18 May 2015

not a doctor

Most of the day was spent outside myself, goosebumps running up my arms. Faces stared, young men and women smacking at their phones, taking selfies in the giant modern house. It was over an hour drive from the city, all gates and guards and gravel driveways when we finally arrived.

I was whisked into the costume room, where they fitted me for scrubs and then began to iron them. I was given an old shirt to wear in the makeup trailer. A woman with soft, warm hands held my face and looked at me in the mirror. She spoke quietly to herself, and then began. 

I sat in a giant foyer. 
"You really look like a doctor." One girl said to me.

I kept the script next to me, forcing the bizarre UK English that detoured through Russian grammar to come out, trying to remember the awkward phrases. Last night, I had them cold but here in this strange place it was running away from me.

No one spoke much English but I was told there would be two scenes, one with no dialogue and one later one with the page I had auditioned with. I relaxed, watching the small army of people taking off their shoes at the doorway and carrying lights up the stairs, or a clipboard, or a monitor. 

They call me upstairs and it seems there is no scene without dialogue, just the one I have been struggling with. A girl with a fake scar on her back tiptoes in. She is one of the main characters from the show. Her English is ok, and we try to make some small jokes with each other. She has a few kind words for every single member of the crew. And then all at once we run through the scene and I am staring at her, trying to be quiet and gruff and sincere. She acts differently, eyes popping, her whole body going through a series of motions, hands flipping around. But maybe that is her character. I have no idea what the story is outside of this random scene. I ask her who the director is and it turns out he is not even in the room, but downstairs watching a collection of monitors with headphones perched on his forehead. He is nice enough, and speaks not a word of English. The first assistant director tries to help me, her English half a mess. She looks at me a lot, not sure what I am saying.

I bury my chin into my chest, buckle down, try to answer my own questions, try to tell myself I am not a hot mess, not a straw man speaking false words with two cameras hovering near him, not a mannequin next to her, the live wire that somehow has tears running down her cheeks in every single take.

The words completely escape me a few times and I improvise around them. Maybe no one even notices, I tell myself. They shoot from a host of angles, details of buttons pushed, hands, reactions, face turns. My stomach growls, empty.

And then all at once they say thank you and I am lead downstairs where I change back into my jeans and t-shirt, and the car is waiting to take me back to the city. I am starving. The makeup smears onto my sunglasses. I will remember to take it off at home.

11 May 2015

of patriots

There are parades going on now, jets screaming overhead in formation. There are crowds, and military bands, supposedly a new tank on display. But that is in Red Square, and like any wise foreigner I am inside, tucked in a corner far from the center of the city, working on another Russian holiday.

Going for a walk in the late afternoon, we push the stroller hoping V will find sleep for at least an hour or so. There is a forest with a path, dirt lines curving into a thick collection of trees, the occasional bridge over brown water. Normally, this place is marked by old people and children on little scooters. It is a quiet acre where birds and insects flit around.

Today, every hundred feet offers another clump of people crouched around small grills. There are giant clouds of smoke. Some smell good, some smell like jet fuel. The sun is reaching into the forest before it sets. Children wear soldier's hats, with sticks they whack against leaves shouting words I do not hear. There are families, and collections of young people. They look at us as we roll past, with long, blank stares. No small nod of the head, no acknowledgment, no tip of the beer bottle.

There are groups of migrants too, men with black hair and low pointy shoes, squatting on flattened cardboard boxes in small circles. They do not even look, faces to the center, speaking in low voices.

There is one drunk man, shoving and arguing with another less-drunk man. I am trying to take pictures with my Leica, the smoke and the trees are too good to pass up and N is telling me to put the camera away, to follow her, to keep moving.

04 May 2015

the audition

There is a hole in the toe of my sock, but I need to leave already. I might have laughed at it, a private joke but no it is just embarrassing. The taxi is waiting downstairs. E is ready, scarf and hat cocked sideways on her head. She bites her lip once. 

Downstairs, we are driving off as the sun bangs through the little green buds at the tips of the branches. I hope we find the place easily. 

The call came a few days earlier, would I be interested in auditioning for a tv series being shot in Moscow that has some parts for native English speakers? A manager, a teacher, a doctor. They said I might be perfect for it, that I should not hesitate. And then one part that was in Russian, but a foreigner, a joking, finance-dancing foreigner. I spent a few days figuring out the words I did not know, trying not to make them sound comic as they rolled around the inside of my mouth like lime jello, sour and strange. E laughed at me sometimes as she helped me, coaching me through it.

In the car, I am nervous. E raises an eyebrow. She has never seen me scared of anything. I force out some small talk, some stale jokes, and then we fall silent watching the streets pass, twisting under bridges, swishing through red lights and then we are there, or close to there. The numbers on the buildings are always a puzzle, jumping randomly to a new number when you least expect it. Fifteen minutes later, having walking in a two circles we do find the entrance. We are ten minutes early.

The casting director is kind, thin, shy with her English.  She asks if I want water and I pat my bag, telling her I already have some. Of course when I sit down I understand I left it at home. E rolls her eyes once, just for me to see. 

I run the lines one last time, whispered to myself. 

A big man with his shirt stuffed into his pants stalks down the hallway. I wonder if he was the previous audition, for the same parts.

They are ready for me. I thought E might be able to tuck herself in a corner of the room and watch but they are confused about what I ask so she waits in the office. 
"I am with you." She tells me under her breath, as I go down the hall.

The room is big, crammed with furniture in odd groupings. There are lights already set, a big soft chair to sit in. I ask if I can walk and talk, and they tell me no, just sit in the chair. I wonder if that will make things harder. I practiced using my whole body. We read a few lines to find my volume, and I stumble across the English words, like I am drunk and trying to convince a police officer I am not. I see their faces fall, a sort of decision must have been made already I guess.

I do launch into the scripts, doing the English parts first, trying not to rush, trying not to make giant pauses, trying to manage the actions and trying not to try too hard. There is a voice in my head telling me I sound completely fake, like I am reading lines in a fourth grade play. There is a voice in my head telling me that I am actually doing pretty well, that I should have more fun with it. 

I make jokes with the casting director and the camera man, telling them I can only do a New York accent, maybe more Brooklyn sounding after a few whiskeys. They are laughing. It is the end of the day, tomorrow is a holiday. I think they have been doing this all week.  

We finish the English parts and I feel better, buoyant. 

They did not give me the pages for the part that is in Russian. I show them that I have it with me, covered in notes. The casting director tells me, maybe it is too hard for me. I tell her, let's just do a few lines, if it is terrible then they can just send me home.

We run a few lines. Somehow, the Russian does not trip me up. I even get the slang word right. 

There is a quiet moment. I slump into the big, soft chair. The casting director turns to the camera man.
"You are already the best today." He tells me, finding the words in English.
"Let's try." The casting director tells me.

We go at it. I dance across the words, almost remembering what all of them mean, suddenly telling myself it just needs to sound rough and mysterious and a little like I am joking around. Then I get lost, completely lost in the script, forgetting the name of my part, staring at the page as if it was not in my hands for the past three days. Then I do see the line they are whispering to me. "Ya ponimayu" (I understand). The irony is not lost.

We make it to the end. I punch the last lines suddenly sounding like a foreign mafioso. Maybe it is too far. 

They ask me to do it again, in close-up. I do, and make it all the way through without hesitating this time. 

And then they say thank you, and we are walking down the hall and I stumble right into a junction box jutting out from the wall and my shoulder hurts like hell but I wave my hands around and laugh a little and E is looking at the doorway because she heard my voice in the hall. We say goodbye, walk the wrong way all the way down the hall and a security guard is already waving at us, already there to tell us to turn around and go the other way.

Outside, I call N. The baby is crying, and she can hardly hear me, but she hears something in my voice, something peaceful. We are coming home now.

Waiting for the taxi, a Porsche pulls up and a man jumps out, stubble on his cheeks, cool glasses, tight jeans. He eyes me, sees my black sunglasses, the red shoes on my feet. I imagine he is auditioning next, and he sees I am his competition, and then I tell myself that must be wrong. 

At home, I pull of those red shoes and there is that hole again, in my purple socks. I think of the fear I had a few hours before, and how it has been teased out, transformed into an sense of relief. 

27 April 2015

brother, brother

The mashrutka is full, just one spot left in the very back. E drags her feet down the narrow aisle. I ask the man in the last double seat to move a little so she can sit down. She slides past him into the empty window seat, and I rest her mammoth school bag on the floor. The man flicks his head back and forth, inspecting us. I nod once to E, a reassuring look as I stand in the aisle and get ready to balance myself for the bumpy ride. She does not like to sit next to strangers. I shrug my shoulders. She forces a little smile, as if we are saying "what to do?". Nothing, just go home.

The man decides to give me the seat and I tell him it is not necessary. He flashes a mouth full of lumpy gold teeth, his eyes bloodshot. He is standing next to me in the tiny aisle and there is no space for both of us so I sit down. E makes a little sigh, and nudges her knee next to mine.

The man asks me where I am from. I decide to tell him the truth. Sometimes I say Canada to make things easier. 

He breathes right into my face, his breath a terrifying combination of raw onion, and liver and vodka. Words are tumbling from his mouth. I ask E is she understands him and she says, "that's not Russian" to me.

I try to guess what he says out of context. I think he is telling me about how his friends work in Germany for a few months without a visa and then come back to Moscow and wants to know if that is possible in America. I tell him things are very correct there, that visas are hard to get. He nods, and suddenly he is slapping his hands on my shoulder like my jacket is a little snare drum.

"Brat, Brat." He says. (brother, brother).

People on the little bus are craning their necks around. He is Uzbek, an immigrant, quite possibly an illegal one. These men with black hair, they sweep the streets, they dream of driving taxis, living 10 or 15 to one room, sending money home for their families. 

His face looms inches from mine as the bus jolts around on potholes and speed bumps. He is trying to tell me something about his home now, about how it has mountains and beautiful nature. He asks me again how he can go to America and how it must be so great there. I try to tell him no place is perfect, but he does not understand me. I try to tell him his home must be wonderful. 

He drums against my jacket again, running out of things to say just repeating "brat, brat" over and over. I finally begin to feel uncomfortable, long after the people around us are shrugging their shoulders and whispering to each other. Saying I am his brother is too far a stretch, a fabrication, a lie. It could be true, but it is not. 

20 April 2015

sometimes I feel like a motherless child

Sometimes she throws her arms wide, like Atlas. She carries nothing in her hands but the air between us, her eyes growing brighter each day as they change. In these moments, her face a locked stare, hands stretched all the way to those minuscule fingertips, I think of everything that weighs on me, everything that turns me in my sleep. I remember the lesson (not sure where it was learned) to be bigger then the events of the day, to wrap my arms around the pain, the sadness and disappointment, to be bigger than everything that washes across my little family. 

E has been especially kind to me lately. In my dark afternoons she rests a hand on my shoulder, or a cheek against my arm. 
"Don't worry, Pop." She says in a low voice. 
I feel suddenly weak, when she witnesses anger, when she sees me yelling at cars that nearly run us over as I jab fingers in the air at the crossing sign they ignored, as I swear a hairy rope of Brooklyn curses on their shiny black sedans as I wave once again at the crosswalk sign, the lines painted across the tiny road and then suddenly the face behind the windshield relenting, hands in the air apologizing, even a thumbs up for some bizarre reason. I am shaking, as we walk off towards the playground and home. E looks up at me. She worries about me, I know it. 

People like to pretend Moscow is a safe place, that it is a normal city. I have been told by so many that I should love Moscow like a good Mother and everything will go easily for me. But this relationship never unfolds, even when I open my arms to it. Not every mother wants her child, I would tell them. 

I have fallen for many cities besides New York. New Orleans, Rome, Lisbon, Bologna all hold places in my heart. There people asked me directions in the street, as if I had lived there my whole life. I turned corners on secret bakeries, on wobbly tables and good wine, on an osteria that mended a young broken heart with homemade bresaola. There was a bench with a cat painted on it there, a loyal pet that may have lived once and remains familiar this way. 

I think of that black cat sometimes when I sit down to write, as if it watches me, curious about what is on the fresh set of pages, what notes are scribbled in various notebooks, what will happen to the young boy who walked off into the woods, and what will happen to the man in the city who doesn't want to go home to an empty apartment, and what will happen to the old divorced man who sets fires in his backyard, and what will happen to the woman passed out in the grass covered in vomit. 

13 April 2015


Late on a Sunday night a wind whips through the city. Limbs thwack against the windows of the balcony. They say more than thirty trees were uprooted in the last week. I imagine green buds on branches dropping to the dry earth below. The baby sleeps. N is turned half on her side, her glasses still on, her eyes closed. I pull the bedroom door closed very slowly, turning the handle so it does not squeak. 

There are voices from next door, traveling through the walls, passing around the windows maybe the wind helping them reach us. Between the howls and the curtains flipping around I hear a woman. She is crying out. She is wailing about her life, her disappointment. I hear something slapping against the wall in-between our apartments, hoping it is just her hand. E runs to the kitchen. I ask if she can understand what the argument is about. A man's voice reaches us next, completely calm, in low rumbling sentences. E shakes her head no. 

The woman is shrieking. There are electric silences between the sounds she produces. I wiggle my head, suggesting we go to the living room. E is nervous. We go through her school bag, making sure she has everything for tomorrow. She gets into bed and I throw the top blanket out in the air, and it floats evenly across her. She smiles up at me. I am glad she does not remember all of the screaming when she was a baby, or that it feels so foreign to her now. There was a time when we were those neighbors. 

E finds sleep. I wander the rooms, now cracking the door seeing the humidifier pumping out a consistent cloud in the bedroom, N in the same position, V on her stomach, hands curled. The fight continues next door. I guess the woman is talking to her mother now. 

The wind howls. 

I see someone with a tiny dog downstairs. They are running in the darkness.

06 April 2015

only time

E's hand went to her throat and her face turned in on itself. I ferried bowls of soup to her bedroom, kept her at one end of the apartment, a kleenex in her hand when she needed to touch a doorknob to go to the bathroom. She rested. She chattered with her friends from school over the phone, getting each day's homework assignment and working away at her desk. No fever, no throwing up, just bouts of sneezing and a little mountain of used tissues from blowing her nose. 

A few days later she was rested, a little bored. 

Then, my throat grew tight. A headache seized me in the middle of the night. I took to walking around with a surgical mask on, keeping away from N and the baby. I made a new pot of soup thick with garlic and ginger and chili, with the last of the fresh spinach but soon I was sneezing wildly, wrapped in blankets on the sofa. E rested her head on my shoulder and told me to sleep. I worked when I could to distract myself, already feeling so far away from N and V, peeking at them through a crack in the door, wondering if V had gotten a tiny bit bigger, if her face does new things when she is sleeping. I missed the sight of her carrot-orange poops, the changing of diapers and that trip to the bathroom with her in my arms to wash her tiny red bottom, to make jokes at her face in the mirror oggling up at me.

The chicken soup is bright yellow, with tiny puddles of fat on the surface. I boil fresh noodles, wander around the apartment seeing my face in that mask when I pass a mirror while everyone sleeps. I bought these masks as props for the film I shot last summer, as a metaphor for futility  - that they would protect no one during a bombing attack, but people put them on to make themselves feel better, an adult pacifier, a golden ticket for a show that would never play. Of course I imagine they do something to keep my germs from flying around, but cannot help but think they are just as useless. Only time will correct this.