Tag Archives: growing up

Making It Out

 (Continued from June 24th, 2012.)

After I got my first period — less than a month before my twelfth birthday — is right around when the two women began including me in their gabbing sessions, in the kitchen.

At first, I joined reluctantly:  I would much rather “waste my life away”, as mother dramatically accused me of, with a novel. But face it!  When the two of them returned from their separate errands, both beautiful and smelling of the same perfume — the flirtation of all the men still echoing in their voices — I would be a major “dura” to resist the temptation of their company.

And the stories, the day’s gossip — the life force pumping through the street of our town — seemed more titillating than my mother’s romance novels (through which I, when home alone, would rummage and then re-hide them in the cupboards of her bedside stand).  Now: Our neighborhood wasn’t really happening.  Someone would die, occasionally, after drinking too much.  Someone else got married, before an accidental pregnancy showed.  Both the town’s funerals and its weddings could be attended by anyone.  For Russians, it’s bad fucking karma to turn guests away!  So, as processions crawled through the main roads (not many Russians owned cars, not in those days!), neighbors joined in; because at the end of either line, they’d find free food.  And what’s more important:  Vodka!

Breathlessly, I listened to the women’s stories, never putting my two kopeks in.  Assigned the most menial jobs in the kitchen, like peeling of potatoes or sorting out grains of rice, I kept my head down and worked my ears overtime. At times, the exchange of information was packed with details so intense and so confusing, it hurt my brain to follow.  Still, I tried to comprehend in silence because asking either my sis or mother to repeat — was borderline suicidal.

“Now, mamotchka!”  (Marinka was already notorious for kissing up.  She’d learned how to work our mother’s ego.)  “Have you heard about Uncle Pavel?”

“Nyet!  What?”

The way my sis was blushing now, in the opal light of fall’s sunset, solidified that she was rapidly turning into her mother’s daughter:  A stunner, simply put.  The prospects of the townswomen’s matchmaking had already begun coming up at the dinner table; and every time, Marinka turned red and stole sheepish glances at our father.  There was no way around it:  She was easily becoming the prettiest girl in town!  Not in that wholesome and blonde Slavic beauty way, but an exotic creature, with doe eyes, long hair of black waves and skin the color of buckwheat honey.

Olga Kurylenko for Instyle Magazine

Marinka carried on.  “I got this from Ilyinitchna,” she gulped.  She’d gone to far, corrected herself:  “Anna Ilyinitchna, I mean.”  (The tone of informality common for most Russian women was still a bit to early for Marinka to take on.  But she was getting there:  Whenever she joined our mother’s girlfriends for tea, she was permitted to address them with an informal “you”.)

Mother was already enticed.  “What?!  What’d you hear?” she wiped her hands on the kitchen towel and turned her entire body toward my sister.

“He and Tatiana’s daughter…”  There, Marinka took notice of me.  She looked back at our mother for a go-ahead.  The silence was thick enough to be cut with a knife.  I pretended to not have heard anything.

But mom had no patience for not knowing:  “Oy, Marina!  Don’t stretch it out, I beg of you!  What did you hear?!”

Sis ran her nails to tame the fly-aways by pushing them behind her ears.  Her hair was thick and gathered into a messy construction on the back of her head.  Ringlets of it escaped and clung to her sweaty neck.

“Well?!  WHAT!”

Whenever mother spoke, I noticed the tension Marinka’s shoulders — a habit of a child who took on a regular beatings from a parent.  In boys, one saw defiant thoughts of brewing rebellion.  But it looked different in girls.  We had to bear.  It could take decades to grow out of oppression.  Some women never made it out.  They would be transferred from the rule of their parents’ household to that of their husbands’.  Forgiveness already started seeming too far-fetched.

Marinka blushed again.  Lord, give us the courage!  “He and Tatiana’s daughter were seen having dinner together in the city.  He took her to a rest-aur-ant!”  She slowed down, for effect:  Dining at Soviet restaurants was NOT a casual happening.  “And she was dressed like the last whore of Kaliningrad.  She now wears a perm, although I’m sure it’s not her parents’ money that pay for it.”  Sis was on a roll.  “I mean you see how Tatyana dresses!  The thing she wore for her husband’s funeral!  A woman of her age should watch such things!”

It felt like something lodged inside my throat.  Was it words?  Or a hair-thin bone from a sardine sandwich from my breakfast?  Although I didn’t understand the situation completely, I knew it wasn’t something that left my brain untarnished.

Mother, by now, was smiling ear to ear.  “Hold up!  Which daughter?!  Oh, Lord!  Is it Oksanka?!”

Marinka shot another stare in my direction.  You’ll break your eyes, I thought.  Oh man, I wanted to get out of there!  Blinking rapidly to remove the layer of forming tears — the shame!  alas, the shame of it all! — I fished out the next wrinkled potato from the iron basin at my feet and hurriedly scraped it with the dull knife.

“Well, Oksanka, mamotchka!  Of course!  She’s got that job at the City Hall, remember?”

“Well,” mom shook her head.  “WELL.  That little bitch!  She knows how to get around, I’ll give her that!”

I looked at Marinka, she — at me.  Mother bluntness was a common happening but even we were surprised at her bluntness.

“The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” mother concluded.  Marinka chuckled, fear freezing her eyelids into an expression of panic.  The clock of her girlhood had stopped its final countdown.

(To Be Continued.)

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.)

“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!

“Where Are You Going, My Little One, Little One?”

It was her skirt that I noticed first:  one of those floor-length gypsy numbers, with wide parallel stripes of different colors all best found on a yarn of some baby blanket, or in a pack of dyes for Easter eggs.  The skirt looked vintage and slightly tattered at the bottom where it touched the ground.  It may have been a tidbit too long for her, but she strutted in it well.

She wore a simple gray turtleneck on top and from a few times I saw the toes of her Uggs peak out from underneath the skirt, they too — were bluish-gray.  The tossed waves of her strawberry blond hair ran down the back of that sweater.  I wondered if she had freckles, like girls with such hair often do.  I wondered if she was prone to blush a lot; and when she slept, I bet she could disarm the world’s most ruthless villains and defeat her mother’s monsters.

I slowed down.

Her three brothers were walking a few steps behind her.  The oldest one could not have been older than five.  But the boys were already of that age when they understood that no matter how much younger she may have been, hers would be the last word, in the family.  To them, it was still child’s play and video games; but she already knew how to stand-in, when mom was busy.  And I imagined she had a stool that was brought out every night, into the kitchen — specifically for her; and there she stood, becoming a woman as she adoringly studied her mother’s cooking.

A couple of times she turned to look at the young boys, checking if all three were still in tow.  If one was walking too close to the road or climbing up a dirty hill, he would immediately get back into a safer place.  But she’d keep walking ahead, a few steps behind her mother — a tall, lean woman with the gypsy-girl’s hair and the strut that her daughter was trying on these days.  (These would be the privileged days still, I hoped her mother knew; the days when in her little daughter’s eyes, she was still her deity.)

Truth be told, I could never pull off the little girl’s style.  I wear skirts like that, for sure.  But to double them up with a sweater was more like what those cool hippie chicks would wear, in the vicinity of NYU.  Her hair was messy, but not from a lack of care.  I wondered if she had just began to learn the lengths and hairstyles she liked the most and wearing hair ties around her tiny wrists.  In the manner of her mother, she’d learned already how to tie her hair back with lightening speed, in moment ready for play or bedtime.

I’m not the one to walk around here much; and I would prefer to never park in these alleys late at night.  There used be a giant homeless man who lived here, sleeping always in the same spot — along the gray wall of some sound stage; and he would guard these streets.  Like everyone in Hollywood, he had his own story; and that story had to do with broken family, a quick rise to fame, then loss of everything — and after that, survival.  So many times, he’d been arrested and led away, only to reappear at his same spot a few days later. With him, standing in dark corners or sitting on the curbs, I somehow felt protected.  But now, he’s gone; with nothing but a vigil by his wall.

The girl began to let her brothers pass her.  Her mother had, by now, located the family’s silver van, and she opened the door on the passenger side, closer to the curb.  The boys took their time conquering the vehicle.

The tiny gypsy-child looked around — and then, she let out a twirl!  Just one 360-degree twirl!  It was the same move I’d seen girls do in their brand new dresses, often times around other girls or when dancing at a wedding.  And while they turn their feet in one place, they lose themselves in the fabric rising underneath their eyes.  They still see magic.  To them, the world is still extraordinary.

She finished twirling, gathered her loose locks again, and threw them over the right shoulder.  That’s when she noticed me, smiling.

She gave me an askance look:  That was twirl was meant to be between her and her imagination only!

I got embarrassed, but even as I lowered my eyes and sped up to my own car, parked on the other side of the street from the silver van, I kept her image living underneath my eyelids.

She was a girl on the verge of growing out of her childhood.  But how I prayed that some of it — would never leave completely!

“Big Black Boots. Long Brown Hair…”

“The definition of growing up is that you are supposed to get better at tolerating ambiguity.” — Jeff Tweedy

Oh, but we always know what we’re doing, don’t we, ladies?  Between the hair flipping, and the chin tilting; and the swoon-worthy flutter of our lashes; the sway of our hips and the elongating devices for our legs; the belts, the garters, the built-in bustiers:  Oh, how deadly our choices can be!

Karina Lombard

The curvature of our breasts and the narrowing slide of our waistlines rarely fails, especially if we get enough tools to accentuate the details.  The mere apothecary of our perfume-infused lotions and bottled scents is enough to send a man spinning into a life-long addiction.  Most of us are soft to the touch; and sometimes, our skin shimmers in the light.  And when the skills come out, what is a man to do?

We know exactly how to announce our availability — or the possibility of that availability.  And even if that availability is a mere illusion, the attention it receives sometimes is a sufficient reward — for all the above mentioned troubles.

We don’t always know why we are doing it.  Some of us do it for the money, in those jobs that hire us for the tricks.  Others do it for money in a one-on-one basis with their male victim of choice.

But I’ve known some of those girls who thrive on the male interest alone.  Fuck it, I’ve BEEN — one of those girls!

One of those girls who would approach every male as a conquest, leading him on for just long enough to not diminish his manhood.

One of those girls who would quickly confuse sex for love.  But sex — is just sex:  When done correctly, it can be quite wonderful; but it CANNOT be confused for anything else.

One of those girls who would feel “used” or “empty”; or god forbid, “lonely”, after all of it was tried and settled; and she would quickly suffer the consequences of her self-delusion via shame and loathing.

And I have also known those girls who always prefer the company of men.  It validates them.  So, they amputate themselves from the rest of their gender.  And it’s painstaking to watch a woman of such great insecurity navigate her way through a man’s world.  One of those girls — I have never been, so I don’t really catch their drift. But, god bless ‘em, anyway!

I was pontificating all of that the other night, as I was waiting to yield onto Hollywood Boulevard and get the hell outta dodge, on a Friday night.  It was a tricky spot located at the curb of one busy 7-Eleven.  There, you gotta deal with all the stray drivers making their stops for all kinds of irrational calls of nature.  The parking lot of the joint opens directly into a lane that merges with the 101.  So, any sucker like me — trying to make it into the second lane — better possess a vocabulary of telepathic stares and classical-conductor-like gestures, in order to bypass the other baffled and irritated drivers trying to make their way onto the fucking freeway.  And we’ve all got less than half a block to get to our lane of choice.

The clock was nearing midnight, and the entire process was slowed down by the traffic on the opposite side of the street where a newly opened club’s parking lot was swallowing and spitting out expensive cars on a second-by-second basis.  The penguin uniforms of the valets were slipping in between traffic, on both sides of the street; and the cars kept on coming out of the 101 off-ramp and taking their place in the miserable congestion.  The rules didn’t seem to apply to that particular demographic of drivers, and every once in a while we would be made privy to some impressive U-turns and parking tricks.

The head of a giant, spinning spotlight machine was happening in the background of all that circus.  For a few minutes there, I was mesmerized; and a honk by a middle-aged man in a rickety Honda got my attention:  He was waving me in while granting me one of those same telepathic gazes.

Immediately, I

–  nodded,

–  waved,

–  and merged.

(Oh, and then, I waved again, in between my two seats, to make sure — that she was sure — that I was very grateful.)

Now, trying to bypass the freeway traffic, I turned on my left blinker and began waiting for someone else to let me enter into the middle lane.  But the sight of two honeys trying to cross ahead diverted the best of my attention again.

They were both tall, brown and gorgeous.  One was wearing a flowing baby-doll dress of canary yellow (and I respect any woman who can pull off that color).  But regardless of her appeal, it was her girlfriend that I could not stop watching:  In a skin-tight little black dress that barely covered her glorious behind, she was trying to lead the way, in a pair of transparent stripper heels.  A couple of times, she would step off the curb into the merging lane and attempt to make her way across.  But after a few more steps, she would get scared and scurry back to the curb, while pulling down the non-existent bottom of her dress to cover the spillage of the ass.

I got awoken by a honk on my left:  A kind woman in a black Land Rover was waving me in.  I wondered if I was the only one spacing out on the girls.  Perhaps, their choice of attire failed to seduce the rest of the angry Hollywood drivers; and I as began navigating at a much more favorable speed, I wished them better luck for the rest of the night.

But I also felt grateful:  for having grown out of being — one of those girls.  For giving up on this chronic dance of ambiguous seduction and promises that can be prolonged enough — to be broken or misconstrued.  For learning how to sit and live in my own perfectly soft skin.  For knowing how to hold the ground with my womanhood that finally had absolutely nothing to prove.

Yet still, I couldn’t stop thinking — about those girls.

“Those Were the Days, My Friend…”

Back in those days, we would rise early — to get the fields on time.

It would always happen in the fall:

“Time of harvest,” they would tell us.

We didn’t know any different:  We weren’t supposed to.  We were children, still. Besides, to us — it would be just another adventure.

Most of us (if not all) had seen our parents working on land for their entire lives, tending to the whims of nature just so they could have a little extra to live on during the winter.  It didn’t matter if you were a villager or one of those city people who thought they were better than the rest:  Everyone worked, in those days.

The villagers had it a little harder, especially in terms of prejudice.  They were the simpler people, with more obvious needs and uncomplicated vices.  Most of their children would never finish their education either due to their parents’ alcoholism or because of being bullied, brutally, in school.  Those kids wore poorer clothes than us and carried lice in their overgrown hair.  They smelled of manure, tobacco and liquor:  They smelled — of hard life.

For as long as they could tolerate their young lives’ injustices, they would become outcasts; our plebeian jokers.  Soon enough, though, they would give way to their shame, drop out of school — and grow up way too early.  And the hard life continued to loom, above our unknowing heads.  But the ones that lived by land knew it earlier than the rest.  

In any city apartment, one could find a tiny garden on a balcony.  Radishes and tomatoes were planted in flower beds, upfront.  And in the spring, after the soil would thaw out just enough, our grownups would begin to leave the city, for the weekends.  They would take the trains into the suburbs — and they would return to their land.

Of course, somebody always had to be paid off along the way:  Such was the Russian tradition.  And we didn’t see any malice in that, or any particular injustice.  So, we bribed the city officials to get the better patches of land.  With the owners of live stock, we bartered in exchange for cow dung.  The drivers of tractors were paid off in vodka.  To each — his own.  

Summers seemed a bit easier:  Even if the money was tight, there was always at least some food in the home.  The early months were spent on gathering; and for the entire length of August and September, each woman busied herself with making preserves for the winter.  So, they would work — our mothers — rising early, tending to land; then, spending the rest of their days on mere survival.

But we, the young ones, would always turn it into a game.  In groups, we walked each other home; and as we climbed the stairs of our apartment buildings, we sniffed the doors on every flight:

“Ooh.  Strawberry jam!  Most certainly, strawberry!” we’d smell the lusty sweetness of slowly simmering fruit, then say goodbye to the comrade heading in, into that doorway.

“This one — is pickling cabbage.”

“She is always pickling cabbage!” the disappointed child would grumble and knock on the door of his forever disappointing mother.

We were all just trying to survive.  Although, for a while there, we didn’t know how difficult it was, for our mothers:  We didn’t have to — we were children. And to us, everything — was an adventure, just for a little while longer.

My doorway always gave off aromas much more complex than our young palettes could’ve known:  Green tomato jam, prune compote with red currants, garlic-stuffed cucumbers.  Motha — was always a bit of a witch, at the stove; and I couldn’t hide my thrill at her being so different.  And I couldn’t wait to find her in the kitchen:  What could she’ve possibly come up with, that time?

She would rise early, back in those days.  And by mid-day, several cauldrons would be boiling, simmering, stewing on the stove.

“Here!  Try this!” the woman with curlers in her hair and sweat on her upper lip would order me while shoving a tiny saucer with pink or purple jam foam into my dirty hands.  She wouldn’t even say hello.

Despite the occasional sand on my teeth, “MMMM,” I’d mutter.

“Good! Watch the pots!  I’m going out!”

Motha would depart into the bathroom and emerge in five minutes doused in perfume and sparkles.  I didn’t mind her departure.

In the fall, after the first month back in school, there would be field trips — to the fields.  Normally, they would happen on a Saturday; and we would have to rise early, showing up to the already busy school yard in our best peasant attire.

Most of the time, the children of the villagers wouldn’t show:  They had their own land to tend to.  Still, we would judge them a little, while shuffling ourselves in between the seats of a school bus, waiting to depart at sunrise.  We would be taken to the fields:  to gather freshly dug-out potatoes or to gather sugar beats, for live stock.

The labor would be hard, and we would overhear the upper class men complain about such an injustice.  But we still didn’t know any different:  We didn’t have to — we were children.  It would become much harder, soon enough.  But for just a little longer, we could be children — and life could be much simpler.

“We All Live in A Yellow Submarine, Yellow Submarine, Yellow Submarine.”

Yes, it’s a hard way of being:  Living as an artist.  But then, again, I wouldn’t want to be living — in any other way.

And I’ve tried.  In all honesty, I’ve tried to be many things:  Anything else but an artist.  An administrator, a teaching assistant, and a secretary.  A proofreader, an academic, a critic.  A manager.  An accountant.  A librarian.

“Oh, you!” my college comrades used to say.  “You and your jobs!  You’re always changing jobs.”

They had known me for years, and for years — they had seen me working.  They had watched me giving a very fair try to living for the sake of a different profession.  A “normal” profession.   A job.  And they had witnessed me change my mind.

Back then, I wasn’t really sure which profession it would turn out to be, so I would try everything.  And instead of entertaining things, I would satisfy my curiosity by leaping into every opportunity.  Because I always felt I could be so many things; but I wanted to make sure that I couldn’t be anything else — but an artist.

Being an artist resembled an exotic disease — a dis-ease of the soul — and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t one of its victim.

“So, what’s your major this morning?” my folks teased me during our phone calls.  I was prone to changing my mind, and the flexibility of my American education confused the hell out of them.

“Still English, I think,” I’d say.  “But with a slight concentration — in journalism.”

“Well, at least, you’re getting an education,” my best friend comforted me.  She always comforted me.  And it seemed to bother her the least — my proneness to change my mind, because I felt I could be so many things.

Come to think of it:  It should have been easier, in my youth.  During our college years, that’s exactly what we were meant to do:  To seek.  To learn.  To experiment.  To be — so many things!

But somehow, my contemporaries seemed to be more certain about their paths.  They would be teachers or administrators.  The more city-savvy types were going into investment banking in New York.  And I’ve even known one biologist and a chick who went to work for Fox News.  But mostly, they would be teachers.

“How can they be so sure?”  I wondered.

Because I wasn’t sure.  I could foresee the pleasure in having a day job with which I could identify myself for a couple of years; but the romance of its routine would expire as soon as some bureaucrat’s ego would begin dictating procedures to me, on a daily basis.  Some of them didn’t like my language, or my dress code.  They handed me time sheets and forms, along with the lists of appropriate jewelry.  Some wanted me to tame my hair.  Others preferred I didn’t call my colleagues “Loves”.

So, I would leave.  I would always leave, but with enough notice and plenty of disappointment noticeable on my employers’ faces:

“It’s just that you had so much potential!” they would say.

“Then, why did you break my balls about my headscarves?” I would think in response.  Still, I would leave with grace (even if I was leaving over burning bridges).

After college, I would be the only one in my class to leave for an art school.

“But you should teach!” my academic mentors insisted.  “Most of your contemporaries teach!”

Everyone had an opinion.  Everyone but me.  I still felt I could be so many things, but I really wanted to be — just one!

Some seemed to be quite disappointed in my decision to stick to the arts.

“What are you gonna do — with an art degree?  You could be so many things, instead!”

And I wasn’t sure.  I still wasn’t sure.

“And how can everybody else — be so sure?!” I wondered.

After the first semester in my MFA program, the uncertainty about my profession would remain.  However, the overall vision of my life was becoming clearer:  I would be an artist.  I WAS an artist.  And it was starting to be enough — to be that one thing.

And so, there I was:  Willing to risk my life’s stability — the stability about which my contemporaries seemed to be so sure — for the sake of seeking daily inspiration.  I would take on projects that would fuel my gratitude and curiosity.  I would begin spending my nights in companies of others who shared my exotic disease — the dis-ease of the soul; and I would attend their shows and poetry readings, and loom in front of their paintings in tiny New York galleries.  And none of us were still certain about our destinations; and yes, we were still filled with angst.  But we did share the same vision:  Our moments of happiness were simultaneous to the moments of creation — the moments of dis-ease.

Throughout the years, some of my contemporaries have disappeared into their professions:  They turned out to be successful administrators and great teachers.  Wonderful teachers, as a matter of fact!  I would watch them moving with seeming certainty through their honorable daily routines.

“Still:  How can you be so sure?” I would interview a few of them, years later.

I had succumbed to my disease fully by then, and I would learn to maneuver the demands of my survival jobs.  I had surrendered.

“Are you kidding?!  We aren’t sure at all!” some would answer, honestly.

And for the first time, in their tired and good, decent and honorable faces, I would notice a slight glimmer of doubt.

“Oh!” I would wonder.  “So, no one really knows, for sure!”

Strangely, I would find no comfort in their doubtfulness.

But I would find great ease in knowing that I myself had fully surrendered to my disease:  The dis-ease of my soul — of an artist.

“I Can Be Your Hero, Baby” — Nyet.

My dad — is not Superman.

I just found that out, last night, during one of our weekly phone conversation that I have been committing to Motha Russia for the last few years.  It’s the least I could do, I always thought:  to take the initiative in maintaining this long distance relationship that had affected every romantic choice in my own biography.  Because dad was the man with whom I was blindly in love, for the first two decades of my life.  So, da:  It was the least I could do.

As someone with the burden of having left her beloveds behind, with the guilt of exceeding her parents’ lifestyle — survivor’s guilt — I have been dialing an endless line-up of numbers every Sunday (by the Russian clocks):  My Prodigal Sundays.  And after a while, I’ve given up on premeditating the concepts of these phone calls:  For they never turn out to be redemptive, or even philosophical.

“Hello, what’s new?” I would ask, every time, surprising myself with how mundane I could be despite my lists of questions about my heritage, my character, my past.

“Nothing,” dad would answer, echoing the matter-of-factness of it all.

(It’s offensively insane if you think about it, really:  After more than a decade of separation, you would think beloveds could concern themselves with anything other than gas prices (for me) and bread prices (for him).  It must be why, then, I had always found fiction to be more perfectly narrated than life.)

But then on the other hand, my dad was Superman.  For years, he seemed immune to suffering.  Between the stoic nature I myself tap into sometimes, in my own character, and the military training of his lifetime career, he never vented, never sought faults; never passed a judgement on the humans he had vowed to protect.  So, I’ve had the audacity to assume he was stronger than the rest of us, capable and tough.  Because that matched the picture of the first man with whom I was blindly in love, for the first two decades of my life.

Dad always stood so tall, with his stereotypical Eastern European features juxtaposing my own (that I had inherited from the brown, stocky brand of my motha’s side).  But it was height that I insisted on remembering the most, never measuring him against other men.  There had to be other humans larger than dad’s slim stature, so well hidden underneath the boxy cut of the Soviet Army uniform.  Just by the mere fact that, for centuries, Motha Russian was famed for repeatedly spitting out giants out of her national vagina — there had to be humans taller than my dad.  But no, not from my perspective!  Not from where I stood — not from where I looked up, in my blinded worship of him, for the first two decades of my life — never growing past my own 5 feet in height (a feature I had inherited from the brown, stocky brand of my motha’s side).

And he would be the best of them all.  Always the highest ranking officer in every room, he would be granted the respect pro bono.  So, how do you stand next to a man that gets saluted before even being spoken to, giving him a complete command over the course of the words that would follow?  How do measure yourself against someone addressed by his title rather than his name?  I tell you how:  You fall in love with him, blindly, for decades getting stuck at measuring your own romantic choices against Superman.  

We could be on an errand trip to the nearest city — my Superman and I — standing in line at an ice-cream kiosk, when a stranger in civilian clothes would salute my tallest man in the world.  Beautiful women (for centuries, Motha Russia was famed for spitting those out of her national vagina as well — in galore) would blush and adjust their hair when father marched past them.  (For the rest of his life, he would never surrender that manner of stepping — as if on a chronic conquest:  A man on a mission to protect the human race.)  And even the harshest of them all — the bitterly disappointed veterans on the benches of Moscow’s parks or the fattened-up, unhappy female secretaries at my lyceum’s administration — they too would melt a little in the esteemed company of my dad, making life seem much easier to navigate than when amidst the stocky, brown brand of my mother’s side.

Oh, how I wish I could’ve dwelled in this blind worship of him, for the rest of my life.  But the romantic choices in my own biography — a biography that had happened during the period of separation from my dad, now nearly equaling in length as the first two decades — they have began to catch up with me.  And as I continue to fall out of my loves, I begin landing in truth about the very first man with whom I was once so blindly in love.

“And yes, you do mythologize your men,” a man, not as tall as my father, had told me the other day.

And da, herein lies the pattern:  Willingly, blindly, I fall in love, worshiping each new romantic choice, pro bono.  And when he doesn’t measure against my personal Superman, I fall out of it, quite disappointed but never surprised.  For no man can live up to my mythical expectations — not even the Superman that had started them, back in the first two decades of my life.

And nyet, my dad — is not Superman.  I just found that out, last night, during one of our weekly phone calls on a typical Prodigal Sunday (by the Russian clocks).

Because, “I’m just a man,” he told me, refusing to echo the matter-of-factness of it all.  “And it’s time for you — to give up on me.”