Dense

For as long as I could remember, my sister was always afraid of water.  She was eight years older than me; and as we both grew up, her inability caused me confusion, delight and pride at my own skillfulness — exactly in that order.

“That’s ‘cause you were born a total daddy’s girl!” Marinka teased me.  She was jealous.  Obviously.

It had become somewhat of a tradition between the two us to huddle up in her bunk bed at night (until she’d left for college, Marinka would always have the top); and for hours at a time, we flipped through the albums of black-and-white family photos, while Marinka told me the stories that predated me.  The stiff pages of teal cardboard smelled like the chemicals from the darkroom.  Lying on my stomach, I studied the contours traced by Marinka’s fingers, until my elbows became sore.

In the year of Marinka’s birth — 1967 — the Soviet Union was peaking towards its highest glory.  My sister was lucky to be born with a promising future of the citizen of the “Best Country in the World”.  But in exchange for that giant favor, our dear Motherland claimed the life our father.  Well, not literally, of course:  This isn’t your typical sob story, of vague third-worldliness, in which the parents die off too young, leaving their poor children seriously messed-up for the rest of their lives.  Dad just had to work a lot, that’s all.  So, Marinka wasn’t exposed to a fatherly influence during those tender, formative years.

For weeks, for months at a time the old man would be gone from our household.  According to Marinka, it made our mother none too happy.

“Really?” I whispered while patting yet another image of my mother holding her firstborn in a professionally done family portrait, while father was, well, not there.

At that point Marinka would realize she’d gone too far — after all, I was only six years old — and clumsily, she changed the subject:  “Ugh!  Stop groping my photos so hard!  You’re gonna leave a mark!”  I sat up into an imitation of her cross-legged position.  The secret was to wait for Marinka’s temper flares to fizzle out.

Soon, the story continued.

In response to his woman’s nonsense, father would smile discretely; and mother would have no choice but take his word for it.  No, wait.  Considering the man never spoke much, it was his silence that she had to trust.  And if dad were a cheating, lying scumbag, like the likes of his coworker Uncle Pavel — a handsome, salt ‘n’ pepper haired player with a mustache of a Cossack — he could’ve gotten away with it.  I mean, the man was gone all the time.  No matter the town or the city in which the family settled (for half a decade at the most), soon enough dad would go off to the same place called “the Polygon”.

Now, that’s exactly the part that Marinka could never clarify for me:  While I patted the images of our uniformed father — gingerly this time — she couldn’t explain if he was going to the same place, or if our glorious Motherland had these Polygons up the wahzoo.

“Did mama cry?” I detoured back to gossip.

Marinka considered.  “Nah.  If she did, I never saw it!”  Out came the photo of mother surrounded by her colleagues, laughing at the camera.

What else was the woman to do?  After about a week of her spousal absence, mother would begin going over to her girlfriends for dinner nearly every night.  Sometimes, Marinka came along.  But on Saturdays, all the women dressed up and went to a discoteca, leaving my poor sister to her own devices.

“Oy, no!” I tried my luck at flattery.  “But who’d change your diapers then?”  I knew my time was running out, and soon enough Marinka would get bored by my endless questions.

Sure enough, “You idiot!” sis scoffed.   “She waited until I grew out of them before she started going out!”  For a moment, we both studied mother’s graduation portrait in which she, a Komsomol member, looked like that one actress from Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears.  “You’re so dense sometimes, Irka, I swear!”

Before my sis would succeed in chasing me out of her bunk bed though, I managed to give a decent comeback:

“Ooh!  Look at you, using big words and stuff.  Dense does as dense sees!”

“Get out, I said!” sis flipped out.  A person of great impatience, she really did inherit mostly my mother’s prickly predisposition.  (I, of course — was my father, reincarnated.)  “And look at your feet!” Marinka squealed if she got a glimpse of my sandbox activities marked all over my soles.  “I’m so telling mom!”

I don’t know about the rest of the world and its children — who, as our Motherland promised, did NOT have as happy of childhoods as we did — but Marinka’s telltale threats were worse than, say, the warning of the nuclear attack from America.  Mom was the biggest disciplinarian around town!  Or maybe even in the whole of the Soviet Union!

Sometimes, Marinka did manage to tell on me.  But with age, I’d gained enough escape routes from the house, to never let my mother’s disciplinarian belt to graze the skin of my ass.  If worse came to worst, I climbed out of our kitchen window and hid in the giant pear tree, in the garden.  No one but armies upon armies of honey bees was ever much interested in that giant monster anyway.  In the summer, they flunked the heavy branches of sour fruit.  But for the rest of the year, that pear tree made an excellent hiding place.

Besides, from an early age, I had noticed the difference in the athletic predispositions between the women of our family.  That is to say that my mother and sister had none!  I, on the other hand, was the best son that father could ever desire!  I could run faster than any of the boys in my elementary school, and had scabs to show for it.  Playing with my sister’s girlfriends didn’t interest me in the least, unless, of course, they were jumping rope.  Then, I was like a grasshopper gone berserk inside a glass jar.  And nothing transcended me into a better sense of zen than to climb trees and to organize and reorganize my father’s tool box, over and over again.

(To Be Continued.)

The Other Side of Things

(Continued from June 3rd, 2012.)

In beginning of the summer, he told her he would be flying in.  She waited for a clarification, in silence.

The flurry of his messages resumed in a few days:  the tiny little jabs that, with his craftiness and her gullibility in tow, could easily be reinterpreted as tiny strokes of her ego; and if she really, really wanted to feel needed and missed — she could be pleased.  He was visiting his mother.  She said hello, said that she was sorry about how things had turned out.  She’d always “liked her”.  He spoke about how sick and tired of the North-East he had grown.  (They’d moved there together years ago, on the basis of her curiosity alone, pretty much.  Being young in New York sounded perfect, at the time.)  And wouldn’t it be nice to raise a family out here, instead?  She would’ve made a wonderful mother.

On that, she came out of her silence:  “What do you want, Mike?!” she texted.  (She had always avoided abbreviations in her messages; but with him, she also insisted on being brutally precise with her punctuation.)

But her irritation went right over his head:  “dunno hang out?” he wrote back.

It had to be a bliss to not see life’s gray areas at all, and to trample over other people’s precious boundaries with this much oblivion.  Or could he be simply manipulative?  Perhaps, he enjoyed watching her lose her cool, for his sake.  But the casualty with which he treated their break-up she found plainly and increasingly offensive:  He had been acting as if nothing terrible had happened at all and as if they could remain friends, on the other side.  Didn’t he know long it took for her to achieve the lightness of the forgiven past?

They took a few days off from talking.  She began sleeping a lot.

 

When he finally appeared, she wished her mind had tricked her into not recognizing him.  She wished he had changed.  But no:  A pair of long shorts ending at his half shins; a one inch buzz cut of his coarse, tight curls, which he had worn the same way for years; and a backpack.  And a sizable backpack at that!  (The day they met back in college, she was stumbling across the campus from the bus stop.  Having left her glasses at home, she was walking by memory.  He was leaving his Calculus class, in shorts and — yes! — with a backpack.  A sizable backpack!)

Now, he was walking on the opposite side of the street.  He seemed to have noticed her from ways away.  Eventually, she noticed him too:  that gait, that tilt of the head.  She felt zero sentimentality.  Once they made eye contact, he didn’t smile.  Neither did she.

“Oh, no!  Your hair!” he said right off the bat.  He now stood in front of her, his lower lip chapped from the wind.  “What happened to your hair?”

She had cut it all off, in the heat of the new city; and she’d been keeping it that way, since they’d last seen each other.

“And where are you off to?” she responded, immediately defensive.  “Camping in the canyons?”

It was just like she remembered the very end of them:  terse non-sequiturs and impatient physical contact.  Now, they had both grown older, but not kinder.

Considering to take an offense, he looked at her with his shiny eyes, then shrugged.  They exchanged a stiff hug.  (How long does it take for the muscle memory of lovers to fade?)  She braised the air near his cheek with a polite kiss, but their skin never touched.  He pulled away, held her arms for a moment, looking into her eyes.  Forcing it.  Then, after studying her boyish hairline again, he shook his head.  At least, he was smiling this time.

“Can I get you a drink?” he sized up the empty plastic cup on her end of the patio table, with its walls murky from a blend of coffee and milk.

“I don’t know:  Can you?”  She narrowed her eyes.  She was beginning to feel tired and bitchy again.  A tension headache was squeezing her temples.  She sat back down.  His backpack now took up the chair across from her.  She began to study pedestrians, particularly the ones with dogs.  When the dogs were left waiting outside, tied down to immoveable objects, she wondered how this much love could ever be forsaken.  How could love survive this much waiting?

When he returned, with two identical iced drinks, he plopped the backpack down onto the dirt patch, himself — into the chair.  Brazen, she thought.  Not even an apology for having her wait for him for nearly half an hour.

“So.  How the hell are you?” he said, while twirling the cubes of ice inside his coffee with a straw.  They clunked against each other, dully.

“Well.”

He nodded:  “Yeah.  I’d say.”  She watched him take a good stretch in his metal chair and yawn.

“You?” she said.

“Bueno!” he said and grinned at her with that boyish bravado that he’d nearly lost at the end of their marriage.  His arms hung stretched behind his head.  “It’s good to be back, I’ll tell you that much,” he said.

She felt her headache tighten.  She needed fresh air, or rather moving air, against her face.  She wanted to be crying under the rain.  She wished to be in the water.

So, she stood up, groped the chair for her purse and picked up her drink.  “Mind if we walk to the beach?” she said.

His eyes, despite the panicked confusion (was it something he said?), began to shine with a curiosity.  “Yeah.  Sure,” he responded.  “That would be awesome!”

She shook her head.  He was pushing now.

Not wanting to go through the store filled with other people, exhausted by the sun, she began to search for the gate of the patio.  She needed to be near the water, to hear it, and to imagine all that distance stretching ahead of her and all the places on the other side.

Stronger

“So typical!” she thought after having gotten the message about his running late:

“Traffic.  B there in 5.  Smiley face.”

The part about the smiley face was written out.  In the very moment of reading his message, she was not tickled by his charm at all.  The joke felt stale and smart-Alec-y, and it was probably aimed at her expense:

Well!  He remembered that but not that I despise tardiness.  “So disrespectful!” she muttered to herself.

She’d already parked the car and taken the stairs.  A lanky man going the opposite way in the staircase overheard her.  Behind his bifocals, he blinked rapidly and hugged the wall a little more.  A tourist!  She, for a brief moment, considered covering it up:  by pretending to be on her cell phone or improvising a tune to which the overheard words could belong.  But she was too annoyed.  She clammed up until alone again, on the next flight of stairs.

What irritated her the most, it seemed, was that after all these years, he hadn’t changed at all.  She had.  She had had to!  He’d altered the course of their lives with a single request to end to their marriage four years ago.  She moved herself across the country, as if her shame would lessen with no mutual witnesses around.  She’d gotten tired to wrench her guts out in front of friends.  Their sympathy was too short of a consolation anyway, with nothing on the other side of it — but an even more agitated loneliness.

In a new city, she could blame all the hardships on her relocation.  That way the divorce would come secondary; and on the list of common fears — moving, death, break-ups, public speaking — some of hers would be at least on the same plank.  Divorce or departure.  Departure or divorce.  They became interchangeable causes for every new obstacle for a while.  But eventually, each claimed its own time of day.  Departure took the daylight, while nights were consumed by the consequences of the divorce.  She started going to bed earlier.

When things weren’t well, she’d text-message the ex.  It was a habit of the fingers — not of the heart.  She took him bouncing between her little devastations and the recently increasing occurrences of her gratitude.  No matter her original intention though, they always ended up bickering.  Recycling became their long-distance pattern.  But it seemed to her — and she knew she wasn’t alone in this — they both found comfort in that repetition, how ever painful the results.

 

“Fuck that, D!  What do YOU want?” her stepbrother Tommy, with whom she’d grown close through all of this, would say.  The man never slept; and when she called in the midst of her own insomnia, she’d often catch him painting at sunrise in New York, never having gone to bed at all.

Tommy was adamant that no good would come from her constant contact with the ex.  “All you’re doing is delaying the pain, man.  He won’t change.  It’s all about you!”

But that was exactly was she feared.  It was easier to fish for an apology — or at least a recognition — in her interactions with the ex:  some sort of an acknowledgement of all that former goodness of hers that he had taken for granted, by ending it.  It was as if she’d wanted him to love and lose again (someone else, of course, because even she wasn’t dumb enough to go in for seconds), just so he could learn to miss her.  It was the only route to getting even that she had known.

The ex and she continued fighting.  For weeks afterward, she’d wait for an apology.  There would be substantial silence (in which she began to see glimpses of a lighter life, a better self).  After a timeout though, his messages would come in flurries, a few days in a row:  Some woman wore her perfume on the subway.  He’d found an old photo in his college notebook.  A mutual friend had asked about her.  He missed her legs, her hair…  By what right?!

In the beginning, she did respond reflexively, as if flattered by the contact.  But when his tone turned whiny — he “missed her”, “wanted her” — she got irritated fast:  Who’s fault was that, exactly?!  And when he began insinuating at his lust, she would get struck with guilt toward his new woman.  The pattern grew old, like the baby blanket from her own childhood which she’d been saving for her firstborn.  The firstborn took its time happening while the blanket became a reminder of yet another one of her inadequacies.  She began to feel hard of forgiveness.  There was no way around it:  He’d made a mistake; and she, still picking up the pieces on the receiving end, failed to let go.

Carla Gugino for Esquire Magazine

“I mean:  Do you even want him back?” Tommy sounded flabbergasted.  He seemed so different from her!  Stronger.

But Tommy was different:  He belonged to a separate genetic line of bold spirits:  artists, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, marine biologists, heros.  At family gatherings, they all came in with colorful stories about the world in which neither habit nor fear seemingly played any role.  Her people were hospital administrators and medical assistants, for as long as she remembered.  Being concerned with records of pain, causes and possible treatments was their daily bread.

(To Be Continued.)

Too Far

It was the most abhorred sound to the ear:  A combination of pain and anguish, layered on top of a man’s hysteria.  It seemed to have come from down below, from the streets.  Perhaps, not unusual for the streets of Manhattan, but it’s been years since I had left.  I had wanted space — and space I had received.  Miles of it, with dozens of different cities crammed into one.  And the distance between each other was at times too significant to mend with compassion.

“Fucking spoilt!  Some people don’t have anything… (mumble, mumble, hmmmm).  Why are you like this…”  (Here, I thought he called her by her name.)   “YEAH!  YEAH, YOU ARE!  SO FUCKING SPOILT!”

I looked out of the window.  The end of spring hadn’t yet burnt off the green from the hills.  I studied the bits of lawns, visible in between the rooftops of my street.  The next street over had a more monochromatic look to it, with a row of two-storied, eggshell-colored buildings with those thin metallic windowpanes, painted white, only strong enough to withstand the climate of Southern Cal.  The screens of bathroom widows were narrow and dusty.  An Armenian looking woman, with a hairnet stretched over her auburn perm, was unloading the trunk of her son’s SUV, in the uncovered parking spot of the building below.  The son, with one leg on the ground, the other — still under the steering wheel — was staring at the screen of his mobile phone.

“YOU!  YOU!  YOU took all of it!…  (mumble, mumble, pain).  And now, I don’t have a savings account!”  (He must’ve said her name, again).  “I’ve sacrificed everything!  FOR WHAT?!”

The voice of the screaming man appeared to have no effect on the son or the mother, both consumed by their business in the parking lot.  I unlatched the sliding doors of my patio.  The accumulated dust had discolored the doormat underneath my feet.  It felt grainy.  The rains of this past winter had marked the pink, uneven floor with circular stains, with jagged edges.  I should really make a habit of sitting out here more.  But the work!  The work.  It consumed every bit of presence in a day; until half a day’s sunlight passed and my desire to find myself amidst other humans — completely burnt away.  And the slowness of an aware mind would be gone, gone, gone, into the daze of exhaustion.

The man by now was screaming.  Just screaming:

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHH.  (Inhale.)   AAAAAGGGGHHHH.  AAAAAGGGGHHHH.”

Angst.  One uninterrupted, unidentifiable sound, leaving a mouth crooked with pain so immense, I imagined, it had to seem impossible to survive.  But he would land on the other end of it, most likely.  Because even if one reached the edge, the threshold, the limit — too far, unthinkable for a human heart — one would have to go on living.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH…”

The mother, who had begun hanging the beige plastic bags onto her bent forearm, like unshapely lanterns, looked up.  She’d heard it too.

“You said, I don’t fucking love you anymore!  YOU!  YOU SAID THAT!  This, morning… (Mumble.  Moan.  Name?)  And then you went to work!”  (A squeeze of empathy made me brace myself.  I had begun disliking detours from my earned tranquility, even if it disguised itself as apathy.)  “Now, you have to live with that!  You said that!  YES!  YES, YOU DID.  And now, you live with it!”

The mother had to have said something to her son; because now, he too looked up.  Unready to confront humanity, I scurried off inside.  Quickly, I slid the door.  It thumped against the frame, too loudly.

I walked along the outer edges of my place.  I learned my ear against each of the four walls.  One of the walls vibrated with another, “AAAAGGGGHHH!”  The sound was happening next door, and I could now make out the words.

“Go try it, Lena!  Go!  Go see for yourself how other people live!”  He looked so young the last time I saw him.  In time, such loss shaves off years.  With most people though — it compiles them.  “But if you think I’m going to walk away in silence…”  His voice cracked then.  He stopped.  I think he broke down.

I stood against the wall.   In a short while, it was a woman that began speaking.  She had been silent until now.  “Mumble, mumble,” I could hear.  “Mumble, mumble, mumble, hmmmm.”

I could remember her:  A tall Russian girl with that particular face that looked majestic in photographs but slightly off in person.  Tall, blonde, blue-eyed and slightly timid, she suffered from an awkwardness in how she moved her body.  I’d met her in the lobby once.  We shared a giggle in an uncomfortable closeness while getting our mail, from our neighboring mailboxes.

“I hearrd,” she finally spoke, “zat you verre Rrussian to.”  Her accent stumped me.  After two decades of living here, I had acquired the arrogance of a native.  She waited for my answer, locked her mailbox and leaned her back against the wall.  Her legs outstretched in front of her, for meters and meters, as it seemed.  And when she saw my sizing up the distances before her, she pulled them back.  Her face blushed with a sheepish smile.

“Yes,” I spoke looking at her lips.  I wanted to decipher how she spoke.  “Yes.  It’s been years though.”

“Oh,” she ran her fingers through the hair behind her ear.  “Verre… um… you frrom?”

This would’ve been the perfect time to switch to our native tongue.

“I am from the West Coast,” I said in my second tongue, catching myself pronouncing things slower, directly to her mouth.  Something was off there, definitely, besides the accent.  I thought it could’ve been the structure of her jaw.

“Oh,” she said again.  “I sought you verre frrom Moscow.  Zat’s verre I’m from.”

“Go, Lena…  Go back home, if you want…”  The man was sobbing now.  Un-peeling myself from the wall, I stood deciding how much space this tragedy demanded.  Too many witnesses increase the shame.

I wondered how many days it would take each of them to find their way back.  Or had they lost the sight of it for good?  When bearings are lost along the way, it’s harder to recover.  I looked out of the window again.  The mother was gone.  So was her son’s SUV.  I sat back down and returned to work.

The Times They Were

(Continued from May 13th, 2012.)

Inna woke up to the sound of the television set, located on the other side of her bedroom wall.  It was a common occurrence in their apartment:  everyone’s mandatory obedience to the schedule of her mother’s whimsy.  Sunday mornings of waking up to blasting music, recorded from the previous night’s TV concert, for which Inna was rarely allowed to stay up, were a part of the family’s routine.  Each time, Inna would attempt to ignore the ungodly hour and bury her head under the pillow where she would often find a flashlight and the book that she had been reading, in secret, under the covers, the night before.  There, she would give her interrupted dreams another try.  But knowing her mother to be convinsingly oblivious, soon she would give up on any hope for silence; throw aside the covers in a fit of rebellion, and march into the kitchen, sleepy, grouchy and barefoot.  (To protest mother with her own loud noises was her only resource — NOT that it would be of any success).

Father was often already there, at the wobbly kitchen table, slouching over the Sunday Pravda, with a large cup of black coffee, next to the bowl of white Cuban sugar.

“Well, brown-eyed girl,” he’d greet her with a conspiring grin, sleep crowding the corners of his cornflower-blue eyes.  “Good morning, eh?”

“I’ll say!” she would respond.

Inna couldn’t recall exactly when it began, but a change was happening in her relationship with dad:  a newly found bond, mostly communicated with knowing silences and smiles that betrayed the seriousness of what was actually being said.  In her classes on Soviet literature, a similar smile appeared on the lips of her teacher Tatyana Ilyinitchna, whenever she read out loud the works of Gogol and Evgeny Petrov.  In the previous quarter, they had studied the concepts of satire and irony, adopted by the Soviet writers against censorship.  Inna suspected her teacher’s smile was related to those concepts — and that’s exactly how one was to read such works.  (Although she still, for the life of her, could not understand the difference between a metaphor and a simile.  But that was a whole other matter!)

Recently, she had also begun to notice her parents’ lackluster attempts to hide their arguments from her.  It was as if the two adults had suddenly grown tired, like many others in their town.  And while it appeared that everything else in the country was hurriedly revealing its flip side — scandals competing for the front page news, daily — Inna’s parents had also stopped putting up a front.  These days, father tended to drink more.  Mother bickered, easily irritable; and she eventually maneuvered their every argument to the deficit of money.

Still, father would never criticize his wife in front of Inna.  To the contrary, it was Inna’s mother who took such liberties in their one-on-ones.  And at first, Inna was thrilled:  Was mother also changing, from a strict disciplinarian to her friend and confidant?  But on their rendezvous into the city that summer, she quickly realized that mother’s confessions were a one-way dynamic.  Never was Inna permitted to quote her mother’s list of grievances or to voice her own.  She was there to merely keep her mother company; and it would be in her own best interest to adopt the delicate understanding of exactly when she was her mother’s ear — and when she was quickly demoted back to being her inferior (which quite often, as it turned out, happened in the company of other adults).

But this was a Monday morning.  With father traveling to Baykalsk, Inna was alone in her frustrations.  School would start in a couple of weeks; and she began anticipating the strenuous studies her first year of Junior High had in store.  After all, this was the year that everyone determined a profession and chose their future institutions.  Some boys would choose the army, although military service was no longer mandatory.  Inna, as most adults predicted, was bound for her mother’s job.  Which meant that after this year, she would be headed for the Pedagogical University No. 3.

“This once!  Couldn’t she just let me rest, just this once?!”  To stifle a grunt, Inna ducked under the pillow only to find the second — and the more tedious — tome of Mikhail Sholokhov’s Tikhy Don, which she pushed herself to finish, even if for the sport of being the only student in her class who had read everything on their summer reading list.

Not bothering to change out of her nightgown — “Maybe then she will feel guilty!” — Inna forwent washing up and made her way into the living room, from where the sounds were coming.  She had hoped to make enough noise with her bare feet, as well as the bamboo curtain hanging in her doorway, to let mother know that she was coming.  And:  that she was pissed!

In the living room, she found mother, in nothing but a beige bra and a pair of matching, shape-enhancing bicycle shorts that she would always wear underneath her pencil skirts.  She sat on the couch, nearly slipping off its seat cushion from leaning forward.  Mother’s right hand covered her mouth, as if to stifle any sound of torment.  Her eyes were glued to the TV screen.

On the small, black-and-white montage, Inna saw the footage of Moscow’s White House, flocked by tanks.  Crowds of locals had gathered around.  (Muscovites were always a courageous people!  Some of the best in the nation, Inna thought.  One day!  Oh, but one day, she would find herself among them, living on her own!)

At first, Inna assumed that mother was consumed by a documentary on one of the recent upheavals, of which, since the start of Gorbachev’s perestroika, there had been plenty.  When a newscaster with a knitted brow interrupted the footage, through the bits of fragmented news Inna gathered exactly what she had nearly slept through:  Gorbachev’s heart attack.  Change of leadership.  Moscow in a state of emergency.

It wasn’t the first passing of a leader in Inna’s lifetime, but she was too little to understand the grieving of the nation that followed.  But Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev:  She liked him a lot!  She found him to be one of the more handsome General Secretaries that the Party had ever had; and even though in recent folklore, he was the pun of multiple jokes — for his Ukrainian accent or presumed provinciality — he seemed to be a less mysterious figure, often appearing among crowds, talking to factory workers; and laughing with children, women and American politicians alike.

The newscaster proceeded building sentences that to Inna’s mind, still groggy from sleep, sounded nonsensical:  The roads leading in and out of Moscow appeared to be cut off.  There were reports of downed phone lines.  New leaders were in place.  The news seemed mixed, somehow suggestive; but already it appeared that this was not a typical succession of one leader after the next.

Mother, silent and unaware of Inna, sat still; and Inna knew:  All was quite serious.

“Ma?” she said softly, fearful to approach.  “How long?”  She couldn’t finish her thought.  She found herself unsure on how to act in time of great upheaval.

When mother looked at her, Inna remembered how prettily her eyes appeared in photographs.  In the darkroom that mother always made in their half-bathroom, Inna liked to walk along the shower curtain with drying black-and-white photographs and study the wet images.  Unlike Inna’s eyes — of bluish-gray, as if diluted from her father’s (a metaphor or a simile here?) — her mother’s irises appeared nearly black; mysterious and endless in all photographs.

But father’s eyes!  When on the previous month’s salary, the family purchased a color camera, for the first time Inna would notice just how blue — was their blue.  And often, they appeared illuminated by a stifled smile, as he the shutter caught him in the midst of reading Gogol, out loud.

 

They heard from father on August 22.  By that time, all of mother’s quiet stoicism had long dissipated.  She now wore strictly head-to-toe black attires when out on the town.  She left the apartment every morning, returning with a group of worried-looking girlfriends who served her tea, rummaged through the kitchen drawers, and for some reason always spoke in half-whisper whenever Inna entered.

For several days, Inna had gotten her fill of the news:  Her favorite General Secretary was fine after all, but out of the city on vacation.  She’d also seen reports about a young politician called Boris Yeltsin, who climbed onto the tanks and spoke willingly, from make-shift barricades, to both the Russian people and the press.

When townswomen came to take over the living room, Inna returned to her bedroom.  The women’s eyes on the TV screen, their spoons — in the jars of homemade jam, they whimpered when the news shifted from uncertain to anything poignant or tragic.  Some pecked at Inna’s mother; while others crossed themselves and nibbled on their crumpled, pastel-colored handkerchieves.

Despite avoiding these congregations at all costs, there — into the living room — Inna ran out, when she overheard her mother whaling on the phone, inside her parents’ bedroom:

“Oy!  Sasha!  Sasha!  Sashen’ka!  How scared I was!  How lonely!  What if you’d died!  I’m so scared!”

The other women clumped together in the bedroom doorway, and finding it impossible to get past their motherly behinds, Inna gave up and listened to the bits of news from the other side.

“Oy, Sasha!  I was so worried, I tell you!  I hadn’t slept a wink.”  (When mother’s tenderness surfaced, it wouldn’t last for long:  Impatience always crowded it out.)  “Udmurtya?  Still on the train?”

“Ah!  Glory to God!” the women exclaimed in the doorway.  “He must’ve gotten out of Moscow on time!”

“Oh, yes!  What the Lord giveth!”

“Lord!  Bless this family!”

Inna sized up the wall of motherly behinds again.  Feeling discomforted by the religious proclamations — which weren’t much done around her before — Inna returned to her room.  It was the first time she would notice that she’d run out with book in hand; a pair of her father’s giant earphones, unplugged and dangling around her neck.  (She had been using them to ward off the sounds of the women; their loud passing through the house, none of them offering to take off their heels.)

She looked outside the window.  The town’s cobblestone road glistened from that afternoon’s rain.  Inna remembered when, from the kitchen stove back at her grandmother’s one summer, she witnessed the old woman lower herself onto her knees.  Grandma had come out in a nightgown, in the middle of the night, to fetch herself a glass of water.  Her head, for a change, was barren.  A gray, long braid ran down her spine.  At first, the woman studied the black window with her own ghost-like reflection; and traced the cold glass along her lower jaw.  Before she kneeled, grandmother put down the glass, lifted her nightgown’s hem, and looked over her shoulder.  Inna, in her hiding spot, stopped breathing.

That was the first time Inna ever witnessed prayer.  She now imitated the old woman’s actions, slowly recalling them from memory.  Once kneeling, she felt awkward, silly.  But she forgave the unfamiliarity of the moment and lowered her head.

Chernoglazaya

(Continued from May 6th, 2012.)

Having arrived to the city a few hours earlier, father walked around the bus terminal in hopes of running into Inna and her mother, en their route back home.

“Bad news from Baykalsk,” Inna overheard from where her mother had run off, to hug her handsome, uniformed husband.  The hush among the other awaiting passengers meant that mother’s emotional outburst earned her the desired audience, yet again.  Her legs below the pink-lavender skirt appeared shapely; and her heels, that lifted out of the boats of the red stilettos, as reached to kiss her man, were round and soft.

Father’s mother — an Amazonian looking woman, with arms of sinew and leathery skin earned by working in the fields of the town’s collective farm — had suffered a heart attack that morning.  Inna’s grandfather, who could never beat his wife in rising early to tend to their livestock, found her still in bed, after he had returned from the outhouse.

“Will you look at her?!” he joked, at half voice, nudging the sheeted mound under which his wife had always slept, with her head fully covered.  “I think I’m feeding this one for nothing!”

As Inna remembered, there was always a bawdy familiarity between her grandparents, something that she had never witnessed in her own parents’ interactions.  When the tall woman worked in the kitchen, sweating over steaming pots or pummeling dumpling dough with admirable punches, Inna, who liked to hide out on top of the brick stove, had often watched her grandfather come up from behind his wife and land a loud smack onto his wife’s hips.  He would then leave his hand resting there, while he nuzzled her neck and demanded to be given a taste of things.  The woman would laugh and attempt to shake her husband’s hand off her ass, his chin — off her shoulder; but even Inna could see she wasn’t trying too hard.

The display of such affection tickled the girl.  But Inna’s mother had a different reaction:

“Such peasants!” she had once muttered as the family gathered for dinner, in the garden behind the grandparents’ house.

That early evening, grandmother, having climbed onto a short ladder, was reaching for the top branches of overgrown raspberry bushes, from which she was retracting giant, fuzzy berries, still warm from that day’s sun.  Her kerchief had slid off, and the cotton housedress, of matching material, rode up the woman’s legs to reveal the white elastic bands that held up her brown knee-highs.  For the first time, Inna took notice of her grandmother’s stark white skin and her protruding veins.  It was drastically different from the supple and brown skin of her mother, who had, minutes ago, came down from tanning on the house rooftop, for most of that afternoon.

When the men entered the gate, from their day of flipping hay in the field, all the women perked up.  Mother began to giggle and trace her hand over the top of her breasts, as if to wipe away the sweat from the hours of leisure in the sun, but then leaving it there to linger.  Inna’s aunt — a tall and slim woman with brutally protruding facial bones — checked her reflection in the brass samovar, that mounted the wooden table like a tzar before his court.  A field of mismatching serving dishes — covered with lids or saucers that warded off the flies — began to accumulate around the samovar.

The men, tired but boisterous from the gulps of home-brewed, iced beer, attacked the table on which Inna’s aunt kept rearranging the assortment of zakuski.

“Get!  Get!” the aunt began shooing them away, slapping their tan, hairy arms with a kitchen towel.  The men, grumbled and laughed; but managed to lift up the saucers and stick their dirty fingers into their contents, smacking their lips in approval.

Mother joined in:  “We aren’t finished yet!” she said, shooting her sister-in-law a conspiring look.  In loud laughter, she revealed her shiny front crowns, that glistened like plastic pearls, against her increasingly tan face.  “Go wash up!”

Having grabbed a handful of scallions and ducked them into a nearby cup of salt, Inna’s grandfather was the first to scurry off.

“Papa!” Inna’s mother scolded him, flirtatiously.

The old man paid her no attention.  Instead, he approached his wife, who remained unperturbed by the presence of men and the commotion they have caused among the younger women.  With each reach, her housedress continued riding above and below the white elastic bands at her knees; and she continued sizing up each berry with a concentration of a scientist.  Grandpa watched at first, the stems of scallions still sticking out of his mouth, moving in unison, as he chewed them.  When the plan of action appeared to have finally formulated in his head, he discarded the last of the stems with a theatrical gesture, ran up on his wife, and stuck his head underneath her dress.

“Oy, Vanya!  Vanyetcka!” — grandmother couldn’t help but laugh — “Vanyush, oy!”  She slapped her husband’s balding head hidden under her dress but managed to mostly miss her target.  The old man lifted her off the ladder; and despite the flurry of her disoriented slaps and girly punches, delivered her to the dinner table.

The young couples looked on.  Inna’s father, sitting on the bench, stole occasional glances while he gnawed on rectangular slices of salt-curried fatback.  The boyfriend of Inna’s aunt now busied himself with loosening, rolling and lighting up some tobacco.  Meanwhile, Inna, surprised by her grandfather’s strength, grinned while making a go of stealing handfuls of warm raspberries that spilled from her grandmother’s basket, onto the table top.

Mother — alas! — interrupted the silence:  “In-na?” she said in her suddenly uptight, authoritarian voice, the sound of which made Inna’s stomach tighten.  “What do we do with our hands before dinner?”

Every adult at the table seemed to look over.  Inna looked for her father; but finding him preoccupied with fishing out semi-pickled cucumbers from a barrel in the shadow patch in the garden’s corner, she had no choice but to admit defeat.  She earned a light yank by the scruff of the tattered sailor’s undershirt that used to belong to her grandfather, which she had made a habit of wearing; and was sent to wash up, upstairs.

“How many times must I repeat myself?” mother hissed.

Only when both mother and daughter reached the dirt room of the house that Inna was made privy to the cause of her mother’s sudden irritation:  “Such peasants, these people!” she muttered.  Her face appeared to harden, all the sun-induced laziness of her movements gone instantaneously.

 

“Ah, dear god!” mother was now saying with an admirable annunciation for someone crying her eyes out.  With her face pressed against her husband’s decorated lapel, mother reminded Inna, yet again, that she was quite a small woman.  “At least, she died in her sleep,” mother said with a quivering voice, reaching for her husband’s ear on her tippy toes.  “At least, she didn’t suffer.”  She paused, to then crescendo to a sob, followed by:  “My god, I loved her so much!”

Inna’s father appeared to be at a loss.  He stared at the tips of his shoes and shifted from one foot to another.  He soon looked up to find Inna who fumbled with the now filthy bit of dough between her fingers.  Her eyes, welled-up with giant tears, were on him all this time.

Father winked:  “What’s happening, my brown-eyed girl?” he said.

On that, mother wiped her own face with the giant polkadot bow at her left shoulder and shot Inna a look.  It was enough for Inna’s eyes to release their tears.  She began to blink rapidly, focusing only on the sensation in her finger tips.  Through the blur, she saw her father motion her over; to which Inna gratefully surrendered, fitting herself another his free arm and letting her tears soak the side of his jacket, near the pocket with a bundle of keys.

“Everything will be alright, my little larks,” she heard her father say.  “I promise:  Everything will be alright.”

(To Be Continued.)

When She Was Good

(Continued from April 29th, 2012.)

And the lavashes were indeed worth the wait!  Still warm and covered in flour, against Inna’s skin, they felt like those smooth boulders from the beaches of Odessa, upon which she, as a child-delegate to the biggest Soviet Pioneer Camp — the Artek — used to fall asleep.  After being pummeled by the waves of the Black Sea, she would crawl out and rest atop of them, out of breath and tired out by all that laughter and by the salty water that tickled, stung and got inside her nose, eyes and mouth.  The sun, permanently in high zenith, as it seemed, shone onto her like an anomaly unseen in the moody climates of Russia to which the family continued to relocate for her father’s job.  And only the fear of being left behind by her Artek teammates would keep Inna awake.

Eventually, she managed to talk her parents into signing her out for the whole afternoon at a time and taking her to the beach with them.  It was their month-long summer vacation, for which the family had been saving up for nearly half a year; and it appeared to be one the more exceptional times in her parents’ marriage, when mother was jolly at every visit.  She sported a brand new haircut a la Mireille Mathieu and a collection of summer dresses Inna had never seen her wear before.  On their downhill walk from the Artek campus to the beach, mother, who trotted ahead, let the wind take a hold of her skirt and reveal the back of her highs, all the way up to that part where during the winter, on their outings to banya, Inna would notice long and curly black hairs, coarser than anywhere else along mother’s body.  If ever the wind did scandalous tricks with mother’s dress, Inna looked up to notice her father’s grin, thrilled and shy; and if he appeared embarrassed at all, it was at being caught glancing at his wife with this much pleasure.  Inna felt delighted:  She knew she was witnessing something secret about her parents; something she could not yet understand, but knew it had to be a very good sign.

By the time Inna would wake up on the beach, however, suddenly chilly from the cold breeze of the sunset yet still finding some warmth on the boulder’s surface, she would find her father nearby, in his swimming shorts and asleep underneath a newspaper.  Only a trace of her mother’s body could be found in the flattened patch of beach sand next to him.  To console the 10-year old Inna about such a stealthy departure took more than her father’s patient explanation about mother’s obligations to visit friends in Odessa:  It took three cones of chocolate ice-cream.

The warm flatbreads that brought on the memories of that summer now stretched between Inna’s fingers and teeth.  Inside each bite, she tasted the chewy texture that, if combined with a warm glass of milk, could make a soul howl for the ways of her motherland!  The two women would take turns pinching the edges of the breads that stuck out of her mother’s sizable purse, while they made their way to the bus stop; then again while waiting for the bus.  Inna’s mother would eat only until a parent of one of her students — current or former — showed up on the platform.  She would become all business then, shaking the crumbs off her clothes and asking for Inna to remove any residue of the flour from her face or decolletage.  She then left Inna to her own devices, to harbor the hopes that perhaps once aboard the bus, mother would drop all this formality again and return to the repeated game of discussing just how good this batch of purchased lavashes turned out to be:

“Best ever!”

“Better than that one time, remember?”

“Yes, yes.  But remember that other time, when they were a little burnt along the edges?  So crunchy!”

This time would be no different.  While mother chatted up the father of her leading Math student, Inna stole pinches of the warm, stretchy dough from the purse.  Out of the dough, she began to sculpt geometric shapes whose names they’ve learned in the last academic quarter.  Turned out:  a cube was a more cooperative structure.  Each of its ribs could be measured by the tips of Inna’s index fingers and thumbs.  Interestingly, no matter the change of a tactic, the surfaces a pyramid defied precision and demanded more focus.

“Hypotenuse is a rat,” Inna recited a rhyme they’d learned in order to remember the function of this foreign name and concept.  “And it runs from an angle to an angle…”

In the midst of conforming a perfect sphere into an ovoid, Inna noticed a figure of a man nearing their platform.  He was coming from the furthest removed corner of the bus stop.  Dressed in military uniform, he carried a small travel bag of brown leather.  In all of his movements, the man possessed a certain manner of discipline and economy.  Everything about him said:  order, cleanliness, grace.

“Papka,” Inna uttered to herself — a habit for which she was lucky to not have yet earned the reputation of being strange.

At her school she was mostly thought of as quiet; and being the smallest child in her class, was also considered the weakling of the group.  However, she could never own up to the consequences of her character alone:  So vapid and wide-spread was the reputation of her mother, she felt she would walk in her mother’s shadow until she herself, once grown, would move to a big city and become a famous Soviet ballerina.  Or the first female astronaut to land on the moon.  Then, they would all realize just how special she was, all along!

“Mom,” she tugged the scratchy material of the pink-lavender skirt.  (How ever did this woman manage to survive in a wool skirt, in the balmy, mid-August air? Suffering certainly had to be a part of mother’s love of fashion.)

Mother, in the throws of laughter at something her Math student’s father had said, ignored Inna’s hand.  “Mama!” Inna tugged again, rougher.

With a single look darted over her shoulder, mother caught Inna’s wrist with feline precision, suddenly forgetting about protecting her fresh nail polish from an accidental scratch.  Her eyes shimmered with aroused temper:

“What.  Have I taught you.  About interrupting when adults are talking?” she slowly pushed the words through the tightly closed crowns of her front teeth.

Inna felt her stomach tighten, as it always did whenever she found herself in trouble.  The Math student’s father was witnessing it all.

Inna lowered her eyes then lifted them again with pleading courage, “But mama…  It’s papa.”  And before tears deformed her mouth and speech, she made a vague gesture in the direction of the Army officer, who by now — having noticed the two women himself — was making a determined, yet balletic stride across the platform.

(To Be Continued.)

When I Was Just a Little Girl.

At the risk of missing their bus, Inna’s mother insisted on stoping by the kiosk that, judging by the sour smell of yeast and the line of bickering women upfront, had recently received a delivery of fresh bread.  It was an otherwise insignificant place, like most stores in larger cities.  As a matter of fact, when the kiosk windows were rolled down and locked, one could easily mistake it for an information booth, with nothing inside but trolley tickets and city brochures, and Marlboros for sale.

A Russian housewife was only as successful as she was savvy.  It was up to the women — the mothers — to discover stores that carried better produce.  Some of the legwork was done by their girlfriends, in a tradition of some old tribal hunt, adjusted to the urban life style.  Even the women in Russian villages, who aimed to live by the means of the land, needed to perfect this skill for when shopping at the weekend bazaar.  But Inna’s mother was too proud to probe other women for insider information on barters and schedules of deliveries of deficit produce.  To socialize with the common folks, especially about such common needs, was beneath her academic degrees and esteemed profession, she claimed; unworthy of her upbringing in the largest port city with Western waterways, from the Russian East Coast.  She was an elementary school teacher, painfully overqualified, who taught at Inna’s school that housed grades one through eleven; and most parents in their village wanted for their children to end up in her mother’s classroom, despite her famous and slightly abusive educational methods.  (Inna had known those methods first-hand, for they had been honed on her, until she officially reached puberty and got her period.)

Mother refused to make friends with any woman with a child of seven years old or younger.  And by the rest of them, she claimed to be bored:

“I just wish I had a girlfriend to take me to the ballet, Innotchka,” she confessed to her daughter, melancholically.  It was an uneasy situation whenever mother began talking like that, as if Inna were her contemporary.  But just as Inna was an assumed loner, being the only child of her parents — who were the only children to their parents as well — her mother, she suspected, had difficulty making friends as well.

Whenever the woman was in of those confessional moods, she tended to look down and to the side, as if reading her lines from the edge of the peeling wallpaper, dreamily:

“Ah!  If only you knew how I love the ballet, Innotchka!”   But despite the mood of informality, Inna knew better than to trust this yet another attempt by her mother to bond.  “One day (when you’re old enough), I may take you there, so that you can see for yourself,” her mother would zero in on Inna, suddenly viewing her daughter as a female competition, and her warmth would rapidly dissipate.  “I may.  I just may.  I can’t promised it, of course.  But I may.”

In the summer of 1991, the two women would journey into the city quite frequently.  Mother had applied to the Masters of Education faculty at the Pedagogical University No. 3.  Every academic institution, from kindergartens to the top level institutes that trained the best minds of Russia’s science, was assigned a number.  And although Inna, during the trips into the city, had never come across the Pedagogical University No. 1 or No. 2, she was sure her mother would not possess any trustworthy information on this curious matter either.  Most likely, she would grant Inna the chronic “It’s just the way it is!” response.  Inna’s own school — where mother had established a certain reign, especially since deciding to further her credentials — was assigned the number 7.  She realized she had never tried to decipher this puzzle before.  Perhaps, on certain topics, mother was right:  Some things — were just the way they were.  

On the way back from her mother’s interview with the dean of her future faculty, the two women had stumbled upon a display of oval white flatbreads in the window of a curios little kiosk.  It stood at the entrance of an alley of chestnut trees which would lead them to the city’s main transit station.  Inna, with her eyes studying the tips of her and her mother’s shoes, while mother talked and talked — this time about just how “cultured” the dean had acted toward her, a real gentleman not to be found in a single kilometer radius of their own village — she noticed when her mother’s feet slowed down, their oval toes slightly tilting away, at a forty-five degree angle, as if pulled by a magnet.

“Oy, dear god!  Are those little lavashes?!” her mother, with her fingers still splayed from that afternoon’s manicure, touched both of her cheeks and exclaimed.  “I haven’t had those since I was just a little girl!  My daddy used to bring them for me from his trips to Georgia.”

Inna adjusted her mother’s purse that she had been carrying since they left the nail salon, then moved up the adult size prescription glasses to the bridge of her nose from its tip, and gave the object of her mother’s curiosity a considerable study.

“They are!  Oy, they are, they are!  They are little lavashes!  Oy, dear god!”  Mother was under a spell.

Inna, who had been trained well enough to know that all of her mother’s sudden outbursts had to have specific objectives, had recently begun to notice her own decreasing desire to figure them out.  With her stubborn, teenage silences toward any hints, she figured out that her mother’s desires would become obvious, whether she tried to decipher them on her own.  Or, she could just wait.  Oftentimes, those objectives would become clear.  Some would be meant to provoke pity from any witnesses; and it confused Inna by giving her no active understanding on what to do next.  Certainly, mother couldn’t have thought of pity being a good match to her self-proclaimed dignity!

By now, her mother was trotting.  She was wearing a tailored skirt the color of pink-lavender and a custom-made black-and-white blouse with polkadots and a giant bow on the left side of her neck.  Her red stilettos, claimed to be the best damn pair of shoes mother currently owned, made her legs more defined, although still quite plum for mother’s short frame.  Adjusting the handles of the sizable purse again, Inna thought:  Were she not the daughter of this woman, who was jittering lusciously in all the right places while running through the alley of trees (that used to fill the air with an aggressive perfumed smell of blossoms, back in July), she would think of this sight as some famous passage from an Italian film, in which the women — who all seemed to suffer from outbursts of erratic and unpredictable emotions — were the only ones in the whole of the world’s cinema to even slightly resemble the women of her own culture.

By the time Inna had caught up to her mother, having been weighed down by her sizable purse and the damn oversized glasses that refused to stay in place, mother was already lingering by the kiosk window.  With her hands folded on top of each other over the giant polkadot bow, she jumped a couple of times in place, causing for the other women to look on, askance.  They were right:  There was something insincere in the forcefulness of mother’s emotional exposés, especially when they involved retardation into her girlhood.  In the now obvious and not necessarily pleasant silence that surrounded them, Inna continued to clutch the handles of the purse with her both hands, while stealing glances at the other women who by now resumed their hushed conversation.

“Um.  Excuse me, lady citizen?” her mother cut the line.  Surely, that would not go over well with the other women!  “Do you have a sufficient supply of lavashes left?”

The cashier woman behind the sweating window, who was in the midst of picking out a half a kilo of rugelach pastry for the kerchiefed woman at the head of the line, stopped her plump hands in midair and shrugged; then resumed bending over the plexiglass bin:

She responded “I have what I have,” and smiled a slightly sadistic smile that sat well on the faces of all small persons of Russian authorities:  secretaries to big bureaucrats and heads of the custodian labor unions.  “You’re gonna have to take you place in line, LIKE everyone else, and see for yourself!”

The kerchiefed woman scoffed, slightly shook her wrinkled head and rolled her milky-gray eyes in a conspiring gesture.  Inna’s mother feigned being immune toward the meaningfully condescending responses that trickled down to the hummed exchange among the other women.  There had been times when Inna had witnessed it go a different way, however:  Sometimes, mother teared up at the injustice and at the disheartening simpleton nature of her fellow citizens, while always managing to stand in enough light to be noticed by her offenders.  Other times, she chose to suffer through the unfortunate consequences to her own bouts of aristocracy.  Considering that these baked delicacies were impossible to come by in their village, this would be one of those times.  So, Inna’s mother squinted her eyes, as if studying other choices of produce that may interest her; then made her way to the back of the line.

“Are you last?” she asked a woman with an eggplant-colored perm and a still fresh layer of frosty pink lipstick on her narrow lips.

“Umn-da?” the woman nodded.  Inna wondered if the Italian women from the films also possessed such a succinct vocabulary of arrogant gestures.

Inna’s mother, again, appeared to be oblivious to her dislikable affect on the group:  “How wonderful!,” she said gleefully, “I’m — after you!”  Then, she yanked Inna by her elbow, to take her place in line.

(To Be Continued.)

Habitat for Humanity

The sound of the 1 Local rattled the windows; she untangled herself from his limbs, sat up and prepared for the sensation of mellow distain, in the vicinity of her diaphragm:  It had been his idea for her to move in here, after just seven months of dating.

 

It was the only time she had encountered a man so willing.  She was lucky, according to other women, most of whom, she suspected, had gone through the chronic toss between a want of love and a denial of it, due to their self-esteem.  A man’s attention could go a long way though.  She had been known to make it last for years, settling for either those who feared commitment or were half-committed — to someone else.  Bitterly, she would eventually begin to withdraw from all offers of courtship because she was sick of herself:  reaching, trying too hard; accounting, then settling for leftovers.

But this one loved her, it was obvious.  He praised her enthusiastically, similarly to the way one adored a deity or a Renaissance statue of a nude, made more precious by its missing parts and by the scabs of earth and time.  Never had she been with a man who wanted to parade her through the circles of his friends, all of them older, calmer and mostly academics, who got through their own marriages by sleeping with their students.  Sometimes, while she feigned being asleep on the couch after hearing his keys scratching their way into the lock; she listened to his footsteps get quieter, as he approached her, merely breathless; and he would sit at the edge of their coffee table, amidst magazines and her thesis papers, and study her.  She began to feel responsible.

Her girlfriends, of course, were full of advice:  Men like him happened rarely.  She was lucky, they hoped she knew.  But was she ready for their age difference; and for the ex-wife with a list of entitlements to his money?  Heartbroken men made for hard material.  But wasn’t it a woman’s sport, to fall in love, despite?

The night when they would sleep together for the first time, she found a photograph of the ex, tucked away into an old aluminum cigarette holder.  She wanted to light up.

The black and white face of a blonde looked over the shoulder, with one hand propped up like an awning across her forehead, her lips closed sternly, as if disliking the photographer.  She found her to be a forgettable woman, not at all like she preferred to see herself.  Now, with both of his habits gone — the smoking and the wife — he was not at all enthused by the idea of reminiscing about the past.  But she insisted on a talk, so that she could investigate herself the story through his sighs and avoided glances.  It was a hideous tendency for some emotional sadomasochism that she disguised as intimacy.  Or, maybe, she was already reaching.

She, of course, tried to be casual about it.  He would begin to speak, not from the start, but going immediately to when the ex blurred out her desire for a divorce.  It happened in the midst of a tiff over the shut-off electricity due to an unpaid bill — a woman flailing at him, in the dark — and he first thought she was quoting a film they may had seen together.  They’d gone to film school together, a decade ago, in the City, never pursuing the field afterward.  He’d stick to theory; she — to freelance writing.

“But didn’t you see it coming?” she asked him, watching his fluttery eyelashes add to the dark circles under his eyes.  “Any signs at all?”

The gray-haired lover shook his head but held it high.  Still, for the first time, in his habits of disobedience to his emotions, she saw a once crumbled man; a man, perhaps, still in need of repair.

This predisposition of her imagination — to be able to see her men as children (or worse yet, as children in need of rescue); to truly feel their suffering; to be moved to tears by their losses that happened a decade before her, but always so unjustly — that evening, made her weary.  Hadn’t she had enough yet?  She couldn’t possibly save every one of them!  She wasn’t here to fix it, to make-up for another woman’s whimsy.  Still, she would begin to feel responsible.

In the light of an exposed, yellowed by months — or years, perhaps — of fried food in his kitchen, that first night she watched him cook dinner for the two of them.

“That’s a big step!” the girlfriends rolled out their eyes and smacked their lips.

“A man that cooks and does his own laundry.  You are one lucky bitch!”

The more she listened to the women get involved (for none of them actually listened), the more she regretted exposing her tales of love and loss.  Perhaps, her ex was right:  Over the course of the last century, women had become a collectively confused group of people.  She herself no longer knew what she wanted at the moment.  And she could not remember what she used to want.

 

He was exhausted from the emotional testimony and was now fussing in the kitchen:

“I haven’t used this barbecue since my last apartment.  So:  should be interesting!”  She’d gone too far.  She shouldn’t have probed.

Albeit the open doors of the top floor patio, the hot air clustered the entire apartment.  It took up every corner.  She, having just come out of the shower, felt dewy in her crevices.  There used to be a lot more vanity, in love.  Perhaps, she wasn’t trying hard enough with this one.

She watched him cutting up fresh herbs plucked from the flower pot along the kitchen window sill.  He operated with a tiny knife at the edge of a wooden cutting board, blackened by mildew on one side.  There was nothing visibly sloppy about his appearance, yet she could see the absence of a woman in his life.  Perhaps, the shortest distance between his earlobes and shoulder blades had something to do with her aroused compassion.  Or the bulk of crumpled Kleenex in the pocket of his sweats.  Or the rapidly blinking eyelids, when he decidedly walked away from his story.  He wasn’t cared for.  He was recovering.  It made her heart compress.  Responsible!  She had to be responsible.

While nibbling on twigs of dill, flirtatiously at first — although mostly out of habit — then suddenly more grounded in her kindness, she studied him while standing by his microwave.  She didn’t find herself impressed, but tired.  Tired and kind.  If not in love, she would be grateful for this one, she decided.  Just look at him:  He needed her so much.

Threshold

(Continued from April 8th, 2012.)

When she first arrived, the older woman took off her shoes before stepping over the threshold.  Unusually considerate, light in her step, she made her daughter nervous.

There had been superstitions, back in her mother’s country, about thresholds, doorways, windows.  Table tops and chairs.  And they were treated like traditions by the women in her family, as non-negotiable as laws of gravity and just as final.  To never kiss over a threshold.  To never sit upon a tabletop.  To never let an unmarried woman be positioned at a corner seat, while dining.  And with the slew of superstitions came antidotes, just as important to take notice of; so that when things did NOT work out — the victim could be still the one to blame:  You shoulda knocked three times on wood, spit over the left shoulder, and hidden a fig hand in your pocket.  These things would grow on one unconsciousness like barnacles of paranoid behavior.  And in a nation of world-renowned courage, it puzzled her to see so many doubtful people.

And was her mother brave at all, to just pack-up like that and leave?  To move herself with a child to the furthest removed continent, after the death of her husband?  His — was a death by drinking.  She didn’t want to die — by mourning.

And now, both women — tired but not tired enough to not be cautious of each other — seemed to be waiting for something.  Waiting for the other shoe to drop, albeit both of them standing barefoot in the empty kitchen.  In this new country, where everyone was in love with fun and smiley faces, they each would arrive to their shared home and try to force a lightness to descend.  It would be mostly out of habit, and not desire.  Her mother functioned better in these new rules:  “Have fun!”  “God bless!”  “I love you!”  She had no difficulty throwing these around, without taking any time to match their implications to the worth of the recipient.

The younger woman now waited by the sink full of dishes.  After enough silence, while stealing glances at her mother, who floated from one room to another like a trapped moth, the hostess began to rummage through the dirty dishes.

Had mother always colored her hair with that unnatural shade of black, when last she’d seen her, in New York?  The snow white roots came in aggressively, all over mother’s head, opposing the other color with no mercy.  When did she age this much?  When did this fear and sorrow find time to settle on her face?

A paw of pity stroked across the young woman’s tightly wound nerves:

“Mom.  Why don’t you sit down?”  She caught herself:  All furniture was made of boxes, uncouth for a woman with a living husband, according to her mother’s generation.  Before the older woman managed to react, the daughter hid her gaze in forming mounds of soapsuds and hurriedly amended her first offer:  “Mom.  Wouldn’t you like a drink?”

“Yes, please,” the older woman turned on her heels, seemingly delighted.  “White zinfandel?”

“Well.  Um.  I don’t have alcohol.  But would you like some juice?”

“Oh.  Right.”  An eyebrow went up and froze.  “No, thanks.”

She turned and walked away again — floating, balancing, looming — stopped by the sliding doors of the balcony, at the edge of the living-room.  The palm trees slowly swayed outside like metronomes to one’s slower heartbeat.  West, West, West.

She’d gone out West, with nothing but the ghosts checked-in as her luggage.  The letters from her best friend on the East Coast would hit the bottom of the mailbox on a weekly basis, for the first two months.  She praised her for the courage.  She mentioned pride, and dignity, and all the other things they’d mutually gotten high on, back in college.

It never happened in any of the books she’d read, but in her life, what others titled “courage” — was merely an act of following through.  Besides, she swore, he thought of the idea first.  What else was she suppose to do?

The best friend wrote her with gel pens, whose color was always given careful consideration.

She wrote in pink:  “It’s better to let it all go to the wind.”

In purple:  “Let justice work itself out.”

At least, unlike the others, the best friend never judged.  She wasn’t in a habit of taking sides.  She never called the husband names.  But then again, they’d never really found men to be the leading topic of their friendship.  Men merely existed.  Some men were good.  And back in college, the two of them hadn’t loved enough men to speak of the other gender with that scornful nostalgia of the other women.  Men merely existed.  And then:  There was the whole of the magnificent world outside.

 

Out here — out West — she could just start from scratch.  She only needed to remember how to breathe the even breath:  if not that of her calmer youth — then of her wiser self.  With time, she knew she’d see the point of it, the purpose, the lessons of her little losses.  She had too vivid of an imagination to not weave her life into a story.

“One’s life had meaning.  It couldn’t be for forsaken.”  (Oh, how she missed those wonderful convictions of her youth!)

So, while she waited to mature into that wiser self, she set aside some time and space in which the hurting self could flail, abandon graces, wag its finger, then call people back with tearful apologies.  But she would not have to confront her past out here, at least; except for when she opened the envelopes of her phone bills.

“So,” mother started speaking to the window, again.  “Natasha?  Are you looking for a job?”

“I have been looking, yes, mom.”

“Okay,” mom turned around.  Change of subject:  “I hear Mike got a promotion for doing the work on that new bridge, in Brooklyn.”

When rinsing a knife after all pungent foods, one absolutely must use soap.  Because if not, the taste will resonate on every meal for further weeks to come.  

“Oh yeah?  That’s good.”

“Yeah!  He’s a smart boy!  I’ve always liked Mike.  For you.”

It’s better if the handle of the knife is anything but wooden.  Wood stays a living thing forever.  It takes on other substances, breeds them, doesn’t let them go.

Here comes the second round.  Ding, ding, ding:

“I wrote Mike a letter.”  Mom searched for the effects of her intentions on her daughter’s face.  “I know!  I know!  It sounds silly!  We live a borough away.  But I have always relished his opinion.”

She felt exhausted.  “Mom.”

Out West, she’d found herself relearning how to use each thing with an appropriate instrument.  The sense of wonderment!   The love of unexpected beauty!  The curiosity she was resuscitating in herself, like a paralysis patient learning how to walk again.  Her days weren’t daunting, at all times; and they were full of curiosity.

And now:  Mom, barefoot yet armed!   In one woman’s kitchen.  So fearful, she could not release either of them from their pasts.  They stood, displeased with being a reflection of each other.  Another eyebrow arch.  A scoff.  One turned away, demonstratively disappointed.  The other looked down onto her pruned fingers submerged into a sink of cruddy water.

Mom faced the window with no curtains, yet again.  Those horrid, flapping, plastic blinds had been the first thing that Natasha’d taken down.  For the first weeks, she let the wind roam through the apartment, while she, sleepless and exhausted, observed the palm trees wave against the never pitch-black night of her new city:  You are alright.  Remember breathing?

West, West, West.

You still have time.  In your defense.