Tag Archives: womanhood

Offbeat

 (Continued from August 5th, 2012.)

For several generations, Galina was the boogeywoman of the town!  Myths about her bodily disfigurements had been roaming the village for decades.  One couldn’t find a single bench or kitchen sink in the place by which the poor cripple was not discussed (“rinsing the bones,” the Russian women called it).

Young misbehaving children were threatened into obedience by the mere mention of Galina’s arrival at nighttime; and all the homely girls summoned their gratitude for not having it in the worst of ways, whenever cousin’s name was mentioned at the summer dances in the open air.  (Bound to a cane from a young age, Galina wasn’t a visitor of such events.  But her name, turned synonymous with her life’s tragedy, was there — along with her bones — “to be rinsed”.)

In the days of summer, murders of children hid behind the fence of Galina’s garden every morning, to get a peek of her washing routine by the outside basin:

“Is it true she doesn’t have any hair underneath that scarf?” the rascals challenged each other.

“I hear her feet are just charred stumps.  I dare you to look!”

They would come from the cities, along with their cultured parents, to visit their grandfolks for the summer; and in a way that most fairytales originated from Russia’s countrysides, thusly did Galina become an unbelievable rarity unseen elsewhere.  A freak.

But when the cuz walked through the dusty roads or windy paths along the green hills, the other townspeople let her be.  When she scratched at the snowed-in gates, every household welcomed her in.  Because isn’t it a quality innately human to, even if secretly, be drawn to the tales of others’ accidents with fortune?  Galina always arrived bearing the news of the worst; and no matter one’s altruistic intentions, the relief of knowing presented itself in the darkest corners of one’s conscience:  “At least, bad luck wasn’t happening — to me!”  And into most companies of the village gabbers and gossipers, Galina was admitted, too.  Like a debilitating snowstorm that strikes a town with chaos but also an eventual promise of a good harvest, the old cripple was accepted with a certain surrender, with which most Russians honed their spirits.  For no easy habit it was to live through Russia’s troubles!  One often chose to float along and to not fight back one’s destiny.

It was in the summer of my twelfth year that I became particularly interested in the history of Galina’s womanhood.  Truth be told, I sympathized with the cuz, watching her eat with her fingers at my grandparents’ dinner table because most utensil were too cumbersome for her misshapen mouth.  Earlier that school year, most of my girl classmates had gotten their periods, and they began to skip morning gym classes.  Instead, they sat them out on benches, with mysteriously bashful expressions on their faces; and no one — not even the Afghan veteran Timofeitch, who’d been teaching us for the past two years — could say a word to them.  I, in the mean time, was still bound to my flat-chested, thinner-then-a-broom physique, with no growing pains in my breasts to prevent me from relay competitions.

“Oh, but at least you have very pretty eyes!” mother offered me her lame consolation, when after our fifth grade dance I came home in tears.  Despite the Korean-made dress of hideous neon-green, in which mother had decked me out that afternoon, I spent the entire gathering leaning against the wall; and watching Alyoshka — the dreamiest creature in my class — take turns dancing with any girl who had boobs.

What was it like to be pretty, I was dying to know; and when would my turn finally come?  Mother claimed it was a curse even more brutal than being unmemorable, as other boys, I was certain, found me to be.  “Beauty comes with a responsibility,” the woman claimed, lowering her gorgeous Georgian eyes underneath the bushy eyebrow.  “Oh, Lord help us all, poor women folk:  The responsibility!”

Surely, cousin Galina had lived through my suffering!  She must’ve understood it!  But the very idea of having a heart-to-heart with the complaining relative sent me into a state of anxious shyness.  I suspected she would avoid the topic altogether, and instead try to pond off information about the terrible luck in store for some other unfortunate adult.  And just like the smells of her flesh, I found her gossip oppressive.

“So, grandma?” I started up one evening, while helping grandma Irina transfer a woolen thread from a spool into a yarn ball.  The winters were unforgiving in the Urals, with snowfalls of at least a meter deep; and as the harvest season was winding down, grandma Irina busied herself with supplying her entire family — from the distant relatives in Siberia and to her best friend in the Ukraine — with woolen sock.  The tips of the spool rotated against my fingertips, leaving them slightly raw with early blisters.  So, I’d switch them out periodically:  The pain was nothing in comparison to my desire to dig up some information on the cuz.

“How come babushka Galina had never been married?”

Grandma Irina knitted her brow but didn’t stop masterfully looping the thread around the yarn ball.  Her fingers moved quickly.  The yarn looked like a blurry trail.  “She isn’t your babushka,” she corrected me.  “Now hold the spool evenly!  Level out the left side!”

It was obvious:  The topic, alas, would have come to a halt — if grandpa Sergei hadn’t stepped in.

“Oh, but as the Lord himself had witnessed:  She promised herself to so many men, none wanted her after they were done!”

“Seryozha!”  Grandma scolded, shooting me a look of pure horror.  “The child’s too young to know such things!”

But grandpop was already on a roll:  “Oh yes!  In her time, Galina was the biggest floozy this town has ever seen!”  He smirked:  The Sunday banya with his drinking comrades had loosened up his demeanor and tongue.   “Not a single skirt has been able to live up to cuz’s reputation since!”

(To Be Continued.)

Aged

(Continued from July 15th, 2012.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Perhaps, Larisa is just not into it.”

“All books — no boys.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she — was already gone.

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

Suspended Saints

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

(To Be Continued.)

The Other Half

(Continued from July 1st, 2012.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Be careful, Irotchka!”

“Sasha!  Don’t manhandle your sister!”

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

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

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

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

She stopped.  “Mama?  She’s fine!”

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

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

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

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

Making It Out

 (Continued from June 24th, 2012.)

After I got my first period — less than a month before my twelfth birthday — is right around when the two women began including me in their gabbing sessions, in the kitchen.

At first, I joined reluctantly:  I would much rather “waste my life away”, as mother dramatically accused me of, with a novel. But face it!  When the two of them returned from their separate errands, both beautiful and smelling of the same perfume — the flirtation of all the men still echoing in their voices — I would be a major “dura” to resist the temptation of their company.

And the stories, the day’s gossip — the life force pumping through the street of our town — seemed more titillating than my mother’s romance novels (through which I, when home alone, would rummage and then re-hide them in the cupboards of her bedside stand).  Now: Our neighborhood wasn’t really happening.  Someone would die, occasionally, after drinking too much.  Someone else got married, before an accidental pregnancy showed.  Both the town’s funerals and its weddings could be attended by anyone.  For Russians, it’s bad fucking karma to turn guests away!  So, as processions crawled through the main roads (not many Russians owned cars, not in those days!), neighbors joined in; because at the end of either line, they’d find free food.  And what’s more important:  Vodka!

Breathlessly, I listened to the women’s stories, never putting my two kopeks in.  Assigned the most menial jobs in the kitchen, like peeling of potatoes or sorting out grains of rice, I kept my head down and worked my ears overtime. At times, the exchange of information was packed with details so intense and so confusing, it hurt my brain to follow.  Still, I tried to comprehend in silence because asking either my sis or mother to repeat — was borderline suicidal.

“Now, mamotchka!”  (Marinka was already notorious for kissing up.  She’d learned how to work our mother’s ego.)  “Have you heard about Uncle Pavel?”

“Nyet!  What?”

The way my sis was blushing now, in the opal light of fall’s sunset, solidified that she was rapidly turning into her mother’s daughter:  A stunner, simply put.  The prospects of the townswomen’s matchmaking had already begun coming up at the dinner table; and every time, Marinka turned red and stole sheepish glances at our father.  There was no way around it:  She was easily becoming the prettiest girl in town!  Not in that wholesome and blonde Slavic beauty way, but an exotic creature, with doe eyes, long hair of black waves and skin the color of buckwheat honey.

Olga Kurylenko for Instyle Magazine

Marinka carried on.  “I got this from Ilyinitchna,” she gulped.  She’d gone to far, corrected herself:  “Anna Ilyinitchna, I mean.”  (The tone of informality common for most Russian women was still a bit to early for Marinka to take on.  But she was getting there:  Whenever she joined our mother’s girlfriends for tea, she was permitted to address them with an informal “you”.)

Mother was already enticed.  “What?!  What’d you hear?” she wiped her hands on the kitchen towel and turned her entire body toward my sister.

“He and Tatiana’s daughter…”  There, Marinka took notice of me.  She looked back at our mother for a go-ahead.  The silence was thick enough to be cut with a knife.  I pretended to not have heard anything.

But mom had no patience for not knowing:  “Oy, Marina!  Don’t stretch it out, I beg of you!  What did you hear?!”

Sis ran her nails to tame the fly-aways by pushing them behind her ears.  Her hair was thick and gathered into a messy construction on the back of her head.  Ringlets of it escaped and clung to her sweaty neck.

“Well?!  WHAT!”

Whenever mother spoke, I noticed the tension Marinka’s shoulders — a habit of a child who took on a regular beatings from a parent.  In boys, one saw defiant thoughts of brewing rebellion.  But it looked different in girls.  We had to bear.  It could take decades to grow out of oppression.  Some women never made it out.  They would be transferred from the rule of their parents’ household to that of their husbands’.  Forgiveness already started seeming too far-fetched.

Marinka blushed again.  Lord, give us the courage!  “He and Tatiana’s daughter were seen having dinner together in the city.  He took her to a rest-aur-ant!”  She slowed down, for effect:  Dining at Soviet restaurants was NOT a casual happening.  “And she was dressed like the last whore of Kaliningrad.  She now wears a perm, although I’m sure it’s not her parents’ money that pay for it.”  Sis was on a roll.  “I mean you see how Tatyana dresses!  The thing she wore for her husband’s funeral!  A woman of her age should watch such things!”

It felt like something lodged inside my throat.  Was it words?  Or a hair-thin bone from a sardine sandwich from my breakfast?  Although I didn’t understand the situation completely, I knew it wasn’t something that left my brain untarnished.

Mother, by now, was smiling ear to ear.  “Hold up!  Which daughter?!  Oh, Lord!  Is it Oksanka?!”

Marinka shot another stare in my direction.  You’ll break your eyes, I thought.  Oh man, I wanted to get out of there!  Blinking rapidly to remove the layer of forming tears — the shame!  alas, the shame of it all! — I fished out the next wrinkled potato from the iron basin at my feet and hurriedly scraped it with the dull knife.

“Well, Oksanka, mamotchka!  Of course!  She’s got that job at the City Hall, remember?”

“Well,” mom shook her head.  “WELL.  That little bitch!  She knows how to get around, I’ll give her that!”

I looked at Marinka, she — at me.  Mother bluntness was a common happening but even we were surprised at her bluntness.

“The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree,” mother concluded.  Marinka chuckled, fear freezing her eyelids into an expression of panic.  The clock of her girlhood had stopped its final countdown.

(To Be Continued.)

When She Was Good

(Continued from April 29th, 2012.)

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

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

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

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

“Best ever!”

“Better than that one time, remember?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(To Be Continued.)

Uneasy Lies the Head

At first, it was the hair.  Her thick, red hair, with angelic ringlets flocking the frame of her still cherubic face began to slip out of its follicles; and she would watch it slide along the body, in the shower — young garden snakes on sleet — flock her feet, like seaweed, before spiraling down into the drain.

“You ought to be careful, child!  For hair like this, the other females will give you the bad eye!”

Her grandmother was a superstitious woman.  With her thin, brittle fingers, she braided Nola’s curls into tame hair buns or the complex, basket-like constructions on top of her head, which by the end of a day, gave her headaches and made her eyes water.

The tedious ceremonies of the old world’s superstitions slowed down Nola’s childhood to half-speed.  The pinning of safety pins to her underwear after bath, their heads facing downward and away from her heart — “grounding”; the triple twirling and the hanging of a rusty locket, with some dead priest’s hair, around her neck.  Hemp ropes with strange beads tied around her wrists and ankles.  Sometimes, when she drifted off to sleep — but not yet into her dreams — after her grandmother’s bedtime stories, she watched the shadows of the old woman move along the wall:  A giant and magnificent bird casting the whispers of good winds upon her sleeping head.  And in the mornings, when she wasn’t looking — grandmother would slip drops of blessed water into her glass of milk; then keep her hand behind her heart while Nola chugged it down.  All that — to ward off the other women.

Where had this mistrust in the female kind come from?  Nola couldn’t understand it.  And as a child, she was particularly puzzled about that feared bad eye.  Grandma had no tolerance for questions worked up by Nola’s imagination — a quality that later flared up in her own motherhood — so she came up with the answers on her own.  (It was the worst — wasn’t it? — for a child to feel annoying, then dismissed by the habits of the bored and tired grownups.  She hadn’t wanted to become like that!  And yet, she was, right in the midst of it, now.)  These had to be some evil women, Nola decided way back when; some ancient witches with an extra eye to give away.  And they lived among the good and the kind, giving the rest of the womankind a terrible reputation.

One time, walking in her grandmother’s footsteps, through the pre-sunrise layer of the summer fog only to be seen in the Far, Far East of Russia (and in the magical place of which she’d read once, called “San Francisco”), she saw a yellow raincoat.  It balanced on a pair of emaciated legs; and when they caught up with it, Nola looked back:  An old woman, with wet gray hair stuck to her caved-in temples, was staring right back at her from underneath the bright yellow hood.  She reminded Nola of one of those Mexican skeleton dolls of rich, exotic colors, dressed in human clothing that hung on them, like parachutes on manikins.  From behind the fog that clung to every moving or inanimate object, she could hardly see the color of the woman’s eyes.  They seemed to appear milky though, crowded with cataracts.  But the sinister smile that stretched the old woman’s toothless mouth into a keyhole told Nola that she could see well enough to look right through into her heart.

She felt an icy shiver:  A drop of accumulated rainwater slipped under her raincoat collar and began its slow avalanche down the back, along the spine, meeting up with other raindrops and her sudden sweat, growing, gaining weight; gaining momentum.

“Is this it?” Nola thought.  Was this the female owner of the feared bad eye?  Expecting a feeling of sickly slime, terrified yet thrilled at the same time, Nola slipped her hands into her pockets.

“Stop dragging your feet, like a tooth comb through my armpit hair!” her grandmother barked from a few steps ahead.  Nola started running.

 

In adolescence, when all the other girls acquired breasts and waistlines, Nola cultivated auburn braids; and boys began communicating their flared-up desires by yanking them hard, that she would cry.  And if ever she chased after one of such brutal Romeos, uncertain about her own manic urge, the hair whipped her back like two wet ropes.

At night, after her solitude was pretty much assured, she wrapped the clouds of her scratchy hair around her head, so she could doze off — off and away from the voices of her parents, bickering in the kitchen.  (On planes, she dreamed that she could do the same to clouds.  God bless her, soon enough!)  When her braids began reaching the crests of her hips, Nola began the practice of making dolls out of them; and she would rest each on her pillow, next to her lips, and whisper to it her speculations about the far removed and kinder places.

“Is this how you care for your wife ‘n’ child?!” her mother would be squealing in the downstairs dirt room, if dad showed up tipsy from a few chugs of dark Russian beer.

From what Nola understood in other children’s reenactments in their shared sandboxes, her father was not a hopeless drunk at all:  He never fell down in the alleys, later to be found by the female cashiers of the local delis, unlocking the back doors for early morning deliveries or briberies from those savvier Soviets who knew how to get their share of deficit produce to come that week.  Never-ever, had father been taken to the Emergency Room on a sled — pulled by his same “wife ‘n’ child”, in a middle of the Russian winter — to get his stomach pumped from alcohol poisoning.  No, Nola’s dad was just a jolly drunk, occasionally guilty of having a reason to celebrate something — anything! — in his Russian destiny:  A National Fisherman Day.  The fall of Bastille Saint Antoine.  A successful summoning of mere three meals for his family, that day.  Another Day in the Life of…

But mom went off, pulling at her own thinning hair, whenever the man showed up with that harmless — and actually endearing to Nola — goofy smile.  Whenever Nina slipped out her bed and did an army crawl to the top of the stairs, she watched her mother’s body shiver, the skin of her arms vibrate, all — from what looked like an inside job.  The woman wailed and howled, and threw herself against the hard surfaces and all the sharp corners, as if possessed by a death wish.  Mom always took everything too far, into a place of difficult ultimatums and points beyond forgiveness.  And watching her in such a state set off anxiety-ridden arrhythmia in Nola’s heart.

Her mother’s sad, all-knowing smile.  Her choir of scoffs and sighs, and terrorizing whimpers.  Her melancholic, slow head shake belonging to a cartoonish bobblehead stuck to a dashboard of a Moscow’s taxicab:  getting around but not going anywhere!  She felt an urge to run away from all of it — from here and from her — to somewhere, where people didn’t readily construct their painful sentences and woke up with faces drained of all curiosity or tenderness.  Could that be “San Francisco”?  She slept on pillows of her hair and wondered.

(To Be Continued.)

Better Safe Than Sorrier

But maybe, after all, justice was meant to sound like silence:  Not a marathon of mauled over words she had previously thought were required for forgiveness, which, in the end, left her exhausted; her throat — dehydrated.  Sarah despised feeling like that.  Shouldn’t forgiveness be a higher ground, an emotion that belonged to the Magnanimous and the Wise?  the, god bless them, Non-Mundane?  Instead, she watched herself become a woman with a sloppy face, like a washed-up actress on the screen of a decade-long soap opera; and she paced her apartment, with the cell phone sweating against her ear (surely causing her cancer later in life!); and she worked laboriously — on forgiveness:  Holding up each word in front of her torso, measuring it at the shoulder seams.  Are the sleeves too long?  Does it make her look fat?  Is there anything — left to be done?

And neither did this newly discovered sound of justice resemble the forced catharsis she chased in sessions with her shrink.  Where had she learned to expect these miraculous results?  Must’ve been on another TV show, somewhat better written for a channel on which the actors were allowed to swear; and they could cry unattractively, while spraying spit and snot.  (Later on, in interviews, these same actors would call the scenes “career defining”, while Sarah found them merely mocking humanity.  Maybe, the problem was she was easily bored.  Or, maybe, she understood too much.)

Sarah’s shrink was a poised woman who wore clothes from the manikins of Gap and Banana Republic — clothes that on Sarah always sat awkwardly and sadly, and made her apologize, for something, as she returned the silly plastic hangers to the changing-room girls:  “Sorry…”; the poised woman who appeared immune from being shocked by the atrocities Sarah’s mother had interfiled into her life, like thin jackets of DVD’s with splatter horrors,  hidden in a heart surgeon’s movie collection.

Nifty!  

The word one would never use in Sarah’s own obituary was made for the lives of women like her PsyD.  (Was the “p” silent, in that?  She’d assumed that, but was embarrassed to ask.  So, she began writing “Date with Sid” in her calendar, every Tuesday, even though the shrink’s name was Miranda.  Miranda Bloom comma Sid.)  Her Sid’s world — was nifty.  Nifty piles of magazines in a fan formation of a peacock’s tail.  Nifty little plastic plants, never wilting, lining the dust-less bookshelves with thick or thin books, always dense, whose reading made Sarah feel sleepy.  Or apologetic.  Even the clean-lined IKEA furniture — with unforgiving, hard surfaces and un-homey fabric patterns never to be found in her mother’s hysterical universe of tchotchkes — was nifty.

Sarah, unlike her Sid, could never be nifty.  She tried, coming back for another round of awkward mirror reflections in dressing rooms of Banana Republic.  But somehow, it just wouldn’t fit.  Any of it.  The store’s white lighting buzzed above and revealed Sarah’s old pockmarks from her 5th grade measles that her mother had decided to treat with holy water and sage.  Embarrassed, Sarah would place the nifty cloths over a pile of colorful and bejeweled women’s underwear while avoiding the bored and slightly inquisitive stares of the salesgirls (“Sorry…”); and she’d swear to never come back.

But she would.  After seeing another nifty woman laughing into the pinstriped bicep of a handsome man, on West End Avenue, she would attempt to shop for that life again, as if she hadn’t learned the lesson.  The same way she hadn’t learned the lesson with Doug — a tenured professor of poetry on an epic journey of trying to leave his wife.  She continued to come back to him.  Maybe this time.  They would carry on, until neither could recall whose turn it was to leave; who was doing the staying, the grasping, the scorning; and who would be in charge of forgiving.

“What do you want, ideally, from your life with Doug?” the shrink, looking particularly nifty, paced her words as Sarah thumbed the thinning threads of her sweater sleeves.  She often wore her clothes to tatters, until the freckles of rolled lint began crowding her armpits and crotch; and she would be, again, embarrassed.

“Sorry?”

She didn’t expect the question.  Between the two of them, Doug was the one with the plan.  She — was the woman with none.  She had met him at the library where she’d interned one summer, having purchased herself a Liberal Arts education that should’ve guaranteed her a teaching career, had Sarah really wanted one.  Except that she didn’t.  Hadn’t.  She hadn’t thought it through, while in college; and she landed in the library; landed with an intention to leave, eventually — like those grayish-white swans that landed in her Ukrainian birth village one autumn; but miscalculated, stayed too long and froze during the first drop of the temperatures.

She had been following her fragmented thoughts about her Sid’s sexuality, when the question got hung in the air, each word — an ornament of paper-thin glass:

“What do you__want?__Ideally.__From your life__with Doug?”

“I wonder if she dates women?” Sarah had been thinking, while thumbing her sweater, about the Sid, based on the mere fact that the woman wore primarily flat shoes.  Sarah stopped, having been caught red-handed.  Red-thumbed.

She, of course, would never say this out loud.  She — “of course!” — was much worldlier than that!  But Sarah was also an immigrant’s daughter, not born in this country.  (Which, to most, had made her worldly enough, but never exotic.  “Exotic” belonged to girls from the countries that Americans favored for tourism: the tan and taut creatures from escapist lifestyles, and from the irresponsible summer flings of middle-aged men, bored in their marriages.)  The dull shards of her mother’s old-fashioned prejudice still appeared in situations of ultra-Westernized pathos.  Like this one:  Sarah, on a very hard couch (surely earning herself cancer, later in life!); complaining, coming down hard, then taking cover from her shame in a numb silence of a spoiled brat; then, seeking refuge in a blunt stereotype with which her mother broke down the world.

No matter how hard she tried — to wring her hands, like that actress with the sloppy face — her shrink appeared unimpressed.  Some of Sarah’s college classmates had spoken of how easily they gained alliances with their Sids.  She, however, seemed incompetent at manipulation.  Sarah was smart but not that smart.  (Pretty, but not “exotic”.)  And she wondered if her shrink was now judging her for the extramarital affair with Doug.  (It was “extramarital” for Doug, not for Sarah.  Sarah was just an outside participant, far from being an outside force.  A third wheel, along for the ride, however crippled.  “The woman with none.”)

Could it be the case that her shrink was now appalled and no longer impartial?  Anything you say__or do__can__and will be__held against you?

Sarah never got the warning — from Miranda, the Sid.

Most of her teenage years, she had spend sorting out the world.  The one of her mother’s — which she was obliged to automatically respect — confused her with its invasive familiarity; and she found herself pretending to not understand the cashiers at the Ukrainian deli, who attempted to speak to her in Russian.  Somehow, they all knew her, even though their faces appeared no more familiar than the color-enhanced photographs of the folk dancers in the Times Travel Section, on Kiev.  But they knew her:  her name, her marital status (or the lack of one) and occupation.  Or, they knew her mother.  But did that at all justify their asking for her phone number so that they could fix her up “with a nice Russian boy” (which most of the time meant some young alcoholic heir of a local mechanic, who wore rhinestoned jeans and spent his inheritance on bottle services all over town)?

The new world — again, chosen by her mother who left the old country with five-year-old Sarah, in the name of a better life — that world seemed to be fast-talking and brash, filled with people who suffered from fashionable dis-eases, like “depression” and “ADD”; inflamed “sciaticas” and bored souls.  The new world seemed allergic to sentiment.  Even sex wasn’t safe here; and after her first “mature” (as her mother called it) experience, Sarah began to notice that sex came with shame.  The smarter girls (often “exotic”) used it to negotiate free deals.  Free meals.  The dependent ones confused it for love, always making, forcing something out of it.  And Sarah pitied the men who had been trained to get it, but not know what to do with it, afterward.  So, it would sit — a pulsating blur in one’s living-room, underneath the soft light, waiting for the lovers to go through with it.

“You, Amerikan vemen,” her mother would say, in her reckless English, whenever she lectured the American womanhood in her daughter.  “You dan’t know vat you vant.”

On her ride home on the A-train, Sarah had made a hobby out of watching the two cultures collide on the faces of Russian teenagers heading to Coney Island, late in the evening.  She could always pick them out of a crowd:  Their Western fashion looked slightly misfitted (far from nifty, and somehow wrong:  “Sorry…”).  And the words — “Whack!”, “Sick!”, “Fo’ sho’!” — came out unaccented phonetically, but their cadence was off.  Something was off, always, in the immigrant world; but because she couldn’t name it, perfectly, precisely, to her American contemporaries, Sarah often found herself misunderstood.  And silent.

“What’s your beef with yo’ mama, anyway, man?”  J.C. always called her “man”.  He was an artist living in Brooklyn Heights, and yes, they had tried sleeping together once.  J.C. stopped it from happening though, when Sarah’s toes got tangled up in his socks while she tried to pull them off with her feet.  (There were many ways to make sex feel pathetic.  But a naked lover in white tube-socks — was the surest.)

“I wanna respect you, man…” he said looking down at Sarah from a propped-up pillow while she paved a trail of dry kisses in between his breasts and wondered about a sexier way to get rid of a curly hair, stuck in the back of her tongue.  There was no such a way.  So, she hooked her index finger, jammed it inside her mouth and began fishing for it.

By then, J.C. was already spewing out his theories on sexual politics.  Sarah nearly gagged.  He was first generation American born, from South America (so, did that even count?).  She had assumed, at the time, that J.C. knew something she didn’t; so, she stopped.  In those moments, it would’ve been less awkward — or less sad — to be one of those outspoken, brave American girls, with wild hair, layers of hippie jewelry and bright red lipstick, who had ready ideas on sexual liberation of women and mysterious comebacks via the ironic lyrics of Dylan or Ginsberg.  Sarah was smart, but not that smart.  Not nifty.  Not “exotic”.

That night, she took the subway home, fishing for the curly hair in the back of her throat, in an empty train car.  What was the big deal, she wondered.  And why was it that men could so easily justify speaking on behalf of her conscience, her desires?

Doug had done it to her, for years:  choosing for her from the menus of fancy restaurants.  Over the years, their eateries would change, going from the dimly lit expensive places to the crowded diners with hairy waiters who emerged from the kitchen with stained pots of coffee.  Doug had been on an epic journey to leave his wife.  But maybe, Sarah just wasn’t enough of a reason.

Sorry…

Sarah leaned her forehead against the cold glass of the sliding doors and cried, quietly, finger hooking at the back of her throat.

(To Be Continued.)

“You and I Have Memories Longer Than the Road That Stretches Out Ahead.”

It’s long past midnight in Warsaw.  There is a new couple that has moved into the apartment across the street.

For the last two days, it has been sitting empty, with the curtains open and the stark white mattress in the middle of the living-room.  On the first of the new year (today), they have appeared:  He’s tall, with pepper and salt hair; she’s lovely.  And even though I cannot see the details of her face underneath her bangs, I can imagine the high cheekbones and the doll-like roundness that I’ve been seeing in the store window reflections of the last twenty years.

I watch them from my kitchen, while drinking coffee.  I am jet-lagged.

The curtains remain open and the yellow light of a single lamp is getting some assistance from the screen of their TV.  They’re eating dinner that consists of corn on the cob and one bucket of KFC (so very Eastern European, as I have come to learn).  Occasionally, they half turn their faces to each other:

“You want some tea?”

Or,

“For what time, you think, we should set the alarm clock, in the morning?”

I leave them be and wander from one room to another to check on our drying laundry.  The guidebook never promised us domestic amenities, so the discovery of a washing machine in our kitchen came as a complete surprise.  The dryer button is jammed on it though, but considering I have arrived here with my arrested expectations from post-Soviet Russia, circa 1997, I am extremely grateful for the dignified living standards with which this city has accommodated us.

Besides, the absence of a dryer — I find romantic.  I run my hands along the cloths from my and my lover’s body, earlier drenched from running through this cold city, and wonder what it would’ve been like if I were to enter my womanhood in my birth place.  Would I have known the grace of unconditional love and the finally non-tumultuous forcefulness of me?  Would I’ve grown up kind, or would the much harder life of my homeland have taken a toll on my character and aged me, prematurely?  And would I have the privilege of choices that make up my identity now, still generous and grateful for the opportunities I’ve found abroad?

Identity.  In my impression of the world, this word comes from the American ventricle of me.  But after this week’s reunion with my father, who never had the privilege to watch me make the choices that led me to the woman that I am, I am surprised to find myself resemble him so much.  Despite the separation of nearly two decades:  I am my father’s daughter.  Of course, by some self-written rules, it’s presupposed that I have traveled further in my life than father ever did in his.  I’ve been exposed to more world, and in return, it taught me to question twice all prejudices and violations of freedom.  But what a joy it’s been to find that, in my father’s eyes, life is only about truth and grace and justice; and matters of identity, for him, have no affect on any person’s freedoms.

I wander back into the kitchen, sit down into my father’s chair.  Thus far, it’s been the greatest pleasure of my life to watch him eat good food that I have made.  While eating, dad is curious and — here’s that word again — grateful:

“What’s that ingredient?”

And,

“What do you call this bread?”

And I can see him now:  slouching just a little above his meal, in this chair; shaking his head at the meal that he finds to be gourmet, while to us — it is our daily bread.  I have to look away when with childlike amusement he walks his lips along a string of melted cheese:

Here is to more such meals, my most dear love, and to the moments that define a life!  that must define MY life!

The couple in the window across the street has finished their meal.  The table is still cluttered with settings, crumbled paper napkins and a red bucket whose iconography — although recognizable — is somehow different from the red-and-white signs that pollute the American skyline.  The couple is now on the couch:  She’s sitting up and removing pillows from behind her back, then tossing them onto the wooden floor.  He is fetching two smaller ones, in white pillow cases, from the bed.  Together, they recline again and progressively tangle up into each other, like lovers who have passed the times of dire passion and landed in that even-tempered place of loving partnership.

The light of the TV is now the only one illuminating their spartan room.  From where I stand, now drinking a cup of black tea (still, jet lagged), I only see the back of his head and her hand that has ended up near his right shoulder.   Occasionally, he half turns his face toward her, then turns toward the flickering blue light again:

“Are you comfortable, my love?”

Or,

“Would you rather watch the news?”

I walk into my bedroom to fetch my computer.  The yellow light follows me from the kitchen and slowly dissipates as I approach the next doorway.  It, ever so lightly, hits the exposed leg of my sleeping lover.  I think I study him, but instead the mind gives room to memories of similar moments and visions.  And in that suspended history of us, I reach into the drawer.

“Let Me Sleep All Night in Your Soul Kitchen.”

In grandma’s house, there were no days of waking late.  They could’ve been such days, but it would take some stubborn courage to not succumb to my innate Russian guilt and to stay in bed while the rest of the household filled with busy noises.

The women would always rise first.  My grandma was the first to make it to the kitchen, and after the dry footsteps of her bare, callused feet against the wooden floor, intermixed with the thumping of her wooden cane, I’d soon smell the smoke of an oil lamp that she’d start inside a cove of a stone stove, in the corner.

That thing took up half the room:  Built of wood and red brick, the stove was the oldest characteristic of a traditional rural Russian home.  Its purpose was not only for cooking, upon a single metal plate located right above the fire pit; but for the heating of the entire house.  So, the bedroom was often located on the other side of it.  The stove was always painted with white chalk; and after a few of my un-welcomed visits of my grandma’s cot, where I would try to warm up my feet but leave markings on the wall, the men of the house took turns repainting that damn thing, upon the grouchy old woman’s instructions.

“Little gypsy children have dirty little feet,” my grandfather would joke through the side of his mouth in which he perpetually held a slowly fuming pipe.

Per old woman’s instructions, he was not allowed to smoke in the house.  So, I’d shrug my skinny shoulders knowing that I too had some info on him that could get him also in trouble, really fast.

The fire pit was covered with a rusty door on squeaky hinges.  The pots were stored onto the shelves along its wall.  But right on top of the structure, one could pile up blankets and pillows stuffed with duck feathers — and sleep.  But in my grandma’s house, no living soul was welcome to lounge around up there.  (No soul was welcome to lounge around anywhere, really; because the family’s collective labor was its own religion. Except on Sundays:  And then, there would be church.)

Two curtains, each about three meters long, were hung to hide the gap between the top of the stove and the ceiling.  So narrow was the opening, a grown man would have to climb up there from the side and remain reclining.  But I could sit up and lean against the pillar that lead up to the chimney; which I would still do whenever I would not be caught.  I’d drag up my toys, but mostly books; and spend hours at a time, frying my soles against the hot stones.  Some days, the heat would be expiring until the adults returned and started another fire.  But late at night, after the dinner had been cooked, the pots — soaked in a tub of warm, soapy water, then rinsed under the spout sticking out from the wall of the house, outside — the stove was hot.  The wooden floor of the kitchen had to be scrubbed every night; and under the strict overlooking eyes of the old woman, the young wives of her sons would find themselves on hands and knees.  These chores would make the women be the last to bathe.  They’d be the first to rise — and last to rest.

It would require a conspiracy between my motha and I for me to sneak up into the gap behind the curtains.  First, she’d push me up, then store the drying cast iron pots in a row and pile them up in such a way, they’d create a wall behind which I could hide, if only I could hold still and flat on my back.

“You must be quiet like a spy.  Shhh!” my motha’s hiss at me while winking and tucking me in.  Her smirking eyes would tickle my insides with anxiety:  at the adventure and the danger of being discovered by the old woman.

“‘Cause if she finds you,” motha’d warn me, “she’ll kick both gypsies out!”

I wasn’t sure where motha and I would have to go if my grandma followed through with that punishment.  And I was definitely confused at why my father would not follow us into our homeless adventure.  But the threat seemed real enough to keep me snickering into the pillow — from little fear but mostly the thrill.

I’d hear my motha’s hands moving the floor rag quickly and impatiently.  I’d hear the dry footsteps and the cane of the old woman spying on her, while muttering passive-aggressive instructions on how to do it better.  The men would come inside the house together and they would wash their faces and their sweaty necks above a metal sink in the corner, while the women helped by pouring water from aluminum cups.  The men would puff and spray liquids from their mouths and noses; and I would hear the women’s chuckles, as the cold splatters landed on their exposed arms and chests.

“I’ll get you after she goes to sleep,” my motha’d promise, and as the house settled down, I’d play a guessing game with others‘ noises and shadows upon the walls and ceiling.

And sometimes, I’d wake up to another day of never rising late.  Most likely, I would have drifted into slumber while waiting for my motha to come back.  Then, I would have to wait some more, upon a now cold stove, while listening to the noises of the waking household.

I couldn’t yet understand the griefs and grudges that the adults held against each other.  But from behind the closed curtains, I could watch their uncensored selves and make up stories.