Ian Svenonius was the lead singer of the 1990s radical punk band Nation of Ulysses. He wrote the books Psychic Soviet and Supernatural Strategies for Starting a Band. At his reading last night he proclaimed that four is a magic number, a potent ingredient in the formation of a rock group. Svenonius is a Marxist who views a four-person band as one of the only means of subversion available to oppressed peoples. The Gang of Four were Chinese Communist Party officials who formed a treasonous group spearheading a Cultural Revolution led by Mao Zedong’s last wife. She killed herself in 1991 while living out a life sentence in prison. The year I was born, 1978, the band Gang of Four released their stark finger pointer of a song called Damaged Goods. Four years later, four people sat together in a Leningrad apartment. They were composed of four generations of only girls born to each other—a nesting Matryoshka doll of a great grandmother, a grandmother, a mother, and her daughter—tiny, last, solid wood inside. The four-year-old girl sat on the bed and watched as the other three drank homemade vodka around a little square table covered with an oil-rubbed canvas cloth. The girl had four bedbug bites running down her leg. Damaged goods are items that were expected to be in good or brand new condition but were discovered to be poor, tarnished, or already open. Mostly, when we think of damaged goods, it’s about someone who was once healthy but isn’t anymore due to unfortunate past events. Damaged goods tend to run away from their problems and recreate them in new locations. Ulysses is James Joyce’s book in which the episodes of Homer’s Odyssey are paralleled in a stream of consciousness technique he supposedly perfected. In the English language, as well as many others, the word odyssey has come to refer to an epic voyage. Odysseus’ name means “trouble” in Greek, referring to both the giving and receiving of trouble—as is often the case in his wanderings.
My daughter is currently four months old. My son is four years old. There are four people in my family and we live on the fourth floor of our apartment building. It is the fourth month of the year as I write this ongoing travelogue. I gave birth to my daughter Frances on 12/12/12, equaling 36, the age of my mother when she came over to my schizophrenic, paternal uncle’s flat back in Russia and demanded to be given my address in America. Skeptical, he phoned my father who requested she continue to be kept in the dark as to our exact whereabouts. She was drunk, smelled bad and needed a place to crash and sober up, so he gave her the four corners of his bed instead of a place to mail a letter, feeling guilty and saddened by her misfortunes. I have asked my uncle to tell me the story of my mother reaching out and being shunned away without my permission many times. The part I can’t seem to store away in my memory’s lock box is of him changing the sheets on the bed after she is gone. He strips the dirty sheets like an orderly would at any hospital with patients checking in and checking out, dead or alive. My uncle is the oldest of four kids and is still a virgin. He believes his mother to be a saint even though she would not let him marry the only woman he deemed important enough to meet the family. I saw them parting outside a bookstore where she worked and he browsed almost every day, letting me tag along. He rested his forehead on her chest for a brief moment then, trying to inhale her as they said goodbye. I never saw her again. Breasts are four circles. The holes in those circles are countless.
The movie Frances came out in 1982 when I was four-years-old and spending my mornings watching my wet with hangover dew mother and her two dearest accomplices chug vodka out of little juice glasses on a rickety four legged table. Frances Farmer’s middle name is Elena—my mother’s name. My obsession with that movie and the woman it’s about managed to elbow and embroider itself into the fabric of my daughter’s legacy for good. Born in Seattle, Frances Elena Farmer was a rebel from a young age, writing an essay called “God Dies” in 1931 and then traveling to the Moscow Art Theater in the USSR on scholarship. She became a stage and Hollywood actress who was infamous for her heavy drinking. She was involuntarily hospitalized by her mother many times, and insists she was systematically raped and abused while committed. When I lived in Seattle, working at a peep show for four years, it was the only time in my life I drank almost every day. That was the place where I thought, yes, I could die from these hangovers and find her not looking for me at last. Seattle was also the place where my leg found a hole in an old, crumbling staircase, trapping me in consideration of things to come. I had hives on my neck. A bruise, or two, each week. Some contact lenses lost behind the eye. Two whiskey doubles and ginger back at last call. Dick’s burger wrappers strewn about the bed as I got up to check licenses pulled out of wallets to read the names of the mystery guests using my shower. But then I moved, and it didn’t stick. I was baptized anew with a flight back to New York City to begin grad school. Holy is the crown of hope that perches in clipped wings.
There are four forgotten Saints in the Russian Orthodox Church—Faith, Hope, Charity and their mother Sophia the Martyr. The feast of these saints is in September, the month Frances Elena Framer and I were born. In Russian, the names of these Saints are Vera, Nadezhda, and Lyubov. My great grandmother’s name is Nadezhda—it means Hope. She prayed to an old copper-cornered icon of the four Saints in a hidden makeshift altar when religion was still forbidden during the Soviet communist reign. She often told me the story of Faith, Hope and Charity when she got loose by lunchtime as we buttered black bread by the bay window in her flat. Sophia was a widow during the Roman Empire and raised her three daughters in the Faith. When the four of them were brought before their persecutors and ordered to make sacrifice to the goddess Artemis, each humbly refused. All three daughters were tortured, and then executed, before their mother’s eyes. Sophia buried their bodies and mourned at their grave for three days and nights, then fell asleep in peace. For her steadfastness and solidarity with her daughters’ sufferings she is counted as the fourth Martyr along with them. Shortly after we buried my great granny Hope, I developed rheumatic fever and my mother quit vodka to nurse my inflamed valves back to health. I recovered, and she stayed sick. It didn’t stick for her. Within the four chambers of the heart are four main valves that help the organ we believe to be responsible for feeling our loss and our joy relax and contract during each beat. If one of these valves ceased to exist, the backflow of blood would drown us in our own life force. They will open and close at the right time and press on in their journey no matter the pace until one gets blocked from heart disease. Christianity has several examples of Four Is Death, with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the Four Last Things. The Chinese believe the number Four to be the unluckiest number known to man since it sounds like the word Death. They avoid it at all cost and structure their families, their homes and their businesses around the erasure of this number. Most buildings in China are designed without a fourth floor. There is still a fourth floor on every elevator, but if no button exists for it, we can skip it, if only in our imagination.
Sophia Pfaff-Shalmiyev is a Portland-based writer and artist. Girl is a Four-Letter Word is excerpted from her first forthcoming book, To Mother, about her estranged, alcoholic mom, the number four, bad luck and immigration. She writes a column for the PDXX Collective.
“Girl is a Four Letter Word” originally appeared in The Electronic Encyclopedia of Experimental Literature.