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.



08 December 2014

the cold and the bagels



A warm hat is pulled down past my ears down to the back of my neck. I did not even bring gloves. It is just after 6AM and I am weaving through the streets of the Lower East Side. Allen, Orchard, then the big open stretch of Delancey reaching off towards Brooklyn across the Williamsburg Bridge. It rusts slowly, pieced together with great metal plates, always a low rumble but strong, still standing.

There is the smell of reheated bacon, of fresh bread, of ammonia. I sneeze once, then again. It is colder than Moscow here.

And now crossing Houston, full of construction and barriers and men in thick jumpsuits while the cars are taking lazy turns on yellow lights. The sky is starting to grow lighter. I look once at the old place on 1st Street, not even a phantom shiver now, not even a prickle on the back of my arm. Yes, I lived there for so many years, never imagining I would need to go above 14th Street. A shrug of the shoulders, mostly against the wind that has picked up.

I read the names on awnings, a sort of game to find good names for characters. Rose. Bruno.



Ess-A-Bagel is quiet. No music, no chatter. A handful of people work in silence, turning the fresh bagels into metal baskets. The windows are getting steamed up. I smell yeast and salt, fried onion, coffee. I want to tell them these are for E, and they will travel halfway across the world today, that a girl in Moscow will stick her nose in the bag tomorrow and breathe deep, knowing this is the smell of New York at 6AM, the crackly outside, the chewy depths, the poppy seeds that stick between her teeth.

But I say nothing, buying a mixed dozen without drama. They are heavy on my wrist as I fish one out to fuel my walk back downtown.

The lights are coming on everywhere. The sky is blue turning paler. The garbage trucks are groaning to a stop then slugging back into action.

My feet know which way to go.




01 December 2014

black like them


I see one of them, in stiff orange coveralls in front of our new place each morning when I return from taking E to school. As I approach he dips his head, sweeping a path with a bunch of twigs wrapped into a makeshift broom. I say dobrei, to him, a casual version of morning. He mumbles something back. He was surprised the first time I did this. These people with black hair and gold teeth, the garbage collectors, the painters of fences are invisible to most here. He could be from Uzbekistan, or Tajikstan, maybe even Azerbaijan. They leave family behind, traveling to Moscow to make money that is sent back, sleeping 10 or 15 to a single room apartment.

Black caps pulled down over ears, rarely a clean shave, hands shoved into pockets wearing thin coats I see them around the train station. As they arrive from far off places, the militia is poised to ask for documents, proof of an address in Moscow, registration papers. All too often I see them standing for some time, without bribe money in their pocket. That look on their face, the arrival and the quick dousing of hope as they are shoved into police cars, or even long buses that cart them all of to a holding facility.

Yes, people are bringing opium and narcotics on these trains. Yes, the laws are the laws here. But they are enforced randomly. Racial profiling is a runaway problem in Moscow.

I think of the protests back home, about Ferguson, about what happens in Florida. It feels all too familiar. At the same time, I want to call people up and say "but you can protest, you can walk in the street and shout whatever you want, without scheduling things, without asking permission." It sounds like I am saying a half-bruised apple is better than a whole bruised apple, so I let this thought dissolve into nothing. In Moscow, every six months or so one of these "blacks" is killed or beaten severely by the militia. There is a messy call for gathering, a reaction to blatant, unmotivated violence. The embassy issues warnings to me to stay away from this square, or that shopping center. I pass these places the next day, seeing the lines of prison buses parked in the cold air. There are rings of militia, standing in groups smoking cigarettes, machine guns slack at their sides. My hand jumps to my chin, unshaved, the black hat pulled down over my ears. I do not breathe as I pass them, and remind myself to come back a different way, even though my documents are always in my pockets even when I go downstairs to buy milk.

In Moscow these protests never happen, or are shut down in minutes, with a few hundred new detainees in those buses. Here, the right to say "this is wrong" is rare. It is for white people, with iPhones and a job in a bank.

All the same, I say good morning to this man. I want him to know I that I see him.




24 November 2014

the in-between moment



E's new snow pants make whisking sounds in the darkness as we walk the few blocks to the marshrutka stop. These little buses weave through the lesser known parts of the city on marshrut (routes), connecting old women and men without cars to metro stations. They do not charge me for E most of the time. Some drivers look eternally angry, miserable. One smiles at us, even says "dobrei utram" (good morning) and the more familiar goodbye "shastliva" (happiness).

Today she slumps against me once we are inside, cheek against my arm. Often the lights are bright, like an arena inside the little bus but today they are dimmed. I do not have to pull my hat down over my eyes to drift halfway back asleep for the fifteen minutes it takes.

Outside, Kievskaya stands cold and grey. The shopping center is buzzing with colored neon and giant blinking commercials on screens, all shouting for attention with the sound turned off. The ground is crisp from last night's frost. It crunches quietly under our boots. People are smoking cigarettes everywhere, sucking hard before going inside to work.

The streetlights are blinking off just as the sky is just starting to move towards dawn. This is the in-between moment, not here not there, not asleep not awake, not at school not at home. There are no pickle jars full of cigarette butts falling from balconies. There are no people pulling cars fast around corners to jump away from. The streetlights are working. The fountains are off, their empty bottoms littered with dry leaves.

Winter is here, but not here.

The news channels scream stories that are meant to sow fear, each headline more convincing than the next. There are wars going on. Soldiers are coming home in body bags. Somehow, life seems exactly the same. Old women shove at each other at a farmer's market on a Sunday afternoon. One says she was next in line to buy a cheap pumpkin. Another says, "No I am next". The first says "You c*nt! I am next." Then there is a swatting of hands, even some kicking. All over who is next on a warm Sunday afternoon, safe and quiet under tall trees.

I will never understand what motivates people here to get angry at one moment, and what brings them to swallow their feelings at another. Wrong is wrong.

I head home, alone on the marshrutka not closing my eyes, watching the river and the bridges swish past the windows. The sky is brighter now, a dull flat nothing.








17 November 2014

rotten eggs (the bad father)

The news came late, more than a day after the accident. We had been breathing air two, maybe three, maybe thirty times more hazardous than we should. Every news source told a different story. Some said it was sulfur dioxide, some said it was styrene, others said it was just smoke. Parts of the city were blanketed in white, blotting out the sun. Other parts looked completely normal and smelled the same as always. We were told, "If you smell something like rotten eggs, close your doors and windows and wear a mask". I want to laugh at the fairy tale help a paper mask will do in moments like this. It is a placebo, a pathetic gesture to make a person think they are better off.

The officials place blame with strong words and empty promises. We all know nothing will happen. This is the charade, the keeping up of appearances while pregnant mothers take walks, grandmothers push strollers, children play on swings with no idea the air is part poison. 



I have had headaches for a week now, walking E to school my nose like a rabbit's, smelling everything I typically ignore. The train station is always heavy with diesel and smoke. The health clinic has an oddly sweet smell, like turpentine and vanilla. Maybe they are refinishing the floors. The hallways of the building smell of fresh spray paint.

E asks me if she can go outside to play in the afternoon and I tell her not for a few days. She nods, not doubting, convinced staying inside will keep her safe.

It has become a dance I know all to well, the steps as familiar as a simple waltz. Listen to the bizarre event, find out if there is anything smart to do and then sit and wait for the sky to clear. There is never anything smart to do, unless we somehow stop needing to breathe. There is just the stink of betrayal, not from Gazprom but a government that offers no compassion for the average person.

These are not good fathers and mothers, these leaders. They do not make sacrifices. They do not put our needs first, or second, or at all. In moments like this, there is nothing good to say but I am still hounded by patriots at every turn, "Stop saying bad things about Russia, you have no right to do that".








10 November 2014

the bridge

There is a walking bridge that crosses the river, all green glass and awkward angles. I remember the first time I was at Kievskaya train station, in a car in the freezing cold at night, the windows half steamed-over. I did not know the river was under the bridge. Somehow I imagined it was the entrance to some tunnel, or a glassed-in conservatory with giant plants in it. There were men with rolling carts, all dented aluminum and wobbly wheels crusted with mud and snow that ferried luggage from the train tracks to the parking lot, cigarettes dangling from lips, warm hats cocked back on their sweaty foreheads. 

People brought packages from places like Moldava wrapped in twine and masking tape to hand out of windows. These were packages from strangers, handed off to strangers. A name, a few words of thanks, maybe a package to return with in exchange. No airmail, no Fedex, no UPS, just faith in a system of human kindness and the reminder to send nothing valuable, just cheese and cookies, fruit, dried fish, maybe some homemade wine. The trains ran deep into the night, ripe with the smell of ozone and diesel, coughing perfect bright clouds in the icy air. 

That was when Moscow seemed romantic, a living museum of salt and vodka, of black bread and strong mustard. That was when prostitutes could be found next to statues of Marx or Lenin, their skirts hiked up to their thighs, their furs old and ratty, heels impossibly tall. Gypsy cabs were manned by drivers with great goofy eyes, often getting lost and talking to themselves like they were auditioning for a cartoon. That was when I was a visitor, more than a tourist, a man that knew ten words (but still spoke in the wrong tense). That was when Moscow seemed unknown, exotic, the stuff of myth, the hallowed ground of great novels, of pain, of suffering, of history itself.




We would pass Kievskaya on the way home when E was four. I did not have enough money to take the metro, so I pushed her in that flimsy pink stroller because she would be asleep by 10 or 11. There was free wifi outside the McDonalds and I would stop in the street, trying to catch it. I wanted something from home, be it the announcement of a friend's birthday, or a new child, maybe some scandal in New York about potholes, maybe something ridiculous.

In those moments, nothing meant more than a tiny, brief connection to home. The leaves could be turning. Someone could be asking for a recipe. Someone could be complaining about a band, or a tv show and it was news I was hungry for. E was wrapped in a warm jacket, and a blanket around her legs, her hands tucked under it. Her nose pink, her head loose and drifting to the right I would check the New York Times and anything else for fifteen minutes until the wifi would turn off or my hands got too cold.

Back in that one room apartment I would pull the coat off of her carefully, turning her into to that tiny bed and she would make quiet smacking noises with her lips until he found her pillow, squeezing it tight against her. It was a lot of late dinners then, boiled beets and potatoes, sliced herring, some mustard, some lemon, some dill, some garlic. It cost less than a dollar a serving.




03 November 2014

(how to finish) The Year of the Horse

The living room is still a forest of boxes, their tops ripped halfway off with socks and t-shirts and documents peeking from inside. The kitchen is empty now, just the little white table is there, the table I used to write on in the old bedroom. Now, it is for dinner, for coffee when people visit, for E to do her homework on. A week here, and somehow it still feels unreal. 

Whenever we pass the old place a sort of phantom shiver passes across my gut. I look out at the river instead. 

This is our home now, and there are avocados ripening on the windowsill. Here is the wobbly door I need to fix soon. Here is the drawer where we decided to keep the needles and thread. Here is a mark on the counter that was already there when we moved in.



I brought a guitar to the kitchen one night, playing under just the light from over the stove my fingers finding the notes in half-darkness. I wonder, and then correct myself. I know there will be new stories written on this white table, new music recorded in the living room with E asleep in the next room. But right now, it all feels suspended, all still lost in those boxes. 

Winter is coming. The days dip into frozen air. The ground is turning hard. I try to imagine warm nights looking down at the treetops, a quiet Sunday morning when everyone is sleeping and I finish that last story in the book, the story that sits near-finished for months now. It is an ending set in New York, a man who does not realize he will soon be on a plane. I need to get him there, but looking out at an empty golf course halfway across the world does not help me. It doesn't stop me either. It is like an empty green piece of paper that will soon be white, then grey, then muddy. 

A great teacher once told me I should finish my books in Spring. He meant it as a vote of confidence, some poetic encouragement as it was Fall when I last saw him. In truth,  I found myself losing faith in other seasons, marking suspicious time until things melted and the crocus bloomed, when the windows could be flung open and I would write long into the middle of the night with my notebooks propped on the radiator like I used to on East First Street. There would be a bottle of Laphroag, or maybe Lagavulin as a reward for at least five pages. 

Now, I have a tall bottle of 25 year old Adego Veha from Portugal on the counter next to the salt and pepper as a daily reminder of the reward I have in store. Paul will find his way uptown somehow, buzzing that door, being ushered into that dark hallway, learning the truth about the woman with the young child.