08 February 2016

not just then but before, and slowly after

E turned to me and asked if she could get a haircut. I did not hesitate and told her it was her hair, and she could do whatever she wanted. For her entire life she has never gotten a haircut beyond the random trimming seasons I perform, with her sitting patiently on the edge of the bathtub as I squint, snipping until I think things look alright.
"How short?" I asked her.
Her face twisted around, unsure.
Later, she showed me a picture of Jennifer Lawrence and said "something like this". There were other pictures, all of tough, independent, young women. I did not smile or even joke around with her. I just made a plan, found the right salon and printed out some pictures of what she wanted so we would not leave anything to chance. Ten years old, and her first haircut outside of the house. We tromped through the snow, just on time for our appointment.

They let me sit in an empty chair not far from them. I had the Leica with me but the woman cutting her hair was shy and said please no pictures. She wore Uggs covered in gold sequins, and a sweater dress that hugged her thick frame. Her eyes were kind enough, and she treated E like a young woman not a little girl.

The hair fell in chunks. E held that long stare we all do into barber shop mirrors, seeing herself not just then but before, and slowly after.

It was all over before we knew it. The blow dryer yawned on, making the air smell hot and a little bit burnt.

"I needed a change." She told me, once we were outside.

I leaned my head back, looking at the bright sky, the haze that hid the stars but drew the edges of a collection of clouds.

There was nothing operatic about it, this simple act of getting a haircut but a realization crept along the back of my neck as we made our way home in the darkness. This was just one step that would soon be followed by other ones, the steps of a young woman, not a child.

01 February 2016

coming and going

The street is a single sheet of black ice. We move forwards in small, sliding steps her hand in mine as E almost falls then steadies herself every ten feet. It is dark still, the sun will not come up for at least two hours. Our breath hangs in small clouds in front of our faces. We make our way slowly, my hands waving wildly every once in a while as I start sliding too.

The masks are pulled from our pockets and I make sure hers is closed well across the bridge of her nose. There is an epidemic in Moscow - a form of swine flu that leads to pneumonia. Eight people have died from it, thousands sick. We wash our hands more than often, wear masks, and stand far from anyone sneezing or coughing. I bought these masks for a film I am making, props for scenes about bombings as people crawl under tables. I meant to show how pointless it is to wear them, except for the psychological benefit. You feel like you are doing something, instead of being completely helpless. That is the lesson here, taught over and again. There are huge problems looming over everyone - the ongoing fall of the ruble that is not too far from defaulting, not too far from a day when you cannot buy food because money is just useless paper. And then this ice, it trumps that, it is more immediate, more urgent. How will we get to school?

Somehow, we do. Slumped into seats on the bus, breathing hot moist air into our masks we close our eyes. E leans against me. The announcements interrupt our sleep. The little bus lurches and slides in the messy street. But we do get to school, across a little lake, not even lifting our feet just sliding with the smallest movement, arms out wide for balance. Inside, E yanks her books to her shoulder.
"Be careful going home, Pop." She tells me, climbing the stairs.

On the way home I stand at an intersection where the traffic light has stopped working. There are six lanes of cars whipping past us but no one steps into the street. There are giant screens on the shopping center across from us, all playing a loop of Victoria's Secret models. The smiles and thighs cascade across the dark sky, all color and sizzle and strut. Not just men are staring at them, but old women and children, the narcotic jiggle of bouncing breasts stopping them dead in their tracks.

I wait for an old man to venture into the cross walk, as the cars randomly begin to stop and let us cross. I did not want to be the first.

25 January 2016

as salty as the sea

V is turning a lemon around in her hands, four tiny fingers squeezed together, tapping the thick skin. N is stirring kasha for her, to be fed patiently in little spoonfuls. The baby will cry out, twist her face, wiggle, moan and then eat another half spoonful spreading much more across her cheeks. This goes on for about an hour sometimes until the kasha is gone or N surrenders. A moment passes. V calms down, cracking a little smile as two bottom teeth shine from her pink gums. N wipes her face, her hands cool and smooth, washing the crust of dinner from her nose, cheeks, even eyebrows. I love this moment, the fresh water, the shine of her skin, the little "ahhhh" sounds N makes, as if being clean is the most perfect feeling in the world.

In pajamas with dalmatians on them, V waves her palm at me. This is how she says goodnight, as if she is saying goodbye. I kiss the top of her head, her hair more duckling fluff than anything else. They go behind the door and I start dinner. It is a humble anniversary meal of fresh pasta. I measure one cup of semolina, one cup of double zero flour, two big eggs, a splash of olive oil and turn it under my palms until it is smooth. It rests under a towel and I bring together the pine nuts, arugula, mint, garlic barely warmed over in some good olive oil, a pinch of some exotic dried chili and a generous mound of grated pecorino. This is the same dish I made six years ago, the night we met. It was a different kitchen, with a tiny table so wobbly it danced every time you put your fork down. I put the pot of water on, cupping my palm to measure the salt for it. It should be as salty as the sea, they say - that's what it should be like. Every time I make pasta, I go to the ocean.

The baby finds sleep easily and the water is just boiling when she comes back. There are roses for her, already in a vase bending low in the darkness. A few short candles flicker in the cool air drifting in from the balcony. It is colder than -20 tonight. She sits and watches my calculated movements. I think I am never as confident in life than when I am with a sharp knife and some flame. Everything is clear here. There is no doubt in my kitchen.

The wine opens with a happy pop, and I sip from the glass of Gavi. And all at once, the pasta is ready, the bowls filled, forks placed, extra cheese grated. I watch her face in the dim light. In six years, a hell of a lot has happened. Ever since she got pregnant, her skin changed, a few odd freckles for example. When I look at her, sometimes I see that twelve year old girl from some old family movies. The one cracking her gum, ponytail swinging, old jeans and a t-shirt. The tough girl with the sharp tongue. Then, I see the shy round face, cheeks red from embarrassment when we went on our first date. I also see the mother, tireless, unstoppable.

We eat quietly, talking about the week behind us.

I stare at her, drinking in the details of her nose, her eyelashes the very same way I did the night we met.

18 January 2016

another fever

A low whistle comes from the windows, left open by little cracks to let some air in. The wind is howling outside. Trees are bending hard, limbs swatting against the cold glass like monsters. E is curled on the couch, her forehead sweaty, her hands splayed in odd poses. I dare not move, or wake her to put her in bed. The fever is less now, and she has a little broth and rice in her belly. She needs that hard sleep, the restorative one that will run all the way to tomorrow morning. 

The call came this morning, her voice shaky. I had planned to get her later, maybe even take some pictures on the way. My Leica sits poised, loaded, next to a small bag with my light meter tucked inside. There is nothing but grey snow and ugly streets out there, just dirty Fords and black BMWs and the occasional Lada. Everyone seems to be gone, leaving behind some old ladies in ancient fur coats teetering like penguins as they carry little bags of potatoes and carrots to their apartments. I can't take any more pictures of old ladies with those plastic bags, at least not for a while.

E is nervous, waiting for me. She is convinced she can only get better if I am the one taking care of her, that otherwise she will end up in the hospital. I tell her how close I am getting as the wind whips up hard on the big streets sending bits of ice against my cheeks. And then, I am already ringing the bell and she is in the hallway. I order the taxi and it arrives quickly. She slumps against me as I stare at the traffic, wondering how quickly we will get home, if we have enough crackers in the closet, and where the thermometer is. I ask if she is feels sick, like she is going to throw up and she points at her mouth. I am pulling the mandarins I bought from a little bag, as they bounce onto the seat and shove it under her chin. She coughs fluid into it and I eyeball the driver. He has no idea what is going on, just picking at his nose and glancing at the GPS. I rest a hand on her forehead and her eyes roll at me. She says nothing, coughing up little bits as we roll onto the side streets that lead to our apartment. 

Upstairs, we clean her up and she crawls under the covers. She looks at me, with that wet kitten face. I make her tea, and when I bring it to her she is already half-asleep. The day turns in little circles, her throwing up again, then resting as we watch cooking shows or parts of films we never finished. I think of taking pictures of the trees or something from the window, but I don't need to take any more pictures of trees. The camera will have to wait. 

11 January 2016

I'm afraid of Americans

A note: At first glance, the title of this post (a David Bowie song from the album Earthling) might seem like a tribute to him. I think there is no irony in the fact that I wrote all of this last night, well before the news of his death this morning.  I think his influence on millions of people like myself is best represented by innocent acts like this one. In all of its complexity, his art became part of the bedrock of our lives.  

Tomorrow E goes back to school.

I tuck her in, her face cool and quiet as she says goodnight. Her book bag stands by the door. A pair of snow pants are thrown across a chair because it will probably be -20C tomorrow morning when we stumble out into the cold and dark.

Her friends will be there, rested, some suntanned, some with stories about trips to exotic locations during the winter break. She was in Moscow in her pajamas the whole time, curled up in a corner of the couch in her own secret world, eyes rolling at me whenever I asked what she was doing. She talks to her friends all of the time, already a teenager with her fingers skipping against her phone. I cannot remember their names very well, but their faces are clear to me. So many are open and kind, curious, naive. There is the girl who has a big voice. She likes to stomp into rooms like a cartoon. There is a boy who seems to be about to say something and then he stays quiet. There is a girl with funny glasses that make her look like a librarian. There is another girl, with dark skin that I think is the result of a vacation she took in Thailand. When I went to E's christmas play, I was one of a handful of parents in the audience. This girl ran from E, the moment I came near them. She laughed wildly, jumping behind a piano to get away from us. I stood there, my hands turning in the air, my dad sweater suddenly feeling hot.

"What's the deal?" I asked E.
Her face turned to me, quiet. I know this look. She knows I will not like the answer, and we are in public. Her face tells me she hopes I don't swear too loud.

Maybe let it go. We will talk later, in the street but not now.

I hover, take a step back. The school principal is here, a battleship of a woman who has never had eye contact with me even when I am right in front of her. She nudges the children, grabbing shoulders, directing them constantly. The big room is emptying. I stand near E and the girl runs away again.

"She is scared of anyone that speaks English." She says to me, under her breath.
I find this strange as I speak Russian to her friends, in English only when I am talking directly to E.

The girl is laughing, but not a funny laugh but a scared, nervous one. There is something insipid about the situation that creeps into my bones. This girl must have learned this behavior, she could not come up with this on her own. I wonder what language they spoke in Thailand when they were on vacation. The room turns darker. The girl will not stop her little act, acting more and more frightened. She has dug herself a hole, and now she cannot get out of it. The other children think I am silly, amusing. I am E's dad, and I do not shave very much. I cook her strange things that she brings for lunch, which drives some of the children wild with curiosity. She shares little tastes with some of them.

There is an impulse to take E's hand, not say goodbye to her wonderful teacher and get out of this room. I press this away. Let the girl act however she wants. People seem to be ignoring her anyway. We wait it out. Pleasantries are shared. Kind words, faces smiling, nodding, assurances, more smiles and then we go downstairs and find E's jacket.

I think about that girl a few times, and try to shake the sense that this is the beginning of something that will happen more often in Moscow. Being the different one is an old story for me. Before I was a New Yorker, where everyone is different, we lived in a small town when I was a boy. There was one traffic light at one intersection, and our farm was a good 30 minute drive from that. The children were all white, their families good church-going people. I walked fast in the hallways, most probably the residue of being born in Brooklyn, convinced I was about to miss something fantastic if I took my time.

There was an afternoon, when I was in third grade. I was in the bathroom and a few older boys came up to me. They waited until I was done peeing before they said anything, hovering behind me breathing loud.

"You're a Jew, right?" They asked me.
I shrugged my shoulders, having never been to a synagogue.
"I guess so." I answered, calmly.
One of the boys raised his hand and I did not flinch. He ran his fingers along the top of my head. I flushed, confused, waiting for a punch or some swearing.
"Nope." he announced.
"No what?" I asked them.
"You're supposed to have horns." He explained, dryly.
I felt there myself, wondering if he had missed them.
Another boy pulled my hair aside, looking at my scalp. There was nothing angry or cruel about it. They simply wanted to see them, but for some reason they were not there.
"Thanks." The first boy said, and they left.
I often ran my fingers along my hair after that, waiting for them to come.

04 January 2016

the lesson of the timpano

The idea must have come from seeing my brother a few weeks ago. I showed E a scene from Big Night, the one where the two brothers make a timpano, that magical giant dome of pasta stuffed with "the most important things in the world".  She rolled her eyes once, and said the hard boiled egg would not be interesting for her. We went back and forth, imagining what we would fill our version with. Meatballs on the small side, from chicken so they would be light. Black olives in the ricotta we would make from scratch, to bring some salty complexity. The sauce would have a little salami at the base, basil, fresh mint. The decision was made without really thinking about it, just the thought of a giant impressive object to slice into just before midnight as we made out way into the new year.

I worked that day, running to the kitchen to make pie dough and peel an excessive amount of apples. I like to put way too many in my pie. I am a generous cook. 

By the time work was done, it was already afternoon. I set about, making the meatballs first, with minced shallot and garlic, plenty of pecorino, fresh breadcrumbs, a splash of milk, eggs, more mint, more basil. E rolled them into little balls, her arms already getting tired as I fried them off in batches. The sauce was already going, barely bubbling at the back of the stove making little red splashes on the walls from time to time. Then the ricotta, three liters of whole milk in the pot, a big pinch of salt, some cream I was not going to use any more of, and wait for it to simmer. Then, the juice of a lemon from Azerbaijan that tasted like meyer but they don't have those here. Let is all rest, cool, come together. 

Sitting at the kitchen table, pitting olives, hands cramping up a little. Time to wash the spinach and steam it, cool it. 
I am starving, having skipped lunch. I slice off wedges of bread to dunk in the sauce, then roll them quickly in grated pecorino. There is no name for this dish. It is for people who cannot wait, the tasters of things not done. I made one for E and her eyes grew wide. 
"That's good pop." She said.
A laugh jumped from my mouth as I made her another one.

Then it was time to clear the counter, crack many eggs into the well of flour (half semolina, half double zero). Work the dough until it comes together, adding a splash of water if it is too dry and it was. I wrap it in a towel and let it rest. Time for a coffee, to stare out the windows at the snow falling, the streets cold and icy below. We are not in Moscow somehow. This is the uncharted island of our kitchen that smells of tomatoes and black pepper, of the country pate I made earlier, the apple pie that will come out of the oven soon brown and crusted with good sugar. 

And then the rolling of the dough with my special pin, tapered at the edges so I can use the entire force of my body to squeeze it out thin, dusting with flour to keep it from sticking. The first sheet is a giant oval now, thin enough to see light through. I cut it into strips and then squares, rolling each around the stem of a spoon, gluing each garganelli closed with a dot of egg.

Rolling out five more chunks of pasta dough, it is time. I call E to the kitchen. She has long since retreated to making jokes with her friends on her phone somewhere else in the house. She takes pictures as I build it, in the biggest bowl we have. 

Two layers of fresh pasta dough are draped over the edges, hanging like elephant ears. Then two ladles of sauce, then half of the garganelli that I par-cooked. They say you should line them up the same way, so it looks extra-pretty when you cut into it. I say to hell with it, why not. Then a layer of the meatballs. Then torn pieces of fresh mozzarella, then the spinach, a good dose of pecorino, then the ricotta and those olives. It all smells fresh and wet and sweet. Then more sauce, the second layer of meatballs, and I slip the extra dough over, adding one last piece to sew things up. It goes into the over heavy in my arms.

A few minutes later I realize I forgot to put the rest of the mozzarella in, so I grab the giant hot bowl from the oven, carefully peeling back the top pasta layers that are already wet and red with sauce, sticky in my hands but I cram the torn pieces in, my fingers a hot wet mess as the flaps go back the last piece nudged into place and then back into the oven. 

I walk around the house, my chest puffed out I am so proud of this special object.

The prosecco is poured. V is fast asleep in the next room. N and her mother sit and talk about the funny things that happened in the last few days. We make toasts to the old year. I eye the timpano, turned upside down, resting on the cutting board for some time now. I am worried it is too wet, that it will implode and slide onto the floor in one red, gooey mess once I lift the bowl away. I am wearing a white shirt as a sort of gamble, to see how long I can keep it free of sauce. 

The bowl comes away easily and the pasta holds. It is warm and solid to the touch, like touching an animal's belly, full of food. I keep my hands there. But the knife is ready, and I do slice in. E stands with a plate to catch whatever I come up with. It does look pretty. There are oohs and aaahs. I make up four plates, and at the last moment I do splash sauce onto my shirt. 

We fork into the giant bowls and I am suddenly disappointed. I worked so hard to balance things, to find singular flavors that would stand well next to each other, but it is all on the bland side, and utterly unimpressive. I could have just made carbonara, and it would have tasted a hundred times better. N looks at me. She confirms what I am thinking already. 

"I had to make it once in my life." I explain.
She smiles. She nods, She already knows that.

There is a lesson in all this, I tell myself as the clock strikes twelve, as we kiss and shout a little. I don't need to take on such excessive, ambitious objects. In fact, they are a sort of trap. They may not be worth the effort in the end. Better to keep things simple. Better to elevate the mundane than to paint things in gold. 

Deep in the night, after I have walked N's mother home in the cold and ice, after E has been tucked into her warm bed, the timpano stands on the counter. We barely made a dent in this beast. I shove it all onto a plate, wrap it in plastic, wondering if it will taste better as leftovers. 

28 December 2015

Mad World (a scary song)

We kicked around a few Townes Van Zandt songs last week, but somehow this song touched the right nerve. Words of caution resonated with a 10 year old when asked "how was last year"? This is the world we live in.