Tag Archives: daughter

My Father’s Office

(Continued from June 17th, 2012.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are we gonna bring an umbrella, too?”

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

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

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

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

“How come we’re in a hurry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

(To Be Continued.)

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.)

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.)

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.

This Time — It Would Be Different.

(Continued from January 15th, 2012.)

“I’ve decided__to let Doug__go,” Sarah told her Sid, on a typical Tuesday morning.  Her mother would have scoffed at the idea of anything typical, let alone the chronic event of Sarah’s whining on the hard couch, never to be found in her own hysterical universe.  Nonetheless, Sarah had said it; and surprised herself when, out loud, she had to insert a glottal stop between “Doug” and “go”.  She had thought it before, those two specific words in a row; but never let her mouth take them over.  Because when she practiced speaking to Doug (while in reality speaking to herself, alone in her narrow kitchen), she had never let “go” — go after “Doug”.  She didn’t know how to let “Doug go”.  So, she would continue to come back.

Did the Sid notice it:  Sarah’s surprise at the way phonemes worked, once her mouth took them over?  For a second, she imagined her face on an infant, cooing and choking on her first words.  What wonderment!  It wasn’t necessarily Sarah herself — as an infant — but perhaps her firstborn.  That was the exact problem with these only children, in the world, like Sarah:  They made for more desperate mothers, for they hadn’t yet seen themselves reflected in another human being.  But back in the day, when she had asked her mother for a sibling, “I have not time — for such a sing!” — her mother answered, every bit the tired woman this new chosen world had begun to make of her.  Eventually, Sarah would give up asking; and by the time, she herself could biologically mother a child, she had forgotten all desire to mother a child — spiritually.

Miranda, the Sid, was studying her with glossy eyes.  She must’ve just stifled a yawn, Sarah thought.  Then, she reiterated her decision, whose courage appeared to have expired back in her kitchen.  She was looking for the long overdue alliance:

“Yes.__I’m going to let Doug (stop) go.”

“Going to”.  Not “gonna”.  Sarah judged all American contractions quite bluntly, holding them away from her face with the two fingers of her dominant hand:  Violations to the language!  decapitation of words, ew!  Her own native tongue sounded too proper in her mouth, for she hadn’t practiced it much, since leaving the old world.  Her mother’s Ukrainian was always humorous, bawdy and full of life.  Sarah, on the other hand, sounded like an academic; or like the librarian that she had become, her intention to leave, eventually — forgotten.  She had stayed too long and froze.

“You’re such a snob, man,” J.C. said to her on the phone.  He had a “gonna” on his voicemail greeting:  “I’m gonna call you back.”  It had been bugging Sarah for all the years that she had loved him, learning for the first time that some men do stay long enough to reveal their faults — and to teach you to adore them, still.

Still, the “gonna” would bug her until she stopped listening far enough into the outgoing message.  (And if anyone had an “outgoing” message — it would have to be J.C.!  “Peace!” his voice always announced at the end of it — a naive ultimatum to the world by someone who hadn’t experienced much unkindness.  But before Sarah could get to the “peace”, she would’ve already hung up before the “gonna”.  NOT “going to”.)

Eventually, she mentioned it.

“You’re such a snob, man,” J.C. responded, from the back of his throat — the same geography from which her mother spoke, as well, in both of her tongues.  Her mother’s words had a chronic tendency to fall back, making her register chesty.  Or, hearty.  Everything about her mother — was hearty.

Sarah propelled her words forward, as her American contemporaries did:

“I’m not!  I have a Liberal Arts education and I work at the New York Public Library.”  Her self-patronizing didn’t work.  So, she thought about it, sweating the phone against her ear.  “Okay.  I’m going to try to be better about it, you’re right.”  Still:  “Going to” — not “gonna”.

But when she told the news to her Sid, while pacing her words, “What made you decide__to do that?” — the Sid responded.

Like attracts like, Sarah let the flash of a thought slip by.  Like attracts like, and she had been spending every Tuesday morning observing — and sometimes admiring — this nifty woman who hung up her words, niftily.  Sarah could never be nifty.  She was frozen, in between the two worlds of her mother’s; sorting something out because something was always off.  She was constantly relaying between wanting to belong and not knowing why the fuck should she?!  And she would narrow it down to the pace:  Things moved differently here; differently from what little she could remember of the old world.  It wasn’t so much the speed of things, but the direction — a lack of it — making each life’s trajectory chaotic.  It took longer to sort out a life; and even when one finally did, the life could easily shake off one’s grasp of its saddle, run off its course and resume flailing between others’ ambitions and desires for you, then your own delusions and ways of coping with losses and defeats.

To the Sid’s question, Sarah finally responded:  “I feel badly__for doing that__for all these years__to Doug’s wife.”  Except that, by then, she would be in her narrow kitchen, alone again, talking to herself.  She was never quick enough for an eloquent comeback, face to face with another human being.

(Her mother never seemed to have that problem.  Mother would always speak her mind, causing a brief gestation of shock in her conversations.  But then, the American participants would laugh off their discomfort, patching their sore egos with “You’re so cute!”, at her mother’s expense.

“God bless you!” Sarah’s mother would respond then, mocking the American habit for only jolly endings.)

 

Once, Sarah had tried imagining this woman — this other woman — in Doug’s life, who had been so epically hard for him to leave.  Except that Sarah had gotten it all confused, again:  She — was the other woman.  The third wheel.  She had read theories about women with low self-esteem before — women like her; women who prayed on other women’s husbands and who envied the wives of those sad men, with the eyes of a spaniel.  (What was the difference between jealousy and envy, again:  The doer of one — but the assumer of another?)  So, Sarah had tried imagining the woman she should envy:  The one who got Doug full-time — something that she should be pitied for, actually.

That night, Doug had taken her out to a pan-Asian restaurant on the Upper West Side.  Or, actually, they had just walked-in — into the house of dim lanterns and dim sum; because otherwise Doug, according to his disgruntled self-prognosis, was “gonna crash”.  (“Gonna”, not “going to”.  So much for poetry, professor!)

The shrimp stew he had ordered for Sarah arrived to her golden-and-red placemat.  The shiny shrimp tails, as pink as newborn hamsters, stuck out of the white rice, covered with milky-white slime.  She didn’t even like rice.  Her people came from the land of potatoes.  Potatoes and sorrow.  He wanted none of it.

“I can’t sleep over tonight,” Doug broke the news into his bowl of steaming miso soup.  His hunger has been staved off with cubes of tofu.  “It’s Beth’s birthday.”

Beth.  She bet Beth (insert a glottal stop in between) was patient and calm; living steadily ever after, while quietly meeting the expectations that her parents naturally harbored for their next generation.  She must’ve colored her hair every two weeks, in settle shades of red; wore flat shoes, hummed while folding Doug’s clean laundry; and she cut her nails short, as to not cause any breakage on surrounding surfaces.  And she bet (stop) Beth had a sibling.  Nifty.

“Nifty,” Sarah echoed.  Neither the slimy shrimp nor the sticky rice could balance on her wooden chopsticks.  So, she grabbed it by the tail:  “Shouldn’t you be__taking her out__then?”  She was beginning to pace her words again.  It started to feel like rage.

Doug squinted his eyes.  It wasn’t his first time, but not something that she had gotten used to yet, in their affair:  The beginnings of their mutual resentment.

“No need to get snappy,” he said, suddenly looking like he was about to cry.  It was an expected trajectory, for him:  going from a man-child who felt uncared for (what, fending for his own food, or he was “gonna crash”, while under her care?!) — to the scorned lover, exhausted by his failed expectations.  Then, why wouldn’t he just stay with Beth, who sounded smart enough and mellow; at peace and never shocked at this world’s disorder; unfazed by chaos, as children of full, healthy families tended to be?  (Nifty.)

And how ever did she, herself, end up here, wanting to take the place of the woman who deserved her pity, actually — a woman Sarah would much rather like, were she to meet her, on her own?  On their own, could they fall into a gentle admiration — love? — of each other?

“So, how old is good ole Beth__going__to be?” Sarah asked.  But her words came out shrill, and the sloppy face of the washed-up actress began inching its way down her forehead.

 

There had been other break-ups, in their history.  Most of them, she had instigated herself, practicing them ahead of time, alone in her kitchen.  But in reality, the break-ups came out clumsily, and not at all ironic.

In her heart — or rather somewhere around her diaphragm, underneath her lungs, perpetually under her breath — Sarah felt she would be punished for this.  She was already getting judged by her Sid — the woman she was paying to side with her, and then to guide her from that place of purchased empathy.

This time — it would be different.

It would be Sarah asking Doug out.  She had told him to meet her at a Starbucks, located at least two zip codes away from his and Beth’s neighborhood.  Doug would arrive first, with some latest book of poetry moderately well reviewed by critics under his armpit; and she would find him — drowning into the soft leather chair in the corner and muttering — while making ferocious notes on its pages and sipping from a Venti.  Except that this time, she wouldn’t listen to his embittered theories, always delivered in a slightly exhibitionist manner, as if pleading to be overheard:  on this poet being undeserving, or on that one — being, god forbid, better connected.  (“When is it gonna be about talent, in this industry?!”  “Going to” — NOT “gonna” — professor!)

This time, she would pass up her dose of caffeine, walk out into the wind and pace ahead, while the fat snowflakes sloppily kissed her forehead.  The five o’clock sun overlooked the island with its rouge glares.  This place had a flair for nonchalant beauty.  It never posed, but grew and changed — a once magnificent idea merely running out its course:  New York City.  This City left all acts of sad foolishness and silly coverups of aching egos to the ones that could not keep up.  (“You’re so cute!” — “God bless you!”)

And she would try to keep the break-up neat; because catching the A-train after ten at night meant freezing on the platform while watching giant rats have their supper in the oil spills of the rails.  Later on, on the phone, that would be her mother’s favorite part; and she would ask Sarah for more details:  the color of the rats’ fur in Ukrainian and the reek of the tunnel, made dormant by the cold temperatures, which she demanded for Sarah to translate into Celsius, in order for her to understand — to get the very gist of it, the very heart.  Everything about her mother — had a heart.  Perhaps, that was the secret to her overcoming chaos.

But when it came down to the heart of the matter — Sarah’s dull ache of disappointment, the failure of words, and the resigned mindset of someone frozen in loss — her mother became quiet.  And the phone continued sweating against Sarah’s tired ear, surely causing her something, later on, in life.

Sleep-Less, in Warsaw

The pigeons of Warsaw are singing blues lullabies, at night.

Were I not on a week-long hangover, from my tightly wound nerves and a lack of sleep, I may have not even noticed them.  But on the first night of getting here, I’ve first slept through all of daylight — sore from soaring the skies above the Atlantic — and then risen to an unfamiliar (to my now native but still adopted land) sound.  The murmur resembled the noises of a submarine submerging into water; or, of a bored babe blowing bubbles through a straw into a half-full glass of milk he had no intention of drinking up:  Quick pops of air, my little darling, with your tender, mumbled giggles, in between.

Even the local insomniacs have given up on their daytime nightmares that chronically keep them awake.  They’ve all gone off to sleep, by now.  In this old city, murmuring with blues, I seem to be alone; and I pull through my groggy, swollen stupor — of changed time zone and altitudes in the last twenty four hours, of overcome little tragedies (“the circumstances”, as other people call them) in order to get here — and through the anticipation of a major turnaround in my life.  Here, I have come to meet my father.  Here, according the story, lies my redemption.  (You know, THE story.  Everyone has one.  Not necessarily a fairytale, and nothing particularly dignified — but something that we lug around, to make us special. Or, different, at least.  “The story.”)

But still:  The sound.  Not a single soul seems to be awake to explain its origin, right now.  And after a lifetime of aloneness, loneliness is not in the repertory of my moods (let alone of my fears).  So, yes, the sound:  Is it coming from the pipes of the town square fountain, waking up in the midst of its winter-long hibernation?  Or is it authored by a stray mama-cat — with twice the thickness of her fur, being a much wilder thing in this part of the world — and she is purring her recent litter to sleep, somewhere on the raspberry, tilted rooftop of the apartment building across the street?

And then from the hibernating memories of my childhood’s self (what’s the use to remember, when all I do — is move beyond “the circumstances”?  toward “the story”?), I connect the dots:  If the memory serves me right, this sound comes from a choir of feathery creatures flocking the buildings’ gutters and windowsills, resting on phone poles (they are too clumsy for the tight ropes of phone lines, and they leave those for the little guys, the sparrows).  And they are murmuring the town to sleep.  The air is quieter in this part of the world.  The streets are narrower and filled with lesser aggression.  So, their songs — and the other tunes of nature — are easier to hear.  And so they happen:  These little harmonies of cohabitation, the peaceful melodies of nonviolent living.  Quite exceptional for the new century of ours!

Not a footstep can be heard along the cobblestone roads:  The town has been hushed down by the song.  There is always an hour, one at sunrise and a couple at the end of each day, when the surfaces of these streets look clad in blue — a shade that has been coming through in photographs of my father’s face.  While cradling a cooling cup of coffee against my breast bone, I break down the color by the palettes, while peeking through the tule curtains, which aren’t a common practice in my adopted land, except in immigrant neighborhoods.  For, on the other side of the Atlantic, every thing and body is in love with white spaces.  Still, the ways of life here do not appear strange to me; and all the memories I’ve forcefully filed away are gently slipping out to the forefront, to the bluesy murmurs of Warsaw’s pigeons.  I know I’ve seen these colors in my childhood.  I know I’ve heard these sounds.

The windows are sweated from the inside, but they’re not frost painted yet.  (That — I do remember well:  my tracing the magical cold patterns with my chubby fingers, while waiting up for Father Frost’s arrival, on New Year’s Eve.)  The streets below look narrow and ancient; and even though they are of a more recent generation, no older than five decades, the cobble stones breathe with tales of one old civilization (and of its “story”).  Never again will these streets be evened out by another nation’s ideologues with unthinkable experiments in mind!  The gracious land of Poland is resting now; and tonight, despite the turmoil in my head (reflections of my immigrant life competing with the memories of my original self), this land appears sleeping, submerging into fluid of some peaceful bliss that’s well-deserved, good lord!  Good land!

In about an hour — after this shade of blue is dissipated by sunlight — the town will begin its waking with the sounds of women’s heels upon the cobble stones, shiny in the morning with black ice.  A few antique cars, going one way, then parking and unloading fresh produce to a couple of delicatessens, will follow.

Food hunting takes some time and expertise, around here:  You cannot swing by a giant, windowless supermarket and get all of your needs fulfilled at once, while losing track of time in a hypnosis of excess.  No.  You must take your time to learn your neighborhood by walking and match a specific store to each food category.  Liquor and fruit — a reasonable pairing — is sold out of narrow closets, crammed in between first floor apartments.  Milk and meats are paired together, but never fish:  Fish is sold a few blocks down, on a larger, two-way street (which must be easier for deliveries, I dare to theorize).  At each store, you twirl the packages and wrappings in your hands.  They come from neighboring countries, each speaking in a different language:  the little oddities that feed one’s curiosity despite one’s being jaded by age.  The banality of your basic needs somehow dissipates when curiosity of hunting is rewaken; and you aren’t embarrassed for asking questions.

There is seemingly never more than half a dozen of each product in stock; so, you’re doomed to settle on variety; and if the local stores run out of your preferred produce — you wait until the sound of the antique cars the next morning.  (Here, waiting no longer proposes a burdensome occurrence; because the town’s time has slowed down, according to my clock.  And there is suddenly an endless list of missing objectives, as I adopt the natives’ strolling pace along these peaceful, old streets, until the blue of sunset, at the end of each day, and sometimes past it.)

The three women cashiers at the liquor store across the street are always visibly amused at my crippled Polish.

“Tak, tak, tak,” they smile and nod, and hand each other their guesses of what I’m pointing at.

“No, no,” I panic.  “Apple… not a pear…  Um…  Yabloko?  Yeah?”  (I throw in some Russian, what the hell!)

Sometimes, I juggle English, when my original tongue fails.  They smile and give each other teasing looks.  I do not worry though:  They look like grandmothers, completely free of evil thoughts toward other people’s children.

This one, behind the liquor counter, looks mighty — like the type I’d call in case of a prognosis of some feminine disease, or just to share a round of shots for no reason than to avoid thinking of “the story” (“the circumstances”, as other people call them).  She looks like she can laugh for hours, her giant breasts vibrating with resonance of her chesty, smoker’s register.

“Mozh?” she forcefully tilts her head toward my male companion who’s at the moment pleasantly negotiating with the other two women — in the produce corner of this closet space — that after all, we won’t be needing any onions.

“But, thank you.  Um…  Dzieku-ya?  Yeah?”  (He’s a lot more willing than I am!  His “story” must be lighter.)

I shrug, roll up my eyes to reconsider, press my lips together into a sheepish smile (this mighty broad is a Catholic, judging by the amber cross around her sweaty neck), and then I shrug again.  What’s Polish for:  “It’s complicated”?  She gives me a preview of the silver crown in the right top corner of her mouth and lifts her thumb.  She approves — of him, or of my progressive sexual practices, from my adopted (but not native) land.  Her nails are filthy, and I love her!

The woman stocking the shelves at a larger deli down the street has also picked me for a foreigner.  No matter which tongue I utilize with her — I might as well be speaking in Chinese.  Her face communicates her single, stubborn point of view:  If Looks Could Kill…  I feel no residue of my self-protective aggression.  (I’m suddenly so tired of “the story”.)  But one thing I have learned with these unwilling types, resentful toward tourists — as demonstrated by the apathetic shrug of a gray-haired, handsome cabby, earlier this week, who turned down a handsome fare to the airport by refusing to communicate in any other language but his native:  They aren’t obliged to speak to me in Russian anymore.  I cannot blame them:  It’s a new world, indeed!  To each — his or her own politics of forgiveness.

“Yeah?”

The resentful woman still doesn’t get me.  I let her be, in dissonance with me.  I let them be.

The young barista with a boyish haircut at a packed coffee shop pretends to not understand my “pleases”, “yeses”, “thank yous”.  (A little cunty, if you ask me, she shoots down all of my attempts for grace.  But nothing I can do about that.  I let her be.)  While waiting for my order, a stunning couple gets my attention; and I forget about the slightly patronizing smile of the child behind the register, who’s probably spitting in my coffee.  The woman in the coupling is wearing an African headdress, and he — is gloriously giant.  I hear them murmuring in Polish to a nervous woman tourist:  When did the world get smaller?  And, more importantly, how much longer — until it becomes kinder, juster, too?

Still sleepless, I keep studying my street, through the tulle curtains:

An amber store is lazily glistening with all possible shades of yellow, some silver and glass.  The arch doorway of the watch repair store right next to it looks like a replica from an old fairytale:  I try to cast the face of the kind and fragile watchmaker who tinkers with the hands of time, inside; but all that comes to mind — is the one of my father, illuminated by the shades of blue.

His face — is kindness incarnated.  Mercy defined and grace continuously — stubbornly — resurrected, despite “the story”.  My father’s hands, affected now by age and years of living past “the circumstances”, have been the ones in charge of my chronology.  Like a magician, from ten time zones away, he has been gently tapping the wheels of my clock with pads of his aging fingers, to slow down the loss of our minutes.

If only our “story” would have some mercy!  And from the ends of now smaller world, we have been rushing to each other:  If only there’d be time enough!

“You and I Have Memories Longer Than the Road That Stretches Out Ahead.”

It’s long past midnight in Warsaw.  There is a new couple that has moved into the apartment across the street.

For the last two days, it has been sitting empty, with the curtains open and the stark white mattress in the middle of the living-room.  On the first of the new year (today), they have appeared:  He’s tall, with pepper and salt hair; she’s lovely.  And even though I cannot see the details of her face underneath her bangs, I can imagine the high cheekbones and the doll-like roundness that I’ve been seeing in the store window reflections of the last twenty years.

I watch them from my kitchen, while drinking coffee.  I am jet-lagged.

The curtains remain open and the yellow light of a single lamp is getting some assistance from the screen of their TV.  They’re eating dinner that consists of corn on the cob and one bucket of KFC (so very Eastern European, as I have come to learn).  Occasionally, they half turn their faces to each other:

“You want some tea?”

Or,

“For what time, you think, we should set the alarm clock, in the morning?”

I leave them be and wander from one room to another to check on our drying laundry.  The guidebook never promised us domestic amenities, so the discovery of a washing machine in our kitchen came as a complete surprise.  The dryer button is jammed on it though, but considering I have arrived here with my arrested expectations from post-Soviet Russia, circa 1997, I am extremely grateful for the dignified living standards with which this city has accommodated us.

Besides, the absence of a dryer — I find romantic.  I run my hands along the cloths from my and my lover’s body, earlier drenched from running through this cold city, and wonder what it would’ve been like if I were to enter my womanhood in my birth place.  Would I have known the grace of unconditional love and the finally non-tumultuous forcefulness of me?  Would I’ve grown up kind, or would the much harder life of my homeland have taken a toll on my character and aged me, prematurely?  And would I have the privilege of choices that make up my identity now, still generous and grateful for the opportunities I’ve found abroad?

Identity.  In my impression of the world, this word comes from the American ventricle of me.  But after this week’s reunion with my father, who never had the privilege to watch me make the choices that led me to the woman that I am, I am surprised to find myself resemble him so much.  Despite the separation of nearly two decades:  I am my father’s daughter.  Of course, by some self-written rules, it’s presupposed that I have traveled further in my life than father ever did in his.  I’ve been exposed to more world, and in return, it taught me to question twice all prejudices and violations of freedom.  But what a joy it’s been to find that, in my father’s eyes, life is only about truth and grace and justice; and matters of identity, for him, have no affect on any person’s freedoms.

I wander back into the kitchen, sit down into my father’s chair.  Thus far, it’s been the greatest pleasure of my life to watch him eat good food that I have made.  While eating, dad is curious and — here’s that word again — grateful:

“What’s that ingredient?”

And,

“What do you call this bread?”

And I can see him now:  slouching just a little above his meal, in this chair; shaking his head at the meal that he finds to be gourmet, while to us — it is our daily bread.  I have to look away when with childlike amusement he walks his lips along a string of melted cheese:

Here is to more such meals, my most dear love, and to the moments that define a life!  that must define MY life!

The couple in the window across the street has finished their meal.  The table is still cluttered with settings, crumbled paper napkins and a red bucket whose iconography — although recognizable — is somehow different from the red-and-white signs that pollute the American skyline.  The couple is now on the couch:  She’s sitting up and removing pillows from behind her back, then tossing them onto the wooden floor.  He is fetching two smaller ones, in white pillow cases, from the bed.  Together, they recline again and progressively tangle up into each other, like lovers who have passed the times of dire passion and landed in that even-tempered place of loving partnership.

The light of the TV is now the only one illuminating their spartan room.  From where I stand, now drinking a cup of black tea (still, jet lagged), I only see the back of his head and her hand that has ended up near his right shoulder.   Occasionally, he half turns his face toward her, then turns toward the flickering blue light again:

“Are you comfortable, my love?”

Or,

“Would you rather watch the news?”

I walk into my bedroom to fetch my computer.  The yellow light follows me from the kitchen and slowly dissipates as I approach the next doorway.  It, ever so lightly, hits the exposed leg of my sleeping lover.  I think I study him, but instead the mind gives room to memories of similar moments and visions.  And in that suspended history of us, I reach into the drawer.

“In the Name of Justice. In the Name of Fun. In the Name of the Father. In the Name of the Son.”

A native couple is cooing by the window.

Polish has always echoed of my native tongue, but with more softened corners of our consonants.  And even if it flies out in a loud form — like from the disgruntled clerk at Warsaw’s Central Station who hollered at the group of passengers that included my old man (that bitch whose Soviet-inspired perm I could’ve easily clawed out if it weren’t for the plexiglass between us!) — this language still flows and gurgles the prettiest, for my ears.  Within this week, Polish has become my path to lullabies; and now, I wish to learn it, so that I could always murmur its fairytales to my own sleepy firstborn.

Case in point:  The lovebirds with whom I’m sharing this train car for the duration of the 7-hour ride from Gdansk to Warsaw — are quite quickly putting me to sleep after our first ten minutes together.  Although I’m certain that the last three days of restless sleep that came from my fear of closing my eyes (so that I wouldn’t stop memorizing my father’s face, after a decade of our living in opposite hemispheres) have something to do with it, too.  But during this entire trip through Eastern Europe, I have been thoroughly calmed into surrender by the trustworthy national temperament of the Poles.  No other peoples I have ever encountered possess this much gentleness and grace (the Soviet-trained witch at the bus station who dared threatening my father’s dignity — is obviously excluded from this statement).

It is as if after centuries of oppression by every egomaniac who found this lovely country as the perfect place to start a war or their conquest of the world — after unthinkable tragedies the human race thought up and then imposed on these kind people — the good gods of this land have finally decided to protect them from all strife, until the next apocalypse that ends our civilization all together.  As far as the Poles go, I think that they have suffered enough to possibly reach their nation’s limits of paid dues.

It must be why for days and miles (oops, sorry:  kilometers) by now, I haven’t seen an unattractive native.  The kiddos are doll-like, with their giant eyes and smooth foreheads inside the halos of colorful scarves and fur-trimmed hoods of coats:  The beauty of their future generation must be the reward for all that suffering.  The women are mesmerizing with their luminous faces (without make-up, in most cases) and those Slavic cheekbones carved out of marble by Michelangelo himself (for surely, that guy must be god’s personal architect, these days).  The leftovers of the kitschy Soviet fashion are still occasionally noticeable on Warsaw’s streets:  in leopard colored fur coats and hair beehives set into unmovable mounts with sparkly hairspray, a tooth comb a curling iron.  And then, there are those women who suffer from the universal ailment of unhappy marriages and miserable living standards (those women age so fast!).  Also, a few have fallen victim to the mass fad of perpetual smoking (although the young are still not showing the consequences of it).  But for the most part, in their beauty, these women — are exceptional!

As for the Polish men, thus far I’ve found them wonderfully well-mannered, educated and non-aggressive.  Like this specimen still cooing at his lovely in my train car:  Incredibly gentle to the point of being effeminate, he keeps telling her the history of every local sight and landscape that we have passed behind our giant windows.  At one point, he gets up, adjusts his tweed jacket (while being childlike and a little nerdy in his gestures); and then reveals two homemade sandwiches (oops, sorry:  buterbrods) out of his shiny brown leather attache case.  When he starts talking on his cellphone to confirm the schedule of their connecting train, he sounds exceedingly polite and almost bitchy.  She giggles and looks at him sheepishly when he cuts off the customer service rep with his blade-like sarcasm.  He looks back at her, now encouraged and twice the man, and pats the top of her knee.

These lovebirds have been cooing at each other ever since I’ve entered the railroad car.  Between the two of them, she does most of the listening:  With a blissful expression on her face whose only stunning characteristic lies in the constellation of her beauty marks, occasionally she slips in a timid compliment in between his never ending sentences, while he continues lecturing.  He could be easily be an assistant professor or some brilliant history students at the top of his class.  (Um.  Sorry:  faculte.)  And when he delights her with his intellect, she breaks out into a ready laughter, too loud for her demure character.

Of course, were I to have my drathers, I would be sleeping in the dark and in utter silence.  But one:  It is the Eve of the New Year, after all (and the Poles are huge on celebrations — which must have something to do with their generosity, I suspect).  Two:  These kids are perfectly delightful.  But even though they can’t remind me of my younger self (for I have never had a young romance), I always stand defenseless in the name of kindness, if not love.

Besides, I have been softened by the events of this week’s trip.  The best, the smartest and the kindest man of my life — my father — has just departed from the coast of Gdansk:

The man to teach me my self-worth despite our sixteen-year long communication by phone and telepathically shared heartbeat.  The one to always offer help and not keep tabs on my mistakes or moments of helplessness.

The first to show me that power lies in kindness and that in my forgiveness — happens love.

The parent from whom I have inherited my sense of justice and the pursuit of harmony, my reason, generosity, compassion; and the very essence of my spirit — has offered me the best week of my life.

And our reunion just so happened to unfold — on Poland’s graceful land.

“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.

“You Are the One That Got Me Started.”

I saw him first!

The roles reversed:  When I departed, nearly twenty years ago — so reckless in my youth and dumb — he was the last to disconnect our gazes.  

Such had to be the burden of the ones we left behind!  And such — the mindless blessing of the ones with great adventures to distract them from the pain of leaving. 

What courage it had cost him — to hold the ground and not crumble then, until I turned the corner!  And how I would never learn it, until I birthed a child, myself! 

And yet, he did:  My darling old man.  The hero of my lifetime doomed to never disappoint my expectations.

The one to whom my every love would be compared:  the ultimate ideal for a man’s goodness.  My goodness.

The one who, in tumultuous times, had to commit the ultimate, unselfish act of love — and let me leave in my pursuit of bigger dreams than our homeland could offer.  (Would those dreams turn out to be worth our mutual sacrifice?  My life is yet to reveal its bottom line.  But how I pray!)

And when my hardships happened, oceans away — the one to suffer heartbreaks of a parent’s helplessness and the titan strength of prayer.

The one to not let go, despite the distances and family feuds.  (Alas, human stupidity:  It never fails to permeate a story.)  The one to change in order to keep up.  The one — to love and wait.

And pray.

This time, I saw him first!

The crowds of tired passengers were whirling all around him:  Loves leaving, in their acts of youthful recklessness or being pulled by bigger circumstances.  The lucky ones — were coming home.  The floor tiles of the airport endured the writing of rushed footsteps, scoffed wheels of those things that people felt they had to bring along; the punctuation of chic heels of pretty girls; the patter of children’s feet, so blissful and undamaged in their innocence.  Tomes could be written if every footstep could be interviewed:  The snippets of humanity’s stories that were so often unpredictable, impossible to imagine.  But when these stories happened to make sense — when stubborn courage persevered, when love learned to forgive — they found unequal beauty.  (Oh, how we could all pray for that!  Oh, how we should pray!)

One million more of pedestrians could be packed into the terminal — and I would still recognize my father’s outline.  The mind’s a funny thing, of course:  Recently, it began to blackmail me with forgetfulness.  The first nightmare in which my father had no face — would be the turning point I’d call Forgiveness.

But when I saw him — and I saw him first! — I knew that I would not be able to forget him, ever!  Because he was the one I’d spent half a lifetime trying to get back to; the one with whose name I’d christened my every accomplishment; with which I had defeated every failure.  He was the love; the never failing reason for it.  My starting point and the North Star whose shine I followed to find my way, in and out of grace, and back again.

And when I saw him first and called him:  “Oh, my goodness!”

It had to be a prayer, for I had learned to pray — in order to come back.

No cinematic trick can capture the surreal speed with which he turned in my direction.  The mind sped up.  It knew:  This had to be THE memory of my lifetime.  This — was where my life would turn its course; and in the morning, I would no longer be the prodigal daughter looking for her homecoming, but an inspired child of one great man. 

He turned.  The smile with which he studied my departure, nearly twenty years ago, returned to his face, this time, again:  It was a tight-lipped gesture of a man trying his hardest not to crumble.  The loss had been magnificent; an the return — worth every prayer.

“My goodness!  Oh, my goodness!  Oh, my goodness!” I continued muttering.  (That’s how I prayed, for years!  Oh, how I’d prayed!)

I waved.  And then, I waved again.  The mind continued turning quickly.  It had to remember every single detail of that day, so it could last forever.  And fleetingly, it granted me a thought:  The manner of my wave was very childlike, as if belonging to an infant mirroring a kind stranger’s hand.  But in the moment, I knew no vanity.  I cared none — for grace.

When dad’s hand flew up, I noticed:  He’d aged.  His timid gesture was affected by the trembling fingers and the disbelief of someone who hadn’t realized the perseverance of his prayer.  C’mon!  There had to be some moments in his life, historical events of giant hopelessness that the entire world endured since last I left, when he, like me, would lose the sight of reason.

Or maybe not.  Perhaps, my father prayed!  Perhaps, he prayed and bargained with his gods for this very opportunity to persevere life — and see my running back into his arms.

For this one moment, all — had been worth it!  My life was worth when my father held me for the first time since nearly twenty years ago.

And I?  I kept on praying:

“Oh, my goodness!”

For that had been my father’s name, for years.