26 January 2015

I love you both

There was a grimy, cold day five years ago. My boots sucking in the grey sludge slathered across the streets, I took E from school. She was four then, and had just started to speak English. I was living in a tiny apartment, sleeping on a foldout couch. Her room was an alcove that we strung some christmas lights over. She told me we lived in a castle. I was learning to see what she saw, to take joy in the simple act of waking up with her in the same place, just the two of us and the silence of morning. 

People were coming to dinner, a new friend and her daughter, and a stranger. A woman that spoke English. That was all I knew. 

I put some chickpeas on to boil, roasted a pepper in the electric oven that always smelled like something was burning. I washed the plates and tried to make order in the lopsided kitchen. E sat at the wobbly table drawing girls with one eye. 

The sky grew black above the busy street. At one point the doorbell rang.

E is nine now, coming up on ten. She sits at the kitchen table, a strong one, a new one. She draws with pencils now, not magic markers. There are little curli-cue letters in her tight handwriting, both Russian and English. I am rolling out pasta. I do this on every anniversary of this day. Some pumpkin is growing soft in a small pot. The kitchen smells of sweetness and good eggs. 

N comes home, her cheeks red from the cold wind. I never remind her what day it is, a little game of chance to see if she remembers. Of course, she does and has played the same trick on me. She saunters into the kitchen, says something like "nichiwo sebya" (its not nothing). The Russian language works in the negative, even when the expression is a gentle compliment.

The water boils, salted and ready. I lower it, making the ravioli on the counter, some bigger some smaller, placing them carefully on a cookie sheet dusted with a shake of polenta grains to keep them from sticking. E has hidden the card behind the kitchen drapes. N sits and watches me cooking. We are making little jokes. E is sitting on her knees, hands waving around, all smiles and snorts, chirping half in Russian half in English.

And then the food is on the table, a fresh bottle of wine uncorked and splashing into my glass, a final grate of pecorino, a twist of black pepper and I make a toast to the day we met. E hands her the card and then N hands it to me. It says "I love you both" at the end. 

19 January 2015

breathing out (the actress)

E hovers next to me as I build the camera in silence. She watches as I spin an allen key to mount the base plate. I move in slow methodical arcs, next the long rods and the follow focus. Knobs turn once, just tight enough to hold as the shoulder mount slides on, as the front grips find their place. And then things are tightened all the way. The monitor swivels onto the threads.
"Can I help?" She asks.
I ask her for two batteries and she crawls under the desk to the chargers.
"If they are green?" She asks.
"Green means done." I tell her quietly.
She lines them up on the edge of the table, hands on hips as I begin to turn things on, adjusting angles, loosening the tripod head and making test movements.
"It looks good, Pop." She tells me.
I break my concentration for a moment, staring at her. She looks older today, her nose, her eyes, her features suddenly less round, all coming together, a closer preview of what she will look like as a teenager, as a young woman. 
"Time for a coffee." I announce, turning things off.
"I'll make it!" She says, skipping to the kitchen. 

I spread some empty papers on the kitchen table and begin making a shot list. The coffee is the color of a camel and tastes perfect. E sits next to me, making notes on her own paper after I make mine.
"So, you'll help me." I explain. "I can forget some things when I have so many shots to do."
She nods, all business.

Next we line up the props, the old phone, the transistor radio, the ashtray, the Soviet comics. 

"There is one thing that will be tricky -." I begin. "How to get one shot of her on a trolley bus."
E's eyes grow wide.
"How are we gonna do that?" She asks me.
"Really fast." I answer.
"Ok." She says, sighing once and looking at the things on the table.

The shoot goes well. The actress has a face that transforms, that shines and twists, curves and disappears each time I move the camera. I shoot her reflection, as she looks at herself in the mirror slowly putting on makeup. 

I smile once to myself, proud of the shot on the monitor and that it is lit by nothing but two cheap lights from Ikea. 
E cranes her neck, sees the image and gives me a look of quiet approval. She likes to hold the reflector for me, a giant disc that is white on one side and silver on the other. I know she does not really understand the finer points of it, but she likes to hold it. I cannot tell her it is doing very little to change the shot.

The actress is cold, the trolley buses are full of people. N told me this would happen, and that getting a half-empty one would be a challenge. I look at them all sitting in the car as I lean into the street, watching for the next bus to arrive, predicting how full it will be as it approaches. I step outside of myself, see a man standing and the air of his breath making little clouds, his hands shoved in his pockets, the camera with nothing attached to it now, waiting with the power on in the bag, the little lights on top glowing in the darkness.

And then a half-empty bus comes and I wave my hands. The actress gets on first. I have to buy a ticket and lose a good minute trying to press the little piece of paper into the turnstile the right way. She glides back to help me, in her heels and trench coat. I slide into a seat across the aisle from her, nodding and saying nothing just pointing at the red light to show that I am shooting already. She acts with perfect instincts, glancing behind her, adjusting the wig, looking out at the street whipping past her, the lights lurid and distant. I breathe out through my nose trying not to bounce around on the rough street. I move, get one more take, and then we are off the bus and E and N are pulling up in the car behind us. The heat is blasting and I am already yanking a pot onto the stove for pasta, cracking open a forgotten bottle of wine, looking at their faces, looking at myself with dirt on my knees and sauce on the edge of my shirt, knowing that shooting is like breathing out when done well.

12 January 2015

the enemy and the crocodile

We are crunching through early Saturday morning snow. E is not complaining, just holding my hand and looking up at me sometimes. The wait for the mashrutka is short and soon we are at the metro. I buy two tickets.
"You are gonna pay for me?" She asks.
"No." I tell her. "It is for the way back."
"Aaaaaah." She says, with a big nod.
We make our way to the last turnstile so they can let her through. A giant old woman in uniform asks for my card, and she slaps it against the light. E goes through, and then she slaps it again.
"So we did pay today." She tells me in a low voice.
"I guess they changed their minds." I answer.
"Maybe they think I am finally older!" She announces on the way down the escalator.

We shuttle through the stations, passing Red Square, Kurskaya, already on the other side of the city in fifteen minutes.
"Partizanskaya, four more stops." I say after a bit.
She nods again.
She knows.
"So, ashtray, old shoes, a radio." She says.
I agree.
"And what else?" She asks.
"Cartoons, comics, something like that." I say.
"Ok." She says, after adding this to the list.

The sun is almost coming out now. People are waddling through the grey slush and giant wads of brown snow in the road towards the entrance. We make our way past the mastroshkas and the fur hats, past the binoculars and lighters and sharp knives. Up the stairs and to the left, then another left.

The people sit at card tables, wobbling in the half-light with hot cups of tea in thin plastic cups resting against their chins. E looks quickly, noticing what I linger on. We exchange glances, making decisions without words. These will be props for a music video I am directing, fragments of loosely connected stories, a string of shaggy dogs and macguffins that should add up to something when it is done. But right now, it is just an idea and we are standing in the cold and I have not seen any comic books yet.

There is an ashtray, a low metal one decorated with Egyptian characters. We trade glances, she shrugs her shoulders. Maybe a yes.
"Skolka? (How much)" I ask the old man.
"Four hundred." He tells me and I drop my hand. This is how I show them they are asking too much and that I know they can make up crazy prices for foreigners. It is a way of scolding them.
We begin to walk away.
"French?" He asks, in English.
I shake my head no.
"Americanits." I say.
His eyes grow wide. He is acting strangely.
"The enemy." He says, in English.
I laugh nervously.
He looks at me fiercely, as if he is trying to think up something that will rattle me.
E pulls at my hand.
"We like this place, so many interesting things here." I say gently in my broken Russian, gesturing to the junk on the tables around us.
"You are tourists?" He asks in English.
He stares without blinking, his mouth half-open.
"Pop, let's go." E says, pulling on my hand.
We do walk away, and he calls after us. "Maybe three hundred?"

My stomach turns one twist.

I have not been out of the house much in the last weeks, as the ruble trips, tumbles, picks itself back up and then falls again.

There are American flags being used as doormats in shopping centers, people wiping their feet on them without a second thought. It all feels impossible to me, as I watch things slowly deteriorate, falling darker than I could imagine, blacker than black. I imagine what it will be like in a month here, in a year, how much farther the meat will shrink from the bones.

I begin to forget why we are here, wandering the tables, staring at faces, feeling more foreign than my first trip when I trotted back and forth across Red Square with a bag of cameras and wore a little black hat, when the militia stopped me all of the time asking to see my documents with an air of superiority and a half-salute.

There is a pair of rabbits, a husband and a wife that holds a giant carrot in her arms. They are hand-painted, made of tin. I ask the woman how much for them and I think she says three thousand and five hundred, and I decide that is too much. E looks up at me.
"They are sweet, aren't they." I tell her.
She nods.
"Did she say one thousand or three thousand?" I ask her as we walk away.
"I think one." She says.
We go back, and the woman shows me with her fingers, it was one thousand and five hundred. She smiles at me, her short blonde curls peeking from under her wool hat. I tell her we will take them and she wraps them carefully. I ask to take a picture of the golden rooster, to show N. She waves her hand as if to say I can take a picture of anything I want to.
I thank her, spasiba.
"Thank you." She says, slowly in bad English.

There is a table of Soviet cartoons, called Krokodil. The man sees me flipping through them. It is clear I am going to buy at least one. A friend stands next to him, with missing teeth and a big fur hat. He jabs a finger onto the one I select.
"One million sold." He says, in English.
I look for another one.
I find one with dark buildings, and rain drops like an old comic book from my childhood.
"This, two million copies." He adds.
I pay, watching them slide them into plastic bags from the supermarket.
I try to explain what I will use them for, but the words are beyond me.
E translates, explaining how we will use them.
I watch their eyebrows wiggling, a mixture of confusion and then satisfaction.
The seller takes my hand, squeezes it in his.
"Thank you." He says in English, quietly.

We find it all, an opal ashtray, a pair of beat up wingtips, a transistor radio. The bag thumps against me. E is getting cold. We make our way out, and down the road towards the metro and home.

The first man is behind us now, a strange face in a corner. I imagine he sells nothing today. I wonder if I will see him next time we are here and if he will remember us.

I wonder if he has already forgotten.

05 January 2015

of fireworks and sheep

Someone shovels downstairs in the darkness. The low scrape of metal against asphalt finds its way to us as we roll the sheets around, as we twist and drape arms and wrap ourselves tight for the next hour until I am hungry for breakfast. I grasp at coffee cups in the black kitchen, reading messages from last night. Everything happens from a distance when you are an expat. It feels like we are the only people in the city, while everyone else is on a beach or a mountain or taking a picture of a bridge. 

There are a few of N's cookies left from New Year's Eve. I crave them, with their giant black raisins, the soft crunch of sugar and flour and ground walnuts. There is work to be done and dishes to wash, things I promised to place on shelves, papers to be put in safe places where they will not be forgotten. E sits on the couch, her feet tucked under her. She reads the copy of Maus I bought her in New York. She stops sometimes, makes notes, asks me if Aushwitz was a real place, always asking me if the story is a real one. She is not doubtful, just making sure. 

With the holidays over, distractions are swept back into drawers punctuated by the slow blink of the Christmas tree lights. Wet boots stand by the front door. The wind howls against the windows. I smell cigarette smoke from the neighbors when we open them, and the stale burnt remnants of fireworks. They pop and bloom long into the night, sometimes in the afternoon as if they are forgotten, or on some broken time-delay mechanism. I wonder if anyone sees them. Fireworks never feel like celebrations to me, more like a reminder of war, of violent thumps that rattle glass, the sky lurid, thrown naked for a moment, exposed. 

The week is absorbed by reheated leftovers, of walks in the afternoon when the air is warmer, of short trips to buy a bag of beets, visits to relatives with more drinking and toasting and sitting around tables talking about the year ahead of us. This is the year of the blue and green sheep (or ram, depending on what information you use). I believe that the sheep brings peace, but maybe that is just a messy result of some creative license. 

I did decide to be less motivated by fear, not exactly during New Year's Eve but sometime in December. So many actions, so many decisions about avoiding, about laying low, about existing secretly, under the radar. Conflict will always find us, no matter where we hide. The truth will always surface, so I have decided to stop placing it under rocks. I wear my ring everywhere now, and no one says anything. At least to my face. 

29 December 2014

(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding - a peaceful song

The Year of the Horse ends without warning, with messy streets and quiet nights. E tells me we should do a Christmas duet but the song is never picked. Instead, one we find one that we can make our own - a song that is more urgent than sleigh bells and innocence. A song worth singing.

Happy New Year, and thanks for reading.

22 December 2014

the darkest day

I pull the hat down over my face, and try to lean against the window. It is clammy with the sweat of morning coating the inside of the little bus. I wait for it to lurch into gear, wobbling towards home. Someone nudges my shoulder and I assume it is just another jacket or purse swiping against me, as people shove their way down the narrow aisle. No, it is a man asking for change for a 500 ruble bill. I shake my head, pull the hat down to my chin. 

The darkest day is over. Soon the little edge of light in the distance will be bigger by the time I get back, hoping the elevator is working, pulling kasha from the shelf, chopping some onion, fishing an egg out of the fridge, dancing on cold feet and waiting for the water to boil for tea. The crows are still making noise downstairs in the playground. It sounds more like a cartoon graveyard.

The bus rounds the turn onto the road that runs along the river. There is the old place. They did not change the windows yet. I can remember the sound of the ones on the balcony swatting around in the wind or slamming shut all by themselves.

It is about to be eight years here. Eight years of cold stares and outstretched hands. Eight years of bargaining for potatoes, for an extra piece of fruit. Eight years of mud puddles and cars that drive on sidewalks, of quiet nights, of giant cups of sweet black tea at kitchen tables, birthdays, anniversaries, forgotten bottles of wine. It all compresses, packs down to nothing, just a messy pile of papers at the corner of my desk. Eight years turned as thin as twenty pages of paper.

E's hair is long. I brush it each morning, pulling out the knots and twisting it into a ponytail. We walk, wordless in the darkness between the streetlights each morning. She takes my hand when we cross icy spots and leans against me while we wait for the bus.

15 December 2014

home and home (bite your tongue)

A week back, and time has not returned to itself. Mornings are sluggish, getting E to school with my stomach empty, twisting and then full, then finding an hour back in bed. Nights are lost, awake in the darkness knowing that friends in New York are taking afternoon coffees, chattering on phones in the streets, shopping for gifts or just working away. Home, and home. Home and home.

The rhythms are beyond my grasp, the shuttling of dishes to sinks, the making of lunches, the remembering of bills and what day the cheese lady is at rinok. It happens sometimes, this catgut string trick, the stretching without breaking, this taught thrum of coffee and work, of messages and hustling for jobs, this hunger, this surrender every night with the resolve to try harder tomorrow. 

I bit my tongue in New York, blood seeping into my breakfast as I touched it and found red on my finger. It was not a small cut. It was me half-chewing into myself with a reckless sadness for good wine and rare steak, for manhattans and martinis and more good coffee, bialys and breakfast sausage, the cold rain on my face in Chinatown, my pockets shoved deep in pockets against the wind on 5th Avenue, turning into Tiffanys to get N's earring fixed on the top floor where they call my name in a low voice.

While I was away, E prepared a card for me. The drawing of the two of us rests at the edge of my desk staring back at me. I can almost smell the magic markers she used when she made it. 

My winter jacket is pulled from the hall closet and I see that N has washed it, and has found buttons for all of the ones that sprang off. The zipper has something to pull it closed now. She thinks of these things and just does them, without fanfare. 

There are a row of avocados in the kitchen on the blue plate we bought in Portugal with two fish painted on it. They are thick skinned, growing soft and ripe, even in the cold air. I squeeze one of them, and cut it open. The flesh is bright green, smiling up at me. I cut some into a bowl while the buckwheat cooks. The sky is growing brighter, full of clouds with blue leaking in between them. A man is shoveling snow in the street below, the lonely rasp of his work breaking the silence. 

Yes, home.