Little Bump

Translated by Ieva Melgalve
Excerpt from the “Little Bump” 2020

For I.

We all came from tiny towns and didn’t really know what we were looking for at this school. The diploma guaranteed long working hours at the factory, equipped with noise-muffling earphones: without them, after the long day in the monotonous cacophony of needles scratching the multitudinous patterns, we wouldn’t be able to tell music apart from tyre screeching on the streets. None of us were an offspring of a dynasty of famous machine knitters, and neither we wanted to become the founding mothers of such. However, it was soothing to have met.

In the dorm room, there were three of us. Energetic Amanda was from Rēzekne, she had deep voice and her hair, when she let it down, reminded of rye field in sunshine. Her large, reddish palms, always burned by the winter cold, looked as if they had been borrowed from a much larger person and attached to her too fragile body by mistake. She preferred action to thought, and she could do anything, whether to carry a fridge into the kitchen, work through the night shift during practice or take up a wrestler’s position between Lelde and some overzealous pursuer of hers.

Lelde came from Alsunga, named by her mother, because of a crush she had on Harijs Liepiņš, the actor who was then playing the minstrel Thoth. At the first glance, one could imagine that Lelde’s gentle features could be seen on a shy baby angel of Rundāle castle’s painted ceiling, or maybe you’d think of a season’s greetings card sent from across the border, depicting an sentimental Christmas scene. However, it would take only a single day together with this heavenly being to change this impression. Our Lelde rushed through life as a tiny motor boat in a swarming sea of passion, always getting into storms and rows. It was as if the creator had accidentally given a single person the amount of trials meant for tens. Lelde embodied the Hollywoodian saying of “live fast and die young” per excellence, except for the star-spangled glory and racecars. Thus, she always forced us to consider the fragility of life, or even its meaning.

If a plate broke, it was Lelde’s; if a knife slipped from her hands and fell, it didn’t chink on linoleum but pierced her foot; when picking mushrooms in the forest it was Lelde who stepped on a viper that bit her ankle; and if somebody was free-riding on the tram, then instead of them, the militia took Lelde, as she would have been berating the conductor as a heartless bloodsucker and advancing in an abordage, initiating a minor brawl. That’s not even mentioning her love life. At every disco, she met the love of her life, which changed every time; and sometimes the passionate lover was entirely too ready to enjoy the heavenly blessings bestowed on him right in the cleaning lady’s mop closet. Amanda and me, we usually evacuated Lelde from the road to the stars, even though it was not at all easy to carry her body succumbing in the throes of love, while listening to curses and wails about her life, broken and bliss, denied.

I myself come from Talsi. I mostly prefer to eat Vecrīga cakes, drink milkshakes, dance, love, sometimes draw–and have some peace in the world. However, for love, I wanted something slightly more defined and longer running than what Lelde had.

Our tightest bond was the by the fact that now, as inhabitants of Riga, we were almost urbanites. Even though we lived in the dorms with peeling walls where the showers often lacked hot water and always smelled of wet washing rags, the beautiful sound of “Rigan” left that hard-to-define feeling like the mysterious veil cast by the perfume of the same name. We at least partly belonged to the city. It was our greatest achievement then, which let us crumble the doubt that sometimes cast shadow over the rightness of the decisions that had been made in our too-short lives. Especially in the moments when we squatted, our backs warped, over the knitwork seaming machine, putting hundreds of stitches on the needles to form gray sweaters’ neck joins.

Once per month, we returned to our real homes, where our parents greeted us with pride and hope, having overspent their means for a celebratory table laid with all the best they had–just as one would, for a special guest. Sometimes they, thinking this would cheer us up ad remind us of our luck, reminisced on their own miserable existence at our age. The relatives kissed us and congratulated us on getting so far ahead, without noticing the shiver of disgust that ran under our skin. Discussions about what will happen then, when the big life starts, was the least thing we wanted. Neighbours we met on the streets, the corner-shop assistants, even our old classmates greeted us with the question of how is our Rigan doing, and, no matter what we replied, they said “that’s right, that’s right” or “oh right, you’re so fancy now”. Then we made jokes as usual, to prove that nothing has changed, and felt slightly disappointed in ourselves if our own voices sounded theatrical and fake. As if indeed we didn’t belong to this place any more.


Even though we could not complain of lack of excitement, thanks to the Lelde’s life that swept us away in its waves and torrents, still over the course of the year some routine crept into our everyday lives. With the appearance of Emily, everything changed drastically.

When she moved into the dorms, she got a room of her own. That was the only free space left, the smallest of all rooms resembling a large cupboard, but still: her own. We, the more experienced ones, couldn’t fathom that, and so we secretly envied her.

“Hello, babes!” Emily greeted us in the morning, emerging from her bunker, and she felt too loud, too present in the orbit we had assumed: as if she somehow nudged us out. It was not only her sheer being, but also her voice that was just as large and deep, emanating from the immeasurable depths of her swaying belly. Hearing the swishing footsteps in the corridor, one could not make a mistake: it was her, our new neighbour. Her steps smooshed, like a laundry ladie’s who carries a dozen wet shirts in her basket, even if Emily had only a faded striped face towel waving in one hand while the other had casually grabbed a patchy plastic soap container, a wadded-up peppermint toothpaste tube and a toothbrush with bristles bent all over the place, looking like the back of an unkempt mutt. She didn’t move too loud, and her steps weren’t obnoxious, but somehow she was immediately noticeable. She was large, and her steps were guilliver’s, we joked if we happened to be stuck behind her. In whispers, of course. She looked more mature than us, sixteens, even if we had painted our lips in mother-of-pearl pink, or framed our eyelids with black pencil and coloured them in with blue metallic shadows that, upon closing our eyes, looked like smelt’s side. She still looked older. Maybe that was because Emily never wore makeup and treated her meaty face in a rather offhanded fashion–rubbed it with water and towel as if hoping to scratch out everything still containing pigment, while her dark, lanky hair that always fell on her face were held back by a narrow headband. Then we could glimpse her mouth line, delicately drawn, even if her hair and nose always obscured it with their impressive superiority of form and texture. Usually she hummed something, a pop piece of the time, like that Midge Ure tune: If I was, na-na-na-nah. If we took shower near her we always stole a secret glance at her breasts which, too, were impressive, slightly trembling with movement. She didn’t especially bother anyone, and didn’t particularly disturb us. It was just that she was in the same class with Renar.


In the the knitwear studies, guys were rare. In the first year, there were two of them: Aldis, nicknamed Tiny, and Renar. Of course Aldis was Tiny. At that time anyone wearing pants and being under our eye level was nicknamed Tiny, no exceptions. And since the three of us were almost the same height, Aldis had the nickname. But Renar was Renar. And even though he spent the lesson breaks of first day at school being bored, reading old politinformation on the message board, while our glances mercilessly shot at him from all corners, on the second day, much to the surprise of us all, he was thick as thieves with our big Emily. And it was not a misunderstanding, either–even on the third day it was clear that she, Emily, hangs with the most gorgeous guy of our school! We couldn’t get it into our freshly permed heads. That was above and beyond our understanding, our strength and imagination. The guy who had no faults, who smiled and laughed as Peter Pan fresh flown into the window, the guy who, just by showing up and saying, hey, pretties! could paralyze any babe still breathing; the guy who moved as a graceful peacock with his tail fanned–it was rumored that he’d danced sports dances, all those cha-cha-cha’s and butty rumbas. And that man-thing hung with Emily.  She was with him all the time, guffawing like a hippo, and slugged in her horrible gait, and he aligned with her. Oh God, how was that possible!

That evening, Lelde went out to drink herself to death with one of the loves of her life. Amanda and me, we had lost all sense of the natural order of things and this time decided to leave Lelde to her fate. We’ve had enough, we’ve had too much. Amanda’s open face showed a full-blown crash of all illusions, which she confirmed by claiming that some of us are not destined to understand men, and went to sleep with her clothes on, without even brushing her long braid. The fate was merciful. At dawn, we dragged Lelde in through the window – she’d been crying, she’d been freezing, she’d lost her shoes. We found her shoes in the next morning, slightly damp, carefully placed on an old Zaporozec parked by the street, next to a men’s shirt with its buttons torn. Lelde chugged down the cucumber marinade lovingly poured by Amanda and remembered only the notion that they should go to the seaside, and getting lost. We didn’t ask about the rest. The troubles met on the road were eloquently shown by black soil lines on her clothing still shedding clumps of earth, as if she’d been sliding down a Sigulda’s glen on her back.


Aftwerwards, Renar often came to the dorms and spent long hours with Emily in her room. We nearly lost our minds, discussing and speculating on what is going on. Her guttural laughter and Renar’s giggling teased us, paralysing our brain that was already short-circuiting, trying to make sense of the network diagrams for electric engineering test tomorrow. Finally, Amanda firmly announced that this can’t go on like this – we have to have some clarity. Even if we’d see things and have to puke, she claimed. We armed ourselves with cups and an excuse: to borrow some tea. After opening the door, we froze and for a good while stared at a single point. The room was so narrow that there really was only one point to look at. Emily was standing on the chair, and Renar crouched on his knees. Both had wrapped bedsheets around their bodies, and checkered shirts around their heads as turbans. Emily paid no attention to us; she was holding a broomstick and accepted some sort of swearing-in from Renar: he declared that he shall follow the polyporite way till the end of his days, and, come what may, shall never betray his comrades, take bribes or kiss moles, and that he shall always read Winnie-the-Pooh. Emily struck his head with a stick, and both, laughing their heads off, turned to us–salt-pillared, stuck in the doorframe. As Emily, bending over in laughter, huffed off the chair, Renar, always the gracious host, asked us to enter, announcing that we have arrived just in time to witness to a holy communion that must be anointed with tea infusion, enriched with a drop of pure knowledge. We didn’t object and anointed whatever that was, still standing, not even waiting for a toast. The pure knowledge of vodka. Just a drop, but enough for Lelde to accidentally break her cup and, in the course of the evening, to step on the only piece we hadn’t picked up, and cut her foot so badly that she had to be taken to the hospital to get stitches. Late at night we returned to our room, already as polyporites, with a wounded leg and painful jaws. We shared a lip balm to cure the corners of our mouths, split from laughing. In the next day, Lelde wore a boot borrowed from Emily and dragged herself to school, with me and Amanda as crutches. In a way, we felt grateful for at least a week of good night’s sleep.

That was, at last, clear. There was nothing special between them. Renar still was a gorgeous guy and Emily was… Emily. And polyporites were people who gather bracket-fungi and are loyal to each other, they sometimes get into shit and always protect one another, and, if necessary, would go and smash an offender’s face.

From then on, we often joined when Renar visited Emily. Our guardian lady didn’t object too much as soon as she leraned that this horny youngster–her designation for all the boys–visits Emily. Oh, Emily! Well then. And she benevolently looked another way if Renar left long after the visiting hours, never forgetting to wish good night to the beauties.

In the discos, where the girls were in abundance, we were never the wall-flowers–all of us danced with Renar, undulating this way and that, showing off our flat, firm stomachs and our navel buttons, we would let our hair would flow and mouths open lusciously. Emily always sat down with a good view on the dance floor. We always invited her to join us. Sometimes she did, but more often she insisted on looking after our bags and sacks. We ran away under the disco-balls, yelling encouragements–that she will definitely be asked to dance by a really good polyporite. She yelled back, just as encouragingly, that she has yet to see somebody fitting her glamorous taste. Sometimes we danced slow with Renars. Pretended to be jerks, with shuddering movements entwining each other as mold on the walls. Sometimes we wound around Emily who shuddered slightly in her impression of an electric pole.

It was fun and easy with Emily. With her, our faults became benefits, and all the doubt we experienced in front of the mirror disappeared. She could also get vodka and cigarettes at the shop with no sideways glances and tiresome questions of whether she wants to be childless or die from lung cancer, being so young and a smoker. She didn’t mind. We really loved, no, we adored Emily.

Sometimes Lelde spent the night in her room. The first time, it happened when Emily caught her as a runaway, creeping to the door because we didn’t let her leave through the window. It was quite clear that even if the guardian lady won’t catch her, she would smash the only flowerpot in the whole corridor. It remained a mystery how Emily managed to convince Lelde that sometimes the challenge is to stay put, and we were eternally grateful to her for that. Sometimes, we all spent the night with Emily. We went to her alone, too: to cry out all the brief moments of disgust we felt for each other, and the moments when we didn’t want to go anywhere, and those when we didn’t want anything at all. Emily always stressed that the best medicine is a good polyporite tea with balsam. Then we curled up in her bed, crunched cookies and drank and talked, and I don’t even remember whether it was her answers that soothed, or her silence. Emily didn’t often talk about herself. We didn’t ask, either. We knew only that her mom is a teacher. Once, she allowed Renar, with his perfect radio voice, to read a letter she’d received from her mother. We were embarrassed–it turned out that it is just the letter Emily had sent to her mother a while ago. We were described in there, a little bit about school, and how Emily is doing well; and now she had received the letter back, with all the grammar and style errors corrected. Amanda announced that all teachers are idiots and helplessly balled her too big hands into fists.

Renar, too, sometimes spent the night with Emily. We didn’t know what they talked about. That was slightly disappointing, because when we all fell asleep in a bundle on her carpet, his breath sometimes touched my neck. In moments like that, I tried to hold in my non-existing stomach and arrange my freshly washed hair so that he wouldn’t be bothered.

Once, Emily pierced my earlobe with a sewing needle. She was a true master, or so she claimed, done it many times, including to herself. Of course, there was nobody I would entrust my ear but her, her soft, warm hands that had held my long hair back while I, swaying on my knees, puked my guts out in the toiled bowl–shortly after I discovered that portwine doesn’t mix well with beer. While Emily was getting ready for the procedure, we all got ready too. After drinking the vodka from cups, she used the dregs on the needle, and there she went! Renar amused everybody by reading future in my palm–it promised journeys to mushroom galaxies. Amanda was quoting the part from Winnie-the-Pooh getting stuck in the Rabbit’s front door. But when Lelde in a sudden but entirely predictable impulse felt inspired to become Emily’s apprentice and use my ear for her first pierce, Amanda grabbed her in a steely hug.

I don’t remember the pain. I assume there was pain. The fear in me was mixed with the solemnity. That was the first stab in my flesh that I had chosen on my own. The sewing needle was horrifying, I squeezed my eyes shut. It happened quickly. Emily did a good job. I also took in stride Lelde saying that piercing the ear sounds just like breaking the hymen. For the longest time, I tried to recall it. We were supposed to put gold or silver in the ear, but nobody had any. Emily used an old steel heart from her stock. We all drank to my loss of virginity. The ear hurt, the next day it burned unbearably. For approximately a week, my earlobe looked like a yeast pancake. Every evening we gathered with Emily for a ritual cleansing of the ear. After a while, the swelling subsided, but the earlobe had changed color. I had to let the hole go, if I wanted to keep my ear. Ever since then, there is a hard little bump in my lobe.

God in the Kitchen

Translated by Mārta Ziemelis
Excerpt from the “Icy Orange” 2016

“I’m standing under the big oak tree, right here in the yard by the house, and stirring cranberry mousse with a big wooden spoon. Ieva says that’s her first childhood memory. Well, I’ll be! I don’t remember that day. Still, the idea of it is hardly a surprise – I always made cranberry mousse for dessert. Not every day, of course – just on holidays and days off. It’s strange that she remembers it, though.”

Vija talks out loud, to herself and the things around her. Nobody threatens her with the psych ward. Now and then a tourist wanders by, to ask for water or directions. Otherwise her only company is the cows in the field, and Blueberry the cat. Blueberry talks more than Vija – you just have to understand her. Vija understands. Blueberry also loves Vija. She lies on the kitchen table in front of the old woman like a roast, her coat sun-warmed, a torn spiderweb picked up during her morning rounds on her ear.

The kitchen’s pretty narrow. Besides the oven, there’s just enough space for the table, a small sideboard, the sink and the bed. The bed’s still here from winter, when it got brought in so the other rooms didn’t have to be heated all day long. There’s no need to fumble around much at night, either. If you need a drink, you can get one without leaving the room; if you have to pee, there’s a tin bucket right here. When her grandson visits from Riga, he always wants to sleep in the same bed as his grandma, even in the summer. Vija likes feeling the warmth of those soft feet against her dried-out shins. She likes stroking the little back covered in fine down, and listening to her descendant breathe.

Putting the ballpoint pen on the table, she leans back in the chair. She looks at her palm, then at the table, and smiles. Her palm is just as worn as the tabletop. She caresses the notched wood, touching all the little grooves and uneven spots carefully, almost tenderly, stopping briefly at the deeper hollows. The surface is scarred all over by knife cuts and fork marks. Vija’s been calmly watching more and more new cracks appear for a while now. The older ones get darker and darker, no matter how much you scrub.

There’s a sheet of paper covered in writing in front of Vija. She tore it out of the graph-paper notebook where she writes down expenses and daily chores. She prepares to fold it, then carefully reads over every word again; she fixes a conjugation here, crosses out a word there. Then she folds the sheet, sharpens the crease with her fingernail and puts it in a pink envelope with a dwarf on the front: squinting, red-nosed, carrying a fir tree on his back. There weren’t any others in the table drawer. She turns something over in her mind, takes the envelope and writes a couple of words on it. She thinks a bit, then writes down a few more. Then she takes her worn-out purse and puts the envelope inside. She looks again, pulls out a half-empty bottle of perfume and lifts it to her nose.

Ieva brought that from Riga, Vija remembers. The last time she visited me, she was really tired, overworked. She was the manager of a marketing company. She talked about some sort of “brien-storms” and plans on the phone all evening. We drank peppermint tea and the wine she brought along in turns. In between phone calls, we talked in broken sentences, like people passing each other on the street. But if that’s what a person needs…

The next morning, my daughter asked if we could carry the table out into the meadow. We did. She sat there for hours, drinking coffee, looking at the neighbours’ cows, wild-eyed. The cows were wandering in alder bushes, calmly flicking their tails. I asked if she wanted pancakes with cottage cheese or jam. She looks at me and asks whether I can imagine how blissful it is just to sit in a meadow and look at cows for hours. I answered that there’s no shortage of bliss here; she could come and stare every day if she wanted. She hasn’t been here for a month now. I don’t ask why she works so hard. If she doesn’t tell me herself, what’s the point in asking? It means she needs to, then.

Vija takes the perfume and pushes it onto a sideboard shelf, next to the glasses and the egg liqueur. Then she goes to the window, carrying her purse, and studies the glass carefully for a moment, squinting.

“Well, I’ll be! A dung fly – fat as a grafted hybrid. I washed the window just yesterday!” She quickly unhooks the window. The fly flies out, buzzing angrily. Vija’s gaze wanders deep into the meadow.

“Look, how beautiful!” The whole world is holding its breath in reverence. The light’s so bright it hurts your eyes. The grass is doing well too.

My daughter doesn’t like this kind of countryside jungle. Someone should mow the grass, so it looks prettier, she says. Then you could sit elegantly on a lawn by a bed of roses. Well, I didn’t grow that grass, and I’m not going to mow it. I tell her I don’t want everything to look the same. There’s nothing wrong with grass, anyway. Especially in the evenings, when the sun’s setting and the blades of grass whisper to each other, disturbed by the touch of a hand. How can you not like something so lovely?

Vija looks beyond the blackcurrant bushes, at the neighbours’ cows, who are lazily munching pink clover. What milky bliss!

Vija puts down her purse by the front door, takes off her slippers and goes out into the yard barefoot. Tiny little stones stick to the soles of her feet like thistles, and tickle pleasantly between her toes. Blueberry’s there right away. Her coat’s gleaming like sun-melted tar. Vija gently brushes bits of straw off her warm back. The cat twists under her mistress’s hand like a snake, bites Vija’s fingertip, then starts licking the spot with her pink sandpaper tongue.

“Why are you so generous today? You even brought me a dead sparrow, silly. It would’ve been better if you’d killed mice. Let’s go and see if Ruta from next door is coming.”

When Ruta comes, she spends half the day in the yard, clucking like a chicken. She tells me all about her life several times and starts over again from the beginning. Why not humour her? I listen, if that’s what a person needs. She tells me everything – about her children and neighbours, her youth, her chickens. My radio broke, so why shouldn’t I listen, while I drink coffee with a shot of egg liqueur?

She always mentions Valdis the milkman, too. Apparently I was his first love. Now he fidgets at the end of the path from the road to the house every three days, busy as a government minister, with his milk. He says he doesn’t have time to drive into the yard. I tell him to leave the milk can there in the grass, but no. He waits, then looks me right in the eyes and goes on and on about how punctual he is and how slow-moving I am. As if I should stand on the path before dawn, impatiently waving a white kerchief.

When we were both children, Valdis and I met at the end of the path every morning and went to school together. My Leons was a classmate of his. First love – what a joke! I didn’t notice anything like it. Valdis just always talked about his father’s tractor. He invited me over and showed me that iron thingamajig all the time – what kind of motor it had, what kind of steering wheel it had… How long can you go on about a machine? We were fools. Who even remembers that anymore? Valdis was kind of edgy at our wedding. My father-in-law even gave him a black eye, because he’d said ugly things while he was drunk. There was something they couldn’t sort out. Leons didn’t explain; he and Valdis stayed good friends until Leons died. He’s been in the graveyard for ten years now, under that pine. When I manage to get there, with a friend who has a car, Leons and I have a good chat. I tell him how things are going, what the kids are up to. Otherwise he’s quiet. He doesn’t come and torment me in my dreams, like some ghosts do. Ruta, for example – her husband showed up in her dreams and asked for his gold teeth. Those had to be buried. Nonsense! As if he really needs those gold teeth! You’d think he’d rise from his coffin and stuff them in his mouth. Ruta probably just did it so relatives wouldn’t fight over who got two teeth and who got five.

Leons and I didn’t fight. We just talked – about the children, about whether to buy them a winter coat or boots. It was obvious that he had his thoughts and I had mine. We talked things through and that was that. He had enough noise at the office – why smash plates at home? We muddled along somehow. We didn’t walk down the street holding hands, kissing by every display window, so everyone could see how happy we were. Why make fools of ourselves? We ate together in the evenings, we went to the theatre, we watched TV. We weren’t troubled by sleeplessness.

What is love, anyway? I read those romance novels sometimes; I cry too, if they’re well written. Only those are about unfulfilled dreams. Love turns out different in real life. I met a decent man. We caught each other’s eye at the local outdoor dance. It beats me what we talked about. He might even have been telling me about tractors.

Another Woman

Translated by Mārta Ziemelis
Excerpt from the “Icy Orange” 2016

I was in third grade when I got up and solemnly announced that I didn’t have a father. I trembled on the inside when thirty pairs of surprised eyes looked at me. There was something between sympathy and doubt on the teacher’s face. “We need to know for school statistics,” she explained. In my opinion, the fact that my father had a new wife was enough of a reason for him to have no right to really call himself my father. I knew the point of her survey question – “Father: alive, dead or unknown” – was something completely different, but that didn’t matter. I was even proud of this, because it made me different from other kids, the ones who had everything going right in their lives.

One morning, when Dad went to work early, Mom’s nose was red. I asked if she was sick. Mom said she wasn’t, but that Dad would be here less often now, because he’d be living somewhere else. That didn’t surprise me much – the same way you’re not surpised by events that happen, no matter whether you’re hoping for them or are worried that they’re coming up. I’d heard my parents’ fights before, but the previous night’s had been different. I heard Mom sobbing and saying broken sentences in a hoarse voice. Dad mostly kept quiet, unless he was whispering something calming. That’s when Mom cried even harder. When Dad came into my room I pretended to be asleep, because I was scared of what would happen after we said goodbye to each other.

That evening I eavesdropped on Mom’s conversation with Aunt Tamāra, hiding behind the kitchen door. Now I understood that everything was some stranger’s fault. Dad had gone to be with another woman.

After that, Mom often had dark blue circles under her eyes in the mornings. On those days I tried to talk less and to stay out of the way. The most innocent questions made her sad, and I often got scolded for no reason.

Mom had started smoking a lot more. I thought she had cancer, because what else would make her lose weight so fast? It had to be cancer. Probably she thought the same thing, because her friends urged her to go see a babka, something like a witch. The babka had a pretty vague idea of what the diagnosis was, but she suggested that Mom drink a tincture of celandine. A visit to the doctor proved there was no cancer; she’d lost weight because of a nervous breakdown. Mom was convinced that the tincture of celandine had helped.

She always told me the main thing was that nobody should even think of pitying her. Before leaving the house, Mom carefully powdered her face, outlined her eyes in black eye pencil, and shaded her eyelids with pearly blue eyeshadow. Those, along with a mildly pink lipstick, were kept in a toiletry case I wasn’t allowed to touch. Makeup was expensive and could only be bought on the black market. She used the lipstick and eye pencil sparingly, digging out the last precious scraps of colour with a sharpened match.

Sometimes Mom listened to records in the evenings. Eyes closed, she swayed in the gentle waves of Karel Gott’s voice, or hummed along with Joe Dassin’s warm French chansons. I stood pressed against the doorframe and wished for these moments not to end so soon. On the evenings when she read Ārija Elksne’s poetry – something about graves and cawing ravens – and the earthy smell of valerian floated through the apartment, I stayed well away from her room.

I liked it when there was a party at home. Then Mom’s cheeks glowed, her eyes got misty, and she laughed a lot. The air was thick and hot, loud with passages of fast accordion music. Vodka flowed like birch sap in the spring. In the kitchen, the women smoked, hugged each other, kissed each other with moist lips and said how much they loved each other. They sang all those popular love songs: “By the Amber Sea”, “Dark Forests”, “Chrysanthemums” and “Waterlilies”. I especially liked “The bonfire blazes bright in the dark night”– about parting and lost love. The women sang this one with their eyes closed, with a certain kind of ache in their voices, as if each of them had experienced something like that, even a little. I knew the words to every song and sang along with the choir eagerly.

The men, jackets off and ties loose, loudly explained the meaning of life to each other and remembered the old days, how well their fathers had lived. When Uncle Jānis disagreed with Uncle Valdis and had grabbed him by the collar, Mom squeezed in between them and flirtatiously asked them to pour a lady some champagne. The men reluctantly relaxed, and filled glasses briskly. The layered herring salad smelled homey; pork cutlets and boiled potatoes steamed. I ate up the pickles almost all by myself. After I’d secretly eaten the creamy frosting with little glazed nuts off the top of the cake, of course.

Mingling with the guests, I found out that my father’s wife was a “whore” , a “bitch”, and that “it will all come back to haunt her”. The main point was “you’ll see, he’ll come crawling back with his tail between his legs, like a beaten dog”. The wives seemed to be the experts. The husbands, flushed from vodka, smiled and praised Mom’s potato salad. Uncle Valdis, roaring “Hey hey, you lithe black-panther girl!”, pulled Mom onto the dance floor. I guess he was holding her too close, because Aunt Anna hurried up right away to talk some sense into her husband. That’s what she said. “Be sensible.”

That evening, I started waiting. Waiting for Dad to be sensible. Waiting for him to leave the strange woman.