Tag Archives: the old country

“Can I Take You Home — To MY House?”

It was a wide living-room, luminous with sunlight.  There were no other signs, just my own prior knowledge, but I was sure the room was located upstairs.

Or, it could have been one of those houses that sits on stilts in my grandfather’s village.  There seems to be no natural reason for such a structure:  The inland area at the foot of an ancient mountain knows no floods.  There are no rivers that run by it, and the winters tend to be brutally dry and viciously cold.  But when the snow melts, it turns the ground into mush; yet, no river banks can be feared to overflow.  The thick, purple layer of evergreens that covers the sides of the dormant mountain holds its outer layers in place, and I have never heard of mudslides or earthquakes in the entire history of the family.  If anywhere else, there, in the middle of Russia, nature is obedient and tamed.

There was always a calm flow of hours whenever I came to town.  There would be bickering between the two sides of the family, and that would be the only noise I’d hear for days:  The Russian whites on my father’s side would find the brown tint of my skin somewhat scandalous.  My brown motha’s blatant sexuality didn’t help the matters either.  The matriarchs — the mother of the family and her only daughter (a matriarch-in-training) — would always insist on accompanying me in public.

But the town would be calm, and with an exception of an occasion hushing down of the old women, flocking benches at any hour of the day, I saw no outwardly confrontations.  And even those women would express their aggression with silence and gossip, to which I wouldn’t be made privy, because it would unfold behind my brown back.  This was no place for verbal confrontations or domestic fights.  An occasional drunken brawl would be talked about for months.

And then, everything would return back — to silence!

In a wide living-room, luminous with sunlight that’s possible only in August, there was a circle of mismatching furniture:  An old couch with wooden arms and flowery pattern of its material; an armchair of dark blue velvet, worn out and soiled in its folds.  A wooden barstool was covered with a crocheted throw of fluffy, egg-foam-colored thread.  And there was a rocking chair occupied by the ghost of my grandfather — the only member of the family who was always openly thrilled by the fact that I stuck out in all their photographs.

They were all blue-eyed, tall and sinewy; and in every picture, they stood behind me like a white backdrop.  I would look at the lens from underneath my bushy eyebrows, with eyes so dark, no camera could distinguish the ending to my pupils.  And above my serious, mismatching face, I would be balancing a cloud of messy hair, which, before the flash went off, had been aimed at by one of the matriarchs’ hands and yanked into a careless ponytail.

(Looking back at these photos, you can already see that my body would belong to neither my motha’s clan — a curvatious creature of wild nature — nor to the shared lean physique of the white matriarchs.  I would be somewhere in the middle:  My adolescent frame would already exhibit some softness, but the brown legs, darkened by my chronic solitary play in dirt fields and haystacks, belonged to someone who knew how to run.)

Sylvie Guillem by Richard Avedon

In the sunlit living-room, one of those hand-woven rugs took up the middle section of the floor.  On it, I would be permitted to play, occasionally, after the matriarchs confirmed that there was no work left to be done around the house.  Still, I would hide out, until my grandfather’s return.  Like me, he would be ushered out of the kitchen by the women; and while he watched TV, I finally felt safe to bring my toys out of their hiding places and spread them out at his feet, upon one of those hand-woven rugs.

There was no eating on the floor.  No eating was permitted anywhere but the kitchen and the garden bench.  At times, the old man and I would sneak behind the house and curb our appetite with fresh cucumbers or a few unwashed tomatoes.

“It tastes better this way,” my grandfather would wink at me while polishing the giant berry on against the cloth of his knee.

But seeing a skeptical glimmer from underneath my bushy eyebrows, the old man would reaffirm:

“You get all the natural vitamins when the tomato is unwashed.  Trust me.”

The secret would be to chomp it down quickly, before the matriarchs came out to the garden to collect some scallions or a bouquet of dill for the dinner salad.  So, we would climb back up the stairs (the house sat on stilts, remember?); and reassume our positions of most safety:  His — dozing off in his rocking chair, and mine — conducting stories upon a hand-woven rug.

But in my last night’s dream, the wide living-room, luminous with August sunlight, was filled with other people.  They were loud and beautiful; and they laughed with such violent joy, I noticed the open windows of the house and the shimmering dust suddenly visible in that angle of the sun.  We would be heard, I realized; and what would happen to the silence so strictly protected by the locals — it, at times, eliminates all life?

The beautiful people kept laughing, though.  The women with golden hair intertwined their limb in ways that only women do with each other:  with an intimacy that comes with tenderness and, most importantly, a lack of angst.  The children straddled the wooden arms of the couch; climbed onto the women’s knees and crawled all over their feet.

My grandfather’s chair sat empty.  I watched it from the corner of the room, where I had wedged myself in under an armpit of a tall man with laughing eyes.  He, too, was in on the joke; and he kept shooting over loving gazes my way that seemed to say that I was the pun of it.

Is this what families are supposed to look like?  Is this the way I wanted mine — to feel?

I had so little to remember them by, that all I seemed to want to keep was the empty rocking chair and my grandfather’s ghost.  The rest was up for my rewriting.

“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.

Home, Bitter-Sweet Home

Today, I woke up to the sound of construction.  Having had the type of a day that nearly disparaged me with other people’s tests of my boundaries, being brought back to reality didn’t enthrall me much, as you can imagine.  I growled, tossed to the other side of my bed; yanked the alarm plug out of the wall (‘cause I don’t need that shit waking me up later); and on my feet that someone had to have pumped with lead while I was sleeping, I stumbled toward my bedroom window:

“Bloody F!” I shifted the blinds to examine the haps of my ‘hood.

A handful of short, brown men calling out to each other in a foreign language were repairing the roof of the little blue house next to mine.  Right underneath my top-story apartment, I could see them ripping that shit to pieces.  Unlike the men at one of those construction sites with heavy machinery and brutal metallic noises, these guys were tiny; and the sounds they emitted belonged to the old country:  a scraping of the shovel against the stripped wood, an arhythmic knocking of a hand-held hammer and the rainfall of nails hailing into a plastic bucket in the middle.  The shortest of the workers, wearing a safari hat, had been assigned the task of sweeping around with a giant broom with plastic bristles. That thing was thrice as tall!  And their leader — a gray-mustached man with an LAPD cap and a waterproof pouch with architectural drawings sticking out of it — looked out toward my building while smoking a pipe.

That fucking pipe rang a bell:  On my yesterday’s morning jog, while fumbling with the wires of my iPod, I nearly knocked him over.  He didn’t see me coming from behind, didn’t hear my mutters at the wires that would’ve annoyed me less had they belonged to a spider web into which I walked in, face first.

“Ooh…  Sorry…” I said, not really meaning it:  Who the fuck was he anyway and why wasn’t he paying attention?  I began to make my way around him.

“‘S okay, beauty,” the gray-mustached man calmly said after removing his smoking instrument from the thin lips that made him look like my father, “You can bump me anytime.”

Okay, may be NOT like my father, you naughty old player!  I laughed.  I do tend to forget that older folk still haven’t forgotten about sex, and that some of them may still be having it (yikes!).

So, it always tickles me to no end to watch these old guys flirt with me, with the swagger of their old days.  I bet they don’t sext the woman they like; and they know the etiquette of a phone call.  “Liking” a girl’s photograph on Facebook does not pass, for them, as an expression of desire.  And their stubborn commitment to getting doors and pulling out chairs; to taking over a woman’s grocery bags and never letting her whip out her money, no matter her protesting — all that throws me into a state of easy melancholy, readily available to my Russianness.

Yesterday, we left it at a laugh; but as I took off, I continued to smile and shake my head a few more times.  My jogging step suddenly got lighter.  I maneuvered my way around my neighborhood at the foot of a mountain; and considering LA-LA’s latest weather of the Bay-like blues — with its fogginess and unpredictable spurts of sunshine — it suddenly reminded me of my home:  A tiny village on a peninsula at the other end of the Pacific.  The old country.

A fresh cup of coffee would make the perfect finish to my start of the day, I decided, and detoured toward my neighborhood’s market.  Feeling the grogginess of the morning lift, giving room to the lightness of gratitude, I aimlessly walked through the fresh produce aisle.  A mount of magnificent red plums tempted me to pick-up a few and breathe them in.  I rubbed my fingers against a mint leaf and petted the shiny surfaces of eggplants; groped a few avocados.  Letting habit and the vague smell of coffee take me to my destination, I passed the fish counter.

“Hello, how are jew?” the manager said from behind his tempting, never frozen line-up of produce.

“Beauticious,” I answered and gave him my best American smile:  open and down with it.

Surprised by an alert response, the man’s brown face immediately stretched into an enthusiastic smile:  “Beauti-cious?”  I heard remnants of his Spanish accent.

“It’s like, ahem, beautiful and delicious at the same time,” I explained.  “Like those jumbo scallops of yours.”

“Oy!  Oy!” the man was already putting on his gloves.  “Would jew like to take a l’ook?”  (Definitely Spanish!)

Before I could switch from smiling to speaking (I’m still figuring out the dynamics of that whole American smiling, to tell you the truth), the old guy was already on my side of the counter, lifting its front cover.  (I didn’t even know it was built like that!)  A whiff of the sea hit my nose:  Ah, the old country.  HOME.  

The man began to gingerly pick-up the beauticious scallops and bounce them in his giant hands.

“Oy!  How ‘bout dis one?!”

“Gorgeous,” I said and rested my forearm on his shoulder.  “Beauticious!”

He chuckled:  My tender presence thrilled him. Perhaps, it reminded him of his own home:  Where men drink beer on outside patios and bluntly whistle at the lovely chicas strutting by; where time crawls and dictates the course of the day with its mood; where lunchtime can last until dinner and where every accidental drum beat can start an impromptu fiesta.

“What cha got there?”  The old guy said to me and starting staring at my breast.

I looked down:  A neon-orange sticker that used to belong to the mount of avocados, sat in the vicinity of my nipple and read:

“RIPE READY TO EAT”.

The man sized me up:  Was he about to get in trouble?  But when I thumped my forehead against his chest and lost my composure entirely, wiping away the tears that ready flooded my tired eyes, he too began to holler with his chesty laughter.

“Oy!  Oy!” he was still holding those scallops in this giant, brown hands and throwing his head back.  He would’ve touched me — it felt like he wanted to — but his American training had taught him about boundaries.

Still:  It was suddenly all so easy; so light.  Beauticious and grateful.

“Yep,” I thought:

It’s time to go home.  The old country.