Tag Archives: Russia

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.)

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.)

Dense

For as long as I could remember, my sister was always afraid of water.  She was eight years older than me; and as we both grew up, her inability caused me confusion, delight and pride at my own skillfulness — exactly in that order.

“That’s ‘cause you were born a total daddy’s girl!” Marinka teased me.  She was jealous.  Obviously.

It had become somewhat of a tradition between the two us to huddle up in her bunk bed at night (until she’d left for college, Marinka would always have the top); and for hours at a time, we flipped through the albums of black-and-white family photos, while Marinka told me the stories that predated me.  The stiff pages of teal cardboard smelled like the chemicals from the darkroom.  Lying on my stomach, I studied the contours traced by Marinka’s fingers, until my elbows became sore.

In the year of Marinka’s birth — 1967 — the Soviet Union was peaking towards its highest glory.  My sister was lucky to be born with a promising future of the citizen of the “Best Country in the World”.  But in exchange for that giant favor, our dear Motherland claimed the life our father.  Well, not literally, of course:  This isn’t your typical sob story, of vague third-worldliness, in which the parents die off too young, leaving their poor children seriously messed-up for the rest of their lives.  Dad just had to work a lot, that’s all.  So, Marinka wasn’t exposed to a fatherly influence during those tender, formative years.

For weeks, for months at a time the old man would be gone from our household.  According to Marinka, it made our mother none too happy.

“Really?” I whispered while patting yet another image of my mother holding her firstborn in a professionally done family portrait, while father was, well, not there.

At that point Marinka would realize she’d gone too far — after all, I was only six years old — and clumsily, she changed the subject:  “Ugh!  Stop groping my photos so hard!  You’re gonna leave a mark!”  I sat up into an imitation of her cross-legged position.  The secret was to wait for Marinka’s temper flares to fizzle out.

Soon, the story continued.

In response to his woman’s nonsense, father would smile discretely; and mother would have no choice but take his word for it.  No, wait.  Considering the man never spoke much, it was his silence that she had to trust.  And if dad were a cheating, lying scumbag, like the likes of his coworker Uncle Pavel — a handsome, salt ‘n’ pepper haired player with a mustache of a Cossack — he could’ve gotten away with it.  I mean, the man was gone all the time.  No matter the town or the city in which the family settled (for half a decade at the most), soon enough dad would go off to the same place called “the Polygon”.

Now, that’s exactly the part that Marinka could never clarify for me:  While I patted the images of our uniformed father — gingerly this time — she couldn’t explain if he was going to the same place, or if our glorious Motherland had these Polygons up the wahzoo.

“Did mama cry?” I detoured back to gossip.

Marinka considered.  “Nah.  If she did, I never saw it!”  Out came the photo of mother surrounded by her colleagues, laughing at the camera.

What else was the woman to do?  After about a week of her spousal absence, mother would begin going over to her girlfriends for dinner nearly every night.  Sometimes, Marinka came along.  But on Saturdays, all the women dressed up and went to a discoteca, leaving my poor sister to her own devices.

“Oy, no!” I tried my luck at flattery.  “But who’d change your diapers then?”  I knew my time was running out, and soon enough Marinka would get bored by my endless questions.

Sure enough, “You idiot!” sis scoffed.   “She waited until I grew out of them before she started going out!”  For a moment, we both studied mother’s graduation portrait in which she, a Komsomol member, looked like that one actress from Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears.  “You’re so dense sometimes, Irka, I swear!”

Before my sis would succeed in chasing me out of her bunk bed though, I managed to give a decent comeback:

“Ooh!  Look at you, using big words and stuff.  Dense does as dense sees!”

“Get out, I said!” sis flipped out.  A person of great impatience, she really did inherit mostly my mother’s prickly predisposition.  (I, of course — was my father, reincarnated.)  “And look at your feet!” Marinka squealed if she got a glimpse of my sandbox activities marked all over my soles.  “I’m so telling mom!”

I don’t know about the rest of the world and its children — who, as our Motherland promised, did NOT have as happy of childhoods as we did — but Marinka’s telltale threats were worse than, say, the warning of the nuclear attack from America.  Mom was the biggest disciplinarian around town!  Or maybe even in the whole of the Soviet Union!

Sometimes, Marinka did manage to tell on me.  But with age, I’d gained enough escape routes from the house, to never let my mother’s disciplinarian belt to graze the skin of my ass.  If worse came to worst, I climbed out of our kitchen window and hid in the giant pear tree, in the garden.  No one but armies upon armies of honey bees was ever much interested in that giant monster anyway.  In the summer, they flunked the heavy branches of sour fruit.  But for the rest of the year, that pear tree made an excellent hiding place.

Besides, from an early age, I had noticed the difference in the athletic predispositions between the women of our family.  That is to say that my mother and sister had none!  I, on the other hand, was the best son that father could ever desire!  I could run faster than any of the boys in my elementary school, and had scabs to show for it.  Playing with my sister’s girlfriends didn’t interest me in the least, unless, of course, they were jumping rope.  Then, I was like a grasshopper gone berserk inside a glass jar.  And nothing transcended me into a better sense of zen than to climb trees and to organize and reorganize my father’s tool box, over and over again.

(To Be Continued.)

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.

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.

Chernoglazaya

(Continued from May 6th, 2012.)

Having arrived to the city a few hours earlier, father walked around the bus terminal in hopes of running into Inna and her mother, en their route back home.

“Bad news from Baykalsk,” Inna overheard from where her mother had run off, to hug her handsome, uniformed husband.  The hush among the other awaiting passengers meant that mother’s emotional outburst earned her the desired audience, yet again.  Her legs below the pink-lavender skirt appeared shapely; and her heels, that lifted out of the boats of the red stilettos, as reached to kiss her man, were round and soft.

Father’s mother — an Amazonian looking woman, with arms of sinew and leathery skin earned by working in the fields of the town’s collective farm — had suffered a heart attack that morning.  Inna’s grandfather, who could never beat his wife in rising early to tend to their livestock, found her still in bed, after he had returned from the outhouse.

“Will you look at her?!” he joked, at half voice, nudging the sheeted mound under which his wife had always slept, with her head fully covered.  “I think I’m feeding this one for nothing!”

As Inna remembered, there was always a bawdy familiarity between her grandparents, something that she had never witnessed in her own parents’ interactions.  When the tall woman worked in the kitchen, sweating over steaming pots or pummeling dumpling dough with admirable punches, Inna, who liked to hide out on top of the brick stove, had often watched her grandfather come up from behind his wife and land a loud smack onto his wife’s hips.  He would then leave his hand resting there, while he nuzzled her neck and demanded to be given a taste of things.  The woman would laugh and attempt to shake her husband’s hand off her ass, his chin — off her shoulder; but even Inna could see she wasn’t trying too hard.

The display of such affection tickled the girl.  But Inna’s mother had a different reaction:

“Such peasants!” she had once muttered as the family gathered for dinner, in the garden behind the grandparents’ house.

That early evening, grandmother, having climbed onto a short ladder, was reaching for the top branches of overgrown raspberry bushes, from which she was retracting giant, fuzzy berries, still warm from that day’s sun.  Her kerchief had slid off, and the cotton housedress, of matching material, rode up the woman’s legs to reveal the white elastic bands that held up her brown knee-highs.  For the first time, Inna took notice of her grandmother’s stark white skin and her protruding veins.  It was drastically different from the supple and brown skin of her mother, who had, minutes ago, came down from tanning on the house rooftop, for most of that afternoon.

When the men entered the gate, from their day of flipping hay in the field, all the women perked up.  Mother began to giggle and trace her hand over the top of her breasts, as if to wipe away the sweat from the hours of leisure in the sun, but then leaving it there to linger.  Inna’s aunt — a tall and slim woman with brutally protruding facial bones — checked her reflection in the brass samovar, that mounted the wooden table like a tzar before his court.  A field of mismatching serving dishes — covered with lids or saucers that warded off the flies — began to accumulate around the samovar.

The men, tired but boisterous from the gulps of home-brewed, iced beer, attacked the table on which Inna’s aunt kept rearranging the assortment of zakuski.

“Get!  Get!” the aunt began shooing them away, slapping their tan, hairy arms with a kitchen towel.  The men, grumbled and laughed; but managed to lift up the saucers and stick their dirty fingers into their contents, smacking their lips in approval.

Mother joined in:  “We aren’t finished yet!” she said, shooting her sister-in-law a conspiring look.  In loud laughter, she revealed her shiny front crowns, that glistened like plastic pearls, against her increasingly tan face.  “Go wash up!”

Having grabbed a handful of scallions and ducked them into a nearby cup of salt, Inna’s grandfather was the first to scurry off.

“Papa!” Inna’s mother scolded him, flirtatiously.

The old man paid her no attention.  Instead, he approached his wife, who remained unperturbed by the presence of men and the commotion they have caused among the younger women.  With each reach, her housedress continued riding above and below the white elastic bands at her knees; and she continued sizing up each berry with a concentration of a scientist.  Grandpa watched at first, the stems of scallions still sticking out of his mouth, moving in unison, as he chewed them.  When the plan of action appeared to have finally formulated in his head, he discarded the last of the stems with a theatrical gesture, ran up on his wife, and stuck his head underneath her dress.

“Oy, Vanya!  Vanyetcka!” — grandmother couldn’t help but laugh — “Vanyush, oy!”  She slapped her husband’s balding head hidden under her dress but managed to mostly miss her target.  The old man lifted her off the ladder; and despite the flurry of her disoriented slaps and girly punches, delivered her to the dinner table.

The young couples looked on.  Inna’s father, sitting on the bench, stole occasional glances while he gnawed on rectangular slices of salt-curried fatback.  The boyfriend of Inna’s aunt now busied himself with loosening, rolling and lighting up some tobacco.  Meanwhile, Inna, surprised by her grandfather’s strength, grinned while making a go of stealing handfuls of warm raspberries that spilled from her grandmother’s basket, onto the table top.

Mother — alas! — interrupted the silence:  “In-na?” she said in her suddenly uptight, authoritarian voice, the sound of which made Inna’s stomach tighten.  “What do we do with our hands before dinner?”

Every adult at the table seemed to look over.  Inna looked for her father; but finding him preoccupied with fishing out semi-pickled cucumbers from a barrel in the shadow patch in the garden’s corner, she had no choice but to admit defeat.  She earned a light yank by the scruff of the tattered sailor’s undershirt that used to belong to her grandfather, which she had made a habit of wearing; and was sent to wash up, upstairs.

“How many times must I repeat myself?” mother hissed.

Only when both mother and daughter reached the dirt room of the house that Inna was made privy to the cause of her mother’s sudden irritation:  “Such peasants, these people!” she muttered.  Her face appeared to harden, all the sun-induced laziness of her movements gone instantaneously.

 

“Ah, dear god!” mother was now saying with an admirable annunciation for someone crying her eyes out.  With her face pressed against her husband’s decorated lapel, mother reminded Inna, yet again, that she was quite a small woman.  “At least, she died in her sleep,” mother said with a quivering voice, reaching for her husband’s ear on her tippy toes.  “At least, she didn’t suffer.”  She paused, to then crescendo to a sob, followed by:  “My god, I loved her so much!”

Inna’s father appeared to be at a loss.  He stared at the tips of his shoes and shifted from one foot to another.  He soon looked up to find Inna who fumbled with the now filthy bit of dough between her fingers.  Her eyes, welled-up with giant tears, were on him all this time.

Father winked:  “What’s happening, my brown-eyed girl?” he said.

On that, mother wiped her own face with the giant polkadot bow at her left shoulder and shot Inna a look.  It was enough for Inna’s eyes to release their tears.  She began to blink rapidly, focusing only on the sensation in her finger tips.  Through the blur, she saw her father motion her over; to which Inna gratefully surrendered, fitting herself another his free arm and letting her tears soak the side of his jacket, near the pocket with a bundle of keys.

“Everything will be alright, my little larks,” she heard her father say.  “I promise:  Everything will be alright.”

(To Be Continued.)

When She Was Good

(Continued from April 29th, 2012.)

And the lavashes were indeed worth the wait!  Still warm and covered in flour, against Inna’s skin, they felt like those smooth boulders from the beaches of Odessa, upon which she, as a child-delegate to the biggest Soviet Pioneer Camp — the Artek — used to fall asleep.  After being pummeled by the waves of the Black Sea, she would crawl out and rest atop of them, out of breath and tired out by all that laughter and by the salty water that tickled, stung and got inside her nose, eyes and mouth.  The sun, permanently in high zenith, as it seemed, shone onto her like an anomaly unseen in the moody climates of Russia to which the family continued to relocate for her father’s job.  And only the fear of being left behind by her Artek teammates would keep Inna awake.

Eventually, she managed to talk her parents into signing her out for the whole afternoon at a time and taking her to the beach with them.  It was their month-long summer vacation, for which the family had been saving up for nearly half a year; and it appeared to be one the more exceptional times in her parents’ marriage, when mother was jolly at every visit.  She sported a brand new haircut a la Mireille Mathieu and a collection of summer dresses Inna had never seen her wear before.  On their downhill walk from the Artek campus to the beach, mother, who trotted ahead, let the wind take a hold of her skirt and reveal the back of her highs, all the way up to that part where during the winter, on their outings to banya, Inna would notice long and curly black hairs, coarser than anywhere else along mother’s body.  If ever the wind did scandalous tricks with mother’s dress, Inna looked up to notice her father’s grin, thrilled and shy; and if he appeared embarrassed at all, it was at being caught glancing at his wife with this much pleasure.  Inna felt delighted:  She knew she was witnessing something secret about her parents; something she could not yet understand, but knew it had to be a very good sign.

By the time Inna would wake up on the beach, however, suddenly chilly from the cold breeze of the sunset yet still finding some warmth on the boulder’s surface, she would find her father nearby, in his swimming shorts and asleep underneath a newspaper.  Only a trace of her mother’s body could be found in the flattened patch of beach sand next to him.  To console the 10-year old Inna about such a stealthy departure took more than her father’s patient explanation about mother’s obligations to visit friends in Odessa:  It took three cones of chocolate ice-cream.

The warm flatbreads that brought on the memories of that summer now stretched between Inna’s fingers and teeth.  Inside each bite, she tasted the chewy texture that, if combined with a warm glass of milk, could make a soul howl for the ways of her motherland!  The two women would take turns pinching the edges of the breads that stuck out of her mother’s sizable purse, while they made their way to the bus stop; then again while waiting for the bus.  Inna’s mother would eat only until a parent of one of her students — current or former — showed up on the platform.  She would become all business then, shaking the crumbs off her clothes and asking for Inna to remove any residue of the flour from her face or decolletage.  She then left Inna to her own devices, to harbor the hopes that perhaps once aboard the bus, mother would drop all this formality again and return to the repeated game of discussing just how good this batch of purchased lavashes turned out to be:

“Best ever!”

“Better than that one time, remember?”

“Yes, yes.  But remember that other time, when they were a little burnt along the edges?  So crunchy!”

This time would be no different.  While mother chatted up the father of her leading Math student, Inna stole pinches of the warm, stretchy dough from the purse.  Out of the dough, she began to sculpt geometric shapes whose names they’ve learned in the last academic quarter.  Turned out:  a cube was a more cooperative structure.  Each of its ribs could be measured by the tips of Inna’s index fingers and thumbs.  Interestingly, no matter the change of a tactic, the surfaces a pyramid defied precision and demanded more focus.

“Hypotenuse is a rat,” Inna recited a rhyme they’d learned in order to remember the function of this foreign name and concept.  “And it runs from an angle to an angle…”

In the midst of conforming a perfect sphere into an ovoid, Inna noticed a figure of a man nearing their platform.  He was coming from the furthest removed corner of the bus stop.  Dressed in military uniform, he carried a small travel bag of brown leather.  In all of his movements, the man possessed a certain manner of discipline and economy.  Everything about him said:  order, cleanliness, grace.

“Papka,” Inna uttered to herself — a habit for which she was lucky to not have yet earned the reputation of being strange.

At her school she was mostly thought of as quiet; and being the smallest child in her class, was also considered the weakling of the group.  However, she could never own up to the consequences of her character alone:  So vapid and wide-spread was the reputation of her mother, she felt she would walk in her mother’s shadow until she herself, once grown, would move to a big city and become a famous Soviet ballerina.  Or the first female astronaut to land on the moon.  Then, they would all realize just how special she was, all along!

“Mom,” she tugged the scratchy material of the pink-lavender skirt.  (How ever did this woman manage to survive in a wool skirt, in the balmy, mid-August air? Suffering certainly had to be a part of mother’s love of fashion.)

Mother, in the throws of laughter at something her Math student’s father had said, ignored Inna’s hand.  “Mama!” Inna tugged again, rougher.

With a single look darted over her shoulder, mother caught Inna’s wrist with feline precision, suddenly forgetting about protecting her fresh nail polish from an accidental scratch.  Her eyes shimmered with aroused temper:

“What.  Have I taught you.  About interrupting when adults are talking?” she slowly pushed the words through the tightly closed crowns of her front teeth.

Inna felt her stomach tighten, as it always did whenever she found herself in trouble.  The Math student’s father was witnessing it all.

Inna lowered her eyes then lifted them again with pleading courage, “But mama…  It’s papa.”  And before tears deformed her mouth and speech, she made a vague gesture in the direction of the Army officer, who by now — having noticed the two women himself — was making a determined, yet balletic stride across the platform.

(To Be Continued.)

When I Was Just a Little Girl.

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.

(To Be Continued.)