be, get rid of it, drive it out, like a mouse, I would then get a new Roma, always cheerful and happy around me. And our life would turn into a series of beautiful, special moments, one after another, like in a movie; there would be no days wasted on things we didn’t like, no forced goodbyes that disturbed me more than Roma, and, finally, no summer mornings wrecked by old fox skins with eye holes and mad money wasted on the yellowish photos of some strangers.
I was a reckless, impatient gambler in my fights with Roma, but the moments when he suddenly hugged and kissed me, did something with me, passionate and inspired, burst out laughing for no apparent reason and then shared why he was laughing so hard as if trying to pass me his joy, like giving mouth-to-mouth, the moments when he showed his love through simple, mundane, yet sincere gestures that couldn’t have been wrongly interpreted overfilled me with acute, poignant happiness and readied me for more and more fights.
Except that Roma didn’t want anyone to fight with him.
I managed to keep myself from fighting only once – when Roma’s younger brother died in combat in eastern Ukraine. We’d been living in Costa Brava for six months, so that Roma wouldn’t get drafted, but Hera, his brother, did. He went to boot camp, sent us his funny reports and even some finger-pointing articles, complained that everyone was a bunch of thieves and everything was a total mess, then completed his training, ended up in an absurd, stalemate battle and never came back.
I roughly remember being afraid to talk to Roma back then, let alone ask him for anything. By the end of the fall we tiptoed around our apartment like those spirits of babies who die unbaptized. I was afraid Roma might think he should’ve been the one to die instead of Hera; Roma was afraid I might think he chickened out and escaped his destiny when others couldn’t save themselves (but what are we talking about, Hera could’ve saved himself, of course, if he’d wanted to) – and at that time we both cared for one another as best we could. But most of all we were afraid that one of us would say it aloud: the fact that it happened isn’t as scary as the fact that it was all absolutely senseless.
Things slowly sank into oblivion. No, Hera was not forgotten, but the pain of loss subsided and things went back to the way they’d always been – Roma worked at home, I painted, earned almost nothing, yet had started presenting my posters and illustrations at industry events. Roma never came along with me.
For some reason, nothing was how it was supposed to be.
The next morning, I said that once I grew old, I would like to live the way the people in that album lived and that Roma and I would never live like that, and I cried during breakfast while Roma was writing his goddamn emails. I used to cry a lot back then, but Roma hardly had the time to notice. Sometimes I couldn’t even explain why I did; I always missed this one look of his, this one hand squeeze, this one touch.
Then Roma said he would take me to the beach. But the thing is, Roma hated the “beach”- the sand dumped on the banks of several lakes in the city, with striped umbrellas and sun loungers, neatly trimmed bushes, coffee and water fifteen times more expensive than they should be, and a good chance to run into someone you knew, usually my friends, but Roma’s, too. It was so humiliating. It felt like Roma only did things for me if I cried. I got ready for the beach without a word and then waited for Roma to get ready for a long time. I knew something would go wrong and, no surprise, it did.
When we passed through an industrial district instead of going by the lakes, I broke down again. In half an hour, Roma took a sharp turn, and the car flew into some shrubs. The road was lined with thick bushes, apartment blocks were rising in the distant neighborhoods, and I thought it was time to put an end to all this, that it couldn’t go on like this any longer. My life felt the same every day, and even if something did happen, it brought along a blurry, faded, stolen delight, as if I were looking through someone else’s pictures, but I couldn’t even share that with Roma.
We were married but didn’t have any kids. We’d been careless once but I wound up having a miscarriage. Still, we didn’t think it was anything special and had no plans, though we could’ve planned something, of course, as Roma was going on forty.
We drove out of the shrubs onto an old beltway which hardly anyone used anymore, and then Roma pulled over to the shoulder. We stopped in front of a quarry; there used to be sand or some kind of rock in there, but now it was filled with still, transparent water, more pleasing to the eye than that in lakes. The bank was covered with cattails, and I spotted some small fish in there. A few houses and several cars stood in the grass far away, on the other side of the quarry – other people must have also discovered this place and were now enjoying a nice day outside over there. The clear, still water reflected the sky.
But it was not a beach.
Roma told me that his parents would often take him out to the countryside when he was a kid, far away, up to a river. His father teased his mother, she laughed hard and ran after him, and little Roma chased after both of them but could never catch them. He never got enough of that summer and sun-stuffed happiness. Exhausted and sweaty, all three of them collapsed onto the grass and hugged for a really, really long time. His parents only had a few friends, as far as Roma knew; they didn’t party too hard and spent almost all of their time together, the three of them: Roma and his parents. His father lost his job, right before he was planning to retire; he had to sign up for a migrant laborer job and died from some infection while he was away. His body wasn’t even sent home. Roma’s mother didn’t outlive him by much. Afterwards, Roma lived with his father’s parents and no longer hugged anyone. Green, flower-pattern wallpaper, summery haze, two tanned bodies whirling around in it, blondish hair, and the luster of young skin mixed with bright sunbeams – actually, that’s all he remembered well.
I tossed my bag onto the grass and started walking along the bank, wordlessly. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Roma taking off his clothes, all of them off, diving happily into the water and swimming away. The water probably was cold.
We used to be together; now we would be apart. What’s the big deal, I thought. The main point is that this insatiable need for having more of him than I do now would finally congeal, choke up inside me. I would definitely meet someone else and fall in love or I would move abroad, or Roma would repent and try to win me back – and then, if I did come back to him, everything would be just as it should: undivided attention, harmony, and love. We would have our own photo albums and kids, he would fly to my art shows, and we would have everything we could ever want.
Roma swam, spitting out the water, happy as a beaver.
I roamed along the quarry some more, stared at the reflections of the far-away houses in the water, got tangled up in some bushes, went back toward the car, and sat on the grass. Roma came out of the water, wet and naked, and lay down on the ground.
“I’m leaving you,” I said. “I want a divorce.”
Roma kept silent. Drops of water glistened on his body, dripping down; they probably tickled him.
He suddenly sat up and looked at me carefully. He finally got it, I thought.
“Where’s our stuff?” Roma asked.
Only then did I notice that everything was gone – my bag, Roma’s t-shirt and jeans, the car keys stuffed into a pocket. Even Roma’s sneakers were gone, only his gray sock lay, rolled-up and solitary, in the grass. One sock.
Roma rose to his feet and started walking toward the road, without saying anything more.
“Roma!” I shouted, feeling some kind of an inexpressible guilt, for the belongings I neglected maybe, but, at the same time, it wasn’t about them, not really. “Roma!”
But he kept walking, along the road now. A passing minivan honked at him and he shook his naked booty in response, like a roadside prostitute.
“Roma!” I sprang to my feet and followed him. “Where you going?”
“Home!” Roma yelled back.
That was too much. I walked faster to catch up to him, but Roma suddenly broke into a run. His footprints – damp at first and then just blurry, slurred prints of his bare feet in the dust – remained in the roadside dirt. Skinny, he ran, bouncing up and down, shiny water droplets flying off his hair, his dick waggling.
I ran after Roma, dirt flying into my sneakers. I broke into a sweat, my tank clinging to my back, my skirt riding up, my neat hairdo tousled right away, the dust clogging up my nose. Someone else passed by and honked at us, once again – some square-faced men in undershirts slowed down, staring at us in their old Audi and roaring with laughter. I wanted to yell some rude insult at them but sneezed loudly instead.
And then I started laughing just as they did, an uncontrollable, loud laugh. I was running after Roma along the old beltway, along the quarry bank, as apartment houses reflected in the still water. I spat out dust, brushed my hair aside with my clumsy fingers, and kept running. I was very happy.
Roma ran faster and, picking up the pace, looked at me over his shoulder. I saw he was laughing, too.