I had a fat aunt. She’d been plump all her life, so when I first met her she was already fat. I loved her even more than I loved Dad, whom I loved more than Mom.
My first memory of Aunt Lucy is of her robust figure draped in a billowing gown checkered in red and black, as she towered over me, a skimpy four-year old. She wraps her arms around me, and pulls me into her bosom. I breathe in the warm odor of stale sweat and garlic, with hints of lily of the valley and fresh nail polish. We have arrived at her tiny walk-up studio, which she shares with my Grandma Maria, for a customary Sunday family dinner. My heart is pounding from climbing five flights of stairs. My limbs are frozen, yet my back is sweating in my shuba, a sad-looking hand-me-down, fake-fur coat. Aunt Lucy’s big soft hands, impeccably manicured in scarlet, untie the many folds of my mother’s downy gray scarf wrapped around my shoulders and bundled up to my eyes. She lifts me from my valenki, the gray felt boots with black galoshes, and sets me free from the shuba.
“Oh, let me take a look at you, my kitten,” she murmurs, kissing me on the cheek. She steps back to size me up, her lips making the customary “tsk, tsk, tsk” sound of a Russian relative admiring the offspring. As she shakes her head at me in wonder, the plastic rollers in her perm shake, too. She smiles, and I see one golden tooth in the row of white ones, which I had always thought real. She draws me back in. If I was freezing a moment before, I don’t recall it. I melt in the warm folds of her stomach, press my cheek against her giant soft breasts, and forget about the fight with my sister on the way over.
Aunt Lucy loved me more than she loved my big sister. She never told me this but I knew. That meant I was aunt Lucy’s favorite person in the world, as she never married or had kids. Perhaps she loved her own sister Svetlana, my mother, more than me, but I wouldn’t find out until after my mother’s death. At four, my small big heart was certain that love for a grown-up could never be as strong as love for a child, because adults argued often and slammed doors and told lies – at least in other families they did. With kids, adults were soft and kind, especially with other people’s little kids.
After Aunt Lucy’s mother and sister died, she grew from fat to obese, spent a decade locked up in her fifth floor walk-up apartment, staring out the window, always eating and talking to herself, and died alone in her sleep. But that was later
On the wall above her couch, which was covered with dusty quilts and half a dozen pillows, hung a black and white photo of a semi-nude young woman. She sat with her bare back to us on a river’s bank, her head turned just enough to see her face in semi-profile, holding field flowers to cover her naked breasts. Her thick flowing hair reached to where the back met the buttocks in a voluptuous curve; her eyes half closed, looking at the small bouquet. The picture, so serene and melancholy, always struck me as being out of place in Aunt Lucy’s small colorful apartment, with its maroon wallpaper embossed with golden flowers, a crystal chandelier dimmed by a decade of dust, and her own rapturous laughter that broke out as often and unexpectedly as a summer thunderstorm.
When I was about ten, Aunt Lucy told me that the woman in the picture was she at the age of 25. I wondered why a plump woman would allow anyone to photograph her topless. I didn’t ask who had taken the picture or on what occasion. The only question I had then was whether she was naked from the waist down, too. Because if she was, what would that mean? What was she doing nude on the river? I thought of consulting a friend from school who claimed to know what people did while naked, other than taking a shower, but never did. It was through that picture that I learned my aunt Lucy had been plump, and pretty, before she grew fat.
For my fifteenth birthday, when she herself was getting on in years, approaching 50, she gave me a customary greeting card embossed with S Dnem Rozhdeniya in gold italics, inscribed with best wishes from Aunt Lucy: grow big and smart, be a joy to my parents and the rest of the family, be the top student in school. And then there was a new message: be careful with boys.
I was still a virgin then and wondered why she had to mention boys: I’d never even been kissed by one. Of course there was the best athlete in school, two years older and two heads taller, who always flirted with me. I remember his dark brown eyes undressing me during our only walk home together. I’d been dying to kiss him. We walked and held hands, and I kept looking at his lips, missing what they were saying, only wondering if they’d be as soft as they looked. I remember licking my own. When we reached my apartment building and stood at the entrance, trying to pretend the urine we smelled was that of cats and not of the drunks that frequented our building’s backyard, I turned my face up so that his lips could descend on mine, but he only smiled and wished me a good night. Perhaps the boys I was interested in were already careful with girls, so I had nothing to worry about.
Inside the birthday card was a 20-ruble note, a small fortune: about a quarter of her monthly salary as a librarian at the Public Library of Vasileostrovsky District in Leningrad. I hugged Aunt Lucy so hard she said I might break her neck, but she knew what the money meant to me – I could buy new shoes just in time for the summer, instead of wearing out my sister’s half-dead flats, a decade old and grey brown instead of the original maroon. My sister had gotten married the year before, and left all of the things she no longer needed behind. We had the same shoe size even then, and my parents reasoned that no money should be wasted on such a frivolity as another pair of shoes.
When I turned 18 and finished my first year of an engineering school with all “As” and one “B” for organic chemistry, she wrote me another birthday card; same golden italics, same warm wishes. This time, there was no money or mention of boys, as she must have thought I’d made good grades in that area too. She wouldn’t have believed that her spunky niece was still a virgin then, albeit one ready to give up that precious status if an opportunity with a tall and smart enough guy presented itself. She gave me her golden earrings instead.
I remember opening a small black box, tied with a dark blue ribbon, wondering what I might find inside, as I knew she had no money for jewelry. On the silk square sat a pair of diamond studs. I’d never seen her wear them before, yet knew instantly, from the way she gave the box to me, her hands trembling, eyes misty, that they were her heart’s jewel.
“Oh, how beautiful,” I said. “Are they yours? How come I’ve never seen them?” My lips were dry and all questions became superfluous and unimportant. I felt that Aunt Lucy was bestowing upon me one of her true treasures, the significance of which I couldn’t grasp and wouldn’t understand for years. I didn’t know what to say.
“My ears are not even pierced,” I said, feeling dumb.
“You’re eighteen now,” she said. “You no longer have to ask your mother’s permission to have it done.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Like a mosquito bite,” she said. “I can go with you if you want.”
“But are you sure?” I placed them on my right palm. “They’re so beautiful. You must love them.”
“I do. But I love you even more,” she said.
I knew that. But I also wished I had asked more questions. There must have been a story attached to the earrings. A nervous vibration traveled from the pit of my stomach up to my throat and I shivered as if chilled by a sudden burst of icy wind. A story that might hold secrets I didn’t have to know. I hugged Aunt Lucy, as I always had, burying my face into the folds of her fat body, and whispered, “Thank you. I love you even more, too.”
When I fell in love with a musician I knew my parents wouldn’t approve of, it was Aunt Lucy who received the honor of meeting him. The world twirled around me and Alex and I didn’t want the magic stopped by my parents’ questions. I knew that Lucy wouldn’t ask any, just treat us to some borsch and tea, share the wine we brought along and perhaps tell us stories. That was my biggest wish when we climbed the five flights to her apartment on a Sunday afternoon in June of 1992.
Aunt Lucy opened the door in a wide swing. She was well-prepared: a new white-silk embroidered shirt billowing over her giant breasts, a dark blue skirt tightly hugging her massive hips, and a freshly done perm. How did she know this meeting was so important to me? Even I didn’t know. I had only mentioned that I’d be bringing a guy over for a cup of tea. Perhaps she knew about men more than she let on, and I’d reached the age – 21 – when she could start sharing.
“Welcome, welcome, my kittens,” she murmured, smiling at me and hugging me with all her might.
“You must be Alex,” she said, sizing up the man I considered my boyfriend, despite his never telling me so. “Look, she picked one shorter than herself! Who’d believe it? Must be good in other departments!” Her laughter rolled and crackled. “Come on in, I made borsch.”
I couldn’t believe my ears, yet Alex joined in, his laughter contagious and rapturous, as he tiptoed – to look taller? – into the living room.
“This is for you,” he said, handing Aunt Lucy a bottle of red wine and a box of chocolates, unable to stop laughing. Her eyes glistened with pleasure yet she darted a quick look at me – we’d never shared wine before without my parents being present. I knew she was seeing me graduate into her world, and was grateful.
After we devoured the borsch and had enough wine flowing in our veins, she announced she needed a smoke. I had guessed she was a smoker, but she’d never acknowledged it or smoked in my presence. Alex offered her a cigarette from his pack of Camels, and she took one, her eyes darting “from the corner of her eye, to her nose, to the subject (Alex)”, as she’d once instructed me was the proper way to flirt with boys. I hadn’t used the advice, but watching her in action, remembered it for the rest of my life. 24-year-old Alex was flirting back with my aunt, a 55 year-old fat woman!
“Fancy, aren’t we?” she said to him while looking at me, and put away her own pack of unfiltered Belomor. They walked into the kitchen, opened the window and stood there side by side, her massive behind almost touching Alex’s, their heads outside, the smoke unfurling above them like the curls of a fairy. Back in the room, Aunt Lucy pulled out a few black and white photographs from her dresser and spread them on the table.
“This is the guy I once brought to meet my aunt,” she said. “His name was also Alex.” A young man looked at us, chiseled cheekbones, sad eyes, bushy eyebrows, his expression solemn and serious, the one people wear in black and white photos taken in Soviet photo ateliers. “He’s the one who took that picture.” She pointed to the photograph on the wall above the couch.
“Is he the one who gave you the earrings, too?” I asked.
“It was a long time ago.”
She gathered up the pictures, her eyes misty, and locked them back in the dresser. Alex excused himself. I wanted to hug Aunt Lucy, but felt that it would ruin her moment of reconnecting with her Alex. I poured her more wine and she gulped it.
“I like your guy,” she said, looking away from me. “But he won’t be faithful. I can see it in his eyes.”
She was right, of course. But how did she know? Was her Alex the same way?
Ten years later, she died alone in her sleep, on a hospital-style water-resistant bed. A visiting nurse that I had hired told me over the phone. I was in New York, eight-month pregnant with my first child. I cried soundlessly, so that nobody at work would see, as I begged a police officer on the other end of the line, in Aunt Lucy’s room, not to seal her apartment. He agreed.
I arranged the funeral. Nobody came to her cremation except for my father. Aunt Lucy’s two life-long girlfriends must have chosen a weekend at their dachas in Vsevolozhsk instead of witnessing a fat body reduced to grey powder. My sister said she couldn’t cut her vacation short.
I came to Russia to collect the urn with her ashes a year later, in June, during the White Nights, Aunt Lucy’s favorite time to sit by the open window in her kitchen…
The air in the crematorium’s dim storage room, stale and cold, made me shiver as I reached for a tin box on the top shelf, second from the left. As I held the cold box with numbers corresponding to her death certificate, I wondered if the ashes inside were Aunt Lucy’s or everyone else’s cremated on that day. I buried the urn next to my Mom’s grave, which had turned into a jungle of weeds since my previous visit.
When I came to tidy Aunt Lucy’s apartment, I found the key to the dresser in its old place, the top right drawer of her vanity set. When I opened the drawer, a pile of old pictures fell out, Aunt Lucy and Mom as girls, Aunt Lucy with Alex, Mom’s wedding, my sister and me.
On the back of Alex’s portrait that she’d shown us, the dates read: 1937 – 1965. I didn’t touch a stack of letters tied with a coarse brown thread, all addressed to her in calligraphic handwriting. I opened her journal instead. Her Alex died in a plane crash the week before their wedding, at age 28. A yellowed newspaper article, one paragraph long, stated that Alexander Gordon, a pilot for the Leningrad Navy Guard, engaged to be married to Ludmila Trevinsky, had died during a training exercise. His body was never recovered.
I went up to a window and lit one of her Belomor unfiltered cigarettes, instantly choking. When the coughing fit passed, I looked out the window as Aunt Lucy had done ten years earlier, standing next to my Alex, perhaps thinking of her Alex who had left her an unmarried widow. I had so many questions. How did they meet? Was a he a good lover? Did he play guitar when she sang? What would I do if my fiancé died?
Who had first abandoned her? I wondered. Her fiancé? He didn’t mean it, of course. Was it then that she grew obese? Or when her mom and sister died? Or when she retired? I couldn’t remember. I abandoned her, too.
I pictured her alone, in this small apartment: the faded wallpaper, the phone that hardly rang, the TV on mute spitting out soap operas, the stairs leading to fresh air but no longer obeying her heavy steps. I could see her sitting in the kitchen, chewing on a piece of bulka with bologna, mumbling: “The only thing I understand is that I don’t understand.” She had every right to let her body take over her soul. What else could she do? Jump out this window? I looked down. Two girls, age six or so, played school on the pavement washed clean by recent rain.
I returned to the room and noticed a flat white box hidden behind her vanity set, which I’d never seen before. As I opened it, a cellophane bag fell out, filled with a few clean clothes. The note read: “Whoever will read this… When my time comes, please don’t cremate my body. I’d like to be buried intact, as a true Christian, next to my mother and sister. This is my last wish.”
Signed, “Ludmila Trevinsky. June, 1992.”
I folded the clothes and put them back in the box. I took her last note, the letters and the journal. “Forgive me,” I said to the black-and-white photo above the couch, smearing the tears with my sleeve. I then took it, too.
I had a long flight back to New York. This time, Aunt Lucy went with me.
-- Vica /Vinogradova/ Miller was born and grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, and is a New Yorker for two decades. She’s the founder of Vica Miller Literary Salons and a Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications at DataArt, a global technology company.