Jean Patou Soap

Overall, she—my mom—was good at stifling her desires. And when it comes to dreams, it seems she never had any. Or, at most, something completely crazy as for late 1980s: to visit Paris, to put on a dress by Coco, to take a picture with Vakhtang Kikabidze. However, these fantasies of a Soviet woman still in her twenties are quite understandable.

She also had an incredible habit, according to the Soviet mindset: she never accepted cheap, run-of-the-mill stuff, rejecting it almost organically. I couldn’t care less about clothes back then; it was beyond me why she put a dark blue checkered shirt on me with such thrill and excitement and, smoothing it out, said dreamily:   

“The Balts…They know how to do it.”

When I lost half of my sleeve, fighting with my classmate, mom cried bitter tears. Against all odds, she somehow got hold of the things no one else could and wore them for a very long time. Seven years later, her Italian Salita boots looked just the same as on the first day when she got them. Mom hovered over them, knife in her hand:  

“I’ll cut you to shreds! I’m sick and tired of you!”

She never cut them, though.

She didn’t have a craving for things in today’s sense, when people yearn for new stuff all the time. No, she just had some sixth sense, a superfine gut feeling which helped her find perfect fits. When she got dressed in those things, it seemed that they had also been searching for her deliberately, dreaming of meeting her. Her favorite piece of jewelry, a silver set with turquoise, matched most things from her modest wardrobe.  

The 1990s were sneaking up on us meanwhile. Dad had left us a long time ago. We were cutting down all our expenses, turning on the lights only when absolutely necessary. Mom was working as a stock clerk at the district cooperative society. All day long, she calculated something on her electronic calculator, wrote numbers in columns on a thick lined paper that hardly lent itself to a pen, and roamed among the sacks, boxes, containers, and barrels, in the rain and in the freezing cold. Returning home in her spotless shiny boots, she cooked something, accurately measuring grains and potato, silent.  

Mom came across that goddamn soap at the local department store. It was sitting on the shelf among some stupid pocket mirrors and handkerchiefs you might clean your boots with.  It was sitting there just like that. Not Czech, not Baltic, not Yugoslavian, not even GDR-ian. It was a French soap, “Jean Patou.” A big ivory box with gold lettering and as many as three bars of soap in it, lovingly wrapped in tissue paper, tied with a thin satin ribbon. Mom opened the box and, leaning forward, smelled it. At that moment, she must have thought of Paris, the Eiffel Tower, and the dress by Coco. The box of soap cost some eighteen rubles. Mom looked inside her wallet, then glanced at me, and gave up on it. You can’t indulge a whim like this when you’re paid eighty rubles a month.

“Mom,” I said. “Why do you need it? We’ve got lots of soap at home. There’s a dozen of bars in the bathroom cabinet.”

Snapping out of her reverie, mom said with a smile:

“Because it’s very nice. You’ve seen it, haven’t you? We don’t have soap like this at home.”

I didn’t understand her, of course. I didn’t see any difference between our soap and that one, “Jean Patou.” In my mind, I made a helpless gesture.

“What does it smell like, anyway? Like roses?”

Mom just waved me away, not saying anything.

She kept frequenting that store, though. A few times, she even pulled out her wallet and opened it decisively, but then, glancing at my boots or jacket, she put the wallet back into her purse.

“She’s dreaming of some soap—duh. Why’s that? ” I thought and started to save money. It’s not that easy to save up eighteen rubles when it’s 1988 and you’re only eight years old. I was working toward it slowly, though. I gave up on my dream about a pen for six rubles and a notebook with the firebirds where you could put down “everything.” I bought a piece of pie at the school cafeteria only every other time. In three months, I had the money I needed. Taking my fruit drops tin full of coins, I made my way to the department store and asked for a box of fragrant Jean Patou soap. This soap is no longer available, the saleswoman told me in a gruff voice. Sold out.

They snapped it up, barbarians; they dragged it all to their homes.

I felt frustrated, offended by the store, by the saleswoman, by that Jean Patou guy who’d run away, escaped me, wiggled out of my arms. That goddamn year of 1988 was all negations: there isn’t, there wasn’t enough, didn’t wait long enough, didn’t manage, didn’t buy, didn’t save up.  

*

In umpteen years, long after I’d graduated and my mom had been left alone, again, in her apartment—this time decorated in the way she wanted it to be, though—I asked her about that soap:

“Do you remember about it?”

And she did—can you believe it? Mom described everything: the ivory box, the lettering, the satin ribbon. She must have dived even deeper into her memory, since she became gloomy, anxious, uncertain, just like then.  

“What did it smell like? You never told me,” I said.

“Nothing special,” she thought for a moment, then added, “A very fine, delicate cosmetic perfume. I can’t remember any particular smell.”

“I wanted to buy it for you, but…”

“I know,” she interrupted me. “The saleswoman told me. It’s okay.”

“But what would you have done with it? Would you put it in the bathroom? Just like that?”

“Of course, not. I’d put it away. Let it just sit somewhere.”

“But why? I still don’t get it.”

“Me neither. I just wanted to have it. French soap. Back then! You’ll never understand it.”

“Do you still want it? Do you?”

“I do. I don’t need it. But I want it, yes.”

I didn’t start looking for Jean Patou soap. I didn’t even plan to. We had a good laugh and forgot about it. Yet, today, when I no longer have anyone to give soap to, I came across it on the Internet. Randomly. On a craft website. French vintage soap “Jean Patou.” There you go. Exactly the same. In an exactly the same box. It costs around three hundred hryvnias. A trifle compared to eighteen rubles in 1988, especially if you consider the goal.

I have no regrets, though.

I imagined what would have happened if I’d bought it. Mom would’ve happily put it away into the wardrobe near her underwear or into the china cabinet on a crochet napkin—in the Soviet times, people used to put beautiful things in one of those places. We’d have gotten used to it. The box would’ve turned yellow. I don’t think that “Jean Patou” would have ever ended up in the bathroom. No, most probably it would’ve gotten lost during the moving or it would have sat forever at the bottom of one of those drawers no one would ever open again. It’s not a mystery, just a coincidence. There’re always drawers like that. Everyone has one.

So, it’s better the way it is. After all, there’re games without logical conclusion or announcement of winners. There’re things that have to vanish from the shelf the day you want to buy them. There’re dreams that should not come true. Otherwise, you’d open your old yellowed box and see just a bar of soap—unscented, on top of that. And what would you do with it? Just put it in the bathroom?!  

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