Two days after I watched Pan’s Labyrinth and practiced self-awareness with Meshkov, my spiritual guru, I was walking down Marshal Zhukov Street and sniffing my hand—every finger, my palm, and even nails—but for nothing. There was no smell. That didn’t stop me. I treaded towards the crowd gathered around an office building. Some of them were smoking. As soon as I passed them and the air was clear again, I sniffed my shoulder and the upper part of my arm. Nothing.
Let go of trying, I reminded myself. Nothing.
I even attempted to reach my chest, which was awkward. Not only was it hard to walk like that, but it hurt my neck.
By then, I was in the arch of building №11. I glanced in. It was empty and hidden. I ducked into the shadows and I pulled my hair up to my nose. It smelled—of shampoo. I lifted my arm and crooked my head down. The deodorant in my armpit.
It was all heat’s fault. I’d put on some extra, which didn’t allow the scent of sweat to come through but sweat wasn’t what I was looking for. I wished I could somehow put my nose close to my neck, or to my cheeks. No doubt, my neck and face would smell stronger and more distinct. But I couldn’t. I sighed.
As I slipped out of the arch, I glanced quickly right and left, in case there were people nearby, then bent my head down to my chest, and then to my knee. It was a hot June day, so I was wearing a short skirt and a white top. I managed to reach my bare knee with my nose. Fortunately, there was no one in the courtyard on Marshal Zhukov street in all its midday glory, so I didn’t have to explain myself.
Most streets in Yekaterinburg are named after famous men: Turgenev, Bolshakov, Radishev. (Mostly Soviet leaders.) But there isn’t another street in Yekaterinburg with a more masculine name than Marshal Zhukov Street. Georgy Zhukov was the most successful general of World War II, nicknamed “the man who never lost a battle.” While it sounds spectacular, it might also have meant that he was callous and unrelenting. Which, in peacetime, is a symptom of psychopathy.
Men were scarce in the building #11, apartment 156 on Marshal Zhukov Street. Not that men were not welcome in this extravagant spiritual club/fierce improv theater. They were simply outnumbered. There was a preponderance of strong, gorgeous women hovering around Meshkov, the improv theater director and the tantra instructor.
Basically, being around Meshkov was celestial. Once we were in his vicinity, we were off the ground. We flew in space, opiated, and completely subsumed by the glossy medium of our renewed inner world, now so easily recognizable in that iridescent lineaments of the star. We were out there roaming the cosmos. It wasn’t real, but we’d rather stay there than return to reality, with all its rules: start work on time, be judged, work relentlessly on a flat stomach and live for the hope of a magic ring that would lead only to sex on a blind date or lying awake at night to the sound of contented snoring. We were granted an unprecedented sense of freedom to be all we could be: shy, stubborn, frugal, sly, selfish — with our vulnerabilities and idiosyncrasies. Meshkov accepted women as they were, without expectations.
So, in a way, my daydreaming about flying away materialized without me actually getting on a plane to Canada in September. The only difference was that I didn’t know where I was flying to. No woman knew where she was headed to with Meshkov. Meshkov didn’t know! He also never lost an opportunity to flirt with a pretty woman. Most fell into one of these categories:
Moons. These women sustained Meshkov. The way they came into his life was mythological. One day he fought the sea monsters (other men) to place the Golden Fleece (a cheap but cute dress) on a woman’s bare shoulders. From an immortal nymph, she turned into a stunning young woman. The sea monsters backed down into the dark blue waters, because a fairy, a friend of Meshkov’s, put a spell on them that made monsters powerless. A stunning young woman with long dark hair and supple lips that he rescued came to his place and took over the kitchen. Our hero was allowed to wed.
In traditional relationship terminology, Moons are called wives. His had model-like looks, or they were even actual fashion models. They were kept busy looking after Meshkov’s offspring at home, usually a boy with curly blond hair. They were also good drivers and would regularly pick Meshkov up when he phoned to be picked up or was flittering too far into the night and his Moon had to come to the spiritual club and take him away. He had one child with each Moon, in series.
Comets. These women would never leave home without perfect nails. They had attractive shapes, mostly slim and petite, and were moving on sporadic ellipsoidal orbits that just accidentally made them appear at Meshkov’s events. They might be attendees at his workshops, spectators at his shows, or strangers he met on public transport and invited to a restaurant. They were not turned off by his intense smell, but still said no to his invitation to go on a date. Because of their ellipsoidal orbits, on rare occasions, that kind of no meant yes. It is that way with comets. They leave a trail of dust behind their motives, one that embeds their bodies with a kind of shine of wounded sensibility. Meshkov lulls the Comets into a trap. They get stuck around on Meshkov’s orbit indefinitely until they are gravitationally pulled to the other men.
Asteroids: These women are always inquiring into the nature of the self. Their nature varies greatly, but all contain certain elements — a sense of humour, caring and playfulness, as well as attractive energy. When there were many of them, asteroid belts would form, and Meshkov would feel important and recognized. When there were few, he was motivated to hire a sales/marketing/magician manager to navigate the orbits and attract more audiences for his shows (and the asteroids that came with them.) Still, other asteroids flew by and happened to orbit the Master’s planet by chance, passengers on a trip he didn’t offer them. They weren’t attractive enough or had a differing altitude than Moons or Comets. Still, he didn’t hesitate to unveilwhat they authentically were. Once he laughed at one for twenty-three minutes non-stop. After his intervention, they realized they could start a business, or start blogging, or get a divorce. When they spun off to orbit and believed that now they understood the intergalactic eggplant secrets, another came into Meshkov’s gravitational field.
I didn’t fall into any of these categories. I wasn’t a Moon, because I wasn’t Meshkov’s wife. He was already married, so it was technically impossible. At least for now. Besides, he was too chubby to be my husband, not that I was very fussy about men’s appearance. I wasn’t ready to get married at all, even though my mind was convinced I was, and I wasn’t a type of cosmic body to tolerate that many other cosmic bodies around my sweetheart.
I could not call myself a Comet either. Even though we’d had a couple of dates, which meant we’d spent some time together before other women plunged into the orbit of the spiritual club, I wasn’t his lover. We weren’t sleeping together, and he never took me to a restaurant. Furthermore, not only hadn’t I left a trail of fragrance behind me, there wasn’t any fragrance I could identify as mine, the way I could identify the smell of boiled potatoes or cut basil. That’s why I was smelling myself. My scent had been taken hostage by Meshkov.
I wasn’t one of the Asteroids, because I wasn’t made of minerals and elements. If I was, I would have worn chic jewelry and had a well-refined sense of self-worth. I did not.
Clearly, though I wasn’t ready to let him go just yet, or ever. And, most importantly, I eat eggplants, roasted with soy sauce.
I really was a satellite. Every day I was on a mission to meticulously scan Meshkov’s consciousness and track his every movement, his actions, his body reactions and his words. When he said, it’s possible to live with no ideas, I wrote it down in my notebook when nobody was watching. I was scared to not fit in. I preferred to hide my efforts, because I didn’t want anybody to think I was so serious about all that stuff he was talking about, even though I was.
My habit of looking at myself through somebody else’s eyes was a difficult one to eradicate. I was a sorry sight. I remember Meshkov saying: Don’t try to reach a state. Just let go and observe the quality and focus of attention — its movement from one subject to another. I wrote it down.
I continued to observe myself being concerned what others would think if they saw me doing something slightly out of the ordinary, though. I was afraid they wouldn’t accept me if they knew I was a selfish, eccentric and vigorous imp. I was afraid to be lonely, even though that’s never been the case. Fears are not logical.
Meshkov was role-modelling how to be different instead of fitting in. For me, it had always been agonizing, and yet there I was, alien to everybody else around me, who were getting jobs, doing their nails, shopping, working out, suntanning, making kids, making варенье (varenye) — jam — and saving money to buy a car.
His words haunted me when I was alone: We must let everything go. They came alive hundreds of times within my mind to defeat my every thought in its infancy. The act of letting go, which meant not judging myself or others and surrendering to what is, had become my fetish. Even when Meshkov, performed nothing at all, I observed the amount of sweat on his shorts: average, or above the average. I could guess the shape of his cock under his pants, for he often wore no underwear, and the pants were loose cotton yoga pants he kept at the spiritual club. I had written Do not miss a thing on my daily agenda. I could not afford to blow it: what if I got a visa in three months and moved away, and never had another chance?
Meshkov was an expert in human nature. Nothing in a person could be nebulous when he was there. Inner demons in others could not trick him. In his spiritual club, I was emboldened to pry into insanity, with the observation that my salvation was only possible now. All my life I’d had an ability to see the essence of others and now I’d finally met someone who was like me. Now I had a chance to learn what to do with this ability. I might never get so close to my life purpose and inner freedom: 100% authentic as I was, with no pretending.
The thing with the satellites is that their mission is temporary. The lifespan of a mission is restricted, but there is always this underlying theme of imminent closure. When a satellite’s cycle is near its end, trouble starts. That’s how I would know that my time here was up.
That’s what I contemplated when I stood on the porch buzzing apartment 156 building № 11: I am an identified flying object with no particular purpose in life lacking a body scent.
I had been using a perfume until a couple of days ago, when I hadn’t and Meshkov had spent two minutes inhaling the odour of my skin on my clavicle — he’d always had a thing about sniffing — and had told me that I smelled of first snow and it deprived his mind of sloppy thoughts. When he’d said that, another guy in the room got curious, and came to smell my shoulder too. He’d nodded in agreement to Oleg Meshkov.
“I had a feeling she was a goddess,” Meshkov said.
“With that kind of scent, she must be,” said the other guy.
I felt the heat in my cheeks for a second. Damn, these guys are pick-up experts, I thought.
Meshkov had looked at me for maybe a minute longer, then his gaze had moved slowly to the window and said: “Sometimes…”
What? I’d wondered. Sometimes what?
“Sometimes,” Meshkov said, “I envy her. She is so majestic.”
He envied me? How fair was that? I wish I was somebody who envied me.
I stopped using a perfume that night. It wasn’t because I was hoping to get my Master (or others) hooked on the natural scent of my body but because I wanted to catch the charming odour myself. It was a Trust But Verify kind of thing. Obviously for the most elusive smell in the world.
Now I pressed the buzzer. Meshkov exclaimed “ahhh my sweetness” to me through the intercom. The door opened.
When I entered the apartment, we kissed on the cheeks. Then I told Meshkov that on my way I had wondered how my neck and cheeks smelled.
“You’re too used to it,” Meshkov said, deadpan. “Isn’t it enough for you that we enjoy it?”
The question was the second disruption to my system. Of course! The good thing is that I catch the smells of other bodies. If I sniff close enough.
That wasn’t hard. In that place, we were all inches away from each other. Possibly, we were also all inches away from our sacred selves. With all of that going on, using perfume was out of the question. It could easily mask the truth. Of smells.
That day, men and women nuzzled each other as we practiced some body-oriented therapy and acknowledged each other’s presence. At first, all of the women were entertained. They didn’t treat me as Meshkov’s stalker, reaching for a touch of his authority. They understood the repercussions of focusing on such a striking object in the sky as Meshkov. I was just another cosmic body that would eventually rocket away. Everyone did.
Men, on the other hand, stared at me yet didn’t dare approach. Only one, a retired extrasensory, walked up to me after we had finished and were having tea. At that moment, he was a photographer.
“An amateur one,” he explained. He was wearing round glasses and apparently had a thing for shooting young girls like me, preferably with the barest minimum of clothes.
Why not? I thought. This place was screaming for the obscene.
I already had one potential personal professional photographer, now I’d have the amateur one as well. I couldn’t let this opportunity slip away. I was too curious about how far not fitting in would take me. And because doing something creative would help me let go of thinking about buying a new ring.
The photographer handed me his business card to show that he was serious. It was simplistic —printed on his home computer: Alexandr Sergeevich Rumjanzev. It was harder to say no now.
However, his invitation to take photos of me didn’t escape Meshkov’s watchful eye. Or mine.
I watched Meshkov consider it silently on his own for a minute. It’s a lame idea, I realized from his indifference. He’s no competition. Yet Meshkov didn’t always need to be the center of attention. And he watched me watch him come to this conclusion. Then with a slight but dramatic nod of his head, the invitation was approved. Things happened fast in this place.
Generally, Meshkov’s first choice of girls didn’t belittle the other men at all, the few there were. A spiritual club was not meant for mating, after all. We were all busy on our missions.
I thought I was concentrated on observing Meshkov. I watched him vigilantly, even religiously, and through my vigilance, I didn’t lose a battle. But I didn’t realize yet that as I was mastering the art of observing, I would soon have to admit that there was only one primary focus of my attention. Me.