Tag Archives: history

As Luck Would Have It

Cousin Galina always arrived with bad news:  the neighbor’s pig had died during the previous night’s drop of the outside temperatures, making its meat too stiff to consume.  But what else was the family to do, at the end of the coldest winter of the last two decades?  The postmaster had collapsed one morning from an infarct, on his way to work.  (“Well, don’t expect to get any mail until next month, now!”)  Ilyinithna — the richest and the stingiest woman in the village — was still suffering from a bout of hiccups; and the Army draft had yet again passed Ivan, the Lame Arm, which, you could bet, didn’t thrill his widowed mother much:  She was hoping he could learn more useful skills than hanging out in apples trees and shooting the crows from a homemade bow that he pulled with his teeth.

The concept of karma wasn’t even heard of in the heart my grandparents’ village at the time, but cousin Galina had a special talent for making the connections with the flow of the universal force.  She possessed an impressive memory and retained the history of every family’s generations.  Every misstep, every shame was kept on file in the old woman’s brain, allowing her to masterfully connect the dots at the culminations of each misfortune.

“Oh, no!  Here comes the thunder cloud,” my grandpa would grumble, hearing the stomping of Galina’s walking stick on the wooden staircase and making a run for the back door.  “Hold on to your courage, comrades!”

He couldn’t stand the woman and would scurry off to play dominos at the bath house.  But even though Russians weren’t big on karma (after all, it was all in the hands of either a. god or b. the Party), there was no more certain way to fuck up the good luck for one’s own and all the future generations — than to turn on one’s family.

“And shame on you, Sergei!” grandma protested, albeit unconvincingly, on behalf of her first cousin.  “We must have some mercy on the cripple!”

She was right:  Cousin Galina wore the family’s misfortune on her face.  From the age of three, when she was burnt from a bucket in which her mother was boiling the family’s whites in bleach, Galina’s face was a mangle of leathery skin.  It was impossible not to wince when looking at her stretched, shiny face with blotchy patches of red and purplish-brown, and at the unevenly misshapen eye sockets with rapidly jittering whites of her eyes inside them.  Most children in the village feared her, but what discomforted grandpa Sergei the most was the sour smell of Galina’s unwashed flesh that accompanied her, made more pungent by the tobacco that she never took a break from chewing.  The tobacco stained her teeth and colored her spit; and while the other babushkas, who flocked the village benches, projectile spat the black shells of roasted sunflower seeds, Galina marked her territory with puddles of puss-colored, foaming saliva.

He could always smell it too, grandpa Sergei, when he return home and found his wife in the kitchen:

“Had the thunder cloud passed yet?” he’d joke; and after an askance glance from his wife, proceed to open all the windows in the house.  A trail of reeking flesh hung heavy.  A scraped aluminum ashtray in the dish drain would confirm his suspicions.  “At least, she had the decency to not spit onto the floor this time.”

Truth be told, the old woman missed sometimes.  Perhaps, that’s why Galina’s thick ankles were permanently adorned with shiny galoshes:  in case she misjudged and spat onto her own foot.  No matter the weather, the season, or the heat, she also wore gray socks of thick wool.  Say what would wish about the expedited process of aging for the Russian women, but at the fairly young age of forty — bundled up in thermal underwear underneath her housedress and a cotton-stuffed peasant jacket on top — Galina looked like an arthritic.  Never could get warm, never stopped complaining about her aching joints and high blood pressure.

“The burn must’ve messed up her nerve endings!” grandma explained.  “She may not ever get comfortable again, that poor soul.”

But grandpa Sergei scoffed and offered his own bit:  “Oh, come on!  Lord knows, the cuz has skin thick enough to outlive us all, in the end!”

He had theories, my grandpop!  Coached either to fear or to compete with the remainder of the world, he harbored little hope for humanity.  So, he was often heard pontificating on the subject of the world’s ending:  which continent would be the cause of it and which race would take the majority of the blow.  And the one thing grandpa had made clear was that when the fateful hour of godly justice stuck, he would be found nowhere near other humans.  To live off of and to die from the Ocean’s insatiable force — that was the destiny the old fisherman had envisioned for himself.

The Times They Were

(Continued from May 13th, 2012.)

Inna woke up to the sound of the television set, located on the other side of her bedroom wall.  It was a common occurrence in their apartment:  everyone’s mandatory obedience to the schedule of her mother’s whimsy.  Sunday mornings of waking up to blasting music, recorded from the previous night’s TV concert, for which Inna was rarely allowed to stay up, were a part of the family’s routine.  Each time, Inna would attempt to ignore the ungodly hour and bury her head under the pillow where she would often find a flashlight and the book that she had been reading, in secret, under the covers, the night before.  There, she would give her interrupted dreams another try.  But knowing her mother to be convinsingly oblivious, soon she would give up on any hope for silence; throw aside the covers in a fit of rebellion, and march into the kitchen, sleepy, grouchy and barefoot.  (To protest mother with her own loud noises was her only resource — NOT that it would be of any success).

Father was often already there, at the wobbly kitchen table, slouching over the Sunday Pravda, with a large cup of black coffee, next to the bowl of white Cuban sugar.

“Well, brown-eyed girl,” he’d greet her with a conspiring grin, sleep crowding the corners of his cornflower-blue eyes.  “Good morning, eh?”

“I’ll say!” she would respond.

Inna couldn’t recall exactly when it began, but a change was happening in her relationship with dad:  a newly found bond, mostly communicated with knowing silences and smiles that betrayed the seriousness of what was actually being said.  In her classes on Soviet literature, a similar smile appeared on the lips of her teacher Tatyana Ilyinitchna, whenever she read out loud the works of Gogol and Evgeny Petrov.  In the previous quarter, they had studied the concepts of satire and irony, adopted by the Soviet writers against censorship.  Inna suspected her teacher’s smile was related to those concepts — and that’s exactly how one was to read such works.  (Although she still, for the life of her, could not understand the difference between a metaphor and a simile.  But that was a whole other matter!)

Recently, she had also begun to notice her parents’ lackluster attempts to hide their arguments from her.  It was as if the two adults had suddenly grown tired, like many others in their town.  And while it appeared that everything else in the country was hurriedly revealing its flip side — scandals competing for the front page news, daily — Inna’s parents had also stopped putting up a front.  These days, father tended to drink more.  Mother bickered, easily irritable; and she eventually maneuvered their every argument to the deficit of money.

Still, father would never criticize his wife in front of Inna.  To the contrary, it was Inna’s mother who took such liberties in their one-on-ones.  And at first, Inna was thrilled:  Was mother also changing, from a strict disciplinarian to her friend and confidant?  But on their rendezvous into the city that summer, she quickly realized that mother’s confessions were a one-way dynamic.  Never was Inna permitted to quote her mother’s list of grievances or to voice her own.  She was there to merely keep her mother company; and it would be in her own best interest to adopt the delicate understanding of exactly when she was her mother’s ear — and when she was quickly demoted back to being her inferior (which quite often, as it turned out, happened in the company of other adults).

But this was a Monday morning.  With father traveling to Baykalsk, Inna was alone in her frustrations.  School would start in a couple of weeks; and she began anticipating the strenuous studies her first year of Junior High had in store.  After all, this was the year that everyone determined a profession and chose their future institutions.  Some boys would choose the army, although military service was no longer mandatory.  Inna, as most adults predicted, was bound for her mother’s job.  Which meant that after this year, she would be headed for the Pedagogical University No. 3.

“This once!  Couldn’t she just let me rest, just this once?!”  To stifle a grunt, Inna ducked under the pillow only to find the second — and the more tedious — tome of Mikhail Sholokhov’s Tikhy Don, which she pushed herself to finish, even if for the sport of being the only student in her class who had read everything on their summer reading list.

Not bothering to change out of her nightgown — “Maybe then she will feel guilty!” — Inna forwent washing up and made her way into the living room, from where the sounds were coming.  She had hoped to make enough noise with her bare feet, as well as the bamboo curtain hanging in her doorway, to let mother know that she was coming.  And:  that she was pissed!

In the living room, she found mother, in nothing but a beige bra and a pair of matching, shape-enhancing bicycle shorts that she would always wear underneath her pencil skirts.  She sat on the couch, nearly slipping off its seat cushion from leaning forward.  Mother’s right hand covered her mouth, as if to stifle any sound of torment.  Her eyes were glued to the TV screen.

On the small, black-and-white montage, Inna saw the footage of Moscow’s White House, flocked by tanks.  Crowds of locals had gathered around.  (Muscovites were always a courageous people!  Some of the best in the nation, Inna thought.  One day!  Oh, but one day, she would find herself among them, living on her own!)

At first, Inna assumed that mother was consumed by a documentary on one of the recent upheavals, of which, since the start of Gorbachev’s perestroika, there had been plenty.  When a newscaster with a knitted brow interrupted the footage, through the bits of fragmented news Inna gathered exactly what she had nearly slept through:  Gorbachev’s heart attack.  Change of leadership.  Moscow in a state of emergency.

It wasn’t the first passing of a leader in Inna’s lifetime, but she was too little to understand the grieving of the nation that followed.  But Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev:  She liked him a lot!  She found him to be one of the more handsome General Secretaries that the Party had ever had; and even though in recent folklore, he was the pun of multiple jokes — for his Ukrainian accent or presumed provinciality — he seemed to be a less mysterious figure, often appearing among crowds, talking to factory workers; and laughing with children, women and American politicians alike.

The newscaster proceeded building sentences that to Inna’s mind, still groggy from sleep, sounded nonsensical:  The roads leading in and out of Moscow appeared to be cut off.  There were reports of downed phone lines.  New leaders were in place.  The news seemed mixed, somehow suggestive; but already it appeared that this was not a typical succession of one leader after the next.

Mother, silent and unaware of Inna, sat still; and Inna knew:  All was quite serious.

“Ma?” she said softly, fearful to approach.  “How long?”  She couldn’t finish her thought.  She found herself unsure on how to act in time of great upheaval.

When mother looked at her, Inna remembered how prettily her eyes appeared in photographs.  In the darkroom that mother always made in their half-bathroom, Inna liked to walk along the shower curtain with drying black-and-white photographs and study the wet images.  Unlike Inna’s eyes — of bluish-gray, as if diluted from her father’s (a metaphor or a simile here?) — her mother’s irises appeared nearly black; mysterious and endless in all photographs.

But father’s eyes!  When on the previous month’s salary, the family purchased a color camera, for the first time Inna would notice just how blue — was their blue.  And often, they appeared illuminated by a stifled smile, as he the shutter caught him in the midst of reading Gogol, out loud.

 

They heard from father on August 22.  By that time, all of mother’s quiet stoicism had long dissipated.  She now wore strictly head-to-toe black attires when out on the town.  She left the apartment every morning, returning with a group of worried-looking girlfriends who served her tea, rummaged through the kitchen drawers, and for some reason always spoke in half-whisper whenever Inna entered.

For several days, Inna had gotten her fill of the news:  Her favorite General Secretary was fine after all, but out of the city on vacation.  She’d also seen reports about a young politician called Boris Yeltsin, who climbed onto the tanks and spoke willingly, from make-shift barricades, to both the Russian people and the press.

When townswomen came to take over the living room, Inna returned to her bedroom.  The women’s eyes on the TV screen, their spoons — in the jars of homemade jam, they whimpered when the news shifted from uncertain to anything poignant or tragic.  Some pecked at Inna’s mother; while others crossed themselves and nibbled on their crumpled, pastel-colored handkerchieves.

Despite avoiding these congregations at all costs, there — into the living room — Inna ran out, when she overheard her mother whaling on the phone, inside her parents’ bedroom:

“Oy!  Sasha!  Sasha!  Sashen’ka!  How scared I was!  How lonely!  What if you’d died!  I’m so scared!”

The other women clumped together in the bedroom doorway, and finding it impossible to get past their motherly behinds, Inna gave up and listened to the bits of news from the other side.

“Oy, Sasha!  I was so worried, I tell you!  I hadn’t slept a wink.”  (When mother’s tenderness surfaced, it wouldn’t last for long:  Impatience always crowded it out.)  “Udmurtya?  Still on the train?”

“Ah!  Glory to God!” the women exclaimed in the doorway.  “He must’ve gotten out of Moscow on time!”

“Oh, yes!  What the Lord giveth!”

“Lord!  Bless this family!”

Inna sized up the wall of motherly behinds again.  Feeling discomforted by the religious proclamations — which weren’t much done around her before — Inna returned to her room.  It was the first time she would notice that she’d run out with book in hand; a pair of her father’s giant earphones, unplugged and dangling around her neck.  (She had been using them to ward off the sounds of the women; their loud passing through the house, none of them offering to take off their heels.)

She looked outside the window.  The town’s cobblestone road glistened from that afternoon’s rain.  Inna remembered when, from the kitchen stove back at her grandmother’s one summer, she witnessed the old woman lower herself onto her knees.  Grandma had come out in a nightgown, in the middle of the night, to fetch herself a glass of water.  Her head, for a change, was barren.  A gray, long braid ran down her spine.  At first, the woman studied the black window with her own ghost-like reflection; and traced the cold glass along her lower jaw.  Before she kneeled, grandmother put down the glass, lifted her nightgown’s hem, and looked over her shoulder.  Inna, in her hiding spot, stopped breathing.

That was the first time Inna ever witnessed prayer.  She now imitated the old woman’s actions, slowly recalling them from memory.  Once kneeling, she felt awkward, silly.  But she forgave the unfamiliarity of the moment and lowered her head.

Habitat for Humanity

The sound of the 1 Local rattled the windows; she untangled herself from his limbs, sat up and prepared for the sensation of mellow distain, in the vicinity of her diaphragm:  It had been his idea for her to move in here, after just seven months of dating.

 

It was the only time she had encountered a man so willing.  She was lucky, according to other women, most of whom, she suspected, had gone through the chronic toss between a want of love and a denial of it, due to their self-esteem.  A man’s attention could go a long way though.  She had been known to make it last for years, settling for either those who feared commitment or were half-committed — to someone else.  Bitterly, she would eventually begin to withdraw from all offers of courtship because she was sick of herself:  reaching, trying too hard; accounting, then settling for leftovers.

But this one loved her, it was obvious.  He praised her enthusiastically, similarly to the way one adored a deity or a Renaissance statue of a nude, made more precious by its missing parts and by the scabs of earth and time.  Never had she been with a man who wanted to parade her through the circles of his friends, all of them older, calmer and mostly academics, who got through their own marriages by sleeping with their students.  Sometimes, while she feigned being asleep on the couch after hearing his keys scratching their way into the lock; she listened to his footsteps get quieter, as he approached her, merely breathless; and he would sit at the edge of their coffee table, amidst magazines and her thesis papers, and study her.  She began to feel responsible.

Her girlfriends, of course, were full of advice:  Men like him happened rarely.  She was lucky, they hoped she knew.  But was she ready for their age difference; and for the ex-wife with a list of entitlements to his money?  Heartbroken men made for hard material.  But wasn’t it a woman’s sport, to fall in love, despite?

The night when they would sleep together for the first time, she found a photograph of the ex, tucked away into an old aluminum cigarette holder.  She wanted to light up.

The black and white face of a blonde looked over the shoulder, with one hand propped up like an awning across her forehead, her lips closed sternly, as if disliking the photographer.  She found her to be a forgettable woman, not at all like she preferred to see herself.  Now, with both of his habits gone — the smoking and the wife — he was not at all enthused by the idea of reminiscing about the past.  But she insisted on a talk, so that she could investigate herself the story through his sighs and avoided glances.  It was a hideous tendency for some emotional sadomasochism that she disguised as intimacy.  Or, maybe, she was already reaching.

She, of course, tried to be casual about it.  He would begin to speak, not from the start, but going immediately to when the ex blurred out her desire for a divorce.  It happened in the midst of a tiff over the shut-off electricity due to an unpaid bill — a woman flailing at him, in the dark — and he first thought she was quoting a film they may had seen together.  They’d gone to film school together, a decade ago, in the City, never pursuing the field afterward.  He’d stick to theory; she — to freelance writing.

“But didn’t you see it coming?” she asked him, watching his fluttery eyelashes add to the dark circles under his eyes.  “Any signs at all?”

The gray-haired lover shook his head but held it high.  Still, for the first time, in his habits of disobedience to his emotions, she saw a once crumbled man; a man, perhaps, still in need of repair.

This predisposition of her imagination — to be able to see her men as children (or worse yet, as children in need of rescue); to truly feel their suffering; to be moved to tears by their losses that happened a decade before her, but always so unjustly — that evening, made her weary.  Hadn’t she had enough yet?  She couldn’t possibly save every one of them!  She wasn’t here to fix it, to make-up for another woman’s whimsy.  Still, she would begin to feel responsible.

In the light of an exposed, yellowed by months — or years, perhaps — of fried food in his kitchen, that first night she watched him cook dinner for the two of them.

“That’s a big step!” the girlfriends rolled out their eyes and smacked their lips.

“A man that cooks and does his own laundry.  You are one lucky bitch!”

The more she listened to the women get involved (for none of them actually listened), the more she regretted exposing her tales of love and loss.  Perhaps, her ex was right:  Over the course of the last century, women had become a collectively confused group of people.  She herself no longer knew what she wanted at the moment.  And she could not remember what she used to want.

 

He was exhausted from the emotional testimony and was now fussing in the kitchen:

“I haven’t used this barbecue since my last apartment.  So:  should be interesting!”  She’d gone too far.  She shouldn’t have probed.

Albeit the open doors of the top floor patio, the hot air clustered the entire apartment.  It took up every corner.  She, having just come out of the shower, felt dewy in her crevices.  There used to be a lot more vanity, in love.  Perhaps, she wasn’t trying hard enough with this one.

She watched him cutting up fresh herbs plucked from the flower pot along the kitchen window sill.  He operated with a tiny knife at the edge of a wooden cutting board, blackened by mildew on one side.  There was nothing visibly sloppy about his appearance, yet she could see the absence of a woman in his life.  Perhaps, the shortest distance between his earlobes and shoulder blades had something to do with her aroused compassion.  Or the bulk of crumpled Kleenex in the pocket of his sweats.  Or the rapidly blinking eyelids, when he decidedly walked away from his story.  He wasn’t cared for.  He was recovering.  It made her heart compress.  Responsible!  She had to be responsible.

While nibbling on twigs of dill, flirtatiously at first — although mostly out of habit — then suddenly more grounded in her kindness, she studied him while standing by his microwave.  She didn’t find herself impressed, but tired.  Tired and kind.  If not in love, she would be grateful for this one, she decided.  Just look at him:  He needed her so much.

Two Women

The two women met in an unfurnished apartment.

“I like it,” one said, “I think” (unusually sheepishly for her nature).  “It’s got some,” she rotated her wrists up in the air, looking for the less poetic word, “‘good light’.”  It took a talent to be so vague.  Or it took years of mutual knowledge and histories of hurt.

The younger one averted her eyes quickly.  She was getting better at busying herself in the kitchen.  Throughout her childhood, she’d witnessed mother’s chaos when other people came over to visit their place.  They had been lucky that way, due to her father’s reputable profession:   Always finding better living quarters, so others came over quite a bit.  Wanting to be the talk of the town, mother buzzed and chattered in the kitchen; and she would bang the drawers with aluminum dinnerware and slam the cupboards in an orchestra of her exhibitionist domesticity.

While mother whipped up meals and refilled drinks, her girlfriends wandered around nosily, every once in a while coming upon a tiny girl, with eyes so large they took up half of her face, playing her own game of house in the furthest corner of the bedroom.  Alone.

“So cute!” the women hissed, turning on their heels unhappily for having to divert their poking.

Mother continued conducting the percussions in her kitchen:

“She’s so quiet, that child!  She’s all — my husband!”

The women moved about the living-room; lurked by the family’s photographs; touched, shifted, sniffed, demanded to know the origin of things:

“You are one lucky bitch, I hope you know.”

“They meant it as a compliment,” after the women’s departure, mother would attempt to clarify things — the delicate things that her daughter could not understand yet (but perhaps with time, she would).  The evil smirk of the local Algebra teacher branded itself into her memory:  How could these women mean anything good?  But mother didn’t want to hear it:  “Stop asking stupid questions anyway!  This is adults’ business.”

But now:

“So,” the older woman spoke from the bedroom doorway and eyed the open, empty space.  “Are you going to ask Mike to ship you the bed?”  (Pause.)  “Or do you plan to house this draft in here forever?”

“What do you mean by that?” the young woman stopped, knife in her hand.

“I mean, haven’t you, guys, divided things up officially yet?”

The young woman looked back down at the gutted pickled fish under her fingers, on the cutting board.  It was a task that every Russian woman performed from A to Z.  From A to YA.  From A — to I.  Her mother would’ve drowned the detailed fish in a pool of sunflower oil; and it would stare out, with dehydrated eyeballs from underneath a layer of butchered onions meant to cover up a job so messily performed.

While peeling onions, mom would begin to cry demonstratively:

“Oy!  I so pity the little bird!”

What did the bird have to do with the fish?  The bird — to I.  The I — to eye.  Still, mother was a funny actress, so the child would spit with laughter.  She couldn’t help it:  She was still in love with her original prototype back then.

She now thought of that one time a thin fishbone lodged in her throat for a week; and how she gagged every night, while mother hooked her sharp nails into the back of her tongue.  For months to follow, sometimes, loose scales would reveal themselves stuck on her clothes or skin; or swimming in buckets of water with floor-scrubbing rags.  Mom was a disaster in the house.

In her own kitchen, however, the young woman never kept the head.  She wished she had a cat to feed it to.  A cat — to make-up for the missing child, to make the loneliness less oppressive.  She stared at the oval crystal bowl, with even filets of pink meat, neatly arranged.

She herself was a better housekeeper, yet heading toward a divorce nonetheless.  Most likely:

“Mike and I aren’t talking, mom.  You know that.”

“Oh!  Yes.  I see,” the old woman eyed the empty bedroom yet again:  Why so much space for someone with defeated ovaries then?  “You, young people!  You have no concept of marital endurance any more.”

 

She swore, he thought of the idea first.  At least, that’s how she remembered it.  In his defense (why was she so willing to defend him?):  In his defense — she wasn’t “willing”.  He was right.

“It’s just that… something isn’t working,” Mike told her over the phone, the week of one Thanksgiving which they’d agreed to spend apart.  He “couldn’t do it anymore”.  Her work.  Her books.  Why was he always taking second place after her life?  Once she hung up, she cried, of course, but mostly out habit; and out of habit, she started losing weight and sleep.  That’s what a wife in mourning was supposed to look like, she decided.  She cropped her hair, and started wearing pants and laced up wingtip shoes.  In their crammed-in basement apartment in the Bronx, she found room to pace and wonder, “Why?  Why?  Why?”

Her girlfriends were eventually allowed to visit the site of her disastrous marriage.  They bitched; they called him names.  They lurked, touched, shifted, sniffed.  They studied family photographs, still on display, for signs of early check-outs.  The women patted her boyish haircut and teared up a bit too willingly, some of them — being slightly grateful for feeling better about their own men.

And then, one balmy New York August afternoon, she called him from a pay phone in Harlem.

“Meet me for dinner.”

An hour later, he showed up with lilies.  After a dry peck that tasted unfamiliarly, she lead the way to a Dominican joint whose wall-full of French doors was always taken down for the summer.  It breathed the smell of oil — and of fried everything — onto the sweaty pedestrians on Broadway.

On their side of the missing wall, the night dragged on with a strained politeness.  His eyes were glossy, wet.  She stared out onto the street.  From either the heat of New York’s August and the lack of ventilation, the giant buds sweated under the plastic wrap; and by the time they finished picking through a pile of fried plantains, the lilies open completely, and just like everything at that time of the year — from sweat glands to subway sewers to perfume shops — they began to smell aggressively, nearly nauseating.

“I’m going to California,” she announced after finishing her white fish.

“Why?”

She looked down:  After their six-month separation, she had begun to wear dresses and curl her hair again.  She’d gained a certain swagger in the hips from wearing flat shoes through every season in New York.  The flesh of femininity was finally beginning to lose the aftertastes of her youth’s self-loathing.

Not having gotten an answer, “When?” — he examined her with wet eyes of a lab.

She looked down again.  The suppleness of her brown chest surprised her.  She looked up:  “Soon.”

Vagueness as a revenge:  She’d learned that from her mother, the best that ever was!  She owed him nothing.  He was the one who’d given up!  He was the one who left!  But now, it settled at the bottom of her stomach, along with the plantains, like something begging for its freedom.  And she, in her defense, was no longer “willing”.

(To Be Continued.)

That Goes Without Saying

(Continued from February 12th, 2012.)

The fact that I had lived to tell the tale, to play the endless hide-and-seek with my fam’s myths — defeating them or playing the fool to their call — my murder obviously did not materialize.  And neither did my mother’s old man finish off his wrathful deed in that ill-fated, loaded moment, in their shared past.  They both eventually calmed down:  the old man of stubborn dignity and his very proud daughter whom he himself had raised to never — EVER! — grovel.

Although that child would milk the incident until the man apologized, then, backed it up with some expensive gifts:  a coupla golden objects and some vinyl records by four pretty boys from England, whose bangs of ponies and cherubic cheeks sped up the sexual maturity of most of the world’s teenagers.  Considering the rarity of vinyl back in the U.S. of S.R., those might as well have been made out of gold.  The records could be found ONLY on the black market.  Illegal gold!  Now, THAT’s the stuff worthy of that woman’s beauty!  The gifts from my own father, who had been mortified to have his woman flee like that — with no shame or underwear — were also pouring into my mother’s pretty hands.  After about a week of pouting, she would resume her residence upon the marital bed, but would impose the punishment of her absence every weekend; then, go off to play house back at her parents’ joint.  (Whatever made her think, however, that that was a punishment still testifies to her very high and never wavering opinion of herself.  Because, you see, it was, if not the myth of our women, then certainly some centuries-old wisdom:  That any woman willing to put out on a regular basis was a catch, of course.  But those broads that looked like mother and had some skills behind the bedroom doors (or so I’ve heard) — were copyrighting a category of their own.)

My shrink, whom I would hire in the beginning of my own sex life…

What?  Are you surprised a chick like me would need professional assistance?  It could’ve been the wisdom from beyond my predecessors’ graves — some intuition that, as I was most certain, had always lived in my fallopian tubes — but I would ask for help when I discovered the power of our women’s sex.  It happened via a curious case that struck me in my sophomore year:  A night of my first Romeo’s serenading under the windows of my college dorm, which then resulted in a serious dose of hatred on behalf of all the other females in the building.  When after that one sleepless night, half of my Medieval Lit class failed to show — and our drained by life professor went literal and Medieval on our asses — I quickly knew that I could never bear the responsibility OR the amount of guilt that I began attaching to the act of sex.  So, quite A-SAP, I located my shrink, off-campus.  (All I had done, in my defense, was let my Romeo feast upon my breasts which I never bound with a bra.  Not back in those days.  Or, actually, not ever.  They weren’t obnoxious glories of my mother’s, by any means:  Her hemispheres that guided men to heaven.  Mine were just little handful reproductions.  With Romeo, it was the stuff of innocence, I swear.  A little shadow fuck of that dark force that was behind the family’s myth.)

So, anyway.  My shrink, whom I would hire in the beginning of my sex life, would over the course of my last two years in college break down the driving mechanisms of mother’s psyche:  She strived on endless guilt trips.  If one bestowed a love upon her, in mother’s eyes, they were forever indebted for the sole pleasure of her company.  So, only when one was NOT in trouble — was when one was advised to worry about unrequited love.  Love.  Equalled.  Suffering.  That’s a direct quote from my mother’s Bible.

“But little daughter.  Love of my life.  My sun and earth and all the stars above,”  was singing my grandmother, gray haired fully by the age of forty.  Every week, she would pamper her child in the fam’s private bath house — called “banya” in the mother-tongue — which even in Russian stood for:  “Those bathers are bourgeois pigs and we shall gut them in our next Revolution!”  Such luxury did not naturally run in our fam.  So, there had to be a story about it!  (Oh, but of course:  Another fucking myth!)  And that story went:  When my young grandfather, smitten by his girl, suggested they should marry, she arched her impeccable eyebrows at him and said:  “I do not want a stupid wedding band:  It gives me blisters.  You build me a house with a banya — and we shall talk.”  The chick, who had been showered with men’s vows of their eternal love since, say, the age of six — was doomed to learn the fragile nature of men’s word.  She would have learned negotiating her way through life; and then, behind the closed doors of that same banya, she’d pass her wisdom to her equally gorgeous female child.)

Now, scrubbing each other’s bods with soap suds, then whipping themselves raw with soaked birch branches every weekend, the women bonded.  Some girls grew up admiring the carriers of wombs that birthed them.  (Case in point:  Yours painfully, sincerely.)  My mother never suffered through that stage, however, as a youngster:  From birth she was immediately gaga over papa (but also anything that walked and was preferably male).  Sex was a mere currency.  But since she was NOT about to become a village ho, the young woman quickly learned the suave negotiation — via her stick and honey pot — that could’ve made Edith Wharton herself flip up her elegant white arms in awe and in surrender.  But this recent mishap back in the home of her marriage took our pretty woman for a spin.  And she, spun out, began to seek advice (or rather, pity) from the one woman who’d learned to love her unconditionally, despite the distance the young woman maintained between them, most of their lives.

“This, too, shall pass,” the wise woman was now cooing.  She was beside herself.  After years and years of desiring this closeness with her child, she was on the receiving end of it — FINALLY!

But her advice expired right in that same bathhouse, its hopeful body asphyxiating and curling up under the wooden bench for the young woman to step over — and move on.  This purely Russian, innate resignation of the soul — the forced surrender because otherwise things would never, ever change — was not an outlook my mother practiced much.  She hated Chekhov, walked out of women’s conversations about “That’s just the way things are!”  She never tipped a shot of Stoli to someone’s fatalistic toast; and even as a child, her parents’ “Just because!” was not an acceptable answer to her three-year-old’s “Why’s”.

Everything in life could be negotiated, which to a First World Reader would seem quite reasonable of an expectation.  But we’re talking:  The Soviet Union in the 60s.  So, our young lady had better had a plan!

 

Naturally, something would come out of that incidental female bonding (which, with all due respect to my own gender, could amount to nothing good).  After one night of bathing away her heartache and stress, haloed with a cloud of steam, my mother stepped out into the world, all squeaky clean and suddenly light; her calculating mind — refreshed.

She had an idea!  Hallelujah, a plan!  And it was inspired by the old woman’s promise:

“Your dad and I could always care for your baby, if the going got rough.  And you can always leave her with us.”

My mother’s beautiful face, now red and swollen from the admirably well-timed tears, stopped shedding water for a minute.  She swiped her eyelids with the backs of her soft wrists and muttered through the bubbly saliva inside her rosy mouth:  “How do you know it’s a ‘her’?”

The old woman smiled and raised her hand to brush her daughter’s hair, cut short in yet another recent act of resentment toward her wedding vows.  But from that point on, according to the young woman, the going got so “rough”, it would be border-line of questionable safety for her or her offspring.  As much as a question from mother’s husband about, say, the length of her skirt or the color of her nails — and she would throw a fit.  I mean, seriously:  “Could you pass the salt, please?” at a dinner table she sometimes treated as a scathing comment about her cooking.

“What happened to the man I married?!” she flailed.  It’s true:  The chick was starting to feel jipped.

Oh, that poor girl!  She still could not accept that, in the world, there never again would be a love that equaled that of her old folks!  That’s how the human race had worked for centuries:  “Just because.”  So, off she’d go again:  Storming out of the kitchen and locking her man out of the bedroom.  Or marching through the unpaved roads on her two legs of fury, yet again.  I, by then pushed out of her womb, would roll and bounce inside the baby carriage that mother pushed through mud, dried mounts of cow dung and ulcerous ditches.  Like an unready kernel of un-popped popcorn, I thumped against the cardboard walls and bottom of the Soviet-made transporter of our future generation.  And by the time we reached my grandpeep’s home, I’d been exhausted, bruised and ready for surrender.

“What did he do — again?” too readily, my grandmother leapt out of her house and onto the porch.  And for a while, my mother would think up some fiction, exaggerating the events of her home, for an effect.

Be it out of some male camaraderie, or simply out of his adoration of me (or did he simply want to rescue me from being accidentally brainwashed by these two women?), my grandfather avoided their dissing sessions at all costs.  Instead, he’d take care of some dirty business inside my homemade diaper and carry me off onto the couch where he had been dozing off after his graveyard shift at the local port.  Or he would take me out for a walk — a bundle cradled in the hammock of his left arm, while he continued smoking with his right — and he would meet his buddies for a glass of foaming beer, at sunset, in the park.

If I remained awake, “Hey there, lavender eyes!” he’d wink at me, occasionally, and flick my button nose while balancing a cig between his lips.  To my unknowing eyes, it must’ve looked like a magnificent firefly.  Some hopeful planet that formerly belonged to the Little Prince.  The North Star that paved the roads of my future paths with flickering, yet never dying, light.

Mother of Myth!

From what was told of my mother, back in the old country, there had never been — and considering that she would immigrate her fine ass to the U.S. of A. later on, in life — never again will be a beauty of equal proportions.  Now, okay!  I get it!  Being the first prototype of a woman I had been born to emulate, I was supposed to be in love with her.  (In certain years, though, my affection would seem to border on affection of lesbian proportions.  I adored my mother, wanted to be — not as much as like her — but with her.  A female version of the Oedipal complex.)

And, of course, considering the passageway that we, children, take in order to encounter this world — god bless it for being so bloody beautiful! — I knew my mother, from her very insides.  There is no stronger bond, they say.  But I must’ve studied up the woman’s inners pretty well; because my own tiny fist would carry on clasping the genetic bouquet — of her generosities and neuroses alike — from the time it was the size of a shriveled potato and until the future days of my own aged self, when my fist would shrivel up again.

While taking residence under my mother’s lungs, I swore I felt her heart’s rhythm go berserk when she discovered a letter from her in-laws about what they had really, REALLY thought of her:  “A girl so dark and pigheaded!  What is she, anyway:  Some gypsy’s bastard?”  According to the myth, that letter included a few racial slurs at my expense, too.  (Way to go, pops’ peeps!)  So, mother — lost her shit.

She always stood no more than five feet from the ground, but don’t be fooled by the compactness of her being:  Her rage had super-human powers!  Upon discovering the letter while doing her husband’s laundry, so blinded became her vision, so overwhelming the heartbeat, she had stormed out of the flat we’d been assigned by the Soviet Army headquarters; and she marched — on her now increasingly fattened from water retention ankles — back to her own parents’ house.  Fury on two points of contact with the Earth!  A few kilometers stretched between her marital base and the house of her girlhood, but this babe refused to hitch a ride from a parade of old Volgas catching up with her, along the route.

(Although six months pregnant, the woman was still a total babe.  And even more so, considering that now her breasts and hips had been gearing up for my arrival.  My mother’s assage was always worthy of anyone’s obsession:  Hence, my own Oedipal Complex.  But the two perfect hemispheres of her breasts I would not witness in real life again until, by then on the American continent, I would discover the new ideal of a woman:  in Playboy ads.

But then again, it’s not like Motha Russia was ever ill-equipped at building the female form.  Perhaps, the starchy diet of the natives was to blame for it — we threw potatoes into everything!  Then, slathered sour cream on top!  For centuries, the Russian broads were always famed for their bodywork.

For instance, how does that one poem go:  “She’ll stop a horse in full stride / Walk into a burning house”?  So, that dude knew a thing or two about them, Russian women.  And understandably, he sounded like a doomed man, nyet?)

“Hey, black-haired beauty!  You wanna ride?” the silly players rolled up behind my mother’s glorious hips that, underneath her nearly transparent house dress, swayed like a pair of brand new church bells.  Angelic stuff, I tell you!

They were the men about town in those days of the U.S. of S.R.  I mean, a man with a Volga!  What woman wouldn’t dream of one?!  But the danger of finding themselves decapitated by my mother’s fierce tongue — without the help of any anesthesia, because, in wrath, the woman rejected all her manners — made itself clear with the single sideways askance glance she granted them.  Medusa, had she been non-mythical, would find herself taking lessons from this sister!  To turn all men to stone!  To entertain some wicked fashion of wearing a snakes’ nest on her crown.  The message got transmitted to the players with no static, and they kept their rolling by.

Oh, how mother was determined!  (I’ve seen some mad women in my life.  But if the rage that boils my own blood at times is just a mere taste of what it’s like to be inside my mother’s being — I do pity the poor fools standing in her way!  Oh, do I ever pity them!)

Young mother watched the coffin of a Soviet bus roll past her, too.  That thing had zero to no chance of making it over the next ditch on the road anyway; and if my mother mounted it, she knew that she would have to simmer down when someone offered her a seat.  And that conflicted with her personal religion, which ruled:  Revenge was better served at scorching temperatures.  

So, mother kept on fuming.  She waved off the driver’s curious linger and kept on marching.  The Soviet coffin passed, and the exhaust fumes ventilated that clammy spot that, in the heat, forms where women’s thighs collide into each other.  My mother realized she had stormed out of the house while wearing no underwear.  What outrage — What scandal! — it would’ve been on any other day, but that one.

Now, mother’s family was never one to practice any organized religion.  They seemed to care for no church and for no party.  But hallelujah!  There was soul!  And the only thing that seemed to arouse my predecessors’ souls to erection — was myths.  Historical accidents of magic.  They swore by them:  Some cats in my family said they saw the ghosts of the old guys at those crucial points when a mortal needed a little guidance by the hand of god.  There was, for instance, one old cracker who claimed the spirit of his drowned baby sister awoke him from sleep and got him out of his house, just mere minutes before the black Chaikas of Stalin’s secret police parked outside his gate.  The women claimed that they would see their dead mothers, on first nights of their marital copulation; or during childbirth.  If I were to believe all that, I’d say I had been born into one of the most resilient clans whose offspring liked to fuck around with the supernatural.  Or, it could be that, after centuries of oppression, we all began to lose our marbles.  Collectively.

You call it what you will, but there it was:  contributing to my family’s survival and the unheard of strength of our women.  And now, it was carrying my mother — albeit commando — through the dusty, roadless suburbs of Eastern Motha Russia, on an Indian Summer’s eve.

“You see, the things that man makes me do?!” the chick was growling at me.

Or maybe, she was chanting at her absent-minded gods who had allowed for her suffering of being overshadowed by this other woman in her man’s life.  It’s bad enough that in three  months, she’d have to give over the spotlight to me, whoever the fuck I thought I was?!  (Back in the days, there was no ultrasound to assist Soviet women in their burdens of motherhood.  With my gender underdetermined, mom wasn’t sure if I would be born to worship her in my male form; or if she would find her greatest competitor, if I were born a girl.  My gender was up for grabs in the elders’ prayers, too.  The old women scrunched their constipated faces over glass jars of holy water.  The wise guys shrugged.  Apparently, with all those ghost stories, no spirit bothered to show up and shine the light on my future gender.  My mother, though, could truly care less; for motherhood was sort of “thrust upon her”.)  So, yes:  It was already bad enough that this fine broad was only around the corner from surrendering her currently unconditional, undivided reign.  To add to the damage, the suddenly obvious conservative culture of the natives reared its head, and this recently wedlock-ed woman realized that:  She would ALWAYS take secondary loving from her man.  That’s just the tragedy of women.  And in my own womanhood I’d learned:  No woman had the guts, nor the consciousness, nor the strength to beat her mother-in-law in a competition for the love of that one man-in-question.  No woman — but my mother.

So, what possibly could she be scheming in that moment?  Well, if I was getting the newsfeed from her heartbeat correctly:  My mom — was up to murder.

“You’re getting a what?!” I heard my grandfather’s voice as if I were submerged under a pool of bloody water.  Oh, wait.  I was.

My mother’s voice, in response, cut up the air like shards of hail.  She sounded cold.  Ice cold.  She wore that tone well:

“Abort.”  (Here is your first crash course in my native tongue:  Our words sound often like the very actions that they advertise.)

“You are NOT!  DOING!  Such a THING!”

Oh how, he roared, my grandfather!  According to the testimonies, the dude was as chill as the nerve-racked culture of centuries-old terror and rebellion could ever manage to produce.  The man was zen, by other-wordly standards!  He had been born and always lived by the Pacific Ocean; so perhaps, the frequency of tides had something to do with his temperament.  Some ancient astrology shit, or something.  Or maybe, it was that soul-thing of the fam again.  But never-ever in his life, had he been witnessed to raise a hand — or let alone his voice! — at anything or anybody living.

“Are you?!  Completely out?!  Of your silly little mind, WOMAN?!”  In that particular instance, his daughter stopped being his child.  In a primal standoff, she was no daughter of his.  No daddy’s little girl.  Neither was she the treasured firstborn of her reproductively challenged (or, some would say “cursed”) parents.  “The little sun of the Earth.”  “The baby-rabbit.”  “The navel of the planet.”  At her renouncement of me, my mother suddenly became a rep of that insane and crafty race, called Female.  And in his very first and very only act of violence, the sinewy arms of the old man had lifted up my mother — and by extension me — and not so gently threw us onto the nearest soft surface.  Mother and I went for a ride onto the faded couch from which my grandfather usually listened to the radio — or watched his knitting wife, while she cooed to him stories from her day.  (C’mon!  It’s obvious:  The fam had witches long prior to my mother; and this old man was just another doomed fella, head over heels in love with his broad.  Go figure!)

“You wait!  Till your mom!  Gets back!”  The old man was now heaving above my petrified carrier.  “You stupid bitch!”

By no means was it a scene unseen in human history before:  A parent contemplating a murder of his offspring as if to spare the world the damage that same offspring could cause later.  “From my hand you were born — and from my hand you’ll die!” kinda shit.  But in the ancient culture whose every glory  came from great suffering (of which my Motha Russia’s got a shitload!), such stories of generational collision are plentiful.  You have Ivan the Terrible, for one!  The man had famous rage in him!  (See the above quoted threat he had been testified to throw at his son, before putting an end to that son’s life, albeit accidentally.  Or, so some say.

Over a woman, too:  The Terrible’s daughter-in-law.

Just sayin’:  Russian broads!)

(To Be Continued.)

It’s Better to Have Loved.

(Continued from January 29th, 2012.)

The one that had preceded Nina suffered from a permanent tension of his vocal cords.  He had picked me up at the Santa Monica Library — a house of glass and metal, and the place of rest for many a homeless in the City where no one could ever find a home.  Not really.  Sure, one had a house, or a place.  A joint.  A roommate situation.  But to be at home — one had to be willing to belong.

“Hmm.  That’s an interesting pullover you’re wearing,” said the young creature, at the Library, smug with studied confidence.  Not natural at all.

I granted him a single glance-over:  An overachiever, to a tee.  Something about him lacked the swagger of those whose choices and whims were endorsed by family’s name or a bank account (which ever one had more clout).  Yes, still:  He tried.  Immediately, I knew:  He, who poured this much attention into his subject — who reached too far and tried too hard, straining beyond the plasticity of his compassion (which would already be magnificently excessive), he who choked with forced praise — would rarely be comfortable in silence.  Not in the mood for busy talk, I changed the subject whilst looking for an exit:

“What are you reading, mate?” I threw over my shoulder.  The echo played a round of ping-pong with my sounds between the glass walls of the reading room.  Ate, ate, ate.  To which, a studying nerd deflated his lungs, somewhere in the corner:

“SHHHHHH!”

Neither looking back at the distressed prisoner of knowledge nor wanting to look ahead at this new lingering aggressor against silence, I focused on the hardbound books with which he had been shielding himself, with brown, hairless arms.  The fading edges of their cloth binding would smell of mold at the spine, and then of dehydration from the air and sun; overexposure to the oil of human fingers and the salt of readers’ tears, surprised to have their empathy awoken by someone’s words:  Still alive, that thing?  Because the heart was usually the last one to give up.  And then, the lungs:  SHHHHHH.

The aged tomes in the man-child’s arms promised to titillate my ear more than his words.  Words, words.

“What am I reading?!  Oh.  Um.  Nothing…”  (Oh, c’mon!  The nerd in the corner was turning red, by now, from the justified resentment at being invisible to us, as he had been his whole life.)  “Well.  Oscar Wilde and Evelyn Waugh, actually.”  The man-child finally spat out, then hesitated, gave this cords another straining pull:  “I know!  Not butch enough — for a straight male!”  He nearly choked there!  Words, words, word.

Oh.  One of those:  Simultaneously eager and tormented!  The one to flaunt his politics out loud, just so that the others didn’t get the wrong idea.  Because whatever happened in beds he visited (even if out of the other lover’s loneliness or boredom) would be the reason for his later torment.  The guilt, the loathing.  The other obstacles to self-esteem.  And he would wear them like a frilly scarf from Urban Outfitters, meant to accent things — to draw attention, and perhaps make him more “interesting” — but not to serve the very original function.  The it-ness of the thing was lost.

With me, the man-child, worked his words (words, words) to become liked enough.  And after one eve of heavy breathing and pulsating blood flow, perhaps, he would be asked to stay.  I questioned, though, if he knew exactly what he wanted:  sex — or its statistic?  The mere happening of it?  Sex was a fact of his hormonal balance; and if he could help ignore it, he would move out of his body entirely and occupy his head.  But for right now, the boy still had to get some, however accidentally.

The love you take — is equal…

He took, he claimed.  And if he didn’t, he would storm out of sentences with scorn of having to sublimate his desires, yet again.  Alas, the world was so unfair.

“But you!”  Against the walls, he kept thumping the words like racket balls.  The poor boy was trying!  “You! — must be so erudite!”

“SHHHHHH!”

“Or really?” I hissed, considering the possibility of the nerd’s heart attack for which I was not willing to bear the responsibility.  At least, not on a Monday night.  “Is it the pullover?”  I asked and pushed him out of the way.  Over, over, over.

The man-child lingered, then began to laugh with that obnoxious howl meant to draw attention.  Again, too much.  Too hard.  So insincere!  Petrified!  SHHH!  SHHHHHH…

“He sounds messy!” diagnosed Taisha, while she herself was negotiating the rush hour traffic.  It was always rush hour, somewhere, in this City.  Her windows rolled down — I could hear the screech of others’ breaks in the lazy heat of another smoggy afternoon.  If one survived the mind-numbing dissatisfaction at having to just sit there — while getting nowhere and watching life slip out thorough the vents of fans — half of LA would give up on the idea of stepping out again, that night.

“I think I’m coming down with something.”

“…It’s food poisoning, I think.”

Like nowhere else, here, people were prone to canceling plans.  To giving-up.

“I’m waiting for the cable guy.  It sucks!”

“My cat is sick.”

Each night, the people landed in their private spaces, shared with other people or their own delusions.  They heated up some frozen options from Trader Joe’s and locked their doors agains the City.

I listened to the life force of LA:  Still plentiful, it breezed through all four open windows of Taisha’s Prius.  This place — a forty four mile long conveyer belt that moved things along, living or inanimate (it moved lives along); and if one could not keep up, the weight of failure would remain under one’s breath.  The City of Lost Angels.  The City of Lost Hearts.

“Now listen!  Don’t do ANYTHING! until I see you!” Taisha ordered me; and although my heart maintained its pace, it winced at little, subjected to her care.  “Don’t sleep with him!  You’re dangerously close to some stupid choices, right about now!”  (She was referring to the draught of my sexuality.  When I blew out the thirty candles of my birthday cake, the promiscuity that granted me some fame, was also put out, surprisingly and seemingly for good.  Into that space, I started cramming wisdom.)

“I am one lucky bastard — to have you love me like you do,” I responded, singing my words halfway through the sentence.

Oh, how she fought it!  My dear Tai!  All business and busyness, the girl refused to slow down for sentimentality’s sake:  “Oh, you, white people!  Ya’ll get so mushy ‘round love.  My people, back in Kenya…”

“Ah, jeez!  Alright!” I interrupted, misty-eyed.  “I’ll talk to you.”

Taisha would be talking, still, like “peas and carrots” in the mouths of actors.  But I could hear her smile break through.  Humanity still happened here, amidst perpetual exhaust and one’s exhausted dreams.  Somewhere along the stretched-out, mellow land attacked by bottom-feeders and the self-diluted who knew not why exactly they made a run for here, but mostly headed West in a trajectory that had been paved by others — it happened.  Some stayed, too tired or too broken of hearts.  And they comprised my City.

 

“Everyone seems so shallow here!” the man-child (he would be from Connecticut, but of course!) was overlooking the crawling traffic, like a Hamlet in his soliloquy.  And from the upstairs patio table we’d taken while splitting a bottle of ginger ale (for which I’d paid), he seemed to be in perfect lighting.  The row of yellow street lights had suddenly come on above his head.  The dispersed taillight red reflected on his face from the West-bound traffic.  The boy was slowly sipping — on my drink.

“Big spender!” I could already hear the voice of my Kenyan Confucius.  “RUN!  Run while you can!”

“But YOU!  You seem like you’re here by accident!”  His terrorism by kindness did have one thing going for it, called lucky timing.

“I am so lonely,” I wanted to let out, right underneath the yellow light now holding conferences of moths and fruit flies.  At a table nearby, a girl blogger clacked away on her snow-white Mac, while glancing at us from underneath her Bettie Page bangs.  What does it feel like — to be written?

“What if I slept with him?” I thought.  It’s better to have loved…

Except that:  I had turned thirty.  And I could no longer take for granted the ghosts of previous lovers that crowded a bedroom during a seemingly inconsequential act.  A Greek Chorus of the Previously Departed.  And then, the heart of one participant, at least, would wake up — with yearning or having to remember its wrong-doings or when the wrong was done to it — and things turned messy.  So, sex was never simple; especially for this one, who now tipped the last drops of my ginger ale into his glass.

“You wanna drink?”  Familiarity had started working on my sentences already, like cancer in my marrow.  Still, IT — could have happened, still.  IT would have started with a shared drink.  “A beer, or something?”  I tensed my body to get up.

“Nah, thanks.  I’m in AA.”

I looked at him:  His eyes began to droop like a basset hound’s:  Just ask me — of my suffering.  The frilly Urban Outfitters scarf picked up against the gust of wind.  My chair scraped away from him — and from the table now mounted by issues of his angst.  My entertained desire shriveled.

Yet still — I stayed!

When he and I made loops around the neighborhood, dumbfounding the drivers at each intersection with our pedestrian presence.  Through windshields, I would find their eyes — like fish in an aquarium, unable to blink — and they calculated the time they had to make the light without plastering our bodies with their wheels.  Preferably.  The man-child let me lead the way.  A winner!

And still — I stayed.

I stayed when I had climbed onto a stone fence, and now even to his height I waited for the lean-in.  The boy hung back, decapitating his hands at his wrists by sticking them into his pant pockets.  His words continued to pour out:  His praise came up along my trachea, with bubbles of that shared ginger ale, which now tasted of rejected stomach acid.

But still.  I stayed.  I waited.  Because sometimes, to those who wait — life grants, well, nothing.  And nothing, sometimes, seemed to be the choice of greater courage.

 

“She never rains.  The poor girl, She’s all cried out.”

Nina’s hair, unless right after the shower, shot out of her head in spirals of prayer.  Of course, she hated it.  A black woman’s hair:  Don’t touch it, unless you’re done living altogether.  The glory of it was slightly confused by auburn shades inherited from Nina’s Irish mother.  And underneath that mane — sometimes set afire by the sun’s high zenith — and right below her smooth forehead, two eye, of furious green, devoured the words that she had been reading to me from headstones.

“Which one is that?” I asked and walked to her side of a burgundy granite, with jagged edges, still shiny like a mirror.  It had to have been a pretty recent death.

She wrapped herself further into her own arms and chuckled, “No one, silly.  I just said that.  About this City.”  Like an enamored shadow, I hung behind her.  “This would be the perfect time for rain.  Except that She — is all dried out, you see?”  The furious green slid up my face.  “But She — is really something, isn’t She?”

It was indeed refreshing, for a change, to be with a woman so free from posing.  Of course, I’d witnessed moments of vanity on her before:  When her pear-shaped backside lingered at the boudoir before she’d finally slip in between the covers and curve around me.  And all the open spaces — she occupied by flooding.

I wondered if she knew the better angles of herself.  Because I saw them all.  When in an unlikely moment of worrying about my long-term memory’s lapse, I whipped out my phone and aimed its camera at Nina’s regal profile, she must’ve been aware that her beauty was beyond anything mundane.  For I had studied many a pretty girls before, the ones with the self-esteem of those who have never been denied much.  But Nina’s beauty wrote new rules, of something warm and living.  It came from occupying her skin with no objections to its shape of color; from delicate sensibility and softness, like the wisp of a hair across a lover’s face.  But there was also:  strength.  And heritage.  And underneath my touch, she moved.

“My baby,” she half-whispered and molded to my shape.

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 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.

“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!