The Days Of Our Lives, Russian writer Mikita Franco’s debut published by Popcorn Books earlier this year, is a coming-of-age story of a teenager who grows up with gay parents in a small Russian town. Told in the first person, it gives an insight into the frustration, confusion, and anxiety that often comes from surviving in a hostile, conservative society, as well as shedding some light on the complex nature of love. Below, The Calvert Journal is offering English language readers the first opportunity to read a translated extract from the book.
At home, I didn’t mention that the atmosphere at school was far from great. I said that no one bullied anyone, and that the teacher was happy with my work. The part about the teacher was true. She liked my composition, “How I Spent My Summer.” In it, I wrote that I was with my grandma at our small cottage, eating unwashed cucumbers and splashing water with the garden hose. All of which I, obviously, had made up.
Had the story been true, I would have written that I went to the beach with Slava. But I didn’t like swimming, so we built sandcastles instead. Once, we built a proper castle with rooms and a balcony. Slava was really talented, and could create masterpieces not only on paper, but also in the sand.
If he had a lot of work on, we didn’t go anywhere during the day; I either watched him draw or went out to play in the yard. Sometimes I even played cops and robbers with other kids, but that didn’t happen too often.
In the evening, Lev came back from work, and the three of us went for a walk along the riverbank — my favourite spot in the city.
But I couldn’t tell anyone about that. So I made up a cottage, which my grandma doesn’t even have. I saw children spend their summer holiday at a summer cottage in one Soviet film, and I liked it. My teacher, Inna Konstantinovna, said that the composition was very good. I think it would’ve been even better if I had told the truth. I could have told her that, once, we threw a Mentos into a bottle of Coca-Cola — maybe she could try it out as well.
That, however, wasn’t the hardest test of my imagination. A week later, we had to write a composition about our family. It was good that it was homework, because had I been given this task in class, I would have panicked and wouldn’t have had time to come up with something.
I stayed up late working on it. It was 10pm already, and all I had was two sentences: “My family is just my dad and me. My dad’s name is Slava.”
I didn’t fully understand the seriousness of the matter back then. It wasn’t quite clear to me why we had to hide the truth. I was constantly making deals with my conscience — if I could just tell them how cool they were, then everything would be fine.
Exhausted, sleepy, tired, and not able to produce another word, I decided to take the path of least resistance. Just tell it like it is.
I didn’t use a draft because I was too tired to rewrite it later. I opened my notebook right away:
“I have two dads. They say that some people think it’s bad, but I don’t think so. Actually, one of them is my uncle and the other is a man he loves, but I started to call them dads because they like it and because we’ve lived like a family for ages now. My mum died and I can barely remember her. She died of cancer, which is a disease, not an animal. Sometimes I go to the place where she lies now and leave my drawings there. And sometimes my dad Slava and I send money to people who are also sick. I think that my mum is my family, too, even though I’ve forgotten all about her. It’s just that she can’t be with me and she is raising me from heaven, and Slava and Lev are doing it on the planet — that’s what my dads are called. I have a grandma, too, but she doesn’t have a cottage, I lied. I love my grandma, but she tells me off sometimes. And I love my family.”
When I put the final full stop, I put my pen away, and dragged my feet to the bed almost mechanically. When I changed into my pyjamas and went to brush my teeth, Lev stopped me in the corridor.
He asked me:
“Did you write your composition?”
His tone was commanding. He always spoke like that when it came to homework. Like he thought I was a cheat who didn’t do anything and who always needed to be controlled.
We went back to the room, and I gave him the notebook.
I don’t think he finished it. He looked at it for about twenty seconds. Then closed it and threw it on the desk.
“Are you an idiot?”
This tone was unlike anything I heard from him before. He wasn’t yelling. And it wasn’t like he was telling me off. But it sounded like he… hated me.
They’d never insulted me before. I got this nasty weakening feeling in my arms and legs, like you do when you realise something really bad is going to happen.
“Why the hell did you write about that?” He took my notebook again and looked at the neatly signed cover. “It’s not even a draft!”
“I didn’t know what to write,” I mumbled. And felt my lips tremble.
“What do you mean you didn’t know what to write? You’ve been told a hundred times what you should write!”
I was standing with my back against the wardrobe door and looked at him with my wet eyes. I felt like I was looking at a stranger.
“And if I hadn’t checked, you would have turned it in tomorrow?”
I didn’t say anything. My heart was beating like crazy with fear.
He threw my notebook on the desk again.
“Tear out the sheet and rewrite this,” he said suddenly, very calmly. But this calm was kind of frightening. I slowly came to the desk and opened the notebook.
“There’s the work we did in class on the other side…”
“So rewrite that as well.”
The composition was too long for one page and got onto the next sheet.
“I’ll have too tear out two sheets then,” I said.
“Yes. And two on the other end because they won’t hold.”
“But the notebook will be too thin then!” I said indignantly.
Lev moved closer. Only the desk lamp was on, and his shadow was hovering over me like it was going to devour me. And I thought that he was going to hit me.
“You’ll rewrite the whole of it then,” he said.
When he went out, I could finally cry. Bawling, I tore out the sheets with the hateful composition, crumpled them, and threw them under the desk. I realised that I would really have to rewrite everything in the notebook, even if it was just because I was so violent that its staples got loose.
When I sat down to rewrite everything from the very start, tears in my eyes, Slava came in. I was sat with my back to the door, so I shuddered with fear when I heard the door open, thinking that Lev was back. But I can tell their footsteps apart.
“Go away,” I grumbled over my shoulder without turning around. I was not afraid of Slava.
“I want to read your composition,” he said.
“I threw it away!”
He came to the desk, squatted by my chair, and started gathering the crumpled sheets. Then he started unfolding them, looking for the composition. At some point, he got quiet and the rustling stopped — he must’ve found it.
I didn’t care what he was going to say. Even if he started telling me off, too, I didn’t care.
“It’s very good,” he said finally.
“No. It’s bad!”
“We can’t show it to anyone, but it’s good.”
“Throw it away!”
“No, I won’t. I’ll keep it.”
“I’ll be rereading it when I’m old. Sitting in a rocking chair by the fireplace.”
“I hope he won’t be there,” I said sarcastically.
Slava did not reply. He kissed me on the top of my head and went out of the room with my composition.
And I was overcome by a mad, furious inspiration. I was happy to write a new composition. Full of spite, I wrote that I had just one dad, that his name is Slava, and that I love only him.
Before going to bed, I left the notebook open on purpose. Let him come in in the morning and read it.