from the novel Mannequin Girl

Professor Fabri has dry, elderly hands. He taps Kat’s shoulder blades, tugs at the band of her panties. He tells her to bend. She is standing barefoot in front of him, on a soft, silvery carpet, in a room slick and modern, full of big geometrical paintings and polished Italian furniture. Is it really Italian? She doesn’t know. What she knows is that Professor Fabri lives in Italy and also in Moscow sometimes. He is a famous specialist, he travels constantly. The school is his pride and his special project. He founded it, but he’s only around for a few weeks at a time.

Dressed in a smart three-piece suit, he doesn’t look like other doctors. His hands smell delicious, like good foreign soap. He wraps them around her waist. She’s a ceramic pot, a sculpture he is molding. “A perfect little figure,” he says. “Our mannequin girl.” She knows who mannequin girls are. They are in her grandmother’s Working Woman magazines, modeling flouncy dresses and berets. “Bend,” he tells her, and she does, so pliant, so obedient. “Bend and touch the floor. Keep your knees straight.” She tries, but she can’t. She is sorry to disappoint him. “Just as well,” he says. “Just as well. Limited range of motion, but the curvatures are small. I see no significant problems.” And then he says, “Let’s take a look at her X-rays.”

It started last week. The first nurse showed up on Wednesday. Short and thick, with great bluffs of shoulders, she called the names of a few kids and made them leave with her. You could tell they didn’t want to. Don’t worry, the teacher told them. It’s only Professor Fabri. He’s in town. He’s doing consultations.

The nurses have been coming ever since. They vary in age and appearance, and Kat has a distaste for all of them, their sharp medical smell, their stiff and officious demeanor. They take a few kids away with them, and those they pick now leave unafraid. The consultations aren’t painful, and nobody minds a short trip to the medical block. Nobody except Kat, that is. She’s been dreading this new consultation that’s supposed to confirm just how bad her scoliosis is and recommend a course of treatment. She still sometimes thinks it’s a mistake, this sickness. She feels fine. She can’t be sick.

The last few weeks were almost blissful as she focused on mastering her penmanship, collecting dry leaves for a herbarium, learning about the nature of the rain, snow, and wind. Regular schoolgirl activities, typical of first grade. Until the nurses came, she could almost forget why she was here. She could pretend that medical gymnastics was no different from gym. She could simply not look at the hunchback Seryozha Mironov, ignore the braced and stumbling figures of the older kids.

Now, at the consultation, a small group of doctors crowd around her X-rays. There’s the head of orthopedics, Doctor Razumovskaya, pretty with pinned-up orange curls; and there’s the cruddy-looking Doctor Bobrova, who is 1A’s attending doctor.

Professor Fabri takes a pencil and traces a long letter S. Lumbar fifteen, he says. Thoracic twenty. Now ladies, be so kind to direct your attention to the widening of the gaps between Ms. Knopman’s vertebras. What does it tell us, Dr. Razumovskaya? Yes, that’s correct: the disease will develop aggressively. Bracing is imperative; surgery, not out of the question for this patient. We’d like to avoid it, naturally. For now we’ll call it a wait-and-see phase. A pity, such a pretty little figure. She’ll be our mannequin girl yet. Don’t you agree, Dr. Bobrova? Dr. Razumovskaya?

 

 

The first floor of the medical block looks deserted and smells, inexplicably, like a shoe repair shop. On the walls are dour portraits in oil, medical drawings. Children in strange contraptions. A crooked sapling tied to a pole.

She isn’t sure how it happened: for a moment she was almost perfect, but then the good doctor changed his mind, spoke of numbers and vertebras and called her something else. Not a mannequin girl, but a “patient.” She’s probably supposed to call her parents. She’s supposed to get back to her class. But the nurse who brought her here must have left, and Kat, too nauseated to think straight, keeps trying random passages. Another corridor, another door, its handle wrapped in gauze. She steps across the threshold, and everything becomes bright and distorted. She’s in a large room filled with body parts. Throat molds, pelvic enclosures, shelves of plaster torsos.

A man in a black smock approaches her. “You’ve come for a fitting?” he asks. His left thumb is missing, his middle finger’s cut in half. With the remaining fingers he’s holding an odd metal device.

“What’s wrong? Have you swallowed your tongue?”

He follows her eyes, fixed on that horrible, misshapen hand of his. He thinks she’s looking at the clumsy apparatus, which he’s holding by its horizontal plank. So he gives it a shake, this thing, this brace, and asks Kat if she likes it. “Clunk, clunk,” he says at the metallic sound, and laughs— as if it’s a funny joke to make the brace jerk like a puppet. “You like it? I’ll make you one, girlie. You are a girlie, aren’t you? Hard to tell with these damn haircuts.”

“I’m sorry,” she says, backing out, her legs like cotton wool. “It’s just a mistake. I’m sorry.”

 

 

In her dreams there’s water. A smooth expanse of glittering azure. It’s surprisingly firm, firm like a bed, and can easily hold her small body. It’s warm, and the lights at the swimming pool are always on.

The real swimming lessons are in the afternoon. No one bothers to turn the lights on, and because of this the water looks not welcoming but turbid. They do exercises at first, breathing and dribbling, but after that Kat can’t let go of the low tiled wall or the metal handrails. “Trust the water,” the trainer tells her. Next to her, her classmates are flopping on their bellies, gliding a couple of meters to the nearest rope, stretching out in a “starfish,” gathering themselves into a “cork.” They are fearless, her classmates. A few lanes over, some older girls are doing laps, so fluid and fast, just like Kat in her dreams, their graceful arms cleaving the water.

Back in the changing room, her classmates leapfrog from bench to bench, celebrate their terrific weightlessness. Kat watches the older girls get dressed. They must be in ninth or tenth grade. They have womanly breasts, shapely hips. They goose one another and sing, apply their mascara and lotions, shuffle back and forth in their towels and underthings. Their braces rest atop the dressing cabinets.

Kat can’t recall how she escaped the brace shop, how she made it back to class. Someone must have found her. She got ill that evening, running a fever and throwing up. The night nurse had to take her to the infirmary, and in the morning Anechka came in a cab to pick her up.

“I don’t want a brace,” Kat said, when they got home.

“You want to be an invalid instead?” Anechka gave her some water and aspirin. Then she gave her the usual spiel about perseverance and heroism. Life’s not a holiday, she told her, with trumpery and prizes and cream puffs. Then she went to the toilet, because she had to throw up.

Kat knows all about life. She also knows that she’s got company. Most of her classmates are about to be braced. Some have already gone to their brace moldings, and their reports set Kat on edge. Nina Petrenko says you are “immured.” Mironov insists there are knives and hooks. He says that the molding people hang you by your throat. One wrong move and you’re strangled or your throat’s cut. He stares at Kat as he says it. Sometimes he laughs. He can’t wait for her to get accidentally murdered.

She’s learned by now what the braces look like. She eyes them each time after swimming, studies the lattice of their metal planks and clamps. Each brace is like the carcass of a prehistoric animal. There is a wide band of plastic to catch one’s hips and bottom; a swath of corset; an awful circular head-holder. She watches the older girls put their braces on. Step by step, they tighten the laces and belts, lock up their chests, anchor their heads. They allow these monstrous things to swallow their bodies, and when at last they rise they’re not the same. Brittle and halting and strange. All of the liveliness is gone from them.

 

 

Kat’s molding is scheduled for first thing Friday morning, and announced three days in advance. Anechka takes the morning off. She arrives, as directed, with a fresh towel and an old swimming cap that she won’t be sorry to have spoiled.

Kat is undressing in a narrow shower room. It has a boarded-up window, a brown cot, a bathtub. In the next room, she has glimpsed two giantesses in heavy-duty aprons. She’s taking her time: folding and refolding her uniform, fiddling with her hair, pushing the ends under the swimming cap.

Anechka’s face is queasy as she watches her. After a while she drops her head, covers her eyes. “I can’t stand the smell in here, baby. Gypsum, or whatever. You mind if I wait outside?”

“But Mom,” Kat begins, then grits her teeth and says it’s fine. She’s ready to cry with disappointment. She is frightened, so frightened. And the smell, the sickly gypsum smell, it turns her stomach too.

The giantesses have crude but kindly faces, and when Kat at last appears, swathed in a white sheet like some Greek goddess and naked underneath, they don’t scold her for tardiness, but smile at her gently and slowly. Soft-hearted rogues, they tell her not to be afraid.

A tall wooden construction resembling a gallows stands in the center of the room. They help her to this scaffolding. They strap her in. Hard wooden planks rest firm against her buttocks; a rubber harness is looped around her chin. The screws are tightened to the maximum, the harness cranked up so high she can’t even glance at her feet. You must be absolutely still to get a perfect mold.

The women slather her in Vaseline. They start with her hips and pelvic area, wrapping her in warm, moist bandages. They wait until the bandages congeal. Now it’s a shell, tough and sticky. They wait some more, then label it and cut it in the back with a pair of blunt, crooked scissors, the blades rasping with effort, the cold metal tickling Kat’s skin.

Next they do her upper torso, a process that follows the same precise steps.

Then it’s her head and neck: the wet swish of bandages against her swimming cap, thickening layer upon layer. They cover her chin, her lips, stopping just short of her nostrils. The world grows mute, indistinct. She can’t gesture or speak. The giantesses retreat to the back of the room, and she can’t even call for them. How long has it been? Don’t panic, she tells herself, don’t panic. With her head jacked up high, she can’t see if the rest of her exists. She is disembodied.

 

 

In the dressing room, she weeps under the hot shower. Anechka soaps her back, scrubs the white residue between her shoulder blades. “Was it bad?”

In the dressing room, she weeps under the hot shower. Anechka soaps her back, scrubs the white residue between her shoulder blades. “Was it bad?”

Kat doesn’t answer, because isn’t it obvious? Anechka should’ve been there. Maybe it wasn’t the gypsum smell that made her mother queasy. Maybe it was Kat herself, the image of her naked on the scaffolding, her crooked body swathed in bandages.

“No throwing up tonight,” Anechka says. Kat nods in a dumb, noncommittal way.

Anechka says, “It’s a deal. If you don’t anymore, I won’t either.”

The very next instant, she has to clamp her hand over her mouth and dart into the smelly toilet cubicle next door.

It occurs to Kat that something’s wrong with Anechka. Horribly wrong. She might even have cancer, like Vika Litvinova’s mother. Mothers get sick all the time, Kat knows that now. They languish in hospitals, perish during messed-up surgeries, come back to haunt their daughters, like in the scary bedtime stories Nina Petrenko tells the girls. And some, like Igor Zotov’s mother, leave and never return.

“Stop whimpering,” says Anechka. She is back, wiping her mouth and looking rather peeved. “So you had your molding done. It’s hardly the end of the world.”

She doesn’t understand that Kat’s now sobbing for her. Mothers get sick. Mothers die. Mothers abandon you.

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