At the risk of missing their bus, Inna’s mother insisted on stoping by the kiosk that, judging by the sour smell of yeast and the line of bickering women upfront, had recently received a delivery of fresh bread. It was an otherwise insignificant place, like most stores in larger cities. As a matter of fact, when the kiosk windows were rolled down and locked, one could easily mistake it for an information booth, with nothing inside but trolley tickets and city brochures, and Marlboros for sale.
A Russian housewife was only as successful as she was savvy. It was up to the women — the mothers — to discover stores that carried better produce. Some of the legwork was done by their girlfriends, in a tradition of some old tribal hunt, adjusted to the urban life style. Even the women in Russian villages, who aimed to live by the means of the land, needed to perfect this skill for when shopping at the weekend bazaar. But Inna’s mother was too proud to probe other women for insider information on barters and schedules of deliveries of deficit produce. To socialize with the common folks, especially about such common needs, was beneath her academic degrees and esteemed profession, she claimed; unworthy of her upbringing in the largest port city with Western waterways, from the Russian East Coast. She was an elementary school teacher, painfully overqualified, who taught at Inna’s school that housed grades one through eleven; and most parents in their village wanted for their children to end up in her mother’s classroom, despite her famous and slightly abusive educational methods. (Inna had known those methods first-hand, for they had been honed on her, until she officially reached puberty and got her period.)
Mother refused to make friends with any woman with a child of seven years old or younger. And by the rest of them, she claimed to be bored:
“I just wish I had a girlfriend to take me to the ballet, Innotchka,” she confessed to her daughter, melancholically. It was an uneasy situation whenever mother began talking like that, as if Inna were her contemporary. But just as Inna was an assumed loner, being the only child of her parents — who were the only children to their parents as well — her mother, she suspected, had difficulty making friends as well.
Whenever the woman was in of those confessional moods, she tended to look down and to the side, as if reading her lines from the edge of the peeling wallpaper, dreamily:
“Ah! If only you knew how I love the ballet, Innotchka!” But despite the mood of informality, Inna knew better than to trust this yet another attempt by her mother to bond. “One day (when you’re old enough), I may take you there, so that you can see for yourself,” her mother would zero in on Inna, suddenly viewing her daughter as a female competition, and her warmth would rapidly dissipate. “I may. I just may. I can’t promised it, of course. But I may.”
In the summer of 1991, the two women would journey into the city quite frequently. Mother had applied to the Masters of Education faculty at the Pedagogical University No. 3. Every academic institution, from kindergartens to the top level institutes that trained the best minds of Russia’s science, was assigned a number. And although Inna, during the trips into the city, had never come across the Pedagogical University No. 1 or No. 2, she was sure her mother would not possess any trustworthy information on this curious matter either. Most likely, she would grant Inna the chronic “It’s just the way it is!” response. Inna’s own school — where mother had established a certain reign, especially since deciding to further her credentials — was assigned the number 7. She realized she had never tried to decipher this puzzle before. Perhaps, on certain topics, mother was right: Some things — were just the way they were.
On the way back from her mother’s interview with the dean of her future faculty, the two women had stumbled upon a display of oval white flatbreads in the window of a curios little kiosk. It stood at the entrance of an alley of chestnut trees which would lead them to the city’s main transit station. Inna, with her eyes studying the tips of her and her mother’s shoes, while mother talked and talked — this time about just how “cultured” the dean had acted toward her, a real gentleman not to be found in a single kilometer radius of their own village — she noticed when her mother’s feet slowed down, their oval toes slightly tilting away, at a forty-five degree angle, as if pulled by a magnet.
“Oy, dear god! Are those little lavashes?!” her mother, with her fingers still splayed from that afternoon’s manicure, touched both of her cheeks and exclaimed. “I haven’t had those since I was just a little girl! My daddy used to bring them for me from his trips to Georgia.”
Inna adjusted her mother’s purse that she had been carrying since they left the nail salon, then moved up the adult size prescription glasses to the bridge of her nose from its tip, and gave the object of her mother’s curiosity a considerable study.
“They are! Oy, they are, they are! They are little lavashes! Oy, dear god!” Mother was under a spell.
Inna, who had been trained well enough to know that all of her mother’s sudden outbursts had to have specific objectives, had recently begun to notice her own decreasing desire to figure them out. With her stubborn, teenage silences toward any hints, she figured out that her mother’s desires would become obvious, whether she tried to decipher them on her own. Or, she could just wait. Oftentimes, those objectives would become clear. Some would be meant to provoke pity from any witnesses; and it confused Inna by giving her no active understanding on what to do next. Certainly, mother couldn’t have thought of pity being a good match to her self-proclaimed dignity!
By now, her mother was trotting. She was wearing a tailored skirt the color of pink-lavender and a custom-made black-and-white blouse with polkadots and a giant bow on the left side of her neck. Her red stilettos, claimed to be the best damn pair of shoes mother currently owned, made her legs more defined, although still quite plum for mother’s short frame. Adjusting the handles of the sizable purse again, Inna thought: Were she not the daughter of this woman, who was jittering lusciously in all the right places while running through the alley of trees (that used to fill the air with an aggressive perfumed smell of blossoms, back in July), she would think of this sight as some famous passage from an Italian film, in which the women — who all seemed to suffer from outbursts of erratic and unpredictable emotions — were the only ones in the whole of the world’s cinema to even slightly resemble the women of her own culture.
By the time Inna had caught up to her mother, having been weighed down by her sizable purse and the damn oversized glasses that refused to stay in place, mother was already lingering by the kiosk window. With her hands folded on top of each other over the giant polkadot bow, she jumped a couple of times in place, causing for the other women to look on, askance. They were right: There was something insincere in the forcefulness of mother’s emotional exposés, especially when they involved retardation into her girlhood. In the now obvious and not necessarily pleasant silence that surrounded them, Inna continued to clutch the handles of the purse with her both hands, while stealing glances at the other women who by now resumed their hushed conversation.
“Um. Excuse me, lady citizen?” her mother cut the line. Surely, that would not go over well with the other women! “Do you have a sufficient supply of lavashes left?”
The cashier woman behind the sweating window, who was in the midst of picking out a half a kilo of rugelach pastry for the kerchiefed woman at the head of the line, stopped her plump hands in midair and shrugged; then resumed bending over the plexiglass bin:
She responded “I have what I have,” and smiled a slightly sadistic smile that sat well on the faces of all small persons of Russian authorities: secretaries to big bureaucrats and heads of the custodian labor unions. “You’re gonna have to take you place in line, LIKE everyone else, and see for yourself!”
The kerchiefed woman scoffed, slightly shook her wrinkled head and rolled her milky-gray eyes in a conspiring gesture. Inna’s mother feigned being immune toward the meaningfully condescending responses that trickled down to the hummed exchange among the other women. There had been times when Inna had witnessed it go a different way, however: Sometimes, mother teared up at the injustice and at the disheartening simpleton nature of her fellow citizens, while always managing to stand in enough light to be noticed by her offenders. Other times, she chose to suffer through the unfortunate consequences to her own bouts of aristocracy. Considering that these baked delicacies were impossible to come by in their village, this would be one of those times. So, Inna’s mother squinted her eyes, as if studying other choices of produce that may interest her; then made her way to the back of the line.
“Are you last?” she asked a woman with an eggplant-colored perm and a still fresh layer of frosty pink lipstick on her narrow lips.
“Umn-da?” the woman nodded. Inna wondered if the Italian women from the films also possessed such a succinct vocabulary of arrogant gestures.
Inna’s mother, again, appeared to be oblivious to her dislikable affect on the group: “How wonderful!,” she said gleefully, “I’m — after you!” Then, she yanked Inna by her elbow, to take her place in line.