Tag Archives: love

It’s All Fun and Games Until

(Continued from August 19th, 2012.)

Did Galina ever seduce a man into her bed?  Did she ever find herself in that mellow surrender, with an even heartbeat, as she groomed her body — the millions of skin cells she had never cared for before — as she waited for her lover to take her out on the town, for a walk or a dinner at his parent’s home; so that later she could be disrobed, explored and tasted?  consumed and worshiped, cared for?

Had she ever learned what it was like to know a man so intimately she could tell what he’d drunk for dinner just by the flavors of his bodily liquids?  And had Galina known elation, the best kind of which can be experienced only in the highs of being in love; and was she then able to foresee that even though loss would eventually follow — always follow — it was all worth it, while unfolding?

Probably not.

But the word of Galina’s “willingness” began to roam the village.  The bachelors reconsidered the cripple’s appearance:  After all, she didn’t need to be a beauty queen for frolicking in the hay.  They began to scheme amongst themselves.  She probably wouldn’t put up too much of a fight; or demand for a man to leap through the endless rings of fire that belong to courtship.  The married men with a lusty eye took notice of her waiting on the outskirts of fields at the end of their working day.  So did their women:

“Hey, Mash?  Isn’t that your girl hugging the fence over there, behind the tractor?” the women approached Galina’s mother, amused at first, but not for long.

“The devil’s dragged her out again!” the old woman grumbled, embarrassed.  Lord knew, she’d had her hands full with this child!  “I wish any man or death would just take her already!”  (Oh, you think that’s uncharitable?  I’ll see what blues you’d sing if ever you found yourself stuck in living out a Russian’s destiny!  That roller coaster — is no joke!)

The women of the village began to shun the cripple.  A fair competition or not, for all they knew, Galina shared the same anatomy between her legs; and men, being a canine type, let’s face it, wouldn’t have the will power to say “nyet” when an opportunity of getting some — of getting any — splayed out in front of their panting mouths.  No longer was Galina invited to join the girls-in-waiting on village benches whenever they saw her limping with her cane, at dusk.  They didn’t brush her hair, didn’t massage her bow-like back; or reached to scratch mosquito bites through her thick woolen tights, during the summer nights.  When she showed up at church, the girls dispersed, but not before hissing a few slurs that could be overheard even by a deaf-mute.  As far as they were concerned, it was better to be safe than find their boyfriends venturing out for some lay on the side, which, considering Galina’s growing neediness, was always nearby and easily available.

Galina, whose accident left her stuck in the mind of a child, couldn’t understand the change in their favors.  Not at least until her mother Masha broke it down one day, while scrubbing her daughter’s unattractive body on a banya shelf:

“You ought to stop blabbering like this, my poor child!” she gently rubbed a straw clump against the raised red scars on her daughter’s back.  “It’s not modest for a girl, first of all, to show off like this.  And then, you’re making all the females jealous.”

Picking at her bellybutton, Galina defended herself:  “But I speak the truth, didn’t you know?  I will marry!  I am no worse than all those other silly girls!”

“Of course, of course,” Masha soothed.  “Of course, you will, my child.  In time, you will.”

Galina’s mother took mercy on her daughter.  What else did she have going for her but those innocent fantasies of rescue via marriage and the care of a man?  But the poor simpleton!  She had yet to learn that guilt and pity she provoked in other women made terrible accomplices, in the end; and that a woman’s generosity ran only as thick as her man’s attentiveness.

But listen she did.  The very next Sunday, Galina didn’t dress up for church.  She didn’t leave the veranda where she slept in the summer, to then wait by the side of the dirt road, to catch a ride in the milkman’s horse-drawn carriage.  She stopped visiting the fields, or strolling through the village in search of young girls’ congregations.  It seemed she locked herself at home during daylight.  And only at sunset did she begin to leave the house and joining the babushkas:  those old retired women who were cared for by their children if they were lucky; and if unlucky, the women who worked until their daily duties were completed after the last cow got home.  They sat on the benches, like brown sparrows along a telephone line; stretching their arthritic limbs, adjusting their kerchiefs and shacking roasted sunflower seed with toothless gums, until their fingernails turned black and their tongues were raw and scarred by salt.  There they sat, watching the rest of the living go by, and calling out to either Jesus or Mother Death, for the end of their — or others’ — misery.

At first, the old women scolded the cuz:

“You ought to waste your time by the band stage, and not with us!”

“Oy, don’t even tell me!” the others chimed in.  “Now, did you see just what these youngsters wear, these days?!  In my time, I wouldn’t show my naked knee to even my own husband.”

“Oy, dear little lord of ours!  My granddaughter chops off her skirts like this on purpose!  I found the tailor’s bill.”

The old women crossed themselves.  Their religiousness did not die down, not with the revolution or the Party’s teachings.  Harmless to most, they worshiped openly; and these old women had a point:  What else would there be left of Russia’s soul, if not its fear of Father God or Mother Nature?

There, in the companies of babushkas, Galina started to pick up the dirt on every household in the village.  And what a way to make a recovery!  No matter the shared elation or tragedy, most mortals couldn’t resist a juicy piece of gossip.

Quite rapidly, Galina became the go-to for the latest news:  She was the younger generation’s Sputnik that circled the village — from one bench to another — to measure and deliver back the temperatures around town.  The misstep of her own fictional marriage was long forgotten, and by the fall — before the hay had finished drying out and got transported into hay storage shacks; and long before the housewives completed pickling cabbage and lining up their cellar shelves with jams; before the men piled up the wood for heating the stove in the winter — Galina became every household’s most welcomed guest.

(To Be Continued.)

A Shift. A Change.

(Continued from July 22nd, 2012.)

Gaining time, ages of it:  That’s how she had begun to feel recently.  It was no longer an anxiety driven chase of minutes, or breaking down her days into portions of obligations and thinking too far ahead; so far ahead that she would forget to observe the very happening of time — and herself in it:  unfolding, expanding, altering, learning to love.  The tension that came from her knowledge that she was lacking, losing time would settle at the medial edges of her eyebrows, making her forehead feel like a heavy awning.  For years, she had worn the weight of time on her face; and while the losses surmounted, as they do in any life, she found herself at a deficit of time for mourning.

Larisa stepped out of the church.  The city, still moving slowly after the snowstorm, was gradually waking.  Older women carried netted bags with groceries from the bazar; the men smoked.  The young raced, chased, took for granted stretches and stretches of time.  The sun had been beaming down; and although it didn’t have the strength to thaw out the iced pavements yet, the smells of eventual spring could already be detected in the air.  Everything was beginning to exhale.  Larisa smiled:

But, of course, change would come!  It always did!  In her memory, there was no specific day when this awareness had happened in her, no event that — again, with time — revealed its lesson:  that she wasn’t really living all this time, but merely waiting for her days to end, wasting them on worry, on an anticipation of her own expiration and on counting up her lacks.  Growing tired, perpetually tired, she found herself lacking patience.  How could her life force fade so early on?  And she was terrified of it:  to lose the joy of living would make a life’s uselessness more daunting.  She didn’t want to live with that.  And she was not going to lose the hope!  No, not the hope; not the sometimes demonstrative belief of hers that people were prone to goodness; and that even though she could never expect it, kindness would make its presence known, and it would lighten up at least some events with grace.  Oh, but she needed to — she had to! — believe that!

Watching the rush of morning trolleys clunk past her, Larisa decided to walk.  The cold stiffness of the air entered her lungs, brought on an alertness.  The kindness hadn’t slept a wink that night.  And so, she continued to roam through her city, with books in hand:  the city which she hadn’t made her home yet, just a place where she would watch her youth unfold; but at any moment, she could give it up, take off again, the gravity of responsibilities not affecting her yet; and she could chose any place (she could go any place, really!); and the mere awareness of such freedom made the heart swell with tearful gratitude.

In that state, while absorbing the city from the top stair of the library building, she had met him.  It was the music, at first, streaming out of the rolled down window of his car.   She stopped to listen to it:  Chopin?  Debussy?  In the gentle strokes of the piano movement, the city glistened.  She stepped down and resumed her walk.

“I was just thinking myself, ‘Am I ready to part with this Blok collection?’”  He had gotten out of the car and was now leaning against the passenger’s window at the back seat.  Larisa smiled:  Blok — Russia’s golden boy of poetry — had made her girlfriends swoon all through college.  She studied the man’s face for a glimmer of ridicule:  Had he seen her leaving the building with half a dozen of hard-bound (cloth) tomes, half of which she had renewed, unready to part with the moods, the atmosphere they proposed?  But if anything, the man was smiling at his own expense, bashfully and maybe even seeking her opinion on the matter.  She considered it, then spoke carefully:

“You should try some early Akhmatova.”

“Too tragic,” he responded, “especially for the end of this winter.”

That’s it!  Right there, she knew exactly what she meant!  But for the first time, she did’t catch herself forced into a space of controlled flirtation from which she could observe — but not always appreciate — the effects of her presence.  How can I hold all this space now, she thought; how can I stand here, not putting up the heightened facade of my sex?

She couldn’t remember if it had ever been this easy before.  Aloneness would still happen, of course, even if this were indeed the evidence of her change.  It wouldn’t stop, neither would she want it to.  But now it united, linked her to the rest of humanity; and even in the isolation of the specificity of her most private experiences, she would understand so much; and in that surrender (if only she could manage to not lose herself in fear again), she was certain she would find kindness.

Aged

(Continued from July 15th, 2012.

Her previous thoughts on motherhood had brought her no peace.  There were times she feared them even; intolerably changing tram cars when in too close of a proximity to a small child or sometimes a pregnant woman; feeling her own intimidation at the span of her life rise up in her:  What would happen if she were to have a child?

It was as if she was allergic to the very idea of it, perhaps until she was ready, with time.  Except that readiness never really arrived:  Fear simply changed places with acute loneliness to which the sometimes seemingly easy solution presented itself in a trustful face of an infant.  Maybe, that’s it.  May, that’ll fix it.  Maybe, if only she had a baby, she’d learn how; and perhaps, she’d grow softer.  But it could also be just the very opposite — losing traces of self in the chaos of unknowing; and every single time, she shook the idea out of her hair as if it were a mere layer of dust from the construction site she passed every morning, on her way to the university.

“But you don’t have much time!” the other women warned her, their faces altered by some insider knowledge, for which she was expected to be grateful.  Many had already procreated more than once by her age.  “You’ve gotta try it,” they suggested with knowing smiles.  “You’re gonna love being a wife!”  (No one ever stopped to differentiate between the two events:  motherhood and marriage did not have to be bound into a sequence.)

And she’d seen her own former school mates float around the city bazar with growing swellings of their stomachs — “I didn’t know she’d gotten married already!” — appearing too hot, uncomfortable or weighed down; rarely looking blissful.  To her, the young mothers appeared to have gone distances.  They were gone, off to the places outside of all this:  This place, in the middle of winter, always just making it.

Most of Larisa’s girlfriends had left the town in the first five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Angela got into a law school in St. Petersburg.  Oksana left for Israel.  It happened in such a rapid succession, she didn’t get a chance to ask anyone yet:  Do you feel that way sometimes too?  (Larisa’s mother seemed to have no tolerance for such questions.)

Meanwhile, mother’s girlfriends dropped loud hints in her vicinity:

“Perhaps, Larisa is just not into it.”

“All books — no boys.”

A bluestocking, the librarian type.  An old maid.  Larisa wasn’t necessarily plain looking, but had always been bookish; and that would be intimidating to anyone, let alone a man with a domestic proposition for her.

“She should try putting on lipstick sometimes.  She’s not that bad looking after all!”

It had to be a particular quality to the Russian women:  to cross the lines of respect into forced familiarity, as if, just on the mere basis of their common sex, they could treat her as an fumbling ignoramus.  Some of her mother’s girlfriends she always found invasive and somehow intentionally diminutive.  It was if they knew better, and she should too.  Often disguised with good wishes, they invaded and pointed out where she somehow didn’t measure up to the accomplishments of others, even though she, all along, strived for something different; something more specific, more organic to its environment:  like the color of sunset before a thunderstorm, or the way her footsteps sounded after each first snowfall and they moved the heart to awe by the magnanimity of it all, even though it couldn’t be — nor needn’t be — described.

And then, there was their insincerity, one might even call it “mean spirits”.  Larisa looked to her mother for a back-up, but the woman didn’t see it her way:  Mother was always better at belonging:

“Such things, Larisa, they take a woman’s heart to understand!”

The little girl had let go of her grandmother’s skirt, sat down onto the dirt floor of the church and rested her chin on top of the propped up knees.  Larisa hadn’t noticed that the child had been studying her.  The hum of the recorded organ had carried her away; not because she would’ve rather been elsewhere.  No, she enjoyed drifting off like this, and then observing the world from a haze of her own thoughts; vague and left better undefined.

And she had known men — one Pyotr Nedobry — who forced their own thoughts to be defined and insisted to interpret hers.  With attentiveness rooted in hunger, Pyotr would study her with desire:  as if she could fix it, be his long sought-out solution, whatever had been missing out of her life.  And when he, last May, lifted her up over his shoulder and ran toward the lake, she was expected to laugh.  Instead, she couldn’t catch her breath.  Too late, she thought.  Such romance no longer tempted her.  Or maybe, she was the type to have lived out her youth already, for there was nothing left to miss of it; no delightful memory but the mournful knowledge that she, indeed, was never really youthful.

Pyotr Nedobry placed her down, that day, on the lawn, by the bank.

“The dandelions!” Larisa tenderly whispered.  They were everywhere!

“Oh, I know!  So annoying!” Pyotr exclaimed, and he took off his jacket so that they could sit down without staining their clothes.  Not at all what she had meant!

They spoke while looking out.  He would pick up blades of semi-dry grass, small branches, sharp-edged pebbled and continue sticking them into her slip on shoes.  Hurtful, irritating — he demanded too much!

If she were to go for it, she knew at first the attention would be elating; and it would lighten her days for a while.  But she had already done that, a number of times!  Once with a student from Argentina who convinced her that he would be her life’s regret if she didn’t let him woo her.  He wasn’t.  And all this attention eventually turned on itself.  Everything that they would learn of each other could become ammunition, for it was humanly impossible for one woman to get the job done.  She would grow tired and mourn the mysteries she’d surrendered under the influence of lust.

“All these girly secrets!” Pyotr smirked, looking down at her, sideways.  He was already becoming mean.

And she — was already gone.

Larisa looked up at the statue of Christ.  The sun, parting the clouds after a week of snowfall, shined through the colored bits of the mosaic windows; and a column of caramel-colored light came down onto the thorn-crowned head.  Larisa felt warmer:  That’s it!  That’s how she wanted to discover beauty:  never expecting it, never molding the circumstances that were out of her control; but by simply and habitually mending her spaces, she could give room for it all — to flood in.

Suspended Saints

Now that she’s arrived, was there anything else to it?  A life summoned itself and paused for a while.  Yes, there was always a pause, Larisa noticed; a breather in between the chapters.

She never imagined her death, never was the type to bear the hubris of planning her own funeral.  Like weddings, death demanded metaphors.  To capture oneself, to be summarized, direly:  But how can one not be so many things at once?  Besides, the way she felt, ceremonies strived for a shared experience; not a centralized meditation that treated the self as the object of all other events; that separated and sought how different one was from the rest, taking for granted the universality of it all.  She didn’t have the ego for it.

Larisa had been living for others, certainly:  a symptom assigned mostly to her gender.  In her family, she had witnessed the earlier generations of women lose themselves in sacrificial love.  For the sake of their children, their husbands, their aging parents, they carried on serving; until they found themselves having a hard time remembering what they themselves had wanted, originally, all along.  Remember those days?  How many times she’d heard the mournful reminiscence in a woman’s voice:  Those days!  What happened since then, Larisa wondered, herself still a young girl; what force of obscurity slithered itself in between and demanded for a retraction, or a delay at least.

Definitely, she wouldn’t lose the sight of her own purpose, she thought!  Yet, the loneliness came scratching at the backdoor, becoming louder as she compared the things other women claimed as accomplishments:  dramatic courtships, the victory in which meant expensive weddings and doting husbands, as one could only hope; then, the automatic events of pregnancy and nest acquiring (building, building, gaining weightiness); the demands of a chosen lifestyle, or in the cases of the less fortunate — merely survivals.  Every woman she knew had leapt into all of it without ever questioning the reality of her expectations.  How could their husbands — the equally unknowing human beings with a whole other set of expectations imposed onto them — keep up?  They too, when young, once dreamt of following the call of the world’s magnificence.  But lives demanded to be defined by success; and what others made of success — was not at all what she’d imagined.

There was love, of course.  There would always be love.  Beyond her own anxiety and self-judgement, she could see that a life was only as successful as the love one projected.  Still, in the beginning, it was loneliness that determined the pursuit of it; and loneliness made things more urgent, non-negotiable and somehow crucial.  It conformed the shape of love, so it could fit into the missing parts; make-up for the previous mistakes of others; fix, mold, make it better.  Because in a person, there were always parts missing:  from too much love, or not enough of it, from the prototypes of our lovers (god bless our parents!), who couldn’t possibly step up to what love was meant to be, as she thought of it:  all forgiving, non-discriminating, fluid.

And what about the needs?  One had to have needs.  It was a path of nature.  Larisa found the balance between the self-fulfillment of those needs and the ones she could hand over to another — unpoetic and stressful.  So, she chose to handle all of them on her own; not with any sense of confrontation or showmanship, but with the esteem of self-reliance.  And surely, Larisa thought, it would only elevate the love.  Surely, if one handled the demands of one’s survival with this much grace, there would be more room for the beauty and the compassion; the reflection of the self in the suffering of others and the almost rapturous feeling of knowing exactly how it felt to be another; for such a love lacked fear, and it could take up spaces with its tide-like tongues, and whenever it retracted, one only had to wait for its return.  In light, in easiness:  What surrender!

 

Larisa wasn’t really sure how or where, in the self, the unease began.  On that day — a day unmarked by any significance — she’d gone into a church.  With her head bowed and eyes half-closed, she didn’t seek answers or help, only a space from which to observe the ways her thoughts moved, sometimes birthing moods, sometimes — nothingness; and she watched herself alter, even while in stillness, mind creating matter; thoughts becoming intentions; and she cast the net into the endless vagueness and brought them back into the very is-ness of her:  Into what she believed the most.

This church appeared make-shift, marking a spot where, under an influence of a former fanatical thought, an ancient Russian cathedral had been burnt down over half a century ago.  A modest wooden building, unheated, undecorated, in a shape of a polygon, sat in the shadowy corner of a square.  The country was living through an era of resurrected gods and revalidated heros, often dead by now, having been taken for granted for the sake of simplifying a former common ambition.  Things crumbled.  Alliances turned chaotic.  And when everyone woke up to amended history — figures worthy of worship long gone and nearly forgotten — a common panic ensued.  For even if it weren’t the ego that made a people matter, it had to be their spirit; a common memory of a civilization.

The roads had frozen overnight; and at first, she had snuck-in to thaw out her stiff toes.  She purchased a candle at the door, mostly out of habit.  She didn’t even know how that particular ceremony worked.  Two side altars, with figures of crucified saints, sat against the walls of the church, opposite of each other.  Standing there for a while, still and unnoticed, she studied the other women who moved like ghosts across the dirt floor.  Everyone was fully clothed.  She looked down at her feet and shifted:  There was little hope of her finding much warmth there.  Still, she stayed.  She paused, and in the growing shadows of her memories, she waited.

Older women in head scarves, with histories written across their tired faces, were crossing themselves at their chosen mantels.  Some moved their lips in prayer, repeatedly lowering their heads in a manner that came after so much practice, one was no longer moved by it.  What misfortunes had brought them here?  Loss required humility, otherwise one was consumed with fury.  Her country had lived through tragedies with a numbness of habit.  Resignation was often advised by the elderlies, yet she found herself incompetent at it.

She took another look at the suspended saints and walked over to the side alter with a Christ whose eyes were semi-open.  A little girl in a rabbit fur hat clung to the leg of her grandmother.  Larisa looked down at the child and without raising her hand, moved her fingers inside the mitten.  The child, sensing an interaction, got shy and clutched the old woman’s leg with more zealousness, for children often appeared overwhelmed with the energy of living.  Their egos struggled with the life force they had been granted (what were they supposed to do, to be?  how did they matter); and juxtaposed against the even flow of hours — one’s magnificence was only seen in silence, she believed — the egos expanded; for surely, they had to become something better.

(To Be Continued.)

The Other Half

(Continued from July 1st, 2012.)

At the end of the summer, Marinka aimed to take entrance exams to the two top medical institutes in the city.  Mother offered to pull some strings:  The woman was never at a lack of connects.  But I’ve gotta give it to sis!  She was determined to get in on the basis of her merit alone.  (In those days, the idealism of the Russian youth tended to have a longer expiration date.  Skepticism stepped in much later, flooding anywhere where the Soviet control of information gave room.)

So, after half of June spent on cramming for her high school finals, Marinka hibernated for about week; then, immediately resumed her studies.  Mother wasn’t thrilled about it:

“Now, instead just one bookworm, I have two Oblomovas in the house!”

Those days, I began to wonder about what constituted a woman’s happiness.  Mother, whose only expression of joy was overly stretched, forced —  a sort of a strained delirium — didn’t strike me as genuine, but something quite the opposite, nearing insanity.  She wasn’t happy in the way that Olya Morozova seemed, in her mother’s altered dress, on her own wedding day.  And any time I’d seen her since, blissfully pregnant or contemplatively picking tomatoes at a market on weekends, she looked like someone composing a complicated orchestral movement:  Lost in thoughts that she desired, never seeking approval (and why would she need it, with her moderate beauty, always basking in adoration?); content but not out of love or out of curiosity; fluid, available; kind.

For the first few weeks, mother struggled with the no longer vague signs of her oldest daughter’s ambition.  She sized up our bunk beds, branding us with the name of the biggest lazy ass in the whole of Russian literature:  Oblomov.  Other times, she tempted us with distractions:  a rerun of Santa Barbara or the news of other women’s misfortunes.  It would happen mostly in that late afternoon hour, when mother, having returned yet again from a day of hunting for discounts and gossip, was expected to be in the kitchen.  And we were expected to assist, simply because we were daughters.  And therefore born female.  And therefore, we had no choice.  (But one always had a choice, even in the country that didn’t advertise freedom.  We could choose the other way:  the way outside of the expected, of the presumed.)

In response to the call for confrontation, I listened to my sis remain motionless above my head.  It gave me the courage to stay sprawled out on my stomach as well, despite the signs of mother’s fuming in the doorway.  The smell of her perfume lurked more oppressively than her silence.  The anxiety of always, somehow, being perpetually wrong — inappropriate, incorrect — stirred in my chest.  What was to happen?

Mother exhaled audibly, turned on her heels and stormed out of our room, making a ruckus with the bamboo curtains in the doorway.  I held my breath, just in case of her abrupt return; until a few moments later, the kitchen appliances began tuning into an orchestra of percussions.  I suppose a light touch does not belong to every woman; and our mother exorcised her frustrations via the objects that reminded her of domesticity.

I slathered up the ladder to Marinka’s bed and rested my chin on the last plank:

Sis looked up:  “Hey, monkey.”  She stopped chewing on her pencil for long enough to smile faintly, as if to herself.  There was that mystery, again; the place of thoughts where women departed — to create, to process, to understand; or maybe rather to mourn, or to escape.

“Oooh,” I bulged out my eyes in the best dramatic delivery I’d inherited from mom, hissing:  “Mom’s pee-ssed!”

Marinka smirked — inhaled — and resumed making a meal out of her pencil again.  The two females had been in a bickering war this entire summer.  Still, sis would not speak unkindly of our mother, at least not to me.  To be the last to abandon her graces was my sister’s route to growing up.  Descending into silence, she never gossiped in return these days, only listened whenever mother couldn’t hold it in.

Sis was curled up in the corner or plastered against the wall.  She looked dewy and flushed.  Her eyes shined with the symptoms of the cooped-up syndrome.  She appeared sleepy and slightly dazed.  Colorful drawings of human insides, notebooks, flashcards, a pile of reference encyclopedias borrowed from the library, a tipi of stacked colored pencils were spread on top of the purple blanket we’d inherited from our grandmother in Siberia.  The old woman had died having accumulated nothing.

I watched Marinka’s plump lips mouth off unpronounceable terms.  Mean smart! Ignoring my adoration (which was always too nosy or too hyper anyway), she leaned forward to flip a page; and, as she sometimes did in obedience to the flood of her kindness, grazed the top of my head with her sharp nails.

In those moments, oh, how I missed her already!

 

Some afternoons, when the heat became so unbearable not even the open windows offered much relief, we agreed to leave the house for the river bank.  Half the town would have had the same idea by then.  Mother grumbled about how we had wasted half a day on our shenanigans; yet, from the way she readied herself — nosily, running in her bra between the closets and the bathroom I wondered if she relished arriving to a packed beach.  Giant straw hats with floppy edges were matched to colorful cotton sarafans with wide skirts that blew up at all the wrong times.  There was a weightiness to most of mother’s possessions.

I was ordered to carry our picnic basket.  Marinka was loaded up with blankets, towels and old linen sheets.  We treaded ahead, while mother joined and laughed with various families, also en route to the river.

As predicted, everyone and their mother was out catching a break from the afternoon sun.  The tilted bank was dressed with a smog of accumulated heat.  For days, it hadn’t let up.  Sheets and towels were splattered on top of yellowing grass, and families in various states of undress moved around sluggishly.  Seemingly every kid in town, with the exception of the Slow Vanya who was home-schooled all of his life, was now squealing and splashing in the water.

As soon as we reached the top of the hill, an abrasive smell of fresh cow dung greeted us when the barely palpable breeze blew in our direction:

“Oh.  We’ve missed the collective bath!” Marinka said under her breath.  She was becoming funnier, too.

En route to and from their feeding ground, the farm cows were led into the river daily, to cool down and to get a break from the murders of flies.   They must’ve just left.

Without getting up, the mothers were already hollering their instructions to the frenetic children again:

“Be careful, Irotchka!”

“Sasha!  Don’t manhandle your sister!”

“What did I tell you about swimming that far?!  MASHA!”

There were some fathers who got into the water on occasion, but they immediately got flocked by their own and other people’s children with runny noses and, for whatever reason, fatherless, for that day.

Our stuff hadn’t hit the ground, yet I was already squirming out of my clothes and hauling ass toward the water.  Marinka dropped her load and scurried off after me, still in her jeans skirt with rhinestones on her pockets.

“Marina!  Please watch where she goes!” mother, already slathering herself with sunflower oil in a company of her girlfriends, barely took notice of the fact that my beautiful, olive-skinned sister shed a few shades and turned nearly pale with terror.

She stopped.  “Mama?  She’s fine!”

I too looked back.  Seemingly every hairy male appeared to have propped himself up on his elbows to get a better look at my sister’s behind.  Mother was already gone, having departed quickly from any parental awareness.  Marinka was expected to step in.

I slowed down and waited for my sister to catch up.

“If you’re lonely, I don’t have to go in.”  Devotedly, I looked up at my sis.  She seemed so out of place here, somehow kinder than the rest!

“It’s fine, my monkey,” she reached for my hand and looked ahead, at the glistening water at the other edge of the river, and the field of sunflowers there; or possibly further beyond all that, maybe somewhere where her life was going to begin.

My Father’s Office

(Continued from June 17th, 2012.)

Mother gave out her orders for dad to go pick up some of her special bread for dinner.  The wide white baguette was the only thing she claimed to be able to eat:

“My stomach is allergic to that other peasant crap!”  She, of course, was referring to the bricks of wheat bread that dad and I could devour kilos at a time, given enough garlic and salt.  “And why don’t you take the small one with you?  Keep her from getting under my feet?”

Dad found me reading inside Marinka’s closet, where I had built myself a beanbag-like chair out of a pile of dirty laundry.  This was the only place in our two bedroom apartment where the constant stream of kitchen noises sounded reasonably muffled.

“Hey, monkey!” dad cracked open one of the doors.  “Wanna join Papka on a smoking break?”

Before I removed my ear plugs I’d made from cotton balls, I studied the handsome man’s face.  He — was my father.  Floating above me, nearly at the ceiling, as it seemed, he reminded me of those romantic leads in the old, black-and-white Soviet films:  usually some Labor Hero or the best and the brightest of the Party for whom love always arrived after success, and always in a form of the least likely — somewhat homely and nerdy — girl.  Dad’s eyes were radiating with tanned wrinkles.  His lips were resisting the type of a grin that happened whenever he tried his damn hardest not to act amused at my expense.

“A smoking break?  Well.  Yeah, sure.”  I shrugged one of my shoulders, slipped the index fingers in between the pages of The Master and Margarita, and placed the book face down.  (All the reading for our Literature Class I had completed back during my summer at the Pioneer Camp.  Since then, I’d been reading everything I could find in my parents’ library, in alphabetical order.  Considering I was still making my way through “B’s”, I hadn’t gotten too far.  But it took no more than a few chapters to know that this novel could get me into serious trouble.)

Dad stepped back to give me enough room to slip out of my office, and after I wrangled myself out of Marinka’s dirty bathrobe, he examined me head to toe and said:  “The consensus is:  You might need a jacket.”

“Yeah?  Should I wear rain boots, too?”

With one of his forearms, dad moved the tulle curtains and looked out of the window.  “Ooh.  Yeah,” he nodded.  “You’re right.  Looks like it might rain.”

I knew that.  Lying down on the floor, on my stomach, I was already fishing for the matching rain boot under our bunk bed.  In secret, I was hoping that my shoe, of boringly dull rubber, had been lost forever and that I would get to wear Marinka’s pair:  They were all shiny, with bright flowers; almost brand new and made in the very exotic country of China.  But the dark thing in the furthest corner turned out to be my missing rain boot.  That’s alright, I thought.  I will inherit the Chinese pair in no time!

“Are we gonna bring an umbrella, too?”

“Nah,” dad looked out of the window again.  “We aren’t the type to melt, are we?!”

Shaking the last of the dust bunnies from my abandoned rain boot, I felt a flurry of butterflies in my stomach.  Dad chose me!  He could’ve gone alone — but he chose my company!  The days of his endless travels were long gone.  The furthest he would depart these days would be to work on blown over phone lines that connected his Army Unit to what I assumed to be the Kremlin.  Still, every evening, the man looked for an excuse to stay out of the house.  Smoking was one of them.

As I began to mold into a serious runner at school and refused to wear dresses (besides my mandatory school uniform), dad and I began venturing out on walks.  Perhaps it was because my funny predisposition tickled my old man.  Being outnumbered had to be an already rough reality long before all three women of our household began menstruating on the same schedule.  So, I imagine it was a bit of a relief to discover that at least his youngest offspring could wish for no better occupation than to climb trees, outrun boys; bang nails into drywalls, go fishing or take endless walks through the town.  And to make our likeness even more daunting, I wasn’t one to talk much either.

Naturally, I didn’t go questioning as to where the two of us were now heading.  Not until we passed the gates of the town’s police station, already shut for the day — its only lightbulb above the main doorway reflecting in the wet asphalt like the second moon — that I asked:

“How come we’re in a hurry?”

Dad’s gait, always evenly paced as if he were marching in the Red Square parade, felt rushed.  Normally, he was more aware of the patter of my feet, echoing his own footsteps.  But that day, he was moving faster than I expected from our typical “smoking break”.  In parts, I’d had to jog a little to keep up.

The man took the cigarette out of his mouth, blew the smoke over this left shoulder, away from me, and said:  “Sorry, comrade!  We’re picking up your mother’s bread.”

“Well.  That’s understood,” I said, then zipped up my windbreaker and got ready to continue jogging, as if on a mission this time.  This business of mother’s needs was to be taken seriously.  Even I had learned that, by then.

“Understood?” dad smiled.  In my response, I had given myself the masculine gender.

“Under-stood,” I nodded, then jogged slightly ahead of him to get a better look at his face.  The same grin of his trying hard not to embarrass me was brewing on his lips.

Entirely pleased with myself, I saluted:  “Always ready!”

(To Be Continued.)

The Other Side of Things

(Continued from June 3rd, 2012.)

In beginning of the summer, he told her he would be flying in.  She waited for a clarification, in silence.

The flurry of his messages resumed in a few days:  the tiny little jabs that, with his craftiness and her gullibility in tow, could easily be reinterpreted as tiny strokes of her ego; and if she really, really wanted to feel needed and missed — she could be pleased.  He was visiting his mother.  She said hello, said that she was sorry about how things had turned out.  She’d always “liked her”.  He spoke about how sick and tired of the North-East he had grown.  (They’d moved there together years ago, on the basis of her curiosity alone, pretty much.  Being young in New York sounded perfect, at the time.)  And wouldn’t it be nice to raise a family out here, instead?  She would’ve made a wonderful mother.

On that, she came out of her silence:  “What do you want, Mike?!” she texted.  (She had always avoided abbreviations in her messages; but with him, she also insisted on being brutally precise with her punctuation.)

But her irritation went right over his head:  “dunno hang out?” he wrote back.

It had to be a bliss to not see life’s gray areas at all, and to trample over other people’s precious boundaries with this much oblivion.  Or could he be simply manipulative?  Perhaps, he enjoyed watching her lose her cool, for his sake.  But the casualty with which he treated their break-up she found plainly and increasingly offensive:  He had been acting as if nothing terrible had happened at all and as if they could remain friends, on the other side.  Didn’t he know long it took for her to achieve the lightness of the forgiven past?

They took a few days off from talking.  She began sleeping a lot.

 

When he finally appeared, she wished her mind had tricked her into not recognizing him.  She wished he had changed.  But no:  A pair of long shorts ending at his half shins; a one inch buzz cut of his coarse, tight curls, which he had worn the same way for years; and a backpack.  And a sizable backpack at that!  (The day they met back in college, she was stumbling across the campus from the bus stop.  Having left her glasses at home, she was walking by memory.  He was leaving his Calculus class, in shorts and — yes! — with a backpack.  A sizable backpack!)

Now, he was walking on the opposite side of the street.  He seemed to have noticed her from ways away.  Eventually, she noticed him too:  that gait, that tilt of the head.  She felt zero sentimentality.  Once they made eye contact, he didn’t smile.  Neither did she.

“Oh, no!  Your hair!” he said right off the bat.  He now stood in front of her, his lower lip chapped from the wind.  “What happened to your hair?”

She had cut it all off, in the heat of the new city; and she’d been keeping it that way, since they’d last seen each other.

“And where are you off to?” she responded, immediately defensive.  “Camping in the canyons?”

It was just like she remembered the very end of them:  terse non-sequiturs and impatient physical contact.  Now, they had both grown older, but not kinder.

Considering to take an offense, he looked at her with his shiny eyes, then shrugged.  They exchanged a stiff hug.  (How long does it take for the muscle memory of lovers to fade?)  She braised the air near his cheek with a polite kiss, but their skin never touched.  He pulled away, held her arms for a moment, looking into her eyes.  Forcing it.  Then, after studying her boyish hairline again, he shook his head.  At least, he was smiling this time.

“Can I get you a drink?” he sized up the empty plastic cup on her end of the patio table, with its walls murky from a blend of coffee and milk.

“I don’t know:  Can you?”  She narrowed her eyes.  She was beginning to feel tired and bitchy again.  A tension headache was squeezing her temples.  She sat back down.  His backpack now took up the chair across from her.  She began to study pedestrians, particularly the ones with dogs.  When the dogs were left waiting outside, tied down to immoveable objects, she wondered how this much love could ever be forsaken.  How could love survive this much waiting?

When he returned, with two identical iced drinks, he plopped the backpack down onto the dirt patch, himself — into the chair.  Brazen, she thought.  Not even an apology for having her wait for him for nearly half an hour.

“So.  How the hell are you?” he said, while twirling the cubes of ice inside his coffee with a straw.  They clunked against each other, dully.

“Well.”

He nodded:  “Yeah.  I’d say.”  She watched him take a good stretch in his metal chair and yawn.

“You?” she said.

“Bueno!” he said and grinned at her with that boyish bravado that he’d nearly lost at the end of their marriage.  His arms hung stretched behind his head.  “It’s good to be back, I’ll tell you that much,” he said.

She felt her headache tighten.  She needed fresh air, or rather moving air, against her face.  She wanted to be crying under the rain.  She wished to be in the water.

So, she stood up, groped the chair for her purse and picked up her drink.  “Mind if we walk to the beach?” she said.

His eyes, despite the panicked confusion (was it something he said?), began to shine with a curiosity.  “Yeah.  Sure,” he responded.  “That would be awesome!”

She shook her head.  He was pushing now.

Not wanting to go through the store filled with other people, exhausted by the sun, she began to search for the gate of the patio.  She needed to be near the water, to hear it, and to imagine all that distance stretching ahead of her and all the places on the other side.

Too Far

It was the most abhorred sound to the ear:  A combination of pain and anguish, layered on top of a man’s hysteria.  It seemed to have come from down below, from the streets.  Perhaps, not unusual for the streets of Manhattan, but it’s been years since I had left.  I had wanted space — and space I had received.  Miles of it, with dozens of different cities crammed into one.  And the distance between each other was at times too significant to mend with compassion.

“Fucking spoilt!  Some people don’t have anything… (mumble, mumble, hmmmm).  Why are you like this…”  (Here, I thought he called her by her name.)   “YEAH!  YEAH, YOU ARE!  SO FUCKING SPOILT!”

I looked out of the window.  The end of spring hadn’t yet burnt off the green from the hills.  I studied the bits of lawns, visible in between the rooftops of my street.  The next street over had a more monochromatic look to it, with a row of two-storied, eggshell-colored buildings with those thin metallic windowpanes, painted white, only strong enough to withstand the climate of Southern Cal.  The screens of bathroom widows were narrow and dusty.  An Armenian looking woman, with a hairnet stretched over her auburn perm, was unloading the trunk of her son’s SUV, in the uncovered parking spot of the building below.  The son, with one leg on the ground, the other — still under the steering wheel — was staring at the screen of his mobile phone.

“YOU!  YOU!  YOU took all of it!…  (mumble, mumble, pain).  And now, I don’t have a savings account!”  (He must’ve said her name, again).  “I’ve sacrificed everything!  FOR WHAT?!”

The voice of the screaming man appeared to have no effect on the son or the mother, both consumed by their business in the parking lot.  I unlatched the sliding doors of my patio.  The accumulated dust had discolored the doormat underneath my feet.  It felt grainy.  The rains of this past winter had marked the pink, uneven floor with circular stains, with jagged edges.  I should really make a habit of sitting out here more.  But the work!  The work.  It consumed every bit of presence in a day; until half a day’s sunlight passed and my desire to find myself amidst other humans — completely burnt away.  And the slowness of an aware mind would be gone, gone, gone, into the daze of exhaustion.

The man by now was screaming.  Just screaming:

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHH.  (Inhale.)   AAAAAGGGGHHHH.  AAAAAGGGGHHHH.”

Angst.  One uninterrupted, unidentifiable sound, leaving a mouth crooked with pain so immense, I imagined, it had to seem impossible to survive.  But he would land on the other end of it, most likely.  Because even if one reached the edge, the threshold, the limit — too far, unthinkable for a human heart — one would have to go on living.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH…”

The mother, who had begun hanging the beige plastic bags onto her bent forearm, like unshapely lanterns, looked up.  She’d heard it too.

“You said, I don’t fucking love you anymore!  YOU!  YOU SAID THAT!  This, morning… (Mumble.  Moan.  Name?)  And then you went to work!”  (A squeeze of empathy made me brace myself.  I had begun disliking detours from my earned tranquility, even if it disguised itself as apathy.)  “Now, you have to live with that!  You said that!  YES!  YES, YOU DID.  And now, you live with it!”

The mother had to have said something to her son; because now, he too looked up.  Unready to confront humanity, I scurried off inside.  Quickly, I slid the door.  It thumped against the frame, too loudly.

I walked along the outer edges of my place.  I learned my ear against each of the four walls.  One of the walls vibrated with another, “AAAAGGGGHHH!”  The sound was happening next door, and I could now make out the words.

“Go try it, Lena!  Go!  Go see for yourself how other people live!”  He looked so young the last time I saw him.  In time, such loss shaves off years.  With most people though — it compiles them.  “But if you think I’m going to walk away in silence…”  His voice cracked then.  He stopped.  I think he broke down.

I stood against the wall.   In a short while, it was a woman that began speaking.  She had been silent until now.  “Mumble, mumble,” I could hear.  “Mumble, mumble, mumble, hmmmm.”

I could remember her:  A tall Russian girl with that particular face that looked majestic in photographs but slightly off in person.  Tall, blonde, blue-eyed and slightly timid, she suffered from an awkwardness in how she moved her body.  I’d met her in the lobby once.  We shared a giggle in an uncomfortable closeness while getting our mail, from our neighboring mailboxes.

“I hearrd,” she finally spoke, “zat you verre Rrussian to.”  Her accent stumped me.  After two decades of living here, I had acquired the arrogance of a native.  She waited for my answer, locked her mailbox and leaned her back against the wall.  Her legs outstretched in front of her, for meters and meters, as it seemed.  And when she saw my sizing up the distances before her, she pulled them back.  Her face blushed with a sheepish smile.

“Yes,” I spoke looking at her lips.  I wanted to decipher how she spoke.  “Yes.  It’s been years though.”

“Oh,” she ran her fingers through the hair behind her ear.  “Verre… um… you frrom?”

This would’ve been the perfect time to switch to our native tongue.

“I am from the West Coast,” I said in my second tongue, catching myself pronouncing things slower, directly to her mouth.  Something was off there, definitely, besides the accent.  I thought it could’ve been the structure of her jaw.

“Oh,” she said again.  “I sought you verre frrom Moscow.  Zat’s verre I’m from.”

“Go, Lena…  Go back home, if you want…”  The man was sobbing now.  Un-peeling myself from the wall, I stood deciding how much space this tragedy demanded.  Too many witnesses increase the shame.

I wondered how many days it would take each of them to find their way back.  Or had they lost the sight of it for good?  When bearings are lost along the way, it’s harder to recover.  I looked out of the window again.  The mother was gone.  So was her son’s SUV.  I sat back down and returned to work.

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.

Trying

(Continued from March 18th, 2012.)

Was it just her, or had life begun to feel like an army of ants crawling through one’s capillaries?  Did enthusiasm eventually give room to tiredness, when overcrowded by one’s disappointments?  She watched the cautionary tale of her mother’s wilted curiosity; sitting in the downward-turned corners of her mouth, waiting to expire, along with the last of her youth?  Waiting —

Until There Was None.

If ever mother had the patience, the awareness and the discipline enough to write her autobiography — for, surely, she had the vanity enough! — that should’ve been its tittle.  Until There Was None.

But the joy:  Where had it gone from her?  There would still be moments of visible glee, some days — a sort of tightly wound hysteria; the same inside job that made her mother’s face quiver and the loose skin of her arms shake after each gesture.  She’d be like that in front of her girlfriends when seeking their alliance via pity; or in front of the 17th Century paintings in the galleries of Eastern Germany.  (Then, she would always speak to Nola, lecturing, lying, not knowing how to stop.)  The sight of it — Nola eventually found herself despising (in men especially, much later):  of something pushing — being pushed — past one’s irritability, beyond the limit of tolerance and truth.  Strained.  Pushed.  Perpetually trying.

Silence and walking away, to Nola, seemed easier.  And it was reasonable, in theory, for people to coexist in a peaceful fulfillment of their basic needs.  But then, they would always tangle themselves up in the ideas of the pursuit of their own happiness, where flaunting of entitlement and justice would become a sport.  The calmness of a grateful life had long surpassed her mother — that woman was way, way far down the line.  And all there was to live by — was a long list of her grievances and other people’s debts.

“You’re just like your father!” her mother threw at Nola, as if being calm and good was somehow indecent.  Once Nola turned twelve, however, there wouldn’t be much left to hurl at her expense.  Because before, when the two women found themselves alone in the house, mom reached for anything to throw:  her father’s rain boots, the ribbed hose from the Soviet-made (read:  nearly useless) washing machine; wet laundry; mom’s patent leather belt from the fur coat that she’d demanded for her thirtieth birthday.

One time, unrooted by her madness, the woman tipped a pot of cold cabbage soup that had been sitting on the stove, waiting for her father’s dinnertime.  She had been panicking in the kitchen — (mom always panicked, in the kitchen) — and when she found her words surpassing their brutality, she speedily relayed her gaze from one sharp object to the next; and after an unsuccessful search, reached up behind and steadily poured the pot of cold liquid onto Nola’s head.  The slimy cabbage crawled under the collar, under the skin; and the orange, chalky layer of frozen oil tangled up in her hair and stayed there for weeks to come.  When finally, most of the liquid hit the floor, Nola looked up:  Not one, but two women stood there, drenched in terrible humiliation.

For the first time, that night, Nola had gone beyond forgiveness.  Mom was susceptible to losing her control, she realized; but from some losses, one could not come back.

“You’re just like her father!”

Blunt objects or her mother’s limbs ungracefully ended their trajectories anywhere along Nola’s small body.  If she tipped over, mom dragger her by the hair to rooms with better lighting, where harsher punishment ensued.  While mother pushed and pushed and pushed — the child stood, or lied still, in silence.  She learned to receive.  She bared.  She endured.  And secretly she hoped that surrender would make her mother slow down.  So visible was mother’s sorrow, so palpable — unhappiness, that from behind the raised arm with which Nola guarded softer places, she pitied her aggressor.  She waited for the feeling of tremendous heat in all the new swellings.  She’d welcome them, eventually giving herself over to resignation, and to sleep.  A strange bliss would be found at the end of every horror.  For one was never given more than one could handle.

 

In those days, Nola still could still portion out the world into manageable pixels.  There would anger.  Disappointments.  A one unhappy woman.  Through repetition, Nola learned that mother’s love was functioning through let down expectations.  If one was loved by her — one owed her, forever.  The closer Nola neared her own womanhood, the more difficult, the more unbearable would become that love — and debt; until one day, none in her family could ever able undo, unsay the things that they had thrown at each other, in an attack or self-defense.  And in the loss of reason between all cause and effect, it would begin to feel like pure insanity.

And then, one summer, mom had admitted herself to a resort on the Ukrainian Republic’s shore, famous for housing patients of political insanity and tuberculosis.  She dropped off Nola at the house of her in-laws, called up her husband and said that she had lost the sight of “her own woman”, and that she was going away, to find her self, for an indefinite amount of time.

Unheard of!  Scandal!  Her father’s mother ranted for about a week.  But quite quickly, the old woman focused on saving the family’s face and made up more suitable stories about her daughter-in-law’s passage.

“Yeah, a bleeding ulcer.  I know:  that poor thing!  She hadn’t eaten for a month!”

“A teacher’s conference attended by the Ministry of Education.  She’s getting a Hero of Labor.”

But in her own house, behind her mother’s back, the old woman talked.  She called her names for every single time she found Nola staring out of the window or writing letters to no address that mother left behind.

“A flea-ridden bitch — that’s what that woman is!” the old woman muttered on repeat, when she discovered a clump of tangled hair above the nape of Nola’s neck which Nola harvested for nearly a year by then.  The knot had grown so large, that during the summer, she began to pin her grandma’s rhinestone brooches into it.

No remedy was masterful enough to get that thing out!  Lord knows, grandma tried!  The naked old woman labored and puffed in the wet steam of her bathhouse, her deflated breasts flapping above Nola’s shoulders, like freshly baked Georgian lavashes.  After two hours of brushing, oiling, lathering; of pulling and of being pulled; of swearing, sweating, renouncing; and baring and receiving — the hair had to be cut out; and Nola walked away with half of it missing from the back of her head and a headache that took days to sleep off.

The story tilted then.  Inside her family, she never would be able to find much calm.  That night, unable to find a spot on her scalp that wasn’t raw and throbbing, with the face down in her pillow, Nola would begin to plot her own escape, with or without her hair.

 

And now, here it was:  Her thick and magical, red hair!  It had began to slip out of its follicles and clog up all the drains in the apartment; and after every shower, the water drained slowly, allowing for the soap scum to settle on the walls of her tub, like growth rings on a cut down tree.

Must color mother’s hair, she decided.  The shower head was dripping at an even pace against the standing pool of water, in the bathroom.  Mom lost all memory.  Her dignity did not belong to her.  It mattered to the living though — to those who were living, trying, still — so, Nola owed someone that.