Tag Archives: Soviet Union

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.)

The Way to a Man’s Heart

(Continued from August 12th, 2012.)

Be it from a life-long deprivation of male attention or grandma Tanya’s diagnosis of Galina’s “messed-up nerves”, cuz’s hormones went berserk as soon as she dropped out of school after the sixth grade.  In all fairness, there was not much use to furthering her education, Galina’s parents presumed:  After the accident, she wasn’t bound for big things any longer.  And the Russian inbred understanding that one was born into one’s circumstances — and no amount of prayer, chance or hard work would transcend a citizen into a higher, more fortunate caste — spiraled Galina’s life into one of a peasant.  She would be following her parents’ path, and in that, no comrade could find much tragedy.

“But I’m going to marry!” she announced one Sunday morning, on the steps of a neighboring town’s church.  The other girls-in-waiting surrounded and teased her for the name of her future husband.  (Competition makes women one mean lot, especially when they are those middle-ground, okay-looking ones that hold onto their men with their teeth and fear.)  But Galina remained secretive, as if she were the best of Soviet spies.

“You don’t have no fiance yet!” the young women challenged.  I mean:  Had she fallen off the rocker?!  Who did she think she was?!  Engagements took months to set up.  Dozens of chaperone shifts were arranged by the elders.  Sunday’s best, collected by the girl’s parents throughout her life, were dug out of the familial traveling trunks, washed and ironed, and put to use.  And the honing of womanly duties — by the river bank where other housewives rinsed their laundry and in the kitchen; by the married women’s lectures on the suddenly poignant topics of personal hygiene and the horrors of their wedding nights — these things demanded serious commitment and courage on a girl’s part!

“It takes a lot of work to lure a man!” the girls-in-waiting lectured the crippled simpleton.  There was no way she presented much competition!  And they supposed they would’ve just let her dream on, had she not perturbed them with such a silly idea, in the first place.

And they did have a point:  No one had ever seen Galina starch her petticoats or outline her eyes with sharpened charcoal sold at the department store, to which one had to ride a bus for two and a half kilometers.  In the later part of summer, Galina had yet to travel to other women’s homes to help them pickle cabbage or to cure pork belly in salt baths whenever a local family decided to lessen its livestock count.  And neither was she known to possess any skill mending socks or warding off a bad eye.  She wasn’t in the know on how to start up a stove or a banya, for a man.  She couldn’t brew home-made liquor or even a jar kvas.  Such skills were expected of any bride, especially from one that could’t bewitch a man based on her looks alone.

“So what?!” Galina obnoxiously defended herself.  She was an innocent, but any challenge against her word of truth — and she could throw a fit which even the devil would overhear.  “My dad’s already traveled to three dinners two towns over!” she continued bragging.  “He says even the chairman of the collective farm over there could be interested.  (He’s got a handsome son, didn’t you know?)”

How much truth there was to Galina’s aspirations — no one knew for certain.  But Galina’s father — an alcoholic who freelanced around town to clean people’s outhouses, or to build new ones — was not to be taken lightly, at least by the townsmen; for quite a sizable physique did uncle Pavel have on him!  The man was a giant, barely fitting into doorways; and he was gossiped to have never shared a bed with his wife because there just wasn’t enough room for two.  Pavel was known to sleep in the cow stable; and that is exactly where, according to the gossip, Galina had to have been conceived.

Every night, Pavel raised hell with vodka on his breath.  Galina’s mother Masha had begun to lock him out of the house; and at dawn, she searched the village’s ditches and liquor store alleys and dragged her alcoholic giant home (where she would deposit him into the cow stable yet again).

So, even though Galina’s self-proclaimed bridal status appeared absurd to most, one had to consider the fear Pavel imposed on young grooms-in-the-making.  And there were other factors to consider, as well:

“She does collect a sizeable pension,” the townswomen speculated after the news of Galina’s betrothal began to spread.  “Not a bad deal for a dowry!”

Others approached the subject with medical facts:  “Lord knows, so deprived her womanly parts have been, for all these year!  I bet she’s not too difficult to bed.”

The women giggled.  The subject of sex was not a frequent one in the idealistic minds of Soviet citizens.  Like anywhere else in the world, men wanted it; but it was entirely a responsibility of the women to a. to put out or to hold out, and b. protect themselves in the process.  But even with one’s gynecologist, it was inappropriate to comfortably, openly discuss such matters.  So, to be born pretty was a questionable blessing, for a Russian girl.  But to be born smart — to know how to negotiate her worth before the broken hymen, to smoothly transition herself from under the care of her father to that of her husband — that, in the eyes of women and their mothers, was a much more important entity.  (So, that part about sex being enjoyable — in some women’s lives, they never knew of it.  Enjoyment was left to the other types of women:  the loose ones, the ones that every town had and loved to judge; and in the cities, they were the second “wives” that some husbands kept on the side, on weeknights.)

(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.)

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.

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!”

If it snowed on New Year’s, it would have to mean good luck.  That’s what the old folks said.  Or, so my motha told me.

To me, it would just mean magic:  That no matter how dry the winter promised to be, we could wake up to an already sleepy town, with mellow women and hungover men; and we would move ever so slowly — ever so gently, for a change — through a brand new sheet of snow.  It would mean a clean slate.  A promise of a new beginning.  A hidden prayer — for a better year.

The only citizens of the town still giddy from the night before would be the children.  For us, the first of every year meant gifts under the sparkling pine trees in the living-room.  And it meant truce, for all of us:  for the tired adults, tortured by survival; for unhappily married parents; for the intrusive force of poverty, uncertainly and chaos. Truce, on just that one day.  Truce.

The preparations for the celebration at midnight would be in full swing, in almost every household.  Motha would prepare for it, weeks before.  She’d start with a new haircut, and possibly new color on her nails.  Regardless the tight budget affected daily by inflation, she’d manage to whip out a new outfit for herself.

The hunt for foods would begin several weeks before the holiday.  Things would be preserved.  Money — borrowed, portioned out.  And just a couple days before the actual Eve, the cooking would begin.

School, of course, would be out for me; and I was expected to help out in the kitchen for that week.  Nothing crucially important though:  Peeling of potatoes or scaling of pickled fish.  I would boil eggs and root vegetables for the layered Russian salads.  I’d roast parts of chicken or grind the meat for the stuffing of cabbage parcels.  I would battle with pots of rice that took forever to get soft, and then would burn immediately.

Some days, I would be trapped inside while watching pots of stews or motha’s reinvented borscht.  And as I tended to the burners, I studied the darkening sky for any promises of snow.  Because, despite the obvious presence of poverty and chaos in our lives, snow on the Eve would still mean magic — if not some better luck.

On the last day of preparations, motha would be chaotic.  All day long, she would run out in her leather, high-heeled boots:  to get her hair done, to pick-up a missing spice from a girlfriend across town; to drop off a gift to a high rank bureaucrat at the City Hall.  But mostly, she’d keep picking-up “deficits”, all over town:  produce, not necessarily delicacies, that we normally would not indulge in, any other time during the year.

Victorious, she would return:

“Hey, little one!  Look at this here!” she’d holler me out of my bedroom.

Just by the sound of her voice, I knew she was in a good mood.  I would emerge, with Tolstoy under my armpit, and find her beautiful flushed face in the hallway.  She’d have her make-up done, and for New Year’s, it would always entail sparkles.  The smell of crispy frost would intertwine with her perfume.

“So beautiful!” I’d think, and with my father’s eyes I’d understand the power of that woman’s witchcraft.

And then, I’d see the fox fur collar of her coat glistening with tiny drops of moisture.

“Is it snowing yet?” I’d say while motha, still in boots, would begin passing to me the tiniest jars of caviar or cans of smoked anchovies.

“I think it’s about to,” motha would respond, flirting.  (So beautiful!)

And for the first time in weeks, she’d suddenly remember that I was still a child.  And children only need magic, for survival.  Not wads of cash, or cans of “deficit”.  Not banners of protesting citizens against the old demagogues or the faces of the newest heros.  We do not need untimely compassion toward the vices of our parents.  We wish to know no gossip and no strife.

Just truce, if only on one day for every year.  Just the simple magic — of truce.

Motha would retreat into the kitchen and immediately start banging metals.  I’d brace myself for more work.

“Hey, little one!” she’d holler.

Here we go!

“You should check out that snow, outside!”

I would run out, in an unbuttoned coat.  On every flight of stairs, new smells would smack my nose from every household.  To call upon my friends would be useless on that last day of the year.  Like me, my girlfriends grew up way too quickly and would be cooking in the kitchen until the arrival of their guests.  But in magic, I rarely needed company.

I wouldn’t even go very far:  Just to the lawn in front of our apartment building.  I’d watch the waltz of snowflakes against the darkening sky.  They would catch the light of egg yolk foam colored street lights and descend onto my mittens of rabbit fur.  There would be not enough snow on the ground to make braided patterns with me feet yet.  But just the sight of a new beginning — would be magical enough.

Before heading back home, I’d look up to our window and often see my motha’s face.

“So beautiful!” I’d think and understand the magic of truce, if only once a year.

“I Can Be Your Hero, Baby” — Nyet.

My dad — is not Superman.

I just found that out, last night, during one of our weekly phone conversation that I have been committing to Motha Russia for the last few years.  It’s the least I could do, I always thought:  to take the initiative in maintaining this long distance relationship that had affected every romantic choice in my own biography.  Because dad was the man with whom I was blindly in love, for the first two decades of my life.  So, da:  It was the least I could do.

As someone with the burden of having left her beloveds behind, with the guilt of exceeding her parents’ lifestyle — survivor’s guilt — I have been dialing an endless line-up of numbers every Sunday (by the Russian clocks):  My Prodigal Sundays.  And after a while, I’ve given up on premeditating the concepts of these phone calls:  For they never turn out to be redemptive, or even philosophical.

“Hello, what’s new?” I would ask, every time, surprising myself with how mundane I could be despite my lists of questions about my heritage, my character, my past.

“Nothing,” dad would answer, echoing the matter-of-factness of it all.

(It’s offensively insane if you think about it, really:  After more than a decade of separation, you would think beloveds could concern themselves with anything other than gas prices (for me) and bread prices (for him).  It must be why, then, I had always found fiction to be more perfectly narrated than life.)

But then on the other hand, my dad was Superman.  For years, he seemed immune to suffering.  Between the stoic nature I myself tap into sometimes, in my own character, and the military training of his lifetime career, he never vented, never sought faults; never passed a judgement on the humans he had vowed to protect.  So, I’ve had the audacity to assume he was stronger than the rest of us, capable and tough.  Because that matched the picture of the first man with whom I was blindly in love, for the first two decades of my life.

Dad always stood so tall, with his stereotypical Eastern European features juxtaposing my own (that I had inherited from the brown, stocky brand of my motha’s side).  But it was height that I insisted on remembering the most, never measuring him against other men.  There had to be other humans larger than dad’s slim stature, so well hidden underneath the boxy cut of the Soviet Army uniform.  Just by the mere fact that, for centuries, Motha Russian was famed for repeatedly spitting out giants out of her national vagina — there had to be humans taller than my dad.  But no, not from my perspective!  Not from where I stood — not from where I looked up, in my blinded worship of him, for the first two decades of my life — never growing past my own 5 feet in height (a feature I had inherited from the brown, stocky brand of my motha’s side).

And he would be the best of them all.  Always the highest ranking officer in every room, he would be granted the respect pro bono.  So, how do you stand next to a man that gets saluted before even being spoken to, giving him a complete command over the course of the words that would follow?  How do measure yourself against someone addressed by his title rather than his name?  I tell you how:  You fall in love with him, blindly, for decades getting stuck at measuring your own romantic choices against Superman.  

We could be on an errand trip to the nearest city — my Superman and I — standing in line at an ice-cream kiosk, when a stranger in civilian clothes would salute my tallest man in the world.  Beautiful women (for centuries, Motha Russia was famed for spitting those out of her national vagina as well — in galore) would blush and adjust their hair when father marched past them.  (For the rest of his life, he would never surrender that manner of stepping — as if on a chronic conquest:  A man on a mission to protect the human race.)  And even the harshest of them all — the bitterly disappointed veterans on the benches of Moscow’s parks or the fattened-up, unhappy female secretaries at my lyceum’s administration — they too would melt a little in the esteemed company of my dad, making life seem much easier to navigate than when amidst the stocky, brown brand of my mother’s side.

Oh, how I wish I could’ve dwelled in this blind worship of him, for the rest of my life.  But the romantic choices in my own biography — a biography that had happened during the period of separation from my dad, now nearly equaling in length as the first two decades — they have began to catch up with me.  And as I continue to fall out of my loves, I begin landing in truth about the very first man with whom I was once so blindly in love.

“And yes, you do mythologize your men,” a man, not as tall as my father, had told me the other day.

And da, herein lies the pattern:  Willingly, blindly, I fall in love, worshiping each new romantic choice, pro bono.  And when he doesn’t measure against my personal Superman, I fall out of it, quite disappointed but never surprised.  For no man can live up to my mythical expectations — not even the Superman that had started them, back in the first two decades of my life.

And nyet, my dad — is not Superman.  I just found that out, last night, during one of our weekly phone calls on a typical Prodigal Sunday (by the Russian clocks).

Because, “I’m just a man,” he told me, refusing to echo the matter-of-factness of it all.  “And it’s time for you — to give up on me.”

“Paging: Doctor Love to Emergency!”

“I have a 2 o’clock,” I said in the tiny waiting room in which I had never done any waiting before, even though this dental office and I were this close:  //.

No more than six meters in length, that thing was large enough to fit in just a couple of chairs, and a tall fan that was now rotating on its axis next to my thigh, like a head of a kind giant gently blowing at a field full of dandelion heads.  A white cheesecloth pouch was suspended from a pink ribbon from the top of it, with what looked like slices of dehydrated papaya inside.

“Must be for the smell,” I thought and suddenly became aware that there was indeed an inexplicable aroma in the room.  It reminded me…  What did it remind me of?  Nothing that I had encountered before, that’s for sure.

“Yes!  You do!” the receptionist greeted me with so much glee I had to quickly scan my memory for her name.  “You do have a 2 o’clock!”

She was Vietnamese, just like the two doctors and the three nurses on staff, all of whose names I did know.  But this creature — I hadn’t met her yet.  She had to be new, but all too well cast for this place.  By now, she was smiling at me, full force.  No, not smiling:  grinning.  Dr. Josephine and nurse Lisa where now standing in the back of her, grinning at me as well, as if I were here to take their office Christmas card photo.

Had I been standing in a typical American doctor’s office, I would immediately feel weirded out or somehow guilty.

“Shit!  Had I missed a payment, or something?” I would find myself tripping out.  It’s a Soviet thing still swimming in my blood, amidst the platelets, like a strange disease.  Only a few of us possess it, but I can always recognize the symptoms of it, in others:  This immediate access to one’s guilty conscience and the consequential fear of punishment.  I hate it!

But I wasn’t in a typical office.  The tiny women kept grinning at me, and once I was buzzed in, all three followed me to the dental chair, with my name on it. Well, okay:  It didn’t really bear my name, but considering this joint and I were this // close, it might as well have had.  Because again, it’s a Soviet thing, with me:  My mouth is an exhibition of horrific dental work from the old country that took me nearly a decade to correct.  Yep:  My shit’s all fucked up.  I hate it!

And now, it takes a continuous upkeep, which I had done at half a dozen of dental offices all over the country; often leaving behind lengthy records and baffled dentists.  And it always makes me think that if ever my body had to be identified by my teeth, my docs would be able to do so over the phone:

“Oh yeah!  Her shit’s all fucked up,” they would tell my mortician.

And then I bet, they’d call each other up and have a conference.

(What?  Too morbid?  Well, it’s a Soviet thing.)

By now I had climbed into the chair with my name on it and stared up at nurse Lisa — a tiny brunette with permanently smiling eyes — who was getting me hooked up with some mouthwash and a bib.  Dr. Josephine was pulling up a chair on the other side of me.

“What happened?” she said.

“Oh, you know,” I shrugged.  “I lost another crown.”

With her tiny fingers better suitable for a child’s hand, Dr. Josephine was already examining the Crown of the Hour.  I had yanked that thing out of my mouth while sitting in traffic on 3rd Street the other night, after completing an hour of my weekly weight training.  By then, it had been bugging me for a couple of weeks, coming loose and irritating my gums; and performing food storage stints under it, better suitable for the old country.  That night, feeling all mighty and pumped up on testosterone, I finally lost my patience; grabbed a metallic nail file out of my purse, and flipped that thing up and out.

“You could break your windshield that way,” Dr. Josephine said.

She’s a quick one.  They all are:  These tiny creatures that always surprise me with their gentleness and quiet footsteps, but also with their ability to mutter dry jokes while shooting me with anesthesia.  Oh, yes.  There had been plenty of spit takes committed by me in this chair, with my name on it; all quite embarrassing due to my mouth’s temporary paralyses.  But it’s okay. I am certain my tales of drooling laughter and intoxicated whimpers are quite safe around here.

Dr. Josephine began to work her magic:  testing the crown against the gap between my molars, filing it down, then testing it again.  She would do about nearly ten repetitions of that, patiently and so gently that had it not been for the dental mirror with which she moved my lips, I would never know her hands were in my mouth.  But when the crown finally snapped into it place, I swung my feet to one side and said:

“Okay, all done, good to see you, thank you very much, bye!”

She and nurse Lisa began to laugh, again in that quiet fashion of the joint, and I remembered how readily they always responded to my humor.

“Oh.  That’s why they were grinning upon my arrival,” I thought, and wiggled myself back into the chair:  They had adored me.  For years, by now.

While waiting for the cement to dry, I listened to Dr. Josephine’s recollection about her colleague’s experience with some of my fellow ex-patriots.  With my mouth full of cotton and a sour flavor I had learned to know so well, I had to put my comedic routine to rest; shut up and listen.

Back in the decade of my birth year, she had gone to a conference; and at a lecture by her mentor she heard a story of other Soviet immigrants he had worked on.  In waves, these fragile old ladies with a mouth full of crowns would arrive throughout the 70s.

“Was their shit all fucked up?” I mumbled through my teeth.  I couldn’t help it.

“No,” Dr. Josephine said chuckling simultaneously with nurse Lisa who by now reached over to my chin and wiped off some drool.  (Lovely!)  “Perfect mouths.  But what he would find under those crowns…” she lingered.

Yep.  Some fucked up shit, eh?

“Diamonds,” Dr. Josephine said.

Despite her clear instruction to bite down, my jaw dropped.  Nurse Lisa’s gloved hand gently redirected it to its place.

“Yeah,” Dr. Josephine continued.  “Tiny diamonds.  I guess that was the only way to smuggle them out of the old country.”

“Done!” I muttered through my teeth again.  “We’re taking all of my shit out — NOW!”

The tiny women chuckled again — my angels, my godsends.  And it wouldn’t be the first time I would remember the adoration with which they had always treated me.  But then, I would forget it again.

Because it must be a Soviet thing:  This poor memory of someone who’s had her shit all fucked up; but who was recovering — slowly but stubbornly! — with her dry sense of humor and her unfailing kindness in tow.