It’s All Fun and Games Until

(Continued from August 19th, 2012.)

Did Galina ever seduce a man into her bed?  Did she ever find herself in that mellow surrender, with an even heartbeat, as she groomed her body — the millions of skin cells she had never cared for before — as she waited for her lover to take her out on the town, for a walk or a dinner at his parent’s home; so that later she could be disrobed, explored and tasted?  consumed and worshiped, cared for?

Had she ever learned what it was like to know a man so intimately she could tell what he’d drunk for dinner just by the flavors of his bodily liquids?  And had Galina known elation, the best kind of which can be experienced only in the highs of being in love; and was she then able to foresee that even though loss would eventually follow — always follow — it was all worth it, while unfolding?

Probably not.

But the word of Galina’s “willingness” began to roam the village.  The bachelors reconsidered the cripple’s appearance:  After all, she didn’t need to be a beauty queen for frolicking in the hay.  They began to scheme amongst themselves.  She probably wouldn’t put up too much of a fight; or demand for a man to leap through the endless rings of fire that belong to courtship.  The married men with a lusty eye took notice of her waiting on the outskirts of fields at the end of their working day.  So did their women:

“Hey, Mash?  Isn’t that your girl hugging the fence over there, behind the tractor?” the women approached Galina’s mother, amused at first, but not for long.

“The devil’s dragged her out again!” the old woman grumbled, embarrassed.  Lord knew, she’d had her hands full with this child!  “I wish any man or death would just take her already!”  (Oh, you think that’s uncharitable?  I’ll see what blues you’d sing if ever you found yourself stuck in living out a Russian’s destiny!  That roller coaster — is no joke!)

The women of the village began to shun the cripple.  A fair competition or not, for all they knew, Galina shared the same anatomy between her legs; and men, being a canine type, let’s face it, wouldn’t have the will power to say “nyet” when an opportunity of getting some — of getting any — splayed out in front of their panting mouths.  No longer was Galina invited to join the girls-in-waiting on village benches whenever they saw her limping with her cane, at dusk.  They didn’t brush her hair, didn’t massage her bow-like back; or reached to scratch mosquito bites through her thick woolen tights, during the summer nights.  When she showed up at church, the girls dispersed, but not before hissing a few slurs that could be overheard even by a deaf-mute.  As far as they were concerned, it was better to be safe than find their boyfriends venturing out for some lay on the side, which, considering Galina’s growing neediness, was always nearby and easily available.

Galina, whose accident left her stuck in the mind of a child, couldn’t understand the change in their favors.  Not at least until her mother Masha broke it down one day, while scrubbing her daughter’s unattractive body on a banya shelf:

“You ought to stop blabbering like this, my poor child!” she gently rubbed a straw clump against the raised red scars on her daughter’s back.  “It’s not modest for a girl, first of all, to show off like this.  And then, you’re making all the females jealous.”

Picking at her bellybutton, Galina defended herself:  “But I speak the truth, didn’t you know?  I will marry!  I am no worse than all those other silly girls!”

“Of course, of course,” Masha soothed.  “Of course, you will, my child.  In time, you will.”

Galina’s mother took mercy on her daughter.  What else did she have going for her but those innocent fantasies of rescue via marriage and the care of a man?  But the poor simpleton!  She had yet to learn that guilt and pity she provoked in other women made terrible accomplices, in the end; and that a woman’s generosity ran only as thick as her man’s attentiveness.

But listen she did.  The very next Sunday, Galina didn’t dress up for church.  She didn’t leave the veranda where she slept in the summer, to then wait by the side of the dirt road, to catch a ride in the milkman’s horse-drawn carriage.  She stopped visiting the fields, or strolling through the village in search of young girls’ congregations.  It seemed she locked herself at home during daylight.  And only at sunset did she begin to leave the house and joining the babushkas:  those old retired women who were cared for by their children if they were lucky; and if unlucky, the women who worked until their daily duties were completed after the last cow got home.  They sat on the benches, like brown sparrows along a telephone line; stretching their arthritic limbs, adjusting their kerchiefs and shacking roasted sunflower seed with toothless gums, until their fingernails turned black and their tongues were raw and scarred by salt.  There they sat, watching the rest of the living go by, and calling out to either Jesus or Mother Death, for the end of their — or others’ — misery.

At first, the old women scolded the cuz:

“You ought to waste your time by the band stage, and not with us!”

“Oy, don’t even tell me!” the others chimed in.  “Now, did you see just what these youngsters wear, these days?!  In my time, I wouldn’t show my naked knee to even my own husband.”

“Oy, dear little lord of ours!  My granddaughter chops off her skirts like this on purpose!  I found the tailor’s bill.”

The old women crossed themselves.  Their religiousness did not die down, not with the revolution or the Party’s teachings.  Harmless to most, they worshiped openly; and these old women had a point:  What else would there be left of Russia’s soul, if not its fear of Father God or Mother Nature?

There, in the companies of babushkas, Galina started to pick up the dirt on every household in the village.  And what a way to make a recovery!  No matter the shared elation or tragedy, most mortals couldn’t resist a juicy piece of gossip.

Quite rapidly, Galina became the go-to for the latest news:  She was the younger generation’s Sputnik that circled the village — from one bench to another — to measure and deliver back the temperatures around town.  The misstep of her own fictional marriage was long forgotten, and by the fall — before the hay had finished drying out and got transported into hay storage shacks; and long before the housewives completed pickling cabbage and lining up their cellar shelves with jams; before the men piled up the wood for heating the stove in the winter — Galina became every household’s most welcomed guest.

(To Be Continued.)

The Way to a Man’s Heart

(Continued from August 12th, 2012.)

Be it from a life-long deprivation of male attention or grandma Tanya’s diagnosis of Galina’s “messed-up nerves”, cuz’s hormones went berserk as soon as she dropped out of school after the sixth grade.  In all fairness, there was not much use to furthering her education, Galina’s parents presumed:  After the accident, she wasn’t bound for big things any longer.  And the Russian inbred understanding that one was born into one’s circumstances — and no amount of prayer, chance or hard work would transcend a citizen into a higher, more fortunate caste — spiraled Galina’s life into one of a peasant.  She would be following her parents’ path, and in that, no comrade could find much tragedy.

“But I’m going to marry!” she announced one Sunday morning, on the steps of a neighboring town’s church.  The other girls-in-waiting surrounded and teased her for the name of her future husband.  (Competition makes women one mean lot, especially when they are those middle-ground, okay-looking ones that hold onto their men with their teeth and fear.)  But Galina remained secretive, as if she were the best of Soviet spies.

“You don’t have no fiance yet!” the young women challenged.  I mean:  Had she fallen off the rocker?!  Who did she think she was?!  Engagements took months to set up.  Dozens of chaperone shifts were arranged by the elders.  Sunday’s best, collected by the girl’s parents throughout her life, were dug out of the familial traveling trunks, washed and ironed, and put to use.  And the honing of womanly duties — by the river bank where other housewives rinsed their laundry and in the kitchen; by the married women’s lectures on the suddenly poignant topics of personal hygiene and the horrors of their wedding nights — these things demanded serious commitment and courage on a girl’s part!

“It takes a lot of work to lure a man!” the girls-in-waiting lectured the crippled simpleton.  There was no way she presented much competition!  And they supposed they would’ve just let her dream on, had she not perturbed them with such a silly idea, in the first place.

And they did have a point:  No one had ever seen Galina starch her petticoats or outline her eyes with sharpened charcoal sold at the department store, to which one had to ride a bus for two and a half kilometers.  In the later part of summer, Galina had yet to travel to other women’s homes to help them pickle cabbage or to cure pork belly in salt baths whenever a local family decided to lessen its livestock count.  And neither was she known to possess any skill mending socks or warding off a bad eye.  She wasn’t in the know on how to start up a stove or a banya, for a man.  She couldn’t brew home-made liquor or even a jar kvas.  Such skills were expected of any bride, especially from one that could’t bewitch a man based on her looks alone.

“So what?!” Galina obnoxiously defended herself.  She was an innocent, but any challenge against her word of truth — and she could throw a fit which even the devil would overhear.  “My dad’s already traveled to three dinners two towns over!” she continued bragging.  “He says even the chairman of the collective farm over there could be interested.  (He’s got a handsome son, didn’t you know?)”

How much truth there was to Galina’s aspirations — no one knew for certain.  But Galina’s father — an alcoholic who freelanced around town to clean people’s outhouses, or to build new ones — was not to be taken lightly, at least by the townsmen; for quite a sizable physique did uncle Pavel have on him!  The man was a giant, barely fitting into doorways; and he was gossiped to have never shared a bed with his wife because there just wasn’t enough room for two.  Pavel was known to sleep in the cow stable; and that is exactly where, according to the gossip, Galina had to have been conceived.

Every night, Pavel raised hell with vodka on his breath.  Galina’s mother Masha had begun to lock him out of the house; and at dawn, she searched the village’s ditches and liquor store alleys and dragged her alcoholic giant home (where she would deposit him into the cow stable yet again).

So, even though Galina’s self-proclaimed bridal status appeared absurd to most, one had to consider the fear Pavel imposed on young grooms-in-the-making.  And there were other factors to consider, as well:

“She does collect a sizeable pension,” the townswomen speculated after the news of Galina’s betrothal began to spread.  “Not a bad deal for a dowry!”

Others approached the subject with medical facts:  “Lord knows, so deprived her womanly parts have been, for all these year!  I bet she’s not too difficult to bed.”

The women giggled.  The subject of sex was not a frequent one in the idealistic minds of Soviet citizens.  Like anywhere else in the world, men wanted it; but it was entirely a responsibility of the women to a. to put out or to hold out, and b. protect themselves in the process.  But even with one’s gynecologist, it was inappropriate to comfortably, openly discuss such matters.  So, to be born pretty was a questionable blessing, for a Russian girl.  But to be born smart — to know how to negotiate her worth before the broken hymen, to smoothly transition herself from under the care of her father to that of her husband — that, in the eyes of women and their mothers, was a much more important entity.  (So, that part about sex being enjoyable — in some women’s lives, they never knew of it.  Enjoyment was left to the other types of women:  the loose ones, the ones that every town had and loved to judge; and in the cities, they were the second “wives” that some husbands kept on the side, on weeknights.)

(To Be Continued.)

Offbeat

 (Continued from August 5th, 2012.)

For several generations, Galina was the boogeywoman of the town!  Myths about her bodily disfigurements had been roaming the village for decades.  One couldn’t find a single bench or kitchen sink in the place by which the poor cripple was not discussed (“rinsing the bones,” the Russian women called it).

Young misbehaving children were threatened into obedience by the mere mention of Galina’s arrival at nighttime; and all the homely girls summoned their gratitude for not having it in the worst of ways, whenever cousin’s name was mentioned at the summer dances in the open air.  (Bound to a cane from a young age, Galina wasn’t a visitor of such events.  But her name, turned synonymous with her life’s tragedy, was there — along with her bones — “to be rinsed”.)

In the days of summer, murders of children hid behind the fence of Galina’s garden every morning, to get a peek of her washing routine by the outside basin:

“Is it true she doesn’t have any hair underneath that scarf?” the rascals challenged each other.

“I hear her feet are just charred stumps.  I dare you to look!”

They would come from the cities, along with their cultured parents, to visit their grandfolks for the summer; and in a way that most fairytales originated from Russia’s countrysides, thusly did Galina become an unbelievable rarity unseen elsewhere.  A freak.

But when the cuz walked through the dusty roads or windy paths along the green hills, the other townspeople let her be.  When she scratched at the snowed-in gates, every household welcomed her in.  Because isn’t it a quality innately human to, even if secretly, be drawn to the tales of others’ accidents with fortune?  Galina always arrived bearing the news of the worst; and no matter one’s altruistic intentions, the relief of knowing presented itself in the darkest corners of one’s conscience:  “At least, bad luck wasn’t happening — to me!”  And into most companies of the village gabbers and gossipers, Galina was admitted, too.  Like a debilitating snowstorm that strikes a town with chaos but also an eventual promise of a good harvest, the old cripple was accepted with a certain surrender, with which most Russians honed their spirits.  For no easy habit it was to live through Russia’s troubles!  One often chose to float along and to not fight back one’s destiny.

It was in the summer of my twelfth year that I became particularly interested in the history of Galina’s womanhood.  Truth be told, I sympathized with the cuz, watching her eat with her fingers at my grandparents’ dinner table because most utensil were too cumbersome for her misshapen mouth.  Earlier that school year, most of my girl classmates had gotten their periods, and they began to skip morning gym classes.  Instead, they sat them out on benches, with mysteriously bashful expressions on their faces; and no one — not even the Afghan veteran Timofeitch, who’d been teaching us for the past two years — could say a word to them.  I, in the mean time, was still bound to my flat-chested, thinner-then-a-broom physique, with no growing pains in my breasts to prevent me from relay competitions.

“Oh, but at least you have very pretty eyes!” mother offered me her lame consolation, when after our fifth grade dance I came home in tears.  Despite the Korean-made dress of hideous neon-green, in which mother had decked me out that afternoon, I spent the entire gathering leaning against the wall; and watching Alyoshka — the dreamiest creature in my class — take turns dancing with any girl who had boobs.

What was it like to be pretty, I was dying to know; and when would my turn finally come?  Mother claimed it was a curse even more brutal than being unmemorable, as other boys, I was certain, found me to be.  “Beauty comes with a responsibility,” the woman claimed, lowering her gorgeous Georgian eyes underneath the bushy eyebrow.  “Oh, Lord help us all, poor women folk:  The responsibility!”

Surely, cousin Galina had lived through my suffering!  She must’ve understood it!  But the very idea of having a heart-to-heart with the complaining relative sent me into a state of anxious shyness.  I suspected she would avoid the topic altogether, and instead try to pond off information about the terrible luck in store for some other unfortunate adult.  And just like the smells of her flesh, I found her gossip oppressive.

“So, grandma?” I started up one evening, while helping grandma Irina transfer a woolen thread from a spool into a yarn ball.  The winters were unforgiving in the Urals, with snowfalls of at least a meter deep; and as the harvest season was winding down, grandma Irina busied herself with supplying her entire family — from the distant relatives in Siberia and to her best friend in the Ukraine — with woolen sock.  The tips of the spool rotated against my fingertips, leaving them slightly raw with early blisters.  So, I’d switch them out periodically:  The pain was nothing in comparison to my desire to dig up some information on the cuz.

“How come babushka Galina had never been married?”

Grandma Irina knitted her brow but didn’t stop masterfully looping the thread around the yarn ball.  Her fingers moved quickly.  The yarn looked like a blurry trail.  “She isn’t your babushka,” she corrected me.  “Now hold the spool evenly!  Level out the left side!”

It was obvious:  The topic, alas, would have come to a halt — if grandpa Sergei hadn’t stepped in.

“Oh, but as the Lord himself had witnessed:  She promised herself to so many men, none wanted her after they were done!”

“Seryozha!”  Grandma scolded, shooting me a look of pure horror.  “The child’s too young to know such things!”

But grandpop was already on a roll:  “Oh yes!  In her time, Galina was the biggest floozy this town has ever seen!”  He smirked:  The Sunday banya with his drinking comrades had loosened up his demeanor and tongue.   “Not a single skirt has been able to live up to cuz’s reputation since!”

(To Be Continued.)

As Luck Would Have It

Cousin Galina always arrived with bad news:  the neighbor’s pig had died during the previous night’s drop of the outside temperatures, making its meat too stiff to consume.  But what else was the family to do, at the end of the coldest winter of the last two decades?  The postmaster had collapsed one morning from an infarct, on his way to work.  (“Well, don’t expect to get any mail until next month, now!”)  Ilyinithna — the richest and the stingiest woman in the village — was still suffering from a bout of hiccups; and the Army draft had yet again passed Ivan, the Lame Arm, which, you could bet, didn’t thrill his widowed mother much:  She was hoping he could learn more useful skills than hanging out in apples trees and shooting the crows from a homemade bow that he pulled with his teeth.

The concept of karma wasn’t even heard of in the heart my grandparents’ village at the time, but cousin Galina had a special talent for making the connections with the flow of the universal force.  She possessed an impressive memory and retained the history of every family’s generations.  Every misstep, every shame was kept on file in the old woman’s brain, allowing her to masterfully connect the dots at the culminations of each misfortune.

“Oh, no!  Here comes the thunder cloud,” my grandpa would grumble, hearing the stomping of Galina’s walking stick on the wooden staircase and making a run for the back door.  “Hold on to your courage, comrades!”

He couldn’t stand the woman and would scurry off to play dominos at the bath house.  But even though Russians weren’t big on karma (after all, it was all in the hands of either a. god or b. the Party), there was no more certain way to fuck up the good luck for one’s own and all the future generations — than to turn on one’s family.

“And shame on you, Sergei!” grandma protested, albeit unconvincingly, on behalf of her first cousin.  “We must have some mercy on the cripple!”

She was right:  Cousin Galina wore the family’s misfortune on her face.  From the age of three, when she was burnt from a bucket in which her mother was boiling the family’s whites in bleach, Galina’s face was a mangle of leathery skin.  It was impossible not to wince when looking at her stretched, shiny face with blotchy patches of red and purplish-brown, and at the unevenly misshapen eye sockets with rapidly jittering whites of her eyes inside them.  Most children in the village feared her, but what discomforted grandpa Sergei the most was the sour smell of Galina’s unwashed flesh that accompanied her, made more pungent by the tobacco that she never took a break from chewing.  The tobacco stained her teeth and colored her spit; and while the other babushkas, who flocked the village benches, projectile spat the black shells of roasted sunflower seeds, Galina marked her territory with puddles of puss-colored, foaming saliva.

He could always smell it too, grandpa Sergei, when he return home and found his wife in the kitchen:

“Had the thunder cloud passed yet?” he’d joke; and after an askance glance from his wife, proceed to open all the windows in the house.  A trail of reeking flesh hung heavy.  A scraped aluminum ashtray in the dish drain would confirm his suspicions.  “At least, she had the decency to not spit onto the floor this time.”

Truth be told, the old woman missed sometimes.  Perhaps, that’s why Galina’s thick ankles were permanently adorned with shiny galoshes:  in case she misjudged and spat onto her own foot.  No matter the weather, the season, or the heat, she also wore gray socks of thick wool.  Say what would wish about the expedited process of aging for the Russian women, but at the fairly young age of forty — bundled up in thermal underwear underneath her housedress and a cotton-stuffed peasant jacket on top — Galina looked like an arthritic.  Never could get warm, never stopped complaining about her aching joints and high blood pressure.

“The burn must’ve messed up her nerve endings!” grandma explained.  “She may not ever get comfortable again, that poor soul.”

But grandpa Sergei scoffed and offered his own bit:  “Oh, come on!  Lord knows, the cuz has skin thick enough to outlive us all, in the end!”

He had theories, my grandpop!  Coached either to fear or to compete with the remainder of the world, he harbored little hope for humanity.  So, he was often heard pontificating on the subject of the world’s ending:  which continent would be the cause of it and which race would take the majority of the blow.  And the one thing grandpa had made clear was that when the fateful hour of godly justice stuck, he would be found nowhere near other humans.  To live off of and to die from the Ocean’s insatiable force — that was the destiny the old fisherman had envisioned for himself.

A Shift. A Change.

(Continued from July 22nd, 2012.)

Gaining time, ages of it:  That’s how she had begun to feel recently.  It was no longer an anxiety driven chase of minutes, or breaking down her days into portions of obligations and thinking too far ahead; so far ahead that she would forget to observe the very happening of time — and herself in it:  unfolding, expanding, altering, learning to love.  The tension that came from her knowledge that she was lacking, losing time would settle at the medial edges of her eyebrows, making her forehead feel like a heavy awning.  For years, she had worn the weight of time on her face; and while the losses surmounted, as they do in any life, she found herself at a deficit of time for mourning.

Larisa stepped out of the church.  The city, still moving slowly after the snowstorm, was gradually waking.  Older women carried netted bags with groceries from the bazar; the men smoked.  The young raced, chased, took for granted stretches and stretches of time.  The sun had been beaming down; and although it didn’t have the strength to thaw out the iced pavements yet, the smells of eventual spring could already be detected in the air.  Everything was beginning to exhale.  Larisa smiled:

But, of course, change would come!  It always did!  In her memory, there was no specific day when this awareness had happened in her, no event that — again, with time — revealed its lesson:  that she wasn’t really living all this time, but merely waiting for her days to end, wasting them on worry, on an anticipation of her own expiration and on counting up her lacks.  Growing tired, perpetually tired, she found herself lacking patience.  How could her life force fade so early on?  And she was terrified of it:  to lose the joy of living would make a life’s uselessness more daunting.  She didn’t want to live with that.  And she was not going to lose the hope!  No, not the hope; not the sometimes demonstrative belief of hers that people were prone to goodness; and that even though she could never expect it, kindness would make its presence known, and it would lighten up at least some events with grace.  Oh, but she needed to — she had to! — believe that!

Watching the rush of morning trolleys clunk past her, Larisa decided to walk.  The cold stiffness of the air entered her lungs, brought on an alertness.  The kindness hadn’t slept a wink that night.  And so, she continued to roam through her city, with books in hand:  the city which she hadn’t made her home yet, just a place where she would watch her youth unfold; but at any moment, she could give it up, take off again, the gravity of responsibilities not affecting her yet; and she could chose any place (she could go any place, really!); and the mere awareness of such freedom made the heart swell with tearful gratitude.

In that state, while absorbing the city from the top stair of the library building, she had met him.  It was the music, at first, streaming out of the rolled down window of his car.   She stopped to listen to it:  Chopin?  Debussy?  In the gentle strokes of the piano movement, the city glistened.  She stepped down and resumed her walk.

“I was just thinking myself, ‘Am I ready to part with this Blok collection?’”  He had gotten out of the car and was now leaning against the passenger’s window at the back seat.  Larisa smiled:  Blok — Russia’s golden boy of poetry — had made her girlfriends swoon all through college.  She studied the man’s face for a glimmer of ridicule:  Had he seen her leaving the building with half a dozen of hard-bound (cloth) tomes, half of which she had renewed, unready to part with the moods, the atmosphere they proposed?  But if anything, the man was smiling at his own expense, bashfully and maybe even seeking her opinion on the matter.  She considered it, then spoke carefully:

“You should try some early Akhmatova.”

“Too tragic,” he responded, “especially for the end of this winter.”

That’s it!  Right there, she knew exactly what she meant!  But for the first time, she did’t catch herself forced into a space of controlled flirtation from which she could observe — but not always appreciate — the effects of her presence.  How can I hold all this space now, she thought; how can I stand here, not putting up the heightened facade of my sex?

She couldn’t remember if it had ever been this easy before.  Aloneness would still happen, of course, even if this were indeed the evidence of her change.  It wouldn’t stop, neither would she want it to.  But now it united, linked her to the rest of humanity; and even in the isolation of the specificity of her most private experiences, she would understand so much; and in that surrender (if only she could manage to not lose herself in fear again), she was certain she would find kindness.

Aged

(Continued from July 15th, 2012.

Her previous thoughts on motherhood had brought her no peace.  There were times she feared them even; intolerably changing tram cars when in too close of a proximity to a small child or sometimes a pregnant woman; feeling her own intimidation at the span of her life rise up in her:  What would happen if she were to have a child?

It was as if she was allergic to the very idea of it, perhaps until she was ready, with time.  Except that readiness never really arrived:  Fear simply changed places with acute loneliness to which the sometimes seemingly easy solution presented itself in a trustful face of an infant.  Maybe, that’s it.  May, that’ll fix it.  Maybe, if only she had a baby, she’d learn how; and perhaps, she’d grow softer.  But it could also be just the very opposite — losing traces of self in the chaos of unknowing; and every single time, she shook the idea out of her hair as if it were a mere layer of dust from the construction site she passed every morning, on her way to the university.

“But you don’t have much time!” the other women warned her, their faces altered by some insider knowledge, for which she was expected to be grateful.  Many had already procreated more than once by her age.  “You’ve gotta try it,” they suggested with knowing smiles.  “You’re gonna love being a wife!”  (No one ever stopped to differentiate between the two events:  motherhood and marriage did not have to be bound into a sequence.)

And she’d seen her own former school mates float around the city bazar with growing swellings of their stomachs — “I didn’t know she’d gotten married already!” — appearing too hot, uncomfortable or weighed down; rarely looking blissful.  To her, the young mothers appeared to have gone distances.  They were gone, off to the places outside of all this:  This place, in the middle of winter, always just making it.

Most of Larisa’s girlfriends had left the town in the first five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Angela got into a law school in St. Petersburg.  Oksana left for Israel.  It happened in such a rapid succession, she didn’t get a chance to ask anyone yet:  Do you feel that way sometimes too?  (Larisa’s mother seemed to have no tolerance for such questions.)

Meanwhile, mother’s girlfriends dropped loud hints in her vicinity:

“Perhaps, Larisa is just not into it.”

“All books — no boys.”

A bluestocking, the librarian type.  An old maid.  Larisa wasn’t necessarily plain looking, but had always been bookish; and that would be intimidating to anyone, let alone a man with a domestic proposition for her.

“She should try putting on lipstick sometimes.  She’s not that bad looking after all!”

It had to be a particular quality to the Russian women:  to cross the lines of respect into forced familiarity, as if, just on the mere basis of their common sex, they could treat her as an fumbling ignoramus.  Some of her mother’s girlfriends she always found invasive and somehow intentionally diminutive.  It was if they knew better, and she should too.  Often disguised with good wishes, they invaded and pointed out where she somehow didn’t measure up to the accomplishments of others, even though she, all along, strived for something different; something more specific, more organic to its environment:  like the color of sunset before a thunderstorm, or the way her footsteps sounded after each first snowfall and they moved the heart to awe by the magnanimity of it all, even though it couldn’t be — nor needn’t be — described.

And then, there was their insincerity, one might even call it “mean spirits”.  Larisa looked to her mother for a back-up, but the woman didn’t see it her way:  Mother was always better at belonging:

“Such things, Larisa, they take a woman’s heart to understand!”

The little girl had let go of her grandmother’s skirt, sat down onto the dirt floor of the church and rested her chin on top of the propped up knees.  Larisa hadn’t noticed that the child had been studying her.  The hum of the recorded organ had carried her away; not because she would’ve rather been elsewhere.  No, she enjoyed drifting off like this, and then observing the world from a haze of her own thoughts; vague and left better undefined.

And she had known men — one Pyotr Nedobry — who forced their own thoughts to be defined and insisted to interpret hers.  With attentiveness rooted in hunger, Pyotr would study her with desire:  as if she could fix it, be his long sought-out solution, whatever had been missing out of her life.  And when he, last May, lifted her up over his shoulder and ran toward the lake, she was expected to laugh.  Instead, she couldn’t catch her breath.  Too late, she thought.  Such romance no longer tempted her.  Or maybe, she was the type to have lived out her youth already, for there was nothing left to miss of it; no delightful memory but the mournful knowledge that she, indeed, was never really youthful.

Pyotr Nedobry placed her down, that day, on the lawn, by the bank.

“The dandelions!” Larisa tenderly whispered.  They were everywhere!

“Oh, I know!  So annoying!” Pyotr exclaimed, and he took off his jacket so that they could sit down without staining their clothes.  Not at all what she had meant!

They spoke while looking out.  He would pick up blades of semi-dry grass, small branches, sharp-edged pebbled and continue sticking them into her slip on shoes.  Hurtful, irritating — he demanded too much!

If she were to go for it, she knew at first the attention would be elating; and it would lighten her days for a while.  But she had already done that, a number of times!  Once with a student from Argentina who convinced her that he would be her life’s regret if she didn’t let him woo her.  He wasn’t.  And all this attention eventually turned on itself.  Everything that they would learn of each other could become ammunition, for it was humanly impossible for one woman to get the job done.  She would grow tired and mourn the mysteries she’d surrendered under the influence of lust.

“All these girly secrets!” Pyotr smirked, looking down at her, sideways.  He was already becoming mean.

And she — was already gone.

Larisa looked up at the statue of Christ.  The sun, parting the clouds after a week of snowfall, shined through the colored bits of the mosaic windows; and a column of caramel-colored light came down onto the thorn-crowned head.  Larisa felt warmer:  That’s it!  That’s how she wanted to discover beauty:  never expecting it, never molding the circumstances that were out of her control; but by simply and habitually mending her spaces, she could give room for it all — to flood in.

Suspended Saints

Now that she’s arrived, was there anything else to it?  A life summoned itself and paused for a while.  Yes, there was always a pause, Larisa noticed; a breather in between the chapters.

She never imagined her death, never was the type to bear the hubris of planning her own funeral.  Like weddings, death demanded metaphors.  To capture oneself, to be summarized, direly:  But how can one not be so many things at once?  Besides, the way she felt, ceremonies strived for a shared experience; not a centralized meditation that treated the self as the object of all other events; that separated and sought how different one was from the rest, taking for granted the universality of it all.  She didn’t have the ego for it.

Larisa had been living for others, certainly:  a symptom assigned mostly to her gender.  In her family, she had witnessed the earlier generations of women lose themselves in sacrificial love.  For the sake of their children, their husbands, their aging parents, they carried on serving; until they found themselves having a hard time remembering what they themselves had wanted, originally, all along.  Remember those days?  How many times she’d heard the mournful reminiscence in a woman’s voice:  Those days!  What happened since then, Larisa wondered, herself still a young girl; what force of obscurity slithered itself in between and demanded for a retraction, or a delay at least.

Definitely, she wouldn’t lose the sight of her own purpose, she thought!  Yet, the loneliness came scratching at the backdoor, becoming louder as she compared the things other women claimed as accomplishments:  dramatic courtships, the victory in which meant expensive weddings and doting husbands, as one could only hope; then, the automatic events of pregnancy and nest acquiring (building, building, gaining weightiness); the demands of a chosen lifestyle, or in the cases of the less fortunate — merely survivals.  Every woman she knew had leapt into all of it without ever questioning the reality of her expectations.  How could their husbands — the equally unknowing human beings with a whole other set of expectations imposed onto them — keep up?  They too, when young, once dreamt of following the call of the world’s magnificence.  But lives demanded to be defined by success; and what others made of success — was not at all what she’d imagined.

There was love, of course.  There would always be love.  Beyond her own anxiety and self-judgement, she could see that a life was only as successful as the love one projected.  Still, in the beginning, it was loneliness that determined the pursuit of it; and loneliness made things more urgent, non-negotiable and somehow crucial.  It conformed the shape of love, so it could fit into the missing parts; make-up for the previous mistakes of others; fix, mold, make it better.  Because in a person, there were always parts missing:  from too much love, or not enough of it, from the prototypes of our lovers (god bless our parents!), who couldn’t possibly step up to what love was meant to be, as she thought of it:  all forgiving, non-discriminating, fluid.

And what about the needs?  One had to have needs.  It was a path of nature.  Larisa found the balance between the self-fulfillment of those needs and the ones she could hand over to another — unpoetic and stressful.  So, she chose to handle all of them on her own; not with any sense of confrontation or showmanship, but with the esteem of self-reliance.  And surely, Larisa thought, it would only elevate the love.  Surely, if one handled the demands of one’s survival with this much grace, there would be more room for the beauty and the compassion; the reflection of the self in the suffering of others and the almost rapturous feeling of knowing exactly how it felt to be another; for such a love lacked fear, and it could take up spaces with its tide-like tongues, and whenever it retracted, one only had to wait for its return.  In light, in easiness:  What surrender!

 

Larisa wasn’t really sure how or where, in the self, the unease began.  On that day — a day unmarked by any significance — she’d gone into a church.  With her head bowed and eyes half-closed, she didn’t seek answers or help, only a space from which to observe the ways her thoughts moved, sometimes birthing moods, sometimes — nothingness; and she watched herself alter, even while in stillness, mind creating matter; thoughts becoming intentions; and she cast the net into the endless vagueness and brought them back into the very is-ness of her:  Into what she believed the most.

This church appeared make-shift, marking a spot where, under an influence of a former fanatical thought, an ancient Russian cathedral had been burnt down over half a century ago.  A modest wooden building, unheated, undecorated, in a shape of a polygon, sat in the shadowy corner of a square.  The country was living through an era of resurrected gods and revalidated heros, often dead by now, having been taken for granted for the sake of simplifying a former common ambition.  Things crumbled.  Alliances turned chaotic.  And when everyone woke up to amended history — figures worthy of worship long gone and nearly forgotten — a common panic ensued.  For even if it weren’t the ego that made a people matter, it had to be their spirit; a common memory of a civilization.

The roads had frozen overnight; and at first, she had snuck-in to thaw out her stiff toes.  She purchased a candle at the door, mostly out of habit.  She didn’t even know how that particular ceremony worked.  Two side altars, with figures of crucified saints, sat against the walls of the church, opposite of each other.  Standing there for a while, still and unnoticed, she studied the other women who moved like ghosts across the dirt floor.  Everyone was fully clothed.  She looked down at her feet and shifted:  There was little hope of her finding much warmth there.  Still, she stayed.  She paused, and in the growing shadows of her memories, she waited.

Older women in head scarves, with histories written across their tired faces, were crossing themselves at their chosen mantels.  Some moved their lips in prayer, repeatedly lowering their heads in a manner that came after so much practice, one was no longer moved by it.  What misfortunes had brought them here?  Loss required humility, otherwise one was consumed with fury.  Her country had lived through tragedies with a numbness of habit.  Resignation was often advised by the elderlies, yet she found herself incompetent at it.

She took another look at the suspended saints and walked over to the side alter with a Christ whose eyes were semi-open.  A little girl in a rabbit fur hat clung to the leg of her grandmother.  Larisa looked down at the child and without raising her hand, moved her fingers inside the mitten.  The child, sensing an interaction, got shy and clutched the old woman’s leg with more zealousness, for children often appeared overwhelmed with the energy of living.  Their egos struggled with the life force they had been granted (what were they supposed to do, to be?  how did they matter); and juxtaposed against the even flow of hours — one’s magnificence was only seen in silence, she believed — the egos expanded; for surely, they had to become something better.

(To Be Continued.)

The Other Half

(Continued from July 1st, 2012.)

At the end of the summer, Marinka aimed to take entrance exams to the two top medical institutes in the city.  Mother offered to pull some strings:  The woman was never at a lack of connects.  But I’ve gotta give it to sis!  She was determined to get in on the basis of her merit alone.  (In those days, the idealism of the Russian youth tended to have a longer expiration date.  Skepticism stepped in much later, flooding anywhere where the Soviet control of information gave room.)

So, after half of June spent on cramming for her high school finals, Marinka hibernated for about week; then, immediately resumed her studies.  Mother wasn’t thrilled about it:

“Now, instead just one bookworm, I have two Oblomovas in the house!”

Those days, I began to wonder about what constituted a woman’s happiness.  Mother, whose only expression of joy was overly stretched, forced —  a sort of a strained delirium — didn’t strike me as genuine, but something quite the opposite, nearing insanity.  She wasn’t happy in the way that Olya Morozova seemed, in her mother’s altered dress, on her own wedding day.  And any time I’d seen her since, blissfully pregnant or contemplatively picking tomatoes at a market on weekends, she looked like someone composing a complicated orchestral movement:  Lost in thoughts that she desired, never seeking approval (and why would she need it, with her moderate beauty, always basking in adoration?); content but not out of love or out of curiosity; fluid, available; kind.

For the first few weeks, mother struggled with the no longer vague signs of her oldest daughter’s ambition.  She sized up our bunk beds, branding us with the name of the biggest lazy ass in the whole of Russian literature:  Oblomov.  Other times, she tempted us with distractions:  a rerun of Santa Barbara or the news of other women’s misfortunes.  It would happen mostly in that late afternoon hour, when mother, having returned yet again from a day of hunting for discounts and gossip, was expected to be in the kitchen.  And we were expected to assist, simply because we were daughters.  And therefore born female.  And therefore, we had no choice.  (But one always had a choice, even in the country that didn’t advertise freedom.  We could choose the other way:  the way outside of the expected, of the presumed.)

In response to the call for confrontation, I listened to my sis remain motionless above my head.  It gave me the courage to stay sprawled out on my stomach as well, despite the signs of mother’s fuming in the doorway.  The smell of her perfume lurked more oppressively than her silence.  The anxiety of always, somehow, being perpetually wrong — inappropriate, incorrect — stirred in my chest.  What was to happen?

Mother exhaled audibly, turned on her heels and stormed out of our room, making a ruckus with the bamboo curtains in the doorway.  I held my breath, just in case of her abrupt return; until a few moments later, the kitchen appliances began tuning into an orchestra of percussions.  I suppose a light touch does not belong to every woman; and our mother exorcised her frustrations via the objects that reminded her of domesticity.

I slathered up the ladder to Marinka’s bed and rested my chin on the last plank:

Sis looked up:  “Hey, monkey.”  She stopped chewing on her pencil for long enough to smile faintly, as if to herself.  There was that mystery, again; the place of thoughts where women departed — to create, to process, to understand; or maybe rather to mourn, or to escape.

“Oooh,” I bulged out my eyes in the best dramatic delivery I’d inherited from mom, hissing:  “Mom’s pee-ssed!”

Marinka smirked — inhaled — and resumed making a meal out of her pencil again.  The two females had been in a bickering war this entire summer.  Still, sis would not speak unkindly of our mother, at least not to me.  To be the last to abandon her graces was my sister’s route to growing up.  Descending into silence, she never gossiped in return these days, only listened whenever mother couldn’t hold it in.

Sis was curled up in the corner or plastered against the wall.  She looked dewy and flushed.  Her eyes shined with the symptoms of the cooped-up syndrome.  She appeared sleepy and slightly dazed.  Colorful drawings of human insides, notebooks, flashcards, a pile of reference encyclopedias borrowed from the library, a tipi of stacked colored pencils were spread on top of the purple blanket we’d inherited from our grandmother in Siberia.  The old woman had died having accumulated nothing.

I watched Marinka’s plump lips mouth off unpronounceable terms.  Mean smart! Ignoring my adoration (which was always too nosy or too hyper anyway), she leaned forward to flip a page; and, as she sometimes did in obedience to the flood of her kindness, grazed the top of my head with her sharp nails.

In those moments, oh, how I missed her already!

 

Some afternoons, when the heat became so unbearable not even the open windows offered much relief, we agreed to leave the house for the river bank.  Half the town would have had the same idea by then.  Mother grumbled about how we had wasted half a day on our shenanigans; yet, from the way she readied herself — nosily, running in her bra between the closets and the bathroom I wondered if she relished arriving to a packed beach.  Giant straw hats with floppy edges were matched to colorful cotton sarafans with wide skirts that blew up at all the wrong times.  There was a weightiness to most of mother’s possessions.

I was ordered to carry our picnic basket.  Marinka was loaded up with blankets, towels and old linen sheets.  We treaded ahead, while mother joined and laughed with various families, also en route to the river.

As predicted, everyone and their mother was out catching a break from the afternoon sun.  The tilted bank was dressed with a smog of accumulated heat.  For days, it hadn’t let up.  Sheets and towels were splattered on top of yellowing grass, and families in various states of undress moved around sluggishly.  Seemingly every kid in town, with the exception of the Slow Vanya who was home-schooled all of his life, was now squealing and splashing in the water.

As soon as we reached the top of the hill, an abrasive smell of fresh cow dung greeted us when the barely palpable breeze blew in our direction:

“Oh.  We’ve missed the collective bath!” Marinka said under her breath.  She was becoming funnier, too.

En route to and from their feeding ground, the farm cows were led into the river daily, to cool down and to get a break from the murders of flies.   They must’ve just left.

Without getting up, the mothers were already hollering their instructions to the frenetic children again:

“Be careful, Irotchka!”

“Sasha!  Don’t manhandle your sister!”

“What did I tell you about swimming that far?!  MASHA!”

There were some fathers who got into the water on occasion, but they immediately got flocked by their own and other people’s children with runny noses and, for whatever reason, fatherless, for that day.

Our stuff hadn’t hit the ground, yet I was already squirming out of my clothes and hauling ass toward the water.  Marinka dropped her load and scurried off after me, still in her jeans skirt with rhinestones on her pockets.

“Marina!  Please watch where she goes!” mother, already slathering herself with sunflower oil in a company of her girlfriends, barely took notice of the fact that my beautiful, olive-skinned sister shed a few shades and turned nearly pale with terror.

She stopped.  “Mama?  She’s fine!”

I too looked back.  Seemingly every hairy male appeared to have propped himself up on his elbows to get a better look at my sister’s behind.  Mother was already gone, having departed quickly from any parental awareness.  Marinka was expected to step in.

I slowed down and waited for my sister to catch up.

“If you’re lonely, I don’t have to go in.”  Devotedly, I looked up at my sis.  She seemed so out of place here, somehow kinder than the rest!

“It’s fine, my monkey,” she reached for my hand and looked ahead, at the glistening water at the other edge of the river, and the field of sunflowers there; or possibly further beyond all that, maybe somewhere where her life was going to begin.

Making It Out

 (Continued from June 24th, 2012.)

After I got my first period — less than a month before my twelfth birthday — is right around when the two women began including me in their gabbing sessions, in the kitchen.

At first, I joined reluctantly:  I would much rather “waste my life away”, as mother dramatically accused me of, with a novel. But face it!  When the two of them returned from their separate errands, both beautiful and smelling of the same perfume — the flirtation of all the men still echoing in their voices — I would be a major “dura” to resist the temptation of their company.

And the stories, the day’s gossip — the life force pumping through the street of our town — seemed more titillating than my mother’s romance novels (through which I, when home alone, would rummage and then re-hide them in the cupboards of her bedside stand).  Now: Our neighborhood wasn’t really happening.  Someone would die, occasionally, after drinking too much.  Someone else got married, before an accidental pregnancy showed.  Both the town’s funerals and its weddings could be attended by anyone.  For Russians, it’s bad fucking karma to turn guests away!  So, as processions crawled through the main roads (not many Russians owned cars, not in those days!), neighbors joined in; because at the end of either line, they’d find free food.  And what’s more important:  Vodka!

Breathlessly, I listened to the women’s stories, never putting my two kopeks in.  Assigned the most menial jobs in the kitchen, like peeling of potatoes or sorting out grains of rice, I kept my head down and worked my ears overtime. At times, the exchange of information was packed with details so intense and so confusing, it hurt my brain to follow.  Still, I tried to comprehend in silence because asking either my sis or mother to repeat — was borderline suicidal.

“Now, mamotchka!”  (Marinka was already notorious for kissing up.  She’d learned how to work our mother’s ego.)  “Have you heard about Uncle Pavel?”

“Nyet!  What?”

The way my sis was blushing now, in the opal light of fall’s sunset, solidified that she was rapidly turning into her mother’s daughter:  A stunner, simply put.  The prospects of the townswomen’s matchmaking had already begun coming up at the dinner table; and every time, Marinka turned red and stole sheepish glances at our father.  There was no way around it:  She was easily becoming the prettiest girl in town!  Not in that wholesome and blonde Slavic beauty way, but an exotic creature, with doe eyes, long hair of black waves and skin the color of buckwheat honey.

Olga Kurylenko for Instyle Magazine

Marinka carried on.  “I got this from Ilyinitchna,” she gulped.  She’d gone to far, corrected herself:  “Anna Ilyinitchna, I mean.”  (The tone of informality common for most Russian women was still a bit to early for Marinka to take on.  But she was getting there:  Whenever she joined our mother’s girlfriends for tea, she was permitted to address them with an informal “you”.)

Mother was already enticed.  “What?!  What’d you hear?” she wiped her hands on the kitchen towel and turned her entire body toward my sister.

“He and Tatiana’s daughter…”  There, Marinka took notice of me.  She looked back at our mother for a go-ahead.  The silence was thick enough to be cut with a knife.  I pretended to not have heard anything.

But mom had no patience for not knowing:  “Oy, Marina!  Don’t stretch it out, I beg of you!  What did you hear?!”

Sis ran her nails to tame the fly-aways by pushing them behind her ears.  Her hair was thick and gathered into a messy construction on the back of her head.  Ringlets of it escaped and clung to her sweaty neck.

“Well?!  WHAT!”

Whenever mother spoke, I noticed the tension Marinka’s shoulders — a habit of a child who took on a regular beatings from a parent.  In boys, one saw defiant thoughts of brewing rebellion.  But it looked different in girls.  We had to bear.  It could take decades to grow out of oppression.  Some women never made it out.  They would be transferred from the rule of their parents’ household to that of their husbands’.  Forgiveness already started seeming too far-fetched.

Marinka blushed again.  Lord, give us the courage!  “He and Tatiana’s daughter were seen having dinner together in the city.  He took her to a rest-aur-ant!”  She slowed down, for effect:  Dining at Soviet restaurants was NOT a casual happening.  “And she was dressed like the last whore of Kaliningrad.  She now wears a perm, although I’m sure it’s not her parents’ money that pay for it.”  Sis was on a roll.  “I mean you see how Tatyana dresses!  The thing she wore for her husband’s funeral!  A woman of her age should watch such things!”

It felt like something lodged inside my throat.  Was it words?  Or a hair-thin bone from a sardine sandwich from my breakfast?  Although I didn’t understand the situation completely, I knew it wasn’t something that left my brain untarnished.

Mother, by now, was smiling ear to ear.  “Hold up!  Which daughter?!  Oh, Lord!  Is it Oksanka?!”

Marinka shot another stare in my direction.  You’ll break your eyes, I thought.  Oh man, I wanted to get out of there!  Blinking rapidly to remove the layer of forming tears — the shame!  alas, the shame of it all! — I fished out the next wrinkled potato from the iron basin at my feet and hurriedly scraped it with the dull knife.

“Well, Oksanka, mamotchka!  Of course!  She’s got that job at the City Hall, remember?”

“Well,” mom shook her head.  “WELL.  That little bitch!  She knows how to get around, I’ll give her that!”

I looked at Marinka, she — at me.  Mother bluntness was a common happening but even we were surprised at her bluntness.

“The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” mother concluded.  Marinka chuckled, fear freezing her eyelids into an expression of panic.  The clock of her girlhood had stopped its final countdown.

(To Be Continued.)

My Father’s Office

(Continued from June 17th, 2012.)

Mother gave out her orders for dad to go pick up some of her special bread for dinner.  The wide white baguette was the only thing she claimed to be able to eat:

“My stomach is allergic to that other peasant crap!”  She, of course, was referring to the bricks of wheat bread that dad and I could devour kilos at a time, given enough garlic and salt.  “And why don’t you take the small one with you?  Keep her from getting under my feet?”

Dad found me reading inside Marinka’s closet, where I had built myself a beanbag-like chair out of a pile of dirty laundry.  This was the only place in our two bedroom apartment where the constant stream of kitchen noises sounded reasonably muffled.

“Hey, monkey!” dad cracked open one of the doors.  “Wanna join Papka on a smoking break?”

Before I removed my ear plugs I’d made from cotton balls, I studied the handsome man’s face.  He — was my father.  Floating above me, nearly at the ceiling, as it seemed, he reminded me of those romantic leads in the old, black-and-white Soviet films:  usually some Labor Hero or the best and the brightest of the Party for whom love always arrived after success, and always in a form of the least likely — somewhat homely and nerdy — girl.  Dad’s eyes were radiating with tanned wrinkles.  His lips were resisting the type of a grin that happened whenever he tried his damn hardest not to act amused at my expense.

“A smoking break?  Well.  Yeah, sure.”  I shrugged one of my shoulders, slipped the index fingers in between the pages of The Master and Margarita, and placed the book face down.  (All the reading for our Literature Class I had completed back during my summer at the Pioneer Camp.  Since then, I’d been reading everything I could find in my parents’ library, in alphabetical order.  Considering I was still making my way through “B’s”, I hadn’t gotten too far.  But it took no more than a few chapters to know that this novel could get me into serious trouble.)

Dad stepped back to give me enough room to slip out of my office, and after I wrangled myself out of Marinka’s dirty bathrobe, he examined me head to toe and said:  “The consensus is:  You might need a jacket.”

“Yeah?  Should I wear rain boots, too?”

With one of his forearms, dad moved the tulle curtains and looked out of the window.  “Ooh.  Yeah,” he nodded.  “You’re right.  Looks like it might rain.”

I knew that.  Lying down on the floor, on my stomach, I was already fishing for the matching rain boot under our bunk bed.  In secret, I was hoping that my shoe, of boringly dull rubber, had been lost forever and that I would get to wear Marinka’s pair:  They were all shiny, with bright flowers; almost brand new and made in the very exotic country of China.  But the dark thing in the furthest corner turned out to be my missing rain boot.  That’s alright, I thought.  I will inherit the Chinese pair in no time!

“Are we gonna bring an umbrella, too?”

“Nah,” dad looked out of the window again.  “We aren’t the type to melt, are we?!”

Shaking the last of the dust bunnies from my abandoned rain boot, I felt a flurry of butterflies in my stomach.  Dad chose me!  He could’ve gone alone — but he chose my company!  The days of his endless travels were long gone.  The furthest he would depart these days would be to work on blown over phone lines that connected his Army Unit to what I assumed to be the Kremlin.  Still, every evening, the man looked for an excuse to stay out of the house.  Smoking was one of them.

As I began to mold into a serious runner at school and refused to wear dresses (besides my mandatory school uniform), dad and I began venturing out on walks.  Perhaps it was because my funny predisposition tickled my old man.  Being outnumbered had to be an already rough reality long before all three women of our household began menstruating on the same schedule.  So, I imagine it was a bit of a relief to discover that at least his youngest offspring could wish for no better occupation than to climb trees, outrun boys; bang nails into drywalls, go fishing or take endless walks through the town.  And to make our likeness even more daunting, I wasn’t one to talk much either.

Naturally, I didn’t go questioning as to where the two of us were now heading.  Not until we passed the gates of the town’s police station, already shut for the day — its only lightbulb above the main doorway reflecting in the wet asphalt like the second moon — that I asked:

“How come we’re in a hurry?”

Dad’s gait, always evenly paced as if he were marching in the Red Square parade, felt rushed.  Normally, he was more aware of the patter of my feet, echoing his own footsteps.  But that day, he was moving faster than I expected from our typical “smoking break”.  In parts, I’d had to jog a little to keep up.

The man took the cigarette out of his mouth, blew the smoke over this left shoulder, away from me, and said:  “Sorry, comrade!  We’re picking up your mother’s bread.”

“Well.  That’s understood,” I said, then zipped up my windbreaker and got ready to continue jogging, as if on a mission this time.  This business of mother’s needs was to be taken seriously.  Even I had learned that, by then.

“Understood?” dad smiled.  In my response, I had given myself the masculine gender.

“Under-stood,” I nodded, then jogged slightly ahead of him to get a better look at his face.  The same grin of his trying hard not to embarrass me was brewing on his lips.

Entirely pleased with myself, I saluted:  “Always ready!”

(To Be Continued.)