Who Will Save Batman?
(Translated from the Russian by Philip Nikolayev)
There is a yard in Cambridge bordered by a brick hospital wall, a side street, and a large parking lot. It lies adjacent to Somerville, but there is nothing symbolic about this fact, since the two towns are barely distinguishable. The green street signs turn blue, that’s all. Ambulatory patients mill about the yard. They are allowed a smoke every two hours. I mill about with them, dressed in my usual jeans and t-shirt. The back half of my head is shaved clean right up to the top, which is why I put on a baseball cap backwards every morning before leaving for the clinic.
What caused my nervous breakdown? A trifle. I had discovered that I had lice. I went to a hair salon and the hairdresser informed me: “I can’t do your hair. I’ve found a louse. We maintain sanitary standards here.” Humiliated, I shuffled off home under the reproachful gazes of pristine passers-by. At home I looked up instructions for removing insects from the surface of the human body. The section on lice recommended that I grease up my hair with mayonnaise and leave it like that under a plastic bag overnight in order to smother the lice. It turns out that these piddling critters want to breathe, too. I applied mayonnaise methodically and lay down next to my husband after covering my pillow with a towel. He didn’t even notice.
Sleeping in mayonnaise up to your ears is like sleeping with your head in a bowl of Russian salad. I lifted it (the head) from time to time to wipe a mayonnaise tear from my face. What fortified me was the expectation that no shampoo was as radically effective, as the instructions promised. In the morning I washed off the mayonnaise and asked Philip to take a look.
“What do they even look like?” he asked. I gave him a disgusted description. On checking me he replied with confidence that he did not see any lice, only white specks in my hair.
“These are probably nits,” he muttered thoughtfully. “I’ve got them too.”
“What’s going on, Philip? Why are we lice-ridden?”
“It’s from poverty,” he said.
We spent two or three days hunting nits. Afraid that we might pass the infestation on to our daughter, we would go to the park and install ourselves on a shady bench. I rested the back of my head in Philip’s lap.
We lacked experience. Our poor heads were ridden with louse bites. At home we applied mayonnaise treatment to each other, slept like astronauts in space, in rustling polyethylene helmets, and fought. When I accused him of faint-heartedness, he looked at me and left. He returned late with a lice kit from the drugstore, which contained a shampoo and a metal comb. Thirty-seven bucks. Ten days later I gave in and asked Philip to shave my head. He took to it with vigor, but when the back of my head turned bare he covered his face tragically with his hands.
He said, “If only you could see yourself from the side!”
My hands were shaking by mid-September, and it was beginning to seem to me that the shadow of the facing building fell upon our balcony at an angle that felt wrong for the season. I lay in bed for nights on end, straining my ear to elusive echoes. In early October I buckled and went to see my doctor.
“What’s going on?” he asked. “You’ve lost weight.”
I tore the baseball cap off my head and bust into tears.
“Come, come, you need to heal a bit,” he said paternally.
I replied that I had tried mayonnaise and that it was impossible to go on living like this, hiding from people, and passing whole nights without sleep. The doctor looked at me and told me that American medicine had at its disposal methods that were more powerful than mayonnaise. He gave me the clinic’s phone number, and that’s how I ended up there.
There were six of us patients: Eugene, a forty-five-year-old stock broker; two Japanese students named Yuji and Yumi; Geneva, a fifty-year-old Black lady with a childish bowknot in her hair; Mandy, an eighteen-year-old drug addict; and, of course, me. While our diagnoses varied, we all had one thing in common: we had come in voluntarily. The restricted ward above us contained patients of another sort. Those were delivered kicking and screaming to the premises by relatives or police. Our voluntary acceptance of therapy signified our good faith effort toward recovering normalcy; we were therefore entrusted to the care of Dr. Marsha, who worked with us six hours each day.
Our sessions took place in a basement room, its walls covered with the kind of artworks one typically sees at hospitals: brightly colored flowers, a landscape with a book, and so on. Miscellaneous legs passed by the window. I am generally fond of basements. They calm me down.
“Everything has a beginning and an end. What do we fear most,” Dr. Marsha would ask during “Dialectics.”
It turned out that what all of us feared above all were failure and humiliation. Eugene, recently bankrupted by the economic crisis, feared failure and humiliation. Every morning he recalculated his burnt investments. Computer printouts stuck out of his green jacket pocket. Mandy, the eighteen-year-old junkie, feared failure and humiliation. She incessantly rubbed her hands and fixed her interlocutor’s eyes with hers, as if to reassure herself she hadn’t said anything off the wall. Yuji and Yumi feared failure and humiliation. Their parents had sent them to earn BAs in economics. They studied hard by day. To afford a part of their tuition and room and board, they were also doing Japanese translations for the economics department, and working the dishwashing SHIFT in a dining hall on campus at night. Everything was going well, but they failed to take into account just one thing: three hours of sleep per nigh wasn’t enough. The beautiful full-eyed Geneva feared failure and humiliation. She feared proving to be a burden on her daughter. Her daughter had just been offered a professor’s job at Harvard, and Geneva feared that her daughter would now feel embarrassed by her mom, a supermarket cleaning lady.
“What do you fear most?” Dr. Marsha asked me.
I examined my inner self and saw that I, too, feared failure and humiliation. I feared that my soul would dry up and I would not be able to write anymore. Then old age would come, with death shuffling behind.
In the late afternoon we all went home. Lying down on the sofa in the evening and staring at the ceiling, I sometimes shifted my gaze to my husband’s back as he continued to type at the computer. Is he going to feel that I am staring at him, I wondered. I was not sleepy, but it hardly made sense not to sleep. In the morning, more tired than at night (a detail first introduced by Proust), I got up and went to the hospital.
“So what’s going to happen then?” Dr. Marsha would ask cheerfully. She drew a tree-like chart on the whiteboard. For some reason, of all of nature’s objects it was the tree that proved to be closest to the hearts of us brothers and sisters in grief.
“What’s going to happen when?” we asked with alarm.
“What’s going to happen once whatever we feared most has happened?” Then failure and humiliation would come, we replied. Humiliation drove Eugene out of his three-story private house into a one-bedroom apartment with roaches on the walls. Mandy associated humiliation with her boyfriend. Yuji and Yumi bore their humiliation back to their Japanese village. Geneva, hiding from humiliation, locked herself up in her room where a plump fish swam in a vase, and unwatered pale-pink azaleas were wilting on the windowsill. And my own humiliation presented itself to me in the shape of silence, interrupted once in a long while by a tedious dialog with myself. I was defenseless against these dark thoughts. We had only ourselves to blame for everything.
“Whereas in fact,” Dr. Marsha continued, her pointer having reached the tree’s very root, “what we should do instead is accept ourselves as we are, along with all our failures and humiliations. Accept and love. And most importantly, don’t forget to take your medication!”
Our days dragged on, monotonous. Two hours of dialectics in the morning, a cigarette break, a relaxation yoga class, a light lunch. Salad, cheese, a juice can. A walk in the yard. After the walk we returned to the basement for our one-hour-long, one-on-one psychoanalysis sessions. Dr. Garret, his face in a shadow, took us on tours of our past.
I lay down on the red couch in bald patches. Dr. Garret opened a folder.
“How did your mother feel about your writing?”
“Tell me in more detail. How old were you?”
“Splendid!” he praised my age. “She must have been proud of you.”
I explained that on reading my poems my mom said I would never become a poet. Dr. Garret rubbed his dry palms together.
“Just like that!”
“What do you feel toward your mother when you recall this?”
I replied that I felt gratitude.
“Fascinating. Didn’t you wish that your mother would praise you?”
“I did,” I replied.
“So you see!” said Dr. Garret.
“I do,” said I and told him how I had torn up my poetry notebook into tiny bits and flushed it down the toilet.
“Aha, so you flushed it down the toilet! I understand. Please describe how it happened, and how you felt doing it.”
I said that the experience had been a very unpleasant one because the thick notebook clogged up the pipes, and all my verses returned to me in a torrent of water and excrement. Soviet sewage systems were not designed to handle a young girl’s creative effusions.
Dr. Garret liked my story, and we parted satisfied with each other.
At our next session he plunged into my case again with great enthusiasm.
“Tell me everything about your father and your husband.”
“Fascinating, most fascinating. Does your husband remind you of your father?”
“No, he doesn’t,” I replied honestly.
“Are you sure?”
I thought about it. At his seventy-six years of age, my father is as thin as a rake and still plays tennis three hours a day, goes to the swimming pool, and works as an architect. My husband writes poems and weighs 257 pounds. My father knows where to find stuff in my home better than I do, whereas my husband once put his boots in the fridge and then paced the apartment for hours, gesticulating and reiterating, “Dammit, where the hell did they go?”
Another time, when our daughter was born, he vacuumed the apartment for two hours without noticing that the vacuum cleaner was out of order.
“No, he doesn’t remind me of my dad.”
A pause ensued, during which I head him scribble something in his notepad.
“How old are you?” I asked him. He looked no older than thirty.
“Why do you ask?” Dr. Garret became cautious.
I had asked because I wanted to know how old he was, but Dr. Garret eluded my question.
A new patient joined our group that same same afternoon. His name was Lesley, but he called himself Batman. He had been brought downstairs from the violent ward. This enormous broad-shouldered fellow with a stubbly face took the seat between Geneva and me. His hands were shaking; he kept them resignedly on his knees so as to maintain them at a status quo. When asked what he feared most he said it was solitude. Still, he feared failure and humiliation no less than the rest of us. Batman was a family man, in principle. Prior to the incident, he had been a taekwondo instructor and played at Batman with his five-year-old son after work. Two months ago, he happened to come home and catch his wife with a lover. He wasn’t surprised, in principle, but he broke three of the lover’s ribs and displaced his jaw pro forma. The court found him not liable by reason of insanity. His wife never once came to visit him.
“I’m going home tonight,” Batman said. “Perhaps I’ll see my son.”
During the break he ran down to the drugstore for cigarettes. After our break we returned to our basement and resumed our seats. Batman again towered between Geneva and me, his heavy hands shaking on his knees. They suffered, those mighty hands.
“Let us consider what kinds of persons we would like to be.”
“Normal,” Yuji and Yumi replied in unison.
“Normal,” Marsha wrote next to the tree of our fears.
“Loved without drugs!” ventured Mandy.
“Strong like bamboo under snow,” said Batman.
The doctor wrote, “Strong like bamboo under snow.”
“Any other wishes?”
“We want to be needed by others,” said Geneva.
“And strong like bamboo under snow,” Geneva added.
The rest of us said that we too wanted to be strong like bamboo under snow.
Dr. Marsha went on adding branches to the tree, which kept expanding, opening up further possibilities for inner growth.
I came home.
“What happened today?” Philip asked, turning toward me on his swivel chair. I had explained to him the previous day that simple questions were helpful to a person in a state of nervous exhaustion because they tended to rekindle an interest in living. How did you pass the day? What are you thinking? What would you like for dinner? Parenthetically, this last question was purely rhetorical. Dinner comprised hotdogs with mustard, bread, and grated carrots at three dollars a pound. Simple answers likewise tended to rekindle an interest in living. I had passed the day in the company of six other unwell people. I was thinking that we would soon be kicked out of the apartment since we hadn’t paid our rent for eight months. But none, not an iota of this was important so long as I could feel that we were together.
I told Philip about the psychoanalysis.
“Freudians are always like that,” he commented, sitting down next to me on the futon. “They love enigma and ambiguity. Why the hell did you need to know his age?”
I have no idea. I just thought it was funny.
“What’s funny?” Philip asked.
“That a thirtyish-year-old man still believes that suffering must somehow be caused by one’s parents.”
“You think it never happens?”
“I don’t believe it. He is either playing at being an idiot or he really is an idiot. Think about it. What do my parents have to do with my suffering?”
After dinner we went to the park. The wind swept some tiny yellow leaves along our path.
“Acacia leaves,” Philip declared.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
We sat down on the last sunlit bench. He produced the metal comb from his pocket. In the past several days we had advanced significantly in our cause, and my head had appeared to be clean for a few days now.
“Let me check one more time, just in case,” said Philip.
I waited for a well-dressed couple to walk by. He was tall and shapely in a sweater and a flax coat; she wore a rustling autumn raincoat and high-heeled boots. Behind them, with similar panache and grace, came two borzois. Odors of a dog grooming shop suddenly spiced the air. With a sigh, I laid my head in Philip’s lap.
The sun was sinking fast, and pale-violet park lamps were lighting up above us. Noticing that the same couple was now returning, I tried to lift my head.
“Don’t move. It’s all right,” said Philip. “Let them think whatever they want.”
My head resumed its position. They walked past us. Acacia leaves continued to float down on them and us. Philip’s cold unruly fingers continued to search my hair.
“So this is what love is,” he said.
Katia Kapovich is the author of ten Russian collections and of two volumes of English verse, Gogol in Rome (Salt, 2004, shortlisted for England’s 2005 Jerwood Alderburgh Prize) and Cossacks and Bandits (Salt, 2008). Her English language poetry has appeared in the London Review of Books, Poetry, The New Republic, Harvard Review, The Independent, The Common, Jacket, Plume and numerous other periodicals, as well as in several anthologies including Best American Poetry 2007 and Poetry 180 (Random House, Billy Collins, Ed.) Katia Kapovich, the recipient of the 2001 Witter Bynner Fellowship from the U.S. Library of Congress, and a poet-in-residence at Amherst College in 2007, lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the recipient of the 2013 Russian Prize in the category “Short Fiction”. Also, in 2019 she received an international Hemingway Prize for her book of short stories, that includes fictionalized documentary prose.