Tag Archives: siblings

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.)

“Where Are You Going, My Little One, Little One?”

It was her skirt that I noticed first:  one of those floor-length gypsy numbers, with wide parallel stripes of different colors all best found on a yarn of some baby blanket, or in a pack of dyes for Easter eggs.  The skirt looked vintage and slightly tattered at the bottom where it touched the ground.  It may have been a tidbit too long for her, but she strutted in it well.

She wore a simple gray turtleneck on top and from a few times I saw the toes of her Uggs peak out from underneath the skirt, they too — were bluish-gray.  The tossed waves of her strawberry blond hair ran down the back of that sweater.  I wondered if she had freckles, like girls with such hair often do.  I wondered if she was prone to blush a lot; and when she slept, I bet she could disarm the world’s most ruthless villains and defeat her mother’s monsters.

I slowed down.

Her three brothers were walking a few steps behind her.  The oldest one could not have been older than five.  But the boys were already of that age when they understood that no matter how much younger she may have been, hers would be the last word, in the family.  To them, it was still child’s play and video games; but she already knew how to stand-in, when mom was busy.  And I imagined she had a stool that was brought out every night, into the kitchen — specifically for her; and there she stood, becoming a woman as she adoringly studied her mother’s cooking.

A couple of times she turned to look at the young boys, checking if all three were still in tow.  If one was walking too close to the road or climbing up a dirty hill, he would immediately get back into a safer place.  But she’d keep walking ahead, a few steps behind her mother — a tall, lean woman with the gypsy-girl’s hair and the strut that her daughter was trying on these days.  (These would be the privileged days still, I hoped her mother knew; the days when in her little daughter’s eyes, she was still her deity.)

Truth be told, I could never pull off the little girl’s style.  I wear skirts like that, for sure.  But to double them up with a sweater was more like what those cool hippie chicks would wear, in the vicinity of NYU.  Her hair was messy, but not from a lack of care.  I wondered if she had just began to learn the lengths and hairstyles she liked the most and wearing hair ties around her tiny wrists.  In the manner of her mother, she’d learned already how to tie her hair back with lightening speed, in moment ready for play or bedtime.

I’m not the one to walk around here much; and I would prefer to never park in these alleys late at night.  There used be a giant homeless man who lived here, sleeping always in the same spot — along the gray wall of some sound stage; and he would guard these streets.  Like everyone in Hollywood, he had his own story; and that story had to do with broken family, a quick rise to fame, then loss of everything — and after that, survival.  So many times, he’d been arrested and led away, only to reappear at his same spot a few days later. With him, standing in dark corners or sitting on the curbs, I somehow felt protected.  But now, he’s gone; with nothing but a vigil by his wall.

The girl began to let her brothers pass her.  Her mother had, by now, located the family’s silver van, and she opened the door on the passenger side, closer to the curb.  The boys took their time conquering the vehicle.

The tiny gypsy-child looked around — and then, she let out a twirl!  Just one 360-degree twirl!  It was the same move I’d seen girls do in their brand new dresses, often times around other girls or when dancing at a wedding.  And while they turn their feet in one place, they lose themselves in the fabric rising underneath their eyes.  They still see magic.  To them, the world is still extraordinary.

She finished twirling, gathered her loose locks again, and threw them over the right shoulder.  That’s when she noticed me, smiling.

She gave me an askance look:  That was twirl was meant to be between her and her imagination only!

I got embarrassed, but even as I lowered my eyes and sped up to my own car, parked on the other side of the street from the silver van, I kept her image living underneath my eyelids.

She was a girl on the verge of growing out of her childhood.  But how I prayed that some of it — would never leave completely!

“But When She Gets Weary — You Try A Little Tenderness.”

Woke up late:  A day off.  I planned it that way.

But before that, I woke up every hour, on the hour, jumping up in bed and staring at the clock with the anxiety of someone whose memory was escaping her.  And I would decipher the neon red numbers of the alarm, as if among them, I could find reminders of my missed appointments or, god forbid, any broken promises.

I swore I was forgetting something.  But then, I would remember:

A day off.   I planned it that way.

Exhale.

I would recline back into the stupor of my dreams, just to leap up again, in bed, an hour and a few dreams later, and stretch the memory for the things I was forgetting.

When I finally got up — late, on my day off — I made it over to the journal I used as a calendar (this year, I had refused to get myself a planner — a giant fuck you to my memory); and I stared at its pages for any suggestions of things I was forgetting.  The coffee drip was already spitting at intervals; and truth be told, beginning a day — had never been my problem.

I remembered that, while staring at my handwriting and inhaling the first aromas of caffeine.  The disorientation by dreams began to fade away.  In my mind, in my memory, I could see the trajectory toward my desk:  That’s where I start, every day, habitually.

Yet, I continued to stare at the pages — and at my handwriting; and I swore I was forgetting something.

I sensed my face:  I was pouting.  I don’t own big lips on me, but the lower one always insists on rolling out in my sleep, and it stays this way for the first hour of the day.

“Your grandfather always woke up like that,” my motha once told me, over a decade ago, while she could still witness my waking up, in her house.  And after I had moved out for good, into my own adulthood — however untimely, every morning motha would find me waking up in her house, she would tell me again and again:

“Your grandfather — my daddy — always woke up like that.”

And I would find it amusing, the way genetic inheritance worked.  We are talking eight decades now:  six of his and three — of my own.  He died too young and tragically.  Yet, still, he showed up on my face.  I guess, that’s one way to matter, in the chronology of the human race:  on the faces of humans that follow our deaths.  (But first, I would find it amusing that a grown woman would call her father “daddy”.)

Motha and I had both been the only children in our families.  Her situation was a bit more tragic than mine:  She had a younger brother.  He died, and in the worst of ways:  too young and tragically; without any witnesses — or even a body to bury after.  No closure.  And with him — seemingly went her memory.

Motha’s memory would begin to malfunction soon after her brother’s death.  The first thing — was to block all matters related to the loss.  It was a coping thing, most certainly:  These brain synapses collapsing on themselves for the sake of further survival.  Or, how else could one carry on, past such tragedy?  How else — to persevere?

Surely, she would still remember the general story of his life, its chronology.  But the details would be blocked out forever.

“My memory escapes me,” she would answer to all my inquiries.  “I was too young.  He was too young.”

I would stop asking.

But the second thing that changed — and that equated us, after my own birth — was the lack of opportunities to rerun mutual memories with her now missing sibling.  No longer could she turn to him and say:

“Remember that one time…”

Somewhere, I once heard that repetition matters to children.  That’s why they must ask the same questions over and over; or to provoke the adults to retell them the stories of their own short lives — their chronologies.  So, for those with siblings, memory becomes easier to train; because one could always turn to a brother and say:

“Remember that one time…”

I’ve never had that:  After my birth, motha decided, on my behalf, to never have another child.  Just in case anything would happen to him or her — she wasn’t sure I could survive it.  So, in her way, she was protecting me from my own possible tragic memories.

But any time she would find me waking up in her house, stumbling out into her kitchen for the first aromas of caffeine, she would study my face and say:

“My daddy always woke up like that.”

And she would wander off into a story — a story I most likely have already heard a dozen times before.  Still, I would let her retell it — and I would listen — because repetition matters to memory.  Repetition matters to children; and her brain synapses, collapsing on themselves, retracted my motha back to the little girl, with a younger sibling.  So, I would become her equal — someone she could turn to and say:

“Remember that one time…”

Agreeably, I would behold.  I would never embarrass her by interrupting the flow of her memory and say:

“You’ve already told me that!”

Or:  “I’ve heard that one before!”

And neither would I ever embarrass others if I caught them in the midst of repeating a story, for the dozenth time.  Because I could never predict the tragedy they may have had to survive, in their own chronologies, interrupted by bad memories.  (And chances are, there is always a tragedy — such is the human statistic.)

Instead, I would behold.  I would listen.  And I would try to commit their stories to memory — my memory with its own collapsed synapses, from years of tiny tragedies I myself was trying to forget.

He Ain’t Heavy: He’s My Bro!

“How’s the writing?” he asked me, yesterday, as a matter of fact.

As a matter of fact, he was so matter of fact about it, I didn’t think twice that, like to most of my friends, to him, my writing — was just a matter of fact.

As a matter of fact, I am not flocked by my comrades — other writers — all suspended in loaded pauses in between pontificating on the history of the novel or the future of the industry.  We don’t sit around a round table (yes, it must be round) in the middle of the night, playing with nostalgic shticks, like card games, cigars or tea cups with saucers — because we are just so fucking eccentric.

We don’t make fun of humanity while others zealously nod or slap their thighs in a gesture of agreeing laughter; but then, take ourself so very brutally seriously. (Seriously?!).  Many of us have gone through love affairs; several — quite tumultuous.  But we don’t arrive to coffee shops favored by Europeans while accompanied by mysterious lovers (in scarves or berets) that have inspired a poem or two — a sketch or a lovely line-up of guitar chords — making the rest of us want a piece of that creature.  We don’t share lovers, passing them around like a well-rolled joint.  And:  we don’t dis the exes.

My people and I are a lot more matter of fact, in life.  Sure, some of us are stranger than others, worthy to be gossiped about.  And yes, we tend to be adventurous, always up for playing, always on the lookout for a good story.  Many travel, quite often treating LA-LA as a rest stop, even though we all live around here.  Quite a few are in the midst of an art project that will change their lives upon fruition.  But we don’t spend our daily lives in some sort of artistic isolation or exhibitionist suffering; slamming down phones and doors if ever we are interrupted.  We don’t keep lists of our losses and griefs against humanity — or against our mothers — posted up on the wall, framed.

My people and I:  We live, as a matter of fact.

And especially, when it comes to my brothers:  They are the simpler of my clan.  Rarely do I double-guess their intentions.  Never do I wonder about their moods and the words with which they choose to communicate them.  Never do I decipher their facial ticks, eventually finding myself in despair, impatience, followed by frustrated judgment.  And it’s always quite clear with them that even though they don’t obsessively seek my company; when in my company, nothing seems to thrill them more.  (Now, I’ve heard about those moody mothafuckers that torture my girlfriends with their mixed signals and facial ticks in dire need of deciphering.  But no such mothafucker — is a brother of mine!)

So, when my baby-brother asked me about writing yesterday, I gave him an answer specific enough to be respectful of him and of the time that had lapsed since last we saw each other; and respectful enough to not sound flippant about my work.  (Because my work — I take seriously, not my self.  Seriously.)  But then, a discussion of our lives, happening as a matter of fact, continued, letting my work be — just a matter of fact.

Later, however, I found myself picking apart the category of men that become my brothers.  I am normally quite hard on their gender, especially toward the ones that end up as my lovers.  But with my brothers, I never feel the urge to break their balls or to demand explanations; constantly digging for more honesty (but not realizing that no love can handle that much truth).  As a matter of fact, everything is quite clear with my brothers and I, and I am never tempted to ask for more clarity.  So: I let their mysteries be.

This one — a beautiful child — used to be a colleague of mine.  Both of us had worked at a joint that was meant to pay for our dreams while costing them the least amount of compromise.  And I would be full of shit if I claimed I was never titillated by his loveliness, measuring it against my body in his tall embraces or against my chest as I would rub his head full of gorgeous Mediterranean hair.  I would watch him with others — with other women — and notice the goodness of him.  He was respected, always:  the type of a man worthy of man crushes from his brothers and dreamy sighs from every girl in the room.  His charm would come easily.  Never strained, it seemed to cost him nothing. And it’s because that charm came from his goodness — it never reeked of manipulation or his desperate need to be liked.

Here, as a matter of fact, I would be lying if I didn’t think at one point or another about all of my brothers as potential lovers.  But somewhere along the way of building the history of intimacy, something would tilt the scale:  and we would make a choice to leave our love untamed by so much honesty — it wouldn’t survive the truth.

That something — would take a bit effort to define yesterday, after my rendezvous with my baby-brother expired and we parted, as a matter of fact, never fishing for assurances that we would see each other again soon (because we would).  And it would all come down to:  Goodness.

Even if not with me, my brothers — are committed to their goodness.  Because of their commitment, that goodness happens with ease — as a matter of fact — and it earns them good lives and worthy loves.  It earns them — my love, as a matter of fact.