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!”