At first, it was the hair. Her thick, red hair, with angelic ringlets flocking the frame of her still cherubic face began to slip out of its follicles; and she would watch it slide along the body, in the shower — young garden snakes on sleet — flock her feet, like seaweed, before spiraling down into the drain.
“You ought to be careful, child! For hair like this, the other females will give you the bad eye!”
Her grandmother was a superstitious woman. With her thin, brittle fingers, she braided Nola’s curls into tame hair buns or the complex, basket-like constructions on top of her head, which by the end of a day, gave her headaches and made her eyes water.
The tedious ceremonies of the old world’s superstitions slowed down Nola’s childhood to half-speed. The pinning of safety pins to her underwear after bath, their heads facing downward and away from her heart — “grounding”; the triple twirling and the hanging of a rusty locket, with some dead priest’s hair, around her neck. Hemp ropes with strange beads tied around her wrists and ankles. Sometimes, when she drifted off to sleep — but not yet into her dreams — after her grandmother’s bedtime stories, she watched the shadows of the old woman move along the wall: A giant and magnificent bird casting the whispers of good winds upon her sleeping head. And in the mornings, when she wasn’t looking — grandmother would slip drops of blessed water into her glass of milk; then keep her hand behind her heart while Nola chugged it down. All that — to ward off the other women.
Where had this mistrust in the female kind come from? Nola couldn’t understand it. And as a child, she was particularly puzzled about that feared bad eye. Grandma had no tolerance for questions worked up by Nola’s imagination — a quality that later flared up in her own motherhood — so she came up with the answers on her own. (It was the worst — wasn’t it? — for a child to feel annoying, then dismissed by the habits of the bored and tired grownups. She hadn’t wanted to become like that! And yet, she was, right in the midst of it, now.) These had to be some evil women, Nola decided way back when; some ancient witches with an extra eye to give away. And they lived among the good and the kind, giving the rest of the womankind a terrible reputation.
One time, walking in her grandmother’s footsteps, through the pre-sunrise layer of the summer fog only to be seen in the Far, Far East of Russia (and in the magical place of which she’d read once, called “San Francisco”), she saw a yellow raincoat. It balanced on a pair of emaciated legs; and when they caught up with it, Nola looked back: An old woman, with wet gray hair stuck to her caved-in temples, was staring right back at her from underneath the bright yellow hood. She reminded Nola of one of those Mexican skeleton dolls of rich, exotic colors, dressed in human clothing that hung on them, like parachutes on manikins. From behind the fog that clung to every moving or inanimate object, she could hardly see the color of the woman’s eyes. They seemed to appear milky though, crowded with cataracts. But the sinister smile that stretched the old woman’s toothless mouth into a keyhole told Nola that she could see well enough to look right through into her heart.
She felt an icy shiver: A drop of accumulated rainwater slipped under her raincoat collar and began its slow avalanche down the back, along the spine, meeting up with other raindrops and her sudden sweat, growing, gaining weight; gaining momentum.
“Is this it?” Nola thought. Was this the female owner of the feared bad eye? Expecting a feeling of sickly slime, terrified yet thrilled at the same time, Nola slipped her hands into her pockets.
“Stop dragging your feet, like a tooth comb through my armpit hair!” her grandmother barked from a few steps ahead. Nola started running.
In adolescence, when all the other girls acquired breasts and waistlines, Nola cultivated auburn braids; and boys began communicating their flared-up desires by yanking them hard, that she would cry. And if ever she chased after one of such brutal Romeos, uncertain about her own manic urge, the hair whipped her back like two wet ropes.
At night, after her solitude was pretty much assured, she wrapped the clouds of her scratchy hair around her head, so she could doze off — off and away from the voices of her parents, bickering in the kitchen. (On planes, she dreamed that she could do the same to clouds. God bless her, soon enough!) When her braids began reaching the crests of her hips, Nola began the practice of making dolls out of them; and she would rest each on her pillow, next to her lips, and whisper to it her speculations about the far removed and kinder places.
“Is this how you care for your wife ‘n’ child?!” her mother would be squealing in the downstairs dirt room, if dad showed up tipsy from a few chugs of dark Russian beer.
From what Nola understood in other children’s reenactments in their shared sandboxes, her father was not a hopeless drunk at all: He never fell down in the alleys, later to be found by the female cashiers of the local delis, unlocking the back doors for early morning deliveries or briberies from those savvier Soviets who knew how to get their share of deficit produce to come that week. Never-ever, had father been taken to the Emergency Room on a sled — pulled by his same “wife ‘n’ child”, in a middle of the Russian winter — to get his stomach pumped from alcohol poisoning. No, Nola’s dad was just a jolly drunk, occasionally guilty of having a reason to celebrate something — anything! — in his Russian destiny: A National Fisherman Day. The fall of Bastille Saint Antoine. A successful summoning of mere three meals for his family, that day. Another Day in the Life of…
But mom went off, pulling at her own thinning hair, whenever the man showed up with that harmless — and actually endearing to Nola — goofy smile. Whenever Nina slipped out her bed and did an army crawl to the top of the stairs, she watched her mother’s body shiver, the skin of her arms vibrate, all — from what looked like an inside job. The woman wailed and howled, and threw herself against the hard surfaces and all the sharp corners, as if possessed by a death wish. Mom always took everything too far, into a place of difficult ultimatums and points beyond forgiveness. And watching her in such a state set off anxiety-ridden arrhythmia in Nola’s heart.
Her mother’s sad, all-knowing smile. Her choir of scoffs and sighs, and terrorizing whimpers. Her melancholic, slow head shake belonging to a cartoonish bobblehead stuck to a dashboard of a Moscow’s taxicab: getting around but not going anywhere! She felt an urge to run away from all of it — from here and from her — to somewhere, where people didn’t readily construct their painful sentences and woke up with faces drained of all curiosity or tenderness. Could that be “San Francisco”? She slept on pillows of her hair and wondered.