Tag Archives: adolescence

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.)

Uneasy Lies the Head

At first, it was the hair.  Her thick, red hair, with angelic ringlets flocking the frame of her still cherubic face began to slip out of its follicles; and she would watch it slide along the body, in the shower — young garden snakes on sleet — flock her feet, like seaweed, before spiraling down into the drain.

“You ought to be careful, child!  For hair like this, the other females will give you the bad eye!”

Her grandmother was a superstitious woman.  With her thin, brittle fingers, she braided Nola’s curls into tame hair buns or the complex, basket-like constructions on top of her head, which by the end of a day, gave her headaches and made her eyes water.

The tedious ceremonies of the old world’s superstitions slowed down Nola’s childhood to half-speed.  The pinning of safety pins to her underwear after bath, their heads facing downward and away from her heart — “grounding”; the triple twirling and the hanging of a rusty locket, with some dead priest’s hair, around her neck.  Hemp ropes with strange beads tied around her wrists and ankles.  Sometimes, when she drifted off to sleep — but not yet into her dreams — after her grandmother’s bedtime stories, she watched the shadows of the old woman move along the wall:  A giant and magnificent bird casting the whispers of good winds upon her sleeping head.  And in the mornings, when she wasn’t looking — grandmother would slip drops of blessed water into her glass of milk; then keep her hand behind her heart while Nola chugged it down.  All that — to ward off the other women.

Where had this mistrust in the female kind come from?  Nola couldn’t understand it.  And as a child, she was particularly puzzled about that feared bad eye.  Grandma had no tolerance for questions worked up by Nola’s imagination — a quality that later flared up in her own motherhood — so she came up with the answers on her own.  (It was the worst — wasn’t it? — for a child to feel annoying, then dismissed by the habits of the bored and tired grownups.  She hadn’t wanted to become like that!  And yet, she was, right in the midst of it, now.)  These had to be some evil women, Nola decided way back when; some ancient witches with an extra eye to give away.  And they lived among the good and the kind, giving the rest of the womankind a terrible reputation.

One time, walking in her grandmother’s footsteps, through the pre-sunrise layer of the summer fog only to be seen in the Far, Far East of Russia (and in the magical place of which she’d read once, called “San Francisco”), she saw a yellow raincoat.  It balanced on a pair of emaciated legs; and when they caught up with it, Nola looked back:  An old woman, with wet gray hair stuck to her caved-in temples, was staring right back at her from underneath the bright yellow hood.  She reminded Nola of one of those Mexican skeleton dolls of rich, exotic colors, dressed in human clothing that hung on them, like parachutes on manikins.  From behind the fog that clung to every moving or inanimate object, she could hardly see the color of the woman’s eyes.  They seemed to appear milky though, crowded with cataracts.  But the sinister smile that stretched the old woman’s toothless mouth into a keyhole told Nola that she could see well enough to look right through into her heart.

She felt an icy shiver:  A drop of accumulated rainwater slipped under her raincoat collar and began its slow avalanche down the back, along the spine, meeting up with other raindrops and her sudden sweat, growing, gaining weight; gaining momentum.

“Is this it?” Nola thought.  Was this the female owner of the feared bad eye?  Expecting a feeling of sickly slime, terrified yet thrilled at the same time, Nola slipped her hands into her pockets.

“Stop dragging your feet, like a tooth comb through my armpit hair!” her grandmother barked from a few steps ahead.  Nola started running.

 

In adolescence, when all the other girls acquired breasts and waistlines, Nola cultivated auburn braids; and boys began communicating their flared-up desires by yanking them hard, that she would cry.  And if ever she chased after one of such brutal Romeos, uncertain about her own manic urge, the hair whipped her back like two wet ropes.

At night, after her solitude was pretty much assured, she wrapped the clouds of her scratchy hair around her head, so she could doze off — off and away from the voices of her parents, bickering in the kitchen.  (On planes, she dreamed that she could do the same to clouds.  God bless her, soon enough!)  When her braids began reaching the crests of her hips, Nola began the practice of making dolls out of them; and she would rest each on her pillow, next to her lips, and whisper to it her speculations about the far removed and kinder places.

“Is this how you care for your wife ‘n’ child?!” her mother would be squealing in the downstairs dirt room, if dad showed up tipsy from a few chugs of dark Russian beer.

From what Nola understood in other children’s reenactments in their shared sandboxes, her father was not a hopeless drunk at all:  He never fell down in the alleys, later to be found by the female cashiers of the local delis, unlocking the back doors for early morning deliveries or briberies from those savvier Soviets who knew how to get their share of deficit produce to come that week.  Never-ever, had father been taken to the Emergency Room on a sled — pulled by his same “wife ‘n’ child”, in a middle of the Russian winter — to get his stomach pumped from alcohol poisoning.  No, Nola’s dad was just a jolly drunk, occasionally guilty of having a reason to celebrate something — anything! — in his Russian destiny:  A National Fisherman Day.  The fall of Bastille Saint Antoine.  A successful summoning of mere three meals for his family, that day.  Another Day in the Life of…

But mom went off, pulling at her own thinning hair, whenever the man showed up with that harmless — and actually endearing to Nola — goofy smile.  Whenever Nina slipped out her bed and did an army crawl to the top of the stairs, she watched her mother’s body shiver, the skin of her arms vibrate, all — from what looked like an inside job.  The woman wailed and howled, and threw herself against the hard surfaces and all the sharp corners, as if possessed by a death wish.  Mom always took everything too far, into a place of difficult ultimatums and points beyond forgiveness.  And watching her in such a state set off anxiety-ridden arrhythmia in Nola’s heart.

Her mother’s sad, all-knowing smile.  Her choir of scoffs and sighs, and terrorizing whimpers.  Her melancholic, slow head shake belonging to a cartoonish bobblehead stuck to a dashboard of a Moscow’s taxicab:  getting around but not going anywhere!  She felt an urge to run away from all of it — from here and from her — to somewhere, where people didn’t readily construct their painful sentences and woke up with faces drained of all curiosity or tenderness.  Could that be “San Francisco”?  She slept on pillows of her hair and wondered.

(To Be Continued.)

“Make Sense of Me, Walk Through My Doorway: Don’t Hide in the Hallway!”

If you want to learn the heart of me — look at my father’s eyes.

Moreover:  If you want to know the very gist of me, the ethics upon which I stand and the beliefs with which I measure the world; if you want to predict the disappointments of my spirit when others don’t live up to the their goodness (and if you wish to summon my own aspirations to be only good); if you desire to see the shadows of my mistakes and flaws that cost me so much time and heartbreak — the stories in my father’s eyes will tell  all.

(His eyes are blue and honest.  The man lacks all capacity to tell a lie.  And if ever he discovers himself in the unsettling situation of having let somebody down — never due to his shortcomings but only circumstances — his hand comes up to rub the ridge above his eyebrows; sometimes, his chin.  He hates to be the cause of pain.)

All other loves of mine — are replicas, and I have spent half of my lifetime searching for the exceptional kindness with which my father treats the world.  In the beginning, I was meant to fail:  It takes a while to not take for granted the components of our parents’ characters which, with our own older years, begin to make us proud.  Identity compiles its layers with our exposure to the world; but the very roots of our goodness can only lead to those who gave us life and hopefully our first opinions of it.  Their goodness — is our very, and most important, homecoming.  And if I had to choose my only prayer for this world, I’d ask for every prodigal child to find their way back home, through forgiveness, wherein lies the discovery of what was missing all along.  It always lies in our parents’ souls.

(There are two folds, now permanent, at the medial edge of father’s eyebrows.  In those, he carries his concerns for those lives that he has vowed to protect.  In them, I see the weight of manhood, his duty and his sacrifice.  The endless rays of lines at the outer edges of my father’s eyes.  How easily they bring him back to lightness!  My father lives in constant readiness to bond over the common human goodness and delight.  He’d rather smile, for life, and not brace himself to witness his child’s or the children of others’ pain.  He’d rather give and then dwell in that specific peacefulness that happens after generosity — and not be helpless at relieving someone of their deprivation.)

The whole of lifetime, I can recall the never failing access to my gratitude.  In childhood, I couldn’t name it yet:  I never needed any reasons or explanations for the lightness of those days.  My adolescent years posed a question about the qualities that made me differ from my contemporaries; and when I watched my friends make their choices, while inheriting the patterns of their parents, I started wondering about the source of what made me lighter on my feet and ready for adventure.  I was different, but what was really the cause of it?

(My father lives in readiness to be childlike.  When new things capture his imagination, I can foresee the eyes of my son, when he would be continuously thrilled by the world.  Dad frowns a bit when he attempts to comprehend new things, but never in a burdened way:  So intently he tries to comprehend the world, he thinks hard and quickly to get to the very main point of every new event and person, the central apparatus of every previously unknown bit of technology and invention.  And then, he speaks, while studying your face for signs of recognition.  To honor others with his complete understanding — is crucially important to that man!)

It would be gratitude, as I would name it later:  The main quality of my father’s character that made me — that made us — different from others.  The privilege of life never escaped my self-awareness.  Just breathing seemed to be enough.

In the beginning years of my adulthood, which had to strike our family quite prematurely, I started aching on behalf of seemingly the whole world:  I wished for human dignity.  We needn’t much in order to survive, but to survive with dignity — was what I wished upon myself and everyone I loved (and by my father’s fashion — I LOVED the world and wished it well!).  And then, when life would grant me its adventures, however tiny or grandiose, the force of gratitude would make me weep.  Then, I would rest in my humility and try to pay it forward, to others.

(No bigger thrill my father knows in life than to give gifts.  They aren’t always luxurious, but specific.  They come from the erudite knowledge of his every beloved that my father gains through life.  Sometimes, all it takes is someone’s equal curiosity toward a piece of beauty — and this magnificent man (my father!) would do anything to capture just a token of it and give it as a gift.  He looks at someone’s eyes when they are moved by beauty, and in his own, I see approval and the highest degree of pleasure.

And I have yet to know another person who accepts his gifts more humbly than my father; because in life, IT ALL MATTERS.  No detail must be taken for granted and no reward can be expected.  So, when kindness is returned to my father by others, he is seemingly surprised.  But then, he glows at the fact that all along, he had been right, about the world:  That everyone is good!)

And that’s the mark that father leaves upon the world.  He never chose a life with an ambition to matter, but to commit specific acts of goodness — is his only objective.  With time that has been captured in my father’s photographs, I see his own surrender to the chaos and sometimes tragic randomness of life.  And so, to counteract it, he long ago chose to be good.

It is an honor to have been born his child.

“Back in the U.S., Back in the U.S. — Back in the U.S.S.R.!”

Those Friday afternoons.  The kids got their weekends extended!  Until that year in junior high, we had to report our sleep-deprived little asses to school — six bloody days a week!  But then, things changed.

It took the Soviets a few years to catch up with the educational structure most of the world had been practicing; but one year, it did happen:   The change finally reached the school of our lil’ town — a place so small and forgettable, it was rarely found on the USSR’s map.

The town’s only fame happened in Napoleonic Wars during some battle that the Russians had won.  But even back then, neither its name nor the land belonged to Motha Russia.  The Russian troops sort of ended up there while chasing the short man and his troops off our land:  Fuck you, you little Alpha-Wannabe!  We would rather strike a match to all of our cities ourselves — than let you prosper off of our emaciated backs!  And then, we’ll chase your limping ass off our charred land like an army of underfed dogs terrorized by their owner.

‘Cause it’s Motha Fucking Russia you’re fucking with!  And despite the chronic rape by Her own ever-changing political regimes, She remains one gorgeous broad!  And:  She’s ours!

The territorial piss that would result in this region’s inheritance would happen over a century later, after another little man’s dreams of world dominance.  Again, we would chase him off our land, through our brutal winters and wild terrain; then, claim this patch as well:  Finders keepers, Motha Fucka!

But that’s a whole other story.

I can’t even remember how it all happened.  I was due to start the third grade, and somehow, over the course of the summer, it became known that we would all be skipping a grade.  Was it a town-wide memo that got sent out through the channels of our bureaucratic post-office that spied on every citizen due to the orders from above (or simply due to our habitual nosiness)?  The matters of privacy belonged to other cultures whose people were spoilt by individualistic values.  But that wasn’t us, man!  We were all in this together, till death — or a life-long sentence at a labor camp — do us part.  No need for privacy here!  Everything was up for an investigation or gossip, depending on how big of a fish you were.  And we all sorta just lived with it.

By the time I and my former classmates reported back to school a week before the 1st of September, we knew we were suddenly fourth-graders (and that was somehow automatically cooler).  After the sudden abolishment of itchy uniforms, in our best civilian clothes, we sat in our classroom, whose swamp-green walls were still wet with paint.  (FYI:  As Russians, we leave everything for the last minute.  So, despite the 3-month-long summer break, the school would be renovated a mere week before the return of its students.)  Every child looked tanner.  The boys suddenly came back sounding like men — and not a choir of eunuchs.  And besides me and another runt-of-the-litter looking redhead, over the course of the summer, every girl seemed to acquire a pair of breasts.  That day, my girlfriends began repeating the gesture of every Soviet woman:  The slip of the hand under the shirt and the adjustment of the bra straps, all committed with the speed of lightening.

What the fuck, I thought.  I was still as flat as the granite wall of Lenin’s Mausoleum.  It’s those bloody ballet classes that motha insisted I took!  How was I supposed to acquire the curvatures that strained the boys’ necks — while having zero body fat?  Spasibo, motha:  Great idea!  That’s one way to preserve my virginity!

Like a brood of hens, the girls were chirpy that day.  Together, they flocked and shot the boys their suddenly feminine stares that reminded me of my motha.  How and where did they learn how to do that?  Some Polish Charm School for the Children of the Soviets?  There were new hairstyles that day — bangs and wispy curls constructed with their mothers’ curling irons — and brand new school supplies that still smelled of the Chinese manufacturing plants of plastic.  That day, Alyoshka — my unknowing future husband — showed up looking like that actor from the Soviet remake of the Three Musketeers; but like before, he paid me no attention.  How could he?  I had no lady gifts to offer him.  Just my ballet hair bun and the assigned list of summer reading that I had diligently completed.

In a minute, the grouchy librarian, who hadn’t gotten laid since 1935, would come down and get us.  Following her lead, we would climb up the stairs to the school’s attic.  (“DO NOT TOUCH!” the wet railing read, but a few of us still managed to mar the brand new clothes we came to show off that day.)  At first, we would be given every recycled textbook but the one for Russian history.  That Motha Fucka had to be rewritten, you see.  So, after skipping a grade, we would be forced to study the Age of Antiquity — for another year — while the Soviet scholars pulled all-nighters in Moscow’s Central Library and dug out the convoluted truths for the next year’s course.  By the fifth grade, as a result, we’d get a bloody booklet:  That’s as good as they could do, after a century of omissions and fabricated facts.

But despite all the changes — no bloody uniforms and no history books — the biggest news was the change of the work week:  from six to five days.  I imagined it was Uncle Gorbachev that issued the change with a mere skate-like-slide of his pen over the report from the Ministry of Education.  I knew I liked that guy from the start!

Our parents, however, were not as thrilled:  This would be the first of many changes that would aim at their wallets from then on (new clothes, new books and private school tuition for their children being one of the million).  And that would really stick in their craw, man!  Not cool, Gorby!  Not cool at all!

“I Change Shapes Just to Hide in This Place. But I’m Still, I’m Still — an Animal.”

I would have much rather gone out for a walk.  But stubbornly, yesterday, I began to run.

I ran mostly out of habit, and because I was running out of time.  But even as I changed my stride, from one block to the next, I still thought:

“I think I’d much rather be walking, right now.”

It had always been my thing:  to run.  In junior high, I’d run long distances.  I never thought of myself as being good at it.  It was just something that came easy.  And it happened way before I knew about meditation or understood transcendence of the mind.  To me, it simply granted the easiest excuse to be alone and not talking.  Just breathing and placing down my feet.  My breath would change throughout the course, and so would the stride.

Sometimes, I’d stare at the ground:  The soggy fields of Russia, and the uneven asphalt of Eastern Germany.  I’d study the way the surface would respond to the impact of my feet.  We had no knowledge of American footwear back then, so the cloth running shoes with thin rubber soles were the only type we knew.  And even as the surfaces would change — as I would change my continents — the thin-soled shoes remained my favorite choice:  In the gravelly passages of Central Park, and the dusty hills of Southern California.  

Other times, I would look ahead.  It was best to do so on an open track.  I wouldn’t strain my eyes for a strip of color marking the end of the course.  Instead, I would let my vision get blurry, and I would study the blending of objects in the endlessness of what’s ahead.  Things didn’t matter.  People would be accidental.  So, I would find the empty spaces of air ahead, and look at those.  That’s why running in the fall of Russia’s coastal cities had always been the easiest.  The fog already blurred my vision, and all I would feel was — the change in breath and stride.

I don’t remember being tired, as a kid; and not until the first menstrual cycles of my classmates, did I begin to overhear excuses for not running.  My thin, balletic body was one of the last to be introduced to its new function that made my female contemporaries embarrassed and secretive among each other.  But even when it happened to me, I kept up with my running.  On bleeding days, I would wear longer sweaters and tighter underwear; but the slow, moaning ache in my lower stomach would not matter.  It would change my stride a little:  I would prefer to run lighter then, as if doing a chasse step across a dance floor.  I’d land on my toes, as I would when leaping over strewn blankets on a lake’s bank in my grandma’s village in the Far East, while I myself dashed for the water:  to join other sunbathing kids and to avoid my motha’s strict instructions to put on sunblock.  (But secretly, I hoped that my silly chasse step would make her laugh and shake her head, with bangs getting into her glistening eyes.)

The days of tiredness that would seduce me out of running would happen much, much later.  They would happen in the late mornings of waking after a graveyard shift at a Westchester diner.  A pair of ugly nursing shoes with sole support and splatters of dried foods would be the only visual reminder of the night before.  And the heavy lead-like weight of my calves would talk me out of running.

“Who’s up for a walk?” I’d holler down the hallway with three other doors.

And if the bathroom at the end of it was free, I’d forget about the lead-filled feeling in my calves and make a run for it, while pounding my heels into the carpeted floor.

Much later in my running history, I would begin to study people.  It had to happen in California where exercise is fashion; and depending on one’s routine, we all belong to little clans.  When running with others, it would propel me, out of competition, anger or inspiration.  Sometimes, I’d follow their footsteps like a shadow of compassion:  The sweaty faces of lonesome hikers in the Hollywood Hills, or the bright eyes of those rad people of San Francisco who’d made a life out of NOT giving up.

When running stubbornly, yesterday, I thought of the history of my strides; and then, began trying them on.  At first, I ran tiredly, as if I was back to working my way through college, in Westchester, New York.  Then, I began to push, hitting the ground with my heel (so unhealthy!) — out of anger and never wanting to give up.  The chasse step would eventually take over, and the lightness of it spread up my body, up to my lungs and face.

That’s when I saw him:  A headless man walking slowly ahead.  At first, I thought he may have dropped something to the ground and was now retracing his steps.  But as he continued slowly placing his feet onto the smooth pavement of the quiet neighborhood, I realized he was a victim of arthritis, age, and most likely incredible loss.  He was hunched over so low, I could not see his head, as I ran up on him, from behind.  I slowed down and began following his footsteps.

A pair of khaki shorts revealed his thin, brown legs, covered with sores and age spots.  His shoes were worn out and the thick white socks were pulled halfway up his calves.  I studied his stride:  He dragged each foot ahead, then struggled to gain balance.  Then, repeat.  Stubbornly.

He would much rather have been walking, yesterday, alone and not talking.  I shook off the idea of offering help (this was the time when charity would have been offensive); passed him quietly, and began to run.

Stubbornly.

“She Never Stumbles — She’s Got No Place To Fall. She’s Nobody’s Child. The Law Can’t Touch Her At All.”

It is truly fucking amazing, but for the very first time in my life, being single does not seem like a social ineptness — a disease of which I am a carrier.

So, as I stand in front of an overwhelmed ticket cashier at my fancy local movie theater, I no longer feel awkwardly apologetic when I say:

“One — for Crazy, Stupid, Love, please.”

The chubby, stressed-out girl in an ill-fitted penguin-like uniform looks up at me.  It’s the weekend, but I had just come from a day of hard work.  My hair is pulled back.  I’m exhausted, not in a self-pitying way of someone burdened by survival; but in a relaxed, proud manner of someone making her own way in the world.

“Was that:  One?” she repeats.

I thought I spoke clearly.  I usually do, with strangers, subjecting only my beloveds to my habit of speaking in code.

“Yes,” I say, and I smile as kindly as my tired, non-pretty face allows.

The girl purses her lips and flips her computer screen toward me:

“Where would you like to sit?” she says.

I don’t really know how it happens in the lives of other young girls, but in my own adolescence, I’ve never been taught how to get myself successfully paired up.  There is nothing my father wanted more, of course, than for me to get married and settle down, always in close proximity to his house.  He somehow hoped I would figure it out on my own and — magically! — end up with a decent guy (which by Russian definition meant someone who could hold his liquor and was good at fishing).  I would end up with someone my father could trust enough to pass me into his care.

At the same time though, he never talked to me about dating.  It made him uncomfortable — this idea of my inching my way toward the problems of adulthood, day after day.  And the sequence of my father’s glottal sounds while he sat on the edge of my bed one night and tried to talk to me about sex would make Bill Murray want to take notes:  It was so uncomfortably funny.

“Um, P?” I had to interrupt him, because I wanted to remember my father as a hero, NOT as a man incapable of uttering the word “sex” while blushing like a teenager.  “It’s past midnight and I’ve got an English final in the morning.”

I was in tenth grade.

Not kidding.  Dad — or “P”, as I called him, lovingly, in my habit of speaking in code — had always been delusional about my sexual development.  I wasn’t even sure he knew I had gotten my period four years prior.  Most of the time, we just talked about my studies.  Because all my life, I had been an exemplary student, earning my way into the best private school in our city; and my education — was the biggest of my own concerns anyway.

“You just gotta be careful…” he mumbled that night, and once he got up, he would fumble with the seam of his thermal shirt and blink rapidly to avoid my stare.  “That’s all I’m saying.”

“I am, P.  Good night,” and I smiled at him as kindly as my tired face would allow.

And that was it.  That was the only time P chose to suffer through that topic.  Not even after my parents’ divorce would either of them invest any time in explaining the complexity of human relationships to me:  the work that it took to be successfully paired up, and the amount of self-awareness; the amount of commitment.

Whatever I learned about dating I would learn from my contemporaries.  Boys would be the main topic in the cafeteria of my college, to which I had arrived on a full scholarship.  Again, in my 20s, education would remain the biggest of my concerns.  By the end of our studies, many of my classmates would be engaged, or married; or moving back home where they were awaited by their families and boyfriends.  I, however, was en route to graduate school, hustling my way to earn more scholarships.

In our rendezvous to the City, we would occasionally meet up — my college contemporaries and I — and they would purse their lips at my awkwardly apologetic answer:

“Yes.  I’m still (insert a shrug) — single.”

In my dating life, I would feel clumsy and uncertain.  By the example of my contemporaries, before each date, I would dress myself up into what seemed to be a better, prettier version of me:  And during the date itself, I would often gain a headache.  Because by the end of it, I couldn’t keep track of all the omissions and alterations I would manufacture.  And when I wouldn’t hear from my dates for weeks, I would throw myself back into my studies.

Something would change of course, with time.  Somewhere during the pursuit of my dreams, I would begin to sit in my skin a bit more comfortably.  There would be a slew of reckless relationships and even a failed marriage; but I would begin to learn about dating, by trial and error.  And the one thing that eventually became obvious was this:

I was NOT like most of my contemporaries.  I was someone paving her own way in the world since a very young age, via her education.  I was also an immigrant who had to work twice as hard as her contemporaries in order to be their equal.  So, there was no way I could use someone else’s skills and opinions in order to pair myself up, successfully.

Because I am no longer willing to mold myself into a better, prettier version of me, I am beginning to find that the version of me already in existence — is pretty fucking amazing.  And that very version, however tired or un-pretty, I now carry into my dates; and I surprise myself that the men I choose seem to be more comfortable with me as well.  They are more confident, more fun.

And then I move on, to more adventures and dreams, in the pursuit of which I don’t really need to be paired up — UNLESS successfully.

“Um, miss?” the penguin-girl appears even more stressed out since meeting me.  “Where would you like to sit?  We’re almost sold out, but since you’re single…”

I smile.  I choose the best seat in the house, buy myself a single latte and wandering through the lobby’s bookshop, in a relaxed, proud manner of someone who can afford herself these tiny privileges, in life.

I am someone — making her own way in the world.  And I’m pretty fucking amazing!

“‘Cause I Ain’t No Hollaback Girl!”

“Any woman who counts on her face is a fool.”

Zadie Smith, On Beauty

Not the first time I’ve heard a beautiful woman call herself “a nerd”!

As a matter of fact, I think it must be some sort of an insider saying of my clan — my half of the species capable of dusting off a compliment either due to its insincerity or whatever insecurity it has activated.

“Oh, you mean:  this old thing?”

But she would say, “Yeah, I’m a nerd,” — and she would pout, do that thing with her eyelashes; flip her hair, shoot down your heart from behind its cascade; and thrust forward one of her magical hips.  She would take a stand:  “You have no idea!  A complete.  And total.  Nerd.

And doesn’t it make you want to die at her feet, like a sacrificial slave at the pyre compiled in her name?  You goddess!  You perfection.

Celebrities say that, and all the pretty actresses.  Some stunners have testified to their once-upon-a-time addiction to knowledge as well.  And I get it, but still I find myself doubting them ever so slightly.

But of course, of course!  Brain and beauty — is one powerful combination, and I am a lifetime fan.  (Just ask my girls.  Or, just look at them, really.)

But by its very definition, it seems, beauty cannot be isolated.  It shouldn’t be isolated because we all want a piece of it, so much.  Oh, but it consoles us!  It fools, even if just for the duration of being in its company.  For just a little while, it disorients against the ugliness of our griefs.  And somehow life begins seeming quite alright.  And we all seem so much more deserving.

So, it would be so unfair, so odd, or mismatched when a beautiful thing claims to have been burdened by so much knowledge it makes her socially inept.  Because theoretically, a beautiful person should be better equipped than the rest of us:  Attracting attention with one’s mortal coil must come with a life-long skill, right?  An advantage.  A leg-up.  An in.  Otherwise:  What’s the fucking point?

But last night — or at a painfully early hour of this morning — I heard myself say to a comrade, in my low-registered half-mumble half-whisper for which I blame the native tongue of my people:

“Sorry!  I’m such a nerd.  A complete.  And total.  Nerd.”

And then, I flipped my hair.  Oh, you mean:  this old thing?

Knowledge has been an addiction of mine for — what’s the expression? — “longer than I can remember”.  Back in my childhood, I was a loner, perpetually hiding behind the book covers of all the heavy Russian dogs.  Because while peaking from behind Nabokov’s spine, life seemed mellowed out by melancholy.  And with Bulgakov — it was just a fucking trip!  A joke!  A comedy of the absurd.  Leo Tolstoy intimidated right off the bat, even my own people; while Yesenin attracted conversations:

“Did you know he fucked around with Isadora Duncan?”

Scandalous!

“They killed him in bar fight, with a knife.  Like a dog!”

And Akhmatova:  She always demanded for me to lower her stanzas, even if because I couldn’t take her any more, with all that sobering truth.  And she ordered me to take in life, instead.

Adolescence would be spent behind the spines of other dogs, more foreign, more worldly; and much less in love with the Motha’land.  But then came a day, on a bus ride to my father’s town, when I lowered a tome to catch a breath and found a pretty thing distorted in the window’s reflection, with nighttime behind it.  From behind the cascade of my hair, I examined her; did that thing with my eyelashes — and then, I went back to reading.

Because it wouldn’t change a thing:  I would still chase the big dogs and dust off the clumsy compliments from young boys and the drooling older gentlemen either due to their insincerity or whatever insecurity they would activate in me.  And I would chase my dogs far enough to the edge of the continent.  And when the big dogs jumped — I jumped right after them and swam to the other coast.

Years later, I still find myself addicted to my books.  But more than that, I have perfected the addiction to fit more life into it:  I am now addicted to learning.  Any learning!  All the life’s new things:  show me, tell me, guide the way!  And often pro bono, I grant my life the immediate curiosity so easily available from behind the spines of all the big dogs; and it, most of the time, pays it back –tenfold.

So, last night — or at a painfully early hour of this morning — I heard myself say to a comrade, in my low-registered half-mumble half-whisper for which I blame the native tongue of my people:

“Sorry!  I’m such a nerd.”

I have been pacing my apartment — with all the big dogs lining-up its walls with their spines — and I have been sweating my ear against the phone while trying to explain the new curiosities of this year.  The poor comrade could not have known that I’ve been laboring over my work for eleven hours already:  that I had written for five and researched my media for the rest.  That I have already played with a few other bloggers — other nerdy and, as I imagined, very beautiful girls taking a peak at life from behind the cascades of their hair and from behind the spines of their laptops in their own apartments, illuminated by nothing more than the light of the blogosphere.  That I’ve had a day full of life already — and full of curiosities paid back to me tenfold; but after the town shut down, I still wanted more life.  And I would find it — behind the spine of my laptop.

“Yeah.  A complete.  And total.  Nerd,” I giggled.  Or maybe I didn’t.

But I do remember flipping my hair and thinking how light it was — and how easy! — to grant my life the immediate curiosities so easily available from behind the spine of my laptop.  And even though most of the hours of my learning have been spent in solitude — in isolation so typical for a nerd — everything seemed so much fuller:

Of life.

Of light and lightness.

And of purpose whose source of enlightenment was not only knowledge — but gratitude itself, paid back to me, tenfold.