Tag Archives: culture

“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!

“Drea-ea-ea-ea-eam, Dream, Dream, Dream. Drea-ea-ea-ea-eam…”

I’m seeing white.  From where I sit, this morning, I see the white rooftops of the apartments below, and they temp me to step out right onto them and play hopscotch:  To leap from one to another, all across my neighborhood, while using pinecones abandoned by squirrels as my markers.

I see the off-white borders of that perfect little house on the corner, with pink-brownish tiles on its gable roof, where many times I had watched a lavender-gray kitten basking, rolling, purring in the hazy sun.  Most certainly, that must be where the perfect life resides:  Right underneath that pink-brownish rooftop with its off-white borders; inside the attic behind the snow-white windowpanes:

Idyllic.

To the right, on the greenest peak of the mountain, I see the white of the Observatory reigning above Griffith Park; and it sits there — a lighthouse for the angels of this City — like a lovely mirage in the midst of this sun-produced haziness.  And you better squint your eyes — from all of this light and all this idyllic pleasure — to take in the vision.

If I scan my squinting gaze from East to West, across the mountaintop, here and there I pick out the perfect whiteness of the old Spanish houses clutching onto the hillside.  They are idyllic and absurd at the same time:  stubborn against all of nature’s reasons.  And if these structures persevere — past all the rains or the fires, or the occasional shivers of the planet, in this stretch of its skin — they decorate the already complete beauty quite well.  Idyllically.

And to the left, I see the HOLLY of the sign that has led too many of the world’s travelers to worship it in closer proximity:  A lighthouse for the dreamers of this City.

I swear:  Sometimes there is so much odd glory in this town, I catch myself wondering if I’m dreaming, among angels.

A stark white dove has just dashed across the sky (I didn’t even know those existed, in this City), and it outraces the white bird of the plane with red markings on its wings.  Both, I hope, are carrying messages of love.

I turn around:  My couch is draped with freshly bleached sheets, and tangled up in them — is a gorgeous young boy, slowly waking to this perfect day.  He is tall, with a head full of longer coal-black hair; and his handsome, tan face outlined by the morning stubble juxtaposes the whiteness of the bedding in such a lovely combination, it makes me wish I were a painter, or a photographer at least.

Ah:  Idyllic.  

I rest my chin on the back of my chair, draped with an eggshell-colored throw, as soft as the fur of some lavender-gray kitten, and I say:

“You look so perfect right now.”

The boy raises himself onto his elbow, blushes a little — underneath his tan — and he grins.  And when he does, a row of perfect white teeth glows against the sun whose rays are now bouncing off the white rooftops of the apartments below.  He shakes his longer, coal-black hair and chuckles:

“Nah.”

And I swear:  Sometimes there is so much unexpected glory in this town, I catch myself wondering if I’m dreaming, among angels.

Behind him, hanging off the button-nose handle of my armoire, painted in shades of eggshell and white chalk, there hangs a white cotton dress shirt with a band collar.  Its material is thin, perfectly suitable for the tropical climate of this gorgeous boy’s homeland.  And while I measure his face against the background, I wish I could hear the sound of the Ocean punctuated by the beat of men’s heels dancing zapateado, accompanied by the mellow strumming of a singular Spanish guitar.

“If you could choose any other culture — for yourself — what would it be?” the gorgeous boy asks me, blinding me with his stark white teeth reflecting in the hazy sun.

I smile:  He’s read my mind.  And in the manner that so many of my former lovers have found evasive or mysterious — until they eventually find it annoying — I don’t answer the question.  Instead, I ask a question of my own:

“What made you say that?” I say from behind the off-white door panel, having wandered off into my bedroom by now.

“Dunno,” he says, and he tangles himself up into the white sheets, the coal-black hair spilling into a halo on the white pillow.  “I woke up thinking that.”

I sit down on the edge of my bed surrounded by the white curtains of the canopy I had untied this morning, and while staring at my brown feet, I say:

“Um.  Spaniards always seemed to suit my temperament.”

And then, I laugh, to myself.  The joy of getting to know someone is always so thrilling, most certainly.  But the acknowledgement of my own being — my growing awareness of self — it relaxes my body with esteem and peacefulness.

While the gorgeous boy hums in response to my answer, I drift off into a narrow alley with cobble stones and cracked walls of old Spanish houses, and I see myself, walking downhill with my bare, tan feet.  My hair is unleashed and the long skirt of my white cotton, lace dress swooshes sideways, imitating the sway of my hips:  The lighthouse for my most perfect, ideal lover.

And I swear:  Sometimes there is so much unexpected glory in this town — and so much beauty — I catch myself wondering if I’m only dreaming, among angels.  

Idyllic.  For now. And always so much more idyllic, the very next day.

Home, Bitter-Sweet Home

Today, I woke up to the sound of construction.  Having had the type of a day that nearly disparaged me with other people’s tests of my boundaries, being brought back to reality didn’t enthrall me much, as you can imagine.  I growled, tossed to the other side of my bed; yanked the alarm plug out of the wall (‘cause I don’t need that shit waking me up later); and on my feet that someone had to have pumped with lead while I was sleeping, I stumbled toward my bedroom window:

“Bloody F!” I shifted the blinds to examine the haps of my ‘hood.

A handful of short, brown men calling out to each other in a foreign language were repairing the roof of the little blue house next to mine.  Right underneath my top-story apartment, I could see them ripping that shit to pieces.  Unlike the men at one of those construction sites with heavy machinery and brutal metallic noises, these guys were tiny; and the sounds they emitted belonged to the old country:  a scraping of the shovel against the stripped wood, an arhythmic knocking of a hand-held hammer and the rainfall of nails hailing into a plastic bucket in the middle.  The shortest of the workers, wearing a safari hat, had been assigned the task of sweeping around with a giant broom with plastic bristles. That thing was thrice as tall!  And their leader — a gray-mustached man with an LAPD cap and a waterproof pouch with architectural drawings sticking out of it — looked out toward my building while smoking a pipe.

That fucking pipe rang a bell:  On my yesterday’s morning jog, while fumbling with the wires of my iPod, I nearly knocked him over.  He didn’t see me coming from behind, didn’t hear my mutters at the wires that would’ve annoyed me less had they belonged to a spider web into which I walked in, face first.

“Ooh…  Sorry…” I said, not really meaning it:  Who the fuck was he anyway and why wasn’t he paying attention?  I began to make my way around him.

“‘S okay, beauty,” the gray-mustached man calmly said after removing his smoking instrument from the thin lips that made him look like my father, “You can bump me anytime.”

Okay, may be NOT like my father, you naughty old player!  I laughed.  I do tend to forget that older folk still haven’t forgotten about sex, and that some of them may still be having it (yikes!).

So, it always tickles me to no end to watch these old guys flirt with me, with the swagger of their old days.  I bet they don’t sext the woman they like; and they know the etiquette of a phone call.  “Liking” a girl’s photograph on Facebook does not pass, for them, as an expression of desire.  And their stubborn commitment to getting doors and pulling out chairs; to taking over a woman’s grocery bags and never letting her whip out her money, no matter her protesting — all that throws me into a state of easy melancholy, readily available to my Russianness.

Yesterday, we left it at a laugh; but as I took off, I continued to smile and shake my head a few more times.  My jogging step suddenly got lighter.  I maneuvered my way around my neighborhood at the foot of a mountain; and considering LA-LA’s latest weather of the Bay-like blues — with its fogginess and unpredictable spurts of sunshine — it suddenly reminded me of my home:  A tiny village on a peninsula at the other end of the Pacific.  The old country.

A fresh cup of coffee would make the perfect finish to my start of the day, I decided, and detoured toward my neighborhood’s market.  Feeling the grogginess of the morning lift, giving room to the lightness of gratitude, I aimlessly walked through the fresh produce aisle.  A mount of magnificent red plums tempted me to pick-up a few and breathe them in.  I rubbed my fingers against a mint leaf and petted the shiny surfaces of eggplants; groped a few avocados.  Letting habit and the vague smell of coffee take me to my destination, I passed the fish counter.

“Hello, how are jew?” the manager said from behind his tempting, never frozen line-up of produce.

“Beauticious,” I answered and gave him my best American smile:  open and down with it.

Surprised by an alert response, the man’s brown face immediately stretched into an enthusiastic smile:  “Beauti-cious?”  I heard remnants of his Spanish accent.

“It’s like, ahem, beautiful and delicious at the same time,” I explained.  “Like those jumbo scallops of yours.”

“Oy!  Oy!” the man was already putting on his gloves.  “Would jew like to take a l’ook?”  (Definitely Spanish!)

Before I could switch from smiling to speaking (I’m still figuring out the dynamics of that whole American smiling, to tell you the truth), the old guy was already on my side of the counter, lifting its front cover.  (I didn’t even know it was built like that!)  A whiff of the sea hit my nose:  Ah, the old country.  HOME.  

The man began to gingerly pick-up the beauticious scallops and bounce them in his giant hands.

“Oy!  How ‘bout dis one?!”

“Gorgeous,” I said and rested my forearm on his shoulder.  “Beauticious!”

He chuckled:  My tender presence thrilled him. Perhaps, it reminded him of his own home:  Where men drink beer on outside patios and bluntly whistle at the lovely chicas strutting by; where time crawls and dictates the course of the day with its mood; where lunchtime can last until dinner and where every accidental drum beat can start an impromptu fiesta.

“What cha got there?”  The old guy said to me and starting staring at my breast.

I looked down:  A neon-orange sticker that used to belong to the mount of avocados, sat in the vicinity of my nipple and read:

“RIPE READY TO EAT”.

The man sized me up:  Was he about to get in trouble?  But when I thumped my forehead against his chest and lost my composure entirely, wiping away the tears that ready flooded my tired eyes, he too began to holler with his chesty laughter.

“Oy!  Oy!” he was still holding those scallops in this giant, brown hands and throwing his head back.  He would’ve touched me — it felt like he wanted to — but his American training had taught him about boundaries.

Still:  It was suddenly all so easy; so light.  Beauticious and grateful.

“Yep,” I thought:

It’s time to go home.  The old country.